Issue 11

Nonfiction

The Burn

by Anna March

Most of what I’d done in my adult life up to that point had been dysfunctional attempts to either escape my mother or compel her to love me, but at twenty-six I took up crystal meth just for me.

I left my life on the East Coast abruptly. Husband, clients, family, friends. I couldn’t take one more day. My kind, hardcore, burly husband Eric, weeping the entire ride, took a cab with me and dropped me off at National Airport. It was April fourteenth, and it was still snowing in DC. I handed my vintage wool Calvin Klein coat to a skycap at the airport and suggested he give it to someone who needed it. I didn’t want any of winter or DC with me. My bag was filled with clothes for spring—for San Diego—and some books. I had a ticket for a first-class seat on a TWA flight, the only seat left when I’d bought my ticket three hours before departure, and an open-ended return.

I was elated, though I guess I should have been terrified. My life was a mess. I had married at twenty-three, in part because my boyfriend needed health insurance, and in part because I’d been trying to find stability my whole life and thought maybe if I just said “happily ever after,” it would be so. I loved Eric, and he me, but I had not been ready. I was dishonest in myriad ways with him and the world—about the extent of the abuse and dysfunction in my family, about my education, about my own feelings of fragility—and I wasn’t anywhere near the point of stepping past the wreckage in my life that had happened even before I’d met him at twenty-one.

As a teen, my mother had become pregnant as the result of a fling with her married boss. This was in the days before Roe v. Wade made choice the law of the land, and she had tried—and failed—to pass me off as the child of her boyfriend, who married her unaware of the deceit (but was later clued in). They divorced when I was six, though he would abuse me sexually until I was nine. While my mother’s parents were a refuge from the storm, they moved away when I was fourteen, and my mother, a narcissistic woman, endlessly made sure I knew how hard her life was because of me. She told me repeatedly and in dramatic ways that she’d nearly died from my difficult birth, had dropped out of college to have me, didn’t make much money without a degree. “You don’t know how hard I’ve had it, ” she’d say over and over. I always felt terrible. I always apologized to her, and she’d say with fake cheer, “Oh, I’ll be all right.”

My mother otherwise mostly ignored me, except to scream at me about some misdeed or other. She paraded an array of boyfriends and sex partners past me from the time I was six, then told me I was the one who was “out of control” and “sick” and “ruining my life” when she suspected my boyfriend and I were having sex when I was sixteen. When this boyfriend moved away at the start of my senior year of high school, I dropped out and ran away from home to be with him. After that, I found myself in various kinds of trouble—professional, legal, academic, personal—though these instances were invariably mixed in with joys and successes. I worked as a camp counselor one summer, which was great fun; had terrific grades my first semester of college; assisted handicapped students in the learning center there; worked for Jim and Sarah Brady on gun control; worked for an urban rape crisis center; lived in a palatial group house in a fun part of the city with an eclectic mix of fellow twentysomethings; went dancing; had fun adventures dating; and made lots of friends.

Building a life based on lies was how my parents had taught me to live, and it would take a full twenty-one years after I left home the first time, at seventeen, to begin to try to do it differently. To unravel my past, to build a life hinged on the simple premise that I mattered. It was something I was not taught, but it was a basic bit needed for making a future.

In 1995, when I boarded that plane for San Diego, I didn’t yet realize I mattered, didn’t yet value myself, but I did know this: I could not and did not want to keep living the life I was living.

The previous fall, I had confronted my mother about my biological father and the conditions of my birth. This was four years after learning the truth, trying to talk to her about it, and being met with her stonewalling. This time, I came to her with dates and records and a name and information. I had pieced these things together with help from some members of my mother’s family and from some friends of the family who confided long-held secrets to me. I had confronted my mother with all of these facts, asking her to please tell me the story of who my father really was, of the circumstances of my birth.

My mother immediately started sobbing. “It’s been so hard for me,” she wailed.

“I’m sure it was, Mom,” I said, my voice patient, empathetic. “But please just tell me the story.”

She told me she had tried to abort me and bled and bled, but it had not worked. I sat for hours trying to get the facts from her. I just wanted the information. She ended up screaming at me, telling me how much she hadn’t wanted me, repeating over and over how hard it had been for her. I’m sure it was. I’m a feminist. I’m compassionate. I get it.

Perhaps I should have handled it better, the whole scene with her, but it devastated me. My mother could have toned down her rhetoric. She could have asked once about my feelings, asked how she could help me make sense of it. She could have provided the facts to me so I could locate my biological father, could have offered to help with whatever details she had. No. Not one ounce of that. I hated her for it, but was still so deeply ashamed of my own existence and the way my parents had treated me that I couldn’t say it to anyone. Even myself. It was easier to believe I was the bad seed.

I wanted to burn everything down. I was grieving, unsure of who I was, what I was, what was true, what was real. I left my husband. I stopped working, though I pretended I still was and eventually left several nonprofit clients in a horrible mess when they realized I hadn’t done the work my normally reliable, hard-working self had promised I’d been doing. I wanted nothing to do with my mother, or any of her family. I just wanted to be away.

At the time, I had been involved with helping a national nonprofit launch, and that work had taken me to San Diego the month before. Somewhere along the line, I’d met a guy named William who lived there and had chatted with him online—a new phenomenon in 1995—and via email. He was there. It was warm. I loved California. It was far away from home. I cashed a client’s fat check, payment for work I’d not done, and got on that TWA flight.

The flight felt like the grace of moving through water. It was magic. I had broken so much, but I wasn’t going to fix anything staying in DC. I wasn’t nearly capable of that kind of honesty and maturity at that point. I needed to just be me for a while, and figure out what that even meant. I knew that leaving in this way wasn’t right, but I also knew that if I stayed I might die. Literally.

I arrived in San Diego, emerged into the warm night air, tossed my wool sweater into a trashcan, and hopped a cab over to the historic Hotel Del Coronado, which William had recommended when I asked for a “great, old hotel,” the kind I loved. I was anguished and sad and ashamed over the shambles I was leaving behind, but giddy, too, to be free, at least physically, from that world. The Hotel Del is this magic property with a grand sense of the past and proportion and tattered elegance. Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson first met there. It has an entire TV channel—or did then—that shows Some Like it Hot, which was in part filmed there, over and over on endless loop. L. Frank Baum did much of his writing there, and some say the hotel was the inspiration for his Emerald City. To say it felt like I had left the black and white version of my life behind and arrived in the Technicolor of Oz would not be an overstatement. I was bewildered and eager, but unlike Dorothy, I had no desire to go home.

I got the monthly rate—relatively cheap because it was the quiet season for them, that time after winter when visitors from the East sought warmth, but before summer vacation. The hotel at that point was not yet fully renovated, and some might call its glory in those days faded. I paid in advance for my stay and asked for the best view they could manage. I’d arrived during the final minutes of Good Friday, and I stood at the check-in desk in my green jeans and long-sleeved black tee and black Doc Martens with my short, spiky hair. I was not the upscale clientele they were used to, but my credit card worked. The night clerk gave me a small but nice room, with high ceilings and a huge verandah with rocking chairs that looked out at the beach. I still think of his kind face.

William had left a gift for me, wrapped in nice paper. It was Bullfinch’s Mythology, a book I had told him I wanted to read, and there was a card inside that said: “Welcome to the rest of your life.” It’s funny, the things we tell strangers. Through our internet correspondence, we had told one another our complex backstories. Three long-term, serious relationships he’d had with women and their endings, his parents’ divorce and him growing up poor, my father’s abuse, the paternity escapade with my mother, my marriage. The card had his number. I called Eric to let him know I was safe. Then I called William. “Want to come over and have matzoh ball soup?” I offered. He laughed. I had read in a guidebook that the Del Deli at the hotel was open twenty-four hours and had the best matzoh ball soup in San Diego.

William came over and we ate the soup and talked and talked. The previous fall, he had left his job after fifteen years at a big multinational corporation, where he’d been working since he was a freshman in college. He’d taken a few months off, unsure of his next move, and out of boredom he’d started working a few shifts a week as a bartender at the golf course where he sometimes golfed. He was kind and funny and made me laugh. He told jokes about people from the East Coast coming to California to live. He told stories of his octogenarian Australian grandmother and great-aunt and their travels together through the US, staying in youth hostels. He told me how his favorite thing at Disneyland was “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” I told him about making up my own Dewey decimal systems and doing experiments on how long Post-It notes adhered to various surfaces. I told him about my grandfather’s family in Philadelphia, the elaborate meals, a bottle of anisette always on the table. We charmed each other.

Eventually I said, “I should really go to bed. I wish I didn’t have to, but it’s so late, and I’m on East Coast time and I’m tired, and I know we’re probably going to have sex, but not tonight, not yet, and why are you so awake?” It all came out in a jumble.

He told me then, with the doors out to the beach open, that he sometimes used just a little bit of this drug, crystal. He would use it as a tool to wake up early for work after a late night. Or when he was working on a special project and putting in lots of overtime.

“Want to try it?” William asked.

I had never even heard of crystal. It wasn’t in the news much then, especially on the East Coast. I was years away from knowing about meth labs exploding, from hearing the term “meth head.” We still bought Sudafed without ID in those days. There was no Breaking Bad.

“I do want to try it,” I said, “but I don’t think I’ll like it.” I’d done coke several times, usually with Eric, who was an addict through and through, but I’d never really enjoyed it.

“I don’t think it’ll keep me up,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” William insisted. “I’m not trying to keep you up!”

“No, I want to try it!” I didn’t want the night with William to end. I didn’t want this night full of wonder and promise—the kind of night one might only know a handful of times in life—to cease.

William pulled a little plastic pouch out of his pocket. He tapped two small, vaguely orange lines out onto the room service menu, then rolled up a dollar bill and handed it to me.

“Just do one line,” he said. “I cut it in half, so just one side of your nose. Leave the other one. And it burns, maybe a lot, but don’t worry about it. It stops in a minute.” I thought he was patronizing and dismissing me. If it was anything like coke, I could handle a lot more than this, and I wasn’t going to be bothered by a little burning.

I snorted.

Tears flooded my eyes. It was a sharp, nasty chemical, thicker and pastier than coke, and harder to inhale. It didn’t leave a taste in my throat like coke did or start a nasal drip there—maybe the thing I’d hated most about doing cocaine—but my nose felt scorched.

“Yuck,” I said, shaking my head.

William laughed a little. Made sure I was okay. Said, “Some people come to really love the burn.”

“I won’t be one of them,” I railed. “That shit is awful.”

But oh, how it woke me up. Four hours later, William and I were still talking. Trading stories about our travels, our families. We went out to the beach to watch the sun rise—over the bay instead of the ocean, the opposite of what I was used to on the East Coast. It was magnificent that morning. Though I was conscious of all the clichéd metaphors, it really did feel like the first day of the rest of my life, like the dawn of a new day. The inky, black sky melted to indigo, then navy, and finally cornflower as the sun took over, shining over the vast Pacific Ocean. As if to make the point that the same vast expanse of the world was open to me.

When we finally retreated inside, I asked if I could do the other half-line of crystal. William laughed. “Junkie,” he teased. I did it, and then we kissed goodbye. He went home and slept—he was coming to see me later that night around six for a sunset picnic—but I stayed up all day. Reading Bullfinch, considering origin stories, not hungry, not thirsty, but drinking the bottle of water I’d promised William I would.

We spent the weekend in my room, doing more crystal, having sex, talking, William sleeping, me sleeping too (though less than he did), me reading. Easter Sunday came, and so did the rain. “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time, too,” Dylan sang in my mind over and over again. It rained for days, an oddity in San Diego. William went out to a drugstore, while I soaked in the Hotel Del’s sunken tub. He brought me back Peeps. I stayed in that room for forty more days. The amount of time Christ roamed the Earth after his resurrection on Easter, until his ascension into heaven. I almost checked out on day thirty-eight, but then I realized the timing and stayed two more days.

I talked to Eric a few times. He was sad but okay. Working. Drinking. He knew where I was but had agreed not to tell my mom, my grandparents. He was going to send my mail. I would write to my clients, I promised, and I did, on Hotel Del stationery. And I sent postcards on plain notecards that William brought me, to my grandparents and my mother, telling them I was fine and in San Diego and that I’d call when I could, but that I needed some time and not to worry. It would be June before I’d talk to my mother or my grandparents again.

It was a lovely forty days, like an extended stay at a retreat. Is it times of crisis that define us? Perhaps. In the fragments of my shattered life I have always found the room to reconfigure.

I walked the beach. I read and read and read. After a week at the hotel, Eric shipped me a box of my books. I had read Bullfinch three times by then, and the Bible, cover to cover, twice. And Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, too, which William had picked up for me. I reread Possessing the Secret of Joy, which I’d brought with me and which remains a favorite. I read and thought about my life. I came to terms with the fact that no one had ever wanted me, but I was not yet ready to come to terms with how much damage I had done to so many people. Maybe because I didn’t know how to undo all that hurt or set it right or how to live differently in the world. I didn’t yet know that the past never really ends; I was still looking for a clear line of demarcation to reach back over.

But in the bubble—some books, some beach, some William, some crystal, some living at the Hotel Del like an overgrown Eloise—I felt invigorated. Though I felt far from free, I started to feel a bit like who I imagined I might be. Someone happy, someone lighthearted, someone not freighted with the weight of her mother’s harsh anger. Someone who laughed a lot and enjoyed simple pleasures along with thicketed ideas.

William tried to entice me to go out, but I wasn’t ready. I was still saying I was going to go home in the middle of May, back to DC, with that open-ended return ticket. But William said, “Why don’t you stay?” And then: “You can stay with me for a while and figure it out.”

William and I went to his house, a cute bungalow near the bay. We climbed up the wooden ladder to his flat roof and watched the fireworks at Sea World.

“Tomorrow, I want to go to a bookstore,” I said. “Then all the bookstores, and the libraries. I marked up that Access guidebook. Maybe I’ll stay until my birthday in June, and we can explore San Diego between now and then. And when you’re at work I’ll read. Also, I need to buy a notebook. I think I want to do some writing.”

I had so much energy on crystal. I did a lot more of it than William, though if you compared our bodies, we were roughly the same size. We ripped through money. Eric sold a bunch of our furniture and sent me half of the cash. He sold most of my albums and about half of my books and a bunch of the things we’d received as wedding gifts, and I sold a gorgeous diamond anniversary band his father had given him the money to buy me when we married. But I had no mortgage, no rent, no car, and no loans. My expenses were my health insurance (pretty cheap at one hundred and fifty dollars), drugs, and food—but I was hardly eating because of the crystal. Between the cash I rounded up and credit cards, there was enough.

I was only sleeping about four hours a night, but I felt awake, alert, alive, and happy. In the mornings, William and I would come home from sunrise at the beach and listen to the kids walking up the hill to the elementary school near his house. Their chatter and laughter filled the air, and then a scratchy old record would be played. You could hear the needle drop onto the turntable, over the old metal PA system blaring outside. A military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and William would sing along in a voice that was all Kate Smith. Then we’d sleep.

Once I started staying at William’s house, I saw how he scored the drugs. His main dealer was a mom with two grade-school kids, married. She was always worrying about grades and birthday parties and the orthodontist. She lived in a wildly upper-middle-class neighborhood in San Diego, and I never saw her use. There seemed to be a whole crop of people like her, like William, who used crystal as a tool, like industrial-strength coffee or an energy drink, and still lived somewhat normal lives. His other dealer was thin and wiry, a surfer William had known for years. I saw that dealer use a lot.

William and I began making the rounds through San Diego, where he had grown up. He showed me his name in a heart with a girl’s name, in the cement on the sidewalk; she’d put it there when they were kids. We went to the famous zoo, the Prado, the museums. We went through the Gaslamp and its bars. We went to a bakery in Uptown, and I talked to the owner about Paris, where she had lived, and about the magnificent violet flowers she always had on the counter. We explored Little Italy, had dinner at an old school joint called Filippi’s, where we drained a bottle of Chianti, signed our names on it, and tied it to the ceiling, as was the custom there. We went to an antiques dealer, and I bought a handsome broken watch for three dollars. A horologist in Old Town offered to buy it for three hundred dollars on the spot but instead fixed it for twenty-five. I learned about bougainvillea and fish tacos. We went to every used bookstore, and I met the owners and chatted them up. I bought and read scads of books on the cheap. We went to the Bookstar at Point Loma and I bought books remaindered for a dollar. I began reading poetry regularly then (and still do). Sabbath’s Theater was published that year, and I read it and reread it and reread it. I reread my favorite Irving novels. By the end of June, when I blew off going home to stay the rest of the summer with William, I had been in San Diego for seventy-five days and had acquired and inhaled sixty books.

William quit his job after the Fourth of July,which gave us even more time to spend together. I bought back issues of The Paris Review and collections of interviews and read them. I read D. H. Lawrence for the first time. I read Nelson Algren and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and studied their relationships. I read the thesaurus—a copy I still have on my current desk, one William used as a kid in school and then gave to me—from cover to cover that summer. I read Plato and Socrates. I tried and failed to read academic texts on origin stories. William and I visited Barnes & Noble several times a week. We went up to Del Mar. We went to every bookstore; we went to every Italian restaurant that wasn’t a chain. We hung out at the cove in La Jolla. We went to all the beaches, to Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach. We went to see the Padres, to see Ken Caminiti and Tony Gwynn play in their heyday. We went around to Harbor Island and Shelter Island and Sunset Cliffs, where most mornings we watched the sun rise as the surfers came out. Sometimes we didn’t sleep at all for a night. I had learned that crystal was potentiated by coffee or Coca Cola. I had learned to love the burn, and I had never had so much sustained fun in my life.

In San Diego, I just existed. Me. My books. My notebook, where I was writing stories and poems and lines. William was my boyfriend, yes, but we didn’t share a grand romantic passion. We were companions. Adventure mates. It was nice with him. And nice with his family, especially his mother, who told me about her own mother and their struggles with each other in a way that was profound and instructive to me. That gave me a lens to apply to my own life. William’s mother was interested in art and history and ideas. She was a woman who had raised all five children on a store clerk’s salary, who had grit and determination, whom I respected. She genuinely valued the things she saw in me. In my mind, this felt wholly incredible.

The summer dwindled. September approached, and I was doing forty dollars of crystal a day. I had come to love burning my nose with meth as I had burned down my old life. William and I loved each other and wanted to stay together. I had no reason to go back to DC. I adored San Diego and was going to remain.

William had committed himself to return to work in a full-time, career-oriented way in January, but first he had been hoping to go to Australia to visit family that coming fall. I didn’t have enough money to go on the trip, but William agreed to lend it to me, and I’d pay him back over the next year, once I got a job. I was thinking of coming back from the South Pacific and working in a bookstore and writing. I had thought the same thing ten years earlier, when I dropped out of high school, but had been waylaid by college, work, fear. This time, it seemed right.

We readied ourselves to go. We saw all of William’s family together and separately a few more times. We worked our way through a list of restaurants we wanted to revisit or try again with them. Sometimes, alone, we’d have a late dinner at an old-school joint, Saska’s, the kitchen open until two AM. We’d have tequila shots with a bartender we knew at a sleazy dive bar with a killer jukebox, and one night we went home with her and smoked crack. It wasn’t nearly the boost that crystal was.

We decided to leave for Australia in October. This would be the end of doing crystal—our departure. It had been fun, but enough was enough. William gave notice on his house, put his things in storage in his mother’s garage. I went back East to visit my family for a few days before I left, to reassure them I wasn’t running away to the South Pacific forever.

In DC, my mother was cold to me. She said, “What do you mean, you’ve been reading?” Her tone was so nasty, her own mother told her to knock it off. Then my mother laughed when I told her I was thinking of getting a bookstore job to pay the bills and work on my writing. “You? A writer?” she scoffed. “You need a lot of talent to be a writer.”

“I know. I’d like to give it a try. Work on it,” I said.

“A writer!” she shrieked. Then she bent her head and began to sob theatrically. “You’re really ill!” she cried. “You’re very sick!”

Something snapped then. I couldn’t stop myself, and I didn’t want to. “You are a bitch!” I screamed back. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a writer! I’m not crazy—stop turning this into some thing where I’m your ‘crazy child.’ Writing is a good thing, and I might be good at it. You should be encouraging me, not putting me down to make it all about you!”

I took a redeye back to San Diego, and William picked me up. I did huge lines before we even left the airport. We went and checked into the Trade Winds, a funky, seedy, fun motel over by the bay, for the last two weeks before we left. It had themed rooms: safari, circus, leopard, zebra. We did extra crystal those last two weeks. Never slept. Finished every single thing we wanted to see in the Access guidebook. Drove around the city. The Santa Anas blew in hot and dusty with a wild light I’d never seen.

We left from San Diego with one last bag of crystal, and flew to Tahiti on our way to Fiji and Australia. Before I had to clear customs, I stepped into the bathroom. I took the baggie out and did the last bump there in the hot stall in Papeete. The snort barely burned anymore, so accustomed to it was my nose. I wanted to save the baggie as a souvenir but I knew I might be caught by customs if I did. So I licked it out and flushed it away.

And that was it.

They were over, the crystal days, the crystal haze. I wasn’t interested in running away or throwing away my life anymore. I wanted to move toward something. And while I wasn’t quite ready to believe in myself or others enough to wholly break away from my old pattern of lies, at least I was heading in a new direction, and I knew the crystal needed to go for me to get anywhere. Physically and financially—and ethically, I would later realize—the drug was awful.

I slept the whole time in Tahiti, a relatively easy crash that lasted two weeks. I slept. That’s it. I was lucky I didn’t get sick; a lot of people do when kicking the juice. I was lucky, too, not to have been caught, arrested, thrown in jail. Not to have died or had a bad batch. Not to have had a heart attack. Not to have become fully addicted. To have walked away.

William and I went on to Fiji and Australia. Two glorious months. We cared for his grandmother while she was dying and spent the last tremendous days of her life with her, eating cake, making her a party. We saw so much of Australia, visiting William’s family. I brought a suitcase I’d bought in San Diego, filled with books. William lugged it all over with me. And there, across the world too, I read and read, and wrote and wrote.

When we came back, we went back East to see my family for Christmas. My mother was on her good behavior and was kind to William, as she usually is upon first meeting someone. She never yelled. There were no theatrics. She asked about his family and his background, let him talk rather than just talking at him. I saw Eric during that trip, and it was clear he was still in pain, but by spring he’d have a new girlfriend and be on the mend. He forgave me. Let me know I was not beyond redemption. He was a good man, and his love carried me far and still does.

William and I returned to San Diego in January. He got a job as planned, and we set up the trappings of a normal life in our Craftsman home with its vintage stove. We bought teak porch furniture, started a game night with friends. Took to watching a lot of movies together. Eric shipped my remaining things. William and I bought bikes and started riding some on the weekends. No more bartenders and crack, no more crystal.


San Diego, she’s yar, she’s so very yar, in my heart. She gave me back me. Six months and thousands of dollars in crystal later, I finally knew who I was: I was a happy, thinking writer who wanted to work hard and learn. I didn’t know how to reconcile that with what I’d come from and the messes I’d made in my nine years of adulthood, but I knew who I was, inside, after that. I was smart, and funny, and hungry to learn, and kind despite my failings, and a reader and a writer. Though I’d written all my life, it was the first time I’d called myself one. Any writer will tell you: that’s huge.

I think of that time as this wild period of debauchery, and yes, there was this great quantity of a drug that often ruins lives. But I spent so much of my time in bookstores and reading great work, fine poetry, reading writers who talked about their craft. I spent those days becoming a writer. Even in my most reckless moments, I had words. Even in my days of heavy crystal meth use, staying up all night and hanging out in bars that had somehow crossed from divey to scummy, my outer Courtney Love never squelched my inner Emily Dickinson.

Does our truest self always stay in the picture, no matter how dark or chaotic the picture gets? Were those days tamer than I remember? Did they feel wild only because I still believed then that I was a terrible person and only terrible people lived like this? Sometimes I read writers who say, “I can’t believe I used to be that person.” And sometimes I hear writers talk about creating the mythos of their former selves to separate that self from who they are now. But that’s not me. I’m me. I was that girl, I am that girl, I will always be that girl. She is me. I am her.

Anna March’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times’s “Modern Love” column, New York Magazine, Hip Mama, and frequently in Salon and The Rumpus. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming. Learn more about her at ANNAMARCH.COM.

Illustration by Vivian Shih

Editor's Note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of others.

Issue 11