Ashes to Ashes

4 min
Runner up
Image of Fall 2020
Image of Creative Nonfiction
I remember visiting Heidi in San Francisco, when I was younger. She was so charismatic in those days, her icy blue eyes glinting mischievously as she lay sprawled out beneath the window, looking like a Renaissance painting, earnestly discussing her favorite Bowie songs and expressing bewilderment at the fact that I hadn’t yet seen Labyrinth. I now know that even then there were things bursting from underneath the surface, dark tendrils steadily coiling around her, threatening to rip her apart seam by seam. But I was young and only saw her as this immense force of nature that filled the room with an all-encompassing charm. She was talented at making people feel loved, and making people love her. What I didn’t realize was that while forces of nature were beautiful, they were often equally as dangerous.

We were both outsiders, in a way. She was my aunt, and still is, depending on how you define it, though we aren’t blood. My mom had married my step-dad, and Heidi was married to my step-dad’s brother, a union that would result in two sons and a drawn-out divorce, my once spirited uncle listless from the strain of single-parenthood and a broken heart. We had both been thrust into this immense family, Heidi and I, and while I had been welcomed with open arms, I’m not sure if that ever was her experience. She made me feel as though I was a part of this secret club, that our position on the fringes made us elite. I was her favorite, and would sit at her feet as she told me unfiltered and endearingly vulnerable tales about her life, bouncing her newest son in her arms absentmindedly as though he was an afterthought.

Her rambunctiousness was infectious, and she had us all laughing as we walked down the steep sidewalk to Japantown, where she’d show us where the best crepes in San Francisco were. The narrow houses towered over us, precariously perched along those winding hills, matching her vibrancy with the loud colors that adorned their aging wood. They were so beautiful, both in their captivating stature, but also in the way that they seemed to defy nature. The air then was crisp and alive, tugging at me insistently as we ventured through the doorway and into the abrasively fluorescent lights.

On that evening in San Francisco, I had not ever considered the possibility that Heidi would deteriorate as much as she did. I’d never imagined that, years later, I’d be desperately opening cabinets in her dimly lit one-bedroom apartment, hoping to find cat food. She had disappeared on a bender with an ex-boyfriend up the coast and I wasn’t sure when she’d be back. We’d all been so thrilled that she had a place of her own, and that her boys could visit her on weekends. Of course, she needed to be there for them to visit, so I was the only one who had been frequenting the apartment, keeping her cat Ophelia alive and watering her plants for the foreseeable future.

Heidi’s distinct presence permeated the space. Eclectic paintings covered the walls, while piles of records in milk crates were shoved to the right of the small futon. She had quite the green thumb, and there were succulent arrangements on most surfaces, leaves spilling out from all the shelves. Most notable was her collection of squirrel memorabilia: a squirrel painting, small figurines of squirrels playing instruments, and a stuffed squirrel mounted on a piece of wood, the proud and noble centerpiece of the room. She always loved squirrels. An eviction notice would show up around a week later, resulting in my packing all these squirrels meticulously into boxes. I haven’t seen them since.

She had started drinking again all those years ago, a looming threat exacerbated by postpartum depression. She also suffered from bipolar disorder and hallucinations that began in childhood, complimented by frequent drug use. Consequently, her disappearance was unsurprising, though still worrisome. I found myself thinking about a frequent hallucination she’d once conveyed to me: a large, scaly green hand hovering over her at night. As I scooped food into Ophelia’s bowl, I tried not to imagine that hand finally wrapping around her, one slim finger at a time, taking her away for good.

Before this particular bender, Heidi had been doing better, and would occasionally be at my house when I’d get back from school. Only now, I didn’t sit eagerly at her feet. I’d hover in the doorway uncertainly, disconcerted at the frequency of her speech. Old Heidi would still be there, sometimes, as though she was peeking through the curtains to say hello and to make us laugh, always leaving too soon. But most of the time, it was all wrong. Her words jumbled out of her unnaturally, like you were watching a VHS that was stuck at 2.5x the speed that it should be, skipping at times, as though the tape had tangled inside the cassette and was coming out backwards.

Her speech began to slur more and she reeked of alcohol. My mom eventually found an empty handle of whiskey in our trash can, solidifying our suspicions, though we still had her over. We just made sure to always hide the nail polish remover.

Heidi came back about a month later, looking small and drained, her signature leather jacket hanging loose on her shoulders. We sat on stools in her yard as she told me about her boyfriend, drumming her thigh with her fingers arrhythmically, and said that this time was different. He had changed, there was no need for the restraining order that she had previously had against him.

They eventually eloped, though I hear that they’re now estranged. Relationships can be difficult when your parents have a restraining order on your husband and your husband’s parents have a restraining order on you. Interestingly enough, months later, I saw Heidi’s husband on the news. He was shirtless and wearing a fedora, leaning out of the window of his truck, yelling and wildly gesturing at the four cops cars trailing behind him. It was the slowest car chase I had ever seen. I found myself wondering what she could possibly see in him, and then felt ashamed for wondering what he found so enticing about her.

Heidi also told me that she had been institutionalized while away. While in the hospital, she had heard her favorite Johnny Cash song, and was convinced that the workers were trying to unhinge her by playing it repeatedly. They were out to get her, she told me, just like the In-N-Out employees, who threatened to imprison her in their sex-trafficking ring. She had been in and out of mental institutions many times in the past ten years, and had been homeless, but nothing had shaken me more than this particular moment, where her detachment from reality was on full display. I looked into her eyes and saw that she was high, on meth, I would later find out, and was shaken by how blank they were. She wasn’t seeing me. Her eyes never really do anymore.

I hear that she’s clean now. This should make me happy, but I can’t help but feel as though a large part of her remains gone, carved out and discarded somewhere along those haphazardly arranged streets. When I saw her last, she was pale, looking straight through me and smiling at something that I would never see. She repeated things and laughed at odd times. She sat on our couch rigidly, looking like a cardboard cutout of herself, and asked me what song was playing. I promptly but dejectedly replied, not telling her that it was a song that she had shown me all those years ago.

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