Colleen Shoshana McKee

for J De Salvo, 1979-2021

The hard work of waking: I wake up in this bed that we shared, where
you snored—Lord did you snore! I wake up in this bed where you slept with
your face to the wall—you always slept like that and I hated it because you
kept me up snoring and if I had to be awake, I at least wanted to look at
your face. I wake up in the bed where you spooned me, I remember your
hands on my ribs, I remember your hands slow inside me. You did nothing
fast ever—no that’s not true—when you were ready to leave you left fast.
But you only kissed slow—sometimes you were manic you talked fast you
wrote fast—you only kissed me slow.

I remember your hands, when you got those tattoos on your big
knuckles, and I asked you what they meant. Why FEAR on one hand? Why
SAFE on the other? I can’t remember what you said. But I didn’t
understand. I thought you were safe. I wasn’t frightened then. You were
gaining weight, you had just quit heroin—and drinking!

Now sometimes I wake up and wonder, which hand was that on my
ribs; was it safe or fear on the fingers that gripped my ribs? Which hand
was which, was fear left or right when I painted your nails? I used to call
you Mr Callahan after the Muppet monster with red dragon lady nails.
That’s how you did them, and I could paint them better. There were times
when we weren’t lovers—you refrained, I refrained, afraid of your periodic
disappearances, afraid of the big black sun rising on you in some
Tenderloin alley, it taking days to find out you were dead. So for years I
refrained from fucking you, I just laid there and listened to you snore in the
dark. But the next day, I could hold your hands and paint your nails.

I remember your hands tucking me in, the red comforter, bringing me
tea while we watched Drag Race. You learned what kind of tea I wanted to
drink at what time of day. You brought it to me without me asking. And
maybe that touched me the most, how you’d bring me tea without asking.
We didn’t ask each other for so much, did we? We were shy about asking,
we refrained we refrained, your hands drumming on the table as we sang,
everybody’s happy nowadays … your hands feeding me and feeding me til I
told you I couldn’t eat more, I said J, you know I can’t eat all that, don’t give
me so much, and you said, Why don’t you just take this salad, Coco, just 
take it before you reject it, and I said, That is the most Jewish thing I have
ever heard.

Fried chicken, fried fish, always with paprika, grease all over the
walls, latkes and matzo ball soup, Sephardic style, you came over with
curries that stained my sink, on food stamp day you’d bring steak or
piroshkis from the New World Market, glorious splurges on food stamp day,
babka and baklava, gallons of chicken soup, shmaltz always shimmying on
top. I ate it all. Schmaltz is life, you’d say. Red embers and sweets on the altar, 
red and black letters on our arms, on our hands, what would our grandparents 
say about us, foolish Jews who wanted to tattoo our arms? The big black sun on 
your bicep I stared at as you slept. That book in your hand for hour upon hour, 
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal Story of L.A. Punk, you sat on my bed 
with that book. You were trying to quit heroin again. You called  and said, Coco, I 
got myself strung out again. I need to be with someone who loves me while I quit. 
Your voice sounded so quiet, so broken and slow. Static on the radio.

So you came over and I fed you and you sat in bed and cursed my ex
and read. That was the first day. The second day you tried to read. Mostly you 
stared at nothing. I tried to feed you. You said you couldn’t eat. You tried to read 
about where you were from, the punk scene in L.A. Suddenly, you said you had to go.

A few days later, you came back and sat on that same bed, that red
comforter and said, you would try just taking heroin every other day. You’d
say, I don’t want to be a heroin addict forever. You had so many plans of
how you would quit. I’m 41, I can’t do this forever, you said. You took to
saying that a lot, I’m 41. And I love you, you said that a lot those last few months.

J, why do I write this? If this were reversed, if I were the one to
suddenly stop, would you be the one writing letters to the dead? Would you
be the one fearing we were never safe? Would you be the one to walk me
to the fire? Would you be able to watch J my body in a cardboard box at
the crematorium loaded into flames? Would you be the one to stay awake
at night still wanting me still hungry even after I was dust?