When Joaquin was a baby, his mother, Helena, let him sleep in the bed with her. Even if he was just going down for a nap, she would lay down next to him on her soft Queen-sized bed, a wedding gift from her father-in-law. His blue and white bassinet she used as a sort of storage basin where she kept his baby blankets, socks and one-piece pajamas. He never laid in it for even a minute.
Helena told me this story when I first met her as I sat in her tiny living room in her tiny Pennsylvania house and thumbed through her family albums. She had volumes of pictures, meticulously documenting Joaquin’s life from the moment he was born. There were photos of him nursing in her arms; Joaquin in the baby swing, in the tub, in mid-crawl on their shag carpeting. Joaquin in the window of his seat on the school bus that took him to kindergarten and in his peewee baseball uniform.
Helena had recorded all of it, she told me, first with an old brownie camera, then a Polaroid, then an old Nikon EM SLR that she pulled off the shelf to photograph me sitting at Joaquin’s bedside on that very same day he brought me to meet her. Now I was to become part of the story of her son’s life. My rite of passage was the photograph.
By the time I’d met Helena on that rainy day in July, I’d been smoking meth for eight months. My looks were still intact and I could still feign a functional life to my family and friends back home in New York. I was able to keep my boss, an eccentric painter who worked from a studio behind his Pittsburgh home, happy, completing all the menial, trivial and occasionally bizarre errands he sent me to accomplish. His work sold all over Manhattan—paintings of juxtaposed disembodied limbs and national landmarks. Their meanings escaped me but the paychecks filled my pipe.
Joaquin, on that same rainy day, had just come down from his first encounter with crack cocaine. Helena thought he had a flu of some sort and tucked him into the same bed he slept in as a baby, with promises of tea and soup when he felt up to it. I had almost expected mother and son to cuddle up together in that bed for the rest of the night, banishing me to the living room with old photographs and vintage cameras and an urge to get high. But after pulling the duvet up to his chin and shutting the drapes, Helena motioned for me to follow her back into the living room. "He needs to rest. Pobrecito."
"I don’t know why you kids don’t protect yourself better from germs at that school,” Helena said to me after she had secured Joaquin in the bed. “And look at you— you’re so skinny! Are you hungry?”
“Ay, please, call me Helena. Ma’am makes me sound like an old white woman.”
“Okay, Helena. I don’t think I’m well enough to eat. In fact, can I lie down somewhere?”
“Si mi’ja. You can sleep in the old nursery if you don’t mind blue teddy bears on the wall.”
I did mind the creepy little fur balls on the wall but chose to say nothing. In a way I was glad that Joaquin shared his mother’s bed growing up instead of sleeping in this updated walk-in closet. The décor was overdone with cheap wallpaper and carpeting, and it all could have used a deep cleaning. Blue oozed from everywhere—the lamp, the baseboards, the windowsill—as if a pale smurf had exploded into the room and all of its kitchy innards where on display.
Still, the bed was a bed and it would do, even if what I really wanted was to get high and rest my head on Joaquin’s chest in the bed in the next room. Even in withdrawal I knew his mother wouldn’t go for it. I sat on top of the blue duvet, hugging my knees to my chest, watching the bears on the wall closely. “I won’t die by teddy bear,” I told myself until the familiar anxiety lulled me to sleep. “I won’t die by teddy bear in this awful, blue room tonight."
*smooches...giving you a taste of greatness*
maybe now y'all will come hear me read!
In Defense Of Crack: A Love Story by Raquel I. Penzo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.