I’m chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s personal espresso maker and latte-foam artist. Yes, that’s a real job. With benefits, in fact. Great health and dental.
One of the perks of my occupation, aside from hanging out with GZ and getting to eat many of my weekly meals at his outstanding restaurant, The Lamb’s Club, is the access I enjoy at The Food Network’s studios and associated properties.
GZ is a pretty big deal over there, which I’m sure you know if you’ve watched the network for more than a few hours. Aside from Chopped!, which is his best-known show, he’s building a new audience with the Saturday morning feature, The Kitchen. His personality fits so well with whatever he’s in, though, and it’s just great to be a part of it.
I’m totally fanboying right now. Sorry. I hope that doesn’t sound disrespectful in the face of what happened.
When I was in college, I dated a biologist named Maria. Well, a biology undergraduate. She was a lot of fun, albeit slightly odd. Being a bit odd myself, we hit it off right away. Our first date lasted almost 12 hours – the entirety of which was spent talking as we sipped terrible coffee in a 24-hour diner.
Maria told me she wanted to focus on entomology after undergrad, then started to regale me with passionate stories about the local banana slug.
I was familiar with the banana slug. Everyone on campus was. They have an unfortunate habit of falling out of trees and landing on the heads of unsuspecting students and faculty. Being around 8” long and remarkably disgusting, having one plop on one’s head is pretty close to a living nightmare. My first month on campus, one missed me by inches and splattered on the concrete. I was picking slug out from between my shoelaces for a week.
He said I’d feel better after a while; that my pain would fade along with his memory. His words echoed throughout the husk he’d left. My soul had been cored out and left to rot.
I tossed and turned, night after night, as I imagined him with the one who made him happy. My replacement. The thought of their sex didn’t bother me. It was the intimacy after – the quiet bliss when I was the furthest thing from his mind. Just days following the dissolution of our multi-year couplehood, the one which whom he’d spent so much of his life was on her way to being forgotten.
I was forgotten.
I sought an oblivion to mask my pain; anything to dull the omnipresent savagery of loss. Memories of our happiness felt false. I wondered how long he hated me before he finally let me know it was over. How long was I happy while he was miserable? How much of his life had I stolen, oblivious to his diminishing love? I knew it was all in my mind. And my mind screamed as cascades of neurotransmitters reinforced my feelings of profound, hideous dejection.
Then I had an idea.
Part of me felt sad about how easy it was to buy heroin.
The first pet store I visited had the rats I wanted. I brought them home and fed them a solution of sugar water and heroin. They died soon after. I knew the last moment of their lives had been their best.
While they were still warm, I removed their brains and ate them. I wanted to absorb the physical manifestation of their joy.
I know a small portion of the euphoria I experienced following my meal was from the trace amounts of heroin I’d ingested. But it lasted longer than a drug high. It lasted for days. For three full days, the thought of him didn’t send me into a self-destructive spiral. Quite the contrary; I felt like I was growing. I was getting over him.
At the end of the three days, the pain came back. Nightmares flooded the sleep that’d once been a respite. The fact remained: I was gradually being forgotten. I was being replaced. Someone was creating new memories with the person I love. I couldn’t let that happen.
More rats, more heroin. Another respite. Two days, though. Only two. It wasn’t working the way I’d hoped. The root of the problem was still there. Every passing day, I was becoming less clear in his mind. The prospect being forgotten was infinitely worse than forgetting him. The former made the latter impossible.
My moment of serendipity occurred while I was throwing the dead rats down the garbage chute.
He answered his phone when I called. To this day, I feel terrible for lying to him. He rushed over, as strong and protective as ever, to see who’d hurt me. When he was sitting down, I came behind him and injected a lethal dose of heroin into the side of his neck. He punched me, hard, before his pupils dilated. Before he stopped breathing, he smiled at me.
“Kate,” he whispered, “to think I’d almost forgotten how beautiful you are.” He exhaled a long, quiet breath. His dilated eyes never left mine as he blinked once or twice, almost as if he were wondering why he didn’t feel the need to inhale anymore. When he died, his smile remained.
I opened his head. It took longer than I’d expected. I made sure to keep cleaning off his face. His smile urged me to go on. After an hour, I stared at the mass inside his skull that was him. His essence. His everything.
I didn’t know what part did what. I just knew it was all him, so it was all important. Over the course of a few days, I consumed him as he smiled. Each morsel had the potential to be a piece that contained his memory of me. All his memories of the good times. All his memories of the beauty we experienced. The closeness.
When his skull was empty, I felt different. I wasn’t euphoric, like I’d felt after the rats. I felt better. I was at peace. This was my closure. I’d ensured that I wouldn’t be forgotten. The one I loved was with me again. Forever. And together, we could be free to make new memories.
Jaime’s car accident nearly killed him. His coma lasted eight weeks. When he regained consciousness, he couldn’t recognize me and Inez. Prosopagnosia – face blindness – was the diagnosis. The doctors wouldn’t give us any answers about whether or not he’d get better. They just said we’d have to wait and see. Jaime could remember who we were; he knew he had a wife named Carla and a daughter named Inez, but whenever we walked into the room, he saw two strangers.
Over time, he started to recover. The recovery wasn’t total. Not even close. He’d jump with shock and surprise if Inez came into the room too quickly and didn’t leave him enough time to remember it was her. Last month, when Jaime and I were in the shower, I washed his hair and shoulders and back, but when he turned around, he yelped and tried to get away. He slipped and almost cracked his head on the faucet.
The therapist suggested Jaime carry and study a photograph of Inez and me as frequently as possible. The goal was for his damaged brain to hopefully remap the features he’d lost the ability to retain. After a couple months, we saw some major improvements. Still far from perfect, but much, much better. The frightened, jumpy person he became after the accident slowly started to resemble the strong, protective man I’d married.
Last night, I was jolted awake by the sound of Jaime shrieking. He wasn’t in bed. The sound came from down the hall. From Inez’s room. I jumped out of bed and ran to see what was wrong. Jaime met me halfway. His hands were covered in blood.
“It’s wearing her face!,” he screamed. He gripped my shoulders and studied my features with his wide, terrified eyes. “It stole her face!”
I struggled out of his grasp as Jaime sunk to the floor and called after me. “Find Inez!,” he choked out. “Please.” He sobbed as I turned the corner into our Inez’s room.
Gaping holes that once housed eyes oozed blood down pale cheeks. Those same eyes were now forced deep into the skull by the panicked violence of my husband. As I screamed with incomprehensible horror, Jaime came up behind me and bellowed, “get away from it!” “Find Inez!”
Jaime tore through Inez’s closet with the picture of Inez and me in his hand, frantically scanning everything inside for the girl who matched the appearance of his daughter in the photograph. My breath caught in my throat. In the picture Jaime studied to memorize the faces of his family, I was sitting behind Inez and brushing her long, black hair.
“What are you doing?,” he screamed at me. “Help me find her!”
Sobbing, I collapsed on the bed and cradled the cooling body on the blood-soaked Steven Universe sheets. After Jaime had gone to sleep, I’d finally given in to Inez’s nagging. Instead of the luxurious, flowing hair in the picture, Inez went to bed with her new, short, pixie-style haircut.
I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. After Ralph passed and I was left alone for the first time in three decades, I turned to my neighbors for comfort. They provided it in spades. I was honored and brought to tears by their kindness. Not too many places would make sure a lonely old man was taken care of. I’m surrounded by wonderful, beautiful people.
I took on the role of a grandfather to some of the neighborhood children. I was more than happy to babysit; Ralph and I always wanted to adopt but it wasn’t permitted in our state. So, having the opportunity to be a formative figure in the lives of these children was a great privilege. It made me feel like I was getting another chance to do everything that had been denied to me. I wish Ralph could’ve been here to take part. Still, I know he’s watching with the same love and pride he expressed every day he was alive.
One girl, Madison, formed a particularly strong connection to me. Her father was out of the picture. Her mom, Helen, who was forced to work full time, was rarely home during the day. Helen had always been the most supportive and loving of the neighbors after Ralph’s death, so when I had the opportunity to help with Madison and watch her during the work day, I was more than willing.
I started looking after Madison soon after her 10th birthday. She fell in love with the collection of toy kangaroos all over the house. Ralph was born in Australia and I always used to call him my little roo – especially when he got excited and his accent became more pronounced. On his birthdays, I’d give him some type of kangaroo toy. They’d been gathering dust after his passing and I was glad Madison could give them some life again.
Years passed and Madison started to grow up. I worried she was becoming depressed. She never had very many friends in school. She’d come straight over when her day was done and do her homework while waiting for her mom. Her mood was less bubbly than I’d remembered. Part of it, I’m sure, was her age. Adolescence is tough for everyone, let alone someone with a difficult family life like Madison. Still, I worried about her. She was perfectly nice to me and was never rude or disrespectful, but she’d withdrawn. She didn’t watch television with me anymore after her homework, either. She’d just sit on the floor in her kangaroo pajamas, which were far too small for her at that point, playing with Ralph’s figurines. Just like she did when she was little.
When Madison was 16, she got a boyfriend. Her first one, as far as I knew. I didn’t like him. At all. He was your typical teenage tough-guy type; a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed loser. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, though. Madison wouldn’t bring him over and I think she sensed I didn’t approve. But it wasn’t my business. I told myself years before that such situations were purely between Madison and her mother. Only if I felt like Madison was in danger would I interfere.
Madison spent more and more time with the boyfriend and less and less with me. The house grew quiet again. The other children I’d taken care of had grown old enough to watch themselves. Their parents stopped by every so often for coffee, but my general person-to-person interaction was far less than I’d previously enjoyed. I was lonely.
One night, Helen came to me in a panic. Apparently, Madison had admitted to using drugs. Helen had no idea what kind or anything like that, but she was terrified for her daughter’s safety. I tried to reassure her that there had to be something the school could do, but that was when she told me the other half of the story: Madison was pregnant.
This floored me. I’d seen Madison around town over the last few months and I’d noticed she’d gained some weight, but it never occurred to me she might be pregnant. Now her drug use was even more worrying. We tried to figure out a plan together and the only thing we could agree on was that the school had to know. Even though the local school system wasn’t the best, they had to have some resources dedicated to problems like these.
The school did nothing. Madison’s reckless behavior continued. Helen was too terrified to notify the police because she feared she’d be put in a foster home. I, too, was clueless. Time went by and the rare times I’d see Madison in town, she’d be stumbling around drunkenly with her idiot boyfriend, her protrusive belly an obscenity against the background of her intoxication.
On a late afternoon in February, I was leaving the supermarket when Madison spotted me from across the parking lot. She wasn’t with her boyfriend, thankfully. She rushed up to me and gave me a big hug. She didn’t seem drunk, but she had to have been on something. Her pupils were dilated and her words were slurred as she said how much she missed me. Then she asked if she could come over later to see the kangaroos. I told her that would be wonderful and that I missed her.
At some point around 7, Madison came over. I ushered her in quickly; it was way below freezing outside and she looked ill. I could tell she was high. She shuffled in without saying hello and went to the mantle where the kangaroos stood. In a singsong, childish voice, she talked to them. When she was 11, I thought that type of thing was cute. Now, though, knowing she was under the influence of something that was poisoning not only her, but the baby as well, it was far less adorable.
I walked up to her and asked if I could take her coat and if she’d like some tea and chocolate cake. She didn’t reply. She just kept talking to the kangaroos. I sighed and sat down on the couch, waiting for her to either snap out of it and talk to me or leave and hopefully go home to her mom.
Madison went down the line of the kangaroo toys on the mantle, saying “I love you” to each one. Then she walked back, doing the same thing in reverse order. Then she faced me. “I love you too, Michael,” she cooed, a thin smile cracking her pale face. “But you know what? I love Roo most of all!”
Madison dropped her heavy coat to the floor and I screamed. A gaping wound had been carved across the top of her belly. The blue head and chest and right arm of her baby stuck out from the opening. “Look at little Roo,” she said weakly. “Such a good little Roo.” Madison tried to hop toward me, mimicking a kangaroo. The limp head and arm of the child flopped back and forth with the movement.
“Sweet little Roo. All warm and safe in his pouch.”
Before my husband died, our daughter, Veronica, was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. We brought her to countless specialists and nearly all of them came to the same conclusion. The condition is rare, but certainly not unheard of. We were devastated. The doctors suggested that we not start her on medication right away. They were concerned the chemicals might interfere with the development of her brain. At five years old, when proper brain development is critical, they didn’t want to chance it. Only if the hallucinations became severe would they prescribe antipsychotics.
Paul said it might help if we could identify the hallucinations over the course of the next year so we might know what to expect before she started school. This was pretty hard for me to agree with. I’d wanted her to start kindergarten right away. She’d demonstrated she was smart enough and more than capable, but eventually I caved. I just didn’t want to admit that Veronica needed special attention. We needed to separate her hallucinations from the normal, everyday make-believe that every kid her age does.
We started to pick up on a few outliers. One was a big dog who played with her while she was supposed to be sleeping. The other was a fish who followed her around and talked to her about cartoons. Most disconcerting to both of us, though, was the dark man with no eyes, nose, or ears who said how much fun it would be if she ran out and played in the street. More than once, Paul told me he’d chased after Veronica after she opened the screen door and ran toward the busy road.
After the third time, Paul got up at dawn, called in sick, and spent the day putting up a fence. It was summertime, and as much as I wanted to keep Veronica indoors, I knew sunshine and fresh air were too important for her to miss out on. Still, whenever Veronica played outside, she would make a beeline for the fence and start crying whenever she couldn’t go beyond it. I remember sitting with her on the grass next to the fence as she sobbed and talked to the fish about how the dark man was mad at her and had told the dog to be mean when they played. Then she screamed for a long time. When I finally got her to tell me what was wrong, all she said was that the fish got hit by a car and died. I did my best to console her, but it was useless.
Paul and I had a long talk that night. We decided her condition might be bad enough to require the medication we’d desperately tried to avoid giving her. After a trip to the doctor, who listened intently to all the observations we’d made, he agreed her condition was potentially severe and prescribed the drugs. We were told to observe her very, very carefully. The medication could cause the hallucinations to get worse before they got better.
Three days into Veronica’s medication experiment, her hallucinations became violent. I’d never seen our daughter so frightened. Over the course of two terrifying days, she’d describe to us how the fish turned into a monster after he died and made her water taste rotten; how the dog would hurt her whenever she was alone; how the dark man without the nose, ears, or eyes scratched her tummy so hard she’d start bleeding. Then she lifted her shirt. There were fresh scratches all over her belly. I looked at her fingernails, and sure enough, I could see tiny scraps of skin and blood underneath. Paul and I were at a loss.
The stress of Veronica’s episodes strained the relationship between me and my husband. I could tell his depression had reemerged. Still, I cared more about my innocent daughter than my adult spouse. The doctors asked that we begin to taper off Veronica’s medication to see if things got any better. I couldn’t see any difference. Veronica was always scared and kept scratching herself when we weren’t around, usually when she was asleep.
Paul and I began trading off nights where we slept in Veronica’s room to keep an eye on her. Still, I’d find blood on her sheets and clothes and under her nails whenever I’d check. Each of her hallucinations had become violent. The fish would bite her, the dog would lie on top of her so she couldn’t breathe, and the dark man would scratch her. I seriously wondered if Veronica needed to be institutionalized.
Paul shot himself in the head on a Sunday morning while Veronica and I were in the kitchen eating breakfast. I won’t bother detailing the shock, the feeling of betrayal, and the sheer sensation of helplessness that followed. I was left alone to care for a dreadfully ill daughter.
A couple weeks after his funeral, I was cleaning the house with Veronica by my side, proudly displaying the new mittens her aunt had purchased for her in hopes that she might stop scratching. So far, they’d worked pretty well. For whatever reason, Veronica was in one of her rare good moods as we went through the house. I was boxing up small stuff that had belonged to Paul. It hurt too much to see it every day.
Veronica chattered idly about sleeping a lot better lately with no bad dreams and the dog not getting on top of her anymore and the fish being kind and funny again. I told her how nice that was and we brought the box I was carrying out back to Paul’s shed. I thought about asking her if the dark man with the scary face was still asking her to hurt herself. Before I could speak, I saw her furiously scratching her belly. I sighed. Thank goodness for the mittens.
After trying about 15 of the 30-or-so keys Paul had kept on his keyring, I finally chose the right one for the shed. I opened the door and Veronica ran inside to explore. She turned left, I turned right, looking for a place to put the box. Veronica giggled and exclaimed, “now I’m on top of you!” I turned toward her to see who she was talking to. Crumpled up in the corner, underneath Veronica, was a dog suit.
About ten years ago, I dated a masseuse named Valerie. Well, masseuse in training. She was passionate and enthusiastic and she practiced as frequently as she could. That meant I got a ton of free massages. Obviously, since we were a couple, those massages would escalate and turn into that usual thing couples do, but it was only after she felt she’d gotten in a good practice session.
After one of our, ahem, “sessions,” Val looked a little confused but also relieved. I asked her what was up. She told me the sores she had on the inside of her mouth didn’t hurt anymore. We’d talked about those things before. She said they weren’t contagious, thankfully, but she’d had to endure them for most of her life and they were intensely painful; sometimes even debilitatingly so. Doctors prescribed an ointment for her to put on them when the outbreaks occurred, but they barely took the edge off. Plus, she was deeply attached to the ideas of natural healing and homeopathy and all that, so she very, very rarely used the medication. But that night, for the first time in a while, I could tell she wasn’t powering through her pain. She genuinely felt good and had no idea why.
Her pain returned a few hours later. As always, she did her best to ignore it. Fast forward a couple days – another massage, another occasion for sexy times. Midway through, she stopped kissing me and exclaimed, “that’s it!” I didn’t know what she was talking about. She rolled off me and stuck her finger in my mouth. Not really sure what the hell was going on, I just sat up on the bed and let her do whatever she was doing. She pulled her wet finger from my mouth and stuck it in her own. I saw her rubbing the inside of her cheek. Her face brightened and she informed me, with complete certainty, that my saliva was taking away her pain. I laughed and said something encouraging despite thinking she was nuts. Then she hopped back on me and I completely forgot everything she’d said. Continue reading “I was kidnapped by my girlfriend and what she did to me was beyond comprehension.”