When Toxic Things Shimmer | Cynthia Ann Schemmer

When I was cleaning my kitchen today, I thought of you. I find myself thinking of you on my most active and rewarding days, and though cleaning a kitchen is not some grand form of activity, I do feel pride at the sight of a shiny clean floor. Also, I am writing this naked in my kitchen.

Bearing it all, Jeremy.

Jeremy’s cabin in the Catskills was small, wooden and russet brown. It was also covered in mouse shit.

“You could use some cat skills around here,” I joked, because that’s what I do when I’m nervous.

A mouse squeaked somewhere underneath me as I climbed the ladder into the loft to vacuum the tiny black pellets from the bed we would share. He had only recently moved in, and yet mice ran rampant and the books on the shelves were already arranged by color: white softened to pink, pink burned into red, red rusted to orange, orange went bad and turned brown, then yellow, green, and blue. A small collection of typewriters lined a shelf; half-typed pages hung limp in the paper fingers. I wouldn’t call Jeremy a great writer; evocatively confusing might be the description I’m looking for. Below me he was getting the wood-burning stove going; he handled the logs with care, like each was a splintered baby, coddling them before they burned up. The only sounds were the fire spitting and the floorboards creaking; these were the moments I enjoyed most with him.

As I climbed down the ladder, barefoot and wrapped in a brown crocheted blanket, I hit a warm spot. It was summer, but autumn was already creeping into the nights, and the wood-burning stove quickly filled the air with the sweet smell of embers. I wondered how the air back home felt. Nothing like this, I was sure. I imagined it was concentrated in moisture and heat as thick as pudding; it’s the kind of weather that makes you feel terribly drunk.

No one back home in Brooklyn knew that I was here. I didn’t tell anyone I left for the mountains. Every weekend I am expected to meet the same blurry faces at the same bar to drink the same bitter drinks; no expectations there. But I have to admit I hesitated before getting into Jeremy’s car when he picked me up at my apartment.

“You look like you could get out of the city for a while,” he smiled.

“You aren’t wrong,” I replied. “I could.”

On the passenger seat was a bird egg he had found for me, a new addition for the shelf I devote to the pieces of other creatures: an abandoned nest, a speckled egg, four horse bones, a jar of feathers. I reached for it through the open window and examined it silently. How satisfying it would feel to crush the shell between my fingers. To hear it crack and sprinkle into tiny pieces. To grind it into dust.

_____

My earliest memory of Jeremy was twelve years ago in our high school cafeteria. I was not eating my tuna fish sandwich because a girl friend, two minutes earlier and mid-bite, had compared the smell of tuna to the embarrassment between our legs. The table of girls erupted in giggles and scrunched noses. I wanted to die. I wanted to slam the sandwich with my palm against the cafeteria wall and watch the salad squeeze out the sides, sticking to the gray pockmarked paint. But actually, I really just wanted to eat my sandwich. I dropped the soggy white bread onto the cellophane and sipped my iced-tea.

As the conversation switched to less cringe-worthy topics – music, the weekend, boys – a shatter of glass broke through the buzz of voices. Jeremy, a senior and three years my elder, stood among the glistening shards that were once a window, that he broke with his fist, that created the faint twinkling sound of glass settling. His hand was sliced up and bleeding onto his sneakers.

“That’s Kristina’s brother,” whispered my girl friend. Kristina was a girl in our grade; we weren’t friends. “They found out this weekend that they were adopted.”

A cool breeze swept in and I looked up to see Jeremy jumping through the window, barely missing the jagged edges of broken glass that hadn’t fallen, that pierced the air like icicles. We all watched in silence as he ran, bloody and charging toward his car in the parking lot. He slammed the door and screeched away. Someone started clapping slowly, a mocking gesture that built up quickly, and the entire cafeteria joined in laughing. I found this to be a perfect opportunity to finish my sandwich had I not felt so nauseated.

 _____

I’d like to see you split wood with an ax. Then, we’ll make popcorn over a fire in the back woods and go up on my roof to shoot burning arrows. Or not. Either way, I welcome your bare feet on my carpet. I’ll even clean it of all its mouse excretions for you.

Stranded, Jeremy.

“Here, have some watermelon,” he said with wet, shiny lips. I am not going to sleep with you, I thought as he shoved a block of the seedless pink flesh into his mouth as we sat in his cabin. I’d already made this clear to him months earlier in his station wagon when, after lamenting over our dead mothers, he kissed me and said he was in love with me. I had let him kiss me for a few seconds, just to see what it felt like, but there was nothing; this was something that didn’t need to be proven. I pushed him away and told him we were friends, and that I’d always be there for him. I wonder now if I actually meant it.

At 19 years old, one year after being told he was adopted, Jeremy was diagnosed with psychosis, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. We became friends four years later in the summer, through mutual acquaintances. I wouldn’t know about his mental illness for another three years, when he stopped taking his medication and all his friends stopped calling; they all claimed he was out of his mind, and that’s because he mostly was. He moved to the mountains in the Catskills a year later. We saw each other rarely, but communicated often though letters. Our friendship was as inconsistent as his medication intake, and I am unsure whether to blame that on his mental illness or my need to protect my own mental health.

 _____

I miss your mouth taste, he says. I cringe and think about the inside of anyone’s mouth. I feel sick. Hey, we’re friends, right? I say. Something feels wrong. Somewhere he made a wrong turn. We’re heading away from my apartment and my whole body is hot with fear. Marry me, he says in voice I don’t recognize, his foot pressing hard on the accelerator. Marry me and move into the cabin. He is laughing and he is driving ninety miles per hour on a Brooklyn side street, passing stop signs, heading toward the highway – the BQE – and I scream for him to stop, scream for him to pull over and let me the fuck out of the car. He listens, he always does eventually, and I get out and slam the door. This is why I don’t call you back, I yell through the open window. You’re not taking your medication, are you? He doesn’t answer. He looks down at his hands and tells me he’s sorry, to get back in the car, he will take me home, he will take his pills. I can walk, asshole. And I do. He follows me for a few blocks, apologizing profusely. His voice has returned to its normal tone, and when he gives up and finally drives away, I try to list the reasons I am here today, and in this moment, I can’t think of a single one.

_____

“Thank you for treating me like an individual,” Jeremy whispered into my neck as we lay in the loft bed of the cabin.

“Mmhmm,” I mumbled and reached around to pat him on the hip.

He nuzzled his face into the back of my neck for a moment and then rolled over, knowing that I would have nothing to do with him romantically. I slept in fragments, waking often and for minutes at a time. I had mice on my mind, wondering if they’d crawl all over me in the middle of the night, and how many we would find dead in the morning.

At one point I opened my eyes to the silhouette of a mouse scurrying along the wooden beam at the ledge of the loft, next to where I lay. I gasped and the creature stopped short, shoulders hunched and naked tail trailing. He stood still in a pool of milky moonlight that shined in from the skylight. He stood still until he was sure I was asleep, until he was sure I would stay.

 _____

You are a master of the universe, and I adore you. Not in an undying love kind of way, but rather if I gave you a ring it would be made of ceramic. I want to thank you for giving me moments to breath and explain my brain. It’s so much more than most will do. I know I’m a bit out of my head sometimes. You really are very dear to me, and I’m sorry if I ever jeopardize that. When will I see you next, and what’s in your stomach?

Fully, Jeremy.

In the morning over breakfast – farm fresh eggs, asparagus, a pot of coffee – Jeremy told me how he tried to kill himself. The first time was with a bottle of pills. The second time, a razor.  He rolled up the sleeve of his navy button-up shirt to expose the scars. I thought of tic-tac-toe, of drawing in x’s and o’s among the faded white lines. He did it in the bathroom of an office he didn’t work in while living in Portland, Oregon. He was a bike messenger, delivering envelopes with unknown contents throughout the city, riding over the many bridges that cross the Willamette River. Someone found him bleeding on the white tile floor still wearing his helmet. I looked at his face as he told the story. His dirty blonde hair hung thick over his ears and merged with a scruffy auburn beard. His eyes shone blue, his mouth was small, his hands large and calloused, and I was grateful that blood still pumped beneath it all

I’ve never quite understood depression, and I definitely don’t know a thing about psychosis. I’ve grieved and I’ve been heartbroken, but I do not suffer from depression. At least this is what I tell myself. Everyone else that I know is depressed. Clinically, severely, manically… or at least they claim to be. I am not, so therefore I am the listener.  I am the one who doesn’t talk, because there is not enough space for my words. Or at least this is what I tell myself. Sometimes I give too much. Other times, too little. So I am constantly learning how to support, others and myself, by way of balancing. I kept this in mind as I listened to Jeremy while we walked through the woods behind his house after breakfast. We collected wild turkey feathers scattered among the Black-eyed Susans. I would add these feathers to my shelf of findings, of things I tried to salvage.

_____

We sit on the rocks of the East River shore where we eat cashews and blueberries from a zip-lock bag. We drink whiskey from the bottle. We watch mice running in and out of the dark places in between. We are throwing them the nuts. We are laughing. We are getting up and walking toward the street, the street back to my apartment. I am not inviting him up because that’s not something that I do. He convinces me to go to the bar. He piggy-backs me the two blocks. He is smiling. I might be smiling, too. Now we are drinking beer in a dark room. He is challenging someone to a game of pool. He is losing. A beer bottle hits the wall behind my head from where I watch. He is yelling. I am crying. Then I am cursing. Now I am walking out of the bar and my hands are shaking. I am walking home and I am not answering my phone. I do not answer my phone for days, for weeks, for months. I eventually write a letter that says this: I miss being there with you even when I am with you.

 _____

“I need you to do me a favor,” Jeremy said as he drove me home from the Catskills. We were just a few blocks away from my apartment when he pulled over onto a side street and removed a pair of hair cutting scissors from the glove compartment. “This beard is killing me. Can you just trim it before I drop you off? I’m awful at doing it myself.”

“Here? Uh, I don’t think so. I am not very confident in my roadside beard cutting capabilities.”

“Well, I am very confident in you, so let’s go.”

We sat facing each other on the curb under the street light while the dimming sky melted into a pink sorbet. I held his chin with my left hand as my right cut in a downward motion over his upper lip.

“Thank you for treating me the way you do,” he said as I nearly sliced his skin.

“Keep quiet,” I laughed.

“No, I mean it.”

“No, I mean shut up before I accidentally shut you up.”

He kept his eyes closed while I snipped, and when I was finished he appraised my work in the rearview mirror of his car.

“Well, that looks pretty good. It looks…uh, actually, it looks awful,” he smiled as he winked at me and finished where I had sloppily left off.

“You’re welcome.”

I said goodbye to him there, and I walked the rest of the way home.

_____

I’ve been thinking of you lately through the meandering mountains. I’d like to say that our distance is the result of my sometimes seemingly collapsing universe and when I feel not collapsed, I can communicate how you marvel me. That sentence sounds cheesier than when I mulled it over. I’d like you to know that I think of you with thoughts that I hope translate to your active well-being, and as I write this, I am touching my heart like I am reciting the American pledge.

Lovingly, Jeremy.

It was midnight in Brooklyn and I was stuck with a baby mouse, whom we evicted from our oven. He was the size of a cotton ball, and he stuck his pink pencil eraser nose, covered in parmesan cheese, out of the grates of the no-kill Havahart trap to get a better look at me.

“Hello, tiny,” I whispered, and he hopped backwards. I placed him on top of the coffee maker so he could watch me make red lentil soup. He had been confined for a few hours; I read somewhere that mice will quickly die in a trap without food or water. I wonder what was in his stomach besides cheese, so along the way I fed him bits of ingredients: a piece of pressed garlic, a single lentil, and a leaf of cilantro. He ignored the first, sniffed the second, and ran from the third.

I talked to him as I stirred the soup, saying little sing-song nothings like “I see you there” when he put a paw out of the grate and stared, or a stern “You’ll thank me later” when he cowered. I noticed that he had gathered all my offerings and piled them in the furthest corner. My roommate, Jocelyn, came in for a taste of the soup and a look at the mouse who was at this point dancing in the pasty parmesan bait we had lured him with.

I learned this favorite rodent recipe from my father. “Works every time,” he said some years ago when a mouse scurried through the house I grew up in. He mixed parmesan cheese with a few drops of water to create the sticky last meal and the next morning, without fail, we would find a small gray mound contorted beneath the trap’s hammer. I turned my face away as my father swept fur, wood and metal into a plastic bag that he threw into the trash. That day I vowed to never use a kill trap.

When Jocelyn asked what we do now, I told her we let the little thing go. This idea made us cringe, because we knew those streets. We told ourselves that this was the best idea, at least better than Jocelyn’s last idea. A few weeks prior, she had laid out a glue trap, ignoring my protests, and in the morning we woke to a mouse screaming. She had two options: drown him or crush his skull. I left the house crying, ran to the hardware store to buy the Havahart, and Jocelyn called over her boyfriend to perform the execution. I don’t know how he did it; I don’t ever want to know. What I do know is this: sometimes the only thing worse than waking up to something dead is waking up to something only half dead.

I hadn’t spoken to Jeremy in months, distancing myself after the trip to the Catskills and evaluating our relationship upon my return home. All of our good moments never held up when I remembered the fearful ones. I thought of this as I put the trap into a tote bag and headed outside to release the mouse. I walked down the stairs of my building and on the second floor landing I saw a letter. This is where our landlord left our mail, and this letter was from Jeremy. He had written me three times in the past two months; I never wrote back. I left the letter on the landing. Maybe, I thought. Often, as times passes, the things we know as toxic begin to shimmer.

I walked towards the Pulaski Bridge, a cement arch over the Newtown Creek that connects Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens. I once read that the brain of a mouse is like a road map; their sense of direction, fueled by memory and smell, will lead them back to you if not released at least a mile away. The distance I walked is less than a mile, but I figured a bridge and a different borough should keep him away. I opened the door of the trap, but he didn’t move. He nibbled on the leftover cheese. Stockholm Syndrome, I thought. The Patty Hearst of rodents. I tipped the trap so he tumbled out onto the street where he paused, sniffed the ground, and then ran the opposite way of my apartment.

As I walked back over the bridge, the sun began to set. On one side was the highway and the Kosciuszko Bridge that curled around billboards and the Calvary cemetery. On the other side was the Newtown Creek, gashed with sunlight, and the skyline. I wondered if I released the mouse far enough away. Or maybe too far, disorienting and ultimately killing him. And if so, what was the point of all that work? Don’t get me wrong, a huge part of me was relieved to get rid of the mouse; it scared me to see him scurry franticly when I walked into the kitchen, and I hated the mouse pellets he left behind. I was told he carried disease, was dangerous to my health, and I don’t completely disagree. But part of me hoped he would find his way back.

Along the dull concrete that mimicked the ashy sky, I thought the same thing I thought all those times I had to find my way home when I walked out on Jeremy: I did all that I could and a release was the best solution. I repeated this to myself as I tightened the scarf around my neck. Autumn in Brooklyn was always a blessing. Our bodies no longer baked in the heat of a third floor walk-up with only the relief of a broken oscillating fan that sounded like a neck snapping. Instead, we baked acorn squash and pie. A day before we caught the mouse, I had put a blueberry pie in the oven with mitted hands. The 350 degrees turned my eyes to lumps of charcoal.

What if the mouse is in there, Jocelyn had asked me. What if you bake the mouse?

Well, then, I nervously replied, we’ll be having blueberry mousse instead.

She didn’t get it. These are the types of jokes I make. They often go over horribly, misunderstood, and I feel so alone. Because of course, we did not have a moose living in our oven. The joke is the missing letter ‘s’.

The real joke is I am always missing something.

_____

This is how I remember releasing him: It is spring and we sit on a pilled quilt in the Planting Fields of Long Island, a historical Arboretum. We eat beet salad and tangerines. A few months have passed since I released the mouse. A few more since I was in the Catskills. The dew seeps through the quilt and wets the back of my bare legs. Jeremy recites out loud the surrounding herbs and their benefits – goldenrod for the kidneys, red clover for cancer and women’s health, and calendula for wounds – while I mentally list the reasons I am here today:

  1. I am so bored these days and he is just so unpredictable.
  2. He is a good friend when his brain is soft from the drugs.
  3. Maybe I can help him. Probably not.
  4. He distracts me from the depression I’m not ready to admit I have.

I look over at him from where I am. Now he has his face in the calendula. He is inhaling with his eyes closed and I can think about nothing but myself. Maybe I am selfish, I think. I add this to the list. But first I cross out numbers 1 and 4, so as to not be redundant, even if only in my mind. I roll over to lie on my back, resting on my forearms, and bend my head upside-down to look at him behind me. From this angle, he seems to be standing on the ceiling, sniffing a flower that has embedded its roots into the sky. I pick a dandelion from the ground. I throw it at him and smile. Or, maybe I frown. I can’t tell and I’m not sure he can either; it depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.


Cynthia Ann Schemmer is a writer who currently lives in Philadelphia. She has a MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence and is a co-founder of the NYC feminist collective For The Birds. She writes the zine Habits of Being and co-wrote a chapter on parental loss in the 2012 anthology Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, released by PM Press. Her work has also appeared in Connotation Press, RE/VISTIONIST, Elevate Difference, Drawn and Quarterly, and For The Birds blog.

About TOSKA

Nonfiction for the restless soul. Published online quarterly.

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