In 1985, almost twenty and on my own in Denver, I worked as a hostess at a restaurant on the fringe of downtown. Legend had it that the building–three narrow floors encased by roughhewn brick–had once housed a brothel. My manager called me the “door whore” and made sport of sidling up to me to brush his hand against my behind.
The gleaming wives and glittering girlfriends of Denver’s powerful men would sashay through the large glass doors with a gust of winter wind. Standing next to my podium, they shrugged off their fur coats for me to catch mid-air. I hung those expensive wraps in a long, oak-paneled room that soon filled with the smell of designer perfume—Cline’s Obsession, Dior’s Poison. During lulls on busy Saturday nights, my fingers brushed along the comforting softness of mink, raccoon, and fox. At the end of the night, rich men veiled in cigar smoke filled my tip jar with five-dollar bills. Their cash paid for white Russians at the corner bar, or– sometimes—for lines of cocaine at all-night parties.
Finally away from the small flat house in Florida where my mother drank and raged, the sane and stable independence I’d envisioned eluded me. Instead, a gnawing loneliness festered under my rib cage, growing sharp and dangerous edges. I shared an apartment off the corner of Colfax and Monroe–a block from the number fifteen bus downtown–with a roommate I once hoped to befriend but now avoided. A few nights a week were spent with my boyfriend, who liked to “wake and bake” on his days off, pressing his mouth to a bong as he sat up in bed, then raising his glazed eyes to the late morning. Sometimes, he and I would walk from his place near Cheeseman Park to a small grocery and buy Soft Batch cookies to binge on together. The chemical sweetness of those cookies was choking, but like so many things then, I thought I could take it, that I should be able to withstand any discomfort, no matter how tainted.
That second winter away from home, a long coke high morphed into depression and thoughts of suicide. I sat in the back of a cab one night after work, under the midnight streetlamps, and watched the reflections of tidy brick bungalows flick past the window. Families lived there who were safe and normal, people who knew how to be good, to be happy. As the cab pulled over on Monroe Street, I quietly handed the driver a small wad of one-dollar bills.
As I entered the dark vestibule and trudged up the grimy flight of stairs to my apartment door, my tabby cat meowed her insistent welcome. In the bathroom, she waited for me to pull dental floss along the cracked linoleum, then pounced on the white thread in mock ferocity. She turned on her back, and I knelt to play my fingers over the warmth of her belly. Batting at my hand, claws retracted, she purred. When we went to bed, she curled into the bend of my knees while I cried in the dark. I could never abandon her.
On the back page of Westword magazine, near the personal ads and photos of escorts for hire, I found a therapist with a sliding scale fee. Esther was tall and beak-nosed, her dark hair faintly shot through with gray, and her gaze both alert and tender. Session after session, she listened to my stories, then offered a brief hug as we said goodbye. When Esther told me You’re a very strong person, I believed her. Before long, I registered for classes at the Denver campus of CU, toting shiny pumps that I’d slide on after class to hostess the dinner shift.
I didn’t understand–as I started my adult life that year–how my moods would continue to cycle. The tentacles of sadness that wound around my chest in November would sometimes swing upward in spring until I was filled with more energy than my body seemed able to handle. Much later, my mother’s family tree was lit up like a hazard sign with bipolar symptoms and diagnoses of her siblings and grandchildren. While my mood problems never crossed the threshold to that diagnosis, my patterns of withdrawal and impulsivity were much like my mother’s and—like hers–driven more by heredity than lack of effort or love. Now and then, with my grown sons, I will drive past the gentle slope of porch roof where my old cat would lounge on sunny days. Inside the upstairs bedroom that was mine are freshly painted white walls and a whirring ceiling fan. The neon light of Monroe Liquors still glows on the corner, but across from its parking lot are an upscale restaurant and a pie shop. Like a tour guide, I have pointed out to my family the landmarks of my lost days. My boys know well the vulnerabilities they’ve inherited, the tender traps they must navigate as they map their own adult lives.