The Island in Pinocchio Where Bad Kids Go to Be Bad

"The Island in Pinocchio Where Bad Kids Go to Be Bad (Welcome to Delray Beach)." 10/5/13. Acrylic and watercolor paint, food coloring, resin sand, and pen. 16x20" stretched canvas.
“The Island in Pinocchio Where Bad Kids Go to Be Bad.” 10/5/13. Acrylic and watercolor paint, food coloring, resin sand, and pen. 16×20″ stretched canvas.

Delray Beach has more rehabs, halfway houses, and treatment institutions (of all kinds) than any other city. It’s the so-called “recovery capital of the world,” which – by default – also makes it the relapse capital of the world. While plenty go to Delray and get better, just as many go and get much, much worse. The streets of Delray are swarmed with young, drug-addled fuck-ups from all parts of the country, which is why I love to joke that it’s the real world correlate of the island in Pinocchio where bad kids go to be bad. I got to town the night of January 20, 2012 and met her the very next day.

But fast forward to the last time I ever saw her: August 1, 2012, when we left the St. Louis airport on separate planes. She flew to Minneapolis to check into her fifth rehab and I flew back to Miami to collect some things. When I wound up in rehab myself (just sixteen days later) I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again. As was evident in the journal entries I wrote during my first weekend at Tranquil Shores, I was confused. I thought about her a lot but did I love her? I argued the point both ways with myself. Tranquil Shores allowed me limited use of my cell phone after a time and (while her facility didn’t) she managed to get a prepaid phone smuggled in. I was making big strides in my treatment and trying to play by the rules and I encouraged her to do the same. I told her our relationship was distracting both of us from our treatment. She disagreed and took offense. Our phone calls got to be less frequent, shorter, and more argumentative. When I found myself getting wrapped up in other girls and starting to recognize the full extent of my codependency, I decided that my relationship with her had been more of the same. We had been close enough that I – of course – cared about and loved her, but I decided that it wasn’t a romantic love and that we had only been drawn together by shared emotional defects.

On April 21, 2013, I had eight months clean and she was checking into rehab for the seventh time. I wrote her a letter and shared all the things I had done differently in my last round of treatment that I thought had finally made it count. I also explained our relationship to her: how we hadn’t really been in love but just had a kind of survivor’s bond from running the streets of south Florida for five months after being kicked out of treatment. She didn’t get the letter but saw it on her way out the door. (Her counselor tried to use it as a bargaining chip to get her to stay but to no avail). She left and called me. I was frustrated that she had walked out and I was tired of trying to help when she didn’t seem willing to help herself. Why the fuck would she leave treatment again? By even taking her phone calls and trying to be supportive whenever she’d put herself in situations like this, I was enabling her continued decline. My counselor advised that I set a boundary and I did. “Until you have three months clean, we can’t talk.”

A few weeks ago, I got a text message. Five months after I had set the boundary, she had her three months. Or so she said. I had my doubts but I decided to take her word for it and I’d like to believe that it’s the truth. I told her she could call and she did. She was initially combative (there were some resentments a full year in the making) but the conversation lightened as time passed and, ninety minutes in, she said she had something she needed to tell me. She thanked me and said she couldn’t imagine what might have happened to her had I not stuck with her when we were put out on the street. She said that I was exactly the person she needed at that point in her life and that – being just a little bit older, wiser, and more experienced – I had saved her from who-knows-what terrible fate. And she said that she wouldn’t be the person she is today had it not been for my presence and influence, which had proven to be both tremendous and positive.

My kneejerk (internal) reaction was that I was a piece of shit and that we had been nothing but bad for each other – that we had kept each other sick. I put that aside for the moment as she continued to speak. I was sort of dumbstruck by what I was hearing. These were not the kinds of words I’d expect from her. She had always been boastful, independent, and above everything. Nothing could touch her; nothing could shake her. Nobody could teach her anything because she already knew everything. That was the girl as I remembered her. Her words forced me to remember another girl though: a side of her that I hadn’t seen or thought of in a long time.  In an instant, I realized that I was wrong to assume that I knew her mind better than she did; I was wrong to tell her that she hadn’t really been in love with me. I had impacted her life in ways that I had never really considered (or had at least forgotten about). She always played so tough and, even though I knew it was just a wall she used to protect herself, I had forgotten that the wall wasn’t so thick as to actually keep anything from ever making it through.

After we hung up, I thought about the reaction I had stowed after being floored and humbled by the impact of her words. I remembered something that I had told myself over and over in those days: that I had to stay with her because – as bad as things might have been with me – I knew that they’d be far worse without me. At the time, I thought I could actually save her (save both of us) and that we could get well together. While I was absolutely wrong on that point, I really did look out for her and things really would have been far worse for her had I not been there. That part was true. For everything that I had done wrong, I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) discount the good that I had done as well.


Before we hung up that night, she also commissioned me to paint something for her. I’ve been working on it, off and on, ever since but I finally finished it last night. In making it, I reflected on our relationship, which now spans twenty months. Three incidents came to mind that struck me as being particularly significant. I journaled about them directly on the canvas but it’s so layered that most of my words were washed away by watercolors or obscured by acrylics or food coloring.

The first incident was a night I had forgotten about – a time when the question of our love’s authenticity was nowhere near my mind. It was late at night, storming, and we were parked in the lot at the treatment facility that had kicked us out a month prior. [The treatment center and patient residence were separate properties, so the building was empty; it was a place to park that we knew cops wouldn’t come around]. We were in the backseat, fooling around, and had stripped down to nothing. Then – at some point, for whatever reason – we got out of the car, totally naked and in spite of the sheets of rain that were slamming down on top of us. Standing upright, in that parking lot, in the middle of that storm, we had sex. If that sounds dirty or cheap or vulgar, it wasn’t. We may have been living like homeless, scummy, junkie street urchins – and maybe we were – but in that moment we were young, in love, and free – invincible. I felt like I had an amazing secret that the rest of the world would never know or understand. It was beautiful. I thought so then and – in that way – I still do.

The second was the day we ripped off a drug dealer and almost got ourselves killed. In anticipation of this entry’s length, I went ahead and wrote out that story two days ago in a separate entry. It’s a very different anecdote and has nothing to do with love or freedom; it’s just sad and desperate.

The third incident (and the only one of which my journals of are still somewhat visible on the canvas) was the recent phone call itself. It forced me, for the first time, to really look at and question the narrative I had constructed to explain (and discount) our relationship. Not only did she remind me that night that I don’t have things quite as figured out as I sometimes like to think, but also that truth is relative to the individual. I hate it when people try to tell me what I’m feeling and I was doing exactly that to her. I thought I was so reflective and enlightened when, in reality, I was being thoughtless, arrogant, and invalidating. Who was I to say that she wasn’t/had never been truly in love with me? Besides, what the fuck does that even mean? To be in love with someone. I think I know but does anyone ever really?

Maybe I was in love (and maybe I wasn’t). Whatever it was, I’m grateful for it – the good memories and the bad.


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