Maryhope Tobin

HEXBREAKER: Time Starts Now


I’m not living in my car any more. That was last year. But little by little, bit by bit, last summer is creeping back into my mind. I do all I can to not remember it. I set my mind in the future, or even the present sometimes. But summer of 2015 is appearing in my thoughts and dreams in nasty little bits. While I was running yesterday I had this flashback of the time I fell asleep under a tree on Western Prom in Portland and woke up face to face with a huge cicada. Or I’ll get an afterimage of the dining room at Florence House, the women’s shelter. I get an all-over wash of fear, panic and exhaustion. It makes me queasy.

It’s like little bits of a nightmare that stick to your mind throughout the waking day, but instead of dissipating, they get bigger and louder and more vivid. The bathroom at Maine Med where I washed my hair. The taste of something mushy, maybe pita bread that’s been in the car for a couple of days. The sun beating down on the car when I was parked at the mall.

Every time I see a catbird I think of the catbird that would say hello to me when I was sitting in my car crying in the overflow lot at the Forest Avenue Hannaford. I sat in the far end of the overflow lot staring at that tiny hill, a mound of dirt, really, with scrawny trees and scrub bushes and garbage and Hannaford employees eating lunch in their cars. And catbirds saying hello.

As I try to fall asleep in my IKEA bed in the room that was my parents’ computer room, I see myself trying to fall asleep under a streetlight on Thomas Street in Portland, staring at the dashboard of my Corolla. Leaving the radio station at 11:00 on a Sunday night all last summer and crawling through the West End looking for a spot. Sunday was an alternate parking night in the West End. It took a while.

But it’s not just last summer. Lately I’ve been thinking of summer of 2014, which in some ways was as bad – maybe worse – than 2015, when I lived in my car. In June of 2014 I ran out of EBT (food stamps) and was too tired and too embarrassed and too intimidated to go back to DHHS and renew. What was I afraid of? They’re just people at the DHHS. People who, as far as I know, are not authorized to use lethal force.

I first applied for EBT in January 2014. It was windy and below zero that day. I parked my nice Corolla and trudged through the parking lot in my LL Bean parka and boots. No one ever came right out and said anything about the fact that I was wearing a jacket that cost as much as one of them made in a week. But I wanted to preface every sentence with “I bought this five years ago when I was working! Bean jackets last forever, am I right?” Or “my car looks really nice but it’s actually seven years old.” Or “it’s either buy food or buy meds and meds are non-negotiable.” No one asked about my outerwear. Probably no one cared. I obsessed about it anyway.

When I arrived at DHHS, a woman directed me to a computer kiosk where I had to pre-apply. I still needed to fill out the paper form, though, and hand it in during my actual intake. The DHHS woman explained a computer function. Her explanation was not accurate and I corrected her. After decades of training people to use computers, it was reflexive. Sometimes reflexes are really, really wrong. The DHHS woman knew I was right and since she couldn’t find a way to publicly correct me the way I’d publicly corrected her, she shot death rays from her eyes and looked over my shoulder at every keystroke.

The actual intake was painless. I didn’t tell them how hungry I was. I don’t know if I expected someone to ask, but no one did. The waiting area was full of women with small children. I figured I could wait for my application to be processed. But after a couple of weeks of not hearing I called. I cried. The nice woman on the phone pushed my application through. She really was super-nice. Everyone I dealt with on the phone seemed nicer, more patient, more respectful than anyone I’d seen in person. They couldn’t see me sitting at the writing desk my father built me, writing with a fountain pen in a really nice notebook (that I bought when I was working!). They couldn’t see my Bean jacket or my Bean boots or my nice car.

Looking back, though, maybe the women at the DHHS office weren’t cruel or judgmental or part of some all-harpy firing squad. Maybe they were tired and worried about keeping their jobs and feeding their kids. Either way, they approved my application and didn’t rip me to shreds and feast on my bones. So there’s that.

The EBT expired in June 2014. I was hungry and desperate and probably way more depressed than I realized. I never gave up on taking my meds, though. So there’s that.

But I did give up on maintaining my body in any way that made sense, any way that was healthy. I was able to rationalize starving myself, week after week. Up until that spring I was keeping to my usual workout schedule, doing yoga at least three times a week and walking 5 or 6 miles four or five times a week. I had my high-energy one-girl-dance-party in my living room at least once a week. That was the first thing to go. I stopped dancing in the living room when the power got cut off and got the power back on but never started dancing again. Then the yoga stopped. I stopped doing the 108 pushups workout, then the core workout, and then my beloved restorative practice. At that point I’d been practicing yoga for 15 years. I figured I’d be getting a job soon and would treat myself to a really cool class at the Yoga Center when I did.

I believed everything I told myself.

Then the walks changed from high-powered-running-shoes-workout-clothes to a stroll at twilight listening to spacey New Age music. And then just walking up Brackett Street to find free wifi when I lost my wifi for good. By the first week of July I was down to my college weight, 145 or so, down from my good weight of 165. By the end of July I was down to my high school weight, or nearly: 137. (I’m 5′ 8″) I was a happy size 8 for ten years and suddenly nothing fit. Skirts fell straight down in a way that would have been funny in a cartoon. My bras deflated. My ass – not big to begin with – went missing. I wore a belt for the first time in years. Because I had to.

I knew there was nothing wrong with eating once a day. Busy people eat once a day. Then it was every other day. I went to a food pantry. I cried. I didn’t plan on crying but I was so fucking hungry. I figured they’d see my car and refuse to give me anything. The 2007 Toyota Corolla LE, universal symbol of luxury and decadence. Honestly, I don’t think it matters what you drive. I know that now, anyway.

I thought it would be rude to tell the food pantry lady I was vegetarian. So a lot of what I got was meat. I put that aside and gave it to someone, I forget who. The power was out that day, so I ate a jar of spaghetti sauce and regretted not saving some for the next day.

I pushed myself harder and harder, determined to live my life – writing, job-searching, WMPG, Facebook & Twitter – while eating every other day. Then every three days. The last week of July 2014 I didn’t eat for five days. But I was taking my meds. So there’s that.

It was on a Sunday when I realized I was in trouble. I lay on my couch that morning, panting. I’d worn myself out putting together an outfit. As I lay there trying to catch my breath I realized slowly that there was no reason for me to be trying to catch my breath. My heart was a manic hummingbird, loud and fast and erratic. I was getting these huge silver floaters in my eyes, blocking out parts of my vision. I got up and had a hard time keeping my balance. I lay back down.

Shit, I thought. I need to call someone. Where the fuck is my phone? I thought and thought and couldn’t remember and I didn’t have it in me to go looking for it. Oh, well. I lay on the couch and checked my watch. Ron was picking me up at 1:00. That was our thing, back then. He would pick me up, we’d have lunch, go to Kettle Kove or Bug Light or Crescent Beach, then go to the radio station. He was on the air at 7:00, I was on at 9:00. I really looked forward to Sundays, even before my life fell apart. More so after, I think.

At 12:59 on that Sunday in July I dragged my ass off the couch. There was my phone, next to my keys on the dining room table. I was on the second floor of an old building, with steep wooden stairs. I went downstairs slowly, one hand on either wall, leaning against the banister. I was dizzy and the sunlight made me dizzier. Ron was on time. He was never more than a minute or two late, or if he was, he’d call. On that particular Sunday, his punctuality saved my life. Or maybe I’m exaggerating. Hard to tell at this point, two years later, as I write this with a tummy full of lunch & breakfast.

I got into Ron’s car and I don’t remember anything until the part where I looked at Ron and said “I thought we were going to the beach.” He pointed out the window and sure enough, we were on Route 77 in South Portland or Cape Elizabeth, headed for the Kove. “I thought we were getting food,” I snarled, inexplicably hostile. Ron smiled and pointed to the Amato’s bag at my feet. Then he looked at my face and told me to start eating.

Ron is remarkably – often pathologically – good-natured and does not give orders. He did that day, though. I didn’t argue, which I normally would have. Ron’s the good-natured one. I ate my lunch and if he hadn’t been eating turkey I would have eaten that too. (That’s not a memory from that particular day. Ron always eats turkey. No mayo, no lettuce, no tomato. Just cheese.)

I had no way of telling Ron how bad it was. Maybe he thought I had low blood sugar. He has diabetes and way back when he first started staying at my apartment his idea of a pre-bed snack was mini-donuts and chocolate milk. More than once I sat next to him on the couch when his sugar was bad, alternating between begging him to eat and threatening to call 911. “See? I dialed 9! Now I’m pressing 1! Fucking eat something! Jesus Christ, Ron, if you pass out I can’t lift you!” I have no problem giving orders.

A week passed and I didn’t eat much. On Saturday I called my brother, the one who lives in Portland. He’s a chef, so I figured he’d hook me up with lunch. I put together an outfit and walked down to his work, less than 10 minutes on a good day. This was not a good day. And it was hot. I got there and my brother greeted me with a smile and “let’s go for a walk.” Oh jesus god. The walk downtown had nearly killed me. But I smiled and we walked to his ATM where he gave me cash, way more than he should have. (His wife had a lot to do with that. She’s freaking awesome.) I don’t know if I cried then, but I’m crying now. It was evening by then and I didn’t have it in me to drive to the store. I stopped at the Cumberland Farms on Brackett on my way home and got my dream supper: Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food and a big bag of salt & vinegar chips. I walked home, slow but motivated.

Do you see where this is going?

I ate the ice cream in my favorite chair, by the window, watching the sun set. Wow! I said. I love you, Ben. I love you, Jerry. I love you, Phish (not really). “Huzzah!” my tummy yelled. “Bring on the chips! There’s plenty of room down here!” I didn’t eat the whole bag of chips but it didn’t matter. As the evening progressed, my belly got bigger, not smaller. I dozed in my chair. A few hours later I was violently unwell, and continued to be unwell until the sun came up. At 7:00 I drove to Hannaford and invested in Saltines, ginger ale, and as many other ginger-related products as I could find. I spent a typical Sunday with Ron, but with crackers instead of Amato’s. A couple of days later I felt better and bought groceries.

I got angry with myself for eating all the groceries. I made them last, but I felt I could have made them last longer. Eventually I got hungry again.  I invented fried mayonnaise. One day my across-the-street neighbor knocked on my door for some random reason, took one look at me and left. A little while later she reappeared with groceries that I knew she could not afford. (And then I got evicted and I stayed with her and her family for five months. Until I had to leave.)

Now, in July 2016, what’s my point? I mean, I’ve already told this story, or bits of it. It’s embarrassing. It’s mortifying. It’s humiliating. It’s in my dreams and in my waking. True, I’m 52, still unemployed and living with my parents, but I have plenty of food now. I have an excellent yoga practice and I’m training for a 5K. I have a lovely roof over my head and dogs that I talk to all day long.

I don’t want to think about Summer 2014 or Summer 2015. I want the past two years not to have happened. Now when I think about living in my car or nearly starving to death, I cringe. Seriously, a full-body, inside/outside cringe. What the fuck, Maryhope? How could you let this happen? I never stopped taking my meds. But I was clearly depressed and so far gone I didn’t ask for help. I just beat myself up for being hungry. Can’t change it now. It is what it was. Or similar. Maybe it wasn’t so much embarrassment as it was shame and shame is actually easier to spell (I’m an excellent speller but I’ve always had a strange fear of words with double letters).

My survival needs are being met, maybe actually surpassed. I still can’t find a job and that baffles me. It’s embarrassing (2 r’s AND 2 s’s?) I’ve never been one to obsess about the past because I’m pretty busy obsessing about the future. I can control the future until it turns into the present and I’m still unemployed and living with my parents. But looking forward is good, right?

Last fall I sent query letters to 11 literary agents to find someone to represent me so I can turn my blog into a book. I worked so hard on those query letters! But no one was interested. According to inspirational Facebook memes, J. K. Rowling received thousands of rejections before she found a publisher for Harry Potter. (Those memes inspire me to feel totally inadequate.)  (Good for her, though. Seriously. I love Harry Potter!)

Eleven queries – I read somewhere you should send out 10 at a time, but I sent out 10 and realized it was all women on the list so I added a guy.  Pretty good cross-section of the industry, I thought. Three months later I stopped waiting for replies and officially gave up. Do I look like a blond, British billionaire? Maybe if I don’t write it, I don’t have to relive it. Which is nonsense because apparently my brain does what it pleases. All I want to do right now is stick rolled-up towels under all the doors of my mind to keep those dark sad bits from creeping in. It’s no use, though. “We’ve traced the flashbacks and they’re coming from inside your head!”

I love my parents. I need to be settled in my own place. I need my own income. I need to reestablish my place in the world before I can relive being hungry and homeless. I need to be on my new path, start my new chapter. These and other metaphors, mixed in the Kitchenaid that is my brain.

Are you hungry right now? I mean, really hungry? Please tell someone. People love to feed their friends. There are people who love to feed strangers and ask nothing in return. Get some food in you. Because no matter how smart, how strong, how freaked out you are, you can’t do it on an empty stomach. Please. Eat something.