How to Disappear

Here is how they disappear:

Slowly, and then completely. The phone calls go from once a week to once a month, then a text message here or there; a string of emails at two in the morning full of drunk poems and questions like: How am I supposed to stop shooting dope when the asshole guard who raped me at the county jail likes all the Facebook pictures of my four-year-old daughter?

I return the emails when I wake up, I try to take the phone calls, try to remember to extend invitations to come to literary readings, send links for free counseling, always sign the correspondence with love, or you got this, or I am proud of you. My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Mostly to heroin, but also to handguns. I have come to see these things not as different, but as two sides of the same Buffalo nickel, hot and sweaty in all our palms, burning holes in our pockets until they find the perfect time to detonate.

I look up statistics as if numbers will give me solace or prove me wrong. 47,000 hand gun deaths a year; 52,000 heroin overdoses, to say nothing of the other ways drugs and drug cocktails kill us.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

My writing students from jails and prisons and rehab centers—even though they are disappearing, they keep writing their stories down, as if the ink will provide evidence once they’ve gone.

First, to themselves. Microscopically, imperceptibly. Only later do they disappear to those around them. The people who love us manage to find ways to glimpse the familiar even as our eyes become strangers in the mirror. No, first we disappear to ourselves.

Like Terra, who, when I met her, had never even visited a city. Who had never been outside rural Western Pennsylvania. When I met her at the county jail, she wrote pieces about not fitting into her housing unit. How all the other girls were talking about drugs—she’d smoked pot once in high school; it made her sick. In class, she rarely spoke in volumes above a whisper, and when she did she inevitably broke down in tears about how much she missed her children and her dog.

She stayed at county for two years. The last time I saw Terra she told me she’d married a man through a toilet bowl. I’d heard about this from staff—how the plumbing in the building allowed for makeshift telephones to the cells directly above and below one another; drain the water from the toilet bowl and thrust your head toward the bottom; project your voice. Or whisper. Make a love connection. Terra, in her new white-girl braids, told me proudly she’d found a new man who treated her like a queen. Her speech was full of Hilltop slang; she’d gotten a shitty tattoo of a rose and crossbones on her wrist. She bragged about making the best jail juice in the whole place.

There she was: disappeared.

When I use the bathrooms at the jail, at the prison, the mirrors are foggy, made of something other than glass. I assume for safety—something unbreakable, something that can’t splinter into shards. Looking into the distorted, gray, non-reflection, I imagine it might be easy to forget what I look like. To slowly become convinced that I am not full of specific detail—the new wrinkle I grimace at on my forehead. To forget the particular shade of hazel that names my eyes. Without truth staring back at me, I could so easily begin reflecting the faces around me instead of my own.

*     *     *

Here is how they disappear:

Into un-medicated freedom. Freedom that does not provide psychiatric care or follow-up visits or counseling. Freedom that depends on self-advocacy that is almost impossible.

Like Will. Will wrote poems about love. Long, winding, curlicue poems that professed the kind of love even fairy tales don’t claim is real.

And he wrote poems about a smashing kind of violence. Rip your teeth out violence. No one will recognize your face again violence.

Will was the teacher’s pet. Especially for an unexperienced teacher who often fumbled over her words, explained complicated ideas with even more confounding examples. I was a teacher who was grateful for the student who always had an answer, a comment, who raised his hand, always did the homework. Will never stopped smiling.

Once he asked me, “Is it possible to write something happy?”

I shrugged. “It must be,” I said, “but I don’t know how to do it.”

The next week I brought him the Romantics—the Byron and Blake poems that pontificated on the value of love above all else.

Will devoured them.

When he got out of county, he came to every literary event, attended each and every workshop we offered on campus, took the mic at all the readings. He brought his girlfriend, Precious. One night the love poem he recited was so amorous the audience thought he’d propose right then and there.

They broke up a few months later, and Will wrote about that, too. He asked me out on dates, and I said politely and firmly: no, no, another no, one more no.

The last time I heard from Will he sent me an email with a poem about broken promises and one more entreaty: “I could keep you warm,” he wrote. “Don’t keep yourself cold all winter.”

The truth is, if I’d met Will anywhere outside the county jail, I probably would have taken him up on his offer. He was handsome, and charming, and talented, and had strong shoulders. The truth is, I often changed clothes two or three times before I went to class when he was my student. I wanted to look nice. I wanted to stay within the dress code, but just within it. As the years went by, my strategies changed on this front, but in those first classes with Will, my body was a strategy that I was willing to employ as quick as a rubric or a great anthology. On so many nights, it seemed like all I had.

A week after that last email, Will took Precious into the woods behind her house and shot her. Then he drove to a cousin’s house and shot himself.

Will told me once that he knew it was wrong, but he was most stable in prison. “My psych meds are expensive, Sarah,” he’d said. “It’s not cheap to have psychosis.” He laughed when he told me this. Will was always in a good mood.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I am glad those are my memories of Will, glad I will always know the side of him that wanted proof that poets, too, could be happy. That we do not only put pen to paper in despair. And I am glad that I did not know Precious, as selfish or blind as that might seem. Because it is easier that my affection for Will not be complicated by affection for his dead girlfriend, for her children, for the violent ends.

And then, just like that: disappeared.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

In the mail.

Every few weeks, I get letters with “Department of Corrections” return addresses. The letters are dated six months, nine months previous. They are about events long since passed, requests now expired and thought to have been ignored.

I imagine the letters in a giant bin of mail, fading with their expensive stamps and standard-issue paper. What is a letter to do if it can’t be sent? It sits, becoming unlike itself, disconnecting its purpose from its physical presence—disappearing.

*     *     *

And here is how they disappear:

Out in the street, broad daylight, begging for change for a get-well bag.

Lisa jumps in and out of my life, mostly when she needs something. When I move out of my apartment, she comes in a borrowed truck for a twin mattress and some bookshelves.

I only knew Will in jail, on those expensive, stabilizing psych meds that let his brain smile and write poetry and read all of William Blake.

I see her on Liberty Avenue twice: once, she tells me she’s got a new waitressing job at Thai Cuisine. The next time, she says she’s staying under the Bloomfield Bridge, but she’s gonna get to a methadone clinic soon.

I see her at the Sunoco, catty-corner to the hipster bar, both of us buying cigarettes. She says she’s with her Pap, but when she jumps into the Chevy idling at a pump, he doesn’t look like anyone’s Pap I’ve ever met.

And then she texts, and says, “I fly a sign on the corner of Penn and Fifth Avenue most days. It’s a few blocks from Chatham. I always imagine I’ll see you drive by.”

Lisa was a full-time art teacher at the ritzy all-girls private school five years ago. She was married. Had two kids, then a third. But her baby was born with a rare genetic heart condition. Long QT Syndrome. When she tells the story at the rehab center where I meet her teaching a creative writing class, I gasp.

She looks up from her paper. “I know,” she says, “it’s sad.”

“It is,” I say. “But I know Long QT.”

Lisa looks back, shocked, because most people, most doctors even, don’t know about Long QT. “How?” she asks.

I tell the story of my boyfriend who died next to me in a movie theater, almost twenty years ago now. Long QT, we found out, a year later.

After her baby died, suddenly and in the crib, she started taking pain killers. Five years later, she’s on a street corner two blocks from her old teaching job, begging for change to pay her dope dealer.

She looks like a dead person.

When I see her, after the text, I drive her home. She’s still managed to keep the little house she bought in Larimer before the divorce and the drugs and the looking like a dead person. How she’s held onto it, I don’t know. Maybe a mom, some generous aunt, maybe her ex-husband keeps paying the mortgage. I buy us Thai food—green curry and thick noodles with syrupy brown gravy that I know she is too sick to eat. Her house is immaculately clean. Her paintings hang on every square inch of wall space. But it smells like dope seeping out of sick skin—a smell I wonder if I’ll ever really know how to find the precise words for.

I called my boyfriend before I went to pick her up. “I’m not going to give her money,” I said.

“Try to find something specific you can help her with,” he told me. “Ask her if she has an ID. She needs a current ID to get into a clinic.”

It turns out she does need an ID, but more than that, she needs dope, because we both know she’s not going to drag herself to the DMV or Public Health sick. I give her $60.

I know it’s probably wrong, but sometimes, I justify to myself, people just need someone to be kind to them even when they’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes you need someone to help you get well without judging you for being sick. I remember all the times I was dope-sick. How humongous the kindness of strangers seemed, how powerful, when everyone crossed the street to avoid me coming. I still remember a woman who gave me her Yoplait at a bus stop; the nurse who quietly brought me a pencil during detox so I could write on the scraps of paper I’d found; the generous regulars at the bar who could look at me and tell I hadn’t had my medicine for the day, would just slip me a $20 before they’d even finished their first beer. These people live in an outsized glory in my memory. They are the heroes who saw me as human.

And so, $60.

The next night I get a text message that Lisa has overdosed in the parking lot of the Onala Club during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

There. Disappeared.

When I went to Lisa’s house, I could feel the insides of my own body slowly and serenely disappearing. I was still a body, but where my person was, I don’t know. I was leaving my present-Sarah, and replacing her with five, six, seven different versions of me. I was a college administrator—responding phenomenally poorly to what was, in some sense, a work situation. And I was a woman in recovery, who wasn’t going to flinch at a little dope-sickness and desperation. I was a writer—and yes, now it’s material. And I was a teacher, and I was also a junkie.

What percentage of me went to Lisa’s house because I knew it was a place where maybe I, too, could get high? What percentage of me wanted to save the day, and get credit for it? And what percentage of me wanted to gaze at the disaster of a woman disappearing in front of me, and be grateful that I had somehow been spared? Gotten out almost scot-free.

Some of me was fifteen, and some of me was twenty-eight, and some of me was thirty-five, but at Lisa’s house, I remembered why, in some part, I keep going back to these places and meeting the people who share their stories with me. I felt it. I felt the draw of being a disappeared person, the syrupy allure of fading into a square of wax paper, a thumbprint of black tar. The seduction, the power to say: Here I am, but now, watch me, I’m gone. I am my own magic trick. Done disappeared.


Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been widely produced. She is cofounder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. She is a 2017-2018 fellow at Santa Fe Art Institute’s Social Justice initiative, and teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University.