Like Saline and Sugar

Cover of Like Saline and Sugar

We said yes.

Six days on eight-hundred acres northwest of Laramie, Wyoming. Ida spoke of horses and untainted air, a kind of stillness she said we couldn’t imagine—one without the pollution of suburban life, the dust and lethargy of another Ohio summer. She called it a spiritual detox.

But we never got near the horses.

When she invited us at the beginning of June, we were all still teachers, and we said, Okay, Ida. Fine. The land belonged to her grandfather. She must have seen the neediness humming inside all of us.

Sammy had a newly diagnosed thyroid problem and doctors who wouldn’t listen to her. Nick kept saying he wasn’t sure about his husband anymore, and his face rearranged itself into tight, focused expressions while he talked to me about routine and memory and safety. James—his mother died that spring.

I had nothing. No dog. No cat. No partner. No old friends to invite to a matinee and share beers with inside the cool recess of my favorite restaurant, measuring exactly how we’ve changed and how we’ve stayed the same. I had a family who mailed gift cards on my birthday but otherwise didn’t bother. I was one week into weaning myself off a generic SNRI without informing my physician. At night, I soaked the bed with sweat while an accordion shutter of electricity ran up my spine.

The last weeks of the school year unraveled in a haze, the hallways humid, the free season pushing in on us and giving the students a flush in the cheeks. They wore smiles on their faces, and we let them keep smiling. I dismissed late assignments and allowed interruptions. Ignored wandering eyes during exams.

I wasn’t alone. I could hear Nick down the hallway playing the same Bob Dylan songs for his AP history class. His students came out bobbing their heads, a twang to their voices, singing. In her classroom, Sammy rolled out the TV. History Channel recordings played on a loop while she scrolled through medical chat rooms, saving screenshots she’d show me on our walk to the faculty parking lot. James leaned over his desk, reenacting scenes from that year’s reading list. He kept his classroom door open, his voice lowered to a sonorous stupor as he became Colonel Kurtz. The syrup drip of his speech expanded into the hallways.

None of us took it seriously enough. Except for Ida.

Next to the cafeteria, Ida’s classroom smelled of bleach and burnt grease. She’d crank open the windows each morning, Nick and I passing by her door, waving, eyes thrown wide by the hypnotic neatness of her classroom. Color-coded bookshelves, endless rows of labeled bins, and poster boards with lists of rules. Neon permanent markers and drawings of animals on the chalkboard, math equations in speech bubbles. She used sticker charts for her seventeen-year-old students, gave them stars for a job well done.

Ida lived in a gated apartment complex with two cats, all slick, gray fur and emerald eyes. She always had what she called a side hustle—varying multi-level marketing schemes that would earn her a luxury SUV and a vacation in the Maldives. The canvas tote bag she carried into the high school each morning had GIRL BOSS stretched across the side.

Nick called her positivity toxic.

Before winter break that year, she’d gifted me a book on feminine energy that read like neatly repackaged sexism. She’d been a long-term substitute in the mathematics department until the school district hired her.

What did we really know of Ida, or the wide silent stretches of Wyoming?



We arrived on a Friday, nine days after the high school locked its doors.

The expanse of land caught us, stitching reverence across our faces. I’d never experienced distance like that—the forever stretch of horizon without the interruption of a city block or strip mall or mountain range. All green and green and green, a new shade I didn’t have a name for. A color that moved, that shifted and blew sideways with the wind.

We stayed in prefab trailers, fat white boxes like shipping containers where Ida said the farm crews lived for three months each year. In the clearing beyond these temporary accommodations: a picnic bench; the circular char of past bonfires; an unfinished shed, rotted and leaning.

That first night, we sat outside eating bloody roast beef sandwiches and drinking plastic cups of wine and vodka and rum.

“I understand it’s not cancer,” Sammy was saying. “But I’m tired all the time, and I’m hungry constantly.”

“But you’ve seen the doctor,” Nick said. “So, you’re going to be fine. It’s being handled.”

This was Nick’s favorite phrase. It’s being handled. I’d witnessed him saying this to his husband, Matt, over and over again—when Matt pointed out the dishes piling up in the sink or the late mortgage payments, the car running out of gas on the interstate or the refrigerator door left open.

“I knew something was wrong, but no one would listen to me,” she continued. “You know I had to push for the blood tests? My doctor didn’t want to order them. He told me I was just depressed.”

Nick didn’t answer. He was drunk, and he kept asking about the location of the nearest grocery store. He wanted to buy beer.

“I’ll take a truck to the nearest bar,” he said. “Don’t you have trucks here? There are always tons of vehicles on farms like this. This is a working farm, isn’t it? It looks like a working farm.”

“No grocer or bar anywhere near here,” James answered for Ida. “Relax.”

“I’ll take any car,” Nick said. “I need beer.”

“Can you just shut up?” James smacked at a bug on his forearm with near violence. “Be grateful you’re here.”

He’d been quiet all night, his eyes steady on Ida, watching her as she moved around our little campground. At school, he sat in her classroom during their shared prep period and followed her down the hallways, smitten.

“Seriously,” Nick said. “What are we doing here? What do you have planned for this little getaway?”

Ida drew her mouth flat while Nick cracked his knuckles, repeatedly moving up and down both hands. Although it looked like an anxious gesture, I knew better. He was feeling playful.

“Are we going to run naked into some freezing stream or something?” Sammy asked. “What did you mean exactly by a spiritual detox? You going to baptize us in some creek?”

“No,” Ida said. “I have a surprise.”

She ground her boots into the smooth dirt beneath us then kicked at a hollow log, its bark diseased and peeling. When she pressed her lips together, I knew she was thinking, formulating her sentences. Calculating. I’d seen her make this same face when students challenged her.

“We have a lot of complaints,” she said, finally. “Sammy’s thyroid. James and his cigarettes. Nick and his bad back. He comes into school saying he can’t walk, that his hip is out of alignment.” She snapped her head to the left and stared at me. “Catherine—you and your constant moping. It’s pathetic.”

“Are you going to whip out some vitamins?” Nick asked. “Some sort of powdered concoction? If you wanted to sell us some pyramid scheme bullshit, you could have messaged us all online.”

She’d tried to sell us things before—supplement subscription packages and special SPF that would also reduce free radicals and blue light and adult acne; a tea we were to drink every morning for fat reduction; packets to shake into our water, to ward off cancer and clean the sludge she said ran through all of us.

“We’ve got this plant—” Ida began.

“Here comes the pitch,” Nick said.

She ignored him and spread her fingers wide, waving them like tentacles. She told us about the fields in the northern acreage. They contained a plant she compared to ginkgo biloba and valerian root, ashwagandha and lemon balm.

I was familiar. I’d tried them all. Fat capsules from the natural health food store, eighty-dollar bottles of pills promising calm. None of them worked. The lavender rolled onto my pillow each night. Sleep hypnosis for the overly analytical mind. Pinching specific sections of my body until the pain turned to burning turned to nothing at all.

“The field out there is ripe with them,” Ida said. “About an hour’s walk that way.” She pointed towards the tall grasses that bled into clumps of scorched weeds.

James pulled his cellphone from his back pocket and poked at the screen. He thrust it at each of our faces, making his way around the circle. A photograph. A leaning stem, flat and thick. It looked like aloe but with brilliant blue flowers. Something gorgeous and unreal about them.

“A superfood,” he said. “Think of it like that, only better.”

“We’ll go out tomorrow,” Ida said. “I’ll show you.”

“So, this is a drug?” Sammy asked. “Do we smoke it? Do we get high? You’re making us your guinea pigs?”

Ida shook her head. “No. My family has been harvesting this plant for years. They’ve been distributing it locally for the past year, but I’m going to help them expand. There’s going to be a real big market for it.”

She and James sat back down in the pliable canvas chairs they’d arranged around the fire. He kept offering to refill her drink and turning to check the expression on her face like a nervous mother retaking a child’s temperature. Later that night, we would hear them fucking, the windows of his trailer open, her voice a strained repetition of his name.

Nick walked off to piss behind the half-built shed, but we could see his back clearly through the slats of wood. When he stumbled and almost fell, I reflexively hopped up from my seat and went to him. He told me he missed Matt, asked me how anyone was ever supposed to stay with anyone else when everyone changes all the time. The words started and stopped—slow, dense streams of language then jumbled pulses of vowels and consonants. He got tangled up in his own thoughts, kept repeating them.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. I had no advice to offer. I was without experience in anything that lasted, without much more than a series of stops and starts.

“I just don’t think I like him anymore. I love him, but I don’t think I like him.”

Matt was so thoroughly handsome that it made him unattractive. I told Nick this last summer during a party at their house. I called Matt’s flawlessness unsexy, but Nick only laughed, kissed me on the cheek. He invited me to every dinner, every lunch. Asked me to sit with him at his favorite coffee shop while he graded essays. He knew I was lonely.

For the rest of the night, James and Sammy and Ida huddled in conversation while Nick became sleepy in his inebriation. I pulled my chair closer to the fire, my hair and clothes washed in the smoke of it. The medication withdrawal was still pulsing in my limbs, setting my jaw on edge. With it came an internal shaking in my chest, a skittish clawing up my neck not unlike the buzz from too much caffeine. The lighting spark in my skull like a hot vibration. I was down to one 37.5 mg capsule snapped open and divided. I’d pour the beads into applesauce or yogurt. Or simply onto my tongue.

The prescription had been great, until it wasn’t. I’d grown agitated, unable to handle the slightest interruption or difficulty. I was starving, cold. Could not concentrate. No ambition.

I had what my primary care physician called a social disorder that bordered on agoraphobia. I can still see those neat little diagnostic codes on the paperwork. So simplified and tidy. I only scheduled an appointment with her after I walked out of the high school one afternoon, abandoning my classroom. We’d just had our fifth active shooter drill of the school year, and it broke one of my students. I held her sobbing head against my chest, her saliva and snot coating her hair and my arm.

I was reprimanded for this behavior. I was to remain “strong.”

Now, in Wyoming, I felt even weaker, my body trying to crawl away from itself. I’d expected the stars to be brighter, larger, but they were a thousand tiny pinpoints of light. I heard a yelping off in the distance, some animal calling out or growling, and the occasional yowling of barn cats. They floated to us in a chorus each night. Otherwise, even the whip and crack of the fire had nothing to echo against.


Ida woke us at five a.m. and served us percolator coffee and venison sausages. She pulled rubber boots over thick white socks and warned us to wear pants. She gave us jugs of water and sunscreen, smiling her veneer smile at us. Her usual long acrylic nails had been chewed off, leaving stubs of gluey wax.

We walked for nearly two hours.

The horses did appear, as promised, deep-chested blotches of tan and brown on the horizon. Sammy asked if we could walk to them, if they were friendly. Could we stroke their long necks? She told us she’d never been on a horse. Her mother had been on the circuit, riding professionally, but got three bad concussions and didn’t let her children near them.

Ida said no.

And then we came to the field of those tiny blue flowers. Blue forever. Miniature bursts of crystalline azure until the whole field resembled a roving wave in the deep sea. A smell in the air like saline and sugar.

She stopped us, pulled a thermos from her backpack, and distributed a tannic liquid. She told us each to take three sips. We listened. She watched us swallow.

An hour. That’s how long it would take to feel the effects, which would then last another twelve. She told us our minds would be free of all their current obsessions.

While we waited, she showed us how to pluck the flat stem from the ground, to separate the flowers. It needed to be boiled, combined with other things—a recipe she would not share.

“You brought us out here to help you manufacture drugs?” Nick asked, disbelief flattening his face. He was tired, his dark leg hair coated in sweat.

“No,” Ida said. “Never. I wanted to show you the fields and give you your first taste. This is going to change your life. Now, go explore. Meet back here in an hour.”


Nick and I walked away from the group and towards a dense patch of woods where the grass thickened and the air cleared, the cornmeal-colored dust that had floated through the fields disappearing.

“Do you feel anything?” I asked Nick.

“No. You?”

I told him no, but I did feel something—the return of the panic that accompanied every moment in which I stood outside the familiar safety of my home. It had been coming on slowly with the elimination of the medication, a creeping unease that settled in my belly like a hard stone. My own arms looked too long; my eyes unfamiliar in the mirror. I had the sense that I had awakened in a different timeline, some trick of physics. Now my own body and Nick’s laugh and the way the sun put a gold haze on the summer morning seemed the same but with some minor alteration I could not name.

We continued to walk, the temperature rising, hot air steaming off the dirt and hugging my skin. Nick stayed a few feet ahead, talking about bees. He pointed to patches of clover, kept talking. And after twenty minutes, he went silent.

He turned, a swift and perfect whipping of his head and body.

“Now?” he asked me.


All at once. An energy like a net casting itself over my head, a gridwork of electricity pricking at each follicle on my scalp. That scent of saline and sugar sliding into my nose, pulling me.

We turned.

We walked back to the fields.

No high. No levity. No lying flat on our backs, feeling the grass between our fingers. No stoner’s dream of quiet contemplation. No blood-pulsing rush. No delusions of grandiose self-importance. No meaningless laughter. Not even the hammering momentum of too much caffeine.

No mindless glut of joy that comes from the body forgetting itself.

Only this: memory.

On the first day with the plant inside me, I remembered everything. But it was more than remembering. I lived it all again, experiencing the past as if in the present tense, the conscious mind numb to the real moment.

As Nick and I returned to the group in silence, I could recall every second of Christmas at sixteen, the pine sap flooding my parents’ living room as my father refilled his scotch glass. The spring when I lived in my grandmother’s house to escape the shouting, her musty basement where I flipped my head upside down to wash the dye from my hair in her utility tub. The old paint peeling off the cans stacked in the corner, the moth fluttering against the bare bulb. My mother being asked to change her outfit. My father’s hand on the small of her back, pushing her into the bedroom. His hands searching for a makeup wipe in the vanity drawer. Spreading the wet, white cloth across her mouth.

I remembered how a smack distills itself against high ceilings and how a thumping fist sounds against drywall. How the words pathetic and nag and whore echo down hallways.

When we reached the group, Sammy was holding a stem, its slick moisture curdling in her hand. Sweat along her forehead, soaking into her headband. Ida placed a single petal on her tongue.


In the morning, our bellies ached, our pulses jumped up and up.

We were nauseous, ravenous. Everyone wanted more, except me.

Nick had once again experienced the insatiable days of early lust, early love. With the plant pulsing through him, he saw Matt as someone new. James’ mother returned to him. Sammy found herself as she was before sickness, before the exhaustion.

But I only found an endless feedback loop of pain. If it weren’t for this new withdrawal making me vomit outside my trailer at five a.m., I would have refused another drop.

That third morning, Ida fed us, gave us each a canteen. We drank.

We drank, and we remembered, and in the remembering we were distracted. Sammy and Nick and James wore the slackened expressions of people living again in their memories. A place before regret, before pain.

But not everyone desires sedation in the form of nostalgia.

We passed the night by the fire. Asked no further questions. But while we ate, Ida worked with a pestle and mortar, creating a mash of stem and petal. She boiled the mixture, adding in salt and clear droppers of fluids I could not name.

Nick no longer spoke of disliking Matt, and Sammy no longer complained of her physical pains, no longer asked me to check her pulse or look at the odd skin tag on her back. We ate dinner in silence and went to our trailers at dusk. Each morning, we were sick again.

This became our routine.


What if I say we survived it?

We did—Sammy and Nick and me.

On our sixth and final day, Ida offered us each five plastic bags of pills, the plant and its flowers powdered and stuffed inside empty gelatin capsules.

“I’m not doing this again,” I said. “I’m not taking them.” I moved to give the bags back to her, but she lifted a hand against it.

“You will,” she said. “At some point in your future, you’ll want them. Keep them safe. Offer them, discreetly, to your closest friends. Doesn’t everyone deserve a little break from reality? You’ll be doing them a kindness. And when you run out, promise them that you’ll get more. You never know when you’ll want to return to some past self, a more tolerable state of affairs. Everyone eventually wants to go back.”

As if she’d had a premonition, as if she knew my life might someday light itself on fire.

James drove us to the airport, speeding down the gravel drive and past fields spotted with steers. They chewed and ambled just like the animals I saw back home in Ohio—slow rotating gestures with a vague look of robotic satisfaction flashing in their eyes.

Sammy and Nick sat in the backseat with their fingers creeping into the plastic void, plucking out three capsules each and swallowing them. They became ill, vomiting into the decorative landscaping rocks in front of tiny Laramie Regional Airport and throughout each of our two connecting flights.

Neither Ida nor James returned with us.

Back in Ohio, Nick did not call me, and so I did not call him. Sammy and I didn’t speak for the rest of the summer. I suspected they were lost to the past, wholly outside the present. I avoided the pills, thankful for my loneliness. Thankful for my stretch of solitary days. Thankful to have escaped all that had come before.

I began carrying those Laramie days like a switchblade. A slide of the thumb, a flick of the wrist: I could pull the memory of my past out effortlessly. Mother. Father. Violence.

I thought of what Ida said—that at some point I’d want to lose myself to some happy or pleasant past, some acceptable status quo. But, I had escaped the soft pulp my father might’ve made of my life. Wasn’t it a miracle to be OK? To be alive?

A tolerable state of affairs. Wasn’t I living it?

Yes, I was living it.



Share this