by Kate Senecal
Nina Simone is a gray pitbull, just barely three they say. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Claire, who is three months home from her first stint in rehab, and two years away from a night when her heart will stop for five minutes and thirty-two seconds, demands that she leave the shelter with us, that we name her after her dead mother’s heroine. I say yes because I’m just a father. I need some kind of help. Much of this must be my fault.
Nina Simone is cute—an arrangement of soft wrinkles, soft devotion, and need. Felt-like and warm, she’s an emblem of stormy vulnerability, reminiscent of a pile of artful rocks. Claire loves her more than me. This is fine because when Claire slumps over in her chair, when her lips bloom blue, she gets saved because Nina insists on it—barks until someone gets the Narcan.
Nina Simone won’t swim, but will prance in the water. She smiles in her sleep, sighs like a human. I ask her every day, “Is she OK?” She huffs at me, and while I can’t be sure, I take this to mean yes, yes Claire is OK. The problem with Claire is, has always been, that her empathy meter is dialed to something like ten thousand. Her other problem is that mine is not.
After her second time in rehab, because there’s no more heroin but there is Suboxone, Claire gets and keeps a job at a clothing store, does yoga. Claire gets new, sober friends and a round body with no edges; becomes an emblem of stormy vulnerability, a pile of artful rocks. Then there are long days, months, years of just me and Nina Simone while Claire is on dates, while Claire is twenty-one and always working. Then she’s twenty-five with her own apartment.
Now Nina Simone’s fourteen, too old for a new home. Claire’s talking about wanting to “be clean, like for real clean.” Nina Simone sleeps with me, felty head under my armpit; walks the woods with me, wades in water—no prancing but no less glory. Old and happy, she’s winding down. I ask everyone “How will I know it’s time?” and they say what’s most unhelpful, what’s most true: “You’ll just know.”
Claire and I make a plan for weaning off the Suboxone, and because she’s now a business owner, for weeks she doesn’t visit. Nina Simone pines, sleeps more, is waning. The last day of Suboxone, Claire comes home. Nina does one prance in the stream, runs a lap in the yard, and she and Claire lie on the rug, heads, paws touching for hours or minutes—a long time. At dusk, Claire’s gone home. It’s pink outside, and through the window I watch Nina Simone flop in the grass, a pile of artful rocks. She sighs and is gone with the sun.
Kate Senecal has been an editor or teacher for Storychord, Writers for Recovery, Grub Street, and UMass Amherst, and is the Assistant Director of Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop. She received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train in 2019, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her fiction has appeared at The Laurel Review, The Foundling Review, and Storychord.com. She holds an MFA from VCFA.