I found out about Melissa’s death on Dec. 15, 10 days before Christmas. I found out while purchasing Christmas cards at the Walgreens on Madison Avenue in Covington, Kentucky. A friend of hers named Amy — who’s a prostitute just like Melissa was — told me about it. On that day, Amy was looking for Christmas cards too.
Melissa died of ovarian cancer. Amy told me Melissa learned about her illness in the early summer. She had no health insurance and the money she was making on the streets by selling her body went toward her heroine addiction. We all make choices in life, and one of Melissa’s was to continue with her preferred drug rather than save her own life.
As Amy was talking, going into details of Melissa’s death, I went into some kind of shock. I couldn’t listen to what Amy was saying. The last time I saw Melissa, she seemed OK to me. How could this have happened so quickly?
I’ve written about Melissa here before, met her when I first moved to Covington in the summer of 2011. We even lived in the same building for a short period of time. She was a pretty woman — tall and thin with short brown hair. I think she told me once she was 50 years old, but she didn’t look it. Just looking at her, you would guess maybe she was in her mid thirties.
Melissa never made a secret of what she was about. I don’t think she was proud of being a prostitute but she told me it was the only way of life she knew.
We had an odd relationship. She got banned from Walgreens a few times, and when I would run into her, she’d give me money to go inside the store and buy cigarettes. Sometimes when she requested this, she’d be high on heroine but pretended like she wasn’t, then other times she’d be completely honest about it. She told me once she needed $200 a day to keep her habit going.
She told me she had 10 kids but wasn’t much of a mother — her words, not mine. She hadn’t seen any of them in years, but she knew all their names, their birthdays and current ages. I could tell she was proud of them even if they weren’t, perhaps, proud of her.
Sometimes Melissa needed money, and I would loan her a few bucks from time to time. She usually paid me back, but sometimes she’d forget. I think the heroine addiction played with her memory.
She could me moody — sometimes hugging me when she would see me on the street and other times acting like she didn’t even know who I was. This probably had something to do with the heroine, too.
Standing there in Walgreens after Amy stopped talking, I thanked her for telling me about Melissa’s death. I purchased a box of Christmas cards without really looking at what I was getting, paid for it and then walked home, sobbing the whole way.
I knew Melissa’s last name — or at least a name she told me — and went online looking for information on her death. I found nothing, of course, and it’s just as well. I don’t know what I would have done; don’t think I would have gone to her funeral.
I find myself thinking about Melissa’s children now and wonder what memories they’ll have of their mother. Did they love her? Will they miss her?
In trying to think back to the last time I saw Melissa, I know it had to be in the late summer or early fall. She had to know she was sick when I saw her, had to know she was dying, but still she acted like nothing was wrong and was still out there on the streets giving men what they wanted, selling her body. What was going through her mind when she was doing this? I don’t think I want to know.
I can’t change anything. It is what it is. I know the attitude of some of the people who live here in Covington. Melissa was just another prostitute and addict and they’re a dime a dozen around here. She’ll just be replaced by another one. Nothing I’m going to write is going to change that way of thinking.
I’m not going to forget her. I’ll remember Melissa with respect. I’ll remember those laughs we shared together and her honesty about her heroine addiction. It just so totally helped fuck up her life. I’m sad and I’m so sorry about it.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]