Water by the Spoonful


Quiara Alegría Hughes

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Water by the Spoonful Summary

Elliot (a Puerto Rican American and injured Iraq war veteran) eats breakfast with his cousin Yaz (a newly-divorced musician) in the cafeteria at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where Yaz is a professor. One of Yaz’s fellow professors arrives, whom Elliot has requested to translate an Arabic phrase that has been stuck in his head for years. The professor notes that Elliot was in the marines and has aspirations to be an actor and gives him the contact information for a friend who is directing a war film and needs a consultant. After Elliot takes the phone number, the professor tells him that the phrase loosely translates to, “Can I please have my passport back?”

Sitting in her living room, Odessa, Elliot’s biological mother, logs onto an internet forum for recovering crack addicts, which she administrates under the moniker Haikumom. The forum’s two other current members, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders, log on as well. Orangutan has not checked in for three months and reveals that she has moved to Japan to teach English, where she was born before being adopted by Americans. Haikumom and Chutes&Ladders are relieved, having been worried about Orangutan in her absence, but Orangutan declares that she finally feels like a normal person and is happy and functional.

Elliot is at work at a Subway restaurant, trying to ignore the Ghost that constantly appears and stares at him while repeating the Arabic phrase the professor translated. Yaz is teaching her students about dissonance in jazz music. They are both notified that Mami Ginny, Elliot’s aunt whom he considers to be his real mom since she raised him, is in the hospital on a breathing machine, about to die. Elliot breaks a mirror at work in anger, and Yaz comes to pick him up and take him to the hospital.

On the forum, a new member who calls himself Fountainhead makes his introduction. Fountainhead writes a long-winded, arrogant biography of himself as a wealthy entrepreneur with a fancy sports car and beautiful family. He admits that he is addicted to crack but insists he’s not a real addict, since it’s only a psychological issue for him, and he has come to the “experts” to learn their tips for not smoking crack. When he is done, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders viciously mock Fountainhead for his egotism, causing Fountainhead to log off without a response.

Together, Elliot and Yaz sit in a flower shop to avoid their families and pick a funeral arrangement for Mami Ginny. They commiserate Mami Ginny’s death and worry that without her there is no strong, central figure to lead the family and hold things together anymore. Watching the florist at work, Elliot and Yaz ponder what a “normal” life—one not filled with funeral and arrests—is like. Yaz reflects on how the normal life she built for herself (through her career and marrying into a white family) left her feeling conflicted about her identity and even ashamed of her Puerto Rican heritage. Elliot tries to move her away from her self-blame, but cannot, so they order the flowers and leave.

On the forum, Orangutan confides to Chutes&Ladders that she feels alone, empty, disconnected from the world with no real “flesh-and-blood” relationships in her life. She asks Chutes&Ladders to come visit her in-person in Japan, but he is wary of the idea, afraid of unpredictability and worried that Orangutan will be disappointed by who he actually is. However, Haikumom sees their conversation and tells Chutes&Ladders that he should consider it. As they are chatting, Fountainhead reappears, telling the group that he relapsed the day before, though he still maintains that he only has a psychological problem with crack, not a full-blown physiological addiction. However, Chutes&Ladders badgers him relentlessly until Fountainhead breaks down and finally admits to being a “crackhead” at which point the group accepts him into their good graces.

Odessa and John (Fountainhead) meet for coffee and talk about addiction and recovery, where John admits that he lied initially and has actually been a daily crack user for two years. As they are speaking, Yaz and Elliot show up, angry at Odessa for not paying for her share of the flowers for Mami Ginny’s funeral. Odessa is uncharacteristically combative with them, and Elliot obviously despises her. Although Yaz and Odessa try to stop him, Elliot tells John about how Odessa caused her own daughter and Elliot’s sister’s death when they were little through negligence caused by her crack addiction. Odessa is shamed, and after John leaves, tells Yaz and Elliot to pawn off her computer and use that money to help pay for flowers.

When Yaz and Elliot go to Odessa’s house to retrieve her computer, Elliot finds the forum open and talks briefly with Orangutan, who reveals that she knows Elliot himself was addicted to pain pills when he was in a military hospital and overdosed three times. This is news to Yaz, and she is furious at Elliot for never telling her or allowing her to help. Elliot lets slip that the Ghost started appearing during that time, but when Yaz presses, Elliot begs her to never ask him about it again, pulls the cords out of the computer, and leaves with it.

Later, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders are chatting again on the forum. Orangutan is excited to tell Chutes&Ladders that she is about to try to meet her birth mother, but Chutes&Ladders warns her not to, recounting his own rejection by his son and the pain that caused him as well as the drug relapse. Chutes&Ladders’ lack of enthusiasm frustrates and angers Orangutan, who just wants to live a real life. She is so embittered that she threatens to never speak to Chutes&Ladders again and declares that she’ll still go look for her real mother. After she logs off, Chutes&Ladders is so upset that he trashes his work office. However, Orangutan cannot bring herself to board the train to go look for her mother, and she falls asleep on the platform. At the same time, Chutes&Ladders sells his car so he can buy a plane ticket to Japan.

Yaz and Elliot conduct the funeral for Mami Ginny. Shortly after, when they are unable to get ahold of Odessa, they kick her front door in and find Odessa unconscious on the floor, having overdosed—her first time using crack again after six years of sobriety. Elliot is enraged, nearly walking out. Yaz holds Odessa’s body as they wait for the ambulance and has a brief vision of a shaft of light descending from above with Odessa floating in it. As she is having her vision, she tells Odessa that she can pass on if she needs to, and tells Elliot that he must forgive his biological mom.

After three days of silence, Orangutan logs back onto the forum and finds Chutes&Ladders waiting for her. She feels like a failure since she did not have the courage to get on the train, but her mood is quickly brightened when Chutes&Ladders tells her that he is coming to see her in Japan in only a few days. As they are chatting excitedly, Fountainhead logs on from a hospital computer and tells them that Haikumom has overdosed and he is there with her in the hospital, since she listed him as her emergency contact and no family has shown up. Chutes&Ladders makes Fountainhead promise he will stay with Odessa until she is out of the hospital and safely in rehabilitation.

From a hotel room in Puerto Rico, where Yaz and Elliot have travelled to spread Mami Ginny’s ashes, Yaz introduces herself on the forum and asks if the forum members will allow her to operate in Haikumom’s place. Elliot is upset that she is on the forum at all, but they quickly decide to leave for the waterfall where Mami Ginny asked to be laid to rest. Yaz goes to the hotel lobby to make a phone call and as soon as she has left, the Ghost appears. Rather than ignore it, Elliot fights with it, wrestling until the Ghost gets hold of his wallet, which he frantically searches through. When the Ghost does not find what he is searching for, he touches Elliot’s face, freezing him in place, and gently but confidently explores every feature of his countenance.

In Odessa’s bathroom, John helps her bathe and prepares her to be checked in to rehab. In a Japanese airport, Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders meet in person for the first time, embracing and telling each other their real names. In Puerto Rico, Yaz and Elliot throw Mami Ginny’s ashes over the waterfall together. Yaz reveals to Elliot that she has decided to move back to their home neighborhood, buy Mami Ginny’s house, and become the new head of the family and hold their community together. Meanwhile, Elliot has decided to move to Los Angeles and pursue his dream of being an actor, needing an escape from their family and its vices.