“Love is never better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe.” —Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
The winter I move back to my hometown—, degree-bearing, jobless, staying at mom’s—I’m remembering why I left in the first place: frozen seatbelt buckles, boarded up buildings, graying piles of snow. I avoided so much so well for so long. But here I am.
Asking my best friend Reyna where to get good weed. I guess she isn’t my best friend anymore. I guess you could say we lost touch.
I moved away, studied languages, paid my own rent, learned how to roast a chicken. She stayed here, studied pharmacology, met a cute boy in rehab, moved him in to her parents’ basement.
They’re doctors, her parents, and they’ve always had a well-stocked medicine cabinet. I know this because Reyna and I repeatedly took advantage of it in high school. Not to mention Patrick’s steadily refreshed, badly hidden jar of medical-grade bud.
I should go and see them—Patrick and Paul. For a while in high school, it looked like they would adopt me like they’d adopted Reyna twenty-two years ago, taking me with their families on dinners and even a family trip to Puerto Rico.
Reyna texts me: YOUR BACK BITCH? When can we kick it? Got u on trees. My dude’s address—
I know that address; it’s on the South Side, on that block where people keep getting shot. I don’t want to go along. Come, I say.
She’s busy. With Shawn, I guess. She met him after Patrick convinced her to get inpatient treatment for alcohol and Oxys. Shawn was court-ordered there, not voluntary like Reyna — Shawn stole people’s sound systems from their cars for crack.
I don’t want to judge. They’re in recovery together. This is one version of love.
Four thirty in the afternoon and the sun’s already down. I park in a dark, deserted lot, just one distant lamppost illuminating the dirty snow banks. I think, it’s good that it’s winter–more crimes happen when it’s hot. I see men out front of the buildings shrouded in black parkas and smoke.
I think, I’m being a pussy. Then I think, But what’s so bad about being a pussy? What if being a pussy is the right thing in this situation; what if being a pussy means being a wise, discerning person?
But the building entrance is near, and I haven’t smoked weed in two days, and I can sense a sweet, skunky draft cutting through the cold air…
Inside: mold in between the floor tiles, smell of piss, broke-down elevator. Stairwell with two giant bags of exploded trash at the landing. Please no rats; please no rats! Just the thought calls to mind all the tiny rodents I’ve indirectly, inhumanely killed over the years, living in the city. I wish I could have been the kind of person to cage the mice and let them free in the park. Or hit them with a baseball bat. Or break their tiny skulls with the stomp of a boot. Instead, I set sticky traps, let their little paws get stuck in glue. How they try to wriggle free and only get more stuck, belly down, limbs splayed out as if they’ve slipped on ice. How they meet their fate, suffocating in a black plastic bag that smells like old deli sandwiches.
I make it to the door, no rats.
“What up,” says the guy who opens the door.
“Hi. I’m Reyna’s friend,” I say.
“Got a name?”
His apartment is huge. Plush white rugs, leather couches, a TV the size of the wall. He invites me inside. I hesitate—he’s a stranger, and what do I look like? Mixed girl, winter-pale, brown North Face parka, furry boots.
This Adrian. He’s on the couch, looking at me, holding out a bong. Not just any bong—a double-chambered ice bong. Adrian has no shirt on, and I stare at his chest, pretending to admire the bong. He hands it to me; I sit close to him. “I can’t stand holding it, it’s too heavy,” I say. I inhale more than I should, trying to show off. I feel my lungs absorbing, absorbing.
It’s one of those hits — you know those hits — when your chest clenches, your eyes roll back, you’re paralyzed for a moment …
And then it comes. You’re the kid swinging the highest, rising, leaning back against a rush of cool air, coming up fast and dizzy.
“You straight?” Adrian asks. I open my eyes wide, trying to make my facial expression normal. But I can feel the dumb look spreading over my face. He’s watching me. He’s not laughing—not yet at least.
His eyes follow my movements, observing me as if assessing the right moment to pounce. I feel like I can see his mind working; it makes me think I know him.
Adrian goes on and on about the weed we’re smoking—Cali, medical grade. He knows everything, down to the county where it was grown. ”Weed is like fine wine these days,” Adrian notes, fingertips to his lips. “Think they got weed tours?”
I laugh—it’s not all that funny, but I was thinking the same thing, imagining fields of purple-hued flowers.
I slip him my number, he slips me an eighth.
I do things I’ve been told not to do: sleep with him on the first date (dollar beers, fifty-cent wings), send half a dozen messages at a time, joke about how pretty our babies will be.
“No one will know what they are,” he says. He’s dark skinned with narrow, pretty eyes. He tells me his Chinese grandfather was a migrant worker in Jamaica, and that’s how he got those pretty eyes and his last name, Chin. I dream of us together in my romanticized version of his island’s colonial past, eating pineapple in the tree shade of a stifling hot day.
I start driving him to work at the hotel in the evenings–he works at the concierge there. We smoke a blunt, his third or fourth of the day. He looks so good in that hotel uniform. I consider his profile at red lights. His eyelashes are long and dark and curled, his skin perfectly smooth. I am hungry.
I try calling Reyna; I’d like to find something we can do sober—ice-skating or a movie. But she doesn’t pick up the phone. When I pick Adrian up, I ask him if he’s heard from her, and he says he hasn’t. “She must have moved on to a different dealer,” he says. “Then why did she give me your number?” I ask. “Maybe she knew this would happen.” “What would happen?” He answers by putting his hands in the seams of my jeans and squeezing.
The first night that I don’t spend with him — because he gets out of work late — he shows up at my mother’s house at 5 a.m., laughing and babbling like a child, expecting me to be some combination of mother and lover. Funny enough, I realize that’s what I’ve been waiting to become.
We go out with his cousins one night, to a nightclub on the South Side that I never knew existed, where we sit in the raggedy VIP section and smoke from Adrian’s vaporizer. I guess his cousins know the owner. We leave when a man with a scar on his face comes to whisper something into Adrian’s ear. He will never tell me what the man says.
When we leave the bar, we all go back to Adrian’s—his cousins, their girlfriends. There are people in the living room, smoke clouding the air, arms wrapped around bodies. Adrian guides me down the hall to his “office,” where a white rock is laid out on the desk. He uses a razor blade to split us off a piece.
He teaches me how to cut it up, the beauty of a well-divided line. I feel the cool mucus drip numbing my throat.
Adrian won’t kick his cousins out, so I ask if we can take a drive.
In my car, we turn up the heat and play the new Kanye and take turns putting a mirror on each other’s laps, bending over each other at right angles for our lines. We kiss with numb mouths; he tongues the inner edges of my lips for residue.
We drive to a spot on a hill where we can watch dawn break, from raw cracked egg to pink fire to day-old bruise.
On the local radio, we hear a report about a shooting last night out front of the night club where we’d been vaping in the VIP.
I think of Reyna often. I have dreams about Shawn tying up her arm and stroking the soft skin inside her elbow first — what a sad foreplay — and I wake up nauseous but aroused.
Adrian doesn’t do needles. He prefers straws, two dollar bills, broken pen shafts. I mourn all the lost pens.
Shawn gets arrested. Driving under some influence. Reyna goes back to rehab. She even writes me a letter, but I can’t find any pens to write her back with, and then I forget.
I get a job cashiering at the pharmacy. Pharmacy cashiers count out prescription pills. I should not have this job. This job turns me into a could-be felon. But committing a felony does not make you a felon, only being convicted of a felony makes you one. There is only one felon in my relationship, and it is not me. I think of this as I count out another prescription for Oxycontin.
Reyna is out of rehab, Shawn is out of jail. What a sad reunion.
Adrian and I lay in bed on his off day and I feel the scary closeness of his skin. We talk until everything runs dry—tongue, throat, mind.
He had heart problems as a child, he tells me, a short circuit disturbing the blood flow. He had surgery, twin holes opened in his inner thighs, near his groin, a catheter threaded up to his heart, small burns to repair the troubled spots. I dive under the covers to inspect him for scars.
“So this really is the way to your heart,” I say. He doesn’t laugh; he hardly does.
I start to understand what’s obvious but feels to me like revelation: this human is alive. He notices the same of me, starts watching my chest rise and fall and tracing the lines of my veins with his eyes. I fear he’s sizing me up as prey. When he tells me he wants to eat me, I take it literally. “How would I fit inside you?” I ask.
Reyna’s dad calls me one morning and gives me the news. Reyna had been clean, then she broke and went back to her same dose. No Shawn with her, just her, a medium pizza, a bottle of vodka, five milligrams of junk. Her fathers – two doctors – tried and failed to resuscitate her.
I show Adrian a photo of us in front of a waterfall in El Yunque in Puerto Rico, Reyna and me in ponchos, me with a patch of white on my forehead; Reyna with a brown bubble blooming on her nose—the lesson we learned in the Caribbean sun that brown girls could burn, too. I tell him how we peeled the dead skin from each other’s arms.
He takes pieces of my pain and puts them in his pockets. And out of his pocket he pulls a pill. My legs turn to cushions, the cushions turn to clouds, and I am carried to bed.
In the morning, I am hungry. His skin is so beautiful, it cracks me in half. I want his mouth-shaped bruises, his handprints to stay. He gets on top of me and I cling to him for life. In the full light I watch his skin stretch over muscle and bone, how the color reacts subtly to each shift, and I want to get inside and rub my bones against it. I want to disappear into those little holes in his thighs and thread my way to his heart.
But then I am back inside myself, and it is cold, and the blood underneath his skin can’t warm me. And the hunger still gnaws at me. One day it will eat me alive.
Alexandra Watson is executive editor of Apogee Journal, a publication dedicated to elevating underrepresented voices in literature. Her work as a teacher and editor revolves around empowering writers to own and hone their voices: she teaches essay composition to returning and nontraditional students at Columbia’s School of General Studies; and college essay writing to high-school students at the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. At Baruch College, she works with students from diverse international backgrounds in collaborative writing consultations. She’s writing a novel about an epidemic of insomnia. Selected by Dawnie Walton.
Image © Jody Joldersma.