I’m swimming through another cumbersome crowd, drowning on another dance floor. My friend Summer is struggling to hear me over the remorseless chorus to a rap song about ruining a relationship. It’s okay. I’m not making sense anyway. All I’ve done tonight is take selfies and complain about how hard this summer break has been on me.
“He’s a rapper!”
“I’m gonna get another drink.”
One or nine careless cocktails and a clatter of car keys later: a crash and a few cops, but it’s not a big deal. The DUI is purely decorative. I’ve been overdue for a new disaster. Everyone in my life with a functioning brain’s been waiting for the next Doc Marten to drop, as the saying goes. Even I had a notion— and I’m notoriously negligent.
I spent most of my summer sucking dick and avoiding the sun, hiding out in tanning beds and the beds of strangers. I rode piggyback on some friends’ prescriptions and popped pills at karaoke with popstars in New York. I mixed a few gallons of Grey Goose into a million melted 7-11 Slurpees. I worked a trade show in Las Vegas and cried in three casinos. In August, I turned 21.
I guess the takeaway here is that I love to have fun.
Back at the station, I’m wearing a moth-eaten t-shirt I scribbled FUCK YOU, DAD on in Sharpie on Father’s Day and begging the officer taking my booking photo to let me go. When my pleas start to sound more like a pitch for a Lifetime Movie, he tells me stop talking. I pose for the camera because there’s nothing else to do.
It’s high school picture day all over again, but a bit worse.
x x x
“If you buy me a pack of cigarettes, I’ll let you keep the change.”
I’ve got a plan. I’m 15 and fucked up, posted up in front of the halfway house tucked behind my local liquor store— cruel and unusual placement, I know. Residents prowl around the porch like stray cats with nowhere else to go. They all eye me cautiously, tossing cigarette butts into a flowerless flowerbed.
A woman on the brink tells me she used to be a beauty queen, then considers my proposition before declining politely. Her brittle bones shake beneath the weight of her gauzy Goodwill sundress. She slips back into the house, and I pout like I’m being paid to.
Being underage is the worst.
“I’ll get ’em for ya!” A new friend stammers, stepping in to save the day. “I don’t even need the change, cutie. Just gimme a hug!”
His smile is toothless, but sincere. He outstretches his arms, both of them bulging with veins, and I lean into his hug hesitantly. I let him linger a little, holding my breath and counting the seconds as they pass. When he peels away (like a Band-Aid, I knew he’d be sticky) I exhale an asphyxiated six.
“I’m Eddie.” He smirks, still missing his teeth. “You wait here.”
I set up camp outside the halfway house, cross my arms to brave the cold and close my eyes to feel okay. Eddie returns with some Marlboros and a handful of loose change. A resentful resident tosses an empty Coke bottle in my direction when he sees I’ve gotten my way. Eddie laughs it off, bares his gums, and it’s gross. They glisten in shades of bubblegum pink.
We hug again.
I walk home alone, essentially skipping as I step into my power. I stop by the park to smoke some cigs on the swings. I stay until night falls and fog slings orange halos around the streetlights. When I get home, my dad’s too drunk to fight. The pack in my pocket rests firmly against my thigh.
I win by default.
x x x
“Do you believe you have a problem with substance abuse?”
It’s December 10th, and I’m enrolling in a court-ordered recovery program. Cramped in my counselor’s grimy green office, I’m smacking a mouthful of bubblegum like my dad always threatened to smack me. My counselor’s matted roots have given way to an unintentional ombré, and I hate that for her. I’ve already forgotten her name. Starts with a J?
“Well, I’m here, so…”
J shoves a cheesy checklist across her messy desk and assures that all my answers will be kept confidential. It’s one of those always/sometimes/never nightmares— a bunch of generalized statements that are intended to resonate with me, like: I feel out of control in most aspects of my life and I worry that I may use drugs and/or alcohol as a means of escape and I find myself feeling uncomfortable in my own home.
“It’s a—” J starts to say.
“Personality test.” I interject.
“Exactly, Kristopher. This is going to tell me—”
“That I’m right where I belong.”
Nestled between two jittering junkies at yet another NA meeting, I’m half-listening to the heavyset Percocet fiend to my left while she cries about the loss of her children to “the system” and her addiction— but only because of that darn court order! When Polly Pillhead’s sobs start eating her words, begin making a mess of them, our group leader offers an out.
“Recovery’s a journey…” he mantras, and my head aches. “…not a destination.”
A man in a pale blue windbreaker winks at me from across the room. He’s been eyeing me all night. It’s stressful, for sure, but the attention feels nice. And besides, I’ve been around enough counselors, therapists, and crystal-meth-Kumbayas like this one to know that addicts in recovery often turn to sex as a new means of escape. It’s a sorrow or sentiment with which I’m increasingly inclined to play.
Whatever sinks your ship, something deep inside me sighs.
Group leader finishes his speed freak sermon and says it’s my turn to speak. I try diving into my brain (that murky lake I only wade in when I want to get my way) in search of something relevant to say, but its surface is frozen with doctor prescribed antidepressants. I’ve got nothing. I tell group leader to skip me, and the trainwreck to my right begins lamenting from the beginning. I crane my neck to check the clock.
We’re not even halfway through.
x x x
“It doesn’t feel like home anymore. I know that sounds strange.”
This is a scam. I’m 17 and spiraling, staring a married producer down in the lobby of a hotel he’ll be staying at for about a week. Scoring cigarettes was child’s play. A boy like me can get anything he wants if he’s in the wrong place at the right time. I never even have to let these men fuck me— I’ve just gotta play along.
It’s all about perfecting the evasive promise of “later.” I’ve gotten good at saying, “not right now.” I become the boy they want me to be, turn that kid into a galaxy, then announce that astrology is temporarily shut down for maintenance. I play because it pays to.
Being underage doesn’t hurt.
“No one gets me.” I hum, chewing an obnoxious wad of bubblegum. “I can’t stay there anymore. It’s so fucking depressing!”
My eyes are restless and insincere. I’m toying with a compact mirror I borrowed from a makeup artist. She’d mentioned hiding Ritalin inside it. I make another flamboyant comment about my late father. Producer eats it up (creepy old men love dad stuff) and pretends to ponder for a moment before offering up his room for the night.
“Maybe.” I lie, tongue tracing my lips. “Let’s get some drinks?”
By the time producer begins undressing himself, I’m sufficiently shitfaced. I’m making snow angels in his sheets. We’ve been drinking for hours. I prop myself up on my elbows and announce that I need to leave. He offers another beer, basically begging me to stay. I apologize (another lie) for any confusion, then remind him of my age. I ask him what his wife would think.
He calls a car.
The ride home is long and expensive, but that’s not my problem. I sit in the backseat, thinking about all the damage I’ve done— and continue to do. It’s a case of the booze blues, but those are easily fixable. When I get home, the sun’s rising reluctantly. The compact mirror rests in my pocket like a beacon of hope.
x x x
I check the clock again.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Everyone’s finished their sob stories, their donuts, their coffee. I haven’t touched any of the snacks stashed in the back of the room (because I wasn’t raised in a fucking barn), but I’ve chewed a full-on sculpture into the rim of my Styrofoam cup. I’ve been attempting to recount all the missteps that lead me here in the first place (following that trail of purged breadcrumbs I’m always leaving in my wake), but the ice on the surface of my lake brain won’t budge.
15 going on 17 going on extinct…
At 21, I am snowfall in the summertime. I’m the weather in a city without seasons: a great big white nothing. I shimmer like a strand of synthetic pearls, only convincing enough to draw attention at night. My nose bleeds pretty frequently. I’m always losing my luster, but I guess that happens to lots of things. And I wake up every day, and I’m still alive, so I press on halfheartedly.
Been there, done that doesn’t mean much if you never leave.
When all the pamphlets (What is NA? and How does it work? and Why are we here?) have been recollected, and the 7th tradition basket has robbed every reject in the room of their loose change, group leader asks me to hand out the sobriety coins. I oblige because I’m afraid it would go against that pesky court order if I refused to.
“One day, one month, two months, three…”
I rattle through milestones like a runaway train, wondering if it’s at all possible for a metaphor to be too on point. We’re about to hit years and all I can think about is how badly I want a beer. Windbreaker dude’s still watching me. He’s licking his lips, and it’s uncomfortable, but so are a lot of things.
“Six months.” I huff, and he jumps to his feet.
I hand him his chip and he parts his wet lips, grinning a mouthful of bubblegum gums. He outstretches his arms and waits for the traditional sobriety hug. Ice cracks on the surface of my memory. I lean into his hug hesitantly. He lingers a little, peels away like a Band-Aid. My heart sinks to the bottom of Lake Wellbutrin.
“Good to see you again.” Eddie smirks, then returns to his seat.
Drugs may know how to numb a brain, but the past never forgets to resurface. It sticks around like a stray cat with nowhere to go. Now it’s time for the serenity prayer, and all I want to do is die. Addicts rise. Folding chairs groan beneath the strain of shifted weight. Junkies join hands. We bow our heads and beg “God” to get us out of this.
Outside a little later, I’m waiting for my ride. DUI is just an acronym for “lost license,” but in LA that sort of thing spells out a death sentence. I watch as Eddie and his fellowship of fuckups spill out into the parking lot like a feral flood. Keep coming back! they all croon, and I remind them that I don’t have a choice. I reach for some cigarettes I bought all by myself. The pack in my pocket rests firmly against my thigh.