Authors: Kate Axelrod
MY mother looked like a defiant teenager in there, her face turned away from the doctors, her hair slick with oil, tapping her fingers impatiently against the plastic table. I thought about whether or not I should go to Daniel's party, and in a way, I felt desperate to get out of there, to get away from my family, yet it also seemed so clearly the wrong thing to do. If my mother were in an ICU, if she had breast cancer, leukemia, MS, would I go to the party tonight? I tested myself with each disease and ailment I could think of. I imagined my mother hooked up to wires, tubes snaking in and out of her flesh, her eyelids waxy and swollen.
MY father dropped me off at home while he went to see his brother, who lived in Riverdale, not too far from us. All the lights were off in the house and a cool blue was slanting through the windows. Grandpa walked in between my legs, brushed his tail up against my calves. I picked him up and held him like an infant, cradled him in my arms. “What do we do?” I asked him. I was crying and I whispered into his face, pressed my lips against his fur.
What. Do. We. Do.
He blinked, jutted out his little pink tongue for a moment, and let out a tiny sneeze.
I put him down and went into my bedroom. I started to change my clothes, put on a pair of dark gray leggings and a long sweater that I liked to wear as a dress. I took a lighter out of my underwear drawer (this was where I kept everything bad: condoms, a tiny bag of weed, matches, lighters, a cloudy glass bowl with yellow streaks like lightning bolts down the center). I rolled my thumb against the little metal wheel and clicked the piece of plastic, and a sliver of flame erupted, orange and bright. I lifted up the leggings on my left leg and pressed the fire against my ankle. I flinched for a second but then I put it back.
My skin was burning.
I felt a wave of extraordinary heat but after a moment it stopped hurting and for the first time in days I felt deeply calm. So at ease with myself and everything around me. I closed my eyes, felt the warmth against my skin, my breath slow and heartbeat steady.
AFTERWARD, I finished getting dressed and went into the bathroom. I rubbed a dot of Neosporin on the spot of my skin that was bubbling up, becoming a blister, and carefully covered it with a plastic Band-Aid. I told myself it was okay for me to go to the party because here was the evidence of my pain, my love for my mother, right there: hidden on my left ankle, a little swollen patch of purple skin, tender and sore.
I drove the car into the city, sped down the Henry Hudson and then south on the West Side Highway, the river black and choppy alongside me. The radio stations were all playing Christmas music and I sang aloud to the ones I knewâthat Nancy Sinatra song, and some old Mariah Carey cover that I loved. There was no traffic; the city felt empty, and I glided off the highway, headed east on 96th Street. Broadway was lit up, the trees on the mall were all studded with yellow lights, bold and bright. I parked easily just off Columbus, turned off the car but sat for a moment before I got up. I rolled up the bottom of my leggings, lifted the plastic bandage to check on my wound, puffy and pink, a little swollen. I stroked it delicately, careful not to pop the blister. In the rearview mirror I applied some eyeliner, which always made my eyes look more green, less brown, and added some lip gloss. I put my hair up and then took it down again. I was always pale, but I looked paler than usual tonight, and I pressed a dot of lipstick on each of my cheeks, smoothed them in circles on my skin.
UPSTAIRS, the apartment was brimming with people. I headed straight to Daniel's room to take my jacket off and put my bag down, and one of his friends, Kyle, was sitting at the desk. He was in a big upright leather chair, slicing through some finely ground cocaine with the side of his MetroCard. He gathered it in a single, slim line.
“Hey you,” Kyle said. He put the MetroCard down. “Give me a hug, it's been so long.”
“So long!” I said. I ruffled his hair a bit. “Cute haircut.”
“Yeah? My girlfriend hates it. She's pissed.”
“Oh, it'll grow back so fast.”
“Yeah, we'll see. You want some?” Kyle asked. He wheeled the chair out from under Daniel's desk; his baggy corduroy pants dragged on the carpet beneath him.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe just a little?”
Daniel and his city friends used drugs in a way that felt different from my public school friendsâthey'd casually leave a tidy pile of powder on a counter, or swallow some painkillers with a glass of tap water like it was no big deal. Yes, in Westchester, there had been plenty of weed and beer and maybe a bottle of Robitussin here and there, but it wasn't the same.
I had only even
people use coke twice before, each time during the previous year. The first was with Abbe, my roommate in tenth grade. We'd had the kind of relationship that was sort of stiff and polite, but at the same time oddly intimate. During the third or fourth week of school, I walked into our dorm room and she was standing up, naked except for a striped turtleneckâcutting her pubic hair with tiny nail scissors, a pile of dark, wiry hair collecting in the center of my wastepaper basket.
, she'd murmured,
. just haven't gotten a garbage can yet.
And later that night, while we were both studying quietly on our own extra-long twin beds, she emptied a little baggie of coke on top of her chemistry textbook. (She offered me some in the same manner as if she were handing me a stick of Winterfresh
) It was a Wednesday, and we sat on the oatmeal-colored rug in the center of the room. She snorted a couple of lines and I just sat there and watched her, and even though I was totally sober, I was happy to match her enthusiasm, relieved at how talkative and chatty she had suddenly become. We talked of our families, how we were both pretty homesick, how much we missed our friends and the simplest luxuries of home: having a refrigerator always stocked with food, not having to share a bathroom with twenty people when we were feeling sick. It was the only time we ever really had a substantive conversation. A couple of weeks later she started dating this senior who wore tweed blazers and boat shoes and did tons of acid. He was always scaling the walls of our dorm and trying to break into the room through our window to surprise her or wake her up, and by the middle of November they were both gone.
The second time I'd seen coke was in a bathroom at some crowded off-campus party with Daniel and three of his friends. One of the day students had thrown it while his parents were away in Nantucket for the weekend. There were four of us packed insideâDaniel was leaned against the sink, and I sat on top of the closed toilet seat. Two guys were in the tiny turquoise bathtub, with their legs hanging out over the side, inhaling lines off the porcelain edge. One of them called the guy hosting the party a fag, and I looked at Daniel expectantly, like,
, but he didn't say anything, just sort of glanced at me sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders.
“Really?” I'd asked. “Did you really just use that word?” There was silence and then I wondered if I'd said it out loud, or maybe I hadn't. And I just kept hearing the word reverberate inside that cramped little room,
really, really, really
. Daniel opened up the medicine cabinet, which was mostly empty: Ibuprofen, some disposable razors, a travel-size deodorant, and an amber bottle of prescription something or other.
“Valium, anyone?” he'd asked. I felt my cheeks heating up, and my heart began to beat in this irregular, frantic sort of way. I spent the rest of the night lying in the backyard with my hand flat against my chest, listening to Annie calm me down from three hundred miles away.
THAT night, Christmas Eve, I was so eager for a distraction from my own thoughts that when Kyle offered me the line, I took it. I felt the powder go straight to my head, this little tingle in my brain, and suddenly I was so alert, ready to go, eager to talk to everyone. I walked into the living room. I saw Jane, Daniel's mother, and gave her a quick hug.
“Sweetheart,” she said. “Can we talk later?”
I glided through the party like the best version of myself, poised and confident, interested and friendly. I took Daniel's hand and wanted to be introduced to everyoneâhis grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins from Argentina, a few of his friends from the city whom I still hadn't met.
I poured myself a glass of white wine and introduced myself to the caterers, who were dressed in black-and-white outfits with perfectly pressed crimson bowties. I had a sudden urge to tell them that I wasn't like all the other guests there, in pearls and dresses from Bergdorf, and that Daniel would never understand me, that he would never get what it felt like right then, to have my mother sequestered in a cold, sterile hospital, with tiled walls that smelled just like my elementary school cafeteria, where she couldn't even have a fucking plastic bag because they were afraid she'd use it to suffocate herself. And abruptly I saw all the flaws that were beginning to emerge in my relationship with Daniel. I knew suddenly that they were there, that it was bound to fail, that I'd go back to school and be so lonely. But somehow it was all floating past, and it was okay, as if my problems were hovering in a little bubble nearby, not touching me quite yet. For now I was happy. I took Daniel into the bathroom, the one in the hall, and pushed him down onto the toilet seat, with my legs around him.