Last Spring, I had the privilege of taking a creative writing workshop with the Welsh author and poet Siân Melangell Dafydd, when she was teaching at the American University of Paris. The course was everything a writing workshop should be: honest, intimate, and intense. I strived to meet Siân’s standards, and by the end of the term, under her guidance, I completed the piece of writing below. Siân said that she enjoyed reading it. I hope you do, too.
We used to get into a lot of fights. Carly and me. I don’t mean those stupid slap-cat-fights; I’m talking about real, honest-to-god, knock-down drag-out fights which left us both bruised and bloodied, gasping for air through battered chests. It wasn’t ever about anything in particular. Hell, nine times out of ten, we were never really mad at each other to begin with. One or both of us would give the other a look, and like, mentally connect or something, and soon, we would be throwing each other against walls, savagely beating each other with our fists, yanking each other’s hair, wrestling down to the floor. The fights would either culminate in calling a truce, or in sex. It had all begun when we were fourteen.
We had been in Carly’s room one day after school. Her parents had still been at work, and her old sister Lauren stayed after school for cheer practice. Carly and I had managed to get whippets from that shady junior who never went to class and hung out near the choir practice room and auditorium during school hours. His name was Brett Propp, and he had sold the small metal canisters to us for ten bucks. We had sat on the floor of her bedroom, each taking turns inhaling the nitrous oxide and giggling uncontrollably. Carly had laughed about how she couldn’t feel her face. She had laughed when she demanded that I hit her as hard as I could, and she had laughed still when I hit her so hard she fell to the floor. When she got up, she had stared deep into my eyes. I had braced myself for her fist, when she kissed me instead. I had laughed because my lips had been completely numb.
We never mentioned that incident, but we never pretended it didn’t happen either. We were both aware of it. No need to ruin the memory. But from that day on, Carly and I would get these random urges to fight each other. Just sucker punch the other and wait for the reactionary blow to the cheekbone. We never hurt each other. Oh, we beat the shit out of each other, gave each other black eyes and split lips, even cracked a few ribs. But that was just physical. In all of our nineteen years of friendship, all through elementary school, and those hell-holes that they call middle school and high school, Carly and I had never, not once, spread rumors or talked shit about each other. We were, we are, best friends. We have each others’ back.
The drugs were recreational. Always together, sometimes at a party, sometimes with the two of us, plus six more, crammed into her room, crowding around her open window so the smoke and smell of burning cannabis could waft out, undetectable, or around her bed, waiting to take the next hit, to snort the next line of powder. We never did them enough to cause overdose or addiction. Never let ourselves become total pill-head-crack-whores like Jessica Budzynski and Liz Sindoni, who both ended up getting pregnant with Ryan Vaus’ babies junior year. We had more self control than that. We had more self respect than that.
The fighting thing wasn’t exactly recreational though. It was more…our stress would vanish. Everything that was bothering us, every detail on the exam that we had totally bombed, every bitch who laughed at us for wearing clothes that came from Target instead of Abercrombie and for still fitting into the bras that they sold at Limited Too. Every loud, angry argument Carly’s parents had, every night where my dad would come back after staying in hotel rooms for days on end with his twenty-seven year old girlfriend. Every let down. Every disappointment. It could all be solved by a safe, sane, consensual fight with your best friend.
It was a release. It was an escape. It was ours.
I met them two years ago in the bathroom at IHOP. It was eleven at night. I was there with Mel, I got up to pee while we were waiting for our pancakes, and there they were. Giggling in the handicap stall, huddled together, loudly sniffing. When they came out, still laughing like schoolgirls, they reapplied their lipstick in front of the mirror, and caught me staring at them. I apologized, used the toilet, and left. They found our table ten minutes later, and sat down with Mel and me.
It was crazy. They were crazy. Who in their right mind would just sit down with complete strangers and start talking to them like they were friends? Just skip over all the mindless, boring, smalltalk bullshit, and dive right into a conversation about that new Larry Clark movie, the one based on that guy in Florida who was murdered by his friends eight years earlier. Between bites of pancake and talking about the movie, they introduced themselves as Carly and Mia. Even then, Carly wore her blond hair long and wavy, except back then, she had dyed the bottom half with red-pink Kool-Aid. Mia’s brown hair was short and had green streaks in it. Both girls sported pale skin, heavy eye make-up, and various piercings. They were nineteen. Mel wasn’t happy with their sudden appearance, unimpressed with their teenage slang and carefree attitudes. Mel wanted a quiet evening, our original plan of IHOP and chick-flicks in our apartment on West 29th.
I was intrigued. I wanted to get to know them better. Where did they live, what did they do, what were they snorting in the bathroom. I was twenty-one. I should have dismissed them as children, not given them a second thought, told them to go back to their own table. I shouldn’t have engaged, shouldn’t have hung on their every word, definitely shouldn’t have gone back to their apartment on St Marks with them. It was a shithole, their apartment. Scuffed and cracked wooden floors, an ancient couch that looked like it was plucked out of some charity thrift shop, a week’s worth of dishes in the sink, a mattress on the floor with a bong and a half empty bottle of Zima next to it. Empty packets of cigarettes, match boxes, and tiny plastic bags littered the floor. Their fridge was empty, except for a few beers and questionable Chinese leftovers. It wasn’t the dwelling of two adults. It looked like a cautionary tale after-school special. And yet somehow, Mia and Carly, with their strung-out appearance, their crappy apartment, and their skeletal hands winding and twisting around each other, somehow they got me to stay, and they got me to come back time and time again. They offered me drugs that I had never even heard of. I tried a few, never more than once, before realizing that it wasn’t the pills and powders that were my intoxicants. It was Carly and Mia.
The partying got old pretty fast. I got a promotion in my job. I didn’t want to spend all my free time in a borderline crack house with two teenagers. It felt wrong. It was wrong. There was a period of four months where I didn’t see them at all. When I finally did go over, I was able to see what Mel had that first, fateful night, what I couldn’t see before. Their skin wasn’t perfect porcelain and their bodies weren’t enviably slender; they were pallid, emaciated, sickly. Carly’s eyes, once sparkling and alert, were now glassy and vacant. Mia wasn’t bubbly and culturally intelligent. She was superficially charming and used as many ten dollar words as she could. I was sympathetic and disgusted all at once.
I would have left and never looked back, except I’m terrified that I’ll be reading the news one morning, and see a story about their bodies being found in their apartment or on the street.
Mia was shaking again. I kept telling her that she needed to eat before she got to this point, but she never listens. She couldn’t even light her own cigarette; I had to do it for her. We sat up in bed, huddled together, sharing a cigarette and body heat because our electricity was out and blankets and sweatshirts can only do so much. Mia rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel the tremors coursing through her body. I doubted she was comfortable with her head where it was. Maybe my hoodie had some padding in it.
. . .
Shoplifting is like riding a bike; once you learn how, you never forget. After high school, Mia and I swore we wouldn’t go back to it, but sometimes temptation is stronger than will. We used to get our food exclusively from bodegas. It was pretty easy to slip bags of Doritos and packets of ramen in our backpacks. Now, we steal from Whole Foods, which I guess is better, since it’s way easier. It was Mia’s idea. She thought we should try to be healthier. She was right, but it was kinda funny hearing about health from a girl who was in the middle of chain smoking Newports.
. . .
It was easier to do it when I was finally able to almost completely block everything and everyone out. Just focus on Mia and make believe we were in our own apartment, in our own bed, alone. Not in some house in Brooklyn, with bright lights, and three cameras pointing at us. Definitely not with that wannabe director guy giving us instructions on how he wants us to act, how to look, how to sound. He said we had the right look for what he was going for. He was paying pretty good, too. This was our third movie we made for him. After this one, we would be able to pay our rent. Mia didn’t want to do it. I didn’t either, but I also didn’t want to get evicted.
. . .
Allison stopped by. We hadn’t seen her in awhile. She brought us bags of groceries and swept our floor, which was pretty nice of her considering we didn’t have anything to give back. She didn’t stay that long. After she was gone, I saw that she left information for a methadone clinic. Mia thought it was obnoxious and I couldn’t blame her. We stopped doing heroin months ago. Last time we did that shit, Mia threw up so much that the capillaries around her eyes broke. We stopped after that. Mia was freaked out about her skin. I was freaked out because she was this close to choking on her own puke.
. . .
The assholes at the center wouldn’t let us sleep in the same room. They said it was against policy, whatever the fuck that meant. We weren’t in any of the same sessions. We barely saw each other. My counsellor said we enabled each other. That we would never recover if we were together. My counsellor didn’t know that it was Mia who got me to go. That it was Mia who flushed our stash. That it was Mia who was able to quit everything on her own and was only there so I wouldn’t feel like a total fuck-up. My counsellor told me Mia was a bad influence, that she was on a downward spiral, that I shouldn’t go back to her after I checked out. My counsellor doesn’t know shit.