I step out of the passenger side of my car like the nice cop tells me to. This is my introduction to Canada. I’ve been driving with my boyfriend Kevin since yesterday, and we couldn’t make it over the border without getting picked off by Immigration.
“Grab a coat if you like,” the nice cop says. He’s older than the swarm of officers who start to rummage through my messy car.
From the curb, I watch an officer scavenge through my purse. Shit. Well, hopefully they’re only looking for poison or weapons.
The nice cop comes back over to me and Kevin. He speaks so gently when he arrests us that at first I think he’s kidding, punking us to scare the stupid Americans so we won’t misbehave again. He isn’t.
“Marijuana is illegal in Canada, so we are putting you under arrest.”
“Can I just throw it away?” I plead. I’m twenty-five now. I can’t believe I’m still getting myself into trouble for this kind of shit.
“Unfortunately, you have tried to smuggle an illegal item into Canada, so we are required to arrest you.” He indicates to the swarm that we need cuffing. He looks at me. “So this item is yours?”
“Am I in a lot of trouble?” I ask him. Why did he pretend to be so nice when he approached us? Why is he still so gentle? Is he tricking me?
I’m cuffed, arms locked together behind my back. So is Kevin. A female officer tears through my coat pockets, confiscating a wad of tissues and a crumpled receipt.
“What’s this?” she demands, groping the lump in my other pocket.
“Bobby pins,” I say, pathetically. I want to tell her I’m innocent, I’m not a convict. I’m good. It was just some weed, and not even mine. I didn’t even really want it. You can take it, I want to tell her. We can walk away. This can be over. No paperwork.
They shepherd us inside the Immigration office. They seat us next to each other on a hard, unforgiving wooden bench. I watch Kevin ignoring me. I cry.
“Is there anything else in the vehicle?” a cop asks me.
Kevin says no. I say no.
“Tell us now if there is. We’ll find it.”
“No,” I say.
“So it’s your car, right?”
I tell them yes.
They spit legal words at us, then have us sign some papers. They tell us we will be strip searched. Kevin goes into a room with the nice cop. I’m led into a room with two mean ladies, including the one who found my pocketed bobby pins.
In the room, both of the cops wear leather gloves. One of them gives me instructions. The other one watches me. They have me hand over each item of clothing one by one, but only on command. First my left shoe, then my right. She inspects each shoe. Left sock, right sock. The floor is cold. Trousers. I pull them down. Shirt. I’m in my underwear. The leading cop dips down her gaze every time she receives an article, but the other one hasn’t blinked away from my body. Bra. I unhook and hand it over, then hold an arm over my chest.
“You can’t cover yourself,” she tells me. “Lift up your breasts.”
I lift up my boobs and want to die. They’re not even big enough to hide anything under. These are decidedly not pocket boobs.
“Now your underwear,” she tells me.
I release my chest and pinch the elastic waistband of yesterday’s panties. We’ve been traveling without spending time to get changed, rested, showered. The plan once we got to Canada was to go straight to the hotel, and that’s when I’d get cleaned up, change my underwear. So I’m in yesterday’s intimates, on display for two women who stare at my body like they hate me. I don’t want to do this.
“You have to do it,” the instructor says.
I release my underwear for inspection. I stand under bright fluorescents completely naked, but at least now it’s over. They have seen me, and there are no drugs under boobs, or woven into pubic hair.
“Turn around,” she says. It’s not over. “Squat.”
I’m in a dirty bathroom in my prom dress. I don’t know the man who’s in here with me, but I think his name is Scott. He’s chubby and smells so strongly of tobacco that it makes my eyes water. I can’t remember everything that led up to this, but I do know that we started out by the bonfire.
A few hours ago, I was at prom with Evan, just as friends. I spent most of my time dancing with Sarah. Evan and Sarah’s boyfriend Zach were mad at us for ditching them, but we didn’t care. “Is she your date, or am I?” Zach had asked Sarah. At prom, the four of us ate chocolate strawberries and talked excitedly about the after party that Evan’s older friends were throwing for us.
At the bonfire, we still wore our dresses, but most of the girls there had switched into comfy shoes. I don’t remember what I wore on my feet by the fire, but now I’m in the bathroom barefoot. My dress is short and black with a halter neckline decorated with fake pearls. Earlier, I’d met the guy who lives here. He was in his thirties, had tattoos on his face, and liked Sarah. His friend, the chubby chain-smoker... he liked me. Most of the girls around the fire drank beer from silver cans, or sipped on Sprite. But Sarah and I were way cooler than all of them—we knew how to party. The guy with the face tattoos and his friend went into the kitchen to make us special drinks. They didn’t let us come in with them, but we played cool and waited for our drinks by the fire. I don’t remember what the drinks tasted like, but everything got weird after that. I kissed Sarah, and her boyfriend got even madder at her. I started to feel unfocused and sleepy. Sarah seemed really drunk too, so her boyfriend helped her upstairs to go to sleep. The guests were mostly either gone, or had changed into pajamas. I was the only one still out by the bonfire, so I must have snuck into the bathroom to hide.
I don’t feel well. The chubby white guy is in the bathroom with me, but I’m fairly certain I was in here first. Dress is hiked up. I’m on the counter. Painful scraping from tobacco fingernails. Stinging, dryness, chafing, tobacco, tobacco. I don’t have words.
I’m alone in the bathroom. I follow him out of the small room. I follow him out of the house. I follow him down the street. The world is a fog. I think it may be morning. He says he’s going home. Words still aren’t working. He tells me I have to go back to the house, but I don’t know where the house is. He leads me back and leaves me at the gate. I go blank.
I wake up on the couch inside and think the chubby man is kissing me. This time, I don’t taste him like a muddy ashtray on my mouth. I open my eyes, but my prom date Evan is on my face instead. I’m scared. He asks me if I’m okay. I say I am. I don’t know how to say that I thought he was someone else. I don’t know how to say I’m relieved that it’s just him. I don’t know how to tell him I don’t remember anything. I don’t know how to ask him how long we’ve been kissing. I don’t know how to tell him I don’t want his mouth on mine, ever, ever. I don’t know how to ask him if we’ve gone any further.
“I didn’t know I was awake,” I tell Evan.
“Where did the older guy go?”
“The one who lives here?”
“The other one.”
“Home, probably. Why?”
“I think we kissed.”
“No, you didn’t. He’s like thirty-five and he’s married. He’d never do that,” Evan says with confidence, as if he knows the chubby man, really knows him.
“I need to go home.”
“Okay, some of us are heading out in a bit to get breakfast, and then we’re dropping people off.”
Soon, I’m in the car with a bunch of prom dudes from last night. I hate them all. They’re happy, hungover, and hungry for hash browns.
“I need to get home.”
“Chill out, we’re getting food first,” Evan says. He’s next to me in the back seat. The boys up front are flipping from song to song on the CD. It’s making me nauseous.
“I really need to go home now, or I’ll get in trouble with my parents,” I lie.
“You don’t want to get breakfast first?” he asks.
“I really can’t.” I feel like a hostage.
“Okay,” he says, disappointed. “Guys, we gotta drop her off.”
It’s the longest ten-minute drive of my teenaged life. The music hurts, the bumps in the road hurt, Evan’s hand on my thigh hurts. I need to get into my house, my room, my bed. I need to sleep, knowing that whenever I wake up, I’ll be by myself. No one will be watching me, kissing me, touching me. We pull into my driveway. I get out of the car, ready to walk away from the sickening machine and the boys inside it. But Evan wants to walk me to my door, so he does. I feel the boys in the car watching us.
At my door, he waits for me to kiss him. I don’t know how far Evan went with me last night, but his expectation of a kiss at the door terrifies me. It makes me think that we must have established something at some point during the night or earlier this morning. I have no way of knowing. He looks at me. He looks at my lips. I don’t kiss him. He walks away like a wounded puppy.
My parents meet me inside the front door. They’re excited to hear about prom. They’d like to know how the after party was. They want to feed me breakfast. I rush past them, up the stairs, into my bedroom. I’ll never come out, not ever.
Later, Sarah calls me. “I think we were roofied,” she laughs over the phone. “Just kidding, but those drinks must have been strong. What do you think they put in them, like what kind of alcohol?”
“I don’t know. Did anything weird happen to you last night?” I ask her.
“No,” she says. “Zach just tucked me in. I was so out of it. He was really mad at me this morning.”
I’m relieved that nothing happened to Sarah, but I’m also devastated, because something did happen to me, and Sarah’s making light of the whole thing. But I can’t blame her for not knowing what happened to me. She never will. Not even I do, and part of me thinks that’s okay.
The noise machine by the door is a scratchy roar. It’s supposed to sound like the ocean. It keeps everyone outside our room from overhearing my shadowed memories, the cluttered murk of my double-life, my overly-therapized catastrophizing moans. Therapy, shmerapy, Je sais. But at least this therapist is nice. I see Dana weekly, and she seems to give a legitimate shit about me and my sexed-up, substance-happy deviance—unhealthy coping mechanisms, she prefers to say. We talk about my flashbacks, my nightmares, my unhealthy love life, my substance abuse. She encourages me to stop drinking, drugging, engaging in inappropriate sexual activities. But that’s hard. Recovery is hard. And PTSD, she tells me, is a state of non-recovery. And I’m only twenty-three. I’m not ready to try that hard, to change so much, to feel. I’m okay when I’m high. I’m okay as long as I have uppies to chase my paralyzing downs, and downies to chase my frantic ups. So really, is there any point?
I’m twenty-two, and I’m partying at the Radisson with my boyfriend, Peter. It’s graduation night—my undergraduate career is finally over! The bulk of the graduating class of 2013 is downstairs getting drunk. There are three dance rooms, each with different DJs and bars with seemingly infinite drink options. Peter got us this hotel room upstairs so we could really let loose tonight at the party, and I’ll be damned if I don’t need to let off some steam. A lot of the people at the party have gained a few fatty stress pounds from finals week, but I’m practically emaciated from all the Adderall I’ve been popping just so that I could get all of my work in—two theses, their defenses, and all of the other random academic requirements. Plus, I was kicked off the tennis team not too long ago. The assistant coach had the nerve to pull me off the court at practice. She said, “Liz. You need to watch what you’re putting into your body.” I called her a bitch to her face, and pretended like I didn’t care about the sport or my teammates when I was officially thrown off the team. But that’s a few weeks behind me, and tonight, I’m ready to have fun.
Peter has already bought me three AMFs—Adios, Motherfuckers!—those syrupy blue drinks that are sticky with cheap tequila. We’ve been going up to our room and back down to the party every so often throughout the night to make out and drink more up there, mostly because the drinks at the bars downstairs are so pricey. We’re in our room now.
“Want another beer?” he asks, pulling a six-pack of IPAs from the mini-fridge.
“Let’s go back downstairs! I want to keep dancing.” I bounce on the bed.
“We can dance up here. I can still hear the music.”
“Yeah, but it’s my graduation night. I want to be with people.”
“Which people?” he asks with skepticism in his voice.
“I don’t know.” I’m embarrassed that I can’t name any specific friends on the spot. I feel like a loser. I haven’t been hanging out with any of the tennis girls since I left the team, and I’ve been so overwhelmed with schoolwork for the past semester that many of the people I did consider friends have drifted out of my personal bubble. “Just everybody. It’s my last time to see everyone.”
“Yeah, but I got us this room. It cost a lot, you know. Let’s just chill up here for a while.” He opens a beer bottle with his teeth.
“We can be here all night. There’s like an hour left of the party.” I start to slip my heels back on, but he runs over and pulls one of my shoes away from me. “Dude, are you going to be like that tonight?”
“You’re way too drunk. We weren’t even dancing, and you don’t even like those people.”
“I just want to go back down. Give me my shoe.”
“No,” he says, holding my heel behind his back. He takes a five-second swig of beer, downing half the bottle.
“Fine. Half the girls down there are barefoot anyway.” I walk toward the door.
“If you leave that room, don’t come back,” he says.
“But all my stuff is in here.” I look around at my overnight bag, my wallet that was too bulky to fit in my little purse, my laptop. “Peter, just come with me. Let’s get another drink.”
“We have alcohol up here. I’m not spending any more money. You’re being a bitch.”
I shake my heel off and start to pull the door open to leave the room. He grabs my arm and yanks me back from the door. My shoulder feels stretched away from my body, like if he had yanked me any harder, it might have popped out of its socket.
“Stop!” I push him away from me. He pulls me toward him, but I tug my arm out of his grip. Peter throws my laptop on the floor and stomps on it, and my chest fills with hot rage. I want to push him so far away from me that he loses sight of me, and his hands are never able to find my arm again. I ball my fists and beat them into his chest and neck, pushing him away from my laptop. He takes the blows, moving to grab my arms. His grip on me is tight, painful. We fall to the floor by the bed. I pull the cord from the bedside phone, and it dings as it falls to the floor. I pick up the hard plastic phone and start to beat him in the face with it. I’m on top of him, hitting him over and over and over, until I’m out of breath and he’s quiet, still. He’s got to be asleep by now. He’s got to be knocked out. I’ve got to be safe. But he moves his hand up to his head, and opens his eyes to look at me. His face is red, scary.
“Are you okay?” I ask him. I’ll never hit him again. “Peter?”
“The fuck.” His voice is quiet and strained. “You bitch.”
“Leave me alone!” I stand up, scared of myself for going so feral on him, but even more scared that he didn’t stay down, like in the movies. “Stay over there. I have to go. I have to grab my stuff, and don’t try to stop me.” He doesn’t move from the floor. I gather my belongings, put on sneakers and a coat, and leave the room as quickly as I can.
The elevator down to the first floor takes an eternity. A grownup couple hops in with me a floor down from Peter’s room. They talk about how noisy the hotel has been tonight, and how they think the hotel management should have warned them that there would be a college party there. It’s the hotel’s fault. They deserve a refund. The man has ingrown hairs on his face. The woman is pretty.
On the first floor, I zoom past the festivities. It isn’t fun anymore. I don’t know any of these people. I walk outside. I walk down the street, away from the Radisson, away from whatever came over me in there. I walk past the police station, and I’m tempted to go in. But I’ve never made a police report before. The only times I’ve been inside police stations, I’ve been either heading into the drunk tank, or coming out of it with a hangover. Earlier this year, I googled How to Get Restraining Order, and it turns out that temporary restraining orders are really simple to get in California. They’re free, and you don’t even need a lawyer. I didn’t file one. Peter’s usually a nice guy. We just get too drunk sometimes.
It’s a lonely midnight. I walk into what looks like a séance. Six people sit in chairs around a circle of LED candles. Between each candle is a plush owl. I join the circle. An old lady grabs a brown owl from the floor. She has a rattail like a padawan. I grab a pink owl with huge cartoon eyes. No one else takes an owl. She waves at me with her owl’s wing. I use my owl’s wing to wave back at her.
“Welcome to the Night Owl meeting,” a cute guy says. He’s a bit older than me, a has-been wrestler with Hep C. He reads off the house rules for this Narcotics Anonymous meeting: park your car on yada-yada side of the building, if you need to put your feet up on the upholstered chairs, put napkins under your shoes, don’t smoke or vape inside the building, and so on. “If you wish to become a home group member, tell one of us after the meeting. Night Owls, tell us who you are.”
“Hoot-hoot!” half of the people in the circle chant in clumsy unison. Among them is the speaker and the lady padawan. A couple weeks ago, I became a Night Owl too, but I can’t bring myself to “hoot” quite yet. Regardless, I’ve gotten to the point in my so-called recovery where I can actually open up to this dimly lit room full of addicts. I’m a twenty-six-year-old who keeps to herself and takes drastic measures to seem normal, sober, calm in public, but somehow I’m able to sit here at NA, around a circle of plush toys and fake candles, and confess some of my milder discretions.
I introduce myself to the Owls when it’s my turn to share in the circle. “So I know it’s the middle of the night, but you guys are actually the first human beings I’ve seen all day. I just couldn’t leave my apartment. Been isolating and stuff... I guess I’ve been overwhelmed for the past couple days. I got a second place award at school for a thing I wrote.”
“Congrats,” a man in a baseball cap says.
“Thanks,” I tell him, but I’m irritated that he cut me off. “Anyway, I forgot about the honors ceremony, totally forgot it was going on. I’m not so good at keeping track of these things. I get spaced out or whatever, so I was mad underdressed for the thing.”
“I bet you still looked hot,” the lady padawan says.
“I don’t know, I mean I was wearing Vans and yoga pants.”
“Ooh,” Baseball Cap says, but I ignore him.
“So I got the second place award and walked up to the front of the place to get it, and I had to go past all these people in gowns and cocktail dresses just to pick up this piece of paper. And then I had to smile and walk all the way back to sit down, and then everyone next to me was touching me and telling me good job and congrats, and all I was thinking was, how the fuck do sober people celebrate? Like am I supposed to be happy with the chocolate chip cookies and tea outside? I don’t want that.” The room laughs, like they know exactly what I’m talking about. “I just don’t want it. And I guess that’s pretty sad that that’s my first thought, but I guess that’s where I am right now. Recovery bullshit. But I’m glad to be here.”
“Thanks for sharing!” everyone chants. “Glad you’re here.”
I tune everyone out, waiting for the meeting to be over so I can lock myself back up in my apartment.
“When I started this program,” the padawan lady says, “I was completely miserable. I couldn’t get excited about anything. I didn’t know how to be happy and sober at the same time.”
“Mm,” I say in agreement. She seems to be responding to my share, so I turn my ears back on. I listen to her talk about her struggle to refrain from using, her patience with herself through all of her relapses, and how she’s learned to ignore her various triggers.
“We addicts, we just don’t want to feel. When we feel, we use. But we can’t. We just can’t. It took me twenty years, but finally, I learned that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. They’re two different things. And the tea gets better.”
When her testimonial is over, everyone thanks her for sharing. But my “Thanks for sharing” doesn’t get tangled up with the chorus. Mine is genuine, loud, impassioned.
The six-year-old I babysit despises bath time. I don’t relate. Showers make me feel comfortable and safe, like every droplet that hits my body works to scrape away the filth that’s long accumulated there, embedded in every pore like blackheads—the dirt that has slowly become part of me. Standing in the tub behind the plastic curtain feels to me like shedding, like progress.
Little Cole hates his nightly bath so much that he’ll sometimes beat his tiny fists against my belly, begging me not to make him sit in the watery froth with his floating toys. On a bad night, like tonight, I know the easiest way to get him to take his bath is if I threaten to call his parents. So I give him a warning look, and then hold my pink phone up to my face, pretending that I’ve dialed. Cole claws at me. He reaches his hands as high as they’ll go, until his palms are flat against my collarbone.
Still bluffing, I say, “Cole, go get in your bath, and I’ll hang up.” But then he slides his hands desperately down my body, over my breasts and then my belly. He throws himself into me. “Don’t touch me!” I yell at him. “Don’t touch me!”
Little Cole looks up at me like I’m a monster. He darts into the bathroom and splashes into the tub. I sink to the floor. I never speak to him like that. I never talk to Cole with that tone of voice, that sternness. I was scary to him. All I know is that when he touched me like that, with his tiny innocent hands, I transported somewhere else. It wasn’t Cole. Those weren’t his hands that I felt groping me, dirty, dirty. His hands could never do that, could never make me feel that way. My conscious, sober mind knows full well that Cole didn’t grope me. Little Cole’s hands are almost two decades younger than mine. His hands and arms and body moved with kiddish desperation, not with perversion. But a moment ago, I was incapable of telling the difference. All I felt was scraping, pressing, taking.
Full recovery—a smooth razing down to perfect, clean, clean, untouchedness—is impossible, but survival is not. I can keep working to untangle happiness from her step-sister pleasure, even if it takes me twenty years, like the NA padawan. I’ll have to learn to let the tea steep, and not to bob the tea bag up and down, because all that makes is bitter, gloomy water. I’ll embrace pleasure, and I’ll accept happiness, but both as fully separate. I’ll relearn a healthier kind of pleasure: a dancing pleasure, a baking pleasure, a writing pleasure, a patient pleasure, a loving pleasure.