I was stoned, too stoned. Not having a lot of experience with weed, I began to worry that I'd forget to breathe or forget how to speak. That's when Mike jammed the bong into my face. "Have another hit, baby," he said.
"No." I pushed it away.
"I have something else you can put your lips on," Mike whispered, nuzzling my neck.
"Stop," I said in voice so tiny it could've come from a Barbie doll. When Mike wanted me to do something, I rarely said anything or raised a fuss, mostly because he was ten years older and an Iraq War hero and muscular enough to be on the glossy cover of a fitness magazine. My best friend Erin told me that I was searching for a father-figure in Mike, seeing I barely knew my real dad, who was an asshole and a criminal liar who lived in the area but never bothered to get involved in my life. I told Erin that it had nothing to do with my dad. I liked Mike because he was hot.
And he was
His roommate Jayce, however, was not. With his shaved head and sleeves of tattoos, Jayce was a creeper. I'd only met him a few times and he never said much to me. He would just stare at my chest in the same way some of those pervs who taught at my high school would stare at me during class, like they were hungry. Mike told me Jayce recently got out of county jail after six-months, but he didn't say what he was in for. And I didn't ask.
Through a cloud of smoke, I caught Jayce staring at me, rubbing himself and smiling in a way that gave me chills. Mike, noticing his roommate getting a good look, grinned at him.
So I focused my attention on a crack in the plaster on the living room wall, mostly to keep the room from spinning. The apartment, on the second floor of an old house in downtown Manchester, was located in a bad section, and those cracks and the worn blue carpet reminded me of a sick old woman. At that moment, more than anything, I wanted to be in my bed, under my covers, listening to my iPod, as opposed to the heavy metal blasting from the speakers that hung from the cracked walls.
To avoid further eye contact with Jayce, I took my cell phone from my purse and checked my messages. I had a voice mail from Erin and a text from my mother. I opened the text. It read: WHERE R U??? CALL ME I'M WORRIED. My mom would try to act young and hip by using the text-lingo. It was kind of queer, but kind of cute, too.
Mike placed his hand, a vise grip, on my thigh and squeezed it hard enough to leave finger marks. "Have another beer," he yelled over the music and shoved a can of Bud Light into my hand. Then he stood up and went to the kitchen to get another one.
As soon as he left the room, I reached for my cell phone to reply to Mom, to lie about where I was, but Jayce's stare smothered me, like his eyes were heat lamps on my bare legs. This time, he cocked his head to the side and tried looking up my skirt. With a remote control, he turned down the music. "You have a smoking body," he said.
Terrified, I swallowed a sip of beer and turned away. When Mike came back, he took another hit off the bong, sat down beside me and placed his hand back on my thigh, sneaking it up my skirt. I tried to move it, but his fingers wouldn't budge. The air in the room thickened with the smoke.
I dropped my cell phone between the cushions and sprung from the couch. "Your roommate is right there."
Mike sighed. "Why don't you call your mommy and have her bring you home? It doesn't seem like you're in the mood to party."
"No." With my mother's going through her third round of chemo and my freak of a stepbrother who was probably facedown in my underwear drawer, home was the last place I wanted to be—other than school, that is. My stepfather was a decent guy, a contractor who liked to drink beer and play his guitar, but he was struggling to help Mom and cranky. "Let's go in your room," I whispered to Mike.
"Let's do a tequila shot."
For the second time, Mike left the room, and for the second time, Jayce tried looking up my skirt as I stared down at that shabby blue carpet, my knees pressed tightly together, feeling between the couch cushions for my phone. Stoned and drunk and scared, I couldn't find it.
Mike came back with three shot glasses and an expensive bottle of Patrón. He filled the glasses and passed them around. While Mike and Jayce slammed theirs back, fast and smooth, I plugged my nose like I was about to dive into murky water and poured it down my throat, coughing and gagging as the tequila dropped like a hot knife in my belly. Mike leaned over and licked my neck. "You're so beautiful."
"Let's go to your room."
"I have a better idea." He cupped his hand around my boob and squeezed—too hard. "Why don't we do it here and let Jayce videotape us. I want you to see how sexy you look when I'm inside you."
I turned my head from Mike's hot breath. The pot and the alcohol and pulsing music had messed with my sense of balance, making me sick and dizzy. "I feel weird."
Mike shrugged. "You could do things to me. That way I'm the only one naked on camera. Of course, if you're really feeling weird, I can call you a cab."
I wasn't sure which option was better: staying in the apartment and getting Mike off while his creep roommate taped it, or waiting outside for a cab, a teenage white girl on the street corner in a bad section of town. I told myself, Mike didn't say anything about having to touch his roommate. So it was a little crazy, a little slutty. So what, I told myself, feeling a little less dizzy. I could handle it.
So I poured another shot of tequila and choked it down. As the guys cheered me on, my joints turned to liquid and my head dropped on Mike's lap, my long blonde hair landing like a parachute. I reached for his zipper.
"Quick, dude! Grab the camera!"
The cab's engine grew softer, and then softer, and then disappeared down the dark road. I didn't want to be dropped off at home, so I had the driver leave me a half a mile down the road, in front of a white ranch with its porch lights on. I fell to my hands and knees on the damp grass and started to heave.
I knew a half a mile down the road, a bald woman with a lavender headscarf tied around her skull was pacing the kitchen floor, stopping in front of the sink and pouring herself a glass of warm tap water to wash down a few more Vicodins. I also knew my mother wouldn't really sleep until I walked through that door, and I had realized, while in the cab, that I left my phone between the cushions of their couch so I couldn't call.
With my hair covering my face, I spit bile on the slick grass. I wished I would pass out and lose consciousness, anything to stop the sickness; anything to stop him from grabbing me by the back of my head and shoving himself into my mouth until I gagged and vomited the tequila shots; anything to stop his roommate—holding the camera in one hand and stroking himself with the other—from squirting in my eye; anything to get back what I left there.
Anything to make it stop.
Then he rubbed it into my skin like I was some animal or inflatable fuck doll. Stop. Then they were both smiling in the video camera, giving the thumbs up, while the music pumped and I got sick again. Stop. Then the cracked walls were spinning and wouldn't stop, they wouldn't stop.
I fell to my stomach, my cheek pressed to the cold ground.
I woke up beside a bush, the sunlight stinging my eyes. Somehow, the owners of the house, a cop and his wife, hadn't noticed me in their front yard, as I'm sure they wouldn't have taken kindly to it. Wanting nothing more than a hot shower, I brushed off my legs and started up the road until I reached our dirt driveway and turned toward my house.
My stepfather Wayne and the two guys who played in his rock band were sitting on lawn chairs outside Wayne's RV, their red cooler iced and packed with beer. It was their Saturday routine: drink all day then play a gig at a local bar.
An enormous man, Wayne stood up when he saw me at the end of the driveway and waved his large arms over his head. "Darla, she's home," he yelled. "She's coming up the driveway."
I kept my head down, biting my bottom lip as I tried to walk past Wayne without stopping. But he stepped in front of me and lifted my chin with his index finger. "Jenny, you all right?"
"Not now, Wayne." I hurried past him and in the side door. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table in her ratty pink bathrobe, her hideous black wig crooked on her head. "Where the hell were you? I tried calling you all night and there was no answer. I thought you were dead." Then when she saw me, really saw me, she clasped her chest. "My baby girl."
I moved to the sink, filled up a glass with tap water as Mom rose from her chair with her mouth open and arms outstretched, her words stuck like a nail in her throat. Then, in what seemed like slow motion, she collapsed.
When she hit the ground, the wig fell off—her scalp exposed. I remember screaming, falling to my knees, and cradling her bald head in my arms. I pleaded with her not to die. Not now. Not yet
And she didn't die. Not then. Not yet.
Wayne rolled down the driver's side window and pressed the car lighter to the end of his cigarette. It was almost one a.m. I sat beside him in his truck on the way back from the hospital. Seeing Mom, pale and weak, lying in that white bed with that stupid wig on her head, had temporarily vacuumed up the pain and humiliation I felt after the other night. However, like the IV drip jammed into my mother's forearm, the pain and humiliation was slowly returning, drop by drop. For the first time, I began thinking about things that I'd start thinking about more and more in those next few months. At the hospital, Mom told Wayne and me the same thing she'd been telling the hospice nurse who came to the house each week. "Don't count me out," she said. "I haven't given up." But the facts were the facts: the cancer had metastasized to her bones and liver, and at what point do you stop fighting the things that are inevitable and let the world have its way with you? Maybe my mother was showing courage, a courage she wanted me to see, but somehow it all seemed so pointless, like some sad song without words, without a beginning or an end.
There wasn't much else to say.
Wayne drove slowly down a dark back road, the gravel crunching beneath the tires and the radio turned low. "You know, she wants us to keep living together," Wayne said and paused to drag on his cigarette. "Even after."
His soft bearded profile, the plump cheeks and the thick padding of flesh below his chin, made him look safe, honest and kind. For a man, that is. I almost told him. Although I wasn't sure what it was I had to tell, a sickness kept churning in my stomach, and I wanted to purge the words. My bottom lip began to tremble and pressure gathered behind my eyes and forehead. I pressed my face against Wayne's shoulder as sobs, not words, exploded from my chest.
Wayne pulled the truck to the side of the road and put his thick arm around me. "It's going to be all right."
"It's not fair. It's not right. I didn't deserve it."
"I know, sweetheart. No one deserves it."
We stayed on the side of the road for the better part of an hour, saying nothing. As I emptied myself of the pressure behind my eyes, not a single car, not a single set of headlights passed us. It was almost as if we weren't there.
It rained the next day, and I didn't bother getting out of bed until the nightfall. By then the sky was a clear black pool, and the air had turned cool. In the lawn chair outside the RV, with a wooden tiki torch driven into the dirt beside him, Wayne strummed a slow song on his acoustic guitar that sounded a little like a night after a rainy day.
Wayne continued to play as I walked outside, acknowledging me with a nod. I watched him, hugging myself, and then clapped softly when he finished. Wayne patted the seat on the lawn chair next to him, put down the guitar, and lit a cigarette. "How are you holding up?"
I shrugged then sat down. "Not so good."
"What was that song you were playing?"
"It's nothing yet. I was just messing around in A-minor. It's a lonely key. I'm not so good when it comes to writing down words, though. Words aren't my thing."
"I know," I said. "I'm no good with words either. But it's a nice song."
The side door opened and D.J., my stepbrother, hunkered down the steps and sat in the third lawn chair. Like Wayne, DJ was large and hairy, and the kids at school, including some of my friends, teased him relentlessly. They called him Sasquatch and threw food at him during lunch. In other words, they humiliated him. Sometimes I felt bad, but I never told them to stop. Not once.
"Don't the two of you have school tomorrow?" Wayne asked as he opened the red cooler and plunged his hand inside, the ice rumbling.
"I'm not going," I said. "I'm going to visit Mom." While I thought about stopping by Mike's apartment to get my cell phone, I knew never would. I'd have the number shut off, the account closed.
"Fair enough," Wayne said to me.
"Jenny, I'm sorry about Darla," D.J. said, staring at his hands.
When the rumbling in the cooler stopped, Wayne's hand appeared holding two cold cans of Bud. He handed a beer to me and one to D.J.
"Hell," he said. "Just don't tell no one."