ITHACA, N.Y. — I have problems: I am out of clean clothes, I cannot find my glasses, my English paper is late, and my pockets are not big enough for all the heroin I have.
But honestly, more than anything, I want a cigarette.
I’m only 10 minutes from where I’m going, and it’s cold outside. The sun is deceptive; it looks like a nice upstate New York morning, but really it’s December and the wind is whipping up from Ithaca’s gorges. I stop walking and push my fingers deep into my pockets in search of a Parliament.
In a minute, there will be police, with questions and handcuffs. By tomorrow, my scabby-faced mugshot will be all over the news as the Cornell student arrested with $150,000 of smack. I will sober up to a sea of regrets. My dirty clothes and late English paper — one of the last assignments I need to graduate — will be the least of my problems.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, I just want that cigarette. Where the fuck did I put them?
When I woke up this morning in the stash house on Stewart Avenue, the first thing I did was look at my day planner; I am over-organized as ever, even on the brink of disaster. Then, I answered the phone after my boyfriend called repeatedly. We got in a fight. I emailed one of my professors to beg for another extension and promised myself today would be the day I would finally finish everything I need to graduate.
Then I mixed up a spoon of heroin and coke and spent the next two hours poking my arms and legs, fishing around under the skin with a 28-gauge needle in search of relief. My veins are all shot out and scarred and hard to find, so my stabs at oblivion usually involve a few hours of crying as I bleed all over the floor, leaving behind the speckled blood spatter of a crime scene.
This time, I got extra-high, and that last shot was really just out of spite; my boyfriend had the nerve to accuse me of stealing from our heroin, and frankly, I’m pissed. I’m pissed at him, I’m pissed at myself, I’m pissed at every moment that’s led me here, and I’m pissed that he’s calling on repeat, screaming and threatening me while I’m just trying to get high, to get smashed, to get far away from the darkness I’m running from — or toward. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
The phone goes off again, buzzing with the pop-punk notes of a New Found Glory ringtone bought with drug money.
You were everything I wanted, but I just can’t finish what I started.
It’s him, of course: Alex. He’s been smoking crack all morning, holed up with my skittish dog in our basement apartment in Collegetown. I can imagine him there, his tattooed arms prying the blinds open as he checks for the black bears and SWAT teams of his drugged-out hallucinations. He is 14 years my senior, but I know how his face looks childish with terror when his dark eyes gape at what is not there and he begins muttering in his parents’ native tongue. They are Greek, and he is whispering a tragic chorus.
Right now, it seems, he’s more focused on his phone than on his fear, as he’s been calling me again and again to demand that I come back immediately with our Tupperware of drugs. He wants me to bring the whole six-ounce stash so that he can check the weight and make sure I didn’t steal any before we sell it.
Before leaving, I take out three or four grams and tuck it under the insole of my black suede sneakers. I like to be prepared. You never know when you might need more heroin. I leave behind the tiny digital scale, an array of baggies and needles, some assorted pills, and my backpack of schoolwork. But then the drugs kick in, and I accidentally nod out for an hour or so in the bathroom before I finally head out into the cold in a black, dragon-print hoodie that leaves me significantly underdressed for 25-degree weather.
I’m a couple houses away — right next to the gorge where I tried to kill myself three years earlier — when I realize I can’t find the smokes.
I was damaged long ago, though you swear that you are true, I still pick my friends over you.
Without even glancing down at my beat-up flip phone, I send Alex straight to voicemail. Then, I whip the clear container full of heroin out of my oversized hoodie and put it down on the curb.
This — like so much else in my life — is probably not a good idea. But it’ll only take a minute, and I need a damn cigarette. I lose sight of everything else as I hunch over to empty out my pockets, pawing through ballpoint pens, mechanical pencils, gram-sized drug baggies, lint, and the assorted debris of my life.
When I look up, empty-handed, there’s a cop walking toward me. Given the presence of the patrol car a few houses down, I’m guessing he drove, but he sure seems to have materialized out of thin air, a harbinger of bad things ahead breaking through the haze of my high.
Instinctively, I toss the heroin under the nearest car before I stand up, hoping he didn’t see my roadside discus toss. I smile to show that everything is okay. Of course it’s okay, Officer! Why wouldn’t it be?
Then something happens — did I just nod out or black out? — and I’m still yammering away to this cop about the weather (which is not as nice as I’m claiming it is) when a middle-aged lady who works at the nearby flophouse comes plodding across the parking lot. She is large and largely unmemorable — except that she is holding the next two years of my life in her hands.
“Are you looking for this, sir?”
Eying the contents of my Tupperware, the cop clears his throat and instructs me to empty out my pockets, which I know hold at least a $150 eight-ball of coke and 10 or 20 of the deep-green 60-milligram Oxys.
I decide to make this arrest as painless as possible. I take out the coke with my left hand and as I’m handing it over, I take my right hand and pop the pills into my mouth and swallow them all dry. The cop threatens to pepper spray me if I don’t spit them out — but it’s too late because I’ve already eaten them all. It’s enough to kill most people, but I’ve built quite a tolerance through nearly a decade of self-destruction.
Soon I’m handcuffed and in the back seat, bouncing around like one of those annoying little jumpy dogs. The policeman is standing outside doing paperwork, but when he notices the flurry of movement gently rocking the car, he glances over, disinterestedly asking if I’m okay.
“Okay” is not the word I would use to describe this situation.
But I nod and smile; I need him to turn back around so I can finish transferring the heroin from under my insole to a far less accessible spot — up my ass. I know I’m probably going to jail, at least for a few days, so I’ll do anything to stave off the impending dopesickness.
As the pills really start to kick in, the day proceeds in snapshots of clarity surrounded by dense pillars of cognitive fog. The present fades to the past, and I am 17 and alone, sitting on a cement step somewhere around Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I came here for Harvard Summer School; my promising figure skating career had fallen apart, and my parents realized there was something wrong. This seemed like a fix. They know about the eating disorders, the depression. They do not know about the suicide attempt. They do not know what to do. And neither do I.
So here I am — in far too public a place for this — staring down at a brown line of heroin laid out hastily across my copy of Sons and Lovers, a high school summer reading assignment that I will never finish. These are about to be firsts for me. Both my first line and the first time I will not finish my reading assignment.
I am tightly wound, a taut rubber band of perfectionism and self-destruction. And I am about to make things worse.
The rubber band snaps, and I’m back in the present, handcuffed in the Ithaca police station.
At some point, I remember nodding out in an interview room, while police pepper me with questions I don’t remember answering. The next thing I know, I’m staring up at a judge. She talks about me as if I cannot hear her, and the look on her face could be annoyance from being called in on a weekend or sheer disdain at the scabby, smelly junkie in front of her.
Time contracts, and the scene changes. Now I have Fritos all over my chest, and I’m alone in a room with a metal toilet but no toilet paper, a shower stall caked in vomit, a two-inch-thick mattress with holes in it, and two walls made of security glass. I think I’m in a holding cell in the county jail, and I’m guessing that I was just served lunch or dinner, which probably included the Fritos that I’ve nodded out on and made such a mess of.
Another flash, and I’m sitting at a metal desk in front of a jail guard, who’s asking me intake questions I’m entirely too high to answer accurately. My hair is wet from a delousing shower, and I’m wearing a two-sizes-too-big jail-issued snap-up orange jumpsuit paired with flip-flops. Someone took a mugshot, but I don’t remember it.
Everything goes black again, and this time when the world flashes back, I’m holding a blue plastic bin of jail-issue items as I stagger forward, following the commands of a sour-faced guard. I put my bin down on the bunk where I’m told. Before I can turn around again, she’s slammed shut the metal bars, locking me into what I now realize is my own cell.
I’ve been too out of it to pay attention to my surroundings — and I’ve lost my glasses, anyway, further blurring the corners of this unfamiliar world. I only realize that I’m not entirely alone here when another girl wanders up to my cell bars. I am confused. How are other people out and walking around? Why am I locked in my cell and everyone else is not? She explains: You are locked in because you are new and awaiting medical clearance. It could be a week before you get out to mingle. But she has been here some time, and it’s not her first stay. This is her milieu, and she knows how it works. When she starts peppering me with questions, I do my best to answer, but I don’t really understand any of this.
No, I don’t know what my charges are. No, I don’t know if they’re serious. No, I don’t know if I’ve been arraigned. No, I don’t know if I have a lawyer. But, I say, I do know this: I am too high to remain upright any longer, and I have a very important question. I have drugs on me right now, and if you tell me how and when I can best do them without getting caught, then I will give you some. She smiles slowly, a sly Cheshire cat in an orange jumpsuit.
You’ll fit in just fine here.
I wish, for the me I was then, that I could add one more flash, much further forward. I wish that the me nodding out in a cold cinder block cell could see ahead five years, or even 10. I wish that she could see herself getting out of prison, getting sober, finally finishing those college papers and getting a degree. Her last class will be about mass incarceration — and she’ll get an A. That cop who arrested her will run up to her one day on the street and want to shake her hand, smiling in the face of an apparent success story. She’ll get her first job as a reporter — here, in Ithaca. And she’ll love it.
I wish that, instead of being so bitter and broken right now, she could be grateful for the opportunities and chances she’ll have that not everyone will. I wish she could see how she’ll grab at those chances and run with them.
I wish she could see the day in 2018, when she is crying alone on the bedroom floor, not because she is sad, but because she did a thing, and it mattered. She wrote a story about prisoners and how the prison system wouldn’t give them teeth. But then the people in charge read her story and changed their minds and decided to give more prisoners dentures. And yes, sure, it’s a little thing, in one corner of the world — but it made a difference to people who live where she is about to spend the next two years of her life.
I wish she could see who she will become, and the parts of herself she will leave behind. The darkness that she will learn to live with, and the light she will learn to let in.
But I can’t show her those things yet. She’ll have to learn the hard way, on a thin plastic mattress in the Tompkins County Jail where — right now — she really, really wants a cigarette.