I pulled up to the 7/11 and realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ordered an Icee. I mixed Coke and Strawberry into the biggest cup they had. I remembered when Cheyenne and I were in middle school how we used to mix this with the vodka her mom never bothered to lock up. The girl behind the counter looked like she’d recently graduated from high school, although she held herself with a toughness beyond her years. She’d either shrunk her uniform shirt on purpose or lied about her size, because I could see her belly button ring on her washboard stomach. I looked at the half-eaten nachos behind her and figured she only had a few more years to look like this. She didn’t ask where I was going or where I’d come from. When she handed me my change, I noticed the frenzy of old cuts on her left arm. These weren’t those superficial, privileged, symmetrical cuts girls in my high school had. These were frantic and left her arm looking like an old cutting board. These were the cuts that you get when your uncle’s bent you over a couch for a year and no one believes you. I thought about giving her a hundred dollar bill to impress her. I could tell her where I was headed. She’d be touched and give me her number, and then…what? I threw a pack of Cheyenne’s brand of smokes on the counter, paid with a twenty, and left.
I’d meant to get an audio book. The last thing I wanted was to be lost in my thoughts. It wasn’t the first time I’d driven to see her afraid of what I’d find, but this pit in my stomach was new. When her boyfriend called to tell me she’d been arrested, I was relieved. I hadn’t heard from her in six months and figured the next call I’d get would be about “arrangements.”
It took a couple of hours, but I got through to the mental health center at the jail. She told me that Cheyenne was dirty, hungry, and, worst of all, in love. I knew the last thing and the rest didn’t surprise me. The lady explained that the town they were in was basically a Third World country fueled by opiates. Half of the state’s disability checks were dispensed to people in this town. Prostitution? She wasn’t ruling that out. Cheyenne had bruises on her chest she wasn’t willing to explain. She didn’t want me to come. She didn’t want to talk to me. The counselor told me Cheyenne was embarrassed since I’d wired her fifty bucks a few months ago for “groceries.” Like every time that I’d wired her money, I hadn’t expected to see it again. When the counselor put her on the phone, she gave me a brief “hey” that sounded weak and far away. There was a shelter in the next state, I paid for a bus ticket, and crossed my fingers.
She sounded better the next time she called. I didn’t tell her that her boyfriend had found my number in her stuff and started calling me. I wanted him to be an asshole. I wanted him to have beaten her and blown her out to the police. But he was just a kid. He was scared, alone, sad, and sounded like he genuinely cared about her. I wished he’d introduced her to the shit, but it sounded like it was the other way around. He was glad she was okay and getting help. He told me to tell her he missed and loved her. I lied that I would. I pictured him with his John Deere hat and a dick down to his knees. In my mind, he was hot, rugged, and simple. I hated him. He called for a few weeks, and then it stopped. He’d overdosed in their apartment. I was relieved she couldn’t go back there.
Cheyenne’s mom was a teenager when she had her, and she was about the mother you’d expect from that. I’d figured it’d be poetic that heroin would be responsible for the beginning and end of her life. Her mom was hot. Like everybody’s first mom-crush hot. And funny. Crass, make-you-blush as a teenager funny, but funny. She was powerful like that. I knew Cheyenne’s dad had beaten her. She had him hauled off by the police before Cheyenne started school, and nobody’d seen him since. She was protective in the way she knew how to be. She didn’t want Cheyenne out getting drunk, and getting in trouble, so she let us drink, “in moderation,” at their house. Cheyenne was the kind of beautiful, carefree teenager her mother had been. She had a right to worry about her. If she was worried, it didn’t show, though. Her mom wasn’t home much, so all the danger she worried about in the world, just came to her house while she was out.
I think everybody but me lost their virginity in that house. There’s at least three guys who think that it was theirs and Cheyenne’s first. She threw our grad party at her house. At the end of that night, we laid in her bed and talked about our plans for next year. I’d be able to blame the alcohol the next day so I leaned in and kissed her. After a second we both started laughing. Well, she started laughing, and I joined in, pretending I found it funny too. I adjusted to hide my hard-on, turned over, and went to sleep. It’d be years before I’d hug her again.
The next time I was that close to her, she’d been missing for a few weeks. Her mom asked me to go looking for her. I called every number her mother gave me and went to every address. They’d say they didn’t know her or hadn’t seen her in months. I heard from her a couple of days later when she gave me the address of a place the fire department would let burn. I picked her up on a corner and drove quickly out of that neighborhood. The man at the counter of the diner eyed us suspiciously. When I saw us in the mirror behind the counter, I understood. People used to mistake us for a couple, and I loved it when she didn’t correct them. Now I looked like her probation officer.
We sat there drinking coffee, and she told me about the bugs living under her skin. Her mother didn’t believe her, her boyfriend didn’t believe her, and none of the doctors believed her. She pointed at small black dots she said were moving. She told me about “Charlene,” who got her the drugs the doctors wouldn’t prescribe. I’d met Charlene when I was looking for her. She weighed 85 pounds soaking wet and had on a threadbare Iron Maiden t-shirt and no bra on when she opened the door. The smell of stale smoke and ketchup wafted out of the door when she opened it. She’d told me that she didn’t even know who I was talking about. I felt sick on the way out when I noticed a baby carrier and other evidence that children might be watching television inside while she lied to me.
I’d wished I picked a bar rather than a diner. The lights were too bright, and the caffeine and sugar made her worse. Also, she couldn’t smoke in here. She’d always made smoking look so sexy. She’d close her eyes, take a slow drag, cock her head slightly, and blow out of a tiny opening in the middle of her lips. We went outside, and she fumbled to find the lighter and then to get a flame. Once she got it lit, she dragged hard and long and kept the butt in her mouth while smoke poured out of her mouth and nose. She talked with the cigarette epileptically bouncing up and down in her mouth. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but she smoked it until the embers stung her nose.
After the diner closed, I thought of bringing her to my house. I knew she’d steal from me and be gone before morning. I told myself that one night in a clean house, in a clean bed wouldn’t cure her anyway. I dropped her off where I’d found her. She hugged me across the seat, and I could feel three ribs in each of my hands. I smelled her and was reminded of Charlene, her apartment, and her kids. It’d be six months before I heard from her again. This time, she was short on rent.
Cheyenne and I were born eleven days apart, and she sometimes told people we were twins. We did kind of look alike. The looks that gave her power over men served to make me appear gay or at least harmless. These weren’t the looks that greeted me at the shelter. She’d aged ten years in the two since I’d seen her. She smiled and cried when she saw me. I hid my shock at her missing front tooth. She was holding hands with a brown kid about four. She thanked me for the cigarettes, hugged me quickly, and asked me to watch the boy while she went outside for a smoke.
She must have smoked a few while she was out there, because the boy (“Damon,” the name on top of his artwork) ran out of paper while she was gone. He’d drawn six hills and started asking me to spell words for him. He asked me how to spell “car” then “crash” then “gun” and “shot.” I stopped when he asked me to spell “heart attack” and I realized he was labeling tomb stones. I told him to draw some grass and realized I lacked the qualifications to watch this kid. Damon’s mom got back from work before Cheyenne came in. She thanked me and didn’t even ask who I was.
When Cheyenne walked in, she ran right by me and hugged “Bob,” her social worker. She brought him over to me by the hand and introduced me as the person who “saved” her. She told him we were born eleven days apart, and with the skill that only someone in this line of work has, he said “who’s older?” She told me she’d gained fifteen pounds since she’d been there. Looking at her gaunt frame, I was horrified at what she must have looked like when she got here. She wanted to tell me about Beth, her therapist, and how “amazing” she was. Cheyenne had always been brutally honest, and I needed to interrupt her before she started telling me about eating out of dumpsters or giving ten dollar hand jobs to old men who’d just cashed their social security checks. So, just blurted out, “Heroin? You hate needles.”
When she was a kid she was terrified of them. She told me how her mother was the only one who could get her to take a shot. She’d squeeze her hand so hard at the moment that the needle was going in that she wouldn’t even notice it. Cheyenne told me about her boyfriend looking her in the eye, squeezing with one hand while deftly inserting the needle in the opposite arm. She told him she loved him and meant it. She told me he stroked her arm and kissed her ear the way her mom had. Probably, he’d dropped her to get his own fix. Memory’s fluid, especially when the person you’re remembering is dead. Her therapist probably let her believe this shit. Better to mourn what you didn’t have then to go out looking for someone new.
I showed her Damon’s drawings, and asked about his parents. She corrected me. It wasn’t Damon, it was “Da – Man” like “You Da Man!” I thought that was a horrible thing to do to the kid. She asked me about my life, my work, if I was seeing someone (I wasn’t). She said she had group and asked if I could wait about an hour. She left without waiting for an answer.
When she left, I looked around the room. There were a lot of those inspirational posters “You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take,” “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and then, of all things, a poster about forest fires and the Flannery O’Connor quote “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” I thought about what people say about being responsible for the lives you save. And I left.
In the weeks after I got back home, I started going to NA meetings. I thought I’d be shy but I wasn’t. I thought they’d see right through me, but they didn’t. I told them about my addiction. I told them about how I’d met the love of my life. I gave them details about her teenaged mother, her uncle who wouldn’t leave her alone, the frantic cuts up and down her arms, and I told them how I’d lost my virginity to her on our graduation night. I told them all about our son, how we’d named him Damon, and how his friends called him “Da Man.” There was a woman in the front row who cried out loud when I told them about the car accident where we lost him. I told them about how she hated needles, but that she couldn’t handle straight life either after that. I told them about her last fix, me squeezing her hand, her looking up at me with a face as young and beautiful as the day we first kissed, and how she whispered “mommy” before she took her last breath.
I cried as if it had all happened. Just like that.
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