You don't like to dance, but you do it anyway.
. . .
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The money is good and it’s easy to find a guy willing to buy you a meal in exchange for your attention. You only dance at the Pink Horse because it’s the club where some of the girls are friendly. That, and the floor manager does a poor job keeping track of what you pull in every night, which means you don’t have to tip out to the DJ and the bartenders and the house as much as you’re supposed to. Not that any of the other girls do. But you never talk about your money with them, afraid that someone might try to get you fired. It’s happened before.
Your parents hate that you dance.
“It’s disgusting,” your mom tells you.
“Degrading,” your dad says.
The last time you were home, your mom tried burning your lingerie in the barrel behind the garage.
You know being a stripper isn’t something to be proud of, but you don’t have many alternatives. The local economy dried up and disappeared. Ten years ago, downtown was a thriving ring of mom and pop stores and popular restaurants, ice cream parlors and family-owned auto shops; now it’s nothing but a collection of concrete corpses baring mute testimony to what once was, behind which sit rapidly expanding trailer parks for as far as the eye can see. Today’s downtown is a place deadened with monotony, where people look exhausted and lost and uncertain, and where the abrasive labor of time is made manifest.
Most people have moved away, joining the small-town diaspora depopulating the northern part of the state. The town that remains is like a microcosm of the opioid epidemic, and according to the evening news, things are getting worse. WXIA—TV Atlanta says that heroin deaths have climbed by 3,844 percent over the past year, while across the northern spur of Interstate 285, fatalities have tripled since April, hitting Fulton, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties especially hard. Some places have been so ravaged by the epidemic that they’ve had to borrow cold storage trailers as overflow morgues.
It’s difficult for outsiders to understand why things are the way they are. Unless folks see it all for themselves — the neglected neighborhoods, the indifferent municipal upkeep, the oceans of prairies surrounding shutdown factories — it’s just not possible to fully comprehend. The only shot at a decent job is in the city. Not that it matters. Nobody can pursue opportunities there because of the social barrier surrounding Atlanta like a towering, brick wall: The skyrocketing cost of living. You struggle to pay the weekly $200 at an extended stay motel; the thought of trying to pay the stratospheric monthly rent downtown is absurd.
You are, technically, homeless. On the streets, perception is skewed; reality is fuzzy, and time weighs heavily. Each week blurs anonymously into the one before. It’s like gazing out of a train window, your vision perpetually out of focus, the twin mechanisms of confinement and exposure relentlessly at work. Anchored by inertia, living in slow-motion while the rest of the world is on fast-forward, you’re not able to discern things for what they are.
Each day brings with it some cruel surprise, the sort of thing that would crush anyone else but you’ve been desensitized to. Though relatively young, you’ve been prematurely introduced to life’s brutal compromises and forfeitures. You lack the basic restraints of a normal young adulthood, unable to participate in the ordinary minutiae that might help you maintain sound judgement. Unburdened by anxieties derivative of adolescent angst, you’re consumed instead by hardships so implausibly stressful that your peers cannot fully comprehend the gravity of the situation you find yourself in. You are very alone.
Lately you’ve been staying at a motel near the club, a pay-by-the-hour joint that caters to quickies. The rooms are horrible; the beds smell like stale sweat and the shag carpets are spotted with lurid stains. There’s a deep sadness to these places, a sense of loss and unhappiness that makes them volatile. Each night brings with it the muffled shouts of fighting. But there’s a double-bolt lock on the door, and sometimes that’s all you really want, even if it’s only the illusion of safety.
You don’t sleep on the streets, but you’re often forced to stay in halfway houses and other wretchedly isolated places like boiler rooms and old church basements. Or your car. You’re mindful of parking somewhere safe, but it’s not easy to find a good spot. If not for the cost of gas, you’d drive north every night, maybe to a place like Cobb County, maybe even Chastain, so you could sleep under the stars. Just like when you were younger, when your dad would take you camping and let you stay up late so he could point out all the different constellations, those evenings when the last bit of sun turned ocher before melting into the horizon and the darkness brought the trees in closer and the two of you would huddle near the dimming embers of a campfire, your chairs so close that your shoulders touched, your heads tilted back, your eyes lost in the soft, sparkling stars that gave off such a profound sense of peace.
“We’re all the same, you know, because of the stars,” he once said as you both gazed upward.
“What do you mean?”
“The stars. That’s where we all come from. What we’re all made of. Dust from the stars.”
Most of the time you can’t decide if you’re chasing the high or fleeing the hell. Heroin is like a roller coaster with a broken track: sooner or later things are going to abruptly end. Heroin kills by slowing the respiratory system. When someone overdoses, they often nod off and suffocate.
The drug dictates your day to day existence, and the vast majority of your time is spent copping. You can have your dope delivered by sending a few text messages, or you can plunge downtown and hope to score that way. But you’ve always hated dealers. There’s not a dealer in the world who’d hesitate to take advantage of an addict. If you’re lucky, a dealer might cut you a break and give you $40 of heroin for $30, leaving you $10 to split between your gas tank, cigarettes, and maybe an iced tea.
Dope dealer watches are as fickle as the economy. They’re never punctual. A dealer will text you to meet him at Peachtree Package in ten minutes. You’ll get there in five and end up waiting hours for the guy to show, slouched down in your car as paranoia hijacks your brain, obsessively checking the rearview mirror for the flashing of police lights, eyeing anyone in sight as a threat, gnawing away at your fingernails and chain-smoking cigarettes.
Eventually the dope arrives. The dealer will berate you for blowing up his phone and not doing as you’re told and sitting there, quietly, as if that’s an easy thing to do when you’re in full-fledged withdrawal. Nothing he says registers. As soon as you have the heroin in hand, all you can think about is getting back to wherever it is you’re staying so you can shoot up. Half the time you don’t even make it that far, you just pull into the back of a fast-food restaurant or a gas station and park under a flickering sodium light, grabbing your rig from your purse and setting up shop on the center console as a new, clinical-like intensity takes over. You put the dope in the spoon. Squirt forty units of water in it. Drop a piece of cotton so that it turns dark and swells. Heat the spoon with your lighter until the heroin bubbles and the curiously sweet smell floats into your nostrils, giving you goosebumps. You draw the shot through the cotton and flick the air out of the rig. Then you look for something — anything — to tie off with. Usually it’s a shoelace. You wrap it above your elbow as tight as a tourniquet, pumping your fist and searching for a vein that hasn’t already collapsed.
Heroin is heavily trafficked. The dope you pick up is never pure. Rarely does the product go directly from the source and straight to the addict. Sometimes it’ll pass between multiple mules before it even reaches you. There are always middlemen, and they step on the dope; they try expanding the volume and stretching the supply by diluting it with inert compounds and more powerful synthetics like quinine, caffeine, maltitol, diazepam, methaqualone, and phenobarbital. Because heroin typically comes in the form of a black, tar-like substance, it’s easy to conceal things in the drug and pass it off as pure, which means the potency is completely up in the air. Cutting makes a cooked batch highly unpredictable. Shooting up heroin is like playing Russian roulette, with every shot a dice roll with death.
And then there’s fentanyl. First manufactured in the 1960s as a painkiller for surgery patients, it’s one of the most potent opiates ever—100x more powerful than morphine and 50x stronger than heroin. A lethal dose of heroin is approximately 30mg; a lethal dose of fentanyl is a mere 3mg—the size of three sugar crystals.
A while back, cops in New Jersey seized a shipment of fentanyl from the trunk of a car. The total amount discovered turned out to contain enough poison to wipe out the entire population of New Jersey and New York City—combined. A trunk’s worth can wreak more death than a dirty bomb or a small nuclear warhead. Most fentanyl sold in the U.S. enters from Mexico, where drug cartels and international trafficking organizations exploit America’s porous border, and from labs in China that manufacture the drug and then sell and distribute it through illicit markets online.
Some nights you’re able to stay with a friend. Some. You’re always having to move around, never staying in one place for more than a week or two. Life has a transient, provisional theme that’s impossible to get used to. But for tonight at least, you’re staying with Ashley.
Ashley is sober, just like the people she hangs out with now, but you grew up together as best friends. Ashley doesn’t care what others think if she’s seen with you. She might be the only person in the world who isn’t scared away by the intensity of your personal issues. Her studio apartment is in the middle of downtown Buckhead. It’s nice. She makes good money as a photographer, but you know she comes from money too.
“Are you doing okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m doing great,” you lie. “Dancing has been amazing lately.”
What you really want to tell Ashley is how last week a storage facility disposed of everything you’ve ever owned because you failed to make last month’s payment, and after overdosing on the couch at home, your parents almost didn’t call for help because they thought it might be for the best.
Ashley glances at your arms, but you remembered to wear a long sleeve shirt. There’s a pregnant pause before she asks what you’ve been dreading she’ll ask because you hate lying about it, you hate lying about it because every time you lie about it, it feels like a little piece of you is torn away, and when you lie about it to someone you love and care about it’s even worse, it feels like a storm is raging in your gut.
“Are you still…?”
“No! No, I’m clean,” you wave dismissively. “I actually got clean a while back, I’ve been going to meetings again. Forgot to tell you that.”
“Wow! Gosh, that’s so good to hear. Seriously, Jenny. I’m so glad. I’ve been, like, crazy worried about you. I called your house phone a bit back. Your mom said she hadn’t heard from you in over a month, so I automatically thought the worst, you know?”
You catch yourself tracing your collarbone with your fingertips, a nervous tic.
“Oh. Yeah. Well, you know her. We’re just like, you know, going through a rough patch right now, or whatever. She hates I’m still dancing. We got into a big fight about it. That’s all.” You laugh, but it’s such a terrible, fake laugh and you’re relieved when Ashley changes the subject.
“Are you dancing tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I have the night shift again.”
Ashley nods and another prolonged silence follows. You almost ask if you can spend the night again tomorrow, but you don’t. You want her to ask you if you’d like to, you want her to so badly. But she doesn’t. You try not to think about it.
You wait for Ashley to pass out, listening intently to the cadence of her breathing, straining to detect that rhythmic exhale signaling the deep stage of sleep.
When you’re sure she’s out, you get up and slowly creep to the bathroom. Your heart feels funny and your nerves begin to stir, but the sensation isn’t even all that uncomfortable anymore. You’re just as addicted to the process of getting high and the intense secrecy it often necessitates as you are to the high itself.
You close the door. You try using the glow of your phone screen at first, afraid that if you turn on the overhead light it’ll wake her up. It’s a small apartment, and the bathroom is basically right next to her bed. But you can’t tell how big of a shot you’re about to do and you’re afraid of overdosing and you can’t even see any veins so you turn on the light above the medicine cabinet mirror. It stutters and hums and bathes the counter in fluorescence.
You’re rushing now. You find a vein and slowly insert the needle. There’s a little sting. You pull back on the plunger and a streak of blood crawls up the middle of the clear liquid. You wait for it to hit, holding your breath while you stare at yourself in the mirror. Time seems to stand still.
Just when you think you’ve missed the vein, you feel it. The warm tickle. The peace that quickly turns into a rush of euphoria. And just like that, you’re safe. Everything's okay. Everything’s fine. And everything’s going to be alright. You flash a lazy grin in the mirror before turning off the light.
You dream the entire night. It feels so real. In the dream, you’re alone. Your parents are gone because it’s Sunday morning and they’re at church with Sarah, your little sister. Sunshine from a cloudless, periwinkle sky catches your face through the window as you leave your room. It’s beautiful out, perfect Georgia weather. You move slowly down the hallway, bare feet padding across the carpet, each step soft and deliberate even though nobody is home, freezing momentarily when a breeze disturbs the wind chime above the front porch and your heart skips a beat.
You reach Sarah’s room. As soon as you get past the doorway you speed up as if you’re being timed, making a beeline toward the plastic, pink bank on the dresser, grabbing it and flipping it over on the bed. The medley of coins shatters the silence, but it’s like you’re in a trance now, oblivious. You don’t think, you just do, your subconscious in complete control. You pry the rubber stopper off the bottom and empty the contents, surprised at how much money there is. You take the large bills and put the rest of the money back inside.
Later, when you’re in your car waiting, you count it: $140. It’s enough to last a short week, maybe more. Then you remember. You chide yourself: It’ll last. Of course it will. You’re going to make sure of it. You’re going to make sure of it because this money came from your sister’s piggy bank, and it’s different—this money is special, and you’re going to replace it and you’re going to return the money as soon as you’re able to. You’re going to very soon, actually, because you’re going to get clean soon. You just need to get high a few more times before then.
The dream is long and uninterrupted. It has a detailed clarity to it, like a poignant memory. Because it is a memory.