Issue 1

Maybe It Starts…

 · Fiction

Maybe it starts like this:

It’s been a year since the divorce, and how long since your last date? Your ex gets the girls two weekends a month, but it’s his perky young plaything who picks them up because your ex can’t be bothered. And the key word in the arrangement is amicable, so you’re all smiles as you walk your girls across the lawn and hand them over to this bony thing who’s wearing a rock on her finger that’s twice as big as anything the bastard ever gave you.

Not that you notice.

Not that you care.

Not that the rock gets under your skin or anything, but when you see it, you might let it slip that you’re glad she’s early because you have a date tonight, and there are a few things you need to take care of before he arrives.

No one special, you might have said if the bony thing had bothered to ask. Just someone you met through some friends. Self-employed, drives a Lexus. Dark, brooding eyes and a thick head of hair. But, really, it’s no big deal, you want to say to your ex’s girlfriend as she smiles and takes your children away. It’s just a date like any other. No promises, no expectations. Just two adults meeting for dinner and polite conversation.

Which is why, you suppose, you spend the next two hours second-guessing everything from your shoes and your makeup to how you’ll say hi when you open the door, wishing all the while you had fuller lips and fewer wrinkles and your hair wasn’t so obviously orange.

Ten minutes after he’s supposed to arrive, your date shows up on your doorstep with a rose in his hand and a story on his lips about how he got turned around in the long, looping cul-de-sacs of your neighborhood. It’s okay, you tell him. You understand. It happens all the time. The streets are narrow. The houses all look the same. Even the pizza man gets lost.

Your date hands you the rose, and you place it in a drinking glass. Then it’s dinner and a movie, no pressure at all. He holds doors for you. You laugh at his jokes. At the end of the night, he walks you up the path to your house, and the two of you linger for a moment on the front step.

You had fun, you say. Maybe you can do it again sometime.

That would be nice, he says.

Unless, that is, he’d like to come in?

Even better, he says, and you open the door and tell him to sit and ask the man if he’d like a drink.

You have beer. You have wine. You have vodka and gin and whiskey and rum that have been gathering dust since your tenth anniversary when everyone in your world came out to wish you and your husband many happy returns. With each other, they should have specified, though by most accounts the skinny girl was already a firmly established presence in your marriage or lack thereof at that point. Not that you’ve dwelled on the issue at any length, you say with a laugh, and your date declines the drink.

“Well, I could sure use one,” you say, silently berating yourself for mentioning your ex.

“Actually,” your date says, but leaves it at that.

“Actually?” you say, and here’s where things start to get fuzzy.

“I might have some coke if you want to catch a little buzz.”

You laugh at first, because, what, is he crazy? Then you see he’s not laughing, so you say the word aloud as if maybe you misunderstood. Cocaine? A picture of the girls hangs over the fireplace, and you wonder if they heard. In the dining room, in the kitchen, in the hallway, in your bedroom — their pictures are everywhere, reminding you to be good, to be responsible, to behave like a mother, for Christ’s sake, but even as he apologizes for raising the subject, you say it’s okay. It’s just that you’ve never been high before, not even on pot, and all you know about coke is what you’ve seen on TV. Models and starlets get hooked on the first hit. Rock stars trash hotel rooms and beat their girlfriends. Pro athletes lose championships. Politicians sell their souls. Druglords take over vast stretches of concrete and steel while lawyers rake in fortunes. Blight spreads like wildfire through the cities and suburbs, and before you know it, everyone owns a speedboat and carries a machine gun.

“Sorry,” your date says. “Forget I mentioned it.”

“No,” you say. “I mean — what’s it like?”

It’s different for everyone, he says. It’s hard to describe. If you want to try some, he starts to say, but you say no before he can finish.

Then you say you’re not sure.

Then you ask what he thinks, and he lays it all back on you.

You can feel the girls watching you from over the fireplace as your date takes a tiny plastic bag from his pocket. It’s the kind of bag you associate with spare buttons, and the coke reminds you of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. On television, they always tap it onto mirrors, but your date says any smooth surface will do, so you grab a cheese plate and hope it’s not lame, and all you can think as your date taps a small amount of powder onto the slick, green surface and rolls a twenty-dollar bill into a tight little tube is This is cocaine. In my house. On my coffee table. Am I out of my mind?

This is cocaine.

Your date asks if you’re sure, and you nod, and he tells you what to do, and you do it, and it’s no big deal. He does it, too, and asks if you want more, and you say no and tilt your head back and try to feel it, but nothing happens.

“So?” he says, rubbing his nose.

You shake your head.



You’re mostly relieved but a little disappointed. All the hype, they make it sound like you should be cranking the stereo and humping like bunnies by now. But this? Pleasant if somewhat meandering conversation for another hour, then a soft kiss on the lips as you see him to the door. After that, the cheese plate goes straight into the dishwasher, and you lie in bed, awake and giddy, until sunrise.

You know for sure it isn’t the coke that’s keeping you up. You’re just excited because the two of you really seemed to click, and when he calls the next morning to ask if you’re free the following Friday, you tell him yes before he can finish. Then the girls come home on Sunday and want to know all about your date, so you tell them he was a gentleman. You tell them he held the door. You tell them he took you to dinner at a fancy restaurant and then to see a movie. When the movie was over, he drove you home and walked you to your door, and you said goodnight.

But then I invited him in and did a line of coke! you wish you could say because it’s sexy and dangerous and totally not you.

Did you kiss? your daughters ask.

But a lady never tells.

Will you see him again? they want to know.

If they don’t mind a babysitter, you say as the voice in your head kicks into overdrive: I was sitting on the couch. I pulled back my hair. I leaned over the coffee table and did a line of cocaine.

Not that you’d ever do it again, you’d tell your coworkers, who would never believe you, anyway, because you’re always the one making half-serious comments about how they’re smoking themselves to death whenever they come back from their cigarette breaks. And not that it’s a big deal, you’d tell the neighbors, who would be sure to tell your husband. In fact, it really didn’t do anything for you, you’re tempted to tell the babysitter because she’s sixteen and might think that this new secret at the center of your life somehow makes you cool, somehow puts you in a new category, somehow takes you out of one world and drops you into another.

Your daughters are waiting when your date arrives on Friday night. He shakes their hands and promises to have you back at a decent hour. You kiss them both goodbye, and you’re barely in the car when you bring up the subject you’ve been dying to talk about all week.

You still can’t believe you did it, you say.

He apologizes and says he didn’t mean to pressure you into anything.

No, you say. It was fun. Just the once, of course, and to play it safe you make a point of informing your date that you’ll never do it again. Even so, you’re disappointed when the night draws to a close and he hasn’t even asked you to reconsider. Then again, when did he have the chance? Was he supposed to tap out a few lines between dinner and dessert? Pass you his tiny bag in the middle of the movie? Invite the babysitter to join you for a line when you got home? Besides, you were going to say no, anyway — a theory that actually falls apart the following weekend when the girls are with your ex again and you’re wondering if maybe your date might want to spend the night this time. Once again, it’s a regular night out, and you talk about the normal things like work and your daughters and childhood pets until you ask on the ride home if he brought anything special to top off the evening.

“I don’t know,” he says. “What did you have in mind?”

“Maybe some blow?” you say, and he almost laughs.

“I thought you said once was enough.”

It was, you say. Or it would have been if you had felt anything. You just want to try it one more time — to see if it does anything for you. It’s not like you’re dying to get high or anything. You’re just curious. You want to know what all the fuss is about.

Well, be careful, he tells you. The stuff can be habit-forming.

In the house, you’re excited and nervous, so you have that drink. It’s not just the coke, of course, but the sex as well. Even before the divorce, the last time you and your ex really got it on (to use his phrase) was the night of your tenth anniversary. And before that, God knows. There was always work or the girls or some other distraction to spoil the mood. But tonight’s a different matter altogether, so you have a glass of wine and then another, and soon you’re lost in conversation.

Your date grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the shadow of New York. His first car was a Plymouth. He’d been an altar boy in grammar school and once fell asleep on his bicycle while riding to 6:30 mass. All you have are your daughters and talk of ballet recitals, but after you ask if maybe he’d like to stay the night, you invite your date to the bedroom, where you’ve taken their pictures down from the wall and hidden them from view — partly because you don’t want them watching, but mostly because you want to pretend just for a night, just for a change, that you’re not somebody’s mother. To further this illusion, you’ve treated yourself to something sexy for the evening, something soft and silky that makes you feel like sin. So you loosen your date’s tie and tell him to wait while you slip into something more comfortable, and when you come back, he’s tapping white powder onto the mirror you left out just in case.

The real rush, you think, is just seeing it here. Knowing it’s cocaine, for Christ’s sake, and that your mother would have a fit seven ways to Sunday if she could see this. And then there’s your husband, and this is quiet revenge. He had his little side dish for how long? So why not have some fun with the new man in your life? Why not do a little coke and make love until dawn?

Not that you expect it to do anything for you this time, either.

“Sweets for the sweet?” he says and blushes because he knows it sounds stupid.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

You take the rolled-up bill and do a line just like last time, snorting hard so you feel it drip into the back of your throat. And one more for good luck, you tell him, holding out the bill then snatching it back to take in another line.

Maybe it’s the wine. Maybe it’s the second line. Maybe it’s the soft, silky thing you’re wearing, but this time it hits you, and it feels good. Like riding a roller coaster. Like winning the lottery. Like getting on a plane and never coming down.

“Anything?” he asks.

You throw back your head and close your eyes.

“Anything at all?”

You nod and smile and say, Baby, let’s fuck, and it occurs to you for the first time in your life that you really feel sexy.

It isn’t making love — you know that for sure as he presses you against the wall — but it isn’t fucking, either. It’s more like watching people fuck. Like watching two strangers go at it, like you’re in the room with them or maybe watching from behind a police mirror, and you think it’s funny because this woman looks exactly like you but can’t be because, God, it looks like she’s done this her whole life, like it’s second nature, like there’s no little voice in her head wondering if she’s doing it right or how he’s enjoying it or whether or not he’s thinking about another woman. And the best part about it is that you know for a fact that the spindly little bitch your ex is dating never fucked like this and probably never will.

So you spend the night talking and fucking and doing white lines until the tiny bag is empty, and by morning you’re thinking, Oh God, I’m gonna die. Your heart is pounding. Your hands are shaking. Your teeth are chattering, and you can hear yourself talking about golf and deep-sea fishing as if you’re an expert on both. You want to catch marlin, you’re saying. Go out to sea and catch a marlin. Like Hemingway. You know, shoot a zebra. Bag a lion. Go to sea and catch a big fish, you know, like Hemingway, and just do something with your hands, you know, like, go out and confront nature because the whole problem with society is we’re so sheltered from the real world that we have no idea how to live anymore, you know, like we can’t even imagine what it means to survive in the wild.

Your date’s nodding and saying yes, yes, he knows exactly what you mean because he was out golfing with a client one afternoon and couldn’t stop thinking that golf wasn’t a sport at all, you know, but, like Mark Twain said, a great way to wreck a sunny day or a walk in the park or something like that.

“No, no,” you’re saying. “Not Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway. Shooting an elk or something. Fishing for marlin.”

“Right. No. Exactly. I know exactly what you mean.”

Never again, you tell yourself. Never, never, never again.

Your date leaves at sunrise, and you curl up on the sofa to recover. Okay, you whisper in the silence, trying desperately to latch on to a single train of thought. Okay, okay. Okay, you did it once — well, technically twice, but the first time didn’t count — and maybe it was fun, and maybe the two of you really connected, but was it worth all this? You feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, like you’ve been struck by lightning, like bees are crawling through your veins, so when your date calls the next day to see how you’re doing, you tell him the news: no more coke for this little girl.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think we both went a little overboard.”

“So no more for you, either?”

The thing is, you like him. Except for the coke, he’s a really nice guy. And it’s not like he has a problem with it, not like he’s some kind of junkie or crackhead who throws old ladies down the stairs for their welfare checks so he can score some dope. He’s just a guy who gets high once in a while. What do they call it? Recreational use? Even so, you’re glad when he says yeah, he’s giving it up, too — for the foreseeable future, anyway. Because you want him to be a part of your life. You want him to get to know your daughters and be someone they can look up to. You want picnics and soccer games and trips to the zoo. You want a family again, for lack of a better term, and your longing for the domestic becomes all the more urgent when your ex’s spindly girlfriend hugs both of your daughters before leaving them off later that day.

Backing out of the driveway, she stops long enough to ask if you’re feeling okay. Which is code, you assume, for saying you look like shit, so you tell her you think you’re coming down with the flu. In any case, it explains why your nose is so red and why you’ve been wearing the same bathrobe since yesterday morning. In fact, it’s such a good lie that your older girl tells you to lie down while she makes you a cup of tea. The same lie works in the office as well, where it’s not until Wednesday that you’re starting to feel like your old self again. What scares you is that once or twice, it occurs to you that a little coke (just a tiny, tiny bit, you tell yourself) will snap you out of the funk you’re in. That’s when the red flags go up, and you swear you’ll never go near the stuff again.

When your date calls on Thursday to say Friday won’t work, the breath goes out of you for a second because you think this is it — he got the milk, so why buy the cow, or something along those lines. But then he says maybe you can all go out on Saturday, the girls included. Burgers and a movie. Maybe ice cream afterward.

“Say so if you think it’s weird,” he says.

“No,” you say. “No, not at all.”

So you all go out for dinner on Saturday, and it’s like something out of a commercial: casual, fun, almost relaxed. You sit in a plywood booth and eat a fish sandwich. He eats a hamburger, and so does the older girl. The younger one gets a toy with her meal. They ask him questions about what he does. He doesn’t talk down to them, doesn’t try too hard. He’s a natural. He’s good with your kids, and you think you’re starting to love him.

It’s not cocaine, but it’s definitely good, and soon you slip into a comfortable groove. Some weekends it’s the two of you. Other times, you play family. The girls think your new boyfriend is great. He keeps a toothbrush in your medicine cabinet and a pair of slippers under your bed. You never think of getting high. He never mentions cocaine. It’s almost as if your wild night never happened — like it was all a dream, and this is the real world.

You’re meeting his friends, and they’re all pretty normal. They have jobs and houses, and some even have kids. You go out to dinner. You have a few drinks. You laugh and you talk, and you all get along. You look at these people, and think, No, not them. They don’t get high. Because they never let on — except for the occasional odd smile or raised eyebrow, the shared glance when someone orders a Coke at the bar or a lingering pause when someone’s wife or girlfriend asks if you’d like to join her in the restroom to powder your nose.

Just to be safe, you always say no, though part of you is thinking it’s been nearly three months and toys with the idea of just a little, just a taste.

The key is moderation, right?

But no, you’re sure these women just have to pee.

Then comes the party — some friends of his, the ones with the kids. She’s in marketing. He’s in something else. A house like yours. Two cars in the driveway. And there’s a couple on the sofa tapping a razorblade on a mirror.

He should have warned you, he says, but you say it’s okay.

“Do you mind if I?” He taps his nose and nods in the direction of the coke.

“No,” you say. “Really, it’s fine.”

He’s a big boy, you think. He knows what he’s doing.

So you pour yourself a glass of wine and talk to his friends, and when he comes back, you wouldn’t even guess that he’s high except for the fact that he’s rubbing his nose. So you ask how he’s feeling, and he smiles and says great, and you smile back and think, Maybe just once.

And you sip your wine and talk some more, sneaking glances in the general direction of the coke. You can hear people snorting, and you think, God, that’s disgusting, but maybe just once. So you talk to your man until he’s pulled away. And you talk to some strangers and sip your wine and laugh at some jokes until a woman you’ve never met before says, It’s okay, and you say, What, and she says, The coke, it’s free, and you’ve been stealing glances at it for an hour.

“Staring is more like it,” you admit, and she says, Come on, it’s good stuff and she’s due for a hit.

You pull back your hair and lean over the mirror and look yourself in the eye as you snort the line in front of you.

“I don’t usually,” you say, tilting your head back for the drip.

“Oh, no,” she says. “Hardly ever.”

“Special occasions.”

“High holy days, yeah. No pun intended.”

You laugh at this, and she laughs and does another line and hands you the straw.

“Do you smoke?” she says.

“I quit when I was pregnant,” you’re in the middle of saying when you realize that Philip Morris doesn’t make the kind of cigarette she’s putting to her lips.

“Homegrown,” she says, passing the joint. She has blond hair, cut short in a kind of bob, and she reminds you of your daughter’s ballet teacher. “Takes the edge off, you know? Great for the morning after.”

“God, I know what you mean.”

It’s fun to smoke again after all these years, to draw the smoke into your lungs and let it out in a thick, billowy plume. And it’s funny, you think, how scandalized you were when you learned that your ex tried pot back in college. Well, not scandalized, exactly. Just surprised. And, you’re beginning to remember, a little turned on?

Or not quite turned on, but curious.

Or maybe the word is intrigued.

“Homegrown?” you say.

“Heat lamps, you know. In the basement.”

She slips you another joint and says save it for later.

“I take it you don’t have kids?”

Taking a long drag, she holds up three fingers. But the basement’s off-limits, she adds, exhaling. And the pot, it’s just pot. It helps pay the bills.

“You’re a dealer?”

She laughs. “I guess so. Strictly friends and family.”

The next day is hell, but you have the joint, and when your guy calls on Sunday, he asks if you found the little present he left in your handbag. So you do just the tiniest bit so you’ll be in good shape when the girls come home, and the rest you hide in your jewelry box with your wedding ring and all the other reminders of the life you used to lead.

On Monday, yeah, your body feels like borrowed property, but you get the girls off to school and drag your butt into work and tell yourself this is the price you pay. On Tuesday, it’s the same, and when you stop at a gas station on Wednesday, you resist the urge to ask the cashier for a pack of the brand you used to smoke.

You can do this, you think, when you finally start to feel like yourself again. The occasional line. Once in a while. When you’re out with friends. When you’re at a party. Because it’s not like you’re an addict, right? I mean, an addict doesn’t wake up every morning to make breakfast and get her kids off to school. An addict doesn’t hold down a job and pay the bills and put a little aside for college every month. And an addict sure as hell doesn’t wonder whether or not she’s becoming an addict. So Friday night, before the date, you take out your tiny bag of powder and tap a little onto the mirror of your compact.

And maybe this is how it starts.


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