Authors: Jennifer Weiner
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et a new phone number,” they had told her, along with “go to a meeting your first day out,” and “do ninety in ninety,” and “find a sponsor,” and “find a home group,” and “the only thing you have to change is everything.” Feeling as fragile and skinless as a peeled egg, Shannon vowed that this time, she’d follow directions. She was almost thirty years old, hardly a kid anymore, and she had been in and out of rehab six times already, not that anyone was counting. It was getting old.
Besides, last time she’d almost died. They’d Narcanned her in the hospital. She’d come swimming back to consciousness, surging up and out of the darkness with tubes up her nose, a needle buried in the crook of her elbow, and a terrified-looking nurse leaning over her, saying, “God, we almost lost you!”
, Shannon had decided, lying on the narrow gurney in the ER while a homeless man vomited in the corner and two cops stood guard over a bloodied woman handcuffed to her bed.
I am really and truly done.
By then she had lost her dignity, her money, her job as an editorial assistant at Paragon Press. For the past three years she had supported herself writing blog posts for a site called Busted! that had started its life as an aggregator of celebrity mug shots. Now Shannon, who’d studied with Jane Smiley in graduate school, who’d once received a semi-encouraging rejection letter from
The New Yorker
(“This isn’t quite right for us, but please try again”), spent her days scanning electronic police-department databases for the faces of the famous, the formerly famous, the almost famous, and the reality-TV famous, as well as scribbing snarky comments across the thighs and torsos of actors and singers who’d gained weight and then had the temerity to appear in public in spite of it.
Ten posts a day netted her five hundred dollars a week. She’d given up her apartment, the few pieces of non-Ikea furniture that she’d acquired. Busted! did not offer its employees health insurance, which meant that the hospital was eager to see her backside. After they’d moved her to a room, another nurse had come in with a rape kit. She and Shannon had had a quiet conversation, and then the nurse had left with the kit, still sealed in plastic, in her hands. What had happened to her wasn’t rape, Shannon had decided. It can’t be rape if they pay you when it’s over.
From the hospital she’d gone back into an overwarm October night and thence to rehab—a low-end one, a place where they sent people on welfare who had no money to go anyplace better. After twenty-eight days, she’d taken the Chinatown bus to Manhattan, then the subway to Brooklyn. There was a ten-thirty meeting in the basement of St. Patrick’s in Bay Ridge. She went there because she knew there was a T-Mobile store just down the street, and also that the meeting, which she’d found when she’d gone to meetings the year before, often had doughnuts or cookies—important if you had little money and no food. When she was sober, Shannon found that she was hungry all the time, craving processed flour and white sugar, big mouthfuls of cheap sweet stuff, food that could fill you and hold you in place like an anchor.
She arrived while the two dozen attendees were mumbling through the preamble, and dumped powdered creamer and sugar into a cup of coffee until she’d created what looked like a latte. There were cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, and she stuffed two into her pockets and devoured a third before taking a seat in a folding chair toward the back of the room. It was a speaker meeting. The woman behind the podium, a trembly sixtysomething with short brown hair and orthopedic sneakers with white laces tied in neat bows, told the story about how she’d been hooked on Vicodin. When her doctor wouldn’t renew her prescription, she began buying pills from a neighbor. Her habit had crept slowly from taking a pill a day to taking pills all day, every day, until she had slept through the pickup at her granddaughter’s preschool. That, she said, was her rock bottom. That was when she decided to get help. Shannon licked cinnamon off her fingers while the woman dug tissues out of her bag. She wondered what would happen if she told them the things that she’d done, the things that had been done to her. There was a line she’d read in a book somewhere, about how if a woman told the truth about her life, the world would crack open. She wasn’t sure about the world, but she suspected that such truth-telling could prove mightily disruptive at an AA meeting.
She was thinking about getting another doughnut when she saw a man with a spiderweb tattooed on his neck squinting through the dusty church light like he wasn’t quite sure he was seeing her or not. Shannon didn’t recognize him, but that meant nothing. He could have been someone she’d dated or someone she’d fucked for drugs, or maybe even someone she had known in college, the good old days when she’d been young and bright and full of promise, when her short stories had won prizes, when drugs were just something that appeared—or did not appear—at a party on a Saturday night, and Shannon rarely thought of them between one party and the next.
She dropped a dollar in the basket for the Seventh Tradition, and when she turned she was unsurprised to see the spiderweb guy sitting next to her. “You new?” he whispered. Shannon considered the question. New to the program? New to this meeting? Of course, big surprise, the guy didn’t want to hear her story. He wanted to tell her his own, which was a variation on every junkie’s story that she’d heard. Shannon tuned it out as the guy recited the particulars: “. . . and then he’s like, ‘You aren’t gonna believe this stuff,’ and I was all, ‘Hey, wasn’t this on the news last week? Aren’t people dying from it?’ It was fucked up, I know, but all I thought was, okay, this is gonna be super-strong, so I’m gonna get super-high, and the next thing you know . . .” He pursed his lips, an endearing little-boy-ish gesture, and made a popping sound. “Next thing you know, you’re, like, flat-lining in the ambulance.”
Shannon gave him a distracted smile. “Yeah, they Narcanned me,” she said. The guy tipped an imaginary hat.
“Respect,” he said. Shannon smiled and tried not to think about how she’d once gotten an A plus in a class on modern British poets, how the professor had written her a letter of recommendation saying that in his decade of teaching, she’d been his most promising student.
At the center of the circle, the leader cleared his throat. Shannon bent her head and closed her eyes as the guy at her side finally subsided, then spoke the words of the Serenity Prayer.
Two blocks away from the meeting was a T-Mobile store. Shannon walked toward it, past the Italian bakery and the coffee shop where she used to take her laptop to work. She’d left the hospital in a waffle-knit thermal undershirt and jeans that kept slipping off her hips. The clothing did not smell entirely fresh. Her guess was that it had come from a lost-and-found bin, and that the girl who’d bought and paid for the clothes was no longer among the living. At rehab, nothing made them happier than when someone died . . . and if the dead person was a dead celebrity, a dead young celebrity who’d overdosed, well, that would send the counselors into a collective orgasm. “This disease will kill you,” they would say, holding up
as evidence, brandishing the face of the handsome or beautiful young star on the glossy cover. The girls would squirm and fidget. They’d write notes to the guys, whom they were forbidden from speaking to, or they would swap the names of their dealers or braid each other’s hair. Drug addicts died, this wasn’t exactly a news flash, but none of the girls thought it would happen to them. Even if it had already happened to their boyfriends or their best friends or their little sisters or their moms, they thought they were special, untouchable, immune.
Addiction is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease
, the counselors would lecture. Maybe that was why the addicts she'd known all acted like they would live forever, like bad things would happen, but never to them.
At the phone store, it took forever for Shannon to get someone’s attention. Finally one of the guys behind the counter—young, black, dreadlocked, with a gold tooth that flashed when he talked—wandered over and lifted Shannon’s phone in his hands. Its once-white plastic casing was a dingy yellow. The screen had shattered and was bound with loops of fraying tape. “Man, how many years you had this poor thing?”
“Six?” she’d guessed. “Seven?” She’d lost boyfriends, best friends, money, jobs. She’d lost jewelry and eyeglasses and once even a pair of shoes. Through it all, she had managed to hang on to her telephone. Probably because her dealer’s number was in there.
The guy said that she was eligible for an upgrade. Shannon didn’t understand how she could be eligible for anything good until she remembered that her parents paid the phone bill. She guessed they saw the phone as a lifeline, their last remaining connection to their wayward daughter. As long as she was using it, as long as the bills came every month, they would know she was alive.
“Nothing fancy,” she’d said. “Whatever’s free.” That turned out to be a touch-screen phone with all kinds of new features. You could shake it to change the music you were listening to; you could watch TV shows and music videos on its tiny square screen. You could set special ring tones for your friends.
“I don’t have friends,” Shannon said. This whole production was making her feel sad and very old.
“That so?” said the guy, uninterested. “So you wanna keep your old number?”
“No!” A new number was the point. She had to leave her old life, her old friends (“They’re not really your friends”) behind her. Cut the cords. Erase the board. Begin again.
She ducked her head. “Something like that.” She watched his face as he took in how thin she was, how her complexion was gray and pocked from where she’d scratched herself when she’d been dope-sick. He noted her fingernails, bitten to bloody nubs, and her brown hair, which hung lank to the small of her back. In rehab, there had been a mirror in the bathroom she’d shared with three other girls, but she’d tried never to look into it.
Quickly the man walked her through the phone’s features. She scribbled her name on the contract, turned down the offer of a car charger, then slipped the phone into her back pocket and went to another meeting, this one in Carroll Gardens, where one of the old-timers, a guy who’d told Shannon on more than one occasion that he’d been sober longer than she’d been alive, sometimes brought pastries from the Italian bakery, triangles of airy fried dough dusted with sugar. They had some kind of Italian name. In English, they were angel wings. “A treat!” the man would say, opening the box so she could have first pick. It reminded her of the notes her mother used to put in her lunch bag on her birthday, when she’d been a little girl, three quarters wrapped in a piece of notebook paper that, when unfolded, read
Have a treat on me
After rehab number five, the one where her parents had declined to come for a family counseling session or to pick her up when her twenty-eight days were over, Shannon had downsized to an illegal sublet in an ungentrified corner of Williamsburg, a former bedroom with a toilet and a sink in the corner behind Japanese screens. The place was just as she’d left it, a stage set waiting for the actors to appear. There was a futon in the middle of the floor with a small stack of books beside it. An empty bottle of Diet Coke, with a bloated fly circling the rim, stood on the table where Shannon had worked (her laptop was the only thing of value she’d managed to hang on to, and it too was gone). One corner held a litter of beer bottles and pizza boxes and what looked like a pair of nylon panties with a sanitary napkin still stuck inside.
She gathered the trash into a bag, squashed the fly with her copy of
The Bell Jar,
and hauled the garbage down to the Dumpster. It was warm for the end of October, but she still felt cold in her thermal shirt. Maybe tomorrow she’d stop by the Goodwill and find something warmer. That was one of the dubious beauties about living in this neighborhood at this particular moment in time—people actually wanted to look like their clothing came out of a Dumpster.
At the Korean shop on the corner, Shannon picked up a banana, an orange, and a box of day-old doughnuts, leaving her cash on the countertop because the proprietor was talking with a uniformed policeman and did not notice her as she stood off to the side of the register with her money in her hand. “Shoplifters,” she heard him say. His name was Mr. Park. He used to say hello to her, greet her by name when she came in the morning for the coffee and the egg-and-bagel sandwich that would fuel a morning of blogging. Now his eyes slipped away as if her face were oiled, and he would purse his lips as if her name had grown edges and would hurt him to say.