I had my existential crisis in the Walmart bathroom.
I shoved into the door, needing another hit. The warped, water-stained mirror distorted my reflection so much that when I looked at myself I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me. Stupid fun-house mirrors.
My fingers wouldn’t cooperate. I fumbled to do a line with the coke in my purse, but my fingers wouldn’t stay still to open the Ziploc of powder. I yelled at them in my head. Open bag. Open bag, dammit. Or maybe it wasn’t in my head. Why couldn’t I open it? I paused, and stared in the mirror again, this time focusing my eyes.
Who I saw I still didn’t recognize. Pressing my lips together, I returned to the bag, but when I couldn’t open it on the third try, I hurled it against the counter, punishing it for its existence. I can’t do it. I can’t do anything anymore. Warm tears dribbled down my cheeks and a sob wracked my body.
Hence the moment of my great existential crisis: I couldn’t reconcile myself with the truth I was an addict in a perpetual state of delirium with no real future that involved anything but back-alley deals and a metal toilet in a prison cell.
I dried my eyes with the sleeves of my fraying jacket and stashed the coke in my purse again. I strode through the aisles of Walmart, trying to keep from decompensating in the dairy section. The obnoxiously fluorescent “Save money. Live better,” slogan shouted at me as I left. I wanted to tell it to shut up.
The streets on my way home were deserted and barren. Summer moonbeam speckled the sidewalk through a shag carpet of clouds. I could practically see the ghost of my younger self walking these streets, wobbling on the curb, tip toeing around the cracks in the asphalt. If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother’s back, I remembered informing my sister.
My mom’s townhouse was sandwiched between two other identical houses: same crumbling, peeling facade, same slate grey shingles. The soles of my shoes scuffed on the concrete steps as I climbed up to the house. I fished the spare key out of the flower pot from muscle memory, not bothering to knock.
Walking through the door that night was the hardest moment of my life. The house was dark, but I figured somebody was home. “Mom,” I called out. I fumbled for the light switch on the wall but couldn’t find it. “Mom?”
I took a few steps forward and slammed my shin into the coffee table at the same moment I heard the safety of a gun click off behind me. “Don’t move,” a voice said.
I froze. I knew that voice, honey over gravel. “It’s me, Amá,” I said.
The pause lasted forever. “Mariana?” Disbelief colored her voice. “What are you doing here?” she asked. She flipped the light and I flinched at the brightness. Placing her .44 pistol on an end table, she peered at me closely. “Are you high?” The question was objective and devoid of emotion.
I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. “No.”
She scoffed. “That’s a first.” She moved into the light where I could better see her, and I cringed. She looked a decade older than the last time I saw her, and she had the deflated appearance of an old balloon. Her face was all planes and angles, more geometry than anatomy. Though grey streaked her brown hair, her dark eyes were keen as ever. “It’s been a while,” she said.
“Too long,” I replied.
“Or maybe not long enough. I told you not to step one foot into this house if you had even a milligram in your body, and now you have the nerve to-”
“I came back because I need your help,” I said, sinking onto the couch. I picked at a hole in the cushion with my chewed fingernails, feeling like a butterfly pinned under her gaze. Eventually she sat down beside me, not near enough for us to be touching, though. Tension stretched between us, taut and unbreakable.
“You know, I’ve always blamed your apá for passing along this… dependency to you,” she finally said. “How is he, by the way?”
The casual tone with which she tossed out the words felt like an injustice, as if she could degrade my issue to the fault of a gene my dad gave me. “He's...” I started, before realizing my sentence had no end. I cleared my throat. “He hates that I'm on the same path as him, and I think that’s why he's started slipping again.”
“But you didn’t come here to talk about your apá,” she said. “You need help. How can I help you?”
“After you and Apá split, I was looking for answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask. I found some bad answers,” I said, my voice shaking. I bit my lip so my chin wouldn’t quiver. “I want to give it up.”
She folded her hands. “You know it’s not that easy.”
I buried my face in my hands. Suddenly I felt so tired. I was tired of existing, of living like a shell of who I was. “I need help,” I repeated. “And you’re the only who can give me that. Apá can’t.” She had helped my dad. Once he had gotten rid of his addiction, he’d divorced my mom, but at least she had helped him regain his clarity.
What I was asking her to do was hard. Sacrifice her time to piece me back together, wipe my tears when I wanted to relapse, force me to stay strong when I begged to be weak. She would see the darker sides I had kept hidden. she would see me, once a bud of promises to come, as the withered flower I was now.
I heard her shift, and my side of the couch rose. “I’m going to get some pamphlets from the kitchen.”
Of course she had pamphlets. She’d probably been collecting them for years.
“Mari?” I heard, from a different voice, one high and sweet. My heart leaped into my throat.
I took my hands from my face and saw my little sister appear in the living room like an apparition. “Analía,” I said, in my most soothing voice. “What are you doing awake?”
“I heard voices,” she said. She watched me from the hall, wary, her slender frame glued to the doorway. “I missed you,” she said flatly, past tense, but she still didn’t move, and the suspicion veiled her eyes.
The look faded, though, replaced by longing. “Can I hug you?” she asked. That she had to ask broke my heart. This was what I had done to her, with the help of my father. When he had jumped ship, I had followed him overboard. Amá hadn't even fought when I said I wanted to live with him. She said she wasn't going to make me her prisoner. I nodded at Analía and she launched into motion, expertly navigating around the furniture, and slamming into my body. She hugged me so fiercely I thought she would never let go. When she pulled away, she looked me in the eye and said, “You smell funny.”
I hadn't showered in God only knew how long. “I know,” I said softly, stroking her matted curls. I looked up as my mom came back, holding a stack of pamphlets.
“Analía, you should go back to bed,” she said. She worded it like a suggestion but it wasn’t one.
“But Mari-” Analía started.
Analía made a face but spun on her heel and traipsed back toward her bedroom. I was re-memorizing her without realizing it, remembering her soundless glide, the sheen of her eyes, how openly she showed her feelings. I watched her at the same time I craved what was in my purse.
“It’s been hard on her, since you left,” my mom said, sitting down again. I followed suit.
“Does she know what’s going on with me?” I asked.
She nodded. “Eventually she figured it out since she'd seen it before. She’s naive, but smart.”
“She’s not naive,” I countered. “She’s just a kid.”
“Doesn’t matter,” my mom said. “You’ve come back.” The unspoken words "for now" hung in the air between us, demanding to be acknowledged. She glanced at a pamphlet and handed it to me. “You should read this,” she said.
The cover read It’s Never Too Late to Quit. I realized I’d have to deal with a lot of “motivation” written by people who had never dealt with the issues I had. The inside was stuffed with pictures of cloudy-eyed teenagers blowing smoke rings in the air. Connect with those who understand what you’re going through, the caption advertised. “I’m not reading this,” I told my mom calmly.
She sighed. “I didn’t think so. At least look at the schedule for the meetings on the back,” she said.
I did. “There’s one tomorrow at four at… the church,” I said. “I don’t want to go to church. Never did me any good.”
“Well, try it,” she told me, standing up. She used the couch for support when she stood up, and shuffled instead of taking long strides. I felt like I was looking at a stranger. “I’m going back to bed.”
“Wait, Amá,” I said. She turned. “Can I stay here tonight? I don't want to go back to Apá’s.”
She stared at me with a look I couldn't decipher. “Do you have any coke on you?” she asked. I reached into my purse and handed her the bag. I felt a rush of anticipation just at the sight of the powder, before my mom took it. She stuffed it in a bag of barbecue chips, then threw it in the trash. “Yes, you can stay here tonight.”
As she turned out the lights and I curled up on the worn couch, I had the sense I was teetering on the precipice of something. Of what, I had no idea. But I hoped I would find out some new answers pretty soon.