We sat on the bottom step of a brownstone that didn’t belong to us and dragged our feet across the cement because I don’t know why, maybe to create the illusion that something was happening. And after a while it worked, Lee was having an idea. She was saying, “I know what we can do instead!” Instead of ecstasy, she meant, because that’s what we were supposed to be doing that night. It would have been my first time, but we couldn’t find any and we were bummed out and directionless until Lee started having ideas. When Lee started having ideas, we were with purpose again.
She led me to the Rite Aid on 7th Avenue; it was still kind of new back then. Lee grabbed a purple box from whatever aisle was meant for cold medicine and held it up in the fluorescent light, examining the back of it like she knew something I didn’t. “I don’t get it,” I said or thought. We bought the box for $7.99 and walked back to the brownstone and she began to release little red pills from their metallic prison cells. “Eight for you and eight for me,” she said, signaling for me to open my palm. I did and it was sweaty and the pills bled onto my hand a little, staining them the way M&Ms would, I thought. “What is this?” I asked. “Don’t worry, it’s fun,” Lee said, so I didn’t. Worry, I mean. Lee’s boyfriend Angel met us on the brownstone steps and asked if he could have the leftovers. This was just the way things were at that time and in that place, people’s boyfriends just appearing on the steps of brownstones in which nobody lived, at least nobody we knew. Brooklyn is just that way; at least when you’re a teenager, it is.
Lee took her pills first. I dropped one of mine so I only took seven. Angel took four. A friend of Lee’s who had a cold took the rest. We decided we would go to a party in Sunset Park, but when we arrived it turned out the party was actually just more kids standing around on stoops that belonged to someone else. We drank banana rum and took photos with a disposable camera; I still have some of them. Somewhere in a photo album is me clutching a Capri Sun in one hand and a cigarette in the other; my eyes are straight lines. I’m wearing a yellow shirt and a rubberband for a smile. I’m hunched over because I have bad posture, back curved in like a lima bean.
“I want to call the twins,” I told Lee. My head felt like a lead balloon. “They live three blocks away, I should go visit them.” I went to junior high with the twins. We hadn’t seen much of each other since I’d moved to the suburbs and I was tripping on cough medicine and it was unconventional to call someone’s house so late at night, but the high wants what it wants and so I called. When their mother answered the telephone, I asked for either twin. Didn’t matter which. “Hello,” I said to whichever of them, “I’m in town, I’m down the street, can I come say hi?” And maybe the response was indifferent or maybe it was enthusiastic, all I knew is I was making my way to their little pink house on 50th Street.
One consistent thing about robotripping is that your feet or your legs or both, they weigh hundreds of pounds and you can’t pick them up too easy. So instead you just slide your feet across the ground, like you’re wearing broken skis sort of. And another consistent thing about robotripping is that your eyes don’t blink, they become sort of hard and petrified-looking — at least to the uninitiated. You might, to the uninitiated, resemble a night-thing, a walking-dead.
I got to the twins’ house and climbed the stairs for months. “Oh my god, hey,” I probably said to whichever of them opened the door for me. One of the twins was in the throes of a Playstation marathon and was wearing rollerblades indoors. The other said a polite hello and left me in the hallway and to my own devices. All at once, I realized I hadn’t seen the twins in years and I was not being friendly but intrusive; I realized that I was standing in the corner of a room that belonged to someone caring so little about my presence that he hadn’t bothered to pause his video game. How did I get there? I knew the blocks I’d walked, the turns I’d taken, but what mental process brought me there? The twins’ house was not like the steps of a brownstone was not like the stoop party was not like the wet night air I’d skied through to get there; the twins’ house was sober and stale. Uninviting. I was uninvited. My vision shifted or drifted to the floor and I noticed video game twin’s rollerblades again. He gets wheels, I get broken skis. “I gotta go,” I said without blinking. Then I skied back to the party.
Upon my return, I collapsed into Lee’s arms and felt relieved to be with someone who understood. “I’m fucked up,” I’m sure I mumbled into her shoulder. “We’re going to sleep at Angel’s mother’s house tonight, so we don’t have to take the subway,” Lee said. “Oh, that’s a good idea. That’s such a good idea,” I told her. I pet her for being good. Angel smiled. Lee smiled. I smiled. We were happy.
I heard someone yell my name not in the angry way, but in the way that’s all Christmas and familiar. “What?” I was floating through space, I was in a world I’d never seen before, I was wrapped up in a blanket on the floor of a strange bedroom. “You fell asleep while you were smoking,” Lee laughed. She and Angel were on a twin mattress next to me; still with the disposable camera, still documenting me and the night. I have this photo, too, in it I’m beneath a floral comforter and wearing a black shirt and my eyes are brown — not just the irises but all of the eye-area, big brown holes in my face. At the end of my broken wrist is a cigarette that’s mostly turned to ash already. You can’t see this in the photo, technology wasn’t great back then, but a small pile of grey had created a graveyard on my shirt, too. Ash everywhere. It wasn’t my shirt, but where it came from is part of the Things I Don’t Remember about that night; not remembering is another consistent thing about robotripping.
In the darkest hour of night, I woke up and felt my way to the bathroom where I threw up banana rum, Capri Sun, and definitely a few other things into the sink. The vomit clogged the drain, so I felt my way into the kitchen where I found a coffee mug, and then I felt my way back into the bathroom where I scooped the mess out of the sink and dumped it into the toilet. I felt like an untrained house pet, I felt like vomiting again, I felt like the most loving thing someone could do for me was come to that apartment and unclog the sink, clean up my mess. But that wasn’t going to happen, so I scooped and cleaned and cried a little until it was over.
The second trip was one long stretch of Things I Don’t Remember except that I’d done it with Lee again, and this time we’d each taken 10, and when the night was over we lay in her bed sidebyside and watched the ceiling fan whip around. At first, we stared at the entire fan until we were dizzy with speed, but then we noticed that if we focused on just one blade, the rest of the fan appeared to move real ssllooww and once we figured that out it was like we were in control of everything, like we could control and manipulate and change the world. A lot of our friendship felt this way.
Our third trip together was unforgettable; that time we were connected by some sort of supernatural force. I had a Sweet 16 to attend, Lee was going to a baby shower. We planned to take 10 pills each and go to our respective events; then we’d meet up and go to a party her friend was throwing. I wore a denim tube dress and a full face of makeup and brought along sunglasses to hide the wild eyes; I wanted to be remembered like this and not like the way I was when I’d moved, if anyone remembered me at all. At the Sweet 16, I sat next to two friends who’d started partying when we were 11 because I thought they would make good allies. I was faithful to sobriety until I lived in a town where there was nothing to do but get fucked up and shoplift and so the little red pills in my bag and stomach came as a surprise to my old friends. “But it’s taking forever to kick in — I’m going to take one more,” I told them. The girls exchanged a look, like I was going to regret what I was about to do, but what they didn’t know was that I could control, manipulate, change the world — how could they know? I took one more, and when the high still hadn’t kicked in, I took another.
I was paralyzed then, or however long it took to hit me but check it out, I was moving, too, simultaneous death and birth, Weekend at Bernie’s, check out my robot legs, I said, probably. I moved toward the bathroom, slid my metal ski feet across the rec hall floor, grabbed a grandmother’s shoulder to keep my balance, have we met? I slid into the bathroom and looked at my face — a good face, a young face, but the eyes wouldn’t close and it felt like stone, not to the touch but it was immovable like rock, it was just sitting there like the oldest piece of earth, the world I’d been changing was right there on my face and now I couldn’t get rid of it, it was written, it was stone, how could I leave the bathroom at a time like this?
I put the sunglasses on and stared in the mirror some more and when I’d been gone for too long, I slid back to my seat, my limbs could not bend, something drastic had to happen. “I need your help, I can’t stay here. I need to call Lee and find her. Can you guys take me to a pay phone?” I wanted to say that, but instead I said, “Holy shit,” and somehow my friends translated it with impressive accuracy. One walked in front of me and one walked behind, a train, I thought, and I was the cargo. My feet took little slides toward the door of the rec hall, shuffling, like when my mom taught me how to pretend-tap dance. “Why are you wearing sunglasses inside, Mariah Carey?” my old camp counselor asked. He was a guest, too, we were all invited this time. I smiled because I didn’t know what or how to say and just kept on shuffling toward the exit.
Outside and away from camp counselors and grandmothers and birthday girls, I could breathe again. “Okay. You need a payphone, right?” one of the girls asked. I took out a crumpled slip of paper with Lee’s number written on it. “There’s one this way,” one said. I could sense the annoyance of unexpectedly babysitting me, but I was too stoned and too helpless to send them back to the party.
Sometimes I think I did these things just so someone would be forced to take care of me.
“Read me the number,” my friend said, the payphone waiting in her hand. I struggled to make sense of pen strokes — the paper was upside down or the writing was blurry or is that a 6 or a 9, I can’t tell the difference — until one of them tore the paper from my hands and read the number aloud. I was talking to Lee, I was saying, “I took 12, it’s out of control, I had to leave the Sweet 16, what do I do, where should I go,” and Lee was saying, “I can’t believe this, I also took 12, oh my god right, okay get on the subway and get off at Prospect Park West and we’ll meet you there, like we’ll meet you on the street, okay?” and knowing that Lee was with me even though she wasn’t empowered me enough to take the subway alone, she had said everything I’d needed to hear to feel okay, I loved her right that second.
The subway ride never happened, it was magic, I just moved through space and time and distance until I was standing on the corner where Lee would meet me. Across four traffic lanes I saw her, yelling my name in that church-bell voice again, it was the good kind of yelling. Next to Lee was Angel, behind them were eight of his friends. I felt really important but also terrified of crossing the street. “I can’t cross the street!” I laughed, but really, I couldn’t. “You can do it,” Angel yelled. “No, I really can’t! It’s like, four streets!” Angel crossed two of the streets and stood on a cement divider with his arm outstretched. “When I say ‘run,’ run to me. RUN,” he yelled. I ran. He held me by the arm and we ran to the corner where Lee was standing and everyone clapped, even me.
We went into the party and asked the host if there was somewhere we could lay. He set us up in his mother’s room and we starfished on the bed, catching up about the time we were away from each other and sharing the circumstances that led us both to take more than what we’d agreed on. When everything had been said, we lay on our backs with cigarettes in our mouths and stared at the ceiling, which seemed to have volume, there was sound escaping from the paint that left my eyes and ears ringing and then bleeding. The bedroom door swung open and a rush of sound crept in, drowned us, pinned us to the bed. And then a voice, not god, more judgmental than god, said, “Nice, Eric. Real nice.” In the doorway was a stout woman, 50-something, staring disapprovingly at Lee and me and the cigarettes and the other people in the room and whatever else. “Who’s Eric?” I tried to whisper. “This is Eric’s party,” Lee tried to whisper back. “Oh, okay.” We continued to lay because, what could we do?
Eric was in the room, the whole time or suddenly, and said, “Shit, that was my neighbor. Everyone has to go in the living room.” I was fearful, I looked at Lee for help. Could we ever just stay in one place? “Angel, we’re gonna need a place to sit down,” she said. Angel dutifully ran ahead to find a place for us to nest while Lee and I held on to the hallway walls and slowly made our way to the living room. We sat in a corner sandwiched between some stereo equipment and a houseplant until Angel told us it was time to go home.
“We’re all sleeping at Mick’s house tonight,” Lee told me as a group of us crept down 4th Avenue. “Who’s Mick?” I asked, not that it mattered. “One of the guys. I went to elementary school with him. His mom was my teacher once.” Mick lived in a Park Slope townhouse, so we had to conquer flights and flights of stairs to get to his attic bedroom, the heavy of our feet making imprints in the wood. “The girl in the dress is smashed,” a voice says, and it’s teacher-mom in a pink flowery robe, it’s a 2 a.m. Sunday, it’s a nightmare because what if she kicks us out? But Mick says, “It’s fine, mom,” and it turns out he was right, everything was fine, we all went to bed and everything was fine.
Lee soon tired of robotripping and we began to spend our weekends together at Prospect Park keg parties like regular teenagers. I grew out of it too, although it took me longer — I wasn’t ready to care for myself just yet, I still needed to force other people to do it for me, still wanted someone there to clean up my mess. I found though, that it’s really difficult to control, manipulate, change anything when you’re too afraid to cross the street on your own; I realized that no one was special enough to be the exception to that rule, not even me, if I were special at all — probably I was just lucky.
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Shannon is the best kept secret of the 80s!
Scott Hoy is a lawyer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On this particular commercial however, Hoy perhaps should have asked for a retrial.
You split time between the now and after.
I truly believe that tolerance is dangerous.