“You like coke?”
The wind was harsher up on the El stop. The girl exhaled a cloud of menthol tobacco smoke that was whipped back into her face. “Huh?”
The young, lanky, white guy next to her, who had bummed her the cigarette and had been chatting with her, repeated himself. “You like coke? You like to party, right? White girls love to party.” He took a long drink from the can of Miller High Life balanced inside the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
She looked at him. She was drunk, after going out to the usual bar circuit with her friends. Three in the morning had rolled around, the clubs closed, and her friends had headed home on a train going in the opposite direction a quarter of an hour ago. She had waved goodbye, promising to text them when she got home safe. She had never tried coke, but she pushed her bangs out of her eyes, and answered, “Yeah, I like coke alright.”
The man hurled the empty beer can onto the El tracks and flung his arms out, like a baggy-clothed Jesus. “Well c’mon then baby! I got a hookup.” She raised her eyebrows, a guilty smile on her lips, “I don’t know…” He grinned, revealing a missing incisor and two overlapped front teeth. His teeth would’ve been scary on another person, but his baggy clothes and big, unselfconscious smile reminded the girl of a little boy in his brother’s hand-me-downs. “Oh c’mon. What do you think I’m gonna do? I’m fucked up too!”
She thought about the time, a couple months back, when she had to run from a man who had gotten out of his car. He had stopped his car in the middle of the street and gotten out, screaming obscenities after her, chasing her—well, her body. For that was what he wanted, tearing after her, howling about her cunt. She was only coming home from the gym, and she had to run for her life, her gym bag smacking her hips, her tired legs pumping until she looked back and he was gone. But the man with her now hid no such surprise scariness. He wore his danger on his sleeve, like his bad teeth; she found it endearing.
So he seemed harmless to her. Or she felt harm-proof, like she could wander the midnight streets for hours without any trouble. She had never done that before either. She looked up at him, “You better not try and fuck me up.” He giggled and took a step back from her, his hands buried in the pocket of his oversized gray sweatshirt. “I’m not! We’re cigarette buddies now. Look, you got money right? Let’s go, let’s go.” She pulled the last millimeter of tobacco into her lungs, tossed the cigarette away, and hurried after him, down the stairs and away from the CTA stop.
They walked out and onward, past the yellowish halo of light streaming out from the El station. The city streets were dark and empty before them, save for a lone police car rolling by. The officers stared out their windshield sleepily, shoulders hunched over.
The guy turned around, “What, baby?”
She rolled her eyes. “You aren’t like a cop or some shit, are you?”
He erupted into wheezy laughter. “No, I ain’t no cop. I’m in a gang.” He drawled out the word, “I’m in a gayyyne.”
She felt vaguely amused by her indifference to this information, “What gang?”
He contorted his fingers into a spiky looking shadow puppet, a gang sign. “WSD, West Side Demons.”
She shrugged and made a face. “Oh. I thought you meant like a real gang. The Kings, or the Disciples or something.”
The dude turned around. “We are a real gang. I just got outta jail last month. I was inside for eight months.”
She shrugged again and didn’t ask what for.
They walked on in silence for a while. The girl spoke up, laughing at a memory: “You know, this one time, I was waiting for the red line at that same stop, alone—my friends live in the other direction so I’m always waiting alone—and I had just bought a blunt off a random girl. So, I ask this dude up on the platform for a lighter. He gives me the lighter and I go ‘damn this blunt is hard to light!’ and that motherfucker goes, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m a cop, you asshole.’”
“What! You stupider than me.”
She laughed again. “He let me go. He said he was too hammered to do anything about it.”
“Fuckin’ po-lice. What is a young-ass white girl like you doin’ all alone at three in the morning getting into trouble all the time? You the crazy one.”
“I’m not that young, I’m twenty-one.” She was twenty.
The man shook his shaved head, grinning. “Didn’t I tell you? I told you! White girls like to party. Nobody thinks it. Y’all get fucked just as much as everyone else.”
She felt her stomach sink a little. Saying her age aloud made her feel like she was too young to be doing this—or maybe too old. “Well I guess I do stupid shit when I’m drunk.” She considered if he, too, was all of a sudden wondering what the fuck she was doing there. She glanced up at his hooded face, but his eyes were set in front of him. She followed his gaze to a circle of men half a block ahead. Their black silhouettes clumped together and then pulled apart, like cells dividing under a microscope. The girl wondered if she shouldn’t run back up to the red line platform right then. She could hear the train coming. She shrugged and shoved her hands in her jeans pockets.
They were getting closer and closer to the group. The man whispered in her ear, and, nodding, she fished out a tangle of five and single dollar bills from her jeans pocket and passed it to him quietly. Ahead of them, two of the men turned around and looked them both up and down. “Okay,” her acquaintance breathed, “you’re gonna walk ahead of me. Walk ahead. Go!” And he nudged her ahead of him as they entered the gauntlet.
She stepped into the circle and puffy black coats pushed in on her from all sides, the swishy nylon fabric brushing against the hair on her arms. Ten or so fitted caps, pulled low over dark faces, swiveled in her direction. A light-skinned black man called to her, his hot breath hitting the side of her face, “What you doin’ here girl? Hey baby, I’m Darius, what you doin’? You hear me? Hey.” He raised his voice, “I said what you doin’ here, white girl.” She ducked away from him. She heard a different man behind her wheeze, “Well I ain’t never felt safer! Cops ain’t gonna bother us if we chillin’ with a white girl!” Another voice answered, “Hey white girl, you got a job? We gonna hire you as full-time security.” The group rumbled with chuckles, and she coughed out a laugh. She felt tough but drunk, loose with alcohol. Nearing the end of the group, she glanced back. Her new companion was right behind her. “Keep walking, dude,” he said, “we good.” He grabbed her hand and she flinched, but he had only pressed a smallish, hard rock into her palm.
They kept walking, leaving the gaggle of puffy coats behind them. They turned into the first alley they came across, where the man stopped and held his hand out. “What the fuck is this?” the girl asked, looking down for the first time at the large, off-white pebble in her hand. It looked like a shard of talc. “Can we cut this up or something?” Smiling, the man took the pebble from her hands and peeled off the plastic wrap. “Nah man, this how we’re gonna do it.” He pulled out a cigarette and a pack of rolling papers from his back pocket and put both hands in the kangaroo pouch of his hoodie. “We’re gonna smoke this shit with some tobacco, I’m about to twist us up a heavy fifty-one.”
She realized, suddenly, what she had been holding. She shivered, “Wait, I thought we were getting coke.” She waited a beat. “I’ve never done that shit before.” The man nodded, kept walking, kept rolling the fifty-one in his pocket. As she kept talking she could hear the whine in her own voice, but couldn’t stop, “I mean, my friends and I, we smoke weed sometimes, but we don’t usually fuck around with anything harder. I only wanted coke.” As they walked deeper into the alley, the darkness intensified, and she fell quiet, but only for a moment.
“You can roll without looking?”
“Well, the tobacco don’t matter do it? I only gotta worry about keeping the little rocks in there.” She imagined the lining of his sweatshirt pouch littered with old strands of tobacco. “I guess.” She looked down at her shoes—long, black, oxford lace-ups. They seemed somehow at odds with what was going on.
“Okay, here ya go.”
He handed her the expertly rolled spliff and she hesitated, “I don’t know.”
“Hold it in for as long as you can.”
She thought about leaving and what it would feel like. She could walk out of the alley, leaving the man to what he really wanted, and sprint past the men and the police car and jump the barrier and take the El home, like she was supposed to.
“You don’t want to start it?” She asked the man.
“I’ll hit it after you. You paid for it.”
Was it really so much worse, she wondered, to be doing this than to be riding the red line alone again?
“It might pull kinda hard so take a long drag.”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah, okay. Fuck it,” and took out her lighter.
At first it burned like a normal cigarette, but when she dragged deeper on it, the paper unfurled, the tip glowed, and it sizzled loudly. Her only thought was, “It’s sizzling.” She held the chemical-tasting smoke in her lungs, feeling dizzier by the second. She passed the fifty-one to the man, and exhaled a thick ribbon of smoke that the wind caught and gusted upwards. Her lips were numb. She looked up at the pulsing lights of the loop where her friends lived, where they were now passed out in their beds. She took another hit. Her jaw went slack and she started shivering. The man looked at her and grinned approvingly, “that’s the good shit.” His voice echoed deeply in her ears, like a bass note.
Within minutes they had finished off the fifty-one and started walking, out of some unspoken but mutually agreed upon desire to move. The girl thought about her dog at her childhood home, how she had read somewhere that dogs needed to be walked, not just let out in the yard. “They need the sense of forward motion,” the pet-care book had claimed. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, blood pumping through her veins. She was nearly running. The man was falling behind her as she took the sidewalk squares in entire strides. “She’s feelin’ it now!” The man teased, laughing to no one in particular. She turned around reluctantly and waited for him to catch up. “I think we should get more,” she said to the man when he reached her. They smiled at each other, something amiss in their glassy eyes. She wanted to always feel this way, as if she could run forever. They were out of money, though, so she ran, instead, into a twenty-four hour diner while he waited outside.
The door jangled and slammed behind her as she looked around the dimly lit dive. Two cops sat silently with some coffee and eggs at a brown Formica table near the back of the restaurant. She felt nervous and wondered if crack, like weed, had a lingering odor. She wondered how her eyes looked. She couldn’t seem to focus on faces, or anything for that matter, for more than a second or two. What if she saw someone she knew? What if the cops thought something was wrong with her? She couldn’t stop her thoughts, or her eyes, from racing.
She hurried over to the graying ATM. Greasy fingerprints coated the screen, and the enter/cancel/clear buttons had all but disappeared under layers of grime. She grimaced and entered her PIN. “Would you like to view your current account balance before proceeding?” the machine asked her. Panic rose in her stomach. “NO” she jammed her thumb against the button until she got to the withdrawal page. She couldn’t afford to spend another hundred dollars tonight, but she pocketed the cash anyway, without counting it, and headed back out into the early morning air, rolling down the sleeves of her lightweight jacket as she went. The man was waiting outside and already looking antsy. “Alright, give me like, forty, and we’ll get enough to have some real fun.” She handed the money over to him. The alcohol she had poured into her body earlier that night was wearing off and it was now becoming obvious to her that she was bankrolling this drug expedition—that, perhaps, this was the sole reason the man had approached her in the first place. But he hadn’t mugged her, hadn’t harassed her, and they had gotten high together. She was hungry to get fucked up again, and they had that in common, so she stuck with him.
This time she waited on the corner with her phone out while the man picked up. A little drunk, a little residually high, she leaned against the stone pillar of some shop entrance and surveyed the neighborhood. She looked back to the circle of men, at her partner in crime—“literally, I guess,” she thought—obstructed by the bulk of the group. She wondered if that was why the men all had such big coats on, and why there were so many of them: to camouflage their illegal activities. Across the street, a group of fratty-looking white boys in big pants and pastel button-downs staggered and shouted their way towards the El stop, trying to hail non-existent taxi cabs. “Idiots” she muttered. The city sky, always a polluted shade of dark purple, was beginning to show some hints of the morning light. Gazing alone at the strange sky and black store windows, the girl took out her phone to check the time. But then, distracted, she opened her contacts and texted her friend, “what the fuck am I doing right now.” At this time in the morning, she wasn’t expecting an answer, but she sent the text anyway. She felt like she needed some sort of written record, something to point to later to prove to herself that she didn’t make this all up.
“Ahaha look who it is, white girl!” A deep voice wheezed with laughter and she turned around. The man had returned, followed by Darius, the black guy from the drug circle who had yelled out to her earlier. She nodded in greeting to the two men that towered over her. “Alley?” She suggested. The tall black man, with dreads swinging out from under his fitted cap, shrugged, “I think we safe on the sidewalk with the white girl.” She shook her head, a bemused smile on her face, “No! … Really?” she couldn’t tell if he was making fun of her or not. In answer to her, he pulled a packed pipe of weed out of his coat pocket. Darius leaned over and sprinkled the tiny rocks on top of the neat little mound of moss green marijuana.
Darius held it out to her, “He says you into the weed,” tilting his head towards the young man. The girl raised her eyebrows, oddly touched. “Thanks,” she murmured, and put the cool glass to her lips, circling the bowl with the flame of her lighter. This time she was anticipating the sizzle, and it excited her when she heard it. She gasped it all in, “I can see how people do this all the time,” she said, her chest puffed out, still holding in the acrid smoke. Darius guffawed. She exhaled a satisfying amount of thick smoke and a wave of energy and confidence and calm washed over her body. Her whole body, everything about her felt—“Holy shit.”—good. “It’s the best shit out there,” the man intoned in agreement.
She offered the bowl to her new friend who passed it back to Darius without taking a hit. “You don’t smoke weed?” The girl asked him, struggling to focus on his green eyes as the world seemed to buzz around her. “I’m getting drug-tested for a job on Monday,” he muttered. Darius nodded in understanding but the girl asked, “But the crack…?” He shook his head; “Rock only stays in yo system for a day or two. Weed takes like a fuckin’ month.”
The three of them began to walk, smoking and talking all the while. “What’s your job?” The girl asked. “Well, if I pass the drug test,” he answered, working again on rolling a fifty-one in his sweatshirt pouch, “I’ll be working at the Currency Exchange.” The girl wrinkled her nose, “That fucking sucks dude! Are you serious, that’s the shittiest job ever!” Darius started to laugh with her. The guy raised the freshly rolled fifty-one to his face and shook his head good-naturedly, “My fuckin’ P.O. is on my ass to get employed.” He let the smoke undulate from his mouth in slow curls, until his face suddenly paled. “Uh fuck,” he moaned. He leaned against a wrought iron fence. Darius calmly kept walking. “Is he okay?” The girl asked, looking back at him. “It hit him good. He’s good trust me,” Darius answered. She heard retching and then the sound of something splattering onto the pavement. The man ran to catch up with them, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his hoodie.
Unlike herself, the girl now noticed, as she watched the vomit being wiped from her comrade’s mouth, the duo had distinctively poor dental hygiene. Chapped lips, barely concealing missing or misaligned teeth, puckered as they reached toward the pipe and fifty-one. She had never thought about teeth as a status symbol before. Suddenly her background seemed irrevocably woven into every aspect of her, from her skin, to her clothes, to her very teeth, in a way it never had before. “Does it matter, though,” she thought, bumping against the shoulders of the men who flanked her as she walked unsteadily forward, “as long as we want the same thing?” She only wanted to get higher.
So she puffed on the pipe, then on the fifty-one the man handed to her, and then intermittently on a cigarette to “cover the smell,” as Darius wisely suggested. Smoke rolled out of her body and clung to her hair and clothes. In a moment of drug-induced silliness she imagined herself as Pig-Pen, the “Peanuts” character. Instead of dirt, a heavy cloud of weed and crack smoke floated playfully around her. She felt herself dissolve into the haze, her skin color and skinny jeans erased in the fog of her high. The cracks in the sidewalk were her only metric by which to judge anything from behind the pipe’s cloud.
Time began to slip from her as the sun rose. Her eyes were rolling around in her head as she smoked more and more. She wanted something to grab on to and shake around so she folded her arms and dug into the fleshy part of her arm above her elbow and shivered as she walked faster and faster. The chemical stench radiating from the three of them started to nauseate and frighten her. She realized she was leaving her impromptu entourage behind as she stretched her legs farther, barely feeling the concrete slapping the soles of her shoes. She heard one or two muffled shouts behind her, halfheartedly calling her back, but she couldn’t stop her forward march; it was time for her to go home.
The sun glinted, finally, over the rooftops of the north side neighborhood and the girl looked up, squinting as if she were coming out of a daze. She hummed a line from a song she used to sing when she was little, “when I wake up, I will wake up, I’ve been sleeping too damn long.” She misremembered the lyrics, adding in the expletive where it didn’t exist, but she didn’t notice and wouldn’t have cared. The sun warmed her tired skin, which felt like it had been bleached dry and stretched taut over her frame. The men were nowhere in sight; she found herself back in front of the red line station.
Fortuitously, a taxi glided up to the girl as she stood by the curb. The cab driver, a north African man with dark skin and fine features, unrolled the passenger window: “You want ride?” The girl blinked with surprise and took a deep, steadying breath, jutting out her jaw as she expelled the air from her lungs. “Yes!” She ducked into the backseat of the cab, gave the man her address, and sat back against the warm leather seat. She still couldn’t really control where her eyes went; they followed every glint of sunlight, every tumbling leaf, even the rapidly changing taximeter. The driver turned around to look at her at a red light, “you very awake to come home at seven in the morning!” His brown hands gestured towards her with each word, in a sort of attempt to thrust comprehension upon her. But the girl stared at him wide-eyed for only a moment before turning back to the window, silent. As though just remembering something, she pulled her phone out of her pocket, unlocked it, and opened her “Sent” text messages. She looked down at the glowing screen. 5:14 am: there was the text message. Keeping her phone open to the text, the girl closed her eyes, at last, and settled into the quiet rhythm of the blues song drifting back from the front seat.
“Why?” Everyone would ask her later, when she had explained the text and confessed to her friends. Why Why Why. What was the motivation here, why would she do it? The questions were desperate and searching. She couldn’t answer in her own words; she just repeated “I don’t know” to the queries. But alone, when she remembered that night, she would think to herself that it was the senseless act of a child, wandering around in the dark and moved by some emotion that we still perhaps have not the knowledge or the insight into life to thoroughly understand.