Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Heroin Girl by Josette Torres

Josette Torres' character hears a spontaneous confession from a woman who has fallen on hard times, which leaves a lasting impression.

You're nearly at the Damen El stop by the time you notice Flash Taco, a Mexican restaurant, right across the street from the Double Door. In your post-bar daze you completely missed it. The shady characters lurking nearby unsettle you and you decide to pass on dinner until you get back to the hotel. You swipe through the turnstiles and head upstairs.

A few people mill around on the other side of the platform waiting for the outbound Blue Line train. Several feet away from you, a girl in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap reads a book. Huge black headphones cover her ears. You sit a respectful distance away from her and watch traffic passing below, the spring breeze tossing papers around in the street.

You've been away from Chicago for months, and now you're here one last time before you head off to teach at a school on the West Coast. You discovered the Red House Painters were touring from an Internet message board posting a few weeks before and booked the entire trip online, never speaking to a single person as you bought a show ticket, made Amtrak reservations, found a cheap rate at a nice hotel. You even bought the CTA fare card online. You haven't talked to anyone other than to say "Thank you" or "Can I get a Pabst Blue Ribbon?" or "I'd like a number six, supersized" or any number of meaningless phrases since you boarded the train to Chicago in the morning. You're not a small talk kind of person when you're traveling.

A few minutes later, another woman appears on the platform, plopping herself in the space between you and the headphone girl. She blurts, "I'm tired and I just want to go home and go to sleep!" Then she turns, holding out her Flash Taco carryout bag. "Feel how heavy this is!"

You take the sack from her, weighing it with your right hand. She's right, this thing is heavy. What the hell did she order? You say without thinking, "Where I go to school, there's a place that has burritos as big as your head."

The woman looks confused. "Your head?"

"Well, it depends on the head."

The woman asks where you go to school. You're tired, still don't feel like talking too much, so you quickly spin off a time-compressed version of yourself, leaving out the part about hating the undergraduates you teach and the classes you take and the boring college town you're stuck in for two more months. Then she asks, "How old do you think I am?"

That's an odd question for two in the morning, you think.

Before you can answer, the woman launches into the story of her life: She dropped out of school in ninth grade because she was pregnant, fell in with a pimp who abused her, married and divorced an alcoholic, had three children taken away by the state. She hardly takes a breath as she speaks. She's still eating the burrito, too, occasionally talking with her mouth full.

Right now, she tells you, she's dating a drug dealer. She's addicted to heroin. "No, I don't shoot up, I snort it. I snort all this heroin and I don't even get high anymore."

You look away, run a hand through your red hair. The woman, still attacking the burrito like it was life-saving nourishment instead of ordinary take-out food, says, "You probably don't want to talk to me now. I've probably scared the hell out of you."

Nothing could be further from the truth, you think. You're more confused than scared. You don't understand exactly when you turned into a vessel for confession while waiting for a train. You wonder how you manage to attract these people to you in the first place. You look at the woman's stringy blonde hair, her slightly rotted teeth, her stonewashed jeans and white fringed leather boots. You're younger than me and you look twice your age, heroin girl.

Suddenly you're dying to ask her how old she really is, but now she's on a roll. "I have a nasty toothache, but since I don't got insurance, I had to travel all over town to find a hospital that would see me. And by the time I got there, the pain had gone away. Of course, it came back after I left. Then I waited two hours for a prescription that took all of five minutes to fill! I wanna get off drugs and get clean, but I ain't got any ID so I can't get into the program."

As she stuffs the food wrapper into the paper bag, the woman says, "I'm not happy with the way my life is going." You nod in agreement with her, but for very different reasons. The headphone girl nods to unknown music, out of sync with the two of you.

In defiance of the numerous no smoking signs, she lights a cigarette as a post-meal dessert, tossing the match onto the tracks. "I made $87 at work tonight, enough to pay the rent and pay the bills." You try to recall her mentioning where she worked, but you can't. You're about to ask her when you hear the train approaching. The three of you stand up...



You wake up, sighing at the ceiling. It's been three years and you still dream about the woman on the El platform. You only spoke to her for less than thirty minutes. Why is she still in my head?

You shake it off, getting out of bed and heading for the bathroom. It's Saturday, and your plan is to spend the day wandering the shops in Venice and Santa Monica, then catch a Red House Painters show at The Troubador in Hollywood. You have no intentions of grading student papers until tomorrow. You desperately need a break.

Your teaching career is anything but stellar. You left your first position after a year because the cow town you ended up in reminded you of graduate school. Now you teach English composition at Santa Monica College, a bit more interesting in the eye candy department, or at least you think so. You don't speak to your colleagues much, since you're still not a small talk kind of person. They see you as stand-offish, but you don't care. You can feel the restlessness rolling off you in waves more powerful than the ones a few miles away in the Pacific. You want to go somewhere else, and how, and now.

You like California, and you enjoy the warm weather, but every so often you have irrational stabs of homesickness - lake effect snow rolling off Lake Michigan, messy hot dogs, deep dish pizza, the Magnificent Mile in December with Christmas lights draped as far as the eye can see. You haven't been back home since you met the heroin girl, and you dread going back.

Sometimes you're standing in front of your class during lecture and the image of the heroin girl in flight towards the train pops in your head, and it's almost enough to derail you, and you have to sit down. Sometimes you can hear the thump of her body against metal when you close your car door, and you sit in the driver's seat for a minute and stare out the glass. Sometimes your office reminds you of the police station the headphone girl and you went to after the heroin girl took a flying leap at the Blue Line. If a student sits in the chair across from your desk a certain way, you see the officers who sat across from you as you told them what you witnessed. After that happens the third or fourth time, you decide to hold your office hours in a coffeeshop near campus. Your students like that, and you like getting out of your office. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved.

You drive out to the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and spend the better part of two hours picking through racks of CDs in music stores and racks of clothing in Urban Outfitters. You watch street musicians ply their trade on the pedestrian mall. A preacher set up in front of Old Navy with a portable sound system tells passers-by, "You will go to Hell if you smoke the cigarettes or the marijuana." You eat an overpriced chicken taco salad at a chain restaurant, then you start the long drive down Santa Monica Boulevard to Hollywood for the show.

The Troubador is packed. You thread your way through the crowd to the bar. After flagging down a bartender, you get a rum & Coke and head back into the fray in search of a good spot. There's a buzz in the air, and you think it's due to the lead singer's appearance in yet another feature film that brought so many people out to see the band.

The songs go on for interminable lengths of time. You're sure their cover of Wings' "Silly Love Songs" is at least twenty minutes long. A waitress working the crowd brings you more rum & Cokes, and after a while you don't mind the extended riffing. You nod your head and mouth the words to songs along with the people around you.

By the time the show ends you're very, very drunk. You stumble down the street to a diner, order an egg sandwich and a glass of iced tea. The food will sober me up, you think.

A woman sits down next to you. "Hi," she says.

You don't have to look over to know it's the heroin girl. You don't want to look over because you know it's not really the heroin girl, that you're hallucinating yet again.

"What do you want?" you say, pushing empty sugar packets around the counter.

She says, "I want you to realize that there are other people in this world, people who are much worse off than you are. Stop being so self-centered all the time, for Christ's sake. This isn't all about you." She takes the sugar packets from you. "I'll keep coming back until you get it. You can't run away and you can't drink me away."

She reaches over, taking a cigarette from your pack. "Jessica," she says, "I'm just trying to help," as she takes the lighter from your hand and lights it. "You helped me, right? You listened when nobody else did."

"I wish I hadn't done that," you say abruptly. "I wish I had stopped for food before going back to the El stop."

"That wouldn't have helped any. You would have run into me at Flash Taco." She blows smoke in your face.

"You're right, I guess. About the listening part. I was just doing it to be nice. Sometimes I'm passive-aggressive."

"Sometimes?" the heroin girl scoffs. "That's an understatement."

She watches you finish your sandwich. "It's time to go home," she says. "You have grading to do tomorrow. You have students you have to connect with. Come on, I'll drive. You're too drunk to think straight."

You're too drunk to think straight, you think to yourself, stumbling out of the diner and into the street. A car screeches to a halt inches from your knees. The driver leans out the window, yelling, "Watch where you're going! You'll get killed that way!"

You reply too low for him to hear, "I know, I've already seen it." You watch him drive off. You lean against the rear bumper of someone's Honda and brush imaginary dirt from your thighs.

"You're lucky you didn't get killed," the heroin girl says from the curb. "You're really fucking lucky, you know that? Get that through your pretty little head of yours," she sneers as she walks away from you.

7 comments:

  1. It took me a couple of paragraphs to warm up to the second person POV, but it really worked. I think there is a time in just about everyone's life when we need a heroin girl calling out from the curb trying to open our eyes. Nicely done.

    ReplyDelete
  2. i agree with Jim, I think this method was every effective, good Story and very well done.

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  3. This story is very powerful in its subtlety. A lot of people trap themselves in their own world without looking at the misery around them. Sometimes it takes a traumatic wakeup call to get their attention. Well executed.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Love the details. You weave a clear sense of place--both physical and emotional throughout the story. Second-person is tricky, but it works here. It's awesome when that happens.
    --Wendy Hammer

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interesting existential stance. The device of the girl as anonymous stranger works. However, revealing her name somehow diminishes that and makes the reader (at least me) want to know a bit more. Once something /someone is named they deserve a face. I do think that the present tense is a little distracting in that it draws attention to itself, but it is effective in creating tension. The setting shift doesn't keep up with the personality shift. Perhaps more about your self-obsession would make the heroin girl's wisdom even keener.

    James

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nice use of POV. Obviously you're doing well with this story, but if you're still open to structure changes, I'd suggest bookending the action at the train station by opening in the "later" time and then shifting back. I think that would heighten the story and the time shift. Just a suggestion. Great story!

    Maui Holcomb

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with Maui. I liked the story a lot, but I think a shift back to the train would make for a powerful ending. Still, a great story! I could imagine heroin girl vividly.

      Delete