When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to seek shelter. “Shelter” is a relative term. Weathermen on the local news are usually talking about a house, a school—someplace secure, with a generator stashed away in a basement and windows that can be boarded up. When Hurricane Irene edges its way along the Connecticut coastline, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s Mercedes, drinking gin out of a travel mug, and trying to decide whether we should go out later that night, once the storm lets up
“Bitch,” James says. This is how he almost always addresses me. In practice, it sounds more affectionate than one might think. “I’m not wearing Brooks Brothers for my health. I didn’t iron my favorite shirt so we could hang out in your driveway.”
I’m actually the one who ironed the shirt. When I point this out, James reaches over, pinches my thigh where the hem of my dress meets it, and coos, “What a good little housewife.”
“If I was your wife, I’d smother you in your sleep so I could steal your trust fund,” I say. Then, remembering the conversation’s purpose, I add, “We should definitely go out tonight, but only if we end up somewhere with cabs. I’m not driving anywhere.”
“We could take a train into New York.”
“New York is flooded, darling.”
“Trains are probably down, anyway.” James yawns. “Whatever. We can stay in for one night, I guess. Sundays are never that exciting anyway.”
I hum my agreement and twist around to peer into the backseat. “We should bring the supplies inside.”
“Supplies” is a relative term. Earlier in the morning, we had set out for Target with a printed copy of FEMA’s recommended hurricane supply list and every intention of stocking up for the storm. Instead, we got high in the parking lot, took a nap in the backseat of the Benz, and lost our list. Our improvisation upon waking up left a lot to be desired.
A normal collection of supplies might be—nonperishable food items, flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, a battery-operated radio, clean water, blankets, rain gear, matches, and spare clothes.
Our collection of supplies includes—Battleship, a single box of organic macaroni and cheese, a board game called Oh No! Zombies!, a six-pack of miniature Play-Doh containers, a Blu-Ray copy of Sharktopus despite the fact that I don’t own a Blu-Ray player, three cases of beer, and a Star Wars Lego kit that I keep calling a Deathstar even after James snaps at me that it’s called an X-wing fighter, and Christ, Kate, how hard are you trying to make my life?
The closest thing we have to a flashlight is a Zippo I need to add more fluid to, and the closest thing we have to a battery-operated radio is James’ iPhone, which is set up on the dash between us, playing a Mountain Goats’ song on repeat.
“We are maybe not as prepared as I expected us to be,” I admit. “Do you think we should go back out for more supplies?”
“Shut up. I like this song,” James says. His eyes are closed, and his lips are silently forming the words to the song. He blindly holds out his hand for the mug of gin. I pass it over and mouth along to the lyrics, too.
People say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?
As far as most people who meet us are concerned, James and I are interchangeable. A phone call made to him will most likely be heard on speakerphone. An invitation extended to me will almost always result in both of us showing up. On the few occasions when friends bump into me without James in tow, there is an inevitable furrowing of the brow, as if they think they should recognize me from somewhere, but can’t quite place me under the circumstances.
This lack of identity is almost soothing. When James isn’t there, I don’t have to be anyone. When he is there, I only have to be who he tells me to be, and that story changes based on what bar we happen to be in.
Despite his penchant for sleeping with lovely, painfully stupid boys and my habit of kissing my way through our university’s entire gay-straight alliance, James has what might be called delusions of heterosexuality. He is enamored with the idea of convincing strangers that the bond between us is anything more than friendship. When we go day-drinking, he tells people that I am his fiancée, the prep school sweetheart he was always destined to settle down with. It never strikes me as a particularly reasonable cover story, but no one has ever called us out on the lie. I take to keeping a ring on my keychain, just in case. At night, the pretend romance usually gives way to something closer to pretend prostitution. Occasionally, it is a deliberate instruction. He calls me up, tells me we’re going to the casino, and says, “Wear something tight. I want people to think I’ve paid for you.”
But James’ favorite lie to tell people has nothing at all to do with sex. He likes the idea of people—it doesn’t matter who—believing that we are brother and sister. It’s believable enough—through sheer accident of genetics and something I’m not afraid to call fate, James and I look so similar that a single glance can leave people mistaking us for blood relatives. We share the same German-Italian heritage, the same brown eyes, the same nearly-black hair cropped into the same short, androgynous style. When I wear heels, we are the same height.
The first night that James and I hang out, we get drunk in a cheap hotel room with half a dozen other students from our university’s gay-straight alliance after a school-funded conference trip. I have been in the group for five months and get along well with most of the other members, but I’m not actually close to any of them. As a general rule, I don’t like people, and I have never been particularly good at pretending that I do. I am talkative, but too sarcastic, too blunt, too easily bored to make normal conversation. I spend most of the night wishing I was elsewhere, and I have to keep a drink in my hand in order to stop myself from saying anything that would come out too cruel.
James is new to the group and unwilling to contribute much to the conversation. Instead, he allows his attention to fix on each member of the group in turn, tracking every movement, every word spoken, every detail of face and body until he finds a flaw that is so unforgivable that he has to move on. He grimaces at Jeanna’s diesel-dyke bravado and Kelsey’s tendency to cry when drunk. Samson’s self-proclaimed aspirations for pop stardom have him on thin ice from the start, but when he mentions in passing that he is half Filipino and half Jewish, James walks away so abruptly that all Samson can do is stare after him, stunned.
I don’t know how long James spends watching me try to drink my way into being sociable before he comes over. He unzips his backpack and takes out a bottle of wine that costs more than this hotel room. He tops off my glass and takes a step back to examine me—my dark hair and eyes, the death-grip I’ve got on my drink, and the almost palpable sense of how much I don’t want to be here. Finally, he squeezes the flesh of my wide hips and declares, “Look at you! If you weren’t so fat, we could pass for twins.”
It is simultaneously the worst insult and the sweetest compliment that he has given anyone all night. My face burns, and I think about how I’d give anything in the world to never hear the words “look at you” again. But his declaration feels like a promise, and I’m so starved for approval from someone who seems impossible to please that it doesn’t seem much harder to starve myself for real.
For two months, I subsist mainly on celery and cigarettes, until I have whittled my shape into something less offensive to the cruelest, prettiest person I have ever met. It takes seven weeks and three days until James slings an arm around my shoulders in a bar and says to someone we’ve just met, “This is my sister, Kate.”
It is never “look at you” after that night—always “look at us, look at us.” And it’s easier, really. Being James’ sister-fiancée-whore is easier than peeling back nineteen years of layers and trying to figure out who I might be when left to my own devices. So I order another drink, and I put on the fake ring, and I smile at strangers, and most nights, James’ lies are truer than anything else I’ve ever known.
When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to make sure that you have enough prescription medication to last for seven days. When you are an addict, there is no such thing as enough prescription medication to last for seven days.
We pour the pills out on my kitchen table and line them up in four neat rows of six, with one left over. I split the spare pill in two and swallow half of it. James takes the other, then ducks down to snort the split residue off the table surface. Even though the pills are so perfectly laid out, we count them again, just to be sure.
Twenty-four pills, two hundred and forty milligrams of oxycodone.
“I’ll go check my room for more,” I offer.
James laughs and says, “The Weather Channel says the storm will be over before tomorrow morning. Do you really think we’ll go through all of these in less than twenty-four hours?”
This feels like a trick question.
In my bedroom, I find three Vicodin, one Percocet, an eighth of an ounce of weed, and the half-empty bottle of cabernet sauvignon we didn’t finish last night before bed. I hide two of the Vicodin and the lone Percocet in my nightstand—for emergencies, of course—and bring the rest of my spoils back downstairs.
James empties the wine into my coffee mug, a thirty-two ounce monstrosity with the words “shit’s about to get real up in this mug” printed on the side. He takes a sip and peers at me over the rim of the cup. “Is that all we were keeping in your room?”
“Of course,” I say. I tip my head towards the pills on the table. “Is that all we were keeping in the Benz?”
“Of course,” he echoes.
Neither of us wants to admit how we know the other is lying.
The first night I take the pills, I don’t even realize I’m high until halfway through the night. James has his wisdom teeth pulled on a Monday and declares himself ready for an adventure on Thursday. We make plans to go to the beach with some friends from school, and James is a disaster from the instant he rolls out of the passenger seat of my car. He is sleepily delighted by everything he sees—the weak bonfire the others have thrown together, the dirty ocean water that smells like a moldy basement, the group of people he can usually only tolerate—and keeps losing his bottle of oxycodone in the sand.
I make him give me the bottle and declare myself his caretaker for the evening. No one objects, despite the fact that I’m at least four drinks in and can’t be trusted any more than he can. I’m more of an enabler than a nurse. When he asks where the whiskey is, I show him to the bottle. When he asks for another pill, I give it to him.
He tells me, “You can try one, if you want to,” and I want to.
It takes twenty minutes for the pills to start working, and by the time I notice that anything is different, my whole body is on its way to numbness. When my friends touch me, I can feel the warmth of their hands on my skin, but nothing more detailed than that. If I close my eyes, I can’t even be sure what those hands are doing. The lack of sensation fascinates me, and I wander among the group, asking everyone to help me find the boundaries of it. The whole experiment feels silly, and everyone is willing to indulge me. They pinch at my forearms and run their fingers through the black bristles of my mohawk, laughing when my demands for touch become more insistent.
“Hurt me,” I tell them, when everything else has failed to register. “Come on, really fuck me up. Punch me, or something.”
Unsurprisingly, a request to be punched doesn’t exactly go over too well with the group of people who think they are my friends. The sole exception is James, who says, “Hold still, sweetheart,” and pitches an orange at me with all the precision he acquired on his high school baseball team.
When I wake up the next morning, an enormous purple welt has bloomed against my thigh. It lasts for three weeks and aches so much I have to wear dresses every single day because I can’t stand the scrape of skinny jeans against the raw, abused flesh. But on the night it happens, it doesn’t feel like anything at all.
When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to do your best to remain alert and aware of the weather conditions. Sitting on my front porch with James while fifty-mile-an-hour winds tear the leaves from the trees in my yard, it’s hard to be aware of much else. I flick my lighter a fourth and fifth time, but the flame won’t catch. It sparks and goes out, sparks and goes out.
“Face away from the wind, you stupid bitch,” James offers.
“There is no away from the wind,” I say. I gesture vaguely around with the same hand that’s clutching the packed glass pipe. “There’s wind everywhere. I’m pretty sure that’s the point of a fucking hurricane, actually. Are you going to tell me to avoid the rain, too?”
He shrugs as if to say that he wishes we could, but it isn’t really an option; we can’t smoke in the house. No matter how far back we sit on the porch, the wind blows a thick sheet of rain over both of us. The gray wool of James’ suit pants is damp enough to have darkened to nearly black, and my bare legs are slick from the mist. I hold the pipe to my lips and flick the lighter again. I’m not surprised that it still doesn’t work. The wind around us is strong enough to strip the trees of their branches and have the power lines stretching into dangerous curves, so it stands to reason that it would be strong enough to keep us from getting stoned.
James cups both his hands around the lighter and says, “Try it now.”
The flame flickers out after a few seconds, but that’s long enough for me to light the bud and take a deep, desperate breath in. We smoke the rest of the bowl and half a pack of cigarettes this way—one of us smoking, the other shielding the flame with both palms. After we run out of things to smoke, we drag ourselves back into the house, take a few more of our carefully rationed pills, and curl up on the couch together to nap.
Later that night, I wake up with James’ fingers combing through my hair. I assume that the gesture is an attempt to stop me from rolling around so much in my sleep, but it’s unsuccessful, if the way I’ve managed to tangle myself in my clothes is any indication. My dress is rucked up around the top of my thighs and twisted around so much that the side seam runs in a diagonal slash across my torso. One of my heels has been kicked off, presumably with a great deal of enthusiasm, since it’s halfway across the living room. James’ glassy eyes don’t stray from the documentary playing on the television screen, but he still knows I’m awake.
“Mussolini was such a daddy,” he says.
I squint at the screen, but my vision is too blurry to make anything out. I can barely remember where I am, let alone what Mussolini looks like. I close my eyes again and say, “Sure he was.”
James must take this as an invitation, because he launches into yet another one of his enthusiastic rants about fascism. I wind my fingers into bracelets around his slim wrists and sneak his hand out of my hair and over my ear so I won’t have to hear him.
James has an alarmingly persistent hard-on for almost any European male who has ever committed a war crime. Most of our friends find it charming that he has a tendency to get stoned and chatter on about World War II. In private, the one-sided conversations become more serious. He tells me very quietly and carefully how things “should have gone,” and I stare at my hands and pretend that my stomach isn’t churning. I take much longer sips of my drinks during these conversations. When he is at his drunkest, he twines his skinny arms around my neck and calls me his Eva Braun, and I always pretend not to hear. He knows that I do not share his twisted views, and he knows that if I actually contributed anything to these conversations, I would be contributing a whole-hearted refusal of every one of his ideals. He doesn’t expect me to agree with him; he expects me to be silent.
The pills make it easier to ignore him. So do the drinks, and the coke, and everything else I’ve tried. They are the only things that make it possible for me to stay close to him. I get fucked up so that I can stay friends with James, and I stay friends with James because he lets me get fucked up. I wish I knew which of these came first.
I am not a stupid girl, and I am not under any delusions that he is a good person. James is, at his core, a Neo-Nazi and a sociopath who values me for the straightness of my nose and my willingness to waste my body into the shape of an apple core so that I can look good on his arm when we go out for drinks.
But he takes care of me in the only ways I want to be taken care of. He gives me pills when I ask for them, and he buys my liquor until I turn twenty-one. The first time I overdose, he sticks two fingers down my throat to get the drugs out of my stomach. The second time I overdose, he coaxes me out of the ambulance so that I won’t wake up cuffed to a hospital bed. The third time I overdose, he lounges around outside the bathroom and yells, “Kate, stop being so dramatic!” while I make myself sick, and we laugh about it until I feel better. There hasn’t been a fourth time yet, but if there is, I know that he will be there with me, petting my hair and offering me sips of water and never once giving me the lectures that I’m not ready to hear. He loves me in the sickest way he knows how to, and if I’m high enough, it feels like enough.
James pinches my thigh again and snaps, “Are you listening to me?”
“I’m always listening to you, love,” I say. He smiles and begins talking again.
The last time I use, I am in Providence, Rhode Island. There is no “before”—no time spent picking out this night’s incarnation of the little black dress and stilettos I always end up in, no cab ride to the club from whichever hotel James and I are staying at, no joint flirtation with the bouncer so that he’ll take a shine to James or me or both of us and waive the ten-dollar cover. There is no “after,” either—no staggering back to the hotel with the assistance of whoever offers a body to lean against, no hangover in the morning, no drive home to pick out a new dress for the next adventure.
There is no “before,” and there is no “after.”
There is only a snapshot of the “during.”
I’m wearing a pair of heels that are the color of a stop light. James keeps calling them my ruby slippers, and I keep laughing, even though it’s not funny. We’re both leaning against the back wall of a bar, and James is vaguely involved in a conversation with a boy a few years younger than us. I know the boy will probably be coming home with us, and I’m preemptively bored by the idea. For the past two years, we have been living this same night over and over again. It used to feel like a mad adventure, but now, life with James feels just like those last few minutes before I met James—monotonous and dishonest and so, so suffocating.
On a stage at the other end of the bar, a man in a vinyl mask is stroking himself off with one hand, and snapping a flogger against his own back with the other. I’ve been to this club a dozen times before, and I’m almost positive that there has never been a live BDSM show here before. It’s not as exciting as I expect it to be.
I hook my chin over James’ shoulder and say, “The ruby slippers are killing my feet.”
His hand drops to the prescription bottle-shaped bulge in the pocket of his skinny jeans. “How tragic. Do you want something for the pain?”
I’m not in pain. I’m bored, and I’m tired, and I’m drunk, but I’m not in pain. I know it. James knows it. The nameless boy who’s going to come home with us probably knows it. I nod anyway. James taps two Percocet out of the bottle onto my palm, and I chase them with a sip of Jack and diet coke. On stage, the man with the flogger groans into a microphone, but when I look over at him, his expression is blank.
Kate Hellman is an undergraduate student at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. She currently resides in Connecticut, where she spends her time writing, changing her hair color, and aggressively live-tweeting her opinions on Lifetime Movies. "Emergency Preparedness" is her first published piece.
Q: What was the thing that most surprised you during the writing or revising of this piece?
A: I was surprised by the difference between the essay I had planned to write and the essay I ended up with. I sat down to write a piece about substance abuse, and what came out was a eulogy of a friendship.