Ohio Portrait no. 199

She was taking an Amtrak to the west coast. She was young and always wanted to be drunk. Or wanted to always be drunk? Wanted to be drunk always?

It had been that way since she was about sixteen — always drinking, always searching for a drink, dealing and begging with the waitstaff and cooks she worked with, standing outside liquor stores, driving across town to meet an older brother of a friend of a coworker — anything for the chance to drink.

It wasn’t a biological requirement by any means. It was the chance to drink that she wanted, or maybe the sensation of lilting and keening and cutting her hand open and feeling nothing. She longed for how powerful it made her feel, and how grown, and it dominated our social lives until we graduated.

She didn’t know what she wanted. She was so brilliant, so kind, but so troubled. A boyfriend screwed her raw and then tried to kill himself. She punched out a window and crawled through glass to save his life, and then his cop uncle had her arrested for the property damage. She took Robitussin and Triple C and sat around a campfire with 27-year-old coke addicts and wastoids, herself 16, and now I am myself 27 and I am horrified. I can barely trade flirtatious jabs with a 25 year old boy-man in a bar, and these creeps fed her cheap beer and wrapped their arms around her? And cheated on her with other 16-year-olds, wrapped their lips and limbs around them in movie theaters and diners when in the morning they had AP exams?

I am disgusted.

My friend’s problem was she was too afraid of judgement. She was not a creeping, quiet mouse. She was not a perfect feminine doll. But she felt eyes all over her, was paranoid of rejection and conspiracy. She would speak and throw glances in every direction, clean out every corner of every party with her eyes. She felt perpetually watched. I can’t explain it. No one can.

She did not want to go to college. Nothing appealed to her. So she worked waiting tables and took an EMT training course. The corpses were too much for her. So she got a new job at a new restaurant and moved into a flat in Lakewood, with contact paper walls and heroin addicted neighbors.

Her home was where we drove to drink and waste away our weekends. I couldn’t do that often; I had two jobs and class and an internship. But I escaped when I could, drank more than I could manage, then left her Sunday afternoon, hungover, prematurely aged, my vomit clinging to the grout in her bathroom, the leaves of the bushes in her lawn.

She took time off to travel. She went to visit a girl at Oberlin. She met a boy with a hairy chest, blue eyes, and a dark complexion. They drank in the yard of an old Romanian couple and sang choir songs in the February frost. She took her rusted Tercell to Columbus and lived in a hotel and threw darts and offered me a plastic baggie of opium. We walked in the middle of the road looking for parties and then spotted a grown man in a fuzzy penguin costume, playing beer pong in a porch where a trash can burned.

She took a train from Cleveland to California, where a friend’s cousin was getting sober and contemplating kids. Alone, her face caught in a perpetual smirk, she met a man with a paper bag full of booze caught under his seat. She helped pry it loose and he uncapped a bottle for her. They drank until her smirk became a smile and talked about nothing in very complicated terms.

She loved to chat up drunks and old men. Her pleasantness and beauty drew them in, it couldn’t be helped, but her schizotypal, funny personality meants she liked to listen to them and give them bizarre answers to their questions. She had a fake name and backstory, it slipped out with ease. It allowed her to imagine an alternate reality, where she was a nursing student or a business grad, and her parents were wealthy or European, and she was mysterious, confident. The one thing she could not believably do was assert a boundary.

You know how these kids of men are. The talk close, teetering perhaps on purpose. Then an arm grazes an elbow, finds its home on a shoulder. A smile is a wince, a step is a retreat, a kind voice is a bleating alarm that no one but a best friend can hear. It has to get so bad for her to assert herself. Usually it never gets bad enough at all. Fear and fury are deemed too extreme, so everything is allowed, and all of it is resented, but not so much as she resents herself.

So she drank and joked with the Amtrak stranger, a relatively young guy with butter-colored hair. They sat ass to ass and thigh to thigh, but what could she do, except close up on herself? He wouldn’t yield and neither would she. It was safer to feign that she felt comfortable than it was to cut away or flinch. Weakness or fear just made what was happening real.

So a few questions got too familiar. What kind of panties did she have on? She batted them away, Chesire-Cat grin mistaken for invitation. Where did she live, did she have a man? Of course she said she did; of course he pushed against that, asked really, asked if he was good to her, asked if he brought her over the edge.

She just laughed. She just drank. You never realize how drunk you are until you stand up. She told me that once. I’m not that way; I know I am drunk the second I’m holding a bottle and smiling, but that doesn’t matter. This story is about her. She was three beers in and needed to pee so she stood and told him she was going to make her way down to the bathroom.

Make sure to lock that door, he said, or I’ll get to find out about the color of those panties.

She froze. What?

Be careful going in there. Or I might follow you. Everybody’s asleep.

It’s rare that a would-be rapist warns you that he might avail himself to your body. None of her others had. But she was old enough and wronged enough by then to have the capacity for fear, if not for outrage.

So she walked past the bathroom, through the metal doors and to the nearest conductor. They moved her to a seat near the front, by the dining car where the off-shift employees drank and shot shit all through the night, but they were upset at her theatrics and didn’t believe her. It was the same as when she saw a single roach and moved out of the Lakewood house. Everybody looked down their nose at her for thinking she had a right to live in a world with no roaches, for thinking that even one uninvited, filthy crawling thing was too many.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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