Never fuck with a coven.
I learned this important lesson in the summer of 1996 when I moved to New York City from Richmond, Virginia, without telling my girlfriend. This wasn’t an emotionally healthy or well-planned life decision.
Stories should teach lessons. So this is a brief record of one lesson learned.
My escape plan was simple: pay a fare, cross the river, and never look back. I needed money to do this, which meant breaking into the house where I lived, rent free.
Sixty dollars would buy me a trip two hours north to my sister’s apartment. That was the price Charlotte named when we had briefly talked the night before. I called from a payphone on the street. Her voice sounded far away, as if she were talking to me from the branches of a tall tree she had climbed.
Charlotte had been planning on road tripping to New York where the heroin was plentiful and inexpensive. She waited for me the following afternoon in her ancient VW bug while I tiptoed up the stairs to the front door.
I blew on my fingers the way safecrackers do in the movies because, hey, lucky fingers. The key slowly turned and the door creaked open. I shushed the hinges.
It took me half an hour to find the sixty dollars.
I had developed an irrational paranoia after my first mugging and had taken to squirreling away my cash inside books, and in the back of sock drawers.
Sober me had trouble finding the cash drunk me had hidden.
The house was alive. The wood floors hid lungs. Peel the paint off the walls and they’d bleed.
Her door was closed. Inside her room the stereo was blaring Nine Inch Nails. She was asleep. Noon was her midnight. If she woke up, she’d be heartbroken and furious.
Her python was awake, and that giant yellow snake could taste my betrayal through the filthy aquarium glass. Her name for the serpent was Lucky and he was always on to me.
Lucky escaped his tank once, and I ran out into the street when I found out, convinced he meant to murder me.
I locked eyes with the python and had the following telepathic conversation:
“Where are you going?”
“Shut up, snake.”
I found thirty dollars under the soiled futon in the living room that was her throne.
I spent months of unemployment eating her food, sucking down plugs of smoke from her bong and watching reruns of the sitcom Friends on her television.
She had a plentiful supply of cheap marijuana. But it’s not like I was wasteful. I’d even smoke the seeds. Friends would warn me that smoking the seeds would damage my sperm, but I ignored them because young men are rich with semen.
But the day before was different. After she had left to earn our rent money, and I had cracked open a breakfast beer, I had an epiphany.
Friends wasn’t on, so I watched the first episode of a major story arc on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. This story arc was about how evil Stefano kidnapped the beautiful Marlena and kept her hostage in a golden cage underneath the streets of Paris.
That’s when a heavenly shaft of light punctured the ceiling and consumed me. I was the beautiful Marlena and the golden cage was a metaphor too, man. I had to get out. Escape. Be free.
I mumbled my to-do list to myself. First, fill a pillowcase with clothes. Then take a nice long drag on a pipe packed with her reefer. Third, something or other. Touch my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I didn’t lock the door behind me.
Charlotte counted the money before turning the ignition. If I had been fifty cents short she would probably have dragged me out of her car by my hair. But it was all there.
The car roared to life.
“Thank you so much.”
“Don’t mention it.”
She wasn’t kidding. We didn’t mention anything for the entire trip to my sister’s condo in northern Virginia.
I couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror.