Veins of Mercury

I had my existential crisis in the Walmart bathroom.

 

I shoved into the door, needing another hit. The warped, water-stained mirror distorted

my reflection so much that when I looked at myself, I didn’t recognize the person staring back at

me. Stupid fun-house mirrors.

 

My fingers wouldn’t cooperate. I fumbled to do a line with the coke in my purse, but my

fingers wouldn’t stay still to open the Ziploc of powder. I yelled at them in my head. Open bag.

Open bag, dammit. Or maybe it wasn’t in my head. Why couldn’t I open it? I paused, and stared

in the mirror again, this time focusing my eyes.

 

Who I saw I still didn’t recognize. Pressing my lips together, I returned to the bag, but

when I couldn’t open it on the third try, I hurled it against the counter, punishing it for its

existence. I can’t do it. I can’t do anything anymore. Warm tears dribbled down my cheeks and a

sob wracked my body.

 

Hence the moment of my great existential crisis: I couldn’t reconcile myself with the

truth I was an addict in a perpetual state of delirium with no real future that involved anything

but back-alley deals and a metal toilet in a prison cell.

 

I dried my eyes with the sleeves of my fraying jacket and stashed the coke in my purse

again. I strode through the aisles of Walmart, trying to keep from decompensating in the dairy

section. The obnoxiously fluorescent “Save money. Live better,” slogan shouted at me as I left. I

wanted to tell it to shut up.

 

The streets on my way home were deserted and barren. Summer moonbeam speckled the

sidewalk through a shag carpet of clouds. I could practically see the ghost of my younger self

walking these streets, wobbling on the curb, tip toeing around the cracks in the asphalt. If you

step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back, I remembered informing my sister.

 

My mom’s townhouse was sandwiched between two other identical houses: same

crumbling, peeling facade, same slate grey shingles. The soles of my shoes scuffed on the

concrete steps as I climbed up to the house. I fished the spare key out of the flower pot from

muscle memory, not bothering to knock.

 

Walking through the door that night was the hardest moment of my life. The house was

dark, but I figured somebody was home. “Mom,” I called out. I fumbled for the lightswitch on

the wall but couldn’t find it. “Mom?”

 

I took a few steps forward and slammed my shin into the coffee table. “Son of a-”

I heard the safety of a gun click off behind me. “Don’t move. I’m armed,” a voice said.

I froze. I knew that voice, honey over gravel. “It’s me, Amá,” I said.

 

The pause seemed to last forever. “Mariana?” Disbelief colored her voice. “What are you

doing here?” she asked. She flipped the light and I hissed at the brightness. Placing her .44 pistol

on an end table, she peered at me closely. “Are you high?” The question was objective and

devoid of emotion.

 

I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. “No.”

 

She snorted. “That’s a first.” She moved into the light where I could better see her, and I

cringed. She looked a decade older than the last time I saw her, and she had the deflated

appearance of an old balloon. Her face was all planes and angles, more geometry than anatomy.

Though grey streaked her brown hair, her dark eyes were keen as ever.

 

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

 

“Too long,” I replied.

 

“Or maybe not long enough,” she fired back. “I told you not to step one foot into this

house if you had even a milligram in your body, and now you have the nerve to-”

 

“I came back because I need your help,” I said, sinking onto the couch. I picked at a hole

in the cushion with my chewed fingernails, feeling like a rare butterfly pinned under her gaze.

Eventually she sat down beside me, not near enough for us to be touching, though. Tension

stretched between us, taut and unbreakable.

 

“You know, I’ve always blamed your apá for passing along the druggie gene to you,” she

finally said. “How is he, by the way?”

 

The casual tone with which she tossed out the words felt like an injustice, as if she could

degrade my issue to the fault of a gene my dad gave me. “He’s…” I started, before realizing my

sentence had no end. I cleared my throat. “He hates that I’m on the same path as him, and I think

that’s why he’s started slipping again.”

 

“But you didn’t come here to talk about your apá,” she said. I shook my head. “You need

help. How can I help you?”

 

“I thought coke was the answer when you and Apá split. But it’s not,” I said, my voice

shaking. I bit my lip so my chin wouldn’t quiver. “I want to give it up.”

 

She arched an eyebrow at me. “You know it’s not that easy.”

 

Burying my face in my hands, I suddenly felt so tired. I was tired of existing, of living as

the shell of a human being I had become. “I need help,” I repeated, my voice muffled. “And

you’re the only who can give me that. Apá can’t.” She had helped my dad. Once he had gotten

rid of his addiction, he’d divorced my mom, but at least she had helped him regain his clarity.

I knew what I was asking her to do was hard. Sacrifice her time to piece me back

together, wipe my tears when I wanted to relapse, force me to stay strong when I begged to be

weak. She would see the darker sides I had kept hidden; she would see me, once a bud of

promises to come, as the withered flower I was now.

 

I heard her shift, and my side of the couch rose. “I’m going to get some pamphlets from

the kitchen.”

 

Of course she had pamphlets for this kind of occasion. She must have known I’d become

an addict all along, just like Dad.

 

“Mari?” I heard, from a different voice, one high and sweet. My heart leapt into my

throat.

 

I took my hands from my face and saw my little sister appear in the living room like an

apparition. “Hey, Analía,” I said, in my most soothing voice. “What are you doing awake?”

“I heard voices,” she said. She watched me from the hall, slightly wary, her slender frame

glued to the doorway. “I missed you,” she said flatly, past tense, but she still didn’t move, and

the suspicion veiled her eyes.

 

The look faded, though, replaced by longing. “Can I hug you?” she asked. That she had

to ask broke my heart. This was what I had done to her, with the help of my father. When he had

jumped ship, I had followed him overboard like the pathetic daddy’s girl I was. Amá hadn’t even

fought when I said I wanted to live with Apá. She said she wasn’t going to make me her prisoner.

I nodded at Analía and she launched into motion, expertly navigating around the furniture, and

slamming into my body. She hugged me so fiercely I thought she would never let go. When she

pulled away, she looked me in the eye and said, “You smell funny.”

 

She made a good point. I hadn’t showered in God only knew how long. “I know I do,” I

said softly, stroking her matted hazel curls. I looked up as my mom reentered the room, holding a

healthy stack of pamphlets.

 

“Analía, you should go back to bed,” she said.

 

“But Mari-” Analía started.

 

“Now, please,” she said more firmly.

 

Analía made a pouty face but spun on her heel and traipsed back toward her bedroom, her

long nightgown trailing on the hardwood floor. I was re-memorizing her without realizing it,

remembering her soundless glide, the sheen of her eyes, how openly and fearlessly she showed

her feelings. I watched her at the same time as I craved the cocaine in my purse.

 

“It’s been hard on her, since you left,” my mom said, sitting down again. I followed suit.

 

“Does she know what’s going on with me?” I asked.

 

She nodded. “Eventually she figured it out since she’d seen it before. She’s naive, but

smart.”

 

“She’s not naive,” I countered. “She’s just a kid.”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” my mom said. “You’ve come back.” The unspoken words for now

hung in the air between us, demanding to be acknowledged. She glanced at a pamphlet and

handed it to me. “You should read this,” she said.

 

The cover read It’s Never Too Late to Quit. I realized I’d have to deal with a lot of

“motivation” written by pompous people who had never dealt with the issues I had. The inside

was stuffed with pictures of cloudy-eyed teenagers blowing smoke rings in the air. Connect with

those who understand what you’re going through, the caption advertised. “I’m not reading this,”

I told my mom calmly.

 

She sighed. “I didn’t think so. At least look at the schedule for the meetings on the back,”

she said.

 

I did. “There’s one tomorrow at four at… the church,” I said. “I don’t want to go to

church. Never did me any good.”

 

“Well, try it,” she told me, standing up. She used the couch for support when she stood

up, and shuffled instead of taking long strides. I felt like I was looking at a stranger. “I’m going

back to bed.”

 

“Wait, Amá,” I called out. She turned. “Can I stay here tonight? I don’t want to go back

to Apá’s.”

 

She stared at me with a look I couldn’t decipher. “Do you have any coke on you?” she

asked. Mutely, I reached into my purse and handed her the bag. I felt a rush of anticipation just at

the sight of the powder, before my mom took it. She stuffed it in a bag of barbeque chips, then

threw it in the trash. “Yes, you can stay here tonight.”

 

As she turned out the lights and I curled up on the worn couch, I had the sense I was

teetering on the precipice of something. Of what, I had no idea. But I hoped I would find out the

answer pretty soon.

 

I woke up with the most God-awful headache I’d ever had. It was like I was

simultaneously hungover and stoned, but I had all the side effects with none of the memory. I

thought about the coke in the trash and decided I wasn’t below digging through the garbage to get

some. My resolve had dissolved within twelve hours. How weak I was.

 

I stretched and popped my joints as I sat up, rubbing the knots of tension between my

shoulder blades. My conscience faded to background noise as I stared at the innocent trash can.

Hating myself, I scurried over to the trash, and flipped open the lid. The only thing in it was an

empty white garbage bag.

 

“Looking for something?” my mother said.

 

I spun around. She sat at the kitchen table watching me, and I had the surreal feeling I

was in a movie I would have found funny if I weren’t the main character. “Uh…” I stammered. I

didn’t have enough wit right now to talk myself out of this.

 

“I’m not an amateur,” my mom said.

 

“How long have you been sitting there?” I asked.

 

“As long as I’ve known you would be craving.”

 

That stung. “Fine. You caught me,” I said. “What now?”

 

“Well, it’s two-thirty, so you should start getting ready to go to the church.”

 

“It’s two-thirty?” I asked. I winced when I realized I wasn’t helping my case of appearing

put together. “Have you worked today?”

 

My amá translated books from Spanish to English. She came to California from Mexico

D.F. because she wanted a job in Silicon Valley doing something with her tech-related major.

Computer science? But she was stuck in a home office with a swivel chair and a garage sale desk

translating books. My apá was a sanitation worker.

 

“I did this morning,” she said. “And you need a shower. Really badly.”

 

I smiled sourly at my mom. “I’ve missed you so much.”

 

She returned the smile, refreshing in its honesty and tart like the bite of an apple. “Missed

you too. Now get in the shower before those clothes rot on your body.”

 

I left the kitchen and walked down the narrow hallway. I paused in Analía’s doorway as I

did. She wasn’t there, so I figured she was at a friend’s house, but her presence filled the room. I

had been away for so long I could smell her scent, remembering how a year ago I had been here

so often I had been desensitized to the fragrance of detangling shampoo and gentle detergent.

She had pictures on her purple walls of marine animals and a diagram of the layers of the ocean

water. I didn’t know ocean water was layered. Analía had always been fascinated with The Little

Mermaid; I guess she had taken that fascination to a more mature level.

 

I used the shower in my mother’s bedroom. The sheets were neatly tucked underneath the

mattress, but no decorative pillows adorned the bed. My mother had a no-frills policy.

Everything she owned had a purpose, or else she didn’t own it.

 

I peeled off my clothes, feeling disgusting as I stared at the pile of dirty denim and

cotton. The warm water spilled over my head, relieving me of my headache. I massaged my hair,

thick and coarse with grime, studying the split ends. Soon my ten-minute shower had stretched

into half an hour. My delusional thinking made me feel that if I stayed in here, my problems

would cease to exist. I scrubbed every inch of my body, wanting to feel clean, and then I did it

again. It felt ridiculously good to shave.

 

Soon, a knock interrupted my thoughts. “Mariana. You’ve been in there a while,” my

mom yelled, managing to make her nagging crystal clear over the running water. Reluctantly, I

turned the shower off and rang out my hair. I hadn’t noticed how long it had grown. I

methodically detangled it and combed it out. It fell nearly to my waist. When I stepped out of the

steamy bathroom, wrapped in a terrycloth towel, I found a set of clothes laid out on my mother’s

bed. To her credit, she had given me the most millennial clothes she owned, but they were all

small on me.

 

Amá handed me a salad in a tupperware container as we walked out the door. “What is

this?” I asked, eyeing the mixture suspiciously.

 

“Kale salad with craisins, shredded carrots, apple, and tomato,” she listed efficiently.

 

“Is there at least dressing?”

 

“No.”

 

I sighed. This was my life now. Kale salad detox and hangovers at two p.m. Amá must

have spent a lot on the kale, but I couldn’t find it in me to be grateful. My head started throbbing

again. I asked where the aspirin was, but she wouldn’t tell me.

 

The car ride to the church was silent but considerably less tense than last night had been.

“Amá,” I said finally. “I appreciate everything you’re doing…”

 

“But?” she said.

 

“But I can’t have you drop everything for me. I don’t want to do that to you.”

 

We slowed to stop at a light, and she glanced at me. No, not glanced. She looked at me,

really looked at me, searching for something I wasn’t sure I had. “If I drop you, then I’ve

dropped everything,” she said quietly. “You and Ana are my everything.” My heart swelled and

my throat became thick but I looked at my hands because I didn’t deserve this. Maybe I would in

time, but not now. The puncture wounds on my arms were too fresh.

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