At some point, I found myself at the motel.
I stood in front of the blinking neon tubes that outlined the shape of the flamingo on the motel’s sign: The Flamingo Motel in Roswell, New Mexico. A few years earlier, my mom had told me a story about this motel.
“I remember once when I was a teenager,” she said as we drove past the broken down adobe structure, “I was walking down the street and right there – right in front of that sign – I saw a spaceship. It was up in the sky, not far, and perfectly clear. I was scared.”
“Really?” I asked, excited. “Were you alone? What was going on?”
She wrinkled her forehead, concentrating. “I may have been on acid,” she said.
Now here I was, at just about the same age my mom had been when she saw the UFO.
I put out my cigarette and went inside.
We’d been in there for one, maybe two days – me, my friend Tracy, and my cousin Mary, who wasn’t my cousin, though I’d been taught to call her cousin since childhood. I can’t say for sure how many days it had been. Between the head injury I’d sustained a year and a half earlier and the fire of cocaine, mixed with household chemicals, mixed with trucker’s speed – sometimes red, sometimes yellow, other times white – in which I had been consumed for six months the year I was 18, I make for an unreliable narrator.
Mary’s much older sister Courtney was there, too – she’d just gotten out of prison on drug related charges. Mary had cashed her welfare check to get us into the room. Her children were not with us.
I was wearing a black net shirt. It was too small, but I liked the way it made the tiny swells on the chest of my hundred pound frame look big in their bra. Courtney was getting ready in the bathroom. Tracy and Mary were talking on the motel phone. We were going out and someone was coming. My mouth was dry and I was grinding my jaw. Tracy and Mary were pacing and talking loudly. I sat down. Then I stood up. I began removing light bulbs from the lamps and hollowing them out. The energy in the room was a vortex that was quickly, endlessly swirling a drain.
“Are we going to go?” I asked at some point. When I got to the motel, maybe it had been morning, maybe it had been yesterday. At any rate, it had been daylight and now there were billowy peach and crimson clouds spilling across the sky. I felt antsy.
Soon, Courtney came out of the bathroom. She was wearing a lacy, black bustier.
“My boys are going to love this,” she said, chewing her tongue and rocking her head side to side almost imperceptibly. I looked down at my net shirt, at my small, exposed boobs. My gut turned to lead. I changed my clothes.
Courtney adjusted her breasts in her lingerie then began pulling on her blue jeans. As she finished getting ready, Tracy, Mary, and I paced. Doug was coming to get us and we were going to see X, the biggest seller in town.
Somehow and at some point we left the motel and made it to X’s house. Maybe we walked. It was dark when we arrived. Immediately, Doug filled my light bulb and gave us a small baggie full of more. Then he and X disappeared into the bedroom with Courtney.
Tracy, Mary, and I ran to the stove, straws in hand. We gathered around the gas burner and I rotated the glass clockwise until the small yellow rock began to melt and thin, gray smoke swirled upward. An acrid stench like burning Styrofoam filled the tiny, dirty kitchen. Three young girls bowed our heads together and pulled the smoke through the straws into our lungs.
Instantly, I felt relieved. A slight euphoria and acute alertness followed.
Tracy, Mary, and I settled ourselves in X’s living room. All night long we talked and I drew, which I did a lot in those days, but have never done since. There were long silences. Pacing. Occasionally, Doug or X would come out of the bedroom in various states of undress, hair mussed, and fill our light bulb anew. Each time, I knew it was Courtney who was paying for my high. She was in that room giving her body to two men and when I saw the door open, I heard this voice, this guardian angel – a compass that has saved me, over and over, whenever I’ve been adrift on an ocean with no oars.
“Gloria,” it told me, “this is not right. None of this is right. This choice is contrary to who you really are.”
This is the same voice I heard when I was smoking this same poison with Autumn, the pregnant girl, another friend of a friend in another part of town. Autumn and I would sit and smoke and, sometimes, she would cry and regret what she was doing to her unborn child. And this voice, it would tell me over and over, “Stop. Stop. Stop.” Slowly, but persistently. “Stop.”
Eventually, my night at X’s house ended. I stumbled into the morning light amped up and ready to start my day, but also weary all the way to the very center of my insides, unclear where to from here. I’d been awake for days. I don’t know how long. I know by the time I finally passed out, it had been five days since I’d slept. My heart was beating hard and irregularly in my chest; my head felt like a helium balloon that was no longer tethered to my shoulders and my eyes were gummy, unfocused. Ultimately, I went to sleep.
At some point, I checked myself into rehab. I stayed for eight days, but then checked myself out, sure that institutions were not right for me. I continued using for a few more weeks.
Then, one day, four days after my nineteenth birthday, my friend Joseph called me, waking me up from a thirty-six hour coma.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m moving to Albuquerque. I’ll be in town in an hour. You’re going with me. Be ready to go.”
My town was burning – burning up in a caustic stench. Burning the teeth out of people’s heads and the souls out of their bodies. A small town on fire – burning like so many small towns across the nation. Burning up in its own lack of hope and opportunity. Unlike Lot’s wife, I refused to turn to rock. I refused to become the rock. I refused to trade my body for drugs and, in a brief, lucid second while I lay in my bed with the receiver to my ear, Joseph’s voice on the other end of the line, I saw that my guiding voice, my guardian angel would eventually die and I would succumb. It could just as easily be me in the bedroom with Doug and X.
“Okay, I’ll be ready,” I told Joseph.
When I got into his car an hour later, the voice in my head told me, “Run away. Just go. Run as fast as your legs can carry you and never, ever look back.”
And I didn’t.