This story is by Taylor Heller and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The City of Angels may be the least angelic place in our glorious country of the not-quite-so-United States. I open my eyes to one of LA’s less angelic occupants throwing up in the bathroom connecting our bedrooms. Rubbing my face, I roll over trying to focus on my phone. Finally, something clicks and the distortion thins allowing me to hyperfocus on the thick white numbers: 5:00 pm. Rolling out of bed, I stumble forwards, hitting my foot against the side of the bathroom door. The pain shoots up my leg, a searing reminder that I can still feel my body. My attention shifts from the doorway, and refocuses on the girl just past it. Maya is sitting on the floor with her head propped up against the toilet. She had stopped retching, having already vomited what looked like the equivalent of her bodyweight. Her aim, less on par with Tiger Woods and closer to the aim you would expect from a tipsy college student at mini-putt, had missed the intended goal of the earl-grey toilet. Vomit is everywhere. Then, the toilet lid slips slamming against her head in one fluid motion. Part of me wants to comfort her, but at this point, she’s a lost cause. Stepping over Maya’s feet I walk into her bedroom, grimacing a little at the trail of vomit I track into her plush carpet.
I just want this to all go away. I used to think that the worst life that I could have was the one that I had growing up. Living paycheck to paycheck. Caring about nothing, days of drugs, alcohol, and child support. Growing up, nothing was certain, but I was certain of one thing, that I couldn’t stay there. Who on our God damned green earth thought that it would be a good idea to live in a town that produced more teen moms than high school graduates? If I see another Hallmark movie romanticizing the small-town life I might scream. Maybe it was my family or that town- but all I know is I couldn’t live like that. So I got out. But now I know that the worst thing isn’t within those remote terrains. This is so much worse.
I grab a needle from the bottom of the laundry hamper, one of those single sealed ones that remind me of candy wrappers. Digging through Maya’s bedside drawer, I grab a grungy tourniquet. I’m able to find a minuscule bag of china white, although knowing Maya this heroin is 70% pure at best. She buys a dirt cheap product and still expects premium. Maya’s naive and stupid. But so gorgeous… my thoughts trail as I ready the fix, and my eyes focus on her again. I try to will these angry thoughts out of my head: the rage, at the unbalanced state of the universe. She’s a type of gorgeous that guarantees that she’ll be treated different her whole life. The type of gorgeous that you lose your train of thought around. The bitterness bubbles in my throat like a tart and unripe grapefruit, and for a brief moment, my hand starts to tremble violently. Sharp icy chills roll their way up my back, and I start to partially lose vision, but I gain control of my mind again. God, I need to numb these thoughts. I look back to the fix in my hand and one-handedly tie the tourniquet around my upper arm, making my skin a swollen pink. The tip of the needle shaft plunges deep into my skin- missing the vein. While pulling it out I try to focus on the carpet’s weaving pattern of blue and yellow strands, rather than the sickening sight of the hollow metal needle shaft sliding out of my arm, wet with blood. I gag on the faint scent of iron and refocus on the thin layer of peeling white skin that partially obstructed my view of the vein. Dropping the fix onto my lap, I itch at the skin, tugging away the layer. Then, just as another train of thoughts fill my head about Maya, I dive the tip into my vein, push the fix into my bloodstream, and desperately tug away at the tourniquet.
The reason that I wanted to move wasn’t that people were wasting their lives in my small town. It was that the world didn’t care if we wasted our lives. Our town was far from cities like New York or Chicago. The places that people sing about and flock to. The type of place where you’re never truly alone. With our small population, you might think that this would make our community close. It didn’t. It was like living in a sort of isolation experiment where there’s no one new to meet, nothing to do and nowhere to go. No neighbours for miles, few friends and no much-wanted city noise to help me drown out my thoughts.
Minutes after I had shot up, I’m staring at the ceiling listening to the blare of rush hour. Stretching my hands towards the sky, I hear Maya running water. She emerges from the bathroom.
“You going to clean that up?” I ask in a gurgle as I push myself into a sitting position, nodding in the direction of the bathroom. She stares at me, giving me a tired scowl. Dismissing me, she peels open the doors to her closet and trifles through the selection. I watch her with gritted teeth waiting for the envy to wash over me as she pulls out a black evening dress, presses it against her chest, examining her petite frame in the mirror. Thankfully, the numb from the fix has now fully spread and I relax into the lull of it.
“Estrella or Diamondesque?” she asks turning to me. Those are her two favourite clubs. A part of me wants to argue with clubbing again tonight, after yesterday’s events. But honestly, and it may just be the heroin, I’m done fighting with her. She’s the closest friend I have and she knows it.
“Diamondesque,” I answer softly with a sort of smile. Not exactly a happy one, but a smile nonetheless. My answer seems to calm her as she puts out a hand to pull me up. I take it and stand up to meet her at eye level. Then her expression changes and she turns away.
“Well you’re a mess so fix yourself and I’ll call an Uber,” she says in a sweet tone that doesn’t match the tartness of her words. Then as an afterthought, she adds
“And try to look pretty.” Her words sting a little, but I nod walking back to my room.
When I was sixteen a video I made went viral, becoming a short-lived epidemic online. Spreading through enough people, apparently, to end up in a recruiter’s email in Los Angeles somewhere. The next day I got a call, I remember the shrill ring of my cell. I didn’t normally get calls, and I had never gotten one from a number I didn’t have saved before. I don’t remember what the recruiter said, but I remember how she said it. She sounded excited for me, hopeful and encouraging. I remember because it was the first time I heard that tone- let’s call it sugar sweet. It was a blend of all the good things people could sound like. That call made everything move rapidly and suddenly I was in the city of angels feeling like an angel myself.
Maya cuts the line at the club, blowing a kiss to the bouncer, and drags me behind her. The music deafens me and the ambience is chaotic. We do a speed round of shots and head to the bathroom. Maya’s Tiktok followers watch her live stream drunk dance in the mirror while I fix my hair in the background. Then dancing, more drinks, and in the uber home Maya asks me if I want a tag in her post.
I didn’t want to be alone, growing up in places where I never felt indulged and nobody was sugar sweet. Isolation from the rest of the world, while they partied, and vacationed, and worked in bustling offices. While the cities only thought of us when they needed to watch a quirky hallmark movie at Christmas and romanticize small, quiet towns with people who care for one another. Fake pretences that I could never indulge in.
But as I settle down for the night, and I hear Maya talk in that sugar-sweet voice on the phone – I freeze. The bathroom still reeks of vomit. My bank account’s only full if I post daily and advertise clubs. If I’m best friends with Maya. If I stay in these busy places that are so social, and together, and perfect. These thoughts rage for a moment and I look towards the needles all sealed like candy wrappers. Then, I pull up the Hallmark website, a small-town rom-com staring back at me.
I press play.