This story is by P Squared and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When people describe hitting rock bottom as the sudden end to a free fall, I never understand. For me, it started with a minor slip at a critical point. I erred at the one moment I couldn’t. If I’d done the same thing when the footing was more secure, the path more stable, I would have been fine. I’d have just had a minor nothing of an incident on an otherwise unremarkable day.
But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back at events now etched into time and to judge them from all angles.
Back before this slip, when I was a sophomore, I had this English teacher. On many issues we did not see eye to eye, but he was a good teacher. He was fair, and he treated me with respect. One day, when I had made a bad decision, and then a subsequent better decision, he told me I had made a bad situation worse, and then brought it back to bad again.
“Sometimes, that’s all we get, a choice between bad and worse. The idea that there is always a redeeming outcome is fantasy,” he’d said.
A fantasy. Something that is impossible. Had you asked me when I was fifteen what a fantasy was, I would have said a life with no school where I got to do what I wanted. Had you asked me when I was seventeen what a fantasy was, I would have said, my life when I was fifteen. A life when I was loved. A life when I was safe.
The slip had been a joint. They say it’s a gateway drug, and your standard stoner laughs. Weed isn’t dangerous, they say, just don’t touch the white stuff. But when you’re fifteen and bored, and longing for what you know your parents will never understand, you don’t know, you can’t know, restraint. You have no experience to draw from. You are a fresh slate, making every mistake for the first time in the history of your world, which as far as you’re concerned, is the history of the entire world. For me, that weed opened a door which I have never been able to fully shut.
When I took the joint from him, I felt free. I felt adult. I felt like I had discovered the secret to living. Not because of how the marijuana made me feel, which was good, but because I had wrested the control of my life from my stable, loving parents. I was on the edge. I was driving too fast. I could feel the wind in my hair, and I was awake.
Now they teach cops if they contact a teenaged girl with a man in his early twenties, to ascertain the relationship between them. Find out who he is, but more importantly, find out who she is.
His name, at least the name he told me, was Hunter. The irony of that would haunt me for years, but at the time, he made me feel safe. My Hunter would protect me, care for me, fight for me. I trusted him because he was older. Because he was bigger. I saw his meanness, and I loved it when he used that meanness to prove how much he loved me.
I didn’t tell my mom about him. She was too old to understand what Hunter and I had. You’ve heard the story, if you haven’t watch Romeo and Juliet. Teenagers are fire hoses of passion and chaos. Our brains are not equipped to deal with our hormones. Our parents are not equipped to deal with us.
One night, we lay in his bed, him smoking and me feeling so grown up. He asked me to take a road trip with him and I didn’t hesitate. I had school the next day, but school meant nothing. Not when compared to the life I had with Hunter.
The following morning we packed the car. I turned off my phone so my mom couldn’t reach me, and Hunter squealed the tires on our way out of the parking lot. I laughed as he did it. I was flying.
That night we got to a hotel, and Hunter carried our bags, including my purse. He gave me the key and told me he’d meet me upstairs after he finished checking in.
“I’ll be right behind you,” he said, grinning.
I waved the key before the door and stepped into the room.
A man sat inside.
I’d apologized, thinking I was in the wrong room, but he told me I wasn’t. I didn’t understand. He stood up, gently pulled me inside, and shut the door.
That was the night I was informed of my choice.
From then on, I did what Hunter told me. I had sex with whom Hunter told me to have sex with. If I didn’t, Hunter said he would go back to my house and take my sister. He would take my mother. He would make them do what I would not. This happening to me was bad, but it happening to my sister, to my mom, was worse.
Later, people would ask, Did he force you? And it’s so easy for someone who is safe, for someone who has control over their life, to say, You just did what he said? You didn’t fight?
How could I have fought? He had the money. He had my phone. He had the car. He had my home address. I was fifteen. He had my fear. Only once did he touch me, after the first night. He grabbed me as I cried, dragged me to his face, his muscles no longer my protectors. He growled at me, his eyes sharp, his words weapons, You are mine now. If you run, I take your baby sister in your place. That was the moment my new reality slammed into focus. They say abuse isn’t about the sex, it’s about the power, and the people who understand that, they never ask if I fought.
Two years later, a cop pulled us over on a highway outside of Dallas. She walked to the car and immediately smelled the weed. Hunter had been smoking and driving, as he normally did, and she asked him out of the car. When it was my turn to get out, the cop looked at me, her dark eyes piercing.
She wasn’t like the other cops who’d stopped us. The cops who shook Hunter down for his marijuana and were so focused on fighting the war on drugs they didn’t recognize a true casualty when she stared them in the face.
This cop though, she saw through me and into me, and I knew, all of the rehearsed lines Hunter had made me memorize, all of the false answers to the questions he expected the cops to ask, they would be useless.
I quivered as I realized I was at the edge of another precipice. Would I continue to tumble, or would this be the end of the descent? Would this woman allow me to begin the long, failure fraught climb to healing?
Another cop showed up and took Hunter behind the first officer’s car. Hunter couldn’t see us, but my chest was still tight. The first cop flipped her black dreads over her shoulder and asked me my name. She asked me how I knew Hunter. She asked where we were going.
I answered each question in a monotone. She stared at me causally then asked, “Do you need help?”
“No,” I whispered.
Her brown eyes poured into mine, and she said, her voice more a feeling than a sound, “Do you need help?”
I broke into tears.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Please.”
Two years later I graduated from high school. When I did, Officer Washington watched me walk. She told me she was so proud of me. My parents told me they were proud of me. In that moment, I stopped my trek back up my mountain. I considered if I were proud of myself, if I were able to take this event, this diploma, and grant myself the grace of acceptance, for my flaws, for my sins, for my triumphs as well as my failures. For a brief second I felt light. I felt the weight of my catastrophic slip lifted from my shoulders and then, as the moment passed, I put my head down and, once again, began my climb.