This story is by Susan Finlay and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The summer I was twelve, I drew all over an old white sweatshirt with permanent marker. “Flower Power,” “Make Love Not War,” “Peace.” I drew flowers and peace signs.
But I was still a “good girl.” I did all my homework diligently and got high marks in school. I went to tap dance and swimming lessons once a week, excelled in sports, and did what was asked of me at home. That was a lot. By grade four, I had to go straight home from school and babysit, cook dinner, and clean while my parents worked at their business. That didn’t bother me. I felt proud.
Nice. Good girl. It reads like a great report card. But there was another side to me that had always been there. It was deeper and darker and felt like the real me, the questing me who had always known there was more to life, and to who and what we were, than most people acknowledged.
I couldn’t show any of this me around my friends. In grade seven I’d recreated myself, becoming one of the popular girls, and my seriousness would’ve made me an outcast. My family already said I was too moody, intense, and sensitive.
And then that autumn, it all fell apart.
One night in November, I awoke to a strange noise downstairs. I crept down the back staircase, from where I could hear it was the squeaking of the ironing board in the far end of the living room. And Mom. Mom crying and wailing – but trying to do it softly- “Oh God, no. Please God, no. No!”
She was ironing Dad’s suit, because his sister – my aunt – had died, and he had to go to the family. Mom could say no more. It was the next day when she told on,y me – the eldest of six – that she had taken her own life with a gun. My heart dropped. I felt sick. My aunt was what they called “troubled,” but I loved her and saw her often.
Everything had been bad at home for my whole life. Late-night fights between my parents when Dad drank, Mom with bruises in the morning and Dad with quiet remorse. We feared Dad, and revered Mom, but I know now they were just too young for kids. I was born when Mom was just seventeen. Dad’s dad had not shown his kids any love, and Dad was further hardened by his time in the Navy.
Now it got worse. He began to punch me sometimes, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe in that house. I was smothering in what I saw as my dad’s hatred of me, and my mom’s helplessness and endless tears. She was in the hospital once for “a rest.” I saw my handsome dad weep then, as I never had before.
He was usually away on business, often for a few nights. He and Mom had gone into their business of nursing homes when I was about nine. Before that, we had known only relentless poverty. Then seemingly overnight they had two, three, then four nursing homes and we were well-off.
But only when Dad was away did any of us relax. Mom was patient, kind, and loving. It became a noisy, happy household during his absences, but the minute we saw his Cadillac pull up, we all scuttled like rats to our rooms and stayed there.
That year my aunt died, I started grade nine and we were all bussed out of town to a bigger school. I changed without at first even realizing it. I no longer pretended to like the silly popular girls. They seemed like babies. I had new friends, all older, and finally felt I belonged.
I’d taken to walking the streets alone on week nights, while the other kids were at home.
One night, I realized how dark it was even with the streetlights, and I was out alone – again. And then it hit me hard. I remembered it was Thursday night – tap night – which I’d always loved. And I’d missed – I had to stop and think hard – yes, this was the third week in a row, when in the past I’d never missed, and now I’d done it with no conscious awareness.
In that same moment, I realized I was crying. All this, and I’d been blind to it. I’d just been wandering around – cold, half-numb, oblivious. Everything had changed. Something in me was held tight and demanding to be released. I knew I was sad, but there was no one to tell.
The next day, I asked my best friend, who was in grade eleven, if she wanted to try drugs with me. She did. And so did three other girls in our group. We knew some of the boys in town had done them, and lots of kids at school. A boy who sat beside me in English was a friend and I knew he could get me some.
Ian looked a bit doubtful when I asked him, but finally agreed, with my promise to not take very much my first time.
I had promised, and my four friends had too. We were nervous but excited, waiting for Friday night. We thought we were smart, because we’d chosen mescaline, which is just like acid, we’d heard. And we thought we should stay away from the dangerous and scary marijuana or hashish, and stick to “chemicals.”
That’s what propaganda can do. Reefer Madness was still rampant in small-town Canada.
We split that one tiny tab between the five of us. We just cut it up, shared it in what looked like fairly equal bits – and ate it. I was keeping my promise.
Then we waited. And waited. Was it supposed to take this long? I began to yawn and another older girl told me I was “coming down.”
How disappointing. We guessed we’d split it too many ways. We’d need a bit more next time. And that’s one of the last moments I remember clearly from that night. Awhile later, we were higher than we’d known was possible. Nothing had prepared us for this. We had no frame of reference.
Lying on the library’s lawn all lined up side-by-side, right on the main corner of town, we were laughing hysterically and at the same time we loved each other madly. We also loved the green grass and the starlit sky and the whole world. The boys were laughing at us one minute and the next trying to keep us from being too conspicuous. And we made curfew, somehow getting ourselves into our various homes and to our rooms with no trouble – that time. It had been perfect.
What now? We’d do it again, of course. And we did – every weekend and some weekdays too. Getting high was all that mattered much anymore.
How can I describe it to anyone who’s never tried it? You really do feel at one with the universe, with everything, and it all has a reason, and everything’s going to be okay. That’s tripping. It’s magical and there’s no other way so easy and complete to get there.
Until it turns on you. Until it’s all you’re doing. You’re skipping class to get high. You stop caring if you’re home on time. What money you do earn goes to drugs and music.
I’d stopped even going home, if I knew I’d be in trouble, because when I did Dad was likely to punch me and kick me back out anyway.
But who can blame him? I was definitely too angry and rebellious for him or Mom to manage, and I was sick of living in fear.
Soon I was hitchhiking around the country, meeting people, getting high. It was the seventies and we all did it. When I was broke, I’d work awhile slinging beer, and then hit the road again. In truth, I wanted no responsibility.
Was I a “good girl” gone “bad”? Yes and no. I acted badly, but I was desperately troubled. The drugs gave me a ready-made family where I felt loved, and these same drugs may have saved me from myself. At least for awhile.
Too many, though, are a depressant, as I’d soon find out. But I had miles to go and a lot of heartache before I’d feel all my shadow selves fit back together.
Is there a greater struggle with right and wrong than that found within ourselves? Probably not, knowing we can change only ourselves.
I found out it was a long gun that killed my tiny aunt. So probably murder, not suicide. Does it matter? Yes. Partly because my parents had said I was going to “end up” just like her. I haven’t.
And I’ve never regretted the drugs. It’s not possible to know who I’d have been without them, but they took me further than I could ever have hitchhiked.