Stay – Nikki Volpicelli
December 26, 2022
Lisa drove a white Jetta that was as old as her little sister. Her little sister was eleven. It sucked on gas, and the heater rarely worked. Still, she slipped into her car, in the high school parking lot, between first and second periods. She wanted to get off campus before the Rent-a-Cop saw her leave. He’d been on her ass lately, for reasons.
“Took you long enough,” Chris said. He’d been slumped in the passenger’s seat, picking at a Snickers bar with the wrapper rolled down. She turned on the ignition and cracked her window. They were prone to leaving candy wrappers in crevices they’d never think to look in again, keeping lit cigarettes in their hands long enough to burn little holes into the cloth seats. But they’d made a promise. They were getting clean.
Chris had dropped out of high school at the end of last year, his senior year, and since then, he’d spent most of his time with Lisa, sleeping or waiting at the gas station when she was in school. There were the days she found him there, talking to the goth girl at the cash register with the millipede of dangly earrings and the thick black hair. With anyone else, this might be annoying, but Chris was the love of her life, so she let some things slide. They were still so young they used the term forever.
“Let’s quit forever,” Chris had said the night before, lying sick in the backseat as Lisa spat the last of her own vomit out the open driver’s side door. She’d already been thinking about it for months. So they went to the car wash, paid for the dollar vending machine wipes, and wiped everything clean. Today, they were getting their very last bags from Dean. They wanted their last time to be together, too.
The car stunk of lemon-orange Armor All and everything was so shiny, like high-def, that it hurt to look at the gleam of the dash. Lisa, by contrast, felt faded. She looked over at Chris and saw he felt it, too. It was hard for her to tell where he ended and whatever else began.
Skipping out of school and driving to Reading in the middle of the day still made her nervous, and she accidentally switched her blinker on after pulling out of the parking lot. Chris found this hilarious. When he was still in school and would wait at her locker, she’d get so flustered she’d forget her combination. He said it was cute, but she felt hot and stupid. She was hyperaware of the difference between them; only two years, but when you’re sixteen, that’s the difference between kid and adult.
“I saw your aunt on the way out,” she said as she turned onto 422. It was a Tuesday morning, and everyone in their small town was at work.
“The narc. I lost her between two kids with huge bookbags.” Chris’s aunt, Mrs. Ferguson, was Lisa’s junior Advanced Placement English teacher.
“Glad to see she’s moved on,” he said. Meaning that when he dropped out, she had to find someone else to catch roaming the hallways or snorting drugs in a bathroom stall.
From the first day of school, she’d taken an interest in Lisa. (“I hear you share extracurricular activities with my nephew,” she’d said.) She’d thought of switching out of AP, but then she’d have nothing else to put on her college admissions applications. Apparently, the narc had briefed all of the faculty at James Wilson High School on Lisa’s drug habit. There were constant invitations from the guidance counselor to eat lunch in her office and random visits from the Rent-a-Cop, who’d search her car with his big butt in the air. All he ever found were candy wrappers. She kept her drugs in her bra, left side, close to her heart.
“Gimme a bite,” she said, and Chris held the unrolled Snickers so she wouldn’t have to remove her hands from ten and two. They moved together sometimes as if they were one person. He was one reason, the big one, she’d chosen the colleges she’d chosen. All close to home. She turned the stereo up and sang along with Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in her real singing voice, the loud one.
It was only 9:30 a.m. and already shaping into another gray day, just like every gray day. It was only February, and winter promised to last through March, maybe even April. It’d be a long, ugly drive up Route 422 to Reading. They had almost a full pack of cigarettes, and she’d pre-planned the playlist for the ride with all the songs they’d heard while kissing, partying, talking late at night, partying, fucking, crying. She always listened to these songs on repeat anyway.
The heater was working today, and it’d feel good to lean back in the plush driver’s seat once she was a little bit high. She only ever got a little bit high. She did small sniffs compared to the lines Chris did, and she’d never shoot it. Not that he’d let her. Chris told her she was too pretty to shoot dope and that if she started, she’d have to kiss the pretty goodbye. This felt condescending since Chris shot dope and still looked cute. He had the same soft blue eyes he’d had in the baby picture she kept in her wallet, the one she stole from some family photo album he showed her last summer. But she didn’t shoot dope anyway because 1) What if he was right and it was different for girls? And 2) She still only needed just a few sniffs to lose that feeling of wanting to peel off her fingernails. She sang and they smoked and watched the ugly world go by.
“You know this song is about silicon breast implants?” Chris said, pointing to the neon blue screen of the Bose stereo. The words Fake… Plastic… Trees… scrolled slowly.
“No, it’s not,” she said, but she wasn’t one hundred percent sure.
“Seriously. She bought from a rubber man? In a town full of rubber plans?”
“It’s not that obvious!” she swatted at his arm but missed.
“Then what do you think it’s about?”
“I don’t know, like, fake-ass people.” She turned to the window. A faded billboard for a snowplow service. Snowdrift. A fleet of dirt-caked buses surrounded a tiny trailer. Snowdrift. Snowdrift.
At the exit for Alvernia, they had to make the call. Dean had rules: Call when you’re close, but not too close, don’t bring anyone around I haven’t seen before, don’t look shady (which was hard since they always had to wait forever in the car—45 minutes, an hour). His rules were bullshit bravado; Chris had told her he lived in his mom’s basement, which was why he made them park blocks away. But lame or not, what choice did they have? You didn’t know what you were getting anymore if you just bought off the street. It was all fentanyl and xylazine, which turned your skin inside out. Dean’s dope was old school. He probably got it from his mom.
The call took 45 seconds. He picked up, she said she’d be there in fifteen minutes, and he said, “Affirmative.” She felt proud of herself, no nervous pauses or ums or uhs. She was getting the hang of this. They had 10 cigarettes left in their pack, and she lit one as soon as she hung up. She felt like she had to poop, which was just her body’s way of getting excited. Then she remembered: that was the last call she’d ever make to Dean.
They parked behind the dumpsters in the empty shopping center parking lot, closest to the Applebees. Eatin’ good in the neighborhood. The school day felt like it existed in some sitcom a hundred channels away; it was soft and sweet, and their present reality was all edges and cracked pavement.
Chris lit a smoke and forgot to offer her one. “You want to watch a movie at my place tonight?” he asked, sliding his hand over his forehead and down his chin. “Unless you’ve got to be home for dinner.” She didn’t answer, just shrugged and looked for Dean. She hated Chris’s house because the wall-to-wall carpeting smelled like a litter box. Going over there ruined her idea of him “You’re quiet,” Chris said. “You’re scared because this is the last time?”
“You know I’ve had a lot of last times. But this time feels different. I know how that sounds, but . . .”
Lisa looked beyond the parking lot out at the street—an extension of the gray, grayest highway they’d just left. Pigeons, aluminum cans, bare trees planted by some landscaper with an Applebee’s contract. Cars sped by, salt-caked ice hanging underneath. It was the same scene as last week and every week. Same drive into Reading, past haunted steel factories, same parking lot, same pigeons, same message on the Applebee’s marquee: CONGRATS, BA BARA & TOM. This all looked like death. She slumped deeper into the seat so she wouldn’t look suspicious, not that anyone was around to notice. It was 10:45, and still no Dean. “Welcome back,” she read off the gray and white awning above the restaurant’s entrance.
“When the Neighborhood’s Not Eatin’,” Chris said. He hooked both hands into a camera frame and pretended to study it. “Ah, there’s our guy.”
Dean was walking toward them, head a big pale balloon, neck a thin string. Lisa lit another cigarette, and Chris moved into the backseat, cracked the window, and lit one, too. “I’ll give him shotgun. Work that crush he’s got on you.”
Dean got into the passenger seat. “Yo,” he said.
“Hey,” she said. Dean gave her the creeps, like the mouth-breathing kid no one talks to in class. Too much attention and he might take it wrong.
“No, I’m good.”
“You sure? They do a car-takeout thing.”
“We’re not hungry,” Chris said.
He didn’t even acknowledge Chris in the backseat. “I got a new batch. Still the same shit, though. Cool?”
“Yeah, sounds good.” Lisa looked in the rearview; Chris was scratching his head, anxious. Dean smelled like sour milk, or maybe that was the dumpsters. He wore a black Metallica shirt under his jacket. She could see the lettering on the bundle of little blue baggies he held between his legs. She gave him five folded-up twenties, and he peeled off some of the little bags. She handed ten to Chris and kept three for herself.
“Here,” Dean said, handing her two extra. “Try it first. Let me know what you think. I personally think it’s a touch better than the old stuff.” He put the money in the leather change purse he’d kept on a chain. “Mind if I join you? My mom’s cleaning my room.”
They couldn’t tell him to fuck off and still get free bags. She looked back at Chris, who was already prepping his shot. “Yeah, that’s fine,” she said. She bit off the top of the plastic bag and unfolded the tiny baggie inside, looking for one of the familiar red stamps. Dean usually had Adidas with not three- but four-step bars or Day Off with a little guy, sleepy or dead, smudged and badly drawn. But this stamp was of two swooping arches. “McDonald’s dope,” she said, spreading two thin tan lines on her chemistry textbook. Dean grunted and balanced a silver cooker the size of a bottle cap on her dashboard. He sprinkled in his bag of dope, spilling some powder. She pretended not to care that he was making a mess and drew a straight line right over the glossy periodic table with one nostril, then another.
“This tastes good. Not that it matters. We’re not coming around after today.” She leaned back into her seat, moving the lever so she was practically in Chris’s lap. She thought it would’ve been harder to break the news to Dean, that it would feel too permanent, but the edge was off. She’d already forgotten about that fingernail-ripping feeling. It must have been someone else’s problem.
“Oh yeah?” he said, still cooking, “Well shit, cheers then.” He pulled a shoestring from his pocket. “You’re too pretty to do dope anyway. I mean it.” Lisa didn’t remember Dean saying anything about her being pretty, but she knew she’d heard it somewhere. “Sorry, man. I shouldn’t say that shit.” He still didn’t turn to Chris or anything.
“You’re not wrong. My baby’s beautiful,” Chris’s voice was scratchy and higher-pitched, like a little kid with a sore throat.
Lisa wasn’t even embarrassed by the attention. It sounded like the same thing Mrs. Ferguson, her guidance counselor, Rent-a-Cop, and every other nosey adult said: You have your whole life ahead of you. Exactly. Plenty of time, maybe too much. And what’d being pretty have to do with anything? She saw the big flame of the Bic and the thimble of dope bubbling. Dean pulled the shoestring around his tiny bicep and left it there while he patted his forearm, checking his blood pressure like a nurse. He shot the dope, pulled the needle out, and the skin rose up after it like it was begging don’t leave don’t leave don’t leave.
Lisa felt her eyelids get thick and her pulse speed up, two things that shouldn’t happen together but did, like magic. She’d felt it the first time she tried heroin; just that tiny line of dust gave her an orgasm, her first real one. Better than any Chris had tried to give her since. Gone was the screaming, wrenching thing that was always trying to rip out of her chest and escape.
“Lisa,” Dean said, “you good?” He was helping himself to one of her cigarettes, his eyes were mostly lid, and his movements took twice the normal time. He closed his eyes and reclined all the way back in the passenger seat. If someone were to walk by, they might think this was an orgy or group suicide. She looked up into the rearview and saw nothing, no one; Chris must be slumped, too. They were all pushing closer to earth.
“You want me to drop you off at home or something?” she said.
Dean shook his lowered head. “All good. I’ll walk.” She pressed the bright blue five on the stereo touch screen and it swirled into an infinity sign one, two, three times before Bright Eyes came on. She tried to keep pace with the words. The words were: “And it goes on and on and on and on it’s going on and on and on and on it’s going on and on and on and on and on it’s going on and on and on and on and on and on and on…” But she kept messing up. They were the same three words, repeated over and over, and she couldn’t get them right, but she would.
“You have any Metallica? This shit is kinda gay.” She’d forgotten Dean was still there.
In the back, Chris made a noise like he was laughing, but he didn’t stop, and it wasn’t funny anyway. Lisa turned around to see the needle was still there in his arm.
“Chris!” She’d better get sober quickly. “Grab the Narcan in the glove box,” she told Dean and crawled into the backseat. He handed it to her like it was a tampon, something he didn’t know what to do with. She saw how his wrist shook and wondered how someone in his profession wasn’t used to this by now. This was not her first time; she knew to stay calm as she sprayed the medicine into Chris’s nostril and to keep an eye on the stereo. 11:32. She rubbed Chris’s sternum and wrestled him onto his side in the cramped backseat. His breathing was shallow, but he was still breathing. If he didn’t wake up in five minutes, she’d do it again. The most it ever took was two shots, seven minutes before he woke up. “Stay with me, stay with me,” she repeated for what felt like forever.
It didn’t help that Dean had opened the door, and the alarm was going ping ping ping! He had one long grasshopper leg out of the car like he couldn’t decide. She could care less what he did. She said, “Close the fucking door!” and he slammed it shut after him, speed-walking toward his mommy’s house. Well, fuck him. He’d just better not call the cops or something dumb.
The clock on the stereo said 11:36. Now it was just Chris’s raggedy breath and her saying, “stay, stay.” Soon the lunch hour rush would come, and they’d have to get out of the parking lot. She had four more hits of Narcan in the glove box and was going for another when he gasped a long screeching gasp, this time with his eyes open. He looked confused, always so confused, like no amount of waking up to her arched over him like this would ever register.
“I had to Narcan you, babe. It happened again.” Any minute, he’d be sick. She wiped the sweat off his face. Kissed his forehead. And she did what she had to do: grabbed the needle and the kit full of all kinds of shit you needed to tie off and all that, got out of the backseat and walked up to the dumpster.
That crap was easy to trash; the syringe glinted in the sky as she threw it upper-handed, making a beautiful arc. Goodbye. But she’d never held this many dope bags in her hand. A bundle, at ten bucks each. This was worth more than what was currently in her bank account. Each bag was small enough that tossing them all up in the air felt irresponsible. They’d fly this way and that and land who knows where. And then who’d find them? Kids? She put them in her bra, padding the space between the soft cup and the sticky skin of her breasts. The cool plastic felt good against the sweat.
She went back to the car and grabbed a water bottle from the trunk. “Drink this,” she told Chris. “I love you.” He squeaked out an “I love you” back in the same kind of choked-out vomiting voice he’d had the night before when they were sick for the last time, never again, yet here they were. Chris passed her the water bottle, and she drank from it. She’d had no idea how thirsty she was. They were always helping each other like this.
Chris was dry heaving into his hoodie the whole ride home. He was quiet until they were almost there. “Stop at the gas station,” he said. “I’ll get the next pack of cigarettes.” The heat had quit on the drive home, and she was freezing, but he was dripping sweat with his hoodie piled in his lap and his T-shirt sticking to his collarbones.
“I still have half a pack.”
“I hate Camels. They make me sick.” He was texting someone. She saw a big block of blue text, then he cleared it all away and started over.
Lisa parked right in front of the double glass doors, and Chris hitched his jeans up and went in. Lisa saw the gas station girl put her phone down on the counter. He walked straight to the register and put both elbows down on the plastic mat in front of her. The overhead lights did him no favors; he grabbed a lighter from the display and said something to the girl that made her look down and grab the necklace from between her breasts. They both looked at it closely. Lisa should just drive off and leave him here. This girl had no idea how much work he was. If Lisa could slip away right now, she would.