Yes, I spend a lot of time with my drug dealer’s wife. But let me be very clear about one thing. We’re not friends. She thinks we are, and it gives me the creeps.
“There’s my Mary,” Laureen gushes, when I finally get one of them to open the fucking door and let me in. She poses at the top of the stairwell in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, one hand on her boney hip and the other outstretched in my direction.
“How do you people stay in business?” I ask. “I’ve been leaning on the buzzer for twenty minutes.” It was really more like five, but everything feels longer when you’re waiting, right? Laureen ignores my complaints and continues to sing my praises.
“Let me look at you, girl. In your little work clothes. Now, I’m happy,” she says, first nodding her head up and down, and then, side to side. “I was so sad before. I cried for three hours.”
“You did not.” I know she’s teasing. She squeezes my face between her knuckles and kisses me on the mouth. Her breath is awful. I can’t describe what it smells like, so I won’t even bother.
“I love what you’re wearing.” I’m dressed in pants and a coat that I bought for seven dollars at the Salvation Army. “I mean it, honey. You could be a model.” I hate the way Laureen looks at me and my things, like she’s starving. I don’t have much, but she has nothing. And realizing this makes me very uncomfortable.
“Pretty, pretty Mary. How’d you get to be so funny and amazing?” Laureen leans against the kitchen counter that’s come loose from the wall, and no one is fixing it. “We are so much alike, don’t you think? I swear, we could be sisters.” My skin crawls whenever she says this, which is often, and I hate it every time.
She leans in, as if to share a secret. “You know, guys are always telling me, ‘Laureen, you’re so pretty.'” Her words drift, and she is somewhere else for a minute. “What was I saying?”
“That I’m funny and amazing.”
“Right, right. See? You know. Funny and freaking amazing!”
I follow Laureen down the hallway. Considering how many people are actually inside this apartment, the living room is quiet, except for the TV. There’s no picture on the screen anymore, just sound. Everybody here is doing their thing. Manny can get whatever you need, but most folks smoke crack. They come to buy and get right to it, sometimes turning hours into days. I always try to have my thoughts straight before I show up.
“Just pay for your shit and go home,” I tell myself. “Pay and go. Pay and go.” I do not want to be here. This place is scary, but nothing is ever that easy.
“How’s your job, hon? Is it good?” Laureen makes like she’s interested. I used to try and tell her shit, but she’s not paying attention so I don’t bother anymore. “I want a job,” she muses. “I can do shit. I got skills.” Her voice becomes a little sing-song, and I resent it. “Get dressed up. Ride the train. Talk on the phone. Mary, can’t you get me in at your work?”
“I’ll ask.” Of course, I’m not gonna. The girl’s a fucking wreck.
I watch my drug dealer’s wife load this big, fat rock into a beat to shit asthma inhaler. I wish she would just shut the fuck up, and she will. I move a little closer on the couch.
Laureen is obsessed with the condition of her mouth. Many of her teeth are already gone. Mine are just starting to come loose. The way she carries on gets worse when she’s high.
“You smell that?” She points to the infected holes in her gums. Here we go again. “There’s something in there. Something’s in my mouth. Don’t you smell it?”
“I do,” Manny says. He’s chopping coke and laying out a row of scrawny lines for two girls that sit on either side of his filthy shoes. “It smells like somebody puked in a bag of shit.” He slaps an open palm against his knee to confirm his own joke.
“Can you check for me, babe?” She means me. “Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Please,” she begs. I peer into her gaping maw with one eye closed.
“Did you find it? What’s in there?”
“Laureen, there’s nothing. Go rinse your mouth.”
An industrial-sized bottle of mouthwash, the kind that looks like piss, sits on an old door they use as a coffee table. Laureen takes a long swig, puffs out her cheeks, swishes it around and gobs her backwash into one of two styrofoam cups reserved exclusively for this purpose.
Do not touch or look inside either of these cups. She recycles the swill from the first one and spits it into the second. This procedure may be right up there with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen a person do.
I had this boyfriend who took a shit on the floor once because I wouldn’t unlock the bathroom door. We just broke up. Another time, I watched two dogs eat from the same bowl. When one of them threw up, the other one ate it. But maybe that doesn’t count because they were animals and not people. Animals don’t know any better.
Occasionally, someone will drop a cigarette butt into the gravy-like murk of Laureen’s spittoon. This makes her absolutely furious.
“Hey, asshole!” she yells into the disinterested face of a nearby guest. “This cup look like an ashtray to you?”
It kinda does.
I think Manny and Laureen are married, but they might not be. Manny’s a shit heel, though. I still can’t believe I walked in on him and this older woman. She was on her knees in the kitchen. He smiled when he saw me. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I turned around and went back in the other room.
He came looking for me later on. “So, how’d you like that before?” Still grinning.
“Like what?” Laureen asked.
“Some cryptkeeper bitch was sucking my dick. Man, she tugged so hard, I had to make sure it was still there when she finished.”
Somebody laughed. I don’t know who. I couldn’t look. Laureen went back to her business as if he never said anything. I left right after that. I didn’t even wait until it got light out. I walked home 38 blocks in the dark.
Laureen calls me at my job. I can’t remember giving her my number at work or the address, but I must have. I don’t think she has the brains to find me otherwise. To look something up in the Yellow Pages or ask the operator for help.
“Hey, it’s me.” She heavy breathes into the receiver. “Give a guess where I am.” Immediate panic prevents me from any logical thinking. “Right downstairs!” She’s excited. “I came to see you.”
How am I supposed to explain Laureen to the people I work with? What’s with the crackhead? they will surely wonder. I thought I could keep these two things separate.
“I’m going into a staff meeting,” I tell her. That’s a lie.
“Right this minute?”
“C’mon. I just wanna say ‘Hi.’ Plus, I gotta use the toilet.”
“I can’t. I have to go.” I hang up the phone. It rings again, almost immediately. I walk away from my desk, down the corridor and into the file room. I hide there for a while and hope to God she won’t be able to find me in this building. I pray she’s too stupid to figure it out.
I start buying my dope from another supplier. This guy in Shipping and Receiving was very forthcoming as to where he gets what he needs to keep him working such long hours. I wonder if he likes me. It’s hard to tell. He’s scattered. And one of the girls in my department said he’s about to get fired if he keeps fucking shit up.
I haven’t seen Laureen or Manny in almost a month. Not since the day she was here.
This morning, the receptionist handed me a message from some lady named Carolyn. I didn’t recognize the number, so I just threw it away. When she calls back again, I pick up the phone.
“Is this Mary?”
“I’m Laureen’s mother.” My heart starts to race, and my ears feel hot. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“You can tell me, dear. I promise I’m not mad.”
“Laureen talks about you all the time. She says you’re like her best friend. She needs a friend.”
“I don’t know where she’s at.” That’s the truth.
“Will you let me know if you hear from her? I’m so worried, Mary.”
Just the way she says my name, it makes me want to cry.
* Artwork by Amanda Elizabeth Joseph