Coming Back to Earth
by Sylvia Gladstein
It was springtime, early April. I was fifteen and barely ever lucid. I was not sure if my unwillingness to be seen, heard, or understood was by necessity or choice, but looking back, I think maybe it was both. I cried a lot back then, and my bones showed in places I had never seen them show in before. I was learning a lot about anatomy. I would take long walks around my neighborhood in Minneapolis. To the train tracks, the elementary school, the smoke shop, the park, and repeat.
On one of those walks, I was holding a sock that my friend Lou had given me. I had just escaped a family dinner and was walking as fast as I possibly could. He given me the sock at school that morning and told me there was a gift inside. One Marlboro Light, broken into about three pieces. I took the piece that was still connected to the filter and lit it with the joy of a child doing something they know they aren’t supposed to be doing.
I knew he had taken the dart from his mother. She was a loveless woman, and he had told me about the severity of her habit. His first memory was her telling him she would be “gone for five minutes,” omitting the details of the tobacco industry’s stronghold on her priorities. To this day, “five minutes” was a household phrase for him. He hated her, and so I did, too. We promised each other to never be old and cold in that way.
It was my first cigarette. I made sure the men in the park saw me smoking it. I took a video. I emptied myself on the steps of the elementary school, walked around a bit to rid my body of the smell, and went home.
A year later and Lou and I were in love with the same woman. I loved her for the way she moved, he loved her for her friendship. We both loved her for her drugs and capacity to not give a fuck. Nothing could get in the way of our having a good time. It was incredible, really. I was 16 and owned the world.
The three of us spent Christmas that year in the basement of some guy none of us knew, getting higher than we ever thought we could. I think we all fell in love then. Forgetting ourselves, there was only one another.
Sariah and I were both women who were sickened by the world. We felt its weight so heavily, though we never spoke about it. We both had an incredible distaste for food at the time, and I think fasting for days was just one of our many attempts to avoid any glimpse of reality. We were not good for each other. If she was thin one day, I would be thinner the next. I have always regretted letting my first love and my eating disorder fraternize with each other in that way. I think that might be the worst thing I ever did. But it was an addiction for both of us, and we had no intention of overcoming it anytime soon. We never wanted to notice anything. We never wanted to be all there. Not even with each other.
We especially didn’t want to notice the way people looked at us when we were together. Two girls: making out in the hallway. Each a little too femme to avoid being objectified. The boys in our school would try to get close to us for reasons that were less than holy. It wasn’t something we wanted to see. We were outed to her mother in January, not just for our love, but for our drug use as well. We didn’t know what to do, so we sat on the bathroom floor at school and cried, until we had the idea to each take enough pills that we wouldn’t remember the day.
Waking up, alone, in the epicenter of my bedroom after blacking out at school—with piles of dirty clothes and stacks of half-used plates threatening to engulf me— was not a pleasant experience. I was failing pre-calculus, and my car was leaking oil. The friends I had didn’t look at me the same way anymore. Somehow, it was all worth it. I was having the time of my life. Even the parts that hurt like hell were beautiful. That was what mattered to me then.
LSD, mushrooms, marijuana, Xanax, Adderall, nicotine, alcohol, Percocet. The works. Whatever we could get was what we did. Eventually, these patterns became impossible to ignore, and I landed myself in a program. Outpatient drug addiction treatment for me was nothing but staring at doctors until I could figure out what they wanted me to say. All I wanted was to be done with treatment as quickly as I could be, because I wasn’t an addict. I was a scared, young girl who wanted to forget things sometimes, but never an addict. I had been asked to stop, and so I did. It was that simple for me.
Sariah left me after she was hospitalized. She had tried to run away and I had tried to help her. She called me from the phone on the unit and told me I had destroyed her life. I told her I never meant to do that. I cried for days and started smoking cigarettes again. I had quit the habit for her (she didn’t like the taste), but no one could stop me now. Lou held me while we ate ice cream and watched TV.
After that, it was just cigarettes and me. Every time I tried to take even a puff of a joint, my body descended into panic and I was breathless. Terrified. It wasn’t worth it anymore, it wasn’t fun anymore.
I met my new girlfriend in a new basement of some guy I didn’t know. He was covering Jimi Hendrix with his band and nobody could hear each other over that precious noise. The basement was packed, and she was at the front. I was at the side, puffing on a light blue American Spirit, wearing an XXL suit jacket and a miniskirt. She danced in the red light of that basement in a way that inspired me.
When we finally spoke, she told me she was on molly, and asked if I wanted to roll, too. I said no, but that I was happy to observe. We shared a cigar and a heart-shaped sucker that night. I fell in love with her freedom.
Grace and I spent two years together. Partying and loving. We took mushrooms together in March. We listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland on vinyl and smoked Spirits out her bedroom window, sticking out our legs into the spring air. I told her that it felt like I was being filmed for a movie. My life felt so beautiful then, so worthy of being shared. It was beyond special, it was transcendent. We stared at each other for so long that we convinced ourselves we were soulmates. We weren’t.
Eventually, we grew up. I don’t know how it happened. Not much seemed fun anymore. Going to Taco Bell after 11pm was our biggest thrill, and we no longer loved each other, though we said it all the time. The magic of living for today didn’t feel so magical anymore, and we were boring. The problem was, nothing was beautiful. Everything was grey.
We left each other’s lives just before the summer. Everything was hot in the grossest way possible. I cried once and moved on.
When I was 15, the air would strike my lungs in a certain way when I saw or heard something gorgeous enough to hit that secret part of my soul. That air was different air. It was sweet, but like honey, not sugar. Sweet and natural like dirt and the smell of lying your head on someone else’s chest on the beach. I was convinced no one had as much pain as me, and so I was also convinced that no one had as much beauty as I did. I hoarded that beauty, too. I wanted everyone to see, but only a few were allowed to steal.
I had been in a drug, starvation, and love-induced delirium for four years, and watching it go was one of the greatest grievances of my life.
Maybe it was innocence then, or the newness of everything, but being high is dull to me now. Then it was gorgeous, and sometimes terrifying, but always gorgeous. Recovering from my eating disorder felt like a loss. It too had been something that was only mine. I sustained it, I kept it alive, almost like a child, until I couldn’t anymore. And once that was gone, who did I have to take care of?
What I used to call love began to feel transactional. I hated that. I hated the loss of magic, the loss of care. The women before I grew up were careless in the most beautiful way. The women after had jobs to get to, and one night a week for us. It felt so tight. So fake. As if we were business partners, and although we weren’t bringing in much revenue now, we knew we’d be rich in the future. I wanted the payout immediately.
I had to learn that there could be beauty beyond delirium. The lifestyle that I had fetishized for so long was no longer sustainable, but my boring, grown-up life wasn’t sustainable, either. I needed something to make me feel like a gorgeous being again, something to help me transcend (at least on the weekends).
So, I found it. I found that there were still basements full of love and music and bodies hitting each other unapologetically. There was still Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones. There were still stories so beautiful that they made the air feel different when it hit my lungs. Honey tasted just as sweet.
And more than anything, there was still me. I watched my body grow, and I decorated it as much as I could afford to. When I ran out of tattoo money, I planned my next one. I put a star on my finger and a knife on my arm. Always protected, always free. And always present.
For the first time in a long time, all of me had to be there. There was nowhere left to put the part of myself that didn’t want to see or be seen, so I let her out and observed who stuck around. I still had my people. Lou and I share Marlboro Lights when the moment feels right. Being on earth isn’t easy for any of us, but to live fully on earth is hardest.