Creative Non-fiction Literature Sierra Skye Gemma

Spare Change

Sierra Skye Gemma

 

This piece first appeared in Plenitude magazine, Issue 2. Published here with permission from the author.

 

The first time I see Stacey, I am standing in front of the courthouse on S.W. Morrison, in downtown Portland, Oregon. I’m with all the other punks in our usual spot. This is our block.

I’m eating some pasta that a stranger gave me. I said, “Spare change for food?” to a man walking by. He was dressed all nice-like in a suit and carrying a hard plastic bag with a restaurant logo on it. He said nothing, but handed me the bag. I grabbed it and looked inside: a square cardboard box, no doubt filled with leftovers from his fancy schmancy lunch. I could tell from the bag and the container that this was gonna be some good shit. “Thanks!” I called after him, but it was too late. And as I pick out a gooey glob of noodles and cheese and sauce, I glance up to see her as she walks past me.

Stacey is fat. Dyed-red hair peeks out from under her dirty black winter cap. Her clothes are black. She has so many patches on them that I figure she must be a Traveller. Those patches show a certain punk sophistication, not from around here. She practically sparkles in all her safety pins.

I don’t say anything to her. There’s no time. Instead I look back at Dean and nod towards the pasta. He shakes his head.

Damn, he’s so fucking hot. Way too hot to be a street punk. He has that killer combo that always gets me: dark hair, light skin, and bright eyes. I think it’s the contrast that I’m into.

I look for Chris. I search Chris’s expression, his eyes. I can tell he doesn’t give a fuck.

This indifference signals everything to come. In three years, Chris and I will make the decision that will lead to the demise of our relationship. The decision that, since I want to sleep with women, the only logical thing to do is for us both to sleep with other women. Then, a few months later: since Chris can sleep with the opposite sex, I should also be able to. It’s not my fault he isn’t bi.

Now, Chris looks at me, smirks and walks down the block a bit to talk to some of the other punks.

I turn to look at Dean, but dirty Sol lunges towards me. His hand stretches out towards my cardboard box. That fucker! I step to the side and swing my leg at him. Sol’s eyes widen and he tries to change course. He manages to veer to the left and the inch-long spike sticking out from the toe of my boot only grazes him.

“Fuck!” He grabs at his shin. “What the fuck, man?”

Chris laughs from down the block. He yells, “Watch out for her! She’s dangerous!”

“I’ll fuck you up.” Sol spits at me. Gross.

“Yeah? You wanna try?”

“Don’t do it, man,” Chris calls, “She’s small, but she’s vicious.”

“Bitch!”

Nobody calls me that. Not without consequence. Not yet.

I take another bite of the pasta, think about keeping it, then throw it at Sol. The noodles and the red, chunky sauce hit him square on his left thigh. He squats to catch the noodles. Some fall away, but a few clump on the dirty cargo pant leg. The red sauce almost makes it look like a wound.

“Fuck!” he yells again. “Ah man, you play dirty.”

I smile at my triumph.

Sol looks at me, reassessing the situation, reassessing me, and then flashes me a rotten-toothed grin.

“It’s mine now.”

He piles the noodles still clinging to his leg into his hands and shoves them in his mouth.

“Ha!” He thinks he’s won. Fuck him.

I look back at Dean. He has a slight smile on his face. He looks smart. I think, I could talk books with this guy. But I won’t. I’ll never talk books with any of them.

His eyes flicker past me to Chris, who is now deep in conversation, out of hearing distance, then back to me.

“So, if you two ever break up, you wanna fuck?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool.”

There are two things I don’t know at this moment.

1). Dean likes to save his used condoms in this tin he keeps in his pack. He considers them trophies of a sort. When I find out about the used condom thing, I will be seriously grossed out. I’ll decide not to fuck him, even if Chris and I break up.

2). Dean has herpes. When I find this out, I’ll feel both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed that I’ll never get the chance to fuck him. Relieved that I never did.

Ten years later, Dean will finish his Ph.D. and become a university professor. Chris will contact me and say, “Do you remember Dean? He’s a professor now!” Chris will give me the link to a university web page and I’ll see a picture of Dean, so clean and well-dressed, sitting in a high-back leather chair in front of a wall of books. I’ll stare into those bright blue eyes—the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen—and remember the time he asked if I wanted to fuck.

◊ ◊ ◊

When I first get close enough to Stacey to talk to her, she smells so sweet to me, better than the other punk girls. Sickly sweet, like rotten fruit. I love it. I want her. I want to drown in that smell. I don’t care that she’s fat.

She walks down our block in front of the courthouse and I call her over. I tell her that I think she’s cute. She’s flattered, but straight. I tell her that it’s a pity and that she can kiss me if she wants. She declines. Stacey isn’t the only new punk in town. There is a little street urchin slinking about. He’s called Booger.

I try to puzzle out why someone would be called that, and why they would be okay with being called that. I decide I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know him.

I find out that Booger is Stacey’s boyfriend. I’m perplexed and disgusted and envious.

I am determined to hate him.

◊ ◊ ◊

I get drunk, really drunk, for the first time ever, under a bridge. Portland is The City of Bridges, but I don’t get drunk under a bridge with history or merit. It’s a nameless off-ramp from I-405. The gutter punks before us had long ago pulled a dirty couch under the bridge and some other falling-apart furnishings. It’s me, Chris, Stacey, Booger, and the Old Punk. Nobody likes the skeezy Old Punk, but he always has more money than anyone else and he pays for almost half of the booze.

The guys open the two-litre of Coke and dump most of it out. They pour in a fifth of Captain Morgan rum, or as much as will fit.

We sit in a makeshift circle and pass the bottle. Chris takes the first swig and passes it to me. I take one sip and almost spit it right out. I cough, splutter, tear up. I’ve never been much of a drinker. My drug of choice is acid. In a pinch, pot.

“Aaack!” I pass the bottle to Booger. They snicker.

When it comes back around, I say, “Pass! Pass!” I shake my head, refusing to touch the bottle, and Chris passes it to Booger instead.

“Pass! Pass!” they repeat, mocking me, jeering.

The bottle comes back and I repeat “Pass! Pass!” and they echo it, laughing.

On the fourth round, I take the jug. I close my eyes, put my head back, and swallow. Repeat. I ignore the burn. I ignore the taste. It goes straight from the bottle to my stomach, with barely a pause between.

After a moment of group surprise, they cheer.

◊ ◊ ◊

Blacking out is a strange thing because one moment you’re Here and the next you’re There. Like you stepped out of the theatre to run to the bathroom, except the movie is your life. The movie plays, life goes on, even while you’re in the bathroom.

◊ ◊ ◊

Scene. 

One moment I’m sitting in a rotting chair, the next moment I’m on the couch, straddling Stacey, making out with her. My underwear? Gone. Under my skirt, two of her fingers are pumping in and out of me while we exchange saliva. Her breath is bitter.

When I realize what is happening to me or perhaps what I am doing or maybe even what I am doing to Stacey, the sound of the scene breaks through to my mind. I hear the laughter and the shouting, the raucous encouragement from the three men. I pull back from kissing her and slur, “Wait, wait, I thought you were straight!” But it’s a question, not a statement.

Stacey shrugs and says, “Me too!”

So I do what only seems reasonable and I kiss her some more.

End Scene.

Scene. 

I am lying on the ground. I’m not sure if I have found my underwear or not, but I’m a little concerned because I can’t feel them. If I can’t feel them because, indeed, they are missing, then everyone can surely see my goods, ‘cause I am wearing the shortest skirt ever.

I vomit forcefully. I am surprised but not disturbed by this.

I’m tired and I try to lie down. But someone grabs my hoodie and pulls me back, which kind of pisses me off. Does somebody wanna fuck with me? Poor choice for them.

I look over my shoulder to see that it’s Chris who is grabbing me.

He says, “Whoa there! You just puked there!”

I look back down in front of me but see nothing.

“It doesn’t count. It’s clear.”

I try to explain. He doesn’t listen. I try to lie down. He pulls me up and says we have to leave now. It’s a long way home and buses will stop running in an hour.

I don’t remember how it happens, but I walk. I walk somewhat of my own accord.

After what seems like many blocks, Chris stops at a late night coffee shop. “We’ll get coffee here,” he says. We go in and sit. He goes up to the register to get the coffee. When he walks back, I have passed out, my head on the table. He wakes me and I look around. I can barely see, but I’m pretty sure everyone is looking at me.

I wake up the next afternoon and I’m fine. Tip top. I tell Chris, “Let’s go spange for burgers.”

◊ ◊ ◊

I always spange for Midol. It works like a freakin’ charm.

I’m pretty sure I invented it, ’cause when I start one day, the other punks are surprised. But when they see all the people—especially women—handing over their spare change to me, even dollar bills, the guys are pissed. They can’t pull this off.

Sometimes I spange for tampons, which works great too.

Between me and Chris, we make $6 in no time. We take it to Burger King and buy Whoppers, on sale for $1 each. We buy two each and have change left over. We’re living the high life.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’m always on Stacey’s case now, ’cause I want more. Come over, come to our house. Chris and I have our own room. We rent a room with this crazy guy. He’s crazy, but harmless. We have a piece of foam we sleep on, with a sheet and everything. We have blankets. We even have extra sleeping bags. There’s a shower. You can use it, Stacey, if you want.

One night, Stacey relents. She comes over, with Booger. It’s very late when the four of us get to the house. Our crazy roommate isn’t in the living room when we unlock the door. He’s probably passed out drunk in his bedroom. We creep upstairs.

We are already pretty hammered when we get to the house, but we keep drinking. I try to get in Stacey’s pants, but she puts me off. I feed her more alcohol, but she won’t budge. I promise her that we’ll shower together in the morning. Maybe she’ll be turned on when we’re both slippery with soap or squeaky clean from the shower.

She promises nothing. Eventually, someone turns off the light.

Chris and I are curled up on our foam mattress, with Stacey and Booger not five feet away. Chris passes out, but I can’t sleep. I can hear Stacey and Booger talking in the dark on the other side of the room. He whispers that he doesn’t want Stacey to take a shower with me, that Stacey is his, that they’ve got something good going on. He starts whimpering. Is he crying? I hate him then. What a pussy. What a punk-ass bitch. I want Stacey all the more now, just to fuck up his life.

The next morning, Stacey refuses to take a shower with me. She won’t take one at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

A few days later, when I’m in the shower, I notice something. The soap smells weird. No, it’s not the soap, it’s me. It’s not any part of me, it’s my crotch. I finally understand why the boys in high school would call the ugly girls “fish tacos.” No one ever called me that, except for Nathanael, and that was one time. I clocked him full-strength, right in the temple. He was the biggest kid among the skaters and his legs buckled and he stumbled when I hit him. He must’ve told the skaters to never call me a fish taco or I would fuck them up because no one ever did. Good choice for them.

Now I am a fish taco.

I go to the good people at Planned Parenthood. I know them from when I got an abortion earlier in the year. I tell them I have no money and they put me on a sliding scale payment. They give me a prescription for $3.85. It is an antibiotic for bacterial vaginosis.

I think about Stacey’s fingers in me. I think about the dirt under her fingernails.

I think about how she wouldn’t take a shower.

◊ ◊ ◊

Chris leaves to go Travelling. I worry about him a little, but mostly I am lonely.

One night while he is gone, Stacey and Booger come over to sleep at our place again. I have no illusions that it will lead to something sexual and, anyway, I don’t care. I am done with vaginosis.

As usual, it is late when we get back to the house and our roommate has long since passed out. As soon as we get settled into the bedroom, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I gotta take a shit. When you’re out late, there is never a good place to shit. I hate taking a shit in public bathrooms, so I’ve been holding it for a while. I hope they don’t notice how long I am gone.

When I get back to the room, Stacey and Booger are hunched over something. It’s a small, sticky-looking brown ball that’s dissolving into liquid on a spoon. Booger holds the spoon. Stacey holds the lighter under it.

This is beyond my experience. I know heroin involves a spoon, but I thought heroin was white. This is not white. I can’t show ignorance ‘cause I’ve got an image to maintain. I don’t say a word as Booger dips the needle into the brown liquid.

Stacey wraps a piece of rubber around her arm and ties it, smacks her arm on the inside of her elbow a few times.

I’ve never known anyone who did heroin. Stacey seems perfectly normal to me. Maybe it isn’t such a big deal after all?

Booger injects the needle of brown water into her arm.

Immediately, it seems—almost the very moment he depresses the syringe—she starts to freak out. She says, “Oh my god!” and not in a good way. Not the way I always imagined her saying it.

“Oh my god!” Louder this time.

I look at them and then the door. I don’t want the sound to wake our roommate.

“Don’t let me turn blue! Don’t let me turn blue! Don’t let me turn blue!”

She screams this again and again and I think my brain is going to implode from the sound of her screaming.

All of a sudden I realize that she could die, that people die all the time when they do hard drugs. I imagine her head popping off and blood spraying on our ceiling. With how much she is screaming, it seems entirely possible. She could die in my room and the cops will come and I’ll get arrested. What the fuck were they thinking? What the fuck was I thinking? Why did I allow people to do heroin in my house?

As quickly as it starts, it ends. She calms. Booger, seeing that she isn’t dying, puts the needle in his own arm. They soon cease to be good company.

The next day, Stacey and Booger hang out and watch TV. I can’t stop looking at her. I can’t stop thinking about last night and how I thought she was going to die and that I was going to go to jail forever. I want to ask questions, but I don’t know how.

When Booger goes out for a smoke, I try to make eye contact with Stacey, but she doesn’t look at me. She seems exhausted, worn out.

“I’ve never done heroin,” I say.

She looks at me, finally. She shrugs as if to say, And?

“Is it . . . Do you . . . You don’t seem addicted, is what I’m trying to say.”

“Oh, I’m totally addicted. You should see me when I haven’t had it for four days. I freak out.”

◊ ◊ ◊

When Chris gets back from Travelling, he tells me a story.

He went to San Francisco. While there, he met some nice hippies who had an old Volkswagen van. He travelled with them down to LA. The hippies smoked pot with Chris, but didn’t tell him it was laced with PCP. While high on PCP and marijuana, they toured an area where Nazi skinheads liked to hang. Chris hopped out of the van, in a drug-fueled rage, and beat a Nazi senseless. Beat him almost dead. “It was so easy,” Chris says. “Like he wasn’t even trying to fight back.”

I tell him a story too. It is a story about a dumb girl and an exploding head and a blood-splattered ceiling.

Chris resolves never to do PCP again. I resolve never to try heroin.

We know something needs to change, but we won’t say it aloud.

◊ ◊ ◊

Stacey and Booger leave soon after Chris gets back. They are going Travelling again. I imagine Stacey and that stupid boyfriend of hers, hitchhiking from place to place, meeting new punks, spanging till they have enough cash to move on, seeing the whole world like this. Accumulating patches and safety pins.

One day, a couple of weeks after Stacey disappears, I pick up her trail, her scent. I begin to notice that heroin junkies have a very particular smell. It has something to do with the way the body processes the drug. Heroin induces sweating, so the smell lingers on their bodies. It’s sweet, like they’ve been sweating molasses. I learn to identify a heroin junkie from three feet away, by smell alone.

It gets to the point where every time I go downtown to spange, all I can smell is that stink of candy gone bad. I grow tired of living off of spare change.

◊ ◊ ◊

Trainspotting, the movie, comes out the following year. Chris and I have an account at Blockbuster Video by then. I have a credit card with a $250 limit. So I rent the video because our new roommates want to see it and I have become the Responsible One. But I am still too shaken to endure it. When the dead baby crawls on the ceiling, I leave the room before anyone can see that I can’t keep my shit together. That I’m about to crack for a creepy, fake-believe baby.

“It’s only a movie!” someone calls.

“I gotta piss!” I yell back.

But I sit on the toilet and shake. I won’t cry. I’m still tough. I’ll never cry, like that punk-ass boyfriend of Stacey’s.

 

Sierra Skye GemmaSierra Skye Gemma is a non-fiction writer living in Vancouver, BC. Her essay “The Wrong Way” won the 2012 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and was published in Issue 124 of The New Quarterly. Her non-fiction has been also been published in the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Observer, Fringe Magazine, and West Coast Families. She is an Executive Editor of PRISM International, western Canada’s oldest literary magazine. Find her online at sierraskyegemma.com or on Twitter @sierragemma.

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