by Mel Zee
I had arranged to meet her at three o'clock at the Safeway next to the sky train—a small woman with long stringy hair, two missing front teeth and a face like a rat, dirty and blank. It was always hard to spot her from a distance because she walked slumped over, making her five foot frame even shorter. She always looked tired and malnourished. I’d often felt the urge to buy her a bagel or a baked potato—something with substance, but quite honestly, didn't want to be seen with her for long enough to make that happen. I'd seen her out and about on the street before, but always averted my eyes. Each time we met, she handed me my drugs with a smile and said, “Have a good day, hun,” as if with a bag full of opiates there was any other option.
Now, I was searching for her in the frozen food aisle, avoiding eye contact with families who were shopping for their evening meal. I hated public drug deals. I looked down at my clothes—black fitted pencil skirt, sheer maroon blouse. Hm. I look like I just came from a fancy office job (which I had). No one could possibly suspect me of being a junkie. I just need to relax. What time am I meeting her again? Three o'clock. She told me to have the money ready, so I’d crumpled two 20′s into a ball in my right coat pocket and was playing with it as I walked. What's the total? Dilaudids were $6 each or $10? I couldn’t remember.
When I finally saw her, she was standing at the cigarette counter talking to the attendant. “Got into a fight with my old man today,” she told him, as she fished around in the pockets of her oversized '80s ski jacket.
“Oh yeah?” he said patronizingly, looking down at her from his glasses.
Her phone rang. “Oh. Hang on, hun. I gotta take this,” she told him, then handed him a $20. He scoffed and made a face at me (the seemingly normal person standing behind her) as she grabbed her change and her Du Maurier’s off the counter. I smiled at him in agreement—yeah…who is this dirtbag?
When she turned around, I could see she looked more tired than usual, the lines in her face deeper and more pronounced. I hadn't noticed the drawl in her voice before. It was thick and damaged, like a limp siren wailing.
“I’m alright. You?” I looked around, hoping no one would see us together. This is my local Safeway. I should have met her at the one downtown, I thought. What if my boss is here? My Mom?
“Ugh. So busy," she said. "Had to get out of the East Side today cause there’s so many pigs down there.” She stepped aside, held her arm out and motioned for me to exit the doors nearby.
We stepped outside into the dull, rainy Autumn day. I wondered where I should hand
her the money. I always got nervous about that part. I had tried to put it in an empty cigarette pack a few weeks before, but she'd laughed at me, took it out and threw the pack down right in the middle of the street. A few weeks before that, we were standing at Main and Hastings and she pulled out a baggy full of different coloured pills, counted them, handed them to me, then held her hand out waiting for me pay her—all in full view of a cop car with real live cops inside. I placed the bills in her hand with sweat pouring down my back, then she casually instructed me: "If a cop ever pulls up next to you, throw the pills down and run." I don’t think I blinked the whole way home. Just a regular suburban junkie asshole terrified of the actual junkies.
Now, standing outside in the rain with her, I felt a flutter of panic as I struggled to get up the courage to hand my mangled bills to her. I'd done this dozens of times at this point, but it didn't seem to get any easier. The ball of money wasn't even mine—I’d borrowed it from my boyfriend and told him it was for groceries.
"So, how'd you get into this?," she asked as she dug into her tattered purse and pulled out a set of keys. “Let’s go to my car.”
The question shocked me. This isn’t something we ask each other, is it? I had no idea how to answer her. This was the drug deal equivalent of "how much do you weigh?" in a sauna, or "how much do you make annually?" at a company picnic. I looked down at my new black leather boots as we walked, searching for words. "Uhh, I was in a car accident last year” I finally said.
"Ahhh," she said. "I can't tell you how often I hear that now... They really gotta stop handing that shit out so willy nilly. Pills are the rich people's junk."
My face felt hot. I was exposed as the square, middle class, health care system casualty I was and not the cool, cultured, hardcore, badass bitch I liked to think of myself as. She held her keys out and the lights on a nearly brand new BMW started flashing. “Get in.”
I opened the passenger door and sat down on the pristine brown leather seat as she placed a baggy on my lap with four diamond-shaped white pills inside. I handed her $40 now drenched in palm sweat and hoped it would still be recognized as legal tender.
Her phone kept ringing. “Sure. Meet you there…" she said to one caller, "Can you be near here in the next 20 minutes?" to another. She'd set her ringer to Stayin' Alive by The Bee Gees and by the fourth time it played, I'd had enough, so I thanked her and told her I was heading to catch my bus.
“Alright. Have a good day!”
“You too. Okay. Thanks!” I slammed the door behind me.
"Hun!" she yelled out at me, and told her current caller to hang on. I stuck my head inside the window. She stared at me sternly and said, “I hope I don’t see you again. This isn’t your game.”
My tongue felt like it had melted inside my mouth and all I managed to say was “Mmhmm.”
She focused again on her phone and lit up another Du Maurier.
I am going to stop this. Maybe this is the last time I'll have to do this, I thought as I walked away. I buttoned my coat up and tried to hide under my hood, the shame hard and sticky. I scurried toward my bus, thinking of the lies I’d have to tell my boyfriend that night. As I crossed the street, I saw her again. Our eyes met for a brief moment, then she quickly looked away and went roaring toward her next customer, her car glistening despite the rain.