Mara always had a sense that she was on the verge of drowning. To keep swimming, she had to thrust herself upwards, kicking, fighting with all her strength, just to keep from going under. Instinctively, she knew that whatever distance “under” would take her, it would be too far gone to ever come back. Even if her head slipped slightly below the delicate line between over and under, she’d be finished. Always wary of this line, Mara continued living on the edge of it.
The 31-year-old sat on her twin bed. Tick, tick, tick. The clock hanging on the wall beside her was the only sound in her mostly empty East Village apartment. It read 10:33 a.m., almost half-an-hour off of the actual time. But of all the things in the world that mattered to Mara, keeping the correct time wasn’t among them. She took a nervous drag of her Player’s Light Smooth cigarette. Her index and middle fingers were yellowed on the inside, stained from constant smoking. Tick, Tick, tick. Already, Mara could feel beads of sweat pooling at the nape of her neck. Mornings were the most difficult. Unless she woke up sometime in the night and fixed, she started the day dope sick.
Sunshine was trying to peak through the dark scarlet drapes hanging over the sole window in her bachelor’s suite. Once out of bed, Mara drew them closed, unable to bear the glaring brightness from outside. Wearing only an INXS t-shirt and panties, she tried to cope in the July heat without an air conditioner for her apartment.
For about two months, she’d been living in the tiny suite, situated on the third floor of the Knox Building. People along Fourth Street had nicked named it “the Hard Knocks” because of the type of tenants dwelling there. Most were heroin junkies like her, or crack addicts or huffers. For some, it was the booze. But no one would be living at the Knocks if they thought they had any other choice. Her rent, by Calgary’s standards, was remarkably low at $485 a month. But even that was hard for Mara to scrape together at times. It wasn’t exactly the situation of her income – she held a lot of cash in her hand throughout a week. It was that the price she paid to live addicted to heroin was very, very high.
Mara was turned out at age 15. She remembered how full of fear she had been. Clint had gotten her high beforehand, but that didn’t have a sufficient numbing effect to arrest her memories. After she’d had that first trick, Clint told her to give him the $75 she’d earned to cover the cost of her drugs. He’d been giving her junk for free until then. But it had come time for her to pay.
When she’d first arrived in Calgary as a runaway, Mara believed Clint had the answer for everything. He seemed protective and exceptionally street smart. She was flattered that a man 13 years older than her would pay such attention to her. Then, after getting her hooked on heroin, Mara realized the control Clint suddenly had over her had been planned from the minute he’d first laid eyes on her.
He began prostituting her regularly, supplying her heroin in return for her work. She had entered “the game,” a life of sex trafficking and addiction. Mara spent her teenage years peddling sex on Calgary streets, a working girl, becoming the “bottom bitch” in Clint’s stable.
There had been some dramatic changes in her life over the past few months, but one thing had remained the same – she was a junkie whore. Mara looked around at the cracked drywall of her smoke-stained apartment, her meagre belongings strewn about the room. The sheets on her twin-sized bed had not been washed since she bought them second hand.
Mara finished her cigarette, smashing it out in an overflowing ashtray sitting on her TV stand. Walking to the bathroom, she examined herself in the spotty mirror. She’d stopped recognizing her reflection a long time ago. The woman she saw now had black, sunken eyes, an almost yellow complexion and lips so dry they were peeling off in chunks. Her long, dark hair was unkempt and matted. Who cares what I look like? There was only really one thing that mattered to her, one thing constantly on her mind. Heroin.
She struggled trying to twist open the taps of the faucet. Mara had forgotten - the hot water didn’t work. It had been that way since she’d moved in, but she’d never bothered to track down the landlord to complain. Mara splashed cold water on her face then wet her hands, running them through her long, dark hair. She spread some Colgate thinly over her toothbrush, jamming the bristles around into her mouth, looking down at the sinkhole instead of at the mirror. Mara didn’t like to see her teeth. She’d lost two in the front; another on the bottom was turning black. Before heroin, people had always complimented her on her smile. It was another thing drugs had robbed away from her.
Mara picked her hairbrush off the back of the toilet. The ceramic lid had split right in half and was sitting crooked on the tank. That, too, had been the same since she’d moved in. But Mara had never had time to bother about any of it. There were far more important things to manage.
She grabbed her worn out denims off the floor, pulling them over her thin legs, scarred from abscesses. Mara had become frail. I should start eating. Whether I feel hungry or not. The day before she’d had a cold can of Chef Boyardee. Some days, she skipped eating entirely. The last time she’d consumed real food with meat and potatoes and vegetables cooked on a hot stove, Mara could not recall. Shopping for food took forethought; there was not a lot of thorough planning in her life. It was moment by moment, running behind a horse that kept her tethered by the neck. There was no time for contemplation of cooking. There was no capacity for dreams. Only survival.
Mara grabbed her faded brown purse from the nightstand by her bed. Checking through it, she found a lone twoonie at the bottom. Two dollars. Not enough for even one bag. Her plan was to beg Stazy for a fix on the promise of paying him later. It wasn’t much of a plan. She need at least six bags a day to stay straight. A bundle would do her better. When Clint had her, she was fixing up to 12 times a day. He gave her all the dope she wanted, as long as she kept turning tricks. If she didn’t go out – no dope. If she brought home less money – less dope. He had kept her under complete control.
It was only when he wound up in jail that she managed to escape from his clutches. However now freed from the control of the man, Mara was still a slave to the boy. Becoming a renegade girl had improved her existence in some ways, but posed the problem of having to scratch dope for herself. Mara dropped her cigarettes and the twoonie back into her purse, along with a couple clean needles and a spoon.
Mara lived on the third floor of the Knocks. There was an elevator but it was in rickety repair, smelling strongly of urine. She was paranoid about getting stuck half way down with no one to rescue her or getting mugged inside, so she took the hollow, wooden stairs instead, which thudded under her feet as she headed down to the main floor.
The Hard Knocks wasn’t much and it was hard running her own game. But Mara felt she was far better off without Clint controlling her. Soon, though, he’d be released. I should get the hell out of this city altogether, she thought, though there was no place else to go. She’d asked the other girls on the stroll to let her know if they spotted Clint around - tall, dark eyes, always a pair of black Wranglers and cowboy boots. The girls said they would watch, but then, Mara didn’t trust anyone. I’m on my own.
“Hey, Mara!” The voice belonged to Ronnie, a crack head who lived in on the main floor, who was also Mara’s best friend. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hey,” Mara said. Ronnie often mixed her crack with a lot of booze, which resulted in her suffering from occasional psychosis. She was on disability for a chronic nerve disease, but it was primarily addiction and poor mental health that kept Ronnie bound to her apartment. Her aging parents still sent her money every month, encouraging her to get help and get clean. But they didn’t come to see Ronnie anymore. Nobody did. Not even when she’d overdosed on crack and had a severe heart attack. The doctors told her he next one would be fatal. Ronnie was only 44.
Mara wanted to be off junk by the time she reached Ronnie’s age. If I do, I’ll get a real job. Maybe at a clothing store. I could wear pretty outfits. Mara didn’t have much for clothing, nor did she have a bank account or a phone. Soon. I’m going to check myself into detox soon. But “soon” had so far not materialized. For Mara, preparing to take the first step toward sobriety was like trying to imagine diving head first off the Knox building, or having her fingers slowly cut off one by one. That, in her mind, was the pain coming if she got off H. Besides the physical torment of removing heroin from her system, there would also have to be a facing of what her life had become. The thought of that remained unbearable.
Mara left the Knocks, heading towards the city’s core where her regular dealer, Stazy, could be found. She spotted him outside Piazzo’s Pizza, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. His light brown, fuzzy afro was blowing in the warm breeze. Mara thought Stazy was a fairly nice looking guy. He always gave her a square deal.
“Hey, Stazy, man, you got?” Seeing Stazy smoking a cigarette, Mara decided to light up one of her own.
Stazy flashed a wry grin. He had large, straight, just slightly yellowed teeth and a light, fuzzy goatee covering his chin. Mara liked his eyes. They had a softness to them. “Of course I got, girl!” he said, his smile widening. If Stazy weren’t such a case, he’d be a ladies’ man, Mara thought. Stazy had a bad crack and smack problem and ended up smoking more drugs than he ever sold. Like a lot of addicts, Stazy was reckless with his health. The rumour was that he had HIV. Mara had always been careful, keeping her needles clean and her johns wrapped. She also got herself tested every six months or so, just to be sure. She had contracted hepatitis C in her teens, but had avoided a more serious STI. For that, she was grateful.
Stazy, still smiling, slipped his hand into his pocket. The minute Mara saw the bag of brown, she felt her insides cramp and loosen, her palms beginning to sweat.
“Now you show me yours,” Stazy said, his smile spreading even more. “How many bags you want?”
Mara’s sweating intensified. Her tongue felt dry. “I need you to spot me a couple bags, Stazy, until I can get some money. I’m sick.” She was rocking back and forth on her feet now, racked with pain and anxiety. Another reason Stazy made for a poor street dealer was that he had human compassion.
“Mara,” he began in protest.
“Please,” she begged. “I’ll pay you back double once I get some money. Come on, Staz. You know I’m good for it. When have I ever let you down?” Mara forced a smile. She knew she wasn’t going to pay Stazy back double. She probably wasn’t going to pay him back at all. But if lying got her closer to heroin, she would do it.
“Okay, just this once,” Stazy said, although the same thing had already happened several times. Mara put out her hand. Stazy slapped two bags into her dampened palms. Her insides lurched with anticipation.
“I’ll see you back here in a couple hours,” she breathed. “I promise.”
“See ya,” Stazy said, watching as she walked away. Mara headed towards Vinyl ’65, a downtown indie store that sold retro music. It also had a bathroom with no purple lights. Mara hurried through the door, pretending to look at albums as long as she could before her bowels threatened to move right there in front of a Louis Armstrong record. She quickly headed into the bathroom and sat on the toilet, simultaneously getting out her needle and relieving her bowels. I can’t waste any more time. She stood up, removing the lid from the toilet tank and flushing, dipping her syringe in the fresh flow of the reservoir to collect clean water. She fumbled for her needle, pulling out her spoon and a small ball of cotton, dumping the heroin carefully onto the spoon, pumping water out of the syringe and mixing the dope. Hurry, hurry, she told herself. She lit the mixture with her cigarette lighter, cooking it up, then pulled it through her cotton with the syringe. Sitting down on the toilet again with her pants pulled down, she finally coaxed the sharp needlepoint of the cooked dope into her groin, the last place where she could still hit a vein. She sat back, closed her eyes, breathing a sigh of relief as the dope finally hit her bloodstream. Her bowels further released into the toilet. With some slight variances, it was the same routine every day of her life.
Mara left the stall, taking her used needle and wrapping it in toilet paper so it looked like a tampon. She dumped it off in the waste basket before washing her hands. She caught a glimpse of her contracted pupils in the mirror and stopped.
You dumb junkie. You look so disgusting. It didn’t help that she’d barely slept the previous night and had not showered.
Mara’s mind quickly jumped to the second bag she planned to fix back at the apartment. Then it would be back to business. At the Knocks, she saw Ronnie again, who invited her in for a coffee.
“Maybe later,” Mara said. Besides not wanting coffee, Mara was worried Ronnie would start asking her for stuff - drugs, money, anything. Today Mara wasn’t in the mood. Instead, she headed up the hollow, dusty stairs to her room, taking out her key and letting herself inside, lying down on her bed. Mara rarely felt high after her fixes. All her effort day in and day out was to keep her from feeling ill - there was no other reward or accomplishment. I’m not going to do this forever, Mara told herself. I’m going to get clean and get a real job. She’d been saying that for years. The only difference now was Clint wasn’t there to keep her hooked.
In the few moments a day when Mara wasn’t totally preoccupied with finding and shooting heroin, her mind would wander. Sometimes, she thought of happy things, like what life would be like if she ever got straight. But most often, her thoughts were overwrought with fear. Especially that Clint would come for her.
“You’re mine. Never forget that, bitch,” he’d tell her. “Anything you make is mine. I own you.” Inside his stable, Clint regularly did and said insidious things to his women. Mara imagined ordinary people wouldn’t say such things about rats infesting their garbage. By the time Mara met Clint, she’d already made up her mind that she was worthless. Clint only confirmed what she already believed about herself, adding layers to her self-hatred.
Mara could never seem to be rid of her memories. Moving from Red Deer to Calgary, the 16 years of distance from the abuse, and all the dope she’d shot, hadn’t been able to erase it from her mind.