And other American tales
“Pack of Marlboro Reds, please,” I half-asked, half-told the guy behind the counter. He reached for the cigarettes before I even opened my mouth.
I’ve bought my cigarettes here ever since CVS Pharmacy took a noble, valiant stance against selling any and all tobacco products. You can no longer purchase cigarettes, but you can fill your prescription for liquid-morphine, grab a fifth of Jack, and throw in a bucket of M&M’s for good measure. But cigarettes? Fuck no. Those are addictive and bad for you.
Slapping the box of Marlboros onto the counter with a thud, the man behind the counter didn’t seem too concerned with me. He was busy mad-dogging the lady behind me while she looked down at the ground.
“Nothing in pockets today?” he asked her in condescending tone that broke through his thick accent.
Looking back, I could see her shake her head no, but not say a word.
They had an obvious history, but it wasn’t any of my business, so I did my best to ignore the exchange. I paid my $5.35 in exact change, like I do every day. I turned around as I approached the door, pushing it outward with my ass. Backing out of the store, I watched the lady place a plastic bottle of cheap vodka on the counter, along with a Coors Light tall boy and one of those $0.99 cent airplane-size bottles of Tequila.
An odd mix of beverages, sure, but again — none of my business.
“Pack of Marlboro Reds, please,” he blurts out as I try to watch the woman—who I’ve caught stealing three times—roam the aisles. She is good. Sneaky. I wonder if she knows the owner does inventory once a week, and anything that comes up short is divided evenly amongst the employees and taken out of our paychecks.
The tall guy with the beard paid for cigarettes in exact change, like he always does. It’s too bad his wife wasn’t with him today. She’s easy on the eyes. As he walked out, the thief placed a bottle of vodka, a tall can, and an airplane-size bottle of Tequila on the counter.
Purchases like these are telling.
A very specific type of person buys these small bottles of liquor — the type who is going to drink and drive home. They can’t wait so they buy a small, easily concealable bottle they can swig in my parking lot before hitting the road. They pretend that if they just drink the mini-bottles, they only have a mini-drinking problem.
I sell these small bottles to people who have shaking hands, not just wanting the drink, but needing the drink, getting drunk in $0.99 increments. It’s sad, really. Americans are funny like that. Every day I sell these people an escape to oblivion.
But what are they escaping from?
I came to America nine years ago from Bihar, India, along the river Ganges, where each day we welcomed gifts from those living up-river: sewage, industrial waste, and the occasional religious offering, wrapped in non-degradable plastic.
Despite living along a river full of raw sewage, nobody tried to escape. Nobody got drunk. Drugs were non-existent. We dealt with it. We faced it. Nobody ran from their problems. Hell, the putrid stench of that river is what drove me to work so hard to get out. I wanted out. I got out! And here I am, selling alcohol to citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, because they can’t deal with their problems.
I respected Americans until I got to America.
“$9.84 please,” I tell her. I’m not asking.
She pulls out her EBT card, as if I’m going to let her pay for alcohol with food stamps.
“No. You can’t use EBT,” I say, pointing to a sign on the counter that says the same exact thing.
“Nice try, though,” I tell her. She glances up as if she’s going to say something, but lacks the courage to follow through.
I watch as she pulls out two one-dollar bills, and then starts digging for change.
Oh Jesus. This is going to take a while.
“$9.84 please,” he demands.
Shit. I hope I have enough change.
Digging through my purse for coins I feel his eyes on me. They sting. He’s caught me stealing on three occasions, although I’ve probably jacked this store at least a dozen times. His glare burns, but what can I do?
Reaching into my purse, I pull out my EBT card because it’s in the way.
“No. You can’t use EBT,” he says, as if that’s what I was going to try. I’m not an idiot. I glance up to tell him I was just moving it out of the way, but life has taught me that speaking up will just get me in trouble, so I keep quiet.
I find a group of quarters, which is a good sign. Putting two one-dollar bills on the counter, I count out the rest in quarters, nickles, and dimes. He looks annoyed, and I don’t think he realizes how embarrassing it is to buy alcohol with coins. I place $9.85 on the counter and wait for my penny back. I’ll need that penny later.
Frozen pennies is an old trick my mom taught me. Put pennies in the freezer for when he gets drunk and violent. If you get the frozen penny on your face within the first few minutes, it keeps the swelling to something that can be hidden with makeup.
I put the penny in my purse, exit the store and sit down in my car. Hidden by darkness, I drink the tequila and throw the tiny bottle out of my window and onto the street. It feels good going down. My God, does it feel good.
People ask me all the time, “Why do you stay with him?” The answer is really quite simple: I love him. And he loves me.
He hits me. Yes. But they don’t get it; they don’t understand. He hits me because he loves me. I’ve been with men who didn’t beat me up, and I never respected them. I walked all over them, and they just let me do whatever I wanted. But Terry is different. He gets it. He gets me.
The moment I heard her pull up I get a warm feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know she has liquor.
Rosie’s a good girl. I love her. It’s not her fault I am the way I am, but she seems to deal with my PTSD pretty well. Truth is, I was fucked up before the war. I had PTSD when I enlisted.
Rosie is the one thing in my life I can control. Work is sporadic. Construction demo is a fickle business, coming and going with the economy. Some mornings the phone wakes me up, with a pounding headache, telling me there’s work. Other mornings I just wake up. No work.
Work, money, the police, the courts — these are things I can’t control. But Rosie — I can control her. And it feels good.
What people fail to realize is, I don’t get anything out of beating her. Punching Rosie in the face or slapping her around — these things do nothing for me. In fact, I don’t enjoy breaking her down like this.
But when she’s broken, bleeding on the floor and crying, you know who she looks to for help? ME. She looks to me for comfort. I’m the one she reaches for. I’m the one whose name she cries out. It’s this — this is what I live for.
This is what I learned at Parris Island. Landing in South Carolina, I was a skinny, undisciplined 19-year-old kid who enlisted to avoid a jail sentence. I had never made a bed or fired a rifle or taken a life. I was a kid. Phase One broke me down into nothing, my only salvation being the same drill sergeant who smacked me in the face for using a first-person pronoun. I learned to move in mnemonics and fall in love with the source of my pain.
Just like Rosie.
“What did you bring me?” are the first words out of my mouth.
She sets down a plastic bottle of vodka and a tall-can of what looks to be Coors Light before walking into the bathroom. She usually does this when she’s started drinking already but doesn’t want me to know.
Chasing a large gulp of vodka, I make quick work of the tall-can. From the kitchen I can hear Rosie turn on the shower in the bathroom, meaning I don’t have to share.
Over the next half hour, Rosie leaves my mind completely while I focus on scrubbing death from the backs of my eyelids. One bottle of vodka isn’t going to do the trick.
It’s not enough. It’s never enough.
I see Rosie walk out in a bathrobe with her hair wrapped up in a towel. Looking at her, I realize that at one point, she was probably really attractive.
“We need more,” I tell her, the vodka starting to kick in.
“I didn’t have enough money,” she tells me. “I had to use all of my coins just for that.”
I’m getting annoyed. “Why didn’t you just put something in your purse?”
“That fucking guy watches me like a hawk now,” she says, her voice drifting into a pleading tone. She knows what’s coming. “I’ll go back and try, though…”
“I’ll go,” I tell her, cutting her off. “And when I get back…” My voice drifts off. I like making her anticipate this dance of ours. A brutal, bloody, violent dance.
Her face is a combination of excitement and fear. It’s beautiful. As I walk by I grab a hand full of hair and pull her head back, her robe falling open. She gasps, not knowing if this is sexual or violent, as if the two are separate. The entire length of her neck is exposed as I just hold it there, allowing her to wonder. I eventually let go without saying a word and walk outside to my truck.
Rosie watches me leave in silence.
Now the vodka is really kicking in. I start my F-150 and half of the street lights up. It has only one headlight, the other falling victim to Rosie and my tweaker phase. But fuck it. I need to feel anything but my feelings, and more alcohol will help.
I hate daylight savings time. Getting dark at six o’clock sucks. I go from school to basketball practice, to my dad’s store to help stock in the back. I hate it. By the time my mom picks me up it’s dark, leaving me no time to play with friends.
If I had any friends to play with.
I’ve always felt different — probably because I am different. Kids my age don’t seem to like me, and girls just look right through me. Being one of only a few non-white kids in my school is alienating.
“Did you bring the trash can in?” my mom yells, her accent just as thick as the day we arrived in America.
“Not yet,” I snap.
She yells something that I can’t decipher, so I tune her out. I’ll get the trash can. Eventually.
My father used to be a minister in the government back home for the RJD party. He was important. A somebody. In 2005, the RJD lost power and the new government charged him with 27 counts of corruption. We packed up whatever we could carry and ran, all the way to America. Where I don’t fit in. And I have no friends. Where girls don’t like me. And I’m embarrassed of my father.
He sells liquor to drunks. Not a very noble profession.
I respected my father before we came to America.
“Daya,” my mom screams from the doorway. “Bring the can inside.”
I hate when she screams at me like this, in front of the other kids who are all playing outside together.
In the distance I see a motorcycle approaching. I’ve always wanted a motorcycle. I think when I grow up I’m going to buy a motorcycle and drive across America, all alone. It’s a dream of mine. The freedom, excitement, speed. Yep, that’s what I’ll do.
I watch the motorcycle approach; I realize it’s not a motorcycle. It’s a large truck, with a headlight out.
How fitting. Dream: dashed.
Grabbing the trash can with my right hand, I swing around to pull it up onto the curb.
Seeing the truck heightens my senses immediately. It happens too quickly and I can’t move. I can’t run. All I can do was kneel down, put my forearm in front of my face, and close my eyes.
The last thing I see is a broken headlight.
And then it goes black.