My very first hit I’m like 13 years old. I never even smoke a cigarette before, but I’m a Kat Borkowski wannabe, and she’s the one hands me that joint. This is at Newt’s on Blair Street back in the day, before it got cleaned up and put on airs with some calling it Shissler Playground, the official name. At that time, dark at night with no neighbors around. On the facing street, broken windows in broken homes. Frickin’ refugees from a bar fight.
Sun just set. Older guys hoodlum-chat with us girls, their curses ringing hard against the backbeat of cooing pigeons. I say older, as in 15 or 16. It’s one of those moments I wouldn’t even think about except that everything that comes after makes it the moment that matters most.
Springsteen croaks “Dancing in the Dark” on a boom box near the stickball square, and there’s a summer vibe on an April night. The dusk melts our acne and teenage awkwardness and I see how we’ll be in a few years: Taut, tart, and funky — like a Calvin Klein ad.
So we’re all cool together. The boys — three of ’em — look at Kat in that way. But they look at me now, too, and my boobs strain against my trainer and I am already a little buzzed by the power I suddenly hold over them.
I glance at the winking stars as the el lumbers by. I told my parents that I am sleeping over another friend’s house tonight — Kat’s off-limits — but I don’t know where I’ll end up eventually.
As we talk, one guy steps back from the circle, takes something out of his wallet. A boy with a wallet. That’s a revelation, too, another crack in childhood’s cocoon. Soon they’ll be driving and I’ll be riding. That’s a little later, though. Tonight is a different passage. I know what it is he lights. The sweet smoke slowly circles his face, reaches out and tickles my chin. He passes it around.
“Watch out for reefer madness, now.”
Kat inhales, holds, savors. Then she exhales and a strange light brightens her eyes. Kat is saying something, her voice sinking and rising like a song that doesn’t quite begin and never wants to end.
She hands me the joint and for an instant I think of the reasons why I shouldn’t. Reason one: Dad. Antonio would punish me forever. Two: Mom. Carmela’s heart would break forever. I am Cheryl DeMarco, after all, a good kid in a cop’s family and I shouldn’t be doing this.
Isn’t that cool? I really shouldn’t be doing this.
But I do what Kat Borkowski does. I inhale, hold it, fight the nausea. The guys smirk, they know it’s my first time. Well, eff them. I let it out and, just like that, I feel it. I giggle and Kat joins in. I notice things I never noticed before, like the way one boy’s hair waves, and that there’s a button missing on another’s jacket. Next hit and the ebb and flow of mellowness gently rocks me. A rainbow cuddles Kat and she floats. I reach for her as if she’s a balloon gotten away.
“I’m right here,” she says, with a chuckle that rattles her throat.
“Baby took too much,” one of the guys says.
It’s going to be all right. This is just a one-time thing and everybody does it and I never understood how beautiful life is. Never. Kat will be here for me. Always.
I glance at the stickball strike zone and I see a landscape like the one Mary Poppins jumps into. I want to dive headfirst into that wall.
I know, I know, like the dude said: “Reefer Madness.” It’s beginning to sound like that. One hit doesn’t change anything for anybody. Does it?
Alls I know is that suddenly it’s 13 years later I am 26 and thinking, “I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
I make this decision (again) after hearing about them dragging Kat Borkowski’s body out of a crack house. I’m on Kensington Avenue, under the tracks, again. And I look at my tracks and say “no more.” Again.
Miracles do happen. Each day I wake up is a miracle. Each day I survive sober, is a miracle happening again. Again and again and again.