Rachael Marie Walker
The recovery platitudes ring in Emily’s ears as she rolls up a twenty to snort a line of coke, washing it down with Brielle’s bottom-shelf vodka. Brielle sits back on her ankles, leaning forward to the vanity mirror, lips open slightly as she separates each of her eyelashes with a safety pin.
“Audrey Hepburn used to do this,” Brielle says.
“Did she do it while high?” Emily asks. “Seems like a good way to poke an eye out.”
Emily and Brielle are half-dressed, in shapewear and underwear, doing hair and makeup before zipping themselves into tight dresses. They tell each other they want to get high enough that their heels don’t hurt, too drunk to feel the cold.
At the beginning of rehab, Emily thought the platitudes were devastatingly cheesy, painfully cliché, but six weeks after relapsing, she gets why. They stick in your head, easy to loop and loop and loop when addiction does what it does: gnaw. All of recovering is an art of repetition, positive, repeatable behaviors. Two weeks after rehab, three months before relapsing, Emily scheduled a tattoo with an artist who was a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and could squeeze her in before the rest of the day’s appointments, and now a traditional-style full color portrait of Johnny Cash, her higher power, looks up at her from below the crook of her elbow. Aunt Marie brought Emily a CD player during her third week in rehab, after she had a spare three hours to drive to Long Beach from Burbank, and a clattering of Johnny Cash CDs. Aunt Marie pressed the CDs, the player, the headphones into Emily’s palms, touched each of Emily’s cheeks, told her how proud she was, then got back in her little Prius to take the 710 and the 5 home before picking up her two little kids from her sister in law’s house. It took Aunt Marie so much extra effort to see Emily, so many extra stops, and all Emily could think when she visited was why did you make me do this.
“So we’ll meet Jordan and Elijah at the club, and Brady and Ben are coming by in an hour or so to pregame with us,” says Brielle. Emily doesn’t like how many men Brielle keeps in her orbit, has since she met her at driving school after twin DUIs four years ago, and she’s not sure if it means Brielle doesn’t think Emily is pretty enough to compete with her for these men’s attentions or if Brielle needs another girl around to validate the effort. She talks often about how events look on socials, that she doesn’t want to look like a whore or a pick-me, surrounded only by hot straight cis men. Enter Emily, closeted lesbian, an entry point for Brielle’s female followers, an average-looking person refracting all of Brielle’s beauty.
Emily noticed early into her friendship with Brielle that Brielle never bought a drink. Men sidled up to her in every bar, got close enough that their aftershave caught on her hair and skin, looked at the sun tattooed on the back of her ear, the lucky star on her ring finger, and bought her all the vodka sodas she wanted. Sometimes, if the men were feeling generous, or showy, they’d buy Emily a drink, too (double vodka diet cranberry).
Before rehab, Emily and Brielle practically shared a closet: both petite girls who wore the same size in dresses and shoes. Neither of them came from money, but Brielle knew how to make it look like they did. She shared her influencer gifts, subscription boxes of clothing sent for free so she could upload unboxing videos tagged #ad, #hotgirlsummer, #clothinghaul.
Emily, wearing clothes that weren’t hers, sitting behind her at the bar, tugging on a skirt Brielle threw her way that inched its way up Emily’s thicker thighs. Emily, her first fan, Emily, who met up with Brielle in sunny cafés on Sunday mornings to debrief the week before, where Brielle talked about her boyfriends, complained about her mom, told Emily about the latest influencer scandal.
They had one meal together after Emily first got out of rehab, a lunch in Santa Monica where they each spent $18 for a cold-pressed juice they drank out of paper straws. Brielle lived near the beach there, because of course she did. Brielle couldn’t live anywhere else.
As bicyclists zipped down Santa Monica Boulevard, the sky a fearless, irritating shade of blue, the ocean stretching immense with purpose, Emily and Brielle looked down at their avocado toasts, the brilliant yellow yolk of a poached egg pooling at the bottom of the plate, and said nothing.
Emily knew Brielle was an easy friend to have. She didn’t ask questions and didn’t press. Emily extended the same courtesy. Emily had told Brielle she had a single mom, who passed away when Emily was twenty, a dad who occasionally sent her $100 checks that bounced, no siblings but a very involved aunt and her mother’s parents, who helped raise her until they passed away when Emily was a teenager.
All she knew about Brielle was that she came from a family filled with men, that her grandmother was so thrilled to finally have a girl—after six sons of her own and four grandsons—that she flew a pink flag outside of her house, sent Brielle’s mother bouquets of flowers, and hand-stitched a sign that said, proudly, it’s a girl! stretched over the eaves of her rural Pennsylvanian house.
“You’re so lucky to be from here,” Brielle said, pressing a small cross-hatch of fork into her avocado. “I’d’ve killed to be from somewhere, you know?”
“I mean, I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale,” Emily said. “I wasn’t going to crazy influencer parties or whatever. Just, you know, school, work, home. Same as you, probably. We didn’t come to the beach much. Or even downtown.”
And then, after a pregnant, heavy silence punctuated only by forks scraping plates and the woman behind them slurping a mimosa, Brielle said “How was rehab?”
So much, and also so little. Full of time and thought.
“It was rehab,” Emily said. “We sat on folding chairs and talked about our trauma.”
“So you’re, like, done drinking? Forever?”
Emily channeled Johnny Cash, remembered “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” You can run on for a long time, run on, for a long time, sooner or later, sooner or later, god’s gonna cut you down. Johnny, addicted to painkillers. Emily, choking on her vomit on her last night.
“That’s the goal. I just take it, you know, day by day. Hour by hour, sometimes.” The idea of being sober forever was so stifling, so suffocating, Emily couldn’t look at it. She could stay sober today. She could probably stay sober tomorrow. It was easy in rehab after the first week or so: there was nothing to do but focus on getting better. She painted in the afternoons, in a sunny studio with newspapers on the floor, ate well-balanced meals in the evenings, read non-objectionable books at night, did yoga and gardened in the mornings. Addicts love coffee—everywhere she went, the smell of hotel-grade coffee stuck to the tables, the curtains. She tried not to think about how much this was costing Aunt Marie. Her mother hadn’t had any life insurance, didn’t have any savings to speak of. Whenever Emily asked, Aunt Marie said very firmly, this is every gift I will give you.
And now, here she is, the coke and vodka congealing in her stomach, extending through her bloodstream. Aunt Marie, blissfully unaware, putting her kids to bed and watching reruns of Frasier on the other side of town.
One of the boys is driving over from Long Beach, all of them planning to pile into an UberXL to go to downtown. Brielle finishes her makeup with a mist of rosepetal setting spray, takes another hit of coke, and turns to Emily.
“I’m so glad you’re coming out with us again,” she says, her eyes already glassy. “I missed that about you – you were always so down. So fun.”
Brielle fluffs out Emily’s curls. “Your hair is so beautiful. You are so beautiful. Want another line?”
Brielle is close enough that Emily can count the faint freckles on her nose, each of her separate eyelashes, the sunburst ring of green around her pupils, the reddening in the whites of her eyes. After meeting at DUI driver’s school, Emily walked next to her as they waited for their rides home, exchanged numbers, quickly became friends. They were both on either side of 21 then, Brielle older, Emily underage.
“Bummer you got caught,” Brielle said. “Everyone does it.”
Brielle got her license suspended the next year. It didn’t matter; men at work drove her, happily, long out of their way. Emily took up bicycling, paying cosmically for once being an unsafe driver. After rehab, she allowed herself the purchase of a car—almost a lemon, held together mostly by prayers while turning the ignition—and with the new ease of transport, with the added food and subtracted cocaine, her body softened and grew. Emily is not used to taking up space like this. A skinny child, body-anxious, who grew into a purposefully skinny teenager, then a coke-fueled skinny adult. She waits for the alcohol to give her the blissful unawareness, to slip into her body like it wears her.
The men park on Palisades. Emily hears their voices through the thin walls, the open windows, loud, masculine. Emily steels herself, takes another line. As a lesbian, there are so few men in her world: no brothers, no uncles, no father to speak of. Men at work come and go, only brief sparks in her background filled with women.
Ben’s a kind man. He always makes an effort to stop and say hi to Emily, ask her how she is, compliment her clothes, her makeup, her shoes. He was there, during Emily’s last day. Carried her up the stairs.
“Good to see you,” he says. The rest of the men, interchangeable names, interchangeable faces, walk over to Brielle as she shows her most recent tattoo, a crescent moon on the inside of her ring finger. She watches Brielle’s face change with them, brighter, more radiant, fluffing out her copper curls, smiling with all her teeth. Emily is, once again, about as significant as the fiddle leaf fig in the corner of Brielle’s room. The more the alcohol settles in her teeth and sinuses—matching the men shot for shot, squirreling back to Brielle’s room for key bumps—the more she slips outside of herself, her brain quieted down, her body an ungraceful animal. Emily cracks jokes with the boys, makes fun of them and calls them pussies when they say they don’t want another shot, leans in a little too close to Brielle, enough that she can smell the soft gardenias of Brielle’s perfume spritzed behind her ear, her delicate cartilage pierced with silver hoops. Emily thinks about sticking her tongue through one of the hoops, tasting the nickel and iron of the metal, Brielle turning back toward her, meeting tongue with tongue.
But this isn’t a part of Emily Brielle has access to. Emily knows, the way all queer girls know, that the minute she admits it, the minute she says she’d fucked Clara and Janie and Louisa and never for a moment held any interest in Chad or Bradley or even sweet Ben, Brielle would pull away in her easy affection, the intimacy straight women allow each other. She’d seen it happen with too many other friends. And as long as Emily fucks her nightclub partners with closed, locked stall doors, her fingers and nose deep in an anonymous pussy, Brielle never needs to know. Brielle appears to regard Emily as sexless, and maybe that is why Brielle keeps Emily around even as her other female friends are a rotation of fallouts and friendlessness, arguments blithely referenced, a man forever at the center of them.
Emily loves the parties. She loves the music and energy and light of them, how everything feels like one appendage of a beast, toothed and fanged and furious. The low lights, the music as a second heartbeat echoing through the empty spaces of her: the chest, the lungs, the spirit. She loves to dance, standing in the middle of the dance floor and moving close to anyone who came near to her, taking shots at the bar to avoid spilling drinks on the dance floor. Pressed chest-to-chest with drunk women who can smell the Lesbian on her breath, drunk enough for them to burn in the brightness of Emily at her most animalistic, primal, real, and they dance, and they dance, and they dance. The music aches through her and she can dance and sway, and Brielle dances with her and they sway through the music and the bright and the neon, and how, and how, and how did Emily ever say no to this. She loses Brielle for a bit in the sound and fury of it all, and finds her either twenty minutes or two hours later at the bar, glitter shimmering on her cheekbones, surrounded by five or six men who bought her rounds of vodka sodas. When Emily elbows her way closer, Brielle pulls her into a tight hug. Emily smells the ozone of cocaine, the salt of her sweat, the gin stinking from every pore.
“This is my best fucking friend,” says Brielle, kissing Emily’s cheek, leaving a bright neon lip-print behind. “Before all this influencer fucking bullshit, fuckin’, fuckin’, uh, Emily was there, and she’s a real god-damn friend.”
“No! You are a real god-damn friend. You fuckin’ are always, always down. I never met a bitch as down as you are. Tuesday, Wednesday, fifth day in a row, doesn’t matter! You are there. You are always fucking there.”
“I am,” Emily says. “Yeah. Always down.” Fingers over the tattoo. Brielle kissing Emily’s face, hot and wet. The men say something gross. Brielle’s so drunk. Emily’s so drunk. One of the men leans into Brielle, says, you girls go both ways? and Brielle pushes him away, a long “stoooooooop,” just playful enough not to be threatening. Emily wishes these men would leave, just to sit there in the low neons with Brielle, be alone with her and the drugs all banging on the windows of them.
“Bri, come on, let’s go,” Emily says, tugging at her arm.
“I don’t want to go,” says Brille, snatching her arm back. “Just because men aren’t into you doesn’t mean I have to leave whenever they’re into me.”
“I don’t really care if they’re into you or not,” Emily says. “They’re gross.”
“You’re so fucking lame.”
In the bathroom, Emily and Brielle stumble into each other, corner together in the tiny stall, give each other small smiles as Brielle pulls the small baggie of coke from inside her bra. Emily takes a few key bumps while Brielle pees.
“I mean it, though,” Brielle says. “You’re my best fucking friend. I’m sorry we fought.”
Brielle looks so happy, her eyelashes glimmering with vomit-tears. Emily holds her hand, traces her palm with her fingers. The tiny, delicate tattoos Brielle favors etch against the skin of her wrists and fingers, celestial bodies, holy and hopeful. Emily crouches down closer to her in the stink of the club bathroom, the loud music still echoing over the tile through three sets of doors. Their elbows against the toilet paper dispenser, their sweat-makeup faces reflected in the dents of the shiny tampon trash nailed next to the toilet. It’s just the coke talking through Brielle, Emily knows this, but she wants to pull back the sweetness of her words and sleep in them. Emily has never been chosen like this, even if only temporary, pulled into the good graces of someone so beautiful, effortless—nose to nose, hand to hand. Brielle, a kiss on Emily’s cheek. Emily, a kiss on Brielle’s hand.
Brielle flushes the toilet, pulls up her underwear, stretches her legs.
“You have an eyelash, babe,” says Brielle, plucking the eyelash from Emily’s cheekbone.
And then it’s the music, it’s the lighting, it’s the men, the men, always the men. It’s a rave remix of Inspector Gadget. It’s a man trying to grind on Emily. It’s her dissolving into just her hands, pushing away, drinking, vomiting, drinking, finding someone to dance with, Brielle, Brielle. It’s the club closing at 2, the groan when the lights come on, the shuffle toward the doors when “Closing Time” plays over the speakers, and fading in and out of herself as she sits in the backseat of an uber, the driver saying if she pukes it’s 200 dollars, don’t let her puke, tell me and I’ll pull over again and again. A basement, one of the boys’, not Ben’s. Ben stands nearby and puts a hand on Emily’s shoulder, says he can call her an Uber home if she needs. No, she says, she thinks, no, fuck you, I’m not going home. Ben sucks his teeth and pops open a Miller High Life from the basement fridge. Whoever lives here must rent out the basement, papered in metal band posters and anime girls. The music sucks. Brielle’s running out of coke. The boys start heading home, and with them, Brielle’s light. Emily and Brielle arriba abajo al centro pa dentro tequila shots with kosher salt and dry limes, sitting next to the kitchenette cabinet. The magic’s gone, now, and they’re just taking shots in a shitty apartment, and Emily thinks of the dirt in the carpet, and the mice in the walls, and the spiders hiding, and the cockroaches feasting.
Brielle and Emily sit on the curb, waiting for their separate Ubers back home, ordered with 1% battery, legs sprawled into the pavement. The rest of the night is quiet. Emily thinks they must be in Silver Lake with all the ironic lawn decorations paired with fuel-efficient cars and locked-up vintage bicycles. Brielle leans her head into Emily’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you came out with me today,” Brielle says. “I really missed you when you were gone.”
“I wasn’t gone, though,” Emily says, stroking Brielle’s longest curls. “I was just in the same studio I’ve always been in. Really present in it. Grateful to be here, grateful to be sober, you know?”
“Were you, though? I like you like this. You’re fun.”
“I like me like this better, too. I think that’s the problem.”
“Do you think you’re an alcoholic?”
Emily pauses, looks out over the houses and cars. “Yeah. I know I am.”
“I think I am, too.” Brielle starts crying. “My fucking makeup.”
“Who’s gonna see you out here, Bri? It’s six in the morning and we’re the only people still out. Even the boys left.”
“When you went that long without drinking—how did you do it?”
“I didn’t, did I? Here I am, fucking drunk.”
“You went four fucking months without a single drink. I can’t do that.”
Brielle’s Uber arrives first. She paints back on her pretty smile, her influencer glow, greets the Uber driver who was probably hoping for the Burbank airport route instead of the party girl trip.
“Hey,” Brielle looks back, opening the door to the Jeep. “This week is Throwback Thursday at the Clam in Venice. Want to come out?”
Emily folds her arms over her knees. “Thursday at the Clam. I’ll be there.”
Emily wonders, the whole drive home, if her uber driver knows everything about her just by looking. The running makeup, smudged and smeared halfway down her neck, Brielle’s dress that looks unflattering in just enough places, the hair matted by sweat and hairspray. She’s starting to sober up, the day beginning to break over the smog and buildings of Little Bangladesh, then Koreatown. It’s early for most people, joggers on the sidewalks, dogs lolling their tongues on morning walks. Emily smooths out her dress as the Uber driver stops outside her short, shabby apartment building, tells her have a blessed day. It’s Sunday. Maybe he’s headed to church. Aunt Marie will be. Emily unlocks the building front door with shaking hands, drops the keys twice before the crunch of the lock. She unlocks the door to her apartment, kicks past the bills slipped under her door, locks the deadbolt behind her. As she peels off the dress, the birds start to sing. Her heels hit the floor, one after the next, and as sobriety trickles down her ears, her sinuses, her arms, her legs, she falls naked into bed, listens to the morning greet itself, sun streaming in through her east-facing window.
Rachael Marie Walker is a Seattle-based writer who fell in love with words, music, and their collisions in the weeds of Virginia. They tweet @rachaelwalking.