If it weren't for the way Dawn cut mangoes, none of this would have happened.
We met at work. Some farm-to-table restaurant that started out small and expanded to a second location and before you knew it we had uniforms and a district manager. The place retained its independent restaurant essence, for a while. Most of us hated the corporate homogeneity that crept in like a cancer, and the only reason any of us who had been there from the beginning stayed was because the manager was too chickenshit to fire us.
It was the first place we ever kissed, on a slow night, Ricky cutting a person every hour at first, then every two, until dinner service was mostly done and everyone was restless. Nobody wanted to stay to close. I didn't mind. I had my regulars, and I always got out after the kitchen did anyway. Ricky let me pick what music to play on the iPod. I hated the curated soft rock playlist corporate wanted piped over the sound system and he knew it. At one point I went back into the kitchen and Dawn was there, going at a mango with a serrated knife.
As a general rule, I didn't talk to the kitchen staff. Not at that restaurant, and not at any of the others I had worked at before. They tended to be metalheads with criminal records and no social skills. The way Dawn was going at that mango, I couldn't help it.
Now, Dawn. She wore her hair tight on the sides and long on the top, bleached and dyed a pastel purple, tattoos up and down her arms. Everyone in the kitchen wore white jackets because corporate insisted, and caps or bandannas to cover their asses in case a customer found hair in their food. We were borrowing Dawn from another location because one of our line cooks was out with a collapsed lung, this was maybe the sixth or seventh night we'd worked together in two weeks. Obvious dyke. Like, obvious.
Me, not so much. I was what you'd call a lipstick lesbian. I had long hair, I wore makeup, I got manicures. Men thought their dick was going to be the one to cure me of my confusion, used that as a flirting tactic more times than I can count.
I asked Dawn what she was doing. I'd never seen anybody prep a mango the way she was prepping it. She must have thought I was flirting with her, because she smiled an endearing lopsided little smile as she popped out this perfect grid of cubes.
She goes, "Making mango-rita pulp for the bar."
I'm like, "Ugh, don't call it mango-rita."
She's like, "Stupid goddamn names they got here, right?"
"What're you gonna do," I say, and I shrug, trying to be cool. She holds up a cube for me to take. I was feeling bold, so I ate it right out of her hand. Her eyebrows go up, and she gives me this shit-eating grin and beckons me into the walk-in cooler so Ricky doesn't catch us.
Yeah, we were bored. But Dawn kept giving me pieces of mango, and I kept kissing the juice back into her mouth, until both of our lips were raw with the sugar and the acid and the cold. Levitated up out of our boredom by the other's energy. We sent texts to save each other's numbers in our phones and that should have been the end of it. She had to go back to Buffalo that night.
You know that song, Home is where I want to be but I guess I'm already there. That's what was playing when I stepped out of the fridge and went back to work.
So yeah, our relationship started over text message, sending each other silly memes, screenshots of the nonsense people were saying in our separate group chats, gossip from our separate locations. Flirting. A lot of flirting.
Restaurant people are easy to entertain and difficult to keep happy. Some of us are lifers. We can't function anywhere else in society. I started out washing dishes when my parents kicked me out. They were real nutty Jesus types, wanted to send me away to conversion therapy when they caught me necking with the pastor's daughter the summer before junior year. That was so long ago I never think about it anymore. I got my GED because they wouldn't let me into bartender school without it.
This isn't my life story, I swear.
Dawn was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can't hear that song without thinking of her, the leathery coffee-and-vanilla cologne she wore, how strong her arms were. How she couldn't watch a movie without making some smart-ass comment, how she wore her jeans low down on her slim hips, how she loved cooking at home even though she did it for forty hours a week at some crappy chain restaurant.
I miss her.
We moved to Florida because we could. We were happy there. It wasn't like we were running away from anything. We just wanted a change. Better weather. Better jobs. She knew a guy who could get her a sous chef position in an actual restaurant, and I could tend bar anywhere looking the way I did. Western New York was getting to be too depressing and if the entire country was going to be underwater in a few decades we at least wanted to be near the beach.
Then it happened.
She called the way she cut mangoes the hedgehog method because that's what her culinary school teacher had called it. I messed up a few times, called it the porcupine method, I must have figured the way the cubes stuck out from the rind when it was inside out looked more like a porcupine than a hedgehog. Dawn laughed, asked me what the hell I thought a hedgehog looked like.
I said, "I don't know. Like Sonic?"
"The video game Sonic?"
"Yeah. With like, the blue mohawk. Porcupines have quills that stick out all over the place."
"So do hedgehogs! Hedgehogs have spines! That's why it's called!"
"Whatever," I said. "Why don't you just call it crosshatch method and stop making out like I'm going to eat a cartoon animal."
"Oh my god, Titi, I hate you."
That's what we called it from then on. The porcupine method. Porcupine became a verb, our way of describing how we were going to handle a messy situation. I know it's silly. We were together a long time. I thought we were going to be together a long time.
The night she didn't come home, I wasn't expecting her until late anyhow. I worked weekends at a nightclub, where I made most of my money, and then during the week I poured wine and expensive whiskey at a country club. It was a Tuesday. Mike and Tyrone wanted to go out for beers after the kitchen closed. They needed to porcupine a personal problem Mike was having. That was fine. I trusted the three of them out together.
Then the cops showed up. They confirmed that Dawn lived there, then broke the news to me. Offered to drive me to the hospital. I was in shock. It was the first time I had ever been in the back of a police car. Not until weeks later did I wonder what the neighbors must have thought.
First time I had ever been to the emergency room, either. Back when I was still a baby bartender who didn't know shit about technique, I cut my thumb slicing limes. I went to urgent care and stopped using dull knives. Urgent care and the ER aren't the same at all. Everything was bright and noisy, contained chaos, and all I could think was Maybe they're wrong. Maybe the cops are wrong.
The social worker and the attending physician were there. Dawn's parents still lived in New York, and were on their way. Staff let me in to see Dawn's body. Her eyes were closed and her lips were blue and she would have been pissed to know she died with grown-out roots.
I didn't cry because I didn't believe what they were telling me. That Dawn had overdosed on heroin. That her friends had brought her straight to the ER when she didn't respond to the two doses of Narcan Mike sprayed up her nose.
Narcan is a drug that's supposed to reverse the effects of narcotic medication. Mike carried it on him because he had no intention of quitting using, because he knew so many people who had died of overdoses. They nod out, he told me later, nodding out happens a lot, but Dawn had stopped breathing. Later, after we found out the dope they'd been shooting up was laced with fentanyl.
I learned a lot about drugs after Dawn died. Like that fentanyl is a synthetic narcotic they give to cancer patients. It's up to a hundred times stronger than morphine. Sometimes dealers add it to heroin to increase heroin's potency and don't tell their customers, so people think they're getting regular heroin and overdose and die.
Her parents touched down at daybreak and took over planning for the funeral, packing up her things, settling all of her affairs. We weren't married. It wasn't like I had a legal right to do any of the things her parents were doing.
I wasn't mad at Mike or Tyrone. I wanted to know where they got it from, that was all.
They didn't know what it meant to porcupine a situation. Nobody did. Not Dawn's parents, who didn't even look at me during the funeral. Not my manager at the country club, who approved five day's bereavement leave, or my manager at the nightclub, who tried to get me to find coverage for the weekend I was out and caved when I started sobbing into the phone. He said he'd take care of it.
It infuriated me, later, that the first time I cried during the whole aftermath of Dawn's math was on the phone to my manager at the nightclub.
I wanted to know where Mike got the laced heroin from. Call it part of the grieving process. Grappling to understand what had happened. Standing at the bar during the slow early hours of service at the country club, a TV playing Forensic Files in the background, like every other day that had come before. That was my life now. Before Dawn and After Dawn, like we had broken up. Half the people who poisoned other people on that show used antifreeze, toxicology reports always showed polyethylene glycol in the blood.
The nightclub kept me busy. I showed up for my shift looking normal, acting numb, the other bartender unable to provide much more than a firm hug to start the night and cocktail napkins when tears started snaking their way down my cheeks after everyone had left at four in the morning. I didn't have time to think there.
At the country club, I had time to think.
If I was going to deal with the person whose tainted heroin killed my girlfriend, I needed to think like a murderer. Like those people on the true crime shows who made every phone call and every long-distance trip like a police drone was right above their heads.
Mike went ahead and gave me his dealer's number in exchange for the number of the burner phone I bought from a gas station on the other side of town. He wouldn't give the dealer up to police, but he gave him up to me. All I wanted to do was see the guy, put a face to the act. We were at a dive bar Dawn and I liked to go to on our mutual nights off, that we brought friends to when we all needed to congregate. It had a patio out back where people could take their drinks to smoke a cigarette, and that's where Tyrone and I were when he pulled me aside.
In the early stages of our relationship, before we even moved in together, we quit smoking together. We put the money we would have spent on cigarettes into a savings account, promised not to touch it unless it was for something we both wanted. I bought a pack of cigarettes from the same gas station that sold me the burner. The first inhale of menthol burned on the way down, and my whole body lit up with greeting. Like a friend returning from prison, hesitant and grateful.
So Tyrone pulls me aside, six-foot-two bald-headed pot-smoking pacifist that he was, and tells me he knows what I'm going through. I believe him. I don't want his pain on top of mine.
"You've got that look in your eye," he says, "like you're already digging his grave. Dawn wouldn't want you locked up."
"I ain't getting locked up," I say, and that's the end of the conversation.
The dealer wanted to meet me with Mike there, and I figured that made sense. I didn't know how drug deals worked. My area was alcohol, and I knew how to deal with alcoholics. I didn't know how to deal with drug addicts. Same thing, at the end of the day.
At the country club, the old men smoked cigars inside because they were retired and because the owner didn't care, bitched about the laws that said they couldn't smoke wherever they wanted, bitched about laws in general, how it used to be you got pulled over for drinking and the cop would just escort you home. If alcohol was legal, everything else ought to be.
Like look at her, one of them said the day I met the dealer. She's slinging booze, but you don't see her getting thrown in jail like those black kids.
Yeah well booze is legal now, the other one said. I was climbing up on the counter to pull down a new bottle of Glenlivet and replace the one they'd killed. Eighty years ago she'd've been thrown in jail for selling gin out of her bathtub.
I made Mike swear he wouldn't tell the dealer I was Dawn's girl. He swore. Sitting in his banged-up Buick in the dealer's driveway, in the dark, in the moments before my moment of clarity. Mike swore, and then we got out of the car and rang the doorbell and Mike introduced me to the dealer.
When the dealer opened the door I thought we were at the wrong place. I was expecting a greasy little weasel, the sort of person who springs to mind when you hear the words Florida Man. Wardrobe consisting of wife-beaters and baggy jeans, prison tattoos, everything I knew about drug dealers I learned from watching TV.
This guy, though. He was handsome, and he knew he was handsome. Tall, blond hair, blue eyes, a jaw that could cut glass, obviously worked out. Probably wore suits to his 9-to-5, had an office with a high-rise view of downtown Miami. Fashionable facial hair. His name was Noah. I hated him the second I saw him.
And Mike kept his oath. He kept Dawn's name out of his mouth. He told Mike I was a friend of his, said we both worked in the restaurant business and I was just looking to buy some horse.
The whole time, Noah was eyeing me up. I felt his gaze slide over my calves, my thighs, I had worn yoga pants and running shoes and a sports bra in case we needed to bolt and I regretted that decision when I caught him assessing my breasts.
Of course I didn't use what I bought. I made out like I was going to, learned myself why people get addicted to the stuff. Noah asked Mike and me if we wanted to smoke it or shoot it, and Mike said he wanted to shoot it, so I shot it. Instant bliss in Noah's living room. I didn't want to feel bliss around Noah. Underneath the euphoria was fury.
As far as I knew, Dawn wasn't using when we were together. It must have been a one-time thing she did because Mike was doing it. Tyrone told me all she did when they were out together was smoke weed, and she never did it at work like some of the guys did, she only did it when they were out and someone else offered her some. Mike had dope on him, and Tyrone was smoking weed, and it was none of my business what she wanted to do with her body.
Her body, embalmed and entombed, gone from me even though she still lingered in the house. The smell of her on everything. I would feel her as soon as I walked in the door. I kept tripping over her big old size 11 shoes, her heavy slip-resistant orthopedic work boots, I left them in the entryway for weeks, lurking in the dark like they wanted to break my neck, help me join her in whatever waits for us after we're dead. Probably nothing. Dawn didn't believe in an afterlife.
Sometimes I thought she was behind me in the bathroom, in the steam after a shower, thought she would show up in the mirror as I was brushing my teeth. I felt her in the bed sheets even after I washed them. When I masturbated, I imagined it was her hands touching me, her tongue between my legs. And after I came, instead of crying, I laid there in the afterglow and imagined what I would do to get rid of Noah's body.
It took a lot of money. I picked up extra shifts at the country club, waved away my manager's concern. I lost weight, of course I lost weight, but in this country, starving looks good to people. The more my body consumed itself, the more people tipped me. My smile was forced and my eyes were tired and I spent the extra money on heroin. My manager kept checking to see if I was okay. Like he was going to save me from myself.
"You have my number," he would say after every shift, and I would keep my voice flat as I said, "Yes I do," and that was always the end of the conversation. I hate people with business degrees. They all think they're psychologists, and this one in particular thought his dick would ameliorate my grief.
Four Tuesday nights in a row, I went to Noah's house instead of the dive bar, Dawn's and my bar. I couldn't stand to be there without her. I couldn't stand to be at Noah's house alone either but I couldn't go with Mike. He needed to stay out of this. Every time I stepped inside I declined Noah's invitation to sit and take a shot, declined his offers of weed or pills. Once, I accepted his offer of a Bacardi Ice, and I watched him the entire time he was in the kitchen.
"Don't open it," I said, and he smiled like I'd told a joke.
"What," he asked, and twisted off the cap with his bare hand, "you think I'm going to roofie you?"
I took the bottle from him and said, "Better safe than raped, right?"
He tried to touch my hair, I'd flat-ironed it and sprayed it into behaving in the humidity, and normally I would have slapped his hand away. I needed him to keep selling me dope for this plan to work. So I let him. We shot the shit for a few minutes before he got around to weighing out the powder. I pretended to drink my drink as he worked, and we exchanged cash for stash, and I got the hell out of there.
Two paychecks later, nearly a month into my absent plan, I went to the grocery store. I was out of seltzer water, was living off of microwave popcorn and tortilla chips, crunchy carbs with enough salt to keep my blood pressure up, the occasional bag of salad. The thought that this could all go wrong, what if Noah figured out what I was going to do and shot me, I'd be just another dead girl in the trunk of a car, I would never eat another mango again. So I bought one. That was all I bought. I took it home and I cut it the way I'd seen Dawn do a hundred times, careful so I wouldn't read a mistake as a portent. I cried as I ate it. I wanted her back. I wanted her alive. I wanted to go back in time and beg her not to go out with Mike and Tyrone, invite myself along like a clingy girlfriend, keep her from shooting up. I was so angry.
I started cooking down the shit I bought from Noah, four weeks' worth of the drug that killed Dawn in a single night. Did it the way I'd watched him the night he shot it into my arm, filled every syringe I'd picked up from the drugstore and capped it when it was full. I packed them into a makeup bag I planned to throw away, slipped it into the purse I planned to throw away, and sent Noah a text on the phone I planned to throw away, asking if I could come by later that night.
He replied saying he was looking forward to it, added a winky face.
I couldn't fucking stand him. I knew what I was about to do was wrong. I didn't care.
Instead of styling my hair I corralled it under a wig, did my makeup the way young women, still girls some of them, did it in YouTube tutorials. Every time I went over there, I made up my face heavier than the time before. Still recognizable by degrees, but different from a distance. It was hard to keep the powder from melting off my face in the muggy heat. I managed to pull it off.
His jeans tightened the second he opened the door for me. His cologne smelled good and he had obviously showered just before I arrived. My body locked down, every orifice protesting what I was forcing myself to do. If he had approached me at a bar I would have told him to go fuck himself. I had never so much as touched a man before, never experimented with the boys in high school because I knew better. Straight boys don't have to experiment before they accept their sexuality, so I figured I didn't have to either.
One time a customer back in New York grabbed my ass, so I'd grabbed his hand and broken his wrist. Ricky pressed charges against the guy and gave me a raise. I think he was afraid I'd sue the company.
While Noah was distracted fondling my breasts through the bra I planned to throw away, I started uncapping a syringe with my free hand. I had practiced at home when it was still empty, and Noah didn't notice the hand that wasn't on his crotch was coming towards his shoulder. It jabbed through his shirt and into the muscle holding his shoulder to his neck, thick meat that would absorb the drug. He yelled "Ow!" like a mosquito had got him, slapped at the spot, and his carrying on gave me the time to grab the second syringe and hit him again in a different spot. My entire arm shook with rage and effort as I pressed the plunger deep as it would go and reached for another. By the time I got the third syringe in him, he was nodding out.
No, I did not lose count. I counted every single one. Every single one, I thought of Dawn.
I thought of the way her face looked in the morning, sleep granting her a simpler serenity than the heroin had left her with, I saw the way her body filled the stretcher in the trauma ward, how the doctors hadn't gotten around to peeling the electrodes off her chest, how there was a band around her wrist even though they were admitting her to the morgue. How she would laugh at the way I shrieked every time we went to the ocean and a wave would slap me. We didn't have ocean waves in New York. Lake Ontario wasn't the same. People dumped bodies in it all the time.
When I ran out of syringes, when he was limp on the couch with a dead erection and no pulse, I collected them.
One of the needles had snapped off during his brief struggle, and I dug it out of his skin. If it weren't for the fact it would leave DNA in my wake, I would have spat on him. For a moment I sat with his corpse, considered stabbing him in the eye. It would feel good, I thought, to just hit him, pummel him until even his mother wouldn't recognize him.
Heroin felt good too. Dawn had felt good. Her laugh, her jokes, the way she cut fucking mangoes. He took her from me, and leaving him dead on the couch didn't bring her back.
I wish I could tell you her ghost was perturbed by what I had done, or placated. One or the other. The house was empty when I returned home, and I did not trip over her shoes. I showered without sensing her in the steam, and I went to bed without feeling her in the sheets. My alarm woke me. I wanted to stay in bed, wanted to die now that I had gotten rid of Noah.
As I was getting ready for my shift at the country club, I waited for the cops to show up. They didn't. So I came to work like it was any other Wednesday. Now I'm here.
If I had just left her alone that night, I'm thinking to myself, washing dishes in the bar sink and waiting for my regulars to come trickling in. If we had never known each other at all.
If I have to go the rest of my life carrying this secret instead of her spirit.
My customers start trickling in, and that fucking song starts playing.