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Mia and I had broken onto the roof of Anderson Towers. We were watching the Genesee River in the distance, the cars on the highway, the students asleep in library windows and the campus below, all of it small and dark and far away.
I asked her, “What will it feel like?”
And she told me, “It’ll feel like God.”
Mia was lean and athletic with big curly hair. She was a junior, two years older than me, and her dream was to travel the world and dance. “I’ll give free lessons to toddlers and old people,” she told me. “I’ll open my first studio back home in Cape Town and work my way around the major cities. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back here and start one in Rochester, or New York.” She spoke in a high, excited voice. “What do you think?”
“I think you can do it,” I said. “I think you’ll be amazing.”
Mia grinned. She unzipped her backpack, then took out the water, belt, spoon, lighter and needle, and set them on the floor in an arc. The air whistled cool and crisp, and grey moonlit clouds hung above us, drifting. I knelt beside Mia and she put the spoon in my hand. “Hold it steady,” she said, tipping water into it, “and don’t look so serious.” She was smiling, and when I saw the crinkled corners of her eyes, the soft rise in her cheeks, and the way her chapped lips stretched and curved, I felt: ‘I need her to accept me.’ She stuck her finger into the dime-sized dope bag and thumbed out a tiny rock, which she dropped into the spoon.
“How often do you do this?” I asked her.
“In a month, maybe one, two times? I try to space it out so I don’t end up addicted,” she said. “I track the dates in a spreadsheet.” She got the lighter, flicked and waved it under the spoon. “I started a year ago. I’d have heroin and coffee for breakfast, salad for lunch, and heroin for dinner. Some diet,” she said, and let out a nervous laugh. “But I was invincible. Everyone kept telling me I looked great, and I felt greater than I looked, so you can imagine I just kept using more and more until I lost my scholarship.” She tore the needle open, put the point to the spoon, and filled the syringe. She said, with more seriousness than she usually spoke with, “You won’t get addicted if you space it out. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I’ve never even smoked a cigarette.” It was the truth. An army of maids, drivers, and gatemen had run my life in Nigeria. I had no personal truth, no lies or secrets to tell, no struggles to overcome, nothing but a head filled with clichés, and lust. Lust for something unfamiliar, something fresh and honest and dangerous. I was too young and too innocent. I was lost in the woods, groping, trying to understand what it meant to be free from my parents, and what it meant to own myself. I wondered, what does God feel like?
I said to Mia, “I just don’t know if I want to do it or not. I’m pathetic.”
Mia said, “I’ll tell you what’s really pathetic. Last week I saw that girl – your girlfriend? – she’s always waiting for you outside class. Well, I saw the way she threw her arms around you, how freely she moved in her little yoga pants, and seeing it made me furious. She was so pretty and so skinny and her hair was so long and perfect. I thought, this bitch. I hated her. For no reason, I still hate her. Maybe part of me wishes I was her.” Mia ran her hands through her hair. She asked me, “Do you love her, your girlfriend?”
“We’re just friends. Best friends,” I added.
“But do you love her?” Mia asked.
I didn’t want to tell her the truth so I asked her if she was seeing anyone. She said, “There’s this boy from the varsity swim team. He’s taken me on a few dates and I slept with him. But his mouth tastes like chlorine and I can’t stand it.”
“Are you going to keep seeing him?”
“It depends on whether or not I find someone better.” Mia buckled the belt around my arm. She tightened it and ran her fingers up my veins. I felt myself getting hard. “Look at me,” she told me. “Let me know when you feel it.” I shook my head, okay, and she drove the needle in. Then she refilled and dosed herself using the same needle.
A warm pot of honey washed over us. We sat, crossed our legs, and stared up at the moon, our eyelids heavy, sticky, and half-closed. I forgot I loved my best friend, but I did, and Mia forgot she was seeing someone, but she was, and none of it mattered. There was an entire world between us, urging us to make it real with new memories.
“Everyone deserves to feel this way before they die,” I said to Mia, my hands raised up like infant fingers grasping for mother.
She got a pack of cigarettes from her backpack. She tucked her hair into a ponytail, lit one, and blew smoke. “You’ll never forget today. Whether you end up a junkie on the street or you only use once, you’ll always remember your first high. Enjoy it,” she said. “Nothing in the world will ever make you feel this way again. There’s a part of you that’s lost now. You can’t get it back.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. I said, “I feel fantastic.”
Somehow Mia and I started kissing. She tasted like how an ashtray smelt. She took my hands, pulled one up between her legs and the other around the back of her neck. She drew me in, on top of her. Lightening flashed. I didn’t care if I lived or died. We were safe on that roof. And God was with us, watching from the grey clouds, folding and unfolding his arms, but he was there. Thunder banged. We pulled apart to see that it had started drizzling a thin, stinging rain, and so we lay on our backs with our mouths open. We drank. Mia dragged her head onto my belly, and her wet makeup ran like spilt espresso onto my shirt. We lay that way in the rain, nodding, dripping, falling and waking to the patter of water on concrete.
When I woke up, Mia was throwing up over the roof ledge. She spat and wiped her mouth. Then she jumped to sit on the ledge so that her legs were dangling over the edge of the roof. “Come sit with me,” she called out.
“Someone might see you,” I called back.
“It’s three in the morning. No one’s going to see us!”
“It’s hurting me to see you sit there. It’s not safe.”
Mia rose to her feet. She was standing on the ledge. Her ponytail dripped water down her back, and as she stood there I felt as if my voice, the wind, or the rain alone might push her over.
“Stop it right now,” I said. Thunder cracked and echoed around us. “I’m serious. Mia, this isn’t funny!”
She was laughing at me. “Are you scared?” She lifted her right leg as high as she could from her hip and brought it back down. “Come dance with me.” She sidestepped, reached forward with her right hand and raised her left leg directly behind her. She balanced the pose on one leg. Lightening cast her body in silhouette. She was beautiful and horrifying.
“Mia, come down,” I pleaded.
“Why?” She twirled and spun on her toes, around and around and around. “And plié,” she said, coming to a stop with her knees bent out sideways over her feet.
My stomach lurched. I dropped to my hands and knees, vomited, and flopped onto my back, a starfish under the sea. I fell unconscious. I dreamt of a childhood gift I couldn’t remember – a pair of brown leather sandals from my father, polished stiff for my first day of school. I tried to wear the shoes, but they would not fit. My feet were too big. My father twisted and forced my feet to fit. ‘Don’t worry,’ he smiled, ‘you’ll grow into them.’ I licked sea salt from my lips as I rode a galloping horse across the beach. A rogue wave appeared and crashed down on the horse and myself. In an instant, salt water forced down my throat, into my stomach and lungs. As I drowned, I locked eyes with the horse and the two of us, boy and beast, recognized something familiar in the other. I was swirling, somersaulting down something bottomless. But when I paid attention, I could her Mia’s soft voice like angel’s wings inside my head: “We’re not done yet. I need you to open your eyes. Wake up.”
It wasn’t raining anymore, but our clothes were still wet. Mia said, “I’ve been trying to get you up for an hour! I thought you were dead.”
I blinked. I said, “That was the best puke I’ve had in my life.”
“Dope makes everything better,” Mia said. She stood over me, dark circles around her eyes.
It was some minutes past five and there were no cars left on the highway. All the students were gone from the library windows. The campus below, however, remained unchanged, small and dark. And the Genesee flowed in the distance. I looked up at Mia, and for the first time that night I saw her. She was a tired, trapped mouse. She needed rest.
“Mia,” I said, “let’s get out of here. I’ll walk you to your dorm.”