The cab ride from South Williamsburg to bumblefuck New Jersey takes over two hours and is even more expensive than I'd initially feared. It's $220. One way. I wonder if it's my credit card or Asa's credit card that's connected to the Uber account we've shared for the last seven years. DING. My phone vibrates in my lap. It rests, haphazardly, in the crotch area of my flimsy white dress and the soft buzz sends a small electrical current right through me. This is the most action I've had in months.
I shiver and brace myself for a text message from Asa, inquiring as to why I'm taking an uber to New Jersey on my first full day back in the city. Her tone won't be mean or curt even, and she won't ask me to pay her back, because she's fucking classy and makes a lot more money than I do. This will only make the inevitable gut punch hit harder.
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When I tell her it's because I'm doing a reading with Veronica Katz, she'll probably sigh and sink deeper into her ergonomic desk chair and ask me if I'm at least being reimbursed for these exorbitant travel expenses. She won't ask this because she wants to be reimbursed for the travel expenses I accidentally (question for the culture: *is* it an accident if you choose not to check?) charged to her Amex, but because she cares about me and knows that I can be very spineless and people-pleasing. She used to joke that I'd eat pancakes with glass in them before daring to insult the chef by returning them. She's right. Asa is almost always right. The silver lining about her propensity to always be right—is that it infuriates me. And these days I love when Asa infuriates me. Fury is gas. It's fuel. I can get shit done when I'm furious. When I'm a heartbroken sad sack of a human paralyzed by sadness rotting into the couch, it's very hard for me to get anything done. I pick up my phone, slow and heavy, the pace of dread. The electric brightness of the screen feels invasive. It stings my eyes. I'd like to say it's because screens are toxic and I'm an organic juice swilling bohemian princess but that would be the lie of the century. Any subtle glimmer of light on this fine day feels like a razor blade to the cornea, which is simply a side effect of being over thirty and binge-drinking sulfate-heavy wine after a flight.
I'm NOT hungover. I'm NOT hungover. I'm NOT hungover. I'm NOT hungover. I'm. NOT. HUNGOVER. I smooth my dress over my legs, neatly. My dress is milky-white and is adorned with a delicate print of sunny yellow lemons. The sleeves of the dress are capped and frilly, and the body is skintight to the hip, where it poofs out, landing somewhere along the mid-thigh. From the front, it's very cute in a very prim way. Looks like something a precocious little girl might wear to her eleventh birthday party at Dylan's Candy Bar on the Upper East Side (the premier birthday party spot for the uptown elite. It is chic, especially for a candy store. Ralph Lauren bought it for his daughter Dylan, who just *loves* all things sweet. New Yorkers, they're just like us!). But when I turn around to walk away—as I'm wont to do—this prim little dress of mine tells an entirely different tale: It's completely backless with the exception of a negligible string of cream-colored ribbon fastened into a messy bow that suggestively sits in the center of the spine. It's sexy, I suppose. Sexy in that lazy south of France "who-needs-a-bra-when-you-could-just-smoke cigarettes-topless-by-the-Riveria" kind of way. I felt it was appropriate for a sober-themed reading on a Sunday because women tend to feel at ease around garments that bear a lemon print. Lemons are pretty but just bitter enough for women to trust you, unlike like florals. If you wear a floral print to a women's event, everyone will think you're overcompensating and accuse you of trying to steal their husbands. I've made this mistake before and trust me: I'll never do it again. For a moment I feel very smug and pleased with myself for being such a girl's girl, for knowing exactly how to cater to the female gaze. And surely there will be zero men in attendance because men rarely attend literary readings, especially ones with a sobriety theme, on a Sunday in Jersey when they could be watching sports or whatever, with "the boys" at a dive bar in mid-town. The car comes to a sudden and screeching halt and I realize my 110-minute journey has come to an end. We have arrived at our glamorous location, babes. I peer out the window expecting to see a cute little storefront chock full of inspirational quotes and self-help books and candles and tarot decks among other tchotchkes sober folk' like.
But friends. That is not what I see. Not even close. And I release an audible gasp when I take in where this ship has landed me.
With its cement exterior, sprawling empty grounds, seemingly electric fences, and glowering REGISTERED VISITORS ONLY signs hammered into barbed wire windows—it appears as if I'm at a government-funded mental hospital. I must be mistaken; surely Veronica would've warned me that this reading would be at the local psych ward? I double check the address. Nope. No blip here. I'm in the right place. Okay. We're doing this I guess? The show must go on even if the show is in the literal looney bin. I clear my throat, reach into my bag and spritz myself with YSL black opium "eau de parfum" before cat-walking to the front entrance, head held high 'cause if there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime spent rubbing elbows with crazy bitches it's this: Crazy bitches are like horses. They can smell your fear. And when they know you're afraid? The show is fucking over, honey.
By the time I make my way to the front entrance and sleuth into the lobby, I notice a hypodermic needle drop-box and realize that I'm not in a mental ward. I'm in a drug rehab. Oh, and did I mention? It's a men's drug rehab. I tell the thin-lipped nurse scowling behind the front desk that I'm here for "the reading." She looks me up and down disapprovingly and clips that she has no idea what the hell I'm talking about, there is no reading, but then again maybe there is because no one informs her of anything 'round here. I show her the email invitation on my phone, with the provided address, to prove I'm not a patient's unhinged girlfriend looking to set the place ablaze. The lemons on my dress are not working. The nurse actually grimaces at them before shuffling away in her baby-blue scrubs.
She's gone for several minutes and I kill time by reading and re-reading the piss test instructions plastered over the dirty-white stucco walls. 1. LABEL THE SCREW-TOP CONTAINERS WITH YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME. 2. WASH YOUR HANDS (AND GENITALS IF POSSIBLE). I imagine a man splashing cold water over his sagging balls. As if detoxing from drugs isn't hard enough—they want him to wash his poor ballsack in the sink of a public restroom before pissing into a plastic apparatus with his name on it? 3. START TO PEE AND COLLECT A MIDSTREAM SAMPLE OF URINE. This rule makes my vagina clench. Not that it's usually hanging wide open, or anything. But doesn't the time specificity sound like a lot of pressure? And how does one know when their urine is mid-stream? Aren't there so many unpredictable variables that determine the length of our pee—
"Zara Barrie?" Hisses the nurse. She frowns again at the lemons on my dresses. This time her eyes flicker with deep-rooted disdain and suddenly I'm over trying to get this bitch to like me. What kind of sociopathic monster hates a lemon print? "I'll need your ID."
I fish into the oversized tattered-up tote bag that holds my entire life. When you lose your lover, your apartment, and your dignity in one solid swoop, your bag becomes less about fashion and more um—"utilitarian" is the word that comes to mind. My palms sweat when I hear the sound of plastic bottles clicking against one another. I don't need to look to know it's a bottle of Dexedrine (a controlled substance used to treat ADHD in afflicted patients, that is also subsequently, used to cook crystal meth in crackhouses) slamming into an old bottle of Clonazepam (also a controlled substance to treat panic attacks in anxiety-afflicted patients, and while it's not used to make meth, it's often used to come down from meth). A guy with face tattoos stalks by, clutching a cup of what I assume to be his own urine. He clocks my naked back and slows down, licking his cracked lips, cavalierly. Not only am I about to spend my Sunday doing an unpaid reading in New Jersey that happens to be in a men's-only rehab, but I also am wearing a prissy backless lemon-printed dress to the men's-only rehab. Not to mention I've carried highly-addictive prescription pills—ones that likely have ruined many a life in this space—into said rehab. I furiously scramble through my bag searching for my godforsaken ID. I pray to Lana Del Rey that they don't search my bag and escort me off the premise because, at the end of the day, I just want Veronica Katz's approval. And I don't think, as a former addict turned New York Times Best Selling Author, she would approve of any of this. "Though maybe she couldn've given me you a GOD DAMN heads up that this cute little Sunday reading we're doing is in a fucking REHAB, ZARA? A REHAB FOR MEN." I hear my guardian angel, Sharon, scream in my ear.
"Not now, Sharon," I whisper clamoring through the clutter of my disheveled bag/life. I feel my fingers grace over two vape pens, both of which I know are infused with weed. Wonderful. At least the prescription drugs in there were legally prescribed to me by a nice Jewish doctor. This weed was bought by one of those highly-illegal drug dealer delivery services that are all the rage these days. Now I won't get escorted off the premise. I'll get arrested on the premise. Wearing a backless fucking dress with fucking lemons on it.
Finally, I manage to find my ID. No one searches me or my drug-addled bag and I'm relieved but ever so slightly disappointed. Disappointed because even though getting arrested at my first reading after the worst heartbreak of my entire life thus far, in front of my idol, would indeed be a wildly demoralizing experience—but like. I really don't want to be here. I really wish I hadn't said yes. I feel —
I feel —
I am given a name tag and then briskly walked by our by our warm and fuzzy nurse outside. She leads me to a sad patch of brown grass in the back of the building. The sun's rays are so strong and so vicious they feel like a beating. There is some kind of barbeque happening in the distance. Flocks of men, about forty or fifty of them, stand in line like school children, piling up paper plates with dripping slabs of meat and wrinkled brown hot dogs, their grubby fingers pawing into bowls of chips. I whip my head around to ask the nurse why she's led me to this strange place—only to realize she's fled the scene. The lemons must've been really triggering for her, I guess.
I stand awkwardly not knowing what to do with my limbs, where to direct my gaze, who to ask where I am exactly, and where the hell I'm supposed to be? And then I feel it. Oh, *you* know: The boundaryless eyes of ravenous men crash-landing into the sun-roasted flesh of my naked back, making their way over my heavily fragranced tits and over-glossed lips. It occurs to me that with the exception of an old, plump woman clutching a clipboard in non-ironic mom jeans lecturing someone a few yards away—I'm the only woman in sight. I've taken many a trip to the ole' maximum security men's prison (to visit my incarcerated cousin)—so I know too much to be afraid of troubled men. Firstly, I can tell by the plethora of angry red hot pimples residing over their worn faces and the surplus of under-eye bags so giant they give my oversized tote a run for her money—that it's been a uh, "rough" detox for these poor dudes. What I mean is: It's a frail crowd. So frail none of them wouldn't even be strong enough to rape me, even if they wanted to. Also, no one wants to rape me badly enough to jeopardize their chances of getting the hell out of their court-ordered stints in what appears to be a pretty shabby rehab. I'm not that hot.
On the surface I begin to fume at Veronica Katz for A) asking me to do an unpaid reading my first Sunday back in the city for a sober audience when she knows very well sobriety is not my beat, B) neglecting to inform me it's in a rehab—and not even a glamorous rehab at that—let's get real this not fucking Malibu, California—it's South Fucking Jersey and C) leaving out the glaring fact that it's not just a goddamn rehab but a men's rehab and when have men ever read or enjoyed my content? But below the surface is where the truth lives. And the truth is, I'm sort of into this crowd. I can tell by the bewildered looks in their eyes that it's safe to assume these fragile little boy junkies haven't seen many women since they got here. Based on the way they keep jabbing each other and pointing at me; at least they seem to appreciate the lemon dress. And this dress was expensive, just so's you knows. I can't help but smile, surreptitiously. It's showtime, boys. My spine straightens, instinctively. I pull my shoulders back and adjust the large yellow flower I have clipped into my hair and strut (Gigi Hadid wishes) toward the woman in the clipboard, to ask her what the deal is. A guy with a beard the color of Velveeta cheese, limps over to me, right as I'm unearthing a heel that has found itself stuck in the sad brown grass. He grins at me, toothlessly. I grin back. Standing behind him is a muscle dude with two bald eagle tattoos covering both of his monster biceps. To Muscle Dude's left is a small quivering twenty-something with a lip ring sweating in a hoodie. He's sweating so much I watch the rings beneath his armpits get bigger and bigger and bigger in real-time. He can't help that he's probably still detoxing the remains of whatever deadly chemicals are still swishing through his system and he certainly can't help that it's 97 degrees and so humid the air feels pregnant, but he *can* help the hoodie. I look into his eyes and instantly understand his self-destructive fashion choice. He's one of those who likes to suffer. I get it. Purr.
"Hey, hey," Velveeta Beard growls, his leathery forehead crinkling, his wire-y macaroni eyebrows furrowing between his beady twinkly eyes, "what's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?" he cackles. Muscle Dude and Sweaty Flannel cackle behind him. I cackle too. After all, it is funny.
"Good question!" I chip-chirp, "I'm supposed to be here for like some reading, thing? Do you know anything about it? I can't seem to get any information," I make a big show of batting my lashes because I'm my mother's daughter which means I'm genetically hardwired to flirt with men I shouldn't be flirting with. "I promise," I lower my eyes suggestively, "I'm not a stalker."
The guys are visibly taken aback by how comfortable I am around them. I get it. White girl shows up in a lemon dress wearing a lame hair flower desperate too high heels sinking into the grass. Yeah, I know. I look like pussy ass little bitch. But these men don't know who they're dealing with: A savage who's been hanging around delinquent felonious drug-loving/drug-selling boys since the salad days of high school. Which means they don't know that I know that they're dying for a non-sexual hug from a woman. Which also means they don't know that I know that life has been too rough on their sensitive sweet souls, which is precisely what led them here, to begin with. We can only do our best with the tools we have. And the only resource they had to cope with the heavy traumas bestowed by their absent fathers and the gut-punching rejections from their playboy mothers and the playboy girlfriends they'd inevitably been chasing to no avail since the onset of their first wet dream—was drugs. Change the window dressing and isn't that most of our stories? Not to the point where we all find ourselves mandated to rehab or jail—but that's only because racism and classism and neglect are very real things and Jewish girls of privilege wearing pretty lemon dresses get sent to therapy before shit spirals that out of control. But privilege might give you a better life, but it doesn't make you a superior person. If you've ever had the desire to run away from yourself—whether it's through top-shelf champagne or crack cocaine—you've danced the dance with addiction, darling.
"I don't know about no reading," Muscle Dude pipes. "She's in charge," he points toward Mom Jeans, who is now bouncing her clipboard against her hip like it's a toddler.
"Thanks," I twirl a lock of hair and sashay through the grass.
"You're welcome," they belt in such perfect unison, it's almost vaudevillian.