I spent the first half of my high school’s homecoming football game in the bleacher seats stoned and sucking on Starbursts, trying to convince my salivary glands to produce any kind of moisture. The game didn’t make any sense. Sitting in the bleachers, bra strap hanging down my arm, I shivered, although it wasn’t cold outside. After halftime, I threw up Coca-Cola in the bathrooms. This, I knew how to do. My thighs in a crouch by the toilet. Two fingers down my throat; the sugar burned up my esophagus.

Sara leaned against the painted brown heater outside the stall. I don’t know if she followed or found me. In the moment, she just was. We’d only recently met, and we’d never be alone like this again. The sound of the crowd in the distance was like an incoming wave.

Sometimes I do this on purpose, I said, through the door.

Me, too, she answered.

After school and on the weekends, Sara worked at a Box Office Video where she did cocaine with her managers. I felt it to be deeply unfair that none of my bosses gave me drugs. In my teens, these were the type of men I sought out: mid-twenties, living in basement apartments with brown-grey carpet and lighters in the couch cushions. They often had the beginnings of beards.


For my seventeenth birthday, we went to see the baby panda. Sara had taken too much cough medicine the night before. Her hair hung beneath a knitted cap in brown waves, covering her face. In the dingy, plastic orange of the metro car, she leaned her head against the metal pole but did not throw up. None of us did that day. We were a pack of five, all dark fabrics and metal through the face.

At the zoo, children screamed in their strollers and toddlers ran haphazard zig zags across the pavement, but all the dirty looks were directed at us and our clouds of cigarette smoke, us children making the other children sick. The panda was perfect, rolling and round, but I remember the seals in their rocky enclosure best. Big eyed and sleek, they were ludicrous on land. How unfortunate it was that they needed to breathe at all, that they couldn’t spend their lives entirely underwater.


It eventually came out that those cocaine-giving managers had assaulted Sara, or had tried to. I can’t remember the particulars and am unsure I ever knew the extent of them. We weren’t close like that. Growing up a girl taught me to hate other girls.

I still would have traded my life for hers back then, even if I’d known about those men. At least she had something to show for the trouble. I bought my own drugs, and my coworkers couldn’t look me in the eye after I’d seen the inside of their apartments. I was paying twice over, I thought, and it all seemed deeply unfair.

I’d circled Sara like one caged cat does another, afraid I’d starve, instead of seeing captivity as the problem.


So many years later, someone drove a car through that video store’s glass plate front in a rage, but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t Sara; it wasn’t even a woman.

Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn is Editor-in-chief at The Rumpus and lives in the DC area.. Her debut essay collection, A Fish Growing Lungs, was a finalist for The Believer Book Awards. She has been a fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. You can often (too often) find her on Twitter

Photo by Amy Selwyn