Watching Her Chase the Dragon / Watching the Dragon Catch Her

This piece contains references to substance abuse and death.

Watching Her Chase the Dragon / Watching the Dragon Catch Her by Shoshana Maniscalco - Photo by ElenaEisenstadt

On a frozen night, in March of my junior year of high school, my mother drags me to a lecture about drugs and the teenage brain. It is meant for parents, and I am one of the only students there. For what seems like a lifetime, I listen to the middle-aged woman drone on about how marijuana is a gateway drug. I’m convinced she’s never actually talked to a teenager in her life. Anger boils inside me that my school waited until now to start conversations about drug abuse. It is too late.

Best friend
At the start of second grade, a very quiet and shy new girl in my class named Lily sits next to me on the brightly colored classroom rug. Within a few days, we become best friends, mostly because neither of us is particularly loud or talkative in class, but at home, we never stop talking. We plan our dream jobs (I want to be a doctor, she wants to be an artist), and our dream houses, and our dream families, and we do not stop dreaming.

The Monday before February break, every school counselor in the city is sent to our school. They come into first period, sit at what should be her desk, and reassure us that we will be okay. I storm out of the room in anger, except I actually don’t leave my seat at all. Maybe ignoring them will make them leave. I do not say a word. I do not want this to be happening; this should not be happening. How can they be so certain that things will be okay if my ex-best friend is dead? I hate that she will always be my ex-best friend now.

Just two weeks ago, we both walked into this classroom and assumed our seats in the front of the room on the first day of the semester. I sighed under my breath that this will be interesting; we haven’t talked in nearly two years, not since we got into that screaming match right outside this very room. This grudge I have been holding since then has eaten me alive. I miss my childhood best friend. It takes me two weeks, but I finally decide to make amends with her on Monday. But for her, Monday never came.

(noun): something that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness.

Example: Marijuana, alcohol, caffeine, heroin, thinking about you so often hoping it will bring you back.

They warn us frequently about going out. Even though we live in suburbia, things trickle down from the city. They tell us drug use is on the rise in the city, that we should not talk to strangers because they might try to sell us drugs. They tell us to run away and tell an adult. What they forget to mention is, it’s usually not the strange men we see in the city. Instead, it is our co-workers, our friends, people we trust. Sixteen people in my nice, safe suburb died from opioids in…

My parents go to Torah study at the synagogue every Saturday morning. While they are out, I spend the quiet time before my sister wakes up getting ahead on homework. I’m taking an online class at the local community college on top of my seven high school classes, so Saturdays are the only chance I get to do the readings. Today, I watch as the clock slowly approaches noon. I wonder why my parents aren’t home yet. Something feels wrong. Moments later, the garage door opens, and my mother calls for me. “Shoshana, could you please come here?” There is something eerie in her tone, but I cannot pinpoint what it is. My head starts to spin with all the possible things that could be wrong as I walk down the hallway to the stairs. Before I can even make it to the bottom, my mother tells me that Lily passed away last night. I want to scream and cry, but my throat has forgotten how to form sounds, and my tear ducts are suddenly empty. Ever since that day, February has always felt like the longest month, and I hate it.

When we were little, Lily and I made up our own games. The people at school didn’t understand us, but we could understand each other without having to open our mouths. In one of our games, we squatted as low to the ground as possible, waddled around, and yelled “Hamburger!” in funny accents until we fell to the floor in laughter.

Her little sister describes to me in detail the color of her cold, lifeless body. Even in death, she was still beautiful. Her funeral was held on Valentine’s Day, a day we used to always agree was dumb. The rabbi stood with his guitar in front of countless displays of her art and tried to get us to sing. Silence.

We don’t talk for two years because of one boy. We almost start talking for one week, and then we never talk again.

Junior year
Everyone says junior year is the hardest part of high school, but I’m pretty sure no one accounted for your childhood best friend dying.

She blacked out that cold November night at the school dance. We were 14, and she was drunk on stolen tequila and high on tranquilizers to numb the pain. We were 14, and my friends made me watch her so they didn’t have to—to make sure she didn’t do anything dumb, like pulling the lighter she kept in her bra on any guys (which she did about three times while my back was turned). We were 14, and she fell asleep on my crush’s shoulder that night. He and I held hands while waiting for our parents, with Lily passed out between us. The next morning, I explained everything to her. Six months later, she tried to use that night against me, claiming she kissed him, trying to get me to stop talking to him. We were 14, and I stopped talking to her forever.

Last words
I did not, could not, believe that Lily was dead when I heard the news. To prove to myself my mother was wrong, I scoured through social media. She posted on Twitter 15 hours ago, so maybe that was a sign. The tweet read “I’m fine <3”. How could she lie to me like that? How could she be fine last night but dead this morning?

For weeks after her death, it felt like all the light in the world had vanished. I was drunk on guilt and shame, stuck in a downward spiral of what-ifs. I cried for days on end, only stopping when my family was around. When a tear escaped my eye at dinner a week after the funeral, my mother was quick to scold me for being upset. “I was close to her too, Shoshana! But you don’t see me crying about it weeks later!” My stomach feels heavy, full of shame for not simply getting over it. At that moment I chose to stop mourning her death. Enough was enough. I locked the remaining grief deep inside of myself, so no one could tell I was hurt. I saved those feelings for poetry no one would read. I stopped talking about her completely.

When that dreadful winter finally thawed, in the first few breaths of spring, I watched as the roses began to bloom. I waited… and waited… and waited… until one summer day when the air was much too warm for my liking. Uncomfortable sweat dripped down my forehead as I opened my mouth to complain to myself. But a beautiful white flower caught the corner of my eye. The lilies in my garden were finally in bloom. It may have taken a long time, but we both finally were at peace. Stretching from the depths of the dirt out into the light. Reaching for the warm sunshine. We were going to be okay.

What would have happened if we never got into that fight? Would we still have been friends during sophomore and junior years of high school? Better yet, what would have happened if I decided to forgive her more than a week before she died? Would I still be carrying this regret in my pocket? What if I knew about her drug addiction? Could I have done anything to help her? What if she told her mom she needed help sooner than hours before she died? Would she still be here? I imagine she would be in art school somewhere warm, studying to be an even better photographer. But if she didn’t die, would I have ever forgiven her? Can I even say that I have?





  is both

      too quiet


     too loud

Rose colored glasses
She saw the world through shades of blue, through the lens of her camera. She had a skill for capturing the complexity of emotions, while barely feeling any at all. One day, she dressed me in shades of gray, painted my face with makeup, and we went out into the snow to take photos. Our mothers sat in my bright kitchen and sipped their tea as they called out to us to put on coats. Lily kept her camera tinted blue, exaggerating the fluffy snow falling around us, and the sadness in both of our hearts. I changed my camera settings, too. The blue is more expressive; all the stories I tried to tell are sad. I didn’t change the settings back for years.

On the second day of second grade, we are playing a name game. Going around the room, we each say our name and what item we are bringing to a picnic that starts with the same letter. I am stumped, suddenly forgetting every word I know that starts with “S.” Lily suggests I bring sushi. Everyone in the class either doesn’t like sushi or has never tried it, except for Lily and me. Soon enough, the whole class calls me Sushi more often than my own name. It follows me like a shadow until high school. Now, it is the only thing I cannot stand to be called.

Supposedly, time heals all wounds. In my world, time seems to move in slow motion. A broken record stuck on the same track for months, even years. The first time a classmate died, I was in fourth grade and I barely even knew him. It took me years to feel okay again. And even now, 10 years later, there are still times when I cannot help but feel sad about the life he never got to live.

Healing is not linear. In my head, I go back in time and look for clues about Lily. I pretend I could have done something to stop this all from happening, despite the fact that I had no idea what she was going through and no intention of finding out. I want nothing more than to feel whole, for the gaping bullet wound in my chest to close. Weeks go by, and I don’t think about her at all. Months later, I find pictures of us from a party when we were 14. She was sitting on my bed, long brown hair covering one of her eyes, as she focused intensely on her red Bic lighter. Her finger hovered less than a centimeter above the flame. She knew if she got any closer that it surely would burn her, but she loved nothing more than testing her limits. How silly I must look now, sitting on my bed screaming at my dead friend through my laptop about how she never should have taken those drugs.

Healing is not linear. Some days I’m on top of the world, and others I cannot believe she is really gone.

Supposedly, time heals all wounds, except I’m not sure I ever want this to stop hurting.

Things got bad between my first college roommate and me in February. This is not to say that we had been on good terms until then, just that it got increasingly challenging. I spent several days sitting in my advisor’s office, crying about how I must be a terrible roommate, watching the reputation I had built for myself crumble in front of me. Right before my roommate ultimately moved out two months later, in a heated fight one night, she screamed at me, “You’re too sad about Lily all the time! Like I know it was hard, but you’re not the only one who has fucking problems!” Maybe she was right. A boiling tea kettle filled to the brim, we ultimately overflowed.

I do not remember the first time I told someone who was not from my hometown about Lily. I only remember several terrifying moments trying to explain how hard it is to feel so alone and so helpless while trying to not be met with pity. My friends joke that once I talk about Lily, it’s like they’ve reached a new friendship level and unlocked a new tragic backstory. In college, I begin to accept that I cannot keep this piece of me under the pile of junk beneath my bed. Acceptance feels like coming home.

It has taken years to be okay enough to write about you, Lily. I still see you in spring when the flowers bloom, a rebirth after the dark and cold. In life, you bloomed in making art out of your sadness. In death, you bloomed in the art of others. I still see you when the snowflakes are heavy, and the world looks like a snow globe, and when my mom wears that gray sweater that I no longer can.

… As in gone
… As in unknown
… As in unfinished
… As in no address to send this to

You would not want me to be sad, so instead, Lily, I’m picking up the shattered pieces of my heart and creating a mosaic in your name.

Zikhronah livrakha (“May her memory be for a blessing”)
זיכרונה לברכה
Every week at services when we come to the prayer for those in our lives we have lost, it is customary only to say the name of someone on the anniversary of their death. I say your name every week, Lily. My heart cannot bear for you to be erased, for my lips to forget the feeling of your name, for my eyes to forget the softness in your smile. I cannot forget you the way you thought you would be forgotten. As long as I live, I will carry you in my heart. I am not ready to move on, but I am ready for both of us to finally be free.

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