On Exes

Jennifer Merchant

Author Info

Course: Introduction to Creative Writing (ENG 2310)

Professor: Martha Witt, English

Essay: On Exes


After a few weeks studying creative non-fiction, students were assigned to select one small writing assignment to expand into a full-fledged personal essay.

In the grand scheme of things, three years is a long time. I should take this for the opportunity that it is. I’m finally free, whether I like it or not. I’ve always had something to hold onto — pieces of him scattered conveniently around my bedroom for when I want to miss him — but that has never been what letting go is about. Letting go is about releasing yourself of something, not necessarily because you know it will be okay- but because you hope it will be. And that’s enough to risk falling because at least when you do, you won’t be waiting for him to help you get back up. In retrospect, these thoughts are easy but if I’m being honest, Andy was never too big on helping.

I smoked pot for the first time when I was 14, and I fucking loved it. I still do, but with that came the personal justification that followed, “I smoke weed, but I would never do drugs.”

When I was 16, I took my first hit of Ecstasy. My boyfriend at the time had just revealed that he’d been cheating on me with a girl from Glen Rock who looked like his dead ex-girlfriend, so he gave me two pills as his form of a consolation prize. He said it would make me feel happy since he couldn’t anymore. He was right about both. On cue came, “I’ve done E, but E’s not a real drug. I would never actually snort anything.”

When I was 17, it was whatever shit my friends and I could fuck around with from our prescription bottles or find in our parents’ medicine cabinets. I could have popped the pills like I’d done before, but after watching my friends ritualize it — smashing them into dust with credit cards underneath crusty dollar bills and licking the powdery residue off the plastic magnetic strips like a stick of Fun Dip — I wanted to do that, too. I grabbed the “cleanest” dollar bill I had, more disgusted at the idea of putting cash up my nose that’s passed through the hands of fuck knows how many people than the drug stuffed inside of it. “Fine, but I will NEVER freebase. That’s what scumbags do. That’s drug addicts do.” And so, it fucking goes.

Plus, I wasn’t a drug addict—not really. Not yet. I certainly had the fine makings of one, though: reckless, self-destructive, looking to fill a void. I wish I believed in God; sometimes I think I might if it wasn’t so cool to be an Atheist in high school, and then maybe I could have avoided this whole thing altogether. I was baptized, communed, confirmed; hell, I was even a confirmation sponsor, although admittedly only to pad my college applications. N.A. asks that you “surrender your lack of control to your Higher Power so It may restore you to sanity.” My sanity left the building along with my control well before I had met Andy, but I didn’t have a Higher Power. I didn’t have someone to “restore my sanity,” so once I hit the third step, it was pretty much a wash. It seemed like one more thing I just wasn’t quite qualified for but at least drugs were all-inclusive since, apparently, I was insane.

I met Andy our freshman year of college. He liked the way I said ‘chocolate’ and ‘coffee,’ that I knew about cars, and I listened to Trap music. One night, he invited me to his dorm to watch a movie. I put on Dazed and Confused- that’s when he said he “knew.”

“I don’t have girlfriends,” the sheer amount of disgust in his voice as he said the word “girlfriend” made me actually believe him, “but you’re different. You’re special. You’d fit in so well back home.”

He did have an incredible way to making me feel special.

I’m not a ‘fixer’ by nature, although I do tend to attract the broken. Birds of a feather, I guess. It didn’t matter anyway; I loved Andy for who he was from the beginning, so it took a lot for him to do something that shocked me.

We got high together at school pretty regularly- smoked weed on the train tracks and sniffed Percocet off the top of our University — provided laminate dressers — you know, normal college kid shit.

I never really heard of “blues” until I went to Pennsylvania. They were less than a tenth of the
size of a Perc, but what they lacked in size they made up in strength and they did it without any bullshit acetaminophen ripping your stomach up. At thirty bucks a pop they were no joke, but we were young, and in love, and it’s not like we were getting sick or stealing shit. That would come later.

“Babe, I just smoked a blue with Luto.”

I’d met Luto a couple of times. He was a scumbag, but he was our dealer, so I let him flirt with me. If Andy didn’t like it, he never said anything. The truth is, he knew what I was doing, and he probably loved me more for it.

“Wait, smoked? Like you laced a blunt?” I knew what he meant, though.

“Nah, babe, it was on tinfoil. You just-”

“Ew, dude. You freebased?”

“Yes!” I could hear him smiling through the phone. I couldn’t tell if it was from the drugs or from the relief of not having to explain to me what freebasing is. He loved having such a “cool” girlfriend, and I loved being one. “You heard of it before?”

“I saw it on True Life.”

I like to think that there was never a point where I thought I could change Andy. I’ve never been dumb or self-inflated enough to think that my mere presence in a person’s life could be enough to change who someone is. That didn’t stop me from still hoping that he would change, though. Or even better, the two of us could change together.

I knew that our relationship was over once I started hoping for anything.

Not even in the worst of it- and it got fucking bad- did I ever blame Andy for anything. The way I always figured, I was never drug-shy to begin with; we were cut from the same cloth, so blaming him for the fact that by the time we’d broken up I’d dropped out of college, weighed 89lbs and had a mean opiate addiction never crossed my mind. No way — I made my own decisions and I take responsibility for them. Still, he had me, 100%, all of me, until he decided he either didn’t want me anymore or he did something too fucked up for me to reasonably forgive.

But there was one thing I couldn’t stand about Andy, and that was when he lied to me. Together, we lied to everyone: my friends, his friends — it didn’t matter who, if there was anything to be gained then lying was our default. Shit, even if there wasn’t, our truth had become too bleak — too disgusting for any casual conversation worth having that wasn’t with someone similarly afflicted. The only people I thought we didn’t lie to was each other. The only people we weren’t supposed to lie to was each other. Once that happened, we couldn’t be ‘us’ anymore, or at least not the same way.

Now to his credit, Andy was a good liar — a convenient quality to have when you’re a synthetic dopehead- but I was a great liar. You know what they say about bullshitting bullshitters, and all that?

See, a good liar knows that it’s all about the details, and no, I’m not talking about being able to replay a whole story, frame by frame. I’m talking about the stupid details — the inconsequential shit. A good liar tells you where they were last night by recapping their entire commute. A great liar is aware you know how to navigate, but what you don’t know is about the fucking asshole with Connecticut license plates that cut you off; now you’re talking about out-of-state drivers and how 208 has always been fucked at that time of night.

A good liar is sympathetic in his lies — he’s just
as upset as you are that your little brother’s XBOX controllers got swiped, if not more upset. A great liar is empathetic in her lies — she’s not as upset as you are because why would she be? She had nothing to do with it, but she does know how you feel because something similar happened to her roommate last year—didn’t she tell you? Back to those stupid details, to a new conversation, because a great liar knows that the most manipulative shit ever is actually being “genuine” with people. See, actively trying to manipulate people is easily caught by anyone with high enough emotional intelligence, is ignored by anyone who isn’t emotionally or materially vulnerable or is circumvented by anyone who has simply decided that they’ve had enough of you. That’s why kindness can be the most corrosive form of manipulation; people let their guard down and they end up anchoring their self and social identities way more to your opinions than someone inherently defensive and emotionally susceptible would. If I’m the source of your pain and fear, eventually you will fight back or run away- you won’t want to believe me anymore. But if I’m a source of your happiness and your security, why would you run?

It was the end of August, and we were into our third year as a couple. I wasn’t working, just taking a few courses at the community college to keep my parents at bay while I lived at home and to hopefully distract them from the fact that I’d evolved into a functioning drug addict over the course of that summer. I hadn’t spoken to Andy in almost a week, which is basically like a month when you’re long-distance. Then, we finally did speak-- some stupid fight over going to Myrtle Beach with his friends and using the money I’d just made from a garage sale to fund us getting down there. We always fought whenever one of us had money.

I didn’t want to go to Myrtle Beach. Sure, I liked his friends fine enough, but I didn’t like who Andy was when he was with them. Dan was the only one that I didn’t like out of obligation. He and his girlfriend, Sheena, were the closest to normal that I’d met in Wilkes-Barre. Dan liked to get high, but Sheena was a nursing student, so it all had to be done in secret, sometimes with her as close as the next room over. Dan looked so nervous the first time Andy pulled me into his guest bathroom to burn a blue with them, hesitating to meet my gaze as he raised the broken- down Bic to his mouth to inhale the smoke boiling off the sheet of Reynold’s wrap in his hand.

“Sheena can’t know about this.” Dan spoke to me directly, the icy translucence of his crystal blue eyes imitating tears as he reiterated, “She can’t ever know about this, Jen. It will ruin us.”

“Don’t worry, man, Jen’s not like that. Right, babe?” Andy replied, pulling me onto his lap.

“You’re a good boyfriend, Dan. Your relationship is none of my business.”

Andy pinched my side in approval as he pulled the Listerine Breath Strip container from the breast pocket of his flannel and fished a pill out for us. He handed me the straw as he unfolded a piece of tinfoil from the billfold of his wallet while he set us up. I readied myself to give the straw back to him — the first hit was always his — but I was met with a confused look.

“First hit’s yours, babe.”

I guess in that moment, he wanted to feel like he was a good boyfriend, too.

I didn’t want to spend a week sneaking around Sheena so I could go off with our boyfriends to freebase in the bathroom. I don’t know why. I just wanted to sit on the beach together, rest my head on Andy’s shoulder and feel safe.

I went with my Mom to my Aunt’s out in East Hampton instead. I hoped Andy would decide to come with me, but I knew better than to expect anything. Andy always did what he wanted, so when I didn’t hear from him for three days, I assumed he went to Myrtle.

On the morning of the fourth day, my phone rang.


“So, you haven’t been wondering where the fuck I’ve been?”

“I thought you were in Myrtle.”

“Nah, never made it down.”

“Then where the fuck you been, Andy?”



“Fuckin’ bullshit, dude- some warrant. Luto burned Quacks for almost a G, so he had to file a police report or somethin’ to get his money back — I guess he mentioned my name, somewhere. Who knows? I was driving down Plymouth — you know, near where we saw that guy driving with the fucking cow in his front seat and you lost your shit? Anyway, next thing I hear is whoop-whoop. Looked behind me, dude, fucking lights flashing — handcuffed, county, bullshit.” The way he said it like it was normal — I even didn’t know what to say or where to start, but he wasn’t done, “And where have you been? Bangin’ fuckin’ Hamptons bros? Not a single text or call from you in three days. My girlfriend, everybody!”

“I’m at my Aunt’s house, Andy, where I said I would be. Jesus. Last I heard, you were on your way to South Carolina.”

His tone switched back to normal, “Ah, yeah — never made it down. Dan and I went to grab a few on the way until —” and all I’m thinking is, is this kid seriously about to tell me this fucking story again? Like it tracked so well the first time around? And since when was Quacks going?

“I got it.” But I knew better than to take Andy’s word alone.

“So yeah, Mary scooped Dan from the police station. Thank god, Dude, Sheena would have lost her shit. I had to wait it out for my dad, meanwhile you can’t even send a fuckin’ text. And why? Because you thought I was in South Carolina? Fuckin’ lame, Dude.”

And that’s when I officially stopped giving a shit. Andy cared more about protecting Dan’s relationship than he did about inflicting damage onto his own, because I was the cool girlfriend and that meant his relationship was always supposed to be safe.

I could feel Andy’s lies as he spit them like a perfectly rehearsed script, and I was fucking over it. Be a great liar, for fuck’s sake, or at least try to be so I know there’s some part of you left that still cares enough to try for me at all. I hung up the phone and did the only thing I could think of and called Quacks.

Quacks graduated two years before Andy and I
would have, and he started making decent money right on out of school. His name was John, which I called him that until he told me he actually preferred Quacks — it was some play on his last name or some shit. Hardly anyone I’d met in Pennsylvania went by their government names. Quacks was always down to get high; he knew how to multitask it with being a functioning adult in a way that I used to envy. It took a few tries to convince Quacks to answer my calls — he probably thought it was Andy from my phone. After a solid few minutes of him telling me I was dating a piece of shit, he told me what happened.

Andy didn’t have the money to pick up and go to Myrtle, so he hit up Quacks to make a quick play. Quacks only copped in bulk, so he assumed Andy just wanted the five or six from the top of his cut. Quacks was at his parents’ in Allentown, so he sent a money order to a CVS in Kingston. The plan was for Andy to drop his cop on his way down south since he’d have to drive past his exit anyway, but Quacks hadn’t heard from him since he said he was on his way to Luto’s. An hour passed and Andy’s phone was off — Quacks was going to try mine, but Andy had told him we were fighting when they spoke earlier. When he tried calling again, his number was blocked so he filed a police report when he woke up the next morning for $1,200.

Police stopped him for speeding near Plymouth Ave just outside of Wilkes-Barre. He didn’t have any money on him; he didn’t have any drugs, either. He didn’t just lie to me, he lied to do drugs without me. I don’t know which one made me sadder. I loved getting high, but I always loved Andy more. Andy didn’t know how to love me when he was sober. I prefer to think that he loved me on his own before our relationship turned into hours spent in silent withdrawals, waiting to get high, followed by 2-12 hours of the perfect romance. I hate thinking our relationship couldn’t have existed without drugs, but I couldn’t recognize it anymore with drugs, either. You know, I probably would have forgiven him, too—if he had told me the truth. Not because I was the cool girlfriend. Just because I loved him. But he was lying to me just like he would lie to anyone else: badly.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t special anymore.