Marianna had been clean for two months. It was a Sunday afternoon in September and we were sitting on the double bed in her rented room, talking. When Marianna was talking to you, she gave you her full attention. She won people over effortlessly. She would lean forward – eyes wide, voice lowered – to describe the men who had screwed her over, the people who couldn’t forgive her mistakes, the idiocy of the city’s various bureaucracies. She was 30, small, with dark hair dyed blonde. Her face danced with freckles. Her landlady’s son, a little boy of maybe three or four, came banging on the door, wanting Marianna to play. “He’s, like, addicted to me,” she joked. Then she went quiet. “It sucks. Because I’m such a smart person and now that I’m sober I feel like I can do so much and it’s not happening.”
A few weeks later, I try to get in touch with her. Her phone number is disconnected. I immediately suspect the worst, and feel guilty for it. But the failure to pay the phone bill is a bad sign. She and her husband, Nicolas, had called each other constantly. She was a relentless Facebook user. Summer gives way to autumn and then winter, the nights come sooner, and there is no sign of Marianna. The phone remains out of service. There is no answer to the doorbell at the apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue, no matter how many times I go.
This was not the first time she had disappeared. Friends would later say it wasn’t unusual: every so often she would break off contact and go missing, before resurfacing (weeks or months later) living somewhere new, with someone new, always swearing things would be different this time. They never were, but when – safe on the other side – she described the things she had done, it was hard to believe she was talking about the same person. “I stole everything you can imagine from my family for my drugs,” she had said that Sunday. “Down to money, jewellery, anything that you can sell.” Still, I was surprised when she disappeared. We had agreed to meet up again in a few days: where had she gone? I was worried about her. And so I became yet another person caught up in the boundless hope – and the endless disappointment – of Marianna.
I started by going back to the food pantry at New Beginnings International Ministry on East 118th Street, where I had first met Marianna, a hot, brightly lit room above the makeshift church one floor below. Stacks of Ruby Kist jellied cranberry sauce were piled against one wall; brown cardboard boxes of mashed potato mix against another. The hundred pre-packaged pantry bags were all gone in less than half an hour. As eight o’clock approached and most people started to leave, I heard someone laughing raucously. She was wearing a white dress that showed off her freckled shoulders. We chatted casually about her job search and joked about both being new to the city. She told me she was newly married and a recent nursing graduate. She left a lot out, at first.
New York City is an unlikely place to come to get clean. But for Marianna, staying at home in Toms River, New Jersey was too dangerous. Every time she tried to get clean, she relapsed. She knew too many ways to get high there; too many people to get high with.
Marianna met David Hill when she was 22, he 23. He sold heroin and she began using it on the weekends. And then on the weekdays. After six months, she moved in with him. “At first, everything seemed perfect,” she remembered. They lived in a three-story house by the water in Manasquan, New Jersey, with a lot of David’s friends and his five-year old daughter. “And it was like, oh, I have this little family.” Everyone was using drugs, mostly heroin, sharing needles, sometimes unintentionally, and eventually things got ugly. “He was beating me a lot, so someone called the police, he got arrested, and I went away to rehab and got clean,” Marianna said breezily. “And you know what – through keeping a drug habit, and supporting a child, and working – I did all that and finished school.”
She met her son’s father in Narcotics Anonymous. It was 2007. She had sworn off men as well as drugs, but five months later, she was pregnant. A year or so after, she was in a car accident and was prescribed oxycodone (she had stopped breast-feeding by then, she insisted). “I started taking like 30 a day and going to, like, ten doctors a month,” she said, and abruptly changed the subject. In 2010, he spent six months in jail for writing fake oxycodone prescriptions. The next January, Marianna signed over custody of her son to her mother and his father’s parents. She would not be allowed to be alone with him until she had a year of sobriety. She had two months.
She always insisted that her five-year-old son didn’t know about the drugs. That last summer in Toms River, though – Marianna in withdrawal, unable to get out of bed for days on end – he understood that his mother was profoundly sick. “And he would just lay his head on my chest and say, “Don’t worry Mommy, I’ll take care of you, I’ll take care of you,” said Marianna, her eyes glistening. When he came with her mother, Adriana, to drop Marianna off at the Salvation Army’s rehab program, it took almost three hours to persuade him to stop clinging to her. He couldn’t stop crying.
Marianna remembered the Salvation Army Thrift store on West 46th Street, where she worked sorting donations, as six floors of sweaty August penance. The men and women were not supposed to communicate with each other. Relationships between “beneficiaries,” as participants in the rehabilitation program are known, are discouraged. Marianna was one of only three women, living and working alongside around a hundred men – “I was like a piece of meat,” she remembered, laughing. When I went to look for her there, the air was cold and the sidewalk was thick with yellow gingko leaves. Someone called Tony said he had been there five months, but he scoffed when I asked if he had known Marianna or Nicolas. “People come and go,” he said. “Can’t expect me to remember everyone’s names.”
Her second day there, Nicolas was the first guy to come up and say Hola. Her face softened when she remembered how he started bringing her gifts – a bottle of iced water, chocolates, a pair of iPod headphones, a teddy bear, a rose. They started exchanging long letters. “I fell for him”, Marianna said, and she sighed. “I’d never had a guy that was so sentimental.” But on July 30, Marianna was told she had to leave. After a random locker search, she was accused of having stolen a t-shirt (she maintains that she did not, that it had simply been missed during the stock-taking every “beneficiary” goes through at intake). I was never sure whether to believe her. She packed up her stuff and waited for Nicolas to get off work; she at least wanted to say goodbye. As soon as he saw her standing outside with her bag, he told her to wait and came back twenty minutes later with a bag of his own and most of his savings. She remembers thinking – this is crazy, you don’t even know me. He told her he wanted to be with her. And finding herself with money in her hands and nowhere to go, she would later confess, her first impulse was to use. Somehow, she didn’t.
Nicolas and Marianna got married on August 6, 2013. They had known each other for just over a month. A few days earlier, they had paid $35 to be registered for a domestic partnership, but it wasn’t enough: they would not be placed in a shelter together. It was hot out, Marianna remembered, and they were sweating from lugging their four suitcases through subway stations and in and out of shelters. They hadn’t slept properly in the almost two weeks they had been homeless. “Maybe we were just so delusional and tired,” Marianna would later say, “that we just said yes, and we didn’t know what we were doing.” Nicolas still didn’t speak good English, and she wondered how much he understood of what the registrar was saying. “He was so smiley, and holding my hand so tightly, and he kept saying ‘yes, yes, yes’.” Neither of them knew many people in the city, and they had trouble finding witnesses. After being turned down by numerous passersby, and with three minutes left before the marriage bureau shut for the day, someone agreed and Nicolas and Marianna were pronounced man and wife. They celebrated with sparkling cider and a taco each. Marianna posted the news on Facebook; her mother heard of the relationship for the first time when she logged in the next day.
They spent their wedding night at the El Camino Inn, a shelter on 89th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. To get there, you have to take the F train almost to the end of the line. Then, along Parsons Boulevard, the darkness punctuated by neon signs for pawnshops, tax services, Laundromats and endless fried chicken restaurants. Turning down 89th Avenue, the streets are darker and quieter. The shelter itself is a tall building with fitfully lighted windows; many cracked, some covered with makeshift curtains. When I go there to look for Marianna, I only catch a glimpse of the lobby: strip lighting and a bored-looking security by a metal detector. When Marianna described it, her voice would drop to a whisper. “This place was fricking crazy. You could smell the drugs coming in through the window and I can’t even…it just made me want to get high.” A burning cigarette end, thrown from a window, lands near my feet, and I start. Walking back to the subway, a statue of the Virgin Mary glows eerily outside the church; her hand raised in benediction, her eyes lowered, as if ashamed to look you in the face.
From the outside, at least, Marianna seemed happy with Nicolas. She put photos of them online: laughing, kissing, goofing around. “So handsome,” she would caption them. “I love himmmm.” Inside, she had doubts. He was different from other guys she had been with: jealous and possessive, always wanting to know where she was and who she was with, always suspecting something. “It’s so bad,” she said “but I feel like – what other option do I have? If I’m not with him, where do I go?”
And then one night, he didn’t come home. Marianna spent three hours looking for him. The way she remembers it, he eventually called and said: “I need to come home. I don’t want to fight. There’s no more money.” He came back with huge, dilated pupils, sweaty, and twitching. He had been on a cocaine binge and wiped out most of their combined savings. Marianna didn’t show her anger. She wanted to punch him in the face and ask: what the hell were you thinking? And yet, as a recovering addict herself, she couldn’t help but understand. Afterwards, when he would shout at her for smoking in the apartment, she was always tempted to bring it up. “But you can’t just throw someone’s mistake in their face,” she said, thoughtfully. “It’s probably just gonna make them do it again.” Still, she started leaving the apartment on St. Nicholas at around three in the morning, taking the subway down to the diner on 14th Street to meet Nicolas when he got off work. It made her nervous to be traveling alone that late, but she couldn’t risk a repeat.
A lot of the time, she admitted, she was scared. She worried that Nicolas would get hurt at work. Or take off with the money. And then what? But Marianna was always good at telling stories, especially to herself. She lived in the moment, day by day, because the future was too distant and uncertain. She could be complaining about Nicolas one second, then insisting the next that she was so free, so happy, finally able to wake up in the mornings without worrying where to get drug money from. “You know, I came this far, and I overcame a lot of things,” she said, “and I think I’m gonna be okay.”
As it turned out, she wasn’t. The brother of an old friend of hers said that Marianna had stolen money from his sister the last time they had seen her. Then she had vanished, just like the time before. “Honestly, between you and I, try and stay away from her,” he said. A woman who had worked at the same hairdressing salon as Adriana “since forever” said that Marianna had left Nicolas, relapsed again, and was in treatment somewhere in the city. “Well, she claims she is, but she lies so much, who knows?” she said. The Marianna she described was dishonest, manipulative, and cruel. She broke her mother’s heart. She wasn’t there for her son because she couldn’t get her life together. “All I can tell you is she is a thief and a liar, so please be careful,” she said. And she added that Adriana was on the point of giving up on her daughter. “Whenever I ask if she’s talked to her, she says don’t bring it up.”
But when I finally spoke to Adriana, she was upbeat. “Mari’s doing really good,” she said. Yes, she spoke to her every other day, or so. No, she didn’t have a phone number for her; she called from pay phones. Yes, she would let her know I had called. I heard nothing for a week. And then, in early December, as if no time had passed, Marianna got in touch. She was in a treatment program in East Harlem and I could visit her there the following Friday.
Marianna had been clean for just over six weeks. We sat in the back of the basement dining room of the Adult Rehabilitation Center on East 128th Street, perched at a low table, chewing gum. Around us, people were finishing up dinner, playing cards, arguing, or just sitting in silence, their heads down. The room smelled of stale food and ketchup and was decorated for the holidays with sparkly, smiling snowmen. Her eyelids shimmer, her hair is blonder than I remember and she has a new scar above her lip. She takes a deep breath. “So, what do you want to know?” And then, she’s off.
A day or so after we had sat on the bed and talked, she said, Nicolas tried to throw her off the fire escape. The abuse had begun about two weeks after they had started living together and got worse once they moved into the apartment on St. Nicholas. Talking about it, she curls into herself, shifting away from me on the bench. At least three times, he had choked her so badly she thought she would pass out. She would cover her face when she went outside so no one saw the marks. And then, one day, he came home while she was on the phone with her son. She tells it like this: he tried grabbing the phone, said she loved her son more than him, punched her in the back of the head, kicked her. She ran out onto the fire escape, planning to run down the stairs, and he tried to push her off until someone down in the street saw and started screaming in Spanish. She was bruised for six weeks afterwards.
“So I went to stay with a friend,” she began, and then she paused and looked at me. “Well, no, you want the whole story?” Sitting outside the building, “black and blue from head to toe,” someone approached her. She would say at first that he was the friend of a friend, but later admitted she had never met him before. They sat in the park. He had three bags of heroin. Did she want to try some? No. Just a little? It won’t kill you. So she did, and then she was using a little everyday, and within five days, the “full blown addiction was back.” She did not want to feel; she did not want to hurt anymore. “That’s what addicts are best at,” she said. “We numb the pain.” She was sleeping in the subway again, bouncing back and forth between New York and New Jersey, calling her mother for money and lying about why.
Two weeks after leaving, she realized that she was pregnant and on October 12, she said – screwing and unscrewing the lid of her lipgloss, putting on hand cream, sending a text – she had an abortion. Nicolas begged her not to but, she added, he did not offer to pay for anything. It was the last time she saw him. Later, he sent her a picture of himself and a note saying she would always be his princess. “I just want you to know that I’m a changed man,” he wrote. She still can’t sleep at night and she dreams about a baby with black curly hair and green eyes like him. The baby is floating away down a river and she can’t save it.
The drug run ended on October 18. She left the guy whose place she had been staying at, taking with her – he said stealing – four cigarettes and two bags of heroin. He followed her down St. Nicholas Avenue, shouting, till he caught up with her at 191st Street. “It was five forty five in the morning – I’ll never forget it,” Marianna said. She looked down and fiddled with her ring, twisting it round and round her finger. “And he beat the living crap out of me.” And so, around 8 o’clock, she picked herself up, bought five bags of heroin, went through them all, and walked the 60 blocks downtown to the Adult Rehabilitation Center. She vaguely remembers walking in, getting herself admitted, and then – nothing for three days.
On her second day off probation at the center, “it happened again.” She always spoke about her addiction in the passive. She relapsed at work at St Luke’s Hospital. She knew where the pills where kept; it was easy. By the time she got back to the center for group therapy, she was so drowsy that she had to tug on her eyelashes to keep her eyes open. Her attempts to scratch her nose gave her away, and she acts it out, laughing – holding her finger out in front of her face and leaving it there, suspended a few inches from her face. Then, abruptly: “I don’t even know why I’m smiling now. It’s not funny.”
She has one friend in the center. William is older, and has a cursive tattoo behind his left ear. He is, says Marianna, “a good but a broken spirit.” Her face lights up when he comes in, and they joke around, flirting, teasing each other and recounting the horrors of the rehab center: mice, bedbugs, cockroaches, snitches. They share a cigarette on the walk over to another building and Marianna blows smoke through her nostrils. She fusses over me, untucking my hood from the back of my coat, offering me a snack, a drink, a lollipop, a cough drop – her treat. “Are you having fun?” she asks.
Marianna now sings in the center’s choir, but today it’s just her and three guys riffing on electric guitars in a basement room with orange walls. She fans herself with the song sheet. The ink is blotted where someone has spilled something. William has a new job on the night shift somewhere, and Marianna jokes that they are like two ships passing in the night. “We could pause for a moment, though” he says. The speakers are turned up loud enough that you feel the guitar reverb in your chest. Her hair is golden in the hot lights and she is swaying along with the music, eyes shut. When she sings she sounds like an old soul record. “Hold me tight and don’t let go, don’t let go. What’s it gonna be?”
A few weeks later, she has left the center and is somewhere back in New Jersey, living with a friend. She says: sure, you can come visit. Then, she is gone again. Her phone is disconnected. No reply to messages. After a while, I let her go.