What Does a Mother Tell School When Her Daughter’s Been Out All Night With Her Drug Dealer?

Editor’s Note: Based on real events. Names have been changed for privacy. This essay deals with a suicide attempt by a teen.

I suppose I should call in sick for her. She will be expelled if I don’t. I pick up the phone and start to dial, then stop and heat up some water. I’ll have a cup of coffee and then think about it more clearly, from a caffeinated state.

I hate the thought that I would be lying to her school. I’m not all that cozy with the idea of lying, period. I was that horrible girl scout who told on the camp counselor who gave out candy before bed, after teeth brushing.

You would hate me if you knew all my stuff, I am sure of it. My daughter Marissa does. I’m pretty sure of that. 

My daughter struggles with her mental health. (Shutterstock phM2019)

What does a mother tell the school when her daughter has been out all night at her drug dealer’s house?

I turn off the stove and pour the water into the coffee press. Steam clouds the glass and the aroma of coffee lifts into the room. I could just leave a message on the machine. They have a place you can call in early and do that. The “Attendance Line.” “Marissa will be out today,” I could say. I am thinking, “she is out alright, as in ‘out of it’.”

I don’t know the rules here. I don’t know what the mother is supposed to tell the school when her daughter has been out all night at her drug dealer’s house. Does this actually qualify for “out sick?”

While the coffee is steeping, I put the clean silverware away in the drawer. I like to make sure the salad forks are all in the salad fork slot, the dessert spoons nesting one inside the next. It is nice when you can open a drawer and witness all the cutlery sleeping where they are supposed to sleep, each in their appropriate little wooden beds with their siblings, nobody out of place.

I could just let my daughter get in trouble

I could just leave things alone, of course. Let her get in trouble. Let her face the consequences of her actions, by not calling in for her. Maybe this would be some sort of wake-up call. But letting one’s child get expelled from high school – one’s A + all around honor roll child, I might add, who recently wrote a paper on the Cuban Missile blockade that could pass for a United Nations position paper – doesn’t seem right.

In a way, that would be sabotaging her future, right? But then one would have to beg the next question: what sort of future does a child have when she goes out every night like this, stays with the drug dealer, and probably consorts with many other people whom one has never even heard of or seen.

My daughter’s drug dealer is an odd fellow

The drug dealer is an odd fellow worth describing for his sheer originality. He has that scruff on his chin that must pass for a beard in his mind. Baby scruff. The way he pulls on it sometimes is amusing, like he is some bearded philosopher, pondering, say, Occam’s razor, or some other deep philosophical conundrum. 

His name is Gary. When Gary comes over, he just pulls into the driveway and waits. The one time he came in the house, his right knee was in constant motion, like something fluttering in a breeze. It just vibrated.

Sometimes Marissa’s knee does that. Or her foot taps incessantly. It is like some part of their bodies have been abducted by metronomes. They are stuck keeping a fast rhythm, some kind of runaway samba that we are all supposed to ignore, like it isn’t happening. If you look at their busy knees, they get upset.

“What are you looking at,” Marissa asks me, if I do. She tells me I am passive aggressive. The way I look at her tapping foot, her knee.

When the coffee is ready, I pour it into the white mug with the “M” on it. It is the Marissa mug. Long ago we got these mugs with our initials. Mine is the “T” mug, for Theresa. As I reach for the “M” mug, the “T” mug looks at me from the shelf like it is thinking “wrong mug, jerk.” But on this morning when Marissa is still at her drug dealer’s house, and about to miss school, I want to drink my coffee from the Marissa mug.

I add milk and a lot of sugar, just the way she likes it. We sometimes joke about this—her sugar preferences. “Have a little coffee with your sugar,” I might say. To which she will reply, “I will and I’ll have a little cake with my frosting, too.” She has a good sense of humor, my Marissa.  

Every time I hear a siren I think it’s for my daughter

My mother used to say it whenever I went out on dates as a teenager: “Every time I hear a siren, I think it is for you.” In my case it was hyperbole. I was a garden-variety teen, whose most dangerous activities might have been t.p.ing our neighbor’s yard at Halloween, or stealing a sip off my dad’s can of Bud when he went to the bathroom. I would steal a sip and my mom and I would exchange glances and smile. Bad girl! I didn’t even like beer. It was just a thing I did. Like I needed to prove I actually was a teenager or something. 

A year ago, the siren that wailed up the avenue was for Marissa. She was found blue and unresponsive on a riverbank, downstream from where she had jumped off the bridge. When she finally woke up in the hospital, two days later, she looked around the hospital room, as if surveying the afterlife. “Well. That was refreshing,” she finally said. 

We were all appalled, naturally, but somehow, we still smiled. She can do that; make you smile when you are appalled. Technically, it was amusing, beneath a thick skin of nightmare. A nightmare with many angles and aspects. There is the jumped off the bridge and went into a coma nightmare and then the never came home nightmare. And other brands of nightmare, too.

My daughter is a pending emergency of a girl

Example: she steals. Gum from the convenience store. Shirts from Pac Sun. Money from my wallet. “They have cameras in there, you know,” I once said, looking at a pile of booty on the side of her bed with Target tags still on them.

“I know,” she said, “that is why I did my hair. You like?”  

Come to think of it, Marissa is the sort of girl that sirens were actually made for. A pending emergency of a girl.

We’ve been to the hospital where they took her many times

We had been to that hospital where they took her after her jump many times. To the ER, to the psych unit. We’ve spent hours waiting for them to assess and release her, so long that they have had to offer her Jell-o and bad meals on hard plastic trays while we wait for them to cut the plastic bracelets off her wrists and send her home again. 

Somewhere in a drawer I still have it. The teensy bracelet she came home with when she was born. “SMITH, GIRL”. We hadn’t chosen a name for her yet. That was one of the many things we could not agree on, her father and I. Her dad was gone a few years later. Left her with his mother’s middle name and a beautiful mole beside her right eye, just like his own. He has a love for heroin; she is what they call a “garbagehead.”   

That means she isn’t fussy.

No one knows who called 911 to report that my daughter was in the river

Someone called 911 after Marissa leapt into the river. Nobody actually knows who. The person gave the name Pete, but there was no Pete there. In fact, I never could find any Petes, anywhere, to ask about that day. Pete is sort of an outdated name. People name dogs Pete. No humans are called Pete anymore, so far as I can tell.  

 “She said she wanted a rush,” said one girl I had met several times, when I ran into her in WalMart. Maybe that girl was “Pete”. That would be so 2016, actually, a girl named Pete, calling to tell me my kid might be dead. 

Technically, you could call jumping off a bridge a rush, I suppose. The river swallowed her whole and spat her out twenty feet downstream, unconscious and with a cut on her stomach that required seventeen stitches which would leave left a pink saw-toothed scar.  

“She is so lucky,” the ER doc said. “Most kids that jump there, they drown. There being the Oxbow bridge. It is one of those well know teen-dying places.

Lucky, lucky, lucky, I thought, as I collected the bag that contained her red Snoopy watch and still-damp sneakers. “You are so lucky,” I said in the car, driving her home from the hospital.”“You are so passive aggressive,” she said. When I asked her why she did it, she replied, “ah… but the real question would be ‘why not?’” 

The world’s disasters are somehow comforting to me

I take the coffee back to bed with me. I will turn on the news and drink it under the covers. Maybe something bad will be happening in the world. An F4 tornado, perhaps. A new plague rising in a distant land. A chunk of Antarctica drifting away. I can drift away nicely too, on the tide of other people’s disasters.

Dark confession: something about the whole world in crisis feels good. It is comforting when your daughter has spent the night at her drug dealer’s house and you can’t decide if you should call in sick for her in the morning so she does not get expelled from school, to think we are all in this together here on earth. I can think: People’s kids are at risk in Nigeria, Gaza, Sudan. It’s really pretty normal, if you look at the big picture. 

On the way up to her room, the coffee sloshed in the M cup, spilled onto my grey tee shirt and the rose and ochre runner on the stairs. “Oh no,” I say, to my shirt, to the rug, to the cup. 

I walk into my daughter’s room and just stand there

I can’t help it. I take a detour. I walk into Marissa’s room and just stand there. There is her unmade bed, her pillow, still dented from an afternoon nap. There is doggy, the stuffed beagle that I once had to drive thirty-six miles to retrieve from a motel in Tennessee where it had been left behind when we were on a vacation.

I continue to stand there for a long time, just stand there. There is her favorite Alice in Wonderland poster. I got it for her for her birthday in 6th grade. There is her bong and her torn tee shirt that says, “Disney is Magic.” 

There, beside the shirt, are the hightop Converse sneakers, the ones she was wearing when she was collected from the muddy river bank a year ago. I’ve washed them twice but they still smell of river. The smell of damp and mildew and dried snail and almost death.

She has drawn on them, with a black pen. Little curlicues and hearts adorn the rubber toes. On the ankle of the right one, she has drawn a small peace sign in orange marker. “Peace out,” she has written beside it.  And: “Love ya’.”  

I pull my cell phone out and dial.  “Hello? This is Marissa Colby’s mother. Right, she will be out sick again today. Same thing. Right. Should be back tomorrow. We hope, anyway.

Thank you. Yes. Thank you. Goodbye.

More Great Reading:

New Study Reports One In Every Five College Students Has Considered Suicide

About Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen is the author of The Family on Beartown Road, a memoir; The Hypothetical Girl, a collection of short stories, and co-author with Dr. Lori Alvord of The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, a collection of medical essays, and four books of poetry  She lives in Albuquerque with her dog Layla. 

Read more posts by Elizabeth

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