To Be Clean

A tender relationship with a fellow exotic dancer shows Natassja Schiel how to love her sister, a recovering addict.

Natassja Schiel | Longreads | August 2018 | 24 minutes (6,673 words)

I closed the sheer maroon curtain of the private dance nook and needled my eight-inch stilettos through the G-string I’d kicked off minutes earlier to Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” On the single chair, where I usually hovered nude over men, I sat and counted the money I’d made. Only $9. It wasn’t a money-making night. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my younger sister, Melissa, had told me earlier. I was sad, and no one wants to give money to a sad stripper. Even if she fakes happiness, the customers seem able to sniff out insincerity, and it repels them. In six weeks, I’d be moving 3,000 miles away. From Portland to New York. How could I leave my sister behind? What about Melissa?

After wiggling back into my minidress, I stood, forced a smile, and strutted back into the club. I was there to make money, so I had to find a way to become genuinely cheerful. But my motivation deflated after only a few steps. I’ll just go to the bar — watch the girl on stage — and find my bearings. Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater” was playing, and only one girl danced to that song. Mya.

Mya swung upside down, topless, on the monkey bars that lined the top of the stage. Her breasts, not even A cups, were perfect. I admired her dark amber nipples as she swayed in the air. Her wavy black hair hung like a lion’s mane. Sparkling red lip gloss framed her smile. Every seat was filled and a few stragglers even stood off to the side, delighted by her.

Mya appeared carefree. I needed to be like that.

When I had been on stage, there were only two men. A few others had come up and given me pity tips.

“You want a drink?” a man with a deep voice asked me. The question jolted me out of my head. I looked at the speaker peripherally. He was in his early 30s, young — unlikely to spend real money. Occasionally younger men came into the clubs in Portland to hit on the strippers. As if the dancers were not trying to make a living, but trying to find someone to date.

We loathed these customers.

“Sure,” I said and smirked.

“Let’s do a shot. Do you like that whipped cream vodka stuff?”

I shrugged. I didn’t, but it was Mya’s favorite, and that alone made it appealing. The times Mya and I had taken shots, we’d leaned into one another, our cool skin touching. She always smelled like peaches and wore shimmering outfits with glittery jewelry. “Bling it and they will come” was her stripper motto. I’d had a crush on her for two years.

Many nights, while it was slow — common in 2010, deep into the recession — we’d sit together at the bar. We’d both loved dancing at first, and we were both ready to move on with no other job to move on to.

“If you could do anything,” I’d asked her, “what would you do?”

“I wanted to be a vet when I was growing up, but it feels so far out of my reach.” She looked down at the bar instead of at me.

“I bet you could start small. Maybe a vet’s assistant?”

She thought it over. “I know I would still need education of some kind. I feel like I’m too old for that now.”

I laughed. “You’re one year older than me, right? Twenty-six?”

She nodded.

“I’m taking community college classes — my sister, too,” I said. “You aren’t too old. I’ll help you. I’m good at this kind of thing.”

She grinned, the corners of her eyes crinkling. She grabbed my arm and leaned in to kiss my cheek, then pressed her face to mine, staying there for several seconds before moving away.

I learned we both had orange cats that had male names but were girls (hers: Bobby; mine: Raja). That she loved David Bowie and Prince. That like me, she was first-generation American. However, she was proud to be Mexican American. That was not like me — I rejected my Russian and German lineage. I adored Mya so much that despite how badly I needed money, I’d hoped for these nights, huddled up with her at the bar. My feelings for her intimidated me. And even though we’d sometimes make out after hours, I couldn’t bring myself to do more.  

The customer handed me my shot. “I’m Rob, by the way,” he said. This will do it, I thought, this will drown out my sister. We clinked glasses before downing the syrupy-sweet liquor in one swallow. My stomach warmed and I became light-headed. The rush of the first drink on an empty stomach. My shoulders relaxed. My chest loosened. Everything was going to be alright.

“You don’t seem like the other girls that work here. You’re better than this,” Rob said.

I rolled my eyes. “So many men say that, thinking they are being clever or complimentary, but I’m going to let you in on a secret.” I motioned for him to get closer, then whispered into his ear, “The girls I work with are my friends. We hate when customers say that kind of shit.”

“Yeah, but I mean — ”

I placed my pointer finger to his lips. “Shh,” I said.

Rob, like I thought, wasn’t interested in getting a private dance. Or spending money on anything other than drinks. There was no way to make money off him. I surveyed the room from my place at the bar on several occasions, considered introducing myself to someone else — tonight was uncommonly busy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was too raw. Opening myself up for any form of rejection, even the faux rejection of the club, might break me.

That was most of dancing. Approaching man after man who delighted in saying no to women who would probably never even speak to them outside the club. Rob bought another round, and I eased into the fact that tonight was going to be another dud. At closing, I had little more than $100. In the beginning of my stripper career, almost four years earlier, a friend had told me: “As long as you make a bill.” Then and still, $100 a night didn’t seem like enough for this job. I’d wanted to make $500 that night, what I used to average. But I hadn’t even made $200 in months.

After the bouncer yelled for everyone to “get the fuck out,” the dancers shuffled into the dressing room. We kicked off our heels, standing flat-footed as we disrobed. Mya wasn’t even five feet tall and once we were both naked, she embraced me, our hot and sweaty bodies stuck together. I loved it — the feeling of being glued to her even for a moment. I breathed her in, peaches and tangy body odor.

“You’re so sexy,” she said and laughed.

Me? No, you are!” It was the first time all night I’d been happy.

She gave me a peck on the lips and then we dressed quickly in jeans and T-shirts.

Mya and I walked out to the parking lot with the bouncer at our side. October was usually wet and cold in the Northwest, but this year it was still dry and warm so it felt like a summer night. My attention was on Mya, so at first I didn’t notice that Rob was standing to our right, in an empty parking space. He tried to convince me to go with him right then “because we had a real connection.” The bouncer stepped between us and told Rob to go, but Rob persisted. I started crying. It was the third time in three consecutive shifts that a customer had waited outside for me.

I adored Mya so much that despite how badly I needed money, I’d hoped for these nights, huddled up with her at the bar. My feelings for her intimidated me.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


“Why does this keep happening?” I asked Mya. The other times I hadn’t cried. I’d made it clear they were crossing boundaries. This time, though, I felt helpless. As helpless as I’d felt earlier that day with my sister. I thought of all the men that had hurt me, and all the men that had hurt my sister. I wanted to take it all away from her, or at least I thought I did.

“It happens to all of us,” Mya said, shrugging. “But you’re too upset.” She took my hand and interlaced her fingers with mine. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

She guided me to her beat-up black Honda Accord. It wasn’t the first time Mya had tried to get me to go home with her. Many times, she’d purred into my ear, “Please come to my place.” And each time I had wanted to, but fear took over. What did it mean that I wanted it? I suspected I was bisexual, but had been told repeatedly that bisexuality wasn’t real. Well-meaning friends and less well-meaning customers told me I was simply bi-curious. I’d heard this so often that I was confused. Was what I felt for Mya only curiosity? It seemed like more. And that scared me. So I’d refuse. And she’d say, “I don’t understand. Don’t you want to be with me?”

I really do, I’d think, but shake my head and leave.

Now, Mya opened her passenger-side door and shut me inside as Rob yelled over the bouncer’s shoulder, “I wasn’t trying to make you upset. I just like you for real.”

I cried harder. The idea that he thought he liked the real me was too much to bear. He didn’t know the real me. No one there did.

“Ignore him,” Mya said as we sped off in her car.

At her place, Mya guided me to her bathroom. She kneeled down, turned on the bathtub faucet, and let the stream of water run over her fingers. “I’m going to give you a bath,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better.”

She stood up and ran her fingertips along the side of my face, then tugged at my clothes, removing each item slowly, and told me to get in. As I settled into the warm water, she poured rose bath gel onto a loofah and massaged it until it was foamy.

“I get the feeling that wasn’t really about the customer. What’s going on?” she asked as she rubbed the loofah over my back in soft, circular motions.

I took a steamy floral breath. I wanted to lie. It seemed like too much to tell Mya the truth, but the truth was too close to the surface.

“Eight years ago, two of my sister’s friends went missing,” I said. This was something I never intended to tell her, or anyone that didn’t already know.

I pretended it hadn’t happened. I pretended it hadn’t had any effect on me. I needed to be the stronger, older sister because so many people — including our mother — made the disappearance of the girls about themselves. Melissa needed me to let her have space to grieve without another person co-opting it. But what happened had also been so painful for me that I couldn’t face it.

“I can’t even imagine,” Mya said, shaking her head. She dropped the loofah, then cupped water into her hands, releasing it over my shoulders. The water cascaded down my back.

“Right after the second girl went missing, my sister—” I stopped, unsure if I should go on.  

Mya looked into my eyes. “You can tell me.”

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I asked, perplexed. It seemed like I might infect her with my pain. I never wanted anyone to see me like this. The suffering was off-limits and only allowed in private.

“Oh, Natassja,” she said, as if that was enough of an explanation. She touched my face and pulled me in for a kiss. “Let’s go to bed and cuddle. I won’t try anything, I promise.”

She took my hand, and I stood. Opening a towel, she patted me dry. She rubbed thick shea butter that smelled like peaches all over my body. The cream warmed quickly, melting as she applied it to my bare skin.

“Do you feel better?” she asked.

I nodded, though it wasn’t quite true. But I wasn’t crying — and that was close enough.

She led me to her bed and untangled my hair with a brush, one of my favorite sensations. It was one of the only tender things my mother had done for me as a child. I begged her to brush my hair until I was a teenager. Mya had no idea, but she was soothing me exactly in the way I needed.

***

“I started making amends,” my sister had said earlier that day as I pulled out of the Portland Community College campus parking lot where we were both taking classes. “And I need to tell you something.” Melissa took a deep and loud breath. I glanced in her direction, the crook in her nose visible from the many times she’d broken it when we were growing up, and then I looked back to the road.

My sister was 21, four years younger than me, and a year and a half clean. Snippets from the first time she received a jail sentence flashed before me. The court officer hauling her away. That I’d tried to tell her that I love her, but a different officer blocked me. She’s my sister, I’d said dumbly, pushing forward against him. I could feel the stiff bullet proof vest under his uniform. He grabbed my upper arm and threatened to arrest me, too. I went limp, and he dragged me to the exit of the courtroom, then flung me out into the hall. Stunned, I rubbed my arm. Red fingerprints would change to a ringed bruise that I continued to rub until it disappeared. It took two years: my sister in and out of jail. But once faced with time in prison, she finally stayed clean.

“Go for it.” I smiled.

I thought my sister might apologize for the time she stole my last $20. I’d called my mother that day and told her what Melissa had done. My mother didn’t believe me. It’s all the money I had in the world, I said, then sat in my car and wept. It was during one of several failed attempts to stop stripping.

Or I thought Melissa might apologize for one of the many times she’d accused me of being her reason for relapsing. In response I’d yelled, my voice strained, cracking: I’m the only person that’s ever truly loved you. Then calmly told her she could no longer be in my life as she sobbed. Later, I clasped my hands on my neck. I wanted to feel all the discomfort of my sore throat; the self-imposed punishment of my cruelty. The awareness that I was trying to guilt her into sobriety came over me, but we still didn’t speak for months. And the truth was that I did worry it was my fault. If it was my fault, it also meant I could control her — her addiction — but that I was failing. I owed her an apology, too.

‘Eight years ago, two of my sister’s friends went missing,’ I said. This was something I never intended to tell her, or anyone that didn’t already know.

“OK, this is it,” my sister said. “I was thirteen the first time I shot up heroin.” She stared ahead. I was confused. This wasn’t an amends. It seemed more like a confession. Prior to this, she’d insisted that she never shot anything into her veins. I hadn’t believed her, but I never suspected she might have been only thirteen.

“What do you mean? How?”

“It was right after Jessica went missing,” she said evenly, “when everyone realized that Allie hadn’t just run away.” I looked at her and she was looking at me. Her grey eyes stared straight into mine. She pursed her lips, and only moments later, unable to hold my gaze, she looked out the passenger-side window.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of her friends, and how she suffered as a result, was her reasoning: the catalyst for her use of heroin. Except it wasn’t really. In that moment, I thought maybe if that hadn’t happened, she would’ve tried heroin later, at a more appropriate age. When she was 18, or 21. It was illogical. Is there an appropriate age to shoot up heroin?

I knew she’d tried meth by accident — it had been laced in some weed she’d smoked, when she was 11. She started smoking cigarettes and pot at 10. She’d been drunk at a Girl Scout meeting when she was 9. She posted pictures of herself high on Ecstasy on Myspace when she was 15. Her eyes glazed, dime-size pupils almost swallowing her irises, her jaw clenched. A purple pacifier hung around her neck. I don’t know when she started snorting cocaine, I just know it was her “favorite.” The drug she used compulsively, that she could never turn away. When exactly does an addiction start?

“But who gave it to you?” I asked. My chest burned and became itchy as hives blossomed there. I looked straight ahead so she couldn’t see the pain I knew would be obvious in my eyes. In the last year and a half, she’d transformed. The longer she stayed clean, the softer her face. The more she smiled. She rediscovered that she was nurturing, often playing with our younger cousins: rolling around in the grass, chasing and tickling them. She laughed. Thinking back to the little girl she was, the one that got so lost, was unbearable.

“It was Samantha’s stepdad. Remember her? I practically lived over there at one point.”

I remembered. Neither Melissa nor I knew our respective fathers. She latched onto men as result, but I tried to stay away from them. I learned early the damage men can do — at the hands of a family member — and it was something I wanted to inoculate my sister from. But, though the same man didn’t hurt her, I’d been powerless to stop others. Samantha’s stepdad had been one of the men I believed might hurt my sister. But there were many. There was the friend’s father that took Melissa on camping trips — only Melissa, no one else. Another friend’s stepdad that gave Melissa beer and requested back rubs from her. The paramedic who bought Melissa stuffed animals.

I’d begged my mother to stop letting my sister hang out with grown men. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she’d say. “She just wants a father and these men are willing to be something like that for her.”

She’s in danger, I’d plead.

“What do you mean it was Samantha’s stepdad?” I asked, not sure I wanted the answer.

“He was the one that laced the weed that one time. He said heroin would take my pain away and asked me if I wanted to try it.” She sighed.

I nodded, continuing to look ahead at the road, fuming, but trying not to appear rattled. I was afraid she’d stop entrusting me with this information if I reacted too strongly.

“So he found a vein and did it for me.”

“Did it help?” I asked.

Her growth seemed to have been stunted at the age of 10, and I’d been worried about her lack of development. My mind went back to her skinny arms and legs. She’d weighed less than 60 pounds. I’d been relieved when finally, at the age of 17, she grew and gained weight. She was now 5’7”, three inches taller than me, and a normal weight.

“I mean, the pain went away, but I started vomiting. It was awful.”

“Why’d you do it again if you hated it?”

“Because I’m a drug addict,” she said.

I was living in my first apartment by then. Melissa had been navigating the world without me. It stung — the idea that I had left her right when she needed me.

“It was my choice.” Her dark brown ponytail bobbed as she turned her head away from me before going on. “I have to take responsibility for it.”

In her addiction, she never stuck with anything. But now, she showed up each morning for classes at the community college. She maintained employment. She had become responsible, and yet, it seemed like she’d taken this ethos too far.

“But you were a kid.”

“Still, no one forced me. And it’s OK. I’m OK now.”

My knuckles whitened as I gripped the steering wheel, trying to focus on the bridge we were about to cross. We drove past Lucky Devil Lounge to the right, the club I’d be working at later that night. Melissa didn’t know I was stripping again. Months earlier, I’d quit and sworn I was done for good. She wasn’t the only one who lied.

I’d started stripping for the same reason I was doing it again: I needed money. But I’d long ago recognized the high I got while dancing. Nothing else made me feel the way dancing did. No substance could compare to the rush of getting naked for men — men who couldn’t touch me. Men who paid me to tease them, but couldn’t gain anything real from me. I could be as sexual as I wanted and no one could have me. That made me feel like the most powerful woman in the world. And that was the hardest part of quitting. I didn’t want to let it go. Even though, as time went on, the highs came less often. The façade that I had all the power had started to crumble. But, I longed for it anyway.

Was her addiction that much different?

Neither one of us spoke again for the rest of the 30-minute drive to the halfway house where she was living. In six weeks, I’d be moving to New York to study creative writing at the New School. I’d felt OK about moving because Melissa was clean, in school, doing well. Suddenly, I was unsure. How could I leave her? How could I have ever left her? It was irrational and I knew it, but I wanted to reach back into the past and change everything.

***

Two weeks after I graduated from high school, around midnight in the dining room of the duplex where my mother, sister, and I lived, I was hand-sewing a dress for a porcelain doll that would become Melissa’s birthday present when she turned 14. After finding the doll at a craft store for $3, I decided to make my sister something she’d always wanted. I designed my own pattern, using an old newspaper to trace it before cutting it into pieces. I based it on a Victorian ball gown and used shiny, satin fabrics in Melissa’s favorite color: purple, in several shades. And also designed a hat, purse, and parasol to match.

While Melissa was staying at a friend’s house, I was silently, carefully working on the dress when my mother started screaming from the top of the steps.

“You’re being too loud!”

Her sudden yelling startled me. I pulled the stitch I was working on too tight.

My mother stomped down to the dining room. She wore a baby-blue terry cloth robe, and her hair was a frizzy, wild auburn mess.

“You’re being too loud,” she yelled again, pointing at me. In a movie, it would’ve seemed exaggerated and funny. I held the needle strung with lavender thread perfectly still, as if moving would ruin the entire gown. As if I’d move and provoke more rage from my mother.

“I’m so sick of your shit,” she continued.

“I’m just sewing,” I said meekly, as if it weren’t obvious. “I haven’t been making any noise.”

I knew I was making a mistake. If she believed I was making noise, it was fact. She’d done things like this throughout my childhood. She’d burst into my room in the middle of the night, screaming into the darkness at me to “shut up.” I’d wake, confused. This was embarrassing when I had friends over. They’d whisper after my mother went back to bed, “Why’d she do that?” I’d smile weakly, unsure of what to tell them.

“Get the fuck out of my house,” she shouted.

The required reaction to these outbursts was simple: say I was sorry; say I’d be quiet.

I set the dress down while slyly examining the stitch I’d pulled too tight — I hadn’t ripped the delicate fabric. I looked over to her, but I didn’t say what I knew she wanted to hear.

“OK. I’ll go.”

The next day I found my first apartment. It was behind the mall where I worked, and the complex itself was rumored to be the most crime-addled place in the Portland metropolitan area: mostly drug deals, but also an occasional murder or rape. I didn’t care. Or more accurately: I couldn’t afford to care. I shared a one-bedroom with a friend. Rent was $450 a month; $225 each.

I thought about taking Melissa with me. Our mother wouldn’t object. On random slips of paper, I calculated my budget over and over, trying to figure out if there was a way I could afford to take care of both of us. It was 2002, and the minimum wage in Oregon was $6.50. Even if I managed to get 40 hours between my two part-time jobs, it wouldn’t be enough to adequately support myself, let alone another person. Melissa couldn’t come.

She’d weighed less than 60 pounds. I’d been relieved when finally, at the age of 17, she grew and gained weight. She was now 5’7”, three inches taller than me, and a normal weight.

As I grappled over what to do, I asked my closest friends, “What about Melissa?” They told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty; my sister wasn’t my responsibility.

Soon after I moved out, our mother refused to buy my sister school clothes or supplies, something she’d done several times to me. Extended family members or other adults in my life always picked up the tab, and I was both grateful and humiliated. These same adults called me when they found out I’d moved out. They all asked: What about Melissa? How can you leave her alone with your mother? They externalized my internal dialogue, and it deepened my guilt.

So, I did the one thing I could: I picked up the tab for my sister — I took her school shopping.

“Can I move in with you?” Melissa asked while we wandered through Target.

She wasn’t privy to my obsessing about taking her with me; the many pieces of paper that I’d calculated my budget on — then recalculated and recalculated and recalculated. I thought she was just smoking cigarettes and weed, drinking alcohol. I’d been concerned about those things, but she’d already tried heroin and I’d had no idea. Her request sucked the air out of the store. We stood in the fluorescent-lit aisle of office supplies. I focused on a package of gel pens and shook my head. She never brought it up again.

***

“People kept asking me, what about Melissa?” I said to Mya, her arms wrapped around me, her legs tangled in mine. It was a week after she’d bathed me. After that night, I went home with her every time we worked together. “And they were right. How could I have left her? How can I leave her again?” I stroked Mya’s hair.

“It makes perfect sense why you’d feel that way, but it’s misplaced. You realize that, right?” She traced the side of my body with the back of her hand.

“I thought that was true for so long. Now I’m questioning everything I’ve ever done. I feel like I failed her,” I said. I pushed Mya’s hair behind her ear.

“It wasn’t your job to protect her. It was your mother’s,” Mya said.

“I feel like I should take her with me when I move to New York.”

“You can’t fix what already happened. You know that, right?”

I didn’t know that. I believed, inexplicably, that I could still correct the wrongs of the past. But I didn’t say this. I shrugged, then tilted my face up and Mya kissed me deeply. We pawed at each other. Her skin was warm putty in my hands. I bit her neck lightly, then stopped.

“Oh my gosh. I completely forgot to ask,” I said. “Did you register for classes?” The last time I’d been over, we researched what it would take for Mya to become a vet assistant. Only an associate’s degree. We’d both done a happy dance in her living room that night.

Mya smirked. “I did,” she said. “I start in January.”

“You’re starting veterinary school right when I’ll be starting classes in New York. New beginnings for us both.”

“We should celebrate that,” she said, grinning. She climbed on top of me, and for a while I forgot about everything but her.

When she fell asleep, I listened to the even, slow pattern of her breath. I never wanted this to end, but the fact that it had to almost made it easier to just let myself feel. To be in the moment. To not worry about what could go wrong. Four more weeks and I’d be living in New York. Four more weeks to spend entwined with Mya. I opened my eyes. Orange light shone through her curtains. It was already past dawn.

Mya shifted in her sleep, reached out, pulled me in. And even though she was smaller than me, she made herself the big spoon.

***

I’d been living in New York for a year and a half, studying creative writing, when Melissa moved to live with me. By then she was three years clean. After I’d learned about the extent of my sister’s drug use, I hadn’t let go of the idea that she needed to be close to me.

Her first week in the city, we were walking down 2nd Avenue in the East Village when she remarked, “It’s a junkie’s paradise here.”

I froze. I’d worked at a sports bar on 2nd Ave. for most of the time I’d lived in New York. I scanned our surroundings. Everything familiar was still there: the pharmacy, the coffee shop, the bodega on the corner, the bars that lined the street, the indie movie theater, the Eye and Ear Infirmary, bags of trash. Those were the things I’d always noticed. Yet it was like Melissa did a magic trick.

Suddenly, instantaneously, I saw the block the way she did.

A girl in clean, ripped clothing nodded off on the corner: a street kid. She leaned against a building, then slid down to the ground, as if in slow motion. Slumped over, she stayed there — her head hanging, eyes closed, jaw slack. I spotted at least three other street kids nodding off, dotted along the sidewalk, just like she was. My skin prickled with the realization that I’d brought my sister into this world.

Six months later, Melissa and I stood in the bathroom of our apartment. “I need to tell you something,” she said, while pulling her right eye taut and then drawing black liner across her lid. She was getting ready for work. I’d been waiting for this conversation.

“So, I relapsed,” she said, then started lining her other eye.

“I know,” I said. A mix of rage and sadness filled me. Though she’d been able to maintain employment, paid rent on time — was acting as a responsible adult in these ways — her behavior had become more and more erratic. As were her moods. She stopped smiling. She didn’t laugh. Her face hardened. She stayed out many nights. Sometimes it was clear she was hungover, her eyes rimmed red, her face slightly swollen. And she’d lost at least 20 pounds.

“I knew you did. That’s the only reason I’m telling you. But don’t freak out. I have it under control. There is such thing as moderation. And you know that I never even got to drink legally, right?” She looked at me expectantly.

After I’d learned about the extent of my sister’s drug use, I hadn’t let go of the idea that she needed to be close to me.

“I need to think,” I said, then shut myself inside my bedroom. I did not have faith that she could keep it “under control” long-term. Our agreement had been that we would live together as long as she was sober. I’d considered this a formality. Of course she’d be sober. And we’d have a dry home. This changed nothing for me. I didn’t often drink, and never at home.

My hard-drug experimentation was also over. It had been brief, and my primary motivation had been to understand my sister. The one time I tried cocaine ended in uncontrollable sobbing. The one time I smoked heroin resulted in dizziness and nausea. In both cases, all I wanted was for the intoxication to end. And, afterward, a deep sadness settled over me that lasted for days. The only drug I tried and liked was MDMA. It made me feel like I could love, and more importantly, trust freely. I’d had a similar sensation with Mya, except no drugs were necessary. I didn’t feel compelled to actively seek MDMA out again. After experimenting, I felt no closer to understanding my sister or her addiction. My relationship with stripping was still the closest, but stripping was no longer appealing.

When I’d moved to New York I didn’t want to risk not finding steady work, so I’d started dancing at what was considered one of the most upscale clubs (and the first strip club to be traded on the stock market): Rick’s Cabaret. But, of the nine strip clubs I’d worked, this one was the seediest. The first time a customer grabbed my ass, I asked a bouncer for help. He said, “You’re a stripper.”

In New York, touching was against the law, but no one heeded this. I started slapping customers regularly. I’d never experienced anything like it. Even when I’d worked at a club that allowed touching, the girls decided who touched them and how.

One night at Rick’s, a customer whipped his limp dick out in a private room. When I told him to put it back, he asked, “What am I paying for then? Can’t you at least give me a hand job?” He, like the majority of the predominately white and rich clientele, felt entitled to extras. I left the VIP and refused to return until a bouncer helped. A manager eventually lied to the customer, telling him there were cameras in the rooms so that he’d cooperate. This customer claimed he was a famous music producer. The next day I verified this using Google.

Even on nights that I left with $2,000, the high I used to feel was missing. So much about stripping I had loved, but once it was done fulfilling my needs, it had been easy to stop. After six weeks, I quit.

Melissa’s plight wasn’t as simple. She’d experienced so much so young — I never blamed her for wanting to ease her sorrow.

After Melissa admitted she relapsed, I sat on my bed, hands shaking. I needed to tell her to move out. How was I going to do this? We avoided each other for a few days. Then I mustered the courage to approach her. She lounged on our red couch, playing Candy Crush.

I stood, lingering over her awkwardly and said, “If you aren’t clean.” I took a breath. “Then you need to move out.”

She rolled her eyes. “Like I said, it’s under control.”

“I don’t care. That’s the deal.”

It worried me to kick her out, but if I let her stay I’d be enabling her, which was the only thing that would be worse. I gave her 30 days to find another place.

“You’re being dumb,” she said.

I started shaking again. “You have to leave,” I repeated, before going back into my bedroom and burying my face into a pillow so she couldn’t hear me cry.

She must’ve known I was upset, but I tried to hide it from her. I stopped eating because nausea settled in, becoming my new norm. My skin turned sallow and splintered capillaries dotted the puffy skin under my eyes like bright red freckles. I cried often, but never in front of my sister. I thought I was done worrying that she might die or go to prison because of her addiction. Three years, I believed, was enough to know that it was over. Now I understood that “one day at a time” really meant one. day. at. a. time.

***

I fell asleep soon after realizing it was past dawn, entangled with Mya. What could’ve only been hours later, we both rose. We went to brunch. We ate off each other’s plates. Sometimes we got manicures. It was like having a best friend that I also had sex with. This, I realized, was what I had always wanted. I opened up to her in ways that I never had to a man. And in this I felt comforted. I was falling in love, but unlike with a man, I didn’t try to stop it. I let it be. Even with the knowledge the end was sure, it didn’t scare me. I felt like I could love her, but I wasn’t worried about what it meant. I assumed we’d stay friends. I assumed that what was between us would forever be sacred, no matter what else happened. To be with her felt safe. And in a way that I’d never experienced before.

My attachment to my sister wasn’t healthy, I suddenly knew.

And so, after my sister confessed she’d relapsed, absorbed in grief, I’d lie in bed and remember my time with Mya — how she’d soothed me when I’d needed it most. She’d bathe me, and I’d take steamy, floral breaths. She’d nuzzle up to me and I’d feel her warm minty breath on my neck. I’d stroke her hair, tuck it behind her ear. We’d gaze into each others eyes, and neither one of us looked away.

“She’s not your daughter,” she’d said. “And at this point, she’s grown. You need to let go.”

I didn’t listen to her at the time, but I knew that Mya had been right. And that two years after she’d said those words, I needed to listen. I needed to love my sister in a different way. To believe that things could be OK if I wasn’t trying to control where she lived, or what she did. Though our intimacy was so much different, I needed to take the lessons I learned about loving Mya and apply them to loving my sister.

Melissa agreed to move out instead of getting clean, and I tried to accept her choice. I meditated on let go.

Slowly, the color returned to my face; I realized I was starving and shoveled food into my mouth. The responsibility I’d been harboring for my sister started to fade. I stopped asking, What about Melissa? I began to understand that I could love my sister, but not take responsibility for her.

Three weeks after my sister told me she’d relapsed, she told me she was clean.

“And I’m committed to staying that way,” she said while shuffling her feet and wringing her hands. “Can I please keep living here with you?” She picked at the lavender nail polish on her thumb, then raised her head and looked at me.

It seemed like I couldn’t rightfully kick her out if she was sober, but I had no way of knowing if she was telling the truth. As much as I tried to let go of the responsibility I’d felt for her, it wasn’t as simple when she was standing before me. My head started to ache. I rubbed my temples.

“Natassja,” she said. “I swear.”

I clenched my jaw, looked up at the ceiling, and sighed.

“Please give me another chance.” She picked at the last bit of nail polish on her thumb. Sunlight illuminated the fleck of lavender as it floated to the hardwood floor, and I watched it as it fell.

* * *

Natassja Schiel is writing a memoir about her time working as an exotic dancer on the island of Guam titled Tumon Strip. Her work has most recently appeared at The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Opossum Literary Magazine.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson