Funny how memory works like that, how we can go on in our lives, remembering some things but able to cancel out the times that you’d prefer to not remember until – bam – you’re riffling through some papers and are reminded that there was a time you made some very bad choices.
I bought those tickets to Hawaii, and I bought them because my boyfriend had no money. I thought he had money about seven months earlier, when we first met, because the first time I slept over there were rolls of hundred dollar bills lying around his floor, literally scattered like his dirty socks on the carpet. I didn’t question how he wound up with large quantities of cash on the floor. This was my first mistake.
When I met Toby, I was in a bad spot. A man with whom I believed I was in love, whom I intended to marry, had dumped me. Years later, I would know this wasn’t exactly accurate – yet another way memory deceives. I was in love rather with the idea of a man, and he, knowing we didn’t make a good match, broke things off. Really, there are no mistakes. Life is simply a series of decisions – some dumb, some not so dumb – that lead you to some inevitable place. But back then, I was sure a terrible mistake had been made, and to feel better, I’d slept with a series of men, as I tended to do when the chips were down. At the end of this series of men was Toby – and Toby was only the end because he was the first of the men who was willing to have a relationship with me. I met him in a nightclub where he was playing bass for a well-known area band. He looked good up there, good looking, yes, but also moody and dark, a mirror of my own despairing state. I approached him during the band’s break, desperate to connect with someone again.
Toby’s primary income came from selling drugs. You already knew that. He sold large quantities of marijuana that he grew in various locales around Portland, such as on tall grassy slopes that butted against the highway, or in open fields near hiking trails not far from town. Before I knew his primary income came from selling pot, when I believed that it came from his construction job, he would disappear for hours, sometimes days. When I called him during these times, he wouldn’t answer, and I’d be sure he’d decided he was done with me. I’d leave long voicemails on his phone about how I couldn’t believe he was doing this, just disappearing without telling me, and then I’d weep into the phone about how I needed him, please don’t leave me, I wouldn’t survive. When he eventually called back, he’d make up squirrely excuses about where he’d been, but I was so relieved he hadn’t abandoned me, hadn’t dumped me like the other guy, that I didn’t care.
I moved in with him and, once we lived together, there was no way to hide what was going on. He set up a small garden of marijuana plants in our basement, using grow lights and a homemade irrigation system. The smell down there was so strong, you could get high just standing near the basement door. After a week or so, I started to feel uncomfortable, and I told him this. I went down to watch him tend to the plants, carefully examining and cleaning leaves, pulling off any that were dried and brown. He moved methodically from plant to plant.
He didn’t look at me, just said, “I knew you’d judge me.”
“I’m not judging,” I said, “I just don’t want to go to jail.”
“No one’s going to jail,” he said, “unless you decide to run and tell someone.”
I didn’t say anything, hurt that he didn’t care about the danger he put me in.
He stopped and wiped his hands on his jeans. I found him unbearably attractive – dark-featured and bedroom-eyed – which didn’t help things one bit.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry. Business isn’t doing well. I’m stressed.” He went on to explain. The economy was booming. Perhaps people were more content than they were before. Some of his regular clients had stopped calling. He was freaking out. He had no money coming in.
“What about your job?” I asked, meaning his job with the construction company. He looked at me like I was an idiot, which, let’s face it, I was.
A few evening later, he and his friends sat in the living room with the bong. Toby felt things were serious, and he needed to have a pow-wow with like-minded friends. These were friends who supported his career path, especially when they got to sample the wares, which is exactly what they did when they came over to discuss his problem. I stayed in the bedroom, so I didn’t hear what actually went down. All I knew was that after they left, Toby came excitedly into the room with a plan to go to Hawaii to sell his Oregon-grade pot to friends who would sell it for many times his cost
“You’re going to Hawaii?” I asked.
“We’re going to Hawaii, babe!” His eyes were red and half-closed, and his grin was as big as his face.
I could use a trip to Hawaii.
Within a few days, I’d dropped about $1500 onto my Visa card, and we packed to leave. While I danced around the house, gathering my bathing suit, sunscreen, flip-flops, and sundresses, Toby stood at the full-length mirror and practiced strapping cling-wrapped buds to his stomach with tape. He felt his plan was brilliant. He would walk nonchalantly through airport security, and no one would be the wiser.
We got a cab to the airport and checked in. Every so often I glanced at Toby, who seemed just fine. His neck was a little blotchy, evidence that he was nervous, but only someone who knew him would see this. We had a brief argument about whether I could take my carry-on with me or should send it through baggage, a foreshadowing, and then we walked steadily toward security.
This was pre-9/11, which meant that you could still bring liquids over three ounces or pack your razor or carry matches. But even then, they did random bag searches, which is what happened to me on September 13, 1996. Back then, they used to take you to a room, like an interrogation room, and politely chit chat while they moved your underwear and KY Jelly and other things around until they let you go. This had actually happened to me before, so I didn’t think much about it, but it had never happened to Toby.
“What’s going on?” Toby called to me. And then louder, “Where are you taking her?”
The red in his neck grew blotchier and moved into his face.
“It’s no big deal,” I told him, but I could see he didn’t believe me. They wouldn’t let him come with me. He had to wait. I knew that wouldn’t be good. The short-haired, middle-aged woman who took me into the little room was friendly enough.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s procedure.”
“Totally fine,” I said, waving her off. But I could see Toby out there. He was starting to pace. “Could someone tell my boyfriend that it’s just procedure?”
“Sure,” the woman said. She zipped my bag closed and smiled. “We’re all done. Let’s go tell him right now.”
As we went back into the security area, my stomach dropped. One of Toby’s satchels hung down below his shirt. He must have been sweating so much from nervousness that the tape came off. I saw it moving ever so slightly, and as it did, my heart inched further into my throat. As though I were in a scene out of Midnight Express, the world grew blurrier and blurrier until Toby was in just a pinpoint of vision, and inside that pinpoint I watched as the entire thing fell to the floor. Just in time for the security personnel to say, “You dropped something. Let me get that for you.”
He was moved into custody at the airport, and then to the police. They questioned me, but, in my first act of sanity in almost a year, I told them I had no idea he had those drugs on his person. I also cried as hard as I could.
I wish I could say that was the end of my relationship with Toby, that I saw what a fool I’d been, that no amount of avoiding the pain of being alone was worth staying. But, I bailed him out of jail and kept living with him, carrying out the inevitability of the plot.
Kerry Cohen is the author of 9 books, including the memoirs Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Seeing Ezra: A Mother’s Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal. She teaches in the Red Earth Low-Residency MFA Program and is also a practicing psychotherapist. Kerry performed this story at The Moth MainStage in Portland.