Angel dust. I was ten when I heard these words spoken by my mother, under her breath, in that scary tone she used to reference something horrible. Normally, my mother is so cheerful, she’s almost giddy, so when she has to discuss something disturbing, the whole mood of the room changes. Her voice register plunges into a deep, scolding tone, so grave and severe she sounds like she’s chastising the words themselves.
Hushed tones signal secrets. Right away, I understood the words’ poetry didn’t match the doom-like context in which they were being spoken. Like Las Vegas or centerfold, angel dust belonged to enigmatic adult conversation. Listening in didn’t always reveal the whole story. Certain words teased from behind their seemingly obvious meanings. They sparkled, thudded, or darted through the conversation, elusive and blurred. Other words sounded like huge burdens being lifted off the speaker’s tongue, like rocks.
Such was the case with angel dust. Against my better instincts, I wanted to believe it was something a mother sprinkles over her disobedient children; a talcum that God shakes out from the heavens with a silvery can; or a small mound of iridescent powder that gets left overnight by someone like the tooth fairy. This was the 70s; there was no Google or Urban Dictionary. I had to ponder these obscurities until a world-wise friend or willing adult deciphered them for me.
My mother eventually divulged that angel dust was a killer drug, and that it had caused my friend’s nineteen-year-old uncle to crash through a second story window and fall to his death.
This information came to me in the form of a dire warning, even though I was still playing with plastic horses in my backyard, corralling them in the deep strands of carpet grass. Drugs were a fuzzy abstraction located in the middle distance of life. I couldn’t envision an older version of my lopsided ponytail-self that would ever be tempted by drugs. But I did have a world-wise friend, with a husky voice and a perfect, straight ponytail. It was her uncle who had died.
This same friend and I had recently made potions together at her grandmother’s house. We had walked through every room, our imaginations dulled by dark woods and upholstery. Everything seemed untouchable, subdued by the deep blue shadows of the afternoon. I’ve seen it happen with my own kids, that awkward lull during a play date, when neither person can think of anything to do. If I’m busy, I might indulge their most outlandish wishes just to buy some peace. Or, I might say yes, go ahead and watch that movie (or sell lemonade, or make a seven-layer rainbow cake) because I recognize the pained look on my daughter’s face—the one that says I’m not used to playing with this friend and we don’t have the same idea of what’s fun.
My world-wise friend and I did not have the same idea of fun, either–I loved baking cookies; she required far more. Her grandmother wasn’t home that day; we were being ‘watched’ by the housekeeper, who was busy cleaning. When we got to the kitchen, she got a devilish look in her eye, stole a few bowls and led me outside to the laundry room in the back yard. Her peaked excitement made me nervous before we even got started.
She dumped in the powdered detergent, the fragrance wafting up in benign, perfumed clouds, and then drizzled in the Woolite, like maple syrup over pancakes. I thought of the freshly washed clothes that I always helped my mother fold, and how all of this fun had been waiting for me at home, stacked idly on the shelf.
I wanted her to slow down–if we finished too fast, what would we do next? We had finally found something to do and I wanted to draw it out slowly, delight in the chemistry of it. I was treating our potion making like it was baking: reading the warning labels, checking ingredients, measuring. They all had warning labels. The skull and crossbones, on the back of the bleach bottle, looked particularly ominous.
I didn’t want to waste the fun or the ingredients, but my initial concerns evaporated when she poured in the bleach. The mixture began to boil even though there was no heat. A noxious smell engulfed the room. When I inhaled, it burned my insides. The bubbling escalated and the potion started overflowing. When the housekeeper finally caught us, I faked disappointment, but I was so relieved.
At her own house, on another day, we sat on the hearth and listened to Carole King, her mother’s favorite album, something not in my parent’s collection. I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down, a tumbling down. King’s low-key voice was smooth and soothing. There was an authenticity about the music that meant what it said, no misleading verbal cues or tricks I had to catch. I absorbed every somber note.
She’s also the friend who told me about intercourse.
“What’s intercourse?” I asked, surprised again by the discord, in this case, between the word’s boring, business-like sound and the naughty excitement of my friend’s voice. She plucked a book off her shelf and showed me the pictures, old news to her, something her mother read to her ages ago.
My own mother vacillated on her philosophy about how to offer up such revelations. Mostly, I was protected by my own ignorance, saved from overwhelming or distressing information, a legacy from my mother’s Catholic upbringing.
I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down, a tumbling down.
Whenever I got to hear the full story, it came dressed as a teachable moment. I wanted to get beneath this to the truth, but trying to do so felt frustrating, like lifting the dress off a doll only to find nude fabric, seams sewn into a blank, neutral slate where I knew there should be more.
Angel dust was a misnomer. The enchanting name cast the drug somewhere behind my shoulder, on the side where the good angel stood. It promised an otherworldly escape. Heaven was also an abstraction; a storybook place with golden gates, where angels lived with saints. Heaven did not mean to me then what it really was: eternity, death, the other side of life. Before the unthinkable came true, taking angel dust might be an easy mistake, a definite risk, but one safely fenced into the confines of mediocre imagination, not the out-of-bounds horror of its result. Unlike laundry soaps, drugs didn’t come with labels, only vague assurances of an easy exit.
Yet there was also an emptiness to this term, angel dust, a cloying, too-good-to-be-true promise, like any truth or substance could be blown away in a puff. As if to say, play with only beauty and you will turn up ugly instead, like the way our potion made domestic cleansers turned deadly.
The story of my friend’s uncle was one of the first ones I ever heard that had no possibility of upside. For his family, things could not ever be alright again, and no amount of treacled platitudes could ever make it right. I was confounded by why people would ever take drugs, to take such a risk with life. Yet something told me it came from that same idle place my friend and I were in on that long, boring afternoon, a desperation to get a break from reality, to just take a daring, flippant risk without much thought about the consequences.