Anonymous Observations

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr

If you want the truth, I live with drug dealers. But they're the kind that only roll Mary Jane and smoke out of bowls, puffing and inhaling for miles before they release an herbal cloud and look at me afterwards, as I'm standing awkwardly in their doorway, like, "Yeah, man, that's some Bob Marley shit." They're not the kind that inject or snort drugs, no mainlining with a syringe while sitting on the closed toilet lid or leaning over it with a rolled up twenty and the shower running for cover sound. In fact, if anything, they're the mellow kind of drug dealers. Even their boss, as I understand it, is this size 00 Taiwanese woman who lives over in Canarsie, Brooklyn, nothing more menacing than that.

They like to egg me on. As a researcher by day, I become more frantic at home when I have a deadline rolling closer, most recently from the Columbia grad student conducting studies on the psychological effects of addiction. The dealing duo likes to give louder encouragement; they promise more. "Try it – just once. You'll like it, I promise." They sound like the bad influence characters in those PSAs encouraging preteens to stay "Above the Influence." Only, I've lived with Malcolm and Lizzie for almost a year now and we've each already missed out on our preteen years, in one way or another. So yes, I have tried it "just once" – maybe even on multiple occasions – but I'm still waiting to like it, still waiting to feel much at all.

It may be similar to how alcohol works on me. I can start with a shot, sip a few cocktails, follow with a beer and feel – nothing. My best friend, Anya, thinks it's amazing. "Even with no food in your stomach," she's said, "it doesn't seem to hit you. I've noticed that and it's weird." Malcolm agrees. He's told me before while rolling paper and sealing the joint, "But you're tiny. Shouldn't you need less, not more?" I've watched him lick the paper closed and said neutrally, "Shut the fuck up. You're one to talk. You look like a broomstick from the side."

Admittedly, I may become more talkative after a few drinks, but that fall-through-zero-gravity feeling that has Malcolm's pupils blown wide every night after he comes home from the bar? Nope, I haven't found that yet. Malcolm finds it often and everywhere, from weekday nights to weekend afternoons, under his pillow where he's stashed a can of Heineken or behind his television set where he stores his spare bottles of wine and cognac from his overly romantic fiancé. Once, she even gave him brandy– "The fuck is this shit for? It's like water. I might as well be drinking water," he said and grabbed the gallon-size jug of red wine off the hardwood floor to replace the taste.

Malcolm shares a single room with Lizzie and the floor is mostly cramped for space, but they're both used to it. Contrary to what I would've expected from a couple of New York City drug dealers, they're surprisingly codependent in their personal relationships, particularly in their platonic partnership with each other. From what I've been told, the pair of twenty-two year old "self-employers" has been a double-helix of illicit substances since meeting at Pratt Institute when they were eighteen.

Early evenings, I'll be walking past their door and be halted by Lizzie's yell of, "Malcolm, come! We must go to the store for snacks." Peering inside their open doorway, I'll see her prodding a prone Malcolm with her sneaker. She uses an affected accent to be noticed and keeps jabbering on like she's hyper, already standing with her jacket on.

"Go yourself," Malcolm will grumble from his futon. He'll be in one of his eight o' clock crashes from the five cups of coffee he consumed at his legitimate day job, not enough Newport cigarettes, and feeling dizzy drunk after visiting a bar during Happy Hour. Lizzie will pull him off his cushion, anyway.

"Accompany me," she'll entreat. "I go nowhere alone." Despite the fact that Lizzie has somehow convinced her newest girlfriend that she is predominantly from the rough side of the tracks and will one day take over the underworld of the drug trade, she told me once that she can't stand to be alone. In fact, Malcolm and I both know that Lizzie was raised in an upscale home in Atlanta with a wealthy mother from whom she is now estranged. Something to do with the gay thing, Malcolm summarized once, and maybe something else about the absent dad, but even he isn't sure.

"I," Malcolm will begin as he sits up. "Am such," and he'll rub his eyes. "An alcoholic." He'll gather his substance-abused limbs together and pull on his Jordan sneakers. "But I'm a real alcoholic. As in, I don't go to any meetings. None of that recovery shit. I'm for real." He'll laugh and stand up, his straw-skinny arms lagging at his sides like burdens he forgot to put down.

"It's good to have convictions," I'll say to Malcolm. "Might want to re-think that one, though. Maybe for Esmé's sake." Malcolm's fiancé not only gifts him with cognac, but with spoiled looks whenever she sees that he's been smoking more than average or drinking to perverse excess, which is usually every evening that Esmé isn't visiting our apartment. But Malcolm first found Esmé and then picked up his habits, which was the right order to find them in if he's determined to have them all – for as long as he can manage, anyway.

"Too right you are, Megan." He'll smile and stumble past me. "Unfortunately, I can't give a shit right now. Get back to you on that tomorrow. You want anything?" When I shake my head in decline, Malcolm will roll his eyes as he drags his body toward the front door. "I feel like you never eat. I mean I never see you eat. How is that?" I'll toss my voice down the hallway as he goes, "I feel like you're never sober. I mean you are never sober. How do you ever see anything?" Both he and Lizzie will forget to lock the door behind them.

Addiction is really an animal – but a modern animal of creature comforts. It's spoiled. If it rears its head, starts acting fussy, our instinct is to quell it with gourmet poison: espresso, beer, nicotine; some weed, some crack, some heroin. In that way, anyone with a brain capable of conducting neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors also owns the creeping pet of addiction. Then it's a taming and collaring act of self-control that has to be maintained, or at least balanced, to force the little beast to quiet. I don't have to dig up case studies for clients, or medical tests about addicts, to build that understanding about people. But people are animals, too, and we adapt to our addictions.

Malcolm will never step foot into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example, not the organization based off of a group of English prohibitionists – the "Oxford Group, a mostly nonalcoholic fellowship that emphasized universal spiritual values in daily living," according to the Alcoholics Anonymous Archives. He would never venture into a program with the basic premise: God grants serenity, courage, and wisdom – so man can take Twelve Steps. "Spiritual values" are not what Malcolm is looking for when he's draining the bottom of a bottle, at least not according to him.

But A.A. has been boasting the same spiritual principle since 1941, when the New York Herald Tribune made an impression on New York members of Alcoholics Anonymous with a printed version of the Serenity Prayer, apparently authored by Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr. The American-born German theologian was reported to have written the prayer as the closing to one of his sermons for his Massachusetts congregation. The prayer's popularity blossomed in the following years as printed versions continued to circulate in newspapers and Christian newsletters. Maybe it speaks to so many because people have latent faith that the irreligious just aren't aware of. Maybe it works as a general plea for guidance. Maybe it just sounds pleasant, and we're all fooling ourselves into self-righteousness when we post the prayer as a little magnet in the shape of a rainbow on our refrigerators, like the one I'm staring at right now in Anya's apartment.

"God grant me the serenity," I begin to read aloud. I have the afternoon free from the library and instead of catching up on research for the Columbia grad student, I'm standing next to Anya as she orders a small pizza for one. ("Shouldn't I get a large? No? What do you mean you don't eat pizza? Oh, right. I forgot that about you. It's weird," she told me and then found the number for Dominos.) I should've spent the afternoon digging through more Johns Hopkins clinical studies instead of playing in my own research about Germans and prayers.

"Fifteen minutes," Anya says as she hangs up the phone. "Find something to eat. I have cupboards – look inside them." She sits at her kitchen counter and sees me staring at the prayer magnet.

"Oh god, relax," she instantly placates with an eye roll, which I find bold coming from a self-professed agnostic. She starts fiddling with her long sleeves. "I can appreciate its message, you know? With the G-word aside."

"I don't have explicit problems with the G-word," I tell her. And I really don't. "Nor the J-word, for that matter." But if I were a German theologian living in a stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts, in 1942, no less, when the population was still only around 805 people, then maybe I would have nothing better to do but find my faith, have serenity, and use my wisdom. As it is, I'm not, I don't, and I haven't. "I'm going to wash my hands," I say and walk out of the kitchen.

Rinsing my hands in Anya's sink, I look around the bathroom and count one, two dull razors placed around the bathtub. Noticing them is not a conscious move, but residual from an awkward conversation we had during our freshman year of college, after I saw her forearms in a short-sleeved shirt for the first time. That was when I started noticing Anya's sleeves and she started noticing our constantly empty refrigerator and my preoccupied stares during mealtimes. But Anya's sleeves have been clean and her arms bare for years now, and I have no reason to suspect, nor is it my place, but I still look. I count. I wonder.

My pocket vibrates suddenly when my phone rings, and it's Malcolm calling in the middle of the day. When I answer surprised, he says he's standing outside his graphic design office in midtown, on a cigarette break, but he's frantic and yelling about Lizzie – Lizzie and her hidden vials he found, Lizzie and her powdered lines, Lizzie and her secrets, lies, lies, lies.

"Slow the fuck down," I order him. "What are you talking about?"

"I woke up early this morning," he pauses for an exhale that would be a laugh if he could catch his own breath. "To my best friend going through the pockets of my jeans from yesterday. You know, I've lost these fifties here and twenties there and I just figured, I must've drank them. Hey, I'm at a bar, I get carried away, I spend too much, I know I do that – But just, no. That's not what's happening. I am ignorant, apparently, and completely blind to my situation here. My situation is fucked."

Malcolm seemed pretty fucked to me already, from when he started living with Lizzie while still engaged to Esmé. His condition only worsened when a couple weeks ago Esmé told Malcolm that she was one month pregnant and asked, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" I decide not to mention that on the phone, though.

"I can't put up with Lizzie's shit anymore. She's a user, she always has been and she always will be – but that's not my problem with her. She wants to do yay, whatever, by all means. I've been there, too. I've done too much charlie before, and I've learned my lesson. She can, too. That's not my problem. But when it's fucking up my shit, it is my problem. I'm going to have a kid here, a fucking baby, and I can't be dabbling in that anymore." Malcolm pauses long enough to take a breath and I can picture him using the same time to suck on his cigarette.

"Fucked – that is all. I am fucked." He's still breathing like a bull, then panting like a kitten. It's easy to imagine him pacing the sidewalk like he does in our littered living room when he's edgy after a bad day at work or from a lack of Newports. I have a sudden impulse to tell him, Animals, man. We're all just animals.

"That's some messed up shit," I mumble instead. I say that we'll talk tonight, ask him not to strangle Lizzie if he sees her first, and tell him to calm down.

"Not going to happen," he promises. "But I won't pass out from anger between now and then. So, see you." Getting off the phone, I know Malcolm's version of anger. It burns for about a minute and then sizzles into a steam. I think, He'll be fine. But Lizzie…It figures that she has, after all, been snorting lines on the closed toilet lid, leaving the shower running for cover sound. We probably should've known. I start to question, Does she deal, too? No, she couldn't. According to Malcolm, she fucked up too much to even be in partnership with him anymore. And apparently, he's looking to go out of the business as soon as he can. "State Farm," he said. "Now I have to think about fucking State Farm, and other responsible things." Malcolm wants to clean up while Lizzie's making messes, most everything Lizzie's said and done is a cover, and I wonder, What will Esmé think of their living situation, now? The next time she comes over, will she look around the room and count suspicions? Will I? Look. Count. Wonder.

Even in 1943, Reinhold Niebuhr was questioned about the originality of his Serenity Prayer. He defended that it was his own, private creation, but qualified to a reporter once, "Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself." Still in 2008, people were wondering about the prayer's true authorship, tuning to the fact that deception can be a worthwhile vice, especially when a well-balanced lie is all that keeps a person's serenity, courage, and wisdom intact.

So in Yale Alumni Magazine that year, a busy researcher named Fred R. Shapiro decided to publish an article questioning Niebuhr's claims, citing separate printings of the prayer that already circulated in 1936. Another professional researcher, this time from Duke University, found a resting point for the argument in 2009 when he discovered an early version of the prayer in Christian newsletters from 1937 that attributed authorship to Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr.

"Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other," was one of the first printed versions of Alcohol Anonymous' favorite spiritual adage. It's funny how altering just a few words can skew a speech's delivery, leaving the person speaking in a shadow of other people's doubt. By the time I re-enter Anya's kitchen, she's packing away the leftover pizza. "Thought you fell in," she jibes. "What's wrong?"

I walk over to the sink, fill a glass with water and nudge her away from the freezer so I can retrieve ice. The prayer magnet mocks me to my face. "A Malcolm melt down and Lizzie drama," I answer absently. I think back to a year ago and how desperate I was to find someone who could answer for the other half of my rent before the next month turned. I only knew Lizzie through other friends. She seemed reliable at the time. I remember feeling relieved the first time she stood in my door.

"Ice cream?" Anya offers as I heave into a chair at the kitchen counter. I'm clutching my ice water as she sits down and sets an innocent pint of dessert between us. Then she asks, "What kind of drama?"

I shake my head. "I don't eat ice cream," I remind her. And, "You know what kind."

"You don't eat pizza, you don't eat ice cream," she repeats as she digs a long spoon into the top layers of chocolate chips. "I like you, but you're weird."

A year ago, Malcolm smiled often and had a loud laugh when Lizzie introduced him. He wasn't drinking much then, and I was too desperate for company to ask about the things I'd heard about the drugs. I'd so cleverly decided not to involve myself in the details. Now, I watch Anya's spoon as I try to remember the exact date my lease can set us all free. The gleaming metal rim is covered in chocolate chunks and green mint ice. It looks cool to the touch. More ice water hits the bottom of my stomach.

"How much worse could it be than the shitty year you've already had with the drug-dealing roommates?" Anya asks with a snort. She continues to pick at the ice cream, her long sleeves rolled up to reveal tan, marred forearms.

"Guess," I quip. Then I'm lame and quiet with a wet glass in my hand. Anya just stares, green dessert dripping from her spoon with chocolate about to fall off the edge. Ten inches away, the scent of cooked cheese and pepperoni is still idling in the kitchen.

"Eat anything, yet?" she asks, perfectly aware that I was trapped talking to Malcolm in the bathroom for the last twenty-five minutes. She glimpses at my eyes and doesn't wait for my response.

"You know," she says as she injects her spoon deep into the ice cream. Anya lets it rest and lays her bare wrists on the cool of the kitchen counter. "I've been meaning to ask about some of these weird things you do."

I take another sip from my water glass and think about filling my stomach with ice until I melt with it into the granite countertop. Then, sometime before the ice melts and I liquidate, I feel all my senses heighten. The scent of cooked cheese invades the kitchen with new fervor, outside the window a neighbor's Labrador is barking and catching himself in own his chain, and indoors the wall clock above Anya's refrigerator, adorned with its Technicolor rainbow touting a familiar prayer, is keeping the time louder than is necessary. I sit obediently and wait for Anya to question, to dig, because she would know that addiction is like an animal; sometimes you can tame it, but the instincts never change.