It was almost midnight, which was pretty late for me to be out on the street on a weekday. But it was summer and the nights were warm and pleasant—exactly the kind of night I’d find myself trolling Tenth or Eleventh Avenue looking for a rip in time, a way to go back in time and warn myself, change my story.
In the early 80s I’d been held captive, raped, and terrorized for hours. I never knew his real name, he was a pimp and we were friends. We drank together, got high together, and spent hours hanging around a handful of after-hours bars. After it happened, I didn’t go to the police—the lifestyle I’d been living didn’t afford me that luxury. At ten years sober and fifteen years out of the life that had brought us together, I’d lost track of him. For lack of a real name, I thought of him as Big Man, but his best friend—a pimp named Lightfoot—had murdered two of my friends, and I would never forget that name. So, when I found myself crouching against a building on Eleventh Avenue, hunting pimps and smoking cigarettes at almost midnight it was Lightfoot’s name I used. If I could find Lightfoot, I could find Big Man. And when I found Big Man, I was going to kill him.
Sober friends pointed out that stalking pimps was not exactly sober behavior, and definitely not safe behavior, so I stopped telling them what I was doing.
I know that sounds crazy, I knew it then. I knew I couldn’t change what had already happened, but I could even the score. Some lousy things happened when I was drinking and drugging, most of them because of the drugs and the booze. My judgment had been impaired, my self-esteem practically nonexistent, and my survival tools were crude at best. Sober for more than ten years I’d let go of most of those lousy things, changed my life and my lifestyle, resolved issues, and chalked some experiences up to “shit happens,” but there was one I couldn’t let go of. Wouldn’t. Didn’t even try. I was angry, and it was justified anger. Hell, I was righteous.
AA’s 6th and 7th steps ask that we make a list of our character defects, and then ask a higher power to remove them. Almost all of my character defects had started as survival mechanisms and coping skills when I was running the streets and dragging myself through the bars, but my life had changed in sobriety, almost a complete 180° turn and I was willing to let them go. I could give up the lying, the stealing, even attempt to breach the emotional distance I’d cultivated for so long. But not anger. I’d been an angry kid and an angry teenager—I’d felt like a fist with feet. Now that I was sober, I was an angry sober adult. I’d done enough work to know that most of my anger was fear-based. But this was different. I was entitled to this anger—like gasoline, it fueled the fire and kept me going.
For years I’d been fantasizing the steps of my revenge. I’d seduce him and lure him back to somewhere cozy where I could slip something into his drink that would knock him out. Once he was unconscious, I’d kill him slowly and watch him suffer. It was like a music video of death that ran through my head in an endless loop. I was willing to ask God to remove all my character defects except this one. I needed my anger. Sobriety had unearthed a kind and tender heart and anger was my armor. I fed it, and nurtured it. Without it, I was left defenseless. Unfortunately, raging fires are hard to contain, and the rage that kept me “safe” also kept friends and family at a distance. It didn’t take much for me to explode and turn mean and nasty.
I tossed my cigarette into the gutter, wandered around with a chip on my shoulder and a good helping of badass in my attitude. Once Big Man was gone, the anger would dissipate, I would breathe easier, let down my guard, and let people actually experience my kind and tender heart. Until then, I haunted Times Square and grubbed cigarettes off working girls and pimps just to start a conversation and ask about Lightfoot. I intimated that I hadn’t “been around” for a while and let the assumption that I’d just gotten out of jail stand. I heard bits and pieces about Lightfoot, but no one knew anything about “that big guy he ran with.” People pointed me to the bars and strolls I could go to if I was looking to “work” again. A pimp named Spider Stewart gave me his business card. He didn’t know Lightfoot, or the Big Man. I kept the card. Beat cops stepped up and asked if I needed help, said didn’t I know I shouldn’t be in that neighborhood at that hour, offered to walk me to the subway or hail me a cab, and didn’t I know it was dangerous? “Fuck off,” I yelled over my shoulder. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
I don’t know how many times I replayed that night, finding myself on the streets after dark with almost no recollection of making a decision to be there—an emotional blackout. Roaming the streets with pimps, and planning revenge against someone who might not even still be alive. Sober friends pointed out that stalking pimps was not exactly sober behavior, and definitely not safe behavior, so I stopped telling them what I was doing.
Resentment, it’s said, is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. The truth was that hanging onto that anger kept me in that moment and it leaked out in all other areas of my life. I couldn’t replay the fantasy of revenge without replaying the reality of the rape. The rape and the revenge, the revenge and the rape. They were inseparable. I’d been angry for more than twenty years, but there was no doubt in my mind that Big Man never thought about me, he probably didn’t remember that night, wouldn’t know my face. He’d moved on and I hadn’t. I was stuck—still a fist with feet, just minus the bottle.
I was sitting in a bar on Eighth Avenue with old friends: former pimps and drug dealers and hustlers, when the conversation turned to Lightfoot. Someone said he’d left the game, and had a good job with the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading program. They all smiled and nodded admiringly, as if they’d been told he’d been appointed to the Supreme Court, or gotten his own reality show. I hadn’t heard anyone say “Evelyn Wood” since the 70s. I didn’t know it still existed, and I was knocked speechless that it was considered a step up from “the life,” but it was a lead.
A little digging online and one phone call revealed it was a lie. He’d been a big deal, a scary, big-money-making, violent street pimp whose life had fallen to some point of sadness where the lie of working for Evelyn Wood Speed Reading program sounded like a step up to him. And the rest of these guys were sitting around the bar drinking dollar beers and cheap whiskey reliving their glory days as young pimps and hustlers—most of them making minimum wage handing out flyers for live sex shows, or collecting welfare, or disability, and drinking themselves to death in the same bars where they used to be kings of the street. They were as stuck as I was. I still didn’t know where Lightfoot was, but the Evelyn Wood story was just that—a story.
And with that I was finally able to let go. That one ridiculous lie became a moment of grace where I realized that I was neither in charge of the world, nor responsible for justice. That not only was I not able to even any scores, I didn’t have to. The universe/God/my higher power/karma was able to handle everything. I no longer needed to know what had happened to Big Man, or the truth about Lightfoot. The Big Man could be dead or driving a taxi, be a televangelist or a telemarketer. Lightfoot might have settled down to life in suburban New Jersey, and wake each morning to a wonderful life. Or a miserable one. It simply wasn’t my job to know or control. The world would put everything back into balance, eventually, and all I needed to do was take care of myself. My anger and rage didn’t disappear overnight, and neither did the expectations of the people who’d borne the brunt of it over the years. But hearing Lightfoot’s lie, it was as if he’d slipped me a key to the anger that had kept me chained to self-generated misery. It gave me the serenity to accept what I could not change—other people or the past; the courage to change the things I can—my actions, and only my actions; and the wisdom to know the difference. And that was a beginning.
Scarlett Fever is the pseudonym for a New York based writer. She has used the same pseudonym for In Bed With Susie Bright, as well as Between The Sheets among other projects. She last wrote about misery in sobriety.