8 Million Stories: Better Living Through Chemistry

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To his clients, Travis was less of a drug dealer than a concierge of pharmaceutical pleasure. To the rest of us, he was the neighborhood vegan more interested in yoga mats than Yankees stats. To watch Travis move through the different worlds was surreal: He juggled them like an eight-limbed Hindu god.

For a time, he lived on my block, and we became unlikely friends over the minor inconveniences and indignities of our shared neighborhood. At 6-foot-3, Travis towered over most people. They never seemed to notice as he slouched unconsciously and was quick to bend down into someone’s earshot. When he spoke, two bright hazel eyes melted into his molasses skin. Travis made people feel heard, and they loved him for it.

His life was a conundrum: He drove what looked like a well-oiled tin can, while his mom and brother tooled around in cars that were more at home in a Lil Wayne video. His demeanour was serene, while the friends that came around his place were always embroiled in another saga of losing face, money or mind.

One night, I found myself banging on the door to our neighborhood deli. Three minutes too late for an empanada but unexpectedly on time for a glimpse inside Travis’ dual life. We sat on the curb to wallow in our self-imposed misfortune—and his story flowed.

Three years earlier, 19-year-old Travis was flush with college ambitions but saddled with a crumbling family life. His mother was ill, and his brother, at 13, was beginning a slow descent into the familiar constellation of criminal behavior. Travis was undeterred. Just a well-timed glance and a nod landed him in the makeshift office of the neighborhood’s unofficial guy-who-knows-people. Initially, Travis’s reputation as “that Zen motherfucker, always on the Karate Kid tip” nearly got him laughed out of the room. But 10 minutes later, Travis walked out into the dripping heat with his first drug- delivery job.

Over the course of that sweltering summer, the very qualities guaranteed to catapult him out of his less-than-promising home life made him an invaluable asset to the local drug lords who needed a savvy, reliable kid with little knowledge of his true potential. They paid him accordingly; and, within two months, it was his name scrawled across the bottom of his mom’s ConEd checks.

Two years later, Travis had mastered the art of the slick sell, and his family was the main beneficiary. His mom’s insatiable cancer had begun to abate under now-affordable chemotherapy. His brother’s future no longer dangled over a cliff of delinquency, as Travis’ odd working hours allowed him large swaths of uninterrupted time to enforce algebra worksheets and basketball scrimmages. Everyone seemed to be doing well except Travis, who was now tethered to a life he never wanted.

Stuck in a purgatory of sacrifice and self-loathing, Travis’ life became a nearly unsustainable exercise in contrasts. The more drugs he sold, the stricter his veganism grew. As more money began to pad his back pocket, he would spend more on indulgences for his mom. Yoga became a centerpiece of his life as he built up a loyal, moneyed clientele of pharmaceutical fiends.

Then one Tuesday, I noticed Travis was gone. There had been no outward signs of his impending departure. No tortured misgivings about skipping out on his family and leaving behind the neighborhood that had raised him on a diet of tough love and Gray’s Papaya. He simply didn’t show up to make his next delivery. Or the one after that.

For weeks afterward, people made the pilgrimage down the block and up the stoop to Travis’ door only to be met with silence.

By the time I received a snarled envelope from Calcutta, I was living in a different neighborhood with its new local gods and minions. The letter wasn’t addressed to me but had been forwarded anyway. The post office had circled my old address and highlighted the recipient’s nearly illegible nickname: Lil Vid. The letter was for Travis’ little brother, and the other side was bisected by a giant cursive Travis.

I went for a walk around my new neighborhood, with its 24-hour gourmet delis and their cloned shoppers. I rubbed the envelope in my hand as I remembered curbside conversations about the minutiae of the day. Turns out, they had been highlights of my week, anchoring me at a time when the city seemed to sway my course too easily.

I dropped the letter from Calcutta into a second, larger envelope and sent it on its way to Lil Vid. I left it sealed, though I was afraid I might never find out what happened to Travis—whether he’d found his way to an ancient ashram or was just bumming around Southeast Asia searching for a measure of peace. The only fear greater than not knowing was to rip the envelope open and learn the truth about Travis’ decision to disappear. I couldn’t bring myself to disrupt a world that seemed as closed to me now as the envelope itself. I slipped the letter in the mail slot and heard it drop into the pile of waiting papers.

Marissa Coren is a full-time writer with part-time ambitions to find the best arepas outside of Fort Greene.

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