He smokes too much dope. He knows this, each time the burn hits the back of his throat he tells himself this has got to stop, and then the floating starts, all the edges of the world get softer, and he forgets, again, the list of things he should be doing instead. He vaguely remembers the time before he started, a time when he would wake up in the middle of the night, sliced by something cold and sharp— the idea that he might have gotten poisoned by the old taco he ate just before going to bed, or that the ticking he heard was somebody in the house, or an electrical wire shorting out, a spark, smoke, everything about to go up in flames. Back then he would wake up tired, if he ever went back to sleep, which wasn’t clear, was he sleeping, or just counting until time blurred into something droning and dark. When he came into the kitchen, bumping into things, not remembering where he put his history textbook, or even if he had history that day, his mother would say, touching his cheek, “you always look so happy.” He saw himself once, reflected in the glass door of the microwave, a stupid half-smile on his face. He did look happy, which was a joke, really, too bad she couldn’t see into his head.

How many joints? One a day, minimum, if there’s a party, more. It didn’t seem like much until some girl asked him straight up, really, how much, and he said thirty a month. He rounded down, and still her eyes got wide. He had to get a job to keep up with his habit. Walked into the corner store and signed up to work, three afternoons a week. His parents talk about the job at dinner parties. He heard them once, calling him a go-getter. His father said I didn’t have his drive, that’s for sure.

What’s on the list? Get into college, number one. He’s not even sure what college means, more parties, more dope, not having to smoke in the park. The advice column his mother left on his bed said “find your passion.” So that’s on the list. The cheerful article pointed out you can start looking as early as fourteen. The sooner the better. Practice guitar, then, that should go on the list, because his twelve year old dream, musician, is starting to fade. The other day his father said “I always wanted to play the bass–” and shuffled off, stooped and gray, to take care of some house project, clean the gutters, replace the steps. Also on the list: make a list. Stick to the list. Do your homework. Exercise more. Eat healthy food. Don’t screw up. Don’t get old.

It’s not just a joint. Every single joint is different, each one brings a slightly different high, the surge of hope, the adrenaline rush, the sleepy peace of a sweet dream. They’re like blind boxes, you never know until you touch the flame to the tip what adventure will unfurl with the wooly smoke. You get better at it, he wants to say, at letting go, holding yourself in that delicate place between exertion and inertia. If you push too hard, you crush it, if you don’t stay alert, the whole thing sails off without you, like a good idea you forgot to write down. He knows how to catch the first surge and then float, like Aladdin, watching the subtle changes in space and time, kinks and ruffles most people never notice. He knows now that time isn’t what it appears to be, that it doesn’t unfold neatly, in an orderly fashion, one minute after another, until the end.

I had that feeling again, of being both intimidated and stifled by the plethora of people out there, pitching tents on the Internet. A crowded, clamoring forum, everybody listing accomplishments, outlining projects, trying to seem more successful than they actually are. The most popular bloggers have a similar bio: some failure led to a great success, the writer (consultant, motivational speaker, life coach) reinvented, baptized by fires of defeat. A more likely truth: we are not always improved. There are short straws and long straws and we will draw some of each, and some people will draw more of one than the other, not always because they deserve it. There’s failure—I tried to be a professional athlete and didn’t have enough talent; I wanted to write but lacked drive. And there’s bad luck— I wanted a happy marriage but never met anybody; I wanted a long life but got sick. It’s hard to talk about defeat, especially in the can-do cyber-universe. Every narrative is subtly framed as a step in the direction of eventual triumph. A consoling template until we meet a road block that won’t be moved, or until the road dwindles to a path, and then a trail, and then disappears. How do we talk about loss? How do we talk about aging? How can we talk frankly and truthfully about life without talking about death?

In her acceptance speech, the woman at the awards ceremony said her child once asked when she was going to learn how to cook. Her answer was never. The audience laughed appreciatively. I sat, cringing. I taught myself to cook. On purpose. Not because I like to cook, but because I have children. Which is why I will never win an award for anything.

You don’t get a lifetime achievement award for baking bread. People eat it, but it doesn’t make very good conversation.

She rides without a helmet, fast, long hair flying behind her, lifted by the wind. She leans into the pedals, rising slightly out of her seat, as if the weight of her body can push the bike faster, around corners, up the long hill. She isn’t going anywhere, but she races, speed giving the feeling of destination, a place that matters, a place she would like to be. At home, the place she is avoiding, the Quaker lady waits, patiently, keeping the house tidy, stirring potting soil in her flower boxes, steeping tea in small silver balls. This is your house now, she said, the day they moved in, you belong here. Then her mother took off, the way she always does, with some guy she met at an AA meeting, making plans to buy a house together, start a family, before they slipped into the liquor store and grabbed a handle. The Quaker lady rested a papery, patient hand on her shoulder, repeating it: you can stay. Heat gathers in her chest. She imagines a knife, pearl handled, folded small, with a slicing blade.

When she looks in the mirror, she sees the wrong person, like those movies where the main character wakes up in somebody else’s body: tall and slender, straight blonde hair falling to the middle of her back, trimmed to a sharp, even line. Milky skin, pink cheeks and blue eyes, a cheerleader, a popular girl from Lincoln, the front hall closet jammed with cleats and lacrosse sticks, not a subway station, which is where the Quaker lady found them, tucked behind a grate, eating discarded Lo Mein out of a styrofoam box. The kids in her class have two parents, mothers who hover, remind them to sign up for SAT’s, make them come home by midnight. They assume, because of the way she looks, that she does too.

At the top of the hill the path stops, abruptly, at a lookout, a bench rooted in asphalt. He is already there, impatient, because she’s late. The thing is, she wants to say to him, she wasn’t even planning to come. She wants to spit in his face. “Look at you,” he says, standing, coming over to the bike, which she is still straddling, refusing to get off, wanting to make him work. His eyes search her face, questioning, is this okay? Sliding his cold hands over her belly, testing the edge of her shorts with his fingers.

“Let’s get it over with,” she says, impatient, flipping her hair and dismounting, leaning the bike on its kickstand. The bike belongs to the Quaker lady. It’s ancient, the kind of bikes people ride in British t.v. series, homely and black, with a wide basket for bread and flowers.

She pulls him into the bushes behind the bench, hoping the sharp branches leave telling scratches on his wrists and ankles, hoping his wife finds tiny, unexpected leaves tucked in the collar of his suit. They do it standing, leaning against a tree. “I want to take you on vacation,” he says, after he tucks in, zips up. He buries his face in her neck. “I want to show you off.”

“Right.” His daughter already invited her once. Last February. They go to an island off Puerto Rico, rent a huge house on a cliff over the ocean. She thought about it. Thought about him waiting for her every night, in some dune. “Think I’ll pass.”

When she gets home, the Quaker lady is at the kitchen table, reading a book about calling. The feeling we get in our chest, that tells us why we are here, what we are supposed to do with our lives. She looks up when she hears the back door open. Wrinkles fan out from her eyes, like bicycle spokes. Thinning gray hair tucked behind her ears, the part pink and wide. Never had a husband. Likes to have children around, which is why she takes them in, like stray cats. She closes her book, smiling. “How was studying? Did you have a good time?”