I Promise I’ll Never


At 5, I watched a teen-aged Helen Hunt, strung out on “crank,” smash through a window, pinwheel to the ground, and begin stabbing herself with the jagged shards of the very window she’d only just leapt through. Like a bull escaped from its pen, snorting, furious, bloody and filthy, she flung every person who tried to subdue her, wrecking every feathered 70’s head of hair that came near her.

At 9, I watched Nancy Regan warn Arnold Drummond and his classroom about the dangers of drug use. Arnold’s school was ripe with dealers, turns out, tempting the students with an assortment of, in their own words, “uppers, downers, and goofballs.” Nancy caught wind and suggested everyone simply “say no.” Say no to the drugs. Say no to the “goofballs.”

At 12, I watched Kirk Cameron as Mike Seaver break the fourth wall at a flashy, high school party to tell me that a lot of people say drugs are cool, but they’re wrong. He wasn’t trying to tell me how to live my life, in his jaunty, red hoodie, flanked on all sides by high school “students” in their mid to late 30’s. But rather, to advise me that friends who offer me drugs may not be my friends after all. Behind Kirk/Mike, the students, beaming with near mannequin levels of concern, stared off in silent agreement.

Growing up, my mother said over and over, “You’ll never do drugs. Promise me you’ll never do drugs. You’re too smart to do drugs.” I promised I’d never do drugs, but inside I felt different. Inside, it felt inevitable. Didn’t we always end up doing the things that we shouldn’t? “Don’t ever lie. Don’t ever cheat. Don’t ever steal.” My mother also said that, and I said that I wouldn’t. But I had, many times. I wasn’t nearly as smart as she thought.

At 14, I watched my cousin Mikey and his friend take a seat beside me outside. Squatting together at the end of a curb, his friend reached deep into the pocket of her ragged, stained cut-offs. She pulled out a scratched, yellow vial and held it before her. Inside it, a cakey, white powder sat at the bottom. “I could probably get thirty for this,” she said, scratching a bleeding scab on her leg. Mikey rubbed snot from his nose and agreed. “Easily 30. Easily.”                    

This is it, I thought. This is the moment. Right here, right now, this is how I start doing drugs. I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry, Nancy. I’m sorry, Kirk…. I reached into my pocket, revealing a quarter and a nickel. “Here, I’ll take it.”

The eyes of Mikey’s friend became saucers. “Thirty dollars, you fuck!” She pocketed her coke. “Get your baby shit money out of my fucking face! Are you really that stupid?!”                 

I heard Mikey laugh as I bolted, heard his friend scream as I hurried away, “Who in the fuck thinks they can spend thirty cents on cocaine?! Are you really that fucking stupid?!” And there, at last, the terrifying, unhinged magic words that I needed, never considered by the Kirk’s or the Nancy’s. 


Will McMillan was born and raised outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. His essays have been featured in The Sun, Hobart, Pidgeonholes, Sweet, and Citron Review literary journals, among others. 

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