By the time Maria returned, the pilot had once again slipped into unconsciousness.
Nora had to admit that she was a bit disappointed to see Maria empty-handed.
“No food?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Maria replied. “This place has been picked clean. And it’s weird in here.”
“Can’t quite place it. The language on the signs. It’s sort of antiquated.
Like from some kind of black-and-white movie or something.”
Maria glanced down at the survival kit supplies, which were lined up in neat rows and columns.
“What happened here?” “It’s sort of a habit.”
“Like chewing your nails.”
Nora smiled. “A lot like that.”
Maria rubbed her palms on her pants as though they were sweating, as if she was nervous all of a sudden.
“What is it?” Nora asked.
“I’ve got some habits myself.” “What kind?”
“The bad kind.”
“I think we all do.” “Not like this.”
“I’m a doctor. You can tell me about it.”
“I’ve been taking methadone to help me control cravings.” “For opioids.”
“Yeah.” Maria swallowed, suddenly seeming embarrassed. “It happens before you know it. You’re on the road. Standing up for hours on high heels. The aches and pains. Advil and Tylenol stop working after a while. Plenty of doctors around—the agent and manager have them on speed dial. They write you something to get you though the show, and you think, ‘He’s a doctor. He knows what he’s doing.’”
“You don’t have to explain,” Nora said.
Maria kept going. “The pain in your body isn’t the worst, though. It’s the hurt in your mind. Things that happened before the music. And after.”
Maria swallowed. “You spend months—sometimes years—making a piece of art to share with the world. You put a piece of yourself in it. You have to. If you don’t—if you phone it in—people will know. They can sense authenticity. And when it’s not there. But that authenticity, that piece of you in the art, makes you care about it. It makes you vulnerable. And that’s the problem. No matter how many people like it—and especially if a lot of people like it—someone decides it’s not for them or that it’s overrated, and they attack you. They write articles that tear your work to shreds. But that’s not the real problem. They have a right to dislike the work. And to tell the world. It’s the personal attacks that get to you. The people who make the personal attacks have gotten smarter about it. They post them in groups now. Groups that make all their posts public so the world can see them. But you have to be a member to respond. They like that
—using their reach to hurt you and their numbers to defend themselves. Haters find strength in numbers. Tearing you apart feeds their ego. It makes them feel big to cut someone successful down. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong—you can’t say a thing. Because you’re the artist, and the haters think it’s their right to psychologically assault you. Publicly. It’s almost like they’re daring you to join the group and defend yourself. They delight when you do. Because they swarm. The minute you respond, they’ve won. You have the choice of sitting there and just taking their assault or defending yourself—and you’re up against people who specialize in online warfare. People looking for a fight. After all, that’s why they posted. Because in the end, what they really want is to hurt you and your career and make themselves feel more powerful. And either way, they win. Because if you don’t defend yourself, it haunts you. Because you just took it. And where I’m from, you don’t just take it when somebody comes at you personally. Not if you want to survive. Not if you want to make
something of your life.” Maria shook her head. “And I admit, I’ve got a temper. Besides pills, that’s my other problem. And when it comes to the internet, that’s an issue. When you’re the artist and you defend yourself, they make you out to be a jerk. And if they can make others dislike you, they’ll stop buying your work, no matter how good it is. Game over.”
Maria fell silent. Nora wasn’t sure what to say. So she reached out and took Maria’s hand in hers. The woman seemed to remember Nora was there, and she continued:
“You get useless advice like, ‘Oh, just ignore the haters. Focus on the work.’”
Maria snorted. “Then you get an email a few weeks later from your publicist asking why you’re not supporting the media tour by posting on social media, interacting with fans online. You tell them why and they say something about people booing you in a dive bar and this online hate being just like that.”
Maria laughed, eyes cold. “But it’s not. Not even close. In a dive bar on a Friday night, when a bunch of drunks boo you off the stage, it doesn’t really matter. Hurts the first time. Maybe the second. But you get used to it. And you realize that it sort of helps. You’re getting feedback. Half those dudes booing won’t even remember it in the morning. The next night you’ll be on stage in the same place singing different songs and be better off for it.”
She nodded. “But not online. The internet isn’t a hole-in-the-wall dive bar. It’s the whole world watching. It’s where art is sold now—by and large. Those online haters aren’t booing you off the stage. They’re burning down your business. And you have to stand in the parking lot and watch. You scroll through your feed, and you see those public groups throwing Molotov cocktails at your storefront—at your brand and you personally—and some catch fire and some don’t, and you just have to take it. I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t control my temper. Until I took those pills. For the first time in a long time, I was able to ignore the haters. To scroll on by. To stop caring for a while. And more. I could create with reckless abandon again. And I loved it. Those pills gave me my life back. All they asked was that I kept taking more every week. And then, before I knew it, they took everything from me. At that point, the haters weren’t my biggest problem. The pills were.”
Maria reached in her pocket. “Getting free of them has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m not there yet. But I’m close.” She held
up a small bottle. “I’ve got seven methadone pills left. If I don’t get some more, I’m going to be in a terrible way.”
“There aren’t any in this kit,” Nora said quietly. “But we’ll find some.”
Maria chewed her lip as she stared at the survival supplies. “But there are opioids in there, aren’t there?”
Nora looked up at Maria. “There are. But we’ll figure something else out.”