get what you need. [an interview with pia johns]

pia1

On ditching a crack addiction, a near-death experience, and the legacy of community. 

Pia is pretty much always down.

In the entirety of our years-long friendship—one that stemmed via our shared disdain for dickheaded barflies and quickly strengthened during mili-seconds of cynicism wherein I’d ask her for an assorted list of adult beverages, and she’d begrudgingly shake, stir and load them onto my cocktail tray—she’s consistently met any and all inquiries of mine with a shrug and a smile. A lighthearted “fuck it.” Why not.

Over time, said requests of mine have included (but are in no way limited to):

“Hey I wrote a porn script, and need a woman with radical, full breasts to star in it. Any chance you wanna come over and take off your shirt?”

“Sure.”

“Hey so would it be cool if I came over to your place for brunch with six pounds of bacon – and if/when I accidentally mistake your plate of weed cookies for “regular cookies” and stuff my fucking face like the clown that I am, would you mind letting me melt into your couch (under a vast and protective pile of blankets) for, say… eleven or so hours?”

“Totes cool.”

“Um so it’s Wednesday, which according to my books means “fuck this fucking bullshit” day. Wanna meet me in an hour and play a game called Drink All the Bourbon and Eat All the Cheese Curds?”

“Game on.”

She manages to meld some kind of eternal mellow with an unequivocal confidence. There’s warmth and elegance, draped over a rock-hard, no-apologies, if-you-fuck-with-me-I-will-fuck-you-up core. It’s a combo that has collected the admiration (and/or fear) of seemingly half of the city—myself included. Even during our conversation, which inevitably unfolds within a Mexican dive bar downtown, we’re interrupted by passing friends-slash-fans several times.

Her celebrity-esque aura is a bit intoxicating. I feel cooler just by proximity.

And yet, despite her track-record of “yes, why not, who cares, of course, sounds cool,” I was still nervous to ask her for “an interview.” This is a woman who’s backed me—literally and figuratively—every time I’ve ever 86ed a drunk frat boy (such support is a sad rarity within the industry). A woman whose tits are as fucking incredible as her French toast. A woman whose steadfast personality and searing wit have always fascinated me.

But hey! She said yes.

“I’ll have the duck nachos,” Pia grins at our server.

“You got it,” our server winks back.

Mind you, this particular hole-in-the-wall establishment doesn’t OFFER duck nachos.

But that’s the thing about Pia. People meet her, people remember her, people adore the fuck out of her. The gal tending to our mid-afternoon dining needs is no stranger to Pia’s charms. They joke and converse with the casualness of close friends. Shredded duck on nachos? No fucking problemo. For you Pia, the world.

Over salsa and chips, and salt-rimmed tequila, she begins, “I grew up in a single-parent family in South Dakota. We were on welfare my whole life. My mom always worked two or three jobs. My sister is two years older than me…but my grandparents were there.” Pia laughs, “but I was ruined by my mother. And NOT in the way most people think when you preface a statement with that. My mom threw me into therapy when I was six years old.”

I snort salsa. It really burns. “What?!?”

“Oh yeah. Like, for 13 years.” Pia bursts into laughter. “Before I knew I even had any issues.”

“Why?”

“I think my mother takes everything about my sister and me personally,” she explains, “and I think that my mom felt guilty the few times that she did put herself first, or focused on something that didn’t revolve around our direct well-being. You know?” Pia continues, “I think that in order for her to deal with that, we had to go through a lot. Us kids had to be in tune with everything. ‘We’ had to go to therapy. ‘We’ needed people to talk to, who weren’t her.”

“Was your mom in therapy too?”

Pia grins. “Oh god yeah. She’s been in therapy her whole life. I think she has high hopes that the same thing will come of my sister and me, but…” she cracks up. “That shit’s fucking expensive. Jameson is WAY cheaper.”

I laugh into my guac. “I think that might be the title of this interview.”

“You know,” she adds, “this group of girlfriends and I did this six-week, whole foods cleanse. No processed foods.” Pia smirks and gestures to her pile of nachos. “No cheese. No duck. No sour cream. But with that we didn’t drink. No sugar. No alcohol. And in those six weeks,” Pia continues, “my uncle died suddenly. He was at the gym and fell over dead of a heart attack.” She snaps her fingers. “That’s it. Game over. This was in August of 2015.” She pauses. “So, that was an interesting thing… To not have booze. And to have all those feelings.”

“What’d you think?” I ask.

“Mortality sucks?”

We both crack up. “No I mean of the sobriety,” I clarify. “I ask, because I stopped drinking for a year… thinking that maybe just maaaaaybe it would bring some clarity to some things…like “I THINK I FEEL THINGS.”

Again, laughter.

“Right?” she grins. “Like, ‘no I don’t want to do that. Just because.’ Or ‘wow that makes me feel sort of anxious. Or kinda sad. Or maybe really elated.’”

I continue, “but in all honesty, I didn’t really think the whole thing through. I just wanted to ‘see’ what would happen or change if I tried sobriety on for size. I mean, I’ve never been sober. You know? You turn 21 (or 13 or whatever) and then alcohol is a part of your life…” I pause, “but I definitely didn’t expect it to be….”

“More of a lifestyle change?” Pia offers.

“Yeah. And also,” I joke, “dealing with feelings while sober is AWFUL!”

“Dude. I know. I get it.” She adds, “It’s good to feel. And at the same time it’s fucking exhausting. Also, I think due to my over-exposure to therapy, everything makes me cry. Fucking everything.” Pia cracks up. “Save the Children commercial? Can’t even do it. Humane Society? Don’t even get me STARTED on that shit.”

She reaches for some of my guac.

“Cross-eyed kittens with fucking broken legs?” Pia cocks an eyebrow. “NOPE.”

“Dude I cried during Friday Night Lights the other day.” I shrug. “When the mom was like ‘honey, have a great football game.’”

“YOU HAVE A GREAT FOOTBALL GAME” Pia mimics, fake sobbing.

With that, we both erupt into laughter.

“But yeah,” Pia continues, “the cleanse was good. I definitely don’t drink as much as I did before it. I mean, I was pretty much drunk for a year and a half.”

“Which year?” I ask.

“This last one.” Pia grins.

“I got fired for totally bullshit reasons from a steady-but-totally bullshit job.” She explains. “That was definitely the beginning, because that was the end of my comfort zone. My job that I’d had for forever was over. I lost my set schedule. My life, which was neatly organized around that, went to shit. I lost my house that I’d lived in since I’ve been here—my home for 10 years.”

“Actually,” Pia grins, “today might be my 10-year anniversary in Seattle.”

“Hey fucking congrats,” I clink my soda water to her margarita. “Oh hey thanks,” she beams.

Pia continues, “and you know, change is inevitable…but that shit isn’t fucking easy.” She cocks another eyebrow my way. “You know? It’s just…not. It’s not! Regardless of how ready you are for it? It’s not.” She shrugs, “and I hate to say it, but yeah this last year has been a bit of a struggle. And I’m just trying to get myself back to the place…emotionally”—she laughs suddenly “I’m going to start crying. Just so you know. I can fucking feel it.”

I wink at her in silence. Shoot her a wordless message of total support, complete admiration and a genuine hope that she continues speaking.

“I’m just trying to get back to the place where I was when I got out of school.” Pia inhales deeply. “Because when I graduated I was in a really great place. I felt really good about myself. I felt like I had finally accomplished something in my life. And then,” she shrugs grinning, “then everything just came crashing down. Which is always a lot of fun.”

“That was five years ago,” Pia continues. “I graduated from the design program at Seattle Central. And,” she pauses, “Look, I entered that program with 20 fucking years of sewing experience. You know? I have been sewing my entire life. And THAT SHIT was fucking ridiculous.” Pia grins, raising her margarita to her lips. “Fucking ridic. And I quick smoking crack on my own.”

My jaw hits the table.

“I’m sorry,” I start. “Can we pause for a quick interlude of sorts?”

Pia throws her head back laughing.

“Um, so…you used to smoke crack?” Now I’m cocking my eyebrow.

“Oh yeah.” She’s still laughing. “All the goddamn time.”

I break off a mound of her duck nachos before continuing. “Okay. How did you quit?”

“Someone was looking out for me.”

Rewind some 12 or so years, to the small midwestern town of Spearfish, South Dakota. Then-crackhead Pia and her then-and-probably-still crackhead gal pals were lagging in their Christmas shopping. “I mean, it was seriously two or three days before Christmas,” she shrugs. “We were high on crack! Who cares about shopping and holidays and shit.”

Coming off of yet another bender, Pia and company opted to make a run to the mall, for a wham-bam-thank-you-mam holiday shopping spree. “And, you know,” Pia adds, “when you’re a drug addict, in order to go be ‘normal’ you need your fix.” Needless to say, before the friends loaded into their car, it was quickly established that everyone was fresh out. “No one had anything,” Pia explains, “so we were like okay well let’s just leave all our paraphernalia here at the house. There’s no point bringing any of it.”

The ladies unloaded their crack pipes and lighters, nug jugs and rolling papers, and hit the road. Pia explains, “So we got to Rapid City, did our shopping, had lunch, and decided to head back to Spearfish where we’d hit some of our bars and just drink for free.”

It was during the drive home that a Dodge Ram that was attempting to merge onto the four-lane freeway slammed into them. Their car smashed into another car—both of which flew off into a nearby ditch. Pia adds, “We were all fine. No one died. He sent seven people to the ER, two of whom were pregnant, but we were all okay.” She continues, gesturing to her face “I smacked my face on the back of the seat—that’s where this scar is from. Addy shattered her wrist. Terri had a bunch of internal damage from hitting the steering wheel and her seatbelt, and Genie was facing us from the passenger seat, on her knees, looking back at us. So she slammed into the window and smashed the back of her head on the windshield.” Pia pauses, looking at me. “It was a shit show.”

“Oh. My. God.” is about all I can muster.

“Yeah,” Pia nods slowly. “I kinda feel like that accident was when I grew up.”

“And after that, you decided ‘I’m done with crack?’” I ask.

“Yeah. That was it. That was IT.” She’s still nodding. “Because sure, it was a terrible thing that happened. The accident was awful. AND,” Pia continues, “it could have ended in prison time in South Dakota. Because at that time it was a ‘zero tolerance’ state, and ALL they need is probable cause. And an accident that big is probable cause for them to search EVERYTHING in that car.” Pia pauses for a slow sip of her tequila. “And that included our purses, our bags, our pockets, our beings. EVERYTHING on us. And since we left everything at home…” she pauses. “Like, I didn’t even have a weed-resined lighter from packing my bowl down. We had no evidence of any drug use.”

“Was that something you realized immediately afterwards? Or was it a few days later?”

Pia resumes picking at her nachos. “It was a few days later. After the shock wore off. After the swelling went down in my face, and I could open my eye.” She grins, “so I didn’t lose any skin, but I literally filleted my face. I thought when I got out of the car that I was blind. I thought I lost my eye because my skin was hanging down. You know?”

I slowly push my plate of half-eaten tacos away… “face filet” resonating in ways it shouldn’t.

We both explode again in laughter.

“I mean, what the fuck do you DO??” Pia exclaims through her chuckling. “Huh?? You touch your face like oh shit and you realize it’s hanging down in front of you. So I pulled my face back on top of my head.”

More laughter. No more tacos.

She continues. “I kicked the car door open. Everyone was conscious. We were all just screaming at each other. Cause you know…the shock and everything. It was so fucking much.” Pia pauses. “It was so fucking much. She gestures to the small space between her and I, “we are this close to each other and screaming each other’s names. Addy is grabbing her wrist because it’s completely shattered. Genie is throwing up on the floor of the car because she can’t get out of the car. Terri is stuck in the seatbelt because she was the ONLY one wearing a seatbelt and was locked in it. They had to cut her out to get her out of the car. It saved her life. And it also fucked a ton of shit up for her. She was bleeding internally for months. It was fucking ridiculous. I don’t wish that on my first enemy.”

“So yeah,” Pia adds, “I got 80 stiches in my face and a big settlement. And lost all of my friends because I got that settlement.”

“No one else did?” I ask.

She shrugs. “No one else got a lawyer.”

I ask for a guac refill. Collect my thoughts.

“Was quitting crack hard? Do you miss it?”

Pia grins, twisting her response into a pseudo-question. “No….?”

“Not until a few years after the fact. When it was all said and done. And when I moved here, I’d clean the coffee maker…” she starts chuckling… “the hot pads on the coffee maker… it’s the weirdest thing ever, but the sanitizer and the towel and the coffee and the burning? THAT’S what crack smells like.”

She pauses. “I think it was Chris Rock who said this—“crack tastes exactly how it smells…. DELICIOUS!”

We both double over laughing.

“How did you get into it?”

“Boyfriend.”

She orders another margarita. Her newbie-BFF server is head over heels about it.

“I was in my early twenties, hanging with all these druggy guys… and look,” Pia shrugs, “I’m not saying I was Jennifer Connelly in ‘Requiem for a Dream’, but I was kind of a weird Madam of sorts. Meaning,” she continues, “there was this unspoken agreement that I’d get my cute girlfriends together, and we’d all go get paid to hang out with random guys.” Pia continues, “it was just really easy to be available and hang out with dudes who gave you money, even if you didn’t’ have sex with them. We got all the drugs and all the booze and all the money—just for hanging out and being ‘dumb girls.’” Pia pauses. “It was always drug motivated. Always. By everyone. It paid my bills. And it kept me in drugs.”

“I have zero shame about it.” She states. “You just get what you need. You know? It was what it was. It is what it is.”

Pia continues, “And, I feel like I still would have been a crack head regardless.”

We circle back to the accident.

“With the whole settlement insurance issue,” Pia explains, “everyone hated me for taking care of myself. And that was a huge lesson. A HUGE lesson in friendship and trust. You know?” She pauses. “Because the people who say they’re your best friend and that they love you and care about you…aren’t the people who are supposed to get together and drop you, en mass. So that was that big lesson—realizing that it’s okay if everyone doesn’t like you.” She stares at me. “As long as you like yourself.”

After her face healed, her ‘friends’ fucked off, and her fatty settlement check came in, Pia took full advantage of her second chance at life. “I wanted to go back to school.” She smiles. “And it wasn’t going to happen in South Dakota.” Originally set on going to esthetician school, Pia scanned the country for appealing Aveda Academies. “Mom lived in Mississippi, and there was an academy in New Orleans. And a good friend of mine lived in Seattle, where there was also an Aveda school.”

As Pia mulled over her two top choices, Hurricane Katrina hit. “I was standing at work, watching New Orleans fall the fuck apart, and I thought to myself… ‘Okay. Seattle it is.’”

I burst out laughing. “You’re like, bussing tables while watching the news, and you pull a “Places To Move” list out of your pocket and ‘X’ out New Orleans.”

She laughs. “Pretty much dude. That’s how that went down.”

Pia headed for the west coast and inevitably traded esthetician ideals for a fashion/design focus. When a coworker relayed her experience of Seattle Central’s balls-to-the-wall apparel program, Pia was all in. “It was two fucking years of FUCKING INTENSE.” Her eyes are wide as she says this. “Like, what the fucking fuck intense.”

She leans back grinning. “But I did it. I fucking did it. I worked full time and I went to school full time and I had a fucking part-time internship on the side and I fucking did it.” Pia continues, still smiling. “And I didn’t take out a single loan for school. I practically killed myself. And Adderall definitely helped during that final quarter of total chaos. But I got it done. And passed with really good grades.”

I pause our conversation to use the bathroom, and in doing so, trip wholeheartedly into a sign reading “PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP.” Upon returning to the table, I fill Pia in. She shakes her head lovingly at me.

Once I’ve gathered any straggling traces of self-dignity, I prompt Pia with a simple “tell me more about your life.”

She smiles. Sips her margarita.

“I lived with my grandparents for a really long time when I was a kid. At one point my Mom moved to New Jersey with her then-fiancé to get their house ready for my sister and me. She didn’t want to take us out of school in the middle of the school year, so we stayed in South Dakota with Grandma and Grandpa.”

Suddenly Pia bursts out laughing. “So… we had Thanksgiving over there one year. And before dinner, Mom’s fiancé had disappeared. And one of Mom’s gay friends had also disappeared.”

She pauses, cocking an eyebrow and smirking.

“Then mom found them in bed—in her bed—together.” Pia sips her margarita. “Yeah. We were back in South Dakota by Christmas.” She smiles warmly. “Grandma loved it. And then it was just this bouncy life from there on out. It’s one of the reasons I HATE moving. Because as a kid, we moved every. Single. Year. We moved every year! All over town. With Grandma a couple times. I usually shared a room with my sister.” Pia pauses. “I had my own room for the first time when I was 10. And it was SOOOOO COOOOOOOL!”

We both crack up over our tortilla chips refill.

She continues. “I went to public school. I got my first job when I was 14. I cleaned hotel rooms for forever… it was totally gross.”

“And all this time you’re in therapy?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Pia nods. “My poor mom….”

“So,” she continues, “it’s really hard being the only black person in your family.”

Another jaw-dropper. I retrieve my chin from the bowl of salsa before me. “You’re the only black person in your family?”

“Yeah. My dad’s African. And he made that decision to get back on the plane and to not know me. He’s a doctor, and he was teaching in Omaha, Nebraska when my mom was in nursing school.” Pia picks at her nachos. “At that time my sister was alive, and my grandma was driving from Rapid City to Omaha and staying there Monday thru Thursday to watch my sister while Mom was in school. Every fucking week. She was always there when my sister woke up Monday morning.” Pia smiles to herself. “Mom met my dad, and she got knocked up.”

“So,” Pia switches gears, “my mom didn’t tell me this until I was 26. But my WHOLE life I was told my dad didn’t know about me because he’s Nigerian, and that due to female circumcision still being in practice, Mom didn’t tell my dad about me to ‘save me’ from the possibility of that. And to project me from Nigerian culture, where daughters are considered the property of their fathers, until they are married off.” Pia smirks. “That is what my mom told me. She told me how scared she was that if my dad knew about me, he would come back and ‘stake his claim’ on ‘his property’—me.”

“UNTIL I was 26.” She laughs with residual semi-disbelief. “When I was 26, my mom really flippantly said “oh no he knew about you. I told him. I caught him at the airport and he chose to leave.” Pia shrugs. “So I didn’t talk to my mom for about a year after that…”

“But,” she continues, “I always had a father figure. My grandfather was always around. Like, the most amazing person in the history of people.” Pia pauses. “My grandpa liberated Auschwitz. Like, are you kidding me?” She throws her hands up, chuckling. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“For real?” I ask.

“For real. He has multiple purple hearts and was a highly, highly decorated war veteran who was almost dishonorably discharged for feeding starving German children.” Pia sips her cocktail, grinning. “Yeah. The rations that were being thrown out by US soldiers? He would collect them and feed starving kids while they marched from concentration camp to concentration camp, liberating prisoners.” She pauses. “He had this scrap book with all of his war stuff and all these news clippings. Random little menus from the mess hall and all this paper money from all over the world in the 40s.”

Pia grins, “the one thing I wanted from my grandfather, and it’s so creepy. I would just look at it all the time when I was little…was a Nazi armband. The red with the white circle and the black swastika. He took it off a dead Nazi. And kept it. My whole life.” She adds, “but you know, that’s one of those things. Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and my cousin pawned it. He pawned all of Grandpa’s stuff from the war.”

“Were you upset?”

“Sure.” Pia nods. “But that’s the story. That’s the road that we roll down. You know? That’s what my cousin needed to do to survive, in whatever world he was trapped in.” She pauses, her eyes welling up. “And that’s what it was. His environment got too much for him. He was totally trapped in his addiction. So…” she pauses to wipe her eyes. “You do what you gotta do.”

We pause for a moment, stir our drinks in a heavy silence. “So yeah.” She states, “I always had a really great father figure.”

She continues. “But my ‘dad’ is Nigerian. So all the black people in my family are people that I don’t know. But I had this one therapist who was a black woman. And the second black woman to ever do my hair.” Pia grins. “The first black woman was a friend of my mom’s who had seven fucking kids. On the weekends she would braid her kids’ hair, and I would come over and she would braid mine too. Because Mom didn’t know WHAT to do with my hair.” Pia laughs. “My mom’s side of the family is Mexican and Native American. So they’ve all got this thick, black, straight hair. And then I come popping out with my little fro.”

I crack up, offering jazz hands to resounding “Taaadaaahhh.”

We both lose it in laughter for a minute.

“So yeah she’d braid my hair with her kids. And then in seventh or eighth grade my therapist started processing/straightening my hair.” Pia continues, “eventually my sister and I would go to the base—there’s a big air force base in my hometown—and get our hair relaxed there. And in tenth grade, I met Miss Penny, a friend of my mom’s, who worked at Block Buster, and she started braiding my hair and doing my extensions.

Despite her suspiciously pro-therapy approach to life, Pia’s mother managed to make one hell of a home. “Our house was always a weird boarding house in a way…” Pia smiles. “I had friends who got pregnant really young, whose mom’s had kicked them out, and they came and moved in with us. Because Mom was like ‘that’s not right. You need stability now more than anything. Come in. Move in.’” Pia picks a stray piece of duck from her tower of soggy chips. “There was Crystal and Cherish. Jenn and Kylee. Then Jenn moved back in when her parents took Kylee. And then Jenny and Hennessy moved in with us.”

I am utterly speechless at this list of rescues.

Pia continues, “then, when our friends were all gone, Mom’s friend Kim was going through a divorce from her abusive husband. Her and Penny were both managers at Block Buster. And I went to school with Penny’s kids. So Penny started doing my hair.” She adds, “I paid for it. One thing I did learn from my mother was if you want anything, you need to pay for it yourself. Which is why I always worked. I got a job when I was 14. Paid for all my hair and everything else.”

Our server swings by for brief chit-chat, and sets down another round.

“Is your sister’s Dad still in her life?”

“No. My Mom and him were married at one point. And when they separated, we moved to the east coast—in between him and my mom’s next partner—so that my sister and him could spend time together.” Pia clears her throat. “Weekends were spent with her dad…I never understood why I had to go. Now I realize it was so my mom and her new partner could have time without kids. But yeah, we did that for a long time.”

“Until…” she grins…”So I was the one who always spilled the beans as a kid. And when I asked Mom why I had to go too, she said it was because my sister’s dad wanted to have a relationship with me too. And granted, I’m six years old at this point. So to that I said ‘well ok, if he wants to have a relationship with me too, why does he only take my sister at night?’” And Mom was like ‘what do you mean?’”

“I mean, think of your stereotypical Mexican-family New York apartment,” Pia digresses. Two bedrooms and eight people, above a bodega. Like, yes we were what Law and Order is made out of. And it turned out that he was taking my sister to cocaine parties. And leaving me at home with his mom and his siblings and their kids.” Pia shrugs. “Just hanging out with an eight-year-old. Playing cards. Drinking. Snorting drugs.” She grins. “Soooo I didn’t have to go to New York City anymore after that.”

“But seriously,” Pia continues, “my entire life I watched my mother be in bad relationship after bad relationship after bad relationship. And it’s one of those things you learn by osmosis.”

She shrugs. “Like if I’m not good for me, RIGHT here? RIGHT now? Then I’m not good for anybody. It’s just the fucking fact of the matter.”

“And to watch—and I hate to use the word abuse, because there wasn’t any ‘you’re a terrible person, you suck at life’ abuse, or ‘I would love you more if you did it like this…’ but there’s still that level of broken. And of abused. You know?” Pia pauses. “Unloved. Not good enough. Swept into the corner.” She sips her margarita quietly. “And when you see that…when you watch people who very blatantly don’t have respect for the people that they’re supposed to love, even when those people are doing everything they can?”

She sets down her drink. “I mean, that’s what my sister did. She did everything that she could to be part of her dad’s life. And it was so easy for him to just drop her. He got remarried, he closed all his bank accounts and moved all his money into his new wife’s accounts. He quit paying child support. He was gone.” She pauses. “She was maybe 14 when that happened.”

“She got a sweater once.” Pia cocks another brow.

“I’m sorry?” I sputter.

“A fucking sweater. He sent her a sweater one year. I mean, it’s fucking funny now—but at the time we were both like… oh.”

Pia delves into a detailed (and horrific) description of the gift. Red. Hand-knit. Felt snowmen…

“Stop! OH GOD STOP!” I beg. Pia ceases with a wink.

“Did your mom ever remarry?”

“Yeah. To an ex-Baptist preacher.” She grins. “He left the church. Which was unheard of. Not only that, he divorced his wife. ALSO unheard of. And because of that, and the fact that he didn’t remarry a white woman, he lost his relationships with his own sons.”

I pause. “Given such a diverse and untraditional family upbringing, were racism and sexism discussed or experienced at all? Or did you feel pretty protected from it?”

After a moment, Pia responds. “I would like to say protected from it. And the only reason I say that, is I feel my sister and I—even though we’re batshit crazy—we’re two of the most grounded people that I know.” She continues. “But there were SO many people who raised us. Between my mom, my grandparents, my auntie. ALL of their adult friends. All of my mom’s adult friends who had kids—we all grew up together.” Pia pauses. “We were a community, together.”

“Everybody was so welcoming, and so open and inviting that any hatred or racism or separation wasn’t prevalent growing up.” Pia continues. “It’s kinda like the epitome of ignorance is bliss, you know? I didn’t experience any racism in South Dakota until I got to high school, and didn’t hang out with the black kids.” She shrugs. “And then it was the black kids who were racist towards me.”

“Was your rotating-door home life and constantly in-flux community mostly women then?” I ask.

“Yup!” Pia grins, and bursts out laughing. “Grandma was the matriarch. Her and Grandpa had four daughters. And my sister and I were the first set of grandkids.” She cracks up again. “Grandma was kind of a ho. She got pregnant with one of my aunts out of wedlock in the 40s. So… the family “went away on vacation” and Grandma came home with a baby sister. She also had Mom out of wedlock, but met Grandpa shortly thereafter. And they got married, and Grandpa adopted Mom.” Pia smiles to herself. “But yeah, we always lived very accepting. And like I said, the whole anyone-is-welcome, open-door policy speaks to Grandpa’s character.

She pauses.

“But there’s also been a lot of heartache too. You know? A lot of death. There was one summer where we went to 14 funerals in three months. Mostly suicides and overdoses. But we were always close. Always.”

“Our home, and whoever happened to be living or surviving or recouping or healing in our home, spanned SUCH a spectrum.

Multiple family members. A super non-traditional family dynamic. Multiple ethnicities. Multiple religions and backgrounds and sexualities. Everything. And,” Pia continues, “Ultimately I think my Mom was great.”

A new server swings by to clear any lingering damage of our nacho tower. Pia compliments her on her hair. Giggles and gratitude are exchanged. A fast bond is formed.

“I don’t think my mom gives herself enough credit for EVERYTHING that she did for us. She still beats herself up over what a terrible person she was or what a horrible mother she was…” Pia smirks. “The best part about my lifetime of therapy is I get to joke with her about it now. Like, ‘fuck mom, go to therapy! I’m over this shit already. Can YOU now be over it? Please? It’s time.” Pia cracks up “Like, stop. This isn’t serving anyone anymore.”

She pauses. “My sister had a miscarriage at seven months. She had to go in and give birth to a dead baby. You know? That’s some fucking shit. And then when she finally had her daughter, my sister’s baby daddy was just a mess.” Pia continues, “I think he is maybe back in jail? Or maybe he’s out now. I don’t know. That’s his revolving door—in and out of prison.”

“But he had threatened to burn the house down with my sister and her baby inside. He said something like ‘I’ll just wait until you guys are sleeping and then I’ll light the place up.’ So Mom bought a plane ticket and moved my sister and the baby down to live with her for several months.” Pia pauses and stares at me, shrugging. “You know? She STILL bends over backwards for us. Get OVER yourself Mom.”

We both erupt in laughter. Our server drops the check. I suddenly realize that it’s dark outside. We’ve been hunched over our salsa platter for over four hours.

“One of my friends growing up got pregnant. And her parents kicked her out. They demanded that she give the baby up for adoption. Or she was out of the house. My friend’s mom told her ‘IF you KEEP this baby, you’re no longer our daughter.’” Pia shrugs. “And that’s how my friend came to live with us. My mom was a newborn nursery nurse at the time. I had known my friend my whole life. So my friend gives birth. Mom’s the nurse. Mom brings the baby in and says to my friend ‘do you want to hold your daughter?’ And my friend looks at my mom, and HER mom steps in-between them and says ‘oh no. That’s ok. We’re giving this baby up.’”

Pia pauses. Sips her drink. “And Mom steps away from her mother, looks straight at my friend and says—to HER—‘Do YOU want to hold YOUR daughter?’”

Now I’m crying into my cocktail napkin.

“What did she SAY?!” I blubber.

Pia, also teary-eyed, winks at me. “She said yes.”

She grins. “And now my friend is a grandma.”

“Pia shrugs at me. “I mean…that’s it right there.”

“I’m super blessed.” She continues. “I’m super grateful. For my life and everything that has happened to bring me to where I am now.” Pia smiles. “Because it fucking takes a lot of work. And a lot of heartbreak. And a lot of honesty.”

She pauses. “Honesty to look yourself in the mirror every day and be grateful for what you have, and to do your best to NOT take every waking moment for granted.”

Pia grins at me. “You know?”

“Just because you’re not sick, and just because you can walk, and just because you have a job and just because right now, today, you can support yourself.”

She shrugs, still smiling. “I mean, that’s some fucking shit.”

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