Straighting: An Excerpt

In our third issue, we shared the following excerpt from the upcoming memoir, Straightling. I had the honor of reading it before the masses got the chance. To those of you who have yet to read it, I say this: Prepare yourself. On page one, a young Etler takes your hand and she doesn’t let go. You won’t be able to put Straightling down and you sure as hell won’t root this hard for anyone ever again.

Here’s the excerpt:

The UFO light over the backseat is on. Everyone but me is deep into writing something. God only knows what they could have to say, after being locked in a cage for the world’s longest Wednesday. But they’re all into it.

I look out the window as we approach, then slip under, the highway-green signs. Then we pass a blue one that says, “Thank you for visiting Virginia!” Without knowing it, I’m talking.

“Where’re we going?”

Sandy’s moon face rises from her legal pad.

“To my house, your new host-home. In Maryland.”

Her mom’s looking at me, but she doesn’t say anything. Neither do I.

After a while, Sandy’s pen makes that quick shrrrrip noise, a dug-in line saying The End! to her writing. She slaps her pad to the floor and turns to face me. This girl would never make it in the smoking pit. She belongs in, like, the math club.

“Cyndy, meet my parents. Dad—” he lifts his fingers off the steering wheel and twinkles them at me—“and Mom.”

“Hi, Cyndy,” she says with a watery smile.

“You can call them ‘Dad C.’ and ‘Mom C.’ So. Tell me about your first day as a Straightling.”

There are no streetlights where we are now. The dome light’s still on, so I can see my reflection in the window. The right side of my lip does the best Billy Idol sneer.

“As a what?” I say to my own face.

“I’m over here, Cyndy. Behind you.”

She’s waiting for me to turn and look at her. So are her parents. And the guys have all stopped writing. I turn away from the window and look at her icky chin.

“As a Straightling. You know, ‘Here at Straight, feel great! Nine to nine, feel fine!’”

She’s singing. She’s singing this song-thing that the whole beast sang, after eating. And she’s hand-signaling, too—one arm cuts through the air on “Straight;” she flashes nine fingers, twice, for “nine to nine.” She friggin hugs herself for “feel fine.”

In three days, I’ll be sucking a Marlboro hard, and inhaling Bridgeport through my nose. But maybe I’ll keep this one from Zarzozas. I don’t think it’s their kind of song.

When she stops singing I’m supposed to say something, but I have no idea what. Then Sandy talks again.

“Why are you at Straight, Cyndy?”

“Man, I don’t know!”

I get all that out before her brother speaks.

“Druggie word!”

Sharp, he says it. I whip my head around, like, What?

And he goes, “Tell her not to look at me! Tell her no druggie words!”

Then Sandy takes over.

“You can’t look at boy phasers, Cyndy. Or other newcomer girls, either, except when they’re talking in group. But we’ll get to that later. And don’t use druggie words from your past.”

“Man, what are you talk—”

“Don’t use that word, I said!”

There’s two boys right behind me, totally listening to me get told. Fuckin, if we were in the pit right now, I’d be telling this chick what she could do with her fucking words. But here, in a Caravan, twelve hours from anywhere and sitting next to her mom? I do what I did with Jacque, before I grew balls: press into a corner, shut up, and try to hide. But Sandy’s not fooled.

“I asked you why you’re at Straight, Cyndy.”

It would be too weird to say nothing, when there’s six people listening. Plus, it seems like her next step’ll be to give me a spanking.

“I—I don’t know. My mother brought me.”

“Why did your mother bring you?”

“I don’t know!”

“Well, Straight is a drug rehab, Cyndy. Kids aren’t brought here for having tea parties and going to church. What did you do to make your mother bring you to Straight?”

“I mean, I took off. To get away from her husband.”

“Oh, I get it. You were a church-going tea-party runaway. And Saturday nights you read the Bible at an old-folks home, right?”

“No, I didn’t say—”

Sandy is laughing, and so’s her brother. And the two kids behind me. Even her mom’s cough is covering up a laugh.

“If you were brought to Straight, you’re a fuckup. Sorry Mom and Dad, but it’s true. You’re a runaway, and runaways do disgusting things in disgusting places. So let me ask you again, Cyndy. Why. Are. You. At. Straight.”

Nobody’s laughing anymore. They got quiet at fuckup. It’d be easier if they were still laughing, so it wasn’t up to me to fill this entire van.

“We’re waiting.”

“I—I really don’t know what I’m doing here!”

I had no idea I started crying. But I suddenly am.

“My mother just brought me here. And I’m not a druggie, and I only drank once. I didn’t even like it—it made me sick! I was just trying to get away….”

“So you’re admitting you overdosed on alcohol.”

“Man—I mean, I’m not! I’m not anything! And you’ll see, in a couple days! They told me three days. They’re gonna see I’m not a druggie, and I’ll be outta here.”

I’m full-on, snot-river crying now. I don’t even care what those backseat boys think. But they’re laughing at me. They all are. The parents and everybody.

“I’m not! I’m not a drug addict! Are you listening to me? I just had to get away from him! I just left!”

It’s like we’re on separate TV screens in a department store window. Me, and then all of them. It’s two different shows, and they don’t make sense next to each other. I’m begging them to understand; they’re smiling and rosy. I must be going crazy.

“Okay, Cyndy,” Sandy goes. “Welcome to Straight.”

Cyndy Drew Etler will self-publish her memoir, Straightling, about her experiences in a teen boot camp in January. For now, go to, sign up for the newsletter and read another excerpt.


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