(First appeared in Best New Writing 2010)
I’ve been home for over a month when John decides to quit heroin again. He’s been trying to quit all summer while I’ve been in California, but he’s been unsuccessful. He tells me he has not been able to find a fix, so he interprets this as yet another sign. It is an exceptionally hot day for early October.
Since John’s belongings are at his son’s (Jacob’s) grandparents’ house, and mine are in the cab of my Chevy S10 truck, we bounce from one apartment to the next, crashing on friends’ living room floors. We don’t know where we will live now, but we are together, and we have been waiting months for this time.
This week, our friend, Marie, offers us her vacant apartment. She has moved to a place down the road, but her name is still on the lease for a few more days. While you find a place, she says. The entire house is divided into four apartments. Marie’s is on the far left, and the driveway is behind the house. Inside, we bring a hiking backpack filled with necessities: clothes, toiletries, a boom box, cigarettes, and a trash bag. The apartment has two floors, but we congregate on the first, using only the bathroom, one bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen that separates them. We claim the bedroom in the back corner of the apartment, the room with the only shaded window.
The walls are white. The tile floors have been scrubbed clean with bleach. No furniture remains. In order to be filled with spirit, feng shui theory says, one needs to be empty of worldly things. The color white, I remember, is associated with purity. White is letting go. Surrendering.
I have hope.
We stock the refrigerator shelves with Classico tomato sauce and cheap champagne. We spread my insulated sleeping bag on the floor of the bedroom. While Jacob is at school, we make love on top of the sleeping bag. The boom box plays Pearl Jam’s song, “Indifference.” I will hold the candle, till it burns up my arm…. I am on top of John, my knees pressed against the carpet. The twine chafes my skin. A small portable fan hums as my flesh peels, but I don’t mind the burning. My body fits his, like when I lie on the beach, and warm sand fills my skin’s folds. He swims inside of me while I climax. Orgasm is the single consistency of our relationship. Sex is the way we finish one another’s sentences.
Afterward, John fills the ashtray with cigarette stubs while I fill my journal with words. Still naked, I sit up against the wall and begin to shape a poem. He tucks his feet in between my crossed legs. Damp with sweat, I feel content in this empty space. We have a place to sleep tonight, and perhaps John will have enough determination this time to beat his demon. Our conversation will percolate throughout the rooms. He will tell me about his fear, about feeling worthless when he isn’t high, and I will tell him about mine.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
I nod. This gesture is a lie. I am not hungry, but I aim to distract him from the drugs.
John gets up and goes into the kitchen. “Is pasta okay?” he asks. “I didn’t have enough money for anything else.”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s fine.”
“Are your knees okay?” He sets the pot of water on the heating stove. The dark red patches on my knees reveal raw, torn skin. I pull my long flowered skirt over my hips.
“Yeah, they’re fine. It was worth the pain.” I laugh, pulling a black tank top over my head.
A few minutes later, John comes back and positions the boom box between us, a tabletop platform for the aluminum pot.
“Here,” he says. “I think it’s done.” He brings a noodle to his mouth to test it. “Yup.” He dumps the jarred sauce into the pot, and stirs it. “We only have one fork.” He places it in my hand.
Most people who develop an addiction to heroin never quit; I recognize this. When a person is high on heroin, it is actually the dopamine, the chemical in the brain that helps to alleviate depression, which triggers that initial rush. Dopamine controls our appetites for food and sex. It promotes euphoria. As a result, coming down off heroin indicates the body’s depletion of dopamine. This is why it triggers pain and distress.
John wears baggy jeans and a t-shirt that hangs over his bony shoulders. His face is sparsely freckled, the outside of his grey eyes indented with wrinkles, retracting from the hardness of his life. He smiles with his mouth closed. His smile is a kind smile, usually forming at the end of a joke, and always accentuating his tough, worn skin. His hair is not short or long, but curled at the ends, and sand colored. When he speaks to me, he leans in close. “Thank you,” he says. He touches his lips to my ear. “For always sticking by me.”
“Of course,” I say.
I take a bite and hand the fork back.
The first time I saw John high on dope was the second or third night we spent together, I can’t recall which. My grandfather, Nanu, had just died, and I was living on Pine Street with four of my closest male friends. I would soon be moving to California, where I planned to stay indefinitely. John called the house to tell me he was sorry about Nanu dying. “I’ve been thinking about you,” he said.
I had been attracted to John for the full year we worked together at the Brick House Restaurant, while he sautéed gourmet dishes and I served them, although I could not admit how much he distracted me, if even to myself. He seemed familiar the first time we’d spoken in the kitchen. I had the sense that we’d met before—that mildly disturbing feeling you get when you know a person from somewhere but you can’t quite place how. He asked me where I was from, and he stared straight into my eyes. I admire this trait. I tend to avoid eyes.
That first night, I didn’t hear him come into the unlocked house, or up the stairs to my bedroom. The door cracked open. I woke to his silhouette. “Gina.” He whispered in the dark, and shut my door behind him. The floor creaked in the old house with rickety doorknobs and chipping, lead paint.
“Yeah, hey,” I said. “What are you doing?” The clock blinked 2 a.m. “What time is it really?” I asked.
“It’s around 2:30,” he said. “You said you’d be here.” He sat on the edge of my bed and leaned down to kiss my cheek.
“Hey,” I said again. I clutched his forearm.
“Is it okay that I’m here? Do you mind?” He asked.
“No, it’s fine. I’m glad,” I said. “How did you get here?”
“I walked.” John’s voice was slow and soft. I leaned over and grabbed a box of matches from the windowsill. I struck one, and lit three candles on the nightstand.
“I missed you,” he said. His words were drawn out, the word you a long, lingering syllable. John climbed into the bed, a friend’s old mattress left in the house before I moved in. He leaned his head into the curve of my neck. He reached his hand up my shirt and traced my nipple. I felt it harden against his fingertips.
“What have you been doing? Where have you been tonight?” I asked.
“Hannah and I went down to Boston. Then, we started arguing. We argued the whole way home. And, then, back at the apartment, we argued more. I had to get out of there.”
Hannah was John’s ex-girlfriend, whom he and Jacob still lived with. “Arguing about what?” I asked.
“About everything. Which way to drive home. Everything. Just like our entire relationship, one long train wreck,” he said.
In bed with John, I noticed his pupils in the candlelight. Dark and pin-sized. He scratched his neck and shoulders. Then his back. He lay on my bed with his head propped up high against the pillow. He kept nodding down toward his chest, his eyes fluttering. Purple veins showed through his eyelids. His dark lashes curled up.
“I told Hannah I’m driving out to California with you,” he said.
“Yep. I told her you’re moving there, and that you need someone to drive with you.”
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said okay.”
“That’s it, just okay.”
“What about Jacob? You’ll be gone an entire week.”
“I’ll ask his grandparents to take care of him.”
Jacob was tattooed on the inside of his forearm. The letters were black and rectangular, like uncial lettering, but coiling up on the ends. On the day John and I met, this was the first physical detail that I noticed about him. Now, I traced it with my thumb.
John didn’t slur, but instead his voice droned, making a raspy humming sound, like a Tibetan throat singer. “I love being with you,” he said. He consistently offered this tidbit. “You are such a good person. A smart person. You know what you want, and you take control.” I remained indifferent to these compliments. I did not view myself as good, or smart. Yes, I knew what I wanted. Him. But, no, I did not control this desire. It controlled me. My emotions enslaved my rational mind. I knew I would go to California. But, I also knew I’d be back.
John said, “I want to do bad things to you.” Shameless, he slid his tongue underneath my shirt, along my skin’s surface. I teetered on the flimsy bridge between guilt and thrill. My guilt derived from failing to refuse him because of his junk habit. And also from ignoring that he still lived with Hannah, and his son, who needed his full attention.
I succumbed to the thrill. I have a tendency to sacrifice self-control for temporary gratification. It was comparable to the path John treks if and when he finds a fix. He knows that he is likely to be hurting himself, but he has to inquire any way. He dives in.
I plunged. I wanted to know about his life. I wished to know why he felt the inexorable need to escape it.
Substance abusers are intelligent people, but they feel a crucial element is missing in their lives, so they search. Addicts are those who are not easily satisfied. This is not to say that they are ungrateful for what they are given, but that they feel compelled to seek out what is lacking; there is a distinct difference. They sense a void, and in turn, they attempt to fill it.
John and I made love that night, and I, not used to intercourse with a heroin addict, didn’t realize that his constant erection was not only because he desired me, but because opiate addicts either lose their sex drives completely or are able to make love for hours before climaxing. His side effect was the latter.
After we satisfied one another, John said, “Tell me more about your Nanu. I wish I could have met him.” I had been in the room with Nanu when he died. We were close. Despite his altered state, John focused on my words. He watched my lips move, mesmerized. He listened. By the candlelight, red patches blotched his face. He looked into my eyes but through them at the same time, as if he were a small child staring out a window watching snow fall. My fingers grazed his palms. His knuckles and fingernails were bitten down, but evenly manicured. His flesh heated my forearms.
To me, John didn’t look like he was in the “euphoric state” that heroin users describe. Instead, his mouth curled into a frown. His eyes drooped. He resided somewhere in between falling asleep and waking up. It seemed that his body might jolt with sudden surprise at my voice, or a shadow, but it didn’t.
John explained his and Hanna’s situation like this:
“We have a drug bond.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Heroin. We do heroin together.”
I didn’t feel surprise when John stated this. I hadn’t consciously speculated about whether he was an addict; I’d already known, but like finding a lump on my breast and ignoring the doctor, I’d been unwilling to ask.
I knew then that he didn’t love himself. We held this in common.
Still, I didn’t see him as an addict. I saw him as my friend in the kitchen who, when I spilled a few drops of milk, hurried over with a rag to wipe the floor, and said, “Don’t worry Gina. I’ll pick up your pieces.” I saw the hardworking single father who, when his six-year old son ran into the restaurant, lifted him into a bear hug and spun him around. I saw John crouching down to help Jacob with his shoelaces, showing him how to tie them again and again, no matter how many tries it took.
He continued. “We don’t shoot heroin. We snort it.”
I find it fascinating that users who snort heroin never fail to emphasize this fact. Oh, I only snort it. I would never shoot it. I’m afraid of needles. They seem to believe that no one will die from snorting heroin, even when mixing it with other drugs. Only shooters die. Those who sniff are certain their veins will not collapse, and they will not lead dysfunctional lives. No track marks, no problem.
“The first time we met she asked if I could get her some heroin. I said, ‘yes.’ I’d been doing it for a few years by then. And that’s what started our relationship. Our common interest. After a few weeks, I moved into her place. The end.”
That night, I understood John was high even before he told me about his habit, not because he hadn’t offered a reason for the hour trip to Boston, not because one of our co-workers said that he used to do heroin and then “quit,” and not because of his continuous erection, but mostly because it was familiar. My uncle, my father’s brother and Nanu’s other son, battled with heroin for twenty years. From him, I recognized the pin-sized pupils. Of course, he was a shooter. He died.
John stayed until the six o’clock train sounded outside my bedroom window. He said, “I have to go. I feel guilty, still living with her and everything.” He pronounced his guilt while coming down. The dopamine void. “I really need to get my own place,” he said.
I felt guilty too. But not to the point of regret. I saw no point in regretting an attraction I felt was beyond my control. I believed in the search for the missing element.
I closed my eyes as he sat up. I squished the pillow we had shared up against my cheek. It smelled like Polo cologne. I lay under the covers with only his TOOL t-shirt on. He leaned down and kissed my lips, then my cheek, up near my ear. “Sweet dreams hun.” He left wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. I dozed off under the bedspread while daylight tried to creep in through the window.
In the white apartment, we sit next to one another on the island in the kitchen. John lights a cigarette. “Should I have Jacob stay with us tonight?”
“Won’t he be scared?” I ask. “In a strange place with no electricity?”
“With me he’s always moving around,” he says.
I look down at the wounds on my kneecaps. The life of a junkie: Everything is temporary, revolving around one particular interest. I am aware of this life. I am living it with him.
“But, yeah, no lights, you’re right. I forgot about that,” he says. He puffs on his cigarette with one hand, and gnaws his fingernails on the other. His eyes are turned down, thinking about one love only.
I go out to my truck and grab my camping flashlight and a bunch of fat candles that I’ve tied together with string. There are two cars in front of mine in the driveway, belonging to people I haven’t yet seen. I wonder if they are curious about the young couple staying in the empty apartment with no electricity and no furniture.
I recall one day, when John asked, “You know what heroin feels like?”
“What?” I asked.
“When you’re high on heroin, your mother could be in the next room dying and you wouldn’t even care. Even if she had been the best mother in the world. Nothing matters.”
If this is what the elevation is like, then the coming off heroin must be like seeing your mother jump from a twenty-story building. Each moment starts to matter.
When I walk back into the apartment, John is on his cell phone in the former living room, which faces the front of the house, toward the street. Holes dot the white paint, where pictures once hung. I spread the candles throughout the apartment. I place one on a step stool in the bathroom, another on the boom box in the bedroom, and a couple throughout the kitchen. The echo of his voice bounces off of the walls and ceiling. “Still no? Oh. Okay then. I’ll try back later.” He’s looking out the window.
I gather that he has abandoned his decision to quit. I am accustomed to this fluctuation. I justify it because his relationship with heroin is not recreational. His body has woven it into its chemistry; it’s made this sustenance a part of him. He feeds his addiction just enough to keep satiated. Unfortunately, he is famished. That is the prison heroin creates. Without it, you become deathly ill, like going without food. The body learns to starve for it.
I am now very used to John being high. I have learned that he can go without heroin for weeks if he has OxyContin or Methadone, and I have learned to differentiate between the effects of all three narcotics. I can look at him, and tell within a matter of minutes which opiate he’s consumed, and I despise all three.
Heroin, surprisingly, seems to have the least mood altering effect on John. Other than his pin-sized pupils, I can barely tell. The heroin maintains his balance. Like water, it keeps him from thirst. The pendulum swings.
The OxyContins keep him energized. After crushing and then inhaling these pills, his libido increases. He scratches his entire body. His itchiness gives me a restless feeling. The Oxy’s are legal, which means they’re easier for him to get, and less expensive. I just call them “government issued heroin.”
With the methadone though, his high is the most obvious. The drowsiness is intense, and it becomes possible for him to fall asleep almost anywhere, including work. In blind trials, habitual users who are given both heroin and methadone are unable to distinguish the effects between the two. But John’s limbs look exceptionally weak, almost wobbly on methadone. No matter which substance, snorting is his preference. He has never used a needle. He reminds me of this.
The next night John and I lie together in our shared sleeping bag, but he keeps turning over, flipping his limbs this way and that. “Oh,” he says. “Ohhh.” His voice is high pitched, like a wounded animal whimpering in the woods. The candles flicker. The vanilla scent mixes with cigarette smoke. His restless shadow reflects on the white ceiling.
“What is it?” I ask. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s starting to hurt,” he says.
“What hurts?” I ask.
“I just hurt all over.” He bends his knees and sits up, hugging them close. “My legs are cramping up.” Beads of sweat glisten in blotches on his forehead. I look at his half of the pillow, the cotton stained with perspiration.
“How long have you been sweating like this?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A little while. Since we lay down, I guess.” He’s rocking back and forth. “I feel like I might throw up.” He puts his forehead down and cradles it in his hands. “I don’t know what to do here, Gina. I don’t know if I can do this.” He straightens his legs and stretches them out in front of him, wiggling his toes.
“Of course you can do this. I’m here with you,” I say.
John has attempted to abstain before, but has never reached the point of physical sickness. He has always given in, or in other words, found a fix.
On the floor, in this emptiness, John detoxes. He hollows out. His hair soaks his scalp with sweat. I feel like we are hitting a wall, each coming at it from the opposite side. Both tired from pushing. “I’m scared,” he says. “I’m not sure what’s happening to me.” He brushes my hand away from his shoulder. “It hurts,” he says again.
He is giving up, and I am the eternal cheerleader. I am trying to convince him that it is okay—okay that his mother is dying, that his world collapses—it is okay to care. To feel anguish from all moments mattering at once. I insist that my capacity to love him can exceed his need, but I feel helpless.
With heroin addicts, the brain cells that produce dopamine eventually shut down, and they permanently lose their ability to produce it at all. This happens as a result of years of depletion. We do not have an endless supply; it becomes used up. I speculate the chances of John’s cells surrendering. I wonder if he will be able to experience serenity again, or ever. I wonder if he will be filled, or if I will. Will he consider his life devoid of meaning without drugs? Will I ever fill this space? He indulges heavily. His addiction is fierce. It comes before me, and it comes before his son.
John is sniffing now. He lies down in the fetal position. His arms and legs twitch, making rapid kicking movements. “I’m just so tired of this misery. I don’t want to include you in this hell, you know that?”
John wakes each morning needing a fix. Without an alarm clock, he jumps up, startling me. “I have to go,” he’ll say. And I’ll know his mission has begun. I am already an integral part of his hell. But, I cannot remove myself. I experience surges of bliss when we are together, and then, when he cannot meet me at a given time, or keep his word, they are followed by a dismantling disappointment. I become elevated by this man, whom I take walks with in the rain in the middle of the night, he always clasping my hand. With whom I can talk about my father abandoning me, and who listens when I admit that I believe I fear death because I was murdered in my past life. With whom I can lie in bed with for days, naked and wrapped around him, trading meals and showers for flesh. And then, when he says he’ll be back in a half hour, and instead disappears for days at a time to look for a fix, I work long days and try to forget him, to tell myself I cannot deal with this—I have to leave him. But I don’t.
“I’m a bad father. A bad boyfriend. A bad friend,” he says. Tears drip down, falling off his nose.
“Don’t say those things. You are a great father.” I believe this. I believe this because when I allow Jacob to try on my skirts and dresses, John says, “He’s just expressing himself.” I believe this because when we go for a drive, he pulls his son onto his lap and sings him the Led Zeppelin song, “All of my Love (To You).” I believe this because I have to.
“I’ll get you something to drink,” I say. I grab a bottle of Rex Goliath merlot from the kitchen, and uncork it.
I hand him the bottle. He chugs it, swallowing more than half the bottle in one gulp.
“Feel better?” I ask.
He gives a slight nod. “My stomach really hurts though.” Goose bumps pop up on his arms, the hairs standing up around them. I feel his forehead. Cold and clammy.
I once read a recovered addict’s story, in which she said that all the bad points of heroin still don’t add up to that one perfect moment: that moment heroin addicts live for. Her words remind me of my addiction to him. Instead of his failure to show up for certain events, I focus on our dinners, him grilling yellow fin tuna garnished with asparagus, and pulling chairs over for Jacob and me while he sits on a garbage can. I listen to his epiphanies: “I know I need to get sober, for you and for my son. I know I can do it. It will be okay.” I replace the painful moments like burnt out candles—by tossing them out and seeking a new fresh scent.
“Gina, you get some sleep. You have to work in the morning. I’ll be all right. Go ahead, doze off. I might have to be in the bathroom for a while.”
It’s difficult for me to think about sleep, although I feel exhausted. I think about John being sober right now—the image of his mother, a prostitute killed by a drunk driver when he was four—dying in the next room. It matters, and it won’t stop. He cannot do anything to prevent it. Who wouldn’t give in to the fix, the only thing to cease the agony? I bury my head in the damp pillow.
Minutes later, I am dreaming. My grandfather, Nanu is the main character, and he asks me to help him cool his skin. Blisters from burns cover his arms. He points to glass mugs filled with water, overflowing with ice cubes. We are in front of an enormous mirror, and I am standing behind him. “Help me pour it over the burns, GG.” I grab the glasses, and start pouring, trying to cool his lesions. I am hasty, splashing the water, trying to relieve him. When I look back up at the mirror, it is no longer my Nanu, but my uncle, and the burns are boils formed from shooting heroin. He smiles with his mouth closed. The two people mesh into one, and in the dream, I’m not sure which one I love more, or if it’s both.
My Nanu spent years bailing my uncle out of jail and bringing him to rehabs, until one day, he stopped. He couldn’t bear trying to help him any longer, only to be disappointed. At my uncle’s funeral, Nanu wailed and said, “What a waste.” I imagine that he felt the wounds as his own. I imagine he spent his life trying to find relief.
With John, I’ve learned that heroin causes skin infections, or boils.
And that when addictions are fulfilled, endorphins are released. Endorphins serve as a pain reliever.
John is in severe pain now. He picks up his cell phone.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I have to get a ride into the city, Gina. I’m really hurting.” He directs his mouth to the phone. “Um, yes, I’m calling about the train schedule. What time does the train go into the city in the morning?” It is three o’clock a.m. “Shit,” he says. He ends the phone call.
“I don’t want you to go down there,” I say.
“I can’t get there any time soon anyway. The train doesn’t go until tomorrow afternoon.”
John doesn’t have a car. I light a cigarette and take a swig from the wine bottle. I put my head in my hands. “Let’s just get through the night. I can give you a ride when it’s daylight.” I mumble this.
“I thought you had to work,” he says.
“I do, but I’ll figure it out. I’ll make something up.”
When you are in love with a drug addict, you learn to lie, just as they do. When someone notices that he is obliterated, you blame it on him having a few too many drinks. When he loses his job, you pretend that he quit to find a better one. When he doesn’t have transportation, you blame it on the fact that he is supporting a child, not a habit. Slowly, addiction changes you as well. You don’t believe the words you utter, and you no longer believe your own judgment.
Dawn’s pink hues lighten the shade blocking the bedroom window. I have dozed off again, and when I wake up John’s head is at my feet. His hands are wrapped around my calves, his legs scrunched up to his chest in the fetal position. He is shaking again. “Come on, let’s go,” I say. It is six a.m.
“Okay,” he says. He jumps up. “Thank you.”
We head down the highway, my eyes on the road, while John tries to relax in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry,” he says. “That you have to give me a ride.”
“It’s okay,” I say. I can’t stand watching his hands twitch, his legs tremble.
By the time I drop him off and return to town, I realize that I’m an hour late for work. I call and tell my co-worker I’ve had car trouble. “My battery died and I had to get my car jumped. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I say.
“Do you want to let the person in charge know?” she asks.
“No, I’ll deal with it when I get there,” I say.
On my way, Marie calls and asks if we can get our belongings out of the apartment today. To make space for the new tenants, she says.
“No problem,” I tell her. “As soon as I get out of work.”
I hang up and call John. “It’s time for us to get out of there,” I say.
“It is? Don’t worry. We’ll find something,” he says. “We always do.”
When I get to the restaurant, my co-worker, Jill is serving a breakfast. “Is everything okay, Gina?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Hey, I was wondering, do you think John and I can stay at your place tonight?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure you can. Are you sure you’re okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m fine. We just still haven’t found a place,” I say. “Thanks.” I grab a pot of coffee, and bring it over to the table to refill the mugs.
Jill follows me to the table. She places scrambled eggs on the patrons’ mats, but she’s still looking at me, searching for a telling expression.
After work, I go back to the apartment to pack up, which only takes a few minutes. I hold the boom box in one hand, a duffel in the other, and I wear the backpack. On my way out, before closing the door, I take one last peek around to make sure we have left no trace. The apartment looks brighter without our scattered possessions. Once again empty of worldly things. White and inviting.