My first real boyfriend used to touch the veins inside my elbow and sigh at how puffy and undamaged they are. He’d gently press on the bright blue one on my right arm. His were so scarred from shooting up that from time to time I’d witness him prop his foot up on a stool and painfully shove heroin into the flat, bright veins on top of it. If he wasn’t up for that he’d inject it into the top of his hand and joke about it being a “Mickey Mouse glove” when it immediately started swelling up.
Most of the time, though, his arm was up to the task. It was a ritual. He’d look under the porcelain Chinese dog statues on top of his bookshelf and fish out a balloon of dope from the tiny hole in the bottom. He’d unwrap it singing Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” (“Hi-de-hi-de-hi-di-hi! Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho!”), methodically wet it, pull it into the syringe, and take off his tattered brown leather belt. The metal buckle would clank about until he’d pulled it tight around his arm, then he’d clench it between his teeth as he pushed the syringe into his dull vein.
“Don’t look,” he’d tell me, but I always did. Once the high hit him, the belt would go limp exhaling from its duty.
Our first “date” started with him telling me he was going to have a party at his parents’ empty house. There was never a party. He needed someone there in case he overdosed. Over after-work beers he told me, “I have a substance abuse problem. I just wanted you to know because that’s what I’m doing tonight. Have you ever done dope?” I hadn’t ever known any kind of drug addict. “I can’t believe you’re gonna see me do dope tonight.” There was a hint of excitement in his voice. “It’s not too late to back out, you know.”
Leaving the bar, we walked to an apartment where he thought he would be able to get drugs but no one answered. Instead, he used my phone to try another “friend” and that landed us on a dark bench near the train station. Within minutes, a red car pulled up. He jumped in, leaving me with his bicycle. I was new to town and briefly wondered if he had disappeared into the night without me. He came back paranoid. He said if we were too obvious, he'd get beat up by a friend for using again, so we rode the train all the way to the end of the line to his parents’ house.
Eyeing the quaint Thanksgiving touches amidst the rest of the house’s country blue decor, I nervously sipped on a vodka tonic. He sat in one of the two blue recliners, readied his kit, and offered to let me snort some (“I don’t know. It’s up to you.”). Everything was silent as he put the needle to his vein.
His eyelids drooped and he adopted a lighter attitude, silly even. Moments later he shot up at the sink and stood dabbing his blood with a paper towel.
I watched intently. He waited.
“Can I snort some?” I heard myself ask.
I didn’t realize this meant I’d be snorting it in liquid form, otherwise known as waterlining. Not wanting to taint his mother's spoons, he ran in and out of different rooms, looking for a clean spoon to boil it down in. He emerged from the hallway holding one.
“Okay, so let me give you the rundown,” he said.
“It’s gonna burn.”
“Worse than coke?”
“Yes. Worse than coke. And then it’s probably gonna run out of your nose, so you’re gonna wanna tilt your head back.” He pinched his nose.
“Okay,” I said anxiously. I wanted to do it before I backed out.
I took the straw in my fingers, placed it in my nostril, plugged my other nostril shut, and bent over the spoon. The tea-colored puddle stared up at me. I inhaled and immediately plugged my nose and tilted my head up at the kitchen lights.
He watched and waited.
I swallowed. My eyes watered. He told me I could unplug my nose. Gently bringing my head back down I sniffled and said, “Tastes like whiskey.”
The dope continued to slowly inch its way down the back of my throat.
“Actually, no. It tastes like Remy.”
“Yeah, I guess it kinda does.”
We went out to smoke cigarettes in the wood shop garage. He was on a gray stool and I was in a wooden chair. We brought our drinks out and once seated I felt it hit me like a giant exhalation. I was lightheaded but my entire body was absolutely relaxed. Everything felt slow. Smoking a cigarette was laborious.
With half-closed eyes I looked down at my hand and saw I’d let the ash grow an inch long forgetting I was even holding it. If I’d had the energy I’d have rolled my eyes hard at myself for being such a cliché, like a junkie rock star’s idiot girlfriend who suddenly wants to “feel what he feels.” My neck loosened and my head felt like it was floating just above my body. The unbearable lightness of being, I thought. He was rambling on and on in his deep, serious voice that sounds like years of nicotine.
“I’m gonna puke,” I stood up woozy.
“You’re gonna throw up? Okay.”
He had warned me that it happens to most people their first time, no matter how they choose to do it. He led me inside, and I showed myself to the toilet. It was quick and easy and barely disturbed the flow of the evening.
We sat next to each other in his parents’ recliners eating raw spinach and Lean Cuisine pizza watching "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which had never been so hilarious to me. “You’re cute right now,” he said as he watched me eat my spinach with my hand. “Why? What’d I do?” I giggled back.
Under heavy eyelids he asked, “So, are you comfortable sleeping in the same bed as me?”
We went to his room and he put on the Oingo Boingo-inspired cult classic "Forbidden Zone," which takes place in an alternate universe. After making out some, he went to the bathroom and returned to find me standing there topless. He came up behind me, wrapped his arms around me and asked, “Do you think that we could be friends... and lovers?” I snuck a look at us in the mirrored closet door. Both of us naked from the waist up looking bleary eyed. “It’s a possibility.”
He was insanely attractive, fitting right into the “tall, dark, and handsome” category. He also had the knack for knowing exactly what to say to rope in my naive emotions:
“You’re really exciting to be around.”
“No one’s been able to pleasure me as well as you do, and I don’t just mean sexually.”
“I like the mole under your eye, Babycat. It’s like a sign of strength.”
I ate up his affection, that vulnerable side that he didn’t display in front of strangers, his flirtatious grin that spread across his face when he’d spout off his regular line, “You play too much.”
Early on, I knew if he ever got clean, our time together would end. He was going to shoot up whether I was there or not, so I might as well be there (just in case). I wanted to be there, to look after him, nurture him, play house with him. Hole up in our little world where there were secrets but they were all ours.
* * *
We're smoking cigarettes on the porch of his second-floor split level, staring at a neon-red church cross. He lights a quarter stick of dynamite and throws it into the mostly empty parking lot on the other side of the fence.
We instinctively duck. BOOM. A car alarm goes off. I simultaneously shriek and cackle and run inside. A thrilling rush washes over me. The explosion rings deep in my ears.
* * *
When we stop at the mystery apartment complex, he tells me this is where Operation Ivy lived in their early days. We’re in a borrowed van, the words "Keepin’ it Clean" emblazoned on the side in worn blue letters. I wonder what “surprise” he could possibly have for me in this rundown building -- he’s been teasing me all week. He gets out. My eyes trace his trademark black Levi’s as he runs up the stairs and knocks. It’s cold out. Small clouds of my breath fill up the front seat fogging the windshield. I anxiously watch for him.
The door loudly creaks open and he sits clenching something behind his back.
“Are you ready for your surprise?”
It’s dead quiet and every sound takes on the hollowness of the empty van. He makes me close my eyes and places something in my hands.
“Okay, you can open them.”
I look down and unsnap the knife from its case. It’s new and has a serrated edge.
"Whoa,” is all I can manage. I can’t tell if he’s fucking with me or not.
“Do you think I’ll ever have to use this?” I say, turning the knife over by its rubber handle and feeling its weight. I can barely get a good grip around it with my childlike hand.
“I hope to god you won’t.”
“Thanks… No one’s ever given me a knife before.”
He gives a speech about the neighborhood I live in, says a girl like me can never be too safe, says to keep it under my pillow at night, says he knows what’s right for Babycat.
* * *
They're letting their guy divvy up the goods at their place to get a price cut. When business is adjourned, he goes over to his ceramic Chinese dogs and slips all but one of the orange balloons into the bottom.
He takes out a syringe procured from his pal at the needle exchange, goes into the kitchen, then returns wearing a devilish grin, arms behind his back.
“What?” I ask looking up from bed. Dimples flashing, he unleashes the needle like a squirt gun.
“Stop it!” I laugh and try to duck.
When he assumes his position on the homemade stool, all traces of a smile leave his face. Looking at his inner elbow, his brow creases. “Don’t look.” I pretend not to.
* * *
As he kneels on my bedroom floor next to a box of crayons, arranging his drug regalia, I finally say it: “Your dope doing makes me question what’s going on between us.”
“Next time we hang out I won’t do anything,” he promises as the tarnished silver spoon slides from his leg.
He says that I shouldn’t feel like I have to drink or do drugs just because he does. I think back to a question he posed to me last week -- “Will things between us be for the forces of good or the forces of evil?”
As I contemplate this, he channels his wayward Prince Charming: "I have something to tell you. It’s that every day you get prettier and prettier to me.” He flicks his finger at the syringe’s plastic chamber twice. “And, I don’t know if you’re putting it on or what it is.”
Later that night he shoots up in between sips of malt liquor, and we watch old British sitcoms and serial killer documentaries, until I get sleepy from too many bong rips. The point is to smoke enough that the panicky feelings float out of me. I curl up under his tiger blanket and pass out in a dreamless sleep.
* * *
“Look at me! You have to open your eyes and look at me.”
I touch his cheek, wipe his cold, clammy forehead, and shake him by his shoulders pleading, “Look at me! Please, just look at me!”
He tries, but all I see are the whites of his eyes as they roll further back into his head.
“Okay, okay.” The words leak out. “I have to focus,” he says exhaling. “Hold on.”
His eyelids struggle open. He rubs his face awake and reluctantly sits up. He stands, moves to the window and casually lights a cigarette.
My heart’s thumping fast. My eyes search for the bong.
* * *
His mom found out he was using when she came across remnants of drug use in his childhood bedroom -- an array of hardened brown swabs of cotton on stained spoons, unopened, orange-capped hypodermic needles, and tiny, clear needle caps half-filled with water. Eight months went by before she got him to go to rehab.
He wrote me letter after letter, poem after poem, and I received them all at once bundled into an envelope containing locks of his jet black hair.
By providence your night shirt made its way with me here. At night I cling to it. It reminds me why I’m doing this. Because I love you and want us to move on.
Two weeks later, he hitchhiked 10 miles along the freeway, bummed bus fare, then took the train to the room we’d stayed in together. A room that surely still held burgundy blood stains and a lingering vinegar-like aroma, the scent of heroin.
Having a shaved head gave his dark-ringed eyes a more penetrating and psychotic look than normal. His nose, already crooked from too many fist fights, was more pronounced and awkward on his gaunt, angular face.
* * *
When we broke up my roommate found me hyperventilating with uncontrollable tears pouring down my face. I felt lost. I’d become addicted to him. I knowingly let myself slip under some kind of wicked spell. Smoking weed and drinking all the time only pushed me further away from reality, further into his world, or the fantasy world we concocted. I dealt with the scandal and danger as it came because I thought it was all temporary. The after-shocks of putting myself in a position where love and pain go hand and hand still ripple through me.
* * *
He didn’t tell me he was moving to Minneapolis until he showed up at my door with his suitcase and a tall can of beer. His flight was leaving in a few hours, and he wanted to say goodbye before he left. He asked me to walk him to the train station.
We stopped outside of the turnstile, he said some words, hugged me and kissed me on my cheek, then he was gone. I turned away and instantaneously felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. As I kept walking I let a small smile form on my face.