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Finally We Are No One
By Sky Callahan
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Rated "R" by the Author.
A man's heroin addiction and the friendship it affects.
Our friendship was unlikely, if not impossible: Cocaine-addicted and gracefully cosmopolitan Margot was a product of Savannah's debutante balls and petty intrigues, beautiful though a hundred pounds overweight; alcoholic Leigh Anne was a trailer park queen, country-fried and built like a fist, mother to a brood of three; and I was a heroin-addled writer, recently homeless and tightly fastened to the Richard Hell-as-novelist template. One commonality drew us together, however: We were each addicts, presumably trying to get better, at a place called the St. Boniface Chemical Dependency Center of Shelton, Washington.
Margot had divorced well. And, while momentarily homeless—though certainly not in the sense that I was homeless—she’d rent an exclusive apartment somewhere and proceed to throw elegant dinner parties shortly after her discharge. Leigh Anne, plainspoken and brutally direct, would return to her doublewide and responsibilities as a mother and a wife. I’d go back to the streets of Seattle, bouncing from shelter to shelter, often sleeping in back-alleys and parks, standing in the food lines and laundry lines, waiting interminable periods for everything necessary to existence—not life, mind you, but strictly existence.
Ours was a rapport of the incarcerated, a camaraderie of the detained. We traded dozens of intimacies and deep secrets, tiny revelations we could never imagine sharing with anyone on the outside. We joked and told entertaining stories, often about our individual addictions. We kept each other amused in the dull evening hours after dinner, when the lectures and workshops and drug abuse videos had ended and—save the occasional off-campus trek to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, escorted by a staff member—there was nothing to do until bedtime. We cleaved close to one another during the daytime's hectic schedule, frequently whispering snide remarks or witty observations.
Why had we sought each other out—to the exclusion of fifteen (or so) other clients on the ward? Two words answered that question: Black humor. We three found amusement in almost everything, from stories of overdoses to suicidal ideation to self-mutilation. We discerned this trait in each other almost instantly and the attraction was immediate. Our peers, for the most part, didn’t share this predilection and begrudged us our laughter. So they formed their various cliques—mostly split, by all appearances, along class lines—and we formed ours. One outstanding feature of ours, however, aside from the question of humor, was that we were three people from three different classes.
One thing bothered me, however: What was my purpose at St. Boniface’s? Was it, as assumed, to permanently kick heroin? Or was some other, less constructive motive at work? Perhaps I’d enrolled in the program, at state expense, to simply get off the mean streets of Seattle, to sleep in a bed—complete with pillows and sheets—for a change. Or maybe an even darker impetus came into play; after all, I’d be a much more efficient junkie if my veins could heal and tolerance levels lower over a month’s time. My head told me many things and gleaning the truth was, simply put, difficult; my tendency has always been to over-intellectualize questions, and this one was no different.
Just a few days into our friendship, we’d grown so close that relations seemed permanent, that we’d never truly part—even upon return to our separate lives. That being the case, my true motivation for entering the program at St. Boniface’s was even more important. If my expectation was to remain a user, then it was unlikely that I’d sustain a relationship with Margot and Leigh Anne. All joking aside, they were perfectly serious about sobriety and couldn’t be a part of my world if active use continued—they wouldn’t want to be, no doubt. But could heroin be quitted, perhaps, for the sake of our friendship, for Margot and Leigh Anne and everything they were coming to mean to me?
In truth, my greatest desire was to rid myself of heroin once and for all. It was a damnably expensive and inconvenient habit, and it was only by luck that I’d never wound up in jail because of it. But quitting was fraught with fear. For over thirty years, off and on, heroin had been a ubiquitous part of my life and the thought of permanently ending my association with it was terrifying. What in God’s name would be my crutch, my stabilizing influence when the chaos of the world became too much to bear? And it was apparent that, sober or no, for the rest of my life, not a day would pass without thoughts turning to heroin—it was that pernicious. How could something like that be tolerated?
And now, Margot and Leigh threw a further curve into my trajectory—that of sincere friendship, a thing I’d rarely experienced in the realm of heroin addicts. To know them was to yearn for sobriety, to wish away the cravings for smack and build a life free from chemicals. Perhaps they could help me stay clean; I’d need all the moral support possible, especially after my discharge and return to the streets where every dealer knew me and actively sought my money. I’d need associations devoid of drug use, reliable coffee dates and escorts to clean-and-sober events or simply someone available for phone conversations in the deepest part of night.
My discharge came first, on October 4th, twenty-eight days after admission. The preceding night, a counselor named Hugo gave me a copy of the Little White Book, Narcotic Anonymous’ basic text. He left a barely literate inscription on the inside cover:
I BELIVE (sic) IN YOU,
PEASE (sic) & LOVE YOUR (sic) IN
Others signed the book as well, mostly people who didn’t know me well and simply left sentiments like "good luck" and "best wishes." Leigh Anne, however, left a particularly touching and sweet epitaph:
me more than you’ll ever
know. Thanks for being a
great friend. You have the
strength to make it.
And Margot’s was as expansive as the woman herself:
03 OCTOBER 2003
My favorite Eddie…
Well, the nights have been sweet…
The days real… Continue to grow…
Continue to heal… Remember, it’s all about you!
Now, today…. Today is the 1st day of the rest of your life!!
You have the power—use it!
CARRY ON W/ CONTENTMENT
Later that night, Hugo drove the ward’s denizens to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a hospital in Olympia. Riding in the van, Margot sat on one side of me with Leigh Anne on the other—each evincing her continuing affection for Eddie Egan. Damn them for this friendship! As a junkie, I’d spent years erecting a wall to keep others out. Even during marriage, my wife (my dealer) was kept at a distance—culminating in her bill of divorcement against me after eight years. Now, Margot and Leigh Anne had breached my walls simply by being who they were. The question of sobriety, I thought, wouldn’t be half so complicated were it not for them. Leaving the treatment center and using again probably wouldn’t be fraught with guilt if not for Margot and Leigh Anne.
Matters quickly worsened. Upon arrival at the hospital, Margot made a beeline to the ATM and quickly withdrew a stack of twenties. Counting them, making sure she’d received the correct amount, she then pressed them into my hands—$500! "Just a little something," she said, "not much, but something to help you when you hit the streets again. I’m worried about you having winter clothing and such." $359 in public assistance funds were already awaiting my release, along with $77 in food stamps, which, if one knew the right people, could be exchanged for cash at half the value. That would make my total take just under $900, more money than I’d seen, at one time, since becoming homeless the previous January.
Margot pooh-poohed my feeble, vaguely prideful protests. Both wanting and not wanting to accept the money, the latter because 1) accepting cash gifts, while a rare opportunity in my experience, always made me uncomfortable and 2) it was a trigger, a temptation to run out and score some smack, I also found the money truly attractive, if it could be put to the use for which Margot intended. "I have faith that you’ll make the right decisions, Eddie. I’ve gotten to know you pretty damn well over the past month and can vouch for your sincerity concerning sobriety." She had more confidence in me than I did, so powerful were my continued cravings for heroin.
The following morning, we ate our last breakfast together, participated in a ceremony wherewith a certificate of completion was awarded me, and then made our way to the exit where tearful hugs and solemn promises to stay in touch were exchanged. A wistful feeling overtook me as I pushed through the exit and stepped outside for the first time in twenty-eight days. I was free—but what did that mean? My guaranteed three meals a day were no more, along with the cozy bed and typewriter. Once again, I was just another bum on the street, struggling day-by-day to avoid hunger, boredom, and the violence that came obliquely from one’s side with no warning.
A municipal bus took me to the Greyhound Station in downtown Olympia. My coach to Seattle, it turned out, wouldn’t be leaving for another three hours. It was a Sunday. Not much was open, few distractions were available. The girl at the Greyhound counter told me about Capitol Lake Park, a few blocks to the west, which, she said, would undoubtedly be beautiful on a brilliant autumn day like this. She was right. The park, a wedge-shaped carpet of green, had bicycle and running trails, a playground for kids and picnic tables. It looked out over the glassy, dam-bordered waters of Capitol Lake. The sky was an unblemished blue and the trees stood out in stark relief. Hardly anyone was there at that time of the morning and parts of the park felt completely isolated.
Wait. Was he already there? Or had he followed me into the park? My razor-sharp perceptions, always on the lookout for sudden danger, had been dulled while in treatment—and the kid had gotten around me, somehow. Junkie. Probably a small-time dealer. My skin tingled. My tongue ran across my lips. A moment passed, then he spotted me—one junkie recognizing another (although I’d picked up fifteen pounds and some healthy coloring while in rehab). He approached me. "You looking?" he asked. St. Boniface’s—Margot and Leigh Anne—swarmed in my mind. They were back on the ward, out of reach. There was no one to stop me from getting high, and the money in my pocket had set it afire. My addiction was talking a mile a minute, not accepting "no" for an answer.
"What have you got?" I asked.
"Special K, Ecstasy, meth, and heroin."
"Got any works—a needle and such?"
"Sure, but a package with a cooker and cotton costs ten extra."
"No problem," I said, patting my wallet.
I indicated two bags, enough to get me back to Seattle. So what if I’m weak, I thought. Fuck St. Boniface’s and everyone in it. Fuck Margot and Leigh Anne. Heroin was of paramount importance, my strength and my source of focus. Treatment had been a farrago of puerilities, a quasi-evangelical browbeating that had briefly deceived me—but no more. As the drugs and money exchanged hands, I could almost feel the needle sensuously sliding into my arm, the blood flowing into the syringe, smack filling my bloodstream. Fuck it all. Let me die this way.
"Where’s a good place to shoot up?"
"Try the bathroom at the Spar Café on 4th Avenue East."
"And to get a drink afterwards?"
"The same. There’s a bar in the back."
The Spar, named for a tree with its branches cut off, probably in deference to its original clientele of lumberjacks and mill workers, is an Olympia landmark—a 1935-vintage Art Moderne masterpiece housing the city’s premiere "working man’s café." It isn’t a place for junkies, however, a filthy dive with discarded needles littering the bathroom floor; it’s a scrupulously preserved restaurant with a good reputation. But basically, with my healthy glow, I fit right in—despite an ensemble of Levi’s ripped at the knees, filthy black-and-white Chuck Taylors, black tee-shirt, black baseball cap with a stylized martini glass ("The Starburst: Drunks Serving Drinks Since 1929") embroidered on the front, and small Swiss rucksack.
I shot up in a restroom stall, taking my time, relishing every part of the ritual. The skag was pretty good, probably as good as could be expected in a town like Olympia. After the initial rush, I settled into a wonderfully warm buzz and slowly stood up, checked myself in the mirror, washed my hands, and made my way to the bar. Once there, I ordered a Beam-and-branch and settled onto a barstool. Johnny Cash filled the room and posters advertising upcoming live shows covered one wall. I felt grand, almost as fine as the first time I’d ever shot up, though a nagging sense of guilt gnawed at my stomach: Margot and Leigh Anne. It seemed nothing would put them out of my mind.
However, that was a mistaken assumption. Four or five drinks later, liquor interacting with heroin’s gentle peaks and valleys, the two women passed easily from my consciousness. My memories of St. Boniface’s became vague, translucent—then unimportant. Nothing mattered, except my high. More alcohol flowed and one more trip was made to the restroom. My first assessment had been unfair—this heroin was exceptional. This business worked, it was again decided, this business of drying out for a while—just as I’d proven so many times in the past, times when I’d gone a week or three months or five years without smack, then gone back to it. The initial highs were incomparable.
Shortly before noon, trashed, I made my way to the Greyhound station and boarded the northbound coach. A little over an hour later, the bus pulled into Seattle and deposited me on the fringe of downtown, a short walk to Broadway where the plan was to pick up more skag. I found my favorite dealer standing on the sidewalk near Dick’s Restaurant and buttonholed him. Where’ve you been? he asked. St. Boniface’s, I told him, a rehab center down by Olympia. What are you looking for? The same, of course. Oh, I thought maybe they weaned you off smack. St. Boniface’s was bullshit, I said. All treatment centers are bullshit.
The next several days were spent in a heroin and alcohol haze, burning through the money in my pocket—mostly at the Starburst. By the 8th, I’d already been evicted from one motel for wrecking the room (busted by the maid, of course) and partly burning another one down. Soon, I took to sleeping on a bench at Seattle Center for the purpose of conserving my rapidly diminishing funds. In no time, sooner rather than later, I’d be broke again and forced to constantly hustle for drugs—or, more likely, endure withdrawal. Perhaps I’d check into detox, where my withdrawal symptoms could be medicated.
Eventually, the cash disappeared altogether. It was the 13th, or so. About a gram of heroin and half a fifth of Jim Beam remained, both safely ensconced in my rucksack. I was on a Metro bus leaving downtown proper and heading into the Belltown neighborhood—on my way to the Starburst where it might be possible to cadge a couple of drinks, depending upon the bartender—when I saw Margot waiting at a stop. Without thinking, I leapt from the bus and bounded toward her, exclaiming, "Margot! Margot!" We embraced tightly.
"What’re you doing in Seattle?" I asked breathlessly.
"Looking for an apartment," she answered.
"I thought you intended to stay in the South Sound area."
"Originally, I’d thought so."
"Why the change of mind?" I asked.
"Well, you’re up here and I figured I could help you out."
"By getting an apartment and letting you live there with me, no strings attached."
I was dumbfounded. What did she want? She said "no strings attached," but, to the experienced junkie in me, that meant nothing. Or worse yet, it meant "lots of strings attached." Nobody just gives you the run of an apartment for free, I thought, no matter how close the relationship is. Anyway, even if the offer was on the up-and-up, how could my heroin use be hidden from her if we lived together? She’d throw me out on my ear—unless, of course, she went back to cocaine. Perhaps she’d already relapsed and coke was fueling her offer. Were her pupils dilated? Did she seem nervous, even a little shaky?
"Where are you staying right now?" she asked.
"Park benches, for the most part," I answered.
"No space in the shelters?"
"I avoid those places as much as possible."
"Where’s your money?"
"All spent. On a storage space," I lied, "and stuff for the winter. Clothing and a proper backpack and whatnot."
"Well, I have a motel room on Aurora Avenue," she said, "and you’re welcome to stay there tonight. We can discuss the apartment issue and see how well we can tolerate each other one-on-one. In the meantime, where’s a coffee shop? I’ll buy."
I walked her to a Starbuck’s at Second and Lenora. We ordered a couple of coffee drinks (she: a caramel macchiato, me: a double latté) and took a table on the sidewalk. She told me that Leigh Anne was still at St. Boniface’s, and pulled a cell phone from her purse—did I want to talk to Leigh Anne on Margot’s dime? Sure, why not? She dialed the number to one of the phones at the treatment center and, after a moment, asked for Leigh Anne. Another moment or two passed, then Margot’s face lit up. "Hi, Leigh Anne!" she said. "It’s Margot. And guess who’s here with me. Yep, that’s right. Hang on a second, here he is."
"Hi, Leigh Anne."
"Nothing much. Just having coffee with Margot. What’s up with you?"
"Nothing, really. Same old thing."
"Yeah, St. Boniface’s."
And that was it—the substance of our conversation. No longer sharing a common environment, no longer inspired by a shared experience, one like St. Boniface’s, we had nothing to talk about. In truth, we were not really friends at all—just acquaintances. We stammered on for several minutes, desperately trying to rekindle the flame, but to absolutely no avail. With each syllable, our differences stood out in sharper relief. The things that had brought us together were firmly lodged in the past and nothing could unbury them. How depressing, I thought. After a while, I said goodbye and handed the phone back to Margot, relieved to get off the line.
It’s the heroin. And, probably, the booze. I’m high right now. (Does Margot notice?) I can’t relate to Leigh Anne when I’m stoned. That has to be it. I’ve been immersed in smack since my discharge and it’s tweaked my ability to be Leigh Anne’s friend, like in rehab when I was clean-and-sober. Maybe it’s altered my relationship with Margot, too. Maybe that’s why I’m questioning her offer of a room in an apartment. I should just accept it, take her at face value when she says, "no strings attached." And if she has a problem with my heroin use… well… we can tackle that issue when it raises its head. Maybe she has relapsed on coke. Only 14% of drug addicts ever quit for good…
Margot and Leigh Anne chatted on for a while, apparently blessed with more in common. Then Margot said goodbye, clicked the phone off, and dropped it back into her purse. "So," she said, "about this apartment…" and proceeded to restate her offer. We discussed the particulars, my efforts directed toward finding out what she expected of me and whether or not she was using coke again—the latter task approached very subtly. By all appearances, she just wanted to help out, though it was hard to get an exact fix on her intentions—never mind the issue of cocaine use. It would, however, be damned nice to get off the streets, now wouldn’t it?
I did accept her offer of a motel room. The nights were starting to take on a chill, and I preferred to put a scabies-ridden shelter off as long as possible. So we abandoned our table and caught a #358 to Aurora Avenue North, getting off at the Eaze-Inn where Margot had a room already booked. It was, somewhat to my relief, equipped with two queen-sized beds. Both were made. "Which one is yours?" I asked. "This one," she said, indicating the bed furthest from the door. I threw my rucksack off and jumped onto the other bed. It felt heavenly, especially after several nights on the hard benches at Seattle Center. The heat pouring into the room was a dream.
"One thing," Margot said. "I tend to get cold very easily, so I might—in the middle of the night—move into your bed for the warmth. Do you mind?"
What was to be said? So far, there was nothing wrong with the room’s temperature and no reason to suspect it would suddenly turn cold. And what had she done on previous nights, when she presumably had nobody with whom to share warmth? The request (if that’s what it was) struck me as strange. But, again, perhaps it was a perfectly innocent thing. My first responses couldn’t be trusted, as skewed as they seemed to be by intoxication. So I assented, told her it would be all right. She thanked me and settled into her bed, telling me that she was very sleepy—but I could watch television, if I wished; it wouldn’t bother her.
Soon, she was asleep, her breathing deep and measured, almost but not quite snoring. When it felt safe, I shot up again, utilizing the bathroom for privacy. I’d been wearing a long-sleeved thermal undershirt, both for warmth and to hide my fresh track marks, but now I took it off. The room was very warm and I wanted to sleep in comfort, not worried that, in the darkness, Margot would see the injection points on my right arm. I curled up in my bed with the remote control and channel surfed, drifting in and out of consciousness, occasionally nodding off. I finally settled on Humphrey Bogart in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
At some point in the night, half-awake, the oscillating bluish glow of the TV filling the room, I sensed Margot moving her heavy body into my bed. She wrapped an arm around my chest and held on tightly, pulling her face up to mine. I tried to ignore her, but it was impossible; she was staring directly at me. Then she lowered her lips and kissed me. I didn’t return the kiss, lying stock-still. She ran her palm across my chest and spent a moment playing with one of my nipples. She continued to kiss me, sometimes on the lips, sometimes around them—on the cheeks—sometimes on the throat. Then she ran her hand across my stomach and went for the fly of my blue-jeans, trying to unfasten it. Enough, already.
"Stop, Margot," I said. "This isn’t what I want." In the darkness, her face took on a look of genuine shock. Her hand immediately moved away from my body. "I truly care about you, Margot, but not in a sexual way. I don’t care about anyone in a sexual way these days."
"Goddamn you," she spat. "It’s my body, isn’t it… the fact that I’m overweight?"
"No, I promise you, Margot—it’s no such thing."
"Sure it isn’t," she hissed sarcastically, flipping on the nightstand light. "And I thought you were different."
"I… I… don’t know what to say…"
"What guy refuses the advances of a woman—any woman—unless he’s totally repulsed by her?"
Just then, her eyes shot to my right arm and she saw the fresh track marks there.
"Goddamn it," she said, "you’re using again, aren’t you?"
"Oh, those? Those are old. I’ve had them for a couple of months."
"Bullshit. I know fresh track marks when I see them. Anyway, you didn’t have them at St. Boniface’s."
I didn’t know what to say. I was caught and there was no way to get uncaught.
"I want you out of here right now," she demanded, "this very minute, goddamn it."
"It’s three o’clock in the morning, Margot… where am I going to go?"
"I don’t care. Get away from here. I’m not going to suffer a junkie in my motel room."
"Just like that? After all we’ve been through at St. Boniface’s?"
"You were clean and sober at St. Boniface’s, therefore no threat to my sobriety. But you’re toxic now and I just can’t have you around."
"Margot, please, let’s talk about this…"
"Don’t make me call the motel clerk. Just go!"
The jut of her chin made it clear that she meant business. Was this really about heroin? Or was it more about my refusal to have sex with her? Probably both. There was no way, now, to win. In less than a minute’s time, I’d turned my (arguably) best friend against me. So, without another word, I pulled my tee-shirt on and donned the light jacket I’d shoplifted from an army-navy surplus store a few days earlier. As Margot looked on, policing me, I put on socks and laced up my Chuck Taylors. I crushed the Starburst baseball cap onto my head and jauntily threw the rucksack over one shoulder.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye, Margot."
She didn’t say a word. Her face was a mask of outrage.
"Okay, goodbye," I said, pushing through the doorway. The air outside was chilly, not really cold—but uncomfortably humid. There was nowhere to go and no buses running to get me there. I was stranded on Aurora North with no way to get downtown. Even if I could get to downtown, there wasn’t a single shelter open to me; the last would’ve closed its doors at ten o’clock. I needed to kill two-and-a-half or three hours, when the buses started running again. Perhaps I could sleep on the bench at a bus stop. Or maybe I could simply strike out and start walking toward downtown. In any case, I needed to find a reasonably private place to shoot up the last of my heroin.