by Annie Dawid
By that time, I’d broken almost every rule I would break. The smart girl from the “good” family,” I’d slept with men of every race, creed, and color. Most every drug had entered my lungs, my nose—though not my veins. I’d attempted suicide—“unsuccessfully”—more than once, and I’d learned the art of trichotillomania, though I had no name at that time for such transgressions of the body. “You use yourself as an experiment,” said my psychiatrist, years later. But he didn’t know the depth of the experimentation undertaken preceding my arrival in his office.
Almost. In my twenties, grad student by night, with a boring day job to pay the bills, the damage I had yet to do remained unfathomed. So when Victoria said, "Want to try heroin,” at first I thought she was kidding, because all I’d ever known her to do was drink. A sister-student in my Shakespeare class, we partied together on weekends, our entertainment consisting of binge drinking at bars, sometimes followed by crazy eating if we found ourselves without men by night’s end. More than once, we concluded the party at Clown Alley at two in the morning, scarfing tuna melts with fries, smearing them into our hungry, gaping maws, so drunk and messy the owner threatened to kick us out.
Victoria was heavy, buxom, blond, innately savvy about how to catch and hold men's attention. She wore short black dresses with black heels, her shapely legs exposed. At the same time, she remained phenomenally insecure: born into a family of drunks, both terrified and certain she was heading the same way. By the time we met, she'd had three or four abortions, all of which she agonized over profoundly, all originating in drunken one-nighters with strangers, hoping for connection, love, affection—everything every one of us needs. Guilt over abortion drove her to the bottle, and the pattern continued.
I possessed my own coping mechanisms, coming from a family of crazy people. We are crazy all on our own, without recourse to any genre of mind-altering substance, legal or otherwise. We're Jews, not known for drinking as a culture, though of course Jewish drunks exist, including my sister, though I did not know of her drinking then. Though I drank, fish-like, with Victoria, I remembered reading in the poet John Berryman's unfinished memoir, Recovery (unfinished because he threw himself off a bridge in the frozen heart of a Minneapolis winter while composing it), “Jews don’t drink.” He hoped to make lots of Jewish friends in the asylum because he believed they never became alcoholics; perhaps he thought they were genetically incapable of it. I must have believed it too. In my family, my mother, my brother, myself—all of us managed to get ourselves committed to psych wards—voluntarily or otherwise—without benefit of any substance at all. Even pot propelled my brain to scary precipices of heightened realities: the congenial park down the street metamorphosed midday into a labyrinthine forest, the two blocks between my best friend’s house and mine transformed themselves into a terrorizing odyssey, rapists waiting under every tree. I always told people, when they asked me to share a joint or drop acid, “My mind is a scary enough place all by itself, but thanks anyway.”
“Heroin can’t be compared to any other drug,” Victoria insisted. We'd just snort it—nothing more. In fact, she said the high was softer and gentler than any drug I had experienced. A bit like the best drunk, only it didn't make you want to eat. In fact, you didn’t think about food on heroin. For heavy women, this aspect held much appeal.
The night she introduced the idea of heroin to me, Victoria brought along her ex-boyfriend, conveniently accompanied by a friend for me as well, so there were four of us, neatly coupled. Her ex, Bill, now just a friend, had become a dealer, too deep in his habit to be sexual.
It made sense that Victoria would be attracted to heroin, alone among other drugs, for it shed an otherworldly light, associated in her mind with literati in London’s fin-de-siecle opium dens, formally dressed for their dreamy reach into oblivion. I, too, was drawn by that vision, summoned by The Picture of Dorian Gray we’d read in class together. Did I say no? I did not. I was curious. If she had suggested using needles, my refusal would have been automatic. But snorting? What harm could that do?
Bill brought the heroin along to our meeting at the Savoy Café in North Beach. Each of us paid him twenty dollars. Stan, his friend, was broke after our first glass of wine, so I ended up paying for “my date” and I to drink several rounds.
Victoria had snorted heroin before, though Bill had advanced to the needle. After hours at the Savoy, drinking red wine, Bill said we should go out back. The rain had cleared, and we could see stars in the San Francisco sky, not a common occurrence, these shivers of unexpected light. I sat on a damp curb, waiting passively for the event to unfold, a spectator at my own life.
Stan unfolded a rectangle of aluminum foil, Bill provided the heroin and the lighter, and we began. The longer we sat there, the brighter the constellations glowed. Doubtless my ass was damp and stiff from the wet cement, but I remember none of those details. Apparently, it never crossed my mind that we could get caught, sitting on the curb snorting heroin. I remember laughing, though, delighted by whatever delights one in a state beyond drunkenness, Victoria and I all over giggles, while the men remained quiet.
I only managed a few snorts before I said I’d had enough. “More for me,” said Stan. He was bland, a man whose sole outstanding descriptor was his position as a gardener at a golf course, which meant he had to be on the greens at six a.m. the next day. I didn’t care about him. Would I spend the night with him? I didn’t think about it. The moments there on the curb, observing the stars where they didn’t usually exist, constituted an isolated envelope of bliss. At once, I understood the allure of the drug: the idea that one needed nothing else in the world.
Victoria never told me how sick I would get.
A purposeful evasion, a convenient elision of truth? That night, in the gardener’s basement apartment, I woke in the darkness and needed to vomit, but I didn’t know where I was or who he was or where a bathroom might be. He was yelling some sort of direction to a toilet, but I couldn’t understand his words. I threw up on the floor, the carpet, and finally in the kitchen sink. Stan was furious. At five, when the alarm went off, he told me I had to leave; a key was required to lock the apartment door, and he had no extra. Somehow, I called for a taxi, still dry heaving, my brain now recoiling from what I had done to it.
The cab driver surveyed me, assessed the damage, and said nothing all the way to my apartment, me with my head out the window in case I got sick again. The sun shone, and I saw people waiting for buses on corners, though the sight of life going on hurt my eyes. It took days to recover, my head ringing with pain, whoever I was more disordered and directionless than ever before.
Was that night the nadir of my existence? Drunk, stoned on heroin, in bed with a stranger and puking all over the floor? How deeply I descended in that man’s apartment, my body beyond my control, my soul atomized into particles. I had sunk, evidently, to my intended destination.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” wrote Eliot in “The Wasteland.” I remembered the Hebrew injunction: “Tikkun olam,” to heal and restore the world by finding the pieces of holiness god had dispersed all over the world. Slowly, I gathered my fragments, harvesting bits of self scattered like shards of light everywhere.
Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at Arapahoe Community College in Denver. She has taught workshops at the Taos Summer Writers Conference and at the Castle Rock Writers Conference. She retired as Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College. Recent awards include the Orlando Flash Fiction Prize, the Dana Award in the Essay, the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction and the New Rocky Mountain Voices Award in Drama. She has published three books of fiction: York Ferry: A Novel, Lily in the Desert: Stories, And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family.