Monday, September 29, 2008
No Place Like Home
What follows is an extended excerpt from my memoir, Dead Star Twilight. The events described take place just before Christmas of 2000. By this time, I was well into a very serious heroin addiction and had hoped that a two-week vacation with my wife (now ex-wife) would provide a kind of forced detox -- the first step in kicking my dangerously escalating habit. If this sounds like a really stupid plan -- it was.
It’s almost 2pm on a Friday afternoon, and Kara and I are sitting at LAX waiting to board a flight which will take us to Miami, the first stop on an almost two-week-long holiday season tour. The plan is to hit both our parents’ homes, dividing our time equally between her family and mine. There will be extended relatives. There will be Christmas parties. There will be Kara’s first time meeting her newborn niece. There will be the requisite holiday cheer. And there, in the middle of it all, will be me—withdrawing from heroin.
Wait a minute.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
My eyes widen and my hands start to shake as the sheer impact of this ill-conceived little plan of mine finally hits me in the chest like a wrecking ball. It happens as I’m being herded down the jetway and into oblivion—the slow push forward suddenly taking on the finality of the Bataan Death March.
Oh motherfucking shit.
I try to conceal my expanding panic by logically sorting out what the next few hours and days will probably have in store for me. Truth be told, I have no idea what detox feels like. The reason for this, of course, is that since my addiction graduated to full-blown, Hendrixian status, I haven’t actually allowed myself to go without drugs long enough to feel the true pain of withdrawal.
What’s to come? I have some idea:
Visions of Trainspotting dance in my head—dead babies crawling across the ceiling.
I hear the voice of Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies telling me that he has such sights to show me.
“You alright?” Kara asks, no doubt noticing that I’ve gone shock-white.
I force a smile. “I’m fine.”
What’s one more lie at this point?
My math has suddenly gotten much better.
A twenty-dollar heroin ball, times three, plus the difference between noon and 10pm, at thirty-five thousand feet equals—one fucked junkie. It’s been ten hours since my last fix—I managed to sneak out and indulge just a couple of hours before boarding the plane—and I’m starting to feel the unmistakable first waves of withdrawal. They’re coming slow and steady—the promise of the suffering ahead hidden with little subtlety just below the surface. I can already feel parts of me being stripped away in layers—my usually pithy attitude, the first of many extraneous luxuries to go. This is brutally serious, and I’m terrified beyond words.
As the minutes pass—as slowly as hours—I can feel my humanity draining, little by little. It’s as if I’m devolving into the animal I would’ve been had I existed millions of years ago. At least that’s how it feels.
My ears are ringing.
My nose is running, rancid mucus sliding down the back of my throat.
I’m beginning to cough loudly—a wet, hacking and guttural sound that probably has the passengers and flight attendants around me wondering if they’re going to leave this flight infected with Ebola. I’m almost sure I saw the guy sitting across the aisle checking me out, looking for monkey bites.
My insides feel like they’re beginning to boil, the hot bubbles now roiling to the surface of my skin and bursting open, releasing scalding hot steam under my sweater.
I can feel the hot sweat turn to ice, just like Sid said.
What’s worse, I know that this is only the beginning.
I close my eyes and for the first time in years—I pray.
By the time we land, it’s just after midnight on the East Coast. I know this because I can still focus my eyes as I look down at my watch—but just barely. My head is listing forward as if someone hit me in the back of the neck with an axe, leaving nothing more than a few ragged pieces of flesh holding my head on. My body runs hot and cold at rapidly alternating intervals, never allowing me to get anywhere near comfortable. My stomach is cramping something awful and it hurts to move. If I were in a condition to analyze anything beyond the primal thought of my own survival, I’d fucking hate myself for letting this happen to me—for letting my addiction come to this. Hopefully, there’ll be time for that later.
As far as I can tell, Kara simply believes I’m getting sick—the way I usually do when I fly. I’m happy to allow her to continue down this seemingly logical path for no other reason than that it requires absolutely no effort from me. Right now I can barely speak through my chattering teeth. I couldn’t argue with her if I tried. At the moment though, she seems less concerned for my well-being than she does about the fact that I’m in no condition to meet either my parents now, or hers should this unfortunate situation last more than a week. Ergo, I’m going to ruin Christmas.
Still, if I don’t think things can get much worse—like I have been about so much lately—I’m completely wrong.
As I drag my dead feet up the incline of the jetway and into the open terminal of Miami International Airport, I spot them: My parents. Only they’re not my parents, at least not the parents I remember from four months ago, which was the last time I saw them before leaving for Los Angeles.
My God, is that all it’s been? Is that all the time it’s taken to bring my life down to this?
The world has changed so dramatically as to render everything completely unrecognizable, and my own sunken face in the mirror these days is not the only evidence of this. The man and woman now standing just a few feet in front of me appear spectral. I only vaguely recognize them as the people who raised me, although in my current condition this may be somewhat of a compliment, given that the parents of my youth seem to have failed miserably at teaching me right from wrong. But there’s something else about them—these two people. There’s something that even in this condition I sense but can’t put my finger on.
“Hi!” my mother exclaims, musically allowing the word to roll off her tongue until it’s split into two syllables—her eyebrows arcing to add emphasis.
She throws her arms around Kara first as a matter of circumstance—she happens to be closest. As she does this I force myself to extend a shaky and cold hand to my father who—in his unflappable way—pulls his own hand slowly from his pocket and returns the greeting. I lean in and attempt to put my other arm around his back in a half-hug, which turns into a near-collapse on my part. I end up grasping him for support, my head resting momentarily on his shoulder.
“Are you alright, son?” he says, practically holding me up.
I feel like I’m literally coming apart, but I’m astonished that in spite of my original fears, I’m managing to mask the pain better than I’d expected. I can’t cover up the cough, the fever, the watery eyes or the bubbling mucus in my nostrils—but at least I’m not howling about how badly I need drugs. That, I’m somehow keeping inside.
“He’s sick. He’s been like that for hours,” Kara says, her tone implying the kind of carefully rehearsed combination of concern and pity that can only come from being raised in the South. This is done strictly for my parents’ benefit.
My mother instantly assumes the obligatory-yet-sincere posture which conveys maternal worry—she also being from the South—and steps over to the sad little dance between her husband and son, the idiot. I feel the back of her hand come to rest on my forehead, and try to ignore the fact that, at the moment, this simple and sweet gesture feels like she’s just taken a hot iron and pressed it into my face.
“Oh honey, you’re burning up.”
She turns to Kara. “He always gets sick when he travels,” she says matter-of-factly. I allow myself a moment to wonder why she thinks that the woman I married wouldn’t know such a basic, albeit unfortunate fact about me.
I pull my head up off of my father’s shoulder, noticing the film of sweat and oil left behind on his jacket.
“Sorry,” I manage to mutter. “I’m pretty gross right now.”
Once again, no shit.
“Not a problem. Let’s get you home.”
That’s my dad: All business.
The wife’s suspiciously ear-to-ear smile is blinding, so I turn away from it as we begin the painful trudge through the terminal to baggage claim. I find myself instead scanning the floor in every direction, deliriously on the lookout for wandering goats and chickens, sleeping illegal immigrants, giant bags of cocaine, local politicians being arrested by federal agents or any of the other unusual sights that characterize Miami International as America’s only Third World airport.
“You guys hungry?” my mother asks, with far too much enthusiasm.
Dear Christ, I’m in hell.
All I can manage is a sigh.
Throughout the ride home, the conversation between my wife and my parents is a mish-mash of triviality. How’s work? How’s her family? Are they excited to see us for Christmas? And how have things been back here in Miami? I’m thankfully catching only snippets as I weave in and out of consciousness. I’m fighting the overwhelming urge to moan as loudly as I can. In spite of the dreamlike fugue state that seems to have wrapped itself around my brain and is now squeezing like an anaconda, I’m well aware that it’s taking all of my energy to not move. The flu-like symptoms have given way to something much more frightening: My muscles are now spasming horribly. It’s a searing pain that I’m trying in desperation to relieve by stretching my legs as far as I can in the backseat of my parents’ car—pushing down hard against the floor until it feels like it might split open and I’ll suddenly become a grotesque parody of Fred Flintstone. I’m flexing every muscle in my body, in the hope that the tension and release will somehow wear them out to the point of relaxation. None of this is working. I’m nearly in shock and trying to stop myself from shaking all over.
This is the nightmare scenario that I was afraid of: Withdrawing hard—right in front of my wife and parents. As this thought enters my head like a spike, with my skin steaming and freezing at the same time, lava running through my veins and my muscles and organs liquefying within me, I can’t hold back. I’m only vaguely aware of the sound I’m suddenly making.
“Son, are you alright? Do you need to go to the hospital?”
I look up and see my father’s face staring back at me in the rearview mirror. The sweeps of pink light from the passing street lamps make it appear evil and menacing.
“What?” I try not to look like I want him to kill me.
“You’re moaning—are you alright?”
That’s when I realize that every exhalation of hot, stale breath that escapes my body is accompanied by a small but audible whimper. I gather every ounce of energy and practically spit back through clenched teeth, “No, I’ll be okay. I just really feel awful. I need to get home and get to bed.”
“Well, we’re almost there, honey,” my mother reassures.
I look over at my wife and try to appear remorseful for this unfortunate but wholly accidental turn of events. She just looks pissed.
I close my eyes and wish myself away. Attempt to forget how sorry I am that I didn’t bring just one ball of heroin with me. Or that I wasn’t born somebody else.
What I see when I open my eyes doesn’t in any way bring me back to reality—not that reality’s a place I want to be right now anyway. The effect, in fact, is exactly the opposite. What I’m looking at through the rear passenger window of my parents’ car doesn’t look at all familiar. I’ve never seen it before in my life. It certainly doesn’t register as home.
“We’re here,” my mother says, turning around and looking into the backseat with a little smile.
“We are?” I manage.
That’s when it hits me—the feeling I had at the airport.
With all the inconsequential platitudes being tossed back and forth in the car, the subject of my parents’ “situation” never came up. Despite the fact that I keep in regular contact with them by phone and know the details of what happened to them, it had understandably been pushed out of my mind tonight—until right now.
“This is it, eh?” I ask, barely opening my mouth. I instantly regret sounding so disappointed.
“This is temporary. You should see the place in Sebring,” my mother says.
My eye sockets fill with acid when the dome light in the car comes on. I squeeze my eyelids shut as tightly as I can against the pain. The car jostles as everyone gets out, sending crushing tremors through my racked body. I somehow open the door and pull myself out into the humid night air.
Even in December it’s hot as hell. I don’t miss this.
We heft our bags out of the trunk and head across a small parking lot. Bright orange sodium-vapor street lamps throw eerie shifting shadows across the ground as the four of us walk toward my parents’ “temporary” home. Calling it a home of any kind is an insult to the word.
What it is, is an ugly two story apartment building—apparently one of several identical structures arranged along a series of interconnected parking areas, making it feel as if the unsightly late-model Toyota Corollas, Nissan Sentras and Chevy pick-ups—so ubiquitous in this middle-class part of Broward County—were the first priority, with living accommodations for actual humans being a minor afterthought.
The building itself is typical South Florida—as indigenous to the area as mosquitoes and mullets, assholes and Amber Alerts. I can practically describe it with my eyes closed, which to be honest would be better for my constitution right now.
It’s a beige stucco job, trimmed in unattractive, dark-brown wood. Doors to the individual apartments line the upper and lower floors, with a long landing and brown metal railing bisecting the building horizontally. There’s patchy grass in between each structure that I imagine loops around back, no doubt sloping into a canal, man-made watering hole, or some other alligator and/or child-enticing deathtrap which serves no purpose other than to allow the real estate company to make the hyperbolic claim that the apartments are “waterfront.” Here and there across the bottom of each building are patches of discoloration where months if not years of hard water from the sprinklers have left rainbow-shaded arcs on the paint.
For obvious reasons, I didn’t notice the name of the subdivision on the way in, but I figure that—in the stifling lexicon of suburban banality—it’s some catchy little mix-and-match combo, arranged from a predetermined set of maybe nine or ten specific words which the development company found tested well with focus groups.
Anything that calls to mind the simple serenity of nature while hopefully distracting you from the fact that in reality, you live a block away from three strip malls and probably right next door to a meth lab.
“The guest room is right down that hall,” my mother says, motioning to her left as she walks in the door ahead of us.
Kara turns and disappears into the room—our room during our stay here. I use what little strength I have left to fight the punishing urge to simply climb into bed, pull the covers up and let the full nightmare wash over me.
At least three more days of this—maybe longer.
Instead, I take a moment to look around the tiny two-bedroom apartment and face my mother and father’s new reality head-on. The inside is nothing more than an uninterrupted continuation of the exterior: A world of beige. I recognize the furniture from the old house—the huge four-bedroom home with the big pool and the bigger backyard that my parents were forced to sell because my father lost his job—only here the effect isn’t comforting, but confusing. Relics of my family’s life—my life—have been haphazardly wedged into this tiny space. The feel is nothing less than oppressive—as if this shitty apartment has somehow captured my family and its memories and is now holding them hostage. My eyes finally come to rest on a dark figure which, despite its small size, takes up an uncomfortable amount of space in the corner of the room. As if on cue, my mother gets down on her hands and knees and reaches behind it. After a brief struggle with the plug, the little tree lights up, bathing the room in the colors of Christmas. My mother stands up and forces her best holiday-season smile as if to say, “See, it’s not so bad.” I can’t help but think of A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is the tree Charlie Brown would’ve brought back to those unappreciative little bastards if he’d gone the artificial route and did his shopping at Rite-Aid.
Gone is the majestic Christmas tree of my childhood.
Gone is my sense that my parents are larger than life.
Gone is the future my mother and father had dreamed of for themselves.
Gone is home.
That mysterious and unrelenting feeling I couldn’t put my finger on back at the airport: Sadness. Overwhelming sadness.
“Where’s the rest of the furniture?” I ask, aware that in my current state these words sound a whole lot like the verses of The Who’s My Generation.
“Sebring,” my father answers economically, stretching out in his recliner and switching on the television.
“Maybe we can take a ride up there while you’re here,” my mother adds, busying herself around what passes for a living room. “You’d like the house. It’s much smaller than the old place, but once we get it finished it’s really going to be nice.”
She turns to look at me now, her face and tone suddenly shifting from the doting mom, to the serious and strong woman I’ve grown up with my entire life.
“I’ll tell you something. I think it’s the best house we’ve ever owned.”
I just nod. Simple acknowledgement is about the best I can do right now. I’m fully aware that there’s no chance in hell that I’m going to see the new house while I’m down here—the one they paid cash for in Sebring with the money from the old place. I’ll be lucky if I make it out of bed at any point over the next few days. The center of the state is out of the question. I already know how unfortunate that is, because I want nothing more than to get as far away from this depressing place as possible. I want to see a light at the end of the tunnel for them, because if I don’t, this is the only image I’ll be left with: The people I love, stuck here.
My hyper-aware skin senses a shift in the air behind me, and suddenly there’s a hand on my forehead. I hear Kara’s voice.
“Time to get you to bed. You’re on fire,” she says.
She seems truly concerned, but since sweet-and-nurturing isn’t usually in her repertoire, I can’t help but wonder if the spousal compassion isn’t just more of an act put on for my parents. Either way I lean forward into her hand, feeling like my head is melting around it.
“You sure you don’t want me to call Dr. Graubert?” my mother asks.
I stop a second to wonder how long it would take for our family physician to figure out what’s really wrong with me. Best to keep him out of it. I feel like a criminal who’s been shot but refuses to go to the hospital.
“Nope,” I say, forcing a pained smile. “Just want to go to bed.”
My mother disappears and quickly returns with two Tylenol PMs and a glass of water. I happily swallow the pills, hopeful that they’ll somehow help me sleep through part of this.
“It’s good to have you back,” she says, cupping my hot face in her hands and kissing me on the cheek goodnight. “Try and get some sleep. Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning.”
Not a chance.
Years ago, it took the events of one night to pretty much stop me from doing ecstasy altogether. Up until that experience, I had spent weekend after weekend indulging in a drug and a lifestyle that I really couldn’t say anything bad about. This, despite the fact that it was a shamefully cavalier attitude toward substance abuse that probably contributed to the car accident that killed my best friend. Never one to learn his goddamned lesson, I went on partying long after Jorge’s mysterious plunge into that canal. I’m convinced that it nearly cost me my own life one night at a rave in the desert outside San Diego. That’s where I bought and downed two pills of unknown origin, already a violation of a rule that I’d at least been smart enough to live by for years: You don’t buy from someone you don’t know, particularly at a rave. The result was a ride through hell I’ll likely never forget. Whatever it was that I ingested, it sure as hell wasn’t ecstasy. It left me hallucinating and terrified for my life to the point where—for the first time in a long and illustrious career of doing drugs—I seriously considered pulling the rip-cord. As I laid on the cold ground feeling the thumping heartbeat of the music, my vision beginning to funnel into pinpoints, I gathered what little was left of my wits and made the decision that I was going to approach one of the many cops roaming the desert fairgrounds, tell him what was happening to me and beg him to get me to an ambulance. For someone who had never been arrested for drugs—whose use was unknown to all but his closest friends—I knew what crossing that Rubicon would mean, and I didn’t care. I didn’t want to die.
In the end, I wound up doing neither.
At some point—I barely remember when—I was rescued. I felt soft hands wrap around the back of my heavy head and cradle it gently. A woman’s face leaning down—her hair brushing my skin. My head coming to rest in her lap. She began to sing to me in a voice that sounded like nothing less than that of an angel, while stroking my cheek with her fingertips. I let my eyes flutter and close, and drifted away from the horror.
“You’re going to be alright,” I heard her whisper.
I never fully thanked her.
This is the memory that’s occupying what little of my mind isn’t on fire right now. An hour after kissing my mother goodnight, I’m in the double bed which takes up most of the small guest bedroom. The lights are off and the room itself is all endless darkness. I can hear my wife’s steady breathing next to me. Its rhythm is usually enough to help lull me to sleep, but that’s nothing more than a fantasy right now. There will be no sleep. None. My entire body is being shredded—as if I every molecule inside me is moving at a speed so fast that the friction is creating unbearable, unstoppable heat. It’s taking every ounce of self-control I have left to restrict my painful writhing to the point where my wife might not notice. I know my mouth is open in a grisly, tormented silent scream. Teeth bared. Breath hot and thick. I want to rip my stomach open and pull my white-hot guts out to let them breathe in the open air. Like all those years ago, I want to pull the rip-cord. I want to confess the truth to my parents. To my wife. To the world. I want to beg someone for heroin. I want to get to a hospital. I’m fully aware that there will be no compassionate angel to save me this time. For a moment I allow myself to wonder where she is right now. How I would give anything to see her again. Feel her soft touch. Hear her whisper in my ear: “You’re going to be alright.”
My lips tighten at the thought of this and my eyes squeeze shut until all I see is a rolling collage of violent red and orange behind my eyelids. There it is: Hell. I can feel the tears beginning to run down the sides of my face. I swear I can feel them boiling as gravity pulls them across my scorched skin—sizzling and dancing into dark streaks like the heroin that caused them.
I’m calling out to God in my head.
I’m so sorry! Please help me!
I’m screaming inside.
No one’s listening.
No one can help me.
Not this time.
This time there’s only the destruction I’ve earned.
There’s a sudden flash of white. It’s a searing pain that feels like knives being plunged through my eyes, my brain, and into the back of my skull. It could be moments or hours later. My arms are wrapped tightly around my body because now that I’m out of bed, the air out in the open feels like ice water against my skin. As my eyes adjust to the sudden sickly light, my surroundings come into a difficult focus.
Pale yellowish wallpaper.
A brown faux-wood Formica vanity.
A light blue vinyl shower curtain, which I quickly pull aside—snapping it from several of the cheap plastic hooks which attach it to the rod.
Cold linoleum tile against my scalding-hot feet.
I’m in the hall bathroom.
Another homogenous room in another homogenous apartment in another homogenous building in this homogenous development.
Run for your life.
I begin to choke on my own mucus, causing me to cough loudly until I begin to vomit into the toilet. I feel my stomach spasm—it’s lining being ripped away. I try to stand, then double over, catching myself in time to stop my body from falling completely into the mustard-colored fiberglass bathtub. I crank the faucet and the water begins to rush powerfully into the tub. I flip the stopper into place and start to swirl the water with my hand, willing the bathtub to fill faster. With one fluid motion I slide out of my t-shirt and boxer shorts, both of which are soaked with cold sweat, letting them drop to the floor with a sopping splat. I pour my naked body into the rising hot water. As it envelops me completely I want to scream, but all I can manage is a pained and pathetic whimper.
I close my eyes and exhale loudly—pushing as much air from my burning insides as possible—then breathe in just as deeply. The new air fills me with at least a measure of calm. The water soothes my skin and seems to regulate my body temperature. I’m no longer a freakish combination of scalding and freezing. My muscles ease. The fire subsides slightly.
It’s not an angel, but for now it will have to do.