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Erin Khar | Longreads | February 2020 | excerpted from Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, Park Row Books | 9 minutes (2,436 words)
Valentine’s Day 2001
Her mother just looks at her for a long minute, then removes a jade pendant from around her neck and hands it to her daughter. “June, since your baby time, I wear this next to my heart. Now you wear next to yours. It will help you know: I see you. I see you.”
—The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
My mom and I both read The Joy Luck Club when I was seventeen and saw the movie together a few years later. The stories reveal the intricate relationships between mothers and daughters. There was one scene that resonated with us both — one of the mothers finally tells her daughter, “I see you.” Through unspoken words, we understood how this reflected our relationship, or more accurately the hope we had for our relationship. Like the mother in the book, my mother had a jade pendant. It had belonged to her mother. But she didn’t give it to me. Now it was in the pawn shop. She didn’t know it was missing.
What my mom did give me for my twenty-first birthday was a white gold Tiffany ID bracelet that was engraved. It read, I see you. She welled up with tears when she gave it to me and hugged me tighter than she had in years. I loved it but could never bring myself to wear it. I knew she couldn’t see me.
She couldn’t see the junkie — the one who lied and stole and let boys touch her. She couldn’t see the one who got high in the bathrooms of homes and Burger Kings and doctors’ offices and gas stations and cars and delis and universities and garages and airports and department store fitting rooms. She couldn’t see the one who sat on her hands, holding her breath and counting the seconds when all she wanted to do was grab the box cutter and carve away until the crazy left her body in tiny particles. She couldn’t see the one smoking crack in an airplane bathroom and hallucinating the corpse baby she’d aborted. She couldn’t see the real me because if she did, she wouldn’t love me because nobody can love a monster.
I sat in my car and held the bracelet my Mom had given me six years before in the palm of my hand, tracing over the engraving with my finger. I dropped it in the cup holder, grabbed the small bag on the passenger seat, and got out of the car.
Halfway to the apartment door, I turned around to retrieve it. Taking a moment in the car, I lit up a cigarette. Jack was back at the apartment, deep in a nod. The thought of him there annoyed me. Every time I thought of him, my mind went through a list of everything about him that I couldn’t stand. We were both in a race, only we were racing toward different things. He was racing toward a high; I was racing toward a low.
My stomach rumbled, and I couldn’t remember the last time I ate. Monday? I struggled to recall what day of the week it was and remembered it was Valentine’s Day. I didn’t fucking care about hearts or chocolate or love. My self-loathing had grown. I could taste it in my mouth, rising from my gut like bile. Self-hatred has a taste all its own. It’s bitter and acidic and hard to choke down.
The low I’d been chasing felt lower than ever before. The lower I got, the more I craved getting lower. I wanted to abandon all my senses and remember nothing. I wanted to get so low that I’d forget my name and my body. I no longer wanted to exist.
I read an article years ago about gambling addiction that said that gamblers were chasing a loss, not a win, that they couldn’t stop until they lost everything. When I read it, I got hot and dizzy with recognition because that’s how I felt, like I couldn’t stop going lower, losing more, stripping myself down to nothing. When you believe that you’re a monster, fueled by shame, the low can be all that you see. There is no high or anything else left to chase.
I took a drag off my Parliament cigarette and blew smoke out the window, feeling my chest rattle. I’d been smoking more and more crack, and that rattle in my chest had been getting a little worse each day. It was raining, soft at first, and then persistently. The driver’s side window of my Volvo was stuck open, and my arm was wet. I felt damp inside, like a thing tossed down the basement stairs — forgotten, musty, broken. A chill coursed through me, straight to my bones.
Leading up to Valentine’s Day, Jack and I had burned through his $10,000 royalty check in ten days and then scrounged for change to buy two Big Macs for a dollar on Big Mac Mondays. Every last dollar was feeding our drug use. I scammed Western Union to send myself money from my dad’s credit card number I’d written down, and when he caught me, I said someone must have impersonated me. I pawned my computer, printer, television, DVD player, three guitars, two amps, my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, and countless pieces of jewelry. I sold thousands of dollars worth of clothing, shoes, records, books, furniture, my grandmother’s clown collection, and, oh yeah, a Chagall painting.
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Yet right then, sitting in my car on Valentine’s Day, with the broken window, a soggy cigarette in my mouth and a wet arm, I felt myself sinking my way to death in a new way. Isn’t that what this dance with addiction was — a long passive road to suicide? I felt like a fool for not just ending it all. Why can’t I just turn the key in the ignition, push the pedal all the way down, and plow through the cars and walls and trees and sidewalks of Los Angeles, until there was nothing left of me?
Spitting the cigarette out the window, I slapped the side of my face, grabbed the “I See You” bracelet and the rest of the jewelry, and buzzed Pedro. Pedro was one of our crack dealers. The compulsion for crack led me to skipping the pawn shop altogether, arming myself with anything I thought he might accept as trade. It didn’t always work.
Pedro’s apartment smelled like rice and beer, and he asked me to sit down. He loved the bracelet and put it on, wanted to keep it for himself, and I felt sick seeing it there on his arm next to his MS13 tattoo. Before I left, he asked, “Are you okay? You gotta slow down a little, baby girl.”
I felt even worse now. What kind of drug dealer tells you to slow down? And then I remembered that he was the second dealer to say that to me.
I left with a handful of rocks and returned to my car. It rained harder, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying. The city wept with me. My cries became guttural, escaping the open window to a sleepy city that didn’t respond. You’re a worthless piece of shit. You’re a whore. You’re a junkie. You’re a monster. You lie. You steal. You fuck. You killed your baby. Nobody believes in you. Nobody loves you. Nobody sees you.
I drove past a wall on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea. I had hit that wall when I was sixteen in a minor car accident. I could do it, end it, now. Push the fucking pedal. The only thing that kept me driving straight, past the wall, past that ending, was the thought I might accidentally kill someone else in the process.
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I returned home to find Jack passed out on the floor. I left him there and smoked a couple of rocks and went up to the roof of my building. I leaned against the low perimeter wall, looking down on Hollywood. Through the mist, against the lights of the city, I saw the corpse baby in a yellow shirt — floating, bloated, blue, carrying pieces of the sea — just out of reach. I wanted to reach her. I leaned my torso farther over the edge of the wall and felt it press against my stomach. I could just lean forward, a little more. I stuck my arms out and felt the outside of the wall. I shut my eyes, taking a deep breath that made my chest rattle.
“Hello…” A voice sounded behind me.
I was startled and spun around to see Bob, the building’s security guard, shining a flashlight toward me.
“What are you doing up here?”
“Hey, Bob, I was just getting some air.”
“Someone called and said you were close to the edge, leaning over the ledge there. I don’t want you to slip.”
I laughed. I wanted to tell him that the edge was the only place I existed anymore. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t even see anyone else up here.”
“Well, why don’t you head back to your apartment. The roof is closed after eleven.”
“Yeah. Yes, of course. Sorry.”
We rode the elevator down in uncomfortable silence, my clothes soaked with mist and sweat. I watched Bob and his big round white face glance at me quickly and look away. I wondered who reported me and I imagined that it was the porn star with the mustache who parked next to me and had been watching my quick descent, or maybe the dwarf actor who lived down the hall. The absurdity of Los Angeles and the absurdity of it all made me laugh and I knew the security guard must have thought I was crazy. I went back to my apartment and smoked more crack.
At 6:00 a.m., I called Pete but hung up. At 7:00 a.m., I called Pete and hung up again. At 8:00 a.m., Pete called me back, and I didn’t pick up. He left a message. At 9:00 a.m., I fell asleep. At 11:00 a.m., I woke up and my stomach was cramping, and I knew I was getting sick — again, already — and I didn’t have enough dope to get well. Jack was up and making a pile of things to pawn. The pile was pretty pathetic. He left to go to his place, to see if he had a check or something better to pawn, and I called Pete. Pete was the only person I could think of to call. Diana was sober. No one else knew I was using. They suspected, but they didn’t know. But more than that, Pete knew me — the light parts and the dark parts, too.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Are you okay?”
We waited each other out in silence. Pete caved. “Well, what’s going on?”
I heard him sigh softly.
“I’m strung out. I don’t have even one dollar, and I have to get well. I’ve got class at four.” The fact that I thought getting to class was ever going to happen was laughable. But I wasn’t laughing. I started to cry.
He was silent, letting me cry. My tears were sincere, but I also knew they’d help get me what I needed. I wanted help, but I also didn’t want help. I was so tired.
“Go to my apartment. There’s a spare key under the pot next to the door for the housekeeper. Go into my room, the first door past the living room, and in the top dresser drawer, there should be some money there. There’s not much, maybe $100.”
I nodded, but he couldn’t hear me. I took down the address.
“Don’t ever ask me to do this again. I’m here for you. I’ll be here for you. But I’m not gonna help you get high again.”
“Pete…” I couldn’t get anything else out. I silently choked on tears, on words, on feelings, on everything. “I won’t. Thank you.”
After we hung up, I showered and put on an old blue sweatshirt that once belonged to Pete and jeans — my skinny jeans, that were now my baggy jeans. The rattle in my chest was worse and I felt shivery. The dope-sickness was settling in, spreading its way to every corner of my body.
By the time I found a parking spot near the apartment, I was clammy and shaky and dry heaving.
I’d never been inside this apartment. It wasn’t actually Pete’s apartment. He’d been staying there while his friend David was out of town. Pete didn’t get a place right after we broke up. He went out of town for work and had been staying with friends and house-sitting, figuring out where he wanted to be. I found the building, which looked exactly like every other Spanish style fourplex in the Miracle Mile. The key was where he said it would be.
Being inside David’s apartment was strange. I didn’t know him that well. It was a nice apartment, and it was dark with the shades drawn. It felt safe because no one was home. I headed into the guest room, opened the top drawer of the dresser, and found exactly $100 folded in the corner, next to Pete’s boxers, five $20 bills. It smelled like Pete in there — the lavender Tancho stick he used in his hair and Gitanes cigarettes — and the smell shook me.
One of his shirts was on the edge of the bed — the blue plaid one. He might have been wearing it the first time we spoke, or the first night we split a Burst of Blue shake at Swingers, or the first night we sat in the rain in his car listening to “Cure for Pain” by Morphine and he kissed me. When I was with Pete, I believed we could escape LA together; I believed I could let him love me; I believed we could have a life together and I believed it was possible for me.
I lay down on the bed shivering. Every muscle in my body seemed to be on the verge of contracting, like having restless leg syndrome all over. I held his shirt to my face and inhaled and smelled more of him, past the lavender Tancho and the Gitanes, past the cloth, into the scent of him — the one that came out his pores, that one that slept next to me for two and a half years, the one I let go of. My stomach cramped in waves sharp and strong, and I curled myself into a ball. I didn’t know which I wanted more of — his scent or heroin. The muted yellow light in the room soothed me, the smell of Pete in the air around me soothed me, the blue plaid cotton against my skin soothed me.
But the pull of heroin was stronger.
I put the blue plaid shirt back on the edge of the bed, put the key back underneath the pot, and I left to score from Gaela.
* * *
Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie Claire, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and others.