I'd heard rumors about what happened to Lauren. I mean, I never even knew her that well but we'd sort of hung out a few times in high school. Actually, I was sleeping with her for about two weeks. She had moved to San Francisco when I was a senior and we met somehow - at a party or something. Back in high school it was just pot, maybe I'd do some acid and mushrooms on the weekend.
But I smoked pot every day. I was seventeen and had been accepted at prestigious universities across the country and Ifigured a little partying was due me. I'd worked hard those last three and a half years. Sure I'd had some problems smoking weed and drinking too much when I was younger, but that was all behind me. I was smart. I was on the swim team. My writing had been published in Newsweek. I was a great big brother. I got along with my dad and stepmom. I loved them. They were some of my best friends. So I just started smoking some pot and what harm could that do me anyway? Hell, my dad used to smoke pot. Most everyone in my family did. Our friends did - it was totally accepted.
But with me things were different. In high school I was rolling blunts and smoking them in the car as I drove to school. Every break in classes had me driving off to get high. We'd go into the hills of Marin County, dropping acid or eating mushrooms - walking through the dry grass and overgrown cypress trees,giggling and babbling incoherently. Plus I was drinking more and more, sometimes during the day. I almost always blacked out, so I could remember little to nothing of what'd happened. It just affected me in a way that didn't seem normal.
When I was eleven my family went snowboarding up in Tahoe, and a friend and I snuck into the liquor cabinet afterdinner. We poured a little bit from each bottle into a glass, filling it almost three- quarters of the way with the different-colored, sweet-smelling liquid. I was curious to know what it felt like to get good and proper drunk. The taste was awful. My friend drank a little bit and stopped, unable to take anymore. The thing was, I couldn't stop.
I drank some and then I just had to drink more until the whole glass was drained empty. I'm not sure why. Something was driving me that I couldn't identify and still don't comprehend. Some say it's in the genes. My grandfather drank himself to death before I was born. I'm told I resemble him more than anyone else - a long face, with eyes like drops of water running down. Anyway, that night I threw up for probably an hour straight and then passed out on the bathroom floor.
I woke up with almost no memory of what I'd done. My excuse for the vomit everywhere was food poisoning. It scared me, honestly, and I didn't drink again like that for a long time.
Instead I started smoking pot. When I was twelve I was smoking pot every day - sneaking off into the bushes during recess. And that pretty much continued through high school.
Lauren and I really never got very close back then. When I heard later that she'd been put in rehab for cocaine abuse and severe bulimia, I guess it wasn't that surprising. We'd both been really screwed up all the time and I had a history of dating, well, not the most balanced girls. I remember being ashamed to bring her to my house. I remember not wanting my parents to meet her. We'd come in late, late and leave early in the morning - whispering so as not to wake up my little brother and sister. Maybe it was them I wanted to shield from Lauren the most. Or, not from Lauren so much as, well, the person I was becoming. I was ashamed of my behavior, but still I kept going forward. It was like being in a car with the gas pedal slammed down to the floor and nothing to do but hold on and pretend to have some semblance of control. But control was something I'd lost a long time ago.
Anyway, Lauren was not someone I thought about a whole lot. When she approaches me, I don't even recognize her at first. It's been five years. She yells my name:
I jump, turning around to look at her.
She is wearing big Jackie O sunglasses and her dyed black hair is pulled back tight. Her skin is pale, pale white and her features are petite and delicately carved. The San Francisco air is cold, even though the sun has broken through the fog, and she has a long black coat pulled around her.
So I think...think, think. Then I remember.
"Yeah, don't pretend like you don't remember me."
"Whatever. What're you doing here?"
It's a good question.
I'd been sober exactly eighteen months on April 1st, just two days ago. I'd made so much progress. My life was suddenly working, you know? I had a steady job at a rehab in Malibu. I'd gotten back all these things I'd lost - car, apartment, my relationship with my family. It'd seemed like, after countless rehabs and sober livings, I had finally beaten my drug problem And yet there I was, standing on Haight Street, drunk on Stoli and stoned out on Ambien, which I'd stolen from the med room at that rehab.
Honestly, I was as surprised by my own actions as anyone else. The morning of my relapse, I had no idea I was actually going to do it. Not that there weren't ominous signs. In the twelve-step program they tell you to get a sponsor. Mine was a man named Spencer. He was around forty, strong, with a square face and hair that stood on end. He had a wife and a three-year-old daughter. He spent hours talking with me about recovery. He helped me get into cycling and walked me through the twelve steps. We'd ride our bikes together along the Pacific Coast Highway, up Latigo Canyon, or wherever. He'd relate his own experience getting sober from chronic cocaine addiction. But I stopped calling him as often. Maybe I felt like I didn't need his help anymore. I seldom went to meetings, and when I did, my mind would talk to me the whole time about how much better I was than everyone else - or how much worse I was, depending on the day. I'd stopped exercising as frequently. I'd stopped taking the psych meds they had me on - a mixture of mood stabilizers and antidepressants. I'd started smoking again. Plus there was Zelda.
Zelda was a woman I thought I was madly in love with. She was fourteen years older than I was and, well, she was also engaged to marry another guy, a wealthy real-estate broker named Mike. When I started sleeping with her, I tried to justify it to myself. I figured it was her decision and I wasn't really doing anything wrong and it was just for fun and blah, blah, blah. Basically, I thought I could get away with it. I mean, I thought I could stay detached emotionally.
She came to represent for me everything I thought would make my life perfect. After all, she'd been married to this famous actor and was an actress and grew up in Los Angeles, raised by her famous uncle who was also in the movie business. Everyone seems to know her in L.A. She's sort of a celebrity, you know? Being with her became my obsession.
Ultimately, however, she wouldn't leave her boyfriend for me and got pregnant with his child. I was crushed. I mean, I just couldn't handle it. So yesterday I relapsed, driving up the 5, drinking from a bottle of Jäger.
So now I'm standing on Haight Street and Lauren, this girl I haven't seen or thought about in five years, is here, in her long black coat, asking me what I'm doing.
I'd driven up from L.A. the night before and slept in my old, falling- apart Mazda, parked in a lot on the edge of the Presidio - a great expanse of forest and abandoned army housing that stretches out to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay. A friend of mine, Akira, had once lived there. He occupied a basement apartment on the edge of the Presidio. I'd hoped to find him still living there, but after I wandered around the house some - looking into the dust-smeared windows - it was clear that the place was deserted. It was Akira who'd actually introduced me to crystal meth when I was eighteen. He was a friend of a friend. He did a lot of drugs and we immediately gravitated toward each other. Somehow that always seemed to happen - we addicts can always find one another. There must be some strange addict radar or something.
Akira was like me, but more strung out at the time. He had dyed red, curling hair and dark, dark eyes. He was thin, emaciated, with hollowed- out features and narrow, dirty fingers. When he offered me that first line of meth, I didn't hesitate. Growing up I'd heard, you know, never to do heroin. Like, the warnings were everywhere and I was scared - do heroin, get hooked. No one ever mentioned crystal to me. I'd done a little coke, Ecstasy, whatever - I could take it or leave it. But early that morning, when I took those off-white crushed shards up that blue, cut plastic straw - well, my whole world pretty much changed after that. There was a feeling like - my God, this is what I've been missing my entire life. It completed me. I felt whole for the first time.
I guess I've pretty much spent the last four years chasing that first high. I wanted desperately to feel that wholeness again. It was like, I don't know, like everything else faded out. All my dreams, my hopes, ambitions, relationships - they all fell away as I took more and more crystal up my nose. I dropped out of college twice, my parents kicked me out, and, basically, my life unraveled. I broke into their house - I would steal checks from my father and write them out to myself to pay for my habit. When I had a job at a coffee shop, I stole hundreds of dollars from the register. Eventually I got arrested for a possession charge. My little brother and sister watched me get carted away in handcuffs. When my then seven-year-old brother tried to protect me, running to grab me from the armed policemen, they screamed for him to "get back." His small body crumpled on the asphalt and he burst into body-shaking tears, sobbing and gasping for breath.
Then there were the treatment centers, two in northernCalifornia, one in Manhattan, and one in Los Angeles. I've spent the last three years in and out of twelve-step programs. Throughout all of it, the underlying craving never really left me. And that was accompanied by the illusion that, the next time, things would be different - I'd be able to handle it better. I didn't want to keep hurting people. I didn't want to keep hurting myself. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, "I don't understand, why don't you just stop?"
I couldn't think of an answer. The fact was, I couldn't just stop. That sounds like a cop-out, but it's the truth. It's like I'm being held captive by some insatiable monster that will not let me stop. All my values, all my beliefs, everything I care about, they all go away the moment I get high. There is a sort of insanity that takes over. I convince myself and believe very strongly that this time, this time, it will be different. I tell myself that, after such a long time clean, these last eighteen months, I can go back to casual use. So I walk down to the Haight and start talking to the first street kid who asks me for a cigarette.
This turns out to be Destiny. He is a boy around my age, twenty or twenty-one, with snarled dreads and striking blue eyes. He has the narrow face of a fox or coyote and he's hiding a can of beer indiscreetly in the sleeve of his oversize jacket. He is distracted and out of it as I'm talking to him. I keep trying to get him to focus on what I'm saying. Eventually, he agrees to introduce me to a friend of his who deals speed, so long as I buy him another beer.
"Dude," he says, his voice thick and strained, "I'm gonna tell you straight, man, I'm fo'realze. My boy's gonna hook you up fat, that's no joke. You ask anybody, homes, they'll tell you, Destiny is all right. Everyone's cool with me 'cause I be cool with everyone."
He rambles on like that, pausing only to high-five pretty girls as they pass. As for me, the vodka and sleeping pills have calmed me down enough to keep me breathing through all this - though the blind hungering for the high that only meth can bring has me pretty anxious. There'd been times, in the past, where I got burned copping drugs on the street. On Mission Street I tried to buy some heroin once and came away with a balloon filled with a chunk of black soap.
I smoke cigarettes, one after the other, trying to keep Destiny on point - getting the phone number of his connection. It was right before Lauren stopped me that Destiny told me to wait while he went and got his "boy's" number from a friend. He walked off down the street and then Lauren is standing there, asking me what I'm doing.
My first instinct, of course, is to lie. The wind is blowingthe street clear and Lauren takes off her sunglasses, revealing those transparent green eyes of hers. What I say is, "Actually, I just moved back here from L.A. where I'd been sober over a year, but now I'm doing the whole relapse thing and I'm just waiting to hook up some meth. I heard you had some trouble like that too. Is that true?"
If she's surprised, she doesn't show it.
"Yeah," she says, her voice light and soft. "How much are you getting?"
"A gram, I hope. What are you doing here?"
"I was going to get my tattoo filled in. But, well, now I guess I'm going with you, aren't I? You need any money?"
She puts her glasses back on. "What about a car?"
"Uh, yeah, we could use your car. Mine's over on Lake Street."
"All right, then."
What I said about the money is sort of true. I have three thousand dollars saved up and, for me, that is a lot of money. I'm sure that it'll be enough to get me started on a life working and using in San Francisco. The rehab I'd worked at in Malibu catered to wealthy, often celebrity, clients. They paid well and, sober, I had few expenses. I can afford a sixty-dollar gram. In the next couple days, I'll start looking for work. I mean, I've got it all figured out. Really.
We stand watching the people on the street, walking from shop to shop.
"What've you been doing?" I ask. "It's been a long time."
"Five years. But, like you said, I had some trouble. I'm working now, though - for my mom. I have about four months clean."
"But you're over it."
"Hell, I've just been waiting for the right person to go out with."
"I don't know."
"You look good."
"Thank you. It's nice to see you, too."
"Yeah." I put a hand on her shoulder, feeling her body tense up. "Here he comes."
Destiny is sort of strutting or limping or something down the street. I introduce him to Lauren.
"Rockin'," he says. "We can go meet him in, like, half an hour. Here's his number." He hands me a crumpled piece of paper. "You gonna get me that beer, right?"
"I'll go get my car," says Lauren.
I walk into the liquor store on the corner and buy two 40s of Olde E and another pack of Export As. Lauren pulls her green Nissan around and we pile in - me in front, Destiny in back. I pass him one of the 40s and drink a bunch of mine down. Lauren refuses to take it when I offer her some, but she pops a few Klonopins 'cause she says she's gonna freak out if she doesn't. She gives me one and I figure it won't do anything since I used to take so much of it, but I chew it up anyway, hoping it might take the edge off or something.
Destiny directs us out of the Haight, and lower Haight, down Market and up into the Tenderloin. The rows of Victorian houses give way to corporate high-rises and then the gritty, twisting streets of the San Francisco ghetto - cheap monthly hotel rooms, panhandlers, small-time hustlers, dealers, and junkies. Neon signs, off during the day, advertise strip clubs and peep shows. The sky has blown completely blue, but the sun is blocked by the falling-down buildings, leaving everything cold and windswept and peeling.
We stop the car on the corner of Jones and Ellis, watching the scourge of walking dead as they drift down the street. One man - a skinny white guy with no hair on his head, but a lot on his face - stands in front of an ATM machine. He turns his head toward the sky every minute or so, screaming, "Please! Please!" Then he looks back at the ATM. Nothing comes out.
"Here they come," says Destiny, getting out of the car with the 40. "Thanks a lot, kids."
"Cool, man, thanks."
"Have fun," he says, nodding toward Lauren knowingly. She maybe blushes a little.
A young kid greets Destiny and then jumps into Lauren's backseat. He is accompanied by a tall, skinny white man with gray hair and a face that looks like a pile of pastry dough. The boy is thin, but strong, with a round nose and darting eyes. He wears a black bandanna tied around his head and ratty, baggy clothes.
"Yo, what's up? I'm Gack," he says.
The fat older man says nothing.
"Hey, I'm Nic. This is Lauren."
"Cool, cool. You wanna G, right?"
His voice comes out in quick, hoarse bursts. I just nod.
"Word," he says. "Yo, this is my dad, Mike."
Mike waves stupidly.
"Anyway," continues Gack, "you're gonna give me the money, and I'm gonna go get yo' shit. My dad'll wait here."
"Dude, there's no way. I'm not letting you walk outta here with my money."
"Come on, yo, there's no other way. My dad'll stay here and, look, here's my cell phone, and my wallet, and I'll leave my skateboard. Just wait two minutes, okay?"
I look at Lauren. She shakes her head, but I say, "Fuck, all right."
I hand him sixty bucks and he leaves. Part of me expects never to see him again, but he returns ten minutes later with our sack. He comes all out of breath.
"Yo, I'm hookin' you up so fat," he says, handing over a very not fat Baggie of white crystals.
"Dude," I say, "this is fucking pin as hell."
"No way, man."
I take out one of the pieces and put it in my mouth. The bitter, chemical sour makes me shudder, but it tastes familiar. "All right, fine," I say.
"You have any points?" asks Lauren.
I'm proud of her. I hadn't even thought about getting rigs and there she is, coming right out and saying it.
"Uh, yeah. You all don't mess around, huh?"
"No," we both say at the same time. Out of his pocket, Gack pulls a pack of maybe five syringes held together by a rubber band.
"Those are cleans?" I ask.
"All right," I say. "We'll take those and we're cool on the short sack."
"Dude, that sack is fat."
"All right, well, call if you need more."
"We will," I say.
And with that, Gack and his dad leave the car and Lauren and I drive off with fresh needles and about a gram of crystal methamphetamine.
* * * *
I remember Lauren's dad's house from the time we'd beentogether back in high school - but I also remembered it fromwhen I was much younger. The place is a European-style mansion in Sea Cliff. It is four or five stories high, sort of boxy, with giant bay windows bordered by faded green shutters. Vines climb the gray-washed walls and white roses grow along the sloping stairway. It looks out on the ocean - rough and pounding, relentless. The top story, a bright, sun-drenched loft, used to be the playroom of my best friend and sort-of brother, Mischa.
See, the divorce went down like this: My dad had an affair with a woman, Flicka, then left my mom for her. Mischa was her son. We all moved in together when I was five. Mischa was my age, with long, white-blond hair, blue eyes, and a famous actor father. He threw tantrums and would bite me, but we were also very close. His father was the one who had lived where Lauren's father lives now. I would go over there and play video games with Mischa, or build Lego spaceships, or draw, or whatever.
Walking in the door with Lauren - backpack full of drugs, drunk and stumbling - I can't help but feel a tightness in mystomach, thinking back to the child that I had been. I remember going on walks with my dad out to Fort Point, a jetty that stretches out underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember eating sushi and tempura in Japantown, playing on the ships docked off Hyde Street, riding my bike through Golden Gate Park, being taken to the old Castro movie theater, where a man played the organ before every show. I remember my championship Little League team in Sausalito, birthday parties at the San Francisco Zoo, going to art galleries and museums. I'd been so small that my dad would shelter me from the cold by hiding me in his sweater. Our heads would stick out of the stretched-out wool neckline together. I remember the smell of him - that indescribable smell of dad. He was so there for me always - especially when my mom moved down south. Sober and living in L.A., I'd talked on the phone with him almost every day. We talked about everything - from movies, to art, to girls, to nothing at all. I wonder how long it will be before the calls start coming in - how long before he knows I've gone out, relapsed, thrown it all away.
Lauren's room is in the basement - basically just a large canopy bed and TV and not much else. There are books and clothes and things all over the place. The shades are drawn over the windows, and Lauren plugs in a string of Christmas lights above the built-in shelves along the wall. She puts a CD in the player, something I've never heard before.
"Come on, let's hurry up," she says. "My parents will be home soon and I wanna get out of here before they come."
"Cool. You know, my parents' weekend house in Point Reyes will be empty tonight. We can go stay out there."
"I gotta work tomorrow morning," says Lauren.
"That's fine. We'll get you back."
"My parents are gonna freak out if I don't come home tonight."
"Make something up."
"Yeah, fuck, all right."
"Can I use this?" I ask, holding up a blown-glass jar, maybe an inch high, swirled with streaks of white and green.
"You gotta Q-tip?"
"Fuck, yeah, but let's go."
"All right, chill."
She rummages around and gets me the Q-tip. I rip off the cotton from one end. I go to the sink in her bathroom and fill the jar with a thin layer of water. I pour in a bunch of the crystal and crush it up with the back of a Bic lighter I have in my pocket. I hold the flame to the base of the jar until the liquid starts to smoke and bubble. I drop in the cotton and then pull it all up into two of the syringes. I pass the one with less over to Lauren and set about making a fist with my right hand, watching the veins swell easily. My body is so clean, so powerful - over a year needle-free and my veins reveal themselves instantly. I think back to how difficult it'd once been to hit - when the veins all began collapsing, hiding under the skin. But now the veins jump up right away. I pull back the plunger, watch the blood rush up into the mixture, and then slam it all home.
The chemical lets off this gas as it reaches your heart, or brain, or whatever and it rushes up your throat, choking you.
I cough, choking like that.
My eyes water - my head pounding like maybe I'll pass out, my breathing going so fast.
"Goddamn, goddamn," I say, the lights dimming out and really, I mean, there's no feeling like it. The high is perfection.
I turn and see Lauren push off and as it hits her I kiss her without saying anything and she kisses back and it is all so effortless, not like being sober and consumed by worry and fear and inhibitions. I kiss her harder, but she pushes me back, saying, "Come on, let's go to the beach."
We get outta there fast and then we are walking in the sunlight, back toward Lauren's car. It is a different world, man, heightened, exciting. I light a cigarette and my fingers move spasmodically and I start talking, talking, talking. The waves of the drug keep sweeping through me and my palms turn sweaty and I grit my teeth. I tell Lauren about the book I've written and the job I want to get at this magazine in L.A. and suddenly it doesn't seem like these are impossible dreams anymore. I feel like it is all happening - that my book is getting published and I can get any job I want and I'm gonna take Lauren along with me in my new life. Nothing, I mean nothing, can stop me.
"You know," says Lauren, "my parents are going out of town next week, so you should stay with me in my house, unless you have somewhere else to go."
"No, no," I say, everything fitting together perfectly in my world, in my mind, in destiny, and fate and blah, blah, blah. "That'll be great."
"They're gone for two weeks."
Baker Beach is mostly empty. We pull into the parking lot and look out at the pounding shore break, sucking up the brown, coarse sand and dashing it to pieces against the slick, jagged rocks. The Golden Gate Bridge looms up to the right, and across the channel are the Marin Headlands - lush, green, rolling hills dotted with eucalyptus and oak, the red earth cliffs dropping down to the swirling water below. We get out of the car and I take Lauren's cold little soft hand in mine. We walk down along the dunes and the wind is blowing sand in my face, and suddenly I stop and strip off all my clothes down to my boxer briefs and run, headlong, into the surf. I hear Lauren giggling behind me, then nothing but the roar of the ocean and the cold, cold, cold.
The current is strong and I'm immediately struggling against it, ducking the swells and feeling the pull out the mouth of the bay. But I'm a good swimmer. I navigate past the rocks and begin paddling into the waves as they break along the beach. Growing up I'd surfed all along this coastline. My friends and I would stay out sometimes five or six hours. In the end I'd gotten very comfortable in the water, able to ride the big waves off Ocean Beach or down in Santa Cruz. I'd watch the pelicans riding the updrafts of the swells, or sea otters eating crabs, floating on their backs. I'd wake up early, heading out before the sun rose to get the morning glass. But as I got deeper and deeper into my using, my surfboards went untouched on their racks in the garage. I lost interest. There's something devastating about that, though I try not to think about it.
I mean, here I am, bodysurfing the breakers at Baker Beach, feeling my breath catch in my lungs from the frigid water. The muscle memory is all there, in my arms and chest. I look back at Lauren, stripped and lying in the warm sand. I take another wave in, then run up to her, kissing the white of her stomach and listening to her laugh and shiver. Then I run on, up and down the beach. Fast, freezing, but not feeling it, really. I look at everything, the trees, and shells, and tall sea grass. It all seems so new and exciting. My little sister, Daisy, never failed to point out the delicate flowers or intricately shaped stones as we went on walks together. She was so present and filled with wonder. Meth gives me that childlike exuberance. It allows me to see, to really see. The world appears miraculous and I laugh and run down the beach until I'm gasping for air - then back to Lauren.
She smiles at me and I kiss her some more.
That night I drive her car through the winding back roads out to our house in Point Reyes. The drive is so familiar. I know every turn. It's the same route I'd used to get back from school every afternoon. We pass the little towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax, curving beneath the redwood forest of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Then we come out on the green pastureland, obscured by the darkness and fog. We turn up our street, steep, steep,bordered by dense woods on either side. The car sputters some, but makes it - taking me home.
My parents' house isn't huge or anything, but it is designed by some famous architect. It's sort of very Japanese and minimalist, with mirrors and windows all over the place. It looks out on maybe half an acre of garden - wild, tangled vines, hedges, oaks, poplars. Gravel paths twist through the brush and in the spring and summer there are flowers everywhere.
Seeing that the driveway is empty and the lights are out, I creep along to the different doors and windows and things. It's all locked. I climb the faded wooden gate, wander over to the back doors until I find one that isn't dead-bolted solid. I yank it open, breaking the base of the door where it has been secured to the floor. Turning on as few lights as possible, I go through the house to the front and let Lauren in.
"Jesus," she says. "I remember these paintings."
My stepmother is an artist. The walls of our house are covered with giant, swirling canvases. The oil images are dark yet organic - eyes, organs, branches, shapes repeated over and over.
"They're beautiful," I say. "So haunting, right?"
We go up to the living room and I put music on the stereo - some electronic stuff I left the last time I'd been home. I open a bottle of sake I find in the closet and pour a glass. Lauren looks at all the art books and things on the shelves. I look at the photographs of my little brother and sister on the windowsill. There is one of Jasper in his lacrosse uniform, smiling. There is Daisy, who's just two years younger than Jasper, dressed as an elf, with a fake beard and her tangled hair pulled back. And there is the whole family together, my stepmom, her parents, brother, sister, my dad, my aunt and uncle, my brother, sister, cousins, and, on the far right, me. Walking through the house, I feel dirty - like I'm this charcoal stain polluting everything I touch. I can't even look at the goddamn photographs - it hurts too much. I drink the sake down.
"Let's go take a shower," I say.
"Yeah. You wanna fix some more first?"
We shoot up and take a shower. We have sex in my old bed until my knees are rubbed raw. After that, I smoke cigarettes and look for stuff to steal. I take a guitar and a couple jackets, but nothing bigger than that. Oh, and I need a notebook, so I grab this black thing with Powerpuff Girls stickers on the cover. It turns out to be my sister's diary. Copyright © 2007 by Nicholas Sheff