FINDING a good entry point was like discovering a clean patch of water in the middle of an oil spill. Chris flexed his arm, tightened his fist, touched one spot after another. A line of music went through his head: Oh beautiful, for spacious veins….
His didn’t deserve an anthem. Shriveled, sunken sonsabitches.
“Quit farting around; you’re making me nervous,” Winston muttered as he rigged up. “Try your hand or foot.”
“No. Now be quiet.”
The veins in one’s extremities rolled too much. Winston might’ve been reckless enough to jab at one of the slippery tubules, but Chris was more cautious. He didn’t relish the idea of becoming a pincushion, especially a pincushion squirting blood. That had happened to him a few times and it hadn’t been pretty.
Finally, he palpated a barely perceptible, blue-gray rise with the tip of his thumb. Okay, no more farting around. He aimed and fired.
First, a sharp nip as the needle broke his skin, then the faintest pop of sensation as it drove through a second wall. Chris jacked the plunger to make sure he’d spiked one… and, sure as heaven, a ghostly crimson plume swirled in slow motion into the barrel of the syringe. It was a beautiful thing to see, all his passion reduced to this watercolor wash. The image was so powerful in its simplicity that it struck Chris as nearly divine.
His anticipation rose as his forefinger steadily lowered. He sent the plume back home, wrapped around a velvet hammer.
First, the bees attacked. Yellowjackets, all clustered around the injection site. Little bastards stung like demons. The sensation didn’t startle Chris anymore. It hadn’t for a long time.
He removed the tie-off from his left arm. It was a thin lady’s belt he’d bought at a thrift store, a gauche strip of gilded vinyl that had tickled his fancy as soon as he’d seen it. He eased the needle out of its twin entry holes and laid the rig in a bowl of warm water.
The unique smell-taste of heroin was already blooming within the tissues at the back of his nose and throat. Not pleasant, not unpleasant, but a distinct part of the experience. Like the burn delivered by the bees, it was what it was. Then, as Chris drew water into his rig to clean it out, the bliss descended.
In a blink, he was swaddled in the thickest, softest comforter in this or any other world. Dusty pink, light as air, it imparted a warmth that melted his muscles and turned his blood to honey.
Nothing could touch him now. Even the barbs of his own thoughts and feelings couldn’t pierce this protective bunting. Serene, oblivious, he floated in place as the honey saturated every cell in his body. The honey was heavy and hot and sweet. From clover, he’d always thought. It must come from clover.
Chunks of time got lost—three minutes here, five minutes there—as Chris periodically nodded. No prickly feeling spread over him this time, and no nausea welled, for he was pretty much past the vomiting stage. He had no elaborate, fascinating dreams.
Winston’s voice drifted toward him. “Good shit, huh?”
“You still gonna quit?”
“Got to.” Even if Chris’s halcyon days with heroin were long past—the early period of use when every hit brought orgasmic euphoria—his answer carried profound regret.
He’d probably be giving up the best friend, and best lover, he’d ever had.
ONE by one, Dr. Morris Drummond lifted and studied the sheets of paper that made a short, neat stack in the middle of his desk. Occasionally, his hand and gaze moved to the computer stationed on his right. He glanced from screen to papers, from papers to screen.
Records, no doubt. Over seven months’ worth of records. From intake forms to medical evaluations to the subjective observations and judgments of shrinks.
Chris sat quietly on the other side of Drummond’s desk in a familiar burgundy chair that contained him like an upholstered bucket. How, he wondered, would he describe himself? What editorial comments might his family throw in?
Christopher Borgasian, DOB 11-30-1986, 6’1 ½”, 182 lbs, black/gray. (“He was such a beautiful baby, and so placid. Then he grew up. It was an unfortunate development.”)
Drug user, nine years; intravenous drug user, three years.
Current condition: physically sound; mentally shaky.
Future: uncertain. (“What on earth happened to him? We did our best.”)
Chris lowered his eyes, shifting them to the left and right to study the insides of his arms. There, all the words Drummond was reading had been reduced to sloppy shorthand.
Or a map.
Yeah, Chris thought, that’s appropriate. The map of his life was inscribed on his skin, a chaotic guide to nowhere on eggshell-pale parchment. Pretty fuckin’ ugly, too.
History: a sampler platter from four of the five classes of drugs regulated through the Controlled Substances Act, e.g., marijuana (no biggie), amyl nitrite (no biggie either), Ecstasy (occasionally), cocaine (inhaled), various depressants and narcotics including oxycodone (just a brief detour because the shit was expensive), and finally—ta-da!—H.
Christopher Borgasian, junkie.
Well, that might’ve been overstating. Chris hadn’t been a hardcore addict. He’d managed to hold down a job at a greenhouse and garden center and perform his duties quite well. Still, heroin had set severe limits on his life. That was in the contract he’d signed when he crossed the bridge from occasional indulgence to regular use. Chris had been granted a dose of nirvana three times a day; in return, junk had laid claim to his future as well as his current options for pleasure. Heroin was a master monopolizer. That was why, almost three years into the contract, Chris knew he had to break it.
“You sure you won’t reconsider the center’s offer?” Mo’s eyebrows rose as he looked at Chris over his glasses.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. You know that. I’ve committed to the landscaping job. I’ve put a security deposit on the apartment.”
Mo also knew the other reasons Chris didn’t want to become a lay counselor. He’d already spent nearly a week in detox, three months in rehab at the Fair Breezes center, and four additional months here at Great Oaks, the sober-living facility run by Fair Breezes. He couldn’t be babysat forever. He needed to test his legs, see if they could carry him through life without the crutches he’d relied on since the age of fifteen. The last thing Chris wanted or needed, aside from relapsing, was to let the structured, supportive environment of recovery become his new prosthetic device.
Besides, being the only gay guy in the program had been a bitch. There’d been a preoperative tranny at Fair Breezes when Chris had first arrived, but Al was gone now. More to the point, Al was transitioning from female to male and, since he identified as straight, didn’t really connect with gay men. He was a wonderful person, but he and Chris didn’t have much in common aside from their sexual otherness.
Mo sat back in his chair and smiled kindly. “Just thought I’d give it a final shot. You really would be an asset to the program.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence. I really do.”
“You’ve earned it. Now”—Mo linked his hands over his belly—“let’s talk about what scares you. Aside from facing the world without your sweeties.”
Sweeties. That’s what Mo called drugs, alcohol, compulsive, ritualistic behaviors—whatever drove people into treatment. It was hardly a politically correct euphemism, but Mo, bless ’im, wasn’t a conventional therapist.
“What makes you think I’m scared?”
“The fact you’d be stupid not to be, and you ain’t stupid.”
Chris gave him a fleeting, self-conscious smile. “My new job, for one thing.”
“I thought you were excited about it.”
“I am. But queers are supposed to be interior designers.”
Mo grinned. “Yeah, I guess that’s true to stereotype.” His grin shrank. “I also think that’s not the source of your fear.”
Chris lifted his left arm to display it, since that arm bore the more garish of the two maps. “I’ll be working in T-shirts most of the time.”
After only a cursory glance, Mo said, “And you’ll learn to work proudly in T-shirts, because you’ll learn it’s the quality of your work that counts. And the quality of your character.”
“Will the marks ever go away?”
Mo shook his head. “Nope. They’ll fade over time but won’t disappear entirely. Certain creams are supposed to help—cocoa butter, vitamin E, arnica, hirudoid. Use them and see what happens. In the meantime, apply makeup if you’re that concerned.”
“Damn,” Chris muttered. “And I tried to be so careful.” He thought he’d done everything right, carried the best possible materials in his kit: distilled water for cooking; sterilized cotton for filtering; clean, thin needles for shooting.
“The longer you use,” Mo said in a matter-of-fact way, “the less ‘careful’ matters. Those aren’t just ordinary needle pricks that disappear in a week. They’re scars. The tracks of your tears.”
The phrase caught Chris’s attention. He looked up. “Wasn’t that a song?”
“Yes, a sad one.”
“Smokey Robinson.” Mo unbuttoned the cuffs of his dress shirt and rolled up the sleeves. He lifted his bared forearms a few inches above his desk. They carried even more detailed maps, topographic, full of raised, jagged blots and broken, zigzagging lines. Some were pastel pink. Others were like spider webs, pearly gray threads against Mo’s earthy brown skin.
Chris had never seen marks that bad, and certainly not on a person he respected. Mo occasionally folded his cuffs back when he was at work, but that was the extent of his concession to comfort. He never dressed as casually as some of the counselors—maybe because he wasn’t a counselor. He was a psychologist, and he always looked every inch the crisp professional.
“You can forgo the shock and awe,” Mo said with gentle good humor. “I’ve seen worse than my own, believe me. Even on some very happy, successful people.”
“You bet. Want to know what I’ve been doing with these arms in the nineteen years since I got clean?”
Mo lifted two of the framed photos that littered the borderlands of his desk. “I’ve held her,” he said, showing Chris a woman who must’ve been his wife, “and them,” he said, showing Chris two teenagers who must’ve been his son and daughter.
And you’ve held me. Chris, his elbow propped on the chair’s arm, nibbled a fingernail. And others like me. It was a positive message…as far as it went.
Who will I be able to hold?
“But they love you,” Chris said, lowering his hand. “So they accept you the way you are.”
“Indeed they do. However, you’re missing the point. People don’t have to adore you for you to be a proud, productive member of society again. For you to care about yourself and others again. So let your scars empower you instead of cripple you. They’re damned good reminders of how not to live. Then, when somebody special does come along, love will just be the icing on the recovery cake.”
Chris exhaled a cynical laugh. “First I have to clear the sex hurdle. There aren’t many guys who’ll want to fool around with an IV-drug user.”
“Former IV-drug user. And, lucky for you, a user who took every precaution.”
“The guys I meet aren’t going to know that. They aren’t going to know I didn’t pick up HIV or HCV.”
“I don’t think you’ll have too much of a problem as long as you’re not averse to using protection.” Mo raised a hand to silence Chris, who was on the verge of speaking. “You’re a good-looking young man, and you’ve really taken care of yourself since you’ve been in treatment. Don’t worry; you’ll get your share of attention. And if somebody dismisses you before he even gives you a chance, he isn’t worth pursuing anyway. Just keep that in mind.”
Chris wasn’t even sure why he’d mentioned that particular hurdle. He hadn’t been interested in sex since he’d segued from cocaine to tranquilizers and painkillers and moved on to heroin. Whenever he’d been coked up, he’d been insatiable. Hell, he would’ve stuck his dick in a vacuum cleaner if he hadn’t had so many willing partners. But downers and opiates had had just the opposite effect. They’d plunged him into a warm, fuzzy oblivion. They’d turned him into a dreamy zombie.
Throughout the first two months of his recovery, Chris still hadn’t had any interest in sex. After that, his body had started to awaken and feel the hunger, but there wasn’t squat he could do about it except have trysts in the shower with his hand. It was like being twelve again and living under his parents’ scrutiny.
Damn. That was some depressing shit. He was twenty-four, but he suddenly felt like a clueless, bumbling adolescent.
Perceptively, Mo watched him. Nothing escaped the man’s notice. So Chris wasn’t surprised when Mo said, “When you look back on your sex life, how do you see it?”
Chris idly scratched at his forehead. Guess I opened this can of worms. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much about it.”
“Was it satisfying?”
“Maybe, once in awhile. It might’ve been good when all I did was smoke weed and do poppers. But the coke made all my hookups run together, and the smack made hookups irrelevant.” Chris couldn’t tell if Mo was fixing to say something encouraging or making him confront an issue he’d more or less been dodging—that he had a dismal lack of sexual experience as a sober individual, and the prospect of getting back in the saddle without his usual props scared him shitless.
Okay, so he’d grappled with the monkey and thrown it off his back. For seven months, he’d kept it off. He’d worked at making his body fit and healthy, shedding guilt, acquiring self-confidence, and rechanneling his determination from scoring drugs to staying clean. He’d done well at the job he’d had while living at Great Oaks, then found his own apartment and successfully applied for a better job. Most important, he’d done it all without the help of friends or family. He didn’t have any true friends—his user acquaintances all wrote him off as soon as he entered rehab—and hadn’t had a family since he’d come out his junior year in high school.
In short, Chris knew he’d made significant progress. Now he had his sights set clearly on the future. But the future wouldn’t be too fulfilling without some companionship and carnal pleasure.
“That’s another thing to look forward to,” said Mo, taking the encouragement route. “Having sex while you’re straight.” In a rare instance of embarrassment, he blushed faintly. “I mean, you know, substance-free.”
Chris smiled. “Relax, Dr. D. I didn’t think you expected me to change teams.” His amusement waned. “Maybe you’re wrong, though. Maybe sex isn’t something to look forward to.”
“You mean because of the scars? The rejection you’re anticipating?”
“Well, there’s that, but….” Chris blew out a sigh. “To tell you the truth, I’ve been so fucked up for so many years, I’m not sure I’ll know what the hell to do—with any dick other than my own, that is.”
THE party was a bittersweet surprise. The cake and presents, the congratulations and hugs and well wishes, the music and dancing. And the tears.
Everybody was there except Ralph Bostitch, who always stayed out until the nine o’clock curfew. But even Randy Ralphie made a brief appearance before shuffling off to his room.
When the modest party broke up around ten, Chris felt crappier than he had in a long, long time.
“Will you be all right?” asked Evelyn Rossi, rubbing Chris’s back as he left the dining room. Everybody else was gone.
“Yeah, I’m fine. It just hit me that I’m leaving my only family behind.”
They strolled together toward the stairs. Evelyn, a recovering alcoholic, was a divorcee eight years older than Chris. She’d proved a better big sister to him than his real sister had ever been, although he suspected Evelyn’s feelings weren’t purely platonic. An eighteen-year-old bisexual resident who called herself Botsy also had a crush on him, but she’d been stand-offish since Chris had rebuffed her advances.
He’d often thought, at those times when need drove him to the privacy of the bathroom, that he would’ve had it made if he’d been straight. Some residents did get it on here. Chris just didn’t have anybody to get it on with.
“Are you going to try contacting your biological family?” Evvie asked as they slowly climbed the stairs.
“Not anytime soon. I don’t need that kind of drama right now.”
“But won’t it make a difference to them that you’ve turned your life around?”
Chris smiled wryly. “The only turnaround that would make a difference to them is the one from gay to straight.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. I resigned myself to the situation a long time ago.”
They stopped in front of Chris’s room. Since he held a “Good Luck” helium balloon and carried a box of gifts, Evvie opened the door. After Chris walked inside, she followed.
“Are you all set up for aftercare?” she asked, partially closing the door and standing in front of it.
Chris tied the balloon to a drawer pull and set the box beside his packed luggage and another box full of personal items. “Yup. I’ll be going to FAR meetings once a week and seeing Mo every two weeks. You know the rest of the drill.”
Evvie smiled. “Pursue new interests and steer clear of your old haunts and associates.”
“That’s it.” Chris sat on the edge of his bed, grateful Evvie was considerate enough not to make herself comfortable.
She stared vacantly at the empty bed closest to the door, the one that hadn’t been slept in since Chris’s former roommate, Beni Sanchez, left Great Oaks eleven days ago. Her gaze finally rose to Chris’s face. “I’m going to miss you.”
He tried to meet her smile. “I’ll miss you too. I’ll probably miss most everybody here.”
“Will you stay in touch?”
“I suppose. After I get settled in.”
“Think you’ll be lonely?”
Chris swallowed and looked away. His gaze wandered to the balloon, a silver sun gleaming optimistically against the dull beige wall. “I suppose. At first.”
“I hope you make a lot of friends. Good friends.”
The balloon bobbed and nodded as a draft slipped in from the hallway. “I’d be happy with just one.”