Here’s the secret no one tells you: drugs are fun. I know a lot of addicts and I can’t think of one who started using because they wanted to feel bad. It’s the opposite. We all know what could go wrong, both long and short term. But that’s a gamble, that’s life. Therefore, it’s worth rolling the dice, because snake eyes are a potential, but so are those double six boxcars. The risk is worth the reward of escaping from this world. Every. Single. Time.
No one really tells you about rehab, either. Not early on, not when you’re partying and able to get through the next day clean. Then, you know of people who had to go, and everyone laughs about them, but secretly we don’t want to become them. So, sometimes we go on little clean stints, mini-sobriety days or weeks, if we can manage them. We still use, but only enough so we don’t lose our minds. So we don’t have a seizure and then have no choice about rehab.
Here’s another secret, maybe the last one, maybe the biggest of all. Being clean is hell. This is my third time. Who knew by seventeen I’d go through three centers? Certainly not my parents. I’m sure they imagined their boy growing up to be a doctor or lawyer or any of those other cliché things. No one wants a junkie. But that’s what I am, who I grew up to be. That’s why being clean is hell. It’s not who I am, but who I will forever be.
Yet, this clean has to be permanent. The third time has to be the charm. If not, the government owns me.
However, with my relatives pulling into the driveway and parking on the side lawn, all here to celebrate the fact that I’m done, really done, I’m not sure what to feel. I should be thrilled for the support. Excited for the change. But if I’m being honest, I’m scared out of my mind. What am I going to do now? As in right now. As in a day from now. As in, after. I know drugs. I know being high. My way of getting through all my rehabs, including this last one, was the idea that there’s an escape hatch to this real world: I could always use again.
The knock on my door startles me away from the window. Mom walks in, sees me jump. “Did I scare you?” she asks, but isn’t interested in a response. This victory is her victory, too.
“I just wasn’t expecting everyone. Is that Uncle Theo’s car?”
She moves to the window, but places a hand on my elbow, as if to keep me tethered. As if I’m a balloon.
“It is. Don’t know how he keeps it running.” She turns back and looks me over. Her smile slips. “You feeling all right? You’re pale.” Mom touches my forehead with the back of her hand. It’s sad how she thinks she can somehow still take care of me, can understand what’s actually wrong.
“There’s just a lot of people, all that attention,” I say.
“They love you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She holds me at arm’s length. “You’re a success story. Remember, your cousin, Gene, he still can’t get clean. And that Bobby you were friends with, he just entered the government program. They haven’t heard from him.”
I hate how she lets this hang, instead of saying what she thinks: I’ll be like Bobby if I start using again. I’d just begun the last facility when they passed the law. Private insurance is no longer allowed to pay for rehab. The government is sick of the “waste.” It’s not clear if they mean us or the money spent. Regardless, we thought this was great news. Not having to break our parents’ banks any more was such a relief. You’d be surprised at the amount of guilt we hold. Then one of the counselors explained how the program works. When he finished telling us, it was as if he’d described how each of us would die, and somehow, we had to find the will to get clean. We watched as they transitioned the center over while we were getting sober. The writing was on the wall: This is your last chance.
“Hey, there you are,” Dad says from the door. I don’t know if he means Mom or me, but the way his eyes don’t meet mine helps me with the answer. “The pizza guy’s here. Which card am I supposed to use?” He lowers his voice when he asks, and I feel the weight of Mom’s answer hang from me.
“The red one. There’s nothing in the account until I get paid Friday.”
Dad nods, looks like he’s about to say something, but then someone’s calling for him from the other room, probably one of his cousins letting him know about the pizza guy at the door. The pizza guy that Dad will pay with a credit card, because each one of my rehabs cost more than any vacation they could have ever dreamed of. And if they did, those dreams went up in smoke.
Mom pats my hand. “We’re fine. You’re fine. Everything’s going to be all right. Take a minute if you need, but then come on out. They’re here for you.”
This sounds more like a threat than support, but I nod and say, “Okay,” and then she’s gone. I look out my window again. It’s a gorgeous spring day, almost summer. I haven’t felt a day like this in years. I’ve been too absorbed in my drug-bubble world. The breeze blows through the window, bringing with it the scent of flowers and grass. It’s too real. I shut my window, take a breath, and walk out of my room to face my family.
“There he is!” someone yells. I look around the room and try to identify who spoke, but it’s useless, they’re all moving toward me now, no regard for personal space. Aunts grab my cheeks, uncles clap my shoulders, cousins say I don’t look so bad for a junkie. This is the third time we’ve done this, and their enthusiasm surprises me. Yet, it’s not as if they don’t know what I know. This time their support has to stick.
I am a junkie. I’m in love with heroin. I do look better than most, but it’s taken me months to get looking this good again, to sleep again, to regain an appetite. This façade is going to be impossible to keep up.
They manage to sit me in a chair directly in front of a table of presents. I can’t remember the last time I had a party with gifts. Was it seventh grade? I wasn’t using then. Drinking, yeah. After. After is a long stretch of blackouts and missing time.
“Open! Open!” They yell at me like I’m eight years old, again, and I oblige. It’s weird, I want to open these gifts, even though I can sense from the size and shape, most will be clothing and gift cards.
And they are. But as I open each one, I take my time. I say thank you. I tally up, in my head, what each pair of ugly shorts and each collared shirt might net me when I return them. I try and fail to restrain myself from equating that money into drugs. There’s a long pause and I look over the table to see if I missed a bag.
My uncle Theo approaches, all beard and beady eyes. He stares for a moment too long and I look away. Before I went to rehab, I said some awful things to him. Called him washed up. Told him he’d wasted his life, that he could have been someone. That he no longer has talent.
He used to write freelance scripts. He’s not connected to Hollywood, but some of his work has been produced, so he tells us. Theo also used. Coke was his thing, but it ruined him as well. I know now that when I was yelling at him, I was yelling at myself, or some version of who I was. Doesn’t matter that I was coming down, and miserable, I still said those things, more than once. Yet, here is my uncle, awkwardly standing before me with a thick gift, his eyes boring into me.
“What’s this?” I ask, taking the package from him.
“You’ll see,” he whispers. Around his head, phones come out. They’re recording this. Shit.
I pull out a journal. Not some new, moleskine one, but an old, slightly warped composition notebook.
I look at Theo. “What?”
He laughs and his beard parts to reveal his teeth. He’s furiously happy, and in a second his arms are around me. Theo squeezes for a moment and then we separate. “It’s my journal. The one from when I finally got clean.”
I open the pages in front of me and Theo tenses. He’s talked about this journal so many times I’ve wondered if it was real. How does a junkie keep track of anything? I guess we do whatever’s necessary for the things that matter most, like our drugs.
“Remember,” he says, “It’s like the Basketball Diaries.”
I remember. I even watched the movie version of the memoir a couple of years ago. That guy got it right, but it didn’t inspire me to quit, just made me realize I’d have great material for a book someday.
“I haven’t read it in a while,” Theo says, “so I apologize if it’s a mess in spots, but trust me, it will help you.”
There’s no way he can know this. I’ve been told the same line by countless therapists and psychiatrists. Nothing has worked. But it would be good if this did. The government’s plans for me are much worse.
“Thanks,” I say. “I appreciate this.”
“We can talk as you go. Just keep me in the loop. Okay?”
His face is inches from my own; it’s all I can see. And I know before I speak that I never want this to be my reflection. “Absolutely.”
A tear cascades into Theo’s beard. “Kenny, it will work this time.”
There’s applause and tears and my family thanks Theo and then someone says, “Let’s eat!” and the room moves toward the table and the pizza and the side dishes that were brought.
I sit, unable to comprehend. Or capable, just unwilling. Mom and Dad come over.
“You okay?” Mom asks.
“Yeah, just, wow. He’s talked about it, but here it is.” I hold up the beaten down journal.
“I’ve read some of it,” Dad says. “I agree with him. It could help you, and so many others. Why he hasn’t tried to get it published is beyond me.”
It isn’t beyond me. I’ve had to keep journals every place I’ve been. If anyone ever read them, or worse, published them? Nope. Just, nope.
“Come on, let’s eat,” Mom says. She slaps my thigh to get me to stand. One day home and the typical routines are falling into place.
I stand and it’s too much. Something about the smell of the pizza or the body heat of the room makes me want air. “I’ll be right back,” I say, holding up the journal as reason for leaving, and go to my room. I close the door behind me and the space is as stifling as the rest of the house.
I don’t want air.
If I really wanted air I would have walked outside, onto the front stoop or the back patio. I wait to see if they follow me. There are no footsteps, just laughter and merriment beyond the door. And why wouldn’t there be? Kenny’s home, and he looks so good, and Theo’s words will save him. My parents should have paid more attention to the instructions they were given. I shouldn’t be alone like this. But there’s pizza and family and happiness, something they haven’t had in quite some time. It’s euphoric, something I understand perfectly.
I rifle through my desk drawer. I noticed yesterday that they’d cleaned it, but they didn’t remove everything. This is not exactly a clean slate. You think they would have learned. Or, maybe I was just good at covering my tracks. Either way, the flat-head screwdriver is still in the bottom drawer. What do they think I use it for?
I take it and go to my closet. The baseboard appears the same, but there’s only one way to find out. My heart begins to trot inside my chest. I can hear them talking about me just beyond the door, and I’m careful to keep an ear trained for anyone calling. I bend over and my face feels like a mask as blood pounds in my ears. My chest is tight and my eyes bulge. I can make out the Velcro from here. I get on one knee and my heart is thrumming.
The screwdriver slides in neatly and I pry. The section pops loose and reveals one of my stash spots. Apparently, one they never found, because either I’m hallucinating, or there’s a baggie still inside.
I rub a hand over my face. It slides over the tacky sweat that has blossomed. The fear I felt is gone, and only in this moment I realize how alive I feel. Not uncertain, not insecure, not bumbling around hospital hallways and cafeterias and therapy rooms. This is me, kneeling before a year-old bag of heroin, happier than Theo was to hand me a future. I’m pleased with my past self. I know him so much better.
My hand goes into the hole. Really, it’s as if my hand is acting on its own volition. I’m merely watching it, and smiling at it, and cheering for it. Like this is some twisted claw game at an arcade.
It returns, and does not let me down. The bag sits in my palm, the exterior smooth and white, some sort of devil image stamped on the front staring up at me. It had a name, but I can’t recall it. My brain is swimming, pleading, moaning. Thought is almost impossible.
“Where’s Kenny?” The voice is clear and well outside my room, but I know where it will lead, and I cannot have that.
I reconnect the Velcro and then slide the baggie into my pocket. It burns, a reminder of possibility, of that escape. But not now. I can’t risk it now. I’ve been clean long enough to recognize that. My heart is still running double-time and I sit on the edge of my bed and hold my breath, try to slow it all down.
The door opens and Mom comes through. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, just a little overwhelmed. I needed a second.”
She sits next to me and I tilt toward her. “I understand, but don’t run off like that. I got a little nervous.”
I don’t look her in the eye. Can’t. “That makes sense. Theo’s gift—I don’t know, the implication of this not working—I’m scared.” The honesty shocks me. The fact that I have heroin in my pocket does not negate the fact that I want to be clean. I do.
She rubs my back. “Be in the here and now. It’s all that you need to focus on. Right now, your family is here. Right now, you are clean. Right now, I am sitting next to you, on your bed, in your room. How long’s it been since we’ve been able to do this?” Her voice drops with the last question.
I don’t want her to cry, and I know she’s about to. She should be happy. I can hold my shit together for a little while longer. Maybe I can even just taste the heroin and then flush it. One parting gift. This thought gives me strength. I take Mom’s hand. “Come on. The here and now says I’m starving.”
She laughs harder than she should and we stand. When we walk into the living room, I see the anxiety on faces slip away. I capitalize on that. “Is there any pepperoni left?”
This brings forth a series of scampering, and in a second I have a plate with two enormous pieces of pepperoni pizza on it. I chomp into the first and the room relaxes. I smile around the dough and look over the room. Dad and Theo are standing together. They have the same look on their faces. They know. Neither is eating. Both stare. Sweat breaks out along my back.
“Huh, it does look like a duck,” Theo says.
“Told you,” Dad replies.
I turn and see the cheap painting that they are looking at. One they must have purchased while I was away. Something, I bet, to cover the holes in the wall behind that frame.