I met Jill in rehab. She was from Tennessee and was an all American girl: long blonde hair, blue eyes, southern accent, denim mini skirt and uggs. She was in her early twenties and an opiate and benzo addict. She came into rehab after doing a year on methadone. She had never tried heroin.
Jill and I became friends because I volunteered to drive her to a doctor’s appointment in Beverly Hills while she was still inpatient. On the way back we stopped and had lunch at a middle eastern restaurant. I remember our conversation was awkward and strained. When we got back to the hospital we sat on a bench in the parking lot and smoked cigarettes for a while.
We started sitting together at meetings. One day, in the middle of the meeting, a boy passed a note to Jill: “you are hot as hell, my southern belle.”
Jill bought oxys from “Sweetie,” a guy she’d met in a methadone clinic. Sweetie was a big imposing man whose living room was cluttered with boxes of pills straight from the manufacturer. “He also has rifles behind the door,” Jill told me in her southern accent, “and he only conducts business between ten and seven.” I was not allowed to see him. I couldn’t even park close to his building. Jill made a big deal out of this, warning me all the time that if Sweetie ever saw me he would cut her off completely. He was mysterious to me, and powerful. It was disconcerting to hear Jill on the phone with him after business hours, sick, begging: “Sweetie, please, I know it’s late but I need to come by, please. I can buy four. Sweetie?” We paid twenty-five dollars for each eighty milligram oxy.
I couldn’t bring myself to call him Sweetie. I would say “did you call him?” Or “are you going to his place later?”
Once Sweetie had actiqs which are fentanyl lollipops. They were so good that Jill stole money from her roommate so we could buy more.
I liked to chew and swallow the oxys. Jill liked to inject them.
One night we were in Jill’s room sitting on the floor. She had a cracked coffee mug half full of water in front of her. She drew up some water into her syringe and then squirted most of it onto the carpet. I watched the process: the spoon crushing the pill, the cloudy mixture in the spoon, the flame clarifying, the cotton pulled from a qtip. Jill was intense in her concentration. Afterward I kept thinking about the tiny jet of water disappearing into the carpet. Later, when I had my own process on Jill’s floor, I always made sure to have a wash cloth that I could squirt the water into.
I’ve been a junkie and exjunkie for a long time. I’ve seen the rush and the bliss, and the scary unresponsive nod. I’ve seen abscesses develop from injecting coke and missing the vein, and skin flushed and heated from cotton fever. But through it all, overwhelming and defining everything else, is the gratitude for the numbness and the insulation; the escape from reality. People told me “smoking it is a waste” and “if you slam it, you’ll never smoke it again.” There were rigs locked and loaded in front of me but I was never swayed. It never even occurred to me.
But that night, when Jill sat down, tied off, and pushed in the needle, something shifted inside my body: needs were refined, motivation dissolved. I was suddenly thirstier than I’d ever been in my life. I watched Jill’s eyes, then watched her pull the plunger back, register, reinject. I waited until she could focus again and then I asked her if she would do it for me.
We spent many nights in that room. Sometimes we went up to the roof of her building and sat in lawn chairs and smoked cigarettes and nodded. Sometimes she told me stories about the rich malibu boyfriend who paid for her rehab the first time. Or she’d talk about her boyfriend back in Tennessee; how she’d waited and waited for him to get out of prison and that’s when her habit got really bad.
Occasionally Jill scored xanax. I only liked benzos when I was kicking or when we couldn’t find anything else. Jill loved them, and she particularly loved them combined with opiates. I hated when she did that; she would stagger around like she was really drunk, slur her words, and start talking randomly, never finishing a thought or sentence. One night I was cold so she loaned me a Billabong sweatshirt. When I left she walked with me to my car, swaying and using the trunks of palm trees to keep herself from falling. “You better bring that back,” she said thickly, eyes closed, “or I’ll billabong you.” She repeated this sentence three times and then turned back and stumbled into her building.
Jill showed me where to buy needles. There was a small mom and pop pharmacy on Santa Monica Blvd. I would tell the pharmacist I needed insulin syringes for my grandmother. The pharmacist would usually give me five. We knew not to share needles. I also knew I wasn’t supposed to use the same needle twice, but I did that all the time. I felt like using it just once was a waste. Later we found needles downtown, sold for a dollar each. It was convenient. You’d go to the corner or doorway to find the heroin, and then the needle seller would find you and ask how many you needed. Each syringe was in its own sealed plastic bag. I never looked for a needle exchange because scoring downtown included its own harm reduction measures.
We didn’t switch to heroin easily. When Sweetie became hard to reach we looked all around for other sources of oxy. It was hard to find. A couple times we got fentanyl patches which we would cut open and eat. We found someone who had some thirty mg oxys but he was charging the same amount as Sweetie for less than half the potency. So I told Jill about downtown.
We waited until we were sick and desperate. We kept hoping Sweetie would call back, or someone would show up with some vicodin or something that would keep us well for at least a few more hours.
We parked in a public lot. Then we walked around, checking each corner. I wasn’t used to looking for signs. In the old days I scored on Bonnie Brae; the dealers knew my car and would run up to my window as I turned the corner, competing. Once I bought dope from a woman holding a baby.
Street dealers universally keep the tiny, heroin-filled balloons in their mouths. We walked around and I tried to make meaningful eye contact with any mouth-smacking Sinaloa Cowboy I could find. I think Jill stood out too much and made the dealers suspicious. I am Mexican, approachable. She is blonde and young and downtown-naive. But we found it. We had to follow some guy for a couple blocks and wait outside the McDonalds while he got more balloons from his supplier. We tried to buy in bulk.
When we got back to the car Jill flirted with the attendant but we still had to pay ten dollars.
I showed Jill how to smoke heroin, and how to melt it and sniff it from an eyedropper. Soon we were shooting it. I felt dirty shooting downtown dope after the clean rush of the oxys. The brown tar seemed toxic: foul-smelling and bitter tasting. But I didn’t stop doing it. I kept my own needles in my closet then, and shot up at home, using an old Cole Haan belt to tie off. Once Jill came over with a bigger needle. She told me she didn’t have veins left and would I shoot into her muscle. She rolled up the sleeve of her tee shirt and I plunged the big needle into her upper arm. It hurt, and she flinched, and she didn’t have the immediate rush of endorphins to erase the pain. But she sat down on my bed and I watched the slower wave of pleasure as it took over her body.
“No rush,” she told me, “sucks.”
to be continued..