It was too difficult and familiar tonight.
I didn’t want to call you back but your message said you’d finished rehearsal and you were hungry and wanted to meet us.
You joined our table, tried to join in our laughter.
The lights are bright at Denny’s. It’s not junkie light. Not the kind of place I’d be comfortable in if I were loaded. But I know you, and you take what you can, grabbing the parts of us you can reach. Joking sometimes, and smoothing over the compulsive mechanics of your body — pile the plates, organize the table, keep things clean — because you know we know; you know I know. Your strategy is to neutralize my distrust with compliments: “your hair looks amazing. That photo was great. I’m going to comment on it later.”
Then more about this injustice, that unfair remark, the betrayal that, if you grew up where we grew up, would get you killed. And: why did Sam do that to me and not to Jay? Gina’s crazy, I showed the judge those photos and he dropped the restraining order and suddenly I have visitation three times a week. Sam got subpoena’d and he showed up and then hung around the court afterward with her. with HER. But Dan, he’s a real friend. They tried to subpoena him and he said fuck no, if you do that I’ll sue you for everything you’re worth. He’s a real friend. Not like Sam.
And: you’ll help me, right?
I try hard to be sympathetic. I try to listen, to ask appropriate questions. I feel the nausea rising up into my throat. I sense the dope on you or in you, sticky or liquid, cold or hot. I know you too well.
Your head droops and you work to pull it up, to pay attention to the conversation. You raise your eyebrows, hoping they will stretch your eyes open so you can focus. I see a crescent of sclera, milky white, at the base of your struggling eyelids. You’re waiting for some kind of gesture, a physical assurance that I’ve received your distress signal. I’m trying but it’s not genuine because you’re lying and I don’t know how to help you anymore anyway.
Twenty years ago I drove to your friend’s house in Santa Monica in the middle of the day with a bottle of clonidine. I watched you kick and complain and hurt and I felt grateful and weird and kind of in love.
It’s different now. We’ve used up our rehab allotments. These days there’s nothing magical about stretching out next to each other on a hospital bed and feeling intimately connected because we both used to score on Bonnie Brae, and we both used to spend hours lying on the floor, scratching, and analyzing and planning our revolutions. It was easy, almost fun, to discuss which withdrawal symptom we hated the most (fire in your chest, or inability to stay in one place, or the bone ache, or the vomiting, or freezing shakes with sweat pouring off your body) from the comforting insulation of the hospital lounge, our bodies full of valium and chloral hydrate, an endless supply of marlboro reds on the table, an attentive stream of ex-addict counselors and nurses whose eyes practically radiated hope.
You hated the fire in your chest the most. I remember you telling me that like it was yesterday.
Tonight you gave someone a cigarette, one of those shorter, cheaper marlboro reds. I smiled, said proudly, “*I* don’t smoke anymore.” Trying to laugh, trying to lighten the mood.
“That’s because you rock!” You said, then added in a lower voice: “I remember smoking a lot of cigarettes with you.”
Your body has gotten old. Your face is drawn and wrinkled. You’ve lost twenty pounds in a month.
You’re injecting insulin at the table in the restaurant and trying to make jokes about hepatitis.
I can’t even look at you right now.
My heart is breaking.