My brother rode with me in the back of the cab from the airport to the drug-rehab program on the outskirts of Harlem. As the cab jerked through the traffic, he reached over to squeeze my hand. “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice sounding padded, like a cell where they put crazy people. My brother was a record producer for a classical label and had lived in Manhattan for ten years. I was from Florida and was cold all the way through to the marrow of my bones.
“I’m fine,” I said. I had a few more hours before the withdrawal symptoms would kick my butt.
The cab pulled up in front of a big brownstone that looked just like the ones on either side of it, except for the sign above the door with the name of the rehab program. My brother brought my suitcases inside, and an ugly guy with a mustache whisked them into an office. Then he told my brother not to worry, that they’d take care of me, but I couldn’t have any contact with anyone from the outside for three months — including him.
My first few days in the program went by smoothly in a warm orange methadone blur. Every morning I had to walk twenty city blocks to the clinic, accompanied by my silent escort from the program, a tall, thin black dude. We strode down dark streets littered with trash and smelling of steam and cold. I looked into the smoky windows of the shops we passed and thought about how different everything was from Florida. Everyone I saw looked like a junkie. I wanted to ask one of them where I could cop, but Sir Snitch was watching me all the time. Here I was in New York City, heroin capital of the world, and I had to suck down methadone every morning. My veins wanted to burst from my skin.
One morning, all bundled up in my flimsy Florida winter clothes, I opened the door of the house, and a white wind shoved me back inside, slapping my face with cold. The storm roared outside the door like a monstrous, wounded polar bear. With my body, I punched a hole in the wall of wind and fell outside, where the snow rushed around me in swirls. Escort by my side, I trudged the twenty blocks in my soaking leather boots to get my fix. By the time I’d lumbered back, I couldn’t feel my toes, and my hands and face were chapped and flinty, as if they’d been scrubbed with sandpaper. My escort didn’t seem to mind. He was lanky and hard and dressed appropriately.
The program directors said I could stop going for the methadone any time I wanted to, but I went the whole fifteen days. The last couple of days, the dose was so low the effects didn’t even last an hour.
A Puerto Rican woman ran the program. She’d entered rehab when she was fourteen. It was her only family. She had a wide, golden smile, but if you messed with her program, she was ruthless. The last thing you ever wanted from her was a “haircut” — a verbal mauling that could be heard a mile away. She often told her hapless victim to “slither under the door like the piece of slime that you are!” The residents all called her Chief. She called me Scarlett O’Hara, and a few of the guys drawled and made Gone with the Wind jokes whenever they saw me.
We cleaned all the time. Those first few weeks, I swept stairs — five flights of them — every day. When we cleaned the main meeting room, we swept the corners, dusted the books that no one read, washed the windows, and mopped the floors. In the kitchen, we wiped the chrome surfaces high and low, cleaned the big grill with vinegar and water, and scrubbed the enormous pots and pans. Our bathrooms sparkled.
In the evenings, we all sat in folding chairs in the big living room and watched the news. I waited for glimpses of President Carter, just for the chance to hear his sweet Southern voice. The first lady had the same name as my mother. I had come to this place because I knew I was killing my mother and because she had begged me to get help. She had bought the plane ticket, taken me to the airport, and hugged me hard before I got on the plane. Sometimes I could still feel the imprint of her arms around me. The guilt I felt just made me want to get high.
Once I was off the methadone, I couldn’t sleep. I could hardly even eat. My bones felt as if they were crumbling inside my body. My nose was a fountain of mucus. Nothing was quite in focus, as if I were viewing the world through a screen door. At night, my legs jerked and ran while I lay in my bunk, feeling homesick for the soft bed in my mother’s apartment, for the easy smile on my boyfriend Roy’s face just after we’d scored, and for the gentle hypocrisy that oiled every Southern utterance. Every night, I dreamed about heroin. In my dreams, it was a bird floating on air currents just out of reach.
I learned to be careful around the others. I never knew when a land mine might be waiting for my unwary foot. If I smiled at someone, they might accuse me of being a hypocrite and a phony. If I didn’t smile, then I had a bad attitude. If I talked to the guys, I was “slutty.” If I didn’t talk to them, then I’d have no one to talk to at all, because the other women didn’t have much use for me — and vice versa.
Another month passed, and the withdrawal symptoms receded, but I was still on cleaning duty. Then one afternoon, I mentioned that I could type. The next day, they made me secretary to the day counselor, a staff member who had gone through the program. (Working in the program seemed to be what one did upon graduation.) The day counselor was thin and gypsy faced, with almost-black eyes, bony Dracula hands, and stubble on his pointed chin. He brooded a lot, but he also had a shock of a smile that transformed his face. He’d been clean for three years, he told me. He still looked like a junkie to me. It was the gleam in his eye whenever he talked about all the dope he used to shoot. I was drawn to that gleam like a cold vagrant is drawn to an open fire.
While I sat at a small desk in his office and typed, the gypsy would close the door, bend his head close to mine, and press his hands against my shoulders.
“You know,” he told me one time, “I’ve known prettier girls than you, and I’ve known smarter girls than you, but I’ve never known any that were prettier and smarter.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“Who’s your favorite writer?” he asked.
“Faulkner,” I answered. “Is there anyone else?”
“You should read Hermann Hesse,” he said.
But reading was frowned on in the program, because it inevitably led to “negative thinking.” I could have killed for a chance to just lie in my bunk and read. My mind felt like a jellyfish.
No one has any friends in a rehab program. The entire idea is to turn people against one another — which, it turns out, is amazingly easy to do. One preferred method is the encounter group. The participants form a circle, and then someone “puts the group on” somebody else, and people take turns talking about or yelling at the person, tearing her down, sometimes ridiculing her. Then the person gets to “deal with her feelings.” I tried to get into the spirit of the thing and yell at people and find picky little faults in their behavior, but I was soon informed I was just “projecting” my own shit onto everyone else.
One night, the group was on me for vague crimes that they were having difficulty articulating. They knew I was up to something, but they couldn’t figure out what. Then the Chief edged her way into the circle.
“You got a letter from one of your beaus, Scarlett,” the Chief said, smiling at me. “Some guy named Roy. You know him?”
She proceeded to read the juicier parts of the letter out loud. It was all full of typical Roy talk, like how he couldn’t wait for me to come home and give him “some leg.” That Roy, I thought. He was a bony Vietnam vet with honey lips, country eyes, and a purple heart. I tried to hide how good the letter made me feel, but it wasn’t easy. Although I’m fine at suppressing misery, mirth leaks out through my eyeballs.
It was only when the Chief crumpled the letter that I realized I would never get to read it myself.
“He’s got no respect for you,” she said. “You’re just a sperm receptacle.”
I wondered why I was supposed to feel bad that a guy I liked wanted to have sex with me. I’d feel a lot worse if he didn’t.
I figured the state gave the program a certain amount of money per resident, because, to fill beds, the Chief sent recruiters out into the streets to bring back people who weren’t drug addicts, but only homeless or crazy or whatever. It wasn’t that there weren’t enough drug addicts in the city to supply a place like that; there just weren’t enough addicts who wanted to give up drugs.
One time, the recruiters dragged in the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was from Barbados, about sixteen, with cinnamon-colored skin, owl eyes, wavy black hair, and tiny bird bones. This girl had never shot drugs in her life, had never even smoked pot, but she’d had trouble at home.
“My father is the devil,” she told me. She didn’t go into detail. She also said that she was a virgin.
About six other women were in the program at the time: a few tough black women from the city; a twenty-something white single mother from Long Island; and a pale blond fifteen-year-old prone to throwing violent temper tantrums and hopelessly in love with one of the male residents.
One day, we were cleaning that ramshackle five-story row house from top to bottom. I was down on my hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing the crud around the bottom of the toilets, when I heard a loud, horror-movie scream. I jumped up and dashed into the girls’ dorm. The virgin from Barbados was standing by her bed, shaking. Her bunk had been sliced up, leaving pieces of white sheet jutting up through the green blanket like slivers of flesh. Whoever did it had left a pencil-written note calling her a “hor” and threatening to kill her. I took the girl into my arms and held her as if she were a little child, though I was only two or three years older than she was.
A few nights later, I was awakened from a deep sleep, the kind that closes over you like a coffin, by the sounds of women shrieking and pots banging. Shit. Another fire drill? No, this time there was terror in the voices telling us to “get the hell out!” I raised my head and saw curls of smoke snaking through the air. Stumbling out of bed, I followed the others down five flights of steps — thump, thump, thump, thump, thump — until we were standing outside in the brittle black night, silent and shivering, watching the firetrucks pull up.
Once the fire was out, we were all rounded up in the main room for a guilt session. The faint stink of smoke embroidered the air. Everyone had to sit on the floor, and no one was allowed to talk unless they wanted to confess. We looked around, wondering what, precisely, we were supposed to admit to having done. I noticed that the virgin from Barbados wasn’t with us, though I remembered seeing her outside, weeping silently. Then the Chief strode into the room. She circled us, lips sealed as tight as a Mason jar, looking at the females, especially, with brimstone eyes.
“One of you bitches set fire to her bed,” she said. “The whole house is going to stay here until someone cops to it.”
But no one would confess. We sat there silently on the floor, tired and lost in our own misery. Finally, I heard the Chief talking in the hallway with the virgin. I could see them through the doorway. The girl’s beautiful face was wet with tears.
“You need to go get your things,” the Chief told her.
“I’m afraid to go up there by myself,” the girl told her.
The Chief’s hands went to her hips. Obviously, this was all a huge pain in the ass as far as she was concerned, and I knew she’d be glad to get rid of the girl. The Chief turned and looked into the room. Her eyes met mine. Then she turned back to the girl.
“Do you trust any of them to go upstairs with you?” she asked.
The girl pointed a long, shaky finger in my direction. I stood up. The Chief didn’t say a word as the two of us climbed the steps.
I never saw the virgin from Barbados again. I suspected the pale blond girl was the one who’d slashed and torched the bed. The Chief must have suspected her, as well: a few days later, she committed some minor infraction of the rules, and the level-three residents threw all her clothes out onto the sidewalk and shoved her out the door after them. She landed atop the heap of clothing, screaming the whole time, hurling curse words like bricks. It was an awesome and beautiful display of anger, the sort I was incapable of myself. I could only admire it from afar, like someone in an airplane flying over an active volcano.
I was in the office, putting away some filing, when the gypsy-faced counselor shut the door and kissed me, his pointed tongue darting into my mouth as if searching for something. It was the closest I had come to feeling good about anything in a long time. I ran my fingers over the crotch of his jeans before going downstairs for lunch. The rest of the afternoon, I could feel his eyes nailed to the back of my head while I typed.
That Sunday, I was ironing my jeans in a room on the top floor, listening to the music and life of Harlem pulsing like a red heart down in the streets below. Spring had arrived and was whistling for the world to “come out, come out.” But the room confined me like the walls of a mausoleum. Sunday was the one day of the week when our lives weren’t scheduled down to the minute. On Sundays, something stalked me, something enormous. It felt as if someone were sawing through my heart. When I went to bed that night, I knew I couldn’t spend another Sunday in that place if my life depended on it — which, according to the program, it did.
The next day, at lunchtime, I packed my suitcase and became a “splittee.” The gypsy had slipped me his address and money for a cab. I found his apartment building and sat on the stoop to wait while New York City strutted by. It was like being on another planet. I grinned at everything.
The gypsy got home around three o’clock. “I told them I was sick,” he said with a laugh. This didn’t seem like a smart move to me, but what did I care? We went upstairs, and the first thing I did was take a bath; there’d been only showers at the program. Then we got into bed. Sheets of yellow-gray city sunlight pressed up against the grimy windowpanes, fighting to get in.
For the next two days, while the gypsy went to work, I stayed holed up in his apartment and read Look Homeward, Angel and cried. Then he got fired. After that, the junkie gleam in his eye ignited. We went down to the Lower East Side, cruised Avenue B, and copped some sweet New York City doogie. Too eager to wait until we made it home, we got off in a shooting gallery. I felt as if I had plunged off a twenty-story building and landed gently in a warm blue sea. We had to stop every few blocks on the way back so I could puke.
Before long, the gypsy was kicked out of his apartment, and we moved into an old residential hotel with thick-painted walls. We had no plans and not much money. And with the program’s restrictions gone, I realized I felt absolutely nothing for him. This was odd. I should have been delirious: Here I was in heroin paradise with a dope fiend who would do anything for me, even lose his job. Could it be that I actually loved Roy back in Florida? Or was it just that I loved Florida and my worried mother? I wanted to go home, but Manhattan was like Alcatraz; I didn’t have a clue how to get off the damn island.
Now every day was Sunday, and I had to find a way to make it stop. I applied for a waitressing job at a Greek restaurant. The owner took a liking to me, and I went back that evening to work a shift. As the night wore on, the Greek men danced. One of them could have purchased my soul with his black eyes. Just that once, I wished I wasn’t a junkie. I wanted to fall in love with the dancing Greek, marry him, live in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs, and have his babies. He had something I wanted but couldn’t let myself have. My screaming-drunk dad and, later, the silent abyss of my alcoholic stepfather’s eyes had taught me that any attempt to make a good life with a man was like walking over one of those Vietnamese jungle traps I’d read about: you’d most likely end up with your heart impaled on a spike.
When I got off at midnight, I didn’t go straight back to the hotel. Instead I went down to Avenue B by myself, found the shooting gallery where we’d been the day before, walked up the dark steps, and knocked on the door.
“You again?” the man said.
Inside, three or four junkies lounged against the walls. The light from the streetlamps outside shone in like the glow of the underworld.
“Girl wants some doogie,” the man said to one of the others. I handed over my money. I would take some heroin back to the hotel with me, but first I wanted to get off. I paid the man two dollars to use the cooker and borrowed a belt. Someone held it tight for me.
“You’ve got some good veins there for a girl,” a voice said from far away.
The needle bit my skin and then nestled into a vein: a clean hit, running through me like the Orient Express. New York heroin is like Daddy holding you and kissing you on the neck. It’s white, not dark and red like the Mexican heroin that I’d shot back home. It tastes like the sweet breath of Buddha.
The next morning, I awoke groggily to the sound of someone knocking on the door of the hotel room. My gypsy-faced dope fiend lay next to me. We were feeling friendly because we still had some stuff in our systems, so he got up and answered the door. Before I could think, my brother was standing in the room. I could see by the look plastered on his face that he wanted to kick this guy’s ass — as if it were the gypsy’s fault. I was the bloodless femme fatale, the vampire girl. Then my brother looked at me lying in bed with the covers up to my chin.
“What?” I said. “What? What? What?”
“You have to go back,” he said.
“Shit,” I said. “No way.”
But my brother was looking at me with his green-brown eyes: The same brother who’d tried to be a father to me when he was fifteen and I was four. The same brother who’d taken me horseback riding and taught me how to canoe, how to bowl, how to count to ten in German. A familiar hard look settled into his eyes, and I became a small child again, ordered to my room because I’d been bad.
“All right,” I said.
The gypsy stared at me in disbelief. I shrugged and left with my brother.
When I went back to the program, I was put on an eternal work contract. My sin had been unforgivable: I had taken down one of the saved. The work contract meant that I wore a stocking cap and worked from 6 A.M. until midnight, and nobody ever spoke to me. I didn’t mind so much. It was better than hearing what they thought of me.
Then one morning, the smell of the vinegar we used to clean the big stove made me retch till my guts ached. I had to go to bed. I was yellow all over, and my piss was dark: hepatitis. I stayed in bed in a room by myself and couldn’t leave. When they brought food up to me, they set it down on the floor without even looking at me. At least no one had set fire to my bed.
One day, the Chief stopped by to see me.
“I talked to your mother, Scarlett,” she said with a sneer. “She doesn’t want you back. You’ve got nowhere else to go — except the streets.”
Then she turned and walked out of the small, dark room where I’d been quarantined. I felt a hard hurt in my gut. Had my mother really said that? Sure, I’d messed up over and over again, sticking needles in my arm, stealing and shoplifting, selling everything we owned to the pawnshop. But my mother had always said, “This isn’t the real you. This is not you.” Maybe now she’d finally given up on me. Maybe this was me. Nowhere to go except the streets? I’d been a junkie, but I’d never had to live on the streets, never had to sell myself, never been totally alone. I rolled over in my bunk and stared at the blank wall. A dark sense of despair pressed its smothering hand over my mouth.
After a week, they sent me to a doctor to see if I was over the hepatitis. My old, reliable escort went with me. They weren’t trusting me with anyone who might be susceptible to my vortex of destruction, and he didn’t like white chicks, anyway. We took the subway. As we rode through the dark tunnels, swaying like zombies, I kept wishing there were a subway line to Florida. It seemed I’d never leave this cold, concrete place.
The doctor looked at my eyes, told me to piss in a cup, jabbed me with a giant needle and sucked out all but a few drops of blood. “You’re OK,” he said. “You can go back to work.”
My escort smiled for the first time since I’d known him. Our eyes met briefly, and I thought about what life would be like back at the drug program, where hating me had become everyone’s favorite pastime. I remembered the girl from Barbados and wondered what had become of her. I thought about her last words to me. They hadn’t been particularly profound or anything, but they’d made an impression: “Thank you,” she’d said. “You have been very nice.”
Nice? Me? Maybe my mother had been right all along. And at that moment, standing there in the doctor’s office, I knew that the Chief had lied to me: My mother had never said I couldn’t come back. My mother knew the truth about me, the truth that even I had forgotten.
My escort and I were on our way back to the subway when I saw a green sign about a block away. I stopped and squinted at it. My heart turned over like an engine.
“Come on,” my escort said.
“No,” I said. “I’m not going back.”
“What?” he said. “Don’t do this to me.”
“Sorry,” I said, smiling at him. What a dishonor this would be for him: losing a captive in broad daylight. Before he could stop me, I started walking right past the subway entrance and straight for the sign, which said, 95 SOUTH, with a little arrow pointing right. I turned the corner and headed for the interstate; it was only a few blocks away. I felt the hot draft as a semi passed me by. Then I stuck out my thumb and was gone.