Years after I’d last seen him, I called him up. Which meant first I had to call his mother, a woman I’d never met. In another lifetime I’d written her number in my address book beside her long, unfamiliar name.
“Hello,” she said, picking up the phone on the second ring three thousand miles away. I hadn’t expected her voice to sound the way it did, so sweet and expectant and frail. He’d told me about her when he and I were lovers: How smart she was, and successful. How she’d been the valedictorian of her Ivy League college class and then had forged ahead and earned her PhD.
“Yes,” I said, as if she’d asked me a question, and then I stammered out what I had planned to say more gracefully: who I was, what I wanted. It had taken some courage to call. No, courage isn’t precisely the right word. It had taken a glass of wine and a single-minded bravado, coupled with a willingness to risk piercing this stranger’s heart.
“He lives in San Francisco now,” she interrupted me, understanding immediately the apprehension in my voice. “I’ll give you his number,” she added, her words slow and steady and intentional, as if we were speaking in code.
And we were. She wasn’t just telling me where her son lived these days. She was telling me that he wasn’t dead.
I’d met him on his birthday, seven years to the day before my phone call to his mother. I was twenty-five, and he had just turned twenty-four. I was separated from my husband, but not yet technically divorced; he was using heroin, but not yet technically a junkie. He walked up to me in a bar and put his hand on my wrist as I wrote in my journal. “Nice,” he said, outlining the sharp edges of my tin bracelet with his delicate fingers. He had neon blue hair cut close to the scalp and a cartoonishly violent tattoo that covered half his arm, though his face was in precise contradiction to those disguises: tenacious and tender — like a kitten wanting milk.
That night we had sex on his lumpy futon on the floor and talked until the sun rose, mostly about him. He told me about his smart mother and his alcoholic father and the fancy school where he’d gone to college. The following afternoon we drove around, circling a parking lot until he spotted his drug dealer’s car.
I hadn’t known him twenty-four hours, and yet I felt inexplicably bound to him, as if we had traveled together on a long, hard journey and would never part. Deep down I knew otherwise. He was no one to me, a stranger, not even remotely my type. The men I’d dated previously, including the man I was still married to, were idealists and optimists, book lovers and acoustic musicians; men who, at least on the surface, were sincere and generous and kind.
He was nothing like them. He smoked heroin and did vicious, punk-rock things to his ears and nipples and hair. He drank big bottles of cheap liquor that he’d bought at convenience stores and named his car “Malice,” so bent was he on demonstrating an ironic brand of destructive rage. Such poses would normally have repulsed me, but in him they compelled me instead. His entire being — the way he laughed, the way he fucked, the way he held his body as he walked down the street — was merciless and depraved, pitiless and pure, and in his presence I believed that I could be that way too. I ached to be that way, to shuck the weight of the life I’d been living. The life in which I’d struggled to resurrect my failing marriage and worked two jobs so I could pay my way through college. The life in which I’d taken care of my young mother while she was sick with cancer, and then, after she’d died, attempted to hold what remained of my family together. The life in which I’d held earnest jobs at nonprofit organizations and been a seriously aspiring fiction writer. By the time I met him I was about to buckle from the weight of responsibility, to burst from sorrow. He didn’t care, didn’t know, didn’t even want to know about any of these things.
Which is to say that he was perfect. My luscious escape.
The second night I knew him, we went to a club to hear a band. I stood next to him on the edge of the dancing mob, getting jostled and thrashed by the occasional faceless body, high on heroin for the first time in my life. The music was a colossus of sound, so loud I could feel it beating like a heart beneath my ribs.
“I’m going in!” he shouted to me, though I couldn’t make sense of what he’d said until he was gone, temporarily lost to me in the writhing crowd. I’m going in too, I chanted to myself, though I also chanted something else: I’m not going to stay.
It felt inevitable at the time, and still does. To me he was the darkness at the edge, the center of the flame, and the precise place I needed to be. It’s times like those, when the ordinary becomes illuminated, that we are transformed, as by the wave of a wand in a fairy tale, and all that existed before is gone. He was that way to me then, at that moment in my life: exactly what I was looking for, though at the time I didn’t know that I was looking at all.
He reappeared from the crash of limbs and grabbed me by the wrists. “Come on!” he shouted, though again I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t need to. I simply let him pull me in.
We spent the summer together having adventuresome sex, doing drugs, and wandering the city. We discussed poets that we believed nobody but us read, and listened to music only a small coterie of people knew existed. I wore little thrift-shop dresses and a button he’d bought me that said, Apple Pie Is Toxic, pinned to the strap of my bag.
In the end it wasn’t much. A pranksterish half love that took on tragic undertones as he descended into the depths of heroin addiction and I came close to tumbling in after him. There was drama at my leaving, though it was more about my yearning for heroin than about my feelings for him. By autumn I was fifteen hundred miles away, having returned to the city where I actually lived, shaken and drained. By winter I’d come into the clear and continued on with my life, working at my job and filing for divorce, staying away from heroin and boys with blue hair.
Time passed, and he became not himself in my memory but an emblem of my youthful folly, my experimental daring, my authentic scrabble to find a way in the world. I was nostalgic for him on occasion, though not even remotely heartbroken. I wished him well in my mind, though I doubted in a far-off way that “well” was how he was doing. He was not an actual, potentially suffering person, not a boy I’d once known who had his own hopes and dreams, but a symbol of my own period of liberation and self-destruction. He was part of a story I got to tell, but not the story itself.
And then I saw him. It had been two years since our affair, and I had returned to live in the city where we’d met. I was standing in line for a movie, on a date with the man who is now my husband. I turned, and the boy with blue hair was there. His hair was no longer blue; his face was puffy and pocked and horrible-looking. “Methadone,” he explained, seeing the question in my eyes. We embraced and briefly spoke, though all the while I had the sensation that I couldn’t quite land on who he was. I knew his name and who he’d been to me, but I couldn’t believe this person was actually him. After a few minutes we drifted apart, back to our places in the movie line, as if nothing had happened. I stood with my future husband trying to conceal that I was trembling so badly I could hardly stand up. I started an inane argument with him, whispering fiercely so no one would hear. Furious with each other, we left the line and walked back to his car, where I sat in the passenger seat and wept.
“What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice sweet now, no longer angry. I couldn’t tell him, didn’t know. Or I knew but couldn’t find the words. Now I can.
What was wrong was that for the first time I’d seen my former lover for himself, not a reflection of me or an escape, not an adventure or a cautionary tale, not a cool symbol of twenty-something despair, but a person, stark and sick and broken, possibly beyond repair. And I’d seen my own life too, my real life, not the myth I’d created about the months I had spent on the dark side with him — “the bad boy I once half loved,” as I’d taken to saying with a sardonic smile when I told people the story.
It was a beautiful thing, and painful, to turn and look and know, to see the truth and the lies, to witness the consequences rather than simply live the actions, as I had with him over the course of that summer. When I was with him, I had believed that I was trying, mercilessly, to uncover the truth, and that what was most true was whatever was darkest and most complicated and cruel. I didn’t believe that anymore, as I sat in the car with my future husband after fleeing the movie line. And I didn’t believe in half love either, or in truth without mercy, or in actions without consequences, or that apple pie is toxic.
I thought of him then, sitting in the darkened theater, watching a film that my future husband and I would never see, and I let myself love him entirely. I also loved the version of myself that had briefly passed through his life. It was a kind of growing up and the actual end of our affair, though it had ended in practical terms years before.
In the final days of our romance I’d seen an ad in the paper for an escort service that was hiring. I’d called the number and made an appointment for an interview that evening. I told him about it as I sat on the edge of the tub, shaving my legs. He thought it was funny and sexy and cool, the notion that I would sleep with strangers for money. I reasoned, falsely, that it was no different from my job as a waitress; that all work for wages was a form of prostitution anyway, so why not do the real thing and make it worth my while? The man on the phone had said that the job entailed “visiting” clients at their homes and hotel rooms. I would make one hundred dollars for every half-hour.
I examined myself in the full-length mirror before going out the door to meet the man who ran the escort service. I was wearing makeup and a black miniskirt and a pair of purple boots I thought befitted the occasion.
“Take your underwear off,” my blue-haired boy coached, and then laughed wickedly as I bent to do it.
“ ’Bye,” I said to him, a small part of me hoping he’d implore me not to go, jealous or protective in a way he’d never been before.
“ ’Bye,” he said, an impish smile on his face.
I stuffed my underwear into my purse and walked out the door.
Once on the street, instead of getting in my truck, I continued walking past it. I was going to the store a block away, I told myself, to get a pack of gum. But then I sailed on by the store and down the sidewalk. I walked past yards with lush flowers fading in the heat, past the summertime sounds of televisions coming from open windows and a woman playing fetch with her dog. I walked so far that my feet began to ache in the hot boots. Then I came to a cafe and went inside.
It was not the kind of place I frequented. A tad dated and old-ladyish, it had tiny iron chairs painted white and watercolors of adorable animals on the walls and spider plants and ferns hanging in pots. I ordered a lemonade and sat drinking it slowly, thinking about my life.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Didn’t know I’d leave the boyfriend I only half loved within the week. Didn’t know that he hadn’t wrecked my life, or that I hadn’t wrecked it myself. Didn’t know that one evening almost seven years in the future, on the night of his birthday and the anniversary of our meeting, I’d pick up the phone and dial his mother’s number and, a few minutes after that, his. I didn’t know how it would be to talk to him then, across the miles and the years, his voice quieter and more melancholy than before, but still edged with the crackle of the jokester he used to be. Didn’t know the years he would describe to me, during which he’d sink entirely into the pain of addiction, overdosing and crashing cars, stealing from friends and trying repeatedly to get clean before finally checking himself into rehab and staying there until he’d shake heroin for good. And I didn’t know the years I would describe to him, how I would sink into my own depths, grieving my mother and my ruined marriage, and then eventually pull myself up and out to find love again, go to graduate school, and write a novel.
I didn’t know any of that then, that summer day when I should have been at my job interview to become a prostitute, but instead sat drinking lemonade in an uncool cafe where I had never been and would never go again. But I did know a few things, and they came to me the way true things do: with the certainty and subtlety of a shaft of sunlight on the back of your head.
I knew that I liked the way the tree outside the cafe window looked in silhouette against the sky. I knew that I had to change my life. I knew that eventually I would rise and put my underpants back where they belonged.