I'd heard rumors about what happened to Lauren. I mean, I never even knew her that well but we'd sort of hung out a few times in high school. Actually, I was sleeping with her for about two weeks. She had moved to San Francisco when I was a senior and we met somehow—at a party or something. Back in high school it was just pot, maybe I'd do some acid and mushrooms on the weekend.
But I smoked pot every day. I was seventeen and had been accepted at prestigious universities across the country and I figured a little partying was due me. I'd worked hard those last three and a half years. Sure I'd had some problems smoking weed and drinking too much when I was younger, but that was all behind me. I was smart. I was on the swim team. My writing had been published in Newsweek. I was a great big brother. I got along with my dad and stepmom. I loved them. They were some of my best friends. So I just started smoking some pot and what harm could that do me anyway? Hell, my dad used to smoke pot. Most everyone in my family did. Our friends did—it was totally accepted.
But with me things were different. In high school I was rolling blunts and smoking them in the car as I drove to school. Every break in classes had me driving off to get high. We'd go into the hills of Marin County, dropping acid or eating mushrooms—walking through the dry grass and overgrown cypress trees, giggling and babbling incoherently. Plus I was drinking more and more, sometimes during the day. I almost always blacked out, so I could remember little to nothing of what'd happened. It just affected me in a way that didn't seem normal.
When I was eleven my family went snowboarding up in Tahoe, and a friend and I snuck into the liquor cabinet after dinner. We poured a little bit from each bottle into a glass, filling it almost three-quarters of the way with the different-colored, sweet-smelling liquid. I was curious to know what it felt like to get good and proper drunk. The taste was awful. My friend drank a little bit and stopped, unable to take anymore. The thing was, I couldn't stop.
I drank some and then I just had to drink more until the whole glass was drained empty. I'm not sure why. Something was driving me that I couldn't identify and still don't comprehend. Some say it's in the genes. My grandfather drank himself to death before I was born. I'm told I resemble him more than anyone else—a long face, with eyes like drops of water running down. Anyway, that night I threw up for probably an hour straight and then passed out on the bathroom floor.
I woke up with almost no memory of what I'd done. My excuse for the vomit everywhere was food poisoning. It scared me, honestly, and I didn't drink again like that for a long time.
Instead I started smoking pot. When I was twelve I was smoking pot every day—sneaking off into the bushes during recess. And that pretty much continued through high school.
Lauren and I really never got very close back then. When I heard later that she'd been put in rehab for cocaine abuse and severe bulimia, I guess it wasn't that surprising. We'd both been really screwed up all the time and I had a history of dating, well, not the most balanced girls. I remember being ashamed to bring her to my house. I remember not wanting my parents to meet her. We'd come in late, late and leave early in the morning—whispering so as not to wake up my little brother and sister. Maybe it was them I wanted to shield from Lauren the most. Or, not from Lauren so much as, well, the person I was becoming. I was ashamed of my behavior, but still I kept going forward. It was like being in a car with the gas pedal slammed down to the floor and nothing to do but hold on and pretend to have some semblance of control. But control was something I'd lost a long time ago.
Anyway, Lauren was not someone I thought about a whole lot. When she approaches me, I don't even recognize her at first. It's been five years. She yells my name:
I jump, turning around to look at her.
She is wearing big Jackie O sunglasses and her dyed black hair is pulled back tight. Her skin is pale, pale white and her features are petite and delicately carved. The San Francisco air is cold, even though the sun has broken through the fog, and she has a long black coat pulled around her.
So I think…think, think. Then I remember.
"Yeah, don't pretend like you don't remember me."
"Whatever. What're you doing here?"
It's a good question.
I'd been sober exactly eighteen months on April 1st, just two days ago. I'd made so much progress. My life was suddenly working, you know? I had a steady job at a rehab in Malibu. I'd gotten back all these things I'd lost—car, apartment, my relationship with my family. It'd seemed like, after countless rehabs and sober livings, I had finally beaten my drug problem And yet there I was, standing on Haight Street, drunk on Stoli and stoned out on Ambien, which I'd stolen from the med room at that rehab.
Honestly, I was as surprised by my own actions as anyone else. The morning of my relapse, I had no idea I was actually going to do it. Not that there weren't ominous signs. In the twelve-step program they tell you to get a sponsor. Mine was a man named Spencer. He was around forty, strong, with a square face and hair that stood on end. He had a wife and a three-year-old daughter. He spent hours talking with me about recovery. He helped me get into cycling and walked me through the twelve steps. We'd ride our bikes together along the Pacific Coast Highway, up Latigo Canyon, or wherever. He'd relate his own experience getting sober from chronic cocaine addiction. But I stopped calling him as often. Maybe I felt like I didn't need his help anymore. I seldom went to meetings, and when I did, my mind would talk to me the whole time about how much better I was than everyone else—or how much worse I was, depending on the day. I'd stopped exercising as frequently. I'd stopped taking the psych meds they had me on—a mixture of mood stabilizers and antidepressants. I'd started smoking again. Plus there was Zelda.
Zelda was a woman I thought I was madly in love with. She was fourteen years older than I was and, well, she was also engaged to marry another guy, a wealthy real-estate broker named Mike. When I started sleeping with her, I tried to justify it to myself. I figured it was her decision and I wasn't really doing anything wrong and it was just for fun and blah, blah, blah. Basically, I thought I could get away with it. I mean, I thought I could stay detached emotionally.
She came to represent for me everything I thought would make my life perfect. After all, she'd been married to this famous actor and was an actress and grew up in Los Angeles, raised by her famous uncle who was also in the movie business. Everyone seems to know her in L.A. She's sort of a celebrity, you know? Being with her became my obsession.
Ultimately, however, she wouldn't leave her boyfriend for me and got pregnant with his child. I was crushed. I mean, I just couldn't handle it. So yesterday I relapsed, driving up the 5, drinking from a bottle of Jager.
So now I'm standing on Haight Street and Lauren, this girl I haven't seen or thought about in five years, is here, in her long black coat, asking me what I'm doing.
I'd driven up from L.A. the night before and slept in my old, falling-apart Mazda, parked in a lot on the edge of the Presidio—a great expanse of forest and abandoned army housing that stretches out to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay. A friend of mine, Akira, had once lived there. He occupied a basement apartment on the edge of the Presidio. I'd hoped to find him still living there, but after I wandered around the house some—looking into the dust-smeared windows—it was clear that the place was deserted. It was Akira who'd actually introduced me to crystal meth when I was eighteen. He was a friend of a friend. He did a lot of drugs and we immediately gravitated toward each other. Somehow that always seemed to happen—we addicts can always find one another. There must be some strange addict radar or something.
Akira was like me, but more strung out at the time. He had dyed red, curling hair and dark, dark eyes. He was thin, emaciated, with hollowed-out features and narrow, dirty fingers. When he offered me that first line of meth, I didn't hesitate. Growing up I'd heard, you know, never to do heroin. Like, the warnings were everywhere and I was scared—do heroin, get hooked. No one ever mentioned crystal to me. I'd done a little coke, Ecstasy, whatever—I could take it or leave it. But early that morning, when I took those off-white crushed shards up that blue, cut plastic straw—well, my whole world pretty much changed after that. There was a feeling like—my God, this is what I've been missing my entire life. It completed me. I felt whole for the first time.
I guess I've pretty much spent the last four years chasing that first high. I wanted desperately to feel that wholeness again. It was like, I don't know, like everything else faded out. All my dreams, my hopes, ambitions, relationships—they all fell away as I took more and more crystal up my nose. I dropped out of college twice, my parents kicked me out, and, basically, my life unraveled. I broke into their house—I would steal checks from my father and write them out to myself to pay for my habit. When I had a job at a coffee shop, I stole hundreds of dollars from the register. Eventually I got arrested for a possession charge. My little brother and sister watched me get carted away in handcuffs. When my then seven-year-old brother tried to protect me, running to grab me from the armed policemen, they screamed for him to "get back." His small body crumpled on the asphalt and he burst into body-shaking tears, sobbing and gasping for breath.
Then there were the treatment centers, two in northern California, one in Manhattan, and one in Los Angeles. I've spent the last three years in and out of twelve-step programs. Throughout all of it, the underlying craving never really left me. And that was accompanied by the illusion that, the next time, things would be different—I'd be able to handle it better. I didn't want to keep hurting people. I didn't want to keep hurting myself. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, "I don't understand, why don't you just stop?"
I couldn't think of an answer. The fact was, I couldn't just stop. That sounds like a cop-out, but it's the truth. It's like I'm being held captive by some insatiable monster that will not let me stop. All my values, all my beliefs, everything I care about, they all go away the moment I get high. There is a sort of insanity that takes over. I convince myself and believe very strongly that this time, this time, it will be different. I tell myself that, after such a long time clean, these last eighteen months, I can go back to casual use. So I walk down to the Haight and start talking to the first street kid who asks me for a cigarette.