Last night I came home and J was wrapped in a blanket, with that brooding look that I know means something is wrong. For some reason I feel so protective of him, like he’s this fragile little bird, when he’s really a 6 foot tall street-smart guy who dealt heroin for a year, used to own a gun and still carries a knife for protection — he’s very worried about safety. He grew up in Trenton, NJ, born in 1977, so his childhood was the worst of the crime epidemic that swept through the country. He’s horrified that I don’t lock my car doors (I can’t — they don’t lock) and that I leave my apartment door ajar for the cats. Whenever I don’t respond via text, or sometimes even if I am responding, he’ll text me, “Are you okay?” as if I’m constantly at risk of abduction or worse. So I guess he feels protective of me too.
I asked him, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I mean, no. But, yeah.”
We had a cigarette on the porch and I asked him what was wrong.
He said, “I’m having trouble with my mind. It happens, sometimes.” He is a man of few words and I usually have to pull anything personal out of him. After a minute of silence, I responded, “What… what about your mind?”
“I can’t turn it off. I can’t make it stop. Sometimes I forget, this is why I did heroin… to make my mind stop.”
Silence again. In my interview classes, they told us that interview subjects can’t stand silence, and rather than jumping in with another question, if you wait long enough, the person will start talking again, elaborate, offer more details. J must be the one exception to that rule. He could beat anyone in a silence contest.
Finally I asked, “What is your mind telling you?”
Long pause. “Life,” he said. Pause. “Purpose.”
“Like, what’s the point of living?” I delicately tried to pull more out of him.
“Yeah. And all the bad stuff starts coming back, all the deaths, all the faces.” His father died when he was a teenager, and the grief consumed him for years, and he’s had a lot of other people close to him die. “And I think about how many times I’ve almost died, and I don’t know why — why I lived and they didn’t.” He almost died at birth, when his umbilical chord was wrapped around his neck. Later his house caught on fire. His car almost went off a cliff, literally teetering on the edge. And in December he was in that coma for two weeks. The fact that he can walk at all, or that his kidneys started working again, is a medical miracle. He still wears the hospital bracelet, to remind himself of it.
He went on, “I think about how maybe it’s because I have some purpose, like I’ll do something good, or help someone. Like maybe once I held the door for someone and just that small act of kindness made them take a different path in their life.”
Now I was silent. I felt like I was trying to coax a baby bird to walk a little closer to me. I know that feeling, that what’s the point feeling, and the can’t make your mind stop feeling. I know that nothing anyone ever says helps, almost ever. The more people try to convince me that my life is worth something, the more I push back that they’re wrong.
I carefully chose my words. “I’m sure you’ve helped hundreds of people like that. You have so many friends who love you. You’re a good person.” He is a good person. I can feel it more strongly than with almost anyone. The way guilt weighs on him, the way he micro-analyzes his behavior, is so gracious with me, with everyone. He never does anything accidentally. He is so careful to never be a burden or harm anyone. “You’ve helped me. You’ve made me so happy. I’ve done a lot in the last few years, finished college and stuff, that made me feel like I wasn’t a failure… but you’ve made me feel more ALIVE than anything has in years and years.”
We were sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark, on the porch, and he silently leaned in closer and squeezed my arm. “Sorry to dump all this stuff on you,” he said.
I laughed, “Oh, it’s okay, I dump stuff on you all the time.” I don’t try to hide that I’m an emotional wreck, like he does. “I just wish I could say something that would help. I know that feeling, and I know that nothing people say ever helps.”
“You have helped,” he said. We sat there in silence for a few more minutes. Suddenly he perked up a little. “When was the last time you watched The Life Aquatic?” he asked.
I said, “I’ve never seen it, remember?” It’s one of his favorite movies. He loves fish, worked in marine biology jobs for most of his life. “Do you want to watch it?” I asked. “I downloaded it for you the other day.”
“Yes!” he said, finally smiling. And we went inside and made rice and watched the movie cuddled on the couch.
Someone emailed me and told me that this relationship is a bad idea because J is an addict. But the fact that he is/was an addict isn’t an accident. I date addicts because no one else understands. I’ve dated non-addicts, and I would exhaust myself trying to explain why I did what I did, all the seemingly nonsensical behavior. That’s if they were willing to accept dating an ex-junkie to begin with, which is a big if.
J actually only used heroin for a year and a half, and he’s 37. He had a whole life before he met Caroline and she got him into hard drugs. He was married, owned a house out in the country, kept bees and chickens, learned everything about remodeling and wiring and building and gardening, worked as a research assistant at the university, marine biology, worked in aquarium stores, had his own business before the economy crashed and too many people decided that exotic fish were a luxury item they couldn’t afford anymore. Then his wife started cheating on him, cheated for over a year, and he knew for most of that time. It absolutely crushed him. They had been together for ten years.
Then he met Caroline. She told me their first date was at his big, empty house, and that he was still reeling from the divorce. Caroline had recently gotten out of rehab but relapsed almost instantly, and took J with her. She was the one with the drug dealing connections — she actually started dealing heroin when she was still in high school. I think J felt like he tried to be an adult, tried to live a normal life, and it all came crashing down. And then a gorgeous redhead appeared and offered him this drug that made everything feel better. Who could resist that?
But their relationship deteriorated quickly. She cheated, too, blatantly, like leaving with some other guy right in front of him. Why anyone would cheat on him is beyond me, but whatever. When I met them, Caroline was flighty, irresponsible, careless. J was the one who would finally meet me to bring me my drugs when Caroline had left me standing out in the rain for hours, waiting.
I always had this feeling that I tried to suppress — overwhelming jealousy that she had him and I didn’t. We would flirt, but I could never tell if it was all in my mind, wishful thinking.
One night, in September 2014, I met them on an empty street by some warehouses. Caroline was running around high on meth, rummaging through their car, who knows what she was doing. But J took me aside, and we sat in my car, and had our first real conversation. We reference this conversation a lot, now, because it’s so funny. He told me that I was intimidating, that he could never tell if I was being cold and haughty or if I was just shy. He told me that I had a nice smile and that I should smile more, that I would seem less distant. I can barely remember what he was actually saying, because I was so happy that he was even taking a moment to give me any sort of attention at all.
Later that same night we had an even more flirty conversation via text. I completely forgot about this text conversation until after J and I got together this year, when I was going through old texts… I would have been a lot less nervous on our first date if I’d remembered this:
J: “About our brief conversation, Oh my god I feel like such a dick… I just meant your smile is your secret weapon. Use it more. Sorry shit I say comes out wrong sometimes.”
me: “No I totally get it and I appreciate the advice! Don’t worry I didn’t take it the wrong way!”
J: “Ok good I felt like you thought I was being a dick and I totally wasn’t”
me: “No I didn’t think that at all. See, people always think I’m mad at them or don’t like them! lol”
J: “So in summation, nice smile and good looking and great sense of humor. Just smile more.”
me: “Thanks! :)”
J: “I didn’t think you were mad, I thought I was an asshole. Yeah oh and good looking not only in the dark. But sorry I’m probably overstepping boundaries. I was just informed that you have a boyfriend. Sorry.”
me: “Haha don’t worry. I actually thought it was cool that you brought it up. And no I don’t have a boyfriend. I recently broke up with him. And even if I did, it wouldn’t matter.” [M and I were in limbo after I left him in July 2014… we never officially ‘got back together’ after that, but neither of us moved out]
J: “Oh good. Well if I’m being completely honest I was extremely turned on by you tonight and couldn’t stop thinking about bad things that kept popping in my head. Anyway I think you should smile more.”
me: “Dude don’t you have a girlfriend? I totally don’t mind you hitting on me but really don’t you have a girlfriend? That said, though, I just got out of a 4 year relationship so things are a little weird. But I appreciate the compliments anyway. :)”
J: “Sort of have a girlfriend. Depends on what day you ask me. See I’m a tad bit of a masochist and am loaded with tons of issues and am complicated. Such fun. Our relationship has been very interesting and I love her and not sure I’d want things any different… maybe a little. But I couldn’t tell you if I have a girlfriend. Sorry if I’ve been rude by my comments btw.”
me: “Okay I get it… kind of. Anyway you are definitely attractive and my type. But I’m trying to get clean again… I was clean for 7 months, until July 16. I desperately need to get clean again.”
I guess that last bit was me saying: you are hot and I want you, but I can’t fall for another junkie, especially not my fucking dealer’s boyfriend. Trying to pull myself back from the brink of infatuation. So I guess J is right that it’s a good thing he shot up that dirty dope last December and went into a coma… because while he was in the coma, the doctors weaned him off heroin onto methadone, and then off methadone, and by the time he woke up, he was clean. And then Caroline didn’t have the patience to wait for him to recuperate back east — months in a wheelchair on dialysis, learning to walk again, learning to use his fingers, everything. She found a new boyfriend almost right after he left.
So he reappeared in my life this summer, clean, single, and somehow even more attractive — everyone is more attractive when they’re clean. Thank god for small favors. If going into a coma and almost dying counts as a small favor.
Now if only I could get over my crushing fear of rejection and just relax for a moment — the better things get, the more scary it is that it will all disappear.
He gives the best hugs. Fingers kind of creeping around my waist, pulling me in, and holding me like his life depended on it. I’ve always been an intense hugger — if I really let myself feel how much I love someone, I’ll hold them so close I squeeze the air out of them. It’s too much for a lot of people. I’m strong for a tiny girl. I can’t do that to him because his organs and stuff are still a little fragile from when he almost died. But I hold him as hard as I can without hurting him. He is so skinny he’s the same size as me, just a lot taller. It’s almost like hugging myself. And I breathe in, he has the most amazing scent. And we just stay that way.