Originally published in Line Zero, Issue Five, November 2011.
It was my third day of not being on heroin anymore and I was starting my weekly walk to the methadone clinic on the corner. I took the unpaved road that runs parallel to the beach and had to keep stepping over all the large stones in my way, smooth and round like dinosaur eggs. It never gets very hot that early in the morning, and I had goosebumps on my bare legs as I walked along, my flip-flops slapping joyfully against the dirt. After stopping at the clinic and getting my methadone I had nothing else on my plate for the rest of the day. My schedule was empty for the first time in years. Yesterday I’d gone to the office to clean out my desk and take down all the crayon pictures the kids had drawn me over the years. I’d shoved them down to the very bottom of the green cardboard recycling box, shoved them down deep. “Good luck with everything!” my boss said, her earrings swinging as she leaned in for a hug, our first ever, and I tried not to think about my co-worker from two years ago, Jessamina, who got thrown a going-away party and was given a shiny black book filled with laminated photos of her smiling with her pregnant belly, standing next to all the residents of the low-income housing unit. In the end I only took one photo with me, the one of me with the new Burmese family, standing next to their daughter whose name was spelled “Hnin” but pronounced “Nine.” How they ended up here in this neck of the woods and what was going to happen to them next, I would never know now.
I turned onto the main street and entered the shell shop on the corner, pausing at the entrance to dig my hands into the giant barrel filled with tiny cowrie shells, enjoying the cool sensation and the faint clicking sounds. Funny how I’d never been inside any of the local beachfront shops before; I guess it must be true what they say about how if you live somewhere, you never do the things that people travel here to do, like New Yorkers with the Statue of Liberty. I’ve lived here in Newport, Oregon for 18 years now, a number that doesn’t sound like that much all by itself (how young would any 18-year-old seem to me!), but I suppose that it’s a lot for me, an old man. I shoplifted a tiny seashell bracelet by looping the elastic band around my wrist as though it had always been there and walking briskly out through the sliding door. The sun was only just starting to come up and light was starting to trickle out over the Starbucks parking lot. My flip-flops made pleased-sounding slaps as I stepped carefully over the jagged cracks in the pavement.
I went into the health food store next, where I headed straight for the fridge shelves and stood and stared in wonder at all the squat brown bottles of kombucha and coconut water. Looking at all the aisles of food gave me the same feeling of dizziness as the outpatient clinic, where the doctor with the gentle voice asked me about all the other drugs I could also potentially be taking. I’d watched his tanned hands gesture towards me as he read the list aloud, one drug name after another, and I wondered how was it possible that there were so many different things in the world that people could fill themselves up with. I’d kept shaking my head “no” again and again, no to metaphetamine, no to marijuana, no to cough syrup and Nyquil, and at that moment people seemed to me like giant see-through plastic bags, walking around filled to the brim with pills and food, powders and liquids, completely filling in any space that could possibly be empty. Back when I was on heroin I was never very interested in food; what I liked to eat most of all in the world were pieces of untoasted bread with cheese melted for never more than three seconds in the microwave, and sometimes (only sometimes!) teeny, tiny spoonfuls of blackberry jam. I used to love to roll the seeds from the jam around with my tongue, rubbing them against the roof of my mouth. I would imagine that my mouth was a cave, my tongue a caveman and the seed a piece of burnt stick blackened with charcoal, and I could sit on the floor for hours and hours like any good blissed out junkie, feeling the caveman draw his art, epic black and stark paintings of roaming horses, fighting rhinos and mating bulls, passing one after another in a parade through my mind.
The methadone was making me sweat a lot and filled my mouth with a thick taste, as though I’d swallowed something orange and chalky. I wasn’t hungry but bought one of those tiny granola bars, the kind they call squirrel bars, the ones filled with seeds and raisins and encased in a thick layer of honey. Before walking out of the store I dug my hands into the sack of bird feed by the door, pulling out a handful of withered corn kernels. I pressed them into my palm as I walked to the edge of the curb, my flip-flops slapping all the way. The sun hadn’t come up yet past the 76 gas station sign. While waiting for the light to change I unwrapped my squirrel bar and ate it quickly, letting the plastic wrapper drift away in the wind, and thought about how if I didn’t know what the corn kernels were, it would be so easy to mistake them for something else, based on how they felt in my hand: ancient shriveled grains of rice, maybe, or fossils of seeds from a prehistoric civilization, or strangely shaped pebbles scooped up from the beach. It’s so easy to pretend that something is what it’s not, when you don’t really look at it. The light finally changed from a frozen red hand into a tiny green walking person, and as I crossed the street I tried not to think about wanting to stick my finger into my throat to pick the away the raisins cemented against my upper back molars, sticking my finger in deep, the same way I used to when I would make myself throw up as silently as possible in the office bathroom. I tried not to remember the moment from last week, when I didn’t make it in time and instead had to vomit quietly into my hand at the desk, the liquid so warm and hot and blackberry-colored that I could hardly believe that something that alive-feeling could come out of me, had been made by me.
I finally made it down to the beach and walked across the sand, kicking my grateful and tired flip-flops off. I lay down right next to a giant letter “Y”, the last letter in the word MUMMY. People had written messages in the sand with their fingers and sticks that could be read by their loved ones from the upper hotel balconies: We Love You Mummy. Tom ♥s Rita. Mauricio Was Here. I lay there on my back among all the words and could feel where sun had burned my skin the other day, where the giant white flakes of new skin were coming in. They itched in a way that made me feel like I was sprouting the very beginnings of soft downy wings. I watched the surf come in and out and thought about how later I would have to go to the store and shoplift a T-shirt, and maybe another pair of shorts, because I couldn’t keep coming to the beach like this in my raggedy black long-sleeve shirts, with the holes at the cuffs where I’d chewed through the cloth.
I closed my eyes and dug my fingers down deep into the sand; later I would go for another walk and hunt for seagull feathers and round red stones to take back with me to my apartment. A few days ago I had come down here to the very same spot and fallen asleep with my shirt off, my back turned up to the sun, my shirt draped over my arms so that nobody walking by could see the scars. I’d fallen asleep and had a dream that the world had ended; the sun had turned black and the sea was red, and in the distance I could see a great crowd of dark figures carrying burning sticks slowly moving down the sand towards me. I’d woken up with my heart pounding and sat straight up like I’d been hit with a jolt of electricity, and it was like that moment back in the hospital where I’d woken up in bed with the doctor standing next to me and I’d confused him for Death, had thought, This is really it this time; he’s come for me now. But he wasn’t Death, and when I woke up from my dream on the beach, the world was still there.
The sun was still coming up steadily and soon would be high enough to rise over the hotel buildings. Maybe it would eventually even get high enough to shine on my face and warm the tears rolling down it. I could picture it perfectly: the old couples taking long slow walks arm in arm down the sand would stop and stare, and the small children playing in the surf’s edge would run over to point and ask their mothers, What’s wrong with that man, Mummy, why is he crying? I guarantee you that she won’t know it, she won’t give them the right answer, she won’t say, Why, because he’s happy to be alive, sweetheart.