When I got out of the military and went back to Phoenix to try and salvage/mend my relationship with my father I had no idea that the drug habits I had partly joined the military to escape would come rushing back to the forefront of my simian brain. I figured that I had replaced all that longing to be fucked up for no reason with a new and improved longing to be fucked up for different reasons. I didn’t want to snort trucker speed. I didn’t want to stand around in the parking lot of a sketchy Circle K waiting for some cat I’d never met to bring me cocaine. I didn’t want to huff ether. I didn’t want to eat mushrooms and go climb to the top of Squaw Peak and watch the valley unfold and show me how every last yard of land had been stolen from the Hopi and the Papago.
I just wanted to be his son, to have a few drinks with him now and again. He told me I could live with him and his new wife for a while — they had a spare bedroom in their apartment. My father told me to take my time getting adjusted to being out of the military. Told me there was no rush. Told me he wanted to get to know me, to know the man I was becoming.
Because my father was the manager for the apartment complex where I lived, I would use the set of master keys and go into the apartments of some of the elderly when they were in and out of the hospital and steal their morphine pills, valium, and if I was really lucky and they had a really good pain management doctor — handfuls of dilaudid.
I used to think the crimes I committed to get high — my petty little drug crimes — were not crimes at all. I used to think they were victimless. I didn’t think that sneaking into some old person’s apartment when I knew they were in the hospital to raid their pills was a criminal act — I felt like it was some sort of divine thing, some universal accord that allowed me to maintain my bad habits without having to resort to any real crime, without violence. I never took any money or anything of any real value. That was a line I wasn’t willing to cross.
Something about having a secret habit or two is almost as intoxicating as the habits themselves. You just never know if you’re going to get caught, and the dopamine rush attached to the checklist one has to run through to make sure they aren’t caught — well, them’s some motherfucking good times. Until you get caught. Then the game gets switched up and you have to spend a good amount of time and energy convincing people that they are wrong about you, wrong about what they think they caught you doing.
You are seventeen years old. You are seventeen years old and you — being the fledgling punk rocker you are at seventeen [all nerve and no brain] — have punched holes in the door to your bedroom. All the way to the elbow. Multiple times. At this point, there are three rather large holes in your bedroom door that anyone can peer through and witness every last activity you attempt to pull off behind that closed door.
You are seventeen years old and you are sitting on the floor in your room with the door closed and in front of you is a mirror covered in crushed up amphetamines that you intend to snort into yourself and that you also plan to share with the girl who snuck in through your bedroom window. You are seventeen years old and you are hoping that maybe after the two of you get high she will take her shirt and bra off and you can run your face all over her young flesh while the amphetamines surge through your seventeen year old veins.
You do not care at all that she is the girlfriend of some other seventeen year old that you casually know. That is not a problem for you. You have already done plenty with this girl that is not your girl, but the girl of another you. Because that is a truth — you’re all the same. All of you seventeen year old boys trying to snort amphetamines with girls you hope to nuzzle and kiss and rub up on. You’re the same.
You offer her the mirror and the straw first. You watch her as she takes the straw between her fingers and uses her other hand to push her hair out of her face as she bends to the mirror on the floor. You look at her hair — chunks of it are bleached so harshly that it looks like hay, combustible — and you think about her head resting on your chest as you visualize the two of you in your bed, smoking. You see a shadow on the floor and quickly look up to see an eyeball in one of the holes in your door, scanning the room through the bruised and battered particle board.
Before she moves toward the mirror you reach out and put your hand on her shoulder.
“Sean? Are you awake? I need your help opening a jar — could you please come help me?”
“Just a minute, grandma. I’ll be right there.”
You move your hand from her shoulder to her mouth and cover it so that her laughter is inaudible. You hold a finger to your seventeen year old lips — the lips you want to give to her — and you make a stern face. You get up and go out the door and to the kitchen to help your grandmother.
Every person who lives at the apartment complex is wary of you until they find out you just got home from a war. Once they find out you are a veteran, everything opens up for you. You no longer get weird and cold glares from folks when they find you passed out in a lounge chair by the swimming pool. Nobody shies away from you when they find you asleep on the floor in the laundry room surrounded by empty beer bottles. Nobody gives it a second thought when you’re found having sex in the pool with the one semi-young woman in the complex — a supposed sex addict in her early forties who was in recovery until you entice her with marijuana and a youthful lack of pretense — they just figure you need to let off steam.
When the sweet old Michigan snowbird who owns the complex comes to you to offer you a job — painting the exterior of the complex for him — you know he is just doing you a solid because you are a veteran. At first you lie to him and tell him you have another gig lined up, because the money he offers you is so embarrassingly little that you would rather go rob Girl Scouts. Your father pulls you aside and tells you to take the gig. Your father tells you it isn’t just about you, it’s about him as well. You take the gig.
The first time you use the master keys to go into someone’s apartment and root around for drugs you go into the supposed sex addict’s place. You take off your shoes as you close the door behind you. You stand there in the air conditioning, your sweat turning to ice water. You fumble around in the medicine cabinet, but all you find are expired packets of birth control pills and bottles of vitamins. You make your way into her bedroom and the smell of incense is overpowering. On her nightstand you find four prescription bottles. Valium. Xanax. Zoloft. Soma. Each bottle is close to full. You carefully take the top off of each one and shake out half the bottle into your hand. You put the pills in different pockets. You put the bottles back on the nightstand exactly as you found them. You open up the drawer of the nightstand. A ream of condoms. A huge rubber dildo. Lubricant. A leather cock ring that you can smell as soon as you opened the drawer. A diary.
You pull out three of the valium and pop them in your mouth as you sit down on the bed and crack open the diary.
You are back in your room rolling and tumbling in bed with the girl who snuck in through your window. You are both very high on the amphetamines you have snorted. You are both naked to the waist, seventeen year old chest pressed to seventeen year old chest. You used thumbtacks and cardboard to cover the holes in your door from the inside. You have all of the lights out other than a candle in one of the cubbies of the headboard. You are seventeen years old, high enough to feel the gravity of the earth trying to will you back down, naked to the waist with a girl in your bed and you have one hand working into the front of her pants with the very tips of your fingers beginning to get moist.
You hear a faint sound but you keep on rolling and tumbling and searching with your fingers, trying to find the route that goes in. The girl who snuck in through your window has unbuttoned your pants and has you in her hand. Seventeen year old you. In her hand. You hear another faint sound, but the amphetamines are mixing with the hormones and your fingers are inside and her fingers are around and everything tastes sweet and her mouth and your mouth are rolling and tumbling and sweet and wet and you hear someone cough.
You hear someone cough.
You pull your seventeen year old mouth away from the girl who snuck in through your window and listen. You see a shadow on the rug from the other side of the door. You hear the handle to the door jiggle. Your seventeen year old self freezes and the girl who snuck in through your window tightens her grip around you and giggles. There is another cough and then you hear footfalls moving back down the hall. Your seventeen year old self is now in the mouth of the girl who snuck in through your window and you see God when you close your eyes.
One of the elderly residents, a septaugenarian chainsmoker named Leona, passes away in her sleep. Nobody knows she has passed away until you decide she must be in the hospital or on vacation, so you use the master keys to go into her apartment to look for pills. It is July and her air conditioning was not on. The moment you enter her apartment the smell of her death murders you where you stand. You begin to panic. Her apartment is dark and rank. The walls are covered in a layer of smoke and ash. You take off your shoes as you enter, only to find that the carpet feels like sandpaper. You cover your mouth and nose to fight back the reflex to hack and wheeze from her death.
You know that Leona is in her bed — the smell wafting at you from the open door to her bedroom like a plague — so you waste no time and go to her bathroom to hunt for drugs. The medicine cabinet is flux with benzos, muscle relaxants, cough syrups with codeine and two pristine glass bottles of liquid morphine. Leona will not need these, so you stuff them into your pockets. You don’t even bother closing the door to the medicine cabinet because you can already feel yourself floating on a raft in the pool high on the morphine.
In the kitchen you find three cartons of cigarettes. You don’t care that they aren’t your brand — you’ll find a way to trade them for the brand you like. You take off your shirt and wrap the cartons in it and slip out the door.
It was another three days until anyone else knew Leona had died.
After I left my father’s place I lived with a girlfriend in a really tiny guesthouse on probably one of the worst blocks in Central Phoenix. We were sandwiched between an apartment complex overrun by a violent Mexican street gang and a canal that doubled as a campground for the homeless veterans who were in and out of the VA detox center that was across 7th Ave. There were fights and gunshots and helicopters scanning our block every night.
Because we were the only young white people on the block, the gang members thought it would be funny to shoot up my car one night. Luckily, none of the bullets flew in through our thin walls. My car, on the other hand, was fucked. When the police came they told us to move. I tried my very best not to get into any violent altercations with the gang. My girlfriend was once accosted by two or three of them on a Sunday morning when she went to the corner store to buy eggs and milk. I got dressed and walked right over to the biggest and meanest looking gang member milling around outside of the store and dropped him with one punch he never saw coming. They pretty much left us alone after that.
Every Saturday morning we would get picked up by our friends — a crazy hippie/sort of punk-ish couple — to go to yard sales all over Phoenix. We would just drive around affluent neighborhoods and freak on people while hunting for weird shit. They were a really awesome couple. Supposedly I had gone to the same temple that he had gone to, but I was so high all the time that I had no idea if I had or hadn’t. I liked to play along, though. Nobody knew that I was eating anywhere from ten to twenty pills a day. It didn’t matter what the pills were — I was taking them. It was acceptable to everyone that I smoked a lot of pot, though. In a way it felt expected, so I would often just smoke a joint wherever we happened to be at the time.
As much as I loved my girlfriend, I was a miserable motherfucker on the inside. She was working as a barista and I was working some printing gig. I was always home in the early evenings by myself and bored to tears so I would pretty much get loaded on pills and smoke myself silly. One night I bought a couple of dusted joints off of a guy at the corner store. I smoked one of them and barely felt high, so I fired up the second. That was when it hit me full force. I was fucked up.
I don’t remember much of anything other than laying on the floor, furiously masturbating to the classified ads in the back of Maximum Rock and Roll. I had the stereo blasting and I was sweating and yelling and rubbing and yelling and crying on the floor. I was cruising through the ads and yelling them out loud as I worked myself over. I was yelling about girls who were looking for pen pals. I was yelling about girls placing ads for places to crash as they traveled across country following their favorite bands. I was yelling about guys looking for punk girls into BDSM. I was screaming and bleeding on my floor with my cock a blistering mess in my hand.
“You had someone in your room with you last night.”
“No I didn’t, grandma. Why would you think that?”
“You can’t fool me. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Grandma, there was nobody in my room with me last night. It was just me.”
“Well then, I certainly hope you don’t get yourself pregnant.”
I was sitting at the bar with my father and his wife having dinner when I decided to go into the bathroom and do some of the cocaine I had in my pocket. This was a small neighborhood bar — an Irish pub with food and a dining area for families and kids. I was standing near the sink with my keys in my hand, one of them headed toward my nose with an oversized lump of cocaine on it when my father walked in and looked right at me and shook his head.
“You’re a fucking piece of work, Sean.”
One Saturday morning we’re all sitting in a Denny’s having breakfast when the girls both decide it’s bathroom time. I am slowly eating my pancakes, stoned to the gills and enjoying every last savory morsel. My friend is sitting across from me, thumbing through the newest issue of Flipside.
“When you’re through with that, can I check it out?”
“I guess so. I don’t think the classifieds in the back are as racy as the ones in Maximum Rock and Roll, though.”
I look up at him. He smiles wide. I feel my face getting hot.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“C’mon, really? Jerking off to the classified ads is a tradition, isn’t it? Everybody does it.”
I just glare at him. I feel like incinerating everything in the room.
“You don’t remember anything, do you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girls come back to the table and I go back to my food. They all have their little conversations. Something about the four of us going bowling. Something about the four of us going up north to Flagstaff to go to yard sales up there the next weekend. All of it is peripheral though, because in my head I keep on flashing to me on the floor bleeding and yelling and rubbing myself raw. I am going insane at the table and he knows it, because he keeps on smirking at me and giggling when I look up at him.
You are in a park with your friends and you are high on PCP. Seventeen year old you has just been told by one of your friends that the girl who snuck in through your window is running around and telling everyone that you got her pregnant. Seventeen year old you has no idea what to make of this information, so seventeen year old you looks your friend in the eye and tells him you never slept with her. Your friend calls you an asshole and a liar because you told him the day after it happened that you did indeed sleep with the girl who snuck in through your window. Your friend calls you an asshole and a liar because everyone knows you have been sleeping with the girl who snuck in through your window for weeks, including her boyfriend who is also at the park but not high on PCP.
Seventeen year old you wanders off to another part of the park by himself to try and think. Thinking is impossible when you are high on PCP. Everyone else is just stoned or drunk or not anything other than a teenager in a shitty town with nothing else to do on a Friday night. You look over at the group of friends you have — some of them are rich, some of them are not. Some of them have been friends with one another since they were little. Some of them are just meeting one another for the first time. Seventeen year old you does not remember having an orgasm inside of the girl who snuck in through your window. Seventeen year old you specifically remembers other orgasms. Seventeen year old you high on PCP decides that if the girl who snuck in through your window is pregnant the baby isn’t yours.
The girl who snuck in through your window makes her way over to where you are in the park. She is drunk. She is crying. She sits down in the grass in front of you and starts to ask you why seventeen year old you is ashamed of having sex with her. Seventeen year old you is high on PCP so you just sit there and stare at her face while she talks and cries and cries and talks. You hear every word she says to seventeen year old you, but you are high on PCP and every word she says to you feels like someone pulling one of your toenails out through your face. You close your eyes as tight as they can close and you see Cumulonimbus clouds turning into multi-colored super cells and churning behind your eyelids.
When you open your eyes again seventeen year old you is crying and there are more people sitting in the grass in front of you with the girl who snuck in through your window. Her boyfriend calls you an asshole and challenges you to a fight. Seventeen year old you is high on PCP and crying in a park surrounded by a group of kids who are on drugs and you do not want to fight because you know that if you fight you will kill this kid, so you say that and he gets angrier. Seventeen year old you is high on PCP and you feel surrounded so you get up and start to walk home.
Nobody follows you.
Your father dies in your arms on your 35th birthday. You have been helping to take care of him. It has been the hardest thing you have ever had to do in your lifetime. You forgave one another for so many terrible things that happened between you without having to say anything out loud about those terrible things. Now you are looking at him without any life in him. His vessel is empty. You stand in silence as his wife cries and cries. You stand in silence as her son consoles her. You stand in silence because your eyes are drawn to the bottle of liquid morphine on the table. You stand in silence because your mind is thinking about the bottles of pain management pills on the counter.
You do not touch them. You fight back that urge the best that you can.
Your father’s wife leaves with her other son to go back to his house a few blocks away, leaving you there with the son who was there with you for the passing and now a nurse from the Hospice who has arrived. You watch as she pours the liquid morphine down the sink. You watch as she dumps pill after pill down the drain. You feel her looking into your eyes and you know that she knows that you wet your lips thinking about the liquid morphine and the pills.
When the coroner comes you help to put your father into the body bag and you help to put him on the gurney. You help put the gurney in the back of the van. You keep on thinking about that liquid morphine and the tacky feeling of it between your fingers when you would put it under your father’s tongue during the night. You watch the van pull away and you look at the nurse who has been so kind to you and your father and you think about the few little drops of that liquid morphine you allowed yourself as you cared for your father. You think about being in that state with him. You think about the moment the priest came and gave him his Last Rites and how all you wanted to do in that moment was put a pillow over his face and help him slip away.
You do not allow yourself to cry until you are on an almost empty airplane. Somewhere between Houston and New York City as you sit and watch “Roll Bounce” without headphones or sound you feel the first tear leak out of your eye and roll down your cheek. The next tear comes much more quickly. Then the next. You turn your face to look out the window at the lights below you. You reach into your sock and pull out one of the morphine-laced lollipops the hospice nurse forgot to take from you and you unwrap it and rest it against your lips.
It takes another year for you to finally come down.