E. Madison Street is a decayed and neglected home in one of Baltimore’s many lower-income neighborhoods. It is more than dilapidated—the place is an abandoned house with working utilities and residents, including my friend Katya. She was originally living under a bridge close to my house before moving to the inner city. When I pull up to her house in my red Hyundai Elantra, she’s usually out on the stoop smoking a Maverick cigarette with her waist-length blonde hair wrapped around her as the fall wind blows. She hops in my car, ready to go cop heroin a couple blocks down. I give her whatever money I have and watch as she ventures out past an empty playground and to a stoop occupied by an unfriendly looking dope dealer. I give her a couple caps of my stash since she is the one going out to cop. People in her neighborhood usually try to rip me off when I go by myself because I look out of place with colorful clothing and big clear glasses. We make the short drive back to E. Madison Street and race inside, wanting to get well. She lives with her mom who has a thyroid disorder, which profoundly affects her moods like salt on an afflicted wound. She screams at us through the walls while we are locked in Katya’s room. Her room consists of a leather chair and a mattress on the floor covered in blankets with various holes—the result of burns from Maverick cigarettes, heroin cookers, and crack pipe residue.
“I cleaned up. It was actually a lot worse before you got here,” she says as if I’d find it impressive that she lives tidier than some other drug addicts do. I’m not sure what she cleaned up. I cannot sit on the chair because there’s a mountain of dirty clothes and junk on the cushion. I’m resigned to take a place on the grimy carpeted floor.
Katya takes out her phone and goes on Spotify to play the song “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction. There are no speakers, so the song plays on her phone with the ambience of muffled static. I feel like I’m in the background of a disturbing movie that’s in the middle of being filmed.
“Jane says I’m going away to Spain/when I get my money saved/gonna start tomorrow/ I’m gonna kick tomorrow.”
I cannot help but think how apropos this song is to our lives. I empty some of the contents of my pink Guess purse on the floor because it’s time to prep a shot. I eventually find myself holding onto a needle and sucking up the heroin from the cotton used in the cooker. I resolve that it’s all okay because I’m not sharing a needle; but it’s a dull one that I’ve used a dozen times. It’s the only working one I have on me. When I aim the needle and inject the contents into my vein, I imagine that it’s a gun to my head instead. There’s always the chance my life will end right then and there.
“This is Rockefeller. It’s really good shit,” Katya murmurs as she gets on.
“Mm, it’s pretty good. The high creeps up on you,” I concur. I catch myself staring at her hands. They belong to a circus freak. Her hands don’t show a typical case of cellulitis or irritation. They are so diffusely swollen that they are disfigured. Puss seeps out from underneath the bandages, barely covering the infection because the swelling is obscenely immense. There’s even black crust on the knuckles of both hands and her fingers are as thick as sausages. The right one is uglier than the left one.
“Are you going to get that taken care of or looked at?” I ask out of nervous concern. “Trust me, I know from experience not to wait until it gets worse than you ever could imagine.” I subsequently show her my own big moon-shaped and purple scar on my forearm, the spot where there used to be an abscess that turned into an actual hole in my arm. At the time, I thought I was going to lose my limb, but put off going to the doctor right away. Denial overwhelmed my sense of reality and fear overpowered my ability to rationalize. My mom ended up taking me to the hospital where I had surgery and my arm was saved. I had been lucky, but very stupid. I picture Katya going to the doctor whom I saw at Union Memorial and the harsh procedures she’d have to endure. She might even lose one or both of her hands. They gave me Oxycodone, despite being an addict and they will probably prescribe them to her too. She fears that she won’t be given any pain medication and doesn’t want to be dope sick while she’s in the hospital indefinitely. She cares more about being well than saving her hands.
“Please go get help. I can give you the name of a hand surgeon.”
“I’m fine. I’m on these anti-biotics I found in my mom’s drawer. I think they’re working, but I do think I’ll see a doctor one of these days.” Katya picks out another song to play on her phone, music that reminds me of the Crystal Castles or something eerie and ethereal. I watch her with familiar nonchalance as she packs her glass pipe with a vile of crack. She starts taking deep hits from the stem, blowing out hazy clouds of smoke.
“Can I have a hit?” I don’t usually use crack anymore, but the urge to get even higher is overwhelming because there’s something magnetizing about watching her smoke in front of me.
“I’ll shot-gun you. I’m really good at shot-gunning.” She displays a confident smile. She’s eager to shot-gun—not to hookup with me, but to save all the smoke for herself.
The most interesting people you will ever meet are the worst people you will ever meet. There’s no way the tears will fade. They remain ready to fall down my face at any given time. The past seems like the only thing alive in this world. Change is necessary, but drugs help keep me in a cycle that is all too familiar—a relentless infinity symbol of self-destruction. Katya only contacts me when I’m using dope or have money to waste. She sits in her room most of the day, waiting for her boyfriend, Georgie, to come save the day by bringing her dope to get well. Sometimes she tries to sleep all day when she’s sick, but all dope-fiends know you’re lucky if you’re able to sleep when you’re sick. I try to be there for her, giving away pieces of my stash—fat capsules of dope and little plastic garbage cans of crack. We create memories together, but they don’t hold us together. I try to help her get well when my wallet is full. I’d never want to trade places with her. Her own mother begs her for drugs to get well in the morning. Her mother goes to rehab for less than two weeks, and she’s back copping drugs on the corner after her return. Are we really alive or has the drug deadened our ability to hold on? The fog of all of us addicts leaves only to never come back or changes us into different people—people we don’t recognize and don’t like. Love seems like the only deep part of life. But drugs make me almost unlovable. Maybe the reason I want to be so thin is because my body must be tested to its relentless limits. It’s all I know aside from pain.
Clara Roberts is a graduate from the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins. A Best of the Net nominee, her nonfiction and poetry have been published in Entropy Magazine, Idle Ink, Heartwood Literary Magazine, Portland Metrozine, Door is A Jar Magazine, Journal of Erato, Trampset, and other venues. She lives in Baltimore where she finds material to write about every day.