Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Parade Still Passes

When I had six years clean, I moved to Los Angeles. Fresh from a marriage to a man I loved but who kept relapsing, I was raw and angry. I had turned down a teaching fellowship to Fordham University in the Bronx to put my husband through treatment yet again, and I had hit my own bottom with this final relapse. I divorced him and left Oakland to work as a staff writer at a non-profit in Van Nuys.

A low-bottom addict, I felt most comfortable in Narcotics Anonymous meetings with minorities and other ex-heroin addicts. Those were the people I used with and the ones I related to best in recovery.

One night I went to a meeting in Pacoima, in the gut of the San Fernando Valley, about ten miles from the cedar-lined guesthouse I rented in Van Nuys. It was a warm spring night and the meeting was packed when I got there.

The only open seats were on “Death Row,” the back line of chairs where most of the homeboys sat who were fresh out of the penitentiary or bussed from the halfway houses and treatment centers that littered the Valley. I took a seat next to a man I had never met and waited for the meeting to begin. I wore jeans, sandals and a grey sleeveless t-shirt with a scoop neck. Away from work, I never wore a bra. Still in my early 30s, my breasts were small but firm.

NA meetings are noisy affairs. Addicts circulate, hug and talk to each other like a scene from Final Exit. This night was no exception. I nodded to a few people and sat waiting for the speaker to begin, content to watch the "passing parade,” as my old friend used to call the constant flow of people in and out of the rooms.

The first Persian Gulf War had just begun and I had listened to the news in my Nissan on the way to Pacoima. I made a comment about it to the man sitting next to me while we waited for the meeting to start. “Truth is the first thing that goes out the window in war,” he remarked.

“Vietnam veteran,” I thought, since he was a little older than I was. It isn’t often I ran across people with much of an intellect in the low-bottom meetings I liked, so I turned to look at him.

"Romy," I said, holding out my hand.

“Robert,” he replied as he grasped my hand.

I leaned over to pick up something I had dropped on the floor, a hair barrette I think. As I sat back up, Robert reached over and adjusted my shirt, pulling the neckline up. “They are nice,” he said smiling, “but I don’t know you that well.”

I smiled slightly to hide my embarrassment. Despite hooking for a decade to support my heroin habit, I was not a woman comfortable flashing her tits. The meeting started. After, I watched him get on the Cri-Help van to return to his treatment center. “Crap,” I thought, “a newcomer.”

I noticed Robert at other meetings in North Hollywood and Reseda. He always took a seat next to me if one was open, or found me after the meeting to chat. He was Puerto Rican, dark-haired and very intense. He looked me in the eyes when he talked to me with his clipped New York accent and his soft voice stroked my heart.

White men did nothing for me; they still looked like tricks to me. At that point in my recovery, I could only be with men who were tough guys. Perhaps it’s the abuse I took at the hands of men during my addiction—it was brutal and still sits today in my gut almost 30 years later. Who knows why, I can only say I had a bottomless need to feel safe. Nice guys, small guys, guys who haven’t had a tough life themselves—they bored me. But there is a steep price for loving tough, yet despite knowing that, I was moving toward Robert like a freight train.  I thought he felt the same toward me.

In NA, the women talk. We call it “NA PR,” short for “public relations.” Maybe it’s a survival mechanism because we’ve often been through so much abuse in our addiction, or maybe normie women do it, too; I don’t know. I asked a few women about Robert.

I didn’t like what I learned. He was a Vietnam vet, just as I suspected. “They call him “Fast Robert,” one said. He had been in and out of the program for years, another woman told me. “Do yourself a favor and steer clear of him,” they both advised me, each in slightly different words. We try not to gossip, but we hear from speakers and our sponsors to “stick with the winners.” How do we know who the winners are if we don’t ask?

I was dating another man, a Hispanic man I worked with, but it was a blind alley. His anger and inability to communicate meant we were off more than we were on. I began to spend time with Robert. More for Robert’s sake than mine, I thought, I told him that since he was a newcomer, I would not sleep with him. Robert said he understood, but that we could still be friends.

We did become friends. We took trips to downtown LA where he showed me the jewelry markets and the garment district and the delis where he hung out and had used. We sat in the balcony of a deli and watched the downtown dope fiends score from an old addict at a table on the first floor. He bought me single flowers from street vendors. He told me about shooting dope in the Bronx tenements and I told him about my years working the streets of Oakland in my teens and early twenties. We met at the NA fundraisers—the dances, the picnics. We hit meetings and spent a few afternoons lying on pillows on the living room floor at my house, listening to classic R&B, necking like high-school dropouts. We molded together, his hands on my breasts, my cooch scorched hard against his leg, kisses clean, deep and thrusting. I didn’t sleep with him, but it didn’t stop me from attaching and secretly hoping he would stay clean. I began to imagine a life we might construct.

He got out of Cri-Help and began to get some clean time. I was counting the days until he had a year. Although I held back physically, in my mind, Robert was my man. Just because we hadn’t slept together didn’t make it any less.

One night about 2 a.m., my phone rang. “Hello,” I answered sleepily. It was Robert and he was in a phone booth in downtown LA. “Come get me,” he insisted. His usually smooth voice was harsh and different.

“What are you doing down there?” I asked him, trying to wake up yet hoping I was dreaming. 

He gave me some odd, rambling explanation. Some men were looking for him and couldn’t I just stop asking questions and come give him a ride because he couldn’t leave the phone booth until I arrived.

In the daylight at its best LA’s Skid Row scared me. I’d been down to speak at a midnight meeting once at Christmastime and it looked like a scene from Road Warrior, men standing around burning barrels and homeless dope fiends and bums shouting and running and fighting. There was no way I was driving there alone at that hour. Robert got himself into it and he could damn well get himself out.

“Call your sponsor,” I said, and hung up. I lay awake until dawn thinking about him.

Robert was on a run and from what I heard from his sponsor, it never got any better than that night. I didn’t hear from him for months, only about him from his sponsor or one of my girlfriends telling me the 411. My life continued without a hiccup with work and meetings. My heart, though badly bruised, was not broken. I felt relieved that I hadn’t slept with him.

Months later, Robert called me. He was in the Veteran’s Hospital in Sepulveda. He asked me to visit him. I found his room with an oversized “Universal Precautions” sign on the door. He was lying in a hospital gown in bed looking torn up, but kicking heroin addicts always look like shit. We chatted a few minutes, I gave him some magazines and smokes I had brought, and I left. He was in and out for another year or so after that.

He got clean for a while and hooked up with a nice girl, a high-bottom addict, a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties. He introduced me to her, asking me to give her some career advice since she worked in the same industry I did. I chatted with her and suggested some classes she might take. I never talked to her again. I did see her with him a few times at various Valley meetings. Robert and I would hug and I would smile at her and nod.

A few months later, Robert went back out. She went with him. One of my girlfriends told me that he turned her out, convincing her to turn tricks for him to support their heroin habits at the fleabag motels on Sepulveda Boulevard.

A few months later, I moved back to Oakland. I visited LA once on business, visiting a few girlfriends while I was there.

“Romy,” my friend Anne said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Robert is dead. He overdosed last year.”

I wasn’t surprised, but I remember I drew a sharp breath and blocked my tears. It is forever a punch in the gut when one of us dies from the disease. A 12-Step Fellowship is a tribe—we band together for our survival. When one of us dies from addiction, it’s like we’ve taken incoming for a direct hit on one of our own.

A few years later, Anne overdosed and died, and the man I was dating when I met Robert died from a heroin overdose. Robert’s sponsor relapsed after more than 25 years clean and had a terrible time coming back, perhaps his pride getting in the way. Usually relapsing after all those years predicts a short future; it is just too hard to come back. “The first time is a gift. The other ones you’ll have to work for,” they say in the rooms. The longer you stay clean, the more you understand—clichés are clichés because they are true.

Many of us find NA, but few keep trudging the road to long-term recovery. Feeling our feelings is just too real for some of us.

My close friends—my support system—and I joined the “No Matter What Club” years ago. We keep trudging despite what life throws at us. I’ve lost both my parents, my brother I was closer to than anyone, lost several more relationships, gotten fired in a very humiliating and public scene and traded my diseased liver for a new one. Yet I’ve managed to stay clean despite it all. It’s more Grace than it is anything I did. I never have figured out why some of us stay and some of us die.

I have a picture from a Fourth of July NA picnic in the San Fernando Valley. It was a hot day and Robert and I are lying on a blanket on the grass. I have on that grey shirt I was wearing the night I met him. The strap is falling off my shoulder. Robert has a sly smile on his lips and I have a look of unlocked sexual hunger. It reminds me that I was young once; full of sexual longing and still holding the flawed belief that someday a man like Robert would make me feel safe.

It wasn’t Robert and it hasn’t been any man since then. Now my safety lies in a faith in a God who leads me and keeps me sane and clean. Today I know not to expect more.

1 comment:

Deborah L. said...

This is a great blog!!! Thank you