Lying to a Junkie

The payment screen on the metro card machine instructs me to dip my ATM card. Dip, like a child testing the temperature of water with their foot, invoking a deceptive smoothness to the instruction. My movements are anything but fluid and gentle. I shift my oversized camping backpack awkwardly, trying to reach for my wallet in the back pocket of my jeans while keeping my coffee level. The wallet gets stuck on the lip of my pocket, and with a mighty heave, I finally wrangle it free. My coffee tips just enough to coat my hand and wrist, and I quickly clench my wallet in my teeth and switch coffee hands, trying to wipe the liquid off just as my nerves start to register the slow burn. The machine beeps at me. Do you need more time? it inquires, the grimy touchscreen helpfully providing me with two options: Continue Transaction or Cancel. Grumbling, I half-punch the Continue Transaction button with my middle knuckle, and the familiar screen flashes in response: Please dip your ATM card. At least it’s polite.

Pressing my wallet against my hip, I fumble to open the tri-fold, pull out a faded, red debit card, and shove it into the card slot. The raised numbers of the card grind against the reader, making a clack-clack-clack sound as I push the card in and pull it free again, and the screen switches to the broken fragments of a spinning circle. Processing. I chuckle mirthlessly. You and me both, I think. Processing, processing. The machine beeps, alerting me that it has accepted my payment, and spits out the cardboard metro card. I wrench it free, and turn toward the turnstiles, already shifting to fit myself, my camping bag, and my coffee through the entrance slots that are narrow enough to make a supermodel hold her breath. I slide the metro card through the reader and wait for the green indicator light, then press against the turnstile as it gives, twisting my hips sideways and wedging the camping pack through the metallic archway, praying none of the straps catch, and heaving a sigh of relief when I make it through to the platform.

Half an hour later, I reach my stop and jostle my way to the stairs, taking them two at a time and rising up into the bustling heart of the city. This is New York, where the dirt and grit of these streets are the lifeblood pounding through my veins. My pack is heavy, but my heart is heavier, and I search for a corner nook where I can roll a cigarette and try to focus. I start to ask myself why I came, but this trip is almost over, and the truth is staring me in the face, masked in the glazed eyes of a homeless junkie, blocking me into the corner as I try to light my cigarette by the metro exit. A yellow-green crust has solidified around his nostrils and his scraggled beard is caked with grime, but in a moment of coherency, his eyes focus in on mine, reading the lines on my face and the shadows bruising the undersides of my eyes.

“You usin’?” he demands, struggling to find the human connection between the two of us, misreading the dreadful ache in my bones that has made its way to the surface of my skin. God, I must look bad. Even the corner junkie thinks I’m using. I shake my head.

“Naw, man. Been clean a few years. Just nicotine and caffeine, that’s all.” I hold up the cigarette I’m still trying to light as evidence, the empty coffee cup resting on the sidewalk at my feet. Heroin was never my drug of choice, and I’ve never been panhandling on the corner for a fix, but we’re not so different, this man and I. Similar desperation, different drug. He narrows his eyes; the glaze is starting back, and I know I’m about to lose him. I pull the cigarette from my lips and wait.

“You promise?” he asks, the starving plea of a man who cannot leave this corner until he can walk away with something more than he came with, and I am out of quarters and spare change to give him.

“Promise,” I say, looking him square in his hollow, hungry eyes that are desperate for more, something more than I can give him. I look anyway, and see the darkness flicker, wavering, uncertain.

“Someday,” he murmurs, beginning to turn away from me, words slurring. “Someday, I’m gonna be like-someday, I’m gonna be like you. Not yet, though. Not now. But you are-someday…” he trails off as he begins to wander away. His lips move, singing the haunting prayers of the incoherent, chanting the broken hymns of the desperate, and people avert their eyes and shift their bodies so that the leprosy of his need does not touch their clothes.

The danger of mania is action. Mania fuels people to execute the intricate suicidal plans they spend hours formulating while lying in bed, unable to move. Mania delivers people to stranger’s beds and voyeuristically watches while they fuck, intervening occasionally with phrases like, “Whatever, don’t worry about it,” when no one can find a condom. Mania is an identity thief, taking bank numbers and credit cards and depositing a pile of extravagant clothes on the bedroom floor of an apartment that will soon be vacated, its tenant evicted for inability to pay rent.

I lied to the junkie on the street. There is an addictive rush to mania, and I am still searching for the next fix, convinced it is hidden in the alleyways of New York City. It is destructively tantalizing, beautiful like the sickly green sky that signals the coming tornado. It’s not speed and uppers anymore, the kind that get washed back with a glass of water and a suspension of conscience. The drug is fixation masquerading as a fleeting thought that refuses to dissipate, a bad idea repackaged as desire strung taut, recklessness disguised as the metallic taste of adrenaline. The lie sits heavy, and as I wipe my face, I fold the words-“I haven’t used in years,”- into an orange bandana that peaks from the back right pocket of my pants. It’s not exactly what I said, but it’s close enough. I swing the pack over my shoulders and feel the extra weight strain the muscles in my back.

The stories of my life are crooked, and I can’t straighten out the kinks enough to give these moments a linear progression. I begin at the end because endings are unfulfilling and, in some ways, still unwritten. The truth, of course, is that I want to lie and make the stories of my life elegant and organized, complete with artisan bows hand-tied around neat conclusions, but the beauty of life isn’t contained in polished packages. It’s messy and disappointing, full of poor choices with bad reasons, justified with sideways logic that we spend years untangling in therapy. I am not trying to unbraid the intricate knot of reasons that brought me here. Like the third rail of the metro line, those reasons trace back through the journey of my life, an electric thread that holds all the power. These moments are simply stops at broken-down platforms where I photograph the harsh truths graffitied on the tiled walls. I tell the story backward because that’s how the camera roll flows. The hinges of my sanity are rusted and corroding. I am ravenous, starving for more than this city can give. I want to self-destruct.

Saturday night, my last night in New York, and I am lying in someone else’s bed in the middle room of a shotgun apartment, stretched out, weary, and unable to sleep. I don’t know when I became the kind of punk that punks offer homes and beds and sanctuary to, but my plea for couch-crashing space was answered within minutes by a fifty year old Venezuelan singer and songwriter I had met when I was a plus-one at a Cuban-Jewish punk wedding last summer. Her housemates were sweet and we got along well enough to share a conversation over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. One housemate invited me to an underground dance party at an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn where he was bartending, so I painted my face and left with him. When we arrived, he snaked his arm around my waist, gave a wink to the doorman, and slid me through the line of people waiting to pay to get inside.

I am not paranoid, but I am also not a fool, and I know enough not to mix fascination with alcohol. I decline the drink offers from strangers that look at me, starry eyed and perplexed, and wonder how I am still an anomaly in the underground queer scene of New York. I dance for an hour and smoke too many cigarettes in the back room where people are doing lines that are freely offered to those of us standing around without a drink in hand. The strobe lights fall flat, and my stomach churns at the glittering artifice of this world that never stops moving. I want the rawness of these people, not these polished disasters that will implode if they sit still with themselves too long. This place is an outlet, but not for my mania.

I stumble back into the apartment between two and three AM, still sober and leaving the party just as the crowd swelled past capacity and people argue with the doorman as I creep away into the night. I lay staring at the ceiling, sleepless, until I finally crawl from the bed and climb the creaky stairs to the roof of the building. The air is cool, and I wish I had my jacket, but the city lights blaze along the skyline and I bathe in the chaos of the artificial glow. I dangle my legs over the building ledge and rest my boots on the ladder leading to the fire escape below. I light a cigarette and feel the air buzzing with potential while I sit quietly, my cigarette adding to the anonymous blaze of flickering lights. I am counting the hours until Sunday dawns, when the morning brings the conflagration of hope and a need that burns too hot to name. The stillness of the night is not calm, but it is the flinch before a blow, an unsustainable moment of infinite possibilities waiting to be destroyed.

Each moment is an instant of stillness, and the movement comes when we string each moment together to create a stop-motion picture. It is the adult evolution of a flipbook, the photographs jerky and disconnected, but still cohesive enough to tell a story. If we pause too long on one picture, we lose the rest, but my mind is stuck on freeze frame, and I run the risk of losing context. But there is a reason I chose New York, and the reason brings with it the complications of depending on another person for salvation.

Fixation is an overwhelming state. My particular brand of mania tends to focus on people, rather than spending sprees or suicidal tendencies, but mania is an amplifier, intensifying desire until the difference between want and need becomes indistinguishable. His name is… in truth, it doesn’t matter what his name is. He is a face in the midst of many, one name as good as another. What matters is the chemistry, built on how he carries himself. He is impulsive but guarded, a polite façade with a dangerous edge just beneath the surface. I want him because we have collided before, and if he was never my redemption, he is my hope hung suspended in my desire for destruction. I want to believe the balance of power between us is skewed because I do not want to consider the possibility that I can destroy him as completely as I hope he will destroy me.

Balancing mania is a tightrope dance with no safety net. Unlike so many things in my life, the end result of mania is a binary outcome: it either ends well or it ends in disaster. Yet even when it ends well, there is almost always an element of self-destruction. Mania is the manifestation of chaos, and new life is formed from the ashes of the old. When destruction is inevitable, the best we can hope is that it is contained, minimizing collateral damage. I have to believe that my fixation is not fragile; then the only collateral is myself. It is for this reason that he can never really know why I am here.

I saw him the first full day I was in New York. We met at a Brooklyn coffee shop where he sat working and I walked two blocks past the canvas door in my preoccupation to get there as quickly as possible. I retrace my steps and walk into the shop; I round the corner and he looks up, catches sight of me, and relaxes enough that his smile almost reaches the shifting ocean of hurricane eyes. If I am a junkie, then this is my fix, the electric tension of two people on the verge of explosion and stretching chemistry to a breaking point. I am crazy and he is bone-weary; I can see the lines etched into his face as we make small talk and exchange pleasantries.

“You look good,” he says, giving me a once-over. I shake my head, toss my hair back over my shoulder and give him a long, hard look.

“You look like shit,” I said, laughing. He cracked a smile and raked his fingers through his bedhead, flecks of grey prominent at his temples, making him look at once distinguished and strung out.

“I know,” he said, half-chuckling. “I’m just stressed and overwhelmed with everything I have to get done. And I’m antsy,” he said, hand twitching toward the half-empty cup of lukewarm coffee, holding the mug but never bringing it to his lips. “I want to walk,” he said suddenly, putting the coffee down. “Do you want to go for a walk with me? Prospect Park is just around the corner.”

Do I want to walk with you? Yes, but not to Prospect Park. Take me to your apartment where we can fuck the way we do when we are both too weary and broken down to keep the walls up anymore. Take me somewhere, anywhere, so that we can fight, because we fight, and I will lose, because I always lose. This is what we do. In the roughness and adrenaline rush, you still keep me safe, and I need to fall apart.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

My body is a time bomb that I am desperate to defuse, but I sit paralyzed with fear of pulling the wrong cord, so I let the seconds tick down, savoring these moments while waiting for either salvation or an explosion. One careless comment is enough to run out the clock, and I have a couple more days left in the city. So we walk through Prospect Park, climbing hills that are hidden in the depths of the city. We talk carefully, layering our conversations with enough euphemism and hypothetical language to provide plausible deniability. We commit to nothing.

“Let’s go this way,” he says, pointing straight up a stairstep of roots as a shortcut to an upper path. “It looks perfect.”

I cock my eyebrow at him and start to climb. “Perfect for what?” I ask, heaving myself up the massive roots larger than my thighs. He grins, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“Why, are you nervous?” he asks, half teasing, and follows behind me.

The banter carries on, each conversation building off the one before. At the apex of the park, out of breath from the steady uphill climb, he grabs me and kisses me, hard, hungry, his arms around me like iron shields. I stagger back when he releases me and give him a hard, steady look. I don’t understand the game we are playing, but this is why I am here. The eye is calm while the storm twists and lurches on the edges. The manic drive has slowly quieted, giving me a temporary reprieve. He pulls my emotions to the surface of my skin and holds them in the space between our bodies, and it is for this that I came to New York.

We leave the park and get lunch. We part ways with plans to meet again on Sunday. As we walk away, we trade cryptic, half-honest texts, accelerant poured on a roaring flame that threatens to erupt at any point. I have two days to kill, and time stretches interminably. I wander the city and visit a friend in Long Island. I go to a party and sit on a rooftop. I drink too much coffee and ride the metro, counting the hours until Sunday morning. When it arrives, I pour my hope into coffee prayers and cigarette exhalations. I dress slowly and pack my bag. I choose my words carefully and send him a text.

Sunday afternoon found me fighting with the metro machine and its deceptively smooth instructions to dip my ATM card, but Sunday morning leaves me wandering through Times Square, hollowed out, reading and rereading the text response: Can’t meet today. The words crash over me like thunder; they find the tender branches where desire and need begin to splinter and strike the rotting wood with lightning. The fire burns me from the inside out until the undersides of my eyes are dark with soot and sleeplessness. The danger of mania is action, and mine has brought me 741 miles from home to find that I am just as flammable in New York as I am in North Carolina.

Fixation is deceptive; it convinces the mind that reprieve can only be found on the other side of indulgence. I need to self-destruct, and mania convinced me that the roughness of his embrace could be my only surrender. Without it, I am simply a time bomb ticking on the corner of 8th and 42nd, trying to light a cigarette and lying to a junkie. I haven’t used in years, by which I mean, I am jonesin’ for a drug no money can buy and I got a bad batch this time around.

If there could be a linear path to this story, then I suppose it would follow a chronological order: arrive in New York, see him. Go to party, get stood up and break down. But my life doesn’t work like that; each moment is full of history and complication, backlit by the seductive whisper of bipolar explosions. There might be a conclusion here, a neat bow on top of a complicated story where the tragic hero finds meaning in the confusion and discovers a new sense of self and witnesses the fragility of someone unbreakable. But this is not a fairytale, and I am not a hero, tragic or otherwise. I am just a junkie of sorts, sitting outside the metro and smoking a cigarette, murmuring to myself, “Someday…someday.”

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