Featured Photo Credit: Adam DeGross
I keep falling for a hologram. Mike is here and then he’s gone. He loves me and then ditches me for drugs. He’s the flickering image of Leia crying out to my Obi-Wan. “Help me,” he pleads. “You’re my only hope.” I reach for him, my fingers grasping at his fraudulent form. The message stops. Mike has always abandoned hope in favor of drugs.
I met Mike in December 2013. I was 22 years old and approaching a year of sobriety. Jared, my boyfriend at the time, had left town for a few days, so I went to our Friday night Narcotics Anonymous meeting by myself. At the end of the hour, I headed for the dumpsters on the side of the church for a cigarette. A man was slouched in front of the first green dumpster, his head to his chest. He startled me. I gasped and stepped back, hoping he hadn’t noticed, but then I saw the band patches on his pants. He was a punk kid, my kin – a mirror of my basement mosh pit youth.
“Are you okay?”
He glanced up at me, the hood of his sweatshirt falling away from his eyes.
“What? No, I’m terrible. I’m whatever. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
His mohawk was disheveled and greasy. His face was scabbed. He smelled like homelessness. But he was familiar. I knew his type. Patch pants, band t-shirt, bullet belt, studded jacket, tattoos, stretched ears, shaved sides of the head.
I squatted beside him and we exchanged names. I told him I had been at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He told me he was withdrawing from meth. He said he used to go to meetings at the church we were at. He had three years clean before his relapse. I asked him what happened. He said he grew complacent.
I offered to buy Mike dinner at the Uptown Diner, where my friends often ate waffle fries after the meeting. Another NA member took me aside before we left the church and suggested that Mike and I walk instead of taking my car.
“Don’t trust a junkie,” he said. I felt filthy.
At the diner, Mike ordered a pancake with a chocolate chip smile that made him sick. While he was in the bathroom, a 12-Stepper named Thomas pulled me aside and said I shouldn’t pick random men up off the street when my boyfriend was away. When Mike emerged from the bathroom, we exchanged phone numbers. He hugged me and left, sensing that he was unwanted.
Mike texted me periodically over the next few months, updating me about his whereabouts, the state of his usage, and his continued feelings of gratitude for the night by the dumpster. In early 2014, three months after we met, he told me he had gotten clean but then relapsed on crack and heroin in Milwaukee. A month later, he returned to detox and moved into a St. Paul sober house.
I saw Mike in person for the second time at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Uptown Minneapolis. I didn’t recognize him at first – his face was rounder, he was smiling, and his skin wasn’t scabbed – but when it was his turn to share, he mentioned the night by the dumpster. I couldn’t stop looking at him. Soon after, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about him, talking about him, wondering where he was and what he thought of me and whether he could love me like I loved him.
I had a year and three months clean. Mike had two weeks. I had a sponsor, had worked all the steps, and had found something I called god. Mike was still talking about meth like a lost love. I was expected to set a good example. Mike, according to unwritten AA law, was off-limits.
On a Sunday in late April 2014, I told Jared, my then boyfriend, that we needed to take a break. Jared was one of many father figure boyfriends – a rock in my river of emotional turmoil – and I was finally stable enough to leave him and embrace chaos again. On Monday, Mike and I disclosed our mutual longing to sleep with each other. On Tuesday, we had sex through text messages. On Wednesday, I caressed him with my foot beneath a table at Perkins and then gave him head while he drove my car and blasted Yelawolf’s “Your Daddy’s Lambo.” I shifted the car into neutral on I-94 East with my knee. On Thursday, Mike slept through my phone calls and I almost hooked up with a blockhead hardcore kid who’d made it exceptionally clear that he wanted to fuck. Mike called me before it happened and I chastised myself over the fact that a three-hour gap in communication with him could lead to sex with a misogynist. I was so desperate, so ridiculously addicted to the fix of a fuck. On Friday, Mike made up for his lacking communication when he held me in my Seward sunroom and we fell to the floor and I perched my elbows on my red beanbag and watched him slide my underwear down my thighs and to my feet before sticking out his pierced snake tongue and . . . I’m sure the neighbors could hear me. I hope they heard me. I hope my screams were imprinted in someone else’s memory. I hope the sound of our forbidden embrace was kept alive long after we lost the memory. The drugs have fogged Mike’s mind. The frequent, random, and multitudinous fucks have fogged mine.
But I remember this. I remember him touching me in a way that said he wanted to be touching me, and not just the parts of me that could give back, but the neutral parts, too – the outside of my thigh, the ball of my ankle, the skin beneath my shoulder blade. Mike spoke my physical language. We were complementary measures of music, we were call and response, we were chords in the same minor key – diminished, augmented, and diminished again. But eventually, inevitably, we were dissonant.
Mike suspected that he was a rebound and he was right. He was methadone during my withdrawal from monogamy. He was the remedy for rejection at the hands of a co-worker who, until that point, had been the driving force behind my wavering work ethic.
But just as Mike isn’t just an addict, he wasn’t just a rebound, either. He was the external manifestation of something I struggled to articulate in myself. I identified with him more than I did with the girls at my university, whose daily struggles revolved around whether they could afford the calories in a Chipotle burrito. I clenched my fists in English classes, waiting for my guise to fall, revealing a child annotating Shakespeare plays while soaking wet with shame. I was an imposter. I belonged by the dumpsters with Mike, my head to my chest, fighting off withdrawals from another dirty substance.
There is comfort in filth. When we dwell among the rats, sorting through used rigs and fighting off sepsis, we are safe in that we know the danger. The danger can’t sneak up on us or steal from us or hunt us down. We hunt it. We invite danger into our lives, befriending it in an attempt to control it. We call the shots. We administer the shots. We know the risk of the shots. There’s a part of every junkie that’s terrified of death. There’s another part that sprints towards it.
“Help me,” Leia repeats. “You’re my only hope.”
There are secrets I haven’t told you yet. Some of my truths are trapped in this white space, silenced prematurely by the enter key. But most of my truths are hidden in Mike.
I want you to know who Mike is beyond the drugs. I can tell you that Mike the Drug Addict has track lines in the creases of his elbows, skin that sometimes peels in chunks, and a left thigh full of scars. Mike the Drug Addict has fought sepsis, Hepatitis C, and months of homelessness. I can tell you these things and you won’t be surprised because you know – you think you know – who drug addicts are, how they operate, and what they live for.
What you don’t know is that Mike, my friend, sews his own clothes with dental floss. He likes sad boy songwriters like Conor Oberst and Elliott Smith. He has the word “RELAX” tattooed on the inside of his wrist. Mike is a man who paints monsters on empty packs of cigarettes, calls my dog “kitty,” and skateboards in his bedroom while talking on the phone.
I want you to know who I am beyond the lust. I can tell you that at 18 years old, I transitioned from anorexia to alcoholism within a month. I can tell you that at 19, I was introduced to my roommate’s supply of Adderall and began blindly popping her little orange pills until I couldn’t stop. I can tell you that I was soon snorting said pills off full-length mirrors and chasing the nasal drip with tequila. I can tell you that I started selling my body as a teenager, partially because I needed the money, but mostly because I craved love. I can tell you that I still prostitute, only now in exchange for the illusion of companionship.
I try to fill the roles of dreamy lover, do-gooder, and saint, but those things aren’t my truth. I’ve been the cheat, the mistress, the runaway bride, the slut, the reject, and the prostitute. I’ve been a collector of hearts and checkmarks. I’ve had him and him and him. I have thrown myself at my own darkness made manifest in despicable men – a self-proclaimed fascist, a rapist, and a Frenchman who accused me of stealing his shoes. I have worshipped these men like the sludge in the syringe. I have let myself be used and broken and publicly abused.
I can tell you these things and you won’t be surprised because you now know me as an addict, too.
A week after Mike and I had sex in my Minneapolis sunroom, I flew to Mobile, Alabama to spend three days at my grandfather’s deathbed. His kidneys were failing. Two tubes protruded from his back and filtered his urine into bags that hung by his thighs. Sometimes the tubes came loose and urine soaked his clothes and bed. When his girlfriend changed his soiled diaper, I saw empty rolls of skin hanging like putty from his bones. I saw his embarrassment. I saw the oscillation between his urges to give up and keep breathing.
I sat in the red Victorian chair next to his bed and tried to forget. I thought about my first goldfish and four-wheeling and Christmas and polka dot dresses and about how much he loved me and how good I felt with my arms around him. But I wasn’t thinking about my grandfather. I was thinking about Mike. If I could just replace thoughts of death and urine and diapers with thoughts of Mike, I would be fine.
I called Mike from my grandfather’s backyard, where I lay on my stomach in the sharp grass. He sounded distant. He sounded like he didn’t want to be on the phone with me – like he was confused about why I was calling. He sounded like he wanted to say, “I’m not your fucking boyfriend, Leif.”
He texted me when my family arrived at the Mobile airport to tell me that he didn’t think we should see each other anymore. He needed to focus on his sobriety. I told him I understood, ashamed that I hadn’t been the one to exercise common sense first.
Jared, my ex-boyfriend, called me thirty minutes later. He said he had bad news. Dan, my best friend, told Jared that I was having sex with Mike, who Jared knew only as the dumpster junkie. Jenny, Mike’s ex-girlfriend, told Jared that Mike had Hepatitis C, HIV, and herpes. The three of them were “just concerned about our health and safety.”
They had ulterior motives. Dan had a long-standing crush on me. Jared wanted me back. Jenny wasn’t over Mike yet. To separate or humiliate or punish us, they evoked our deepest insecurities, casting us in our most feared roles: Mike, the Dirty Drug Addict. Leif, the Indiscriminate Slut.
I called Mike from the airport to confront him about the accusations. He denied them. I pressed for more information over Facebook messenger. He was soon furious: “Why the fuck are you listening to some bullshit rumors from a guy I have NEVER MET IN MY LIFE? If I’m not clean now, it’s because you gave me something. STOP TALKING TO ME ABOUT THIS FUCKING BULLSHIT.”
Mike burst through the archetype of Misunderstood, Secretly Lovable Junkie, leaving a furious stranger in its place.
I know I’m a mythmaker. I alter men to fit my needs. Ken outstretches his arm and places it around Barbie. I know this is an element of addiction. The drugs are at their best — their most tempting — when we tell ourselves stories about them. We inflate them, fighting for the return of the honeymoon period, forgetting that our addictive relationships have always been fraught with side effects. We ignore the obvious for the sake of numbing, of forgetting, of the ability to be someone else, somewhere else, where things feel good because we feel nothing resembling our truth. Drugs keep us from questioning our insides. When we feel bad, it’s because the bag is empty, not because we were molested as children or beaten by alcoholic fathers or turned over to foster care. The drugs are a false system of control.
The men are my false drugs. They are at their best – their most tempting – when I tell myself stories about them. I have crafted dozens of these stories, using the written word to shield from my own sacrilege. Men are my virtual reality games – they are versions of myself that I interact with according to how those parts of me want to be treated. I love the wounds in them that I identify with. Meanwhile, my own wounds continue to bleed, developing infections that prolong the sickness inside of me. And, of course, the men always leave. I make them leave. They reveal themselves as mortals and I flee.
I saw Mike riding his bike down 26th Street in September 2014, four months after we stopped talking. I saw him see my Honda CRV, unmistakable with its patriotic “FEAR THIS” bumper sticker. My cop repellent. As I drove past, I saw Mike’s face, thinner but familiar, and slammed on the brakes. He did the same. I rolled down the window. He perched his elbows on the door and leaned in close like he would to kiss me. I’m projecting.
I touched the top of Mike’s head, tracing the line his unruly mohawk once sprouted from. I did this on impulse, because that’s where my hand used to go. Because, months before, I had unspoken permission to touch him wherever — to whack him in the arm, to ruffle his hair, to dig my fingernails into his back. Because I forget that things change.
The skin on Mike’s face was peeling off as we talked and I watched a fleck fall from his cheek to his sweatshirt and remain on his sleeve like an unmelted snowflake. I wanted to scratch all of the dead skin off. I wanted to make him presentable.
“Where are you going?”
“I gotta cop,” he said. “I’m dope sick.”
We stared at each other in silence, my car and his bike and my face and his body jutting into 26th Street.
“Yeah, I’m sick,” he repeated.
He wiped his runny nose with his sweatshirt, adding a few more immortal snowflakes to the pile collecting on his sleeve.
The weather was warmer, but Mike was in the same place he was last winter. Stuck in the same hustle, the same day played out on repeat. Get sick. Make money. Find drugs. Consume. Get sick. Make money. Find drugs. Consume.
“Where are you staying?”
Mike avoided eye contact. He was probably back with Jenny, his rumor-spreading ex-girlfriend.
Since his relapse, Mike had lost both of his jobs, and I could only assume he was back to working the street. I thought about putting his bike in the trunk and driving us to the river, where we could sit in the grass and talk vague, apocalyptic philosophy. I thought about scooping him up and rocking him in my lap like a wounded bird. I thought about standing on his back so he couldn’t leave.
I still didn’t understand the nature of holography.
“I better get to this dude’s house.”
“I’m gonna hug you first.”
I opened the car door, pushing our human roadblock even further into the street, and pulled him close, hugging him like I thought a mother with unconditional love would hug her son. I hugged Mike, the tweaker, the former lover, the self-loathing nihilist, next to my Honda CRV in the middle of 26th Street during rush hour, unaware or simply not caring about the cars, the honks, the stares.
We floated above them, two bodies manifesting opposite outcomes. Same chances, different results. I would return to my apartment, make dinner with my then-fiancé, and fall asleep to the X-Files. Mike would nod off with a needle in his arm.
I let him go, watching him weave in and out of traffic through my car window. I didn’t take him to the park or cradle him in my arms or stand on his back, because he is not a sick bird. He’s a fleeting hologram.
Another year passed. The next time I saw him, he was eating a donut by the checkout lanes in a Minneapolis Cub Foods. I was wearing a flowing green dress and pushing a cart full of groceries, painfully aware that I looked like a housewife. I was supposed to be married by the end of that summer. Mike was supposed to be dead. He helped me load my groceries into the trunk of my CRV and I hesitantly invited him to my apartment.
I was drinking again. I started in October 2014 and hadn’t stopped. At my apartment, Mike searched my fridge for booze, settling on my fiancé’s six-pack of Summit Pale Ale. He asked if I wanted to drink with him. I didn’t. I was afraid to enable him.
“Dude, we’re in the same position,” he said, meaning we were both using drug addicts. But I wasn’t homeless. I wasn’t selling my body again. I was sick, yes, but I hadn’t turned into a junkie, even when I’d had the chance. I had an apartment, two well-fed cats, and a 3.8 grade point average.
Still, we drank the beers, trying, as addicts do, to make light of the fact that we were using together and had “never imagined ourselves being in this position.” Mike probably went through the same joking routine with every addict friend who tracked him down after a relapse, in search of drugs and someone to do them with. He said there were a lot of them.
I deleted Mike’s phone number after he left.
In July 2016, Mike called me from a Madison, Wisconsin treatment center. In May, he had been arrested at a truckstop and charged with felony possession, for which he spent six weeks in jail before being moved to inpatient rehab. When he called me, I was visiting my friends in Milwaukee, a 90-minute drive from Madison. Mike said I should visit. We know the risk of the shots. I took the hit.
That Sunday, I drove to the Mendota Mental Health Institute, a campus-like facility bordering a lake and state park. Mike’s treatment center resembled a summer camp’s administration building. The building behind it was encircled by barbed fences. Lockdown for the crazy kids, Mike said.
I entered Mike’s treatment center with sweating palms, worried that I was in the wrong place or maybe in the right place but playing the wrong role. Mike was standing to the side of a dining table in the main room. He looked different. He had gained a considerable amount of weight since the day I saw him wearing khakis that seemed anxious to escape his waist. His face was rounder. His head was shaved. He said he’d had lice that got so big that he could make out their appendages.
Mike and I took a path from the main road to the woods. I stopped to eat raspberries from bushes partially dirtied by passing cars as he told me about waking up at the Madison truck stop surrounded by cops and having to snort the heroin from his pocket in the back of the squad car, handcuffs still on.
“I was so high,” he said, and I saw something in his eyes that wasn’t there last year. It was an intensity, some level of insanity that told me he’d seen things he couldn’t unsee – that he was stuck in a state of shock. Something had cracked.
A quarter mile into the woods, Mike gestured towards a fallen tree and we sat down, our knees touching. He would say something horrifying and then push his head into my chest like a kitten. Like he wanted to be pet. To be soothed. I took his arm in search of track marks and he showed me the one he shot up in most, disguised only partially by his full sleeve of zombie tattoos. He traced my left thigh and asked what the scar near the top of it said. “Emily,” I told him.
The searching of each other’s skin and a shared love for scar tissue led to a leaning in and then a kiss. A dozen kisses. A hundred. Hard. No tongue. Just the repeated meeting of lips, the smashing of our heads into each other in pursuit of telepathy. I wanted to breathe my desire to live into him. I wanted to ask where his went.
I straddled him, my legs dangling over the log, my boots digging in the dirt, Mike digging into me. He said his dick was finally working. It stopped during withdrawals and started again when the girl who wanted to fuck him spread her legs in group therapy. He said she tried to fuck everyone. I knew this without knowing her.
I stood over Mike and pulled my shorts down and brought his hand to my stupid Jessica Simpson underwear and guided his fingers until he was inside me. He finger fucked me as we laughed about the possibility of being caught. I feigned concern. We live the danger.
We spent the next hour searching for privacy, finally settling for a patch of grass on a hill by the lake. His hand again crept under my dress. I pushed him to the ground and straddled him, pulling hard at his hair. It smelled like shampoo for once. He dollied under me, pulled my underwear down, and brought my cunt to his mouth. One, then two, then three fingers were inside me. I lifted my dress so I could see him, his squinting eyes, his flicking tongue, his pulsing fingers. I held fistfuls of grass like reigns. To my right, speedboats were zipping across the lake, blasting Top 40 bullshit. Catch me. Tell me I’m dirty.
Mike made me cum on my back and I thrashed and screamed and his hands gripped my legs and his lips sucked my nipple and I told him I was dying when we hiked on the trail and he said you’re not actually dying and I said the French would disagree and he asked what that meant and I told him to look it up, but then explained it to him anyway and la petite mort is what I felt when I came, grabbing fistfuls of grass like reigns.
Mike and I traded places. I undid his belt, but he wasn’t hard yet. He said “fucking heroin” and tried to bring his erection back by touching himself. He would later tell me that I was the first person he’d had sex with who didn’t have Hepatitis C since his own diagnosis. He said he felt dirty.
Eventually, he brought my hand to his and I brought my mouth to him and then moved both in conjunction until he came onto my cheeks and into the creases of my fingers. We lay next to each other, pants down, looking at the leaves outlined by the blue sky, feeling the little death of the big build up – of two years of wanting and not having and then having and not knowing what to do with it.
A few days after my visit, Mike told me it had been nice to spend time together, acknowledging that we’d never had much of it. He said he was excited to see how our relationship would unfold and that he hoped I would still like him once I got to know him. The non-archetypal him. He said maybe someday he would get his life together and we could hang out like normal human beings. But being together would ruin the mythology.
I know Mike as a series of vignettes. He’s the boy by the dumpster, the boy at the AA meeting, the boy in the sunroom with his tongue on my clit. He’s the boy I’ve lost repeatedly. He’s the boy who keeps finding me again. He’s the boy who brings more than one meaning to that statement.
He keeps finding me.
I keep finding myself in him: isolation, betrayal, rejection, filth, shame, self-harm, self-hatred, self-sabotage. He is all of the secrets I haven’t told you yet; the ones you’ll hear eventually, maybe when I’m sobbing on the floor of a church sanctuary, maybe when I’m screaming in a hospital bed, maybe when I’m burning the foundation you built upon me. Underneath these rotting floorboards is a battered body. I am warts on my toes and shingles on my stomach and herpes on my lips. I am desecrated. I am what’s left of motel room prostitution — the ghost of a girl who died beneath obese naked men. I am the lips performing forced blowjobs. I am the legs spread by foreign hands. I am the girl under the bridge with the glass-cut stomach. I am the girl blacked out with the stranger in her bed. I am the girl with the cross carved on her chest. I am the sludge in the syringe and the Hepatitis C and the sepsis.
Mike and I have died the same deaths.
Mike has died a thousand of them – suicide attempts, prostitution, hepatitis, a dying girlfriend, dead friends, overdoses, jail time, and homelessness. He has lied. He has stolen. He has abandoned the people who love him. The kindling-like scars on his thighs resemble this chaos: they are wild and random, yet repetitious. Mike has been carving over the same wounds for over a decade.
But the little deaths haven’t killed him.
Every time Mike fights the urge to reopen scar tissue, another piece of him is made tangible. This year, I held his hand. I heard his voice through the phone. I straddled him in a forest preserve as old couples passed, my palms clutching bare breasts. Today, Mike’s hologram is static.
But I’ve realized I can’t be with him. I think we’ve both always known this. We are too much the same to be sane together and there’s too much at stake for him to give me the fiendish attention I need. His sobriety is delicate. He’s forever susceptible to relapse. I’m forever susceptible, too.
Still, I will love this drug addict. We may never sleep in the same bed or eat dinner in restaurants without worrying about time limits or sign out sheets or probation violations, but I am grateful for all the deaths I died with him.
And if Mike does return to the lifestyle that threatens to kill him – if his hologram disappears and never flickers on again – I will die a death from which I can’t be resurrected.
For now, I’ll cherish every little death Mike let me die with him.