My code word for it was Blackbird Pie. I’d say “Blackbird Pie” to Renton* and he’d know that I know that he was high. Noddy when we were with my family, our friends, his coworkers, his family. It wasn’t accusatory, or maybe it was. I just needed him to know that if I could tell, then he wasn’t as discreet as he thought he was. It was code for “perhaps it’s time to call it a night.” Sometimes, I’d mean, “You really couldn’t wait an hour to shoot up?”
We were together for four years. We met as roommates in a punk house where we would have shows, get loaded, make art, play with the dogs. I taught Art and a Strong Sisters class at a middle school and waitressed at night.
Renton was a stationary engineer at a high rise in the city. Angela* was a coke dealer. Angela and I casually dated, back when she worked for a pitbull rescue. When the rent went up a few hundred dollars for my loft, she offered to rent me a room. I didn’t really know Renton yet. He seemed so quiet, over-worked, distracted. When I moved in, Angela stole our rent money and started selling blow. She let underage crust punks crash at our place. They repayed the favor by destroying our property, having sex in our beds, and drinking all of our beer. They gave the dogs cocaine, because they thought it was just so entertaining to watch two pits stolen from a dog-fighting ring REALLY freak out. Renton and I formed a kind of unified front. We barricaded ourselves up in his room or mine, drowning out the drama and cacophony of drunk 16-year-olds coming from all of the other rooms in the house with “No Means No” records.
He was such a sleepy and sickly man. Everyone said he looked like Edward Norton. He had sweet, dull grey eyes and he was soft-spoken. He took everything so literally. When I’d use Southern colloquialisms, he’d stare at me blankly. “I don’t get it,” he’d say. I’d explain it, but concede that it really didn’t make much sense.
The first time we hooked up, we went to an old Irish bar in North Oakland to discuss an exit strategy from Angela and her minions. We decided we really liked being housemates, and we agreed we should start looking for a place together. It was settled. We both had too much to lose by living with a drug dealer and a group of screwed-up minors. Renton and I got drunk as he beat me at pool all night.
We went home to make out. When the clothes started coming off, he held my face to his and told me: “I have a history of heroin use, but I’m clean, and I’ve been tested. Are you sure you want to do this?” The confession and it’s matter-of-fact delivery took me back, but only a little. I really liked him, and even more so that he cared enough to be so upfront with me. Besides, he had condoms.
For the next four years, we were just always together. Renton, Heroin, and I. He did have clean stretches. When I’d tell him that his use was affecting us, he’d take Suboxone and taper, or he’d turn down extra hours at work so he could spend the weekend twitching in bed, sweaty and green. I’d lock the cats, Soleil and Jameson, in the spare bedroom and buy him cheesecake and Jack Daniel’s and Coke (the soda), the only booze he likes when he’s not using dope. Y’know, to take the edge off. I’d fret, and treat him with tenderpediatric gloves and clean up his vomit and run my fingers through his greasy hair.
I’d say “thank you” and “I love you” and I’d chain smoke on the front porch and wonder how long it would take before he relapsed this time. I’d draw blackbirds baked in a pie.
Renton was a functioning junkie. He worked overtime, never missed work, and never stooped to thievery to feed his habit. He didn’t need to. As a matter of fact, he was constantly giving money away to those he loved, in obscene amounts. A few hundred dollars to his junkie best friend to bail him out of jail. A thousand bucks or so every couple of months for his bipolar mother who always had a sob story to get the money, usually a cancer “scare.” She would spend the money on spa trips and couches, and then tell Renton and his sister that she would have been better off if they were never born.
When I became seriously ill and ended up bedridden and jobless for the first time since I was 13, he told me he’d pay for me to go to art school. He paid all of the bills and bought me strange little gifts to cheer me up because I was depressed and in constant pain. After I healed and began working again, he wouldn’t let me pay him back. I had to hide money in his pants and I just always insisted on paying for concert tickets and his chicken parmesan.
He was so kind and understanding, and whenever he was sick I wanted to show him that I appreciated him. Someone cared. I’ve been around drug addiction my whole life. There is also no question that I have a seriously unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Renton is a good person, and I never wanted him to think I was judging him. I was mostly proud of him, and he’s a human with a problem. A sickness. Such a thin line between being supportive and enabling.
But there was no doubt that his habit was hurting both of us. Flashes of rage, mostly directed at the wall. The hours he would just disappear while I wondered if he got busted by the cops or rolled by a dirty dealer or overdosed in a Jack-in-the-Box bathroom. Seeing our kitten batting an uncapped spike around the bedroom or waiting for him by the bathroom so I could grab his kit that he’d leave on the sink while my mom was staying with us. He just got so careless.
We almost never had sex. I was 25 years old, in a committed relationship, and I hadn’t had sex in almost a year. Cuddling was pretty much out of the question, too. If I’d put my hand on his leg while we watched a movie, he’d withdraw because his skin was crawling. If I’d initiate sex, he would accuse me of being a nympho or being drunk. Nevermind that I respected his boundaries and hadn’t tried to seduce him for months.
I’d cry. I would feel guilty, then totally repugnant. He’d feel guilty and assure me that he still loved me and found me sexy. Then, sometimes, he might throw me some pity sex. I’d be left even more bitter and angry. When I’d tell him I was leaving, I meant business. I’d start throwing my books and records in a suitcase and hold back the tears so I could tell him in a mature and final way that I couldn’t do this anymore. He’d cry and throw his waifish frame over me and beg me not to go. He loves me. I’m his best friend. He’ll get straight. He promises. And I believe he meant it, every time. Until he finally told me, “I can’t NOT use.”
He told me that he’s careful and besides, he doesn’t hit veins anymore. Just skin bumps so he can’t overdose, he said. He finally admitted defeat in so many words, and I was too tired to call him on his BS.
A few days later, I called in sick but pretended to go to work. I sat at the cafe down the street for an hour until I was sure he’d left for work, and walked heavy back to the house. I wrote him a letter, packed a couple of bags, and I just left. The coward’s way out, sure. But I wasn’t confident that if I told him again to his face that my resolve wouldn’t break when he made empty promises with those wet, beautiful eyes.
I left the cats, because he loves them so much. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him completely alone.
I openly wept on the bus. For my little family, my home, and because I wasn’t enough.
It took awhile, but we are friends. There was a moment a few months after we broke up that he told me he had been clean since I left, and would I come home? I could tell it was true. Those grey eyes were bright and focused. He laughed easier than I’d remember he was even capable of. I gave him the cliche stock answer, “I’m happy for you. I’m so proud of you, but you have to do this for you. Not for me.” And I’d realize that while I still loved him and wanted the best for him because he honestly deserved it, I was truly done.
We’re still close, and every time we hang out or talk, I can see and hear how healthy, just how much more with it, he is. He’s seeing someone that he really adores, he got a promotion at work, he turned the attic into an unbelievably gorgeous bedroom, he’s been working on his ‘67 Mustang, and Soleil and Jameson are fat and happy.
I’m certain that this is the longest he’s been sober since he was 16 years old, and I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for him. I believe that this time, he’s truly working for it. Maybe he realized that he deserved better than shooting poison directly into his veins, leaving his skin bruised and open like a tiny mouth, hungry and gnashing for more. I hope he realized that he has so much to offer the people lucky enough to know him.
Even though, by most standards, our relationship didn’t “work out,” and we both suffered terribly, I learned so much from Renton and the years we spent together. I learned what my boundaries are. I learned empathy, forgiveness, and patience, and how it goes both ways. Most of all, I learned what it really means to be a true friend.
*Names have been changed.