The history is long, perhaps exhaustive, so I choose to be succinct here.
In the fourth grade I got Colesteatoma, which is like a growth that ruptures your eardrum and oozes out this cheese-like substance that stinks like, well, cheese, and the growth eats away at your hearing bones — those parts that resonate, the stirrup, the anvil, the hammer — and so I had surgeries to remove and replace it all, which meant they cut me open. My mom, knowing I loved the Civil War, said, “You’ll be like a veteran, with his head all bandaged up,” to try to make me feel better. The painkillers were Vicodin, and I did not abuse them because I did not know what abuse was.
Then I had my wisdom teeth removed and I tore my cartilage playing football in high school and I had seven more operations on my ears and through all this I received painkillers but I hardly used them at all except for how they were prescribed.
I worked at a pizza place that served beer and wine called the Pub n’ Sub in Reno, Nevada while I was finishing up my Bachelor’s degree at the university in that city. By this time I’d already smoked and sold a lot of pot and had taken too many acid and mushroom trips to count. What this meant was that I fit right in with my coworkers at The Pub. We proudly called ourselves Loadies, for we got loaded, and it didn’t matter on what. We weren’t particular.
It was with my friends and coworkers at The Pub that I first took morphine. Chris scored a few 30 mg pills and we each washed one down with Budweiser. We kept drinking through the night and the morphine crept in and made for this light, float-y high. My head felt warm and the muscles in my arms went loose. We kept drinking, sitting at a round table covered in a red and white checkered plastic tablecloth. A fire burned in the fireplace and on the big screen the Wolfpack sent three-pointers into the flapping net. Our laughter got so infectious that at one point my side stitch almost made me puke. Bob kept calling us faggots.
After we’d quit our jobs at The Pub we remained friends, and we still hung out at The Pub, where Bob still bartended, and where we drank. Sometimes Bob would sling us a free pitcher. We’d make our own pizzas in the kitchen so long as the owner wasn’t there.
Mike came back from Burning Man with some tar. We were at Travis’s house for a barbecue and for horseshoe tossing. The sun beat down on the dirt and sagebrush in the yard. Mike and I went behind the house and chased the melting black down a strip of foil. Sometimes the emptied cylinder from the ballpoint we used to suck up the smoke got a little too close to the sticky heroin and the drugs clung to the end and the plastic melted a bit and we inhaled the plastic’s fumes. When I needed a second hit, Mike gave up the foil, and in the bathroom I accidentally dropped the pinch I’d pinched off. I crawled around on the floor picking up bits of dirt till I found it.
Timmy got a job at a café in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, where in the summer mountain bikers biked down the mountains and in the winter the skiers skied. There Timmy met another employee, a Tom, a guy who shot smack. Sometimes we couldn’t get the real stuff and Tom sold us methadose. During winter Tom worked Ski Patrol, which tells you something about the people who are supposed to be responsible for your life upon mountainous terrain. Tom always wore sunglasses, even inside his dingy apartment where he never pulled the drapes open. His skin looked rough and red and he appeared to be over forty-five or fifty years old, but I think he was in his late 20s. Once I stayed in Reno, lounging around Timmy’s apartment while Timmy himself went to work at Squaw. There I lounged, got high, and watched Girls Gone Wild DVDs. I didn’t even jerk off; I just watched these girls get talked into showing the cameramen their bodies. It felt anthropological. In Timmy’s bedroom I found a box in the closet and in the box was a carton of individually-packaged needles, a bag of cotton balls, and a couple of fire-darkened spoons. I set about getting ready to shoot up, even though I’d never done it before and had only seen it done in movies or had a doctor stick me with needles doctors used.
I pinched off about the same amount of tar that I might smoke in a hit, and I mixed that with tap water. I was surprised at how water-soluble the heroin was. I heated up the dose in one of the spoons and tried wrapping a shoelace around my bicep to find the vein. Ultimately, though, I was too pussy to mainline it and I ended up shoving the needle into my thigh. I pushed the drugs in slowly. I was still surprised at the speed with which I got high, even though it had not gone directly into a vein. Turns out, it was a good thing, because if I’d tried dosing the same as I smoked straight to the vein I’d have been one dead kid. Instead, the high came in waves, felt like waves, too, like a rush of warm coursing over my face, like a beautiful girl stood before me while I sat on the couch, and she softly blew a stream of gentle breath over my head.
One time I was with Bob at the Cal-Neva downtown and we sat at the bar and ordered Budweisers. I had already gotten so high that I was nauseated, and I nursed a couple sips off that beer then gave it to Bob. I said, I don’t feel very good. Bob looked at me weird, called me a faggot. The cigarette smoke got to me, too. And this, ultimately, would be why I would stop using opiates: I like drinking beer. I liked hanging out at bars by myself or with Bob, Bob who never did heroin and never would. But at that moment all I wanted was to go home and be alone with my high and the sickness that came with it, and wanting to do that I knew was not very cool and certainly not fun. So I would quit using those drugs, but it would take a few years and a couple thousand miles first.
Once, while with Moses and Rivera, in Oakland, California, in a cheap hotel room near the airport, Moses and Rivera were trying to hook up with a couple of college girls, neither of whom were interested in me, so I was bored and got the keys to the truck from Rivera. I knew that in the truck’s lockbox sat a bottle of oxycodone that was meant for the day after this night of drinking. It was to be the hangover cure. There were three pills in there: one for each of us. I took them all. Back in the hotel room, where everyone had passed out, I turned on Discovery Channel and felt the high come on then start to nod me out. I got terrible hiccups that wouldn’t go away. I kept trying to hold my breath but nothing worked. On screen, sharks leapt from frothy water with seals clenched between their jaws. I knew that it might not be a good idea if I passed out. I dropped my sternum onto the chair’s back — my full weight — forcing the air out of my lungs. This kept me awake, and eventually made the hiccups stop. The next morning, with all of our terrible hangovers, Moses and Rivera were furious with me. The whole car ride they kept saying Fucking Jamie over and over. My chest and stomach were bruised from where I dropped myself repeatedly on the chair’s back. My throat hurt terribly, too, but I don’t know why.
The strangest, and the worst, though, was at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather was dying and I drove into the Napa Valley from Reno to see him. I smoked some heroin before I got on the road, and I stopped in Colfax to smoke some more. I stopped again, this time in the parking lot of the park that sat in the vineyards just down the street from my grandparents’ house, the park where they would take me and my little brother and sister when we were kids so that we could clamber over the jungle gym. I watched the children from the driver’s side of my pickup as I readied my drugs, and they played, swinging on the tire swing that I too had swung upon years earlier. Then I sucked up the smoke from off the tinfoil and there went the last of my tar.
At my grandparents’ house the scene was pretty bad. My grandfather was bedridden and he’d gotten so skinny that when my aunt (who was a nurse) asked me to help her by carrying him into another room where she could clean and apply medicine to his bedsore, I was surprised by how light he was in my arms. He curled up against me like a baby. His Parkinson’s made him a prisoner who hardly moved and rarely made any sounds. I lay him upon the bed, and my aunt turned him on his side and asked that I hold him there and try to comfort him while she worked. She said, “It’s so deep you can see his tailbone.” She said, “I’ll be very fast, papa.” Then my grandfather did make sounds, and even talk. He gripped my hand, and his voice was weak, but insistent, as he moaned, Oh, god, oh god, it hurts.
I cried. I couldn’t help it. He was once the kind of grandfather who taught me how to take off an engine’s manifold and to shoot a rifle.
After my aunt had dressed his sore she asked me to go to the kitchen, to the refrigerator where the pain medication was. In the fridge sat a cup, and inside the cup sat prepped rigs, six or seven of them, full of morphine. I looked at those syringes and I had the strangest thoughts and feelings rush over and through me all at once. I wanted those drugs. Mine were gone, and I would be there at my grandparents’ house for two more days with no way to score more. But I knew that my aunt would notice if some went missing. At the same time, this thought came to me without any hesitation: I wanted to inject my grandfather with all of those syringes at once. I didn’t want him squeezing my hand and moaning oh god oh god it hurts ever again. I wanted him to die, and to die feeling good, so that he would not have to feel any more of that pain.
But what I did was, I took a single syringe to my aunt, and I left the room before she gave my grandfather the dose. Then I went outside and walked in the vineyards and I watched the sun set, and I cried and kept crying, though I’m not sure — of the many possibilities — what I was crying about.