“You smell that?” Christian exhales after knocking on the front door of his mother’s house. We arrived just as the sun was falling over the west, giving the sky that purplish-orange glow you can only get in California. Kids were yelling off in the distance somewhere, enjoying their final minutes of fun before the streetlights signaled them home.
My nose was so coke crusted and congested that I couldn’t smell anything. I’d been mouth breathing and blowing out chunks of calloused cartilage all weekend. I don’t respond.
We wait for a second and then hear a heavy set of footsteps stamp towards the door. An older lady, around fifty-ish, peeked through the front window curtains and then we hear the locks reluctantly being undone.
“How are you?” she asks in a heavy Latin accent. She flashes him a practiced, half-hearted smile and gives him a hug. I can see the resemblance. She has the same slumped, puppydog eyes but looks a lot healthier than him.
Christian was a tall, lanky Salvadoran kid who was younger than me, but catching up with her in age. His skin was cratered and his lips were roach-burnt and chapped most of the time. He started snorting pills in high school before he even had any idea how drugs worked. When the manufacturers of Oxycontin changed the formula and made the pills bulletproof-you couldn’t crush them to snort or bang, pretty much rendering them useless-it gatewayed him to a cheaper, more effective alternative: heroin, which is where I met him at.
“Sorry, I’m late, but, umm…” he points to me, shifting blame and smiles at her. She looks at me quickly to acknowledge my presence and then turns back into the house, grabbing a white envelope from close by and handing it to him.
“Can I come in for a second?” he asks. “I need to use the bathroom.”
An unpleasant pause.
“Really quick,” he pleads and cartoonishly hops around and holding his crotch.
I can see the heavy sigh in her eyes as she lowers them but she acquiesces and steps aside, inviting us both in.
I step into the foyer and I’m greeted by the smiles of a few generations of the Nunez family, enclosed inside plastic and metal frames. The room was cluttered with Jesus memorabilia.
She shuts the door behind us and rushes to watch him down the hallway. When he closes the door, she turns and flashes me the same practiced, half-hearted smile and scurries to the kitchen, where I can hears sizzling and metal pots clanking. I begin to stare around awkwardly at the religious souvenirs. Unlit Virgin de Guadalupe candles and a bleeding crucifix hanging on the wall beside a photo of a set of footprints, trailing off alongside a beach, the poem printed over it in Spanish. I fixate my attention towards the family photos when I fell the inanimate objects judging me, scanning them before coming across one in particular and pick it up.
His mom’s footsteps began clomping towards the foyer hurriedly. She breezes past me and peeks out the curtains in the front window and then back towards the hallway.
“Christiano,” she yells, straining her neck towards the bathroom door. He responds from behind the door which slightly takes her off edge. She looks at me and notices what picture I have and flashes a legit smile this time: one of those embarrassing photos your parents take of you as a kid in the bath with another kid or two. She walks up and points at the one in the middle playing with his junk.
“That’s Christiano when he was two years old,” she says earnestly, caressing his face. “That’s his older brother Hector and Alejandro, the oldest.”
You could see her eyes dim, as if she were staring beyond the picture. Staring into a time that could no longer exist. She looked at the picture like you’d look at one of a dead relative.
“He never told me he had any brothers,” I say.
We hear the toilet flush and she neatly places the picture back where it was and goes back towards the end of the hallway. He comes out of the bathroom wiping his hands on his pants and picks up the white envelope from off a table and holds it up.
“Thank you for this,” he says. “I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
She flashes him an incredulous, toothless smile and starts heading towards the door.
“You cookin’ something?” he asks obviously
“Yes,” she responds. “It’s Lucile’s birthday, so your brother is coming over.”
I can see him racking his brain.
“Alejandro’s youngest. I don’t think you’ve ever met her.”
They stand awkwardly for a beat until she finishes towards the door, opening it.
“They should be here any minute now, so you should probably get going.”
“Yeah, Yeah, uhh definitely…Oh, this is Shado by the way,” he introduces me, prolonging the inevitable. “Really good friend of mine.”
She nods at me.
I wait for Christian’s lead, but he’s just standing there, oscillating the weakly veiled hurt in his eyes between us. I feel embarrassed for him so I walk out ahead of him. I thank her as I pass and walk out to the car and hop in the driver seat. Even after starting the engine up, he’s still standing there. I can tell by his pleading eyes that he was trying to negotiate with her, but she shakes her head with a stone cold finality. They embrace each other and he slouches to the car, defeated.
“I didn’t know you had any brothers,” I intrude immediately, pulling off of the curb.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “We don’t talk much anymore.”
By the time Christian comes back home, the oxycodone has already kicked in and I’m melting into his couch. He flops down beside me and pulls a bundle out of his pocket and places it on the table. He reaches for his gear-which is always in plain sight and within arm’s reach-and begins to set it up.
There’s a strange tint to our relationship. I would watch him set up his shot and feel relieved with the fact that I hadn’t gotten to that point. I pitied him. Even though I was paying twice as much for what was probably a weaker high, solely to delude myself into thinking I wasn’t an actual junkie. Even though my nose was so fuckin’ congested because of my new infatuation with crushing and snorting everything. Even though it had gotten so bad that I stole one of his syringes, took the needle off and would mix my crushed pills with warm faucet water and syringe it up my ass so the pills would hit quicker than swallowing. Even as that water was slowly leaking from my ass while I laid there on his itchy, burn hole ridden couch, I would look over at him, searching like Dante for a vein in his leg, and I’d pity him. Wondering what he could have possibly done that was so bad that his own blood had decided to give up on him. Wondering how much his mother had cried to get to a point where being cold to him was a necessity.
The heroin makes the whole apartment stinks of rancid ketchup. He pokes and misses, and pokes again and misses again and mutters a few curses towards himself. I often catch him staring at the patterns in my forearms the same way most men lust after asses and titties. When he finally connects, you can see his dark eyes light up for second before fading out again. He pulls the syringe out and tosses it on the table, but it slides off the other end.
“It smelled good, right?” He asks me, sinking into the sofa.
I look over to see him smiling to himself.
“My mother’s house?” he expands. “I haven’t had her sopa de pata in forever. I haven’t smelled that smell in forever.”
I nod my head, as I see his eyes fading away.
“Yeah, man,” I respond, practically retching as the spoiled vinegar scent creeps up my nose. “It smelled like heaven.”