Editor’s Note: The names in this story have been changed.
By: DG Rose
I bathe my two-week old nephew in the kitchen sink. There is a ledge in the basin for his head, but he keeps slipping down. I cradle his head, all wobbly on a useless neck, and wipe his newborn body. I watched my mom this morning and know to gently clean all the creases where baby dirt hides. Ten toes and ten fingers, sort of. The ring man and pinky finger on the left are webbed to the first knuckle, but otherwise, he is healthy. I am afraid of breaking him or making him cry. At eighteen he will be addicted to heroin, but for now, he’s smiling and placid in a plastic tub of sudsy water.
I once met a guy at the gym who told me he was a former heroin addict. I nicknamed him Mountain Man when discussing him with my girlfriends. Solidly ripped with a long, brown braid down his back, he was training to climb Mt. McKinley. He both attracted and repelled me, smelling of b.o. and wood-smoke, his need for everything felt urgent. I met him a couple times for coffee and cut off his braid because he let me. Then school was over for the year, and I left town.
I do not have an addictive personality. If anything, I am the exact opposite, all control and measure. There was a time, my “Summer of Coke,” when my two older sisters and I snorted cocaine. They introduced me to it. Sitting around my middle sister’s dining room table, we cut several lines. The sensation? It was like being me times one hundred—wide awake, hyper aware, eager—the exact opposite of how I want to feel. Seems I have an overactive superego that even illicit drugs can’t override.
After about an hour, there still remained a small mound of white on the table. My two sisters continued snorting while I sat on the couch. “Come have another,” they said, but, like apportioning my intake of ice cream or chocolate, I’d had my share. “No, I’m done,” I said, and watched them hover til it was gone.
What I enjoyed most that night was the ritual of it all—chopping the rocky powder with a credit card, drawing out the lines, rolling the bill up tight, wiping the residual powder onto my gums like they showed me—terribly bitter, then a jolt. I liked choosing the music on the stereo, putting makeup on together, getting ready to go out. I remember feeling bright eyed and bushy-tailed in my pink body stocking of a dress (it was the 80s) for about twenty minutes before reverting to my natural state of over active self-consciousness. Nothing happened that was as exciting as I’d imagined, and by the night’s end, I‘d looked at myself in the mirror, all raccoon-eyes and smeared lipstick and thought, we could have just cooked dinner together, and I would have had more fun.
The statistics on heroin use are stunning. Five percent kick it. In a thirty-three-year longitudinal study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, of 581 heroin addicts initially interviewed, 284, almost half, could not be followed up on because they were dead.
I learn from a friend who teaches criminal justice that one of the biggest killers of rich, white kids in Orange County these days is opiate abuse (meth, heroin, oxycontin). When I google “heroin orange county,” there are more than ten pages of articles on the topic. It’s an epidemic. Kids with too much money—my nephew received $800/month for ‘incidentals’—and too little oversight, and, what do you expect? When I share this with another friend, she texts back: whatever happened to drinking beer?
When Aaron is born, my mom and I fly in for two weeks to help my sister. She catches up on sleep while we do everything else. On day eight, the mohel comes in to perform the bris. My mom buys numbing cream and does the honors before the procedure. When the ceremony is over, we go outside to bury the foreskin in the backyard, where everyone jokes that a penis tree will grow. By the end of week two, my mom and I are completely spent, practically incoherent and speaking gibberish. Just before we leave, my sister, who’s slept the whole time, says, “This is easier than I thought,” which becomes a running joke. My mom and I just look at each other and grunt.
By age six, Aaron is a wiry little monkey of a boy, all daredevil and energy. Getting him to eat is a trial. He seems to survive on air. When he comes to visit, I spend the entire day pulling him off rocks and making sure he doesn’t maim himself in the strong surf. My vocabulary is whittled down to no and get back here. As he grows older, he has very distinct ideas on how he wants his hair styled, how he wants to dress. He falls in love with the rock group Green Day and takes up the guitar. We bake birthday cakes together—yellow cake, chocolate frosting and every year a different type of candy bar baked in. Aaron is a sweet boy whose life I want to be a part of, but my sister and I only intermittently get along, which makes developing a relationship with her son difficult. A thirty-year drug and alcohol addict, now sober for six years, she is a trying person to be around, what the sober community refers to as a dry drunk: one who abstains but maintains the same behaviors as one who drinks. To quote from an AA site: their mental and emotional homes are chaotic, their approach to everyday living is unrealistic, and their behavior, both verbal and physical, is unacceptable. Have they met her?
By age fifteen, Aaron is transformed. He is big. This once scrawny boy has been training as a wrestler and mixed martial arts fighter (MMA), eating an excess of 5,000 calories a day, and packing on the muscle. His neck is thick, his thighs like trunks. He looks as if the mass of a 6’ man had been stuffed into a 5’8” frame. He talks about wanting to get a tattoo, a giant one across his chest: Veni Vidi Vici.
“Jews don’t get tattoos,” I say.
“Why not?” he asks.
I think, how can he not know? “Because Jews were tattooed in the war, WWII. In order to be identified,” I say, deciding to leave the bible out of it (changing one’s body, unless it is for health reasons, is tantamount to insulting God’s handiwork). But there is no recognition. “To be targeted, killed,” I continue, “and so, in deference, because of that, we don’t—” but halfway through, I hear myself. I look at Aaron and know that to him, I sound like a blowhard adult saying things he doesn’t give a crap about.
“Because they did something a long time ago I’m not supposed to do it today?” he asks.
I pause, and for a brief moment, I see the world from his perspective—wide open and full of useless rules. “What about a temporary tattoo,” I suggest, “one you can live with for a while, see how you like it?”
Aaron looks off into the distance and nods.
MMA blends techniques from jiujitsu, kickboxing, karate, taekwondo, judo and wrestling. Although every MMA fighting organization has its own specific rules, some universal no no’s do exist: eye gouging, strikes to the back of the head and spine, knees to the head on a grounded opponent, fish hooking (I can only imagine), biting, hair pulling, fingers in opponent’s orifices, and shots to the groin are generally not allowed.
Aaron wants to kick peoples’ heads in for a living. He wants to be a cage fighter and run a training gym. When I suggest to his father, Larry, that Aaron is angry, that his desire to harm others for a living is in part a result of having been raised by an alcoholic drug addict, Larry tells me he’s not so sure. He prefers to see it as his son has developed a passion, and is following his dream. According to Larry, we should all be so lucky.
Larry is a nice man with a good heart, but he lives in denial, a concept as incomprehensible to me, a staunch realist, as infinity. He courted and married my sister while she was high and claimed not to have noticed. At their wedding, I remember watching Larry walk down the aisle, wondering what planet he’d flown in from, why he would willingly marry a woman as erratic, impulsive, and explosive as my sister. Ten years later, after she was pulled over, busted for cocaine, and court-ordered to rehab, they divorced. I told Larry to start saving for Aaron’s therapy fund.
Throughout those ten years, I had regular conversations with Larry. We work together, so it makes it easy to pop in, discuss policy, and segue into a conversation on Why I Don’t Think Sixteen Year-olds Should be Allowed to Stay Out All Night. But it never did any good. Nothing registered. Without fail, Larry always had a reasonable-sounding reply: as long as Aaron called to say he was staying at a friend’s house, he didn’t see a problem; it was how Larry was raised, and besides, “If you set strict limits with a kid they won’t know what to do when they have freedom.” When a teacher called the cops into her classroom because Aaron kept nodding off (obviously there was more to this story than I was privy to), Larry said it was all his working out, that the kid was simply exhausted. When Aaron tested positive for opiates (during a routine physical for the wrestling team), his father accepted the excuse that it was one pain pill left over from a valid two-year-old prescription for a back injury. “I’ve done that myself,” Larry said. When they found a bottle of steroids in Aaron’s bedroom, Larry made a point of emphasizing that it was unopened. When Aaron’s first car mysteriously caught fire, it was chalked up as an oddity. When he wrapped his second around a tree, they bought him another. When he totaled the third, the cops found syringes and booked him for possession. Now, while awaiting arraignment, he’s in rehab.
“He’s lucky to be alive,” I said, “and what if he had hurt or killed someone else? Who can live with that?”
Larry nods in agreement, then adds, “I’ve got to hand it to the Ford Mustang. Those are really safe cars.”
There is a study titled The Invisible Gorilla where a participant is asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed within a circle of six people. About halfway through, a person dressed in a gorilla suit appears center stage, turns to the camera, thumps his chest, and exits. So focused on counting passes, half of the participants do not see it.
For about a week, Aaron’s escapades are a big, dirty secret. My sister tells my mom who, sworn to secrecy, doesn’t tell me, and later does. I confirm with Larry, who lied to me four days earlier, saying Aaron had left for college. I am not to tell my father, a true patriarch, wealthy, controlling, fear-inducing, or his wife. And then, one night, I get a call from him. My father knows. My sister told him.
The first thing my father says is to change my locks, that before we know it, this kid will be robbing us for drug money. He tells me he knows it’s controversial, but that if Aaron has the choice of jail time or parole, he should choose jail. “I don’t know if you watch MSNBC,” he adds, “but there was a segment showing these parole officers, real assholes, who were throwing guys back in, guys who, in my opinion, were really trying to go straight, for the smallest infraction. These parole guys, they end up owning you. Better to do the time and just be done with it.”
“Hmm,” I say, to indicate I am still on the line. My father, an “innovative” thinker, likes to lecture. It took me years to realize that dialogue is rarely his intention. As he continues, I can’t help but picture Aaron’s baby face, his muscled-up frame in the clink, rubbing shoulders with all my stereotypes of what jail is.
That week, I get Aaron’s sober living address from Larry and send him a card. I keep it short, covering three main areas—sorrow, encouragement, love. What I don’t say is how goddamn angry I am at him, at Larry, at my sister. I hate the lies, the secrets, that I saw all of this coming and that still, there was nothing I could do. Time and again, I told Larry, I wanted Aaron to be able to test the boundaries and, as necessary, fail within a safe environment, one with less permanent consequences. According to Larry, only Aaron can help Aaron now, but it didn’t have to be this way. Did it?
Around this time, my mom comes down from Santa Barbara for the weekend to visit. After a long day, alternately fun, and in light of recent events, somber, we zone out and watch What Not to Wear. A young woman dressed in camouflage from head to toe finds the makeover process terribly uncomfortable, so much so, that it seems she might not continue. It is an unusual episode in that they go behind the scenes, airing the producers’ discussion on whether or not to keep filming, not sure they’ll have a show. As they take the woman shopping into stores where she looks as if she’s about to make a run for it, I think about Aaron and all the ways we protect and disappear ourselves from the world. The challenge, for him, for all of us, is finding a way back.