This is an excerpt from “Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me,” on-sale from Park Row Books on Feb. 25.
New York City, August 1997
It was 5:00 a.m., and I was wide awake — the kind of awake with edges so sharp that sleep is carved away. Chills marched on my skin like an army of ants, and I searched in the dark for my green sweater.
I had been wearing that sweater incessantly since I’d returned from Paris. The sweater went on and then was pulled off, repeatedly, each day, in my desperate, yet half-hearted, attempts at kicking. It was pale green, woven of silk and cashmere, bought in one of the shopping sprees I went on to distract myself from the hundreds of dollars a day I was shooting in my arm, and it filled me with comfort and disgust in equal measure.
It wasn’t even a great color on me; it wasn’t really me. Maybe that’s why I bought it. Hiding had become my occupation.
It was August in New York. There may be no worse time and place to kick than August in New York. Heat and humidity and intense smells amplify withdrawal symptoms. Everyone has their AC on full blast; you’re continually flipping between hot and cold. The changes in temperature, outside and in, grated on me, irritating my prickly skin. And so, the green sweater went on and off, on and off.
I’d come back East to visit my dad, and also to try to coax myself into kicking. It was a bad idea. Why did I always think that kicking dope on vacation would work?
My dad had moved to Rhode Island but was in New York on business, and I’d gone with him to the city. I’d done the last of my dope around nine, the night before, in my hotel bathroom. My kick was just beginning. I hated myself. I hated myself for being a junkie, for acting out that painful charade, but mostly, for not bringing more dope with me.
At 8:00 a.m., I checked the adjoining room; Dad had left for the day. I yanked the green sweater off. The fabric stuck to my damp brow as I struggled to get it over my head. I was drenched in sweat.
Stumbling to the bathroom, my stomach cramped and feeling nauseous, I knew I was going to be sick. Out it came, vomit and shame and sadness and despair and more vomit. Lying down on the bathroom floor felt good, or at least better. The blue ceramic tiles soothed my clammy, achy body and let me rest, at least for a minute. I lay there and thought about how many hours of my life I’d spent on bathroom floors, studying the grout. At least this was a nice one.
Once I caught my breath, I managed to heave myself into the shower. The water played torture games on my skin. Collapsing after the shower, I lay on the bed for a few hours trying to will myself to sleep. When that didn’t work, I had to get out of there.
Distractions, I needed distractions. Popping a couple of Valium, I slipped on some jeans and a tank top, and my cream-and-red Prada platforms with red leather leaves and flowers all along the sides. I still managed to look pulled together somehow, as long as you didn’t look too closely. I threw the green sweater into my bag. The sweater had become like a sick security blanket.
The sunlight outside was blinding. Opiate withdrawal makes any kind of sensation too much — too bright, too loud, too scratchy. I hailed a cab and climbed in, crumpling onto the smooth back seat, and instructed the driver to head uptown, to Bergdorf Goodman, where I could pretend that I was not a 23-year-old junkie in a green sweater kicking dope.
The AC was on in the cab, and I was soon shivering — the sweater went back on. I was carsick and tried to take my focus off the cars and the buildings and the swarms of humans we passed. I tried to find a horizon, and when I couldn’t, I shut my eyes. That 15-minute ride felt hours long. I overtipped the driver, handing him damp wadded cash, and flung myself out of the cab, in front of The Paris Theatre.
The city seized me — the steam and the concrete and the beat and the weight of it all. The sweater came back off. Everything was too bright, too much: the people, the noise. It was all moving too quickly, with too much determination. I stopped at a hot dog vendor for a bottle of water and gulped down half the bottle before throwing it in my purse, and I braced myself to enter the store.
The brass door felt heavier than I remembered. Cold air licked my forehead, and I was engulfed in a tornado of smells — perfume, carpet, leather, fashion, and money. The combination made me feel sicker. I headed to the bathroom to regroup. Splashing cold water on my face, I caught my eyes in the mirror and shuddered. I hated seeing my reflection — green and hollow and sick. Thinking about the night before, I got lost for a moment, standing there with the water running, avoiding my eyes.
I’d met a friend of mine, Jane, at Raoul’s in Soho. I hadn’t seen her for almost a year, and the last time was in Paris when we were both living there. We sat at the bar and laughed and smoked many cigarettes.
“Girl, you look fantastic,” she said, and I knew it was code for skinny.
A rare moment of candor struck me, and I said, “I’ve been using heroin for the last nine months.”
“Well, I mean, you know, the whole heroin chic is working for you!” she replied, without missing a beat.
“But it’s killing me,” I said, laughing.
She laughed harder, and she drank a bottle of wine as I sipped on watered-down Coca-Cola and made many trips to the bathroom to shoot my dwindling supply of dope and take more Valium, trying to prolong the inevitable.
I realized the middle-aged blonde woman with a perfect blowout standing next to me was speaking.
“Miss, miss! You’re wasting water.”
“Thanks, sorry. Sorry.”
She made a little sigh and left. I met my eyes again in the mirror and put on under-eye concealer. Silencing the germaphobe inside of me, I put my mouth to the faucet and gulped enough water to swallow one more Valium. I am ready to do this.
The green sweater went back on, and I shopped. I didn’t have the energy to try anything on. My father had given me money, had been giving me money for so long, and I had the vague passing thought that I was spending it like I was going to be dead soon.
Money had been a stand-in for so many things — it was love and affection and control and illusion and, most of all, shame. If my dad didn’t indulge me, didn’t give me money and buy me things, I’d have proof that he did not love me. But the money made me feel ashamed and the shame pushed me to want to get rid of it, as quickly as it was given to me.
I brushed the thought away and continued chatting with the saleswoman, performing for her — playing the role of a 23-year-old who had her shit together, who had money to burn, who was recently engaged, whose fiancé was arriving from France in mere weeks and had no idea his beloved was so sick. But the truth is, I was a child who was lying to everyone to varying degrees, a child who was burning through money that she didn’t deserve.
The saleswoman was folding my purchases and placing them in tissue paper and talking. I couldn’t hear her words any longer because my ears were ringing, and I continued to smile and perspire. The sweater came back off. She asked me if I’d like a glass of water and I was upset that she saw me sweating. I shoved the Amex in her hand and said, “No.”
Looking down at my tank top, I saw that my nipples were erect and I had large sweat marks beneath my breasts and under my armpits. The chills came back, and I put the sweater back on, even though I was damp and wilting. I hated the saleswoman. I hated myself.
I had successfully distracted myself for a short amount of time and was a couple of hours further into my kick. The force of the heat outside left me instantaneously clammy, and I couldn’t take one more step until the stupid green sweater came off again.
My dad was picking me up at six. It was only four. I figured I could kill time in The Palm Court. The Palm Court sits in the Plaza Hotel, across from Bergdorf Goodman. I had been coming there for tea since I was 7.
The maître d’ seated me with a beautiful view of the pianist and violin player. I loved it there. The gold and the green and the ridiculous opulence made me feel like a little girl again. I ordered my high tea. Soon there would be crumpets and clotted cream, tea sandwiches, strawberries and whipped cream, and of course, the tea. Before I could enjoy any of it, a cold sweat gripped me. Cramping muscles followed.
I looked around the room and saw the old-timers and the tourists, a family, and a mother and little girl. Everyone was seated with someone. Everyone but me. The loneliness was palpable and coated my tongue. I couldn’t control the tears welling up. The people at the table next to me spoke in hushed tones and glanced at me, and I wondered if they were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Their whispers joined forces with the piano and the violin and became a loud, dissonant symphony. My ears rang.
Off to the bathroom, I went. I clutched my purse and my sweater together like a makeshift life raft. The bathroom, down the long, carpeted hall, past the painting of Eloise, past the chocolate shop, past the gift shop, was empty. The bathroom attendant was at the door, and I couldn’t look at her. I stood in front of the mirror and faced myself.
Maybe I look too thin. Shit, the last time I weighed myself, I was 110, but I think I’ve lost more weight since then. I’m only five-eight, and there are plenty of models who are five-ten and weigh less. But you’re not a model, Erin.
My long dark hair looked greasy, even though I’d washed it that morning and it was in a ponytail. I could see my heart beating in the vein in my neck. The bathroom attendant came up next to me and placed a towel on the counter. We made eye contact in the mirror. There was familiarity in the gaze. I looked down and turned on the water, but I didn’t wash my hands.
I was pretty sure she was the same bathroom attendant who had been there for years, since I was a little kid, for as long as I could remember. I turned off the water and looked up again. She was back against the wall but still looking at me with sad eyes. The circles under her eyes were almost as dark as mine, and I wondered where hers came from. I felt like throwing up.
Sitting down on the toilet, I put my head in my hands and wept. Fuck you. I felt hot. The sweater came off. As I began to fold the sweater in my lap, I noticed something stuck in the rolled collar. Slowly I unrolled the collar. Boom. How is this possible?
It was a piece, no a chunk, of tar heroin. Relief (and a little guilt) washed over me. I pulled a pencil case out of my bag. I kept my gear in there, organized in a pink plastic box with Hello Kitty’s benign white kitty face on it.
I took out the small spoon and lighter, grabbed the water bottle from my purse, and poured a little bit into the spoon with half of the heroin. I heated it and plopped the tiny cotton ball in the liquid, before drawing it up into a fresh needle. I didn’t care if the woman outside knew. It was like junkie Christmas.
I shot up and leaned forward with a weighty exhale against the door. I sat there, letting myself enjoy the relief of that high. I had enough to keep me from getting too sick before flying back to L.A. the next day.
I’ll kick when I get home, I thought. There were still a couple more weeks before Vincent arrived.
I didn’t need the green sweater anymore because I was at the perfect temperature. It all felt OK. The sweater smelled of sweat and sadness. I rolled it into a ball and stuffed it inside the small trash can in the toilet stall. I walked to the sink and washed my hands in slow motion. I tipped the attendant $20 on the way out, and she watched as I passed.
Excerpted from Strung Out @ 2020 by Erin Khar, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins.
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