It’s 5 AM and I am awake, too sharply awake, so sharply that reality is obscured. Chills crawl like ants on my skin, and I search in the dark for my green sweater. I have been wearing this sweater all summer. The sweater goes on and then is pulled off, repeatedly, each day, in my desperate, yet half-hearted, attempts at kicking. The sweater, pale green, woven of silk and cashmere, bought in one of my shopping sprees that I use to distract myself from the five hundred dollars a day I am shooting in my arm, comforts and disgusts me. It’s not even a great color on me, it’s not really me. Maybe that’s why I bought it. Hiding, once a pastime, has become my occupation.
There is nothing worse than kicking dope in August in New York. The heat and humidity amplify my symptoms, for everyone has their a/c on full blast. I’m hot and cold, hot and cold, hot and cold. The changes in temperature, outside and in, grate on me, scratching my prickly skin with constant climate changes. The green sweater goes on and off, on and off, on and off. I’m here visiting my Dad, and also to try and coax myself into kicking. This was a bad idea. Why do I always think that kicking dope on vacation will work? I did the last of my dope around 9 last night. My kick is just beginning. I hate myself, hate myself for being a junkie, for acting out this painful deceitful charade, and mostly right now for not bringing more dope with me.
It’s 7 AM. My Dad has left for work. I yank the green sweater off, over my head. I’m drenched in sweat. Stumbling to the bathroom, my stomach is cramped and nauseous. I know I’m gonna be sick. Out it comes, vomit and shame and sadness and despair. Lying down on the bathroom floor feels good, or at least better. The blue ceramic tiles soothe my clammy achy body and let me rest, at least for a minute. When I catch my breath, I manage to heave myself into the shower. The water plays torture on my skin. Collapsing after the shower, I lay on the bed for a few hours, crying and sleeping and crying. I gotta get out of here. Not going to cop. Going shopping. Distractions, I need distractions. Popping a couple of valium, I slip on some jeans and a tank top, my Prada platforms, desperately trying to maintain the cover I have had for so long. I have perfected the art of somehow still looking pulled together. I throw the green sweater into my bag. The sweater has become like a security blanket, a sick security blanket.
Stepping out of the building, the sun is blinding. A cab, a cab! Crumpling onto the smooth black seat, I instruct the driver to head uptown, Bergdorf Goodman, where I can pretend that I am not a 23-year-old junkie, in a green sweater, kicking dope. The a/c is on, so the sweater must go back on too. Focusing less on the cars and the buildings and the swarms of humans, I find a horizon, try not to get car sick. The ride takes 15 minutes but feels like 15 hours. I throw money at the driver and fling myself out of the cab.
The city seizes me, the steam, and the beat, and the beat, and the weight of it all. I feel like I am perpetually gasping for air. The sweater comes back off and I make my way to Bergdorf’s. Everything is too bright, too much: the people, the noise. It’s all moving too quickly, with too much determination. I stop at a hot dog vendor for a bottle of water. Gulping it down, I brace myself to enter the store.
The brass door feels heavier than I remember. Cold air licks my forehead and I am engulfed in a tornado of smells. Perfume, carpet, leather, fashion, and money. The combination is making me sick. I head to the bathroom to regroup. Splashing cold water on my face, I catch my eyes in the mirror. I shudder. I hate seeing my reflection, green and hollow and sick. Thinking about last night, I get lost for a moment, standing there with the water running, avoiding my own eyes in front of me. I met Jane at Raoul’s last night. I hadn’t seen her for almost a year, the last time was in Paris. She told me how great I look. In a moment of rare candor, I told her I had been on heroin for the past 9 months. She told me it worked for me, the whole “heroin chic” thing. And I thought, “But, it’s killing me!” We laughed about it and smoked many cigarettes, and she drank a bottle of wine, and I sipped on watered down Coca-Cola and made many trips to the bathroom to do the last of my dope and take more Valium.
I realize the woman next to me is speaking.
“Miss, miss! You’re wasting water.”
I meet my eyes again and proceed to put under-eye concealer on. Silencing the germ-a-phobe inside of me, I put my mouth to the faucet and gulp enough water to swallow one more Valium. I am ready to do this, ready to continue my day as the great pretender. Green sweater is back on and I shop.
I don’t have the energy to try anything on. The cognition that I am spending my money like I am going to be dead soon vaguely crosses my mind. I brush the thought away and continue chatting with the sales woman, performing for her, playing the role of a 23-year-old, who has her shit together, a 23-year-old who has money to burn, a 23-year-old who was recently engaged, a 23-year-old whose fiancé is coming here in a month from France and has no idea his beloved is so sick. But the truth is, I am a child who is lying to absolutely every single person in my life, a child who is burning through money that she doesn’t deserve. I have got to clean up.
The saleswoman is ringing me up and talking and I can’t hear the words any longer because my ears are ringing and I smile and sweat, and the sweater comes back off. And she asks me if I’d like a glass of water and I feel angry that she sees me sweat and I shove my card in her hand and say, “No.” Looking down at my tank top, I see that my nipples are erect and the chills come back, and there are sweat marks, so I put the sweater back on, even though I’m wet and wilting. I hate the saleswoman. I hate myself.
Two hours after I enter, I am leaving. Successfully distracted for a short amount of time, a couple grand lighter, and a couple hours further into my kick. The force of the heat outside leaves me instantaneously clammy and I can’t take one more step until the stupid green sweater comes off again. My Dad is picking me up at 6. It’s 4 now. I figure I can kill a couple hours in The Palm Court. The Palm Court sits in the Plaza Hotel, across from Bergdorf Goodman. I have been coming here for tea since I was 7.
The maitre d’ seats me with a nice view of the piano player and violin player. I love it here. The gold and the green and the opulence make me feel like a little girl again. I order my high tea. Soon there will be crumpets and clotted cream, tea sandwiches, strawberries and whipped cream, and of course, the tea.
Before I can enjoy anything, a cold sweat takes hold of me once more. Now, the chills. Now, the cramps. I look around the room and see the old-timers and the tourists. Everyone is seated with someone. Everyone, but me. The loneliness is palpable and coats my tongue. I can’t control the tears that are welling up. They speak in hushed tones and glance at me and I wonder if they wonder what’s wrong with me. The hushed tones join forces with the piano and the violin, and become a loud dissonant symphony. My ears ring.
Off to the bathroom I go. I clutch my purse and my sweater together like a make-shift life raft. The bathroom, down the long carpeted hall, past the painting of Eloise, past the chocolate shop, past the gift shop, is empty. The bathroom attendant is at the door, and I can’t look at her. I stand in front of the mirror and face myself. Maybe I look too thin. Shit, the last time I weighed myself, I was 114, but I think I’ve lost more weight since then. I’m 5’8”, there are plenty of models who are 5’10” and weigh less. But, I’m not a model. My long dark hair looks greasy, even though I washed it this morning and it’s in a ponytail. I can see my heart beating in the vein in my neck. The bathroom attendant comes next to me and places a towel on the counter. We make eye contact in the mirror. There is familiarity in the gaze. I look down and turn on the water, but I don’t wash my hands. It dawns on me that I am pretty sure she is the same bathroom attendant that has been here for years, for as long as I can remember. I turn off the water and look up again. She is back against the wall, but still looking at me with sad eyes. The circles beneath her eyes are almost as dark as mine, and I wonder where hers come from. I feel like throwing up.
Sitting down on the toilet, I put my head in my hands and weep. I hate myself. I feel hot. The sweater comes off. As I begin to fold the sweater in my lap, I notice something stuck in the rolled collar. Slowly I unroll the collar. Boom. How is this possible? It’s a piece, no a chunk of tar, heroin. Relief (and a little guilt) washes over me. I pull the pencil case out of my bag, get my rig, and proceed to get my fix. I don’t care if the woman outside knows. I know how wrong this all is, but it’s like junkie Christmas. There’s even enough to keep me from getting too sick before I fly back to LA tomorrow. Yes, I am definitely leaving tomorrow.
I don’t need the green sweater anymore because I am at the perfect temperature. It all feels okay. The sweater smells of sweat and sadness. I roll it into a ball and stuff it into the small trash can. After washing up, I tip the attendant on the way out. She looks at me with sad eyes.
Erin Khar lives, loves, and writes in Los Angeles, CA and sometimes other cities too. She was the recipient of a 2012 Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize for her story, Last House at the End of the Street, which was also published in the Best New Writing 2012 anthology. She is currently working on a her first book, a collection of personal essays.