A TIR Special Edition on Love, Recovery from Heroin Addiction, Relapse, and Saying Goodbye For Good
by Claire Rudy Foster
Editor's note: I don't have to tell you that this one is special. Read it. You'll see for yourself. Writing this honest and prophetic is as rare as it is beautiful. It brushes the hem of the divine. It transforms you as much as it hurts. This is Claire Rudy Foster at her most vulnerable and best. Change. It's Real.™ - DDM
(Photos for this piece reprinted from graffiti in an abandoned Ohio state hospital. CCBY: Source.)
His sweater had a bouquet on it. That’s what caught my eye. It was a grandma sweater, soft green and printed with cartoon daisies and roses. But his pants were filthy and torn, and one shoe was wrapped in duct tape, holding its sole to the filthy canvas upper.
He looked like any other homeless junkie, wavering on the train platform downtown, standing in my path. I was almost close enough to touch him before I realized who he was.
It was Michael.
Our eyes met. It was the moment I had feared when, years ago, he was not a stranger to me---when he was my world, my partner, my whole heart. His skin was grey, sallow. His hair was getting long, wild. His eyes were the same, beautiful dark eyes I’d gotten lost in so many times. My Michael. I didn’t stop and I didn’t say a word. I stepped around him and kept walking, hands in my pockets, sweating in my black coat. My heart felt like a lump of frozen meat.
How had this happened?
In the autumn of 2014, I was seven years sober and coming to terms with the fact that I might be alone for the rest of my life. I struggled with relationships. They frightened me, hurt me. They never worked out, and I couldn’t seem to find someone who really belonged in my life. I prayed about this, trying to make peace with the idea that maybe I was just too big, too weird, too strange to find a partner who wanted all of me.
And then I met Michael.
I was standing around in the Alano Club parking lot after my weekly Heroin Anonymous meeting, trying to take the edge off the chronic loneliness I felt. Most of the other people were my age, or younger; many of them were fresh out of treatment. There was an electricity in the room, a passion that I didn’t hear in other meetings. And all at once, as though he’d emerged from thin air, there was Michael.
Love begins where common sense ends. In hindsight, everything about the relationship was a red flag. He was still in a residential county-run treatment program. He had more than five felonies, all for theft or possession. He was a heroin addict with less than a year sober. He had Hepatitis C, and was still getting his health back from his last relapse. He’d been in and out of jails and institutions for years. All he had to offer was himself.
But I didn’t see those things: I saw his gentleness, his huge and golden heart, his immense capacity for love. And, after all, were we really that different? I ignored my common sense. The first time I kissed him, I thought I was going to die.
“Did you feel that?” I whispered.
He touched my face, his hands shaking. “I felt it.”
His treatment program didn’t allow relationships, or dating. We saw each other only at meetings, at first. Then, he started writing me letters. Long, handwritten letters on school lined notebook paper. I got a phone number through Google Voice so that he could call me anytime. When it flashed up on my screen, I knew it was him.
I had given up on love, but now I was full of butterflies. I was so happy—so hopeful. I couldn’t stop smiling. He called me every night at the same time, right before lights-out. I could hear other voices around him, a vacuum cleaner, doors slamming. One night, he didn’t want to get off the phone.
“Let’s meditate,” I said. “I’ll think about you and you think about me, and it will be like we are together.”
“I think about you all the time,” he said.
“I hold you in my heart,” I told him. “That’s your place, in my heart. Do you feel it?”
We made a daily practice of meditating, and then writing down what we saw or perceived. I imagined my astral body flying over the roofs and cars, down the rain soaked streets, to where he was.
In my visions, I sometimes touched his face. The next day, he described feeling my fingers on his cheek. We were two children, playing a game. Then, one night, I saw something that frightened me: Michael, in dirty clothes, holding a cardboard sign and asking for change. In the vision, I walked by him, horrified by how sick he was. What could I do for him?
I never told him what I’d seen. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, even as a possibility.
I believed that nothing could separate us—we belonged together. Over time, our bond strengthened. The letters we exchanged started to talk not about the past, but about the future. One imaginary brick at a time, we were building a separate world. We dreamed of being alone together. We had never shared more than a single kiss, and the painful slowness of our relationship was agonizing and sweet. Our love felt pure to me then, and instead of bitter and heartbroken I felt new. I read his palm, looking for myself in its lines and valleys.
“You’re in here,” he said, putting his hand on his chest.
I covered his hand with mine. “I love you. Don’t die.”
“I won’t die.”
“You know what I mean. If you died, I don’t think I could keep living.”
Because we were both heroin addicts, and we both knew what the risks were. But knowing something in my mind wasn’t the same as knowing it in my heart. My feelings engulfed me, a sweet wave of love that I couldn’t stop riding. Logically, I knew I’d lost my wits. My heart told me I was in exactly the right place. I listened to it.
We started sleeping together around the time of his one-year sober anniversary. I had never been with someone I trusted so absolutely, or cared for so much. Praying together, I felt a spiritual bond with this man—I felt my heart click into his, and it was right. I told him he was my soulmate, and he smiled. His friends and his counselor at treatment commented on how happy he was all the time. He was making progress. He started working again, saving money, getting ready to move forward with his life. We talked about the next steps, and how to navigate the transition. Neither of us wanted to risk our sobriety, or the other’s. We inched forward into the real world.
Michael got a room in a sober house not too far from where I lived, a place with a garden and a beehive in the backyard. I climbed in through his window, feeling like a teenager. I couldn’t stop kissing him. Anytime we were in the same room, we were holding hands. I could see the effect our love had on him, making him strong. He stood up straight, as though he was growing, becoming big enough to carry the world we’d created together on his shoulders.
But then, things started to falter. There was a tense note in his voice when we talked at night, or he skipped our phone call. He got a resentment towards someone in his outpatient group, and then towards one of his housemates. He worried about losing his job. Out of treatment, and away from the constant support he got there, he was off kilter.
I finally saw his moods, the sulking and sudden flashes of anger. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me there was a rumor going around that he’d relapsed. He was paranoid; did I believe him?
If I’d doubted him, everything would have fallen apart. I ignored his massive pupils, the glossy look of his eyes. I needed him to be sober, so that’s the story I chose to believe. As summer wore on, he was less reliable, more anxious. He lost weight and told me he wasn’t sleeping. He couldn’t let go of the fear that he was about to lose everything.
After a while, I couldn’t reassure him—and then, he lied to me.
The lie was, on its surface, a harmless one, but once I’d noticed it I couldn’t ignore the other inconsistencies. His eyes. The way he was late for everything. His strange moods. The way other sober people behaved towards him. His scattered speech patterns. Intending to confront him, I asked him to meet me at an outdoor cafe. He was almost 45 minutes late, and showed up looking drawn, dirty.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said. “It’s making me crazy.”
I don’t remember what he said, how he tried to convince me to stay. I cried so hard that people were looking away from me, embarrassed of my sobbing. I stood up to leave and my feet felt like bricks. Each step away from him took so much effort.
Go back, my heart said. You can’t leave him now.
But I couldn’t sacrifice my sanity for love. So I walked away. It almost killed me.
I couldn’t eat or sleep. The special phone number came up on my cell, over and over, but I never answered. To this day, there are hundreds of messages saved in that Google Voice account that I haven’t listened to—Michael’s voice, desperate, lonely, asking for another chance. I stumbled through the days, feeling lost. My other half had been ripped away from me. I thought I was going to die. Mutual friends told me that Michael had relapsed for real, that he was homeless again, that they’d seen him downtown, that he went back to jail for a few days, that he was out and looking for me in meetings. My pillows smelled like his skin, and I hugged them, hoping to dream of better days.
It is a miracle that I stayed sober.
Over time, I heard less about Michael. I got a new job and immersed myself in it, waited for time to pass. I didn’t respond to his infrequent emails or phone calls, and they came less frequently. I prayed for him to leave me alone, and slowly, one day at a time, he drifted away from me. My heart ached, but I knew I couldn’t go back. Knowing what I knew—and aware of all the lies, and everything I didn’t know. I had to put my sobriety first, and so I did. As much as it hurt, I was glad I chose myself. No love, no matter how sweet, was worth sacrificing myself for.
And then, there he was, a scarecrow in a grubby sweater.
The face I used to cradle next to mine, the arms that made me feel safe and protected. I shuddered to think of the abscesses under his clothes, the bloated skin and blown veins of an IV drug addict. He was Michael and he was not. I remembered my vision: Michael, panhandling with a cardboard sign. It had come true.
I still have all the love letters he sent me, although I am not yet ready to read them. The year we spent together is precious to me, and perhaps our relationship is special to me because it ended. Real love is messy, difficult; it contends with the boredom of daily life, dirty dishes in the sink, small skirmishes. What I had with Michael was maybe too perfect to survive in the real world, the way an orchid taken from the tropical canopy will wither and fade in your windowsill. For a while, the sun shone for us.
Wherever he is sleeping tonight, I hope Michael is safe. When I meditate, I will think of him, and fly to him, and remind him that once, his world was beautiful and bright. It can be that way again.
But this time, it will be that way without me.
About the Author
Claire Rudy Foster is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. She's also a published author and you will not regret buying her fabulous book, I've Never Done This Before. Her critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon.