By Michael Clune
When recovering addicts look back on their first hit, they feel there was something special about that experience, something that kept them chasing the drug long after that initial thrill vanished. It seemed to me that no one had really gotten to the heart of this mystery. Even today, with eleven years clean, when I see dope in a movie or on tv, suddenly I can’t see anything else.
Scientists now know that when it comes to understanding addiction, how the addict perceives the addictive object matters more than the feeling they have when they take it. But no one had come up with a good understanding of the uncanny nature of that perception.
So I started writing, beginning in Ann Arbor and finishing in Cleveland. I’m a professor. I’ve written academic books and articles. But as soon as I began writing about addiction, I knew it had to be personal.
My past is infected. I have a memory disease. It grips me through what I remember. For example, seven years ago in Baltimore, Cat wakes me up to kiss me on her way to work. I’m about to fall back asleep when I remember about Dominic. I remember how fun he can be. I sit up in bed and think about it.
It is mid June which in Baltimore is not a fresh thing. Mid June is already midsummer. Veins filled with heavy blue. Humid, ninety degrees. I sit in bed thinking and the things I should do like renew my driver’s license or protest my parking tickets are like chewing on broken glass. Then I remember I can go to Dominic’s. I just think casually about going over there and maybe hanging out. I don’t wait to have a shower.
I pull up at Dominic’s, get out of the car, and someone is already yelling at me.
“Dom don’t need you coming around here.” It’s Dominic’s brother. He stares at me.
“Is Dominic here today?” The time for polite questions seems already to have passed, but I say it anyway. I say it in the ingratiating high pitched voice I use these days when I’m forced to speak to people. [blocktext align=”left”]When I was six I read in a book that Tarzan could recognize crazy people by the white that goes all the way around the iris.[/blocktext] Dom’s brother spits, barely turning his head.
“Dominic’s gone, he don’t live here anymore, get the fuck up out of here.”
The brother looks like a deflated version of Dominic, white all around the pupils, wearing a tool belt and work boots. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. Doing drugs makes your pupils swell in your iris. Not doing drugs shrinks the whole package, and you can see crazy white all the way around. When I was six I read in a book that Tarzan could recognize crazy people by the white that goes all the way around the iris.
“Have you happened to see Henry around today?”
“Man listen to me, Dominic don’t need you around, fuck Henry I don’t know where that one-armed freak is, if I see your monkey ass here again I’ma call the cops.”
As soon as he says “monkey” the door opens and Dominic himself shuffles out.
“Hey Mike come on in. Me and Henry was just trynna think about that other thing for you.” Dom is an enormous bear of a man, thick shaggy black hair, mumbly lips, big eyebrows. His whole face is camouflage for his coded speech. His eyes always on the ground, one expression. He is beyond shame.
Dom’s brother walks through the door and angrily starts hammering a light-fixture bracket into a wall. Dom and I follow. There is absolutely no furniture or wallpaper or pipes or carpet or tile anywhere to be seen in the room. Light’s coming through a single window with a sheet stapled over it. There must be forty staples in it. The brother’s work. I see Dominic has a syringe sticking out of his neck. I just like to be around him. Things happen around him. He’s like an open door things walk into and out of. Some of the things stay for a while.
Syringes, for instance. He has a bear-like bulk but he never eats. He’s a gathering of things. [blocktext align=”left”]I’m full of angels who fasten their lips and wings and hands to Dominic’s body, until he looks like a beach a thick flock of seagulls has landed on.[/blocktext] When that magnet inside him finally stopped spinning and all the things dropped to the pavement for the cops to pick up there was maybe ninety human pounds of him left for the ambulance, according to Henry, who was there, according to Henry.
In that bare front room at Dominic’s there is a trembling joy in the air. The thick sun of June gets trapped, pools, and grows cloudy. Proto-organisms form in the cloud of wood-color, heat, and sheet-light. I’m full of angels who fasten their lips and wings and hands to Dominic’s body, until he looks like a beach a thick flock of seagulls has landed on. By the time we get to the kitchen he doesn’t even look human.
The human form is not one I’m too committed to anyway. As Henry said once, I have a vein that starts in Baltimore and ends in Philadelphia. And here’s Henry. One arm. The missing arm is like an anchor dropped in the ocean of what he should look like and doesn’t. It keeps him anchored. He has a high-pitched granny’s voice.
“Hey Mike we was just trynna think about that other thing for you.” [blocktext align=”right”]Addiction is a memory disease. [/blocktext]Dom sits heavily down in a chair, his neck goes out like a slinky and his head is just way way back.
“It’s good to see you Henry. Man is it hot out today!”
This is the part I think I need to remember. Or I need to forget. It’s kind of hard to put together. Addiction is a memory disease. I was there at Dominic’s. I remembered one hour ago, sitting up in bed and thinking about renewing my driver’s license. I remembered six months ago, writing notes to myself in scary big letters and taping them all over the apartment so when I woke up I would see them. “No dope today!”
I also remembered talking to one of the teenage prostitutes who sometimes slept on mattresses on Dom’s floor. She said that Henry once told her he lost his arm by getting high and falling asleep on it in an awkward position. He slept for three days, and when he woke up it was dead. They had to cut it off. The story deeply affected both of us. Everyone knows how your arm can fall asleep in an awkward position. Everyone knows sleep is the cousin of death.
So it came right down to it.
“Mike, we was trynna think about that other thing for you,” Henry said solemnly. I’d been asking them to see if they could get me some oxycontins. I wasn’t ready to ask them for the white thing. I waited.
“And, between us, you know Dom is gonna keep trying, you know he don’t wanna let you down.” We both looked affectionately at Dom passed out in the chair. He was going to keep trying. He would always keep trying. He was probably trying now, in his way.
“But between us there’s no way you’re going to get it. It’ll never happen. First, because there’s this lawyer who comes through and buys all we can get the first of every month. How much? Dollar a milligram.” That figure brooked no argument. I lit a cigarette and bowed slightly to the phantom lawyer.
“Second, the pharmacy’s numbers computer…” I tuned out. The genius of Dom and Henry’s paranoia was in the details, but I didn’t have the energy that day.
“So Mike, we can’t get you into any of those Oxy’s.” I tuned back in. “But you might want to think. You might want to see about the white tops. Cause we can get those. We can get plenty of them. They’re cheap. And they’re good. Matter of fact.” He closed his eyes. [blocktext align=”left”]In this kind of situation language is superfluous. Pure waste, a luxury. Like a Rolex. [/blocktext]I saw a half-empty white-topped vial on the corner of the table.
“They’re pretty good.”
Henry said it twice. In this kind of situation language is superfluous. Pure waste, a luxury. Like a Rolex. We both knew I couldn’t give a damn about those Oxys. White tops. Wishes begin in white. Jesus is white. Madonna is white. The queen is white. The moon is white. The white tops are white. A picture starts out as a white space. A white space is a picture of the future. The future poses, the camera snaps, the picture is pure white. Dominic’s white teeth in his gaping red snoring mouth, like a kind of teasing promise: inside it’s all white. Cut Dominic in two and you’ll find white inside. I bet when they cut off Henry’s arm it was pure white in the middle.
In Baltimore that summer the best heroin was sold in little glass vials with white stoppers. White tops. The color of the stopper was like a brand. If it was good, its reputation would spread. (“Where’s Dom?” “Dom’s dead.” “What was he doing?” “White tops.” “Who’s got ‘em?” “Fathead.” “Where’s Fathead?”) Eventually dealers with inferior product would start using the good color, and then the people with the hot dope would have to change to red or blue stoppers. It was a cycle. I’d been off the stuff for almost six months, but as soon as I saw that empty white-top, I got a funny, destiny feeling.
You might think the whiteness of the white tops isn’t that important. After all, over the past few years I’d bought red tops, blue tops, black tops, and even yellow tops. Of course, the drug itself is often white, but it can also be brown, and the white is really just an effect of the cut. But the first stuff I ever did was in a vial with a white top, and its whiteness showed me dope’s magic secret.
The secret is that the power of dope comes from the first time you do it. [blocktext align=”left”]There’s a deep rip in my memory.[/blocktext] It’s a deep memory disease. People know the first time is important, but mostly they’re confused about why. Some think addiction is nostalgia for the first mindblowing time. They think the addict’s problem is wanting something that happened a long time ago to come back. That’s not it at all. The addict’s problem is that something that happened a long time ago never goes away. To me, the white tops are still as new and as fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops.
There’s a deep rip in my memory.
Dope never gets old for addicts. It never looks old. It never looks like something I’ve seen before. It always looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. I kind of stare. I’m kind of shocked.
“White tops, Henry? Really?” It’s always the first time I’ve heard of it, the first time I’ve seen it, every day, forever. Take a look at your shoe. Your television. Your car. Your girlfriend. Now compare that sight with the first sight.
You see? When you first get a new car you notice everything about it. The color is so beautiful, so shiny, so deep, so intense. After a few weeks you hardly see it. After a few months, there’s a sense in which you don’t see it at all.
That doesn’t happen with dope. Dope never gets old. It never gets familiar. It’s always new. It’s a deep memory disease. This disease is much stranger and simpler than nostalgia. With nostalgia, you see a thing. The thing triggers a memory of a good time. Then you start to want that good time to come back. That’s complex. It’s a multi-stage process.
Now watch what happens to the addict. I’m sitting there at Dom’s, minding my business. Henry’s kind of talking, I’m kind of listening. Then I see a white-topped vial. Wow. I stare at it. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. I know I’ve seen it ten thousand times before. I know it only leads to bad things. [blocktext align=”left”]Because habit is what destroys the world.[/blocktext]I know I’ve had it and touched it and used it and shaken the last particles of white from the thin deep bottom one thousand times. But there it is. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. The first time I encountered dope isn’t somewhere else, it isn’t in the past. It’s right over there. It’s on the table.
Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. Take a new car and put it in an air-controlled garage. Go look at it every day. After one year all that will remain of the car is a vague outline. Trees, stop-signs, people, and books grow old crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because by the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared.
And then you discover a little piece of the world that’s immune to habit. There’s a little rip in my brain when I look at a white-topped vial. The rip goes deep, right down to the bone, to the very first time. People love whatever’s new. Humans love the first time. The first time is life. Life is always fading. The work of art is to make things new. The work of advertising is to make things new. The work of religion, the work of science, the work of philosophy, the work of medicine, the work of car mechanics. Their tricks all work, a little bit, for a little while, then they get old. The addict, alone among humans, is given something that is always new.
It’s not the feeling of doing the drug that stays new. The drug high starts to suck pretty quickly. Pretty soon it sucks so bad you quit. Never again. Then you see a white top. Or even imagine you’re seeing one. And it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it. Addiction is a memory disease. Memory keeps things in the past. Dope white is a memory disruption agent. The powder in the vial is a distribution technology. It carries the white down the tiny neural tunnels where the body manufactures time. Dope white turns up in my earliest memories. I remember Mom’s white teeth. My future whites out.
I’m cured now. Ten years. How? How did I escape my white mind and body? How did I exit the white pollution of the past and the future, the white mind where every thought and feeling is a long or short road to the white tops? I’m outside. I’m free. But how? Can you run from yourself? [blocktext align=”right”]Luckily there’s also a flaw in time.[/blocktext]Try it. It’s impossible. But I did it. I ran out of myself. How? Once you get a glimpse of something that never gets old you’ll never be able to live like the others. I don’t want to give too much away. There’s a flaw in my memory. Luckily there’s also a flaw in time.
Dom wakes up. He pulls himself together in a literal way. His eyes kind of go back into their sockets. He is a big hearty bear-shaped man. The syringe is still in his neck. It makes him look kind of military, like he’s a soldier from the future. Henry, with his missing arm, looks kind of military too.
“I’m going to get the white tops, Mike,” Dom says. Henry stands up. “Get the walkie-talkies, Henry.” Henry goes over to an open black gym-bag, takes out one walkie-talkie, takes out another, then takes out a gun.
“When I’m halfway there,” Dom says, “I’m going to say OK through the walkie talkie. When I get there, I’m going to say OK. When I get the stuff. When I get halfway back. Mike, if more than five minutes go by between when you hear from me, give Henry the gun, open the door for him, and get out of his way.”
“Yes Dom.” I say it in the deferential high-pitched voice I used to reserve for cops or teachers. Now I use it with everyone. “I want you to be careful Dom. I really care about you.” I pause. “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I really like you. I want you to take care of yourself. [blocktext align=”left”]Language is a total luxury in a white out. A full sentence is like a Rolex.[/blocktext]When you come back, we should talk about getting you some help.”
Language is a total luxury in a white out. A full sentence is like a Rolex. I’m still straight, but already feeling really luxurious. I feel like blowing my nose with twenties. “I’ll even drive you to get help, if you want.”
“OK.” Dom says through the walkie-talkie. ‘OK.” “OK.” “OK.”
Michael Clune is an Associate Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. This excerpt is from his book White Out. His essays have appeared in Salon, Granta, and elsewhere.