by: S.F. Wright
Certain warning, in the form of a firm handshake, in wait at the methadone clinic…
“You know this stuff’s addictive, right?” The man’s about forty and has a full head of charcoal hair. He fills out my admittance form and does not look up as he speaks.
“I know.” I sit on a metal folding chair. The office is tiny and cramped, and the man’s desk is small and cluttered. The tile floor is light and dark gray, with streaks of red, and the white walls are bare except for a poster of a beach, the ocean so blue it doesn’t look real.
“I mean, this stuff is just as addictive as heroin.” The man chews gum as he writes, and the scratch of his ballpoint pen is loud in the quiet room. The door is open, and now and then a nurse or social worker passes. “You have to take it every day, and if you don’t you’re going to go into withdrawal, just like with heroin.” Still, the man doesn’t look up.
“I understand.” I look out the window. It’s raining; drops trickle down the glass. First Avenue is black and wet and full of puddles.
The man fills in a final section. “All right, then.” He points to a blank space at the bottom. “Just need your John Hancock right here, and the date.”
I sign my name and write 2/15/99.
He stamps the paper, and the faded words Beth Israel Hospital now appear above my name in dark blue. The man finally looks me in the eye; he nods toward the door and points. “Go down the hall and go into the first door on your right. That’s the waiting room. The doctor will call you for your physical when she’s ready.” I think he’s going to shake my hand, but instead he starts filling out another form.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Uh-huh.” He doesn’t look up.
The hallway’s white with beige floors. I pass a slender nurse with brown hair in a white uniform. She meets my eyes briefly and then looks at the floor.
The waiting room’s small and contains six plastic yellow chairs. A coffeemaker and a half-full pot sit on a small table in one corner. An old TV stands on another table in the opposite corner. Family Feud is on; white static lines bounce across the contestants’ faces.
Three people sit in the room: a black man muttering to himself and dressed in a stained sweatshirt and filthy torn jeans; a pale-skinned woman with dark curly hair and wearing a long, puffy black coat and large sunglasses; and a heavy white guy dressed in dark blue jeans and a New York Yankees jacket. The heavy guy’s about forty-five. He has short brown hair streaked with gray and a couple of days’ stubble on his face. He watches the game show as he eats from a box of Mike and Ike candy. He’s the only person watching.
An empty chair sits between the muttering guy and the woman in sunglasses, but the woman’s purse rests on it. Both chairs around the heavy white guy are free. As I pass the woman, I see that underneath her sunglasses her eyes are closed.
The chair closest to me seems to be covered in what looks like coffee. I hesitate and then sit in the other chair, into which the heavy guy’s stomach spills a bit. Our arms touch as I sit.
A doctor with a gaunt face and short hair comes in. “Kemp. Dwayne.” Her voice is crisp and loud but tired-sounding.
The black man stops muttering and stands.
“Right this way, Mr. Kemp,” the doctor says.
The heavy guy continues watching the television; one hand pours Mike and Ike candy into the other, and that hand stuffs the candy into his mouth. He guesses every time whether the contestants’ answers will be highly rated. Then, after Louie Anderson announces, “The survey says….” he says, “Damn; I didn’t think that would be so high,” or, “That makes sense that’s number one.” He seems oblivious to the sleeping woman in sunglasses, who every minute or so jerks her head back and looks around as though not sure where she is, only to nod off again a few seconds later.
A commercial for Nissan comes on. The heavy guy holds out his box of Mike and Ike candy to me. “Want some?”
The kindness in the man’s voice catches me off-guard, and for a moment I’m overwhelmed with desperate gratitude. But I swallow and quickly gain back my composure. “That’s okay,” I say, “but thanks.”
The man puts a couple of pieces of candy in his mouth, chews, and swallows. “Jujubes are my favorite,” he says, “but they didn’t have any in the vending machine. This was the next best thing.”’
I nod, intrigued by his demeanor. He reminds me more of a man at a service center waiting for his car to get repaired than someone awaiting admittance into a methadone clinic.
The commercial ends. Family Feud resumes. The man watches it as he finishes his candy; then he throws the box into the wastebasket and turns to me. “So this is your first time?”
“First time?” I say, vaguely confused; though I then immediately realize what he’s talking about.
“On meth.” He considers me, as if in assessment. “Yeah, I bet this is your first time. You’re young. What are you? Eighteen? Nineteen?”
“Nineteen,” I say, looking away, feeling callow and even childish under the man’s scrutiny. “And, yeah, I mean, no, I’ve never been on meth before.”
The woman in the sunglasses jolts awake. She looks around furtively; she then folds her arms as though cold. A few seconds later her chin falls to her chest, and she nods off again.
The heavy guy watches her for a moment, as though curious to see if she’ll jerk awake again, and then turns back to me.
“How long have you had a habit?”
I hesitate, a little put off by his candid, even presumptuous inquiry; but then I say, “Almost two years.”
The man looks off, his eyebrows raised, as if in approval or admiration. “A good run.” He adjusts how he’s sitting; his arm brushes against mine. “So why’d you decide to go on meth?”
I shrug, thinking, Why does anyone go on meth? But I say, “I tried stopping on my own and couldn’t.”
The man nods, as though this was a satisfactory answer. He then extends his hand. “My name’s Mike.”
The formalness of this gesture seems incongruous to and even ridiculous in our surroundings, but I shake his hand. “I’m John.” His palm is slightly sticky, his grip firm.
“Nice to meet you, John. You from New York?”
I shake my head. “Jersey.”
“From the Bronx myself,” he says. “Though right now I’m living with my son out in Queens.”
The mentioning of his son makes me curious, but I’m hesitant to ask anything; instead, as the man takes a tissue from his pocket and blows his nose, I say, “So you’ve been on meth before?”
“Me?” His eyes widen and he points his thumb at his chest, as though the answer should be obvious. “Oh, yeah. This will be my fourth time.”
My eyes widen; I’m about to say, “Jesus”; but instead I just nod and do my best to assume a neutral expression.
“Let me think.” Mike looks at the floor, his lips pursed, as though trying to remember. “I first went on it back in ’84. Was on it for about a year, then got off, stayed clean a while, then went back on it in ’89 I think. That time I stayed on meth almost two years. Again I stayed clean for a while, but then I started fucking around again and went back on it in ’94; I remember because it was around the time that singer, that guy from that band Nirvana, died. Stayed on the stuff about two and a half years that time. Then I again stayed clean for a bit, but last year I got hooked again. And so now, here we are again, this will be numero four for me.” He blows his nose again and puts his tissue in his pocket.
I take this in and consider what I should say. Finally, I say, “Wow,” though mildly, more a statement than a surprised reaction.
But Mike says, “Wow, what?”
I’m not sure if he’s being facetious or is actually piqued; I hope it’s the former, and say, neutrally, “That’s a lot of times to be on methadone.”
Mike shrugs. “At least I got off it.” He speaks care-freely, as if his demeanor had never changed. But then he sighs solemnly and says, “But not anymore. This is it for me. I’m not getting off it this time because I know what will happen. I promised my son. For me, it’s better than the alternative, and I’m not exactly young anymore, like you are.”
The doctor comes in again. “Lipwitz, Rebecca.” She looks at the woman in the sunglasses.
The woman lies sprawled on her chair; her chin rests on her arm, her hand falls over the next chair. She doesn’t move.
The doctor rolls her eyes. “Lipwitz, Rebecca,” she says, more loudly.
Still, the woman doesn’t move.
The doctor sighs and walks over. “Lipwitz.” She snaps her fingers in front of the woman’s face.
The woman blinks and sits up slowly.
“Are you Rebecca Lipwitz, mam?”
The woman nods hesitantly. “Yes.” Her voice is soft, tremulous.
“It’s time for your physical, Ms. Lipwitz. Please come with me.”
Carefully, the woman stands. She removes her sunglasses. Her terrified eyes are a bright vibrant blue. The woman’s actually quite attractive. She puts her purse over her shoulder and her sunglasses back on; she then follows the doctor.
“I work for my son, you see,” Mike says, as though the exchange between Rebecca Lipwitz and the doctor never happened. “He’s got his own construction business. I’m very proud of him. He’s a great boy; his only trouble is having a junkie for a father.” Mike sighs grimly. “He caught me stealing a thousand bucks last month. That’s not the first time something like that’s happened, but still, I thought he was going to can me, that this was the final straw. Instead he simply said, ‘Dad, please just go back on methadone. You’re fine when you’re on that stuff. Even if you never get off it and you stay on it forever, it’s better than stealing money to get high.’” Mike exhales slowly. “I have a good son,” he says. “I really do.” He stares at the floor, but not in sadness- instead with something like incredulity.
“So,” he says, slightly more upbeat, “this is it for me. I’ll be a lifer, as they say.”
I nod, considering this. “Man,” I finally say, not sure what else to say.
He shrugs. “There are worse things.”
I’m about to say, “There are always worse things,” but don’t. I imagine having to go to a methadone clinic every day for the rest of my life; the thought depresses me, frightens me.
As if discerning what I’m thinking, Mike punches me lightly on the arm. “Hey, most people get off meth and stay off it for good. Most aren’t like me, okay?
His words aren’t completely reassuring; but his tone and gesture are welcome, and I’m thankful to him for that.
Mike resumes watching Family Feud. The room is again quiet except for the television. A few minutes later, the doctor enters.
“That’s me.” Mike stands up.
“It’s time for your physical, Mr. Connolly.”
He extends his hand once more. “Hang in there,” he says.
Again it feels awkward shaking hands in this place, but I do.
Mike then follows the doctor out of the room.
Family Feud finishes, and a new episode starts. I cross my arms. A little later a young black guy wearing baggy pants and a New York Knicks jacket walks in. He has a gold ring through his bottom lip. He sits down where Rebecca Lipwitz sat. His foot taps nervously.
I sit back and watch the TV.
I must have dozed off. I open my eyes. The doctor is looking at me.
“It’s time for your physical, Mr. Wendell.”
I stand. The guy with the gold ring in his lip watches the TV. His foot still taps the floor.
I follow the doctor down the hall. We pass the office of the man with the charcoal-colored hair. He still sits at his messy desk, writing. We then go into an examination room. The doctor tells me to sit on the bed.
“It says you last did heroin three hours ago,” she says, looking at a clipboard.
I feel abashed but try to appear indifferent. “Yeah.” I pretend to be interested in a Monet reprint on the wall.
“And you’ve been shooting it for almost two years.”
I nod and continue feigning engrossment with the painting.
The doctor exhales slowly, checks something off, and then puts down the clipboard. “Roll up your sleeve. I have to take your blood pressure.”
The blood pressure cuff is dark blue. As the doctor puts it on her fingers feel icy against my skin. The cuff squeezes my arm so tight it seems as if it’s going to cut off circulation, but then it releases.
The doctor writes on the clipboard. She doesn’t tell me my blood pressure. Then she opens a cabinet above the sink. “Was that man a friend of yours?” she says, as she takes out an alcohol pad.
“What man?” I say, although I realize whom she’s referring to.
She peels the wrapper off the pad. “The man I just gave a physical to,” she says. “Mike. I saw you shake his hand.”
I shrug, as though to suggest his being my friend is absurd. “I just met him in the waiting room.”
She exhales through her nose. She rubs the alcohol pad on my forearm. The alcohol is cold and moist. “He’s not in good shape,” she says. “Too many years of abuse.” She gives me a look which makes me avert my eyes, and then tosses the alcohol pad into a wastebasket and walks to the sink. “You do not want to end up that way.” She opens a cabinet and takes out a syringe. The sight of the needle, despite having injected myself with them countless times, makes me queasy, and as the doctor grips my arm, I turn my head away.
“What’s wrong?” she says, as though surprised or concerned or both.
I feel dumb saying it because I know the reaction it will elicit; but I say it anyway. “I hate needles.”
“You hate needles?” I can feel the doctor stare at me, probably amused. I glance at her; sure enough, she’s looking at me as though she thinks I’m joking around.
“A heroin addict who hates needles.” She laughs slightly. “Now I’ve seen everything.”
I shrug meekly and a bit defensively. “I just hate other people sticking them into me. I always shot stuff into my thigh, which didn’t bother me, or at least as long as I was the one doing it.”
“Well, I have to take some blood.” She appears bored by this topic, and again grips my arm. “Don’t worry. It will be over before you know it.
I turn my head and close my eyes. I feel the prick of the needle into my forearm. I breathe slowly, in and out, through my nose.
“There,” the doctor says. “All finished.”
I feel something sticky and soft on my forearm. I look down and see she’s taping a piece of cotton to my forearm with a band aid. Her fingers are still cold, but somewhat soothing now. When she finishes, she writes on her clipboard, looks at it, writes something else, and then says, “Go down the hall to room 223 for your first dose.”
I slide off the bed, but at the door I turn around. I feel like I’m obligated, compelled even, to say something about how I’m not going to turn out like Mike Connolly.
But the doctor looks up at me with impatience. “Did you need something else?”
Her tone is sardonic, her expression slightly annoyed. So I say nothing and instead go looking for room 223.