“Come over here. I want to show you something.”
John wore sunglasses, even though we were inside his house. They were dark and I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could see myself. I wore an army green dress that I bought in Paris. Paris had been a graduation present from my parents, and so was the money for the dress. It was a beautiful sexy dress, but a size too big. When I leaned forward to see what John wanted to show me, I saw my chest reflected back at me in the lens of his sunglasses.
“What is it?” We knelt before a plank in the wall of his parent’s storage closet. He pulled the plank out and revealed a secret cubbyhole, filled with pink insulation and cobwebs. He reached into the shadows and felt around. I imagined his fingers brushing against the fiberglass in the insulation, burning his fingertips and palms, while soft silky webs tore apart silently, breaking like whispers against his wrist.
“You like guns, right?” He smiled.
I didn’t know whether or not I liked guns. I enjoyed the idea of guns more than the reality of them. I had gone shooting once and found it be less like “Scarface” and more like meditation. I hadn’t guessed that I would have to focus so much on my breath, or that it would be so hard to hit the target.
But John smiled at me. He had the junky jaw, the dead giveaway that someone has relapsed. He had a scary mouth but I didn’t want to see it because I had known John sober, until then.
“I love guns,” I told him. And I smiled at him, which was like smiling at myself.
He pulled out a machine gun. It looked like what I’d seen in the movies, like what every mobster used. It was black and neat and it was the suitcase of guns. He handed it to me.
“This is what I use, what I give my men whey guard my crops.” His mouth flickered in and out of a smile. He was showing me something precious and secret and sacred, showing me what he used to defend himself and his livelihood.
It was heavier than it looked and cool. Without thinking, I pointed it at him. He shoved it down and away. He laughed.
“The first rule: you never point it at someone unless you plan on shooting them.”
I pointed the gun at the wall, which is cluttered with messy stacks of papers and books, old cardboard boxes filled with toys and clothes. John used to be a child, I thought, holding his machine gun and trembling a little and laughing along with him. I used to be a child, too.
“Have you ever shot anyone?” I pretended there was field of enemies in front of me, that John was a big heroin dealer again and I was his mistress, his partner in crime. Mentally, I replaced his Raiders jersey with a pinstripe suit and my sandals with expensive high-heeled shoes. I kept his sunglasses and my dress from Paris. I kept his shaved head and my deadlocks. I kept his jaw and gave myself arrogant lips.
“Once. He fucked with my girlfriend. I don’t know what happened to him.”
I didn’t want to see the expression on John’s face. I didn’t want to know if he was proud or upset or guilty. His voice sounded neutral; he was just telling me a story.
“I went back out,” he said then “I’m dealing again. And I went back to Humboldt and got my crops back in order. I’m leaving soon, to be closer to my business.”
I didn’t know what to say, which was nothing new. Whenever confronted with something I didn’t know how to handle, I smiled and pretended that nothing was wrong. John had killed someone, maybe, and he was dealing again and he was using again and I was in his parent’s storage room, pointing a machine gun at the remnants of his childhood. I turned around and handed him the gun.
“There are times when I want to use. You know, if I think about never doing heroin again, I start getting all panicky.” The words were clumsy in my mouth. I wanted to say the right thing, the thing that would let him know that I understood, that would prove to him I was his friend. I had just over a year sober and I was frightened of his gun and how I liked holding it, even though I could never imagine killing someone. I meant to say something sober, something wise, but I heard the question in my statement and he did, too.
John took the gun from me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“You know,” he said, “if you ever want to use, please give me a call. I would really like that.”
He gingerly placed the gun back into its hiding place, then covered the plank over the hole in the wall. He led me into the hallway, holding my hand, then locked the door behind us. I wondered about this hand holding, which was cool and smooth and soft and easy.
He checked to make sure the door was secure, turning the knob and banging against it. Then he turned back to me and lifted his sunglasses onto his forehead.
His eyes were wide and green and slightly bloodshot. A few weeks ago, we were friends. He showed me all of his photographs and we went to a baseball game together. He scalped my extra tickets and I bought him a hot dog. We took walks in the Berkeley hills with my dog and I played his songs on guitar. We met for coffee and he told me about rehab and about how badly he wanted to stay sober.
I told him about my parents in New York and about how bad it was for me when I was using. I told him about my good friend, Todd, who I had used with and fell in love with and how I watched him get sober and how he relapsed when I was in Paris and then killed himself a week after I moved to California. I told John about Todd, how maybe I could understand his death, maybe it could be okay,
if I could just save one other person, anyone at all.
I looked into John’s eyes and I saw someone the same age as Todd was when he died, 22. I looked at his jaw and saw the same junky jaw that we all had when we were using, or even thinking about using. It was a mean jaw and selfish jaw, the kind of jaw that would rob me blind if given half the chance. If he had his sunglasses on, I would’ve seen my own mouth in the same light, because I was thinking about a world with machine guns and white powder and bleached sunlight. I was thinking of a world where I would have no memory and no roots. I was thinking of a world where, when people died, it was like flies hitting the windshield of my car on the freeway.
I got into my car later that afternoon and I called other people in recovery. I cried to them, because I knew that I couldn’t see John again, because I’d never see Todd again, because I didn’t use heroin again, because I wouldn’t use heroin again. I cried because the only one I could save was myself, and I cried because my life was good. I had Iams mini-chunks and heartworm medicine and a tick collar for my dog. I had heat-activated shampoo and sensitive-skin soap and pink Daisy razor in my bathroom. I had six cans of warm diet soda on my counter and a box of fiber cereal in my cupboard and two microwave dinners in my freezer. I had memories of walking through Paris with coffee and my journal and I had a voicemail from my mother, who had called to say that she loved me.
Bobbi Arduini was raised in New City, New York. After hitchhiking across the country with her dog, Laughter, she earned her BA in Creative Writing at Hampshire College. Currently, she is working on an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s College of California. She has written a book review for MARY – Saint Mary’s on-line literary journal, where she is also the current Nonfiction editor. She and Laughter now live in the east bay.