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Six professional women in their late twenties and early thirties want to meet interesting, available men for dinner at a local restaurant. Intrigue us by leaving your info at Berkeley Monthly Box 27335.

White Powder Blues

We sorted through replies together. Some focused exclusively on sex. Those went directly into the garbage bin. Others were filled with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Those joined the sexual ones. Most sounded like thoughtful, intriguing men: a doctor who lived on a sailboat he’d bought impulsively in the San Juan Islands, a high school business teacher, and a tech whiz who taught college computer classes before completing his bachelor’s degree. I chose the last one.

            The cliché of seeing someone across a crowded room, feeling an instant attraction, was how it all began. Stephen was tall and good-looking, with brown hair, a full but trim beard, and dark eyes. He carried himself with confidence and ease. I liked that.

            Looking back, I remember what one of the other women said that night, someone on the board of the Berkeley Psychic Institute: “There’s something dark there. He’s trouble.”

            I didn’t listen.

            The bio he sent mentioned cocaine. Maybe that should have been a warning too, but it was the early eighties. Who hadn’t done coke, at least casually?

            We started with dinner dates, plays, and movies. And sometimes cocaine at his house after. Stephen was in his early thirties, a year older than me, smart, charismatic, and had an easy conversational style, sprinkled with moments of quick humor. The kind of man you could introduce to your friends.

            At first, we’d cuddle and kiss. Kisses were sweet, leaving me wanting a little more, even though I’d always go home.

            After a couple of weeks, he made his move. When he started to undress me, I froze, backing away as I rebuttoned my blouse.

            “Is there a reason we can’t go forward?”

            “I’m just not sure,” I said. I’d come off a recent break-up and wasn’t in a hurry for this step.

            “I want a relationship with you,” Stephen said. “I’ll wait. But you have to tell me when you’re ready. I don’t want to keep guessing. Or let me know if you’ve decided I’m not what you’re looking for.”

            I agreed.

            Our nights became cocaine-fueled talks into the wee hours of the morning.  Eventually, I led him into the bedroom. The first time was mostly kissing and holding, slowly culminating into making love. Years later, I remember the bedroom as one of our best places together. Sessions were intense, heartfelt and, at the beginning of our relationship, influenced by a drug-induced euphoria.

            My life fell into two disparate categories: a responsible college counselor by day and a druggie during my free time, especially weekends. This was the second drug period in my life, although I’d never had a serious habit. When going out with someone who used, I took what was offered. Now, coke was always on the glass table in the living room, next to the razor blade for cutting and the rolled dollar bill for snorting.

            For me, the effects were subtle. It kept me awake and enhanced my senses. Colors were brighter. Touch was more intense, more intimate.                         Occasionally, I felt my heart racing a little, especially at the gym. But I didn’t feel out of control.

           I had a watch on Stephen though. His personality didn’t change, but he seemed to be consuming more. 

           One day he announced, “I think I have a problem with cocaine.” I was happy he recognized it. We set up an appointment with a drug counselor. The day we were to meet, Stephen bailed.

            “Work’s crazy. I can’t get away.”

            I went alone. After talking to the therapist, I realized my usage encouraged Stephen to continue. I quit, and never used anything again. I didn’t miss it.

           Stephen’s consumption, however, increased.

           One night something didn’t feel right to him. Maybe the coke wasn’t pure. “Call your dealer,” I said, since they’d been using together.

           “I haven’t had any reaction,” said his supplier. “Go to the hospital.”

By now, Stephen was gasping for air.

           I drove frantically, terrified I was going to lose him, pausing only briefly at the red light, long enough to see no other cars were coming, then speeding ahead. Barely inside the emergency room, a nurse grabbed him and threw him on a stretcher.

            “Has he been using anything?” she asked.

            I told the truth. I didn’t want him to die.

            It turned out he’d scared himself and was hyperventilating. That was all, although the nurse said he’d scared her too.

            While my feelings for him deepened, changes in his behavior were subtle but noticeable: occasional irritability, fatigue, sometimes difficulty focusing. But we were good together most of the time, especially when traveling: Mexico, England, Switzerland, Haiti.

           He continued working from home as an independent contractor for a firm in Ann Arbor. Eight months after we met, he arrived in New York to present a day long workshop to a high-level company needing assistance in choosing and installing computer systems.

            He called me after lunch.

            “How’s it going?” I asked.

            “Great,” he said.

            Hours later, Stephen called again. He’d returned to an empty conference room with a note on his podium:

            “We don’t know what’s going on, but you’re not making sense. You’d better go home.”

           It turns out, he told me, he’d free-based in the first class section of the airplane, all the way to New York.

           I was shocked, speechless, scared. Part of me knew he wasn’t doing well, but I hadn’t listened to my inner voice sensing desperation.

           He flew home and signed into a hospital drug program.

            Rehabilitation could have been the beginning to recovery. But it wasn’t. Instead, the erosion of his life and our relationship was in high gear, ready to crash. Stephen called his drug dealer from the hospital and met him in a basement doorway to buy his next fix. Two weeks into the month-long program, he signed himself out.

            “I get it. I can’t use. It’s not good for me.”

            His employment connections were gone, but another agency was happy to hire him. One morning I drove him to the airport for a meeting in London. He’d stayed up all night, hadn’t showered or slept, and wore rumpled clothes, looking like a street person. Making his way through customs at Gatwick Airport, someone beckoned Stephen from a side door. They strip-searched him, then tested a prescription sample from his vial. They didn’t see the tab of acid at the bottom, the one he’d forgotten he had.

            Another time, on a vacation together, we stayed at the Madison Hotel in Washington D.C. “The best hotel in the city,” according to our taxi driver. Before Stephen, I’d never stayed in luxury hotels. This one was lovely: spacious, an immense lobby, and my first exposure to heated towel racks, which I found delightful.   

            Heading together for the Smithsonian, we started yelling at each other in the middle of a busy street. The fight had started in Oakland. He didn’t like arriving early at airports, so we ended up running to our flight as they called our names over the loudspeaker. After that, the trip was chilly between us. I didn’t like being stressed or making things inconvenient for others, and I was still holding onto those feelings. Months later I found out it was a coke fight, as I later learned most of our fights were. He hid his usage well, but he became unreasonable, irrational when coming down from the drug’s effects. I ended this one with:

            “YOU ASSHOLE,” as I walked away.

           I entered the American Art Museum alone, unhappy, and too upset to focus on what I was seeing. I didn’t have enough money to stay in D.C. on my own. It was time to go home.

           While throwing things into my suitcase, sobbing over what had become of us and wondering how the hell I’d let this happen, he walked in the door.

           “I’m going home,” I said.

           “What can I do to make you stay?” he asked.

           “Treat me like you used to treat me. Like my lover. Like someone who cares about me. Stop being an asshole.”

           He paused. “I can do that,” he said. And he did. The switch went on. He returned to the man I loved. Just like that.

           Another day, he announced that his coworkers were being unreasonable and mean. I knew them. They were nice people. It didn’t make sense.

            Things heated up between us. There was a fight at my condominium, where we usually stayed. It was ugly. We were both yelling. Not listening. I was crying. He started to leave.

            “If you walk out that door, we’re finished,” I said.

            He faced me directly. “Don’t threaten me,” he said quietly. I wanted him to stay. I was pleading, on my knees in front of him, sobbing loudly.

Then came silence. He looked away for a moment and walked slowly back to the couch.

            I begged to see his therapist together. “He says I have to work on me first, before we come in as a couple.”

            “We go to him,” I said, “or we go to someone else. I’m not doing this anymore.”

            The next morning, he scheduled an appointment for both of us with his therapist.

            Several nights later, on the way to our session, the arguments began again. During our meeting, I told the therapist Stephen might be using, although I wasn’t sure. I’d refused to take care of him, to watch for clues. I wouldn’t live my life that way.

            Driving back to my house, he said, “I’m feeling good about us. I think we can make this work.”

            The next night, returning home after teaching a class, I was surprised he wasn’t there. I reached for the phone he kept at my apartment. It was gone. I knew instantly what that meant. I opened the closet to confirm: his clothes were missing.

           Using my bedroom telephone, I dialed his number. No answer. I drove in a daze. I wanted to talk it through now. I paused at that same red light, the one near the hospital, and drove through. When I reached Stephen’s apartment, I knocked quickly, but walked in without waiting.

           There was his dealer, on the couch next to him.

           I motioned Stephen into the bedroom. “Why?” I asked.

           “I thought you were turning me in to my therapist. Then he’d know I’m using.”

            Our conversation was short, civil, calm.

            “If you are, I’m gone,” I said. But he already knew. I’d said that since he’d left rehab.

            I turned and walked out the door.

            Several weeks later, I went on a date with a man I’d met through a newspaper ad. We had dinner and went to a movie.

            “Will you go out with me next week?” he asked.

            “Yes,” I said.

            I went home and cried. It was too soon, and I knew it. My connection to Stephen was strong. I loved him and missed him.

            When I woke up in the middle of the night, I called his number. If he was using, he’d pick up. That would strengthen my resolve to stay away.

            He answered. His voice was soft, low, labored, halting. “I miss you,” he said. “I know I’ve lost you. I’ve fucked up. But I’ve called the hospital. They’re taking me back on Monday.”

            I stopped to see him the next day, with my psychic friend Jade. She’d told me she could help him with his addiction struggles.

            We walked into his front room together.

           Stephen slumped in his reclining chair, surrounded by half-eaten packages of food, dirty dishes, and papers strewn all over the floor. He’d aged at least ten years. Those beautiful dark brown eyes were incapable of focusing. Matted, oily hair matched clothes that looked like he hadn’t changed in days. Barely capable of stringing coherent words together, he couldn’t stay still. His eyes and arms darted everywhere. This was the new him. The coke addict who’d lost control of his life, no longer the attractive, charismatic man I’d loved deeply. If I had come alone, I would have walked back out the door, leaving him with his demons.
           Jade, however, went to work.

           “His aura’s all tangled,” she said.

           “Keep your eyes open, Stephen.” He couldn’t.

           She tugged and pulled on invisible strings, untangling as best she could. He became calmer, was able to center on what was happening around him, was somewhat coherent again.

           I left when Jade did. My heart hurt to be in his presence. It was too much.

           He called the next day. “I’m not using,” he said. “Could I come stay with you until the hospital takes me?”

           I once cared too much about him to say no. And the love hadn’t completely disappeared.

           “Only if you come without drugs.” He agreed.

           I put him in my bed. I’d stay on the couch.

           “Come sleep with me,” he said.

           “No.”

           “Then I’ll go home. I won’t stay here if you don’t.”

           I didn’t want to. He wasn’t capable of anything sexual, but I had no interest in being close to him. I knew he shouldn’t drive. He’d be arrested or hurt himself and others. It was the one time I compromised myself. I felt ashamed, compelled to meet his demand, when my whole insides cried.

           But I crawled in next to him.

           He’d been mixing heroin with cocaine, so withdrawal was intense: alternately sweating and chilled, muscles spasming, trembling, thrashing.

           After less than an hour, I slipped back into the living room, then heard a loud crash. I raced to check on him. Passed out in the middle of two wooden platform planks, still breathing, his body was stuck between the broken boards and the floor.

           I left him there.

           The next day I drove him to the hospital. He took it seriously this time. I’d always told him I’d be there if he quit, so we tried again. The “good” was so good between us, the intimacy, our senses of adventure, intellectual curiosity, similar politics. In my past I’d run away at the sign of anything that didn’t feel good, a leftover from my abusive childhood. But I’d never let anyone as close to me as I’d let him. I made the decision to stay.

           “Let’s get married when I’m done here,” he said.

           “Let’s see where living without drugs takes you,” I said.

           His finances were a mess, so he accepted a high salaried job in Saudi Arabia. I stayed home and worked on his bills. He paid, but I negotiated with creditors.  

           After the Middle East, the job in Ann Arbor hired him back, in spite of his previous debacle with them. That’s how good he was, and how much they liked him.

           This time, he moved there. I took a sabbatical and went with him, writing my doctoral dissertation from the University of Michigan library. Our fights continued. Sometimes it was about something as simple as whose turn it was to shut off the light.

           We tried couples counseling, where I realized it was an ongoing power struggle between us, so I quit responding to his challenges. I didn’t need to prove my strength. The fighting stopped.

           But the question remained: what would happen when I returned to my tenured position in California?

           We settled on a six-month commitment to stay together, and then we’d decide. His job offered to send out my resume to see what work I could find within commute distance from him. But I’d be giving up financial security if I came back to Ann Arbor.

           I went home to the Bay Area for the new semester. He joined me for a while, but work needed him in Michigan. We continued long talks on the phone, usually daily. Then, with two more months left on our contract, a letter arrived from Stephen.

           “Life is going well for me now, except in one area: our relationship...You correctly sensed a ‘distancing’ in the last few phone calls. For me, there are two extremes in the relationship: ‘the good’ and ‘the bad.’ The good moments are usually great and I become very ‘high’ with what we have. The bad moments are not awful, but rather grate with my personal way of being…My bottom-line is that I am not happy…I’ve been trying like crazy to whip up a frenzy of ardor for the relationship, but I can’t.”

           His words hit my stomach like bricks. I hadn’t seen it coming. I was  angry, hurt, sad. I cried volumes.

           But my next response? Elation. A three-year weight lifted. No more decisions to make.

           I was free.

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