Three years after my mother died I fell in love with a man who had electric blue hair. I’d gone to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend, seeking respite from the shambles my life had become. I had thought that by then I’d have recovered from the loss of my mother and also that the single act of her death would constitute the only loss. It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. I had recently separated from the husband I loved. My stepfather was no longer a father to me. I was alone in the world and acutely aware of that. I went to Portland for a break.
I'll call the man with electric blue hair Joe. I met him on his twenty-fourth birthday and drank sangria with him. In the morning he wanted to know if I’d like some heroin. He lived on a street called Mississippi, in North Portland. There was a whole gathering of people who’d rigged up apartments above what had been a thriving Rexall drugstore. Within days I lived there with him. In the beginning, for about a week, we smoked it. We made smooth pipes out of aluminum foil and sucked the smoke of burning black tar heroin up into them. "This is called chasing the dragon!" Joe said, and clapped his hands. The first time I smoked heroin it was a hot sunny day in July. I got down on my knees in front of Joe, where he sat on the couch. "More," I said, and laughed like a child. "More, more, more," I chanted. I had never cared much for drugs. I’d experimented with each kind once or twice, and drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. Heroin was different. I loved it. It was the first thing that worked. It took away every scrap of hurt that I had inside of me. When I think of heroin now, it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely. A person I know I must live without.
The first time they offered my mother morphine, she said no. "Morphine is what they give to dying people," she said. "Morphine means there's no hope."
We were in the hospital in Duluth. We could not get the pillows right. My mother cried in pain and frustration when the nurses came into the room. The doctor told her that she shouldn’t hold out any longer, that he had to give her morphine. He told her that she was actively dying. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed.
The nurses came one by one and gave her the morphine with a needle. Within a couple of weeks my mother was dead. In those weeks she couldn’t get enough of the drug. She wanted more morphine, more often. The nurses liked to give her as little as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. I held my closed book in my hand and watched him walk softly into the room in his padded white shoes. My mother asked him for more morphine. She asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his shoes and his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then. She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction, not down over the lush light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed.
I wanted it and I got it, and the more heroin we got, the stingier we became with it. Perhaps if we snorted it, we thought, we’d get higher on less. And then, of course, the needle. The hypodermic needle, I’d read, was the barrier that kept the masses from heroin. The opposite was true with me. I loved the clean smell of it, the tight clench around my arm, the stab of hurt, the dull badge of ache. It made me think of my mother. It made me think of her, and then that thought would go away into the loveliest bliss. A bliss I had not imagined.
There was a man named Santos whom we called when we wanted heroin. He would make us wait by the telephone for hours, and then he’d call and instruct us to meet him in the parking lot of a Safeway. I sat in the car while Joe took a short drive with Santos in his yellow pinto, and then Joe would calmly get back into the car with me and we’d go home. On some occasions we went to Santos' house. Once he sat in his front window with a shotgun across his lap. Once he clutched my thigh when Joe left the room and told me that if I came to see him alone he’d give me heroin free. Another time he held his baby daughter, just a month old. I looked at her and smiled and told Santos how beautiful she was, and inside of me I felt the presence of my real life. The woman who I actually was. The kind of woman who knows the beauty of a baby, who will have a baby, who once was a baby.
This is an excerpt. The entire essay can be found in The Best American Essays 2000, edited by Alan Lightman and Robert Atwan.