You watch a sad parent pack away his son’s clothes, digging through the wreckage. That’s when, maybe for the first time, I understand the depths of the disease my roommate and supposed friend has been living with. I could’ve done better.
Editor’s Note: The name of the author and all the names in this story have been changed.
I didn’t know Clark was a heroin addict when he moved in with me. I had only met him in person once before, actually. We had an online relationship—he added me on Facebook, and every month or so we’d send some dumb videos to each other. This is how you find roommates in the 21st century. I needed someone to split rent with, he didn’t want to live in his old apartment, and things fell together. Before I knew it, he’s unpacking several carloads of clothes, trinkets, decorations, and household miscellany into my living room. He has these awesome leather-bound suitcases, the sort of thing Humphrey Bogart would use on cross-continental train trips. The house is starting to look better with him living in it. He knows way more about how to make a house a home than I do.
THE FIRST MONTH
He might have had good taste in luggage, but Clark’s a man of peculiar habits. He plays these bizarre noise records, he’s got a weird fixation on wire hangers, he likes to walk around downtown recording overheard conversations with a handheld microphone. He begins a kind of Banksy-lite street-art campaign all over town. This is fine, it gives the house some character, but I’m realizing that Clark has different boundaries than I do when it comes to drug use. He tells me right to my face that he’d done “a bit of H” last week, and that it was just some stuff he had left over that he was trying to get rid of. He says heroin is lame, and it gets over-idealized in his perspective. I don’t know anyone who ever idealized heroin, which makes me feel somehow uncool. Clark says he had to ease out of the stuff, and he was now done for good. I don’t know how to talk about this stuff, so I smile and say, “Yeah I know that feeling.” I don’t. Not at all.
THE SECOND MONTH
Strange, clattering, vaguely musical noises start coming from Clark’s room at 4 AM, also lots of giggling. I haven’t really met any of Clark’s friends, but they’re all esoteric people. One guy, Jeremy, is missing most of his teeth and wears a business tie on top of a tank top. I also hardly ever see Clark during the day now—the only way I know he’s in his room is I sometimes hear a rough-sounding cough. There’s clearly something seriously wrong going on here, but I don’t want to think about it. I start to lock my bedroom door.
THE THIRD MONTH
I come into my living room one day to find that Clark has pinned dozens of old black-and-white photographs all over our living room. They’re portraits of stony-faced old people who were staring into the camera without the slightest hint of humor. I ask Clark where he found all these and he tells me he went dumpster diving earlier, and gestures to a stack of moldy old books. He also bought a big black mechanical box that he says is used to grow mushrooms. Once again, I don’t ask any questions. He and his friends have started to shout out these almost cult-like incantations (“BORG-BORG”) till 6 AM. Sometimes I’ll see them hanging with the crusties in the neighborhood. I think they all live in the big old abandoned mansion a couple blocks down the street. They’ll go inside, shoot up, and puke behind the big oak tree in the front yard.
THE FOURTH MONTH
I notice Clark isn’t looking healthy. He’s pale, his pupils are sunken, and he’s perpetually unwashed. He’s telling me the same stories over and over and over. I don’t exactly know what I’m obligated to do as his friend and roommate. I feel kind of bad. I shouldn’t have allowed this to happen. Friends don’t let friends hit rock bottom, right? I decide I’m gonna stage a mini-intervention. There’s really no good way to bring up someone’s heroin addiction to their face, so I guess I’m lucky, because Clark speaks first:
“Listen man, I’ve been pretty addicted to heroin.”
“I know.” Once again, I’m out of my depth.
“But I’m gonna get clean. I’m sorry for any stress I’ve caused you.”
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate you being so honest with me.”
We toast to better days.
THE FIFTH MONTH
Things have gotten better. I’ve been trying to spend more time around Clark. We’ve been eating together, studying together, going out together—I’m trying to be a buffer between him and the addiction. I’ve never been addicted to anything, so I don’t really know how it works, but he seems to be happier. Taking him to a Wu-Tang show is the least I could do. The house is slowly becoming a more livable environment.
THE SIXTH MONTH
Clark has started spending a lot of time with a kid named Evan. I say “kid” because he honestly looks like he could be 16 years old. He’s dirty, awkward around people, and oddly gentle. He seems like a total junkie, but not a violent one or anything. He sleeps over here more than I’d like. He’s been doing his best to establish a friendship with me, but he’s not exactly my type. Clark swears to me that he’s just trying to take care of him, to help the kid power through his addiction. He makes it clear that he’s “definitely not using again.” Right. A few weeks later, Clark’s questionable friends are passing through once more. They’ve developed a disconcerting habit of entering my house through the balcony. They’re all dressed in rags, and all brandishing string instruments. I’m not sure any of these kids have beds to go home to, and I slowly realize that my house is becoming a local destination for the young and derelict.
THE SEVENTH MONTH
I come home one day to find an old, scruffy dude who looks like an unemployed janitor sitting on my couch in a deep conversation with Clark. The first thing he asks me is if I have any weed on me. He doesn’t finish sentences, nor does he have much to say in the first place. I try to make conversation, but can’t, mostly because I keep thinking, Why is this man in my house? He leaves and Clark apologizes. I pretend it doesn’t bother me, all the strangers in my place. After all this time, am I still worried about being uptight or uncool?
Evan is practically living here now, and each time I see him he looks a little less healthy. He’s wearing the same thing every day. First he lost his phone, then he lost his glasses, then he lost his shoes. He swings by, knocks on my door looking for Clark, and when he’s not there the kid breaks down. I start locking my door again.
THE EIGHTH MONTH
It’s 2 AM and I hear footsteps and the tick-tack of canine paws on the hallway’s wooden floor. It’s Gerald, one of Clark’s more unpredictable friends, who has taken a liking to me over the past couple weeks. As usual, Clark is not expecting him.
I’m in my bed, in my boxers, next to my half-asleep girlfriend. I unlock my door and slip out into the living room.
“What’s going on Gerald?”
“I’m about to go to war, dude,” he says, brandishing a kitchen knife. Gerald is never all the way here, but I can tell that he’s feeling particularly unhinged tonight.
There are a number of ways you can react when an irrational dude is holding a weapon in your home. You could, for instance, scream, “HOLY SHIT GET OUT OF MY HOUSE.” But I don’t do that. I just smile and say, “I know that feeling.” I didn’t know that feeling.
Gerald, by the way, isn’t wearing a shirt, and he’s holding the knife horizontally, close to his chest. He starts walking towards me. I am not OK with this. I start to back away. Gerald sees this, stops, chuckles, and says, “Don’t worry man, I’m not gonna kill you.”
I get back in my bed with my barely-awake girlfriend, and try to explain exactly what was happening in my living room. She rolls over and yawns. “Why do you live here?” I don’t have a good answer to that question. At this moment I’m starting to realize that I don’t feel safe within my own home.
THE NINTH MONTH
Clark has invited some of his friends down for the weekend. One of these friends is an old gay dude named Ryan from Clark’s hometown. He seems normal enough, other than the fact that he hangs out with drug-addicted boys in their early 20s. I don’t even want to know what’s going to happen in my home, so I go downtown to catch a few shows. A few hours later, when I call Clark to have him pick me up, he’s in the middle of a screaming argument with the old gay dude. He tells me he’s locked the house from the inside and is climbing out of the balcony into his car. He says he’ll explain later.
So I’m sitting in the passenger seat, Clark is nearly in tears. Ryan’s a drug dealer, he’s HIV positive, and was walking around the house with an open wound, bleeding into our sink. This understandably made Clark feel a little anxious, and he asked Ryan to put on a band-aid or something. Ryan did not like that sort of rhetoric, and went berserk: “You think I’m a monster.” He trashed the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure he stole all of our silverware.
At this point I’m pretty used to incidents like these, but then something unexpected happens. At the stoplight right before our house, Clark looks at me and says, “I’m so sorry I make you put up with all this shit, dude.”
It’s probably the first time Clark has been honest with me since he moved in. I don’t really blame him—heroin addiction is responsible for a lot of lies. It’s literally in his blood. I slept at my girlfriend’s house that night, but I still felt comforted by his apology.
The last few weeks I spend living with Clark are actually really good. We’re laughing together, talking together, eating together, going out together. He’s still very addicted, but it doesn’t seem to be hovering over him as much as it used to. But then he disappears. He tells me he was going to go home for a weekend, and a few days later he tells me he wasn’t going to be coming back. Someone who loved him did what I should’ve done ages ago, before Ryan wrecked our kitchen, before Gerald pointed that kitchen knife at me, and checked him into rehab. A couple days later Clark’s dad is in the house packing his stuff up. As you might imagine it’s tremendously awkward being in the same room of a father who’s contemplating the severity of his son’s heroin problem. I feel like he’s wondering why I didn’t tell him anything. I wonder that too. It’s so easy to relax and tell yourself it’s not your problem, that people make their own choices and have to live with them. Then you watch a sad parent pack away his son’s clothes, digging through the wreckage. That’s when, maybe for the first time, I understand the depths of the disease my roommate and supposed friend has been living with. I could’ve done better.
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