Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
It happened after the summer I came off a prescription painkiller addiction. Everything scared me. I was afraid of night. Afraid of the neon light that shone beyond the village, beyond the rolling hills that stopped just before the heel of the Swiss Alps. Müller’s Shreineri blinked its eyes in the distance, purple narrow-necked stars crushed with morning silver, the same sign that used to give me comfort, knowing that someone, or something else, turned to the outcast night with questions. Most of all, I was afraid of my beating heart. The one inside my chest that pounded one-hundred and twenty-five beats a minute in the middle of the night. It’s never been this way! But as they say, once you’ve dabbled, the battle to quit continues for life. Drying up sucked. I’d been ruined for years by the excursion of trespassers but it didn’t end there. I sought information about my babies, the ones I’d given up. Those off-white rascals I developed an infinite affection for four years ago when I complained to my doctor of a backache. The night they were inaugurated into my system, they became part of my diet. I was indebted to them. My personality took on a different hue from those oval-shaped magicians that alleviated anxiety, filling my veins with a warmth I couldn’t obtain any longer from human arms. At first they lulled me off to sleep, then as time went on they kept me awake. As a graduate student, I needed time. There never seemed to be enough time to do research and write my thesis. Insomnia became not only tolerable, but pleasant. I’d spin and spin the hours away at my keyboard. My work improved, not because I suddenly saw the world in psychedelic snapshots. The drug allowed me to concentrate for long periods of time.
When I went online, I found that this painkiller was derived from the poppy plant. Having been three months clean, I made my way to the Indian grocer where they sold products in bulk. I read somewhere that if a person ate enough poppy seeds they would test positive for having drugs in their system. Far-flung as it seemed, I was desperate. I didn’t want to look suspicious, so I loaded my cart with ten bags of curry and a sack of Basmati rice. Then I found my prize hulking high up on a shelf above the rest: a large plastic bottle of poppy seeds. I bought a case because I wasn’t sure how much would be enough. And so it began, I ingested over a dozen spoonfuls of poppy seeds a day. I threw them in pancake batter, cereal and salads. Devoured them straight from the bottle. The effect wasn’t the subdued euphoria I used to feel, but there was definitely something there. All in all I found my fix. The problem was, I began to get fat. I flirted with the idea of using again. How easy it had been! In the past, I had it all figured out. I used to walk into a pharmacy on a Saturday and complain of excruciating back pain. I’d tell the pharmacist that my doctor prescribed ___ in the past and that if he’d just give me one bottle, I’d take two to help me sleep and call my doctor first thing on Monday morning. This always worked in the catholic cantons, but no pharmacist in the protestant ones would honor my request. I was given a lecture on the dangers of using prescription painkillers without a prescription. Maybe the catholic cantons trusted people? I wasn’t sure. But I was sure not to hit the same pharmacy twice, and since pharmacies reared their heads on almost every street corner in every village, it would be years (I calculated) before I’d run out of places to try. Then I’d start my search again, hoping I wouldn’t be recognized. Seeking out yet another doctor to prescribe the drug was out of the question. I’d need another x-ray, and x-rays were expensive.
I was hesitant to start again for two reasons. One, there was the guilt factor. Each time I’d walk out of the drugstore securing my stash, I’d feel guilty for lying. I’d deliberately try to strain my back for pain. Still. Those people in there were so goddamned sweet it began to wear on my conscience. And two, I almost overdosed. One fateful night I was in the emergency room with the feeling that somebody tied a plastic bag over my head. I kept track of how many milligrams I took, but the drug had been building up inside my system. I absorbed it like an industrial sponge and had a bad reaction. Reliving that moment when my body almost elapsed into respiratory failure was enough to quit. And just as I thought I had the prospect of starting again licked, I began to taste it. I craved those pills like chocolate cake. Two years ago, before my boyfriend left me, I’d taste them every time we fought. After all the Fuck Yous and all the slamming doors, I’d be stunned into placidity when two gulps of water collided with two gritty caplets. Forget poppy seeds. I was lonely and only moving closer to the roses.
Saturday had risen like a slap in the face and the bus was packed. I should have left my house earlier, but I hadn’t fallen asleep until four in the morning. I opted for public transportation over taking my car to the drugstore to create the illusion that somebody else was responsible for driving me to my old habit. I was nearer to my destination, not because we were gaining kilometers to town, but because the craving grew stronger. My heart was set on the upcoming high and I couldn’t turn back. In the seats in front of me, a teenaged girl argued with her mother. I knew the joy of not having daughters. I knew the pain. Truth was, I hated myself. The quickening pace of my thirst that defined panic sickened me: A mangy animal scrounging for drugs. Chipped raw by insomnia, red cowboy boots, a white T-shirt and blue jeans, I stood out like the American flag. I wondered how many dishonest people sat on that bus. Then I rationalized: I wasn’t that bad. After all, I wasn’t hurting anyone. Not like the housewife across the street who suffocated her two children last Christmas Eve. Or the racists in Geneva who beat up an immigrant from a third world country with a chainsaw in a McDonald’s. No, I was a good girl. It was my body, I could do what I wanted.
The bus suddenly took on the clean medicated scent of a pharmacy. As it rolled to town I practiced my spiel: Hello. Good day…No, wait. It wasn’t supposed to be a good day. I was in pain. I had forgotten my lines. It was getting late and my future tasted like the traffic we hit, putting us in a standstill. The stores were about to close, and I hadn’t even gone to the ATM. As the bus driver eyed me in his rearview mirror, I was convinced he read my mind. It was a conspiracy, this crawling at a snail’s pace. The pharmacy was a cough in the distance. I became nervous. If only I could turn back the hours and crack open the day. With everything closed on Sunday, it was now or another week. I couldn’t go six more days with poppy seeds. I didn’t want herbal teas. My loot loomed like a thunderstorm hovering in the distance, on the verge yet unable to extinguish a drought. I panicked now, and didn’t know what to make of myself reeling in this blue rotunda, the one we call Earth, swelling out of something troubled. I was not a happy ending. But neither was I a sob story. Not yet. I told the bus driver I was ill and exited the bus. I walked through narrow cobbled streets, past cafes where people laughed. Could one survive on laughter? I wouldn’t know. I wove through shoppers and cars until I reached my destination. The church bells chimed the closing hour as I crossed the threshold to the drugstore. I was safe. The pure scent enveloped me and my lungs filled with ecstasy. I was their last customer and I chanted in my head: Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Yes, I thought, as I hobbled to the woman smiling at the counter, my left hand supporting the small of my back, it was that easy. I launched right into it.
“Do you have ___? I was up all night with back pain and, ohhhh….”
“Do you have a prescription?” And I thought: Yes, four years ago I had a prescription. I became so enamored by those little gems I ate them like candy. Now I go around from pharmacy to pharmacy and lie through my teeth so I can support my shitty habit.
“I’m sorry,” she began, “but I cannot give you that without a prescription. We’re closing now. Is there anything else you need?” Yes, I thought, a gun.
“Please, I was up all night. My doctor gives me these because they help me sleep. Monday morning, I’ll see him.” There were advantages of being a foreigner, or so I was told. People here tended to think in America you can get anything, anytime you wanted and we Americans were used to that. Years ago a friend of mine told me that she’d gotten away with smoking pot in the public school parking lot because she was an American. I began to believe it as the druggist gave me a sympathetic look and disappeared into a back room. Then she emerged with the bottle.
“Just take two and drink a lot of water. Anything else?”
“Yes!” My enthusiasm startled her. She was tapping her foot and becoming impatient. I whispered, as if I suddenly had a sore throat, “Green tea.”
She placed the tea next to the bottle on the counter and rang it up. “Fifteen fifty.”
I opened my backpack, rummaged through papers and books, reached for my wallet, which felt extra light, and then I was smacked with the realization that I hadn’t gone to the bank. In all my manic fury to get to the store on time, I skipped the bank. All I had was an American Express card and they took only Visa.
“I, I—” I couldn’t believe it. She watched me go through my backpack again. My arms and shoulders were beginning to itch.
“I don’t have any money,” I said. And I thought: Don’t look at me like that. Give me a long lecture about the dangers of drug use until the cows come home. Please say you trust me, that you know I’ll be back Monday with the money. Just don’t say No.
“I’m sorry,” she said firmly, “if the pain is that bad, you might want to try the hospital.” And in her haste to close up, she disappeared behind a curtain. I stood frozen for a moment, and as I turned to go, I noticed that the bottle sat next to the tea on the counter. I wasn’t a thief. I never stole anything in my life, save a block of Bazooka bubble gum at a 7-Eleven when I was four, and I wasn’t about to start. Because I’d pay her. I’d run to the bank and come back after dark and slip the money in the store’s postbox.
The clock struck the quarter hour. As I sat on the bus, things began to happen. I leaned my head against the window and began to dream. There was a baby, dead, at the bottom of a swimming pool. I rescued it and blew air into its blue lungs. It sprang to life and I put her in a warm crib, where she sang in her own dry bed nursing water. There was so much to look forward to, her need for me grew. Then suddenly collapsed into the absence which I woke to.