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To Die For

Illustration by Jordin Isip

It is the early 1980s, and I am still new in America, having escaped my teenage marriage to a gay street hustler in Vienna. But I have already managed to get myself strung out on crystal meth and heroin. I have to have both drugs, or I can’t function at all. It has now become a full-time job to score.

One of my speed dealers, Bruce, lives on Benton Way, in a dilapidated house that is supposed to be a sober-living home. At least 30 people live here, in makeshift tents and behind blankets strung up to provide some privacy. It stinks of piss and dirty socks and spoiled cat food. I have actually watched one of the inhabitants eat out of a cat-food can.

Everybody seems very old. At least 30. Everybody scams all day for drugs, for cigarettes, for money and food. I love that I look so good compared to these freaks. Bruce’s wife, Fifi, is grotesquely obese, despite her little habit of shooting speed in her feet all day long. Her ankles, at this point, resemble purple tree stumps. “I used to be a bikini dancer,” she whines to me every time I stop by. “Sure you were, honey,” I say. We have the same conversation over and over. I know my lines.

Bruce makes Fifi leave their corner whenever I show up. Given the amount of speed he consumes, I imagine his penis must have shrunk to the size of a doorbell; still, he has developed a serious crush on me. Part of the deal is that I shoot up and hang out a little bit, just to be nice. As an addict, it’s part of the job description: hanging out with people you wouldn’t be caught dead with if you didn’t need what they were selling to make it through the day — or the next five minutes. The problem is that Bruce has gotten so interested in me that I might have to start buying from the other weirdoes in the house, like “face-pick” Jimmy and his sister, Doe, a skeletal woman who’s either 29 or 90 — there’s just no way to tell. Speed has leeched her of everything but cheekbones, skin and eyes, like a demented Keene painting.

One Friday evening, I arrive at the house to find Bruce on the sidewalk, twitching and pacing, having a vertical seizure, if there is such a thing. “Gimme a ride, gimme a ride!” he chatters at me. His breath reminds me of the time a rat died under my sink. “I gotta pick up some awesome product. It’ll scald your brain!” He looks more fucked up than usual: sunken eyes, feathery spit-flecks stuck to the corner of his mouth.

Once in the car, I realize that his body odor is even worse than his breath. I roll down all the windows, but it doesn’t help. Even worse, he is so wasted he doesn’t know where he is going. “Bruce, how long have you been up this time?” I ask him. I know that he prides himself on staying awake for days, sometimes weeks at a time.

“16 — no, 17 days,” he sputters proudly. “But I’m losing it . . . keep seeing these giant ants. Goddamn it, Monah, turn here, you stupid bitch.” We are on Rampart, turning into a tiny, barely lit street called Dillon.

“Hey!” he says, suddenly swinging his ferretlike head in my direction. “Let’s get a motel room after we cop! You and me, we’ve had it coming for a long time. I see how you look at me. You want me, don’t you?” Before I can think of a response, he blathers on.

“I’ll pay for the room, baby, I’ll take care of you. Look! Look at all my cash!” He reaches into one pocket, then into his other pocket, into both his boots, then again his front pocket. Each time he comes up empty-handed, he looks at me. He pats himself frantically, like a man putting out a fire. “You whore, you fucking, low-life witch! You stole my money! Fourteen-hundred-and-twenty-three bucks. You fucking took it, didn’t you?”

I manage to stay calm and keep driving. “How the fuck could I have stolen your cash?” I ask him. “You just got into the car. I haven’t even been close enough to touch you.”

“You’re a witch!” he shrieks, his voice so high he sounds like an old woman. “You’re a witch, everybody says so. You can steal by thinking about it. You took it with your thoughts, you voodoo whore! You used your fucking brainwaves, I can feel it! Bitch, give me back my money, or I’ll kill you.”

 

If I didn’t need the speed, I would laugh in his face. “Listen, man, I don’t have your money,” I say. “But I’m gonna be nice. I’ll drive you back and you can check the house. You probably left it in a drawer.”

I don’t know if he can even hear me — his eyes keep rolling back. He sinks down in his seat, and I figure he’s played out for a while. But I when I turn down another dark street, he lurches across the seat and grabs my neck. The car swerves crazily. I try to hold on to the steering wheel while he yanks my hair. I manage to drive the car back to the curb without hitting anything and screech to a stop.

“Let go of me, you asshole!” I stick my face into his when I yell and he backs off. I can hear the freeway close by, but the street we’re on now is deserted. I’m scared, but not of him — what scares me is that I might not get my drugs.

By now, Bruce is foaming at the mouth. Literally. “I’ll kill you,” he says, spraying my face, “even if you do give me my money back. You hear me? I loved you and you ripped me off. You’re going to die!” Now he squeezes my throat again. I can barely move. “Fuck you!” I manage to scream, taking a swipe at him. My rhinestone ring jabs him under his eye. He loosens his grip for a second, and I twist around and kick him between the legs. I worry that he likes it. But he cries out in pain, and I slip out from his hands.

“Are you gonna behave now, asshole?” I wanna kick him out and step on him, but I haven’t given up hope of scoring some extra-good shit tonight. I give him another chance.

“What’s it gonna be, Bruce baby? Answer, or get out!”

“Okay,” he mumbles, like a sullen child, and off we go again. He stares down at his rotting tennis shoes.

Back on Benton Way, the first thing I see when I pull up to the house is a fat wad of cash in the gutter. “Look!” I yell. “There’s your fucking money, you retard. Get the fuck out and pick it up. And never ask me for a ride again!” I expect Bruce to jump out to grab the money. Amazingly, he stays stuck to his seat and stares at me. “You still took it. I know you did. You put it back with your brain-rays ’cause you got scared.”

“Listen,” I say. “Just pick up your money and let’s fucking go! Open the door, pick up the cash, get in again, close the door and let’s get rolling.” He won’t move. I reach over him, careful not to touch his skin or clothes, and open the car door. Finally, like some kind of stroke victim, he drags one leg, then the other out of my car. It takes him forever. As he bends forward, I hear a metallic clunk on the asphalt and see the gun, a cheap-looking thing that looks made of tin. It’s dropped out of his coat pocket and bounced under my car.

Fuck that. Without thinking, I step on the gas and peel out of there. In the rear-view mirror I watch him fall on his face, flailing for his piece. My knees shake, and I have to stop around the next corner. My heart’s beating so loudly I can hear it in my head, and I squeeze my temples with both hands. It hits me, out of nowhere: Not having to do all this shit would not be such a bad idea. But I know that if I stop taking speed now, I’ll be tired for the rest of my life. I’ll end up looking like that fat girl who sat beside me at my first, and last, N.A. meeting. This girl was twice as big as Mama Cass, but beautiful. Breathtaking, even. I’m not ready to be that “but you have such a pretty face” girl. It is not an option. I’ll stay fucked up and keep my figure. I just hope to hell I can score from somebody else at the house tomorrow — without running into Bruce.

On my way to the non-recovery house the next day, I sense something bad. But I’m a speed freak — I always sense something bad. When I get to Benton Way, the house is in an uproar. The police and paramedics have just left, along with the ambulance. Everybody is talking at once, and everybody is so freaked it takes a few minutes before I can find out what happened.

 

At last, Doe, the soulful skeleton, gives me an update. “This new girl, Miranda, came over to get some product from Bruce. They got into an argument — she said he was selling her baking soda — and then, boom! He shot her. Just like that. She flew straight across the room, like that girl in The Exorcist.” She hops back and forth in little circles as she talks. I have to fight to keep from hitting her to make her stop.

“I knew that would happen someday,” she goes on. “He quit the skag and hasn’t been the same since. At least on heroin, you’re relaxed, you know? Fucking crank makes everybody crazy.” I agree, profoundly, and leave immediately to get some more.

Monah Li is a designer and writer in Los Angeles. This story is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, Bent Vienna.

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