BY KATE AXELROD
When I got there, Rob and his law school friends were sitting around the living room playing cards. The TV was on but silent, and some miniature image of The Simpsons was floating around the royal blue screen. Homer was holding Maggie—his arms outstretched—and he had a look of frenzied panic in his eyes. Rob and his friends were playing a game I didn't understand, it seemed that maybe they were making up the rules as they went along. The coffee table was littered with pistachio nuts, and a clamshell that looked like a Japanese folding fan, sat in the center. One of Rob’s friends rested a half-smoked joint in its lap.
Will you scratch me? Rob asked. We took painkillers and we're all so itchy.
He was always the same when he was high; distant but receptive to my affection. I kissed the side of his face, bristly and tan, and he smiled, a dazed kind of grin.
Later, when we got into bed, Rob was too high to have sex and asked if I could scratch his back some more. He took off his shirt and rolled over onto his stomach. I pressed my lips to his shoulder blades; I loved the way they were so pronounced. This was the most relaxing way to be with him: I was propped up on my side and Rob was basically asleep, his face pressed drowsily into the pillow. He was there, he was mine, and yet I was under no scrutiny at all. He couldn't read anything into my words or that wounded look on my face. I could mouth I love you into his back and he'd never know. So I did that and then I dug my tiny, manicured nails into his beauty-marked skin.
Earlier that day, at work, I'd gone with a patient to a methadone maintenance program in the East Village. Betsy was a middle-aged woman who looked elderly, with spiky silver hair and a wooden cane, the shaft covered in black and yellow Batman themed Band-Aids. She had been in a court-mandated inpatient program, raging war against her heroin addiction. And then I brought her to this clinic, where she would come every morning, take a little sip of methadone and try to get on with her day. The tiles were the color of vomit, the sting of antiseptic hung in the air.
Betsy had seemed so tired, but then she saw someone she knew, an older black guy, and she raised her cane in excitement. She lifted it up beneath her armpit so that she could hug him.
Jimmy! Anna, this is my old guy, Jimmy!
Then she went up to the Plexiglas window and got her little shot glass of methadone. It looked like cough syrup—thick and orange. When she swallowed, I imagined it migrating up into her brain, drenching those sad and wild neurotransmitters, drowning them until at last they were quiet and still, at ease.
I wondered what Betsy would think of me then, in bed with Rob who would barely call me his girlfriend, who wore cable knit sweaters, who had the most striking green eyes, and who would mostly only let me touch him in public when he was high and itchy from Oxy. Would she be envious or disdainful? Would she think I was full of shit or just an idiot? I had wanted Rob for so many years that it had become impossible to remember why. Maybe I loved him, but suddenly I really, really didn’t like him. He was passed out and I kept on scratching his back, rough and red, until the skin broke open, just the tiniest bit.