Nice Girls Don’t Use Needles

How a junkie saved my life when I didn’t think it was worth saving

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Courtesy of Philipp von Ostau — WikiCommons

George was always very clear: the only thing that made him feel right was heroin. When I met him, he was just out of the penitentiary after doing seven years of a nine-year bit for trafficking heroin. He was quiet. Solid. Steady. He wasn’t like what I thought a junkie would be. He liked to read and still had good friends from back in the day.

One of those friends was my future ex-husband who invited him to live with us in the massive old four bedroom heap we were renting on the west side of Cleveland. George would get up at 4:30 every morning to go down to the union hall and wait to see if any of the drivers would pick him to go out as an assistant on the beer trucks (if you’ve read this story; that’s where it comes from).

I’d been with my husband for twelve years, convinced that no one else would ever love me. Every so often he’d give a good pop in the face, but would always apologize and point out that if I hadn’t said that, looked at him that way, done that, he wouldn’t have hit me. I’d apologize, too, and would try to do better. My entire sense of self worth was based on how that man saw me. But twelve years in, I looked around and saw another way to go: with George.

I upgraded and didn’t look back. We left together and moved to a fourth floor walk up above the laundromat by the freeway. It was filled with cockroaches and the plumbing was probably from the 1950’s. When you’d hear the pressure change in the shower it was time to move fast or get scalded or frozen. You could never tell which. Our new landlord left a haunch of goat in a bag by the front door to welcome us when we moved in.

To George, I was a nice girl

I was not an upgrade for George. Not when I stole his dope. Not when I stole his friends’ dope and let him take the blame. Not when I got busted for trying to shoplift diluted vodka from the grocery store so he had to do the shopping. Not when I panhandled and cheated and shook and puked and couldn’t find work. Through it all, he got up early every morning to go drive truck. On pay day, he’d give me something towards one bill and we’d go for groceries. The rest went for heroin and whatever pills he could find for me. He wasn’t even being ironic when he’d say that nice girls don’t use needles. He meant it. To George, I was a nice girl.

This man never drank before he met me. Six months with me and he was steadily replacing heroin with Valium and cheap white wine. That said, he’d still wonder why I didn’t stick with the dope. The booze was killing me.

Once he got up at the open mic at the coffee shop and, in his steady, easy way, spoke about why poetry was important for a man “with rough features, a man who worked with his hands”. We were stunned.

He’d get bad dope from time to time. Once I found him passed out with yellow foam coming out of his mouth. For about a month after that he acted as if he had Alzheimer’s. We’d go to cop and he’d drive in circles, not able to remember how to get onto I-90. At work, he drove the forks of an industrial forklift through the garage doors. His co-workers covered the holes with safety posters.

Every so often he’d overdose and I’d have to get him up on his feet, keep him moving, yelling and slapping him. Once I dumped a pitcher of ice cold water on him. Through it all, he kept a roof over our heads. He never hit me. He never put me down.

Abstaining from using heroin and then rewarding himself…with heroin.

In December of ’92, he’d been abstaining from using heroin to save money but got such a great deal on some white synthetic heroin that he had to get a couple of bags. This is the kind of dope that kills junkies, even those without compromised tolerance levels as George’s was by this point. All the other junkies want to know what the name of that shit is so they can get it. Good shit.

I was doing dishes and he was right beside me at the kitchen table. I was grumpy, sure we’d wind up with the phone shut off again because he’d spent the money on this dope.

He did a bag in one go and hit the floor like a dead man. There was no way I could get him on his feet. I rolled him over, slapping his face. Nothing. His eyes were rolled up into his head and he was turning blue. Really blue.

I hid my baggie of Darvocet and called 911. It was as if the damned ambulance was next door, they were there that fast. The police came, too, and took George’s shaving kit of needles and works. They wouldn’t tell me if they were going to arrest him and wouldn’t give me a ride to the hospital.

He lived. That time.

That did it for me; I got help. I didn’t want to do it, but I went into a detox. Something had to change. For the first time since I’d left high school and rural Ohio, I did as I was told. I didn’t debate or question anything. I was offered help and I accepted it. I just went along with the program.

I left after seven days in that detox and went back to George. For the first year that I was sober and spending all my income at the dentist to replace my rotted front teeth, George paid the rent and the bills. And slept on the couch.

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My apartment was the top one all the way at the back of The Kensington

Just before my first sober anniversary, I got my first ever all my own apartment. I made every mistake in the book without actually picking up a drink or a drug. I got fired from my first sober job after a year and a half because I could not manage to clock in at 6am every day. I thought the rules should be different for me. They’re not.

I dated a 23 year old who’d been sober 8 months longer than I had (I was nearly 36).

I fell in love with another angry man and let him move in with me, sure all over again that if this one didn’t work, no one would ever love me. I got a job selling Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe posters from a kiosk in the Terminal Tower downtown and realized that unless I got to college, I’d be stuck in this kind of dead end work for the rest of my life. When I got my acceptance letter from Cleveland State University, my angry boyfriend shrugged: CSU has open admissions; they accept everyone. A lot of “The Black Pigeon” can be traced to those days.

But friends were happy for me. It turned out that I’m actually smart and a great student. I was like a sponge soaking it all up. Unlike high school, in college it is ok to be openly smart and I tore through the first year with a solid 4.00 GPA. I moved on from that angry guy.

George would occasionally call, drunk. Because I’d signed his tax papers as his common law wife, we had to get a divorce even though we’d never married. The day of the divorce, he didn’t show up. I marched to the payphone in the vast, echoing marble of the courthouse downtown and called him. He came to and answered the phone. I was furious and everyone up and down that hallway heard every word. He was there in twenty minutes, rumpled and apologetic. After the proceedings, I had calmed down and we went to eat. I’m so grateful that I got to thank him for putting up with me through the worst of it. When I told him about how it had been me who stole those Demerol that he got blamed for, he smiled and shrugged. He knew it had been me (and, if you’ve read the below story, you do, too).

Still, there was another time that he came by my place, high and wrecked. I ignored the knocking at my door and waited for him to leave. There was a brown envelope stuffed with some of my old drawings that he’d returned. I think I called to tell him not to come over when he was high. That was the last time we spoke. I wish I’d been kinder.

It was about six months later when George overdosed and died. He died in that kitchen where he’d overdosed next to me. The woman with him that day was at the other end of the apartment and didn’t get to him in time. The funeral was surreal. There he was laid out in an open casket, looking like he was asleep. His sister, in from Detroit, put her hand on his chest and remarked that this was better than the penitentiary again. I gritted my teeth and said nothing.

When I was accepted into Columbia University and was preparing to leave Cleveland, I went to the Justice Center downtown and stood by the giant pile of public art that George had been part of creating back when he was a steel hauler and brought sections of it in from the foundry. He’d been cremated, so this was all I had by way of a memorial. It was a sleety, angry day by the lake and I leaned against the round steel and thanked him.

When I was an unlovable, dirty, feral thing who would steal your bus fare, George loved me. He took care of me as best he could. He accepted me as I was.

I live in New York City now. I walk with my head up. I live with integrity. I’m an anarchist on the dance floor. I laugh too loudly and I cry easily. I pay my bills on time or early. My heart remains open and naïve. I have extraordinary friends and I’m a great friend in return. People can count on me. I’m in love with an extraordinary artist who can’t believe his luck when he looks at me. We create art together. I’ve had my stories published in literary reviews from Oregon to Lebanon to New Zealand and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011.

I owe George more than can ever, ever be repaid. I like to think he knows how well I’m doing and that it’s because of him that I survived to get to this place.

© Remington Write 2019. All Rights Reserved

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Writing because I can’t not write. Twitter: @RemingtonWrite or Email me at:

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