H and Eli
Amsterdam, Early Spring 1974
On the day I met up with Gina at a brown café to deliver hashish to her, our whole transaction took place with her head never lifting from the bar, zoned out on heroin as she was.
“You okay?” Me.
“Yeah. Why?” Her. Slurry, slow, looking puzzled, as if conducting a drug deal with one’s head resting on a bar should make perfect sense to both of us.
After I left the café, her head still down, I promised myself I’d never try smack, not even for fun, like I’d done with speed. Those fifteen minutes with her became my inspiration for that.
Plus, there was Eli’s latest scheme, one he began to concoct soon after our arrival in Amsterdam, about three months ago—smuggling heroin into Switzerland and Germany.
A little coke, a little hash, mushrooms, acid, sure; by all means, let’s amuse ourselves. But smack?
If the stuff turned out to be bad, as it did often enough—or even if it was good but a high and greedy client decided to get higher still, hoping to reach Nirvana—the cops could shadow the trail from the dead body to our door. It would be as easy for them as following Hansel and Gretel’s trail of white pebbles.
For garden-variety dealers like us, handling heroin meant crossing a border into a dark and murky world, entering a new dimension filled with unknowns and sinister intent. Bad vibes. I remembered the needle of my speed-freak days slipping into my vein, the cold mixture flooding my blood, the rush that followed. But I imagined my blood burning like oil if I were to inject H instead.
“Eli, I don’t want to do that,” I said, when he brought it up for the umpteenth time. I looked at the floor instead of at him, my arms crossed just below my breasts, my index fingers picking at the cuticles of my thumbnails.
“Come on,” he insisted, his voice riding high with anxiety.
“You don’t have to take the stuff across. I will. Think of the money! A year or two and we won’t have to deal, or work, ever again,” he continued, whining now. It turned my stomach.
He ran his hand backward through his longish blond hair, licking his lips, his brows furrowed together, his tall and sinewy body a stretched-to-the-max rubber band.
I looked him in the eye and saw a man I didn’t recognize. Here was a guy who once objected to my shooting speed a few times for fun (okay, many times over a few months), eyes sparkly with dollar signs over selling heroin to people so they could shoot up. And maybe die.
“I don’t know. Don’t want to…” I trailed off, stubborn, tightening my arms against myself.
The words “I want to leave you” hung between us, teetering on the edge between the unspoken and spoken. His eyes narrowed and his body tensed even more.
“You mean. What do you mean? You don’t want us to be together anymore or you don’t want to deal anymore?”
There! He’d freed the words from their limbo. His voice sounded high-pitched and thin as if someone were squeezing his windpipe.
It’s harsh on the throat, saying things you hope are wrong, to get words out when a huge part of you wants them to remain unsaid. Especially when saying them changes everything.
I shrugged, taking my eyes back down to the floor, noticing the raggedness of the rug under my feet for the first time. It was worn down to thread in one spot near the middle. I hadn’t noticed until now.
“It’s Skyler, isn’t it? I see how you look at him. How he looks at you.”
Skyler was looking at me like that? My heart picked up a little speed.
“You been fuckin’ him?”
Did Skyler want to fuck me? I wondered. I hoped.
Eli’s voice rose, face darkening, brows coming together much closer, the corners of his mouth turned down. I noticed all this in stolen glances only because I mostly kept my eyes on the carpet. He clenched his fists—in slow motion, as though he were testing their flexibility. I stiffened and stepped back when he raised a hand in the air. Halfway to my face he reversed its direction, and ran it through his hair again instead.
Any slap he gave me would be the last time he ever saw me. He knew it, too. He knew my story.
I continued to stand, facing him, waiting on how the conversation would end. I ran my gaze forward along the carpet and up his body, grazing his face just enough to grasp his expression, then back down again, noticing more threadbare spots.
I wondered how I’d missed his greed, his anger, his apparent lack of ethics when it came to making money.
I saw myself as being much like Eli: a scrapper, a do-anything-to-subsist type who kept feelings out of the equation when it came to survival. But, I apparently did care if the twisting in my stomach at the thought of having anything to do with people dying, or losing their souls, was any indication.
It confused me.
Was I not just a coward for not doing what needed done to make money? To make it in the world I lived in? I’d have to think about that later. Right now, my gut was leading, compelling me to follow. No heroin in my world.
True, I’d seen, even while still in Toronto, how greed surpassed Eli’s goodness and good sense and put others in danger. I’d shoved it aside because of the more immediate peril we’d found ourselves in at the time—and our urgent need to flee.
I now understood that Eli’s deep hunger for money compelled him to do things that hurt him and, as a side effect, hurt me too.
“No, Eli. I’m not sleeping with Skyler,” I said, deflated. But I am ready to leave you for him screamed my brain and my heart, in agreement for once.
I stashed that thought in my mind’s attic, a place full of secrets I never shared and only ventured into now and again. Some escaped, though. Usually when they grew too big for that space, like my thoughts about leaving Eli who was fast becoming dangerous to be around, and hoping Skyler would take me in. These thoughts grew larger every day, like a pregnant woman’s belly. I wondered what they might give birth to.
I sensed Eli’s deep brown eyes on me, staring. Abruptly, he turned on his heels and headed to the kitchen, no doubt to his tea kettle, still his go-to-place when he didn’t know what else to do with himself.
The energy between us changed, as if a sharp breeze had ripped through our feelings for one another, dividing us forever.
I felt scared.
I felt elated.
I felt ready to give up the Eli Show.
But what if I turned my back on him, walked away right this minute and left it behind? What if Skyler didn’t want me? I knew almost no one else in Amsterdam. I’d have no place to go except back to Toronto or Montreal. And that meant prison for me.
Also, I couldn’t forget that besides the money Eli and I had together, I had none. We both had access to it, but would he let me take my share if I left him? Thoughts of having to return to my days of panhandling and scrounging for a place to sleep rattled me.
The tinkle of water filling the teakettle reached me, the tick-tick of the gas stove being lit, the kettle clanking onto the burner. Eli called out asking if I wanted tea.
“No.” After five seconds, rolling my eyes, I added, “Thanks!”
He said I’d be protected, not really involved, but karmically? I’d be involved. Sure, the money sounded good, but I sighed to myself and shook my head. No. Not that way. And look at the last time Eli had protected me.
Two days later, nearly the moment Eli left for Switzerland, I headed over to Skyler’s flat.