Sex, drugs, rock & roll. Tension, drama, lessons.
“Get the fuck out of my face,” Austin groans, his awful smelling breath escaping out into our two-person tent.
Heroin withdrawals are a bitch, and Austin has either been asleep, vomiting, or tripping on acid for the last three consecutive days. I had never had a guy my age say something that rude and threatening to me before this stupid, awful trip, but by this point I’m used to him being like this.
“Get the fuck out of my tent,” I retorted.
He flipped over to face me, much faster than I’d seen him move since before we got on the road to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, and raised his hand like he was about to hit me. I braced myself, pulling my arms up above my face in a defensive boxing posture. Right before Austin took a swing, his friend Gage poked his head in and suggested that we both come outside and cool off. I crawled out of the not entirely opaque tent into the direct morning sunlight, and when Austin groaned again I knew that he wasn’t getting up anytime soon. Gage went in and I could hear him giving Austin a lecture about how he can’t hit me and that he should be grateful I’m still being nice to him when he’s been such an asshole.
Austin and I had begun hanging out during the summer after my freshman year of college when I left my new home in the East Village for my old one in Williamstown, West Virginia. We had been hooking up and smoking weed while I tried and failed to get a part-time job in my hometown. All the signs of heroin addiction were there: he was always abnormally tired, often dozing off mid-sentence, and I had known he was at least dealing pot. Even my rotten ex-boyfriend, Daniel, had warned me to stay away from him when we had hung out a couple of weeks before I made the idiotic decision to take a road trip to a music festival with the son of a bitch. But I wrote off Austin’s excessive exhaustion with his readied excuses of being tired from working a construction job (which I later learned did not actually exist) and my apprehension about him dealing I attributed to some of my own elitism. I was getting a fancy education at NYU, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and Austin had dropped out of our high school three months before graduation. We lived in different worlds, so who was I to judge someone in the “working class” for being too tired? In our history there was safety, our past in each other’s peripheries made him trustworthy in a most basic way. I had known him since we were ten, and he had defended me and my brothers from the bullies at school many years ago, so in my mind he had to be a good person. These were the stories I told myself in the face of the now obvious reality that Austin was fully addicted to heroin and was lying his ass off about almost everything throughout our two-month long, casual relationship. His beautiful, almost navy-blue eyes and lithe but muscular body didn’t hurt either.
Austin took me to a party where I first met Gage. Gage was 26 and looked pretty clean-cut aesthetically: he had close-cut blonde hair and aquamarine eyes set in his pinkish, round baby face. He wore polo shirts and shorts like a lot of the more affluent guys in our region, but I knew he was a dealer too. At first I was apprehensive, but then his girlfriend and baby momma Skye came out of her room and into the party. Skye and I had been friends in elementary school, and also when I had transferred to a different high school for a year, so I added our past friendship to my growing list of justifications that the whole crew—Austin, Gage, and Skye—consisted of safe people for me to be socializing with. Skye and I, at least, went way back. At that party I did my first dab, watching Gage light up a blowtorch and press a small metal implement into some golden wax. After some coaxing, and recollecting that I had watched Daniel dab dozens of times without consequence, I took one hit and coughed up my burning lungs. Time became wonky. Something was wrong in my head, and then Austin asked to borrow my car. I had a really nice car. My parents would kill me if they knew I let someone else drive that car, especially if that someone was stoned, but Austin explained that there was an emergency he needed my car for (read: could not use either of Gage’s cars), and I reluctantly handed over the keys. I called him four times while he and Gage went over to a friend’s house. They made a lot of excuses; the friend was about to commit suicide, allegedly, but the story seemed to be ever-shifting and I’ll never know what was really going on during the hour or so that they and my 2013 red Mercedes Benz C300 were gone because I wasn’t there. I was in Gage’s apartment with Skye, having a thousand dab-induced panic attacks on top of each other.
Whether it was at that party, or the next, I’m not sure, but at some point Austin, Gage, and Skye mentioned that they would be going to a music festival which they attended every summer called Bonnaroo. As Austin’s…I don’t know…unlabeled romantic and sexual partner…they invited me to come along with them. I checked out the lineup of bands and bought my four-hundred-dollar ticket. Some of the acts I was most excited about were Cage the Elephant, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, and Portugal the Man. I told my parents I was going to the festival with my old friend Skye and packed my dad’s green tent and a paisley print duffle bag. I drove my Mercedes to Gage’s house early in the morning, when the dew had not yet dried on the recently cut grass to get ready for the eight-hour drive to Manchester, Tennessee. When I got there I put my stuff in the back of Gage’s pick-up truck, which was hooked up to his camper, and went upstairs to Skye’s and his living room to wait until everybody else was ready. Skye’s cousin Erikah then joined our party. At a certain point, I heard some commotion from downstairs in the garage. I crept slowly down the stairs; Austin was coming up and brushed past me without talking. I went into the garage and asked Gage what was going on. He gave some vague response about how Austin was being a dick and kept loading up the truck and camper.
Eventually the five of us piled into the truck and pulled out of the gravel driveway. I spent the ride as I’ve spent every other long drive: not quite asleep with my eyes closed and my headphones in. Six hours later, we decided to pull into a truck stop in Kentucky for our first break. Austin had been asleep the whole ride (because the fight in the garage was actually because Gage caught Austin using, but I didn’t know that until later.) When we decided to pull off the road, Gage woke Austin up, and he was pissed. He lit up a cigarette, took two puffs, and dropped it onto my leg.
“What the hell?!” I yelled, as Austin’s body shifted and the loose, burning cigarette pressed into my thigh.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, before finally locating it and removing it from the new hole it had burnt into my jeans and the burned raw spot it had marked into my leg. The burn stung, but the fact that Austin didn’t seem to care at all was somehow more painful.
Gage parked the truck and trailer at a diesel gas pump and disappeared into the gas station shop with Austin. I stayed at the truck with Skye and Erikah, then stepped out to stretch my legs and lean up against the shiny blue finish. We heard yelling. Gage stormed out of the store, face red with anger.
“That shithead,” he said, “He’s got fucking heroin in my fucking car. I don’t have a license right now. If we got pulled over, we would be so fucked with that shit in the cab.”
I was bewildered. We had been driving for six hours and I had no idea that Gage, who said he owned a car dealership, didn’t have a license to be driving his own truck. I had been seeing Austin for almost two months, yet still hadn’t put two and two together about the heroin.
“I flushed most of it, but I left him enough so he can withdraw and not die.”
“What about the other shit we have in the camper?” Skye asked.
“What are you talking about?” I responded, starting to feel a slow panic creeping up my throat.
After some prodding, Skye and Erikah spilled the beans: in a backpack in the camper was a three-foot-tall bong, several sheets of wax, an ounce of pot, around a hundred and fifty unprescribed Xanax, a few dozen tabs of acid, and, possibly, a little bit of Erikah’s meth. Including whatever heroin Austin had left hiding in his sock, “we” were hauling approximately two hundred felonies worth of shit across several state lines, from West Virginia into Ohio, then into Kentucky, and onward into Tennessee, in a vehicle driven by a man who had no driver’s license because of his numerous DUI’s. In other words, a vehicle that would likely be searched if it got pulled over.
I went numb. There I was, at a truck stop in Kentucky, with what, at the time, seemed like an impossible choice. I had spent the majority of my savings on the ticket for this stupid music festival, which was, at this point, only a two-hour drive away. If I chickened out now, I would face the wrath of my parents for making a stupid decision to go with these now obviously untrustworthy people, in addition to their rage at having to drive six hours to come get me.
“Let me drive the truck,” I suggested.
“Nobody but me drives my truck,” Gage said.
With this declaration, we piled back in and got back on the road. Darkness crept into the sky, and I dissociated until our little caravan came upon traffic slowed down to a crawl about half a mile from the exit for the festival. I fell asleep, waking up again on a narrow country road lined with trees. Gage said he could see cops up ahead, searching all the cars. They had drug-sniffing dogs with them. Dread washed over me. I began running down a list of people who I knew were in the area, remembering that a couple friends of mine were staying in Nashville. Maybe they would post my bail. But even then, even if I somehow got out of each felony-level offense, the arrest could destroy my future and exist as a dark cloud over me for the rest of my life. I asked Gage if we could turn around and go home. I argued it wasn’t worth it for us to all go to jail just to get into a stupid concert. Skye agreed, noting that their infant daughter was at home with her grandparents. But the men in the vehicle insisted: everything would be fine.
So, I started to pray. I begged G-d, or anything out there that might listen, to get me out of this situation unscathed. I would never do anything this stupid again, I swore it. This was it. This was the end of my idiotic and impulsive decisions. Never again would I let myself be so blinded by an attractive man that I would endanger my entire future. If G-d got me out of this, I would never ask them for anything else, ever again.
The moment of truth arrived as we approached the entrance to the massive ranch where the music festival was held. The Manchester, Tennessee cop motioned for Gage to roll down the window and he obliged. My soul left my body. Time stood still. But the next thing I knew, we were driving around the row of tents the cops had set up to do searches from and through a back gated entrance. They didn’t even pop open the truck bed cover.
We drove around the wide and flat expanse of the festival campgrounds and finally found our campsite in the darkness amongst hundreds of larger, fancier RVs. Gage got busy setting up the camper where he, Skye, and Erikah would be staying. Austin grabbed a beer and went for a walk, and I set up the tent where we would sleep, alone. I was getting angry, but I was still pretty dissociated from the potential for life imprisonment. What Austin had promised as a cute and hot summer fling memory had devolved into a nightmare. Eventually Austin meandered back to our campsite and entered the tent, stole the inflatable sleeping pad I had brought so that my body wouldn’t ache from laying on the hard ground, and passed out with a can of beer in his hand.
The next morning, I dragged him out to the first concert I wanted to see, The Strumbellas. It was set up like every stage at this festival, in front of a cleared field filled with people experiencing varying levels of psychedelic inebriation. Austin complained the whole time that the band was lame and he was bored, until I finally told him I didn’t care if he wanted to leave and he just walked away. This was the best mood he would be in for the rest of the three days we were together, but I was already drained and miserable. After doing shrooms for the first time, which made me feel connected to the world in a truly magical way, and watching Tove Lo flash her boobs at the crowd, I crept back into my tent to cry. I didn’t know who to turn to, so I called my ex-boyfriend, Daniel.
I told him what had happened and how scared I was. He admonished me for not listening to him about Austin, but acknowledged that I had reasons to doubt his judgment. His fake exasperated voice can still ring clearly in my ears, as he had used it on several occasions during our lengthy relationship.
We talked about our relationship which spanned almost a decade: the first time we “dated” was as fourth graders, and the last time was in January of our senior year of high school. When I was at Bonnaroo, we stayed on the phone for eight hours, including throughout a performance of our favorite band when we were together, Portugal the Man. I had him on speakerphone when they played our song, Sea of Air, and we both cried during it. It was the first song Daniel had played me that he said reminded him of the ways we have known and cared for each other. By the end of the night he was coming to get me. He bought a ticket to the festival and was driving down to Tennessee. It felt so cosmic and I loved the drama; my old flame coming to rescue me from this horrible new suitor.
He arrived that same morning Austin had almost taken a swing at me in the tent, during the performance of one of my current favorite bands, The Front Bottoms. We ran across the field to meet each other like we were in a movie. I jumped into his arms and he swung me around, and when he kissed me it was like we were back in high school on his bed, surrounded by the light green walls and Beatles posters that had been our world for the three years we were together. Seeing him at Bonnaroo was surreal; he was the angel come to rescue me, finally becoming the person I always knew he was inside.
We watched the rest of the Front Bottoms show together, then The Head and the Heart in the hot sunlight. After dark, in the crazy neon lights, we saw Chance the Rapper, Cage the Elephant, and finally the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Daniel and I never stopped making physical contact the entire time. Holding hands, hugging, kissing. Switching glasses like we did the first time we had hung out as “boyfriend-girlfriend” at recess in the sixth grade. We sat on a blanket and he enveloped me, and it felt like the year I was at college and the six months after our breakup senior year of high school all happened in another reality. I had done another dose of shrooms, my last attempt at a good time to end the nightmare the festival had been, and he seemed to revel in my drug use: he had been the school stoner, and I had only smoked one time during our whole relationship. He said he was happy that I now seemed like I was having more fun and wasn’t so uptight. The only thing that felt different to me was his body, which had now filled out as he had become a man. When we left the Chili Peppers’ concert, he went to sleep in his car and I went back to my tent where Austin had been since the evening before. Daniel and I would leave together in the morning so I could pack my stuff up and give Gage some time to coax Austin out of the tent. Daniel and I kissed again, neither of us truly ready to part ways for the night. He put into words what I had been feeling all day: that we would always love each other, no matter what. Nothing could ever break the bond we had.
When I crawled back into the tent, Austin seemed pensive, likely due to exhaustion from withdrawals and the back to back acid trips he had been on. With the bass from the end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ off-key set pulsing into the ground at our campsite, he apologized for yelling at me. We talked for hours about addiction, about his plans for the future. He said he would probably be withdrawing for another three days once he got back to West Virginia, and that he planned to stick it out and get clean this time. I told him I believed in him, that he was strong and resilient and that he could overcome this. I told him I could connect him with someone I knew who had gotten clean and was kind of a mentor for drug abuse recovery. It seemed like things were going to be okay: I had survived the extremely risky drive here, I had survived the worst of Austin’s withdrawal rage, and Daniel was going to take me home in a car that did not contain drugs and we would spend the rest of the summer together and have some kind of renewed relationship. Maybe he would even move to New York, which had been our plan in high school before he broke up with me.
But when I called Daniel the next morning to find out where to meet him, he had already left without me. I went numb. When he said “I already headed out,” I just hung up the phone. I admonished myself. I was such an idiot. Of course Daniel would disappoint me again. Of course he was irresponsible. Of course he could not be trusted. He had demonstrated this a million times since the first time we “dated” in the fourth grade. I knew who he was and I let myself get caught up in another moment, rewriting history to make the people in it better.
I dragged Austin to a Travis Scott concert that night, but he just spent the whole time vomiting. I saw The Weeknd’s mournful set by myself. The next day, Gage, Skye, Erikah, and I packed up our campsite while Austin sat in his folding chair.
The eight-hour car ride home was silent.