By Elsa Williams
It is the spoon I always hesitate before picking up. It’s mixed in with the rest of the mismatched flat wear in the drawer. But if I need a spoon for one of my daughters, something for applesauce or Ovaltine, I rummage a little longer to find a different one.
The spoon is Oyster Bay, a discontinued pattern popular in the 70s. It looks more or less indistinguishable from the rest of our old, scratched up flat wear. But for me, it has always had a double meaning. A wholesome meaning– cereal, ice cream, coffee – and a secret, forbidden meaning. Not just “drugs”, but heroin. Not just “doing” heroin, but injecting it.
The story starts with a different Oyster Bay spoon. Twenty four years ago, my friend Lila was holding up my roommate’s spoon and giving me a wicked grin.
I had invited Lila and a couple friends over for dinner. And I had asked her to please, please not say anything about drugs. I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of my apartment, or even drawing too much attention to myself. The rule in the flat was that everyone stayed out of each other’s business, but one of my roommates had taken it on himself to forbid me to have any of my junky friends in the house. He was sullen and mean and seemed a little unhinged, and if he decided to make a stink with the landlord, he probably could have gotten me kicked out. But I wasn’t going to ban Lila from my apartment.
Lila had been my closest friend and my lifeline at school, the one person who understood me. When I got back to school that fall and found her consumed by heroin, I felt lost and abandoned. I was trying to find a way for us to still be friends.
I hadn’t understood what a wide zone there was between “experimenting” and full-blown addiction. Lila was chipping, doing heroin without a physical dependency, but that didn’t mean it would have been easy for her to quit. She was in love with heroin; it was the only thing she wanted to talk about.
Lila and our two friends were sitting around the rickety kitchen table while I tried to figure out how to make garlic bread in a toaster oven. Almost everything in the kitchen belonged to one or the other of my roommates, and I hadn’t thought much about the spoons, until Lila picked one up, and announced, “What a marvelous spoon. The bowl is so large. Think of how much it could hold.” Then she put it back down on the table and, vamping it up, leaned down to check how flat the bowl sat.
I winced, and tried not to egg her on.
Twenty one years ago, I was painting a picture of that spoon.
Lila had dropped out of school, and I felt unmoored. Lila always seemed to know what to do, even if it was a terrible idea. I decided I would take the same painting class she had. I went to talk to the instructor to see if she would let a biochemistry major like me into her class. I always got better grades in art classes, and they helped keep my GPA up. But I also wanted to do this thing that Lila cared about.
Feeling burned by Lila, the teacher asked me, “You’re not addicted to anything are you?”
I said, “I’m fine,” which wasn’t entirely true. Lila and I had started getting high together two months before she left. Now I was the one who was pining for heroin. It was seeping into everything, including all my painting assignments, a series of still lives that were supposed to be about the breakfast table: a spoon, a coffee cup, a small plate. The spoon was taking over.
I wasn’t a gifted artist like Lila, but unlike her, I showed up to class sober, and I did the work. I spent a lot of time studying the spoon from different angles, trying to capture every curve and reflection. The bowl had a teardrop shape. The handle had a fine line down the center and a little scallop on the bottom, like two very thin fingers had been pressed into the metal and drawn up its length. The handle was thick and solid, but the edge tapered into a thin graceful line around the bowl.
I thought I was being clever, hiding the secret meaning of the spoon, but it was obvious to everyone, including my painting teacher. One painting in particular had started out grey, but a little bit of yellow had turned it poison green. The spoon, bent by its reflection in the mug, dominated the picture.
The instructor sighed when she told me, “You obviously have some things you need to work through,” but she didn’t try to intervene. At the end of the class, she said, “When I first saw you, with your green hair and your leather jacket, I was worried. But you really put in the work.”
I moved out of that apartment before the end of the semester, and, as much as I wanted to take the spoon, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a thief as well as a junky.
Twenty years ago, I was scrubbing the back of a different Oyster Bay spoon before my baby brother came over. This spoon belonged to my boyfriend Michael, from a small collection of things his mother had been able to give us for our apartment. I was in graduate school, and we were trying to make a home together, but drugs were taking over. I had been doing heroin off and on for three years, and I was trying very hard to keep everything from spiraling out of control. But I don’t think Michael could imagine himself surviving to 40, to 30, to 25. He would be dead from an overdose within 6 months.
I’d always been protective of my brother, and I didn’t want him to see any of that. I was cleaning the apartment from top to bottom, sweeping up piles of cigarette ash, and pulling orange syringe caps out from between the sofa cushions. And scrubbing the black scorch marks off the back of our spoons. The needle exchange gave out bottle caps to use as disposable cookers, and we should have been using those. But spoons had a certain old school glamour.
When I quit for good, a year after Michael died, I packed the drug spoons away, along with a scant couple boxes of Michael’s things. His mother wanted the flat wear back, and she wanted his leather jacket, and she wanted me to apologize for her son’s death. I was grappling with my own guilt and complicity, but I could not accept her conviction that everything was my fault. I never gave her the apology she needed, but eventually I gave her his leather jacket.
Fourteen years ago, I gave the drug spoons to Goodwill. I was sorting through my things, after moving in with the man who is now my husband. I wasn’t sure why I had held onto the spoons. It seemed like a dangerous kind of memento, sure to raise questions if my future mother-in-law found them, so carefully wrapped up with my most precious objects. But I pulled the Oyster Bay spoon out of the Goodwill pile. It was the one spoon that had other meanings: the quiet contemplation of the breakfast table, the careful observation of painting, the accumulation of little things that add up to making a home.
Sobriety has been a process of leaching the drug associations from everyday objects, including the veins in my arms. And I was hoping that even a former piece of drug paraphernalia could find a place in our silverware drawer.
Elsa Williams is a biomedical scientist living in Medford, Massachusetts with her husband and two children. She is working on a memoir about her early 20s and blogs about feminism and harm reduction at worn-smooth.tumblr.com.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.