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Flying

He had everything a young literary man in New York might want: a thriving agency, top authors, love, esteem. But it was crack that he wanted most of all.

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Snow is falling outside the Holland Tunnel. Cars aren’t moving. Horns sound and drivers yell. My flight to Berlin is scheduled to take off from Newark in less than an hour, and there is no way I’m going to make it. Noah, my boyfriend, is already there, having arrived at the Berlin Film Festival directly from Sundance to show his film. I call my assistant, who booked a four o’clock car for a five-thirty flight, which I only now realize isn’t enough time. It is, of course, not his fault, but I tell him it is and that my life is about to change, and not for the better, as a result. These will be my last words to him, to anyone in my office.

I have nearly a full bag—three medium-size rocks of crack and a scattering of crumbs—in my pocket. A clean stem and a lighter, wrapped in a kitchen towel, are wedged somewhere in my duffel bag, between manuscripts, a pair of jeans, a sweater, and a pile of Kiehl’s products. The driver is a young, deep-voiced Eastern European woman, and I’ve already sung her my if-you-only-knew-how-important-it-is-that-I-get-there-on-time song to persuade her to work some kind of magic and levitate us past the traffic. She just stares at me through the rearview mirror. I wonder if she can see how strung out I am, how far over the line.

I know this is going to be the last straw. Even if Noah forgives me again, my business partner, Kate, will not. She and I started a small literary agency four years ago, and so far it’s been, for our authors, a lucky run of heated auctions, great reviews, book prizes, and literary best sellers. But now I’ve been out of the office for almost two weeks and canceled three meetings with Kate to go over our long-avoided partnership agreement and finances. I have told everyone—friends, clients, employees—that I have thrown my back out and am going to doctors, acupuncturists, and masseurs. But the truth is that I’ve been rattling around the apartment in a thick cloud of crack smoke. I’ve left the building only a few times, to run across 8th Street to the cash machine and to the deli for lighters and Brillo wire. The liquor store has made daily deliveries of Ketel One, and I’ve called the housekeeper to tell her I’m home sick and not to come.

Before getting in the car, I send Kate an e-mail telling her to do what she needs to do, that I’ve relapsed and that she should protect herself in whatever way is necessary. Before I press SEND, I look out the window at the thick flakes of snow coming down in slow motion between the buildings and think I am doing her a favor. Giving her permission to get out and move on. But I feel next to nothing as I end our partnership, our business, my career. I regard that nothing the same way you observe a cut on your finger just after accidentally slicing it with a knife but seconds before the blood appears. For a moment it’s like looking at someone else’s finger, as if the cut you made has not broken your skin, the blood about to flow not your own.

At the airport I race to the first-class counter. The woman there tells me right away that I’ve missed my flight. There’s another that goes through Amsterdam in three hours. Without hesitating, I buy a first-class, full-fare ticket. I have over $70,000 in my checking account, and I think, barely think, that five or so thousand is nothing. I ask her if there is a hotel at the airport, because I want to rest before my flight. She looks at me and pauses before telling me there is a Marriott a short cab ride away. In the cab, I call Noah and leave him a message that I missed my flight—The traffic was terrible, I say in mock frustration—but I’m booked on the next one out.

The cabdriver is a handsome, dark-eyed Hispanic guy, and I immediately strike up a conversation. How I get to the moment when I ask him if he parties, I don’t know, but I get there. He says Yes, and I say, With what? and he answers, Beer and pot. He asks me with what, and I come right out and tell him. He pauses and asks me if I have any on me, and I say yes. He asks if he can see it, and I reach into my pocket and pull out a rock. He laughs and tells me he’s never seen it before, and I ask if he wants to hang out. He tells me sure, later, after his shift, and gives me his cell-phone number. I take it, even though I know my flight will take off before he’s done. He doesn’t say his name, so I look at the driver’s I.D. framed in Plexiglas and notice it’s obscured by a piece of newspaper.


Adapted from Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man: A Memoir, by Bill Clegg (to be published in June by Little, Brown and Company). Copyright © 2010 by the author. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Some names have been changed by the author.


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