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The Olympics

I was 16 when I qualified for the 1980 Olympic gymnastics team, and I was 16 when the tanks rolled into Afghanistan. I had just turned 17 when President Carter explained that the continued aggressive actions would keep us out of the games that year, and that all my training and pain was for nothing.

I don't blame anybody. It was just politics. By the time the Los Angeles games rolled around, I was far too gone for gymnastics, washed out at 21. I didn't try out for the games anyways, during my training, I had hurt myself a few times and pretty much gave up on myself. I watched them on the television and I was in Reno at the time.

Reno wasn't where I wanted to be, but Reno was where I needed to be. By that time I was so far into junk, I could have been in Timbuktu for all that mattered. I had been living in Colorado, near the training center when the pain had started in my knees. Less than a year later, I was getting on a bus, headed for Vegas, and maybe Los Angeles.

One thing became another, and I wound up here. No big story, I went where I could go. I went where I could score.

Sometime during my first weeks in Vegas, I met and moved in with Stephanie. Back then, I thought I loved her, I still think I do. But love is a dirty symbiosis, at least in our case. We huddled together in our little one bedroom flat for months on end. I would find work at the local temporary agencies; she would wipe down cars at all-cloth car washes, enduring the catcalls from the Mexicans and the blacks she worked with. She couldn't get any other sort of job. Restaurants wouldn't hire a convicted felon, and we were too dirty for the blood banks.

I cherish those first days in Reno. We didn't have to work every day, and the landlady was just as hooked as we were. She would let us slip on our rent for months at a time... as long as I brought her a gift now and then.

I would wake up in the late afternoons and go out to the kitchenette. It was almost like real life, I would call out if Steph wanted coffee, and I would make us some. Then we would sit down together on the couch, the evening news would be on, and we would fix. After that, the day was ours. We could sit in front of the television playing video games, go out to a bar, hang out with our friends, whatever we wanted... just as long as the beast was fed. But back in those days, it was easy to keep the hunger quiet. We had money, and we had a semblance that nothing was wrong. Yet.

Steph hated to shoot up. She would have me do it for her. Find the spot: right there above the jail tattoo of the dove, spike it. I don't know how she managed to fix after we split up, but she told me that while she was in jail, her fear of the other inmates and her fear of needles had made her junk sick just about all the time.

So there we were, watching the United States Olympic team rack up the medals in Los Angeles. It was the summer of 1984. The Russians and their friends had paid a tit-for-tat and hadn't made it to those games. The sports media considered it a gold rush for the Americans. I sat there and cheered on the athletes, some who I knew, and drank my cheap instant coffee.

Do you miss it? Steph said as she spooned sugar into her mug.

I suppose, I said. But I bet I can still do half of that stuff.

We giggled and watched more. Mary Lou stunned the world, and my team; the men's team won the gold. During the medal ceremony, I actually cried. Steph held me and told me that things were okay as I mouthed the national anthem. We went out. Steph had to shush me as we walked past the landlady's room because I was still singing. I remember going to a taco stand someplace and the only conversations I heard that night were about the Olympics. Everybody was caught up. Even two drunks were arguing about them, about how they weren't real Olympics because the Russians weren't there.

I felt anger well up inside me, but then I let go. What did they know? Just a couple of old, broken down drunks? They couldn't know the emotions. They couldn't know the pride. Steph and I walked home, eating our tacos out of their foil wrappers. We gazed at shop windows and wondered what it would be like to own newer stuff. A new dress for her, a rowing machine for me. Heck, the old apartment needed a new refrigerator. We should spring for one of those too. What a wonderful place the world was when you had money.

When we got home, I watched the television for a couple more hours and then I got into bed with Steph. We always seemed cold. Our skins needed to be near each other to be warm. Our bare calves touched each other under that ratty old blanket and we drifted off. Maybe tomorrow I would head down to the Temp. Agency and get a job. Most of the jobs sucked. They were the kind of jobs that nobody else would take. Boring jobs. The kind where you would stand for hours at a table, doing the same work over and over again, your mind wandering. But those jobs were safe for me. Nothing too strenuous or physically demanding because if I managed to hurt myself I would soak up more than my share of the junk we were holding at the house. We didn't want to go further in, but we sure as hell didn't want to cheat each other. Steph kept track of the stash and kept us pretty much honest as to how much we were shooting.

So it was settled. I would get something tomorrow. Maybe I could make and save enough for a little extra. Maybe I would buy Steph that dress she had been greedily staring at. I set the alarm for eight and we both got warm.

The next morning, I felt like my bones were gone, but I stood in line at the agency. Everybody was still talking about the games, but I kept quiet. I knew most of the other junkies here; all of us silently nodded to each other, or gave a small hello. I got a job at a place I had worked at before. It was a small mechanical parts shop that did mailing to customers all over the states. It was simple work; all I had to do was make boxes by folding them together and then sealing the bottoms with packing tape. After that, I put the boxes on a conveyor belt and they went into the packing area of the plant. I guess they didn't trust the junkies enough to let them get near the inventory.

So I worked as hard as I could and at the end of the day, one of the secretaries from the front office lined all of the temporary workers up to pay us. The last time I had worked here, a supervisor had paid us in cash, but this time the secretary walked down the line and handed us a check. As she stood in front of me, she paused. She said my name and then gave me a puzzled look.

You have the same name as a guy I dated in high school, she said as she handed me the check. I looked into her eyes and knew her, but I didn't say anything. I was embarrassed and wondered how the hell she had wound up here, six hundred miles from the dirt town we had both grown up in. I didn't say anything.

She stared at me for a brief second and then moved on down the line. I stared at the numbers on the check and remembered back to high school and kissing her at a party in some basement.

I got out of there and followed the other temp workers to a grocery store that would let us cash our checks. I had made forty-seven dollars for my eight hours and I thought that maybe I would stop by that little dress shop we had looked at the night before. I walked on as the evening heat finally went away. The shop was closing as I entered. A little bell tinkled as I entered the door. None of the girls who were busy closing up the shop even looked at me as I walked straight to the dress rack that was near the front display window. I found the dress that Steph had wanted and I fingered through the rack and found the size she wanted. Numbly, I groped for the price tag and saw that the dress cost fifty-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. I couldn't afford it. Oh well, no matter. I would just work another day at the mechanical shipping plant and make up the difference. With that extra paycheck, I would even have enough to buy a real dinner instead of tacos.

All those years ago, I realized I was in love. Steph was my love, not the junk. It's unfortunate that her love of junk was stronger than her love of me. She's been gone for about five years now, she died in prison, but back then, we had dreams. It could never occur to me that her dreams didn't include me, or at least they didn't include me to the extent I wanted to be included.

Getting burnt by Steph didn't bother me. I would have forgiven her just about everything back then. What really stung was that she hadn't been honest with me about the way she had been stealing from our landlady. During the days when I would go work, sometimes she would go down to the landlady's apartment and fix her up. But while the old gal was in the bathroom with her gear, Steph would sift through her desk drawers, steal money orders, and rent money. Steph had finally been caught. The landlady had come out of the bathroom to ask Steph if she wanted a bump and she had walked up on Steph with both of her hands in the top desk drawer. That's the part that had stung. It didn't hurt as much as the secretary at the mechanical plant remembering, but it had still hurt.

As I walked passed my building, I could hear the cops searching through the house, looking for our stash. Steph was going to be going away for a long time. I kept walking, but I came back a week later and squared my bill up with the landlady, and told her I was sorry for everything. She gave me a smug look and took my money. She then led me down to the basement, where she had stored all of our stuff that hadn't been either broken or taken by the cops. I grabbed some extra clothes and the jar of instant coffee. I told her to trash the rest.

By the time Steph was arraigned, I had a new place to live in a boarding house. There was no way I could afford to bail her out. The bail was five hundred dollars and the last time I had seen that kind of money, I had been 19. She didn't seem to mind that I couldn't bail her out. She was getting methadone in the county lockup, and that seemed to keep her straight enough. She wasn't embarrassed about stealing from the landlady either, but she was embarrassed by the almost shameful looks I was giving her. Her embarrassment came out in the form of anger and she leveled me with it. She told me of all the things she had done while we had supposedly been in love. I guess she figured that somebody else deserved to hurt like she was. She told me about the johns and the Mexicans at the car wash, she told me about the late nights where she would sneak out and bust car windows to get at the radios inside.

Didn't I understand? She asked me cruelly. I had no answer. I was dumbfounded.

She got three years, plus time served. She would be out in 18 months.

I waited for her. But things were never the same again. The first thing we did once she was out, was fix up in a small celebration. Then we poured through the paper, looking for a place we could live together again. But after that, I always kept my suspicions of her in the front of my feelings. We tried for a while, and things almost started looking good, like they used to in the old days, but it only lasted for a little bit. We both knew we would be splitting up soon, but we desperately held on, trying to find something. Under the blankets, we didn't feel warm anymore.