Not long ago I was asked point-blank if a short story I’d written, wherein the narrator gets high on crack cocaine, was based on firsthand knowledge. This was not the first time someone had inquired if I’d had similar experiences as my fictional characters: soldier at war, manager of a Walmart, cook in a restaurant, et cetera. It’s a slightly invasive line of questioning, to be sure, but mostly it’s flattering, because, after all, the question implies that I’ve managed to create a world so convincing that the reader has been forced to wonder whether what they’re reading has actually crossed the threshold into the realm of nonfiction. I will sometimes answer honestly—no, I was never a soldier; no, I was never a manager; yes, I was a cook—but often I’ll deflect, especially when it’s one of my creative writing students asking about my possible drug use in front of the entire class. All that matters, I will say didactically and evasively, is whether the story seems real.
Which is why I will sometimes give these same creative writing students, who are curious to know about me, an assignment to write a piece of fiction about themselves, in which they are the central character—but several decades older. What story can they create about who they might be in the future based upon the raw material of who they are now? This is, at least to my way of thinking, a quick and painless way for a beginning writer to launch into the world of fiction, by being obliged to build from facts close at hand. Some students, naturally, will ignore my guidelines and take the easy way out, recycling a short story they wrote for a previous fiction class, putting their first name on the middle-age character, who happens to have gray hair and shares no characteristics, as far I can tell, with the twenty-year-old author. Perhaps these students believe that when they are older they will be completely different from who they are at present—and how can I argue with that?
Happily, though, many of my students will expand and exaggerate their personalities, their lived experiences, their hopes and aspirations. There was the student on the varsity wrestling team who envisioned himself as a father, age forty-something, out of shape and browbeating his teenage son, who also happened to be a wrestler, into making weight for the upcoming match. There was the screenwriting major imagining himself in the future, single, depressed, and having to contend with how his once lofty artistic expectations had been reduced to working for reality TV. And then there was me and my recent short story, where I went in reverse, going younger not older, writing about a nineteen-year-old actor living in a midsize city, stuck in a dead-end job, dreaming of one day moving to L.A. to jumpstart his career, and all the while on the precipice of becoming addicted to crack cocaine.
This was a fictional story, yes, but it had originated as nonfiction, and I had intended to title it “Smoking Cigarettes Saved My Life,” because if I had not become addicted to cigarettes in college, at the age of nineteen, I would not have been self-aware enough to realize that, a few years later, I was following a similar physical and psychological trajectory with crack cocaine. I knew that first there is disinterest, then comes mild curiosity, then desire, then dreams, then obsessive daytime thinking, then need, followed, shortly thereafter, by the absolute inability, no matter what, to stop. My introduction to cigarettes had begun in an acting class, of all places, where the scene I was performing in had required the character to smoke. In the pursuit of thespian authenticity, I had rehearsed one day after class with my scene partner, who was already a smoker, and who had given me a cigarette from his own pack, patiently showing me the proper way to inhale and exhale. At my first attempt, I gagged and nearly fainted—but an actor persists, and after the third or fourth cigarette I was becoming accustomed to it, dare I say enjoying it. I knew, of course, that cigarettes were deadly, but I was planning to smoke only for this particular scene in this particular class, and then never again. By the end of the rehearsal, unbeknownst to me, I was already on my way to becoming addicted. By the end of the week, I had bought my first pack—in order to rehearse—and then I’d bought another pack, and then I tried not to buy a pack and instead I borrowed cigarettes from friends, classmates, strangers. Months later, I was pledging to myself each night that I was going to quit for good, then and there, and by noon the next day I was smoking again. “Wouldn’t it be great,” I once told a friend, “if cigarettes were actually good for you?”
My introduction to crack cocaine occurred a few years later on a summer night after my shift as a cook in a restaurant. It was around midnight, and I was with a friend I worked with in the kitchen, or a person I thought was a friend, since it’s questionable whether a friend would be someone who would introduce me to crack cocaine. I was aware that he occasionally smoked crack, but I did not understand that he was an addict, which means that I did not understand that anyone who occasionally smokes crack is, ipso facto, an addict. This was the late eighties and crack cocaine was ascendant, and all we needed to do was walk to the housing projects, about a mile away, where, for twenty dollars each, we could buy what we wanted. Then we walked a mile back to my apartment to smoke in my bedroom, out of a pipe that my friend had made with aluminum foil. It was all novelty for me, the pipe, the smoke, the high, and I was excited that I was having this authentic experience, this once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was never, never going to do again. In addition to being an actor, I had wanted to be a writer, and I remember thinking, with something akin to euphoria, Now I have something to write about! As we smoked, my friend would ask me, “Are you okay?” If I’d been able to see the parallels in that moment, I would have recognized that the care and attention he was showing me was not dissimilar to the care and attention that my scene partner had once shown. When we were done getting high, my friend suggested we do what all addicts suggest: to go back and buy more. And so we did, walking another mile to the housing projects, and then another mile back to my apartment, everything unfolding exactly the same, except that now it was three or four o’clock in the morning.
That summer I smoked about a half dozen more times with other men I worked with at the restaurant, sometimes groups of men. We would stay up all night and then go back into work in the morning with almost no sleep. We used various contraptions for pipes, once even the antenna from a car, and I spent increasing sums of money that ultimately reached a hundred dollars. I was able to go days without smoking crack, but I could not go days without thinking about smoking crack. Each time I entered the restaurant for my shift I would fantasize that today someone would invite me to get high. I was not conscious of any similarities between crack and cigarettes, even though they were nearly identical: the desire, the obsession, the dreams. But one day I caught myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be great if crack cocaine was actually good for you? It was then that I went to see a drug counselor, and when she asked me why I was getting high, the only thing I could think to say was, “It’s given me something to write about.”
So three decades later I sat down to write about it, intending it purely as nonfiction, but as I wrote I began to do what I asked my students to do, reimagine and reinvent myself, until by draft ten or so my facts could no longer be called “facts.” Eventually, the central principle of cigarette addiction being an unexpected redemptive force—what had inspired me to write the story in the first place—was cut entirely. Still I tried to cleave to some last strands of reality, perhaps because I’ve always believed that the truth is always more compelling, but also as a way to make direct use of what I’d experienced.
For instance, a few years ago I happened to be riding the bus through my hometown of Pittsburgh, where I’d gone back to visit for the weekend. At some point in the trip, an elderly man got on and took the seat directly in from of me. He was about seventy years old, toothless, dressed in baggy, monochrome clothes. As the bus ride continued, something distressing and insistent began to take shape in my mind, until I finally realized that this seventy-year-old man was not, in fact, seventy years old, nor was he a stranger to me, but rather a friend of mine. In our early twenties, we had worked at that same restaurant together, played pickup basketball together, and, yes, smoked crack cocaine together. He’d been tall and handsome back then. He’d been a standout high school basketball player, and a so-so college basketball player. I don’t think he’d ever gotten his degree, which was one reason why he was working at a restaurant as a busboy with few prospects. We had spent a summer afternoon walking around Pittsburgh, off from work, nothing to do, too hot to play basketball. I remember trying my best not to broach the subject of crack, dimly aware that I was thinking of it incessantly. Next came need. My friend, like so many men I worked with, was already well past that stage, and he would sometimes confide in me how he’d stare into his bathroom mirror and speak to himself in the third person, almost as a mantra, with optimism and conviction, saying, “This isn’t you.” Meaning, this life of smoking crack wasn’t, at essence, who he was, and that he could, through sheer will, overcome it.
Months later, after I’d gone and gotten professional help, after I’d stopped associating with anyone who had had anything to do with crack, and after I’d quit my job at the restaurant, he called me one night. It was Saturday, around ten o’clock, and he needed money … for his brother. His brother had just gotten out of the military and he was eligible for health insurance, but he had to pay the premium now, right now—Saturday night at ten o’clock—and if he didn’t pay it now, he’d never be able to have health insurance. Could I lend his brother forty dollars? No, I was sorry, but I could not.
That was the last I spoke to him until that bus ride in Pittsburgh, twenty-five years later, when I tapped him on the shoulder and we stood and hugged each other, and I tried to pretend that there was nothing unsettling about his appearance. He told me he worked construction now, which I wasn’t sure I believed, and I told him I lived in New York City. He wanted to know if I’d been there for 9/11. 9/11 had been fifteen years earlier. That 9/11 was his immediate association with New York City seemed to me an indication of the amount of trauma with which he was continually dealing. I thought of his mantra, “This is not you,” and I saw myself in that mirror of his, his face staring back at me.
These were the facts that became the fiction. But most of these facts never made it into my story. The only thing that I hoped would remain visible was some faint glimpse of truth.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author of the memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, and the story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy. His stories, “Metaphor of the Falling Cat” and “Most Livable City” have appeared in The Paris Review.