1977: You have your first girlfriend and you are, as far as your ten-year old self knows, madly in love. You have nothing to compare it to, so it is, in its way, love. Though, looking back (of course), it is a very young couple of kids having a very young couple of kids’ crush on each other. You are Renee’s “buddy” in science class—that’s how you meet, because she is a bright girl who has been advanced a grade and the theory is that she needs an older student to help her fit in. And the Principal—the man who knows you incredibly well from your frightening number of trips to his office—seems to have decided that it might be good for you to be responsible for once. To take care of someone and not get in trouble.
You and Renee pass notes in class with questions like Do you like me with “Yes” and “No” boxes. The boxes are always checked yes. You hold hands in the coatroom. Instead of you teaching her to behave, you teach her that the more you misbehave the less adult supervision you tend to have. Screw up and you are out back clapping erasers together and covering each other in enough chalk dust you look like Kabuki actors. Screw up even worse and you get sent to the coatroom. Really mess up and you get to read books in the Library.
On your eleventh birthday, she is killed in the woods that back three or four neighborhood developments. Woods that you all played in.
Her head is crushed with a large rock. “Bludgeoned” is the word the newspapers use and you have to look up the word and it will remain your most vivid memory of finding a definition in a dictionary. You are old enough to realize none of this can be your fault, but you remember the Principal telling you, “your job is to take care of Renee” and the phrase will not leave your head no matter how much you want it to.
For years, you thought (there were rumors, after all) she was raped and then bludgeoned. She was never raped, you find out much later—though, for so many years in your head, she was—the facts, for years, were not the truth. And now you have a new truth, but it doesn’t change your reaction over the years at what you thought was the truth.
You only learn she wasn’t raped when you try to research her case in your early 40’s—thinking, somehow, that it might make your life make sense if you could make some sense of her death.
From that day in 1977, you never—especially until you leave your hometown at 18—look at a man without thinking, it could be him. Every coach. Every teacher. Every stranger who ever walks by you. For years you’re horrified whenever you’re left alone with a man. Sometimes, without warning, you flush with rage and want to hurt a man you’ve never seen before. Your reaction to everything in the world starts to frighten you.
Her case remains unsolved thirty-five years later. It will never resolve and it won’t reduce itself to meaning. She has been gone from this earth nearly six times as long as the time she was here and sometimes (even though in the grand scheme you have known hundreds of people better), you think she may be the most formative, important relationship of your life. Looking back, you see than while many things happened before Renee was killed, this is really where all the other things start and, to a certain degree, end.
1974: Your parents throw a party on a Saturday night. You sit on the top of the stairs listening to their music, their laughter and the clinking of bottles and ice in a bucket. Smell the cigarette smoke. They play Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash records all night long.
The next morning, while your parents are sleeping you’re in the basement looking at all the different colors of liquor in the different sized glasses. You drink them, one-by-one, drinking something red first because you tend to like red foods and red candy, so why not red drinks? It tastes fine. Not as good as, say Hi-C, but a few minutes in, you feel better than you ever have in your life, except for that accidental overdose on the pill at the mental institution where your father works two years ago when you were six.
A beautiful new world floods through you. You smoke half-cigarettes from ashtrays. You know you have to feel like this again.
From this day forward, if you are not high, you are not happy.
Fall, 1985: You and your girlfriend Sasha have broken up. No one understands the kind of pain you are in. Your pain and loneliness are undocumented in the history of human pain and loneliness.
All day and all night, you lay on your bed with your Walkman on your chest and Bob Dylan’s BLOOD ON THE TRACKS playing as loud as the machine can go into your headphones. Your eyes are closed. You don’t move except to smoke cigarettes or drink beer. One side of the tape plays to the end and you open up the Walkman and flip the tape and listen to the other side.
You do this for weeks. Your life is over. You will never know love again—of that much you are sure. Friends try to get you to come out. To drink. To party. To talk. If you had enough money, you might go see the friends of yours who sell Percocet and morphine, but you don’t have the money so why bother seeing those people?
You ignore them all and get wasted and smoke and listen to Bob Dylan because, really, only Bob Dylan has any idea of the amount of pain you are in.
Only you and Bob Dylan have ever known this kind of love and only you and Bob Dylan have ever known what it’s like to lose this kind of love.
Fall 1984: You are diagnosed bi-polar with rapid cycling and occasional psychotic episodes. You’ve been up for almost a week and you don’t remember any of what a friend later tells you said and did the last two or three days you were awake. It’s like a drunken blackout, but longer and worse, since apparently you were acting “pretty full blown crazy,” your friend says. His ex-wife is a schizophrenic and he thinks you may be one. He convinces you to see the college psychiatrist who sends you somewhere else and that doctor tells you that you have been “self-medicating—for years from what you say.”
The good news is you are not schizophrenic. The bad news is you are pretty full blown crazy. Plus, you apparently have PTSD, which you thought only soldiers got. From this point, for a decade or so, you will only tell people very close to you that it’s possible they might have to take you to a hospital someday. That you won’t want to let them and that they have to ignore whatever you say at those times.
This makes even the people closest to you…well, tense about what it means to be close to you. And you will hate yourself for it.
The doctor puts you on medicines you can’t pronounce and tells you that you, no matter what you do, should not drink alcohol with them, you shouldn’t do any other recreational drugs and, especially, that you should never, “with a brain like yours,” take any hallucinogens like acid, mescaline or mushrooms again. When you’re released, you take his medicine, but you don’t really stop taking your drugs. You do try to slow down. But only because you are afraid he’s right and you could go fully insane—not because you want to stop taking what makes you feel good. Or at least makes you feel ok.
He is right—the two (his medicine and your drugs) don’t go together at all. Your drugs make you feel better. The ones the doctor puts you on make you feel stupid and like someone packed your brain in icy gauze. Like someone has taken a cold wet mop and swirled it gray, over and over and over your brain.
You no longer have weeks where you stay awake for days and feel great, like your brain is working several times faster than it normally does. You sleep all the time, but you never feel rested. Your feet shuffle—you don’t lift them when you walk. You answer questions really slowly. You can barely play guitar. Friends ask you what’s wrong.
Before the month is out, the doctor’s medicine stays in your bathroom and you never refill the script. The people who get the apartment next will find those to be the only pills you left.
Summer, 1985: Your girlfriend Sasha is going down on you. She’s the most sexual woman you have been with. Not that you’ve been with many people at this point. You are loaded every day and you start to have trouble keeping up with her, so you start on what your roommate Bridget says is “what passes for a health kick for a drug addict.” You’re taking massive amounts of vitamins—sometimes getting shots from a guy known as, depending on who knows him, “the band doctor” or “the junky doctor.” You are green enough to think he’s an actual doctor until a friend laughs at you and calls you a simp and a corndog.
Sasha grew up in the south of France and looks like Jeanne Moreau walked out of the screen in Elevator to the Gallows, and you hear Miles Davis’ astounding soundtrack from that film pulsing and rushing through you every time you look into her eyes. You are still young and still somewhat nervous about sex—that the person who wants you might stop wanting you ten seconds later if you do the wrong thing. She laughs about this and calls you “my little American” and if it were chemically possible, you feel like you could, in fact, melt when she says this. “Such a shy boy, my little American.” You are shy. The only time you talk to strangers is when you are loaded. Though, for better or worse—you are always loaded. The only time you think you can be entertaining is when you are loaded and/or when your band plays. Luckily, again, both of these are pretty much all you do.
In France, she has had her male lover read poems aloud to her while she and a female lover blindfolded themselves and did tantric massage on each other for hours in a hammock in the South of France. You are nineteen. What you know about France is from black and white family pictures from 100 years ago. And Epcot Center. And of course, Jeanne Moreau—which, really, may be all you need to know about France. You think:
Blindfolds with tantric massage?
The night you meet at a party, she tells you she does not believe in monogamy. She does not believe in labels such as heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual.
She says, “I like to be honest here. No surprises.” And you feel a rare swelling of pride that you tell her you’re a junky and a drunk. I am as liberated and honest as Sasha, you think.
She makes a face, ignoring your confession. “Heterosexual. Homosexual. Bisexual.” She shakes her head. “I am Sexual.”
No debate there.
So, Sasha is going down on you in the small bedroom in the apartment you share with your friend Bridget. You like Bridget, you think you care deeply for her, maybe love her—but this is a long period of your life where you mistake needing people for loving people. You mistake your constant desperate need for being romantic. At any rate, your attraction has no reciprocation, as Bridget most certainly DOES believe in labels—labels such as lesbian.
You and Bridget talk at breakfast sometimes after Sasha has gone to work.
“That is one amazing fucking woman,” Bridget says.
Bridget kids you about how great Sasha’s blowjobs must be.
“How would you know?” you say.
“You think I’m deaf? When you fuck, I hear her. Which is pretty delightful, I have to say. What a fucking voice that girl has.” Bridget stops. Sips her coffee. “I think about fucking your girlfriend. I hope that’s ok.” She lights a cigarette. “Anyway, when I don’t hear her, all I hear are the loudest and the fucking goofiest and pathetically grateful orgasms I have ever heard from a guy.”
“Since when are you an expert on the sounds of guy’s orgasms?” you say to Bridget.
“I have heard plenty of men come,” she says. “I have even—I hope to fucking god for the last time—made men come. Not that it’s the most difficult thing on the planet.”
So, after a week of what Bridget calls your “health kick”—taking huge “treatments” of B-12 and various other vitamin shots in the ass—you are sleeping more often from the sedatives he gives you and are actually looking and feeling better than you have in a long time.
This is a little amazing, really, since you are still loaded every day, and prior to the “treatments” your liver seemed to be backing up with toxins and your skin was the color of an elephant’s hide and your eyes were bloodshot and you couldn’t breathe through your nose because you’d messed up the membranes too much to snort your drugs and you had to use other methods you don’t really prefer. Now, for you, anyway, you feel amazingly good. The only downside is that the health kick does put a dent in your drug money. Still, you think the vitamins are a pretty great discovery.
Until later when Sasha is going down on you. After you come (in what, you now can’t help thinking is a loud, goofy and pathetically grateful orgasm) Sasha sits up and makes a disgusted face—not her usual reaction—like she’s just eaten a handful of rancid pistachios. She looks left, then right and you can tell something is terribly wrong. She gags and coughs your come onto the floor—also very far from a common reaction. She wipes the back of her hand on her lips and sniffs her wrist and forearm, wincing again.
“Are you taking vitamins?” she says.
“Not anymore, I’m not.”
You tell Sasha about the shots. She tells you to “go to that fucking doctor and find out when this shit is out of your system. I need to know before I want your cock in my mouth again.”
Later, you tell Bridget about the whole thing. Between laughter, she gives you some of the better advice you will ever get. “Listen. You are not healthy anyway, no matter how well you think that shit made you feel. And I may not know shit about blowjobs, but I know a lot about orgasms. The odds of you finding something other than vitamins that are good for you are pretty good. The odds of finding a woman who makes you sound the way you sound when you come are not very good at all.”
She opens two beers and gives you one. “I’d say lose the fucking vitamins. Or give me her number.”
You have never taken a vitamin since.
1985-1993: You get bills from hospitals once a year or a couple times a year. You have no idea what you have been in these hospitals for. Sometimes a friend knows. Sometimes you ask a roommate and they look at you and say, “You don’t know if you were in a hospital?”
“Well, I think I must have been,” you say.
And you must have been. But you don’t know why. And after the first bill, you don’t try to find out why, because trying to find out means talking to the very people you owe tremendous amounts of money to. Money you don’t have. Money you think may exceed your life’s earnings when everything’s tallied up and you shift tense.
In that way, it becomes funny. “I owe some hospital in Sarasota two grand,” you tell friends, laughing. Two grand is about a third of what you make a year. They ask , “for what?” And you laugh, because it does seem like the best response, given the options, and you say, “fuck if I know.”
You will also tell lies. Part of this is because you don’t know what happened. Part of it is that you like a good story. The main reason is that you worry the world hates you as much as you hate yourself and you had better make up some person who’s better and more interesting than you. It’s the only way you expect anyone to want to stay around you for long—convincing them that you are someone you are not. You don’t lie, like some people, out of any desire to make money or get ahead—you lie, like some other people, because you are very afraid of anyone knowing the truth. So long as no one ever really knows you, you can’t be truly rejected.
Spring 1990: No matter how much you hate the bi-polar meds, what you do to self-medicate is working less and less. Maybe not at all. Sometimes, you can still stay up three or four days and nights writing or fucking or playing guitar, but less often than ever before. Various meds don’t work. Some make you crazier. Some work, but make you fat or kill your sex drive or your ability to get hard and you decide you’d be better off if you were crazy and you were thin again and your cock worked like it used to.
Most times, you want to kill yourself—you think seriously, sometimes every night on the way home, about driving off the bridge from Turtle Bay in Sarasota Florida where you work. Often, you call sick to work. You stay in bed for a week. You lose a lot of jobs and have to start getting up at—or staying up until—five in the morning to work the labor pool. You try to find a new job and it’s becoming harder and harder to explain why a bright, educated person like you has no references or job history from the last two years.
Generally, men and women about five years older than you interview you for a job. They say things like, “And why do you want to work at TGI FRIDAYS?”
And you think about saying that your last job wasn’t humiliating enough and that you aren’t thinking nearly often enough about killing yourself and you think TGI FRIDAYS might do the trick. And you say nothing. Or you lie.
Most afternoons when you wake up, friends call you and tell you what you did the night before. Sometimes, it’s funny. Sometimes it’s horrifying and embarrassing. Sometimes it’s frightening and you wonder how you seem to get lucky enough to live. One afternoon, the night after your band plays a show at some enormous loft that used to be a sewing machine factory, you wake up and can’t seem to form most words and the ones you can say are incredibly slow and inside your head it sounds like an air-raid siren is going off six inches from your ear. Your elbows are bloody and swollen and your clothes are covered in solid crusty puke. When you smell yourself, you throw up on the floor.
“You’re cleaning that,” your roommate Mel says.
You gently touch the back of your head and your hair is bunched and hard with blood and the skin makes you wince when you touch it. You close your eyes and see stars.
1991: One morning, while your roommate Brad plays “Strychnine” by the Sonics too loud (which you would not have thought possible until today) for your ice pick of a hangover, you shit blood for the first time in a while. You are drinking way too much since you went off opiates and not remembering too many hours of too many days. You’ve lost track of how many times someone has said to you, “we talked about this” when you have no idea what they’re talking about.
You mention to Brad that you are twenty-five years old and you wonder how bad it is that you’ve bled out of every orifice you can think of.
“Really?” he says.
You nod, feeling lightheaded and weak. These talks about how fucked-up you are have lost a lot of their charm over the years and are starting to just get frightening.
You say, “Nose, ears, ass, cock.”
He looks at you a moment. He’s as bad a drunk and addict as you, so he doesn’t lecture. You’ve admitted to each other about planning on being dead before thirty, anyway.
“Not the eyes?” he says.
You think back. Once after a car accident, all the blood vessels in your eyeballs ruptured. You didn’t bleed, but the whites of your eyes were as red as cranberry juice and vodka. You shake your head. “No. Not that I know of.”
He waves dismissively with his fork. “Then, you’re fine.”
2008: After fifteen years clean, you are six months into an opiate relapse and you’re spending many of your days nodding out. You tell people—your band mates, you colleagues, your students—that you are beyond exhausted. That you’ve had three jobs, a writing career and a band that records and tours for years now, and you are simply burned out.
And all of this is true, but it’s not the truth.
Your wife has seen you drink, but not much—eighteen or nineteen years ago when you were friends who fucked—when you bounced among six east coast states in two and a half years and she slept with other friends and couples in California.
In the fifteen years you have lived together, she has never seen you strung out on opiates.
You have changed in these fifteen years—people trust you. You don’t spend your life apologizing for everything you have done. Well, you do tend to apologize—for just about everything, including your presence in a room sometimes—but you don’t have nearly as many valid reasons to apologize as you used to. People no longer grow sick of you and cut you out of their lives because you have disappointed them so many times.
And/but now, again, you lie. You steal. You become the man you used to be. You thought that man was gone forever, but he returns with your relapse. When people think you are clean after years of being clean, just saying hello to them is a lie. You hate yourself. You haven’t written in nearly a year. You nod off mid sentence while sitting on your amp at a band practice.
One day, around six months after you started using again—you have to drive in for a faculty meeting. You’ve been dopesick for about twenty-four hours and you know from too much experience that if you can’t get anything, you will be in an increasing hell for the next forty-eight hours. Already your eyes feel like someone glued sandpaper to the inside of your eyelids. Your shirt is drenched and you’re shaking and freezing from the cold sweat. Your car is a stick and your whole body is cramping, but your left leg on the clutch is the worst. Your head aches and you’re worried you’ll hit the cars in front of you or the cars next to you because you simply cannot focus on anything but your pain.
You think: I am going to a faculty meeting. I’m supposed to be a responsible person and I am the same fuck-up I was. When the traffic thins, you seriously consider making a hard right into the guardrail, wondering if that would be enough to kill you and then you shit yourself.
Five years ago, you were teacher of the year and now this.
All this would be fine (well, not fine, exactly), if you were not due at a faculty meeting in a half an hour. You look at the other drivers—some passing you and some you are passing. You look at their faces and wonder how great the gap is between who they are and who they know they could be. You’re on 10 Freeway. The 10 is known to locals, depending on your direction, as The San Bernardino Freeway or the Santa Monica Freeway. Freeways here, true to the romantic nature of the West and its ever-hopeful revision of the life that came before, are made for movement and the future and they’re named for where you’re going—not where you’ve been.
The past, well, that’s for when you turn around. Where you’ve been is only important in the context of where you are. And if where you are this moment is good, the past makes sense and every moment of horror and dread seems worth it all. If where you are is terrible, the past just seems like an accumulation of data that confirm you were on this path all along.
How things resolve or end matters.
But sometimes, when fifteen years accordion and collapse and make time fluid and you are again who you were—when you find yourself shitting your pants on the way to a meeting where you are supposedly a respected member of society, well, sometimes the past and the present collide in hideous ways, and there’s nothing left but the human debris field that you’ve become, no matter what the name of the road you’re on happens to be called.
1983: You have scars you lie about and scars you tell the truth about.
The summer you’re 17, you tell people, you get chased by several cops for over a half an hour through the woods of your hometown. The same woods—though you don’t think about this until you’ve gotten away from them—that Renee was killed in when you were eleven. You don’t even remember why they were chasing you. You remember being drunk. You remember the woods being dark and you flooded with adrenaline and fear and sprinting over wet mossy stones and through the giant knuckled limbs of the trees. You hear them running behind you and you see the blur of their flashlights jumping up and down as they run behind you.
You turn to look back and see if they’re getting closer and you get clothes lined by a thick broken tree limb. Your head and chest stop and your legs fly in front of you and you’re instantly on your back and your head hits the ground hard. You have trouble breathing, but know you have to get moving. You run for another five or ten minutes and end up hiding in tall grass in the damned up side of the lake. You can hide in there with just your head above the water. You listen for a while until, finally, the cops give up and you hear them grow more and more distant until you can only hear the crickets in the woods and the fish lapping out of the water and feeding on bugs at the surface and you hear and feel your heart beating and your breathing, hard at first and then more calmly.
You walk about a mile to a friend’s house and see in her bathroom mirror that you opened a slice across your collarbone so deep you can see the milky gray-white of your bone, and so wide you can fit your index finger into the cut and feel your bone through the cut skin and muscle. Touching the bone makes you queasier than looking at it does. She gives you a washcloth and you press it to the cut. When you take it away and look in the mirror, you see the clean cut and the bone and then it rushes and fills with blood again and all you see is blood. And you press the washcloth against it for a while.
The story is true.
1987: You have a round scar about the size of a quarter between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand—white around its edges and a deeper red than the rest of your skin in the middle. People ask about it and you tell them some guy was pissed at you and he had a friend hold you down and he burned you with a cigar. You will tell the same story for years. People seem to believe it. You’re a fuckup. And you’ve pissed off some angry people in the past.
The story is a lie.
You burn yourself in the same spot, repeatedly, with the cigarette lighter in your car. You sit in your car and see your breath in the cold. You’ve got the key turned so that the electric, but not the engine, is on. The car is dark. The streetlights glow a faded overexposed sepia yellow on the rounded hills of snow people have shoveled from their driveways and sidewalks. The green line train clatters on its tracks a couple blocks away. You push the seat back and recline so much that you’re almost lying down. You’ve learned already that you have to be comfortable if pain is going to feel good.
You pull the cigarette lighter out and it glows orange. You put your left hand on your thigh because you’re afraid you’ll jerk away from the lighter if you don’t brace it against something, but your hand never moves. Your skin makes the same sound as Hawaiian lava when it joins the surf. The first time, you are surprised that it smells sweet and pleasant. You thought burning skin smelled horrible, but you were wrong—it’s the body hair that makes burns smell so bad. On the skin alone, they are not at all what people tend to think. You are reminded of this twenty years later when you get your first brand and the woman who loves you holds your hand and kisses you and you are not at all alone and you smell your burning skin again and you think of being in that car by yourself.
The pain flashes and at first your whole body feels like a chill shot through it, and then it’s as if the lighter were a drug of some sort entering you at the burn and you feel an incredibly calm, beautiful peace radiate from your hand throughout every cell of your body. You’ve learned by now that what makes pain hurt is when you don’t expect it and when you resist it. When you know it’s coming and you just allow it to happen, you and the pain move together and it’s like you flicked a switch and the lighter and you make a complete electrical circuit for the current to flow through. Fight it, and it hurts like hell wherever the pain starts. Let it happen, you learn, and it feels good everywhere. Every jumpy, fractured nerve you have gets caressed smooth from the pain. And nothing in the world hurts for a while.
When the lighter loses its heat, you take it away from your skin and push it back in. The windows are fogged up and the streetlights are more of an expressionist blur now. When the lighter clicks that it’s ready, you light a cigarette and crack the window and feel the wonderfully cold air and you smoke and let your head fall, heavy and spent, against the headrest. There is no tension left in your body. You breathe the smoke in deeply.
It’s years before you tell anyone what really happens. Now, it seems ridiculous that you wouldn’t have told someone what you did to yourself, but you are not the same person you used to be. Except, of course, when you are.