1989: You stay with your friend Laura and her tremendous amount of roommates, down in the low numbers on Avenue B in New York. There are at least ten people in the apartment most of the time.
One night, you are on an abandoned building’s roof and you take acid along with three or four of her friends. You and Laura used to be very close, but something’s off a little on this visit, and her roommates don’t seem to like you at all. But, you tell yourself, you always think people don’t like you and you find out later they do. You tell yourself to lighten up and not worry. Not only do they not dislike you, they probably don’t care one way or the other. You’re not the center of the universe. You tell yourself to stop worrying about what other people think because all they are worried about is what other other people think. You feel more mature just coming to this realization. Maybe you’re getting less insecure.
You look out at the city about an hour after the acid comes on full force. You realize that you understand how cities work. You get it! You turn to tell Laura that you know how cities function—every single fucking level of how they function—you understand it so well, you may have fucking invented cities.
She looks up at you, very confused and says, “What, dude?”
Her friend looks at you and then back at Laura. Then back at you, and back at Laura. The friend says, “I don’t like him.”
1984-2012: You cannot sleep through a night unless you’re in bed with a woman. Actually, it’s only with women who seem to want to take care of you, even if you’ve just met. You seem to bring this out in women. It seems like everyone you’ve ever dated has held their hand out at crosswalks to stop you from running into traffic like you were a seven year old. A friend you sleep with jokes that you are addicted to “every slutty punk rock girls with a Florence Nightingale syndrome.”
When you’re alone, you wake up, frightened and sweaty and breathing hard. You see Renee bloody and dead, you see your college friend Jim fall off the balcony and die on the alley pavement three stories below all on some tape loop, over and over. You have panic attacks. The first time you had one, you went to an emergency room, thinking you were dying. You couldn’t breathe and thought it was a heart attack. You learn what they are. When they hit, you take as many valium or klonopin or lorazepam as you think will put you to sleep but not overdose you. By early 1993, you don’t care if you OD, and haven’t cared for years. By late 1993, you are clean and sober and living with the woman who will become your wife. The sleep and the panic attacks come more frequently for a couple of years and then start to slow down to a couple a month. There are eventually stretches of time—a few months, maybe as many as four—where you don’t have any and you think they may have ended. They come back and seem to change in frequency for no real reason.
1985: Of all your head injuries, this is easily the most ridiculous. A five gallon can of fudge (for the hot fudge sauce, but thankfully it wasn’t hot yet, at least) falls on your head when you’re a manager at a Haagen Dazs. This is one of the rare times you go to a hospital. Your friend insists—her family has money and she can secretly pay for it.
You have trouble talking that night. This is also the first time a doctor warns you about having too many concussions.
“How many is too many?”
“More than two,” he says. “Three at the outside.”
“I’ve had more than that already,” you say.
You shrug. The lights in the office hurt and you want to sleep. “I think five. Maybe four.” You notice that your words are coming slowly and your tongue feels swollen and you can’t totally control it and there are times where you are trying to find a word you want to say and you can’t think of it.
He gives you pamphlets you can’t read for two days because you’re seeing double and any light in your eyes feels like your brain is a throbbing toothache.
He tells you any head injuries from this point forward will only add to what brain damage there already is.
He’s making it sound terribly serious. You’re nineteen years old. So you’ve had a few knocks on the head, so what? “Brain damage?”
“This is a condition of accumulation. You’ve already done damage.” He looks at your friend, then back to you. “This isn’t some headache. Repeated trauma…what you’ve done to your brain is done. You can only avoid more trauma from now on.”
You ask your friend to take you home to bed. The doctor says you can’t sleep.
“I just want to sleep,” you tell him.
He gets close up into your face and screams, “This is SERIOUS. You CANNOT have any more major head injuries.”
His yelling is like a jackhammer inside your head. He backs away. You’re seeing double and fuzzy, and you feel like you might throw up. You say, “It’s not like I’ve planned any of these.”
Fall, 1986: In Amsterdam, you and your girlfriend Anne have broken up. You’ve lied to her and said that you’d quit doing dilaudid and that you were going to NA meetings. To be fair, you did go to two NA meetings, but decided there wasn’t anything to it because:
- The meetings were in Dutch.
- You were pretty fucking high at both meetings and they were still annoying. You can’t imagine how annoying they might have been if you’d had to have been clean AND understand what the hell was being said.
You hang out at a hash bar with your friend Ed, watching Andy Warhol’s EMPIRE—8 hours and 5 minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building. They show it from midnight to 8:05 AM every night in the bar’s basement. You buy a ticket for the whole week and you can come and go as you please. Eventually, you will see the whole movie.
The third night—maybe 4 or 5 hours in, you and Ed are on the couch, wasted and staring at the grainy black and white footage. It’s night in New York. Somewhere around the 80th or so floor, a light goes on in a window at the corner of the building.
It stays on for about ten minutes. The window goes dark and only seconds later, the window in the next room to the right comes on. It stays light for another ten minutes. It goes dark. The light comes on quickly in the next window down.
Ed beams. “I get it,” he says. “Cleaning woman.”
You will always think of this when you think of narrative. Of the desire to make things that happen have some reason for happening.
2001-2012: Just about any mid to late fifties Miles Davis album is fabulous music to have playing when a woman uses a riding crop or a cane on your ass. Tom Verlaine’s WARM AND COOL is great, too. MINGUS AT ANTIBES—which contains Bud Powell’s last truly great performance—is also, so long as you don’t get too fixated on Bud Powell’s piano and think about Bud Powell’s tragic life, especially the ending. You don’t want tragic stories. You don’t want any stories. You can’t have most music with lyrics. Instrumentals are, by far, superior. Words can intrude when you want the body to take over. Lyrics can make you think—music helps you just feel.
Late Fall, 1986: Anne kicks you out of her apartment and you run out of money and you have to leave Holland and now you are back in Boston and sleeping on you ex-girlfriend Jane’s (and, though you don’t know it at the time, she will be a future girlfriend, as well…she will, of course, then become an ex-girlfriend again) couch with your Walkman on your chest, chain-smoking and snorting dilaudid and listening to Joni Mitchell’s BLUE.
No one understands the kind of pain you are in. Your pain and loneliness are undocumented in the history of human pain and loneliness—except, of course, in YOUR history of human pain and loneliness from the year before with Sasha.
The T runs through Jane’s building after it crosses the Charles River from Cambridge into Boston. Every fifteen minutes, the whole apartment shakes and dishes and glasses rattle and records sometimes skip, so Jane listens mostly to cassettes.
All day and all night, you lay on Jane’s couch with your Walkman on your chest and Joni Mitchell’s BLUE playing as loud as possible. Your eyes are closed. You don’t move except to smoke cigarettes or drink beer, both of which you can manage while still on your back. Every once in a while, you sit up and crush some pills on what you later learn is the coffee table Jane inherited from her grandmother (and you do, honestly, feel like a piece of shit when you find out that you messed up the finish by crushing the pills with a dead nine-volt battery over and over).
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. Your life is over. You will never know love again—that much you are sure of. Jane knows you—used to love you. She tries to get you over it. Friends try to get you to come out. To drink. To party. To talk.
You ignore all of them except for Jane, who, weeks from now, you will start to realize may love you more than anyone ever has—if she can put up with you like this, lying loaded and brokenhearted around her house.
But, for now, you get wasted and smoke and listen to Joni Mitchell because, really, only Joni Mitchell has any idea of the amount of pain you are in.
Only you and Joni Mitchell have ever known this kind of love and only you and Joni Mitchell have ever known what it’s like to lose this kind of love.
Well, and Bob Dylan. You and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. But no one else.
2012: You’ve always had a great memory. In high school you were part of a study on eidetic memory, although it turned out you unconsciously use a series of random mnemonic devices. For years you remembered more things than you ever wanted to—some worthwhile, some not. You could remember full pages of THE GREAT GATSBY or meaningless basketball statistics from your childhood, such as the scoring average, total rebounds and total assists of every member of the New York Knicks 1973 championship team. Now, when you forget anything, you think it may be CTE starting and that someday you will need a note you carry on a city bus, telling people your name and where you live, because you won’t know. Forget the name of a writer—forget something you heard on NPR and wanted to tell a friend—forget anything and you are scared shitless.
In May, you try to use your credit card at the gas station and when it asks you for your zip code, you can’t remember it. You’ve lived here for five years. You call your wife and ask her what it is. She tells you.
You’re shaking. “There’s no way I’d have forgotten this before.”
She knows your fears. She doesn’t like to talk about you losing your memory. You’ve made her promise, though, to help you commit suicide before it got too bad. She says calmly that you’re being ridiculous. That, statistically, the odds favor you never losing your mind—at least not early. She tells you that you could have forgotten things like this ten years ago and never noticed such a small thing.
She is right about all of this. But what you used to think were the smallest things, you are afraid may now be pieces of the biggest things.
Unknown, 80’s: The last thing you remember, you are drinking at Father’s Five—a bar on MASS AVE in Boston, and you put Jason and the Scorcher’s astounding cover of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” on the jukebox. You wake up in an apartment in Montreal—a city where you know exactly no one, including the guy whose apartment you are in, and he looks at you the way you might look at a sweater you didn’t recognize that someone left on your floor after a party. The look on his face is like, how the fuck did this get here? Whose is this?
You take a beer from his fridge and drink it in the stairwell on your way down to the street. A normal person might freak out. You might have freaked out only a year or two before. You are only pissed off that you don’t have enough money to get drunk and that you have to hitchhike back to Boston. Even your friends or girlfriends, tolerant as they are—more saints than you can count on both hands, actually—are not going to come pick you up hundreds of miles away. Some things are too much to ask, after all.
2012: You think this story about Montreal might be a lie that you told for too long and now think it could be a fact. You know you blacked out and woke up miles away from where you were—even in a different state—that much you’re positive about. You remember waking on a guy’s floor and taking the beer and leaving. That you are positive about. But there are so many jumbled fragments and you don’t trust yourself. There’s a natural human desire to make sense out of any series of events. That doesn’t mean, though, that they make sense.
But Canada seems like a stretch. Definitely one of those Vermont/New Hampshire shaped states, once. And you think that happened at least twice in different places. But for years, you were very fucked up. And for years, you lied to people. And memories blur. Nabokov said that memory is a revision. Maybe you revised a lot of this wrong. You are honestly not sure.
Summer, 1988: You are at a party at a band-mate’s Boston apartment, and you’ve taken a couple hits of acid in the afternoon because your girlfriend Jane is supposed to be out of town visiting her folks for the weekend, and you reason that if you are really fucked up you will be less inclined to cheat on her. This, in your early twenties, passes for foresight, nobility and all-around general stand-up guy-ness on your part.
Later, a cold plastic cup of beer sweats condensation in your hand. You sit on your friend’s bed, watching his fish as it swims back and forth only on the left wall of its enormous aquarium. The story goes, and you have no idea if it’s true, that your friend dropped a hit of liquid acid in the tank once and the fish freaked out for days—swimming at three and four times its normal speed—and now has settled into an aquatic psychosis where it would never venture to the right side of the tank where the drug had been dropped. As far as the fish seems to be concerned, the right side of the tank is where VERY BAD SHIT once happened, and there isn’t anything that is going to get him to go BACK there. If this is true, that fish, that brainless cartilage-knuckle full of prehistoric DNA flip-flopping a slow glide on the left side of the tank is, in its way, smarter than you, who returns and returns and returns and keeps returning in various ways to where the very bad shit will happen for the next 20 years of your life.
You sit drunk and tripping, thinking about that little fish, and your girlfriend Jane, having changed her plans for some reason unknown to you, walks into your friend’s bedroom. Except for the party noise swelling and receding with the opening and the closing of the bedroom door, her entrance to the room is lost on you.
She is screaming your name.
It’s the first time you’ve heard your name, but she’s saying it with the intensity and annoyance of someone who has had to repeat herself several times, so logic dictates that you missed her first few attempts at her communicating.
She grabs your head and forces you to look up at her and screams your name again.
Her beautiful face is full-mooned into your line of vision so that all you can see are her probing eyes that look (as you have already sadly seen and will sadly later see again and, more sadly, have to see a few more times) much like loved ones and paramedics and doctors look into your eyes when you overdose.
“Hey,” you say.
“What’s wrong with you?” she says.
A valid question, to be sure. But one you are not really capable of taking on.
“I thought you were in Rhode Island?” you say.
“What the fuck is wrong with your eyes?” she says.
“I think my eyes are ok,” you say, then start to get scared. You feel for your eyes, half expecting them to be gone or bloodied and dangling, but they feel normal. You blink fast a few times. “What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“You are so fucked up,” she says.
You point to the aquarium. “That fish can only swim on one side of the tank.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I’ve been studying it.”
She shakes her head. There is no way you can articulate it or explain your desperate desire to not let her down or hurt her again, but it seems, whether you can talk or not, that her disappointment is on a train that has already pulled out of the station and no matter how much you chase it, it’s beyond your reach. You want to say to her “don’t leave.” Or, “I’m surprised and happy to see you.” Or, even, of course, “I love you.” But these may as well be phrases from a foreign language phrase book, for all the access you have to them at the time. She is beautiful, smart, funny and talented. She is, in short, everything you think you are not and will go on thinking you’re not for over twenty years. The only thing you can find wrong with Jane is her taste—that she loves you is a blot on her otherwise spotless record in your mind, but you are soon to fix that problem.
There are few worse feelings than watching someone you love, who loves you, deeply, come to the realization that she or he can no longer love you for fear of their own survival. This is a lesson, like many others, you will have to learn a couple hundred times before it sinks in that it is not at all cool or good to be the drowning man who made others, repeatedly, decide to go down with him, or leave him to whatever the world might have for him.
“I can’t even talk to you anymore,” she says.
You reach out to her. “You can talk to me.”
She shakes her head, eyes alive with tears as she looks above you at a point on the ceiling.
“You are always so fucked up,” she says.
You put your head down. The acid has you in a grip that’s making words hard to form. You look back up at her. Her head sways above you, floating like heat waves on blacktop.
She says it again, “You are always so fucked up.”
“I can’t really talk about this right now,” you finally manage to say. “I’m really fucked up.”
She looks up at the ceiling again and you see a tear drop from her right cheek and fall onto your thigh where it darkens your jeans for a second. She takes the beer from your lap and throws it across the room, against your friend’s wall, and she runs out of the room. You sit for a moment, trying to think, losing the thoughts as soon as they come, unable to focus. Where her tear fell has already started to get less dark and fade and blend in with the fabric of your jeans.
Fall/Winter 1986/87: You have started to try and make yourself useful and are cooking every night for Jane. You are getting over how badly things ended with Anne in Holland. You get a job waiting tables and get to bring home extra pasta and raw vegetables and you start eating better than you have in over a year. Jane lived in Italy and you make her every one of her favorite Northern Italian meals that you know and then you start asking the chef where you wait tables to teach you more. For a month, you don’t repeat a meal. Some nights, you fall asleep in her bed, but you haven’t had sex again yet.
One night, holding you, she says, “I’m sorry that this Anne hurt you.”
“I didn’t do her any favors,” you say.
“Still. If you want me to hate her, I will. I get sick seeing you hurt.”
You don’t say anything.
You start playing your guitar again—your only one that isn’t in storage at a friend’s rehearsal studio in Cambridge. Jane plays hers. You write a couple songs together and you suggest starting a band (even though she’s in one), and she looks down and says, “I couldn’t be in a band with you.”
She smiles, “For one thing, what am I supposed to do when you’re off fucking the bartenders?”
Once. Bartender. Singular. But, still, she has the high ground on this one and while you might be accurate in correcting her, you would still be wrong.
You tell her you are falling in love with her and her face darkens like when a heavy battleship gray cloud slides over the sun. She says, “Don’t ever say that to me again unless you are going to keep saying it.”
You did let her down very badly once. The problems went both ways but, as is usually the case with you, more of the blame was yours. You don’t say you love her again and you vow not to say it until and if she says it. You have to respect that—you hurt her. It’s amazing enough that she’s been this kind to you.
You have always had trouble sleeping. And when you do sleep, you have scared many of your lovers, because you often wake up shaking and out of control, in panic attacks that sometimes come in waves, one after the other, though they usually last only twenty or thirty minutes and then it’s an hour or two before you can get back to sleep. You have trouble breathing—you can never draw a deep breath. No matter if it’s thirty or ninety degrees out, when this happens, you wake freezing.
You wake up one night on Jane’s couch having an attack, shaking and afraid and you at first don’t realize it, but she is cradling your face in both hands and looking into your eyes with more tenderness and love than you have ever in your life seen directed at you.
She says, “I’m so sorry, sweets,” and she kisses your eyelids and slides under the coat you sleep under on her couch and falls asleep with you. Sometime in the middle of the night, you wake up again and she calms you down and takes you to her bed.
In the morning, even though it’s still winter in Boston, the light comes through the bedroom window and heats up her little shitbox of an apartment so much that you don’t need blankets on her bed.
She puts on this experimental music she’s been working on. A friend of hers does heart studies at MASS General (which is across the street, more or less). The friend tapes people’s hearts on 90 minute cassettes and gives them to Jane to tape over for her band demos. But she has kept some of them with the heartbeats going whoosh, whoosh, whoosh for 90 minutes, while she plays textured experimental beautiful guitar and piano underneath the sound of the hearts. She tells you that her friend has told her many of these are from the hospital archives that go back twenty or 30 years, so many of these hearts are from dead people.
“This,” Jane says, “is the last of their hearts. Ever.”
While you go down on her, you lick and kiss her lips and her clit and her thighs and at times her feet and toes and back to her clit and lips. You suck her labia in time with the hearts and try to do it so gently that you can feel her pulse. It’s when you have gently rested your lips on her clit that you feel the pulse of blood through her body and you hear her breathing and you realize she is in synch with the hearts on the tape. The tapes are 90 minutes, but they flip and repeat when one side is done and you want to make this last as long as possible because it’s among the most connected experiences with another person you have ever felt. You tell her, though, that if she wants you to speed up to let you know.
“Don’t change a thing,” she says.
The sound of the hearts and the music on the tape gets muffled beautifully now and then when she closes her thighs over your ears. You will always remember her legs. Once, she roller skated into an ice cream place where you were the manager. She wore shorts. Her thighs were muscular and tan and you wanted to trace every minor striation and every vein on her leg with your lips.
You remember that she loves fingers in her pussy and ass when someone is going down on her. This rhythm is beautiful, feeling Jane’s body so in time with everything in the room. You have two fingers each in her ass and pussy—your left hand angled uncomfortably (but for a good cause) above your right—and you keep them going in and out in time with the heart on the tape and the pulse of her body. You feel your fingers rolling over each other through the skin, going different directions over and over, slowly—only speeding up when Jane’s pulse speeds up and goes off rhythm from the hearts on the tape.
The T runs every 15 minutes and rocks the apartment over and over. You lose track of it, and you lose track of how many times the tape clicks over and you only know that a lot of time has passed because the sun left the window and then, slowly, the bedroom got darker and darker and now it’s evening.
Afterwards, you hold each other for over an hour. One of you, and then the other says, “We should get something to eat” so often without either of you moving, that it eventually becomes a joke.
With the apartment totally dark, Jane lights two candles—one on each night table on the side of the bed. You both get under the covers and she rests on your chest and every fifteen minutes, the T shakes the apartment. Plates and glasses rattle out in the kitchen. The candle shadows flicker and flutter more against the wall when the vibration of the train builds and then peaks, and then everything settles down again until the next train.
You share a cigarette. Neither of you talks for a long time, and then she says, “Well, I don’t remember that.”
“I don’t know what else this Anne did to you, but I can tell you that there is just no fucking way I can hate her.”
1982: Your friend Mary—who seven years from now will be your fiancé—is absolutely in love with REM. She plays you REM every chance she gets. You are not nearly as taken with them as she is and one night you are drinking beer on her parent’s porch and you tell her that you like parts of a lot of their songs, but never the whole song, it seems.
You specifically mention “Radio Free Europe.” You say that the verses are dull and unmemorable, but the chorus is amazing. But their songs never seem to be great all the way through—there’s always a bad part for you.
“But don’t you get it?” she says. “It’s the bad parts that make you realize how good the great parts are.”
You will live many more years. Many more, in fact, than anyone would have predicted for you. You will read—and sometimes understand—Nietzsche and Heidegger and Aristotle and Confucius and a bunch of other people, trying to make some sense out of your world. But you often think that you have never heard a better philosophy of life than you hear that night drunk on Mary’s back porch:
It’s the bad parts that make you realize how good the great parts are.