Dark Days and Coral Sands
“I’d like a single room. Upstairs, if possible.”
The desk clerk, a thin, pale man with shoulder length, scraggly hair rose from the chair behind the counter and moved toward me.
“I’ll need your driver’s license, and also the plate number from your car if you’re parked in our lot,” he said..
I fished my license out of wallet and handed it to him, and he began punching my information into a computer.
“How many nights?”
I was flying pretty high, and my hands had trembled when I had handed him my license, small beads of sweat dotting my forehead and upper lip. I avoided eye contact, and instead pretended I was surveying the small lobby: tiled floor, small rattan couch with flowered padding, two dusty plastic Ficus trees in the corners. Having been here many times before, there really was nothing new to learn from looking around the room. I turned and focused my gaze through the glass front doors, watching traffic stream by on Western avenue.
“Okay, sign here” he said. “And put your license plate number here. That’ll be 145 dollars for the two nights.”
I turned back to face him, scratching my signature onto the small card he was proffering. I added the license plate number of my white Ford Explorer, and handed it back to him along with my credit card.
He punched some more information into the computer, and then produced a small white keycard.
“I put you in room 233,” he said, handing my credit card back to me.
“Great. Thanks,” I said, and offered a smile that my muscles made but my mind didn’t feel, then hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder and turned towards the door on the left. A moment before I reached it, the clerk pressed a button and the door automatically unlatched. I gripped the knob, turned it, and walked through into Tweakerland.
The Coral Sands hotel sits on a long, deep lot situated on busy Western Avenue in Hollywood, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Its two-story, brick façade has only one notable design feature: the six white columns that support a faux lattice-railed sundeck running the length of the top of the structure. These columns have the look of a design afterthought, giving the Coral Sands the appearance of an institutional building trying, and failing miserably, to look like a plantation house. Sandwiched between two large, bland stucco apartment complexes, it is relatively unknown to the general Los Angeles population, although it has stood here for decades, sixty rooms filled to capacity on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.
Amongst the L.A. gay community, however, the Coral Sands is infamous..
The hotel has long walked a duplicitous line in terms of marketing, advertising itself as a “semi-resort.” Its website describes “sixty spacious rooms surrounding a landscaped private courtyard, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, daily maid service, direct dial telephone and color televisions. All of this is true, and the grounds of the Coral Sands are actually rather lovely, well manicured, with palm trees and blankets of flowering Bougainvillea filling the long, deep courtyard, which is lined on all four sides by two stories of rooms. The pool, though small, is sparking blue, and the Jacuzzi, situated dead center, is large. Everything in this sunny, tropical themed courtyard speaks of diligent maintenance.
It is however, what goes unsaid on the website that makes the Coral Sands notable. This establishment may call itself a “semi-resort,” but almost every gay man in Los Angeles knows that this place is, crude as it may sound, is a drug and fuck den, the establishment equivalent of a skid-row crack whore masquerading as a librarian.
I walked into the sun-filled courtyard, taking in the lushness of my surroundings. A few men lay on the chaise lounges that flanked the pool, wearing either towels or small.. too-small… speedos. As part of the attempt to make the hotel appear respectable, small signs expressly forbade nudity in the courtyard. This made little difference, however, since a quick scan of the rows of rooms lining it revealed men standing just inside their rooms, fully naked, peering out and shooting glances of invitation to those outside or standing in other doorways. A small parade of men, some dressed, some with towels around their waists, slowly made their way around the walkways on both levels, occasionally stopping at an open door, sometimes entering, sometimes stopping to watch whatever spectacle was taking place inside, and sometimes moving on.
I found my room on the second floor, entered and closed the door behind me, securing the safety latch. Tossing my backpack on the bed, I went into the small bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face, then filled one of the small plastic cups with tap water and drank it down, knowing that hydration is an oft-neglected requirement of extended meth-use sessions. I returned to the room.
For all the implied luxury evident in the courtyard, the rooms of the Coral Sands were decidedly Spartan. Grey, industrial grade carpet, mismatched wall hangings, and garish, blue-grey swirled patterned bed covering. Stiff, bland curtains covered the large window overlooking the courtyard, a small mini-fridge in the corner, an ancient wall-unit air conditioner. A chipped veneer table and two chairs with worn orange padding in front of the window. An equally distressed night table sporting cigarette burns next to the bed. A smallish TV mounted to the wall near the ceiling, a long mirror mounted at on the wall at bed level. The air was redolent with stale cigarette smoke and some disinfectant cleaning product. There were no non-smoking rooms at the Coral Sands Hotel.
There had been a time in my life, not so long ago, when I had regarded this place with disdain. “Coral Sands” had existed in my lexicon as a punch line, synonymous with losers and the truly pathetic. “He probably lives at the Coral Sands,” I’d say in regards to a particularly lecherous person hitting on me at a bar, and my friends would laugh. We all knew what it meant, though none of us, as far I as knew, had actually been there.
Now, here I was, and rather than disgust, I felt a strange form of comfort. In the way that derelicts gather and form community on the downtown streets of skid row, so did we, this band of tweakers and sex-addicted gay men. The only difference is that we could still afford to shell out money to stay here, this ersatz sex-clubhouse. Having lived with guilt and shame and self-loathing for so long now, being in a place with others just like myself provided a sense of peace, a judgement-free zone. Here, I could indulge my addiction with impunity, I could lock the world outside, and I could do what I did best: get high.
Opening my backpack, I pulled out my swimsuit, then quickly stripped my clothes off. I studied my body in the mirror, liking what I saw. The speed had meticulously chiseled away all the excess fat from my body, which tended towards stockiness, and the muscles underneath were revealed, chiseled in a way that only speed, steroids or starvation were capable of. A few speed bumps – angry red welts – dotted my thighs and my forearms, but I wasn’t too concerned about these, since most committed tweakers got them and there was little judgement from others about these blemishes. Also, I had taken to packing a cover-up stick with me wherever I went. It is a by-product of heavy meth use, and the euphoric, disjointed, distortion of perception, that I could look in that mirror and not be horrified by what was truly reflected back at me. Years later, I would look at photos of myself from that time, shocked to see how I really appeared. I weighed no more than 155 lbs (I had weighed 165 in high school), the skin of my face hollow and sagging from the precipitous weight loss, my eyes bloodshot and filled with some indefinable emptiness, as if they were looking not at the camera, but through it and past it. At the time, though, I honestly thought I looked good.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I pulled my stash from the side pocket of the back pack, laying out the almost complete 8-ball, the thick stemmed glass pipe and the butane torch on the night stand. I fished around and found the refill canister of butane and placed it in the drawer.
After several deep, thick hits from the pipe, I got up, grabbed a stiff, scratchy towel from the bathroom, and exited the room to join the slow parade of the undead.
It is dark now, a day later, and I have spent the previous hours hooking up with numerous men of all description. When I’m using, I don’t have a “type”….the two requirements being that they are not physically repulsive and that they are also tweaking. Another preference is that they have their own stash of drugs, as sharing allows my own party to continue for a longer period of time. At the Coral Sands, there are enough candidates who match these fairly low standards to keep me busy for days on end.
I am sitting, nude and cross-legged, on the bed. A man, close to my own age, also unclothed, sits across from me. He is thin, though not as thin as I, his muscles almost comically defined. His fairly handsome head is shaved, and tattoos litter his body. I am leaning forward, holding the torch to the glass bowl he is inhaling from. I don’t know his name, and frankly, don’t care.
“Roll it,” I say.
He gently rolls the bowl back and forth, the liquefied meth sloshing gently inside the glass bubble.
When I’m sure he his lungs are full, I pull the torch back, and turn it off, set it down at my side. I lean in towards him, and he immediately recognized the gesture and obliges me by putting his mouth and against mine and exhaling the vapor into my mouth, which I suck down into my lungs. Our faces stay pressed together, and when I can no longer hold it, I release it back into his mouth, his lungs. This ritual, called shotgunning, continues for a few more inhale/exhales until there is no more to share.
The pipe carefully set aside….god knows the number of glass pipes I’ve broken by stepping or rolling onto them…we move towards each other and begin giving in to the sexual firestorm that the speed has ignited. Our bodies writhe against one another, gripping, stroking, humping, our skin wet with speed sweat and hot to the touch. It is all-consuming, this kind of sex, so much different from the act that normal people call “lovemaking,” so much different from the kind of sex I remember once having. There is no love here, obviously, only two men reduced to the status of rutting animals, each aware only of his own twisted desires, yet chemically duped into feeling as if we’d known each other forever.
His hand slides down my back, and he asks, his voice guttural, “do you get fucked?”
“No,” I reply, reaching back and moving his hand away from my ass.
“No,” in this instance, means “not by you, not now.”
Although I had been almost ludicrously hell-bent on self-destruction for several years now, three suicide attempts and numerous overdoses to my credit, I still retained a primal fear of AIDS. Yes, it was true that there were many times I wanted to die, to end this fucking nightmare that seemed to go on and on. But I certainly didn’t want to die THAT way. I’d watched too many friends in the eighties and nineties succumb to the horrible plague, and even in moments of the most clouded judgement, I’d tried to exercise some basic precautions against infection. The fact that even minus the HIV virus I was currently emaciated, spotted with sores and addled by recurring drug-induced psychosis didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t going to die of AIDS, period.
“Come on, let me fuck you” he cajoled. “I’m negative, I promise.” There were no rubbers available, and this stranger was not going to fuck me in the ass.
“I’m negative too,” I say, “and it’s because I don’t get fucked without a condom. Sorry.”
He didn’t persist, and I was grateful that it didn’t seem to be a deal-breaker for him. We continued for a while, until the rush from our last hits from the pipe began to subside, at which point we disengaged and pulled back from each other, complete strangers once more.
“Want another hit?” I asked.
“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, wiping beads of sweat from his shaved head.
“Yeah?” I asked, anticipating that he was going to find an excuse to depart, having been denied his request to fuck me.
“I’ve got some G in my room,” he said instead, and grinned at me. “You want to do some?”
I’d done G – short for Gamma Hydroxybutric acid – many times before, and loved the way it made me feel.. A compound that has been used in medical settings as an anasthetic, it worked as a perfect compliment to the heady, speedy rush of the meth. It took the already amped-up sensation of raw carnality and brought it to an altogether new level, turning the acute, frenetic hyper-awareness of tweaking into a warm, fireball of intense sensuality.
“Sure” I said. “Would you mind bringing it back here?”
“No problem,” he said.
“And would you grab some orange juice for us to take it with?”
The Coral Sands had a small table set up near the courtyard entrance, free stale donuts and a large urn filled with orange juice. This served the dual purpose of appearing at once as a complimentary amenity and at the same time allowing the tweaking residents of the hotel to keep their blood sugar up. I’m sure the management of the hotel had dealt far too often with the results of meth users forgetting to eat for several days.
“Sure,” he said, wrapping his towel around his waist and slipping out the door, closing it behind him.
Alone in the room, I took the opportunity straighten out the bedcovers, which had become dislodged and disheveled. I rinsed off quickly in the shower, soaping my body clean of the rank smell of metabolized meth, dried off quickly and went back to the bedroom to wait, half expecting the stranger to not return, knowing how easily distracted tweakers can be.
Using a remote, I flicked on the tv and perused the only channels that were offered: three closed-circuit hardcore gay porn flicks. Unlike Los Angeles bathhouses, the hotel, by presenting itself as a legitimate “semi-resort,” seemed unconcerned about presenting even the illusion of mandating safe sex practices. At bathhouses: Flex, The Melrose Spa, The Hollywood Spa, signs hung on walls throughout lecturing patrons to engage in safe sex practices only. Those engaging in unsafe practices, these signs warned, would be ejected from the premises. Large bowls of condoms were available everywhere, each room supplied with several upon check-in. These rules, of course, were never enforced, but at least a pretense was made. At the Coral Sands, there were no such warnings. The porn that played on all sixty televisions in all sixty rooms were, for the most part, the hardest of the hardcore, what is known as bareback porn in gay parlance. No rubbers, no protection of any kind.
Two sharp knocks on the door, and the guy is back.
He is carrying a large, clear plastic Dixie cup of orange juice, and has his own backpack slung over his shoulder.
I take the juice from him, and re-distribute it evenly using the plastic cup from the bathroom.
As I stand next to the bed holding the cups, He fishes through his backpack and finds a clear plastic vial that is about the size of a small can of Red Bull, and half-filled with a clear liquid. I’ve never seen such a large amount of G before, and make the fairly safe assumption that this guy is dealing the stuff here at the hotel.
“It’s not too strong,” he says, and I watch him measure out a dose using the bottle’s cap, dropping it into one cup of orange juice, refilling, and dropping another dose into the second cup.
I hand him his his, and use a finger to stir the juice in my own, knowing from experience how unpleasantly bitter GHB can taste.
“Cheers,” I say, and we click our plastic cups together, then down the contents in one long draught.
I climb onto the bed with him, and we hold on to each other, and wait for the ride to begin.
I am eight years old. I walk out into the sunshine of a beautiful Long Island summer, my eight-year old legs jumping off the side porch and carrying me around to the back of the house, my playground of trees and shrubs and frogs and caterpillars and all things loved by eight year old boys everywhere. I spend a lot of time alone, being painfully shy, and in this yard, filled with trees and shrubs and damp, dark places, I create whole fantasy worlds in which to get lost for hours on end. I collect caterpillars, I throw bullfrogs into the swimming pool to watch them swim. I am eight years old.
It takes about twenty minutes for the G to take effect, and I am suddenly engulfed in wave after wave of incredible warmth, my body literally writhing with pleasure. The room grows smaller, my sense of space diminishing until my entire world is limited to what I can feel, what I can touch, what is touching me. My eyes close, and I hang onto this stranger beside me and ride the electric current pulsing through my body, fireworks of red and orange exploding behind my closed lids. I force my eyes open, hold them open through sheer force of will, trying to cling to consciousness. The intial rollercoaster drop gives way for a moment, and I manage to croak:
“Not too strong…are you kidding me?”
And then the next wave hits and all I can do is groan and undulate uncontrollably.
The room, lit only by the flickering porn on the tv, suddenly begins to darken even further, and I realize that I am beginning to go under. I panic, my body’s undulations turn into spastic jerking, trying to find purchase as I slip headlong into the darkness of the g-hole. It is futile, and I capitulate, my small world twirling in upon itself until all is black, all is silent, and I am gone. Absolutely gone.
I am eight years old. The back wall of our small house in Smithtown is lined with thick hedges, and because the house overhangs the basement by a few feet, a natural tunnel exists…a long, fairly dark crawlspace, basement windows on one side and thick hedge on the other, on two feet high. This is my secret hiding place, sixty long feet of dark, east-coast humid earth through which I can crawl, exploring, fantasizing. I am Gilligan, leading the other castaways from the headhunters to safety through a volcanic tunnel. I am Captain Kirk, buried alive and with only a few minutes of oxygen remaining. I crawl, hunched over, the knees of my tough skins blackened by the moist earth and rotting leaves. I feel safe here, in this, my first dark place. I am eight years old.
I return to consciousness slowly, pulling myself out of the g-hole with much effort. My body is rocking, though I don’t know why, can’t see or hear clearly enough to fully comprehend my surroundings.
My vision slowly coalesces, and mere inches from my face is the face of the stranger, this man who minutes (or was it hours?) before had been laying next to me. Now he is on top of me. He is IN me.
I am eight years old. I shuffle, hunching thorugh the tunnel, approaching the sunlight at the end. “Almost there!” I say to myself, or perhaps to Ginger, to the Professor, or to Mr. Spock. I emerge from the overhang of the house, stand up, squinting as my eyes adjust to the sunlight. Suddenly, I notice movenmnet on my chest. I look down, and see, clinging to the fabric of my white hanes t-shirt, a monster. A praying mantis, a prying mantis of a size that only someone who grew up in the moist environs of the east coast, could appreciate. Fully six inches long, The gargantuan creature stares up at me, waving giant pincers, its long, mottled gray body perfectly still. I try to scream, but I am too scared. I want to run, but I know it will go with me. I want to flick it off, but I’m terrified to touch it. I am eight years old, and there is a monster on my chest. I close my eyes, waving my arms about , until my mother notices, and comes out the side door and knocks the giant insect from my chest with the bristle end of a kitchen broom. I am eight years old, and I have just met my first monster in my first dark place.
I wrench myself out from under him, confused, terrified, panicked. It is not until I am crouched, pressed back against the headboard, pillow clutched defensively and pathetically in front of my bent knees, that I realize there are others in the room.
Two other men, naked, stand next to the bed, watching, touching themselves. Another sits in the shabby chair by the window, smoking a cigarette.
I want to scream “I told you NO!!,” but even before it I know how ridiculous it would sound coming from a tweaker like me, how very Meredith Baxter-Birney Lifetime Movie ridiculous.
Instead, keeping my voice measured and trying not to betray panic or distress, I simply say, avoiding any eye contact, “I think I’m done….would you mind leaving?”
Two of the men dress, pulling on their clothes from where they had discarded them on the floor. The other two simply wrap towels around their waists and depart, the sun from the open door pouring into the room, blinding my drug-sensitized eyes momentarily.
It is not until they have all left, until I am alone in room 233, that I let the panic overtake me.
I scramble from the bed and into the bathroom, turn on the shower and jump in without waiting to adjust the temperature. I use the small bar of soap to scrub furiously between my legs, my head still pounding from the G. I scrub myself until the small bar of disinfectant hope is fully dissolved, until dizziness overtakes me, and I slide down against the plastic wall of the small shower. My body shaking with sobs, my mind filled with visions of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and hollow faces wasted away by disease. My fear escalates as I wonder how many of those men had used me while I was unconsciousness. And though I pray to a God I don’t yet believe in that it was only the one, I know one is enough: I’ve absorbed the letter if not the spirit during my multiple rehab stints and am keenly aware of the grim statistics regarding HIV infection in methamphetamine users.
When the water has begun to run cold, and there are no more tears, I dry off zombie-like and go back to the room.
Kneeling next to the bed, I retrieve my backpack and find my cellphone and turn it on. There are over 20 messages from Patrick. I don’t listen to them, don’t want to hear the panic or disappointment in his voice. I’ve had many messages from him of this sort, his voice trembling with either fear or anger. “Andy, where ARE you?”
I dial our home number, and he answers on the second ring.
At first, I can not speak, my crying beginning anew. I can’t get words past the sobs.
“Andy?” I hear Partick’s voice, sounding simultaneously relieved and angry. Still, his voice reminds me of what I have lost, what used to be. It reminds me of goodness and kindness, clean sheets, honesty and morality. It reminds me that I am 39 years old, and still crawling into dark, God-less places and emerging with monsters on my chest.
My crying intensifies.
He listens, says nothing, and finally I’m able to get the words out:
“Patrick, I’m in trouble.”