I’ve heard it said that idleness is the Devil’s Playground, and if that was true I was about to make a mad dash for the swingset.
I had been working at least 40 hours a week since I was thirteen years old – first at my parent’s deli, then seven years selling lawnmowers and large appliances, a short stint at the Gap, followed by 5 years at ABC, another 5 at the Shoah Foundation, two producing videos for the internet, and finally the past year directing the AIDS marathon. Each of these jobs followed the other in quick succession, with little or no down time in-between. That added up to over 25 years of non-stop employment, and I was ready to relax and live off the fruits of my – and Patrick’s – success.
Thanks to Patrick’s years on the “Ellen” sitcom, for which he earned per episode what I had sometimes managed to earn in an entire year – we had enough bank to be able to relax a little, to take things as they came, to avoid panic at the prospect of unemployment. This, for me, was a luxury I had never known before, and I embraced it with open arms.
Throwing a duffel bag into the trunk of my car one early spring morning, I kissed Patrick goodbye and headed down and out of the leafy canopy of the Chevy Chase Estates, a few left turns, onto the 2 freeway north, to interstate 5 and up and out of Los Angeles.
Ostensibly, I was making a trip up north to see my grandmother, who was dealing with emphysema and had recently begun a steady decline. It was hard to think of my grandmother, that tall, strong second-mother figure of my youth as anything but invincible. We had a special relationship – I was her first grandchild, but having been born to a mother who was only 15 at the time, my grandmother had assumed responsibility for most of my early parenting while my mother finished high school. She referred to me as “her oldest and dearest,” and although it was always said jokingly, it annoyed the hell out of my brother, sister and cousins. I was looking forward to visiting with her in her small suite in her new retirement community. But first, I had decided, a detour.
I was looking forward to seeing David, it had been over a year since our last meeting. He and his boyfriend James had purchased a house in Fremont, and were hosting a housewarming party to celebrate the acquisition. It promised to be, as any party David threw or even attended, a blast. Sunroof open, the warm southern California air rippling my hair, I blasted the stereo, Maria McKee forgetting what it was in him that put the need in her, Johnette of Concrete Blonde wailing about walking in London, talking Italian, singing in Sydney.
Of all my friends from the old Modesto crowd, I missed David the most. We had bonded years ago, one rainy day when a mutual friend brought him over and five of us had ‘shroomed together in my then-boyfriends rented bedroom, the heaving, pulsing walls covered with Depeche Mode posters and the Technicolor air vibrating with the sounds of Yaz. David was my first male friend of any real significance, and I loved him more than I’d ever loved a friend before. Kindhearted, hilarious, a wonderful mix of smart and occasional goofiness, my handsome friend was desired by both men and women, yet he never seemed to be fully aware of the mesmerizing affect he had on people.
At that time, David was using every ounce of mental determination he possessed to be heterosexual. His girlfriend back then, his high-school sweetheart Rhonda, loathed me. Perhaps this was because I was proudly gay and she felt I was a threat to her boyfriend’s heterosexuality, or perhaps it was because I had once called her a cunt – ungallantly, yes, but deservedly – at the Burger King drive-through window where she worked before I learned she was David’s girl.
David had tried everything to please his fundamentalist parents, going to church, singing in the choir, dating Rhonda, marrying Rhonda, even having a child, an amazingly adorable little boy he named Scott. I always suspected David was gay, but as his friend I respected the path he was on, his difficult journey towards acceptance, and never brought the subject up to him. This was a measure of how much I treasured his friendship, as at that point in my life a studied lack of respect for all things deserving of it was one of my calling cards. David was the good boy everyone loved, I was the bad boy who pretended not to give a shit who liked me or not.
David’s struggle with his orientation ended abruptly when, after confessing his feelings to a pastor at his church, he was subjected to what may be history’s least successful exorcism. He was tied to a chair and prayed over by the male members of his congregation, who implored the gay demon to leave their brother’s body and free his soul of its toxic, sinful influence. Refusing to untie him to allow him to relieve himself, he passed out after ten or so hours and pissed himself. This experience so humiliated and degraded him that it had the opposite effect: the rainbow-colored demon took full command of David’s mind and body, cruelly forcing him to divorce his wife, indulge in acts of sodomy, and relegating him to a life of happiness, self-acceptance and honesty. When he phoned me and told me of these developments, I had jokingly shouted a hearty “Hail satan!” into the handset.
The drive up the 5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area must certainly be one of the most monotonous routes anywhere in the contiguous United States, over 5 hours of nothingness stretching away on either side, punctuated only by the occasional rest stop or gas station. By the time I pulled up to David’s house in Fremont, my legs were cramped and my right butt cheek ached from sitting on my wallet.
I gathered up a stack of CD’s (David and I never saw eye-to-eye on music, he preferred the gay-oriented dance shit that I loathed, and I cottoned to alternative or rock), retrieved my duffel from the trunk and climbed the raked driveway to the front door. The house, though small, was adorable, perched on the side of a hill in a sweet middle class development probably dating back to the forties. Reaching the front porch, I turned around and was rewarded with a view that stretched out to the bay on one side and across the Castro Valley on the other. Some hideous audio of the techno variety throbbed and thumped its way through the front door.
I gave the door two sharp knocks, and knowing it couldn’t be heard over the music, entered without waiting for a response. I found David in the kitchen, pulling beer cans from their cardboard case and loading them into the fridge. He looked up, and an enormous, boyish grin filled his face.
“My brother!” he exclaimed, embracing me.
“My brother.” I replied, hugging back.
“I missed you, dickhead.” I said, employing my favorite nickname for him.
“Show it to me.” he said.
I didn’t have to ask him what he was referring to. Years of road trips, clubbing, smoking pot together in rooms both familiar and strange had provided us with the ability to communicate using a kind of psychic shorthand, interpreting this kind of non-sequitur with the ease of a master linguist.
“Come on.” I said, and we walked back out to the front yard.
“Oh my God, it’s beautiful!” he said approaching my car and slowly circling it.
I’d had the car for only a few months, a Mercedes C-Class that I had just leased, and I got a small thrill that David, an avid fan of luxury cars, appreciated it as much as I did, was happy for me.
This was one of the things I loved about David. Long ago, I had learned that most of my old friends from Modesto did not want to hear about any good fortune I may have experienced since moving to Los Angeles. This was often hugely disappointing, as I still often had difficulty believing the circumstances in which I sometimes found myself. By Los Angeles standards, the things I had done and the people I had met perhaps were fairly unremarkable, but for someone like me, someone who just a few short years ago was selling extended warranties on riding mowers to grizzled, over-alled farmers, they seemed remarkable, sometimes unbelievable. It was such a disappointment to not be able to share these experiences without being made to feel as if I were somehow bragging or worse, exaggerating. Even writing these words I feel a slight cringe.
So I learned, when it came to my small-town friends, to downplay anything that might be construed as either boasting or name-dropping.
“We spent New Years at Lisa Kudrow’s house” became “We just hung out with some friends.” “I’m on tour with the Chili Peppers” became “I’m traveling for business,” and something like attending the Emmys was best left entirely unmentioned. Though I felt like I was sometimes selling myself short, since I had worked my ass off to get where I was, it just made things easier when dealing with most people from my Modesto years. . Eventually, most of these old friendships fell by the wayside anyway, replaced by Los Angeles friends who understood that these events, though interesting, were nothing more than the by-product of working in the entertainment industry and being partnered with a working actor.
David, however, was different. Just as I was thrilled for all his successes, his escape from fundamentalism, his graduation from IT school, the purchase of his home, he was equally thrilled for me, and rather than feel threatened by or jealous of the circumstances of my life, he got a kick out of them. I loved surprising him, inviting him to premieres and bringing him backstage at concerts and introducing him to the bands My favorite example of this was when he had come down to Los Angeles the previous year for a visit. Knowing when he’d be arriving, I had invited some friends over, and then gone grocery shopping, asking my friends to greet him when he arrived and entertain him until I returned. When I arrived back at my house, I found David’s car parked out on the street and entered the house to find him in the living room, looking slightly pale and stunned and having a conversation with Cheri Oteri and Paula Abdul.
He was in heaven the entire weekend, and it made me happy to see him so excited. And of course, as everyone instantly does, the two famous ladies adored him.
“What color is that, exactly?” he asked now, squinting at the vehicle.
“I don’t know. I thought it was blue when I got it, but apparently it’s green.” I said, and we both guffawed at the ridiculousness of my abject color blindness, something he had teased and playfully tormented me about for years.
“I’m so happy for you.” he said, and embraced me again.
“Thanks, Dave…I love you,” I said, squeezing him back.
“I can’t believe you’re driving a Mercedes, you fucker.” he laughed.
“I can’t believe you’re a homeowner, you dickhead,” I countered.
“You wanna drive it?”
“Fuck yeah!” he said, and I tossed him the keys.
We drove through the winding hills of Fremont, horrible dance music from the station David selected bouncing out of the twelve bose speakers and escaping through the opened sunroof like audio vapor, joined soon by vapor from the joint David produced from his shirt pocket. We drove for about twenty minutes, David loving the experience and me loving David’s loving it.
Stoned as fuck, we returned to the house, and after making him give me a tour of his new home, began getting the house ready for the party. Three hours until guests would begin arriving, and we set to work moving furniture back against the walls, stringing speaker wire out into the backyard, filling the kitchen table with bottles of booze and setting up strobe lights in the living room and bedrooms. At some point, David’s partner James, a shy, handsome former navy officer who had lived for months at a time on a submarine and was some kind of high-tech genius and a genuinely lovely man – who clearly adored my friend – arrived home. I gave him a hug and dragged him out into the backyard to share the rest of the joint.
Dusk came, and the guests followed. The crowd was, as it always was at one of David’s parties, pleasantly egalitarian. Well-groomed gays, grunge gays, straight preppies, gay preppies, straight tattooed punks, gay tattooed punks, motherly older women, fatherly older men, both femme and butch lesbians, artists, and the occasional silicon valley type.
The house was soon packed with this cross-section of Bay Area humanity, and soon I was doing a couple fat lines of coke in the garage with Roger, a sweet and very sexy gargantuan-mohawked, tattooed punk I’d met on an embarrassingly sexually-uncontained-on-my-part trip with David and James to the Russian River a few years back. After reminiscing about my incredible lack of discretion (drug-fueled, of course) and the hearty applause I’d received from those in neighboring tents when I emerged in the morning, I began working the crowded party, mellowing the cocaine rush with shots of Jaegermeister, and the hours ticked by. Plastic cups piled up in corners, crepe paper streamers detached and hung sloppily from the walls. A thin, blond-haired twink latched onto me at some point, obviously stoned, even more so than me. I don’t think I even asked his name, but when he began asking me to fuck him, I snagged a condom from David’s night table drawer and lead him down to the front yard and into a cramped storage area under the house and obliged his request. I thought briefly of Patrick at home and was momentarily flooded by a wave of guilt. Even though we had a sort of semi-fluid, unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding indiscretions, we could certainly not be classified as swingers and both valued monogamy. He just happened to be a whole lot better at it than I was.
The fuck took less than ten minutes, and when we were finished I left him there in his drunken stupor and stumbled out, up the stairs and back through the front door, and noticed that the room was thinning slightly, all of the more responsible types having departed, leaving only the hardcore partiers to continue.
I found David in the kitchen.
“I have a surprise for you.” I said. “Come with me.”
He followed me into his bedroom and I went to my duffel bag in the closet and retrieved a plastic bag containing an eight ball of crystal from one of its pockets, along with a thin-glassed bubble pipe and a small, yellow butane torch lighter.
“Oh my god.” said Dave. “Is that coke?”
“Nope, it’s Tina.” I said, using the gay slang for the drug.
I see a look of concern pass over his face, but it quickly dissipates.
“Shit, that’s a lot.”
“Can we share it with some of my friends? Would that be okay?” David asked.
“Sure. You go get them and I’ll get the pipe ready.”
David stopped and turned back around to face me.
“We’re going to smoke it? I’ve never smoked it before.”
David, who was usually as game as I was to experiment with new experiences, seemed a little hesitant. Pot was David’s mainstay, and I suspect the idea of smoking a meth pipe was pushing the boundaries of experimentation for him.
“It’s great.” I said. “You’ll love it. Go get your friends.”
Soon, there were about twelve of us in the small room, gathered around the edges of the bed, people David selected who he knew would want to be included. It was surprising to me then, and embarrassing for me now to remember that I was the only one of that select group who knew…or admitted to knowing… how to smoke speed from a pipe, and I had to demonstrate for them, how to slowly roll the bowl while the white crystals vaporized, how not to burn the contents, and emphasizing with the solemn firmness of a college professor the importance of not rolling it so far that the boiling liquid could spill out the small hole in the top, a common, and sometimes painful, first-time speed-smoking faux pas, particularly for those who are already high on weed.
I saw in a few of the faces ringing the bed a trace of disgust, the similarity of the ritual being so close to that of the crack head, but everyone partook despite whatever misgivings they might have, any revulsion being tempered by the communal nature of the act. Images of Halle Berry in Jungle Fever imploring “I suck your dick good for five dollars, honey” were pushed aside by the illusion of camaraderie, the certainty that this bedroom-bound posse were safely insulated from that kind of fall from grace. This was a party in a lovely suburban home, not a drug den in South Central.
The pipe circulated, with a few intermissions to reload it, until it had made the full rounds several times, at which point people began to slip back out of the room to rejoin the main party.
“Wow, that’s intense,” David said, smiling at me.
“I know,” I replied.
“When did you start smoking it?” he asked
“ A few months ago…I like it so much better than snorting it.”
“I can see why,” he said through a smile that would stay on his face for the next 12 hours.
In the intervening years, I’ve done much for which I feel guilt and shame. Introducing a roomful of people, of David’s friends, to the act of smoking meth ranks among the most spiritually punishing of my memories. If I’d known at that time the path that smoking crystal would soon lead me down, I wouldn’t have done it. But I did. And I still agonize, wondering how many of those twelve people also became addicted. The odds are pretty good that at least one of them did.
David’s parties generally lasted until the early morning hours. This one, however, newly charged by the crystal rocket fuel, went on until the following afternoon.
When my cell phone had begun buzzing earlier, I had simply shut it off. I knew my mother had been expecting me to arrive in the morning, as did Patrick. I knew that we had planned to spend today with my grandmother, and that she was waiting for me. But I also knew that my grandmother spent most days alone, and that whether our visit happened today or tomorrow would hardly matter to her. A small wave of guilt coursed over me, but I brushed it aside, promising myself I’d give her extra attention, that I’d even take her to Starbucks, oxygen tanks and all, for one of her most recently acquired passions, a venti mocha Frappucino. I knew that I should call, but I also knew that if I spoke to either of them they’d be able to tell immediately that I was using, and I didn’t want to revisit the “go to a twelve step meeting or get out” ordeal of last month. I would just tell them that there had been a miscommunication, and that my cell phone battery had died. I’ll promise I’ll work on being more responsible, I’d say, expertly feigning humility and regret.
Once the speed had been introduced, the gathering had taken on a decidedly sexual nature, the disinhibiting libido-enhancing effect of the drug clearly in evidence. By four AM of the second night, the crowd consisted primarily twelve or so of us that had shared the pipe and some others who were tweaking on their own or still flying high on coke. A small orgy spontaneously erupted in the spare bedroom, participants coming and going and trying to come for hours, the entire affair taking on a decidedly late-career Pier Paolo Pasolini flavor.
At one point, I discovered David and two other gay men sitting indian-style in a row facing the fireplace.
On the hearth, a butch dyke named Angela (with whom I had earlier discussed computer software marketing) was kneeling next to her femme girlfriend, also named Angela, who was naked from the waist down with her legs splayed far apart. Butch Angela had three fingers in femme Angela’s vagina, and was rocketing them in and out with the speed and precision of an industrial power tool. The femme Angela’s head lolled back on her shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the small audience in front of her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“She’s trying to prove to us that women can ejaculate.” explained David, turning his head toward me and taking a drag off his cigarette.
“Oh,” I said, and never one to pass on an educational opportunity, took my place in the row of spectators.
It was only moments later that the prone Angela began to moan, her legs tensing and her bare feet grasping for purchase on the reddish carpeting. Butch Angela’s hand sped up even further, a whirring blur between the other girl’s thighs. An avid consumer of straight porn, I sensed what was coming, so to speak, and moved back a few feet. The others, possibly too high to sense danger, remained in position like oblivious tourists on the blue front row bench at Sea World.
Great jets of clear liquid pulsed out of the girl, arcing up and forward, landing on the carpet between her legs, and quite tragically, on the forearms of the gay guy directly in front of her.
“Fuck!” he screamed, lurching backward and falling over in his attempt to escape the Vesuvian pussy in front of him.
David looked back over his shoulder at me and remarked, in the droll way that only David could, “fuck is right. I just had this carpet cleaned.”
When daylight finally arrived, I awoke from a fitful half-sleep in a giant tangled heap of sleeping, nude gay men, comforters and pillows on the floor of the small second bedroom. Rubbing my eyes, trying to get my gummy contacts lenses to free themselves from my corneas, I stumbled around the destroyed house gathering my belongings, and then snuck into David and James’s room to say goodbye.
After stopping at McDonalds for coffee, I finally turned my cell phone back on. Many, many text messages were waiting for me, from both Patrick and my mother. Sighing, I decided not to read any of them, and dialed my mother directly instead.
She answered on the first ring.
“Mom” I said, “I had my phone turned off, I just saw that you sent me a bunch of texts. Is everything okay?”
Expecting her to start raging at me, I was surprised to find silence on the other end of the line.
“Andy, where are you?”
She doesn’t sound angry at all. I begin to feel relief.
“I’m on my way, I’ll be there in about an hour. Sorry I forgot to call and tell you I wasn’t going to be there, I was just too tired to drive and decided to wait until this morning.”
Okay, she says, calmly. It’s so out of character for her, this almost tranquilized delivery, that I begin to get concerned.
“What’s going on, Mom?
“Nothing. Just drive carefully.
Clearly, she’s not mad at me, because my mother has never been one to hide her anger. But there’s something else going on, but I can’t make sense of it.
Because my head still isn’t completely clear, I decide not to press it, and after hanging up drive to Turlock as quickly as possible, trying to come up with a story that would appease both Patrick and my mother, just in case I need one, and decide keeping it simple is best, that’ll I’ll stick with the “just forgot, phone turned off, Sorry to worry you,” plan.
When I arrive at my mother’s house, I see that there are quite a few cars parked in front, only two of which I recognize, my sister’s and my brother’s.
Entering the house, I hear conversation in the kitchen stop completely as the front door closes behind me. Rounding the corner, I find my entire family, including some cousins, seated around the kitchen table, all of them silent, all of them staring at me with blank expressions I can’t decipher.
An Intervention? Already?
Then, my mother is moving towards me, putting her arms around me, and suddenly, intuitively, instinctively, I know. I already know.
I’ve identified as an atheist for years, but deep down, I still believe in God. I believe that he is cruel, and vicious, and vengeful. He is a God who tricks, and taunts, who allows six million jews to be murdered on the whim of a single lunatic, who invents things like polio and who puts child-molesting priests into the direct path of young children. Knowing all this, I also know how God has written the next line of the ridiculous screenplay that is my life.
“Honey,” my mom says, squeezing me tightly with her big, soft arms, “your grandmother died last night.”
MUSIC SWELLS, FADE TO BLACK.