Category Archives: Uncategorized

“I USED TO WORK FOR STEVEN SPIELBERG”

Moonlight, Machete & Madness Pt. 3 (conclusion)

read part one

read part two

Walking quickly, I soon reach the perimeter of the hospital.  Huntington Memorial is a fairly large complex, and I am unsure of exactly where I am.  The streets are dark, and very few vehicles are out.  There is a slight chill in the night air, but I barely feel it, my adrenaline-enhanced heartbeat keeping my body temperature slightly raised.

Looking around, I spy a row of single-story office buildings across the street, flanked by overgrown landscaping.  I scour the greenery carefully, looking for signs of tree people, and am relieved that I see none. I dart across the road and approach the building, duck-walking quickly under the low hanging branches of a large shrub, and scuttling back into a small clearing between the building and the bushes that line its brick side. I slide down the cool wall into a sitting position, completely concealed. Safe – at least temporarily.

Pulling the bag of crystal from my pocket, I hold it up to inspect the contents.  I am gratified to see that more than half of the teenager – the ridiculous slang name given a bag containing a 16th of an ounce – remains.  I suddenly remember a comic greeting card I once saw, with a cartoon lady waving a cartoon checkbook and exclaiming, indignantly: “I can’t be overdrawn…I’ve still got checks left!”   And so it is with me: despite my spiritual bankruptcy,  the binge can’t be over if there is still crystal in the bag.

My hand trembling, I reach my thumb and forefinger into the bag, pinching several large shards of the glass-like substance.  For a quick rueful second, I think of the pipe and torch I left behind in my bedroom.  I have always preferred smoking these crystals, which delivers the drug in a slower, more languorous fashion, as compared to the sudden jolt that accompanies snorting, slamming or ingesting it.  Careful not to drop any, I put my fingers into my mouth and deposit the bitter, tangy rocks at the back of my throat and swallow quickly, working my dry mouth in an attempt to build up enough saliva to get them down.

Carefully re-sealing the bag and pushing it back into my pocket, I slump back against the cold wall and wait.

It seems like only a few minutes before the freight train comes rumbling toward me.  My body, accustomed to the more gradual introduction of the drug, is overwhelmed by what is at least the equivalent of two full bowls.  This large quantity, which would normally take me many hours to smoke, is now being absorbed all at once by my long-empty stomach.

There is a roaring of white electricity in my head, and a multi-colored light show begins to dance behind my closed eyelids.  My extremities numb, while at the same time a ribbon of heat slowly unfurls itself through my core, starting in my groin and working its way up through my chest.  The heat engulfs my heart, and I can feel it pounding furiously against my ribs as I open my mouth, gasping for air.  The feeling of sexual euphoria that has played such a large part in my addiction usually builds slowly when smoking, but now it rolls over me in a tidal wave of dopamine-overloaded sensuality.

The heat ribbon continues up, past my chest into my brain, burning its familiar path to my pleasure receptors.  I begin to writhe slowly, twisting my neck and head in rhythm to the pulses of electricity that jolt from my brain back into my body.  Gasping for air, eyes clenched, I roll onto my side on the cold earth as my entire being is engulfed in primal spasms, as my libido is launched into hyper-drive and suddenly, utterly consumes me.  Completely unaware of where I am, who I am, I have been rocketed to a place of absolute, blind ecstasy, where once again I will take up extended residence on that small plateau that precedes orgasm.

After a period of time that feels like several hours, but past experience tells me has probably been closer to thirty minutes, the freight train finally rumbles past, and I begin to sense the cool air moving against my damp, heated body.  I slowly extract my hands from the waistband of my cargo pants, where they have, as always it seem these days, found themselves.  Despite the total sensual immersion, actual orgasm has not been achieved, nor will it anytime soon, part of the Faustian deal the tweaker makes with his drug of choice.  The very same drug that brings one to the height of sexual transcendence also impedes physiologically any release: erections are a thing of the past, orgasm a goal rarely achieved.

I open my eyes, attempting to regain my bearings.  Although the initial rush of the speed has passed, my disorientation continues. It is as if the brightness and contrast settings of the world have been adjusted to high. The dim, filtered glow from the streetlights that permeate the bushes is almost blinding in its intensity, and the shadows have become, deeper, darker, visually impenetrable.

As I lie there, the whispers soon reach my ears, originating somewhere deep within the now almost visually indecipherable tangle of branch and bush.  My peripheral vision detects a rippling of the shadows, and I realize that during my sexual reverie, the tree people have found me.

ishot-1558411Seconds later, I am stumbling my way down Pasadena Avenue, my gait loping and disjointed from the numbness in my legs, my only objective being to stay in the dim glow of the streetlights and away from the shadows beyond them, where I can sense the tree people gathering to watch this awkward, one-man parade.  I have no sense of direction or destination, I simply continue to move, turning left onto a residential street lined with upscale, old-money Pasadena homes.  Trees are everywhere, there is no escaping them, so I continue moving, tripping frequently on the imperfect panels of sidewalk lifted and cantered by the giant roots below. I have no idea what time it is, but the lack of cars on the street tell me it is probably well past midnight. The street curves through the wooded terrain, and eventually the houses on the left give way to a steep, tree and brush covered embankment, falling away to the Arroyo Seco riverbed at the bottom.

I immediately cross to the right side of the street, nearer the streetlights and the comparative safety of the homes that line it, their well-manicured lawns and neatly trimmed landscaping providing fewer hiding places for those who are hunting me.

I pause for a moment to rest, and through my blurred vision, I detect movement above me.  I look up, squinting, into the shadowy, branchy canopy of a huge live oak tree directly to my right.  The great tree sits dead center on the lawn of an elegant brick two-story home, it’ yard dimly but fully illuminated by expensive Malibu lighting.  The branches of the huge, ancient tree span far out over the roadside, joining up with the branches of other huge trees nearby.  Squinting upward, I struggle to decipher what I am seeing.  The whites and blacks of light and shadow, the organic shapes of branch and leaf slowly arrange themselves into sensibility, and suddenly, I see it.  I suck in my breath, and sink to my knees in front of the great tree, as if in prayer, and my wide eyes slowly scanning the terrible, terrible sight less than twenty feet above my head.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Note:   I am not the only person to have seen the Tree People.  Many meth addicts have observed them, and they are a well-documented hallucinatory phenomenon common to users of this drug.  In the past, following previous encounters, I have researched them on the internet and was stunned to discover the similarity of experience from one user to another.  I once saw a one-hour documentary about two Midwestern teenagers who, high on crystal meth, wound up lost in a snowstorm, completely disoriented.  Their ordeal was captured on several rambling, confused cell phone calls the couple made to 911.  The teenage girl, her voice panicked, pleaded with the operator to send help.

“There are lots of Mexicans and African Americans….and they’re all dressed up in these cult outfits!” she wailed.

“They’re taking the cars and hiding them in the trees!”

“Hiding what in the trees?”  asked the confused operator.

“There are hundreds of them! Two hundred!”  the teenage girl shrieked.  The couple, in the throes of the drug, were unable to provide accurate information to pinpoint their location, and soon froze to death after setting out on foot to evade the Tree People.

(listen to the tragic 911 calls)

In the past, having come down from the drug, I have tried to convince myself that I had hallucinated every terrifying thing.  However, I haven’t always been able to shake fully the feeling that what I have seen – these tree people – are real.  A small part of me believes that the drug has lifted some sort of veil between the physical realm and the spiritual one, and that what I am seeing, the same thing so many other meth addicts have seen, is truly and terrifyingly authentic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, what I see above me seems to confirm the truth of this strange conviction.  The canopy above me is alive with the creatures, but what stuns me is something else, something I have never seen before, in all my many encounters with this bizarre race of people.  I am staring at a vast network of bridges and platforms set amongst the branches, spanning out on all sides, connected to adjacent trees, a huge masterpiece of engineering. I am looking up into a virtual city, stunning in its complexity.  I slowly move my gaze from treetop to treetop, realizing each of them harbors its own set of platforms, connected by wooden scaffolding and rope and plank bridges, a multitude of Swiss Family Treehouses of Terror.   It is as if another layer of the veiling between this world and theirs has been peeled back, revealing further, more elaborate details of their existence.

ishot-1625141A vast assembly of Tree People line these arboreal sidewalks, their twig-like fingers grasping conveniently placed, rough-hewn safety rails, looking down upon me.  As ever, their faces are judgmental, angry, yet motionless.  The sheer number of them, coupled with this crystal-clear view of their aerial, sylvan metropolis is so overwhelming that all fear is pushed out of the way by awe and amazement.

“Jesus Christ,” I  say too loudly, studying the incredibly intricate details of construction. “This is amazing.”

A dog begins barking and a just a few moments later, the front door of the house opens.  A woman, one hand at her chest clutching her white bathrobe closed, stands behind a screen door and peers out at me.

“Who are you?” she demands. “What are you doing?”

I look at her for a moment from my kneeling position on her lawn, and use a head gesture to indicate the veritable city in the treetops.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I ask her.

She is silent for a moment, studying me, and I turn my gaze back to the branches, marveling.

“Go away or I’m calling the police!” she says, as the small dog yaps near her feet.

I turn and look at her again, and she is wearing a mixed expression of concern and confusion.

“Don’t worry ma’am,” I say politely with what I hope is a reassuring smile, struggling for something to say, some piece of information about myself that might soothe her, let her know that I pose no danger.

I used to work for Steven Spielberg,” are the words that finally find their way out of my mouth.

The woman seems neither pacified nor impressed.  She stares dully at me for a moment before announcing, “I’m calling the cops,” then closing the door, muffling the continued barking of the dog.

I stay on the lawn, gaping up at the strange civilization hanging over me, and I feel defeated.  The complexity of these creatures and their feats of amazing engineering and magical concealment convey, finally, the absolute futility of trying to defeat or evade them.  I simply sit there, completely overwhelmed, waiting for them to engage, for them to slither down the great trunk and take me.  For reasons unknown, the creatures simply continue staring at me, but make no move.  Occasionally, a slight breeze moves the air, rippling their leafy robes and tunics.

Suddenly, I hear the sound of a car coming around the curve of the street, behind me.  I tear my gaze from the treetop and see a black and white police cruiser approaching, a bright beam of light from a side-mounted spotlight bathing the roadside as it approaches.  I jump to my feet and sprint across the street, leaping over a small, foot-high stone wall that runs along the top of the steep embankment.   I land on my feet on the sloping hillside, but they immediately tangle in the thick carpet of undergrowth. I lose a shoe, and go tumbling head over heels down the dark slope, tearing my pants and scraping my arms and face.  I land with a thud, deep in a thicket of wild ferns and ivy, and I lay there, panting, waiting to be discovered.   From my prone position, I can see the beams of flashlights at the top of the hill as they pan the ravine, passing over me without pausing. The voices of two policemen are barely audible over the watery rush of the small river below me, and I hold my breath, waiting for them to descend.   The flashlights work the hillside for long minutes, but finally, they are gone.

police+cruiser+at+nightI lie there, my heart racing, the meth almost completely numbing the sting of the wounds on my arms and face.  I feel trapped, the Tree People are everywhere, and I am again at a complete loss.  They seem to be making no move toward me, and the entire darkened ravine is ominously quiet, save for the sound of the moving water.

Overcome with a sense of hopelessness, I reach my hand into my pocket and find the packet of speed. It is too dark to see it, even with my fully dilated pupils, but I can feel the still fairly substantial contents through the plastic, hard and lumpy.  My mind fogged and my body already filled with the toxic substance, I consider the potential lethality of what I hold in my hands.  Despair, guilt, shame and self-loathing collide all at once, and I unseal it and bring it to my mouth, shaking the contents out and into the back of my throat. I’ve heard many times that suicide is option of the coward, but I don’t believe that’s always true.  Removing pain and suffering from the lives of loved ones by eliminating its source seems like a very practical, perhaps even slightly noble solution. I skim the inside of the bag with my finger, picking up the powdery residue, and lick it clean with my tongue.  Dropping the baggie, I close my eyes and wait for it to hit.

I think of my niece and nephews, of my mother, and of course, Patrick. Having long ago forsaken religion, I still attempt to recite a “Hail Mary”, but the prayer sounds strangely disjointed to me, and I’m certain I’ve left out a line or two.    My last conscious thought is the realization that my body will be probably be eaten by scavenging animals before it is discovered, and then I am sucked back under the wheels of the freight train as it returns.  There is no pleasure this time, only great, racking full-body spasms and the certainty that my heart is about to explode in my chest.

Then, nothingness.

In what I am now certain is a dream, I find myself standing shakily on the embankment, surrounded by a legion of bushes and trees and the strange smallish, tree people inhabiting them.  They stare at me solemnly, watching and observing my attempts to stay upright.  The hillside is gently bathed in the pre-light of approaching dawn. “Have you seen my other shoe?”  I ask a short, squat bush whose resident tree person seems, somehow, less judgmental than the others.   It remains silent, and I move on, the dreamscape shifting in the rapidly increasing golden light.  I begin to move up the hill, but am again suddenly overwhelmed by spasms, my body tightening in a cramp that seems to start at my feet, jerking its way through my entire body. I begin to retch, great hacking waves that produce nothing.  I am overcome by a wall of lightheadedness as the hazy dreamworld around me rocks and rolls in undulating rhythm.

Then, in an almost filmic smash-cut, I am running down a long corridor paved with asphalt, following a white line past tromp l’oeil murals of suburban orderliness lining the long walls on either side of me.  Huge, metallic prehistoric beasts race down the corridor in both directions, blaring terrible trumpet sounds as they zoom past.  Somewhere, a dimmer switch is slowly turned up and the corridor grows brighter with each moment, illuminating a beautifully painted ceiling of bright blue and gray.  As I move forward down this surreal hallway,I pass a man walking a dog on my left, and he calls out to me, his words unintelligible.  I wave to him, smile and keep running, one-shoed, squinting into the ever-increasing light that grows in intensity until I am blinded by the whiteness.

The dream jump-cuts suddenly, and I am now sitting, inexplicably, in the back seat of my mother’s minivan.  Patrick is driving.  My mother is riding shotgun, her hand pressed against her forehead, sobbing softly while Patrick caresses her arm soothingly with his right hand.  On the seat beside me, reinforcing the bizarre, dreamlike nature of my current state, sits our wire-haired terrier mix, Shekel, who looks rapidly from me, to Patrick, and back again.  The bright glare of the morning sun glints sharply off the car window, blinding me again.

I turn to look at Shekel, who is staring at me.

“You fucked up again, didn’t you?” says the dog. Despite his harsh words, I am grateful to see compassion in his watery black eyes.

self pics copyA flash of light and he dream shifts once more to a kaleidoscope of chrome and white and glare. I suddenly become aware of pressure on left arm. In the distance, I hear an agonized, hoarse screaming, echoing as if shouted into a canyon.  A small circle of color in the center of my bright, white field of vision grows wider and then wider still, until it becomes a woman’s face – dark complexion, stern –  hovering over my own.  The field widens even further again to include a strange man, in some sort of uniform.  The man is tying my arm to a silver bar of some sort, and I suddenly recognize the screaming voice as my own, hurling obscenities.   I note that my body is thrashing, bucking and jerking against the hold of four-point restraints.  The woman’s mouth moves, and the words seem strangely out of synch with the movements of her lips.

“Hold his arm still.”

A sharp pricking of my left forearm, and within moments, the dream begins to fall in upon itself, the alternating concentric rings of reality and delusion constricting and expanding, until they eclipse each other fully, and I slide back into darkness.

Two Anniversaries

6818_1221765939380_7562331_n

Patrick at the Groundlings, around the time I met him. From Left: Lisa Kudrow, Tim Bagley, Kathy Griffin, Patrick, Cathy Shambley.

Last week my husband and I celebrated the third anniversary of our wedding on April 12, 2010, in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Attended by friends and family and filled with laughter and tears, April 12 will always be our legal wedding anniversary.

Today, however, is a much more important anniversary. April 19, 1994  is exactly 19 years to the day since my husband and I went on our first date. It’s this date I prefer to celebrate. April 12, though filled with great memories and marked by papers filed and all the legal mumbo-jumbo, is essentially the day that we were finally able to get married, having stupidly waited too long and being blindsided by Prop 8. Like most gay couples who have been together for a long time, it feels like short shrift to say our wedding date is in 2010, because if we’d been “allowed” to get married like straight people, I suspect our wedding would have taken place sometime around 1998, and i’d be telling people that i’ve been married for fifteen years rather than three.

I first saw Patrick Bristow on my first visit to The Groundlings theatre sometime in 1993, and was BLOWN AWAY…like, draw-droppingly blown away…by his improvisational comedy skills. Like, genius x 100. Plus, he was adorable in sweet, quirky way. At the time, I was dating a gay porn star and – ludicrously – wondering why I never seemed to be able to hang on to a relationship. When I saw Patrick in his first improvised scene that night (some lake-side tryst with fellow Groundling Jennifer Coolidge that involved knitting) and when he’d made me laugh harder than I ever remembered having laughed before, I thought to myself, “THAT’S what I want in my life.”

Halcyon Days: Patrick's role on the sitcom "Ellen" launched his career into late-90's hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

Halcyon Days: Patrick’s role on the sitcom “Ellen” launched his career into late-90’s hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

Our mutual friend Kim Everett-Martin (Thanks, Kim!)  introduced us when we joined the cast for dinner after the show (where I also met the guy who’d become one of my dearest friends, box office manager Mike Sweeney) and the rest was, well…a long, frustrating, drawn out ordeal of me pretty much stalking Patrick for nigh on a year, up to and including taking a job I didn’t need as house manager at The Groundlings just to have more opportunities to make him fucking notice me.

Nothing seemed to work. He was pleasant, but barely paid me any attention at all. Which, of course, only made me more determined.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

Finally, one Sunday night at the Groundlings Mike and I got a little drunk in the box office and I finally worked up the nerve to actually ask Patrick out. I think Mike was as surprised as I was that Patrick agreed to the date, and walking home together down Sierra Bonita on our way home from work that night, Mike…who had known Patrick for several years, told me: ‘Patrick’s a good one. Hang on to him.”

He is. And I have.

Since falling in actual love on that first date at Farfalla Restaurant in Los Feliz,  this man and I have shared some amazing times…we’ve traveled the world, we’ve both had career highs that neither of us could have anticipated, we’ve been blessed with wealth and with nice cars, AMAZING friends, and our lives are rich with the love of two families who have never made us feel like a “gay couple,” always just couple…not to mention four nieces and nephews who have never known a life without Uncle Patrick in it.

There have also been some truly terrible times: the deaths of his parents, the suicide of a nephew. Financial hardship, the forfeiting of said nice cars. Medical crises, and of course, my years-long addiction to crystal meth, during which he was never a doormat: if I was willing to work on myself, he was always there for me. Even when he was protecting himself by changing the locks on our home, I never doubted his love for me. And when I was screaming at him in a meth-fueled rage, telling him how much I hated him, I have no doubt he knew I loved him.

So even though we were only “allowed” to get married three years ago, and still aren’t recognized in our own state as a married couple, this wonderful, evolved, spiritual, and plain damned FUNNY man – the only person who can make me laugh when all I want to do is cry –  has been my husband for a long, long time, despite what it says on our Connecticut marriage license.

me and p

Advocate article, 2005

Sometimes, when I tell people my husband and I have been together for 19 years, the response is one of astonishment. Frequently, I’m asked how we’ve managed to stay together. First, I usually advise them, put aside your bullshit “requirements” for a spouse: Handsome. Blonde. Dark and swarthy. Successful. Swimmer’s body. Nice car. Whatever you think is your ideal is probably not ideal. For years I’d chased the archetypical, masculine, GQ magazine ideal of a mate. Sometimes I got them. Sometimes they were wonderful, like an early boyfriend of mine, Kevin. Most of the time, however, the person inside the archetype couldn’t live up to their own hype (and I’m sure a few felt that way about me as well.) If you’d told me in my early dating years that i’d find true happiness with a quirky looking, wiry red-headed guy, I would have scoffed.   What I saw in Patrick that first time at the Groundlings was something I didn’t even realize I wanted. No, needed: gentleness, humor, intelligence. Something instinctively told me that this was someone I wanted to be around. I went with my heart and not my preconceptions.   Patrick too had to push away his expectations of a partner: the reason he barely talked to me that first year before our date is because he assumed I was a shallow, West Hollywood pretty boy (don’t laugh, in 1993 it wasn’t as ludicrous an assumption as it sounds now). He was in search of an intellectual type, a more sophisticated and less obviously insecure type. We both listened to that quiet voice coming from our hearts.

Staying together is the hard part, of course. I’m not sure how we’ve done it, to be honest. I do know that we make allowances for each other’s humanity, that we worked hard early on to communicate honestly. We’re patient with each other regarding our differences (he loves classical music, I tolerate it. I freak out about getting older, he couldn’t care less, etc, etc, etc.), and we celebrate our similarities. We understand that we have a richer life together when we each have our own, and then come together to share our adventures. But most of all, we honor our commitment. Whatever happens. And I mean, whatever.  There have been a lot of  ‘whatevers,‘ believe me.  But we process them knowing that we have to solve the current problem with the end result being “staying together.” Breaking up is never an option.  As Patrick once said about our relationship in an interview with The Advocate, “Commitment only counts when you need it…and that’s when it’s the most difficult to maintain.”

222583_4570657699581_1279233810_n

Oahu, 1995.

My husband just got home tonight from being on tour for three weeks with the adult improv puppet show he co-created with our friend Brian Henson of The Jim Henson company, and it was a long and lonely three weeks. Even though he’s jet-lagged crashed in our bed already and we haven’t had much time to catch up, it’s not really necessary. Knowing that he’s curled up in a near coma in the other room, snoring away loudly while being snuggled by our three dogs who have also missed him terribly (he’s the nice daddy, i’m the disciplinary daddy), once  again, our house feels like a home. OUR home.

There is so much love under this roof . And you know what, any of you who feel icky  just reading about gay couples? There’s far more love and friendship here than there is sex, not that you should be thinking about that anyway. I don’t immediately picture straight couples banging uglies, and you shouldn’t be thinking that about us. Unless you enjoy it, of course, in which case feel free, hypocrite. We’re just two people committed to taking care of each other, supporting each other, and being there through..well…richer or poorer, better or worse.

I love you, Patrick. Until death do us part.

Screw Prop 8: Happy actual anniversary, my husband, my best friend, the most amazing human being I’ve ever known.

It’s your turn to do the laundry, btw. So glad you’re home.

149997_1653537773406_901587_n

Ghosts of Los Angeles: The Hillside Stranglers

“I have never experienced another human being. I have experienced my impressions of them.” – Author Robert Anton Wilson.

7d_4It is one of the many sad by-products of human nature: the more brutal and prolific a killer is, the more likely he or she is to be enshrined in infamy, bestowed with awe/fear-inspiring nicknames, and garner legions of morbid, gore-crazy disciples. The names Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jack the Ripper and The Green River Killer are forever enshrined in our lexicon.  Conversely, only a few victim’s names are easily recalled (Sharon Tate, for example), while those of Kristina Weckler, Elizabeth Stride, Kelly Ware and countless others are remembered only by grieving family members, police officers intimately involved with the case, or hardcore true-crime buffs with particularly muscular memories.

chevy chase

our former home in the Chevy Chase Estates

In 1998, my partner and I had just purchased a home in the Chevy Chase Estates in Glendale.  I had recently become interested in the true crime genre, and was voraciously devouring Darcy O’Brien’s “The Hillside Stranglers,” a compelling account of the brutal, late-70’s murder rampage by Los Angeles cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi that terrorized the city and held the world in its thrall.  It was extremely disconcerting, some thirty-odd pages into the book, to read that the third victim of the depraved pair had been discovered only yards from the house into which we’d just moved.

Overcome by morbid curiosity, paperback in hand, I walked down the front pathway of our hilltop home and made my way up Chevy Chase Drive, until I located the spot described in the book.  Referring to the paperback in my hand, I read O’Brien’s words:

Between the golf course fence and the road lay a deep drainage ditch, then a steep embankment, then a metal guard rail about three feet high.  They swung the body out over the guard rail, trying to heave it into the ditch. But she landed heavily and rolled with a rustling of leaves down the embankment about fifteen feet and came to rest against an invisible guy wire.”

There was the guard rail. And there was the wire with the steel guard at its base, some twenty years later, still rising out of the leaf-covered ravine.  This was, beyond a doubt, the right place.  Having once visited Auschwitz, and having stood on the same platform that so many unfortunates – including several of my friends – had poured onto from countless railroad cars, I recognized the feeling I was experiencing now: the almost tangible sense of sadness associated with being in a place where something horrible had once happened.

I stared at the spot for several minutes before heading back to my house to continue reading, where I soon learned that the Los Angeles girl who had lived 21 years of hopes, frustrations and dreams – before that night she was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dropped on this hillside – had been named Lissa Kastin.

12957507_113705187289-1

Lissa Kastin, widely-circulated victim photo

The book offered a grainy, black and white photo of Lissa and it was, to be blunt, unflattering. A three-quarter view of a face that looked too round and too large-nosed to ever be called pretty was the only image presented of this young woman.  Somehow, the homeliness of the photo made her tragic ending seem even more pathetic.  The description of her final hours…both horrific and nauseating…saddened me deeply.  Reading of her final torment while less than a mile away from where she had been tortured and strangled, and only yards from her interim resting place, removed the comforting filter of distance usually present when reading about the ugliness of murder.

“From time to time as they drove towards Glendale, Lissa Kastin continued to protest, and when at last Bianchi pulled into Angelo’s driveway and cut the motor, she refused to get out of the car. But Bianchi coaxed her into the house, suggesting that she had no choice, which she did not.” – excerpt from The Hillside Stranglers, by Darcy O’Brien

The book offered little detail on her life: she worked at a restaurant called The Healthfaire on Vine near Hollywood Blvd., she lived in an apartment on Argyle near Dix street; she was health-conscious and wanted, like so many other 21 year-old Angelenos, to break into show business.   I barely knew this girl, yet I felt strangely connected to her. Perhaps it was because we had both ended up, through quirks of circumstance, in the hills of Chevy Chase Estates, where my burgeoning meth addiction had already, even in its infancy, brought me into contact numerous times with the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.  Or perhaps it was just a vague sympathy I felt for the girl in that unattractive photo. Whatever the reason, I found myself on the internet, researching everything I could find out about her.  Aside from a few stories in the LA Times that noted that she and several other victims had lived in or near Hollywood, there was very little information.  I also noted that in almost all of what little did exist, her name had been spelled incorrectly, as Lisa Kastin. In fact, even in the written indictment of Angelo Buono for the murders of ten young women her name had been spelled wrong, adding for posterity yet another layer of indignity to the brutal conclusion of Lissa’s life.777c331ea62badd02a7ea16fcd1a16ff

Years later, long after we had sold the big house on the hill and moved away from the conservative surroundings of Glendale and into our current home in the more bohemian climes of Mount Washington near downtown LA, I continued to think occasionally of the pudgy, moon-faced, and sadly doomed Lissa Kastin. Once, having told another true-crime aficionado about having lived at the place where the third victim had been discovered, she screwed up her face, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Wasn’t that the ugly girl?”  That sickened me a bit, and I bizarrely began to argue in defense of this person I’d never met.  However, with little evidence to counter my friend’s assessment, I realized that Lissa Kastin would always be regarded by true crime fans as the Unattractive Victim of The Hillside Stranglers. This was the girl, according to  O’Brien’s book, with the unshaven legs, the girl whose killers had deemed too unattractive for their usual modus operandi and so had devised more horrific means of violation. To me, it seemed like the ultimate heaping of insult upon the ultimate injury. Perhaps it was this, the continued degradation of this young woman even after death and my sympathy for her,  that kept her in my thoughts long after I’d forgotten details of other crime victims from the pages of other true crime books.

“From that point on the procedure was the same as with Judy Miller, except that Angelo worried that this girl might fight, so he kept her handcuffed and cut off her clothes with a big pair of upholstery scissors. Naked, she appealed to neither cousin. Angelo especially was put off by her unshaven legs and derided her as ‘some kind of health nut.'”  – excerpt, The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O’Brien

Lissa Kastin (center) with fellow “L.A. Knockers” dance troupe members.

Not long ago, having watched an abysmal film version of the Strangler story, I googled her name for the first time in years and discovered that a second photo of Lissa Kastin had been introduced to the internet.  The difference between the grainy, black and white photo circulated after the crime and this one was enormous. This had been no ugly girl. While perhaps not a great beauty,  the photo that I found showed her in full, crisp, color: standing by a brick storefront on Melrose Avenue flanked by two friends, and it would be no great stretch to describe her as “cute.”  They are all wearing t-shirts that read “L.A. Knockers,” the name of the modern pop-dance troupe she had belonged to.  She looks off into the distance, a cascade of dark curls falling over her shoulders.  There was so much life in this photo, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Lissa Kastin.

Further googling lead me to a Youtube video of a late 70’s performance by the L.A. Knockers.  They were a campy, not overly polished but highly enthusiastic and clearly committed troupe of young women having a balls-out good time. It was strange – almost shocking considering the impressions I had gleaned of Lissa Kastin over the years –  to imagine her strutting onstage with them.  Yet, clearly, not only had she danced with them, but the L.A. Knocker’s blog states that she was among the founding members. This girl, who has been in and out of my thoughts for years, had just undergone a radical image transformation in the space of five minutes.  This girl, who was already dead for more than ten years before I even moved to Los Angeles, and who I have been fascinated by despite knowing so little about, was suddenly, if only momentarily, alive again, smiling and dancing to 70’s disco music.  All former impressions of this girl whose body had ended up near my front lawn were wiped away.

ishot-1345231I found myself annoyed that so much detail regarding the lives and personalities of her killers was part of the public record, while so little effort had been taken to accurately convey even a portion of the joyful personality I was seeing in this one new photo. I was able to imagine her now not as the black-and-white, tragic sad girl, but as a flesh and blood, full-color human being. Even if this new perception was based only on a single photo and therefore possibly a false perception, It mattered only to me that it was a better, and probably more accurate fiction than the one the media had led me to believe about this girl I’d never met, yet somehow cared about.

It continues to dismay me that the mention of the names “Hillside Strangler” or even Bianchi and Buono will elicit recognition from anyone who is old enough to remember those years.  The name Lissa Kastin, however, will usually draw a blank stare.   And although I suspect few will really care, if the subject ever comes up again I will be sure to say that she was cute, in a unique way. I’ll tell them that she was a dancer, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to humanize this young woman – who had family and friends who loved and cared about her – and who has been reduced by news accounts to a statistic and by true crime literature to an unattractive girl who had the misfortune to not be aesthetically pleasing to the monsters who raped and killed her.

As someone who spent years saddened by – yet, blindly and stupidly believing – the unflattering characterizations of this young woman, it’s the very least I can do.  And I when I look at new photographs of victims that are found on the pages of the LA Times on an almost daily basis – like little newsprint ghosts – I will remind myself that any impression I glean from them is only a captured split-second of a full and hopefully rich life that has been wiped away forever.

Forward to the 4:27 mark to watch Lissa Kastin performing with Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance troupe “L.A. Knockers.”  She’s the girl on the far left.

I Think I Can Make it Now: Sober Musical Interlude #6

Last night, I dropped acid with my buddy Brett.

Okay, that’s not technically true: we grilled some chicken, drank Italian sodas from Trader Joe’s and watched Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element – but in sobriety, watching that film totally counts as an acid trip.

I can’t speak for Brett, but I know I had a great time.  Great conversation, great company, a mind-trip of a movie. AND I got to bed at a decent hour. AND I remembered the entire evening when I woke up this morning. Even more astounding, I didn’t do or say anything last night that I need to be ashamed of today. I kept my clothes on. I didn’t accidentally or intentionally break anything. I didn’t humiliate myself or offend my guest in any way. And perhaps best of all, it was a one hundred percent vomit-free evening.

I had a good time last night and woke up today without a headache. Before 9 AM.

When I opened the sliding door into our backyard to let the dogs out for their morning pee, this is what greeted me:

IMG_1417

Bright sunshine, the smell of jasmine, and the knowledge that I am blessed beyond comprehension. It truly is springtime: in my backyard, and in my heart.

Tomorrow will mark nine months of complete abstinence from alcohol and drugs, and my world just keeps getting brighter.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way 
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind 
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) 
Sun-Shiny day. 

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone 
All of the bad feelings have disappeared 
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for 
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) 
Sun-Shiny day. 

Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies 
Look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies 

Beware the Deviant Heterosexual

I am in crisis.

Not only am I apprehensive about the future of our society, I am downright sickened and revolted by what has been going on right under my nose my entire life.

Heterosexuals are NOT the innocuous, wholesome people they pretend to be.  I’ve not really been a champion OR an opponent of the cause of Heterosexual Marriage –  the truth is I never really gave it much thought.  Until now, that is.

All of my life I believed that heterosexuals…who i’ve tolerated rather patiently, I must say…were a little odd. Maybe “odd” is the wrong word. Let’s say, boring. Yes, boring is a better word. All that nine-to-five, 2.5 kids and a picket fence stuff just never interested me. Probably because it all just seemed so exhausting. But who was I to take a stand against them? Even my parents were heterosexuals, so I just accepted the status quo, believed them when they told me what they were all about, and never really investigated.

I’ve talked to Jesus about it over the years, because..and this has always been hard for me to admit….I am the only one in my family who is a normal, red-blooded homosexual. There, I said it. It feels good to be honest about that, finally. My brothers and sisters, who I love dearly in spite of their affliction, all reproduce at an alarming rate.  Jesus never really answered me directly, so I listened to the pastor at my church who told me that I had to keep loving them because they can’t help who they are. So, I’ve done my best to love them and respect them as human beings and have avoided even thinking about what it is they do with each other’s body parts at night (just typing that made me heave a little.)

Last night, however, while in the midst of writing a highly technical spec article for the Journal of Animal Husbandry, I innocently typed into the Bing Images search engine the innocuous search string ‘woman + sucks + horse + completion.”

The images that presented themselves upon hitting the return key are now forever burned into my consciousness.

vintage-wedding-cake-toppers-1 copyShocked, reeling, and thoroughly nauseated, I wanted to turn away. I wanted to scour my eye sockets with Ajax. I wanted to beat myself about the head and neck with the ornamental dildo/ashtray my partner and I received for our traditional wedding last year.

Regaining my breath as my spinning world began to right itself again, I found myself questioning everything I’ve ever taken for granted about the Lifestyle of the Heterosexual. THIS is what heterosexual women do when left to their own devices? when allowed to sexually express themselves? I recalled my late Aunt Becky who lived on a farm in upstate New York and how, when I was little,  she’d put me on one of the ponies and let it trot me around the corral. I now suddenly remembered (with the clarity only the distance of 40 years mixed with the recent viewing of bestiality search engine photo results can provide) the way Aunt Becky had stroked the pony’s mane and lovingly said it’s name before heading back over to the chicken enclosure to do God only knows what.

My suspicions grew. Suddenly, I had more  questions that needed answering (except the one about the popularity of dude ranches as vacation destinations, that one has finally been put to bed.)

All these seemingly wholesome heteros walking hand and hand in the mall, aggressively smiling out from tv greeting card Valentine’s Day commercials, positively FLAUNTING their genial milquetoast relationships, bouncing little smiling white-toothed progeny on their shoulders….surely they couldn’t ALL be perverts, could they?

I had to know. I’d avoided this for far too long.

Bracing myself, I pulled my desk chair back up to the computer, and after steadying myself with a deep breath, began to compose in my brain the search string that would answer the question for me. I had to come up with just the right words if I was going to find the key to this shadow existence of the socially upright, so-called “respectable heterosexual,” so after about four seconds of deep and careful thought, typed in the phrase that magically presented itself to me, almost fully formed:

‘Tupperware + party + gang bang.’

And there it was: a hidden world of deviance revealed in all it’s burped and sealed-tight glory. Was nothing sacred to these filthy animals?

Suddenly, on a mission, I began what turned out to be a three-hour search frenzy that culminated at 5 am with the search string  ‘Two + Girls + One + Cup.’

The sun is coming up now, illuminating a world that looks so different to me today (part of that, I suppose, is due to several hours of non-stop projectile vomiting.) I see now the danger of allowing Heterosexuals to marry, to celebrate their sickness in some depraved mockery of our own sacred same-sex rites. If I allow straight marriage to happen without taking a stand, then I am, by my silence, advocating the practice of tentacle sex (that’s something they do, I swear to God. I saw it on the internet.) And tentacle sex  is something I will NOT allow.

ishot-1205441So, I implore you, my homosexual brothers and sisters, take a stand against Heterosexual Marriage. Let these deviants know that you’re on to their “normal by day, sex fiends by night” ruse. Do your own research, don’t trust me (if you need some good search strings, let me know.)  Write your representatives in Congress. Post on Facebook. The world has to know what these sick bastards are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms and on public transportation really late at night. 

But first you must take the most important step: look your straight friends in the eye and say loudly and with great conviction, “I’m on to you. I know what you do in your bedroom. I SAW IT ON THE INTERNET.”

Then, immediately inform them that you will no longer be asking them to ‘care’ for your dogs the next time you have to go out of town.

THEY MUST BE STOPPED. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for their children. And if you can’t do it for their children, do it for the horses or the tupperware.

Thank you.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  when searching for images, do not be fooled by the copious amount of anal sex these heterosexuals are having. It’s the only normal thing they seem to do, and even THAT they’ve taken to excess. So don’t start feeling sympathetic or thinking of them as human like us just because they have SO MUCH ANAL SEX.  Ignore the TONS AND TONS AND TONS AND TONS of anal sex these sick heterosexuals have and the photos they love taking of it, it’s only an attempt to look normal like us. And we’ve been fooled for far too long.

final note: this, of course, is SATIRE, a response to conservative idiots spewing this kind of bullshit for far too long:

You Are The Light: sober musical interlude #5

Rebirth, resurrection, renewal.  As I approach the end of my third trimester of sobriety, I can’t help but note that the timing of this holy day…my first wholehearted celebration of Easter Sunday  since the age of thirteen….seems absolutely perfect.

I too feel reborn.  I’m learning to experience real joy for the first time in years, without drugs or alcohol.

I am so grateful today.

This song should require no explanation.  Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere, meet my beautiful friend Maria:

 

Dear Kira

Last night my niece sent me a chat message on Facebook, asking how she should respond to a schoolmate who is opposed to gay marriage based on..get this..the belief that allowing gay people to get married poses a threat to the world’s population.  I’m currently on painkillers for a kidney stone the size of a buick, so my response was less than coherent. This is the letter I’m sending her today – before I take my Norco – to expand upon my sad efforts last night: 

a and p equalityDear Kira,

I want to take some time to respond properly to your question, now that I’m wide awake.  But before I do, I just want to let you know that you are one of the brightest, sweetest, prettiest – and even more importantly – compassionate human beings I’ve ever known.

It saddens me that your incredibly evolved spiritual and humanistic views put you in direct conflict with many of your schoolmates who have been taught by their parents that being gay is either a sin, an illness or some form of depravity.  When you listen to these other kids blathering on with their incredibly stupid viewpoints (like the one you asked me about, regarding the threat to ‘future population’ if gays are allowed to marry), I need you to remember this:

Do you see those signs with the words “nigger” and “God demands Segregation?”  Those signs were created by the past’s equivalent of your misguided friends.  Do you see those white people standing up for the civil rights of the black people? That’s the past’s equivalent of YOU.   What your ignorant friends are doing is called “taking a stand on the wrong side of history.”   You, on the other hand, are firmly planted on the right side.  And the reason it’s the right side is not just because you’re on MY side, it’s because you have facts, research, empathy and compassion to back your position up.

What your friend said was so completely devoid of critical thought that I’m almost embarrassed at having to respond to it, but I will.  Allowing gay people to marry will have no impact on the future population of the world.  Allowing gays to marry does not make more gay people. It just allows those of us who are gay and in committed relationships – like your Uncle Patrick and me – to celebrate our commitment to each other (it will also allow us a whole bunch of rights and financial benefits gay couples have long been denied, but we’ll save that for another message.) People who are not gay won’t suddenly TURN gay just so they can get gay-married. The idea itself is, well, idiotic.  The very fact that your friend is concerned with population dwindling in a world that’s already severely overcrowded shows that she either has no grasp on reality, or perhaps was dropped on her head by her (straight) parents when she was but a wee homophobe.

Arguing with these kinds of people serves no purpose. It certainly feels good at times, for me anyway, to call neanderthals on their idiocy. It rarely changes their minds, however. It just makes them take a firmer stand and cling even more tightly to their antiquated and indefensible beliefs.  You can point out facts all day long, quote study after study that shows that children of gay parents are just as well-adjusted – sometimes even more so – than those with straight parents (though let’s be clear, ANYONE can be a terrible parent or enter into an ill-advised union…being an idiot or an a-hole is not the exclusive bailiwick of the heterosexual, I’ve known MANY gay people I wouldn’t trust to care for a chia pet).  You can go on and on and on with facts, and while some might be receptive to them, many will just ignore them. Because they’re not dealing with facts, they’re dealing with feelings. And feelings, fortunately, are not even distantly related to facts.

It can be frustrating to know that you are on the side of right when you are surrounded by ignorance and bigotry. But take some satisfaction that you stand not only on the right side of history, but with some amazing people who were persecuted for beliefs that challenged the status quo:  Martin Luther King, JFK and perhaps the most radical progressive liberal of all time, Jesus Christ.  To name just a few.

Do me a favor: write about the experiences you’re having right now. Write about the stupid things people are saying, and how you feel about it. I want you to be able to look back in, say, twenty years and see how absolutely right you are, and how absolutely disgusting the viewpoints of your contemporaries are.  When I was very little, black people could not marry white people.  And that was just fine with a whole lot of the US population. Now, however, only the most rabid of racists still espouse that view.  I guarantee you that in 20  years, very little will have changed: the fabric of society will not have been torn apart by gay marriage, Heterosexual marriage will still exist, and the world will not have been destroyed by some cataclysmic hellfire act of God (well, those things might happen, but not because of gay marriage. I think global warming would be a more likely culprit. Which is semi-ironic because that’s another thing many stupid people don’t believe in.) The one thing that will be different is that two men or two women getting married will just seem, well, normal. In twenty years, mark my word, the country will be looking back at today and saying, “I can’t believe gay people weren’t allowed to get married!”

I guess that’s all I have to say, except hang tight and just try to surf right over the stupidity, because wading through it can get EXHAUSTING. Trust me.  Stay on the right side of history – with this issue and ANY other civil rights issue – and you’ll be just fine. It’s not always the safest place to be, but it’s where most of the good people hang out. And the good people always prevail..though it can take a lot of work, a lot of fighting, and a lot of sticking to your guns even when it seems hopeless. So glad you’re fighting alongside us. To quote your sign-off last night on our FB chat, “I’ve got your back, Jack.”

Love,

Uncle Andy

PS:  Oh, and the next time one of your schoolmates tells you something as (I’m trying really hard not to use the ‘R’ word) dumb as “gay marriage will destroy the population,” I want you to recite…word for word…the following:

Demons Who Drank With Me: Sober Musical Interlude #4

As part of my recovery, I try to find songs that inspire me and provide a sense of hope for the future.  I add them to my “recovery playlist” on my ipod, and occasionally share them here. There are times, though, when I need to hear a song that reminds me of what it was like when I was using. As author/philosophist George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who can not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

I am a chronic forgetter: in the past, when I’ve been clean and sober for a respectable amount of time, I ‘ve tended to  forget how bad it was when I was “out there.”  I’d begin to regain a sense of power over my drug use. I’d stop investing in my recovery, and slowly (or sometimes at the speed of light) slip back into my disease.

With Table for One, the typically provocative singer/songwriter Liz Phair eschews controversial lyrics and viewpoints, crafting instead a first-person account of one man’s life as an active alcoholic. Though crystal meth was my drug of choice, the feelings this song elicits are pretty much the same ones any addict feels when living in their disease: loneliness, shame, hopelessness.

This time, I’m going to remember to not forget.

Give it a listen (lyrics below):

I’m walking down in the basement
I’m leaning on the washing machine
I’m reaching back through a hole in the wall’s insulation
I’m pulling out a bottle of vodka
Replacing that with a pint of Jim Bean
I’m lying down on the floor until I feel better

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee
I drink it til the kitchen stops shaking
I’m backing out of the driveway
And into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me
Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me
Feasting gleefully
On my desperation

I hide all the bottles in places
They find and confront me with pain in their eyes
And I promise that I’ll make some changes

But reaching back it occurs to me
There will always be some kind of crisis for me

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring back all those moments they stole from me
In my reverie
Darkening days end

Oh, I want to die alone
With my memories inside me
I want to live that life
When I could say people had faith in me
I still see that guy in my memory

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring down all those people who drank with me
Watching happily
My humiliation

Life and Death at Three Thirty Three

NOTE: At the end of this month, it will be eighteen years since I lost one of the best friends i’ve ever had. Even though so much time has passed and so many wonderful – and truly awful – things have happened since, I still think of him almost every day. I loved him so much. This story is about the last year of his life.

Two months after we return from Maui, I am sitting in my office on the Universal lot when the phone rings. It is Mike, calling from Rochester, New York, having flown there a few days ago to visit his friend Sharon. His voice, usually boisterous, sounds so small and scared I don’t recognize it at first.

“I need a favor,” he says.

“What is it?”

Mike and me, parasailing on Maui, May 1995

“I need you to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center and get the results of my AIDS test.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Last month, Patrick and I had gone with Mike to a fourth of July party at Chris Kattan’s house in the valley. Mike had seemed a little subdued, and I kept asking him if he was okay, my constant insecurity causing me to think that maybe I had offended him somehow. He just wasn’t acting like the gregarious Mike I’d always known.

“My shoulder’s been hurting,” he explained.

I gave him a massage, sitting on the lawn, surrounded by Groundlings, but it only seemed to make it worse. He hadn’t gone to the doctor, he said, because he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the visit. I told him I’d pay for the visit, and that he just needed to go, but he brushed it off and refused to talk about it any more.

I find out later that a few days after the party the pain had grown so intense he had driven down to the county hospital at USC. There, the doctor had asked him if he was part of a “high risk” group. Upon learning that he was, the doctor suggested that he be tested for AIDS before they do any other expensive tests. Mike balked at having the test done “on the record,” so he went to the Gay and Lesbian Center and got tested anonymously. They had given him a number that he was to bring back with him when the results were ready. Before he got the results, though, he had made the already scheduled trip back to New York.

While there, he had collapsed in a restaurant, and an ambulance had taken him to the emergency room.

Now, Mike is calling from his hospital bed.

“I’ve got cancer,” he says matter of factly.

I’m stunned, and for a moment I assume he is joking. But he stays silent, and I start feeling scared.

Cancer? If he has cancer, why do I have to go get his AIDS test results? It makes no sense.

“What?” I ask, confused.

“It’s lymphoma. But they don’t know if it’s AIDS-related or not, and the test they did here will take a few days. My results are already in at the center, so if you could go find out we’ll know sooner.”

He reads a number to me, which I transcribe onto a sheet of legal paper and fold up and put in my wallet.

I don’t know what to say. I never know the right thing to say in these situations, and this time is no exception. I start to say one thing, change direction midsentence, say another thing, and it just makes no sense. I grab onto myself mentally and give a shake, and say firmly:

“I’m on it, Mike. I’m going now.”

He gives me the phone number for Rochester General, I tell him I love him and hang up, needing to get this done, now. My friend is sick and I feel totally helpless. It’s the middle of the workday, but I find my boss Michael and tell him what’s up. Fortunately, Michael is a good man with an enormous heart, and he lets me leave, even though we’re overwhelmed with the enormity of this project. I drive to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, where I sit in a waiting room, nervous as fuck before I am called into a small office and a counselor gives me the news that I….or, actually Mike…is HIV negative.

I am thoroughly relieved, but still shaking from the pent-up anxiety of awaiting confirmation of what I had assumed would be bad news. The counselor thinks, of course, that my emotional reaction is about my own health, and I want to tell him that I have never taken an AIDS test, that I’m way too big a pussy to even risk getting that kind of bad news. I want to tell him that these results are actually for my friend who is in New York with cancer, and that I always use rubbers…but of course I don’t and sit almost twitching with impatience has he walks me through a refresher course on safe-sex guidelines and compiles a stack of pamphlets to hand to me.

It is still the pre-cell phone era, and I drive quickly back to Silver Lake to fill Patrick in and to phone Mike with the good news. There is also no internet, no google, none of the research tools that will be commonly available in a year or two, so I can’t be certain, but it seems pretty damned likely to me that regular lymphoma has got to be a whole lot better thing to have, a much more curable thing to have, than AIDS related lymphoma. It is 1994, and the word AIDS still has the smell of certain death about it.

I call Mike, and give him the news. He seems relieved as well. I want to talk to him more, to find out more about how he is feeling, but he is tired, and he mentions a morphine drip, which actually reassures me a little because it explains the listless tone of his voice.

Genhos

Rochester General Hospital

The next day, Patrick and I book a redeye flight to Rochester, and check into a small inn near the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, we find Mike in a private room, sleeping. His sister Julia is there, and she looks exhausted. She’s only been back in Los Angeles for a brief time after her run on Saturday Night Live, and she is currently weathering the scathing advance reviews of her movie “It’s Pat.”  Although Julia and I have always been friendly towards each other, we are not close. Patrick, having been in the Groundlings Main Company with her, knows her better than I do.

“Is that woman still out there?” is the first thing she asks.

Patrick and I are perplexed, and I poke my head back into the hall.

“Just some nurses,” I say.

“Oh, good,” she says, sounding relieved, and explains that an ardent fan had recognized her. “She’s very sweet,” Julia explains, “but I’m just not up for it right now.”

I look at Mike, sleeping with his mouth open, snoring. That, at least, is familiar and thus reassuring. He looks pretty good, despite the IV lines and scary-ass medical equipment surrounding him, and my sigh of relief is audible.

“So how is he?,” Patrick and I ask at the same time.  Pinch, poke.

Julia has a slightly nasal, adorable quality to her voice that is common to all the Sweeney children, but even that doesn’t lessen the impact of her next words.

“It’s not good. It’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it’s stage four.”

Hodgkin’s? The shaky-head Katharine Hepburn disease? Wait, no.., that’s Parkinsons. I look to Patrick, hoping to see some recognition of these words in his face. But he seems as perplexed as I am.

“What does Stage Four mean?” we again ask simultaneously. We exchange annoyed looks with each other.

“Well….” Julia struggles to find a way to say what she has to say. “Basically, the doctor said that Stage Five means you’re dead.”

The next day, I’m alone in the room with Mike, who is still drifting in and out of consciousness, and I take on the task of hitting his morphine drip button whenever the machine decides it’s time for him to have some more. He seems happy to see me, but emotional enthusiasm has never been Mike’s thing, acerbic and wry being his two brightest colors.

“You didn’t have to come all the way out here, you know,” he slurs.

“Shut up. Of course I did.”

Mike Sweeney, 1982 yearbook photo. He was class treasurer.

“I really thought I had AIDS, you know.”

“Well, you don’t have AIDS. And thank god, because they can’t fix that. This… they can fix” I say, trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince him.

Mike, never demonstrative, reaches out and grabs my hand, surprising me, and I look away as I feel tears start to well up. We sit there in silence, and I continue to hold his hand long after the next wave of morphine has pulled him back under.

Over the next couple of days, Mike begins to regain some of his strength. I don’t know if it’s simply the rest, or if it’s the chemicals they’re putting into him, but his cantankerous nature begins to reassert itself. The doctors and nurses who are treating him are finally introduced to the real Mike. I suspect they like the weakened version of him better.

It might be because Mike, always a bit of a control freak, has decided to regain some of that control by demanding a business card from every doctor that stops by his bedside to impart information to him.

Before the doctor has barely uttered the words “hello, Mike,” he immediately interrupts them by saying, tersely, “Do I have your card yet?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do I have your business card yet?”

If the answer is no, Mike demands one. He reads the name on it aloud, and asks if he is pronouncing it correctly. Once he has the pronunciation down, He takes a pencil from his nightstand and transcribes basic notes in tiny writing on the back of the card about what the doctor has come to tell him about his condition or treatment, often asking the doctor to pause or slow down so he can get it all down accurately.

If the doctor has already provided a card on a previous visit, Mike pulls the rapidly growing stack from the nightstand drawer, asks the doctor’s name, and then searches for the correct card from the stack he has arranged alphabetically.

“Ah, here you are,” he says, and quickly peruses the notes on the back to refresh his memory before he allows the doctor to continue.

The reactions of the doctors and the multitude of specialists ranges from smirking bemusement to blatant annoyance.

“Michael, I was just here this morning, we spoke for twenty minutes. You remember me.”

Mike doesn’t give a shit, though. This is his illness, these people are working for him, and goddamnit, he’s going to keep it all straight in his head. This flood of information would be confusing enough for someone not being given intravenous morphine. No patronizing medical professional will be playing God in Mike Sweeney’s hospital room, not now, and not ever. I blush red when this scene goes down, and  it does almost hourly, but I’m glad to see Mike’s feistiness manifest itself again.

gsh

CLICK TO WATCH “GOD SAID HA!” .. Mike’s sister Julia’s poignant and hilarious one-woman show about The House of Cancer. Julia nails Mike’s funny but often trenchantly sarcastic personality. I’m so glad this film exists to remind me of my friend.

I begin to suspect that all these doctors have been informed that Mike is the brother of a celebrity, and perhaps this explains why each of them, to a one, bow to this slightly humiliating ritual on a continuing basis. Celebrity is a funny thing, and even in my short time with Patrick I’ve experienced the benefits of being next to it. Being seated at restaurants before others who have been waiting, free drinks at bars, all sorts of odd little unexpected perks, including my own lush, private suite at Cedars Sinai when I was admitted for kidney stone surgery earlier in the summer. I know it’s all bullshit, and I feel a little guilty about it at times, particularly since I’m really only an adjunct, but I still take those free drinks. And now, if being the brother of a celebrity means Mike is going to get more attention paid to him, then I’m grateful for it. I demand that Patrick, who has just begun what would turn out to be a four-year stint on “Ellen,” remove his baseball cap while we’re in Mike’s room, hoping the doctors will recognize him. Double the celebrity, double the attention? I hope so. Or at the very least, double the tolerance for Mike’s irritating card-game.

Patrick and I return to Los Angeles a few days later, and a few days after that Mike comes home to begin chemo and radiation treatments. He has no health insurance, so Julia organizes a benefit screening of “It’s Pat” to help defray some of the costs. Mike is an extra in a party scene in the film, and already I notice the difference between the Mike who was filmed a year before and the Mike sitting next to me in the theater. He’s only been back in town for a couple of weeks and he’s already lost a considerable amount of weight, which he is happy about, but his hair has also begun to fall out, which he is not happy about at all. The photos we take together at the event show him dressed in a sports coat and dress shirt and wearing a baseball cap.

from left: Mike, Patrick, Cheri, Andy at our friend Amy’s wedding, 1994.

Unlike me, Mike’s appearance has never conveyed any foolish preoccupation with vanity, he’s always projected an unconcerned affability that is usually associated more with straight men. In fact, people are usually taken aback when they find out that Mike is gay. He doesn’t hide it, he isn’t closeted, it just isn’t the most obvious part of his often bigger-than-life presentation. Still, I know he does care about his appearance, and the hair loss bothers him until he comes up with a solution. He shaves his head and adopts a pseudo-goth look, trading in his usual baseball shirts and baggy shorts for jeans, rocker t-shirts and leather jacket. His normally pudgy face has new angles suddenly, and I think that for this moment in time he is actually happier with his appearance than he’s ever been. His lack of eyebrows is still bothersome to him, and at one point I convince him to let me try to draw some on with an eyebrow pencil, but it looks ridiculous and the effort is abandoned.

Mike’s treatments leave him incredibly weak, and by October he has moved into Julia’s home in the Larchmont District. He keeps his converted garage apartment on Sierra Bonita in the Fairfax neighborhood, even though this will require Julia to pay the rent on it for him. But he demands this, because being Mike, he’s not comfortable not having a place to retreat to in case he feels a sudden need for solitude. Mike loves his family, but he’s always valued his privacy. As a child, he once installed both a deadbolt and a doorbell on his bedroom door, something his mother once told me and I found absolutely hilarious. I admire Julia for stepping up to the plate and putting her life on hold to care for her brother, who, to put it mildly, can be trying. At one point, Julia makes a business trip back to New York, and while she is gone Mike heats her swimming pool to what I jokingly call “second mortgage” setting, and every night that she is gone great fluffy billows of steam waft out of her backyard and over the neighbor’s fence. He knows she’ll be furious when she gets her gas bill, but, lying on a blue pool raft drinking a beer at midnight…in October, he simply says, “What is she gonna do to me? I’ve already got cancer.”

For the most part, Mike deals with the hand he’s been dealt bravely and with his trademark black humor. When he’s up to it, we go shopping at the Beverly Center, and when he asks the clerk at Nordstrom if the store offers a cancer discount, I can only shake my head and smile. The clerk’s spluttering response is priceless, and Mike enjoys it so much the question becomes part of his standard routine every time he has to pay for something. If the clerk says no, Mike parries back with, “It’s stage FOUR cancer. I’m a stage away from being dead. Maybe you could check with your manager.”

When I’m available to take him to UCLA for his chemo treatments, he insists on stopping at El Coyote for margaritas on the way home. This doesn’t seem wise to me, and I hate the parental tone in my voice when I suggest we take a pass. He angrily insists, and we eat chips and salsa and drink margaritas until we’re shitfaced. He usually has several hours before the waves of nausea hit, and he spends those nights on his knees on the mission tile floor of Julia’s guest bathroom. I know he’s sick, yet he still seems indestructible, somehow, even with the weight loss and the nausea and the irritating thrush he’s developed in his mouth and throat. His humor, his personality is still so manifest that it is able to dull my worries a bit, most of the time.

Six months in, the Spielberg job is also taking up much of my time, and this holocaust project has turned out to be much more complex than a simple documentary. We’re in the midst of opening offices all over the world, training interviewers in multiple languages, translating documents, hiring camera crews, and the days are much longer than they’d been at my 9 to 5 corporate job at ABC. I love the work, however, and it keeps me distracted from Mike’s situation. Unfortunately, it is also keeping me distracted from my relationship with Patrick, and I sense a growing emotional distance between us during those times that we actually do manage to spend together. There is just too much to think about, and in my chaotic mind holocaust survivors and cancer patients are accorded top priority.

Christmas time rolls around, and because my parents are still in the middle of a messy divorce, I opt to stay in Los Angeles, alone. I don’t know Patrick’s family very well at this point, and frankly, don’t feel the desire to be around a functional, intact domestic unit. Mike is flying home to spend the holiday with his family in Spokane, and around two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, not long after Patrick has departed for Joshua Tree, a yellow cab pulls up in front of our little Silver Lake house.

Through the front window, I see Mike get out of the backseat, and I open the front door.

He has made an extensive detour on the way to the airport to wish me a merry Christmas and to give me a gift, a small white envelope. I feel guilty because I haven’t bought a gift for him, though I make it clear to him I haven’t bought gifts for anyone this shitty holiday season.

He’s running late, so he can’t come in, but we hug each other, and as always I’m grateful for it. Hugs from Mike mean a lot to me, because he has never been very physically demonstrative with anyone.

After he’s gone, I open the envelope and pull out a note that says “Thanks for being such a great friend. Have a Merry Christmas.”  There is a P.S.: “These should help.” At the bottom of the envelope are four Dilaudid tablets.

The sole benefit of Mike’s cancer has been the sheer quantities of painkillers he’s been provided, more than he actually needs at this point, I’m pretty sure. He was thrilled to be prescribed Marinol, a pill version of marijuana, but after trying it we agree that it can’t hold a candle to smoking the real stuff (which we do, often, from his leaky red plastic bong). Soon, Mike realizes that as a stage four cancer patient, his doctors will provide him with pretty much any pain medication he requests, and over the past couple of months, when Mike is up to it, and I’m not working, we’ve been getting messed up on morphine, Demerol, and now this amazing Dilaudid.

I consider taking one of the pills, but decide to save them for tomorrow, already feeling an advance wave of depression creeping over me. I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to suck. I’m already feeling sorry for myself, what with my being alone (even if it’s by choice,) my cancer-ridden best friend, and my suddenly demented parents and their soap opera crazy bullshit.

I sleep in on Christmas morning, and after lunch I pop two of the tablets. Soon, I am floating on a hazy, happy cloud. I put on an Andrews Sisters Christmas CD and sit cross-legged on the living room floor playing Sonic the Hedgehog for hours. It turns out to be one of my favorite Christmases ever, courtesy of Mike Sweeney.

Upon returning to LA after the holidays, Mike takes a sudden turn for the worse. Now, he is not just thin, but skeletal. The yeast in his throat, a result of the chemo weakening his immune system, makes speaking difficult. He is over-medicating himself, so it’s often hard to tell if it’s the disease that is causing the stupor or if it’s the drugs, which are now being administered intravenously through a port that’s been put in his chest. Then, suddenly, everything goes from bad to really, really bad. Julia is diagnosed with cervical cancer, and must undergo a radical hysterectomy. The absolute unfairness of this, the sheer cruelty of the universe, makes everything seem, suddenly, even more surreal than it had already been. Mike, voice slurred, takes to answering the phone at her house by saying, “Hello, house of cancer, how may I help you?”

Julia’s parents move to Julia’s guestroom to help take care of both their kids. I feel terrible for them, and try to assist as much as possible, as do all of Mike and Julia’s friends. At one point, Mike becomes so frustrated by this sudden influx of the family – which he loves dearly, but that he’s spent his life trying to individuate himself from – that he insists on moving back into his apartment on Sierra Bonita. It’s a bad idea, but Mike, as always, is inflexible.

Cheri, who has left her music business job at A&M and is now pursuing an acting career (she is still six months away from landing “Saturday Night Live”) is temping, so when she’s not working she’s taking care of Mike. I spend as many nights on his couch as I can, and the bond the three of us formed in Hawaii grows even deeper. One night, Mike, in a near stupor, is sitting in the chair in his small living room. Cheri is standing behind him, gently rubbing his shoulders. Mike begins to cough, then to choke, a terrifying rasping rattling sound. Suddenly, a great wad of mucous frees itself from his throat, and lands on Cheri’s right hand. Mike, so far gone, is oblivious. I almost gag at the sight, but Cheri betrays no reaction to the sticky mess on her hand and continues to stroke Mike’s shoulders until the coughing has subsided. Only then does she give him a kiss on the top of his head and move to the kitchen to wash the gunk from her hand. I’ve liked Cheri from the moment we’ve met, but this small act of kindness to my friend, her refusal to cause him any possible embarrassment – even in the state he’s in – endears her to me further. Of course, being naturally hilarious – which Mike and I have long known, and the world will soon discover – she still manages to get Mike to crack a drugged-out smile several times that evening, despite his discomfort.

me and mike

Last photo of Mike and I together, March 1995. The next morning he would enter the hospital for the last time.

This is the last night we all spend in Mike’s apartment together. The next day, he is back in the hospital. He slips away slowly, so slowly that it is almost impossible to detect the line between drugged consciousness and coma. It comes as a surprise to me when his nurse tells me this, and when she tells me he probably won’t wake up again, I don’t know what to feel. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want him suffering. I climb into his bed and spend the night sleeping next to him, the sickly sweet smell of the yeast in his mouth and throat hovering in the air around my head.

Mike’s family doesn’t come to visit often now, with the exception of his younger brother Jim, who has always seemed to worship his big brother.  It’s not because they don’t care, because they do – intensely – but because the Sweeney’s are now in triage mode, horrified and stunned by the imminent loss of one child and brother and focusing their energies on saving another child and sister.  I can’t even bring myself to think about what they must be going through.

It’s late March, and Cheri and I are sitting at Mike’s bedside. Though deep in coma, his face bears an expression of concern that is disconcerting to me, and causes me to whisper repeatedly in his ear, “it’s okay, Mike.” Sometimes, his lips will move, and we convince ourselves that he can still hear us. We tell him funny stories, we play music for him on a portable CD player. The Breeders, Dionne Warwick, and his most recent favorite, The Crash Test Dummies. When we begin reminiscing about Hawaii, I get an idea. I drive to a record store in Westwood and buy a nature CD of ocean wave sounds. We play the sounds of the surf, extend his arm so it’s dangling off the bed, and place his hand in a small plastic tub of warm water on the adjacent chair. We then grab onto opposite corners of his mattress and attempt to replicate the rolling motions of the ocean. We talk about our trip to the nude beach, that day he loved so much, the day he floated naked on the inflatable raft in the warm waters of Little Makena Beach while Cheri and I huddled on the shore both fully dressed and totally embarrassed. Perhaps it’s only because we want to see it, but his face seems to relax – not quite a smile – but the strange, agitated look has definitely subsided a bit.

The next day, I talk to one of his nurses and she tells me that Mike’s problem is that while his body has been shutting down, he still has the heart of a 31-year-old, and it is refusing to stop beating. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because Mike, who has never done anything he didn’t want to do, has never accepted the fact that he is dying. For all the time we’ve spent together, we’ve never discussed it, and now I am ashamed of myself for not having had the courage to broach the subject, even when it had become clear to everyone that the cancer was winning. I explain to the nurse what my suspicions are, and I half expect her to laugh at my theory. Instead, she stands next to mike and starts talking to him.

“Mike, I want to you picture yourself on a trapeze, swinging through the air. Back and forth. You have to let go. Just let go and trust that the next trapeze with be there. Let go, sweetie.”
She continues to whisper that to him for a few minutes while I stand there holding his hand. It is less than an hour later when I notice that the pauses in between his breaths are growing longer and longer. I find the nurse and let her know, and she comes in and examines him. “It’ll be soon,” she says.

I panic, because Mike’s brother Jim had arrived earlier and I told him there had been no real change in Mike’s condition, so he had decided to head down to the cafeteria before settling in for his visit. I’m freaking out, asking the nurse to please page Jim Sweeney, when our friend Mary Jo walks in the door. “He’s going,” I almost shriek. “Stay with him, I have to find Jim!”

I finally locate him exiting the elevator on Mike’s floor, and we hurry back to the bedside. I call Cheri at Disney, where she is temping today, and tell her to get here as soon as possible.

The three of us line Mike’s bedside, holding his hands, his feet, silent, as his breathing slows, then seems to stop. We look at each other. Is it over? Another ragged breath answers the question. It goes on for almost fifteen minutes before he slips away, and I swear to god, this God I swear I don’t believe in, that I can feel his soul leaving his body. The nurse checks his vitals, and confirms that he is gone.

I look at the clock on his bedside table, and the digital numbers read 3:33.

Three thirty three.

3:33 PM is the time on my birth certificate, and 3:33 PM will be the time on the death certificate of one of the few truly close friends I have ever had.  I bend over, tears dripping from my cheeks, and place a kiss on his already-cooling forehead. “I love you,” I try to whisper, but the “you” ends in a ragged gasp as my throat clenches tight.

Cheri arrives about ten minutes later, and when she discovers Mike has already passed, she lets out a low keening moan,  and I move to put my arms around her. We stand there holding each other for a long time, until our friend is covered with a sheet and wheeled from the room. After a few phone calls are made,  those of us present hug and console each other for a bit, and finally Cheri follows me in her car back to the little cottage in Silver Lake.  There, we lay in silence, holding hands, on top of the comforter in my bed. Soon, the sunlight begins to drain from the room, and we fall asleep.

Sober Musical Interlude #3

“My life, it don’t count for nothing /  When I look at this world, I feel so small / My life, it’s only a season / A passing September that no one will recall”

In just a few short years, I went from working for the great Steven Spielberg and touring with The Red  Hot Chili Peppers to sleeping in public parks.  Now, as I begin rebuilding my life, I have a tendency to judge what the future might hold for me by comparing it to the accomplishments of my past.  Though I’ve mostly reconciled myself to the fact that I may never live that kind of heady life again (and perhaps that’s for the better), there are still days when I look back with intense regret about the career I singlehandedly destroyed.  There are also days when I wistfully ponder where life’s travels would have taken me if I hadn’t hijacked myself and set a course straight for the gutter.   On those days, today being one of them, I listen to this song.  Her gorgeous warble sounding like some strange breed of angel, Iris Dement brings me back to reality, and keeps me focused on the one thing that truly matters in this frequently troubling world: love.

My life, it’s half the way travelled,
And still I have not found my way out of this night.
An’ my life, it’s tangled in wishes,
And so many things that just never turned out right.

But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting.
And I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better for a while.

Machete, Moonlight, Madness: part two

methface

(Continued from part one.)

The two uniformed cops are engaged in conversation with Patrick, and before I enter the house I discard the machete in the flower bed beside the door, vaguely recalling a news story about an LAPD officer who had shot and killed a homeless man who had approached him wielding what turned out to be a cell phone. Even in this state of mental disorganization, I’m certain that entering the room carrying a two-foot long machete would be ill-advised.

All eyes turn and fix on me, and I immediately realize what has happened.  Patrick has summoned them while I was ranting on the gazebo roof, and the brief flash of hope – that they have been called to help repel the invasion of the tree people – is dispelled as soon as I read the expression on their faces. Caution and wariness.  They’re here to take me away, I brilliantly intuit, and though I’m starting to panic, I work hard to prevent it from showing.   I’ve practiced for years the art of appearing normal when high, and have become very good at it, able to fool Patrick, friends and even employers with relative ease. Well, for short periods of time, anyway.

Surprisingly, the officers, both men, one Caucasian and the other Hispanic, seem kind.

They motion me over calmly, and I move into the living room, shooting a look of angry betrayal at Patrick, who looks away, his face stony.

“Listen, Andrew,” the Hispanic one begins. “I understand you’re using meth,” and his voice surprisingly devoid of judgment. “Is that true?”

I nod, understanding somehow that this is not the time to discuss the tree people and their threats.  I’ve tried many times to convince others of their existence, to no avail, and there is a part of me that understands that this would certainly be yet another futile attempt.  The objective at the moment is to keep them from taking me away, and I work hard at appearing calm and reasonable.

“Your partner believes you’re a danger to yourself at the moment,” he continues, and out of the corner of my eye I observe a leafy, shadowy creature through the front window, slithering closer to the glass for a better view. I sense that the army outside the house is reveling in my predicament.  I am trapped: to say something, to implore them to take a closer look at the trees and bushes, will cement the certainty that I will be leaving with these policemen.

“I’m not a danger to…” I begin, but the officer interrupts me.

“You have two choices,” he says.  “Either we take you and bring you to County, or you agree to go to the hospital with your partner.”  His tone makes it clear that argument or negotiation are not options.

“And believe me, you don’t want to go to County,” he finishes.

My jaw, already speed-clenched, tightens even further as I struggle to maintain composure.  I look angrily, in turn, at Patrick, my mother, and finally my sister, trying to convey with my eyes the betrayal I am now feeling.

I agree to allow Patrick to take me to a hospital.

“Good. Make sure we don’t have to come back here again, because next time I won’t give you a choice”.  His voice is surprisingly gentle, but it is clear he means what he says.

badge_LAPDThe cop turns to Patrick and says simply, “good luck.”   Patrick thanks them, and they leave.  I watch them, illuminated by the front porch light, as they descend the front stairway. They are completely oblivious to the stock-still creatures staring down at them from the trees and from behind bushes only a few feet away.  Though far from happy, I am relieved that the cops have left without major incident.  The many episodes of “Cops” that I have watched, juxtaposed with the relative mercy they have shown me,  causes me to wonder momentarily if they recognized Patrick, and whether his minor celebrity status has just saved me a trip to the county jail.  This kind of thing has happened before, but in more genial circumstances: wink, wink, here’s an upgrade to first class, wink wink, these drinks are on the house.  As vile as the concept may be, and as embarrassing as I usually find this kind of treatment, i’m grateful if this, in fact, is what has just happened.

Less than fifteen minutes later, I am in the back of our Honda CRV.   The walk to the car was torturous, as the tree people watched from the shadows and gloated at my situation.  “Got you again!” was their unspoken message.  As the car backs out of the driveway, my irritation at being forced into this unwelcome journey is overshadowed by the relief of escaping, if temporarily, the terrible monsters, who have congregated on the front embankment of the hillside for a clear view of the departing vehicle.

The ride to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena takes less than 15 minutes, the traffic on the 110 freeway surprisingly light.  I am fairly composed, all things considered, and my gaze is directed out the window into the darkness of the arroyo as it rushes by on my right.  I am fidgety from the speed, but remain silent for the duration of the ride.

We arrive, pulling into the concrete parking structure adjacent to the emergency room entrance.  Patrick pulls the car into the first available space and removes the keys from the ignition.  After everyone is out of the car, and before Patrick can lock it, I jump back inside and use the automatic door locks to seal myself in.. Patrick hits the unlock button on his keychain, and I push the lock button. Lock, unlock, lock, unlock, lock, unlock…this goes on for quite a while, and like a horrible child I just smile as his face grows more red by the moment. I can almost see cartoon steam emanating from his ears. Eventually, my timing is thrown off and he wins, the door is open, and we are yelling at each other.  Afraid to go home, where the tree people and the police wait for me, I loudly, and quite ludicrously, demand to be driven to a hotel.

It only takes a moment for our yelling, and the intermingled semi-hysterical shouting of my sister and mother, to attract the attention of two security guards, who run towards us.

“hey! Hey! What’s going on?”  they demand angrily, their faces scanning each of ours, trying to make sense of the situation.

Without preamble, Patrick points to me and says, “He’s on crystal meth.”

20090213_062940_SV14-CITRUSLAYOFFS3I offer no resistance as I am escorted through the garage, up a walkway and through the automatic emergency room doors, flanked by guards who grip my biceps roughly. The guards stay by me as Patrick informs the intake nurse of the situation and provides them with my insurance information.  She looks over at me, and as with the police, I expect judgment, but her thoughts are inscrutable.  This is not true of the guards who continue to glare at me with blatant mistrust and a fair amount of “go ahead, try something” bravado.  Although I’ve become accustomed to being looked at this way, a small shimmer of shame flows through me as I realize every pair of eyes in this comically crowded waiting room is fixed on me.

I steal a glance at Patrick, and he looks exhausted.  Our eyes meet for a moment, and then he looks away.  I flash back to previous emergency room visits, long before this nightmare began.  I think of our second date, 9 years ago, when I suffered an unfortunately-timed kidney stone attack (which I first thought was horrible gas pains, and I was completely humiliated), and he escorted me to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai.During that visit, he held my hand as I endured wave after wave of excruciating pain, telling me to hang on, coaching me to breathe through it, and finally, hilariously, resorting to improvising a short song about kidney stones in a somewhat successful attempt to distract me. I had fallen in love with him then. Part of it was the humor – I’d never dated anyone so quick-witted and funny before (well, okay…there WAS Kevin, but I’d predictably torpedoed that with my infidelity, after which he’d done the right thing and excised himself from my life years before), and so…empathetic? His big green-blue eyes and quirky bright red hair made it seem like I had my own magical, guardian angel/ leprechaun watching over me and keeping me safe.

“Nicastro?” a voice calls out, and I look up to see a nurse with a clipboard scanning the room.

“Nicastro?” a voice calls out, and I look up to see a nurse with a clipboard scanning the room.

“Right here!” Patrick responds..too loudly…in my stead, getting to his feet more quickly than I do.

The security guards scrutinize me as I follow the nurse through a set of double doors, and to my great relief, they do not follow. Perhaps grateful to pass the torch of my guardianship off to professionals, Patrick also remains in the waiting room.  The emergency ward itself is a long, wide corridor of frenzied activity, and it is clear that there has been a lot of misfortune this evening.  An unseen baby screams out in angry pain, and nurses and orderlies hustle in all directions, trying to avoid collision.  I am led to and deposited in a small, sterile room to the right.  It contains only two plastic chairs and a compact countertop with medical supplies stacked neatly on it – swabs, cotton pads, a stack of green, kidney-shaped plastic bowls.

Before she leaves, the nurse affixes a small, opaque plastic bracelet to my left wrist.  I don’t bother to read the words written on it.

“Someone will be in shortly,” she says, and departs.

Amazingly, I am alone.

rite aid parking lot night magical-1

I sit slumped in the chair, my jaw working itself, teeth grinding slightly from the speed, and try to figure out what my next move will be.  What will I tell the doctor when he arrives?  Will I go to jail?  This is my first encounter with real authority while using, and I am absolutely unsure of the consequences of admitting that I have been smoking the drug.

Half an hour crawls by, and I’m still alone. Sitting still is hard for me under the best of circumstances, doing so in full tweak mode is next to impossible.  I pace the room, occasionally stealing a glance into the hallway through the door’s small glass window.  I shove my hands into the pockets of my cargo pants and my right hand brushes something at the bottom.  I retrieve it: it is the packet of crystal I had placed there earlier in the afternoon.  I have completely forgotten about it, and my initial joy upon discovering it is quickly replaced by concern.  Being high in a hospital examination room may not earn one a trip to the county jail, but being high AND in the possession of illegal drugs certainly would.
My immediate thought is to hide the bag, to secrete it in the room somewhere before the doctor arrives, but before I can act on this, my addict instincts kick in and I decide that I want to use some. Now.  I come to a decision quickly, and I move decisively, opening the door to the small room and stepping out into the hallway.  I try my best to look relaxed, and walk left, in the opposite direction of the waiting room, where I assume Patrick, my mother and my sister are still waiting.

I turn corner after corner, trying to assume the confident step of someone who belongs, who might actually even work there.  It takes a few minutes, but after pushing through several sets of double doors at the end of several different hallways, I walk outside onto a deserted loading dock.

I’m free.

end part two (of three)

Sober Musical Interlude #2

Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things’ll get brighter
Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things’ll be brighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll put it together and we’ll get it all done
Some day
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day
When the world is much brighter

My Jesus Looks Like Jean-Paul Belmondo

jesus-wallpapers-0114A long time ago, when I was very young, Jesus was my closest friend. I went to church every Sunday: first at Christ the King in Commack, New York, and later, after moving to California at the age of 10, Sacred Heart Church in dusty, then-rather-backwoods Turlock in the Central Valley.

I can’t say I ever sat patiently through mass, or that I ever fully involved myself with what the priests were saying up there on those altars. I do, however, remember being in awe of the bright, stained glass windows, the pungent smell of incense, and the trinkle, trinkle sound of the bells during the presentation of the eucharist. Of particular fascination was Jesus himself, hanging on the giant cross behind the Sacred Heart altar: sinew-taut swimmers body, head on stretched-ligament neck lifted as if searching for something in the dark recesses of the giant, steeped ceiling. There was something about that Jesus that stirred fantasies that I couldn’t quite give a narrative to at that innocent age, before I understood that I was one of those children who were, as I would eventually be told ad nauseam, damned to hell for all eternity.

nanandandyMy Irish-Catholic grandmother, my favorite person in my entire world aside from my mother, was the keeper of the family bible, a humongous leather-clad edition with hand-written dates of birth and sacraments received. The pages were tissue-paper thin, save the florid illustrations that were bordered in gold leaf.  I remember the pages always felt cool to the touch, and smelled vaguely of mothball and some spice I still can’t identify.  I’d sit in the leather chair next to my grandmother’s credenza (there really was a piece of furniture called a ‘credenza’ back then) and thumb through the pictures, fascinated.  Handsome Jesus always looked so sad, save for the one illustration of that big moneychanger/temple brouhaha, where he looked downright peeved.

After my first communion, while still in my little man sport suit, my grandmother gave me a scapularBrownScapular.S2, which had illustrations of St. Joseph on either end of the black cord. The way my grandmother pronounced it, with her heavy Brooklyn accent, made it sound like “scapuluh.”  (Which, of course, was easy to remember since it rhymed with  spatula, which was a word I heard quite a bit, since my grandfather was a chef and always seemed to be searching for one. )  As she presented it to me, and then placed it over my head so that one St. Joseph rested on my chest and the other St. Joseph was lying against my back, she told me, solemnly: “Honey, if you die and you are wearing your scapuluh, you will go straight to heaven.”  This puzzled me for a moment. Why all the talk in church about Heaven, and Hell, and Purgatory and that silly sounding Limbo place I never quite understood if all I actually had to worry about was keeping these scratchy sharp-edge pieces of plastic hanging around my neck? I didn’t question it, I just counted my good fortune at receiving this amazing, magical, straight-past-Saint Peter- pass.

That scapuluh..er, scapular…stayed on my body for the next two years. The only time I would take it off was when I’d shower. Until, of course, the time i’d taken a nasty spill on the slippery tub bottom, at which point I began wearing it even while bathing (how horrible would it be to crack my head open on the porcelain, and as I lie there, the life ebbing from my ten-year-old, sin sodden body, seeing the scapular hanging just out of reach on the towel hook?)

That scapular made me feel somewhat invincible, sin-wise. I could make my confession and leave out as much as I wanted to. I could even lie outright, knowing my Heaven Direct pass was sandwiching my body. I felt like I could talk freely, even conversationally, to Jesus. Before Scapular, I would only talk to him if I needed something…sometimes trivial things like “please let my school catch on fire tomorrow so I don’t have to go”, and “please make my dad stop giving me those boring yellow Tonka construction trucks and Erector sets for Christmas.”

After scapular, I kind of felt that I could talk to him about anything, that I could even make requests that were probably inappropriate, if not downright unsavory. I was certain Jesus wasn’t thrilled with these kind of requests, but the fact was, I had a scapular.  So I’d talk to him about the kids at school I hated, the ones who picked on me – who called me ‘faggot’ and ‘fatty’ – and I’d ask him to please kill them – preferably in a gory accident of some kind, or at the very least some painful terminal illness that would require them to leave Sacred Heart immediately.

Before scapular, I’d never have been so bold as to ask Jesus to break one of the commandments he brought down from the mountain (yes, I went to Catholic school, but I never did well in the religious studies part). Now, the cool plastic square pressed against my back as I lay in bed, staring up at the giant, lacquered and framed jigsaw puzzle of The Last Supper my grandmother had given me, I felt like I could pretty much do as I pleased. I guessed my boldness probably irked Jesus a little, but hey…I’m wearing a scapular.  Jesus was awesome, because he was everywhere. I liked that I had an invisible friend who would protect me, sometimes do what I asked him do.  The “everywhere” thing got to be a little much, though, so when I’d sit down to relieve myself in the bathroom I took to running the water in the sink to mask sound, and folding a bath towel over my lap for a tiny semblance of privacy.

About a year into my scapular addiction, when I discovered masturbation, I would finish every furtive hiding-from-Jesus-under-the-covers jerkoff with a whispered, “sorry, Jesus.”  Still, I considered him my friend, even though I sensed he was repulsed by this disgusting thing I was doing with my babymaker.  Again, though, I was wearing my scapular, so…free pass to Heaven regardless of how many cotton tube socks I violated, right?

ImageA couple of years later, I had an unfortunate encounter with Father Oliver O’Grady (often referred to as “The Hannibal Lecter of Pedophile Priests) that finally rendered my scapular absolutely useless to me. Jesus, my everywhere friend, had been right there when it went down, and to add insult to injury he was also hanging right there on a cross on the wall of the room it happened in. Granted, his head was looking away, more toward the ceiling than towards the event taking place below, but still.  Afterwards, I tried making a few excuses for him, but eventually it dawned on me there were only two options as regards my friend Jesus. The first option was that Jesus was a total dick. This supposed friend could pretty much do anything, I mean, he was curing fucking cancer left and right and making statues cry blood in South American countries but he couldn’t step in and bitch-slap Father Feeley-Grabby’s hands away from my privates?   The other option was that he just wasn’t real, that it was all just a bunch of bullshit, that everyone had lied to me just like they had about Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and that cheap bitch The Tooth Fairy.

I never wore my scapular again, and cursed myself for putting up with those sharp plastic edges for as long as I had.  I went to church still, because my parents made me, but I made clear that I was attending under duress and never sang along with another hymn again.

Once I knew it was all a bunch of lies, that Father Holier-than-thou up there on that hideous, modern, red-carpeted altar preaching about sins of the flesh was actually a living, breathing cocksucker, I figured out that people were no more than a bunch of not-to-be-trusted hypocrites, and people in positions of authority were the most hypocritical of all.  I went from being a shy, introverted, but somewhat happy child to an angry, sullen adolescent.  I began trying desperately to sublimate my homosexuality…not because of anyone in “heaven” looking down on me and judging, but because I did not want to be the thing that O’Grady was, and I thought, mistakenly, that he had planted this seed (no pun intended) in me. I had forgotten, somehow, that before that incident I would masturbate and think about other boys, and it took a long time for me to understand that he didn’t make me gay, he saw that I was already gay. Also friendless and shy to the point of being almost non-verbal. in other words, a fairly safe choice.

My anger grew as the years went by, and I became not only an atheist, but a defiant, challenging, in-your-face atheist. If you had a God, well, then you were a fucking moron sheep being herded around by superstition and fear of dying.  Eventually, this almost unbearable anger found the only relief that worked for me: drugs.  The first time I smoked marijuana, it was like my heart had been punctured and all the bitterness had drained out of me for the time that I was high. I smiled. I laughed. I made friends.

Unfortunately, to maintain the happiness required more and more – then, harder and harder – drugs. And those hard drug eventually led to…well, everything you read on this blog, I suppose.

It was only recently, just this past year in fact, that I started talking to Jesus again. A few friends of mine re-introduced me, and it’s kind of funny that I had no idea that these three people i’d known for a while were such good friends of my ex-friend. They just seemed full of life, free of judgment, and funny as hell.  Starting to talk to Jesus was weird at first, just like talking to any friend you left on bad terms thirty-five years ago would be. I’ll be honest…I cried a little and called him a few names early on, but we eventually agreed to give friendship another tentative go.

Almost immediately, the floating, gauzy, phantom monsters that would invade my field of vision at night…or in any darkened room…and the horrible nightmares that followed, began to subside. I began to sleep fully and deeply for the first time in years. His doing? Or my brain just healing itself from years of drug abuse? I don’t really care.

breathless8This time, I got to set a few of the parameters of our relationship: There would be NO RELIGION INVOLVED, not in any way, shape or form.  This time, if I begin thinking that he’s some kind of magical wizard who fixes shit upon request or spends his days constantly righting human being’s fuckups, he’s gonna let me know that i’m giving him too much credit. This time, I can masturbate and watch porn all I want (though he’s agreed to let me know if it ever gets too excessive.) I can have sex with my husband any way I want and he’s just going to have to be okay with it (Jesus, I mean, not my husband.)  He’s also given me his permission to imagine that he looks  like Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless,” because he thinks it means i will pray more (he’s absolutely right.)

MY Jesus is encouraging of my homosexuality, since he made me this way  and would hate to see his special modifications not put to good use. The fact that I found my amazing partner of almost twenty  years – and that we’ve remained firmly committed, even during the tumultuous years of my meth addiction, is proof enough for me that he smiles upon our union.

MY Jesus doesn’t give a shit about swearing, as long as it’s not used to hurt or demean someone. Which is a big, fucking relief, because i’m an inveterate swearer.  I do feel uncomfortable when I reflexively growl out a “Jesus F_____ Christ,” and I’m working to curb that completely.  MY Jesus thinks “Jesus H. Christ” is hilarious, though, which also shows you that my  Jesus has a sense of humor.

MY Jesus has no issues with his theological counterparts…The Buddha, Mohammed, or the others…he assures me there’s no competition going on, despite what a bunch of loudmouth miscreants might claim. MY Jesus has no problem when those who don’t know him call him by other names…like Love, or The Universe, or even Positive Energy.

MY Jesus despises hypocrites, and rolls his (big-sleepy-Belmondo) eyes at pompously religious (ugh) people who make a grand public show of knowing him.

MY Jesus, as the Irish band In Tua Nua so eloquently put it, is in the innocent and the honest ones.

MY Jesus loves me no matter what mistakes I’ve made, or will make. And I will make many, many more.  I have no problem calling myself a sinner, because My Jesus doesn’t think of sin as some horrible act of dark transgression. My Jesus believes sinning merely  means missing the mark…basically, falling short of my own expectations of what a moral, compassionate, honest, spiritual life should  look like.

My Jesus promised me that if I keep talking to him, keep asking him for guidance, and basically, just let him love me, he’ll help keep me clean and sober and make clear the path upon which I should be traveling.  I’m counting on it.

And finally,  MY Jesus speaks to me the way John Grant writes songs:

This pain it is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals and other stuff
So don’t you become paralyzed with fear
When things seem particularly rough

Don’t you pay them f*ckers as they say no never mind
They don’t give two sh*ts about you, it’s the blind leading the blind
What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy
And what that boils down to is referred as hypocrisy

Don’t listen to anyone, get answers on your own
Even if it means that sometimes you feel quite alone
No one on this planet can tell you what to believe
People like to talk a lot and they like to deceive

‘The Advocate’ of Total Bullshit

me and pThis is something that has been bothering my conscience for a long, long time. For eight  years and one month, to be precise.

Late in 2004, my then-partner (now husband) Patrick – a minor celebrity of sorts in the gay community – and I were asked to write an article for the gay publication “The Advocate.”  The angle of the article was to be parallel stories: mine would be about my struggles with addiction, and Patrick’s would detail what it had been like – as someone who had never used hard drugs –  to love and live with a meth addict.

Since I had been off the pipe for several months and felt “cured” of my addiction, I agreed to the proposal, and Patrick also acquiesced. We both knew how crystal meth was devastating not just our own home, but the community at large. We  felt  that perhaps by sharing honestly the struggles we had faced  thus far with my addiction, we might potentially help someone, somewhere, feel less alone.

page 1

Unfortunately, I had failed to take into consideration the serious toll my recently-ended, months-long meth run had taken on my ability to remember words, let alone put together sentences. Paragraphs seemed too gargantuan an undertaking, so this article, on my part, is so poorly written it makes me cringe when I read it now. I’d pulled some nice florid passages from my journals, tried to tie that together with a basic narrative, and failed miserably in my estimation. That, however, is not what I need to apologize for..though I do.

What I’ve shared with only very few people is that by the time our story hit the newsstands (and the internet, which I’d completely forgotten to consider, and which has since made employment very, very difficult – *slaps own face*), I’d already relapsed big-time.  I end the article by telling the world of my Miraculous Deliverance From Addiction!  Like it was just that easy, anyone should be able to do it.

Then and now, I felt like I was lying to the world, and every letter we received thanking us for telling our story was like being stabbed in the heart with a shame-spike.

ishot-2132151

In fact, by the time the photographer for the magazine showed up at our home to take the photos to accompany the article, I’d already been back on the pipe for two or more weeks.

Years later, when I finally reached the point of desperation…the point where I knew I would die if I used even one more time…. it took real work to get clean and sober. It took surrender, it took humility, it took some mighty fear-conquering. It meant forcing myself to talk to people like myself, and it took being willing to admit to them that I knew very little about staying clean, and then…the hardest part of all…it took asking them for help. In other words, it took some serious fucking work. And it still does, every single day. And it will for the rest of my life. I know that now.

page 2

So I want to offer this long-delayed apology to anyone I might have hurt or misinformed (or kept in their disease for even a minute longer than they should have stayed there) by implying that salvation is something that just, you know, happens. Maybe it does, on occasion…but as regards meth addiction, or any addiction I suppose, please believe me now when I recommend that you not sit around and wait for it to show up, as I put it, “miraculously, and out of nowhere.”  That ending was total bullshit. That wasn’t deliverance, it was a momentary  break between binges. If you’re struggling with addiction, ask for help. Please.

I am really, truly sorry.

(CLICK HERE to read the embarrassing original Advocate article)

 

Sober Musical Interlude #1

Sinéad_O'Connor_-_How_About_I_Be_Me_(And_You_Be_You)

“The Wolf is Getting Married” can be found on Sinead O’Connor’s 2012 release “How About I Be Me and You be You?”

If you follow this blog (and thank you SO much if you do)  you know that I write dark, depressing stuff full of angst and anger and, well, as my husband puts it: “meth, death and bated breath.” The reason for this is because it’s the way I process feelings like guilt and shame for all the wreckage i’ve caused in my life and the lives of those who care about me. And believe me, there’s been so much wreckage I could tattoo “brought to you by Irwin Allen” on my forehead.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I am a depressed, miserable person. Even in the midst of the melodrama I write about were many, many moments of joy. My dogs, my husband, long walks, time spent with family and friends.

I also want to let you know that the last eight months have been the happiest of my existence. I’m restricted by tradition, so I can’t provide specifics as to why or how, but let me say this: I am learning, at the bruised-fruit age of 48, to like myself. I’m not talking about my looks, or my career, or my belongings…all the things I have mistakenly thought were me and which caused great despair as one by one, they began to disappear.  I’ve learned to let myself be loved even on the days when I feel utterly hideous and unloveable. I’ve learned that being kind to others is a far more uplifting and productive pursuit than sitting around hoping others are going to be kind to me. There are still days when the thorn-bush has roses, but overall, I’m feeling extremely optimistic.

Which brings me to a favorite of what I call my “sobriety songs,” The Wolf is Getting Married by the amazing Sinéad O’Connor, who became one of my personal heroes the moment she tore up that photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live (I have my issues, as does she, with the roman catholic church).  The title is an obscure Arabic expression meaning, loosely translated, “a break in the clouds.”  The song seems to have been written for, perhaps, a love interest. When I listen to it, I think of a collective of people: my family and old friends who have always loved and supported me (even when I was stumbling around like an early Walking Dead prototype.) I also think of all the new people in my life: the sober ones – particularly my new Tuesday night family – friends who are guiding me and helping me and crying with me and rooting for me and loving me, until I can transition from mostly liking myself to actually full-on loving myself.  I also think of my trio of spiritual advisors who brought me home to my higher power.

Their smiles make me smile. Their joy gives me joy. Their hope gives me hope. I am so absolutely surrounded by love these days. Maybe I always have been. But I’m actually able to register it now, and it’s powerful. There’s been a break in the clouds, and the sun feels fucking amazing.

I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me

But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only gray
The wolf is getting married
and he’ll never cry again

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
your hope gives me hope

 

VIDEO: Room 233

A piece about one of the darkest days of my meth addiction, as read to a hundred friends and total strangers at the storytelling show “Taboo Tales,” 8/30/2011 at the Zephyr Theatre, Los Angeles.

Just one of my many Adventures with “Pitiful and Incomprehensible Demoralization”…Unfortunately, the incident described in this essay turned out to not be quite enough to keep me away from meth forever. That, I suppose, is the difference between a true addict and a recreational drug user.  This go-round with sobriety has been different for me, namely because I am no longer an atheist…as I so proudly declare in the hubris-filled coda of this video.

I’m frequently asked why I share this kind of stuff so publicly….and the answer is that the adage “we are only as sick as our secrets” holds absolutely true for me.  I learned from the great Heather Morgan, my writing teacher who has supported me since I began taking her classes years ago, that  the act of reviewing the situation, composing a narrative and, occasionally, trying to find the humor in even the blackest of moments is an act of self-healing for me.  Once I’ve written it and shared it, it stops weighing me down with shame and the fear that if anyone knew this or that dark secret about me, they would recoil in disgust.  I’m certain many people have recoiled, and think less of me. But I’ve learned that the people who truly love me still love me.

Now, if anything horrible…say, hidden camera sex videos (one of my huge personal fears) or naked photos pop up on the internet at anytime in my future, not a single one of my loved ones are going to be shocked by my drug-fueled indiscretions.

Please forgive the graphic nature of this video, and more importantly, please forgive the crazy hair. Note to self: don’t do that nervous ‘run fingers through hair’ thing while waiting to take the stage.

We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it…….

Machete, Moonlight, Madness: part one

IMG_4296_Tree_People_3I drop the curtain, and reflexively retrieve the pipe and torch from the bedside drawer and take another deep hit.  I replace it, and quickly move to the window on the north side of the house, yanking it open, no longer cautious about being seen, knowing I’ve already been located, knowing they are already on to the scent and are closing ranks around the small house.  As expected, one regiment stands flanking the carport roof directly in front of the house. This time, they have cleverly intertwined themselves in the branches of the huge cypress trees that line the driveway, their bodies contorted as they seek to disguise themselves within the twisting branches.  I meet the menacing gaze of one of them for a brief moment, drop the curtain and begin pacing the room, beginning to sweat even as cold fear sweeps across me.

Adrenaline courses through my body and my thoughts switch to survival mode.  Though no direct communication has been established, somehow, telepathically perhaps, the people in the trees have made it known that their intent, this time, is not simply to frighten me back to a psych ward. This time, they intend to finish this game of cat and mouse once and for all.   My anxiety level is already elevator-ing up, up, up, when I remember Patrick and my visiting mother and sister in the other room, on the other side of this locked door, completely oblivious to the danger that now surrounds all of us.  Another message arrives, fully formed, in my brain:  They intend to kill everyone in the house except me, knowing that by leaving me alive, and high on meth, I will surely be held accountable for their murders.  Having this much of the drug in my system would render fully incredible any claims of innocence.  This new information hits me hard and quick, cutting through the thick tweaker haze and eradicating any indecisiveness.

There is a small, heavily wooded canyon opposite our house, and several months ago I had discovered a small, secluded area that was perfect for smoking my pipe whenever Patrick was home and I did not want my current binge to be discovered.  The last time I walked there, about a week ago, I had stumbled upon an ancient, rusted machete that had been left behind, perhaps by one of the city park workers who periodically move through the canyon doing brush clearance.  I had taken it home, feeling certain that some unseen force had guided me to it, for reasons that at the time were unclear.

I now retrieve the machete from under the bed where I had hidden it, it’s purpose now rendered obvious, and open the bedroom door, moving quickly into the living room, brandishing the rusty blade.

sink-0191 It is less dark in the living room than in the bedroom, and as conversation suddenly stops and all three faces turn to meet my wild-eyed gaze, I can see their eyes and mouths comically pop wide as they register the 18-inch blade I’m waving above my head.

“They’re out there,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady, trying not to panic them, but desperately praying they will, this time..for once... cooperate.

Patrick rises to his feet.  His initial angry reaction is quickly replaced by concern, and he tries to coax me into putting the machete down, but I ignore him and move quickly past him, yanking closed the drapes in the living room, and then those in the dining room.

My mother and sister have no experience with the Tree People, nor have they witnessed any of my epic panic attacks they’ve brought on. They have been safely four hundred miles away during previous encounters, and they sit, mouths slightly agape, stunned.  Patrick, however, has been through this before, and his concern is rapidly shifting back again to anger.

“Put the machete down,” he says, adopting his “let’s reason” voice.

“Who’s out there?” my sister asks, and she sounds nervous.

No one is out there,” Patrick says to her, perhaps a little too sharply.

We’ve been through this before, of course, and it has become clear to me over time that Patrick is utterly incapable of seeing the People in the Trees.  Clearly they are hiding from him, keeping their existence known only to me, in an attempt to discredit my sanity.  If only he would look a little harder he would see, I am certain of this.  His anger and frustration at my inability to stay clean have stripped him of any vestige of his former, super-patient self.

Theresa, my sister, looks from Patrick’s tense face to my sweaty one, and rises from the couch and strides to the living room window, pulls the curtain open and stares outside, making absolutely no attempt to hide herself from the eyes of the tree people, who have now quietly congregated in the small garden adjacent to the front window.

tree window“There’s no one there”, she says decisively, turning her gaze to me, still standing, vulnerable, in front of the window.  Over her shoulder, through the glass, a tall, menacing figure that was once merely a pine tree glares directly at me.   I rush the window, grabbing her by the shoulder and pushing her aside roughly, simultaneously yanking the curtains closed.

Get down, you fucking dumbass!” I screech at her, and her face registers shock more than offense.  I have never yelled at my sister like this, and she is first stunned, then angry.

“Hey!” she retorts, barely achieving the tone of indignation she  must have been trying to convey.

“They’re everywhere,” I screech, waving my arms and the machete and feeling like a demented Gladys Kravitz dealing with a trio of obtuse Abners.

“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there!” I continue, and though I hear how illogical the words sound, I’m utterly convinced of their truth.

I am terrified, and I do not know what to do next.  I cannot let them hurt my family, cannot let them hurt my dear, sweet Patrick.  I am frustrated, knowing that we are doomed, knowing that my family will be killed, that I will be sent to prison, decimated by grief,  and certain that every single person who has witnessed my steady decline into addiction will hold me responsible.

Patrick continues trying to reason with me, adopting a softer tone.  My mother joins him, and I retreat to the hallway, sink to the floor, still holding the machete.  I tune them out, trying to think of a way out of this.

The idea crystallizes suddenly, and I am certain I have found a way to save my family.  I must sacrifice myself.  There is no time to ponder the logic of this decision, or even fully consider it’s potential effectiveness.  I bolt to my feet and stride quickly and purposefully across the house, past Patrick, Theresa and my mother who sit huddled together, still looking stunned and nervous.

I reach the sliding glass door, unlock it and stride out into the rapidly darkening yard, waving the rusty blade in the air.

“Where are you going?” I hear my mother call, her voice wildly uneven.

I ignore her, and move forward towards the swimming pool, stopping at its edge and slowly turning around in a slow circle.   The yard is a veritable jungle of vegetation, lined with thick hedges, fruit trees and overgrown brush.  The tree people line the yard, resplendent in their green finery, surrounding me on three sides, glaring, judging, mocking, hating.

“Come on! Take me!” I yell, a methed-up version of Father Karras from The Exorcist, glaring back into their eyes, daring them.  My fright has turned fully to anger now.

gazebo

“Cowards!”

They make no move, and I continue to gesture at them with the big knife, sharp-pointed jabs as I turn slowly, making deliberate eye contact.

I single out three females, cleverly disguised as tall, wild sunflowers growing above the gazebo, and head in their direction.  The wind shifts slightly, and they begin to dance, almost mockingly, undulating back and forth slowly, their eyes fixed on mine.

Suddenly, anger overwhelms me, and I rush to the side of the house and drag out a small aluminum folding ladder.  I pull it to the gazebo, open it and clamber up on to its roof.  The structure is very old, and it sways slightly as I move towards the phantom sunflowers, swinging the machete and swearing loudly.  They are out of reach, too far up the hillside for me to attack, and I eventually give up, turning around and surveying the yard once again from my perch.

My sister and my mother have come out onto the patio, and begin asking me to come down.  I refuse, and demand that they get back into the house for their own protection. Finally, tears running down both of their faces, they do.

After half an hour of pacing on the roof, I hear a commotion inside the house: dogs barking wildly mixed with the voices of strangers.  I freeze momentarily, fearing that the invasion has begun. I swing myself down from the gazebo like an insane gymnast, almost impaling myself with the giant knife, and head toward the sliding glass door.

I open it, step inside, and see that the police have arrived.

(continue to part two)

Trojan Choker

Trust it, Trust it: Surviving Showgirls

Authored by my husband, guest blogger Patrick Bristow.

originally written September 21, 2010

showgirlsTomorrow is the 15th anniversary of the release of “Showgirls.”  As I look back on this event, I get a similar feeling to looking back on Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, and sketchy fragmented memories of my own circumcision.

Going into the project, I was very excited. I was in an “A” feature film being helmed by the same team that created the box office smash, “Basic Instinct”.  I knew the script was clunky and derivative, but so were a lot of “good” scripts. And this team would pull it off.

Being acutely aware of my previous over-the-top work in sitcoms, I was the epitome of understated authenticity in my audition. That was the last time I’d be able to say this about anything connected with this project.

The shooting draft was actually more bizarre than the one I’d read before auditioning. Either that, or I’d come to my senses.

ellenAs for the shoot itself, it was November 1994. I’d just done my first two episodes on ELLEN. I flew off to Reno to shoot the showroom and office scenes. I was impressed with the art direction and the scope of the production. The dancers had already been there a week or so shooting the production numbers. They seemed exhausted. Some of them seemed downright over it all. Some of the costumed chafed them to the point of having to wear moleskin on raw areas of their bodies. I heard about them enduring more than the usual numbers of takes with very little rest in between. Hmmmm.

I quickly found that the crew fell into three categories in terms of my interactions with them. 1. Doing their job with the dead eyes of someone who had been held captive as a sex slave in a basement for 11 years. 2. Super-nice and making the best of it all – happy to be working and not getting caught up in any drama.  And 3. Nothing short of icy, bordering on mean.  For that latter group, it seemed that the “tone” of the film was informing their own behaviors/ attitudes.

The other actors were, for the most part, really cool and unpretentious, though some seemed quite nervous about the whole shebang. Elizabeth Berkley being the sweetest of all.

There was talk of how this film was going to change the face of Vegas entertainment forever. There was talk about how this film was going to push the envelope in terms of sexuality in American filmmaking. There was talk about inane dialogue and how the fuck to deliver it. There was talk about how they might cut certain scenes after they saw them in dailies or editing. There was a lot of talk.

showgirls-1For myself, I found that I had dialogue that, in my brief early career as a dancer and son of a ballet teacher, I’d never heard uttered by any choreographer. “Twist the turn. Twist it!”   Huh?   I deduced that the line meant to either lead with the hips on a turn and follow with shoulders and nail your spot at the end.  But that’s not a very “dynamic” or to the point line, is it? So it turned into the infamous, “pique turn” line.  Which I have to take some responsibility for as I begged Paul to add some actual dance verbiage into the “correction” I was making to Nomi. He grabbed the actual choreographer for the film to “consult.” She didn’t seem remotely interested and also seemed to be channelling Gina Gershon’s character while smirking during the consult and offering nothing.  After another request to “fix” a piece of dance jargon, Paul snapped at me. “Why can’t you say it? Michelle can say it. Because she is an actress.”   Okay……….  From then on, I clammed up and just did what he told me to do.  I joined the ranks of the dead eyed hostages.

Showgirls Patrick Bristow Elizabeth Berkley

During the now-infamous “thrust it” sequence, I held my tongue.  In the audition, I’d delivered the line on the beat just loud enough to be heard over whatever music would be playing and all while casually leaning up against a wall. On set, I was directed to swoop down on Nomi like a bird of prey and scream the lines into her face.  I glimpsed an actual drawing on his script of how this was to look. It was like a pre-lim for some frame of a graphic novel. Yes, I’d seen storyboards before, but this one had a lot of….”heat.”  It hit me. I’m in a comic book. Why didn’t I see that before? Soon after that, I saw that Gina Gershon seemed to be the only one aware of that and luckily for her, her character as written supported the arch and over the top approach.Unknown

More dynamic!! More DYNAMIC!!!!,” Paul screamed at me as I screeched at poor Elizabeth while she bucked her hips over and over. “Thrust it, Thrust it, as filtered through his heavy Dutch accent, came out “Trust it! Trust it!!!   “Trust it?” I thought. Fine. I’ll just trust it.  I caught the eye of Glenn Plummer who was watching the scene be filmed from the safety of a seat in the showroom. He gently shook his head as if to say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.”  It was too late. I could not be saved.

My only point of satisfaction in the film is that when I delivered the “she’s no butterfly” speech, I did manage to make it sound like the issue of my own mind. Maybe I was so tired, I finally had gotten out of my own way. I’d been up the night before on the phone with my partner Andy crying to him. “How the fuck can I say, ‘Anger. Heat. Juice. She’s got it?”

The night of the “premiere,”  Andy and I sat watching in terror from the very beginning. The entire top-tier creative team was seated just rows behind us, so we had to keep our head stills and applaud at the appropriate moments. Between the moments of clapping, we almost broke each other’s fingers as we were clenching hands with the grips of those hanging on a helicopter rail while being flown over known shark waters close enough to be able to see the dorsal fins.

patrick_bristow_2004_07_27

Tomorrow night Playboy Sirius Radio hosts an event celebrating this epic moment in cinema history. In addition to our handprints and signatures being inexplicably immortalized in cement at the Vista Theatre (where my parents had their first date back in the forties), we will walk a red carpet and enter a lounge filled with those cast members either brave enough to attend or in need of a free drink. I’m assuming the drinks are free. It promises to be interesting. Paul Verhoven is rumored to be attending. I might try to avoid him.

The upside of all of this is that I have the best conversation piece on my resume anyone could want save having been in a Best Picture.  The cult following is hilarious and fun. I love having been part of this delicious disaster. I even get nervous when I hear of a new “best worst movie ever.”  I’m territorial about this accidental comedy.

Now, more than ever, when I see a good actor in a horrible film, I understand why they sometimes opt to be as dull as possible. They aren’t “Trusting it.”

Night of the Vesuvian Pussy

ishot-1147551I’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.

image_1361607377954290

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.

driving-high-whenistoohighStoned 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.3491484147_4ebe747716

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.”

“Yup.”

“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.image130

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 tumblr_lamsi3PUNM1qcvdh0o1_500primarily 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.”

Image

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.

“Mom?”

“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.

%d bloggers like this: