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Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Yesterday was a day of mourning for so many of my friends in the recovery community in Los Angeles.  Another beautiful light snuffed out by a disease that can lie dormant for days, months, even years before rearing its ugly head and…more virulent than ever…killing its victim without the slightest compunction.

Late last night, after the gathering of the Tuesday evening group of men and women who have become my second family – where the loss of this bright light hung quite tangibly over the proceedings – I came home full of feelings:  There was sadness for this man and his family and friends.  There was also fear, that this might someday be my own fate, and there was anger that so many beautiful men and women suffer from the disease of alcoholism.

Sitting down at my computer, I found my friend Mykee B. online, and reached out. Within moments I was LOL’ing over our private chat conversation. In the program of recovery I’ve chosen, there is a saying about traveling a road to a place of future happiness, and Mykee B. has been my walking partner on this road since almost the very beginning of this journey.

I met Mykee on a camping trip I took with a group of men (and one woman) from the aforementioned Tuesday night second family. At the time, I was barely six weeks off the pipe, and the idea of traveling to the Sequoia National Park with twenty-nine almost-strangers was terrifying to me. However, I followed direction given by the person who guides me through this program of recovery, and agreed to go along for the three day event. I’m glad I did…though I barely spoke the entire time (except for the nightly gatherings around the campfire, where I inarticulately…and through tears….tried to convey my sense of not belonging, of feeling too damaged to ever feel human again. It wasn’t pretty.)

My now-dear friend Stephen B. noticed my discomfort, and on a group hike to a waterfall…during which I was walking with my head down, feeling ugly and old and damaged in comparison to all the beautiful younger boys in our group….began to engage me in conversation, putting his arm around me, and did his best to make me feel a part of.  I will always owe this man a debt of gratitude for that simple action.  It’s taken almost a year, but that simple gesture was the beginning of my evolution from reticent recovery bystander to active participant in my own salvation.

On the morning we were to return to Los Angeles…I had caught a ride with my friend Jonathan (my also aforementioned recovery program ‘guide’)…we were packing up his Scion when someone asked if we had room for Mykee B. in our car. I’d noticed him around the campfire, and had been moved by one of his tearful shares, however we’d only spoken cursorily over the previous few days. Despite the sleeping bags, tents and luggage, we did have some extra room in Jonathan’s car, and so the three of us set out to make the drive home together.

But first, there was a surprise in store for me.

The previous evening, the majority of our group of campers had made a sunset field trip to the majestic Moro Rock, a giant granite dome formation from which spectacular views of the California’s Central Valley can be seen. I had stayed behind, however, having volunteered to help with dinner preparation.  So, on the drive home, Jonathan and Mykee had colluded to make sure I got to see Moro Rock before we left.  I was touched deeply, and the three of us climbed to the top of this rock mountain together. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, and I will always treasure that memory as one of the more profound ones of my early sobriety.

When we returned to the base, it was decided we’d stay in the park a little longer, and we hiked around a gorgeous meadow, just the three of us: my guru, my new friend and myself…all at different stages of recovery but so very similar in many other ways.

It was on the ride home that I really fell in love with Mykee. He was brilliant but not obnoxious about it, he was one of the funniest men I’d ever met (and I’ve met some funny people, trust me), and he was politically astute and passionate about social justice issues.  His small frame (if you know Mykee, then you know he has the highest personality to body mass index of anyone on this planet) gave him an impish quality that could make me convulse with laughter, even back then when the slightest chuckle felt hard-won.

Since that weekend last August, I’ve counted this man among my closest friends. Though recently he’s been extremely busy (the man is a true entrepreneur, and I have no doubt fabulous wealth and success are imminent for my little friend/dynamo) with a number of startup businesses (see www.hprlcl.com), I know he will alway be there for me when I need him. And vice/versa.

Like he was last night, when I needed to laugh more than I’ve needed to in a long time.

If you read this blog, you know that I’ve gone from rabid atheist to praying man in a very short period of time. And every night, when I say those prayers, I thank God for bringing Mykee B…friend, little brother, partner in (healthy) crime…. into my life.  As the Russ Meyer fantasy band The Carrie Nations sang in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”…. “In the long run, you’ll need someone to trust and count on…come a rainy day.”

Yesterday, it was drizzling, and Mykee was there for me.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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