“In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.”
Tag Archives: friendship
Most straight women will agree with this title.
One of my best friends, Pablo, and I have one of those unique friendships. I think he’s think; he thinks I’m built like a Greek god.
But, like most men, we consider ourselves dogs. I do tricks, and he sits up and begs for it.
A close friend of mine came down from Wichita Falls, Texas the other day to spend a few days with me. He brought his new companion: a chocolate brown Chihuahua named Cocoa. Like most small dogs, Cocoa is delectably adorable and innately vicious. Little dogs have always reminded me of little women: small, cute and surprisingly mean. I should know! One of them gave birth to me!
Last night, as Robert and I watched TV, Cocoa curled up in her bed on the floor nearby and – after a while – I could hear her scrounging around. I had noticed she had been chewing on one of her back legs and, concerned for her welfare, peeked over the coffee table – to see her curled up quietly.
I then realized Robert had set down his phone and had his leg hiked up over his head and – and, you know, even as a 50-something-bisexual-recovering alcoholic writer, there are some things I can go my entire life without seeing!
I first posted this essay five years ago and I’m posting it again, as this day marks the 25th anniversary of the death of one my closest friends at the time. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed – a quarter century. Now my father is gone, and my mother may not be far behind. Other people – friends, acquaintances, coworkers, etc. – have come and gone as well. That’s to be expected from living more than fifty years on Earth.
There are those moments or events that settle into our lives, take root in our minds and never leave. For me this is one such event.
September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick. I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M. Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed. But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered. It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.
“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering. She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.
We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said. But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over. It’s finally over.” Then, I went to sleep. But, I wasn’t sad. In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved. Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.
That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick. Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was. I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September. In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity. But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison. Yet, that year was different. The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.
I’d felt fine the preceding weekend. I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day. I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed. I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor. I chatted with Linda for a while. Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.
“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.
“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her. What else could I say?
I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier. We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll. Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area. He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction. He didn’t have a happy home life. When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby. Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father. For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave. By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.
As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work. I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening. The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense. I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour. Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.
I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane. My supervisor sent me home just after noon. I sat near the building, waiting for the bus. The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering. I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night. I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday. I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength. Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.
On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual. My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made. But, I couldn’t eat. I was still nauseous. My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day. He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.
I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle. I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible. I told them I’d be fine. It was just those goddamned allergies.
I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months. I knew somehow it would come at night. She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him. That’s just not my nature. I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t. But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.
It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill. Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort. All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.
I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992. By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment. In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb. Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall. He gained weight and color returned to his face. He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew. I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.
We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it. In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again. And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.
I took my father up on his offer. After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”
“Well, I think that’s what you have.”
Hepatitis! If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner. Hepatitis! Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid? No one got that shit anymore. But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too. The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will. I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.
“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.
I told her what happened.
Her anguish shifted to empathy. “Why didn’t you call me?! I would’ve come visit you!”
“But, Daniel had just died, Linda. And, I was in the hospital.”
“But, you’re my other son!”
I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992. He hadn’t bought a new suit in years. He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one. He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt. He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.
“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”
“Of course,” I said. What a silly question.
Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience. I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier. It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989. She’d already known tragedy. Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone. In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life. Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy. What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?
I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda. What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves? God remained silent. He / She always does. But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.
Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away. She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy. Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father. One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her. She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her. Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess. The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.
Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy. “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”
In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS. I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people. Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma. I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer. I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary. My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.
Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew. I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary. But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect. I promised him I would stay with him through the end. And, I did – until the night he died.
For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together. In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.” Both Daniel and I really liked that tune. We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it. I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s. So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious. It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’
Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos. The male was fiercely protective of him. The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk. As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter. Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.” I almost fell off my easy chair. Is it…no, it couldn’t be! Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think. I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time. I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.
We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years. Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30. My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch. They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’ You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk. I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions. In seven weeks I’ll turn 50. Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.
I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel. I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me. But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright. Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace. Is he mad at me? Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment? But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either. And, we were family. When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me. Was she mad at me, too?
No – of course not. I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else. They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life. My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.
I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life. I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster. I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much. Some people do good just to send a get-well card.
September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick. I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now. I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died. My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.
I’ve finally convinced myself they are.
*All names have been changed.
Last week I posted a haiku writing from a close friend, Preston*, who I’ve known for more than 20 years. Haiku (or hokku) is a Japanese verse form of poetry that follows a very strict composition of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables and is often a prelude to a longer poem or a story. The terse nature of haiku verbiage always challenges the writer to capture what is absolutely necessary for that particular moment. Such brevity is more difficult than most imagine, but just a few carefully chosen words can evoke extraordinary visions in the minds of an audience.
Smiling was easy
When our eyes were bright and clear
We were so naïve.
Ever have one of those curious friendships with someone where primary interaction – besides making dinner or bar-hopping plans – is ladled with trite insults and creative name-calling? I have just such a relationship with one of my closest friends, Pierce*, whom I’ve known for some 30 years. People who don’t know us very well often say Pierce and I sound like an old married couple and / or wonder how we could possibly be friends. The reactions of the unfamiliars is funny in and of itself.
For one thing, Pierce and I are devout movie buffs, each having studied filmmaking in college. He actually earned a B.A. in film and produced an extraordinary short film for his final thesis. Sadly, despite many years of hard work and “paying his dues” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean! – his dreams of building a career in the personally brutal and emotionally unstable film industry disintegrated faster than foreskin-laced pizza rolls at a bar mitzvah. Feeling somewhat dejected, Pierce returned to Dallas in 1996 and tried getting into the local film and TV business without any luck. He worked in the marketing field for a bit and now labors over a hot p.c. for a company that’s as equally brutal and emotionally unstable as any cinematic enterprise. But he also concentrates on his own personal screenplays. So, like me with my writing, he hasn’t abandoned his dreams altogether! Dreams, after all, keep you moving forward – especially if you’re trapped in an ergonomically-designed office chair alongside people whose ambitions usually mean just getting from one weekend to another without hurting a constituent or ending up homeless.
We’re both fans of one of the campiest films ever made, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the 1962 black and white classic was intended to be a psychological drama, but turned out to be a desperate attempt by two aging Hollywood film divas to remain relative in a rapidly-changing American culture. I place it in the same realm as “Barbarella” (1968) and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) – it’s so deliciously crass and gut-wrenchingly entertaining. All three of those movies are hysterically bad and wrong on so many artistic levels that present-day viewers have to wonder how the cast and crew of each production managed to stay focused enough to get through the madness every day. I’m certain surviving cast members are reluctant to admit their involvement, while remaining perplexed how such crap could metamorphose into cult classic status. Jane Fonda usually dismisses her title role in “Barbarella” as if she was kidnaped and drugged by communist sympathizers, before being hustled off to Europe; much the same way Linda Marchiano explained her oral escapades in “Deep Throat.”
But they’re just too good to pass up! I’ve watched them again and again for the same reason I used to watch the “Jerry Springer Show”: they’re brainlessly funny, and you just know that shit’s not real!
When I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas in the 1990s, there were two receptionists in the department whom no one really liked. One was perpetually constipated, while the other (I’m sure) waited anxiously for the day the “Mother Ship” returned. The cranky one elicited the most vile reactions from people, especially the women. I jokingly referred to them as “Blanche” and “Baby Jane”, after the main characters in the aforementioned movie. Soon, most everyone else in the department began doing the same. I never thought sweet little me would start such a trend!
But Pierce and I often jokingly refer to each other as “Blanche” and “Baby Jane.”
“I’m like Blanche,” he tells people, “the desperate, victimized and more intelligent sibling. He’s the tired, washed-up, alcoholic skank!”
“She may be a tired alcoholic,” I say, “but that bitch could belt out a tune like no one’s business!”
And so it goes. He’s always mocking my appearance, and I’m always making fun of his weight.
“Mexicans who come across the border in the middle of the night, hot, hungry, thirsty and covered with burrs don’t look as half as bad as you do by 5:00 on Fridays!” he once told me.
While standing on a second-story veranda at a bar outside of down Dallas during a Friday happy hour, Pierce asked me to take a photo of him for a dating web site. “Make me look thin,” he said.
“Oh, well then, let me drive over to Fort Worth (some 50 miles west),” I replied.
After a Friday dinner, we stepped into a curio shop where a display table overrun with stuffed animals sat in the back. Pierce found a critter that, when wound up, would bounce around to a musical piece. “Look!” he loudly announced to me. “This one’s like you! It does tricks!” Whereupon he burst into a maniacal bwah-ha-ha type laugh.
I picked up a dachshund replica perched on its hind legs. “And this one’s like you – it sits up and begs for it!”
Pierce and I attended the same parochial elementary school in Dallas and were altar boys at the accompanying church. We didn’t know each other back then, but he often would tell people that we were sent there together by our frustrated parents, calling it “Bad Boys Reform School”; where he barely passed with a D-, while I ended up in a sanitarium because of my pornographic writings that involved lesbian nuns and the Mexican mafia.
Over the years I’ve cobbled together a number of the barbs Pierce and I have slung at one another. On the surface, they may come off as a ‘Jokes for Beginning Comics’ cache. But I it all makes for the type of goofy friendship that’s often hard to explain to outsiders.
A classic scene from a classic camp fest.
Pierce: You’re so ugly, if you get lost in the woods, they just have to look for the vultures circling overhead.
The Chief: You’re so fat, if you get lost in the woods, they just have to follow the sounds of flatulence.
Pierce: You’re so ugly grocery stores ban you from the dairy aisle.
The Chief: You’re so fat all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets turn off the ‘Open’ sign when they see you drive up.
Pierce: You’re so ugly you scared Bigfoot.
The Chief: The last time you stepped on a scale, it said ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’
Pierce: You’re so ugly a group of kids saw you sunbathing on the beach and said, “Look! A dead octopus washed up!”
The Chief: You’re so fat, when you were last on the beach, Green Peace tried to drag you into the water.
Pierce: You’re so ugly your own hands won’t masturbate you.
The Chief: You’re so fat you need two office chairs – one for your mouth, the other for your ass.
Pierce: Your own mother denies she was there when you were born.
The Chief: How many times have you walked down the street and people ask, “Have you named the quintuplets yet?”
Pierce: You walked into a doctor’s office and they said, “The vet’s next door!”
The Chief: People look at you and say, “Global warming is worse than I thought! There goes Rhode Island!”
Pierce: People see you and say, “He must have gone through hell surviving that chemical plant fire.”
The Chief: When you visited the zoo, someone announced over the loud speaker: “We found the lost elephant seal!”
Pierce: When you took your dog to the vet, they tried to neuter YOU.
The Chief: When you ask for a seat belt extension on an airplane, they hand you a 20-foot rope.
Pierce: When you visited a plastic surgeon, they gave you a chain saw and some Super Glue®.
The Chief: Last time the Houston Ship Channel flooded, they paid you to do a cannonball into the west side of the floodwaters and force it all into the Gulf.
Pierce: You wanted to be an organ donor, and they said, “We don’t accept zombies.”
The Chief: Last time you asked someone to have sex, they said, “Great! An orgy!”
Pierce: When you made funeral plans to be cremated, the funeral home offered you a fruit jar and a box of matches.
The Chief: Instead of a coffin, the funeral home offered you a piano case.
Pierce: You’re so fair-skinned you can’t go shirtless in the gym because people will think they’ve gone blind.
The Chief: Skin from your fat reduction surgery helped 1,000 burn victims.
Pierce: You accidentally fell into the recycle bin, and the city didn’t realize it until after they’d dragged your ass all the way to the dump.
The Chief: When you told some contractors your house had foundation problems, they said, “Move into a concrete bunker.”
Pierce: Every time you walk into a new gym, trainers say, “I don’t deal with abortion refuse.”
The Chief: Jenny Craig took one look at you and said, “Well, you win some; you lose some.”
One of my favorite scenes in “Barbarella” – the title character meets the “Black Queen” (Anita Pallenberg):
A friend of mine, Preston*, has recently taken to poetry writing, or more specifically to haiku writing. Haiku (or hokku) is a Japanese verse form of poetry that follows a very strict composition of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Not popular in Western cultures until about the early 1900s, haiku are often accompanied by an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a particular moment in time. Their brevity is occasionally an introduction to a longer poem or a story, but its central purpose is to focus the reader’s attention on that one single moment that struck the poet’s mind as critical or somehow significant; a moment where everything came into focus; where the complexities of life were abruptly reduced to what is – and what is not – essential.
I trust and admire Preston greatly. I wrote about him nearly 6 years ago in “One Good Friend.” He’s truly one of those rare individuals who is focused and level-headed. For us writers, focus is always a challenge, while level-headedness is sometimes elusive.
Time is a bandit
Reducing our hopes and dreams
To mere memories
Shortly before Thanksgiving 1992 I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness.” Another friend who’d, ironically, attended the same grade school (although we didn’t know each other back then) told me that term – “brief illness” – was code for AIDS. Well…sometimes, yes. Then again, it’s really no one’s business what takes the life of a person. Still, it bothered me back then. I had just turned 29 and, for the first time in my life, contemplated my own mortality more seriously than ever before. As someone who suffered from severe childhood depression, coupled with schoolyard bullying and alcoholism, I had thought about death a lot; a hell of a lot more than any kid normally would. But, when I saw that obituary, I thought about death and what legacy I might leave on Earth with a greater sense of intensity.
When my father’s family had its usual Christmas Eve gathering at his mother’s house that year, I asked a cousin who’d also attended that same grade school, if she remembered that young man. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “He died.”
Oh, yeah. And it’s cold out there. Rather matter-of-fact. The full scope of life’s brevity didn’t really hit until the following year, when a close friend, Daniel*, died of AIDS at his mother’s house. For the first time in my nearly three decades, someone close to me – other than a relative – had died.
In the ensuing years, I’ve lost a few more friends and acquaintances. I believe, when you reach the half century mark, life takes on all sorts of different meanings. Things that are, or are not important switch places.
About a month ago I decided to conduct a more intensive search on an old friend, Heath*, who I’d met in 1997. Normally people of my generation who want to find out what happened to old friends would either have to break out a Ouija board or scour a police report. But I did it the new-fashioned way: the Internet. No candles needed.
Heath was a quirky little character; all of 5’5” with bad teeth and a penchant for all things western. He also had a fascination with the Titanic. After James Cameron’s 1997 version of one of the 20th century’s worst man-made calamities, Heath became obsessed with the story. He saw Cameron’s movie more than a few times. Then again, I’ve seen “The Poseidon Adventure” no less than 50 times. I guess we both relished in nautical tragedies. We also shared a love for muscle cars and travel to exotic places. He’d actually managed to do the latter more than me; several more times, but I never held that against him.
I think I last saw Heath sometime in the summer of 2001, after I’d been laid off from the bank and had some free time to enjoy. It was the summer before the great 9/11 horror; the last bit of a romantic hangover from the spectacular late 1990s. Being that contemplative, soul-searching type that most writers are, I reacted like most people during the aftermath and began pondering the whereabouts of old friends. It’s what prompted me to reach out to another friend, Tom*, someone I hadn’t heard from in months. I’d eventually make contact with Tom, which culminated in a brief roommate situation the following spring, which turned out to be a disaster, but still had a positive ending because I ended up with his puppy who I renamed Wolfgang. In the midst of all that, Heath occasionally hopped into my mind. But, with my new job at an engineering firm, traveling and such, while still getting used to having a dog in the house, I had to make him hop back out.
He wasn’t the only one, of course. Plenty of folks from my past kept trying to work their way back into my conscious mind and very busy life. The health of both my parents became tenuous; I tried to get my novel published; my job started requiring me to travel; I resumed my pursuit of a college degree; I bought a new truck; I had foot surgery; my father got sick twice within one year; I got laid off from the engineering company.
Old friends? I just didn’t have much time for them anymore. I needed to start shoving useless crap out of my brain to make room for more important stuff. I know the human mind is supposed to be infinite, like star systems and Thanksgiving turkey. But there’s only so much I want to have inside of me.
So everything stopped for me, literally ground to a halt, when I found out Heath died back in March. He’d hopped back into my mind again, actually he’d been hopping into my mind for the past several months; as if really hoping to get my attention. He kept jumping up and down, almost yelling, ‘Goddamnit, man! I need to tell you something!’
Okay, okay! Damn! Some people just don’t know when to quit. But Heath wasn’t that intrusive type. It was kind odd that he’d kept coming at me so much over so short a period of time. That new-fashioned way of finding people you knew way back when doesn’t salve the pain of finding out they expired; it just delivers the shock more quickly than waiting on a phone call or the mail.
Heath had died back in March – no, found dead – in his North Dallas apartment. Found dead?! What the fuck?! I continually re-read the online obituary, hoping the digital verbiage would buckle from my shocked, angry glares and reveal more.
Who found him? What made them go over there? Apartment in North Dallas? The same one off Greenville Avenue where I’d hang out with him and other friends; talking about cars, listening to rock music and playing with his two small dogs?
The words on the screen could say no more. The photo of Heath posted alongside the obituary made him look almost menacing; it was unlike any expression I’d seen from him before. In fact, he was almost unrecognizable. That’s really why I couldn’t (wouldn’t) believe it.
That’s not him! That’s some other 5’5” guy with a natty ball cap covering his receding hairline who lived in an apartment in North Dallas and had a replica of the Titanic in his living room.
No, it’s not. It was Heath. No one else I know would have built a replica of the Titanic and keep it in his living room. The post said little else: he lived alone; he hadn’t been ill, so nobody knew what caused his death; friends had to pool together money for his funeral; no relatives could be found.
Is there a proper way to respond to something like that? If there’s a book on Amazon, or some kind of web site where I can find out, please let me know in the comments section below. Your consideration will be highly appreciated.
A few years ago I chunked my four high school annuals into the recycle bin. In the fall of 1978, I had been so eager to get the hell out of that parochial grade school near downtown Dallas and begin a new life at a new school with new people. By the time I graduated in June of 1982, I was filled with the same kind of excitement. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I hated high school even more than grade school; more than looking at myself naked in the mirror and realizing how ugly I am; more than going to a German wedding and finding out the open bar ran out of beer before the reception. But, in the intervening years, I did wonder what happened to the four or five friends I had in high school. I found one on Facebook. I’m sure many others just don’t care to bridge that gap between snail-mail letters and social networks that plagues people of my generation. Others may be in the grave, and I just haven’t found out yet.
Death figures prominently in my novel. I really don’t have a fascination with it. I just accepted long ago that it was another chapter in life. And I realized – after watching my parents cringe at the sight of old friends in the obituaries – that you don’t get up there in years without going through some bumps and bruises. Some of those bumps are learning an old friend died, and – like a job offer that went into your spam queue two weeks ago – goddamn if you knew about it until now.
My father got emotional a few months ago, when I culled the obituaries of the local paper and found someone who’d attended the same East Dallas high school he did, around the same time as him. In my father’s youth, it seems all the Mexican-American folks knew one another; lived in the same neighborhoods; and went to the same schools. They had to in those days, when people were placed into boxes according to race and gender.
That’s one thing I remember fondly about Heath: neither one of us liked to be defined by other people’s expectations. We didn’t fit into predefined categories that made others happy, content and satisfied the world around them functioned the way they thought it should. His other friends couldn’t figure me out and, aside from a fascination with muscle cars and sea-bound disasters, didn’t know what we had in common. That’s okay. I didn’t care for all of his friends. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared for some of mine. I didn’t have nearly as many friends as he did, though. He obviously had enough to collect money to cover funeral expenses. Unless my parents were here, I don’t know if any of my friends would do the same. I don’t socialize with people much.
But I’m faithful to the few friends I do have. That’s why, for example, when my friend Alan* – married with 3 kids – tells me he needs to talk about stuff over lunch on a Saturday, I’m there. When my friend Raymond*, who I wrote about a while back, calls to say life has become unbearable for him, I try to get back to him quickly. Alan once had a bout with cancer, and Raymond still carries a bullet fragment from an attempted robbery. If I lost either of them now, I can’t just go out and get a new friend, like some people get a new computer.
I’ve gotten over Heath’s unexpected death, and he’s no longer bouncing around in my mind. He got my attention. That’s the thing about old friends. Eventually they become dead friends. There’s no other alternative. I wouldn’t want one.
Image courtesy: 4-Designer.
Thirty years ago this month I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life: I joined a fraternity. In August of 1984, I was a shy, naïve 20-year-old; the kind of person college social groups eat up and spit out. When I started classes at what was then North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas), I hoped to complete my education within two years and begin a career in computers – anything to do with computers – like my parents had planned for me. I also hoped to break out of my shell of insecurity, make plenty of friends and find my future wife – after losing my virginity first. I ended up suspended from school for the fall 1985 semester, addicted to alcohol, maniacally depressed – and still a virgin.
Then, as now, I blame that fucking fraternity. I know the status of “Victim” has been a coveted one in America since the 1980s. But, hear me out on this mess.
I’ll say flat out that social Greek-letter organizations serve absolutely no purpose. They have only one function: party, which means getting drunk and having sex. Yes, they toss in the occasional charity function bullshit just to look good. For example, in November 1984, the frat I joined teamed up with the county to drive people to voting stations. In another self-righteous instance, we participated in a campus blood drive; where the director (a pre-med professor) walked around in a stupid vampire outfit. (Get it? Blood drive? Vampire?) Anne Rice probably would have killed him on the spot. Other than those two saccharine-laced, cringe-worthy exceptions, we just got drunk (they called it “enjoying alcohol – immensely”); tried to seduce as many unwary females as possible; engaged in quasi-macho antics; and partied at an aging two-story house on the edge of campus.
On my first day in the dorm, I saw a flyer advertising a party for the frat, which I’ll call Alpha Omega Dipshit (AOD). After I settled in – living away from home for the first time in my life, along with a flamboyantly gay roommate – I looked again at that ad for AOD and thought it must be great way to make new friends. I was desperate to meet new people. This wasn’t high school, which I hated. Life at a community college the preceding two academic years had been nice. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people. My social life during the my first two years out of high school revolved around whatever plans my parents had and my German shepherd. My dating life revolved around my hands and a bottle of baby oil. Things would be better now, I assured myself. North Texas was different. I wasn’t dealing with kids anymore. I was dealing men and women. I thought.
On a whim, I followed a guy I’d met and quickly befriended in the dorm to the AOD party, where beer flowed like the testosterone through my body. There were lots of beautiful people, and I tried making friends with every one of them. I really wanted people to like me. Being shy hurt and I had to break free of it.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law requiring states to raise their minimum legal alcohol consumption age to 21; otherwise, they’d lose highway funding. The law was a response to the growing anti-drunk driving movement. Before the 1980s, drunk driving was viewed with an almost humorously dismissive attitude. Despite fatal accidents involving alcohol, intoxicated driving still wasn’t considered nearly as egregious as interracial marriage or homosexuality. That all changed after the young daughter of Candy Lightner, a California woman, was struck and killed by a habitual drunk driver. She made it a national issue. Hence, the 1984 federal law.
But, then-Texas Governor Mark White essentially told Reagan to go to hell when he mandated the legal alcohol consumption rate wouldn’t be raised to 21 in the Lone Star State until 1985. Texas had enough money to fund its own highways without some former B-movie actor telling us what to do. (That anti-Washington sentiment has always sort of been part of the Texas identity. White, I might add, was a Democrat.) It really didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t drink that much alcohol anyway at the time.
Three years earlier, 18-year-old seniors at my high school were upset because Texas planned to raise the minimum alcohol-drinking age to 19.
“They can give you a right,” one girl told me at the start of an English class, “but they can’t take it away.”
How profound. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of that high school.
But, when I stepped into the back yard of the AOD house, I followed the crowd to the beer kegs and started partaking of Coors Light. Even now, the mere smell of Coors Light incurs bitter images of college boys behaving stupidly. I had one plastic cup of beer. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another.
And, that’s where it began.
I wanted so much to Belong. My lifelong shyness had stunted my personal growth. Aside from my dog, I felt no one liked me. But, in pursuing that friendship goal – paying money along the way – I became a punching bag for most of those guys. More importantly, my entire academic regimen collapsed, and the university placed me on academic probation for the spring 1985 semester. That prevented me from becoming a full, active member of AOD. I still had to pay monthly dues, of course. But, I remained in the netherworld of pledgeship. That’s something like a glorified time out. Can you feel the hopelessness?
Things got worst that year. We had to put our dog to sleep in April, and then, the university suspended me for the rest of 1985. My parents were outraged, and I became suicidal. I felt I’d lost everything. My dog was dead; I didn’t have any new friends; and my future looked bleak. And, I was still a virgin.
My life reached a new low that October when I got arrested for drunk driving. I showed up to my waiter job at a country club already intoxicated one weekday evening. Carl*, my openly-gay supervisor, wouldn’t let me work, even though the gaggle of mostly-Jewish members wouldn’t have given me a second look anyway. Instead, Carl made me sit in the back office where I ate a meal he had one of the cooks prepare for me and admitted he had the hots for me. Great, I thought. After all my efforts at chic one-liners and coy humor, the only person interested in me was a middle-aged man with a beer gut. After I sobered up a little, he told me to go home. But, I didn’t. I felt I had nothing to live for at the time. So, I got into my little Ford Escort and went bar-hopping. Coming off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I stumbled into a police trap and then into a police car. I had never felt as much humiliation as the moment I called my parents from Lew Sterrett Jail in downtown Dallas. They bailed me out early the next morning. Fortunately, my blood-alcohol level tested below what was then the legal limit of .10.
I returned to North Texas for the spring 1986 semester and then again for the ensuing academic year. I left for good a year later; vowing to return and complete my education. I never went back. But, I finally did earn a college degree – 20 years later.
I made only two really good friends during my tenure at North Texas. One, Dean*, I had met through AOD. He was a tall, skinny guy with tousled brown hair and a penchant for short girls. We became close – like brothers. Not frat brothers. Real brothers. As an only child, that meant everything in the world to me. He became the kind of friend I’d always wanted. He was upset that I didn’t become a full member of the frat, yet he didn’t let that bother him.
But, AOD did get in the way of our friendship. In September 1986, after I’d settled in once more at North Texas, I ran into Dean in a parking lot, while headed to class. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We traded phone numbers, and later, he invited me to drop by an AOD rush party. Against my better judgment, I took him up on his offer. I went with a guy named James* who’d just graduated from high school and who I’d met at my new job a few months earlier. There, I ran into many of the people I’d known before. It felt so strange – being in that house – with those familiar faces – and the smell of Coors Light. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
At some point, I got into a heated discussion with a guy named Kyle*. He’d been part of the same pledge class as me and Dean and now, two years later, was AOD’s president. Kyle was already kind of a strange character; someone who did a great Keith Richards impersonation, but was probably the same type to walk into his workplace with a shotgun. I didn’t realize he could be such an asshole, though. I don’t know what prompted the argument, but a short while later, Dean asked me to leave. Actually, he had been told to ask me to leave. He was the frat’s “Sergeant-at-Arms” – a glorified Boy Scout-type role – and apparently, since we’d been such good friends, he’d been given the task to let me know I was no longer welcome. Fine. I didn’t need them. So, I calmly departed with James in tow; acting is if nothing was wrong.
Deep down inside, however, I felt completely dejected. I had wanted so badly to be a part of that group. The next night I scampered about the campus, ripping down flyers advertising AOD. I guess I showed them! Regardless, Dean and I stayed in touch throughout the remainder of the academic year. We just didn’t talk about the frat.
The other friend, Robert*, had actually attended the same grade school as me. We knew each other only sparingly back then. But, on my first day in the dorm in August 1984, Robert stepped into my open doorway and introduced himself; he was in the room just across the hall. He startled me at first, but I was glad people were so friendly. Or, at least he was. After another moment, though, I thought I remembered him. It’s one thing to reconnect with people from high school. But, grade school?!
Ironically, he joined AOD – at my urging – and did well with it. He wasn’t there the night Dean asked me to leave. But, Robert has remained one of my best friends ever since. He’s tolerated my moodiness over the years. For example, I had an alcohol blackout one night in the early 1990s and unwittingly called him to tell him “this was it.” I was determined to kill myself. (I seriously don’t remember the incident, but I trust he’s telling me the truth.) Being the good real estate salesman he is, Robert stayed calm and managed to talk me into exhaustion.
When he revealed that to me a few years ago, I apologized to him for making such a scene and taking up so much of his time. It’s not his fault I couldn’t get my stuff together and heal myself from depression and alcoholism. Which I eventually did. Several years later.
Over the past two decades, I’ve been dumbfounded – angered, actually – to learn of incidents involving social Greek-letter outfits on college campuses. They almost always feature severe alcohol abuse, hazing and, quite often, sexual assault. How is it, I ask, that colleges allow these groups to exist? I guess the frat culture is embedded that strongly in the realm of America’s higher education. What a waste.
In the summer of 2003, my employer hired three young female temporaries to assist with an ongoing project. One had just graduated from high school and planned to attend a major Texas university that fall. Shortly before she resigned her position, I warned her to stay away from social fraternities – and sororities. “They’re just no good,” I told her.
I last saw Dean on South Padre Island during spring break 1987. I’ve retained my friendship with Robert, but I still often think of Dean. Not long after he had ordered me to leave the AOD house in 1986, Robert told me Dean had gone on a drinking binge. He felt he’d turned on a friend, Robert said, and couldn’t handle it. I never knew that. I can only hope Dean didn’t descend into a decades-long battle with alcohol like I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
It wouldn’t be fair, if I said that Dean and Robert were the only decent guys in that fraternity. In fact, most of them were great guys. It was the handful of assholes who ruined it for everybody else. Isn’t that the way it often works?
Yet, I wonder – where is Dean now? Is he okay? Did he succeed in life? I felt, if anyone deserved it, he did. I’m not so arrogant to wonder if he thinks of me, though. But, we had the kind of friendship that should have lasted a lifetime. If that damn fraternity just hadn’t thrown so much crap all over us.