published @ thenervousbreakdown.com
She was young and Brazilian, and we used to smoke pot Saturday afternoons and listen to records. We’d have bags of groceries, colorful peppers, limes, red beans and rice, and guacamole from the tree, mashed in her mom’s wooden bowl. It was my favorite meal. And now I’m sitting here at my favorite Mexican restaurant, which reminds me of her too: all the yellow and green, plus the soccer on TV. I don’t really remember the walk here, but here I am. It’s the Fourth of July, early afternoon, and I’m the only customer at the bar. Tomorrow is my birthday, which doesn’t help my feeling utterly alone.
Driving home from the store earlier today, the weather was perfect. I reasoned a Xanax was in order. After putting on Born in the USA, I was in the mood to do it right and decided to double my dosage. It was the first time the songs sounded more like yarns, which gave me chills. My dad was a huge Springsteen fan, had all his records, and holding his copy of this particular LP, I felt closer to him. Growing up, I grudgingly listened to the album more than I could stand, but it wasn’t until today that I really began to hear it. Beneath its 1984 pop sheen are the undertones of longing, sorrow, and daily struggle. The American flag and my dad voting for Reagan always come to mind when I think about Born in the USA, but today I realized its bitterness, how life can turn out harder and more hurtful than you ever expected.
Six months ago, when I was in St. Louis I took my dad’s old copy. I had no idea how much it would resonate. This afternoon, next to the open windows, my bookshelf speakers seemed like the only tie to anything, and part of me didn’t want to go outside again. As I drank beer and listened, I realized I couldn’t make dinner alone—it was the wooden bowl on the kitchen countertop that did it.
So I guess that’s how I got here, surrounded by the colors of Brazil, thinking of her on the Fourth of July. A couple weeks ago she called to let me know she was engaged. She began the conversation with “It’s probably best you hear this from me.” In our two years together I never took her for the considerate type. Before my dad got sick, my biggest problem was deciding whether or not to marry her—she was getting deported. She had waited six months into our relationship to tell me that for green card purposes she was already married. Then a year later she received a letter telling her “DEPART THE UNITED STATES IMMEDIATELY.” Even with the evidence against her spelled out in black and white, she was constantly changing her story. After meeting with a lawyer (who refused to take the case) and a couple of bottles of wine, I realized I only wanted to get married once, and said as much. She boxed my ears, and then, sobbing, she tore apart her apartment. I felt sorry for her as she smashed pictures, paintings, and her record player, everything she didn’t want to leave behind. The next week my mom called, telling me I had to come home. My dad had an inoperable brain tumor, a glioblastoma.
After he was gone, it was like the core of our family exploded, its three surviving members hurtling separate ways. I learned a lot while my dad was sick, but more than anything I admired how much his family meant to him. I was naïve to think I could keep us together afterwards. During the three months I was back in St. Louis, my Brazilian met her new fiancé.
The bartender recognizes me and adds a shot of top-shelf tequila to every draft I order, especially after I tell him tomorrow’s my birthday. I drink my tequila and beer, eat guacamole, and begin taking pictures. The camera had been my dad’s last gift to me. He and I were in the playroom—at least that’s what we called it growing up—when it arrived. I was back in St. Louis to help care for him. He had been a dentist for 36 years and was planning to retire the following year. By the time I came home, he no longer snuck off in the Thunderbird or wandered into the woods. I had him during the day, and my mom was with him through the nights. My brother was usually up in his room playing guitar. He commended my bravery whenever I’d let Dad drive or clean my teeth.
When the camera arrived via FedEx, Dad was wrapped in blankets on the couch, and I was reading a book in the recliner. When I brought it in to him, he was like a kid, wanting me to open it. “But it’s my Christmas present,” I said, without much conviction. He must have known he wasn’t going to make it to December. He was so excited that we went shopping for a camera bag that afternoon. He’d become a bit of an outsider artist, occasionally shooting from the hip, literally, and was able to collect his final work—warts and all—on a DVD entitled “A Fantastic Life.” I never really appreciated what a natural photog he was until those last months when it was all he had. I still haven’t watched the DVD.
“Happy Fourth,” the bartender says, and I smile. The Fourth of July, a holiday that always meant family to me. Now, with my dad gone, my grief-stricken mom is throwing a leg in the South Pacific with her new boyfriend, and my brother, who seems to have it all figured out, has returned to his life in Aspen. As for me, I can’t make sense out of life or death, let alone my family. “And happy birthday,” the bartender says as he sets up another shot.
A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my mom and Lloyd, her new boyfriend, swung through the Bay Area for lunch. The irony of their timing was lost on them; Dad had been dead less than six months.
They’d driven out from St. Louis. Apparently Lloyd doesn’t fly and makes the drive often because his daughters live in Los Angeles. It was all very convenient, their drive out to spend Father’s Day with his family before this month-long love junket, a cruise to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and god knows where else. According to my mom, Lloyd wanted to meet me and thought it was a good idea to do so before whisking her away. Frankly, I didn’t give a shit if Lloyd thought it was a good idea, but I did want to meet this man before she took off with him.
I walked downtown and met them at this very restaurant. At a table by the front window, the glowing new couple sat across from me. His posture was officious, and my mom insisted he loosen up and have a beer from the pitcher. “Lloyd doesn’t drink much,” she said as she poured, “but I’m working on him.”
Lloyd had a bald, fat head crowned with Friar Tuck hair, and he wore a hooded sweatshirt—the kind that zips. I thought it might be my dad’s. I knew he was golfing with Dad’s friends, even using his clubs. My uncle called one day and said, “I know it’s none of my business. What am I saying? Of course it’s my business. I’ve been seeing you mother’s boyfriend driving around in the Thunderbird.” He even offered to pay for an attorney so I could sue her—he thoroughly believed she was manic-depressive. He said he wanted to make sure I got what was mine.
He wasn’t fat, but he sure as hell wasn’t fit. With his hands out proper on the table and fingers interlocked, he said, “I want you to know I understand what you’re going through. I lost my wife to breast cancer five years ago. My two daughters are about your age.”
I figured if this were true, he might realize how awkward it was for me, seeing as Father’s Day weekend was upon us. He didn’t seem to realize the irony. Nor did my mom. Lloyd’s the only other man aside from my dad I’ve ever seen her with, and it’s a huge disappointment. My parents were high school sweethearts with a solid marriage lasting 42 years. I know it’s stupid, but I thought they’d be married forever. My mom had already told me the story of how she and Lloyd met. Even so, she passed me a glass of beer and said, “Papa, Lloyd, and I all went to high school together. He’s been a dear friend over the years.”
I had never once heard his name until a month or so ago, after their first date, which sounded more like a booty call as Lloyd told it: “Your mother and I had been emailing, and I was in town for my pledge class reunion—I was a Fiji, you know.” As he calmly spoke with the clarity you’d reserve for a child, he intermittently glanced at her with approving eyebrows and then scanned the menu. “After a night of playing cards at my old frat house, I was sneaking out to my car and one of my brothers caught me. I’d been talking about your mother all night, and he told me to go for it. I really just showed up to see my Bull.”
“I had a feeling he was coming over,” she said, smiling at him.
I raised my eyebrows and said, “Bull?” I imagined him at our front door, and even though I’d lost my appetite, I reached for the pitcher and refilled my mom’s glass and mine. Lloyd hadn’t touched his. Repeating the word “bull” in my head prompted me to free associate “bull fuck.”
“Oh yeah,” Lloyd said, “I’ve been calling her Bull ever since we met, back when her name was still Durham.” He repeated her maiden name aloud, drawing it out for his own gratification. “Like the cigarettes,” he said, “before the movie.”
“So what are you having, sweetie?” she said to me, peering over the top of the menu.
As if to signal that everything from this grotesque pet name to the fact he was screwing my mom just months after my dad’s death made perfect sense, Lloyd clapped his menu shut and said, “Any Mexican restaurant worth their salt can whip up a pork enchilada.” He repeated this with an attitude when he ordered. I took great pleasure when our waiter redirected him back to the menu.
I understood what was going on, and it was pathetic. In a way I was helping Lloyd, because meeting me helped my mom deal with her guilt or grief or whatever. My approval somehow ordained their shacking up on who knows how many continents. I ordered another pitcher and could only think about getting the check and saying goodbye. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I took the moment to inquire about Lloyd’s vanity plates. He had parked right outside the restaurant. “So what does XLGLX mean?”
“Funny you should ask,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve got a good story about that.” As he knowingly studied my mom, grinning, his forehead became less stern. “Just the other day filling up, this young thing asked me the same question.” He finally lifted the beer to his smirking mouth. “It’s my initials, except I bracketed them with Xs. But I had fun telling her it meant I’m an extra large lover.” He chuckled again.
My mom giggled and blushed like a schoolgirl. My skin crawled. She and I have always shared a healthy, ornery rapport, especially when we’re drinking. As I poured another beer, I remembered how a friend of the family had said, “Your mom and brother are going to be the last people you can turn to when this is over. That’s why you should turn to the Lord.” I thought this was a crock of shit. Before poor Dad knew anything about his diagnosis, the chaplain said, “You mean he doesn’t know he’s terminal?” I kicked that asshole out of my dad’s hospital room.
The Lord aside, I could tell my mom was tipsy at lunch when she said, “Honey, when I’m a little old lady, are you ever going to move back home to push my wheelchair?”
She’s asked this many times and I gave her my usual smartass answer: “Nah. We’ll just find you a nice, cheap nursing home.”
Looking surprised and suddenly all paternal, Lloyd said, “You keep that up and you won’t see your inheritance.”
This hit me like a shit-ton of bricks. I went quiet except to ask the waiter for a to-go box. Until that very moment, I’d say I was coping with my loss. It had been too much to think about Lloyd embedding himself so fast, but I knew my mom had never been alone and couldn’t handle it.
My brain felt scrambled as she told me Lloyd transferred all the music from my dad’s computer onto a hard drive to take on their trip. The waiter dropped off the check, and all I could do was stare at it. I waited and waited for Lloyd to reach for it. Everything seemed to go quiet until the clack of my mom’s credit card when she placed it in the little check tray. The way she released it from her thumb reminded me of a mousetrap.
After watching Lloyd’s Town Car with those vanity plates pull away, I walked home and climbed the stairs. I drew a hot bath in the old claw-foot tub. I stayed in the bathtub for hours, long enough that I pissed in it without even realizing. It was a week before I bathed again.
Now, a girl sitting across the dining room catches my eye. She looks like a lonely ‘50s throwback and gives me an indifferent look. She doesn’t object when I take her picture. Suddenly, I’m ready to marry her. I’d like for us to settle down and start a family. She seems nice, boring even. I want someone honest, straight, no dabbling in drugs or bisexuality, no tattoos, and god help me, no deportation dramas. Lately I’ve been saying I want a girl from the heartland, but it’s a pendulum. A decade ago all I wanted was spice, someone exotic. I was bored with Midwestern white girls. But here I am, 34 and single, way out west in a Mexican restaurant, taking pictures of a subject reminiscent of a home no more.
Growing up, my brother was Dad’s favorite and I was left to my mom. A good example was the summer Born in the USA came out. We celebrated our birthdays on the Fourth. Every year, there were candles shaped like numbers in the pie, and that particular year, I sat on the side with an 11 and my brother by the 13. I can still see the patio, the potted flowers, and still smell the fresh-cut grass, all my father’s labors, and my mom’s salty homemade ice cream and pie made with canned cherries. My dad, as always, had Bruce playing and was taking pictures of his two towheads. My brother got a remote-control airplane, which my dad had built, a magnificent model with a custom paintjob and his name on the cockpit. My mom knew how badly I wanted a computer, and god love her, she got me one. To this day, it is the most thoughtful gift anyone has ever given me. Even so, I looked at that airplane and wanted to be a part of their adventures.
Usually it was just the two of them who went flying, but a few days later, off we went as a family. The tape my dad played was of course Born in the USA. He had bought it the day it was released and that night dubbed a cassette copy, so as not to wear out the vinyl. My brother sat up front, and Dad told a variation of the same story he always recited, about why he loved Bruce. Driving with a bottle of beer between his legs, he’d say, “When I was in high school, my dad and I always fought. He’d been a farmer like his dad and believed in hard work, but we moved to the city when I was young, which was the happiest day of my life. He always said the military would make a man of me since the farm hadn’t. I wanted to make him proud, so after a big fight, I decided to enlist. When I came home from the physical, he asked where I’d been.”
At this point he’d always look at the red splotchy skin on his arms, take a drink from the beer bottle wrapped in a towel because it was wet from the cooler, and continue: “When I told him they wouldn’t take me because of my psoriasis, he said, ‘Good, at least I gave you something you can use.’” He laughed, took another sip, and glanced over at my brother. “I gave it to you too. I love Bruce because he’s singing about real-life stuff like that.” Then they’d hold up their forearms together, and my brother would say he loved Bruce too.
Perfectly happy in the backseat with my mom, I was spared the Bruce Springsteen lectures along with the psoriasis, for which I was thankful. I had no concept of the songs and thought Bruce was a ham.
The bartender sets up a pint of beer, squeezes a couple limes into it, and then adds a generous shot of some exotic tequila as he points at it with the end of the bottle and says, “That’s banging.” I reach for it but accidentally knock the glass over the other side of the bar and hear it smash. The girl from across the room gives me a look like I’m a cretin who needs serious help. I say, “That’s it for me.” I’m lucky when the bartender reminds me to take my camera, which I left on an empty stool. The world’s a blur as soon as I step outside, and I’m oblivious. Walking home, I take pictures of a Dogwood in bloom because it was Dad’s favorite, which is about when I feel it all going to black.
I wake up disoriented in an ambulance. I’m worried about my job and, even though I know he’s gone, letting my dad down. I keep asking the medic if I’m under arrest. I finally relax when I think about the anonymity of an ambulance and take some comfort in the fact that no one actually knows this is happening. I picture the people in my life watching fireworks pop in the sky, enjoying another Fourth. As I ride, I just want to sleep. This isn’t allowed. Overwhelmed, I start taking deep breaths and am relieved a little as I smell rubber gloves and blood. I panic that this is it, my life is flashing by, in time with the red lights. Mainly I’m just grateful not to be alone anymore.
With the siren wailing, I vaguely recall waking up to the paramedics, a cop, and a smattering of neighbors. For the first time the girl from downstairs gazed at me with kindness in her eyes. “Yes, he’s my neighbor,” she said to the cop. They had snipped through my T-shirt and stuck EKG stickers all over my bare chest, which was embarrassing. Then I peered up and saw my cat watching the scene from her little perch in the window.
I had fallen more than five feet and hit my head on the pavement. I remember the porch, digging for keys, plunging backwards, trampling my ex’s portable charcoal grill, and—desperately grabbing at the doorknob, suddenly seeing the streetlamp behind me turning upside-down—then somersaulting over the rail. I landed flat-backed and was knocked out cold. Who knows how long I was there before a passerby called 911.
The morning Dad died, I wasn’t expecting an ambulance. It crept past the house and then backed up the driveway to our front door. Mom woke me just after eight o’clock, frantic. “I think it’s happened.” She pled with me to go check on him in their bedroom. She had gotten up to haul the trash out a few minutes before. By the time she returned to bed, he was gone.
Entering their bedroom was surreal, like some twisted version of Christmas morning. Here was the same green wallpaper that had been there my entire life, the same ugly chair in the corner by the bed. Sitting in that chair just the week before, I fed him an entire block of Havarti and then a box of devil’s food cookies. As he ate the cookies, and knowing in my heart that it was a lie, I told him to do what he had to, that it was okay for him to go.
Chilled to the bone, I sat down and stared at him, his eyes wide open and fixed on the ceiling. I tried shutting them like they do in the movies, but it didn’t work. They felt as cold as martini olives. Then Mom asked if she should go wake my brother.
“Yes, fuck,” I said. “Go get him.”
We’d gone stir-crazy during the days leading up, waiting for it to come, and the two of them were barely speaking. The day before, as I helped my mom with dinner, she vented. For years her only means of understanding my brother was through me. “I’m going to tell him he can just go back to Colorado,” she said. He wasn’t helping out and always stayed in his room playing guitar. Sending him away would crush him. I didn’t want anybody to hurt any more, just because he was incapable of dealing.
“Is he coming?” I said as she sat down on her side of the bed and picked up the telephone. She shrugged and dialed the hospice nurse. While we waited, having heard it’s the best way to hide that you’ve been crying, I took a shower.
When I returned to the bedroom, the nurse arrived and advised us to go elsewhere in the house—that we shouldn’t see the coroner come in and take him. But I stayed to watch. They zipped him up and jockeyed the gurney around the banister, down the stairs, and out the front door.
My bed in the emergency room is upright—most of the others are vacant. I’m bruised all down my left side. The sterile nurse working the graveyard shift brings my phone. As I leave messages, it’s painfully obvious I have no one to come get me. It’s 3 a.m. and I just want to go home. Eventually the nurse or some doctor makes an exception to hospital policy, and with a white bag that says “PATIENT BELONGINGS” that contains my smashed camera, I’m finally discharged to a waiting cab.
Back home from the hospital in my pitch-dark apartment, it no longer feels like home. I go to the kitchen, drop the hospital bag on the kitchen table, and open the refrigerator door. A dim shadow casts across the linoleum. I decide to leave it open for the soft light. On the countertop, the groceries are still sitting next to the wooden bowl. My cat rounds the corner, stretching as her sleepy eyes squint. She was there in St. Louis through it all, rode beneath my seat on the flights. Between my cat and my camera, it feels like they’re all I have. I take a beer from the fridge and wash down another pill. In the living room I cue up the record player, even though my neighbor forbids it late night, let alone close to dawn. Born in the USA is still on the turntable. I turn the volume down a hair and go back into the kitchen. I’m not sure why, but seeing the door open and the gentle light makes me feel better.
I pull a chair over to the refrigerator and sit down. Sitting in front of the open refrigerator, I’m feeling more displaced than ever. Outside the sky is turning purple like yesterday’s steak. The fridge leaks water, and a puddle forms on the floor. I stare at the puddle’s reflection in the light. My cat dabs the puddle with her paw and then comes over to brush against my leg. I take my camera from the bag that says “PATIENT BELONGINGS” and place what’s left of it on the kitchen table. The paramedics wouldn’t allow me to put it inside my front door. The last picture of my dad was on it, a black and white taken on the same day he gave me the camera. He was adorable, trying to smile through the Bells palsy, a side effect of his treatment. The look in his eyes told me all I needed to know about not giving up. Now, seeing what I did to the camera makes me want to scream, like I smashed the last bit of him. This breaks my heart. Then I look at the open refrigerator and all the groceries and think about how it’s my birthday. The cat walks back to the puddle. I stare at her little paws as she licks the water. I’ve never been so mesmerized and don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what to make of anything. In the living room the record has ended and is now clicking in the run-out groove. I should get up and flip it over, but I can’t stop watching the cat. I take a sip of beer and stare until she stops drinking and leaves.
The man picked me up out in front of the hotel. I figured him for a salesman who worked from his car, which was filled with boxes of files and shit like candy bar wrappers and fast food garbage. It was hot out, and his air-conditioning was full-blast. Even though he was really, really fat, he was nice and said I was pretty, that I reminded him of his daughter, who was a model in Milan. Even his questions were soft and friendly, and I assumed he was Mormon. As he loosened his tie, his underarm looked like the Great Salt Lake itself.
As we sat at a stop sign off Main Street, he was talking about his Harley and how it was a perfect evening to ride into the mountains. His focus was on the traffic to his left, like he was ashamed or avoiding me as he spoke. It felt like he was talking to someone else when he said, “Are you hungry, darling?”
“I’m more thirsty than anything, but there’s no place around here for a drink.”
“There’s Chili’s. Do you like Chili’s?”
“Wherever you want, mister,” I said to the back of his head.
His turn signal began clicking over the air conditioner, and he cautiously inched out, still talking about his motorcycle. He was peering over his left shoulder, like his back had seized up like that — not even so much as a side glance ahead.
I was exhausted, wishing I was anyplace but here, and annoyed by his hesitation. All I needed was another 60 bucks. On my side, there was a young couple standing on the curb waiting for him to go. They were sorry looking, like they just brewed a batch of meth behind their trailer. But mainly it was the guy and his patchy facial hair, gold chain, and creepy, confident smirk. He was holding a white sack which I assumed was food, because the girl cradled a giant bottle of sauce they had obviously just swiped. It was about half full and had a pump on top, the kind they put by the soda fountain, where you get the rest of the crap you need, like straws and forks.
The guy glared at us as he lost patience and decided to cross. They were in front of the car when I tried to say something but couldn’t, like in a dream. Without looking, the salesman finally punched the gas.
The kid threw himself up on the hood, and tacos flew from the white sack. One unwrapped when it slapped on the windshield, soggy bits of taco shell and lettuce, and then the orange powder blowing away.
As I got out, waves of vinegar went up my nostrils, hot sauce cooking on the pavement. The girl was pinned, the tire having driven up her leg. I hurried up the sidewalk without looking back and kept walking, fast.
I’m sitting here in a cherry red booth by the propped side door of the Boom Boom Room. Just outside, a fumy breeze from the evening traffic on Geary is actually refreshing. The place is empty except for my friend’s band and the sweetheart bartender named Tiger, who’s busy opening but still brings me a cold beer when she sees me. Thanks to my friend Tyson, I’ve had some of the best nights of my life in here. Passing by on my way to happy hour, I overheard his band’s sound-check and had to pop in. They keep rehearsing a new one, a Dead Kennedys cover. It’s tight and gritty, just the way I love it.
For me, this year has already played out like a tragicomedy, and it’s barely April—which is why I’ve been looking forward to a rowdy night here with Tyson, like old times. They’ve had this gig five years now. The deal is the Boom Boom Room pays their airfare, hotel, and booze, but that’s it. They were once the next darlings of New Orleans, but they’re in market decline now and probably should have branched out. They’ve never played another venue here in San Francisco.
Watching them sound-check reminds me of how desperate I am for good company. My dad died four months ago, and at 34, it’s been my first real brush with grief. To me, our little family—my brother and me, my mom and dad—was pretty much Leave it to Beaver, but we went our separate ways after the funeral.
We buried him on a bitter cold, overcast day, the kind you only get in the Midwest. I remember the bare tree limbs, how they reminded me of the brain tumor, the way it branched out on his CAT scan. The three of us were in folding chairs surrounded by hundreds of people. My old college friends who showed up surprised me. They came from all over. Tyson wasn’t there, but that was hardly a shock. Hell, I was the only one who didn’t attend his wedding in New Orleans. He and I are alike in that sense—too self-absorbed, I guess.
Tonight the little red room isn’t even half full, which I prefer compared to how miserable it was when they used to pack it. Patchouli oil’s in the air, mainly from Hurricane Katrina transplants who wouldn’t miss this for the world. And I wouldn’t either. I’m always here when his band comes to town. Tyson and I both love to party and get our kicks when the unraveling ensues, which now that I think about it has been the basis of our friendship since college.
Back then, he was my ginger friend with red eyelashes so thick they looked like mascara. He was tall, completely lacked athletic coordination, and was a little too weird looking for sorority girls, even though he never saw it that way. One spring break, on our way to Florida in his crappy brown LTD, we got lost in Memphis. Neither of us having ever been, we wound up going to New Orleans instead. We were like artists without a cause there, and he said New Orleans was the place for him. His car broke down on our way home because he never checked the oil, didn’t even know how. As soon as we got back, instead of always going out like me, he began teaching himself the guitar and eventually formed a band. By the time we graduated, he was playing bars around our little college town.
That was 12 years ago. Me, on the other hand—I’ve yet to accomplish anything artistic. As he was finding his voice, I was chasing cheerleaders in the dance club. I had said I wanted to be a writer but took the first square job I was offered as a stockbroker, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
I know it’s going to be a good night when Tiger the bartender offers me a pill. Tyson introduces me to a blonde named Christine—she was his wife’s maid of honor. I learn that she’s a journalist and we share Ringo Starr’s birthday. Her cropped bangs are New York chic, and even though she’s slightly slack jawed, I’m enamored. She seems just my type, but I lose track as the drugs take hold and the band starts. I’ve not had the best luck with women lately.
I wander up front to my spot against the wall, but not before Heddi, the English girl I dated a couple months ago, cuts me off. She was the only person who seemed comfortable around me those days after the funeral, but her true love was an idiot Cocker Spaniel named Muppet. Muppet bit my face on Valentine’s Day and we broke up. I met another girl soon after, but she had some teeth missing and was technically homeless.
I’ve not seen Heddi since Valentine’s, and she looks good wearing a white wife beater. But there’s nada spark. Her accent is so thick I need subtitles. She talks and talks at me, and I bobblehead along, but I finally lean in and tell her I can’t understand a damn thing she’s saying. She proceeds to pull my head down, cupping one ear and plugging the other, and pounds my eardrum with her indecipherable Cockney. Yak yak yak. When Muppet bit my nose, I said, “Get your dog away from me before I punch it.” I wouldn’t have really hit her dopey designer fleabag, but the mere thought was criminal to her. It was an out and I took it. Now, when she asks if I’ve missed her, I say, “I’ve missed Muppet more.” She lets go and disappears.
I have a theory about avoiding certain people when partying like this. The idea is this—you take a pill and your body winds up having to chase you down, like a footrace involving an out-of-body experience, and as long this ghost of yourself is beating your body, you’re high. But the body’s constantly gaining and inevitably catches up. The tricky part is hurdling people who slow you down, people like Heddi.
Now, on the other hand, there’s Tiger. Her vibe’s so conducive to my out-of-body steeplechase that I just want to fall into hers and absorb it. She twists my arm to take another pill and halves it with me. On the dance floor, I fall under the aromatic spell of a drunken circle of girls flipping their long, beautiful hair and realize my narcotic state is full blown—as narcissism is a definite indication, I’m like the center of attention.
The next thing I know, Tyson’s pretty friend, Christine, has made her way up. Earlier, we had been making curious eye contact, but when I waved, she didn’t come. But here she is now. Dancing together with side-glances and flirty smiles, I’d say we’re hitting it off. But I lose her again as the place erupts. Jello Biafra, the famous Dead Kennedys singer, joins Tyson to cover his song “Too Drunk to Fuck.”
It’s a bug-eyed guitar thriller. This is what it’s all about—sweaty, shimmery summits of pure ecstasy, an endorphin frenzy. As Jello nails it, the band’s expression says it all, a collective shit-eating grin with a dash of amazement: punk rock authenticated by the relic singer, a rambunctious New Orleans camaraderie unlike anyplace in San Francisco tonight. To see Tyson at the center warms my heart and definitely releases me from some anguish I’ve been toting, which I knew it would.
Christine takes my hand and says, “I need a cigarette after that.” I don’t smoke but know to go with her. Her holding my hand as she leads us through the crowd is heaven.
As the night progresses and the place thins, the two of us have the dance floor. The band watches us swing and laugh, and their horns never sounded better. I hear the line “Carry me home” so deeply I wonder for a minute if I’m unconscious. We dance until the house lights and I realize I’ve lost my friends. Tyson and the band are gone. Everybody just fell away. The entire club is now a stranger.
I put Christine in a cab. She’s pretty drunk but a good enough girl to not take me home. And of course I don’t get her number. I’m a hopeless romantic, and at this stage I usually forget, figuring if it’s meant to be, I’ll see her again. This approach to women drives my friends crazy.
I’m suddenly alone on the sidewalk. I call Tyson’s cell. Nothing. I get a cab. He calls back. I meet him at their hotel in Japantown where the Boom Boom Room sets them up. As my cab drops me, I see about seven people apparently waiting for me in the lobby. I only know Tyson, another guy from the band, and Tiger, who’s off work now and looking hot in her black leather pants. Most everyone else is inexplicably from Atlanta, and they’re here to party with the band.
We take the elevator to the top floor, and as we walk into a suite, the host is playing Wii Tennis projected on a pristine white wall. He’s been waiting for the party to arrive. His name is Matthew, and he used to be Tyson’s drug dealer in New Orleans. He’s six feet three and wearing a black kimono and slippers. His face has been made pale white with pancake makeup, which contrasts with the sores circling his red lips. Up close, his makeup smells musty, like corroded batteries. I’m sure this disturbs Tiger, who keeps moving away from him to the suite’s many other nooks. But he just keeps sidling up. I’m in this squat little chair when Tiger burrows her warm buns into my lap and says, “The creepy geisha won’t leave me alone.” He’s beyond bizarre, but it hardly registers because I’m still flying.
Tyson and a guy wearing sunglasses are sitting on the floor in front of me. I’m expecting to draw Matthew’s ire as he sits in the matching squat chair, but his attention abruptly shifts to the effeminate guy wearing aviators.
You can practically see Matthew think, and it is indeed a slow process. The sunglasses make this man sitting on the floor look like a kid, like one of the beautiful people. Tyson’s digging him because he’s abuzz about Jello Biafra. Having grown up here, he knows all about the Dead Kennedys, like how Jello ran for mayor in ’79. But Matthew has no clue about “the DKs” and seems to be agitated by the shades. He’d rather talk about the club where he wants to take Tyson. “Dude, you’ll love the End Up. It’s Fag Friday, but it’s cool.”
Tyson says, “Man, what’s wrong with you?”
This guy wearing sunglasses doesn’t take shit, and Matthew bickers with him about annoying tidbits like “Did you know Alcatraz means pelican in Spanish?”
Tyson says, “Dude, he’s from here. He knows.”
“Oh yeah?” says Matthew. “I’ve lived here five months, man. I know too.”
When Tyson realizes he’s actually serious, he says, “Wipe your nose, for Christ sake.”
Big powerful dummies are dangerous, especially when they’ve chosen to deal coke, and the more we snort, the more Matthew resembles Godzilla to me. At one point everyone except Matthew is seated Indian style around the giant lazy Susan—except the guy who locked himself in the bathroom. Looming above and regaling us with his asinine commentary, Matthew acts like our overlord every time he fishes another baggie of coke from his kimono and empties it out.
Towards dawn he turns resentful about our apparent lack of appreciation, even though nobody’s asked him for a thing other than to please sit down. It’s really just that our necks are tired from having to look up. Plus, his runny nose is disgusting. Who knows how much coke he’s done, but good God. He just wipes white-flecked snot on his satin sleeve. We ignore him and drink beer until it’s officially pale morning, but when the guy who locked himself in the bathroom flips out, smashes the Styrofoam cooler, which is full of water but no more beer, our evening abruptly ends.
Tyson and I head back to his room. The sun’s established itself, probably 8 a.m., and it’s one of those moments when bad ideas materialize. This time of morning, before it inevitably gets ugly, is like being on vacation, those fleeting moments when you feel a little more alive. You think you appreciate the air and the sky and all that. Before I moved back for my dad’s last months, I went home one weekend. He was already changing, becoming wide-eyed and childlike. At the airport for my flight back to California, it hurt more than anything to see him weep. When I finally took my leave of absence, it was my first break from work since graduating 12 years earlier. Towards the end when I extended my leave, my dad said, “Good. I don’t ever want you to leave again.” Despite everything, no matter how much had been taken away or that in a matter of months he aged exponentially, he was always the same old person to me. We had days together that felt like everything was going to be OK.
My time with Tyson is similar, and it never ends pretty either. He says there’s something about San Francisco that makes him crazy, even more than New York, where we’ve slummed it at great underground parties and once in Brooklyn, out of sheer exuberance, he shoved me through a plate-glass wall—I had shards of glass all over me. Living in New Orleans sets one hell of a bar. The worst was one morning in the Tenderloin: we’d met this bum he dubbed “Hamburger Face” who was still bleeding profusely from being beaten up earlier that morning. I refused to give Tyson 20 bucks to go smoke crack in a skid row hotel with Hamburger Face, and he threw a fit. We almost came to blows. I’m not sure why I put up with it, but I guess I pride myself on always being the one who can hang when he comes to town.
Out on the sun-drenched balcony, sitting in sleek yellow chairs, we have a 32-once bottle of beer to split. Tyson’s reading SF Weekly and savoring his cigarette. He’s studying the escort section for an Asian girl. I’m more interested in learning about his friend Christine. When I ask for her number, he says he’ll talk to his wife about it. He wants to stay on topic and says, “Listen man, I know we don’t talk about it, but I know you’ve been through a lot. What you need is a girl. So do you want to get one?” I’m not much interested but agree to chip in if I can watch and write about it. As I say this, he gives me a disturbed look.
He starts calling. Awkward conversations and weird messages ensue, and then he gets a callback. It sounds like he’s got a girl, and I assume if he’s really going through with this, she’ll be coming to the hotel—and if that’s the case, we’re going to need liquor and cigarettes. I say as much after he hangs up, but his phone immediately starts ringing again. She wants us to come down to Daly City, which is about 10 miles away, but the cab will be outrageous. He tells her we’ll probably do it, and we head out.
Having not eaten or slept for 24 hours, at the ATM I can’t remember my pin and lock my account. My brain’s beginning to fray, but Tyson accuses me of doing it on purpose and says I’m stingy. And in a way I am relieved, now limited to credit cards. Tyson thinks I’m rich because I have a “real” job. We’ve had some expensive benders, and it’s always me who pays.
We hop in a cab, and he has to call for directions, except now that she’s not talking dirty, he can’t understand her accent. Our cabbie’s Asian, so Tyson hands him the phone. The cabby tries talking to her in a couple different languages and then claps the phone shut. He hands it back and advises us not to go. For a moment, we don’t know what to do. What I do know is that my friend’s apartment is just up Geary. He’s out of town, but I have a key. When I tell the cabbie to take us there, Tyson crosses his arms and stares out the window. To placate him, I say, “Maybe we can pay her cab up.”
Once inside the apartment, Tyson says, “Yeah, we should have her come here.” Just the thought of having to explain how my rock star friend did a prostitute on the new suede couch makes me uptight. At least there’s cold beer and good pot.
As I’m always fascinated in his opinion about music, I put on a record. But he picks up a guitar and begins crooning a song, the talented fucker, and tells me to shut it off. He’s made three albums with his band, but they’re about drinking and self-described “sleazy burlesque.” A few years ago he made a downtrodden and beautiful record of his own. Last night, he puked during a song and ran to the bathroom. When I found him in the stall, he said, “I can’t sing about this shit anymore.”
Sitting on the suede couch, when I remind him of this, he says, “I can’t, man. I’m out of shit to say. I don’t want to sing about boozing or drugging or anything clever. No more wordplay. I want to sing about the unknown, about faith. There’s nothing more soulful than screaming about shit you can’t prove, but goddamn it, I don’t care.”
Miss Daly City calls again. She’s not wild about having to come up. There’s more dirty talk, but oddly it starts sounding like Tyson’s courting her. “You sound as sweet as sugar on a stick,” and then, “Can’t wait to see you too, baby.” He hangs up and says, “We’re going.”
Standing out on Geary again, Tyson realizes we still need her address, which is when, thank God, his phone dies. “That’s it,” I say. “Lets go to a bar.”
It’s barely 10 a.m. when we wind up at a dive a few doors down. As we enter from the sunny morning and my eyes adjust, I see three customers and an Asian barmaid. The place is quiet and smells like pee. Sitting at one end of the horseshoe, there’s a man who looks normal enough, probably in his late 40s with a head full of gray hair. At the other end of the bar, there’s an odd looking rough couple. The man, maybe 80 years old, is wearing a ragtag suit and a jowly scowl of white scruff. He makes no eye contact and doesn’t speak, but his 40-something girlfriend, also dressed in thrift store banker attire, says good morning but then obediently scoots closer to him. She’s actually not unattractive but obviously hasn’t bathed in a while.
The bartender takes my credit card and introduces herself. Her name is Heaven, and she’s unsure the credit card machine will work. I’m holding my breath, because if things don’t fall into place, Tyson’s going to become an asshole. He asks Heaven for a cord to charge his phone, which is a joke, given that it’s ancient. How the hell is she going to scare that up? I hate drawing attention, especially in a place like this, and begin to recoil when he loudly asks her for a cigarette.
She takes the phone and, casually examining it, waits by the credit card machine. We sit a few bar stools down from the normal-looking guy. In an Irish accent, Tyson says, “Top o’ the morning.” His reply is bona fide Irish.
Heaven begins squawking at the machine as it buzzes to life, and before letting me know we’re in business, she says, “Be right back. Might have cord for you,” as she scuttles out the propped side door.
She returns a few minutes later and from behind the bar, as if she never left, says, “What you having?”
“Is the credit card okay?”
“Machine working, yes.”
That’s all I need and order a draft. I’m curious but decide to say nothing about Tyson’s phone.
Tyson says, “Where’s my phone, man?”
“Oh, neighbor have it. He’ll find cord.”
“Yeah, he right next door.” She procures a cigarette, which Tyson takes. Standing ready with matches, she strikes one, and he leans over the bar, allowing her to light it. She says, “No smoking, but nobody here.” Unfazed, he thanks her and orders a vodka tonic.
When she guesses that Tyson’s in a band, without missing a beat I say, “Do fat babies fart?” and ask how she knew.
“Heaven knows,” she says with a wink.
The open side door is the only source of light, so when a tall, backlit figure obstructs it, we turn around. He’s wearing John Lennon glasses, a beard, and long stringy hair. He’s holding a cord, which he shows Tyson as he hands him the phone. They’re both all too pleased and having a moment plugging it in over by the pool table. I order a victory beer and finally relax a little.
So our boy’s back in business, hunched over and plugged into the wall. As thanks, I offer to buy the neighbor a beer. He mentions his favorite bourbon, so we order that too.
When Tyson’s not on the phone, he and I try to one up each other on the jukebox. The Irishman mostly keeps to himself, but I learn to watch him, as he’ll sneak over and play U2 when I’ve left credits. Not that it’s a problem, but they’re for Tyson. His picks from the early ‘80s are especially interesting. I could talk music with him all day. If you want to agitate him, play anything by Rush.
These are his kind of people, and I’m hoping it’s enough of a distraction. Besides, he’s got another show tonight at the Boom Boom Room. When I realize it’s probably too late for Daly City, I feel a wave of relief. Out the side door, I can see there’s an afternoon breeze as trash blows by.
The sun’s reflecting off a parked car’s windshield, and I look directly into it, which feels good, almost hypnotizing. I remember the drive home from the oncologist, in the backseat with my dad, the afternoon we learned there was nothing else to do, that it was time to let it ride. He was excited about the mail. Our next Sopranos disk was delivered that morning. Like a kid, he asked if we could get take-out. “We can get whatever you want,” I said. “You can even have your own glass of wine tonight.” That’s when we knew, when he knew. It was our final car ride as a family.
Tyson steps outside for a smoke and lazily takes in Geary Street. I like watching him. His dad is in jail, but for what I’m unsure. I know he had a coke problem and was in a halfway house. We don’t talk about it. Back in college we used to discuss Dionysus and suffering for your art. I think he likes barflies because he loves the blues, and I wonder if he hopes some will rub off. He certainly got more than he bargained for when he refused to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina.
The odd-couple lady likes us, and every time she goes to the bathroom, she stops for a minute. She says we have good energy, and when Tyson plays Hall & Oates, she just has to dance with him. After which, for some reason, he gets her number. The neighbor tells me she’s “loco.” She claims to sense a deep pain within me, so I show her where Muppet bit my nose and how it’s fucked up. “Oh honey, that’s nothing.” She tousles her hair to locate the entry-wound from an execution-style gunshot and then, searching a little more and guiding my hand to feel, finds the exit-wound, too. Her ex-husband shot her pointblank. Peering over his John Lennon spectacles, the neighbor gives me an I-told-you-so look.
The neighbor, who says he’s an artist, reminds me of Tommy Chong. He mentions how he’s been working on a stained-glass merry-go-round for years and invites us to see it. We oblige and in his junkyard living room, filled by years of hoarding, are witness to his masterpiece, which is larger than a Christmas tree but looks more like a wedding cake from an asylum. He turns it on, and as the carousel is cranking, I can’t help but inquire about the Kentucky Fried Chicken box rounding by. He’s unsure and nabs it, showing us big balls of mold inside.
From where we’re standing, the pathway through this room is like a canyon. I can hear what sounds like a vicious dog somewhere in here. When I peek around the corner, down the hallway in the kitchen, I catch a glimpse of a Doberman disemboweling a beanbag chair. He scolds me for looking around and then, in one breath, explains we are not to move about, asks if we’re cops, and offers to cut some lines. While explaining that he’s getting evicted and the place is booby-trapped for his Nazi landlord, he dumps powder from a folded magazine bindle onto an old-fashion bicycle seat.
Tyson casually picks up an old junker guitar missing the bottom two strings, tunes it a little, sings a song, and impresses the shit out of the neighbor. He wants Tyson to bring the guitar back to the bar, but all Tyson wants to do is get his phone, which he now realizes has been plugged in by the pool table far too long. Back in the bar, he checks his messages and steps outside.
An hour later, I realize he called Matthew, our host from last night. Matthew shows up in a ridiculous outfit: pink Duck Head shorts, a pink argyle sweater over a pink button-down oxford, and topsiders sans socks. I don’t know what to make of him, now bathed in cologne and in this tight, puzzling outfit, but he’s a brut and certainly intimidating. When Tyson makes fun of him, Matthew seems hurt and says, “What? You don’t think this is hilarious?”
Heaven doesn’t like him and asks if he’s my friend. She prefers that he leave. As I pay the bill though, she says, “You welcome at my bar anytime. Heaven love the lovely ones.”
I suggest we go to a party I know about in the Mission but quickly learn we’re first taking a scenic drive in Matthew’s BMW. The backseat’s new car smell makes me realize he’s no coke dealer. He’s too stupid to be anything but a rinky-dink pusher, and this leather upholstery’s too nice for that. Nope, Matthew’s just a big, beyond creepy trust funder, and against my declaration this morning that I’d never get in this asshole’s car, his zealous desire to please Tyson now involves me. I’m easily carsick, and getting to the Mission is all I want. Tyson turns around from the front seat, handing me a baby Ziploc and his phone, and says, “Chill man. I want to see the city.”
A nice car really can be seductive. I look around and realize this must be the most spacious sedan BMW makes. Figuring I might as well take full advantage, I cautiously duck down and, dipping the cell phone’s nub antenna into the Ziploc, feed both nostrils generously. The medicinal taste—that baby laxative drip down the back of my throat—gives me instant gas, so I let one rip and roll down the window.
Tyson turns around and says, “Why don’t you take me on rides like this?”
I don’t answer but want to say, You fucking idiot, why are we in this car?
It’s hard to relax, especially at stoplights. With complete disregard for traffic on either side, the two of them are beyond cavalier shoveling cocaine up their noses. Wanting to curl up on the floorboards, I realize I’m uptight but can’t help it, especially when Matthew launches up one of the city’s famous hills. I tell Tyson to buckle up, which offends Matthew. In the rearview mirror, he says, “What, you don’t like my driving?”
High above the city in the Presidio’s National Cemetery, he’s taking turns like there’s no tomorrow. I’m scared because if he’s pulled over, we’re screwed. You can bet he’s holding enough blow to sexually enslave Sigmund Freud. As Matthew’s squealing corners and redlining his “Ultimate Driving Machine,” I feel like I’m letting my dad down and wonder how disappointed he must be if he’s really in heaven. At that moment all I want is to be with my sweet cat back home in the South Bay.
We stop for an intimate view of the sunset and more bumps. I’m uncomfortable and get out, filling my lungs with fresh ocean air. I watch the two of them through the windshield, sitting together, their mouths moving, and it hits me: Matthew’s romancing Tyson. It makes me wonder what Tyson’s been doing for his drugs in New Orleans. I consider walking to the Mission from here but instead get back in the car.
As the high-performance tires spit gravel, on the narrow cemetery road we’re once again a force to be reckoned with. Of course, I toot some more when Tyson passes it back again, which is what finally does it and I panic. We’re going at least twice the speed limit when I say, “I’m getting out!”
Matthew slams the breaks, and Tyson’s actually out before me. “No you’re not! Get back in motherfucker!” Boxing me in, he tries restraining me, but he’s too gangly and no match. I learned from my brother a long time ago to never punch someone you love, but I muster everything and heave him like a rag doll into the street.
My run for it is easy because it’s downhill. As I cut the steep grade, a manicured green slope of uniform military headstones, I bet he’d toss a net on me if he could. The bay, so panoramic and blue with whitecaps, gives me vertigo at this pitch.
When Tyson finally tackles me, the fresh cut grass, how it smells and itches, is just another reminder that a piece of me is gone forever. From a nearby gravesite, a man begins yelling that he’s calling the police. Matthew, idling down the paved path with both passenger side doors ajar, begs us to stop fucking around: “That guy’s calling the cops!”
Tyson, with a tense smirk, has me pinned down—like my brother used to in our front yard when he’d make me slap myself in the face.
“Just fucking leave me, man,” I say to Tyson. “Please just leave me here.”
He’s staring me down, at which point we both hear Matthew, and—that he’s our voice of reason—I snap out of it.
Back in the car, clueless Matthew says, “That was way too fucking weird, guys.”
Tears stream my face. They feel like the purest, deepest rivulets of my life. I can’t hear what Matthew is saying as he glares at me in the rearview mirror. Everything’s gone silent.
Tyson screams: “Shut the fuck up! You have no idea what he’s been through!”
He twists around to console me and says, “Man, it’s OK to cry. I cry all the time.”
I grin, sniffling, and say, “I know. I’ve seen it.” He’s still facing me as I stare out the window and say, “Why do you always turn on me like that?”
He fumbles and says, “San Francisco makes me a little crazy I guess.”
Even though it’s bullshit, I buy it. I realize I’m not OK these days. I’ve never felt this way. Life’s always been good to me but seems so transient now, the speed our bodies retreat. Tyson knows I’m not fucking around. He’s never seen me like this.
His pretty friend Christine mentioned last night that she lives in the Mission. I wish I had her number now.
Tyson can keep going like this, but I can’t. I can’t go to the show tonight. At a stoplight in the Mission, my heart feels like it’s breaking when I get out of the car. This time when I say I’m getting out, he lets me go.