It was the summer I wanted to be Hunter Thompson and Tommy got pretty serious with coke. An abusive relationship, he called it. But I never knew who was abusing whom.
It was the summer before college, when drug people were my people. There was this sense we were floating on the same ocean, and everyone else was bustling about on the shore. We could speak to the land dwellers. We could text them, even. But they didn’t feel the vibrations. They weren’t dizzy the way we were dizzy. They weren’t riding the waves, man.
Sweet little Leila caught ADD and we had adderol. We sliced open her pills, crushed the granules and drew lines on Tommy’s cell phone. Leila got first whiff, being the supplier and all. From then on, she was good people. Sweet little Leila grew her brown hair long and pierced her eyebrow. She belonged to it.
We got creative with our addictions. A little of yours, a little of mine, and a little of the stuff nobody should want. We felt like chemists. One line adderol, plus two powder, plus a shot of whatever was around, plus gum that shit and you had a hell of a high.
It was a hell of summer. I fancied myself a radical. We thought Baltimore was above the influence. Above weed and free love. High, up on a whole other level. I wrote pages and pages about American swine and the uselessness of breathing. Stories that began in Congress and ended in Pizza Hut. Or, more often, didn’t end at all.
One night we’re smoking something or other on my porch and Tommy asks what I write about, anyway. He’s leaning against the side of my house, picking at the peeling white paint mindlessly. Lost in it. I can still see him. Deep brown eyes staring off under overgrown dirty blond hair. Strong jaw jutting out, but still tucked away somehow, like he didn’t want to seem too defined. Lips just a little parted, enough to look ready for action but not committed.
“I don’t know.” I say.
“No, really,” he takes a swig of the cheap Chardonnay we were into back then. “Tell me a story.”
There’s this twinkle in his eyes, like he’s hungry. Curtis, another guy who belonged to it, nods his head and makes out some kind of encouraging words. He’s a big lumbering guy, with dark frizzy hair that stands up straight, like its been electrocuted. Even crouched down on the porch, he looks too large. Awkward, like he’s on the wrong planet. I guess we all related to that. I shrug and hit the bowl.
“Well, there’s this one about this guy,” I hit again. “Buck.”
“I like that name,” Curtis says.
“Let her tell the story,” Tommy whispers harshly.
“Well,” I start. “Buck’s this circus guy, right. He cuts things, like metal, with, like, rusty scissors.”
Time’s a funny thing for drug people. It’s fast and slow; tides coming in and going out on top of each other, with the force of a monsoon and the size of a ripple after a small pebble falls through the surface of a pond. Sometimes we talked for hours and sometimes just seconds, but it all passed the same. That night, I may have discussed Buck on end or I may have mentioned him. I’ll never know.
“And this circus performer,” I continue. “He lives in this dystopia where Fox News runs the world.”
“And he decides that the world has gone to shit. And, like, everybody’s got this pain balled up under their ribcages. And so he goes on this journey to find God and the source of pain–the reason it all is the way it is and not better.” I shove my head into my hands. “I don’t know. It’s stupid.”
“Naw, man.” Curtis furrows his eyebrows. “Deep.”
Tommy boots. Dark red with green chunks and a dank, acidic smell. We watch and wait. He finishes.
“Man.” Curtis hits.
“Sorry. Shouldn’t have railed that addie.” Tommy’s eyes are bloodshot, rimmed with red. He looks like a drug addict. It occurs to me he is. We all are. Grunge. Alternative. Kids without a cause–both genesis and crusade. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if we were breathing. Or, for that matter, if we should have been breathing.
“Don’t sweat it.” I shrug. “The dogs will clean it up tomorrow.”
The next morning I let the dogs out and the evidence is gone as easy as eating breakfast.
I always wondered if my father knew. I like to think he didn’t. I like to think he worked long, hard hours as the Red Ginger line cook. I like to think that it tired out his eyes and dulled his mind, so that by the time he stumbled in and dropped down on his bed, he couldn’t figure me out. I like to believe all that so I don’t have to believe he knew and did nothing for me. That he never asked where I was or who with because he never suspected it was all wrong. I like to believe my father was as good a father as circumstances allowed, even if he wasn’t a good father. He’s all the family I have and that means something to me. I loved my father. Of that, I was almost sure.
It was the summer we didn’t go places, we showed up. Popped up, out of whatever oblivion we came from. A puff of magic smoke and there we were, sloppy and flopping about–fish out of water. We weren’t land dwellers and when we came to shore, we tried to bring the waves with us.
So one day or night we show up at Curtis’s place. It’s the kind of decorated formstone row house that line the city streets. Muted purple paint with green trimming and a busted second story left window covered by fraying duct tape. Flanked by identical abandoned shitholes, barely boarded up and home to faceless spotters and rats. A black magic type dream catcher hanging over the door next to an ivory cross. We mixed more than drugs, in those days.
Tommy, Leila and I stumble out of whatever bus got us there and skip down the street, up the uneven concrete stoop steps. We bang on the wooden door–short staccato raps that sound like rhythm to us.
Curtis answers. He’s wearing black boxers that are too tight and a grey wife beater, with a red stain over his right nipple. Funny, the things you remember.
He stands in the doorway, eyes a hazy shade of half-shut.
“What?” He mumbles, lips barely moving.
“We came here,” Leila begins, before looking at me inquisitively, “for a reason.”
Suddenly, we can’t remember.
“Come chill with us,” Tommy flashes a stupid smile and puts two thumbs up.
I chime in, “We’ve got shrooms.”
Leila’s gone silent on us. Shrooms. Pesky things. Sometimes you’re so in it, you can’t escape. And sometimes you’re under water and nothing’s really happening down there.
“We’ve got shrooms,” I repeat, maybe once, maybe more.
Tommy nods enthusiastically. Curtis just blinks.
“Naw, I’m good.” Real drug people never say no. We’re lost for a moment, but we recover.
“But, why not?” Tommy asks, stupid smile morphed into a drooping jaw and wide eyes.
“Quitting what?” Tommy asks.
“Everything.” Curtis’s face doesn’t move. “I’m done.”
Leila sits down on the stoop and buries her head in her knees. Tommy gets angry fast.
“You fucking scab. Turncoat traitor.” Angry drug people are unpredictable. Rage can turn violent, or dissolve. Sometimes it fizzles. Sometimes it fans. When you’re living so close to suicide, it doesn’t seem strange to be irrational. Hell, life is irrational. And in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, we didn’t ask to be born in the first place.
Tommy punches the wall with his fist. Nobody flinches. We’re far beyond that. His outburst leaves a blot of red blood on the flaking purple paint.
“Chill, man,” Curtis says.
“Bullshit you’re quitting.” Tommy breaks out into manic laughter. “Bull. Shit.” He’s howling like a hyena. He doubles over and tugs at his hair with both hands, blood dripping from his slashed knuckles. “You can’t counter counterculture. It’ll beat the shit out of your fat ass.”
He’s in an uproar.
“Keep it down, man. I’ve got neighbors,” Curtis says. He turns to me. “I keep shaking.”
I look him up and down. Tommy’s still shrieking, but I can’t hear it anymore.
“You don’t look like you’re shaking,” I retort in a voice that doesn’t sound like mine. It’s high pitched, almost childish. It sounds like I’m begging him to not be shaking. It sounds like I’m shaking.
“I had to drink a little to get to sleep.” He clears his throat. “Whisky helps it.”
Tommy shrinks into a ball next to Leila, clutching his knees to his neck and humming. His face is bright red and blue veins push through his temples.
“You should get clean,” Curtis says to me. “I don’t get why we turned to it in the first place, really.”
Neither did I, but I don’t say so. I pull my kids down the stoop and we get home somehow. But as the purple line clanks away down the block, I look back and watch Curtis standing in the door through the dirt caked window, his eyes still half shut, and I think I see him shaking. But I dismiss it–probably just the bus vibrations.
We had chemical imbalances to begin with. They gave us drugs to right us, and when the serotonin and dopamine in their prescriptions wasn’t enough, we got our kicks elsewhere. We grew up in a place where the American dream waned and the people were left behind. This wasn’t charm city, but a confused conglomerate attempting to resurrect the dream that was. And when they couldn’t, there was always a different dream calling from the shadows, lurking behind the construction sites and grant money that never went to where it should. The city had chemical imbalances to begin with. We righted ourselves because we couldn’t right the streets. And who could blame us for that?
One night I found myself sucking Tommy’s dick behind the concrete ruins of one of Baltimore’s industrial era masterpieces. The kind of place that used to bustle, and now just sits there for kids to graffiti and bums to pee on. I’m not sure why it happened there, or how, but we both knew it would someday. I guess that moment felt as good as we supposed any other would.
He finishes and I get up off my knees, wiping my mouth with my shirt. It’s dark and we’re coked out. Jitters. Heart beating fast. Feverish. Unsure if it’s happening, or just dream. Still, unsure.
We stand there, Tommy’s pants wrapped around his feet. I can’t stop swaying back and forth, but I think it’s in my head. Tommy doesn’t seem to notice. I sniff and smell chemicals and harbor winds. Cum and blood. My nose is bleeding.
Tommy jerks his hand towards my face and I flinch, but he’s just wiping the blood away.
“It hurts,” I whisper.
“Just a dream within a dream,” he whispers back, an allusion to something we read a long time ago.
“I’m in the red,” I stutter hoarsely, breathing uneven. “We’re in the red, you know.”
He nods. We lock eyes.
“I love you,” He mouths, barely audible.
I don’t love him. I don’t know if love is even real. Sometimes I think it’s just some great conspiracy used by the poets to sell books. I wasn’t radical. I was broken.
“Do you really believe that?” I ask.
Tears drip from his eyes, staggered. He’s not crying, so much as dripping. It occurs to me that that’s what we’re doing: dripping. Dripping into waves. Into nothing. Ruins that bustle no more. And the vibrations are an illusion. Hollow.
“No.” His eyes look through me. “No, but I wish I did.”
It’s a thing rare to get straight in this town. For most, the old factories that frame the city mutate into concrete catacombs, where the ghost of the great American dream mingles with the souls of people who died belonging to it. People who died because they belonged to it.
Leila straightened out, but we all knew she would. She was a swimmer, even if she did belong to it. Swimmers are a slippery bunch. You can count on them to dive to shore when the sharks come around. She was in it for the thrill, for bucking her parents, for doing something stupid the summer before college. She joined a sorority and learned to do coke socially. She drifted to shore, and I doubt she’s looked back with anything but amused nonchalance.
Curtis went on to work at the same manufacturing plant his father did. I hear he’s something of an alcoholic, but in an acceptable way. A few beers every night with the boys and then home to the girlfriend and son, who will grow up, experiment with drugs, and work at the same manufacturing plant someday if it stays open. If not, he’ll find another one just like it. That’s American engineering at its best.
Leila and Curtis weren’t like me and Tommy. We were doomed by the drugs inside us, by the feelings that stirred and twisted and tortured us. We did drugs to keep from killing ourselves some other terrible way. But it doesn’t really matter, why I was the way I was, or Tommy, or Leila, or Curtis. We spent that summer together in the red, on the waves. And that’s got to mean something. God, I hope it means something.
Tommy moved to California that Fall and I haven’t heard from him since. Sometimes I look for him on my computer keyboard. I search for his face in the blank documents on my screen. I write about lost men, looking for answers in places that don’t have them. Sometimes I think I find him in sentences about longing and apathy, but then I lose him. A fleeting silhouette of the boy I once knew, I love him now more than I thought I ever could. And for that, I hope he’s dead somewhere, because wherever he is, he’s not clean.
Then there’s me. I went to college and my father kept on pretending everything was alright, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t alright. One morning I woke up and felt done in. Beaten. Bushwhacked by my intolerable habit of breathing. So I did something about it. But that something didn’t work and when I woke up I was told I could make myself a better life. Put a little polish on the old breathing act.
So, I did. And I shook like Curtis. And I booted like Tommy. And I went silent like Leila. And I found clarity, and all of that. And it hurt, and it still does, and sometimes I wonder if it’s better this way. There’s a song by Bright Eyes about drugs. I think about it a lot.
I wouldn’t recommend it
But it is one way to live.
Cause what is so simple by the moonlight
By the morning never is.
He’s strumming my soul right there. In the words of Billy Joel, another poet, And so it goes, and Tommy, you’re the only one who knows. I thank you for understanding, even if this whole nostalgic explanation makes no sense at all. Knowing you existed, that another person on this planet has felt the red dizzy them up and take hold, makes it so much better. Thank you, Tommy. That’s what I want to say. That’s all.