It would be disingenuous if I attempted to shy away from my rampant drug use over the years. I will insist on the word “use” and not “abuse” because abusing drugs is simply a waste of good drugs – and I make it a point to never waste good drugs (as drugs can sometimes be quite expensive). I was somewhat of a very late bloomer – I didn’t start drinking until I was 21 at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses and I didn’t do a single drug until I was 23 and out in Austin. By the time any of the ‘fun stuff’ entered my life I had a weekday system, a rhythm that I had to keep with bills to pay and a job I liked. I was living with Brian and Jeb within a month after meeting them, so I had a place that I enjoyed coming home to. I didn’t want to be a junkie… my life on a daily bases was pretty good, I had nothing I really wanted to escape from. It is in that refreshing breath of contentment that my salvation laid from anything spiraling out of control. As an added back up when life wasn’t good, it always worked to be an ‘artist in pain’ – people like your stuff when you’re an ‘artist in pain.’
That being said, in my ‘year one’ of being out, I was a fucking mess. Alcohol was the only drug I did until I met a guy of a guy who was a dealer that eventually became another best friend of mine named Conrad. He taught me everything I needed to know about drugs: how to take them, when, methods of enhancement, what not to mix, stages of drug use and recovery, etc. He was a nerdy geek with bright eyes of sharp-shooting genius, brilliant and experimental, a combination which would later lead to his own demise the next year. I was not so anxious to trumpet the path of the fiendish, so I took everything rather slow. No matter what condition I came home in, Jeb was always there with the appropriate remedy and almost happily engaging the ramblings of a man marching swiftly to insanity grinning from ear to ear.
I was released from the religious chains that had held me in confinement for 23 years, meticulously scoping out everything I did for faults and imperfections and now I find that I could just do. Freely. Of course, the worry-wart in me that wanted to make sure that everyone else was safe and having a good time. Both Jeb and Conrad on different occasions would, in mocking frustration, scream at me, “James! Stop being so nice!” I couldn’t help it. I was the perfect person to party with on day one – exciting, fresh… the ‘idea’ guy. By the end of day two I was a complete buzz kill. “If we are going to be doing good drugs, we might as well do something productive.” And to this day, my bathrooms have never been cleaner.
I was trying to find my balance between residue of the strong arm of the religious gluttons with bellies stuffed with judgement and this exhausting ‘everything goes’ freedom of the hedonistic carousel of a gay Dionysus. It was not a very easy middle ground to achieve as the path behind me was grey, straight, and narrow while the path before me was rainbow calligraphy in circles. Through that year I stumbled many times, but recovery and balance was only achieved with the aid of one who had taken his own track in this regard years before. He was experienced in everything that I was interested in, so we would sit and tell stories to each other for hours. Mine were days old, if that. His were years old. I found comfort that we made the same mistakes but found the same humor in many of the same circumstances with the same reaction to the same kinds of people. This provided a speed train of trust that… to this day… is difficult to achieve with another person without knowing, seeing that they have been there as well.
I learned about the structure of a person’s character is more important than the content and why it’s best to trust those with sustainable structure, though they may say little, before trusting those with flurried content void consistent construction. Those of strong structure are good to the core no matter what they’re on. Those who are not are unpredictable. Find the decent people, and you always have a good time… no matter what the drink, no matter what the drug. This is something hanging out with Conrad would reinforce. The friends Jeb would introduce me to were announced passively. But on a rare occasion he would take a person by the shoulders and speak to me in the eye, saying, “This is _____. He’s a good guy.” No one knew this, but that would be about the highest complement he would ever give another human being.
While living in the house on Yorkshire, I managed to get some painting out of my system. Jeb liked what I did creatively, and sometimes when he got home from work he would sneak into my room to see what new painting I thought up after a night of psychedelic mayhem. I caught him on a few occasions and the next day he would ask questions about what I was working on, igniting a fountain of excitement as I would go on and on about what I was trying to achieve with each piece. This was the first time I could paint me, what I wanted and I had new visuals in my mind to express myself in new ways. This is what I imagine the first year of art school would be like, light in paint and superficial in stature but with meaning dripping down the walls. Years later I eventually would work myself into denser, more layered forms of art, and he knew this process. He was a good guide even when the drugs were acrylic and canvas.
One would think that two mental patients of this caliber living under the same roof would make for a messy situation at the asylum. Oddly, it was not – we maneuvered as a balance for each other. While I was a raging mess, Jeb was always the calm caretaker there to provide me with a glass of water, Tylenol PM, Pink Floyd or whatever else I needed to make a smooth landing from whatever planet I was flying in from. I’m not sure how, but it was a rare occasion for us to both be fucked up simultaneously. There was one evening we were both on a severe amount of shrooms at the same time and it was, for lack of a better word, epic.
For the years spanning my exit from Austin until I moved back, reunions were seasoned in LSD, quiet and subdued with a grander expansion of appreciation for the now. We would lie on the couch and laugh, we would take out the folding chairs and sit in the back yard staring at the stars until the sun decided to wake. We would go to the dollar movies and sit in the empty theater providing our own voice-overs. It was therapy as both of us were trapped in lives we didn’t really have full control over. We were trying though, we were making it work somehow, someway with our stubbornness and as a reward we got one weekend a year of our version of luxury on our own terms.
This was the first factor of our friendship: We knew exactly how not to annoy each other, regardless of what we were on.
As Thanksgiving of ’98 was approaching I learned of the absolute disgust for the holiday that he held. I’m sure somewhere in our history he revealed the origin of this but as of now I cannot recall the specifics (due to everything I just wrote from the beginning of this chapter to here). I was not going to be deterred by his negativity. This was going to be my first Thanksgiving since Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate the holiday and I’ve waited 23 years to try everything I have ever learned from every Martha Stewart’s Thanksgiving Special I’ve seen. This was going to be my year to shine. Jeb was entertained by my venture. In fact, with most things regarding my ‘great ideas,’ Jeb would sit back as if to say, “I just kinda want to see where this is going,” and watch as the hilarity unfolds of its own accord.
This would be the second factor of our friendship: we amused each other well.
For the actual Thanksgiving Day, Jeb and Brian went to visit relatives. I cooked an unnecessarily large turkey, stuffing, artichoke dip, mashed potatoes, green beans, and an assortment of other forgotten side dishes and desserts… all from scratch, and all for myself as I didn’t have many friends outside the bathhouse. It took most of one paycheck and it was worth every fucking penny.
If you are thinking that is a lot of food for just me… well, so did every other sane person in my section of the galaxy. Those less sane were unhelpfully helpful (“You need to make your cranberry sauce with orange juice. Do you have orange juice?” “Make your stuffing with uncooked pork sausage. Do you know where to get the best uncooked pork sausage?”). I finally broke down and invited various employees from Midtowne Spa to come by and partake in my expansive spread (using those exact words) as the bathhouse would remain open, but the shifts were shortened so everyone could enjoy the holiday. Most of them were orphans like me, so no one really had a place to go other than the bars. Starting with Anthony they would drop by the house one by one to literally ‘dine and dash’ as some were only on their lunch break. Others stopped at the shift change while either heading into work or leaving the spa ready to go out and get drunk. This also meant that with each visitor I become more and more tipsy as I also served wine – each of them only had one glass with dinner, while I had one glass with each dinner served. Anthony witnessed my first ceremonial ‘cutting of the turkey’. I stood over my conquered fowl with a large knife in hand looking like a serial killer with my blue spiked hair, eyeliner, and chipped black fingernail polish, mad smirk on my face drunk with homemaking accomplishment.
“Do you remember my first Thanksgiving?” I asked Jeb one day in ’07 as the holiday was approaching once again.
“I remember the artichoke dip,” he laughed.
It is true, upon their return home the day after Thanksgiving, Jeb tasted everything and surprisingly took a small bite of the turkey before he finally settled into the artichoke dip. First he used bread, then various vegetables, and finally just shoveled it in his mouth with a spoon… and then his fingers. It was damn good dip.
I noticed that Jeb’s morphine was working in a week after two immediate increases. Once the drug balanced out, he became a new man. He was able to eat solid food, his drinking was less dire and manic, and he was able to move about like a human being instead of an encumbered ape with a dagger stuck into his leg. His Staph infection was under control (dry), his temperature at night became regulated, and his thinking was clearer. For the first time in years (8 to be precise), I was almost comfortable with him driving me somewhere.
Trash bags crammed to the apogee of plastic extension loaded with possessions and boxes brimming with papers began to flood the living room. We would sit while he showed me every item of clothing that had a story to it – most of them too big to fit him anymore. He would shuffle through folders and pull out an old essay with the enthusiasm of a child finding his perfect Christmas present. “Okay! Listen to this!” He would then read some off-the-wall story that was hilarious to me, but probably frustrated whichever teacher in Comanche, Texas had to grade such a creative work of art. Genius or madman? His writing was of a madman, but his spin on the content was too adorable with little Seuss-esque worlds he created. As suddenly as they arrived, the boxes of stories and the bags of forgotten memories would vanish. “Binge and purge” in an inconsistent rotation is how I would eventually refer to it.
I will say that in some ways I felt a lost opportunity for not stealing some of those writings or in some way try to preserve the creative oddities, but I wasn’t thinking about my future need of mementos for Jeb’s legacy. There was only the now, and to focus on the now you can’t be fixated on icons of the past. There is no legacy that can be found in the writings of a schoolboy. The performance art of the man that came from that was far more important, in my opinion. He needed that energy cleaned, so far be it from me to anchor any of it selfishly. Plus, it would take away from the tender vulnerability of the situation and the singularness of this specific moment in time. Lifting anything from the gift shop would be cheating and reduces the experience from an personalized backstage tour to a typical Disney ride. It was one of Jeb’s greatest gifts: “Here, you’re a warped mind. Let’s share… No touching!” It was a gift of time… special time, allowing him to reminisce in a way no one else will ever see. And then with a puff of vapor, it was gone. It was his version of Jimi Hendrix burning the guitar on stage so that no sound will ever come out of that instrument ever again – everything heard was exclusive, one of a kind, and unique. I was the lone audience member with nothing left but a memory of the scene unable to be duplicated, the emotion of the room, the smile it left behind, and his evil grin as he knew he was fucking me up mentally for the rest of my life. Genius, indeed.
For the record, Jeb never shared any of his morphine – I never asked and he never offered. Somehow because of content of this chapter I feel the need to clarify that. As a general rule, I can’t have drugs fucking up the important shit in life, and a best friend going through Hospice was pretty important shit. There are many things in life that come before drugs, but the most important should be people.
Everything did well for about three weeks before I started to notice a turn. It wasn’t anything drastic or sudden, but a subtle fog creeping in from the periphery. He would sleep longer hours and it took more effort for him to get ready for work. His night sweats returned with greater volume and with more frequency. In general, his body began to show signs of returning to its previous state before the morphine had been introduced as if to say, “No! This is the state I want to be in… a state of crippling instability.” The opiate may have provided a swifter and gentler decline, but it was a decline nonetheless.
Hunter, being both hot and personable, ended up being pretty profitable for the bar, so he began bartending more in the evenings but kept the happy hour shift as well. His nerdy cuteness and twisted mind made him a perfect source for me to siphon some positive energy on occasion. Hunter had never met someone like me (“You have this face of an angel and yet the most vile things come out of your mouth.”) and he had never seen Jeb’s mind at full stride with a partner working in sync. He loved the show and didn’t mind being part of it, even if it were just a refueling station at times – always hugging me and checking on me privately. He was one of the five people that knew what was going on and watching it on an almost daily basis. So Jeb, Hunter, and I would spend our happy hours together, joined by Anthony when he could (the only one of us with legitimate working hours) to round out the group.
For the turkeyless day of turkey, he spent some of the time at the bar (free food) for the evening, then just disappeared, which is a common theme of his: “I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want by myself. Talk to you later.” For anyone who has unanswered questions about why he did this or that, imagine his voice saying those two sentences in your head. He did not do the turkey, but I had two dinners planned. The first was Thanksgiving Day with Brian and Ed at their house on the lake – a soothing place out and away with a spectacular view of the water. Early on before even entering Hospice, Jeb decided he wanted to be moved there when the time came for him to exit this life, and it was for a good reason. The dinner with the couple was small and quiet with just the three of us. It was a perfect deflation for me even though the conversation was mainly about Jeb and his condition and I gave a version of a full report… more detail and emotion as the wine continued. The next day there were loads of Christmas decorations to go up per the tradition of the house. It’s also when we move from wine to liquor (Christmas does that, you know).
The second Thanksgiving dinner was on Sunday with Anthony and his partner Dan since Anthony had to work on Thanksgiving day. On Saturday evening I left Brian and Ed’s and dumped the food I was hauling for Jeb in the refrigerator. He was fast asleep on his air bed. Surprisingly I didn’t wake him up. Nor did I wake him the next morning as I ate leftovers. I took off and spent the entire day at Anthony and Dan’s. The meal was a bountiful dinner with plenty of laughter. Dan cooked a traditional feast and the turkey was extremely tasty considering he is a vegetarian and it was only the second time he has cooked a bird. I made it home, very late, stuffed and gluttonous as I realized I had consumed more food in four days than Jeb had in the past year. Still, I brought him another plate from the dinner filled with not turkey.
Jeb hadn’t touched the food in the refrigerator and was still sleeping, sweating, and running a very high temperature. His forehead felt like it was on fire. I wasn’t immediately concerned because I had seen him like this before. The problem was that I had absolutely no clue exactly how long he had been asleep. At some point, he needed to eat. I tried to rouse him gently. He wouldn’t wake up. I tried again and stopped – I realize that for some reason I didn’t want to wake him up. His body obviously needed to be still. Stuffed with turkey and liquor I decided to get some sleep.
I only slept a few hours before I was by Jeb’s side again making sure he was still breathing. Noon came and he was still asleep. I sat on the floor next to him and grabbed his hand (feeling like a broiling oven) and just waited. I didn’t know what to think. The only question that kept surfacing through the muddy pool was “Is this it?” He was still alive and I was cautiously thankful of the status quo even though the rotating question weighed heavily on my mind both internally and as a series of boulders suspended over my head.
Jeb eventually woke up. “Why are you staring at me?” He knew why, his sheets were soaked solid. He didn’t know what day it was.
“You need to eat something.”
“I’m fine, I’m just thirsty.”
Those last two lines of dialogue will be repeated many times over the next few months as this incident would not be a lone occurrence. I eventually learned to not worry as much and let the 2-3 day sleep fest run it’s course. For that evening, I was relieved. Whatever he wanted to eat I would get – just so long as he ate something. He was craving steak fingers from Dairy Queen, he wanted to know if they still tasted like he remembered they did as a child. They did not. For a guy who went to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts losing the taste of steak fingers of Dairy Queen was more than just a disappointment – it was a realization.
I changed the sheets of his bed and he went back to sleep. I went to work in my office and called the Hospice nurse once he was out and told her what happened. She informed me that this will be happening with more frequency, and I was to let her know when it happens again… and I was assured it will happen again.
Jeb slept until mid Tuesday for his happy hour shift. Groggy and without much food in him it took two hours for him to get ready for work. Things were changing and we could both tell it but neither of us wanted to talk about it – we didn’t even know what to say. We were both uncharacteristically frightened and unsure how to digest it properly so we were just talking to each other in short, matter-of-fact sentences. Compartmentalized people that we were, we moved as a robotic team not really knowing what our point was on the assembly line – but neither of us were going to brave talking out of rhythm to disrupt the known just to test the unknown. He could see the concern in my presence, I could see the unsured reaction in his. The concept was that we would figure it out on our own, separately before any communal thoughts were released into the universe. To talk about it would be admittance, relinquishing power to the obviousness of what time had in store. Neither of us wanted to be the one to do that first.
Jeb took off to work and left me in the living room, staring at the closed door. At that moment, the honest directness of loss began to nestle in and become comfortable in the middle part of my brain, the quiet part. It was going to happen, and it was going to happen soon. I gave a big smile to myself. The reality was sad… but fortunately neither of us cared much for reality. For the first time in our friendship, I was having my very own ‘I just kinda want to see where this is going’ moment with him. I went back to work on the house for the engineer thinking how I wasn’t thankful, I was honored he trusted me all this, but handling it was a lot harder than I realized.
James P. Perez © 2014