“So I went to the doctor yesterday. He told me I have THE AIDS,” he says out of nowhere as if he were Johnny Carson starting a monologue.
We are standing at the Bank of America ATM off 6th Street where there is a crowd of about 5 or so people. Without flinching I immediately responded in waspy concerned friend character, “Oh really? What does one do for that?”
“Oh, just take a pill and it goes away. I should be fine.”
“Well that doesn’t seem all that difficult. I don’t see what the gays keep going on about.”
He tries to not laugh. “Everything should be cleared up in no time.”
“Well good. You have to catch these things early, you know.”
The people around us are appalled. After a pause I continue, “I guess this is suitable cause for celebration, you being cured and all.”
“I’ll get money, and you think of places to get drunk.”
The scene was always different, but the concept remained the same. In that world there were duel rails in place as we were not just about testing other people’s boundaries as much as we were testing our own. We weren’t just fucking with everyone around us, we were sharpening our tools by trying to see which one of us would break character first. Describing it makes it seem like it’s the narcissist’s version for justifying obnoxious attention (which it is), but our history already proved that in times of boring stability we had a propensity for disrupting lethargic complacency. Truth be told, if we didn’t keep life interesting, we’d end up sleeping all day. Plus we made a few other people’s boring day more interesting (we tell ourselves).
Knowing this, it seems less shocking that Jeb decided to skip the morphine for a few days without warning me to see what would happen. That was disastrous on many levels. Physically he was unable to eat as the pain in his digestive system had returned with full vengeance, twice as painful as before. The morphine didn’t halt the corrosion of our partying, just numbed the observation of its existence. His back, legs, chest, and head all throbbed to different rhythms of torture at the same time and the unstable rotation of misery sometimes gave him an internal ‘brain freeze’ where he couldn’t think over the volume of pain he was experiencing.
Psychologically, the withdrawal was much more devastating. The morphine was successfully clouding the mind enough to provide a warm blanket which shielded the full truth of the daily steps leading to a very ominous eventuality, it. I was able to go day by day without reading too many emotional waves beaconing from Jeb’s core. The most that I experienced came from his annoyance with himself or his failing strength when I had to open a package for him or when he wasn’t able to open up his prescriptions anymore, he would huff in aggravation and stretch his arm out with the bottle in hand lowering his head in frustrated exhaustion. Because it felt like a small admission of defeat to him, I would quietly open the bottle and hand it back to him, moving the subject of conversation along without interruption.
The general waveless calm of the norm disappeared in the absence of morphine, and not knowing he had stopped his usage caught me quite unprepared. One afternoon of reading childhood ramblings, Jeb stopped in mid sentence and just stared at the trembling sheet of paper before him. This was not some ‘brief moment’ in passing or a glimmer of a faint presence. No. This was a full swing of a mallet hit of oh my god, I’m going to fucking die very soon revelation that struck him through his skull with the swiftness of a moon-sized asteroid and screamed from his head like an army of trumpets blowing in unison. He looked at me and his eyes were stuck behind a wall of glass and water.
His dying wasn’t new information. It was just old information being presented with undeniable loudness. He was no longer just a person living with HIV, he was someone dying of AIDS. It hit him at that moment. He never faced the disease for various reasons, depending on where he was in life and what was going on at the time. When reaching the fork in the road there is a back and forth argument for two sides. The path he was on (we were on) was Option One. Giving up who he was as a person to live a perpetually medicated sober healthy life so that he could entertain crowds of people who were not sober or healthy is Option Two. Here’s the kicker: It doesn’t matter what option you choose, when you are facing death (either now or 20 years from now) you will have doubt over whether or not you made the correct decision. Regardless of your choices there is a moment where your brain is caught in a Franklin Bell realizing that the choice you made locks you into an unchanging path. There’s no going back. Did you make the right choice?
In that scuttled reverberation comes realization of no control, panic… and it’s panic I saw while he’s sitting in front of me holding his past in one hand with a thousand screams flying out of his body in realization that he lacked a future to hold in the other. I felt it. I understood the dim-lit comfort up until this point and suddenly all curtains from all rooms were opened at once. But despite the emotional riot, it was in that window that I had a chance to see all sides of him at once. He was a living Cubist painting with repetitive views, each showing different sides and different angles of the same side. It was all there: the worry, fear, frustration, the strength and fragility, the anger even. There was a lot of anger. “I have to go,” he said. “I’ve been off my morphine for three days.”
Part of him wanted to feel every single pebble on the way to death’s door, part of him felt it unnecessary as it was better to softly coast past the threshold. He had a ‘protector’ gene in him like I do, many of us do. Half of his relationships in the past were based part on the idea that the other person needed him to protect them. That gene kicked in and as old habits die hard, part of him worried about me and my own hidden vulnerabilities. I wasn’t as brittle as he thought. Years of testing boundaries had already told me how strong I was but, this was my limit. I wasn’t prepared for it but I responded with solidifying to the point of iron, but only on the outside. There was no fucking way I was letting him see what was behind the polished metal. But I couldn’t breathe like this either. “I will take you anywhere you want to eat in Austin if you get back on the morphine today.”
His favorite dining was home-cooked meals or ridiculously expensive restaurants he couldn’t afford. As a once-aspiring chef, foods he enjoyed most were meals prepared by people who could, like any form or art, explain their creations while he enjoyed taking them in. He also knew I wasn’t testing him… I was scared, but he couldn’t read past the iron. He gladly accepted the challenge upon leaving the apartment to go to his own for the evening. He returned the next day on his morphine and with his restaurant of choice. “The Olive Garden.”
I scoffed to myself uncontrollably. “What?”
“Come on. I haven’t eaten there in years.”
“No. Pick somewhere else.”
“When was the last time you ate at The Olive Garden?”
He had me. I can’t remember ever eating at the Olive Garden – if I did it would’ve been because the Macaroni Grill had burnt down. I couldn’t even tell you what the bread sticks tasted like. Boundaries. Fucking boundaries. But he asked nicely and sweetly, in a childlike innocent ‘pretty-please, I’m dying’ presentation of request (which he was getting good at – and making full use of). So off to the Olive Garden we went.
During dinner he had to jump in. “See, how nice is this?”
“Jeb, you’re killing my love of food.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.”
“No, admittedly it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”
“Glad to hear you say it. I wouldn’t know… it all tastes like cardboard to me.”
“Yeah. I figured out it’s the morphine that makes me lose all sense of taste. Sorry.” Grin while avoiding my eyes.
Jeb. The fucking asshole. And I couldn’t retaliate like I used to because it broke my heart that he lost a sense that was so important to him… almost a career for him. But I couldn’t let the fucking bastard get away with it either. I had a ‘self portrait’ painting using a graphic of my face looking sinister with eyes that were in glossy sealant while the rest of the painting was in matte. It’s black and dark colors with splashes of copper. I nailed it to the wall in his vast, empty off-white living room space slightly higher than it should be, directly across where he slept so the spotlights from outside would reflect off the eyes to where is air mattress was located.
It took about two days, but Jeb eventually moved the mattress.
It was a frigid overcast of an afternoon in December when I called Hunter to meet me at Halcyon, a coffeehouse across the street from the bar, before he went in to work. Since Thanksgiving I had been watching Jeb trying to DJ at the bar and the conundrum was that I was okay with his killing himself slowly, but I was not okay with his killing himself with alcohol and work at the same time – one or the other, but not both. The amount of time it took him to get ready to work was growing in minor increments but the recovery upon returning home was increasing at a disproportionate rate.
Hunter arrived at the coffeehouse before me, downing a large coffee trying to warm up from the cold front that surprised Central Texas. Hunter had gotten to the point where he could read me rather well, so without my saying a word he greeted me with the biggest hug. “You don’t look so good,” he said. “What’s going on?”
Straight to the point. I proceeded to ask how things were going with Jeb at the bar. I wanted to know if all the effort Jeb was going through was worth it. Was his work reflecting his condition?
“He’s doing fine. I haven’t noticed any change in his performance… and you know I’m paying attention.”
“Ok. But what about everyone else? Are people noticing anything?”
“James, it’s a gay bar. Unless someone is shirtless and ripped or covered in glitter, nobody really notices anything other than themselves.”
“What’s this really about? Is Jeb getting bad off at home?”
That was not the question to ask, but it was the right question. The magic button was pushed and at that moment I went from the little Dutch boy holding his finger in a dam to the first victim of a levee failure. I was crushed under the weight of the very sea I was trying to restrain. Spinning was killing Jeb. But spinning was also his voice. He was stuck somewhere in the middle and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. In a most amazingly supportive move, Hunter found someone to cover the first part of his shift and we spent the evening talking, eating bar food from Fado, and downing a few pints while I tried to reconcile what Jeb had to go through to extend who he was as person, but what the cost was of silencing his only means of expression. The musical knowledge stored in his head was encyclopedic in mass and meticulously indexed in function. I had regularly been downloading the newest songs from around the globe, each one with three to five different versions. He would listen to each and every one, remembering them individually. With this he would experiment and joyfully display the new beats, rhythms, and remixes to the Austin gay public. But it made him happy, it made him enjoy the thrill of thrilling others.
I had never said a word about how Jeb lived. I left that up to Brian who did a better job of playing ‘bad cop’ to my ‘quiet enabling cop’. But there was a point where I had to admit that Jeb was not living the best life he could possibly be living. Here’s the tricky part: As soon as he stops DJing he’s going to be dead within 6 months. It was an odd paradox and it was the first time I had a chance to talk it out to anyone who would not judge or offer suggestion contrary to the nature of who Jeb or I were as human beings. Hunter was empathetic like I am and he not only took information, but absorbed the emotion as well. In fact, at his young age he did not know the intricacies of helping someone die, but he still sat there and took the whole damn sea right beside me like a fucking champ. To this day, I have never been so surprised and impressed by someone’s impromptu humanity that allowed me to breathe. We formulated an attack of how I would break from my position to confront Jeb.
In a manner of odd serendipious synchronization, Jeb was across the street at the same time as my house of cards demolition via torrential flood. He was talking to Larry the owner about possible options should he not be able to continue working a full week’s schedule. The next day Jeb and I sat down for dinner and he presented me with the question of whether or not he should be working at the bar full time or quit… to which I responded, “What the hell? Are you fucking kidding me?” in my best ‘angry housewife’ tone of voice. “This has been horrific for me to watch. Granted, it’s not near as horrific as actually living through it… but still, I’m watching you run yourself into the ground for that bar. And for what? You live here, I feed you… what little you eat, you have no real expenses. You cannot be doing… this… to yourself.”
To say that my ranting surprised Jeb would be a gross understatement. He looked blankly at my outburst – the leftovers from Hunter the evening before. I wanted to take it back as soon as it was coming out past my lips. I wanted to say, “Hey! Just kidding!” and make it all go away. But I couldn’t. I had no problem with the words I said… I had a problem with how I said them. Nothing I could say would overcome the honest emotion that sprang out of nowhere. In return He gave me the perfect This is not what I was expecting… face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he said quietly.
I had successfully slapped him silent. That wasn’t what I wanted. Calmly I was able to deliver a follow up. “Jeb, it’s not your place to apologize. This is your life, you can do whatever the fuck you want. I’m just along for the ride. If this is what you want, I will gladly shut up. I just think that you could be experiencing a much better life than what you have right now. Seventy-five percent of your life is spent getting ready or recovering from your work at the bar. That seems unbalanced to me. So… just tell me this ratio is worth it to you and I will shut up. I will drive you to work ever day if I have to.”
It was a clouded dream set in a snow globe… held under water. We hadn’t been that emotionally out of sync in a long while, so there was an uncomfortable stagnate air in the apartment for a beat. “Okay. I will think about it,” he said and continued to pick at his meal. “I want to watch something funny tonight.” He didn’t need to think about it. He had already made up his mind days before. That was just his way of including me.
The third thing that made our friendhip work was the ability to understand each other’s passion and emotion… and work with it instead of against it… or (mostly – usually) just get the hell out of the way.
The next day, Jeb put in his notice and December 15, 2007 was to be his last official day at Oil Can Harry’s although he would still be spinning once a month and for special events. He walked out of the bar’s office after a long teary talk with Larry and we had a shot. We sat in silence for a bit soaking in the sounds of the unemployed. Hunter wasn’t informed directly at first but he knew something was up because Jeb and I were not talking but we seemed to be in a pleasant mood. For Hunter, I’m sure it was neurotically tense. We did more shots.
Disturbing the serenity was an older white gentleman with his younger Mexican boyfriend. The older man was all about Mexicans – Mexican food, Mexican culture, Mexican behavior. Somehow this drenched Mexicanness entitled him to Mexican jokes as well, I guess because he was fucking a Mexican boyfriend. He cornered me away from Jeb and Hunter, trying to talk to me personally, separately. I’m not sure how the conversation even started but next thing I know I blurt out loudly, “Oh for fuck’s sake. The only reason Carlos Mancia has a job is because Dave Chappelle didn’t show up for work one day.”
And there it went. The tension that was building up that only three people at the bar could feel finally released along with civility and decorum. It went downhill from there. Jeb eventually closed his eyes in laughter, shook his head, and placed his forehead on the bar top. I heard someone ask him if he needs to help ‘his friend.’ out. I heard the smile in his response, “Oh, James can take of himself. Trust me.”
Fourth thing about our friendship: Never interrupt when the other is enjoying the ravishes of bloodshed.
The more the older man tried to justify things and connect with me, the more irate and smug my responses became. It was so confusing to him… these words coming from… A Mexican who thought Carlos Mancia sucked, that tejano music sucked, a Mexican who didn’t speak Spanish. (Occasionally Jeb would interrupt with something like “James, tell him much you like Selena!“) The guy couldn’t understand how he was not becoming my best friend, possible fuck buddies, something. Structure over content, and this man’s structure was toothpicks surrounded with ‘brown power’ napkins with increasing animation. Eventually the couple had to be escorted out, to which I gave the parting words almost screaming over the thumping music, “You know, we wouldn’t be so exotic if you weren’t so small minded.”
Jeb puts one arm around my shoulders. “That’s enough… Norma Rae… Chavez.”
I was still in ‘asshole’ mode. “I don’t know if he got my point…”
“I’m almost positive he didn’t. Which was probably your intention.”
“His arguments were just out of default. They lacked any real conviction. He was no fun.”
“This is still my place of work till the end of the week. Let’s not make my quitting day the first day you get kicked out of the bar.”
“Ugh. You and your rules. Fine.”
We did more shots. Hunter was staring at the two of us in proud disbelief, smiles on all of our faces. In some ways it was good to see me as the ‘messy’ one instead of Jeb, it gave Hunter a better understanding of how our dynamic worked but it also allowed him to see me and my brain in full stride – different from the caregiver breakdown from a few days prior or the snarky guy in black sitting next to their beloved DJ. No, I had teeth… teeth like Jeb’s. I could see in Hunter’s eyes that he was painfully jealous and yet thankful to the gods that he did not see the two of us ‘back in the day.’ It was all devastation, all the time. Beautiful, crimson devastation.
In general, the bar’s reaction to Jeb’s ‘retirement’ (as it was called) was mixed at best partially because the reality of Jeb’s situation was well cloaked. The few who put my presence and his condition together assumed the reason, Hunter being loyal had not revealed anything to anyone. For everyone else, it was a surprise, so many questions arose, none of them answered. Regardless, it was a chance for the people to celebrate their Mr. Scot Free… and celebrate they did.
There were two parties in a short amount of time. I do not remember either of them. The bar’s Christmas party was one evening. They have an arrangement with Rain, a neighboring bar. Rain’s bartenders would work the bar at Oil Can’s for the evening so all the employees (and their guests) can enjoy dinner, then go to the bar for free drinks all night. A few days later, Oil Can’s returns the favor to Rain for Rain’s employees. That year, Oil Can’s started out at Maudie’s Too on South Lamar. It was full buffet and full margaritas. It gets fuzzy from there. I finally met Hunter’s girlfriend who was stunningly gorgeous.
December 15th was the party of Jeb’s life. Scot Free was given a sendoff like none other – even I was surprised. Shots and cupcakes. Lot’s of cupcakes. Then shots that tasted like cupcakes. Scot was giving free reign over the music for the entire evening. I knew that despite whatever “arrangement” he and Larry had, this would probably be the last time he spun. He went all out with the music, pulling everything I have ever downloaded for him out for the masses, and the people loved it. I thought he did an amazing job. Those less inebriated (specifically his other good friend of his and fellow DJ at the bar Sid Vicious) annoyingly informed us that Jeb let the music stop three times over the course of the night.
It was a week to remember, but for us it was a week to forget, and forget we did. With everyone wrapped in joy, it was a series of smiles while releasing steam that made everything in this crazy story burn to the ground while we were toasting in the clouds. It was self-destruction at its best, but this destruction was more coordination for something we all have to face in our lives anyway. It was well choreographed with laughter, love, appreciation, and obscenities all in vivid technicolor beaming from everyone’s eyes. I had focus and movement, I had heart… and I had vision. All of the insanity was everything Jeb stood for. I was lucky just to be standing near this flawed but brilliant light during this time. If you’re going to go, make sure they didn’t fucking forget… even if we did.
James P. Perez © 2014