The spirits of the dead never seem to act the way we expect them to or the way we want them to. In fact, with the millennia of folklore, centuries of faiths, decades of Hollywood glamor, and years of personal drug use at the helm, there has never been anything in my path that tells me different than what I had personally observed: People are electric energy, and once the person dies the energy continues to pulse until it is either absorbed or dissipated. This concept can go in several directions from there, depending on your individual faith and “spirituality,” but generally speaking that’s the essential basic premise.
The idea that Jeb or someone like my father is lurking in perpetual ghostlyisms was absurd to me. Both men were of the type who would become easily bored thus fueling their insistence to try/do/see new and exciting things whenever possible – a tendency that aided their remarkable problem solving skills since they continually thought outside the box. Both men used eye-to-eye contact which caused everyone they talked with (individually) to forget the world around them and focus on the conversation at hand, as if whatever it was you were saying was the most important words in the world being spoken at that moment.
The thing that was different with Jeb was the way he kept himself in a very specific container of slightly frosted glass, and very few people were blessed to open it and glimpse the reality of the confined air, the ecological atmosphere of the inside. Most people just saw what they did from the outside, the displayed He changed that to fit each person… it was a special hand-carved presentation as individual as the person watching. Too many people bursting the seal of the cover would have kept him from losing his most prized possession: control. Anyone who was allowed inside had to put in the work. This prevented people from taking him for granted, taking his character out of context, or being unappreciative of the craftsmanship of who he was as a human being. The only way the Jeb mechanism worked to benefit everyone (myself included) was with his private and secluded uninterrupted tinkering, a maintenance processing that no one was privy to.
At least that’s how it came across in my mind. After he died I felt I needed to keep that ‘character’ in tact to some extent. I didn’t feel him floating around, monitoring what I did, I just thought it was the respectful thing to do. So I had to sit in my car for a bit before I decide to drive to meet “the gang” – or part of “the gang.” I was about to meet people, decent people who have called upon me to somehow traverse over a canyon between church-going high school teen and the pernicious gay DJ with AIDS. The moment I needed was to think about how I was going to fill the gap and with what language to use. Unlike the bar people, this bridge wasn’t going between “Jeb” and Scot Free. This bridge was going between “Scot” and Jeb Mobley. These were the roots of Jeb… the Jeb I knew.
As it turned out, I arrived first. I didn’t know what any of them looked like, they all knew what I looked like. I was nervous, slightly trembling. I sat outside Pappasito’s, the destined crossing of the paths, the collision of two worlds standing decades apart. There were going to be… I didn’t know how many of them and only one of me. I was waiting, looking at each person going into the restaurant for Sunday evening dinner. Is that her? Is that them? Are they already inside?… No. I guess it was not unlike the original days of AOL meet-ups from online when all you had was a location and a description of one piece of clothing. Jen arrived. She recognized me right away. She was followed by Hillary. Antonio and his wife came in from San Antonio. This was “the gang” delegation.
Of course right away I can verify… these were, in fact, decent people. It was almost refreshing as I had been wavering in my belief that people like that even existed anymore as I was surrounded by a somewhat hedonistic environment that thrived off the conundrum that self-preservation is only as good as long you’re living. Now I had gone through this realization that, from being on the edge and challenging boundaries, there is a stark difference between survival and living. We just didn’t want to survive. That’s the base minimum. We wanted to live. And when living is no longer an option we would gladly march to the grave with drinks in hand and laughter on our faces. We would not only do it for ourselves… but we would do it with the best of our friends. I was unsure that with “the gang’s” goodness that I could accurately explain the concept without sounding like a mad junkie kamikaze, “Yeah well, sometimes healthy is overrated – quality of life, ya’ know?” … clinking glasses no one’s toasting.
As we took our seats around the large round table, I could see the eyes that looked back at me were hungry cubs anxious for a taste of the meat I had hidden in my heart. Confusion and lack of information can be traumatic, destructive, and dismantling. Without answers, every avenue of the ‘known’ is scoped at, looked over, analyzed, and noted – only to go back over again later, and again… and again. When you don’t have enough data to provide yourself with a suitable answer, there evolves a never-ending pounding in the head, a pounding that spells the letters “w-h-y” in hardened repetition. I saw this through the tubular depths of the internet with each email I received and now I had the embodiment of this hammering clanging away before my very eyes. I haven’t really known the lack of closure on this level. I can only empathize based off smaller instances. I became underwhelmed with my own feelings.
“So what happened?” comes from one direction. “Yeah, how did he die?” immediately followed, almost overlapping.
How did he die? Such a simple four-word question and yet hardest to answer. The schism between my commonly used phrases dictionary and the everyday heterosexual sir or madam living in the suburbs can be vastly cavernous. The way I would inherently speak about homosexual viability may seem completely foreign to these well-dressed aliens from outside Planet Gay Austin (from the star system of Fabulous!), not to mention my gratuitous love of curse words (which by now should be pretty fucking obvious). Plus, I was adamant about this: Out of respect for them and the guy they knew, I refused to represent him. I’m not his ambassador nor am I his spokesman… I’m me. I was a friend, and now I’m trying to help other friends. That’s it. I felt it appropriate to be straightforward and direct. Some tarnishing of the image they have of him is going to happen… shattering the glass box of his ‘character’ was not. It was the measure in which to give controlled (minimal) damage that I was struggling with. I was still shaking with nerves a bit. It didn’t matter, it was show time.
“Complications related to advanced stages of HIV and AIDS.”
That was a loud gong, it didn’t matter what star system you were on. It had to sink in as they had to take a breath. I thought maybe I needed to add “And by the way, he was gay,” but I assumed they could conclude that without need of me cluttering up the digestion process. This was going to be hard as I realized I may not only have to explain my friend and his lifestyle, but our culture as well. Of course, it is then I involuntarily started looking around the restaurant for our waiter. Fuck the water, where are our damn drinks? It is not often (if ever) I will use the phrase “I need a drink” in any seriousness, but with the tornado of energy churning around the 5-person table, I felt that this is one instance where the word “need” could be justified.
“Did he suffer?”
More than he should have. I knew I could do this. These folks had legitimate questions and my brain had the answers they needed. All I had to do was calmly locate the correct answer to each question and pull it out. No more, no less. Personal feelings, shut up. Commentary, shut up. I could immediately tell I would probably be in contact with all of them again… I could fill in the blanks later, give them my personality later. Right now, keep it simple.
“No, not really. Mentally he hated losing mobility, but his body took a swift decline as the nervous system shut down. He was on Hospice which helped. But by the time his body was ready to stop he had already been unconscious for a few days.”
“How long was he on assistance?”
“If you are asking about Hospice care, almost 6 months exactly. He was given the number of a Hospice company called Odyssey, and he had a nurse assigned to him who checked on him every Wednesday.”
“It seems so disconnected to think of Jeb actually going for Hospice assistance.”
That wasn’t a question. No fair! I don’t want to conversate just yet! “I know, he was way too independent. It was not an easy decision for him. After about 2 months of discussion, he finally made an agreement with them on October 31. He signed the paperwork and a bed and linens were delivered to him. The nurse even brought him a blanket that wasn’t too hot for when he started adjusting to the morphine. We decided to celebrate that evening by spending Halloween at the Enchanted Forest.” I was rambling.
“Were you with him when he passed?”
“No. It was his wish to spend the last leg of his journey here on Earth out on the lake where his ex and his partner have a home overlooking the water. I was there the day before, however.”
There is a lot of information to pass on. No matter how simply I put the words, no matter how well I enunciated through my nervousness, the sentences were overtaken by the ponderous meaning and it was toppling everyone at the table in different directions. In hindsight it may have been more comfortable for me to present a cluttered mess. This was hard for them. It was more than a lot of information to pass on… it was devastating information to receive… much less to receive it from a stranger. It’s obvious in the natural dynamic between the muddled delivery and the spinning reception that some aspects of the story are going to be lost to the air between the rafters inside the restaurant. Mostly, any assumptions I used as stair steps to the story had to be explained as the audience staring back at me knew practically nothing of Jeb after high school. Annoyingly, the drink helped. “My only part was to get him on, and help him through Hospice care. Then I passed him off to Brian and Ed for his final months.”
Stop. Explain “Brian and Ed.” I had to take a slight diversion. I should’ve made a damn program to pass out so everyone knew all the players in the show before it began. I explained Brian and Jeb. Then I explained Brian and Ed. Then I explained their house. Everyone seemed to keep up.
“How long had you known Jeb?”
“Around a decade exactly- since 1998.”
“When did he find out he had HIV?”
“In 2001. He and Brian told me on one of my trips back to Austin.”
“Did he know from who?”
I was not touching that one with a ten-foot anything. If you think his telling people he had cancer was a red herring, I cannot even begin to explain how he treated that question. “Yes, but it wasn’t something he talked about openly.”
“That’s understandable. Sorry for asking.”
In flow, it was such a natural question to ask – so different than with emails. They were feeling comfortable with me, which was a good sign… I could relax. I immediately dismissed their apology. After a second drink and table-made guacamole the rhythm started to set pace. I couldn’t drink too much for fear I might start letting loose stories about bathhouse so I kept the water close at hand. The questions shot at me one after the other and I was finding all the answers in my head, revealing them in a somewhat (what I hoped was a) comprehensible format. I could see each person building different structures based off the building blocks flying out of my mouth. I tried to use characteristics of Jeb they would be familiar with to make it easier to stitch the wound between the boy they knew, and the man they didn’t. Each person was building very different bridgework at the same time, and thus the questions were sometimes bearing at different orientations. I found myself on a few occasions answering two different lines of inquiry from two different places at once. But I didn’t want to corral them… each one needed to recover in their individual way. I seemed to be pulling it off as best I could with my one-man show.
It still sucked. No matter how well you try, it’s still just a single-sided story attempting to convince people that the kid they knew in high school was so “self-destructive” (supposedly) or care-free that he never took any medication for very treatable disease. It’s just not something that makes sense to the close friends of the young bleached-blonde kid staring up at his Duran Duran posters taped to his bedroom walls drowning himself in music with his headphones on. I knew eventually I was going to lose someone in the fog, but for the first twenty minutes or so, everyone seemed to keep pace. Or at least they pretended to, which was good enough for me.
It became apparent that I was in the presence of well-established souls who stood on rock solid and stable feet. With minimal effort they could be perfectly capable of walking to whatever far reaches of Jeb’s absurd life I chose to take them (within reason). But with that, came a very obvious (abrupt) juncture where they could not digest anymore of this harshness and the curtain descended upon the stage forcing the conversation about the subject to conclude. The curtain rises again as we changed focus to the person sitting at the table with the group of stunned blanch-faced mid-Texas high school alumni. Shit.
I was expecting the attention progression from message to messenger to occur as it also happens with each email conversation I’ve had (“So, obviously you knew Jeb well…”). But the sudden, unexpected moment when it switches from him to me always caught me by surprise… every time. Jeb and I were two very different people. Sometimes I was so busy helping form a bridge between two foreign land masses that when talk turns to me, I have to scurry to pack up what I’m doing and retreat to my own land mass… wherever it might be in all this. I kept forgetting the subject matter was so weighty people need some ‘comic relief’ (in concept) layered periodically through the bricks with the mortar to solidify the walls of the story, time to soak it all in. The human brain can only travel straight up for so long before it stalls out, I get that. But the swift move from him to me in their transition I always found obtuse, for while I’m mentally readjusting, I seem buffoonish in comparison to the messiah everyone has embedded in their minds.
Who was I? I was nobody. I’m just person who understood Jeb without him explaining as he refused to speak what was on his complex independent mind while slipping into an increasingly dependent assisted life. I was the imaginary bunny with witty comments and drink suggestions. My job was making “going out with a bang” a full percussion explosion that rocked the town to it’s core while bringing moments of silence. As a conductor of this manic carnival train, I did what I needed before the awnings retracted, the doors lifted shut, carnies gathered inside, and the train took off for it’s next stop. The crash at the end not only left me empty on many levels of emotion, mental strength depleted and sense of purpose gone, but it also brought quiet – the kind of quiet that allowed the sirens and mayhem outside to step from the shadows and enter the theater of this well-produced orchestrated wreck. Now with everything derailed and scattered about the surrounding land, it was difficult to get used to the idea of being stationary. With stillness I had never felt more alone in my life. For that, I didn’t want to talk about me. So I didn’t. My reaction online and (at that point) in person was that of pleasant plastic answers for a pleasant plastic facade.
I’m not going to lie. The praise that people gave me was an addictive blessed blanket of cashmere rainbows and lollipop fluff. When others recognize your sacrifice and remind you of how amazing it all was, it becomes an intravenous injection of ego and sainthood. It’s the vortex opposite of cutting yourself to ‘feel’ but it’s the same concept – you’re cutting others so you can ‘feel.’ It was a powerful drug of the sweetest juice, especially at the high volume that was coming at me. At some point I almost wanted to beg Yes, tell me more about how awesome I am for being such a good friend! But it never felt right. It was all misplaced sympathy.
It took until that dinner for me to realize I was simply walking through the halls of complementary accolades without paying much attention to the artwork. I wasn’t paying attention to the details of the compliments until I started a live telling of a story, this story. The reaction wasn’t distant in black Times New Roman on a background of glowing white nothing… the reaction was real, from the eyes, from the soul… I could feel it. They were appreciative. They understood I didn’t feel awesome. They empathized that this wasn’t a “good thing” I did because the situation itself wasn’t good in any way. My moving across country wasn’t something that was surprising or odd… it was something that just needed to be done, period. It needed to be done and handled by someone with a warped sense of evasion so a very private emotional hermit could feel comfortable as he faces the end of his life. That was the easy part… no thinking involved.
What they brought to dinner that night was something different. It was nice to be appreciated, not for what I did on behalf of my friend… but because I lost my friend. It wasn’t the journey, it was the end result after the journey when I’m left by myself. The journey itself was the easy part, even with the damn nurse’s visit. It didn’t matter what shape either of us were in, if we were both breathing then life was okay. The condition of those in a friendship is not as important as the existence of its participants.
As always, with laughter comes the spirit of everything honest inside us. People are at their most honest when they are laughing. And so the evening concluded with feet-dragging-in-mud fluidity. I made an impression… and everyone wanted to see more of me. I was okay with that. I think wanted to see more of them. Under the darkened skies of the Pappasito’s parking lot on a Sunday evening in June, a few days before Jeb’s 35th birthday, two very different worlds collided… and everyone made it out alive. In fact, per the man himself, we all came out as better people.
James P. Perez © 2014