I spent the better part of a year after April in bungled awkwardness trying to explain the unexplainable choices and beliefs, the experiment in exercising free will to a very diverse cross-section of the human population. But the whole time it’s like hearing “Oh, you lost your performance partner? That’s so sad, he was the one with all the talent. What are you going to do now?” No one said this, no one even meant this (most people didn’t even know this about us). It felt that if I didn’t have him around, I should give up loud, obnoxious social commentary and thrills of life to retire into the confines of a safe dark room with an old flickering television and a suitcase filled of mementos no one will ever see.
It took a while to get over that, to realize a self-worth about myself and my value as a human being (read: awesome!). But at the time, there is this evaluation process that happens between your worth as an individual as oppose to your worth as a duo before it happened. With the efforts to be nice, to be understanding, comes shoved sympathy that trickle down to irrational and unregulated disruptions of emotions, of life. Absolutely no one mentioned in this story did this (in fact everyone mentioned did the opposite), but it did happen. I will set the situation in a different scene as an example:
Suppose you are a widower who is mourning the death of his wife at the funeral when someone tells you, “I’m so sorry your wife died. I know you’re going to miss her cooking those great meals for you.” And you want to slap them and say, “Yes, the true travesty here is no longer having a slave woman to sear a dead animal’s flesh properly. Hug me so that we may mourn together her lumpless mashed potatoes and gizzard-speckled gravy.” But that level of absurdity eventually sinks in (especially if you hear it more than once) and pretty soon the passive blockade of the ludicrous turns into, “Fuck. I’m going to have to cook for myself. Myself.” You start doubting everything about who you are as a person and the ability to sustain yourself in just the simple act of nourishment. You brush it off and move on. Five weeks later, you’re sitting in the kitchen and without warning you burst into tears. You do miss her cooking those great meals after all.
From the outside it looks like you’re crying over fucking gravy, but on the inside you miss everything not the meal: The sounds of movement from the kitchen, the frustrated under-the-breath curse words, the spark of laughter upon tasting, the eyes she gave when placing the meal in front of you that glittered with an almost sexual pride in presentation. If you don’t understand the situation of the way one mourns death, then don’t try to help. If you don’t “get” what the person is going through, don’t try assumptions to make it better. Ask what that person needs… or just be there, beside them… quietly. Maybe all the person needs is some fucking silence – give it to them in abundance. Maybe what they need is someone to listen to. A person in mourning is already in loss without the exterior verbal assistance of more loss being thrust on them. It’s hard to give up someone who knew me that well consistently, pushed me and watched without censure or denunciation, and yet that enabling of my “destruction” while also being emotionally and mentally healthy for me. He trusted me in what I did. I trusted him to be there without judgement when I did not. And I proudly gave the exact same back to him.
I’m not ever going to have that kind of relationship with anyone ever again. And if I did, it wouldn’t come with ten years of stability in structure – proof that our concept in architecture worked… it worked till the very end. That’s why I liked people who knew him closely (as mentioned in this story) so I could face all those who did not. When you have an entire city of people coming up and introducing themselves, reminding you of how you were not around for the most vibrant part of your best friend’s life… it gets a little depressing. You begin to feel maybe you weren’t even good enough to be on stage with him in the first place. Scot Free (metaphorically) went off to Hollywood and became a big star. What did I do? I babysat a schizophrenic nightmare with get-rich-quick schemes to make sure he didn’t accidentally kill himself and his pets. That’s it. And Scot’s one-man show kicked some serious fucking ass. I didn’t know who Scot was, but I was damn proud of him.
The more people tried to help, the worse I felt. As time passed, it became but a ‘blink as my night’s reality took over.’ When the first year anniversary of his death came around, I found myself quietly celebrating alone in lovely silence with my usual self-absorbed reflection holding a beautifully written personalized note Odyssey sent me in the mail. It’s a solid scene of typicalness set with me, a bottle of Tuaca, and the apartment where six months of this story happened: 1414 Arena Drive, Apartment #210. It was upstairs, left of the courtyard… last door.
After a long while, I wanted to talk about this spinning self-absorbed implosion, but I had no one I wanted to talk about it with. So I started ‘talking’ to the walls. It started in the bedroom where I slept… the wall became graffitied with a tree showing a shape of a man with his soul ripped from his torso and a bird flying off into the great unknown from the branches. It all grew from there, every major event of my life put into the tree. It’s freeing to say “fuck it” and just start painting on the walls…. and I painted on all the walls. I chronicled his story with words, but I chronicled my own with picture picking up the broken timeline from when my friend stopped breathing one Saturday evening after I drove away from a day at Eeyore’s Birthday Party.
I had originally rented the two-bedroom space because it was only going to be in existence for 1 year as the apartment was slated for demolition. The owner had already leveled the neighboring complex down the street and it was simply a matter of time before he did the same thing to that complex. I thought this was the perfect location for my duties as a hush-hush Drunken Kevorkian. If it took a year, fine. If not, he could move out to Brian and Ed’s early. I could walk away and the apartment would then be destroyed and all memories and emotions, the weight of the situation and all connecting aspects regarding the event would then be left to the ground, lost beneath a nine-building condo complex that was going to eventually dominate the property. That didn’t happen because the American financial crises occurred. I was stuck in that apartment. I was under the assumption I was going to be the last tenant in that space – it’s why I drew all over the walls. I was initially annoyed, but then I realized over the next couple of years that I needed to heal myself. I had been twisting the knife of an old wound for almost a year, then picking at the scab for another year or so. When the emails, Facebook correspondence, phone calls and texts finally subside about the subject of Jeb, I could breathe. It was time for me.
The apartment, as it seems, began to breathe a life of it’s own – a good life… a steady life that breathed new life into me (meaning, I got over my damn “am I worth anything” pity-party). It was warm and lived in, artistic and complicated, manic but hopeful with a slight mix of excitable tension. Every emotion I felt was sealed to the walls with glue and devotion. Everyone who entered were taken aback by the energy it possessed… and what that energy pulled out of them. I had complete strangers, friends of friends, neighbors all come in and immediately say how nice my apartment felt. How it felt, mind you, as it took a while before it looked livable. One friend brought his girlfriend over after she was slightly traumatized by something (shrooms?) and she instantly relaxed just by the feel of the place and that damn itchy couch. The apartment was a character in this story all it’s own, but in the quiet balance and the still air, I found my own character as well.
I had nosy neighbors ask about ‘that guy,’ I had other neighbors stalk me, I had new friends, and I had a new life, everything was actually working out okay. As the condition of the apartment grew, so did I. The rental I made a home saw many many things, but I think it was most impressed by the guy who slept on my living room floor who started this crazy path in the first place. I might say that the day I returned the air mattress to Anthony was one of confirmation of sorts. We both kind of broke down. That happens a lot after someone dies… little things that confirm that no, that person is not coming back from the dead, move along. I guess it’s more reminders that the world is, in fact, not about me.
I ate straight out of the refrigerator in my underwear, giggled with appreciation each and every time. It was wonderful, but novelty faded after some regularity. Hunter married his girlfriend in a beautiful ceremony and (oddly enough) joined the Navy himself. Oil Can Harry’s was shaken for a long while… a long while. That surprised me, the gay community being what it is. We can’t remember anything past the last dance anthem that hit the speakers. Eventually, the bar staff changed, the DJs changed, people moved on, moved out, and grew up. The bar got back on it’s feet in full stride. I went in there some years later and I know three people, maybe. Everything shifted like sands on a dune… and Austin moved with the wind as it’s a city in considerable change. Fortunately, I was able to move as well, pick up and walk.
I cannot go long periods of time without creating something. While Jeb was around, I didn’t create any ‘real’ art. I couldn’t focus while I was sulking either… just doodled on the walls. I stopped pouting, I painted more and evolved to where I created things that didn’t deal with this subject… things that I was proud of. Eventually I was strong enough where I felt comfortable standing on stage alone but not a day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss the guy who once performed next to me. Appreciation is different than mourning. The apartment turned out to be more about healing than about letting go, it was more about growing up than it was about spiraling down. I was able to acknowledge the person with honorable gratuity without grieving his passing or aching over the days long gone. (There is still an unanswered “Help Wanted” ad on the outside door because you never know, there’s always going to be someone out there who will impress the shit out of you.)
Finally in April (of all months) of 2011 we were given a notice that July would be our last month – our complex finally had a demolition date in August. Needless to say, that was a tough April. The death anniversary was something that wasn’t really fading as well as I had hoped. I became intensely moody the week before every year… but that year I also found out I was losing my home… our home for five months (technically five weeks). There was nothing in the world that could motivate me to look at this without a heavy heart and let logic take control.
This feeling was compounded as once I started packing. I was finding little pieces of “Jeb” all over the apartment… not from accident. The fucker hid things all over my apartment. I’m not sure when he did this, or if he did this over time. Mostly I think it was confirmation that I wasn’t completely crazy thinking he was in my apartment while I was at work. My white board, buried in the back of the closet because I never used it, had a drawing of a man with a penis sticking out of his head. There was his Hawaiian lighter shoved in the back of my bathroom drawer, a Duran Duran coosie in my closet… and the list goes on.
At first I was laughing so hard I was thankful for the hidden treasures as the brightened up a very depressing situation. But eventually the collection of found items were the only thing in the apartment I would stare at. It was a sad circle, a cycle back to the beginning, “poetic symmetry” some might say. But to me it hurt. It was slipping backward, not forward. Come the end of June my place was a series of strategically placed piles of disappointments about the living room, similar in visual to that of my first roommate there. One of my friends found me in the midst of half-packed boxes and crumbling heart… lost in my own sea of sorrow. I didn’t want to move from that place, his life was etched in my mind but my life spilled across the walls and dug into the carpets. It was where I remembered who I was again. What is the correct way to respond to losing that foundation?
I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to answer the phone. I didn’t want to answer the door. As I sat in my unshowered weakness and decided to get rid of everything in my apartment. I meant everything… if I am being forced to start fresh, then I wanted to start over. Fresh. That was the whole point of getting that apartment in the first place, wasn’t it? My very own “binge and purge.” The only problem is that I just couldn’t fucking move.
Enter Juan… a friend of a friend. Sunshine. He bursts into my apartment with disciplined balletesque perfection, exciting, with all the flamboyance of a courtroom jester but the pin-pointed sophistication of the queen for which he entertained. Libras like me can sometimes spin out of control (surprise!). Libras like him is what’s called “fighting fire with fire.” It honestly was the best solution and while everyone was trying to come down to my level in sympathy and understanding, speaking quietly and trying to pacify my turmoil, Juan did not have the time for this ‘woe is me’ bullshit. I was down to my last four pieces of furniture, two weeks left to move, and I lost all energy. Mostly I lost all sense of care. But I wanted to make sure that couch made to a good home.
By the way, Juan’s other function in my life was to overuse the phrase, “Well James, it’s your own fucking fault.” It was a phrase he needed to use often, I suppose. But on the first night of meeting this persona face to scruffy face all I saw was relief. And with a flick of his wrist and a Cheshire cat’s grin, my furniture was gone… his furniture was gone. I was no longer in panic. The end of this metamorphosis was not only achievable, but I could finally see the light at the end of this damn tunnel. I found a place not far from my old apartment, ridiculously priced for half the space with fake laminate everything and coats of cheap paint covering any previous tenant’s indiscretions. It was okay, I was in a new phase of my life and I knew I could make something of it if given the chance.
The last week in July most of the tenants had moved out and the place was beginning to be creepy. The dumpster they had set in the parking lot was overflowing with our collective refuse spilling onto the asphalt. The old apartment stood free of all contents, save my wall art. It was time to leave and it was hard as hell. Jeb brought me to that place. I rented it specifically for him. What started out as a short term nothing turned into a long term impression. That place was good to me. I stood there with it as empty as it was the first day I saw it… except I left my mark. We left our mark. All of us left our mark. What was going down wasn’t just a story, it was legend.
In August 2011 a second, silent member of this story passed away under the bulldozers and backhoes releasing the spirit of all it contained into the universe.
James P. Perez © 2014