The sun rises behind me and the Pacific gleams like a hundred thousand sparkling, wish-fulfilling gems. I walk down the steps to the beach and baptize myself in the holy water. I am in California again but not in the proud and purposeful way that I hoped. Two years after high school I spent in the haze of acid and pot until I borrowed enough money from my best childhood friend to force an escape. He is with me now, slashed and bleeding from my betrayals and lies. I coerced the money out of him really, made it a condition of our friendship. Now he stands behind me, silent and seething.
But here I am now, starting a new life from the few dollars I have left from his kindness. It is enough to move into a house with four of his friends from the year before, onto a corner of living room floor and an egg foam mattress.
This little town is wild and on the tiny square mile cliff top overlooking the ocean I will try and fail to break free. But for now the place is beautiful to me and to the ten thousand college kids who call this their first home away from home. For us this is paradise. There are no rules, only youth unleashed. The days are lazy Southern California dreaming but at night the festival begins. Beer flows out of homemade kegerators, house parties go on for days and the air is filled with the endless jam of punk rock, funk and ska.
Drugs are everywhere.
When the weekend finally comes, the already deafening volume is just cranked up another notch. The streets are choked with a mass of drunken, swaying bodies until the chaos rises to a fevered pitch. By Saturday night we are dragging old couches into the street to set them on fire. We cheer and scream in the night as they blaze like sacrifices that light our faces red with the hunger for more and more and more of this new life. They burn to the ground. They burn until they are nothing but piles of the black ash of the pasts that we all want to forget.
My roommates throw dance parties of their own. Every weekend the call of P-Funk, James Brown and Sly is answered and before I have time to roll up my mattress there are two hundred people dancing across the living room floor.
We drink cheap beer, malt liquor and tequila and I think that I need it just to survive. I am still a self conscious and frightened little boy but when I pour the booze down his throat faster and faster he feels warm and free. He loosens up. He lets go. After ten beers he is passed out in the corner but I leap out reborn onto the dance floor in a twirling, whirling, flailing of limbs. The room erupts and everyone cheers and I become even drunker on the sweet fruit of their approval. And so I drink out of need, the need to be accepted, the need to feel right and normal in a world that I don’t fit into. I drink as my sole purpose in life.
I read Bukowski, Kerouac and Burroughs and they become my new heroes. I want to be just like them so I write unintelligible poems and drink all day and night. Then I get up on the coffee table in the middle of the never-ending party and scream my mad verses to anyone who will listen. Sometimes I get a good laugh, sometimes I get punched in the face but mostly I just fall off my pedestal, vomit and black out.
So I slip and slide down this dangerous slope. I quit my job. I am drunk and obnoxious all the time. My roommates can’t take it anymore and they finally kick me out. But I sneak back into the house to sleep when I think no one is home. Then they chase me away like a mangy coyote, wild and snarling. They throw stones at me until I leave the pack for good. I am homeless for weeks and sleep in the open fields or on the couches of strangers I meet at parties.
I get a new job, the only one I can find or even want, as the clerk at the all-night porn store. Every night I watch the parade of desperation march by. I can smell it in the sweat and semen of the slow trickle of men who amble in through the dark, cold mornings. They buy handfuls of quarter tokens from me and I plunk them into their hands like gold doubloons. They sink them into the video machines in the back, lock themselves in their dark closets until the electric-blue light of porn seeps out of the cracks in the doors. Then the air is filled with the soft moaning that becomes our subliminal mantra, calling us all to that which will never truly satisfy.
Sometimes I look at the baseball bat that leans under the cash register.
“Any ‘a these fags tries to sneak into the booths together,” my boss said. “Ya give ‘em some of this.”
But I can never do that. I can never even think of doing that so instead I turn a blind eye to the cameras pointed down peep-show alley and let them all do what they want. After all, I know what they’re looking for back there in the dark, groping blindly and desperately, pressed against the sticky walls and tacky floors. And through the long nights I watch out of the corner of my eye and I’m never sure which is worse: the longing or the disgust.
I am spun on a little bump of speed that a regular gave me. He is a male prostitute and a heroine addict. He comes in high, after turning tricks in the parking lot and we kill the silent hours together. Sometimes he makes little passes at me but I always pull away.
“I just can’t read you,” he says and then he strokes my cheek.
But he is gone now and I am biting my nails until my fingers start to bleed when the phone jangles me out of my mind.
“Thank you for calling Downtown Books!”
There is nothing but silence on the other end and I am about to hang up when I hear a soft sobbing.
“Chris,” says the voice I haven’t heard in six months. “It’s your Mom.”
I remember the last time she called:
“The government has been infiltrated by a global communist conspiracy that wants to impose a new world order of godlessness on all of humanity and FDR knew this and so does the Pope and everyone is in on it and it’s just that they’ve pulled the wool over our eyes and they put chemicals in our laundry soap that make us weak and compliant so I hope you aren’t using laundry soap to wash your clothes and your step dad is a bible scholar now and we are out here in Colorado because God has brought us here to help save the planet from evil and I saw a movie the other day and there was a scene in it that was approaching Lesbianism and it made me so sick to my stomach that I almost threw up and I had to leave the theater…” she said.
Then I hung up the phone and vowed never to speak to her again.
Now I just want to smash the receiver on the counter top until it is pulverized into a thousand shards of my broken life. I want to scream into the mess of plastic and wire until she goes deaf from all my confusion and rage. I want to cut myself into little pieces and shove them one by one into the mashed little microphone so she can taste the blood of my failure.
But instead I meet her for breakfast in a rundown diner after work. I stare across the table at an apparition from some terrible dream. She is thin and pale and shaking. She is weak and sick and she looks like she is dying but when she looks up at me with dark hollow eyes, they still cut deep into me.
“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” she says. “You were in a lot of pain and there were all these people around you. And they were naked and, and…”
I jab my fork into a piece of runny egg and shove it around my plate.
“Then I heard a voice as clear as yours or mine calling out to me: ‘Your son, he needs help. You need to get out there right away!’ So here I am!”
I can’t bear to look at her. I know in my heart that if she knew the truth about me that she wouldn’t be here at all.
But I play along. I pretend that I’m glad that she came. Yes, I need her help. I take her out into the beautiful day where the sun illuminates everything. I show her my life as it is. I show her the porn store and the fields that I sleep in. I take her to an afternoon keg party and get drunk and brag to her, while slouching over on a dirty curbside, about all the acid I’ve taken.
She bites her lip in fear and worry and I flash a devilish smile. Finally, I am winning. So I launch into a hundred thousand other war stories from the front lines of my addiction. I want her to see how far I’ve fallen, how helpless I’ve become. I want her to know that all of this is her fault. And from the curb I scream to her in my mind: Just ask the damn question!
But she still doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t want to. And for an hour, she just sits there next to me wringing her hands and holding back the tears.
I wake up hung over enough to not feel any shame. I poke my head from underneath the hotel blankets and see my mother zipping up her bags. Her bus back to Colorado leaves in an hour. I rub my eyes and groan.
“Ya know,” she says. “You can always come home to live with us.”
I throw off the covers and start to beat out the rhythm of a little tantrum.
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry,” she says. “But will you at least quit that horrible job?”
“Mom, I can’t just stop working.”
Without saying a word she pulls an envelope out of her purse and sets it on the dresser.
“Don’t open that till later and don’t ever tell your stepfather about it.”
We walk to the bus stop. The morning fog is just starting to burn off. We don’t talk about the night before. We don’t talk about anything at all. When the bus comes she reaches for me to give me a kiss and a hug but I pull away. I hand her her suitcase as she climbs up the steps while she looks down at me one more time. There are no more tears hiding in those eyes but I can see she is still sad.
As the bus pulls away I take the envelope out of my pocket. I unfold the slip of paper inside. It’s a cashier’s check for two thousand dollars. I read and reread the number again and again before I quietly fall apart.