The Things They Left Behind
Published in Headland Journal, May 2016
When Gabriel Arms turned nine he asked for a puppy and got an accordion. It wasn't that his parents were keen to foster his musical talent or were against pets or even that they felt the accordion an appropriate or desirable gift for their son. It just happened to turn up when his birthday rolled around. Conveniently the accordion was made for a child, so it was the perfect plaything for a few weeks before its owner came to reclaim it. The owner had rustled up the cash somehow, maybe begged friends or secured a loan, played on the sympathy of neighbors. Gabe's father spoke admiringly of that man. A rare bird, he said. Most people never came back.
Some years Gabe and his siblings would be given bicycles, or karaoke machines, or more baroque treasures like elaborately taxidermied animals -- a threadbare peacock one Christmas -- but the understanding was that these things were temporary. That was the nature of having a pawn shop, Gabe explained. Sometimes his mother turned up to dinner in a full length mink coat. Once a speed boat had been parked on their front lawn for two months. His parents loved to throw parties and it was common for them to "borrow" items for these bacchanals, anything from sound systems to crystal goblet sets. So many things turned up, who would miss them?
Gabe was a grown man by the time I heard these stories. I loved hearing them not least because their intimation of a life lived fully and without regard for rules reinforced my decision to come to this difficult city on the Hudson River, whose first winter shocked me with its grim, jaw-chattering brutality. I had never met anyone as fascinating and potentially transformational as Gabe.
"You must have been upset when you had to give the things back," I commented the first time Gabe shared these stories.
"Not at all."
"But didn't you ever want to keep them?"
"No. They were more valuable to me because I knew I couldn't keep them."
"You're telling me this was a fun way to live as a kid?" I insisted, although my own Northern Ireland childhood hadn't exactly involved silver spoons.
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm telling you. You're just not listening. I got to enjoy incredible things for a little while. I can't think of a better way to live."
Our friendship didn't so much start as resume, as if it had been interrupted at some earlier, forgotten point on the space-time continuum. We would gravitate to the free seat next to the other in class or study hall or the cafeteria or the library, where we would take up whatever conversation we'd been having the last time we encountered one another, as if no time had elapsed at all.
Others remarked on the fact that we could have been brothers. It was true we were the same height and lean build, with long dark lashes and dark eyes, but mine were especially dark, so dark that in certain lights they looked as black as my hair. I have round boyish features with dimples that dart out unbidden when I smile, and I envied Gabe his face all angles and planes, hair cropped so short you could admire the perfect shape of his skull if you were so inclined.
One fractious heat-hazed summer afternoon Gabe sauntered over to me the hallway.
"Hey Emmet, do you want to go smoke some weed?"
There was a place Gabe knew down by the river. I didn't really care for smoking but then as now I longed to be amenable.
"Sure. Do you want me to get my car?"
"Nah. I have two bikes, just junkers from the store."
"My parents' pawn store. We could probably just dump them when we're finished."
We rode the rusted-out bicycles down to the spot, a small copse of trees in a sheltered cove near the deserted, formerly industrial part of the river. Evidence existed of others who had been there before, little middens of beer cans and butts and debris. We kicked clear a space beneath a maple tree and sat with our backs against the trunk, facing the river. Gabe rolled the joint in his single-minded fastidious way while I lazily skimmed stones into the water. Some skipped, some sank. We talked and smoked, watching a flock of honking geese trace a wobbly V across the white sky.
"How did you end up in this shithole town anyway, Irish?" asked Gabe. I pinched the joint between my fingers: inhaled, exhaled, shrugged.
"I could have done an MBA in Dublin but I thought fuck it, I want to live abroad anyway and so I applied to a whole lot of US universities. This was the only one that said yes. Fucked if I know why they let me in."
Gabe took his turn inhaling, pausing to contemplate me through a veil of smoke.
"Probably the accent," he speculated.
"Or the eyes."
I glanced at Gabe then away quickly, my face flushing, and Gabe burst out laughing.
"Man, I didn't realize you could get any prettier until you blushed just then. Goddamn."
Naturally I scowled my disapproval of such talk. But the quickened tempo of my sneaky heart beat out a different story.
Gabe fluidly changed the conversation then, to some subject so safe and benign that I could honestly say I was thinking of nothing at all when it happened. In one confident effortless movement Gabe flicked the roach away and turned towards me, tenderly cradling the back of my head in his left hand like it was a Fabergé egg and pulling me in. For the duration of that kiss, which lasted either two minutes or two millennia, historians are still trying to sort it out, I frantically tried to record every sensation and sound and sight for posterity, like some crazed stenographer of love.
It was Gabe who heard the voices, it must have been because the next thing I knew we were separate entities again and Gabe was calmly lighting another joint behind a cupped hand. The kids approached, two girls and three boys, vaguely familiar faces from the campus, their backpacks clinking with every step.
Hey, said Gabe, looking up through squinted James Dean eyes as they passed. Hey, they said.
I sat with arms wrapped around my knees, resumed staring out at the river with a galloping runaway heart while the kids settled in about a hundred feet away, the baritone and soprano of their voices rising and falling as they talked shit and drank and laughed softly, mirth over the end of the scene they probably arrived just in time to witness. Gabe took a last drag with a little smile and then got to his feet, hoisting his backpack onto his shoulders.
"You ready to split?" His tone light and untroubled.
I nodded, scrambling to my feet with murder in my heart. How I hated those blameless kids for their bad timing: I wished them dead, drowned in the polluted river. Gabe and I peddled back to campus, Gabe with his hood pulled over his head blithe and chatty, prattling the whole way.
If we were together almost every day after that, we were never alone. There were always girls around, the glossy-haired high-pitched varsity types that tended to be drawn into Gabe's orbit. One night in desperation I joined an amorphous group heading to one of the downtown pubs known for its generous happy hour. There I took up a defensive slouch on a bar stool, staring across the room at Gabe, who sat with his arm around the waist of some pretty patrician bitch. She was gazing in adoration at his straight-nosed Roman profile. I ordered another drink and during the bitter course of finishing it managed to convince myself that Gabe took everyone to that place by the river as...what? Some kind of perverse friendship initiation?
"Hey Emmet." A kid from my political science class approached, pulled out the next stool while slopping beer foam on my jeans. "Shit, sorry man."
Forget it, I said. The guy, maybe his name was Jack, started up a conversation about the semester's study load but I didn't even pretend to participate, just slumped with my elbow resting in a puddle on the bar and stared miserably across the room at Gabe with combustible single-mindedness. I let Jack buy me one drink and then another in exchange for pretending to listen to him complain. By the time Gabe finally came my way I was drunk as hell. Gabe sat down, hooked an arm casually around my neck with his hand resting lightly on my chest, nodded hi to Jack. He leaned in close to my ear to be heard over the music, so close I could feel the warm breath on my neck.
"Hey Irish, if you don't stop looking at me like that I won't be held responsible for my actions."
I looked away, ashamed finally.
September was well underway and certain expectations and hopes had been packed away when Gabe called me one Friday to ask if I wanted to go to a strip club.
"There's a really filthy one I know, on the outskirts of town."
"Um, OK. When?"
"Fuck man, I don't know. Tonight?"
In the back seat of the taxi Gabe showed me the ecstasy pills he had scored, neat little pink discs stamped with the number seven, one of which he slipped into the pocket of my hoodie. The sign on the awning outside the strip joint read in cursive, Gentlemen's Club.
We washed the pills down at the bar with gin and tonics. I remarked that this was an incredibly classy joint as I took in the streaked walls swathed in padded red fabric and the yellow lamps swaddled in soiled satin. The orange and green and pink lights bled and pulsated with a sickening urgency as we watched the show begin. As the first frantic signals began to fizz inside my brain I leaned in to Gabe, shouting over the grinding music, "Do you have any singles?"
Gabe laughed, fished out some sweaty crumpled notes from his pocket, slapped them onto my palm and took a slug of his drink. His eyes glittered like an ocean in which sailors long to drown. What? Concentrate, Emmet. I shoved my way to the stage and gestured with a smile to one of the less attractive strippers, who obliged by shimmying over and bending down so I could snap a handle of singles in the cheap elastic of her panties.
"Why did you do that?" asked Gabe when I rejoined him at the bar.
"That. With the money?"
"Well I don't know if you noticed but we're in a strip bar." The words came out skittered and slippery, not joined together in any logical way. "Do you not approve?"
Gabe shook his head with a smile.
"Wasn't this your idea?" I insisted.
"Sure. I love these places."
I shrugged. "Well, continue to not make sense."
"Listen Irish, it's no great riddle, I dig the kitchiness, that's all. Doesn't mean I have to approve of what these ladies do for a living."
"I can see why you didn't get into that feminist theory class."
Gabe laughed, finished off his drink and wiped his mouth back-handed like he'd been practicing from watching old westerns.
"You're misunderstanding me. I fully respect their right as women to exercise the autonomy of their own bodies by gyrating on a stage. I just don't respect them asking money for it."
"Why you dirty little communist!"
But I've read some Marx in my time and it occurred to me that my friend might just contain the seeds of his own destruction.
We stood together for a while, jaws working, until one of the strippers who had already danced her set muscled her way over, honing in on me as the more obvious dispenser of cash. I gallantly fixed her up with an Alabama Slammer while Gabe looked on, amused.
"You boys sure are lookers," she drawled hopefully. "Where'd you blow in from?"
"Mars," answered Gabe.
"Don't listen to him," I said, reminded in my sentimental state of a favorite great-aunt of mine from the old country. When we hugged I could feel her hard tits against my rib cage.
Head by now fully abuzz with a swarm of bees frantically resetting my neural pathways for pleasure, I gazed at Gabe, statuesque and untouchable as a Greek god beneath the artificial lights. When I reached out for him I felt as though I were slipping off the edge of the universe. Gabe laughed.
"I guess it worked, huh? Follow me."
I disentangled myself from the stripper and followed Gabe through the heaving crowd. When he led me into the unbelievably squalid men's bathrooms I reeled back. Gabe said, "Don't wrinkle up your little nose like that. This is just a waystation. We're going through here."
He opened a magic portal I hadn't even noticed at the back of the bathroom, which gave out onto a tiny sliver of alleyway. I noted without any particular dismay the sheer volume of syringes and other drug paraphernalia strewn in the easement. Gabe closed the door gently behind us, abruptly shutting off the loud world. He put a finger to his lips and smiled.
Now there was just the wind rustling in some nearby pines and the stars wheeling overhead. I telescoped my neck in wonder and Gabe gently pushed me until my back was pressed up against the brick wall. It felt cold but pleasingly, sensuously so. Gabe put out his hand and stroked my cheek and then were kissing and falling but somehow staying upright and Gabe was pressing the length of his body along mine and it became difficult to tell which hard-on belonged to which man and it didn't really seem to matter.
Gabe ran his hands up under my shirt and I groaned. Stop, I feel like I'm going to come.
Gabe pressed his jaw against the side of my face and whispered in my ear, I'm going to fuck you so hard you won't be able to walk straight.
Then time became elastic for a moment and I felt death standing by, not impatiently but with unnerving tenacity, like a cat at a mouse hole. I decided my last act must be to kneel down in the dirt in defiance of my horror of syringes and the bodily fluids of strangers to blow my beautiful friend, but instead found myself being dragged back through the purgatory of the bathrooms, then levitating through the club, being disgorged into the merciful cool of the evening and sealed inside an intergalactic cab, then finally arriving at my cramped bachelor apartment in Center Square, where Gabe made good on his promise. Although it wasn't walking straight but thinking straight that seemed to be my main affliction afterwards.
I woke as dawn was leaking through my thin white curtains. Gabe was lying beside me, statue made flesh. On his back with one arm crooked beneath his head, white sheets bunched up just below his washboard stomach, staring at the ceiling as if patiently reading through a legal document written there. I furtively memorized it all: the smooth chest bisected by a narrow black trail of hair that ran from his clavicle to his pubic bone. The tiny gold ring encircling his right ear lobe. The fact he looked clean-shaven even with week-old scruff. Gabe, sensing eyes on him, turned to smile at me and light poured from his skin, a last little gift of the drug.
"I love you so much."
Gabe frowned. "Don't say that."
"I don't care. I don't expect you to say it. I know you probably don't feel the same way."
This time when Gabe extended his hand to caress the back of my head it wasn't like he was handling a Fabergé egg, more like a stone he was trying to crush.
"Listen to me." His dark eyes blazed with a terrible fire. "Let's get one thing straight. I would die for you. Die for you. In a heartbeat." I smiled, the dormant bees in my brain resuming a low-pitched humming. "But I have no intention of doing that. None. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
The bees disappeared. I nodded. But in truth I didn't understand what Gabe was saying, not then.
Later that afternoon when the MDMA buzz had finally worn off and the fearful melancholy had set in, I distracted myself by taking an inventory of the items that had been removed and placed on the nightstand as Gabe had peeled off his clothes the night (morning?) before, emerging out of his sweatshirt and T-shirt and jeans and shorts looking so artlessly, heart-stoppingly fine I wasn't sure I would survive it. I certainly hadn't been concentrating on the contents of my lover's pockets as I gazed upon his nakedness for the first time. But now those contents seemed to warrant further examination. Let's see. Keys, lip balm, a pocket knife. A lighter, papers, notes and coins, a screwed-up receipt. A small dented and pitted metallic box that looked like an old-fashioned cigar case, engraved on the front with a faded green image that might have been a dragon, or an imp. From its clasp hung a little locked padlock.
"Your stash of extra special condoms," I teased, dangling the case out of Gabe's reach, but Gabe just smiled mysteriously.
"Oh come on, tell me what's in it."
"It's something precious to me, that's all."
"What kind of thing?"
"A less standup guy might say that's none of your business."
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"If you must know, it's my most treasured possession. The most precious thing in the world to me."
I studied the outside of the case, which was made of some kind of flimsy soft metal, like beaten copper, but it weighed a lot more than I would have guessed. I shook the box, keeping my eyes on Gabe's face. It gave off a faint rattle, but I realized that was just the lock hitting against the side. So whatever was in there must have been packed pretty tightly.
After graduation, just before we left Albany, two things happened. The first was that Gabe took me to meet his parents. They still lived above the pawn broker's, in a rambling six-room wallpapered apartment packed literally floor to ceiling with other people's relinquished objects, things modern life had rendered irrelevant or shameful: sets of encyclopedias, transistor radios, watches, Bakelite telephones, vinyl records and record players, Civil War-era weapons, plastic bins full of tangled costume jewelry, cameras, Playboys dating back decades, if not centuries. (Some of the models looked antediluvian.) There was even a pinball machine, half covered with a yellow striped sheet.
The most startling was the life-size stuffed lion, threadbare and desperate looking in the corner, its mangy jaw prized wide to reveal ruined teeth, damage from some kind of burrowing insect, and the kind of impotent rage you'd expect the king of the jungle to feel on coming to such an insalubrious end. There was something insane about not just the environment but the way each of them -- Gabe and his parents -- acted like it wasn't there.
I confess I had imagined them bitter and eccentric, maybe even estranged like my parents. Instead they were upbeat wild-haired hippies in the Berkeley/Summer of Love mold, brimming with a strange and incandescent ebullience like children. It wasn't hard to see where Gabe's grave, Slavic-style looks had come from. (You see, even now I can't pin him down, not even the geography of his beauty.) They were extravagantly affectionate with one another and seemed eager to display an almost aggressive open-mindedness.
"This is my friend, Emmet," Gabe said and his mother Jeanie nodded approvingly and answered with warmth, "How lovely."
She took a small Murano glass airplane off a shelf, blew dust off and presented it to me. I blushed and stammered thank you, not sure where to put the fragile thing.
"Oh and I kept this funny little thing for you, sweetheart."
She pulled a necklace from the pocket of her denim overalls, fastened it behind her son's neck. It was a tiny green stone, perhaps jade, shaped like an arrowhead and strung on a piece of black leather. She stood back and we all gazed at Gabe with varying degrees of approval and adoration. I felt an odd and inexplicable jealousy as we drove away. A week later Gabe took the necklace off and gave it to me.
"It would look better on you," he said, folding it into my palm. I've never taken it off since apart from to shower.
The second thing was that I decided to get a tattoo to commemorate my time in Albany. I had a Celtic cross tattooed on my left biceps and in the crossbar I had the tattoo artist ink the number 7 and Gabe's name in tiny Gothic print, wound through the design like a secret. I tried to talk Gabe into getting a tattoo as well but he declined. Too permanent, he said.
After we moved to New York City I got a job as a junior analyst at an investment bank in midtown. I bought a custom-tailored black Dior suit that seemed to go with my new position in life. But when I presented myself in it for the first time, Gabe just studied me for a while then said with a genial shrug, I prefer you in jeans and a T-shirt. Given that Gabe still dressed like a student, all hoodies and sneakers and baggy jeans slung low to reveal an inch of boxer briefs, I suppose he meant it. He kept his hair buzzcut short and kept his little gold hoop earring too, because he didn't care or didn't feel which way the winds of fashion were blowing. But it all suited him and even years after our first meeting I never looked at him without feeling the huge, precarious desire. If anything it got larger and less controllable as time went on.
Another thing I failed to lose: my curiosity about the contents of the cigar case, which began to assume an outsized significance, especially given how infuriatingly careless Gabe was with it. I became an expert at detecting the distinct sound of that padlock rattling against the metal, and while the sound sometimes came from Gabe's pocket, where he would compulsively turn it over and over when he was concentrating on something, at other times I'd find it shoved under a cushion when I cleaned the apartment, or sitting on top of a book or fallen behind the sofa.
In bed one rainy fall afternoon, watching a shirtless Gabe make coffee in my East Village galley kitchen, I'd had enough:
"Are you ever going to tell me what's in it?"
"There's no need for you to know."
"If it's so precious to you, why do you leave it just lying around where anyone could take it?"
"Because what's inside wouldn't be precious to anyone else."
"Look just tell me what's in there and I'll never ask about it again."
Gabe laughed. "Oh cool, what a great deal."
"I hate you."
"Do you really though?"
Gabe sauntered over, placed his coffee cup on the bedside table and stood looking down at me, sprawled on the edge of the bed on propped elbows, my legs dangling.
"Yes, I really do hate you."
"How about now?"
I turned my head away, sulking. "Yes."
"How about now?"
I pushed him away. "Yes, still quite a lot."
"How about now?"
"A little bit."
"How about now?"
"Maybe not as much."
Then Gabe didn't let me talk anymore.
The longest job Gabe had was teaching boxing at a Chelsea gym. He liked it, he said. It was disciplined but mindless, so he could think about whatever he wanted. Some days he would come home with yellow and purple bruises on his back and chest, like faded tattoos.
"Why don't you get a better job?" I nagged. "You're so much smarter than you act."
Gabe just shrugged.
"You know I don't like white collar jobs. I want to be able to leave anytime, without any fuss."
This chafed almost as much as wondering whatever happened to the various gifts I had given Gabe over the years: the cufflinks, the watch, the messenger bag, the shoes. All missing. I refused to see any of these things as warnings, being more the type to double down.
"I've been thinking," I brought up over drinks one night. "We could buy an apartment together now that I have this job. Live together at last."
A long silence: not hostile, but still.
"I like where I'm living though. With Charlotte paying the rent and all I have to do is look after her cat. It's a sweet deal. And all the furniture belongs to her. I'd have to get new furniture if we moved in together."
"We could buy furniture together, for fuck's sake. Why don't we go shopping this weekend, find some stuff we both like?"
Gabe shook his head in wonder.
"Why do you have this fixation with buying stuff?"
"Because that's normal!" I shouted at him. "That's what people do who want to live together! You act like you're the normal one but you're not the normal one! I'm the normal one!"
"I don't recall ever acting like the normal one actually."
I closed my eyes then, made a steeple with my hands to hide my stinging sight within that darkened church. Gabe stood in front of me, bent my head towards him and kissed my forehead softly, like a priest bestowing benediction. That was the closest he ever got to apologizing.
Some people just need a push. Especially stubborn people like Gabe. This theory didn't even pass muster in my own head let alone in the actual world, nevertheless it was my last strategy and as such propelled me all the way into Tiffany & Co. to loiter around the glass cabinets while an almost unbearably sympathetic middle-aged lady in a houndstooth jacket tried to gently steer me in the direction of whichever wedding bands truly spoke to me. In the end I quite literally fled. She must have pegged me as a reluctant groom. I stood on Fifth Avenue close to hyperventilating, head bowed, face consumed in a blush that rose from some infernal internal furnace: my shame, my eternal tell.
In the end I decided it was better anyway to do it without the rings. But before I could stammer it out over dinner that night, Gabe had already preempted, Gabe who was always several steps ahead, close to bursting with exciting news of his own. Not quite on the same level as what I had planned though, no.
It was obvious from Gabe's disappointed face that I had failed in my one required task, which had been to appear delighted.
I confess I did something terrible the night before Gabe was due to fly out to Nepal. I took Gabe's precious cigar case and hid it away somewhere I knew Gabe would never think to look. But Gabe didn't even ask after it. A month later, an email from someone else's computer:
I made it to Annapurna and now Lukla. Nepal is beautiful and disgusting. I got pretty sick the first couple of weeks I was here but I'm fine now. I've hooked up with a group of climbers from Switzerland who are making the ascent to base camp some time next week. I'm planning to go with them. Will report back from the basement of the roof of the world.
I miss you like crazy and I think about you all the time.
I doubt I'll ever love anyone again like I've loved you.
Until next time,
There were many line breaks and then a P.S. I almost missed.
P.S. I know you stole my cigar case, and I forgive you. I'm sure you've opened it by now. I hope it answers whatever questions you had.
I put my head in my hands and cried then. Not so much over the belated declaration of love which anyway I had gamely believed in all along, but with the bitter knowledge that Gabe wasn't coming back, for his most prized possession or for me.
I took the little cigar case from its hiding spot. I found a hammer and smashed the lock open. It was laughably flimsy, I could probably have broken it with a fingernail. I weighed it in my hand for a moment before opening it. It wasn't such a surprise really to find that the box was empty. It was lined with some kind of heavy metal, maybe lead, which must have been what made it so heavy. There was a story I could have told himself at this point, that Gabe had found the case in its hiding place and taken the precious contents with him for safekeeping. But I knew that wasn't the truth. I knew the box had been empty all along.
So a few weeks later, standing in the middle of my empty apartment surrounded by the last of the bags packed for the flight back to Dublin, I can't really explain why I slipped the cigar case in at the last minute, zipping the bag up with it safe inside. Gabe and his empty symbolism. As if he needed reminding of his precious freedom. But I'm not Gabe: objects and talismans have always mattered to me. I've always been sentimental that way.
Published in Structo magazine (UK), Autumn/Winter 2017
I don’t need to invite you to imagine her because she is everywhere. Her likeness, that is. Choose the phase in which you prefer to picture her. Some favor her early years, the dewy newness of her a gift bestowed on the public by a particularly generous anonymous donor. It may as well have been illegal for anyone to write about her in those days without making reference to Lolita, either directly or obliquely. The erotic mass of her golden hair pouring over her lightly freckled shoulders (always exposed it seems), the clarity of the gaze with which she pouted out of magazine pages. Her eyes an unearthly green and her lips with their exaggerated cupid’s bow. You might choose to skip ahead if you prefer not to think about what her breasts were like in those days, those breasts so ponderous and womanly on that slight frame. Insiders claimed they were real, too, and they should know. Such breasts on a girl so recently a child, it didn’t seem quite right. Don’t worry, it wasn’t just you, it made everyone uncomfortable.
Or you might prefer to conjure up her mid-career years, when her maturity seemed to catch up to her physicality. Remember the acclaim, and the smugness of those who had predicted it all along, who had called it early. She did her best work then, in hindsight. There was the movie about the drug-addicted single mother in which she heroically declined to wear makeup or have her hair styled: who could forget that arresting sight, her familiar features so touching in their nakedness, like she was offering her very soul up to us for scrutiny? Like any self-respecting starlet she did her time treading the boards as well – ten shows a week, two matinees – for that Broadway show that was a big hit at the time. It was another difficult role, a Liz Taylor Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scenery-chewing role, the kind that actors profess to really love getting their teeth into. She might even have played Virginia Woolf herself. It’s not important now. What matters is that she did it, made herself dowdy and undesirable for us. Her beauty was more respectable by then. It didn’t make everyone feel so weird anymore. She cut that glorious mane off to just below her ears for some other role and there was a general outcry, a lamenting, but some of us were secretly grateful.
Only the truly merciless will insist instead on picturing her as she is now. Not old, not so young anymore, but diminished. That is the tragedy of it in the end, that she is less than she was and that we are all somehow to blame. We killed her. Not literally, feel free to Google her, she’s as alive as any of us. But in some less palpable way she is no longer here. We killed her best friend as well, although he really is dead, in the biological sense. Ashes to ashes dead. Clods of dirt on the coffin dead. Discovered in the bath tub by the housekeeper dead. No need to look that up.
So choose your version of her and join me as I contemplate her now, enjoying the last few moments before her best friend is about to call her up for the last time. She is late arriving on set, but everyone involved in the making of the movie already expects that, in the bitter and exhausted way of people who have given up any hope that the film might come in under the eight hundred thousand dollars that was crowd-funded to get it rolling. She is in the back seat of her black Escalade and she is insisting on stopping for a cold brew coffee, ostensibly because she had a late night and needs the caffeine but also for the unspoken understanding that she needs validation, must have validation of the value of her existence from someone in the coffee shop before she can reasonably be expected to begin her day.
Her assistant Aaron – if you’re an entertainment journalist you’d know him as the exceedingly well-groomed blond guy who sits quietly yet with a certain unimpeachable authority in the corner while you interview her, ready to cut off any verboten lines of enquiry with the slightest lifting of his silver pen, the universally understood warning signal that you might want to ask a different question – Aaron has long ago given up trying to convince her it’s not a good idea to sally forth alone into public places. He, like the rest of us, has his own problems.
So he remains in the front passenger seat of the Escalade as it idles curbside, checking emails and trying not to think about her in there, drawing stares that any woman braless in a tank top would have elicited regardless of her level of fame, trying also not to think about his most bitter regret these days, that he hadn’t opted to work with her twin brother, Lee, instead. You might now have to even stop and wrack your brain for a moment. It’s possible these days to forget about Lee for whole weeks at a time. He doesn’t appear in celebrity magazines or on VH1 and he doesn’t even have his own blog or Twitter account. He is functionally non-existent.
No need to feel sorry for him, though, that’s the way he wants it as far as anyone can tell. Seven or eight years of the spotlight were enough for him, if you can believe it. After the sitcom finally ended there had been talk of them both going on to star in and produce their own show about child stars, the meta nature of which delighted some of us at the time, but he put the kibosh on that idea. You might remember reading about how the parents were outraged at his lack of interest in exploiting his adolescence further, how they basically disowned him when he declared he didn’t want them to be his managers anymore. How we all wondered and gossiped about that at the time. What was wrong with him? A few years later he announced he was going to law school because he wanted to be, get this, a human rights lawyer. That’s when he had approached Aaron: he wanted to hire a full-time assistant. But no. Aaron had allowed himself instead to be seduced away by the sister, who at that time was at her most incandescent and irrefusable.
So now here a substantially older Aaron is, waiting outside a coffee shop off Ventura Boulevard for his charge to wrap up the latest episode in her exhausting crusade for attention. She, meanwhile, is waiting for her coffee order to be completed, feigning obliviousness to the cafe all atwitter around her, to the patrons barely bothering to hide the fact they are holding their phones aloft to snap pictures of her. These are her most triumphant moments these days, the times when she inhabits most completely her true self. That many of these same patrons will later attempt to sell their snapshots to a celebrity weekly for a special called “Washed-Up Stars We Still Love” is beside the point.
She scrolls with practiced nonchalance through her messages and stops with a frown at one from James.
I need to talk to you.
Unlike him to send such a short message and as such it does not bode well. Imagine her predicament. She does not respond to cries of help. There is an understanding between herself and anyone she lets into her circle that she is the one who needs help, she is the one who needs to talk to you. But James holds a special sanctified place in her life. She thinks of him as The Only One Who Understands.
And it is true that he alone fully knows the pain of being a stage-managed child whose formative years were spent under the crushing weight of expectation and the constant threat of abuse both physical and psychological. (We all know what monsters his parents were.) He alone knows the impossibility of resisting the siren call of oblivion that certain substances bring. He is intimately acquainted with scandals both rumored and verified. He too is on those celebrity death watch lists. And even if their shared condition is not that uncommon in this world, she still feels he is the only one to comprehend the exact dimensions of her suffering.
There is also a sanctimonious aspect to her relationship with him. She doesn’t mind telling him that insisting on only taking roles in which he can star opposite children isn’t doing him any favors. She tried to talk him out of fostering those kids, and building that school. Don’t give them ammunition, she had scolded. But he didn’t listen. He loved children so much and while she might have become incapable over the years of experiencing any kind of real empathy, in this regard she could genuinely say she felt for him and honestly, deep down, believed that his interest in children was innocent. Who knows? Certainly not any of us, we weren’t there.
Nevertheless she is torn now. Does she call him? Wait until after the certain dreariness of the day on the under-catered set of this humiliatingly low-budget movie – on which it is already painfully obvious that nothing, absolutely nothing, will go right – is behind her? No, by then the only thing she’ll care to do will be to line up a couple of bumps in her trailer – if they even have a trailer – and have someone mix up one of the childishly sweet cocktails she is unashamed of loving in spite of everyone making fun of her for it. James makes the decision for her in the end, calling as she is stepping back into the Escalade (a paparazzo is on the scene by then and takes a listless shot up her short skirt while crouching in the gutter), but James’s voice is so faint she can barely hear him.
I can’t hear you, she shouts, signaling impatiently for the driver to get going. They move away from the curb, glide into the traffic and merge onto the freeway. Finally they are stuck in the middle lane of a hopeless snarled gridlock that stretches for miles in each direction with the Eagles’ Hotel California issuing from the radio. It is only then she understands that her best friend, The Only One Who Understands Her, has done something terrible and that it is too late to do anything about it.
James, James! Answer me, James!
I’m here baby, he whispers in what would have sounded a seductive voice if she hadn’t already known he didn’t like her in that way. (Is this part of why she clings to him, that he’s the only attractive man she’s ever met who hasn’t wanted to fuck her?) I’m here.
James, what’s happening there? Aaron!
Aaron’s gleaming head cranes around from the front seat, alarmed at her tone. She waves him away. What can he possibly do, after all?
I’m coming to get you, okay? Don’t move! Are you at home? James?
I’m at home, he says, and he laughs long and soft and low, a sound that terrifies her.
Don’t leave me, she implores.
Baby girl, he whispers. Baby girl.
What have you done? She cries, but she knows or can guess at it.
It’s all good now. His voice is so, so faint she has to block her other ear to try and hear him. It’s…
What? What are you saying?
What…you just what?
His voice comes through loudly for a moment, but it sounds strange and labored and whistling, the rumor of a train approaching.
I just wanted to feel young again. He expels the words in a long sigh.
Please no. Aaron is frantically signaling for the driver to pull over as soon as he can. He reaches over the seat for her hand and she lets him take it.
I want you to know I didn’t hurt anybody.
Stop it, James. Stop it right now. You’re scaring me.
I never had a childhood. She thinks she can hear his voice crack then. I just wanted to be young. Just once.
Please don’t. Please don’t leave me, she whimpers. Please hold on.
They ki…his voice is whisked away on an errant wind, then tossed back towards her.
They killed us.
Then he is gone.
Everyone was at the funeral. Everyone. You remember it, I’m sure. It would have been crass to call it the funeral of the year, nonetheless that’s what most of us secretly felt. Many things were forgiven that day. Cruel words were taken back. Sins were absolved. Certain accusations were shelved. Her former incandescence was reignited briefly at the funeral. You’ll recall how she looked so tragic and beautiful and young, alone and shivering in a veil and a low-cut black Valentino inappropriate for the season, goose bumps etched like braille in her still-delicate skin. Too thin though, some of us felt. Almost emaciated. She was supposed to say a few words but in the end she was overcome by grief and had to be led away. Everyone knew how she had loved him, had stood by him through everything. You had to admire her for that.
Imagine her afterwards, back in the safety and loneliness of the hotel room, half out of her mind with grief and the very best cocaine on the continent, and what must have gone through her head as she gazed into that face in the mirror, with its Rorschach blots of mascara and cheeks mottled from the cold. It doesn’t get better, she must surely have been thinking.
And outside in the street, the reporters and gawkers and hangers-on dispersing to nearby bars to avidly discuss it all; and a few of the worst – the most heartless – among them would have been moving her straight to the top of their list. You know the type.