Sometime after I turned sixteen, sometime around the late 60s, I started hanging out at Little Ed’s, a clapboard house in blue-collar Queens, where we could get high without hiding it, listening to music as loud as we liked, singing, shouting, nodding out, luxuriating in a kind of easy, indolent, beautiful oblivion. And yet, even as I laughed and clowned around, I listened, I watched, blended in, or tried to, averting my eyes when others looked my way, trying to disappear, painfully aware of my own awkward clothes, plaid CPO, pressed chinos, black Cons, green laces. I knew I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know there weren’t any rules, even though there were. Whatever anyone had, everyone had, Sangria, a sandwich, pills, a joint, even ice cream, the leaky cone passed from tongue to tongue, all of us ripped, laughing as if in a dream, laughing at nothing.
Everything was absurd, drugs, cops, couches, living rooms, neatly arranged houses, school, work, our parents, even our friends, even us. We were absurd in an absurd world.
And yet, at the same time, everything mattered—more than we could bear—everything was severely, infinitely serious. Even the absurdity of the world was serious. It was sad, the war was sad, that we die was sad, dying in an absurd war was sad. It was sad that all of us vanish, that nothing lasts, everything disappears.
Many of us wouldn’t have had the language to describe this, but we felt it. I felt it, but I had no idea what to do about it, how to live.
But then it changed. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe this was the way it had always been. All I recall is that one night, Bobby asked if anyone had anything to smoke. He was older than us, with a dark helmet of hair longer than his beard, and a slow, careless bounce to his step, as if he were walking across a trampoline, even when he was standing still.
Nah, it’s dry, dry, dry, said Little Ed, a small, emaciated boy of fourteen, who didn’t have a father. He lived with his pleasant, oblivious mother and grandmother, and was always trying to seem older than he was, his matted, unwashed hair in a wet, ratty ponytail, his voice as high as a girl’s.
Anyway, weed, he said, a peculiar pride in his jaded voice, I’m sick of it. Billy’s waiting on works.
The three of us fell silent, almost out of respect, the kind of respect you might accord someone with a fatal disease. It is in such moments as though fate has somehow expressed itself, visibly, in one individual, provoking in you, the witness, a flush of awe, brief, involuntary.
Billy, for his part, seemed embarrassed by this.
I get a taste? said Bobby.
Fuck no, said the boy. What a waste!
I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t know that even in this sad world, there was a hierarchy. There was snorting or skin-popping—which was what Bobby would have done—and then there was the real thing.
Almost as soon as he said this, someone rapped on the window, someone standing between an evergreen and a leafy bush on the soft earth that encircled the placid house, dividing it from the lawn.
I saw money go out, a syringe come in.
Then the tiny envelopes on the bureau, the powder within them barely causing a bulge. I can see them there, spread out against the dark veneer, the whiteness more white than memory can recapture. I remember this. I remember watching Billy go first, sleeve rolled above the bicep, tongue slack through the buckle, belt like a black armband. The piano stool squeezed between the massive bureau and the armoire, where he sat, would always sit, as if he were squeezing himself into a box.
The clap of the lighter, pungent flame, the tarnished spoon, handle bent back under itself, the powder liquefying. The crude syringe, a surgical needle fastened to an eyedropper, resting inside an ordinary glass, scalloped sides, beveled rim, the kind of glass that might sit above a bathroom sink. The line of the dropper broken by the water line. Then the water shot through the needle, a thin drizzle, a shallow arc, a ghost on the carpet.
I fought back the nausea rising within me, at the back of my throat. And I watched him take the dropper in his teeth, pull the belt taut, the damaged arm now rigid, the veins like rivers on a relief map. The bright probe traveling up a single river, straightening it. The rubber bulb squeezed softly, tapping it, tilting it, the milky liquid slowly diminishing. Then the glass tube bright with blood. This too shot slowly back into the arm. Thumb flat against the needle, still inside the skin, then slowly withdrawn, the belt loosened with his teeth, head bobbing in the process, arm flexing at the elbow, thumb still pressing the pinhole in his flesh.
There was a quart of Tropicana on the floor, from which he would drink throughout the night, this night and others, the same quart over and over again, or so it seemed, the repetition in itself numbing, his pupils shrinking to the size of pin pricks, the eyes fossilized in his face. He would start to scratch, a scratching that would not cease, cheek, neck, shoulder, under the shirt to the chest, down to the knee, any part that was within reach, rubbed, bothered over, with no sign of relief.
His speech would slur, like a record on the wrong speed, the eyelids would rise, fall, open to slits. The cigarette between his fingers would go unsmoked, the long ash unattended, falling weirdly, gracefully intact, an uneven shadow on the arm of the couch. The cigarette continuing to burn—until he would inevitably cry out, would shake it out of his hand, curse his miserable luck, his miserable life. Then, woken, roused, he would make a joke, at his own expense, or mine, or Bobby’s, or the boy’s, a stream of jokes, the sarcasm riotous, chilling.
He was perhaps the most gifted musician I would ever know (we would play briefly in a band together, until two of the guys hocked their guitars for heroin). He would often sing the songs of that time, songs about the end of the world, the beginning of a new one.
Come on now, we’re marching to the sea—got a revolution, got to revolution!
It was a kind of make-believe, an unacknowledged make-believe. But I didn’t see this then.
I had come into this room believing in a lie, a lie I didn’t know was a lie, and the lie had made me reckless—swallowing almost any pill I was offered, walking naked in the woods, hitchhiking hundreds of miles without any destination—I had come into this room believing that you were under a kind of moral obligation to throw yourself over the falls. And yet, now I was the one who applied the brakes, tried to apply them.
I tried to talk him out of it, tried to talk an addict out of his addiction.
I would often do this in silence, watching him as he got off, watching as a kind of protest, to make him see what it was he was doing as he did it, to make him stop. And it was clear I had begun to make him uncomfortable—my face only a few feet from his, staring him down as he did this—but it wasn’t clear that it was doing any good.
Then: Look, he said one day, a day indistinguishable from all the others, except for this.
Watch me, he said, as if challenging me to do what I had been doing for weeks.
He opened the mirrored door of the armoire, so that it was facing him, he was watching himself as well, watching me watch him.
Look, he said again, the boyish face bruised with indignation, the kinky blond ball of hair wild, cumulus, the ruined arm stiff against his knee.
He was letting me know that he was beyond this, whatever it was I was doing.
But for an instant, something flickered in his eyes, the blue vulnerability of those eyes, raw, iridescent, startling.
Then the face clenching like a fist, as if to undo what had just escaped.
* * *
Billy was a heroin addict, and I believed I could get him to quit. I believed that each of us could find the way to himself, each of us could change, that Billy could change, could stop, could save his own life.
And yet, at the same time, I couldn’t see how this had anything to do with me. I couldn’t see the way to myself, how I might save my own life. I couldn’t see how I might get the girl I loved to love me back. I was always falling in love in the most ridiculous way, plummeting, diving headlong, as if I were leaping off a building. It was a leap that didn’t usually end well. It was a leap that often ripped me apart. I knew this, that I was lost, even though I also knew, knew with such force: that what Billy was doing to himself was wrong.
One afternoon, I stopped him, physically stood in his way, held him by the arms. We were in his parents’ apartment, a familiar, nondescript home, beige drapes, beige carpeting, china cabinet, big TV. He was on his way to the bathroom to get off, and I stopped him in the hallway.
What’re you doing? he said flatly.
What are you doing?
My father’s in the living room! he whispered, shouting the whisper.
Then the sharp face softening, he smiled his I‑know‑what‑you’re‑doing smile. But not here, he was saying, not now.
Don’t you get it? he said.
Don’t you get it? said Diane, when I joined her in the kitchen, the yellow kitchen with the big white appliances. He’s a junkie. He’ll always be a junkie.
I had met Diane (which is not her name) at Little Ed’s, before she attached herself to Billy. She was younger than me, tall, willowy, one eye slightly out of line with the other, so that she appeared to be averting her eyes, ironically, even when looking directly at you.
Then what’re you doing with him? I said.
Diane smirked, shrugged, as though she were almost proud of the fact that she didn’t know. She was in love with him, I knew, and humiliated by it—humiliated the way she expected love to humiliate, yet somehow angry with herself, for falling into something so lame, so predictable.
Because, she said finally, because I’m a freak.
* * *
Diane and I were often the only ones at Little Ed’s who weren’t shooting dope. Tommy or Lucille or Dennis or Frez or Billy might have gotten off, but she and I simply smoked hash or pot, passing the pipe between us, and it occurred to me one night, as we sat there on the wide sofa, that she was repeatedly scratching herself, slurring her speech. She was drinking orange juice, eyes reduced to slits, head falling forward, snapping back. It occurred to me that I was doing the same thing, the incessant scratching, slurring, even the orange juice.
Look at us, I said, we’re acting like them!
Diane threw her head back and laughed. We are, it’s like we’re doing smack too!
No one else—Tommy, Lucille, Dennis, Billy—no one else in the room thought it was funny. Except us.
Which, strangely, may have been what brought us together.
* * *
The first time I hung out with Diane at my home, my mother was visibly agitated, especially when the two of us went up to my room. I could see her face stiffen, could hear the tension in her voice.
I’m not so sure, she said tersely, that’s such a good idea, Joseph.
What are you talking about? I said, laughing. Diane was laughing as well.
My mother in her shapeless blue house dress, blue mules, carefully permed hair, my mother just stood there, as we walked up the stairs.
She was frightened of Diane, I could see, frightened of those ironic eyes, that sly laugh, sheer blouse, high-heeled boots, that strut, that unabashed sensuality.
I thought it was ludicrous, that my mother was so afraid of her, afraid to leave us alone in my room.
And yet, at that time, Diane was already pregnant.
* * *
Billy got her pregnant, then left New York, flew to San Francisco, left her to deal with it.
I was the kind of boy a girl could talk to. And she did.
It’s not my problem he says, she said, the incredulity in her voice directed at herself, for not seeing this coming.
He doesn’t want anything to do with it. It’s my business he says. Just take care of it.
Another day: It’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, but I gotta get rid of it. Can you—that high, cynical laugh—can you imagine Billy a father?
And then the agony of the abortion, the agonizing decision to have one, to find someone to perform one (they were still illegal then), to come up with the fee ($200). It was her older sister—older than us—who came up with the money. For a moment, when Diane mentioned Lexa, her entire face changed, relaxed back into itself. She smiled the wide-open smile of a child, she smiled like a child who knew she was loved. Her sister, she said, was the one she could turn to.
It was a kind of intimacy, when she told me this, the two of us talking nonstop, walking the broken streets, while she cursed her way through it, cursing Billy, cursing herself, for knowing in advance that she’d take him back, had already taken him back, without apology, without even waiting for him to return.
* * *
When the door opens, we are confronted by her father, passed out on the kitchen floor, the dissipation in his half‑closed eyes, the stained, misbuttoned shirt. The seedy, cramped apartment above a store, the living room—his room—in such filth, such disarray, I can sense the maliciousness, the eerie disregard for life, not just his life, but the life of his daughter, caught here in his dubious care. I have also heard, and inferred from what I’ve heard, the dissolute, half-dressed man, the brutal waltz, the purple bruise he’d left on her wrist.
The bastard, she said. He came after me last night. Drunk? He’s always drunk. Kiss me good night he says. Kiss your sweetheart good night.
Those slimy lips, she said, shivering, trembling from head to foot. Then laughing at herself, amused by her own disgust.
* * *
I don’t think I could have said so at the time, I don’t think I said it until this very sentence, but I see myself now in Diane. I see the boy, the young man I once was, that reckless sense of surrender, helplessness, the inevitability of it, love reducing you to a plaything, a leaf being tossed in a sudden wind.
I see the animal brutality of childhood. We hardly ever talked about it, my own father’s violence, or that very different kind of brutality, her father’s all too intimate abuse. But I see it now as a kind of occupying power, an inexorable force, a presence in both our lives.
We were alike, and yet, we weren’t. She lived in a small, decrepit apartment. She didn’t have a mother. She was much more worldly, much more experienced than I was.
And yet, like me, she was lost.
* * *
My hands are cold, she says one day, those uneven eyes locking on mine. Can I put them in your pocket?
Billy’s my friend, I say, startled. He’s been away for months, hasn’t been back since the abortion. We shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be right.
Look at me! she says, smiling, shaking her downy head, delighting in self-derision. Look at me, I’m so horny!
Later, when Billy finally returns to Queens, he is disgusted with her. Not for sleeping with someone else. This he has expected, has taken for granted. He is disgusted with her judgment.
He says to me (she says to me), Howie? You had to fuck Howie?
I have already heard the story of her seduction, the sofa, the ludes, the whispering insistence. I have anticipated Billy’s reaction, his outrage, which Diane now describes.
A dirt bag he says. You had to ball a fucking dirt bag! What’s wrong with you? Why couldn’t you pick someone decent at least, someone who isn’t such an obvious shit, someone like Cuomo?
Someone like Cuomo.
Can you believe it? she says, as if we’re discussing someone else. Ugh, Howie! Her wet-dog shiver.
Then those sly eyes, that wry smile.
I wish, she says, I wish I had known!
What Diane doesn’t know is that when she says this to me, I am still a virgin.
* * *
Sometime later, sometime after I’d started college, a woman in one of my classes (I think it was Comp Lit) knew someone who was shooting, she said, an ironic porno. And she invited me to be in one of the scenes, for which I’d be paid twenty-five dollars. At the time, I was making fifty dollars a week, working nights, unloading trucks, and it seemed like a good deal, it seemed like fun.
The scene was going to be shot in a movie theater in the early morning. I would be making out with a girl in one of the rows, another couple going at it in another row, while a man, watching us, is jerking off, while also watching the movie, another porno (within the porno). My classmate, seated directly in front of him, turns, sees what he’s doing, and opens her umbrella.
I could be in the scene, my classmate said, but would have to bring a girl.
I called Diane.
We sat together in the velvety chairs not long after dawn, waiting for it to begin, my hair now as long as hers, patches all over my jeans, the other couple chatting with us, giddy, nervous, the blaring lights brighter than the sun.
There were quite a number of takes, each time Diane undid my pants, played with me, each time I undid her blouse, ran my hand between her legs, the man jerking off, glancing back at us, my classmate seeing this, opening her umbrella. It was hilarious, the absurdity of it was hilarious, even though it wasn’t. It was bizarre, disorienting, illusory.
And yet, Diane and I kissed as though we meant it. Only to be interrupted, only to do it all over again.
After we were done, the film guy tried to stiff us, said it would be twenty-five dollars to split between us. I wouldn’t let him get away with it, and eventually he paid what we’d been promised.
On the ride back home, Diane and I sat there in something of a daze, the bus rocking us, lurching back and forth. It was difficult to absorb what we’d just done. It was as if it hadn’t really happened, as if we’d simply imagined it. And yet, at the same time, it was raw and feral and definite. It was perverse and astonishing. It was disturbingly, indelibly real. Neither of us regretted it. Neither of us thought we were cheating on Billy. Neither of us ever spoke of it again.
* * *
At around that same time, I was becoming impatient with myself: for confronting in others what I could not confront in myself. My life was a mess. I could see that, could see that I couldn’t fix it. I could see that I couldn’t see what to do next. But with my friends, it was obvious. I thought I knew what was wrong. I thought I could help.
It took me years to see what Diane had seen all along: that there was nothing to be done. Which crushed me. The knowledge itself crushed me. That Billy’s life could be beyond his ability to alter it, locked in, fated, like a character in an opera.
No matter what I did, no matter what I said, I could not get him to see reason.
It sickens me now to say this, but nearly a dozen of my friends would never make it to twenty-one. And it was horrible, that they had died so young, that I would never see them again. It was horrible that their deaths didn’t matter, didn’t change anything.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in the larger culture, the culture of my generation, more would die of their own idea of life, their own sad abandon—heroin, barbiturates—than would die in Vietnam. And as I write these words, I can feel its pull, I can taste it, the way you can taste a fever. That violent trance fired by your own anguish, that unmistakable wrench that fuels your very presence, as if you were a walking prism, as if the misery itself had electrified your senses, your vision.
Nothing is more real than a compulsion, even if it drives you into a wall. Nothing is more real than the wall itself, the hard fact of it, the impact. Or this is the way it seemed, this is what drove us, so many of us, that headlong leap—raw sensation, fevered passion. At the time, I may have resisted certain kinds of excess, but I did not resist the allure of the wall itself, the imperative of impulse, the purity of being driven. The primitive, visceral clarity of the extreme.
Frez had been on methadone when I’d tutored him, briefly, for his high school equivalency exam (which he would never take). The night of his wake, it stunned me to see him like this, to see that he didn’t exist. It stunned me that a number of our friends didn’t even bother to show up. Afterwards, I found them in the park, unaffected by his passing, oblivious to it, still shooting dope.
Which was when I decided to leave the neighborhood behind.
By the time I did move out—leaving with whatever happened to be in my pockets, leaving after yet another fight with my father—I was still working nights, still unloading trucks, still sleeping a few hours in the morning before class, and I was broke. I was on Food Stamps, Medicaid, would cook a vat of lentil soup each Sunday, make it last a week. I had a basement apartment, with pipes running through the ceiling like a map of the subway, and I’d whack my head on those pipes, repeatedly, until I trained myself to duck. For the previous couple of years, I had gone out with the woman who was my first lover (we’d met in acting class), but it had just ended. It was summer, there were no classes, and when I wasn’t working, there were hours and hours, oceans of time, when I was alone. I had nothing with which to distract myself, no money, no car, no TV, not even a newspaper, and sometimes I was desperately lonely. Sometimes, just to have something to do, I would take a bus from one end of the line to the other. It was nearly empty, hurtling through the night, aglow, its fluorescence hanging in the air like an aura, the rattling floor pitching beneath my sneakers, lifting me nearly out of my seat.
I can see the bus go dark, a square of light traveling across the floor, its elastic geometry aqueous, glowing, sliding up the wall of the compartment. The lights blinked on again, and the world outside the windows went black, a wide screen feeding my own image back to me. I saw myself projected onto the darkened city, moving through buildings and hallways and homes. An apparition unable to materialize, unable to claim a form.
* * *
One day, out of nowhere, Diane got in touch with me, and I invited her over.
She was skeptical about everything, everything amused her—my job, my home, college—even though that very skepticism was belied by the naked abandon with which she fell in love. She was amused by her own surrender, even as she was skeptical of the very thing—a man, love, life itself—to which she had surrendered. And there, running alongside it all, like a fault line, the terrible brutality of her father.
I don’t think I saw it even then, that we were alike. All I knew was: she was one of my closest friends. There were things we had been through together, there was a world the two of us had both inhabited, had both come from. She was the only one I still knew from Little Ed’s. She was the only one who knew how invested I’d been: in trying—and failing—to save everyone, everyone other than myself.
Even today, even though I know it’s impossible, part of me still wishes I could somehow go back in time and undo it all, not just Billy’s addiction, not just the many deaths of my friends (though that would be miraculous), I still wish, even as I write this, that I could save everyone, undo the past, the recklessness, the self-indulgence, the damage done by all of us, done to all of us, especially the damage done to Diane.
By now, she was no longer seeing Billy, and we talked late into the night, at which point she announced that she was too tired to take the bus home, would stay over. But, she said, wouldn’t sleep with me, would sleep on the couch.
It says something about the man I was then (and still am): that I believed her.
I believed her even when she got up in the middle of the night, slipped into my bed, and said it once again, that she wasn’t going to sleep with me.
In the morning, she seemed stunned that I hadn’t tried anything.
But, I said, I was only doing what you asked.
Diane laughed in astonishment.
I was embarrassed. I felt silly for not doing what she’d expected me to do, even though none of it made any sense.
No one, she said, had ever done that before, had actually listened to her, had slept with her without really sleeping with her. There was a kind of thrill in her voice when she said this, and at the same time, there was that sly skepticism, that wry amusement.
I never saw her again.
* * *
Years later, I would want to know how she was, would worry about her, what had happened to her, would hunt through the phone book, call information, different area codes in different cities, New York, San Francisco, L.A., later still would type her name into search engines, over and over again.
I just tried to find her now, before writing this very sentence.
* * *
I feel like taking my clothes off, she says, the night we first meet. We’re sitting on the fat sofa at Little Ed’s, watching something on his snowy black-and-white.
And she’ll do it! says the boy.
Damn straight I will.
She sits on the stool now, as if replacing the TV. Pulls off each long boot, thick white sock, each tight blue leg of her jeans, unbuttons each button of her sheer white blouse. Her chest jumps into the room, the aureole surrounding each nipple brown, wide, swallowing up half the breast.
For a moment, I am lost. I am overwhelmed. Then I do what boys do. I detach. Turn it into a joke.
Inhale, I say. Take a deep breath.
Just do it.
She does it.
Now throw your head back. (I am not proud of this.)
Little Ed sniggers. Diane laughs her horsey laugh, as if she’s just realized what my little ploy has accomplished.
Okay, she says, already bored, now what?
Wanna ball? says Bobby.
She shrugs, and instantly he is naked. I am appalled by my own fresh sense of attention, sickened by it, by my own anticipation. I feel the way I feel when watching the news, when bodies—mangled, almost unrecognizable—flash across the screen. I feel I should turn away, avert my eyes. But I do not, I cannot.
They stretch themselves across the filthy carpet, Diane supine, legs barely parted. Bobby above her, balancing himself on his hands. It will seem as though he is doing push‑ups. One, two, three, and it will be over, effortlessly, noiselessly. Indeed, he has already withdrawn, a dull, glutinous sheen at the base of her belly.
I can’t watch this anymore, says Little Ed, though there is little left to watch.
Yeah, says Diane, laughing, how about a little privacy?
Little Ed unfurls a bath towel over them, its green‑and‑white checks billowing over Bobby’s hairy ass.
Later, dressed, sitting again on the sofa, Bobby will be beaming.
How was it? he will say.
Diane will flatten her long hand, turn it up, then down, that smirk of hers now a show of indifference.
Bobby’s face will blanch; then bluff a smile.
Thank you, Ma’am, he will sing. Come again!
Diane with her wry smile, her wide gait, her strut, her sensual laugh. Diane is fifteen.