You Gotta Have Friends.


Chapter 23 / 2009 

You Gotta Have Friends.

The Filipino Zsa Zsa opens the door when I arrive at work.  

Wonderful, just great. 

Before I can take my coat off, Zsa Zsa, appearing as unhinged as her scary daughter, is singing about the fight she had with her boyfriend, leaving her to as she says:  “Sleep on the mattress on the floor like a beggar man.”

This tears it, I get to sit on the chair in the living room, my fingers frozen on the keyboard as I listen to Zsa Zsa snoring in Tagalog.    

If Zsa Zsa calls me “My dear” once, my fifteen year-old Doc Martens are hitting the bricks.  

If you take good care of your stuff, it will last forever.  

Except your soul.

Overlooking the smoothness and definition of his huge delts and biceps, I fell hard for my Chinese boyfriend, a surgeon I met when I worked at San Francisco General Hospital, when he asked me on our first date:  “Do you know how to say ‘Fuck you’ in Tagalog?  You smile and say:  ‘My dear.’”  

That was almost a decade ago, in the years when I made a living, when I had enough food to eat.  

How long has it been since I laughed like that?  

Has to be since Matt whispered into my ear that, even though we slept together and had sex on every piece of furniture in my apartment, his office and his condo, we were:  “Bros, guy…bros who hang together.”  

I will fake a seizure and go home sick if Zsa Zsa tries to take her grandson off the vent.  You know, just to see what happens, like the kid caretaker was want to do before he chanted the rosary and left for his imaginary school.  Absent the nauseating smells of the dead flowers, it will nonetheless be a long night, as the kitchen table has been colonized by Target bags.  I sit in the perpetually dark living room, which is kept that way at Mother’s insistence.  She intones that direct light upsets her son, not because he has autistic features, it is simply that any bright light at night makes him want to bang his head into the wall. 

Mother read this on the internet.  

And, naturally, when her son tries to bite or hit me as I change his diaper, he is simply behaving like any other eight year-old would.  

What is happening with the carpet?  I have looked at it nightly for months, the video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, magazines and dirty clothes covering its brown stains and frayed tasseled borders obscuring its true nature from me.  Has the carpet been vacuumed?  Is that possible in this house?  Since day one on this gig, I have never been successful in my attempts to avoid the carpet’s filthiness.  My Docs are sitting on a green as dark as the foliage in le jardin, the delicate lushness covering the floor populated with blue elephants, a herd of which are running across the floor.   

Unfortunately, the chair I sit on is as uncomfortable as it has been since day one.  Mother is wedged into it every night when I open the iron mesh door, her dark eyes watching a reality or a home makeover show.  The chair’s body is covered with a stained sheet and a threadbare blanket, the meat of its hidden arms worn down to a warped wooden skeleton.  What remains of the chair’s upholstery is ripped apart, the bottom leg broken off, a phone book in its place.  I can not sit on the chair for more than five minutes without sharp pains shooting into my lower back and down my legs.  Putting my feet up on one of the lost boy’s tiny plastic chairs does not bring a whiff of relief.  At 3 AM every night–or is it every morning?–I put my head down and surrender to the snarky whining of Joe and Mika.  No matter what I put under my head to cushion it from the arm’s sagging bones, the chair’s fingers let me know I am not welcome on it. 

The elephants beneath my feet are getting restless.  Maybe their plan is to spirit the lost boy out of the cold darkness of his cage, a narrow cubbyhole off of the living room.  To make room for the swaying elephant snouts, I relocate to the kitchen table, loaded up with more junk than I have ever seen.  My body twists, contorting itself on to a chair so ill fitted to the crap covered table that once seated it is impossible to move my legs.  I can not write my nurse’s notes, my fingers distracted by the brotherhood I feel for the lost boy, his tiny body and disproportionately sized head tethered to this house by respiratory tubing, my soul held in limbo by the mean spiritedness of small furniture, leashed to this table, this kitchen, to the stench of this house by the monthly demands of rent money and $51.00 a week for groceries.

“Do you have any children?” Zsa Zsa asks me, her voice yanking the leash around my neck.

If I tell her I am gay she will fire me.  

I smile.  Nod my head.  

I could tell Zsa Zsa about walking Fifth Avenue in one of New York City’s first Gay Pride Marches in 1973 with my best bud Danny, the clogs on our feet taking us to Washington Square Park, where, to calm the escalating meshugas between the drag queens who started the Stonewall Riots and the, shall we say, more male-identified gay men, Bette Midler hit the stage and wailed out “Friends.”

If you take good care of your memories, they will last forever, they will show you the lucky man you once were. 

I choose to tell Zsa Zsa about my nieces and nephews.  

“The other nurse ordered pizza, we’d have a party,”  Zsa Zsa tells me. “We watched movies all night. He knew I love movies.”

I could tell Zsa Zsa about conducting an insurance interview with the head honcho of the Screen Actors Guild in his office on Wilshire or the interview I did a few days ago with the founder of the American Cinematheque in her Beverly Hills office, where the shining eyes of the skinny Prada clad receptionist could not see who I was, a writer, a teller of tales.

“You’re so direct…”  JoAnne told me as I asked her the questions scripted for me by the insurance company.  “…I was nervous about this and you’ve put me at ease.”

“Us New Yorkers are like that.”

“It’s not that.  Your voice is relaxing.  What do you when you’re not interviewing people?”

“I’ve been a nurse since I was twenty-five, that’s what my hands know to do.  But, they take me flying when I write my stories.”

Our business finished, JoAnne walked me to the elevator, her arm around me, the receptionist’s eyes tearing straight through the black and cream plaid weave of my wool jacket, her knife landing a few inches above my left kidney. 

“If you ever need anything, call me,” JoAnne said.  “I’d like to help you.”

“I’m not the other nurse…you don’t know anything about me,” I tell Zsa Zsa.  “I didn’t come here to watch TV.”

I wipe down the countertop and arrange my supplies for the night.  Before Zsa Zsa can say anything else, I retreat to the living room to work on my nurse’s notes.  When I walk through the kitchen to the bathroom, my eyes are pulled to the shining surface of the kitchen table, I squint with the realization that the table is wood, a deep brown wood. If I wanted to, I could move my hand across its smooth surface without immediately running to the sink to wash it off. 

“I fixed it up so you could do your writing,” Zsa Zsa says.  “There’s a plate in the oven. I cooked it for you this afternoon.”

Her brown eyes look into mine.  They are warm, smiling, welcoming, they would never put pills into medicine cups when I’m not looking or take my patient off the vent to, you know, see what happens.  The softness of her eyes gaze at me the way Matt did after I read him a story.  

Zsa Zsa places a plate of pork chops, potatoes and carrots in front of me, a glass of ice water next to it.

“Thank you, this looks SO good.  You really didn’t have to.”

“You’re like the nurse who comes in on your nights off,” she says.

“I am?  Isn’t he twenty-five?”

“You’re both so hungry.  Such skinny men.  You clean off the counter the same way he does.”

The pork chop melts in my mouth the way Matt once did, the potatoes as warm and soft as Zsa Zsa’s eyes,  the carrots are fresh, juicy, a bit sweet, the water fresh and clean.

“When I was twenty-five, I was finishing up nursing school,” I tell Zsa Zsa.  “I lived in a one room apartment with a bed that rolled out of the wall.  Seventy-five dollars a month.  The bathroom was in the hall.  I shared it with this crazy alcoholic guy.  The thing was…the thing was I could eat then…I ate three meals a day.  I went to school all week and worked as a nurse’s aide on the weekends.  It wasn’t like…”

“Like what?” she asks.

“Am I as tired at the other nurse?” 

Zsa Zsa laughs.  Her eyes watch as I gulp down the cool water and dig into my second chop.

“He can’t keep his eyes open past midnight.”

“I have some ‘Policewoman’ DVDs in my bag, I tell Zsa Zsa.  We could watch them later.”

“The nurse, the man who died here, he didn’t like being alone at night. I watched television with him, but I never wanted to.”  

“You sure?  It would be fun.”

“I don’t have fun here.  I can see you care about my little boy.  I need you to watch over him.” 

“Of course I will, that’s what I’m here for.”

“What do you do at night to stay awake?”

“I read.  Try to write.”

I finish the first real meal I have eaten in weeks.  I put the dish and glass in the sink and run the water to wash them.  Zsa Zsa gently nudges me away from the sink.

“Sit down and write.  You don’t have to clean tonight.”

♦♦

Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news.  

Held in place by thin white strips of metal, the drop ceiling above me is an endless heaven of rectangular white tiles, their faces spotted with superficial craters, none of which appear possessed of either dirt or dust.   

The UCLA dental student, outfitted for today’s scene in lime green scrubs shielded from contagion by a billowy yellow isolation gown, has walked offstage for no apparent reason.

Hopefully, he is doing a line or two of pharmaceutical coke, anything to speed up his game, to get him to finish refining what his annoyingly dreamy voice calls the “build-up.”  

The provenance of the tiles dates to the early 60s, my eyes first spotting their celestial powers when I saw their brethren floating above the blonde Swedish Modern furniture in my father’s office, located a few blocks from Washington Square.  Maybe if I stare at the tiles above me long enough, Don Draper will hire me to write copy with Peggy Olson at Sterling Cooper.  

I am a writer after all.  I have a story to tell.

“Such deep thoughts,” Zsa Zsa whispered to me last night from her berth on the mattress.  “Write good stories, sell them to the movies.”

“Mr. Epstine…”

A deep voice, purring with the plush softness of an Eastern European accent, covers Zsa Zsa’s smiling eyes with a ratty blanket.

“…my student thinks a drop of your saliva hit his eye…you’ll need to get an HIV test.”

My eyes leave heaven and look at the thick plastic goggles which not only cover the student’s deep blue eyes, but create an impermeable seal encircling his lower forehead and upper cheekbones, the ceiling lights above his pale skin dimmer than they were when he first pried my mouth open to work on, as he calls them:  “Your totally difficult teeth.”

“What’s the drill?”  I ask.

“YOU BOTH HAVE TO GET HIV TESTED,” the bright red lips of the clinic’s chubby receptionist scream at me.  “FILL OUT THESE FORMS AND TAKE THEM TO OUTPATIENT CARE IN THE RONALD REAGAN CENTER.”

One thing about the bang-up powers of tiles above us, any sound that hits the hollowness camouflaged by the drop ceiling bounces back ten times louder to the mortals below.

So much for patient confidentiality at one of California’s shining jewels of higher education.

“Are you off your feed?” I ask the receptionist.  “You’re telling me to get HIV tested in a building named after Ronald Reagan?”

Yet another tale begging to be told.

“Those boots on your feet,” the deep voiced doctor whispers as I fill out my forms.  “They were invented by a German doctor during World War II.”

My eyes hit the ceiling, my soul flooded with remembrances of things past, like the fact that to cut back on expenses, the fluorescent bulbs illuminating the yanked opened mouthes of the dental students’ prey have been reduced from four per fixture to three. 

“I’m not too worried,” the dental student says as we wait to have our blood drawn for rapid result HIV test.  “I’m sure you’re clean.”

“I wonder how they keep the ceiling so clean in the dental clinic,” I respond.

It is the pristine condition of the forty year old tiles, the fact that despite all they have looked down on, all the quiet moaning they have heard as the sharpened tips of drills dig into decayed enamel, the tiles remain unsullied, their cleanliness carrying me through the two hour ride home along Sunset Boulevard, my jaw throbbing with such maliciousness I can not read my “New York Times,” my gut twisting against itself as I pass the Comedy Store’s round black and white billboard, my bones and muscles punching me with knockout blows only my Extra Strength Vicodins can kill, my eyes preferring the darkness of a Hydrocodone induced sleep to the blinding safety of the spotlight filling up the stage across the street, the stage I once stood on.

I had stories to tell.  I made the connection.  On the keyboard, my fingers banged out stories, whispered to me by the air caressing my body.  Was that a year ago?  A few months ago?  These days, I sit up until dawn on a viciously lumpy chair, trying to type into my laptop, my fingers fighting against the prison of wet cement.

I have seroconverted. 

I have infected the blood flowing through the blue veins running up and down the muscular arms of the dental student.

This is my new, unlucky tale.

♦♦

Two hours after my Docs staggered up Gower toward home and the inevitable bad luck bestowed by the immaculate tiles, I sit next to my friend Steven, his plus one for a play he is reviewing, a hopefully Broadway bound musical about Louis Prima and Keely Smith.  In homage to the wacky duo’s Vegas act, I am wearing my purple crushed velvet 60s jacket, a 50s tuxedo shirt featuring beaucoup black trimmed ruffles and my Zebra skin shoes.  In the air conditioned theater, we watch Louis and Keely sing, joke, fight and love, the back and forth ribbing of their stage act sitting me next to my father on hot Long Island summer evenings as we watched “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” my father mesmerized by Cher, me by Sonny.  

The cool air pouring out of vents from a ceiling bereft of life changing tiles beats down on my skin.  Let my balls ache, my gut twist, my jaw pound, I am done fighting.  My back sinks into the soft cushion of my chair, the air has its way with me, I will do whatever it wants. 

My fingertips run over the raised veins on my right hand, the blood pulsing through my body warming my skin with the realization it is not the air caressing me, but the hands of the dead, my friends who grew me into a man, Kerry, Ross and Marco, their hands around me in life, in death, pushing me forward, always forward, the heat of my fingers wrapped around the bones of my friend’s Mark’s hand, all through the night in Culver City as he lay dying, his scratchy voice saying to me:  “Remember who you are, you’re a special guy,” his touch as kind as JoAnne’s when we stood at the elevator.

Spittle flies out of the mouth of the wildly gesticulating Louis, its benign drops falling on to the edge of the stage as laughter tears through my body, the jaw, the gut, the balls afraid to attack a man as lucky as I am, a man who has friends.  The onstage couple’s knock-down, drag-out fights grab me in my throat, the concrete melts off my feet and hands, my eyes drip with tears at the life I am watching, the life still beating in my heart, the life racing to my fingertips, who promise to keep me up until dawn typing out my tale.  

The show over, my Docs push down heavy on my gas pedal, my cocksucker red 69 Chevy Malibu flying me to the keyboard.  I turn up Gower from Melrose, all thoughts of reporting the chubby receptionist to her supervisors forgotten, instead I run the lines I will speak to JoAnne when I ask her if she can help me find a literary agent, my fingertips steering me to the 101 as my ears listen one more time to the words whispered to me by the deep voiced doctor five minutes after I walked into my apartment earlier this evening:  “You are negative.”

Too true.

Our lucky man has a tale to tell.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

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