So, as my cleverly original title suggests, I got a call from an old friend about a week ago and I keep thinking about it.
This particular friend has led a troubled life. I know her childhood was difficult; I don’t know all the details. She was neglected, abandoned at a young age, and I’m pretty sure there was some sexual abuse sprinkled in there as well. She is also French, so that makes her an automatic bummer. Sorry Frenchies, I love you dearly and could retire in the South of your country happily, but you know it’s true.
She spent much of her adult life shooting heroin, occasional forays into coke-shooting binges as well, often prostituting herself to pay for the habits. She was beautiful in an offbeat kind of way. She had a great sense of style and a petite, lithe, catlike body and face. When I met her she was a newly sober stripper. She loved to dance and wanted to be a professional dancer but she had no training. She was too messed up to change that or to really do anything other than get on and off drugs while concocting never fulfilled get-rich-quick schemes and obsessing over various men that came and went. They were all transient in her life, much like the stretches of sobriety.
We met after she screwed my faithless boyfriend behind my back. I had liked her prior to that, I would see her on the street and give her change when she was down and out. When I saw she was cleaned up I was happy for her–until she started lurking around his rehearsal space. I felt betrayed and made my feelings loud and clear whenever we were in the same club or passing each other on the street. Eventually she turned it around after a scene on the sidewalk in front of my apartment in which I spit at her while carrying a full bag of laundry. Good times. She reacted with a bemused expression and called after me in her thick accent, “I av paid. You av paid. Ee never pays. Ee should pay.”
I really liked that. I stopped dead in my tracks and the rage melted off of me like hot wax. I invited her up for tea. True story. She came home with me and I made tea and we became fast friends, much to the chagrin of said faithless boyfriend.
I had a much different childhood than her. I come from a nice dysfunctional but loving middle class family in which my parents were always there for me and did everything in their power to help their children succeed as adults. I had never witnessed drug use or addiction, but I had my own demons and was fascinated by dark, complicated people. I loved winning over brooding types, always ready to step up and do whatever it took to make them love me. I could sit quietly for months waiting for that turnaround when they would look up and realize they loved me. So the two of us created a cozy, codependent, mirror relationship. We went to shows and watched movies and smoked cigarettes and ate a lot of lunches at outdoor cafes. She counseled and comforted me as I continued to wage a war to the death with aforementioned faithless boyfriend, whose singer in his band became her boyfriend. At another point we both had flings with members of the Black Crowes–another sisterly bond.
The fall from that initial clean period was not a dramatic cliff drop. It was more like an inch by inch slide into the muck. She was always depressed and got more so over time. She wasn’t as fun anymore and was constantly saying it felt pointless to stay sober. She met Christopher Walken at a party, he expressed interest and she became fixated. She would lay in bed and watch King of New York over and over again. Somehow that movie seemed like the beginning of the end. She fell into a triangle relationship with an addict ex-boyfriend and a young boy who worked for him. It scared me with my Midwest straight girl sensibility. She obsessed over all of them as she stayed prone for hours, chain-smoking and coming up with her money plans. Sometimes I’d lay on the bed with her and listen and try to advise her, sometimes I’d just stop in and drop off coffee (extra light, extra sweet) and a muffin. Sometimes I wouldn’t show up at all.
My band opened for Motorhead at the Ritz. It was a big show and I wore an outfit that was a direct rip off of her style. She was pissed at me and complained vociferously. I didn’t get it. We all stole from each other. I understand now that it seemed that I had everything while she had a very small corner that she could call her own. It was insensitive to take from her.
When things got really bad she lost her place and lived here and there, for a while with a trick who paid the rent. She hooked on 12th Street. She would call me in the middle of the night to tell me her adventures. Terrible things like the way the cops rounded up all the prostitutes at the end of the month to fill their quotas, holes in the arm so large that the end of the syringe carelessly fell in, people boarding up apartment doors because they were hallucinating and paranoid from endless days of shooting coke. For a while the bodega underneath my building sold drugs, so once in a while I’d come downstairs and give her $10 and a hug when she stopped by to make a purchase.
When I managed Coney Island High in the 90’s the window in front of my desk looked out onto St. Mark’s Place. I would see her going in and out of a building across the street. She looked pretty rough by then, she had missing teeth and the skin on her face and arms was mottled and patchy. I never stopped loving her but I tuned it out. I had spent too much time dealing with addicts by then and they no longer held as much fascination. Too messy, too needy, too expensive, not glamorous.
Eventually she got a needle stuck in her knee, and it festered and she could have lost her leg or died. Caring friends made sure she made it into the hospital. Then once the initial crisis was over she was nabbed by other caring friends and hustled to a rehab in Florida to clean up. Which she did. She hated it with a passion. Florida is no place for a sullen, chain-smoking, resentfully sober Frenchwoman, but it saved her life. She got a job patrolling some sort of school or institution grounds and she entertained me with funny stories over the phone of how she, truly one of the laziest people I have ever known, used a golf cart to get everywhere. I laughed as I imagined her putting at a ridiculously slow speed in her security jacket, cigarette dangling out of her mouth.
She began painting; finally tapping into that well of creativity, and she created haunting, almost primitive images of her inner world of intense feeling and sadness. She painted furniture and jeans with minute dots and curliques, her patience for sitting still coming in handy. It was nice to see the photos of the results.
One time she visited New York, and that was when I knew our paths had diverged for good. She had gained weight and insisted upon wearing very high heels to give the illusion of length. She wanted to shop but had no money and couldn’t walk anywhere in the awful shoes. She complained that her feet hurt. I paid for cabs around town to inexpensive chain stores, where she complained that nothing fit. I cabbed her back to Café Orlin where I knew they’d make her coffee the way she liked it, and she ordered mashed potatoes and rice pudding on my tab, then complained about being fat.
It was an expensive bummer of a day and I ignored a few of her messages after that. Eventually she wore me down and I wrote that I found her frustrating. I gave her my list of grievances and she told me she wasn’t going to take my inventory and that she still loved me if I wanted to take hers. Diabolical. Or should I say, diabolique?
That was a good ten or fifteen years ago; she’s back in France now. Which she hates as much as she hated Florida, but there was little choice with no money or job skills. She told me two or three years ago, through facebook. that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I wasn’t sure how to react. As usual, I felt frustrated, irritated. I wanted to yell at her–what did you think was going to happen? You eat shitty food, you smoke like a chimney, you don’t exercise, you’re never, ever happy. And I felt guilty. Whether I’m happy or not during any given moment, I always recognize how blessed I am. I am surrounded by loving friends and family and I have the tools to support myself and stay healthy. Why did I go down one road while she had to take another?
She had been calling me for a while and I resisted picking up. She was never much of a listener and I hate talking on the phone. She’s so self-absorbed that she’s never read this blog and will only read it now if someone tells her she’s in it. But I did relent eventually and we talked. It was intense, but not bad. She is homebound now, the cancer has metastasized and she has maybe a year or so left. She has one ally, an ex-boyfriend. He takes care of her and keeps her company. He keeps her out of the hospital or hospice.
Her father called the caretaking ex and said that he didn’t want to pay for funeral costs and they should look into charitable institutions to handle it. Wrap your brain around that for a minute. What a shitty hand to be dealt. My dad would have cut off a limb before thinking, let alone saying something like that.
For once she didn’t sound brooding. She was actually somewhat upbeat. She said it’s boring; she finally has all the drugs she could ask for but they don’t do much for her entertainment-wise. And she said repeatedly, “I wasted my life. I wish I hadn’t wasted my life.” I always thought she was wasting her life too, but now I don’t know. I told her I thought maybe there was something her soul needs from this lifetime’s experience exactly the way it is/was, and coulda woulda shoulda is the human experience. She said, “I’m afraid to die. I’m afraid I’ll go to hell.” I told her she’s never done anything to warrant damnation and that it is my firm belief that she is going to go home, that this life of deep sadness will finally be over for her, and that she has much to look forward to on the other side.
I think about wasted time all the time as I move into the latter half of my life. I often feel that I should be doing more, that I could have done more, that the clock is ticking on doing more. Most of my friends are chronic overachievers, they’ve got one woman shows and tour constantly and work out constantly and sing in front of orchestras and write books and own bars. I feel like the slacker in the bunch, upping my xbox gaming score when I could be creating. But I’ve finally stopped allowing that pressure to penetrate my psyche. It doesn’t move me forward, it only makes me feel crappy about myself and I’ve got enough real stuff to beat myself up over already.
Anyhoo, I don’t have a moral to this story. I love my friend. I’ve been frustrated and irritated by her choices. I stopped paying attention and if it weren’t for her persistence I might not even know that she’s in the process of dying. I’m grateful for the gift of her friendship, unconditional love, and late hour insight. I wonder how I would have fared as an adult with her childhood circumstances. I see through middle aged eyes, as friends pass more often through the veil, that life is fleeting and the best thing we can do is try to remember to treat those in our vicinity with kindness and understanding, to pick up the phone once in a while even if we do annoy the fuck out of each other.