I’ve been debating on whether to write this because it’s a mixed emotional bag and I don’t want it to get misconstrued. But Nadege deserves to be remembered and I can feel that she wants me to put this out there.
When I first saw Nadege, in the late 80’s, she was a drug addict bumming change on Avenue A. She looked like an exotic cat fallen on hard times, slightly ratty around the edges but compelling. Her eyes were remarkable, green and slanted, wide-set in a face with wide cheekbones and a quirky slash of a mouth. She wasn’t classically pretty, but she was beautiful. She was sullen, so of course I liked her. I gave her all the change in my purse.
I had a nightmare of a boyfriend throughout that time period who then became my husband for a short time in 1990. He was beautiful, also with green cat eyes wide-set in a face with wide cheekbones, also a drug addict, although on again off again due to my constant codependent hammering. He was the most faithless human being I have known then or since. He was also always broke and had no problem letting me cover all the bills while he smoked weed and cheated on me nonstop with whatever stripper or grade C groupie that was available on any given night. I was so in love with him that I couldn’t see straight.
Usually he turned his forays into new vaginal territory into sordid little affairs that always ended badly. We had a pattern: I would find out, freak out, attack him and the female either physically or verbally, break up with him in a huge screaming match, he would continue to fuck the new person and some extraneous others until he got bored and sad, then come crawling back. I would usually find a really nice boyfriend and then ruin it to take him back. It was all awful, and whenever I think about it I feel deeply grateful that I will never have to take that cosmic class again.
So one day I showed up at boyfriend’s band rehearsal to pick him up for the night, and Nadege was there. I didn’t know her name at that point and it seemed suspect, so I asked pointedly, “Why is that junkie here?” He told me that she was newly sober and hanging out with his sober singer. Hmm… She wouldn’t look at me and since we were the only two non-band members in the room, it felt rude and uncomfortable. I decided I did not like her so much after all.
You can guess where this is going. Shortly after that boyfriend started exhibiting all the signs of having started a new affair, which was essentially not coming home when he was supposed to and acting smug when I grilled him about it. After a couple of days of my haranguing he admitted it and I broke up with him…again.
I quickly sleuthed out who the latest one was–that fucking French doper. No wonder she was such a bitch at the rehearsal. I hit the ceiling. I want my change back!
I would see her out at clubs and it made me crazy. I wanted to set her on fire. I was at the top of the NYC band hierarchy at that point and had a pretty extensive gang of rabid girlfriends who would back whatever I decreed, so I advised everyone that if they spoke to her they were dead to me. So they glared at her dutifully and one time at the Cat Club I spit a big wad of gum into her hair. She told me later on that someone pointed it out to her and she said, “Oh yeah, that’s Raff…”
Boyfriend quickly tired of this conquest and I missed him, so when he snuck into my building and left a giant, elaborately carved pumpkin in front of my apartment door on Halloween, I took him back.
A couple of months later found me in sweatpants carrying a bag of laundry heading to my apartment on First Street. I saw Nadege walking in my direction and became hot with rage. As we passed each other I spit in her face, a ridiculous gesture considering the giant bag in my arms that I could barely see over.
Nadege called after me in her thick accent, “Raffaele! I want to talk to you!”
I said, “Go fuck yourself, you fucking bitch. I will fucking kick your ass right here in the street!”
She was unfazed and shouted at the back of my head,
“Wait a meenute! Listen to me. What I deed was wrong. But I ‘ave paid for eet. I paid. Hee made me pay.”
I stopped and turned around. She continued,
“I ‘ave paid. You ‘ave paid. Eee never pays. Eee should pay!!”
All rage drained out of me. I set the laundry down on the sidewalk and eyeballed her up and down. I sighed and said, “Do you want to come up for some tea?”
She smiled and said “Yes.”
Much to boyfriend’s chagrin, we became immediate best friends. She began dating the sober singer of his band. When I left boyfriend/then husband for good, she helped me pack all of his shit into garbage bags and lug it down five flights from my place, into a cab, and then up three flights into his singer’s apartment before they got back from a trip to LA. We both dated guys in The Black Crowes for half a second and she comforted me when it became clear that Chris Robinson was just not that into me while Johnny Colt was way more into her.
Then our paths diverged. I had my band and my constant search for enlightenment. Nadege had meetings and her sober friends but she could never get comfortable. She hated stripping but it’s all she knew how to do to make money. She had countless, often brilliant, get rich quick schemes but she didn’t know how to follow through with any of them. She could have been a professional dancer but never had the training. I would stop by her apartment to hang out and she would lay in bed with the blinds drawn, chain-smoking and complaining in her thick accent. It felt claustrophobic.
We all knew she wasn’t going to be able to stay clean. She stopped going to meetings and started this weird polyamorous affair with an ex-boyfriend and an angelic looking Irish kid that Madonna put in her sex book. Nadege fell in love with the kid and obsessed about the two men all day long. Then she met Christopher Walken at a party and felt that a friend she was with had cockblocked her. It was as if she felt a window to new possibilities had been opened for a second and then slammed shut onto her fingers. She couldn’t get over it. She watched “King of New York” over and over again. She’d say, “Wait. Wait! Watch this part!” Rewinding and studying his face in close-ups. She figured out where he lived and sat across the street for hours. Once she had a pizza delivered to his place to see if he would answer the door.
I tried to talk to her. I tried to talk her out of things like that, to motivate her to fix her life, but she couldn’t. I thought we were alike but we weren’t. I grew up in a dysfunctional but loving Midwestern family and had been taught that when things sucked, you suck it up and get on with making it suck less. Nadege had been abandoned and abused and was never given the same tools or support. She was, inside, an eternally sweet, broken little girl.
I played a show opening for Motorhead at the Ritz wearing an outfit that was a direct copy of her style, which was always on point and ahead of anyone else. I had also had a couple of outfits custom made copied from things she had created. She was upset, and told me so. I didn’t understand her reaction; in my mind we were the same person, why would she care? Looking back, it’s easy to understand: I had everything and was still callously usurping the little bit of turf that she had to herself.
Shortly after that she dove headfirst into full junkie mode and we stopped hanging out. She would call me at weird hours of the night to check in, always with shocking stories of coke-paranoia barricaded apartments and holes in arms so big that the plastic part of the syringe went in. I listened patiently and clucked at the bad stuff and told her to stop it and that I loved her. The bodega underneath my apartment started selling coke, so when she went there to buy she would hit my buzzer and I would come down and give her a hug. It was like she was an occasional visitor from another, much darker planet.
She started hooking on 12th Street. She lost her front teeth and her skin looked scary bad when I would run into her on St. Marks Place. I managed Coney Island High and watched her from the window in front of my desk, going in and out, in and out of a building full of cheap rooming houses that she lived in directly across the street. She told me a john paid for her to live there. We existed mere feet from each other and couldn’t have been further apart.
Then one day she called me to tell me she was clean. It was a miracle. She’d gotten a deadly infection in her knee from a bit of dislodged needle, and once in the hospital friends had grabbed the opportunity to hustle her off to rehab in Florida. I was so happy for her. She was happy, she told me she didn’t think it was possible and she had been waiting to die that whole time.
She hated Florida. She got a job as some sort of security at an apartment complex and rode a golf cart around at night, which I thought was hilarious. She called me regularly to report in on how bored she was. And eventually, because she couldn’t support herself in the States, she decided to go back to France. She began painting, and she was great at it. She painted furniture and clothing and eventually gorgeous, colorful, spooky paintings that came straight out of the deepest recesses of her soul. I was so happy for her; finally her creative nature was manifesting itself.
But that excitement was short lived when I realized the dynamic had not changed. The phone calls were still a stream of consciousness revolving around all things Nadege. She never wondered or asked what I was up to; I just listened and gave advice which was ignored. Her mood was still depressed.
I was over it; the novelty of having a somber French junkie BFF had worn off years ago. She came to visit New York and was a huge pain in the ass the entire time. She had gained weight and refused to wear anything but five inch heels because she thought it made her look thinner. She was broke and couldn’t walk in the shoes but wanted to shop. So I paid for cabs to take her to the cheaper stores in our neighborhood. She couldn’t find anything that fit her and complained incessantly. She broke her heel so I paid for a cab to take her to the shoe store. Then while she was waiting for it to be fixed I took her out for food. She ordered pasta and mashed potatoes and dessert and complained about being fat. I sighed and paid the bill.
It was exhausting in a manner that went beyond physical or emotional. It snapped something in me. I couldn’t bear to continue the same circular conversations we’d been having since we met. I desperately wanted to be happy; she seemed determined to remain as unhappy as possible. She sent me messages through myspace that I mostly ignored, until I finally broke down and told her how bad that visit was for me and how rough it was to be her straight man for decades. She said that she “wasn’t going to take my inventory” (an NA/AA phrase) and didn’t want me to take hers. And that she loved me.
Agh. I felt bad. I loved her too. I never wanted to hurt her. I just didn’t have much more to give.
More time passed. She continued to call me faithfully every couple of months. I picked up one out of every three or four phone calls, when I had the time and patience to listen to her talk about herself. I hate chatting on the phone, it makes me anxious. She loved it. She sent me pictures of the intense paintings she did and insisted upon compliments. I told her I wrote, numerous times, she never looked or asked me about it. She said she wanted to write a book about herself. I rolled my eyes. It was infuriating, although truthfully it would make a great story.
One day she told me, very matter of factly through facebook, that she had lung cancer. My first thought was “Of course she does.” She’d been smoking and wanting to die since I met her. It pissed me off. Her life had been such a colossal waste of beauty, grace, intelligence and creativity. Just a giant wallow in never-ending French junkie existential bullshit. And now she was going to die. Great. Just great. She would finally have a real excuse to lay in bed all day long. My second thought was, “Shit. This is really happening.”
We continued the same way we had. She called me regularly; I ignored most of the calls. Finally I called her back and she told me she was now bedridden for the most part, that she had found her connection to God, and that it comforted her. She had people taking care of her. She didn’t sound happy exactly, but she sounded positive. It was nice to hear her funny little voice. We covered as much as we could in that call. I told her that I loved her and I wanted her to feel okay, and that this hard life was almost done for her. I knew it was the last time I would speak to her, although she would call again.
Our mutual friend Robert Butcher was the one to tell me that she was in the hospital and had only hours to live. He gave me the number to call, which I didn’t use. I thought about it. I looked at it for a while. But I felt that I’d said everything and I was still so mad at her. It felt as if another call would be continuing to entertain the nonsense. I didn’t want to concede. I know this doesn’t make sense; I’m sure some people are going to think it heartless, but it wasn’t that. I love her. I loved her. And underneath the defensive irritation, I was relieved for her more than anything, happy that she was so close to freedom. I wanted to meditate on it while she lay mostly unconscious, and send her the loving energy that I could. Which I did.
When we are very young, we have no idea that time will pass so quickly. We think opportunities and beauty will flutter around us forever like butterflies in an eternal summer. I will keep Nadege in my heart and mind’s eye in that youth and beauty and promise. I know that she is near me and she is free. I’m grateful for the lessons, for the unconditional love she had for me, and for her patience with my impatience. There will never be another like her.