Reenie & The Angel Boy
"The skeleton branches on the trees above us, like the scene was playing on a television and someone was fucking with the tint, the wind blowing shapes around, moving curvy limbs, branches, sticks."
I’m on my way home from teaching a full day of classes when my phone sent me a one-two vibrate of a voicemail.
It was Kari. Reenie had died.
Eighteen years I’d known Reenie and six years since Jay died, where we were, how it all was in the beginning, and how different I was now.
The last time I saw Kari in person, she was drunk on Manishevitz and punching holes into the walls of the house on Cypress Street I shared with six others. We hadn’t spoken since she went from being a godless nihilist to being a mom, picking up the broken shards of Catholicism from her childhood along the way. Standing there, listening to the message, I could tell by the way her voice dropped that something was wrong.
“I really hate to tell you this on a voicemail message.”
Reenie was one of my oldest friends, one of those top five friends. She was one of the few I used to call drunk when I first moved from South Carolina to Oregon. She’s one of the few people I still talked to from my old life.
I heard the last drop of sadness in Kari’s voice right before she finishes her message. “I’m really sorry.” She said “Call me, and we’ll catch up.”
A memory that night, of keys dangling off of Shireen’s ignition, years earlier as the highway, of Midtown Atlanta flew by us. I was still living in Columbia then and after a concert one night, we were parked in some lot off the highway just the two of us drinking Cold Duck out of a paper bag, and she told me, when we were sitting outside on the hood of her red hot shit Toyota Sports car, how much she missed me, and how I should move out here too, to Atlanta, and she held my hand.
We didn’t say anything, about anything else, didn’t need to, back then we were like that, how on the surface it was all hey how are you, but underneath it all, when we talked like this, we were figuring out who we were in the silence between songs.
“You could live with me, or stay with my folks or something,” She said, the lights from Midtown, the silhouettes of buildings from across the street, the powdered fuzzy light coming off of them into the parking lot, the pumping retro pop on her stereo. “You have support here.”
And afterwards when we were driving to her place, and we’d stopped at a light, she leaned over to me, held my hand, stuck her neck out and kissed me, and it was just about the most gentle and forceful thing, the way she held me there, just until the light turned green, those poker face eyes, close in. We never said another word about it.
Throughout the years we got close like this, almost to the point of sleeping with each other, but both of us were too delicate to act anything out. It was a part of the silence we observed, this sea of experiences between us that neither of us knew how to put into words, so we didn’t.
I wait a day to call Kari back, after six periods and one hundred and twenty students, when I was able to hide behind my the blinds made of my dark classroom.
Kari is all settled down now, but when she pronounces the “–een” part of Reenie, there’s the old Beaufort, South Carolina, accent kicking around in there, the old sad Kari drinking bottles of whiskey back in High School
“So How did it happen?” I said.
“So she had this Gastric Bypass Surgery.”
“She didn’t even need it.” I said.
“But she had it.” Kari say. “And after that, she ran with a different crowd, you heard about what happened at Steve’s?”
The tea colored skin on Reenie’s wrists at the end of the night, the click of the handcuffs. The official way the cops turned her around, forced her down into the squad car.
“One night, we all had too much booze and even I was a little tipsy, and then towards the end of the night, Reenie offers me something fucked up like Xanex or Clonopin.” Kari said.
“Everybody else said no, but she kept taking them, and drinking vodka straight, she was so drunk I was actually disgusted. Be glad you never had to see it, she was so out of control.”
A breath in, just to give it space, to make it more real. “And the bad thing is I totally saw this coming.”
“The phone calls,” I said.
“At Three Am”, she said. “Tim got them too.”
“She was coming home night one night, her neighbor saw her, and she was all kinds of fucked up.” she said. “Hours later, when she’d been missing all day, and she didn’t answer the phone or answer the door, even when it was locked shut, only then the police came.”
There was part of her laugh, Reenie’s laugh, back when we were younger, when she was happy, or silent, just those close-in eyes, and when she laughed it was like her real personality came out. She was always holding back the real cards, the real darkness in her life, holding up a real smile as a mask, her elegant exotic face, Indian girl mixed with southern belle, the two accents merged together, and something else too, maybe she was just letting me in, on what was really going on with her, having to be in control all the time. Maybe I was even in on her charade, that she was never in control, she just played at it more, kept her eyes on the cards.
“The cops found her,” Kari says “dead on the living room floor, with coke mirrors and plastic straws everywhere.”
When you’re sitting around in your twenties, and you’re away from home the first time, headlong into creating your own identity, sitting at the Village Idiot with your friends in the corner booth, drinking a beer, and smoking the best cigarette because everyone is here, drunk and all at the same table, and right then, you don’t think about anyone dying. You think that it’s going to go on forever like this, and everyone who’s ever been close to you will be around you like the High School group of friends you never had, that this family will last forever.
Hearing Kari’s voice reminds me of that old party house we lived in back in the day on Cypress Street. A few years later, when we had graduated, and had better jobs, a few of us decided to drive by the house, and everything had changed. There were still college students living there, and they let us in and showed us around. The new owners had patched the holes Kari punched into the wall, there was new wallpaper up now and new drywall and no one ever had sex on the sink, or left a dirty condom on the floor. No one tripped acid and dosed the rest of the house, at this new house everyone was in bed by eleven.
After that conversation with Kari involving people thousands of miles away, people who were up until that point as lost to me now as I am to them. But now that I’ve had that conversation, suddenly I felt reconnected to them, that whatever dark forces of madness tore at Reenie through the years existed in me too.
The group of us, my old friends, all of us were complicit in Reenie dying. We were, all of us, were in various places on the journey to slowly killing ourselves, and having the time of our lives while we were doing it. We condoned it, we encouraged it, we may had introduced her to it, those of us whose lives were once barely patched together marriage contracts of sobriety and lucidity, we were now settling down and starting families, living in the same houses with the painted over wallpaper covering up the people we used to be.
And then there was Jay. Can’t talk about Reenie and not talk about Jay. Jay and Reenie, a couple so perfectly matched that they were too much for each other.
Jay, the Angel Boy, Reenie’s other self. He was a local music magnet, a regular at all of the music venues in town, Rockafella’s, Annie’s, Elbow Room, Art Bar, New Brookland Tavern, it didn’t matter. Jay would be in the back of the crowd, nursing a beer, nodding along to every track. Jay went to all the gigs in town, supported every band he could, even the bands that were too young to play in bars. To his friends he was known as the Angel Boy, mainly for his support of the music scene, and because he was such a nice guy.
Jay, Reenie and I were a part of that group, a group that wasn’t part of the khaki frat army, we weren’t dead heads, jocks, or preppies. We were too weird in high school, a few of us were gay or thought we were but couldn’t deal with it yet, not in the middle of the blood red conservative beacon state like South Carolina. They still had shit from Sherman’s march sitting around on their topsoil, still had folks that dedicated all of their free time to re-enacting Civil War Battles.
People used to find old Confederate shit all the time, just lying around or dug up, bones and glass and barbed wire, maps and money, and once, a whole Confederate Submarine. South Carolina was something else, with its divisionist history, robber barbecue barons, and family secrets, burnt and rebuilt but never quite put back right.
So in the middle of that reddest of red states, our group, we needed our own base, our own HQ: we made art, we played in bands. We couldn’t hang out in the normal places, like the arcade or rec-room on campus. We’d get our asses kicked if we hung out at Greek Row and when we went bowling there’d be two empty lanes on either side of us.
We needed a place or places where we could be who we were and take whatever drug we wanted, preferably in some bombed out bunker. We needed a place with little judgment, like the little speakeasies that were people’s dorm rooms, or this really nice spacious four-bedroom house in the suburbs, an actual home close to a metropolitan airport.
Close enough to where we could walk to the airport late at night, tripping our heads off. The acid was a typical sheet of blotter, sixty or seventy tabs with an emblem of a window, a square garden inside of each tab, inside of our minds. We swallowed a handful of tabs a piece, we snuck in through the unguarded fence. We danced on the runway. No one told us to leave because no one was there.
I broke off from the group and walked out to the runway, the little lights were lit up like roman candles on either side, walked all the way down to where they faded out into the ended curve of the tarmac. Reenie was standing behind the small cargo shed, alone, in that space right before the runway curved back around to the other side of the airport.
“C’mere” she said. Her dilated pupils were black paper party plates.
The Acid caught up in our veins, the lines of lights on the runway, every thought chopped up and expanded by the tabs we took almost an hour prior, the wind a breath through my chest, like I rubbed an entire tub of Vicks vapor rub on it. Breathing like that, the burn of mint in the air, the garden inside of each of us, inside the little square of a window on the little tab of LSD, a frame within a frame.
“Me and the Angel Boy,” she said, “we’re getting hitched.”
She came slow at me, face scrunched up, shorter than me, by two inches at least, put her arms around me, rubbed my back. She put her face to my chest, her long dark hair blowing all around, her voice between my shoulders.
“You’ve only been out on one date,” I said.
The skeleton branches on the trees above us, like the scene was playing on a television and someone was fucking with the tint, the wind blowing shapes around, moving curvy limbs, branches, sticks.
Her face was just far enough for me to see her big eyes, brown like mine, skin with the buried brown of her Indian past, red lipstick, Burgundy dream.
“You love him that much already” I said.
Her paper plate eyes fixed on me, in a trance, those eyes, but just for a second I could see into them. And maybe I was a little sore because I didn’t pick up that same prize and ran with it, and I felt the sore place in me that was inexperience, a part of your body that hasn’t grown back yet, the missing knowledge that I learned years later, that when one falls in love, one usually falls in love in the first few minutes of meeting someone, and either you do that or you spend years trying to force into existence something that was never there in the first place.
Sixteen years ago Jay was in a car accident one night back in Beaufort, a drunk driver, hit him “You know, I was actually sober” was how Jay used to tell it, and one moment he’s heading home to Mom and Dad, and the next he’s getting blindsided by a drunken pick up from next door, brakes failing, his drunk fuck neighbor meant to slam on the breaks underneath his cobalt blue car tarp, but he pumped the gas, and getting nothing in return, he spun the wheel, and the drunk’s goddamned pick up tumbled right into Jay’s yard, and with Jay standing outside , the pick up plowed right into Jay.
“They had to reconstruct my face.” Jay said, “I’m almost robot up here” and he smiled a slight half-moon smile where a full-moon smile should’ve been.
With months of reconstructive surgery the doctors really were able to put him back together, almost. He was lucky to be alive at all. For Jay had cheated death and in doing so almost immediately after his recovery, with the settlement money in hand, he started up a record label, and Angel Boy records was born. The Angel Boy logo looked like a thin line of a butterfly propped-up by a fountain pen. Angel Boy Records put out every seven inch by every band that Jay knew of, every friend of a friend, even if it was a high school punk band.
The whole point rally, was to outrage, to be ourselves, which meant that we saw them in the places we saw these shows in, these bombed out bunkers with overflowing toilets, barely any carpet dry bare down to the swollen floor planks, a bar only the shit kind of liquor, a bar without a top shelf, just plastic cups and airline booze bottles lined up at the bar like defeated pawns, and every one of these shows, every bit of recording money was eaten up by Angel Boy Records.
So Angel Boy put out my friend Ken’s band Imp, a ten-inch record, a little bigger than a single, but could fit about five songs, it was on this awesome white and green swirled marble vinyl. Angel Boy pressed hundreds of them, with artwork and everything. Jay had friends that could design everything from the alien and the astronaut on the front cover, to the blown up condoms on the center sticker in the middle of the record. All of it was done locally, the recording time all paid for by Angel Boy. And then Angel Boy sprung for a huge party out in the sticks, a big party out in the farmlands down in the low country, the southern part of the state.
A party for all the homos and punks and weirdos and druggies, misfits in the middle of a field with four beer-trucks, whose tires were uneven off the ground because the ground swelled up from all the piss in the soil, there were porta-potties, but in half of them people were fucking, some bassist was getting a hand job, or some asshole had laid such a massive shit, that you didn’t want to go near it.
It was our own half-assed redneck Woodstock, and Jay masterminded all of it. He had tied white bed linen sheets to two bamboo poles to act as a screen behind the stage, where they projected swirled egg yolks and paint into a glass bowl. And then when it got dark and Imp were in the middle of their set, Jay and his crew stirred these egg yolks up in a pot with a glass bottom, projected to the audience by an old teachers’ overhead while Imp played, the headliners a mass of swirling colors and a yellow yolk, one older bald guy with a hiking lamp strapped to his head working the man behind the curtain magic.
It was strictly for the heads, the weirdos, and the punks who some how heard about it and showed up. The various forms of trucker speed that flowed, ephedrine and the shit beer.
And the next morning, after passing out in someone’s tent, I got up that morning with the sun. I ran into Ken walking to the woods and he told me that earlier that night he got bit by a dog and rolled into a fire asleep, “but not both at once of course,” he said, he was still looking at the ground.
With our footsteps stretched like long shadows weighing us down, going up that hill, the highest point on the property where he and I found a six-pack of Zima and a pack of Kools behind a scab of bushes. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it was enough, so we sat down on that hill and each cracked a warm Zima, we lit up the two Kools and looked down at the sleeping crowd, at the bodies sleeping outside of tents, next to smoldering fires, the quiet when night turns into morning, a night of rock and roll and partying comes to and end, and then Jay came along and sat down next to us, surveying the damage from our vantage point at six in the morning.
The view of everyone asleep in various places, the stage area was trashed, the floorboards really just shoddy shit discount wood, was all uneven, not level, if you stood in the middle you’d probably fall through, and someone did, sleeping underneath. The passed out sleepers bunched up in rows, a few tents, people sleeping on gravel, Reenie his bride to be asleep in one of those tents. Jay looked down on to the field like Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, looking out on his kingdom, his battlefield.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done” Jay said. After the near death car accident, and the settlement that came with it, I think he just wanted to give his friends everything, which meant starting a record label that was destined to fail and in the process giving everyone within earshot the time of their lives.
“It’s too bad it won’t last” Jay said. “I’m out of money.”
It’s like when someone’s about to die and they give all of their possessions away, that’s what Angel Boy Records was to us, a nice long kiss goodbye. If only we’d known.
There’s something about being up all night with people that let you see who they really are, and in this light, his scars, the places of his face where they didn’t quite put him back right, after the accident, the intersections on his face where the rods, plates, screws and bolts inside underneath the fake cartilage didn’t fit, the way he didn’t have a point to his chin, I could still see this, a patchwork. Robot.
And Reenie wanted him, for life, she loved how normal he could look, he had tattoos on his arms and ankles and all the usual places that people do when they’ve got something to hide, one person on nights and weekends and another person at work, in a tie, 9 to five.
Reenie and Jay met at a gig, they went out on one date when Reenie told me they were getting married. When she told me that she was on acid at the time, and it was more of what she wanted to happen versus what actually happened, when he proposed and she never gave him an answer two years into their relationship, their engagement never even yielded a ring.
“Honey”, Reenie said to me on a shitty cell phone line five years later, after I’d moved to Portland, after everyone I knew moved out of Columbia. “ Jay’s had an accident.”
Another memory, the look on Jay’s face, that night in England, that shit hole we lived in Leeds six summers back, in that Pakistani neighborhood. Jay’s smile covered up what he really felt, that showed how absurd he thought life was, his laugh that night, in England, after four pubs and a trip to the off license down the street. The corner shop where we picked up more cans and smoked cigarettes in the basement, watched a tiny black and white TV and listened to John Peel show on Radio one until two, when he told me that he was still in love with Reenie and that he was going back to the states to get her back. And he took one more sip out of his Castlemaine XXX Lager, crushed it with one hand, a cigarette in the other. The laces on his vans were loose, and when he bent down to tie them, the tip of his chin, he looked human again.
“Jay’s on life support.” Reenie said “I’m with him now.”
Five years had passed, five years of Jay and Reenie falling away from each other and coming back, as predictable as the tides.
“If I’m supposed to be the one who understands you,” Reenie said to him before leaving Jay alone on that last Christmas. “And then all of a sudden I don’t even know you anymore, than what does that say about us?” Jay stayed at home, in an empty apartment, and Reenie went back to Atlanta, and that was that.
And now Jay was about to die and I was six hundred miles too short, on leave from Portland in Miami in town to see my Sister get married the next day.
“Jay was admitted yesterday” Reenie said,” and no one knows what the fuck happened”
I was on the phone in my parents house, My parents in the next room, my hand on the receiver, hot and humid the way Miami inside can be, my bare feet on the thick shag living room carpet, my sister’s foot falls up and down the thudded carpeted stairs, remembering another outfit, another detail. My family was driving to Tampa next morning for the big wedding day.
The phone call, the one phone call that was Reenie telling me about Jay was different from the one I got from Kari, happened right after it happened, January 1st, 2003. I was one of the first people to know.
Reenie kept calling, kept updating me as we left my parents house in Miami, traveling in my sisters car and in between sworn to secrecy cigarettes, my parents didn’t know we smoked, the whole trip up to Tampa.
“He’s moving his eyes now Adam,” Reenie said, I think he’s going to be all right”
At a truck stop getting gas, Reenie called my sister for the second time, and she handed the phone over to me, “No improvement” then again on the highway, on 1–95, “He’s not responding.”
All day on the phone with me, Reenie was holding on to the idea that things would get better, and something in her voice, the sweet sing song of her voice, her fake everything-will-be-ok voice broke down, and now Jay wasn’t going to make it.
Then right in the middle of the long highway of I-95 in the long state of Florida I felt it, this all-body-sick feeling come over me. It started from my legs and made my arm shake, until I had to put the phone down, just to breathe, to look out at the bilingual Disney billboards, at the roar of the tarmac that just kept on coming.
At the rehearsal, in Tampa, on the same day, late afternoon, the officiant late and so my Mom was going through a run through of the ceremony, her normal posh British accent dipping down into the working class lass she always was.
“Right, oi, you stand over here” My mom said, and she pulled the arms of all the brides maids, told them to say there, right on the spot. Mom choreographed the way each participant would stand, turn and greet the front of the Frank Lloyd Wright chapel that looked more like the front of a 1960’s Florida High School instead of a real chapel.
Then in the middle of it, Mom comes right up to me, and her face said everything I needed to know. My mom, who would drop any of her prized Prince Charles China set to save her children, couldn’t look me in the eye.
By the time I made it inside, on my Sister’s cell phone, Adrienne was still in her jeans and t-shirt, the edges of her eyes where she had just wiped the tears away.
“They just told me sweetie.” Reenie said. I could already hear the tears starting to come out of Reenie’s eyes, heard her slurp them back.
“Jay passed away at eight this morning.”
Reenie’s voice was so calm then, her mind together and steady, each word landing right where she wanted it to.
“When he died, it was like he was a different person” Reenie said “he had none of that Jay fire, he wasn’t Angel Boy, he was somebody else.”
It wasn’t until a few days later, when we were back in Miami, and I called Ken, the guitarist in the egg yolk band all those years ago when I got the full story.
“I don’t know man.” Ken said, and the way he said I don’t know it was more of a nod to the sheer amount of shit we didn’t know than just your usual claim of ignorance.
“All I know is that it was Christmas time, and they broke up, Reenie went to Atlanta for the holidays, and Jay stayed home. He took some kind of pill.”
Ken said it like it was taking a shower or shaving, tying ones shoes in a double knot before heading out, or maybe just too fucking painful to be covered directly.
“The cops found him a week later,” Ken said, “unconscious in his bed, with bruises all over his body.”
One time I made a comment about never seeing Jay’s parents, to Reenie and she said, “Oh sweetie they are like Ward and June Clever, they have no idea who their son is.”
A flash, an image of Jay listening to music came to me, a particularly sad song, in the middle of the night, drunk. Townes Van Zandt was singing “sitting around waiting to die” And all of us in his apartment that night were gutted, destroyed by the lyrics and the song, the way Zandt’s voice hangs just over the cliff to pure darkness and death, looking death straight in the eye without a parachute. All of us in that apartment that night were on the verge of tears but Jay had a straight face on. If he did feel something about “Waiting Around to Die”, he never told us, his face, his voice had no affect to it, robot.
And it wasn’t until after Reenie died, that I saw how similar they were, how she had her own ways of keeping the real world just far enough away to be able to live in denial. And Reenie did it, she too specialized in self-deception, lies, these things she called truth paintings, a skill she handled with the well-trained hand of a Flemish master.
There was a lie for every occasion. Lies about how her family came up from the caste system in India, the way that trivial shit like make up and fashion and who’s fucking who tabloids was never far away from who she was. But above all of that something else lived inside of her, the part of human emotion usually found in the darker edges of music and film, she saw the sunshine that breathed light into those darker places, the hidden history of her family that seem to come out of the cul-de-sac at the end of Oscar’s house, the things between father and daughter not talked about.
One night when I was in town visiting, after we came back from the bars, I stood in Reenie’s room watching her sleep in her bed fully clothed, passed out in her room with the lights still on, stereo blasting New Order, the same dance music for the same High School graduate who slept in the same bed she slept on in High School. Remnants of who she was on the bulletin board hung to the wall. Her mortar board and cummerbund draped on a bulletin board with ticket stubs, beer mugs, poodled and permed hair, plaid skirts and bobby socks, photos of fingers holding cigarettes that made peace signs. Middle fingers and a big pink ribbon comforter bundled up in her arms as she slept.
Twenty-five going on seventeen.
And maybe she needed the status, the celebrity storm cloud of rouge and make up, the recently upgraded hot shit red Toyota sports car, she needed enough of that shit to push the bad shit away.
Her father was always pressuring her about her weight, or her lame boyfriends, her lack of career in the later days, the everything else she never fully told me about, only half remembered drunken admissions and conversations I cant really know now. Stories that maybe she was adopted that she’s never met her real mother, the things that never made any sense to me and never will.
She had all the tools for covering her darkness up, the prescriptions from Dr. Lashley at the University of South Carolina at Columbia pointing out a breadcrumb trail back to her old addictions. An on this night I saw it all in the photos on her old bulletin board, New Order, detentions and cocaine in the bathroom, back to before Jay, before College.
It makes sense to look at her life backwards and how at the end she went all the way back. She even confessed it to me at the Art bar. She told me all about it as I held up the bar whacked drunk on twelve fizzy gin and tonics in the middle of 1997.
“Did I ever tell you?” She said, and I expected some kind of a dare, “that I used to be a cokehead?”
“We were so fucking catty snorting coke in the girls locker room, we’d light cigarettes after and get busted for smoking in the girls room instead.”
“But I stopped senior year.”
Her High School habit had found her way back to her, an experience learned, rewound and played back, the way her Dad had a way of talking to her, that lit up that hidden darkness like a slide held up to the bony light of a light box. “We all expect these great things out of you, ‘Reen.” Oscar used to say.
Oscar was Reenie’s father, from India, from Bombay, and he came to Columbia, South Carolina thirty years prior, a self-starter. Oscar took all engineering classes and held down three jobs, declared war on the other college boy owned local deli by opening his own Oscar’s Deli across the street from Andy’ s Deli, dueling it out across the street from each other, so close that Oscar could see the curve of the brown cowboy hat from the A in Andy’s sign through the outside window in one of Osar’s booths, right by the sign for two for one gyros.
A few years later Oscar moved the operation to the Atlanta suburbs after college, knocked down the wall next to it in the Marietta strip mall, opened up a Liquor Store right next door. Oscar was building his empire, right in Marietta, the Deli, the Liquor store, the job with Lockheed Martin, an Engineer, and a college graduate, first in his class.
When I rolled into Atlanta one time after Reenie had moved back in with her parents, the first time I met him was at the liquor store/deli and he asked me what my favorite kind of whiskey was. I didn’t know.
“Dewars?” he said, and I wondered why, until five minutes later there it was, a gift to me. Five minutes into town and I had a heavy bottle of Dewars in my sweaty hands.
“Don’t think of turning it down,” He said from his upturned smile, looking just beyond me, he carried on showing me row after row of whiskeys, single malt, top shelf. “I insist.”
Reenie’s voice over my shoulder on our way out to her car, “It’s his favorite brand of whiskey. Mom won’t let him drink the stuff anymore, after the coffee table incident.”
One time, at a family gathering, Oscar drank half a bottle of Dewars and danced on the table, he had red hamburger juice stains on his yellow shirt, his khaki shorts wiped with charcoaled hand prints, a new song to dance to celebrate a birthday.
When we got back to her parents place, Reenie pointed at the new glass coffee table, secured by grey bands across each narrow edge.
And even though I knew it ran in the family, I never thought she’d get that out of control. Before last year, I had always praised her sheer amount of self-control, even if it was on her twelfth glass of wine. And the whole time it seemed, she went from the coke she marched up her nose in high school, back to her lesser addictions, in the form of forged prescription drugs in college.
One Saturday night, I’m in my dorm room, nothing going, she called, said she wanted to hang out. Only we didn’t go anywhere except sit in her car, smoke cigarettes and drive around, we talked about “the news” a little bit, mainly who hooked up with who last weekend, how come we never seem to meet anybody worth knowing, the same boomerang of conversation that always ended in her telling me that one day I’d find someone.
She stopped in front of a drugstore. “Just go in honey, and tell them you’ve lost the prescription.” She said. She handed me an empty plastic bottle, and wrapped around the label, in lazy computer type, “Xanex” was written in bold letters.
“Just tell them you’re my boyfriend and that I’m at home having a panic attack and that she really needs the pills.”
“How come you can’t go in?” I said, and I knew I had her. If she wanted me to do this, she had to tell me.
“Because I’ve already been in there with the same excuse and it worked twice,” she said.
She looked straight ahead at the traffic light about to turn green.
“Are you going to do it or not” she said, still looking forward, her whole container of eyebrows and eyelids cinched tight. I got out of the car with the empty bottle.
“I’ll meet you around the other side, walk a couple of stores down,” She said, “then we’ll go party.”
My heart was in my stomach when I opened the door to the little jingle that followed. I was by far the youngest person in there. Fake old time wooden cabin walls, fake painted brown planks of wood, one person waiting in the pharmacy line, I look a number, Nine.
When it was my turn, I was amazed at how easy the words came.
“Yes, My girlfriend’s having a rough night,” I said, “She just took her last pill yesterday, and this panic attack is the worst one yet.”
“Is she diabetic?” the pharmacist said.
My brain searched for an answer, replayed the script from earlier.
“No she’s not”, I said and it seemed to be the right answer.
“Drivers License please.” When I handed it to her she wrote down my number and stared at it for a long time, maybe her brain was cross referencing numbers to pages in her manual, how to spot a fraud drug addict from a mile away, long enough time for me to notice how a group of people standing in line for a prescription never stands still, arms swaying in line from the people behind me, long enough for the Burt Bacharach elevator music to end and another to start.
“12.95” the lady finally said. “Cash or card.”
And when I got back in the car in front of the copy place, she practically used the now full bottle as a tambourine on the steering wheel.
When we pulled up to my dorm building, the entrance to four other dorms she left the car running. “Sorry honey, but I’m just not feeling up to it tonight.” The last sound I heard in her car before she closed the door was the pill bottle rattling away.
The lies she told to me over the years, the flubbing of almost all of her major accomplishments, the things that she would brag about: internships in Italy, flying to India once a year, all the money in her account, the big bonuses –were the only things that kept her respectable in her Dad’s eyes.
The job she said she had, “Vice President of Provisioning for one of the Southeast’s largest Internet service providers,” well that was bullshit. It turned out out she was the secretary, just like the time she swore up and down, “I’ve had a few poems published in the New Yorker.”
These lies piled up in my head, never tallied, just like the way I never saw her 3AM phone calls as problematic before they got more desperate.
The calls started innocuous enough, the “oops I forgot the time difference over there” didn’t seem believable after seven calls, always with their accompanying voice mail messages asking would I call her back, finishing with “things are really fucked right now.”
And just like how I took my time in calling Kari back when she left me the message, I didn’t return almost any of Reenie’s 3 AM Phone calls, because I knew something was really wrong with her. I kept putting her off for another time. The last time I talked to her it was after the Gastric Bypass Surgery.
It was the sort of thing she duped herself into feeling, that a few hours of surgery would make her sexy, complete and whole, and she just had to know just how superficial these things were all along, but with Reenie she always put on a tone of voice, that made it all seem logical, that it wasn’t, the dangerous, vein, self hating thing that it was.
The Reenie that was with Jay, who calmed me down after that acid trip on the runway, she never would have wanted the surgery. And after she had the surgery. The Reenie I was on the phone with after her surgery wasn’t anyone I knew before. She hung out with a new crowd of friends, folks who didn’t have to be in bed by eleven, they were kids in their early twenties, without children of their own.
So one night after being out all night with them, she came back to her new self, slender in the coke mirror in her apartment, straws and sinks and countertops dusted with a thin layer of the stuff, she called me.
“You should see me now, I’m finally beautiful.” Reenie said it like she’d bought into that Southern myth of settling for less.
It was the last thing I expected, the news of her passing, and the way I found out about it, how far away I was, and distant and removed. I didn’t find out on the day that it happened, or even the next, it took almost a fucking week for the news to get to me.
I did know she was completely out of control, I knew that before that night where the cops came and arrested her for making a public scene just a few weeks before she died, in front of another settled-down-with-children college friend, a combination of vodka, Xanex and Clonipin, in a residential white picket fence neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia, not far from where she grew up.
How she was assaulting the same guy she just had sex with, outside. And then she threatened the cops that showed up, and when she didn’t quiet down, when another cop car pulled up and she still wouldn’t move from leaning on the front of her red hot shit sports car that wasn’t hot shit anymore, they put her in handcuffs.
“She was so fucked up Adam”, Kari said, “she was scary, screaming fuck you, you fucking assholes.” She wouldn’t give up, kept yelling. “The cops had to force her down into squad car.”
I never saw what happened right before she died, the night she came home, that sad and lonely apartment she died in, and maybe that’s the part of me that feels that far away from what happened, maybe if I would have been there, would’ve moved to Atlanta, stayed closer to her, maybe if she would have had cancer instead of a heart attack, maybe she wouldn’t have died.
Maybe if I returned more of the phone calls, I could’ve said the right thing. Those happy platitudes that make everything okay always seem to disappear when we need them most, and maybe with all of this I could’ve seen it other than losing a best friend that I had actually lost years ago.
Maybe what I miss most of all is that family I used to have, when we were all at the Village Idiot, and we still had all the time in the world to make mistakes.
Adam Strong was scared of grass until he was 4, when he got glasses. Adam Strong is a high school digital arts teacher. Adam Strong’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nailed Magazine, Intellectual Refuge and the anthology from Forest Avenue Press, City of Weird. Adam Strong is the founder of the quarterly reading series Songbook PDX, A Literary Mixtape. Adam Strong has two daughters that make his jaw go funny when he sees them.
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