Saturday, July 18, 2015

Beyond the Screen Door

I was shocked he agreed to go immediately. He did not stand up to hug me-- our usual greeting.  I placed the borrowed DVDs on his patio table--my excuse to stop by after he called telling me the police were on their way to take him back to prison. I noticed the jagged cut along his neck.  The blood had dried.  I said in a calm voice, “I need to take you to the hospital.”  He stared at me-- looking confused-- for a long time, took a drag off his cigarette, and finally nodded in agreement.  

Standing up like a frail old man afraid of falling, he walked slowly toward the screen door.  I watched him closely from the patio, making sure he did not walk towards the bathroom-- where he kept his razors.  He grabbed his keys off the coffee table, glanced around the room looking for his cigarettes and lighter.   I did not tell him he would not be allowed to smoke at the hospital.
I tried to think of a happier time-- before the voices began to terrorize him, before the nightmares from spending 10 years in prison kept him awake at night, before he began self-medicating again by shooting heroin and cocaine into abused and scarred veins. 

 Shortly after we moved into this house, we spent a happy afternoon sanding the cracked and peeling paint off the screen door.  He picked out a mix of songs downloaded from the internet to his computer-- Gillian Welch, Emmy Lou Harris, Gramm Parsons, and Johnny Cash.   It was the monsoon season-- the heat of the afternoon cooled by torrential rains.  Lightning lit up the sky in the distance and the smell of creosote floated through the air.   We drank cans of Mexican beer with lime and salt on the rim while we painted the screen door blue.
He opened that blue screen door we painted years ago, cigarettes and lighter in hand.  “I’m ready,” he said.  

 I filled out the paper work in the ER lobby for him.  He was still standing outside the sliding doors finishing a cigarette when I checked off the boxes for self-harm and suicidal ideation.  Suicidal people are always brought back to triage right away-- to keep them safe.  
The triage nurse walked into the small private room.  A look of recognition spread across her face.   While tightening the blood pressure cuff on his arm, she glanced at the needle tracks.  I noticed the tattoos on the back of her neck.  She looked up at him and told him she loved his music.  She told him she had all his albums.    He smiled and thanked her.   She asked if I was his wife.   I told her we were divorced.  

She said, “Your songs are such great stories. They're filled with such great visceral imagery of this dusty old desert town.  The struggles and suffering, love and loss, drug addiction and prison you sing about makes me cry sometimes.  You remind me a little of Townes Van Zandt.”

The social worker knocked on the door and asked to speak to me.  She took me to a private room.  She asked why he tried to kill himself.  I told her the voices coming through his computer told him the police were on their way to take him back to prison-- something he lived in fear of daily.  I told her he harbored a lot of shame—the shame that he feels for making his parents suffer, for all the money they spent on countless rehabs he ran away from, the private schools that he got kicked out of because he had a learning disability that was never recognized by teachers who instead labeled him a troublemaker.  I told her that he was a kind, smart, and talented man who served a ten year prison sentence for a non-violent drug-related crime.  I told her he was free from the bars of that prison, but he would never be free of the prison it created in his head.    


Thursday, July 02, 2015


Dionysus was studying photography at the University.  He lived a couple of doors down from me in the historic Cooper Arms in downtown Long Beach.  One night after I finished working a late shift at the Shorehouse CafĂ©, waiting on obnoxious drunks coming out of the bars, Dion was in the lobby, sitting on the edge of the security guard’s desk debating the solidarity movement. 
  He brushed his long blonde hair away from his face
and behind his ears when he saw me walk in.  I had never talked to Dion before, just shared a friendly hello in the hallway. He spoke with a thick Polish accent.  He was beautiful, looked like a young Julian Sands. 

Dion  was slurring his words and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to another drunk.  Dion was relentless and intent on engaging me.  I did not want to be rude so I gave him my thoughts on the movement.  I was actually taking a course at UCLA that quarter where we were discussing the Prague spring.  So I offered a comparison for the discussion.  After 15 minutes of standing in the lobby debating, I suggested we move the conversation to my apartment. We walked up the stairs to the second floor.
We became lovers that night, an affair that lasted a long time.  I was such a serious student then that I told him  not to come by until after 11 as I would be studying. I was studying cultural and intellectual history and had as many as 33 books to read per quarter sometimes.  He always respected my wishes and came over shortly after 11 with a bottle of champagne. 

 I remember one night after too much champagne, I played the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Symphony Number 3. Tom Schnabel, a DJ at KCRW, was playing it on his world music show and the classical music station, KUSC, had it in heavy rotation at the time. Dion knew of Gorecki and became very animated; talking with his hands, moving to the floor in front of the stereo to listen closely. His eyes lit up when I handed him the CD cover.   Sitting across from each other cross-legged in front of my stereo, tears welled up in our eyes.   
 The symphony will make you cry.  It is in three movements and is about a mother, during Hitler's invasion of Poland, looking for her son she fears has been killed and is lying in a ditch somewhere. There are parts that just have to be listened to loud. The security guard came to the door during those parts and said neighbors were complaining. We turned it down. The name Dionysus was perfect for him, the god of wine, ritual and ecstasy. That was Dion.

Dion asked me to be his model for a school project.  He was working on shadows in black in white photography.  I reluctantly agreed.  I remember laughing and laughing when Dion wanted me to look serious.  I was a poor model, but we had so much fun that day I almost fell in love with him.