I like to tell people that Fresno sprang forth from a bar stool fully formed and naked except for a beer foam afterbirth matting down his chest and pubic hair. At other times I've told of a more conventional birth, though still insisting that the last drag of a lit Camel was hanging from his lips as he cleared the birth canal, and that he was screaming, "Who's cock do I gotta suck to get a drink around here", before the doctor'd even smacked his ass and snipped the cord. Sometimes I've told both versions simultaneously, forgetting which one I'm in the middle of and accidentally mixing in what sound like actual facts.
Sometimes he seems almost embarrassed by it. But at other times, when he's loaded, he seems to like it a lot. In truth his drinking problem isn't as advanced as I like to boast: He still can't bring himself to forage for the half-finished beers lying unattended around the bar when he's drunk up all his money. He prefers instead to bum from mine, forgetting that's how I got it.
Sometimes he pays a lot of attention to me, and I'm not sure why. Sometimes he pays no attention to me at all, and that, probably, is much better. Tonight he's doing a little of each.
"Do you like this band?" he asks.
Since I don't know who it is I just say, "Yeah."
I lean forward on the bench, fixating for a moment on the way his brown polyester pants cling to his kneecap and the gently muscled start of his thigh. He found those pants in street, you know--they were thrown out the window of a Muni bus by the jealous lover of the driver. "His misfortune is my wardrobe," Fresno said, and added them to his pile of found clothing. Not bad for a kid who grossed 60k last year.
But he's beautiful in fact -- every stretched and concocted inch from his carefully scuffed boots to the tangle of black and yellow hair, held in place with an expensive cocktail of products, and tousled with all the precision of aerospace engineering. I guess I'm in a sort of love with him.
"Dude," he says. And he means it. "Can you get me a beer?"
"Yeah." I've got money tonight.
I get myself into line behind a gravel-voiced queen with a buzzcut. She's wearing a leather vest covered in some kind of queer biker badges and patches, and she's about to tear the fucking tits right off the bartender because she's too cracked-on to get her change to count out correctly. I smile.
The boundaries of the world are drifting inward on me, and soon will contain only the length of this dingy room. I'm getting loaded, I notice, and a rich comfort swells up in my chest.
My turn in line: I pay the man, grab my beers and push myself back through the knots of aging biker fags and dyed-and-pierced youngsters in the direction of Fresno.
I hand him his drink, and he says, "Thanks, I gotta tell you something, I'll be right back." And about an hour passes. And I leave.
Some nights turn out that way. It took me a while to accept this particular one of life's facts, but then I started drinking heavily. And the rest is history I can't remember.
On the walk home, I took some time to drunkenly admire myself for not being hurt, for my strength of character in accepting the divergence of his needs from mine. I praised his adept and thorough acculturation to California: he's using me, but it's consensual -- my one complaint being that he's not using me enough. And I walked into a telephone pole.
It's cliched, but only because it happens often enough. I was too drunk to pick the splinters and rusty staples out of my face, my attempts driving them further into the skin. The stinging blow to the head helped sober me through the few blocks to my apartment. I spent the next half hour bleeding in front of the mirror, trying to remember which lie goes along with this and laughing uproariously.
The next day I'm walking down Division towards the rug store, and behind me, amidst a whole concert of car horns and squealing breaks, someone is calling my name. Fresno's running towards me through oncoming traffic.
"Dude! What happened to you?" Fresno asks, depositing sweaty kisses on my cheek, while a smile creeps down and along my face like I'm playing at being bashful.
"Nothing," I say, thinking he's talking about my bruises and then adding a little too quickly, "Last night some piece of shit was giving me dirty looks so I had to kick his ass. But the little pussy got in a sucker punch before I broke his arm."
"You're serious?" Fresno asks, working furiously on a piece of gum.
"Nooo, queen. Do I look like someone who goes around kicking a lot of ass to you?"
He kind of shrugs.
"So what are you doing today?" I'm asking him this, though his manic expression and busy jaw make it pretty obvious that what he's doing is about a quarter and a half of crystal.
"Crashing," he says.
"Yeah, I was just hanging out at, you know, whatever the fuck, on Folsom there, but I got bored. So I took off outta there and now I don't know. What're you doing?"
"I'm taking my hangover for a walk to the rug store. Somebody, you know, ruined mine last night. Want to go with me? You can help me pick one out."
Fresno looks at me distrustfully.
"It'll be campy," I say, "We can hang out. We'll check out the new Persians and spend a lazy Sunday afternoon putting things onto my credit card like we're a couple of old queens. Except in my case it'll be real."
"You're not an old queen," he says consolingly. And I'm a little offended because I was obviously making a joke.
"Yeah, well." he says. "I don't really have anything else to do. So..."
The rug warehouse is in the weird no-man's land between the Mission and South of Market. The whole area expresses the schizophrenia of the New San Francisco. Every moldering block is interrupted by million-dollar loft space, internet start-ups and freshly stuccoed bulk outlets where club members can pick up a pack of toilet paper the size of a new VW Beetle and shit themselves well into the 21st Century. But all of this is perversely superimposed on the stubborn indigence of the old San Francisco: hookers, artists, immigrants, and fellow members of the serious drinking classes.
The rug store itself is a 1980s example of adaptive reuse: once a factory, it now houses 60 or 70 waist-high piles of kilims, dhurries, Tufekian Tibetans, Persian and Navaho rugs, all meticulously crafted by teenage girls in an unsightly section of a less fortunate country.
"Look at these prices!" I squeal. Fresno, less impressed than I by $2.60 per square foot jute, mutters in what I guess is agreement.
We attempt a natural looking stroll through the store, I checking tags and stitching, Fresno wandering about with masculine disinterest. The air's so still, and I'm feeling a little dizzy.
There's something about buying home furnishings with an attractive man that messes up the head. The fact that I grew up and learned to shop was bad enough. The fact that one day I realized my spending had become a leisure activity was bad enough. I still remember when looting was a leisure activity.
But now, years later, I look over and Fresno is standing gloriously in a warehouse full of sumptuous floor-coverings. As the light drifts down from the clean, re-caulked skylights, he fidgets and twitches in the sun's dustless rays, aside meadow-sized rolls of gleaming green indoor-outdoor carpeting. It's like a vision. A fucked up crissy-damaged vision. Yes. But for one creepy moment I can feel an urgent yearning for domesticity crouched just beyond my own edges. And I wonder how he'd look standing in an Ikea.
"Check out that guy over there," Fresno says. "He's so fucking hot. He's checking me out too."
Fresno's staring at this butt-ugly, straight security guard, and I'm thinking: He's checking you out because you haven't slept or showered in two days, your eyes are busting out of their dark hollow sockets, you're spastic, and your hair is even more of a mess than you'd intended. I'm thinking this, forgetting that I'm a black-eyed, splinter-faced beauty myself.
"Dude," he says. "I am so fucking horny. Does speed make you horny dude?"
"Speed makes everybody horny. That's the whole thing about it." I thought that was obvious.
"Yeah," he says. "I already got laid last night. But it just wasn't enough. You know?"
And I'd swear he's looking at me as if this is my cue. I just can't remember what my line is supposed to be.
"Hey, I'll be back in a second," he says and runs off, ducking into a grove of huge, rolled-up oriental rugs, presumably to do a bump.
"Excuse me!" I'm shouting at the sales clerk, "are these wool?" I'm running interference.
"Those are 100% wool" the clerk says, emphasizing the 100% with a telltale sibilance. "It's a Moroccan rug from a western region of the Atlas Mountains, and each one is handwoven by Berber women." I think he's flirting with me.
"If you like North African rugs -- I have some over here..." He's definitely flirting.
The security guard is still checking out Fresno, and if he hasn't figured out what's up, he's not too happy about having a tweaker loitering in the dhurries in any event. He's closing in on the suspect.
Gotta go. "Excuse me."
I collect Fresno. Leading him out the door, I say, "Baby you can't do shit like that."
And he may be right. The conversation stalls as I consider this, and Fresno asks, "You want a bump?"
"God no! I mean, you might not believe this, but I don't do drugs."
"I had a small psychotic episode a few years back and it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth."
"What'd you do?"
"Let's just say that no matter how high you get, try to remember that it's a bad idea to be whacking off on a Muni train. Even if it seems really hot."
Fresno cracks the first smile I've seen from him all day.
"And the other thing to remember is that there are actually very, very few people who are plotting to kill you, and there aren't many who are keeping tabs on your activity for the government either. There are a few I suppose. But the government just doesn't have those kinds of resources. And it's not something that you really have to worry about."
"You really got that bad?" he asks.
"That was the least of it. And that's not even why I quit. Mostly, I was tired of feeling like shit all the time. It's not as easy to snap back once you get older, you know?"
He nods, as if he does know.
"Besides," I say, "I actually have to work tomorrow. So, no. No bumps. But ain't it about Happy Hour?"
"Not yet," he says.
"It is in Caracas."
"Well then amigo, let's have a drink to Caracas!" And he looks at me like I'm a complete dipshit.
Dick's, despite the name, is a straight bar, although a bit less so upon our arrival. It's a Guerrero Street outpost of a deadly-hip, all-Caucasian enclave produced by the last ten years of young white-flight back into the inner city. Even five years ago you wouldn't have recognized the place. It's become a crowded collection of cafes and upscale thrift stores, with a smattering of five-star restaurants mixed in with the residency hotels. These days it's even got valet parking.
Dick's itself is a hold-over from the first wave of gentrification, and its days are probably numbered. Inside is a ratty accumulation of artists and Net workers in spread-collar banlon shirts, scattered amongst men with neck beards and Maori tattoos. Fresno and I fit in seamlessly--he with his slick, sickly skin and multiple facial piercings, and I in my lime green guayabera and graying muttonchops.
We settle onto the stools beside two big, gorgeous pints and I ask Fresno, "So, what are you doing for work now?"
"Nothing," he says, lighting up a cigarette, then adds "I had that contract down in Menlo Park."
"What were you doing again? You were programming in the flying guts for that video game?"
"Computer game. Yeah. But the job was getting in the way of my drug problem, so I quit."
"Good thing you don't need to eat."
"So, how are you getting by?"
"I had some savings, but I've been living off of credit cards and food stamps for a while now."
"Are you worried about that?" I ask, noticing as it leaves my lips that my tone is suspiciously maternal.
"No," he says, "I figure I'll do it for a while. And if things get too out of hand I can always clean up for a stretch. I could find a couple of contracts and pay it all off in a month. Or something."
"Then what? Start it all over again until one or the other becomes permanent?" Definitely too maternal.
Or maybe not. Even I can tell there's something strange about my line of questioning. I sound concerned but that's not it at all. In fact, all I feel is some messed up envy for his reckless sense of freedom. And maybe that, more than anything, is why I want to stop him.
Our afternoon advances with Fresno stubbornly immune to the healing powers of alcohol, and me immune, for the most part, to the nuanced genius of speed psychosis. If I weren't already so greedy for the opportunity to gaze dumbly at him, I may even have lost interest.
"I'll be back in a sec," I say.
I work my way to the bathroom, taking my beer with me for fear of losing valuable drinking time. I'm wondering if Fresno, with his jaw-grinding and compulsive cruising, is a bit too conspicuously cracked-on for this hardcore alcoholic Sunday afternoon crowd.
When I get back, Fresno's talking to the boy next to him. The guy looks a little Earthy-crunchy, like he just popped up from U.C. Santa Cruz for shots of wheatgrass and vodka. And I can't believe what Fresno is saying to him.
"How could anybody in San Francisco be against global warming?" Fresno says. "This place is fucking freezing. And all we're doing is putting back the carbon dioxide that the dinosaurs and swamps robbed from the atmosphere in first place." He's making the man nervous, at least as nervous as a man that stoned could be. "And how do you know the place wasn't about to freeze over? Like another ice age wasn't on the way? I bet you we saved the ass of the whole fucking planet." Maybe he is getting drunk. I think he's just fucking with the guy but I can't be sure.
"Honey," I say groping at Fresno's ass -- straightening out our minority status for the hippy, because I'm sure a nice Buddhist boy like that would never hit a couple of faggots. "Let's go someplace else." I empty my beer into my throat.
"But I'm not done with mine," Fresno says. And I empty his beer into my throat.
"I want to be someplace darker," I say.
On the street he says, "I think that guy was kind of hot, don't you?"
"You want a sedative?" I ask him.
"Sure," he says.
We walk along Sixteenth towards the Castro. It's nearing evening and a blanket of smothering fog is crouched atop Twin Peaks, set to overtake the city.
After walking some blocks, we arrive at the next bar. This one's shut off from the afternoon outside and crawling with a sketchy assortment of the weekend's worst casualties. It's Fresno's homeland.
"I'm gonna get us some beers," I say. I get in line, order and pay, but when I get back, Fresno's sleeping gently against the wall -- the bar busy and loud, the music blaring. I stare at him for a while, wondering if he realizes that his poverty and substance abuse have become more than a mere fashion statement.
His skin is colorless except for the brown hollows under his eyes, which just make the pale, dazed ring of green around his dilated pupils all the more devastating. His wrists and arms are dangerously frail. And when he talks there's weird logic running through the confident incoherence. I decide not to wake him. I slip my beer under my coat and leave.
But walking home, I'm distracted by the fog racing in over my head. The way it tumbles over the rooftops reminds me that sagebrush is an explosive. It's true. You can take a cigarette lighter to a fresh sprig of a ten-foot plant and in a quick blast of bright heat it's reduced to a scattering of ash and a small smoking stump.
When I was a kid in Nevada we did a lot of acid. At night we'd drop a hit and go set fire to the brush. Talking to each other: "Dude! I'm fryin' so hard. Are you fryin' dude?" Groups of us watching the play of precise patterns in the orange embers for what could have been hours or not. And when the light from the coals went dark, we'd blow up another bush. Sometimes we'd go through ten or twenty plants a night. We were always careful, though, to pick out lone shrubs and stomp out the spread of the small brush fires before morning. We were responsible teenage acid-freak pyromaniacs.
One night we argued. There were three of us, and this one kid suggested that we burn down the whole valley for artistic reasons. He thought that it would look better and more honest as a scarred, blackened stretch of sand. We talked him out of it, mainly with the reasoning that no one was sober enough to drive the getaway car. But he went back and did it a week later. Got away with it too. And he was right, it did look better. But often when I'm watching the fog, it's like gray smoke drifting down from the hills, and the city looks so much like that morning when what's-his-name laid the neighboring valley to waste for art's sake, I have to wonder why I didn't have a crush on him.
I turn around and head back to get Fresno.
He's still sleeping. I smack him a little. "Let's go home," I say.
"I can't go home."
"We're going to MY home."
When we arrive at my apartment, I help us out of our coats and rush into the act of cocktail making.
"Rubbing alcohol for you Martha?"
He doesn't answer -- too young, or too cool, or playing too butch to give a shit about Virginia Woolf. He stretches out on my bed, the last tacky, tangerine-colored rays of the spring sun flooding through the grimy windows.
I introduce him to the remote, and he starts poking through my porn videos. I finish with the cosmopolitans and go to join him on the bed. He's got some kind of spanking/shaving/fetish thing on and he's got his limp dick in his hand. I must have looked shocked or something, because he says, "I'm sorry, dude, is this not O.K.?"
"No," I'm quick to say, "it's fine." And I sit there for a moment, not knowing what to do. A minute or so passes, and then he sort of impatiently says, "Here," and he starts unbuckling my belt. He unzips my fly. He takes off his own pants and just lies there jacking off, staring at the TV.
I run to fix myself another drink, downing the one in my hand on the way to the kitchen. I pour another cosmo and linger in there for a while, listening to the grunts and bad porno music coming from the television. And while I'm standing there playing with the spilled vodka on the countertop, something really weird and awful happens to me.
I realize that while I've been anticipating this moment for a long time, I'm not prepared for it. And the really bizarre and fucked up part of it is that I'm frightened. And I can't explain it, because it should be the simplest thing in the world. Shouldn't it? But it isn't. Instead it all seems impossible and ludicrous. And Fresno is lying on my bed half naked. But I can't go back in there. And at the moment that feels less like I'm protecting him from another one of his reckless stunts, and more like some critical failure of my own. And while I'm itemizing all the ways things are going disastrously wrong inside me, I get a really bad idea for how I can fix it.
When I make my way back to the bedroom, he's sleeping again. And maybe I'm undoing half a dozen years, but I wake him.
"Fresno, where'd you put the baggie?"
"My pocket," he mutters, half-lost in crissy-sleep.
I pull a mirror from the wall and pour a couple of lines onto the glass, knowing I'm making more of a commitment than either of us will be able to handle. By Wednesday I'll be a shivering mess of over-amplified angst, careening around in a yawning pit of self-loathing. But that will have to be Wednesday's problem.
I do the one. And I'm shocked. I don't remember that it used to burn so much. The entire inside of my head is in agony. I do the other, and at first I'm suspicious. Nothing's happened. But then, practically in the same moment, everything's changed. My heart is shaking apart my ribs and I check myself for all the ways I feel differently: a long and detailed list erupts. In an instant my ambitions have surged and the night ahead is a sordid tapestry of extravagant possibilities. I just have to remember--no jacking off on Muni; quit before the paranoid delusions set in. I hope I can do it.
Fresno is lying there, eyes closed. I walk over to him.
No response. And I panic, because he looks like he's dead. I check his pulse but I can't feel it, or I can't tell if I can feel it, because the entire room is pounding with the rhythm of my own heart. Which is quickening now -- because, Jesus fucking Christ, what would I do with a dead 23 year old in my bed? Don't answer that!
But his breath -- I check it, and I can feel it there against my hand. It's faint. But it's there.
I smack him.
"Fresno!" He groans and opens his eyes a crack.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah," He says. He shifts his body on the bed and turns his face into the pillow. "I'm just tired," he says, asleep as soon as he's finished the sentence. And I realize that the sedative I gave him has finally over-powered the amphetamines. He'll be out for hours, maybe days.
I reach into his mouth, pull out his gum and start to chew it myself. I wonder -- what would I do if there were nothing to do, no one to do it with and I could do anything?