A painful recounting of a friendship gone bad and what I learned.
My father was emaciated, cirrhotic and looked well beyond his fifty-six years when he died on his second honeymoon in Ireland when I was twenty-three. I guess he loved me but when someone slaps, kicks and steadily carves your self-esteem away with a finely honed verbal knife, does his love matter?
I lived under the constant glare of his disapproval and the steady lash of his tongue: Phrases like “Freddy fuck-up, goddamn your eyes” and “use your fucking head for something more than a hat rack,” rattled around my brain. Not surprisingly I developed a deep dislike of authority and a bad case of self-loathing.
He was not adverse to occasional violence too. The worst being a gusty kick in the ass when he wanted rid of me. Usually along the lines of GET-kick-THE-kick-FUCK-kick-OUT!
My father’s death saddened me but not in the typical way. I grieved what we never had and still do. I felt relief and it awakened an insatiable desire for male guidance and approval.
Shortly after my father‘s death, along came Pete. He dressed in country club chic, as if he was going to play a few sets of tennis than head off for lunch and a gin and tonic, or maybe two at the clubhouse, après. Think polo shirts and neatly pressed button downs hair neatly coifed with a small well-tended mustache.
Appearances were important to Pete because Pete was a cocaine dealer who moved decent sized weight and a smart cocaine dealer takes pains to disguise himself.
Pete drew me close quickly. He trusted me with the inside knowledge of his life. His way of showing me approval was moth-to-flame alluring. He would call me “Old Boy” an affectation that I would normally dismiss as too preppie for my tastes. When he said it, I basked in an emotional honey-glaze of warmth.
Watching him prepare cocaine for sale the first time was a revelation to my drug-worshiping eyes. He flicked open a bulging zip-lock baggie full of yellow-white snow, sifted out the rock for equal distribution into smaller bags, applied the cut and spooned out various amounts with slick card-shark deftness.
An eight ball here, a quarter there and some larger ounce baggies all the while doing a snort himself and holding one up for me. Very quickly, my appetite for the drug increased and Pete was more than happy to keep me high because I was helping move the blow. I knew a lot of people in town and Pete was new. I helped him grow his business quickly. When I turned the money over to him or moved a large amount I earned a “Well done, Old Boy!”
It would be too limiting to say he used me. It is more accurate but still too limiting to say I let him. He was bright, opinionated and strongly opposed to “straight life.” He had a great sense of humor taking particular delight in skewering people. Their emotionality, foibles and appetites. We laughed a lot and felt important because we had what others wanted. We shared a pirate’s thrill of living outside the lines.
Pete taught me to keep my cards close. Appear relaxed, calm-- be unruffled. “Relax, Old Boy.”
We fell into routines that were slovenly and vampire-ish. Breakfast was around two, as we would do a few bong hits getting ready for General Hospital or GH as we called it.
Nighttime was for selling and using cocaine wherever and whenever it was needed, and in those days it was needed a lot. It was the fuel and social energizer of the late seventies and early eighties and we and many others fell victim to its thrall. At one point we started to smoke the drug and this elevated the game to a more dangerous and desperate level.
I remember a conversation about selling cocaine. Even my deep denial about drugs and alcohol was being punctured by the destruction to ourselves and the people we sold to. What did Pete think about it? Did he see it? Did he feel badly sometimes? I remember his response clearly. Classic Pete. He said, “We all make our own bed, Old Boy.”
Cocaine and alcohol along with it, started to overtake my life. I lost all ability to control my use, staying up for days, binging hour after wasted hour, like the living dead.
Then Pete’s supplier was busted. Pete feared he would be next. The only problem was that without a steady supply of cocaine, he had no money. The solution was me as my inheritance from my father’s death had recently come through.
I remember the conversation, though it was over thirty years ago. Pete told me what a good friend I was, how much he appreciated my trust and he vowed with the utmost sincerity and resolve, “I WILL pay you back, Old Boy.” I felt pleased to help Pete out. “Thanks Old Boy! “ He took the three thousand cash, jumped in the car and disappeared.
I didn’t hear a peep from Pete. While he was gone I turned my life around, got sober, got divorced, went broke, learned to be a father, worked my way through college, then graduate school, got a good job, remarried and started a family. I learned to love myself a little and to not hurt others. I grew up.
Then, many years after he left, he reappeared. I was proud of the person I’d become. Maybe Pete would be proud of me. I’d made my bed.
I invited Pete for dinner hoping to capture some of the good from our past friendship. But he was cagey and distracted. I began to see Pete in a more unflattering light. He was belligerent and without charm. The suave edges of his personality had fallen away revealing an uncontained jagged edge.
I asked him about the money and his vow to repay it. He tossed the question aside without a glint of regret or apology, saying he was broke and anything he did have would go to his son. This of course pissed me off but it clarified things. This guy doesn’t care enough to apologize or explain.
I drove him back to where he was staying and before he got out, he asked, “Can you lend me your credit card so I can fly home to see my son?”
I remember grinning at him but it was more a rictus grin. I gave him a clipped “no” and he began to climb out the passenger side door. I reached over to grab the handle and he continued to plead clinging to the door, “Please, I’ll pay you back, I promise.” I tugged the door sharply and he lost his grip. I took a last look to read his face. It oozed pathetic desperation.
Pete died a few years ago after contracting Lupus. In death, as in life, Pete disappointed me. I wasn’t invited to his memorial service. I doubt I’d have gone anyway.
The lessons I learned from my father and Pete were, and still are painful to reflect on but they have helped me to better define myself. I don’t lend money. I earn mine and I keep it only for the people that I know love me. I am circumspect in my friendships. I look past the surface. Loyalty and respect are more than words to me. Time is the integral currency and I am careful who I give mine to.
Pete died with his bed unmade. Whatever his feelings for me were, I can only guess. I am grateful to be alive and will live each next day with whatever joy I can muster.
Living well really is the best revenge—Old Boy.