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Born to Lose

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1996. (Photo by Virgil Porter)

What I remember most is the giant hill covered in black ice and trying to climb it, wearing Doc Martens, supporting myself by grabbing onto side windows of cars on my way up to the liquor store.  It was New Year’s Eve in Alaska—going into 1997 and I was at a party. I came with my friend Joni, who I’d been sleeping with, in-between drowning our mutual sorrows in cheap beer. In what was probably the darkest year of my twenties, hanging out with her was a bright spot.

It was this guy Gabe and I, climbing the hill. A year earlier, at a different party, Gabe and I got into it. He tried to beat me up because he thought I was a poser, a pussy, and a full-of-shit writer. I was majoring in journalism but flunking out of college. I had been doing a punk zine for a few years and had recently retired it, feeling burned out and overwhelmed by my life. It took a lot out of me, but I also lived for it. Music and writing were my life—and I was at an impasse. I was despondent that the local music scene— something I’d based my life and identity on for two, three, four years—was dying. I was very happy that Gabe and I were finally hanging out though. I felt vindicated in my quest to become a genuine punk rocker, whatever that means.

We finally reached the liquor store then made our way down the hill, sliding all the way back to Alan’s party house. The nice coat of snow on my motorcycle jacket complimented the pre-existing sweat, dirt, and vomit. I was looking forward to seeing Julia, Alan’s new girl, who was a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. We’d all heard from around that she wasn’t doing so well, that she had relapsed. She was a fixture in the local music scene but had been AWOL for a few months, and no-one knew for sure what had happened to her.

She had moved up to Anchorage from Los Angeles a few years prior, to clean up from years of IV drug use. I was drawn to her, mostly because she I both came from very religious upbringings and had both rebelled in our own ways. I had much admiration for her outsized attitude and her willingness to try and make a better life for herself. Deep down, I knew she was fucked up—maybe beyond repair.

Gabe and I barreled through the door, dropping our bundles of beer onto the carpet. I sat on the couch when Julia came out, wearing a sloppy getup of sweatpants and a blank, dirty t-shirt. Her skin looked yellowed and rubbery, and it aged her ten years. She looked like she was pushing forty, hair plastered back onto her head and pinned with a barrette. She sat down next to me. I wondered where her daughter was.

“Hey, Josh,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“Hey,” I said, afraid.  I hunched my shoulders.

“How’s it going?”

“Good,” she said.

“You want a beer?” she asked, reaching down to grab a can from the box.

I had forgotten all about it. “Um, yeah, thanks,” I said, taking the can of Milwaukee’s Best that she offered.

“So, where’s Cheyenne?” I asked, looking around, trying to hide my disgust at her appearance.

“She’s in our bedroom,” Julia said, motioning down the hall.

I felt the sadness and anger rising in me. All of her friends, myself included, had tried for over a year, to keep her off of hard drugs only to have this stranger, this Alan guy, swoop in from Nevada—or wherever it was—and just blow the whole thing to shit. But ultimately, it was her choice in the end. We all knew it—especially me. The sick thing is, even after everything I knew about her drug problems, I still wanted so badly to do heroin with her. I was jealous that she had slid so far down.  It would’ve been so easy—just get up, walk back into the room, and boom, relief.

*

I wanted so desperately to be accepted by Alan, Gabe, Julia, and all of the gutter punks. I wasn’t satisfied with my skunk pompadour, tattoos, leather jacket, radio show, punk zine, or any of it. None of it helped alleviate my feelings of worthlessness. I felt that Gabe was probably right: I wasn’t living the authentic life. I was a college student—unlike these other kids. They drank until they passed out, shot drugs, and they had facial tattoos. In trying to achieve my goal of heading straight down, I became a dabbler. It started with whip-its in high-school, and then I moved on to weed, hash, mushrooms, acid, and eventually meth—all in varying degrees of use. I craved scene cred, but I never found what I imagined was true abandon. Then I finally found something that made me feel better, something that took the edge off of daily life: burning myself with cigarettes. I can’t recall the first time I did it, but I will never forget the rush. Every day when I look at my arms, I remember. The sizzling sound it would make, hitting my skin and the sick joy I felt, knowing I had marked myself permanently in the process. I wanted people to look at me and cringe, knowing what I had done.  I would do it when no one was around, to make myself feel better, and I would also do it on a dare because people asked me to.

“Do the smiley trick,” they would say. That’s where you press the hot lighter top to your skin, leaving a burn that, ironically, looks like a smiley face. I had found real release.

I had never been able to shake the feeling that I had failed my parents. When I was eighteen, I told them I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I dropped out of that life. At the time I wished that they had been self-righteous zealots, so I could tell them to fuck off and be done with it. But, religion aside, we had a pretty good relationship. So I was stuck. I didn’t have the guts to sink into the gutter, but I had turned my back on the person I used to be. I was nowhere.

*

A few months after Alan’s party, I saw Julia was at a Social Distortion show at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage—all the scene kids were there. It was February, 1997, right before my twenty-fourth birthday. I was in a mood and was burning myself again. I sat outside the auditorium, brooding, in my sleeveless t-shirt, which I had written “Sick Boy” on in black marker (and Joni stole from me!)  I was talking with my friend Rex, who owned the local punk shop. He was fiddling with his septum ring, and giving me his usual half-cynical, half-uplifting pep talk. As Rex got up to go into the show, he hugged Julia. She came and sat next to me. She had shaved the sides of her head clean again, revealing her “PUNX” tattoo, and her liberty spikes were freshly dyed green, and standing in all their glory. My leather jacket was draped over my legs. My arm was pink and raw. I brought the lighter down again.

“Stop it, Josh,” Julia said, reaching her arm out. “Stop!” I pulled the lighter away from her grasp.

“What,” I said, baiting her. “What?” As if to say, who the hell are you to tell me to stop, doing what you’ve done? I brought it down a second time, looking at her. She turned and walked away in disgust.

My arm really hurt. The second burn was right on top of the first one. It would be the ninth and last one I ever did. At the end of the show, the lining of my jacket stuck to the wound. I winced, slowly pulling it off. I decided to forgo hanging out at, so I walked the two miles from downtown to midtown: up C Street, to the Village Inn to eat alone, have my late-night coffee, and think. I realized that Julia was right—I had gone too far. It was frightening that she was afraid for me. I ordered my coffee, took out my notebook, and, like so many nights before, began to write.

I continued to use various drugs; but seeing Julia, during that winter of 1996, changed my outlook: I tried to stop using them as tools to obliterate myself. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. There were very few times that writing gave me the level of release that was comparable to burning myself or doing drugs. Still, I carried a little notebook with me, inside the secret pocket of my motorcycle jacket—just in case.

*

I had one of the most odd and, strangely enough, transcendent  experiences of my life on that New Year’s Eve, in Julia’s front yard. I remember standing with Julia, Gabe, Joni and a couple other people, smiling, watching the downtown fireworks show. Everyone just seemed so happy to be alive, looking at the bright explosions in the sky. I cut out early and quietly, an Irish goodbye as they say, and began scrambling back up the hill, filled with purpose again. I felt happy and newly innocent, and a feeling came over me: maybe things would get better eventually, if I just kept putting pen to paper—if I just kept going.

***

(This memoir originally appeared in Criminal Class Review, in a different form, in 2013).

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