by Brandon Caro
I like to ride my bike at night. It’s not too cold out, usually, and there are fewer cars on the road. If I wait long enough to ride, there are no cars at all. And it’s not really my bike, but a bicycle from the Austin City Bikeshare which I borrow and ride for a time, returning and checking it out again periodically at various stations along my route to avoid any unnecessary overages.
One night, as I rode west on Caesar Chavez Avenue along the north bank of the Colorado river, a light perfume of budding Blue Bonnets wafting in the Spring air, I noticed a baseball field to my right and a troop of Little Leagers immersed in what looked like a serious game. The field, with it’s steel wired batting cage and peopled bleachers looked familiar to me, but I was unable to place it. I’d seen it before many times, but never gave it a second thought. For some unkown, unknowable reason, this evening’s ride had triggered a memory– something from long ago. But what?
It was only on the way back (my route requires a loop-around) with the field now on my left that I made the connection; this is where Mitch Kramer, portrayed faithfully by the actor Wiley Wiggins, recieved a flurry of paddle strikes against his backside, administered by zealous incoming high school seniors to the raging tune of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Niceguy” in Richard Linklater’s breakthrough coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused. Mitch’s crime? Being a male on the last day of junior high in 1970’s Austin, where bizarre, masochistic, pseudo-sexual rites of passage were still observed.
I hadn’t seen it in the theater, of course (I don’t think anyone did) but my friend Mark had had a VHS copy of the film, and we watched it together at his house sometime in the Spring of ‘95. Mark was a spirited, atheletic kid. Larger than most, but far from physically aggressive, good humor and boisterous, often eccentric behavior endeared him to most people in our age group and beyond. We’d met the previous Fall on an intramural basketball team. The season long over, we stayed friends and hung out some weekends.
We were a few years younger than the characters in Dazed and Confused, which made watching it all the more exciting, because we knew that when we finally made it to high school ourselves, this hedonistic, sexually charged world of drug and alcohol consumption would be open to us. We were both virgins at that point, and neither of us had yet smoked weed. But we’d gotten lit off a (shared) six-pack of Rolling Rock during a sleepover at my house some weeks earlier, and had understood that, going forward, this moment would constitute the start of a long, long journey, and that, undeniably, we were both along for the ride.
I should call him and tell him about the baseball field, I thought. We’d drifted apart in the way that close friends do after decades of friendship, separated by the diverging of life-paths that is so common in this great country. There was no animosity between us as there had been during our bouts of intense teenage rivalry, but we hardly spoke. Once or twice a year, maybe. Some years would pass without correspondence of any kind. It didn’t matter. Our friendship retained an intimacy forged in the kiln of adolescence, able to withstand the visicitudes of passing time. I should really call him…
A couple of years after we’d graduated high school, about halfway through W’s first term, Mark and I and a few other friends were partying at our buddy Luke’s house. Luke’s dad was in Vermont, or Tokyo, or somewhere else outside the immediate vicinity, as he often was. We partied there a lot. I had brought my guitar with me, and Mark and I were on a chair and a sofa in the living room, trying to come up with a song that would encapsulate our Grand Narrative; the story of Greenwich High School youth of the late 90’s era. Everyone else had gone to bed.
“It has to be something that we all get; that makes sense to all of us.” He said.
“Totally.” I responded, fumbling around on some chords.
The writing session was going nowhere, and both of us knew exactly why: we had run out of cocaine.
“My guy just texted back, are you in?”
We drove to neighboring Stamford, a twenty minute ride, to meet Mark’s connection. It was still dark out, as we sat in the car, waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
“Where the hell is this fool?”
“Chill out, he’ll be here.”
The comedown from blow can be particularly brutal. Feelings of high anxiety and paranoia are common symptoms. This phenomenon is not to be confused with that of cocaine withdrawal, however, which only occurs when a user has been imbibing the drug for a number of days without pause– as opposed to a number of hours, as we had been– and has developed a legitimate physical addiction. Neither Mark nor myself were, at that point, physically addicted to any substances. But unlike our other friends back at the house, who had all thrown in the towel hours earlier, we didn’t know when to call it quits.
As comedowns went, I would put this one squarely in the middle of the pack; not overwhelming in intensity, but still highly unpleasant to the point of restlessness.
“I’m gonna get something to drink.”
I walked into a bodega as the morning glow emerged, bought a Slim Jim and nicked a 12- Ounce can of Bud from the cooler. I would have paid for it, but I was still below the legal drinking age.
“You stole that?! Haha, nice!”
We finished the can of Bud and resolved that Mark’s guy wasn’t coming. Perhaps it was for the best? We’d been blowing rails all night. And drinking. What did we really hope to achieve at this point, anyway? As we pulled back into to Luke’s driveway, Mark’s phone buzzed.
“Are you kidding me? Now this punk wants to text me back!?”
We looked at each other. This was a watershed moment.
“What do you wanna do?” He asked.
“What do you want to do?” I answered.
If we went back now, after everything that had gone down, the plausibility that our drug use was recreational and not habitual would be forever cast into doubt. Moreover, if our other friends learned that after a hard night of partying we’d gone back out to score drugs at Eight in the morning, they would know for certain that we were full on drug addicted.
“If we do this, you gotta promise to never tell anyone as long we’re both alive!” He said.
The Sun was now fully risen on what would be a beautiful, crisp New England day.
A couple more years passed. One night we were all gathered at the house of a different friend, Curtis. The kids in attendance, save for myself and Mark, were not the same as those who had been at Luke’s house years earlier, but instead represented a separate branch of a large extended social family. After four years of high school, followed by four years of college (for some) the lines which had so poignantly divided groups of friends in our younger, more tribal days, had mostly broken down. Curtis and I, along with our other friend Christian, played together in a band called Green City. We “rehearsed”– I use the term loosely– at Curtis’s house because he was the drummer. Sometimes our friends would show up to hear us play, and that’s what was more or less happening this night.
“So how much time do you have now?” Mark asked me privately, after a lull in the jam session.
“Almost six months.”
“No way! Dude, that’s amazing!”
I had signed a contract with the Navy, and was waiting to ship out. Months earlier, I’d been arrested on a drunken disorderly, and had decided then that it was in my best interest to put my drinking and drug use behind me. Some of my contemporaries reacted with skepticism and guarded contempt. Perhaps my decision to make a positive change had laid bare their own difficulties with substances, and the corresponding unwillingness or inability to enact change in their own lives. Mark’s response was different; one of intellectual curiosity. He knew that he and I were fundamentally the same in our inherent need to get lit up. What puzzled him was how I was able to subvert that need and reprogram my mental software.
“What do you, like, do?” He asked.
“I just go to these meetings.”
“How are they?”
“They suck!” I quipped.
We both laughed.
“But they work.” I continued.
I collected a handful of quarters, punched in the number I’d written down and inserted the requisite amount of change into the pay phone.
“Hey, man. It’s me, Brandon.”
“What up brotha? Did you change your number?”
“No, I’m calling from a pay phone… I’m in rehab.”
I detected in his voice a note of what I thought at the time was resentment, but I held my tongue. Not long after our talk at Curtis’s house, Mark had followed my lead and cleaned up his act. And now, several years later, following a Twelve-month deployment to Afghanistan, my world had once again been upended, and I was reaching out to my old friend for consolation.
“Wow. What happened?” He asked.
He could not have been taken entirely by surprise. I’d seen him a few months earlier, back home in Greenwich, where I convalesced after having been seriously injured in a car accident. He knew then I was no longer sober.
“It just got out of control again.”
“Yeah, man. I know.”
We rapped for a while, caught up to speed in each others’ lives. We were both acutely aware that there were no words he could recite that would dispel my neurosis. The solution lay in my desire to get clean again, and the receptiveness of other addicts in recovery to listen to me ramble. Nonetheless, I had to tell him how proud I was of him that he’d gotten his life together, and how ashamed I was for screwing up once more; how I felt like I’d let him down.
“Dont’ be an idiot, dude. Not everything’s about you.” He laughed.
The road ahead was fraught with disaster. Over the next few years, I went off the rails, straightened out, stumbled, got back up, stumbled again. Cycle. Rinse. Repeat. The Navy medically retired me for non-combat related injuries I’d sustained in Afghanistan, and also in the aforementioned car wreck. I went back to school at Texas State University to study writing. My bad habits went with me.
In May of 2011, I had a breakthrough of sorts. I got clean and stayed clean. Three months later I was on a phone call with Mark telling him how great it felt to be sober again.
“It’s better this way, isn’t it?” He said.
“Oh yeah, man. I can’t believe I waited so long to come back in.”
“Don’t sweat it, dude. Happens.”
All was well for a time. Until it wasn’t. A fall from my (actual) bike resulting in a broken elbow and a visit to the Greenwich Hospital Emergency Room presented me with a devil’s bargain: suffer immense physical pain to the point of nausea while my bones mended or ingest opioid pain meds and awaken an ancient demon. I chose the latter. Days later I was on the phone with Mark again, and when I told him I’d taken Percocet to dull the throbbing ache of my broken elbow, he said, “Oh.”
There it was again, I thought. That judgmental resentment. It angered me, and this time I said something.
“I’m not going back out!” I shouted, indignantly.
“Yeah, I know.” He said calmly. “I didn’t think you were.”
Despite this bump in the road, so to speak, I did manage to stay clean, eventually accumulating years of sober time. And Mark and I stayed in touch, though our communication became less frequent year after year. I noticed that on his Facebook feed he was posting photos of himself in bar room settings with friends, open bottles of champagne set conspicuously on nearby table tops. He was a Maître d’ at high end hotels and restaurants in Miami, so this was his professional millea, though it struck me as a little strange.
In July of 2015, my friend Frank got married. All the usual suspects made it in. Faces from that legendary night at Luke’s house a decade earlier floated in and around small circles of guests, as we guffawed in wondrous reminiscence of our former lives, and marveled at the improbable nature of our own heretofore survival. Mark was there, too. Obviously.
“Have you heard the good news?”
“I’m coming out of retirement for Frank’s wedding.”
“Oh.” I said.
And I suddenly realized that I had been wrong. It was not resentment, or disappointment that I’d heard in Mark’s voice years earlier when I’d confessed to him the severity of my relapse. It was concern; the same concern that I now felt. And that concern was underpinned by a feeling of love. My friend, who I’d known since childhood, was in serious danger, as I, myself, had been, and I was deeply troubled and concerned about his wellbeing because I loved him like a brother.
“Haha, yeah, I heard.” Was the best I could come up with. I didn’t want to spoil the party, and Mark was a grown man. Besides, everyone else was drinking, too. It was a wedding! I tried to appear pleasant, but was troubled by what I’d heard.
“What up, fool?”
Nearly a year had passed since Frank’s wedding. I was getting ready to check out of my SoHo hotel room, when my phone vibrated. It was Mark.
“Hey man, what are you up to?”
As it happened, we were both in the New York area; a rare occurrence these days, him being a longtime resident of Miami, and myself a New Texan. We bantered in the predictible way, but something was different. There was an edge to him now. He seemed more guarded, aggressive. We talked about everything imaginable except drugs, and made tentative plans to meet which never materialized. A couple of months later, he called me again.
“Hey man. I’m back in the rooms.” He said, in recovery parlance.
“That’s awesome, Mark. So good to hear.”
When I hung up the phone, I remember feeling hopeful.
I learned of Mark’s death in a way that has become increasingly commonplace in our society; a friend, Frank, had posted a photo of him on Facebook. Upon seeing it in my newsfeed, I knew immediately what had happened, even before reading the caption. The portrait of a friend smiling in a timeless, eternal way, posted by another friend without context of any kind could only mean one thing: Mark was gone. His death was drug-related.
I was out of the country at the time, and hence, unable to attend the service. Shock and awe tore through me as I came to grips with a thing that was, at once, entirely unexpected and yet, not a surprise at all. Over the next several months I thought a lot about Mark, and myself, and my youth, and my own struggle with drugs and alcohol. The thing I kept coming back to was this unfortunate sense that in our adult lives, Mark and I were almost never on the same page at the same time. When he was getting high, I was going to meetings. When I was relapsing, he was working a program. But for those brief periods of overlap, we existed in separate worlds. And that journey we’d set out on more than two decades earlier at my house over bottles of Rolling Rock had ended with his demise and my own salvation. Some might call that survivor’s guilt.
These days, when I ride west on Caesar Chavez Avenue, along the north bank of the Colorado River, the fragrance of Autumn in my nostrils, and glance to my right at the baseball field, sometimes occupied by little ball players, sometimes not, I’m consumed with a feeling of regret. I should’ve called him, I think. I wish I’d called him.
Brandon Caro is an American author and screenwriter. He is a veteran of the Afghan War. His debut novel, ‘Old Silk Road’ (Post Hill Press) was published in 2015. His nonfiction work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. He resides in Austin, TX.