My friend Alex is dead. He was 34 when he died.
At our 7th grade talent show, there was a tap-dancer, a magician, and someone who hula-hooped.
The talent show seemed like a standard middle school talent show, until Alex and his two friends appeared on stage with two guitars and a drum kit.
Alex was wearing a ratty white t-shirt under a baby blue cardigan, ripped jeans and Converse One Stars. The other two guys in the band were dressed similarly.
They launched into a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was a brand new song at the time. The crunch from the guitar filled the entire gym. The black and latino boys formed a mosh pit.
The band lost the talent show to a young girl who sang Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” to the wonderment and joy of everyone who hadn’t been kicked out for moshing.
Alex’s parents were antique dealers. His house looked like a normal house on the outside. On the inside, it was the Library of Alexandria. There were piles of aged and obscure books. There were neoclassical tables and desks made of wood that seemed to glow. On the walls there were sweeping 19th century landscape paintings in heavy, gilded frames.
I heard Alex jumped off someone’s roof and hurt himself. Shortly after he was released from the hospital, he invited me over to his house to listen to a new record he’d bought. I went because I wanted to check up on him, but I was also curious why anyone would buy records when CDs were readily available.
I took a step back when he answered his door.
His face looked like someone had smashed it on the sidewalk then tried to glue it back on his head with red paint. There were thick red cuts zigzagging across his face. The whites of his blue eyes were deep red. His lips were half-gone and swollen. The skin on his nose was gone. Half his teeth were gone.
He didn’t try to hide it. He loved how gross he looked. He held his head high and told me to come in.
“I smoked some crack and drank a lot of vodka. Then I jumped off a roof and landed in someone’s shed,” he said, before laughing like someone laughing with a mask on.
The record he’d gotten was The “Priest” They Called Him, which featured William S. Burroughs reading a story aloud while Kurt Cobain played guitar. The story was about a priest who gives the last bit of heroin to a young “Mexican boy” experiencing a harsh withdrawal on Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why anyone would find this interesting, but Alex’s fragmented face twitched at every sentence.
Six months later, his face was healed. There were no scars. His teeth were replaced by implants and he looked more handsome than ever. He talked a lot about going to college, and dated the one cheerleader on the cheerleading team who always seemed depressed. I remember him telling me how this cheerleader was not like other cheerleaders, that she was smart and understood people. They weren’t together long, but they remained close friends after the relationship ended.
Alex was the first person I ever saw shoot up heroin. He sat on his red baroque couch, his right arm upturned, tied with a tourniquet and fixed between his knees. I remember the tiny depression forming on his vein before the needle broke into his skin. A little blood spurted into the syringe before he pushed its contents into his body. A little bit later, he asked if I wanted to try it. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be if I’d said yes.
Throughout high school, Alex lent me books. On the Road, Howl, Junky, Lunch Poems. As a black teenager with two white parents, they were books that made me feel ok with not fitting into the world. They taught me that art and drugs are the only respectable balms for the loneliness the world imposes on you.
I ran into Alex at a record store. I asked if he knew where I could get some weed and he said yes. We got into his old yellow diesel Mercedes. There were lots of cough syrup bottles in the backseat. He said the cough syrup contains dextromethorphan (DXM) and that he was experimenting with the drug. I remember thinking “I’m not gonna ask,” before he launched into a speech about the history and effects of DXM.
Once Alex took me to his father’s antiques warehouse in downtown Oklahoma City. Inside, the space was filled with relics: lamps, tables, paintings, books, globes, radios, couches. In the middle of all this stuff was a jet-black car with a cloud-white interior. Alex calmly explained that the car was a 1970-something Maserati.
“See the dashboard?” he said, pointing to the white dashboard.
“It’s made from a special type of white cork tree found only in southern Italy.”
He ran his fingers along the hood in a way that seemed sensual.
“It doesn’t run. But one day, my dad and I are going to restore it.”
I pictured Alex driving the Maserati on the highway, backseat full of cough syrup.
A couple days after 9/11, Alex and I took MDMA together at a party at the depressed cheerleader’s house. About an hour into the party, Alex said he was feeling tired and wanted to go home. He said he couldn’t drive me back to my dorm but that I can crash at his place. The depressed cheerleader begged Alex not to leave.
“The effects of MDMA are disappointing and unreal,” he said, before opening the door to leave.
The depressed cheerleader looked at me. I shrugged.
At his house, he made a pallet for me on the floor and set his AC window unit on full blast.
He turned on CNN, but muted the sound.
Alex fell asleep on his red baroque couch. I was on the hard floor, cold, jaw chattering, unable to move, watching the towers fall in silence, for hours.
Alex eventually left Oklahoma. He met a woman named Melissa on an online message board for heroin addicts. They fell in love and she convinced Alex to move to New York.
Melissa was an artist. She graduated from Cooper Union. She’d shown her work in galleries around the world. She has pieces in the permanent collection at the MoMA.
Like Alex, she loved heroin, and also like Alex, she loved heroin culture. She ran a popular blog that reviewed heroin products, warning other heroin users what was safe, and what was not. She became famous within the opioid enthusiasts community and was interviewed by a national publication under a pseudonym.
Like Alex, Melissa is dead.
Alex and Melissa left New York City and bounced around the country, using and selling heroin, before finally settling in Oklahoma. Alex inherited his uncle’s modest house in a working class suburb of Oklahoma City. Two years later, the house burned down and their bodies were found inside. Alex had his throat slit and Melissa suffered blunt force trauma to the head. Their bodies were in the house for a week before someone set fire to the place. That’s all I know about what happened to my friend Alex, who is dead.