For some reason, it was my little sister on the Mexican side who said, “At the end of the day, the only difference is how big of a dick you’re going to have about things.” I’m not sure where she picked that up, but I’ve always considered Texans to have the last word on the subject. Here in New Orleans, my two best friends were not 22 year old girls, but 62 year old men. One white, one black; one gay, one straight; one country, one Ninth Ward; one domesticated, one feral. Between the two, they divide the world. Shakespeare and Dante.
Kenny is a retired and grandfatherly gay man who lives a Marigny life of utmost comfort. John is a cantankerous mechanic from the Ninth Ward who lives in the trailer up the street, twisting his arthritic joints into position daily to manhandle cars on his Franklin Street lot. Kenny gives me a Valium, feeds me a home cooked meal, and pries about my personal life to make sure I haven’t started fucking my ex again. John dispenses advice about the cocaine business and yells at me for not sending her his way when I was finally finished. The natural rhythm is to leave Kenny’s for the gym each afternoon and stop by John’s twelve hours later on the way home from the bar. Sometimes the flow reverses and I’ll stay up all night, heading straight from John’s to Kenny’s for breakfast at 5am. But now the virus is coming, and there are no gyms or bars, or Kennys or — actually, there’s still John.
“I don’t give a fuck if I get sick or not. I’ll drink, I’ll smoke, I’ll fuck, I ain’t gotta die but one time,” he said. “Now wait, I forgot about the time they sewed my ear back on. Twice, I only have to die twice.”
But I’ve died enough times now to know how long that feeling lasts. The death wish began in the abstract and grew concrete with time, driven by a strange lust for oblivion that never seemed to get buried in too deep a grave. From hardcore shows and fist fights with Dad as a teen, through traveling with cartel members in my 20s, all the way to regular overdoses and mild heart attacks as I struggled with crack addiction after my best friend’s death last year. Long before Coronavirus entered the plot, he had contracted a small hole in his forehead, 45 millimeters in diameter, and the coroner didn’t get paid to clean up.
My heart would slow, my lungs would tighten, the tingling loss of feeling would expand from chest to neck as every muscle tensed, numbness slowly spreading up the sides of my face, over the ears and around the back of my head. I’d usually type out a note on my phone to reassure my loved ones how grateful I was for the life I had and how happy I was up to the end, before snorting a quick Viagra to open my blood vessels and muttering, “Kill me, you bitch” for my solitary last words. Sometimes I’d go blind, sometimes I’d lose all control over my body and collapse on the floor. But I would always come back and commit resolutely to get a bit closer next time, challenging myself to new heights of annihilative self-destruction. Six months of paper football for the soul, seeing how close I could get to the edge without falling off.
In this period, Davey’s blank eyes and bluing lips still appearing unsolicited in the parlor of my mind, Kenny took care of me. A victim of congestive heart failure himself from years of partying, he believed that life was precious, something to not toy around with, and too short to waste on anything but love. Life was fragile, and the business of life was to preserve what little we have. So it didn’t surprise me when he stopped taking my calls last week, bunkering up with his plush sofas and HDTV to take valium, smoke weed, and hide in terror where the apocalypse couldn’t follow. Gay in the 80s, he was the only one of us who had survived an epidemic before, and it left him alone with the grave conviction that you can never be too careful.
This morning, John barged into my house unannounced, bringing his COPD, bronchial asthma, and emphysema with him. “Give me five dollars, I’m going to the store. And I ain’t worried about no case of the flu, I told you, I ain’t got to die but one time.” I told him if he didn’t stop going out it would be later this month, and that seemed to sit just fine. If all you do in life is worry about dying, when do you find time to live? John would rather die on his feet than live on his knees. “I’d be happy to get on my knees,” Kenny piped in on Facebook Messenger. The quarantine was interfering with his rigid schedule of sex dates and it was beginning to show.
I remember falling asleep under the stars in El Paso, leaning against the border wall and listening to the volleys of gunfire before crossing over in the morning. I remember a tropical disease in Thailand that made my kidneys swell until they bulged from my back, wondering if this was the end as the hotel room faded to black. And I remember a house in New Orleans where I was left to die, the capstone for a decade of existential confrontation. Then, as always, “Was that it?” was my final thought, a response that no amount of age seems to change. I’m not sure a few extra years ever will.
I woke up this morning with a fever and a cough. I’ve been posted up myself for five days, more concerned about infecting others than contracting the virus myself. Nobody knows how bad things will get, or how many people will ask if that was it by the time it’s over. I wonder which of my friends I’ve seen for the last time, though I know John will be back in the morning.