920. Fear of the Unknown

I met Matthew at a coffee place he liked, where they had a downstairs room with lots of little tables and chairs. We settled ourselves with very large mugs of coffee in one corner where the chairs were low and soft. There was music playing I didn’t recognize–good music, I mean–which earned the place points in my book.

“So,” he said, when we were settled, “we didn’t really get a chance to catch up the other night. You look like you’re doing okay.”

“You say that like you’re surprised.” I sipped the coffee, which I’d cooled a little with cream but I hadn’t wanted to cool it too much since a mug that large was likely to last a while.

“Well, last I’d heard you were on a hell tour. Everyone puking out the windows of the bus–”

“Oh god, that was two hell tours ago,” I said. “But, shit, yeah.” I showed him the scar on my palm and he winced. “Everyone got the norovirus, but only after Remo went on the rampage on me and Alan for drinking too much, as if that was the only reason to vomit.”

He winced again on the word vomit. “Alex and Alan do drink too much.”

“The entire band drinks too much, Remo included, but they seem to think as long as you keep it quiet and no one notices, then it’s okay.” I felt a chill of goosebumps run across my back as I realized how true what I’d just said was. “Shit. Exactly like… like…” I couldn’t even put it into words. The meaning was reverberating around in my head. Just like how you used to think about being gay, and look how fucked up that was. And also… I finally spat out: “Like respectable suburban New Jerseyites.” I meant that as an insult of course.

Matthew understood what I meant. “Mm-hm. As if the appearance of no problems means there are no problems, in your marriage or your family or whatever.” He shook his head.

I felt a little ill at the thought. I’d always thought Remo and the band as better than my parents. Now I suddenly felt I’d been wrong. “That’s… disappointing.” That was an understatement. “He’s… he’s just as bad as Digger.” Well, okay, and that was an overstatement and Matthew called me on it.

“Oh, I doubt that.” Matthew looked at me sternly. “Remo’s not perfect but he’s not a criminally narcissistic homophobe. For example.”

That did give it some perspective, I suppose. “True. Remo’s always wanted the best for me, anyway. But I used to think he was so open-minded and such a… a rebel.”

Matthew chuckled. “I’m sure he thought of himself that way, too. But now he’s the establishment.”

“Because he’s a father now?”

The chuckle became a startled bark of a laugh. “No, Daron. Because he’s fifty-something. And you, the twenty-something, are the rebel. That’s rock and roll.”

“Oh.” Right. “I guess there are times when I really don’t feel like a rebel, though. I mean, I’m just trying to make music, you know?” I thought about how my head had been twisted into a new shape after I’d been told for the better part of two years that the guitar was dead and “alternative” was over, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t over. But maybe my career was. I decided not to think about it too much right then.

“Everyone’s just trying to make the world over in their own image,” Matthew said with a sigh. “The Rolling Stones used to be rebels. They were outlaws, disreputable, insane. And then they were big business. And now they’re the establishment.”

“Clapton, too, I guess.”

“Mm-hmm. And then you have guys like Billy Joel who was never really what I’d call a rebel, but was always a great musician and entertainer.”

“But is he rock and roll, I guess is the question?”

“Are you rock and roll, that is the question,” Matthew said, blowing across the top of the mug.

I thought about the realization I’d had in Brazil, in the middle of going off the deep end, and how the conviction had stayed with me even after I wasn’t out of my mind anymore, that I didn’t want to do what Ziggy wanted to do. It wasn’t the stadiums or the tours or the packaging–the dancers and costumes–that bothered me in the end. It was something about the music itself. “How did you know I’m having a… a…”

“Existential crisis?”

“Shit, you sound like Jonathan.”

Matthew chuckled softly. “You just look like you’re searching for something.”

“I guess I am. I don’t know what I’m doing next. It depends on lawyers and the whims of A&R reps and the economy.” And me. I closed my fingers over my scarred palm so it wasn’t visible.

But Matthew had seen me glance at it. “How’d you do that? Did you fall off the stage into the rigging or something?”

“No. A bad mix of Remo’s infant son, a kitchen knife in the tour bus, and me. Remo didn’t tell you?”

Matthew shrugged in that almost dainty way of his. Funny how familiar his mannerisms were to me, when I only saw him a couple of times a year at most. “He did tell me, but I wanted to hear it from you.”

“They–the doctors–said I was really lucky. I didn’t…destroy anything really crucial for a normal person.” I tried to fan my fingers and two of the four moved jerkily rather than smoothly into place.

“You stayed on the tour instead of going straight into physical therapy?” He was trying hard not to give me one of those scolding looks, but he couldn’t completely keep it out of his voice. “And then you went on another one?”

“Yeah. Tried to make it work with painkillers and muscle relaxants and it was okay until it wasn’t. Did I tell you I went off the deep end?”

“I would’ve, too,” he said, his eyebrows knit with concern.

“Yeah.” I didn’t want to go into the specifics of how I had dug myself into a hole with Vitamin F and alcohol and then threw myself into Valium Abyss. But I suddenly found myself wanting to ask some questions. “Did Remo and those guys always drink that much and I just never noticed?”

That shrug again. “When it builds up gradually over time it’s hard to notice.”

My drinking build-up hadn’t been that gradual, though, had I? I thought about Carynne not wanting me to travel alone or be alone that time in California. Remember the acoustic gigs that Bart came along for? She’d later told me it was because she’d gotten so concerned about how much I was drinking, enough that she was concerned I’d pass out in the bathroom or something. After all, I wouldn’t have been the first. But then when I was away from Nomad, I didn’t drink as much. At least, until the hand injury… My therapist was right.

“I guess you’ve heard from Remo lately,” I said, trying not to feel–or sound–horrendously guilty.

“He calls every couple of weeks. Since he’s been off the road I hear from him more regularly. He’s in Atlanta for Thanksgiving.”

“Ah, with Mel’s family?”

“Yeah. He was kind of dreading it.”

“I’ve met them. I don’t blame him.” That trip to Disney World wasn’t so long ago but it felt like it had been a year or two. “You got plans for Thanksgiving?”

Matthew made a wry face. “Archie’s not doing so well right now, so we have an invite but we might not show. It’s a tricky thing to navigate.”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I concentrated on sipping my coffee, and he went on.

“I mean, we’re hardly the only ones going through it. It’s not like our friends don’t know he’s going to die.”

My eyes probably got huge at that point. I knew Archie had HIV but until then no one had come out and told me that he, in particular, was going to die. Not so plainly, anyway.

“I got off the road so I could spend more of the time he’s got left with him. We’ve been traveling to places we never had a chance to go before. It’s been a really… good couple of years.” He looked past me, at the rest of the coffee shop, most of the seats taken with young bohemian New Yorkers. We were in the Village, after all. “We really had no idea if he was going to have one, or five, or ten years left. I’ve been trying to prepare myself for it, but there’s really no way to hold your breath for years on end.”

I was suddenly aware of my own breath and whether I’d been holding it.

“I think some of our friends would rather not be reminded. They want to pretend it’s not happening. They want to act like the eighties was ancient history and that doesn’t happen to us anymore. But Freddie–” He broke off, his eyes reddening suddenly as he looked into his mug.

I was definitely holding my breath.

Matthew swallowed and went on in a quiet voice, barely audible over the music. “Freddie was a big reminder. And some people didn’t want that reminder. So we might stay home and not force the issue on them.”

“They sound like shitty friends,” I blurted. “I mean, shit, man. What a way to treat people.”

“Well, they didn’t come out and say don’t come. But Archie hates feeling like he’s the harbinger of doom.”

Yeah, well, I thought, a lot of people don’t come out and say a lot. But they’re thinking it. “Still.”

“It’s really up to him. I’ll make us turkey burgers at home if he’s not up to going out.” Matthew smiled, but he looked somber. “Some days he doesn’t have much of an appetite so I kind of count every meal we eat together as a gift. I’ve known the days were numbered–well, they always are–but that the number was ticking down for a while now. I think now they’re really starting to get low, though.”

“Wow.” I tried to wrap my head around what it would be like if either me or Ziggy went the way of Freddie Mercury–what it would be like for the other one of us, I mean. I could not imagine it.

It made me want to run home and grab him right that second.

But I didn’t. Matthew and I moved on to blathering about music industry and politics and whatnot like that. I told him about discovering Nirvana and about Ziggy being annoyed that my red flannel shirt was suddenly a legit fashion accessory. He wondered what I thought about Bill Bradley trying to run for president. You probably have to be from New Jersey to have an opinion about that. Bradley was a former NBA basketball star who had become a New Jersey state politician. My opinion was that if he ran, he’d get wiped out by George Bush, who was riding high on the success of the Gulf War.

When we parted, Matthew told me he was doing a new series of photos, all of couples. He asked if I’d consider me and Ziggy being a part of it. I told him I’d let him know what Ziggy thought (I knew he’d agree–Ziggy loves having himself photographed) and maybe we could the next time we swung through the city.

And then I ran home to him and hugged him as hard as I could without damaging either of us.

(This might be Siouxsie and the Banshees’ most forgettable song. Blame that 1991 malaise. -d)


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