As he rehearsed his remarks to the presiding judge, John Bridgewater leisurely paced the five-by-seven cell, the same ambling gait he employed during his State University lectures on 19th century English literature. Despite his lawyer’s and his parents’ entreaties that he enter a not guilty plea, John had adamantly refused. Extenuating circumstances aside, he had murdered a man; he had killed Mullen Grogin, the man he loved with every cell in his body. A man he’d loved from the moment they met, and hated and loved through each horrifying setback in their relationship. He still loved Mullen and that would never change… although he no longer hated him.
John preferred not to ask himself the question “Would you still have fallen in love with Mullen if you’d known at the start?” What a pointless exercise! He looked back at their years together without regret and tried his best to convince himself that the lows had been balanced by the highs.
Nor was he conflicted about having ended Mullen’s life. It had to be done. Death was waiting in the wings. John had only hastened its arrival. Whatever the verdict, his real punishment would not be the harshness of the sentence or the period of incarceration that would likely span the rest of his normal life. (Normal life? Hah. That’s a laugh.) No amount of suffering could compare to the sting of Mullen’s absence. He had loved John ardently, in a way that a man deserves to be loved.
He had also lied to him, manipulated him, and fucked up their lives in every conceivable way.
* * *
All addicts follow one of two trajectories: They either struggle and eventually conquer their habit, or they die. It’s the dramatic arc of countless novels, biographies and bio-pics, a tediously worn fabric with few new wrinkles. Yet for the person closest to the abuser (the one sometimes disparagingly referred to as the ‘co-dependent’), the story is new, unique, the plot turns unexpected. To be on the inside of this evolving tale is to be in a constant state of disorientation, as astounded by the redemptive periods as the inevitable recidivism.
There should be a special Oscar for substance abusers. They are the Gielguds, the Streeps of their ilk. John did not fall in love with an addict, though Mullen was already using before they met. He fell in love with the persona Mullen projected, the man he strove to be, the constant lover and companion. Mullen did not merely ooze charm, he tossed it about like confetti. And John danced around and through the swirl as if his life was a perpetual Mardi Gras.
* * *
The rigors of his doctoral thesis on George Eliot pressing down on him, John Bridgewater sought refuge in the darkened interior of Casey’s Lounge in Poughkeepsie one chilly fall afternoon, vowing to stay there until he couldn’t walk a straight line or utter a coherent word. He was not much of a drinker, so it wouldn’t take long to achieve obliteration. Eyes downcast studying the bar’s buffed wood grain, he ordered “rye whiskey, no ice,” then “another” and “another,” oblivious to the comings and goings of the few regulars. Then he heard a sharp whistle, like someone hailing a cab. He looked up as much out of annoyance as inquisitiveness.
A wriggling index finger summoned him from across the otherwise empty bar. Behind it were two eyes—large, dark, rich orbs underlined by an almost lascivious smirk. John glided across the floor as if in a trance.
“And who might you be?” the man asked.
“Name’s John,” he said, the downturned right corner of his mouth already numbed from alcohol.
“Mullen,” the man replied. “Nice to meet you. Let me get straight to the point. I want you.”
John jostled his head from side to side as if trying to understand what Mullen had said—as if the statement had been vague and open to a series of alternate interpretations.
Mullen leaned in closer and whispered, “I said I want you. Right now.” His smile broadened and John was seized with a yearning to fill Mullen’s mouth with his tongue.
“Shall we?” Mullen said, rising.
John dutifully followed him out of the bar and they spent the next two days skin to skin. He came away smelling like Mullen. That same inherited odor would linger during Mullen’s protracted absences when John would take a whiff of his wrist and be immediately transported. That he couldn’t shake Mullen’s aroma should have been an omen. John preferred to see it as a blessing.
And it was that, too.
The lovemaking was startlingly intimate, the desire bottomless. And at times, the bad times especially, it was the only reward.
But sex was not the glue.
The glue was Mullen’s aforementioned charm. He practically owned the word. Many addicts are gifted with sly cajolery. It’s either innate or carefully devised to entice, beguile. Not only their lovers but also friends, parents and family. And dealers. Anyone who can abet them in their insatiable quest.
And humor. “Funny guy,” John’s friends proclaimed after they were introduced to Mullen. It got so they sometimes laughed at the mere mention of his name because they were reminded of a joke or anecdote and the delightful manner in which he spun it. Mullen was an excellent mimic and his wit tended toward the goofy. The japery was rarely malicious or at the expense of others, though in later years he would later be accused of both, and justifiably so. Mostly skewed observations on life, of which he seemed to be a serious student. The loonier his behavior, the more appealing, since he was a large man, and there’s something irresistible about a big guy whose demeanor is as guileless as a seven-year-old’s.
* * *
By the time John finished typing up his thesis and was preparing for his orals, he and Mullen were living together, were hardly ever apart, except when Mullen went for a walk “to clear my head.”
And shoot up.
And later, to go to jail.
John had no idea, since when they first met his addiction wasn’t yet the persistent, ingrained habit it later became. Mostly, Mullen was present and functioning and sociable. He earned a living playing piano, classical piano. And teaching. He had the most beautiful, long delicate fingers that glided across John’s body with the same delightful, loving touch he bestowed on the ivories. At times his performances flirted with greatness, technique and emotional investment in equal measure. John sometimes experienced mental orgasms at these recitals, feeling Mullen’s presence as acutely as when they were physically conjoined.
Over time the playing deteriorated until he was no more proficient than the students he would continue to mentor throughout his life. Prison was to blame. And shame. And the need that consumed him at the expense of every facet of his life, except his love for John, though that was not always the case either.
Still, the love kept Mullen alive long after he should have OD’d, after he’d exhausted the veins in his arms and gone poking into ever more delicate and dangerous areas. He persisted in the cracked belief that if he just focused on his feelings for John, he would know peace.
“That’s all I’m looking for, all I’ve ever wanted in my whole life,” Mullen confessed to John during one of his paroles. “Being with you is the closest I’ve come to knowing peace. And maybe the Beethoven piano concertos four and five. I don’t get it from drugs. They’re like Wite- Out.”
John asked a silly question. “Then why do you do it?”
And received a silly answer. “Because I’m an addict.”
Why are the dumbest, most inane answers also the truest?
* * *
Mullen’s habit was an avocation that gradually became his occupation. He was a career user. A twenty-two year veteran, almost all of them spent with John—with breaks for prison in between. If he’d lived another three years, he might have gotten a gold watch for his dedicated service to horse… which he would then have hocked to buy another fix.
The silly but true answer to why John abided this behavior and never once considered ending the relationship, even when he hated him profoundly, was “because my addiction is Mullen.”
“You realize that makes you an enabler,” Hollis, one of the women in his Nar-Anon group, said smugly, as if she’d just made an original and pithy observation.
“Yes, but I can’t help myself,” he replied, telling the group of his and Mullen’s first meeting on that brisk afternoon in a dank bar when Mullen had summoned him by merely cocking his finger. “You see, it was over from the start. The index finger was a hook and I bit. Doesn’t matter how much I try to wriggle free…”
“Yes, I believe Aretha Franklin sang about that in ‘I Never Loved a Man’,” said Diego, who proceeded to deliver the lyrics in an uncanny Ree-Ree-like growl. “Never argue with the Queen of Soul.”
* * *
A gay Nar-Anon group was not easy to find in upstate New York, and John drove sixty miles each way to attend the weekly meetings. The straight gatherings were not the same. Heterosexuals, however well intentioned, devalued his pain. More precisely, they tolerated it in much the same way as they tolerated his “lifestyle.” They rarely commiserated when John shared with the group and brushed off his comments about their woes as if he was in no position to understand how straight people live and interact. He tried not to take it personally. The women in the group suffered similar neglect and condescension. The men often tuned them out entirely or accused them of mothering and nagging their addicted mates. Even in the gay group, the men sometimes elided over the lesbians’ travails or talked down to them. They were even less sympathetic to Barbee, the transgender member. To their credit, the women rarely let them get away with it, and Barbee… well, she cut them to shreds. The mouth on her! The bickering was often the high point of the evening.
* * *
Mullen was a terrific cook. During the up periods, when he’d fought back and won his latest battle, he would put on the toque John bought for him in Lyons and go into a culinary frenzy. He specialized in sauces, the more intricate the better. He told John that “slowly reducing the ingredients over a low flame gives me the same anticipatory rush as liquefying heroin on a spoon.” Even when he wasn’t using, he was in the thrall of using.
They traveled extensively, because Mullen claimed that all the great pianists were either European or Asian and he wanted to hear them perform in their own habitat—the great halls of Vienna, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing. John went along on the mistaken belief that it would be more difficult for Mullen to score in a foreign country. That argument was put to rest the morning he almost OD’d in their hotel room in Capri.
A day earlier they had both lain on their backs in a rowboat to ponder the reflected aquamarine line on the ceiling of the Blue Grotto. “You and me, side by side in all this magnificence,” Mulled mused, “it’s almost as incredible…”
“…as getting high,” John said, finishing his sentence.
Mullen did not contradict him. “If only I could inject you into my veins. That’s how I want to go.”
John marveled at how he could feel simultaneously elated and sad. It was as close as he ever came to understanding what Mullen experienced when the rush hit him.
* * *
The ever-presence of Mullen’s addiction colored even the good times, which lasted for years at a stretch. Cocooned in their devotion, Mullen and John would excitedly make plans for the future. When Mullen wasn’t using, there was an added dimension to their lovemaking, a spiritual element, like worshipping at each other’s shrine.
Then one day Mullen would come home late, running into the house breathless with take-out and an absolutely irrefutable excuse for his absence. He’d played Good Samaritan and driven home a woman whose car had broken down on the thruway. Or the mother of a student had died and he’d gone to the wake to pay his respects. Or he’d scored last minute tickets to hear some young phenomenon perform up in Syracuse. He backed each claim with facts, locations, vivid descriptions and anecdotes. The better he covered his tracks, the more certain John was that he’d relapsed.
“You know the saying, ‘Fool me once’?” John asked the group. “Well how much shame is appropriate the tenth time you let it happen?”
“Make room in the pity boat for another passenger,” said Abel, whose comment was greeted with chortles and yucks. “I once suggested to my partner Leonard that while he was in the stir he should start work on his autobiography, “Len and the Art of Bullshit Maintenance.”
More chortles and yucks.
“Where do they find the time to make up these elaborate stories?” Hollis said. “Between using and coming up with ways to steal enough to score, you’d think their brain cells would be all used up.”
Like any self-disrespecting addict, Mullen was also a thief. He robbed from John and a couple of his friends who looked the other way. The Achesons next door were not as understanding. Three years, eighteen months served. Nor his youngest sister, Sherry. Five years, three served. Oh, and one time he simply bet on the wrong horse, scoring from a cop. Seven years, paroled after three and change.
* * *
“A jail term for drug addiction is kind of like locking me up in a house full of gorgeous men,” Diego once observed.
“Not really,” John corrected him.
After suffering through withdrawal at the start of his sentence, Mullen would soon be buying prescription drugs, which he never touched on the outside. Whenever he ran short of items to barter, he turned trade. “Once I had to do five guys in the same day,” he confessed to John during one of his clean spells. “A guard brought them to my cell one at a time. Then he stood around and watched, sick bastard.”
“You are never to tell me anything like that again,” John made him promise, only to be upbraided about it by the group the following week.
“’Cause he didn’t feel bad enough having to debase himself without you throwing some kerosene on him and striking a match,” Abel said.
“Now, now,” Sam, the group leader, said. “No judgment here. Not on Mullen for prostituting himself for drugs. Or on John for how he felt when he told him.”
“I hope he got tested before he was released,” Hollis said.
“He did but we never do it without protection anymore,” John admitted. “His idea.”
“You hate him right now,” Hollis added.
“Yes. I want to kill him in his sleep,” John responded. None of the others reproached him or accused him of being callous. They’d all made a similar admission at one time or another.
“Because of what he told you or because he’s been so repentant and nice to you?” Sam asked.
“Both,” John said, hanging his head. “And because after he gets out and we make love and he falls asleep in my arms, I realize that the whole shitty cycle is about to begin all over again. And that I’ll be as surprised as the first time it happened.”
* * *
“What about you? What do you get out of it?” Mullen’s older sister Bridget once asked him.
“The belief that I’m the first thing he thinks about in the morning and the last thing before he goes to sleep.”
“That’s a lie,” Bridget said, placing her hand gently over his.
“Okay, maybe the second thing,” said John. “I know that drugs are the love of his life. But that’s as much as I’m willing to concede.”
“I will give Mullen that,” she concurred. “He does love you almost as much as he loves junk. He never talks to me about junk, but your name is always on his lips, in his letters, and I don’t know what’s more painful, his addiction or being diminished in your eyes.”
“He’s not diminished in my eyes,” John insisted.
“Don’t.” Bridget shook her head and patted his hand again.
“I try. I try. I try.”
“That’s all you can do.”
* * *
For Mullen life was about pain. The pain of not scoring. The pain of withdrawal. The pain of being a common criminal. Of serving time with murderers and sociopaths and having to grovel to them in order to feed his habit. Of losing the talent in his fingertips. Of losing friends and family members who’d turned on him or cut him loose.
And more pain. The pain of being less than the man with whom John had fallen in love. Of sometimes succeeding in recapturing that man, then watching him fall away. Of watching John bite his tongue when he wanted to tell Mullen to fuck off and die. Of the times he actually uttered those very words.
The pain of being hated. And of hating himself.
The cruelest pain of all: the illusion that the worst has passed and better days lie ahead.
* * *
Mullen had found a new recipe in Bon Appetit’s February issue: Food for Young Lovers.
He’d bought all the ingredients and was pre-heating the oven when he remembered that he needed an egg for the glaze.
John arrived home at six with a giant bouquet. The apartment was stifling, the oven cranked up to three-seventy-five. And empty.
Ingredients everywhere, half prepared heart-shaped tarts, abandoned partridges secreting raw juices off the counter, dirty dishes piled high in the sink.
Mullen did not respond to his name being called.
The bathroom door was locked. After several knocks, John found the key and opened it. Not for the first time.
Mullen was crumpled under the sink, a needle by his right foot, his face drained, his eyes shot through with blood. A revolver in his mouth.
“Give me that,” John said and carefully pried the gun from his hands.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Mullen said.
“I think I’m the one who should be saying that.”
“I’m through, John.”
“I’ve heard this before. C’mon, you’ll…” John put the gun down and pulled Mullen out from under the sink, groaning at the effort of lifting the giant, lifeless load.
Mullen immediately reached for the gun and put it to his mouth again. “Get out and shut the door. I don’t want you to see this.”
“Oh, but you do want me to see the bloody aftermath,” John said.
“You don’t have to come in. Just call the cops.”
Grasping at straws, John said, “For god’s sake. On Valentine’s Day?”
He wrenched the revolver from Mullen, who flashed anger at him. “You have no right. It’s my life, you motherfucker. And I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to go back to jail. I can’t go through with withdrawal again or sucking dicks for pills. It ends here.”
Mullen held out his hand but John held the revolver tightly.
“I have another gun,” he said.
“I’m not telling you. Tomorrow, the next day, I’ll do it. I’m tired.”
“What about me?” John asked.
“You should be tired too.”
“I love you, Mullen,” John said.
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Mullen slapped him across the face, something he’d never done before. “Don’t tell me what I mean.” Then he burst into tears, angry tears. “I’m bigger than you. If you don’t give me the gun, I will take it and shoot you too.”
“I’ll give it to you,” John said, stretching out his palm, “on the condition that you shoot me first. Shoot to kill.”
Now it was Mullen’s turn to vamp. “I’m afraid that in my condition I’d miss. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Yeah, well it’s about twenty years too late for that,” John said, scornfully.
Mullen began to weep copiously, his head and shoulders drooping like a man hanging from a tree branch, praying for the last breath.
“What?” John said.
“I want to shoot up!” he screamed. “Everything else is a lie. I want to do enough to kill me. I’ve tried, but it just hasn’t worked.”
“I’m sure that eventually you’ll succeed,” John said without sarcasm as he gently touched his shoulder.
Mullen started blubbering again and began to rage. “I can’t wait for that. Why won’t you do this for me!”
John watched him weep and rage and flail like a man being ripped apart by a pack of wild predators. Even more distressing, Mullen was the alpha dog.
John stepped back, took aim, and though he’d never held a gun before, managed to shoot him right between those large, round dark eyes.
As he reeled backwards, John realized that he’d never loved Mullen as much as at that very moment. He lay down beside his still body and they both stared up at the ceiling of the Blue Grotto and reveled in a moment of peace.
© Richard Natale. All Rights reserved.