Wednesday, June 4, 2008
I was seventeen and delusional and Carl Lewis was breaking world records and the Stones had just released Dirty Work and godhead Gordon Gekko was insisting “lunch is for wimps” and I blame all the above for my foolishness. That and the fact that I had my eyes on a pro surfing career, sixteen years of Catholicism which manifested in “binge/purge” self-flagellation, and a sun-drenched short attention span, which is to say that one day I’d read about Ivan Lendl’s intense training program in Tennis and go sprint a few miles on soft sand, and the next I’d become possessed by Iggy Pop’s Raw Power and aspire to challenge myself on more, shall we say, Bunker Spreckles-like fronts. The tug o’ war—or better yet, the head-on collision—of these conflicting ideologies never dawned on me. I repeat: I was seventeen and delusional.
So I’m at a friend’s girlfriend’s Pepperdine University graduation lunch at an upscale French restaurant in Malibu, nibbling a tarte a la tomate, sipping Dom Perignon, when my pal Dino kicks me under the table, nods in the direction of the men’s room, wipes his hands with his flamingo pink cloth napkin, and excuses himself.
I obediently follow him through the “WC” door and into the toilet stall.
“A little sumpin’ sumpin’ before the main course,” he says, and pulls from his sport coat a wrap of the white stuff. He deftly scoops up a tiny mound with his overgrown pinky fingernail and I—fffff—snort it right up, nearly swallowing his finger in the process. He does the same, we check ourselves in the mirror, sniffle like a couple of flu-addled Eskimos, then join the Last Supper-like table with Cheshire grins.
I should tell you that aside from the time cousin Pete and I rubbed a bit of residue on our gums when we were thirteen and Dogtown-obsessed, I’d never properly done cocaine. I’d heard it referenced in endless songs (Clapton, Stones, Grandmaster Flash), I knew about Belushi’s last hurrah in Bungalow #3, and I’d seen Woody Allen’s famous sneeze scene in Annie Hall, but I hadn’t a clue about its euphoric properties, how divinely agreeable it was with my inhibited, inferiority complex-ridden temperament.
Pre-men’s room I was surrounded by a bunch of preppy, Benz’s-on-their-sixteenth-birthdays, spoilt rich kids. Post-men’s room I could not have felt more for Carolyn with the nose job and pretentious table manners, Joel with the hairy chest, gold chain and suspicious tan, and Sophia who lunched at the Ivy, summered in the Hamptons, and failed to make eye contact with our affable Hispanic waiter. These were my co-conspirators. I wanted to mmmwwwaa, mmmwwwaaa them on both cheeks, stick my tongue in their ears, make confessions.
We picked at our salads and chattered excitedly. There was talk of all night cramming for finals, Sunday afternoon martini gatherings at Bianca’s parent’s Colony house, and the best hotels to stay at during Cannes. Shortly after the grilled Norwegian salmon steak with champagne-raspberry sauce arrived, Dino gave the secret nod, and then again prior to the crème brulee and espresso. We inhabited a world far from sororities, fraternities, summer internships at Paramount and William Morris; we were essentially beach bums with decent cutbacks and logo-bedecked thrusters, but thanks to the gak, we were all team spirit, charming the pants off our friend’s girlfriend’s grandma, tapping glasses with tea spoons and making toasts, spouting on about new chapters and golden futures.
The party moved over to the graduating girl’s beachfront apartment on Malibu Road, which could easily have been a set from Wall Street or Less Than Zero or a west coast Bright Lights, Big City. Nagel prints covered the walls of the track-lit living room, Wham! played on the stereo, semi-mulleted men in shoulder-padded Armani suits cavorted on the black leather sofa with frost-tipped women in Thierry Mugler dresses while the waves slapped and hissed a mere tennis ball’s toss away. That I would attend parties that would parody this heyday of mine twenty years down the track was of course far beyond my myopic imagination. We wore our Zinka and Jimmy’Z and Reebok high-tops with total conviction. Self-irony was beyond us.
There were a good eight or ten more snorts throughout the night. Dino was a huge hit. I was that naïve that it took about five handoffs of those mini paper football folds for me to figure out he was dealing the stuff. I remember huddles around the glass coffee table, rolled up hundred dollar bills, index fingers smearing upper gums, single nostril sniffles, cum-like beads of dripping snot, and possibly some of the most senseless conversation in all history. I remember tapping my feet to Shiela E’s “The Glamorous Life” and grinding my teeth to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
I never danced. Unfortunately, I spent my teens and most of my twenties thinking that dancing was uncool, which cost me dearly on the sexual front. In fact when I stop and ponder this now I imagine myself a kind of forty-year-old Ebenezer Scrooge, only instead of neglectful fathers and Tiny Tims, there are curvaceous blondes in cut-off pink sweatshirts and sleek brunettes in fishnets and push-up bras smacking gum and calling me to the dance floor with determined, pink nail polished index fingers, and instead of whimpering with regret like Scrooge, I slug myself in the jaw repeatedly.
There was no sleep that night. The six or seven of us that decided we were too jacked to drive grabbed pillows and writhed in fetal positions on couches, bean bag chairs, and the faux zebra skin throw rug. I remember listening to ocean, the couple having sex in the next room, the drill sargeant-like voice of my guilty conscience. The NSSA Nationals were a couple months off and what the hell was I doing going on a fifteen hour cocaine, champagne, beer and vodka bender? Had I not been so wired up I may have been able to sleep my way back to common sense, but as it were I spiraled into self-disgust. I felt that same dirty feeling I felt after sleeping with bad perfumed, cigarette-smoking girls I was philosophically at odds with. Which left one obvious solution: Go surfing.
I tip-toed out of the house and hopped into my powder blue ’66 Karmann Ghia I’d bought a few months prior from Kirk Murray, a Malibu local hero who, when he’d handed over the keys, said “I’m just happy to let her go to someone who can surf,” which paralleled that final scene in Big Wednesday when Matt Johnson passes his board onto the wide-eyed gremmie, only in this case there was money involved: two grand cash. It was a great first car. I distinctly remember the “St. Christopher Be My Guide” button pressed into the center of the steering wheel, and the “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” wings stuck on the back window, which even furthered the sense that I was being sworn in, that the keys were to something far more than just a car.
I burned past the high tide shorebreak of Zuma which six or seven times a year transforms into Off The Wall-like perfection, careened through the curves of Point Mugu where minus tides coupled with strong north wind swell gave us tiny glimpses of Snapper, Kirra, Burleigh, whirred past the farmlands and domestic abuse-addled barrios of Oxnard where Mexican hookers with pot bellies peddled their skanky wares in front of the paderia at lunchtime, then turned left into Ventura Harbor where Santa Clara Rivermouth’s shapely sandbars had become the spot of choice for me and my contest-obsessed pals.
But it was unsurfable. There was swell, but the tide was so high, the banks so deep, that rather than break they’d double up into a heaping shorebreak. And so I did what I always did when my conscience was eating at me and the pro surfing carrot dangled in my mind. I ran beach sprints. Sweat out the sins of last night, I reasoned. Good things come to those who train.
This is where, with hindsight of course, I envisage Lendl and Iggy at war. The tennis racket vs. the microphone stand. Snowy white Adidas shorts and shoes vs. ragged, beer-stained jeans and steel toe motorcycle boots. Only I had nothing in common with either. I was a sensitive, overly-ambitious suburbanite desperate to scale my way out of the mire of mediocrity.
I stripped down to my skin tight lycra boardshorts, smeared a gob of Bullfrog across my nose, popped something like AC/DC’s Back In Black in my mustard yellow Walkman, and began trotting toward the rivermouth. I hadn’t had a sip of water since, what? lunch yesterday. I sprinted and sprinted and sprinted. I’d set my eyes on a piece of driftwood or Doritos bag fifty or so yards ahead and make that my goal. I huffed up the fertilizer-scented offshore breeze, I felt my heart banging against my breastbone, I wiped the salty sweat from my forehead. And then after forty minutes, when I felt good and purged, I got back in my Ghia and headed home.
The 101 from Ventura to where I lived in Westlake was a good thirty minutes drive. Denny’s, auto malls, monolithic shopping centers, miniature golf courses, and farmlands flanked the highway. It was like a pendulum of lukewarm America swinging back and forth before your eyes.
The fatigue set in right around the Camarillo Grade, a two-mile incline that forced me into the slow lane. By Newbury Park I was fighting to keep my eyes open and by Thousand Oaks I was letting out blood curdling screams every half-mile or so to scare myself back to wakefulness. When I hit the turning signal for Hampshire Road I felt a huge wave of relief. Pass the Kmart with the grindable banks, pass the cul de sac where Brittany the magical French kisser lived, pass the mini mall where Ron kicked the shit out of the black belt in 10th grade, and I was home. I was mentally rehearsing my arrival: toss board and wetsuit in garage, wash feet with hose, plop face down in bed...
I remember urgent voices, blinding light, and stale coffee breath. I can’t recall whether the “How many fingers?” actually happened or whether this was pasted over from some TV or movie I’d seen, but such is the nature of memory in the 20th century. I remember looking around and piecing together the emergency room, reaching down to my legs to make sure they were still there, feeling a surge of powerful emotion, as if I’d just been through something traumatic, though I wasn’t sure exactly what.
“Do you know where you are?” asked the doctor.
“I was driving and, umm...”
“You’ve been in a car accident. You went head-on into a tree...”
“Your car’s totaled. Fortunately you didn’t hit anyone. Can you remember anything?”
It felt like being hit by arrows, the questions were too fast for my fuzzy head. I muttered an “Umm—”
“You were at a stop light. The woman in the car next to yours says you were convulsing, as in having a seizure. Are you epileptic?”
“Experienced seizures in the past?”
“Relatives with epilepsy, seizure disorders?
“No, not that I know of,” I said, then after a brief inner debate gushed it all: “Look, I did cocaine last night. Like a lot of it. I think we started around two in the afternoon and didn’t stop ‘til well past midnight. I also drank a lot of vodka and then went running—“
There were X-Rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and various blood tests. It appeared there was nothing wrong with me, though there was a slight blemish on one of the brain scans, which looked exactly how my seizure felt: bright, overexposed, like staring into the sun for too long. The doctor said it could easily have been a flaw in the machinery, but to be safe he prescribed me 500 mg of dilantin, which I diligently popped every morning for four years.
Because VWs have the engine in the front and not the back, my Ghia was left with a kind of swallow tail carved into the nose. I think I sold it to the local junkyard for fifty bucks. The worst damage, I’m sure, was not the post-traumatic shame I suffered for the next week or so, but rather the toll it took on my poor parents. At the time my oldest brother was in the thick of his losing battle to heroin. That I should end up in the emergency room for drug-related reasons is unforgivable.
Did I mess with cocaine again after this disastrous initiation? You betcha. But not for six or seven years. I was at a house party in Newport Beach, Sydney when yet another dealer friend was chopping up lines. Just a little snort, I thought to myself, just to see what it does. I ended up flat on my back, looking up at the party from that same belittling angle I’d viewed the doctors and nurses from the first time around. And then, foolishly, another time at a Fourth of July party in Venice Beach, which resulted in exactly the same: lightheadedness, spins, crash landing, shame, embarrassment.
The moral of the story? Some of us are a bit slow to see the obvious (me+cocaine=death), and guardian angels are hovering invisibly in the ether, though they should be called upon as little as possible.