A Brief Interlude With Death

photo by Cristian-Newman-

photo by Cristian-Newman-

Misadventures begin simply enough.  You meet a stranger who leads you down a path you would have never gone down if left to your own devices.  A path from which, if you’re not prepared to fight the roaring demons you encounter there, you may never return. 

During a brutal heatwave in August of such and such a year, I met an attractive woman at a blues club in Santa Monica.  We’ll say her name was Daphne, although I’ve forgotten her real name.  I chose Daphne because that was the name of my sister’s best friend in high school, who, either due to natural instincts, or my sister's influence over her, had wanted nothing to do with me (though I batted my eyes blind at her).  The truth is, I have no talent for remembering attractive women’s names when I meet them for the first time.  I remember eyes, lips, hair, legs, and, after the initial excitement over their physical beauty has subsided—the things that made them laugh.  A name is just a name is just a name: Susan, Lisa, Beth, Jane, Karen, Daphne… For me it’s the colors, shapes, and scents of a woman that remain in my mind…and distract me from being able to remember their names.   

I’d begun that Friday evening alone inside my Santa Monica apartment, drinking a bottle of wine while watching the movie Sideways.  It’s a favorite flick, and due to its many vineyard landscapes and popping corks, a perfect companion for wine drinking.  When the movie was over and the bottle was empty, I hopped on my rusty old mountain bike and peddled west towards the neighboring Pacific Ocean, and more specifically, the Bull Dog Pub, located a few blocks away from the tourist riddled Santa Monica Pier.  Once there, I increased my blood/alcohol ratio with several pints of Harp while shooting darts with one of the other regulars, a tall black guy named Leon, who always insisted on coaching me. 

After losing two games of “Cricket” to Leon and receiving a lecture on arm angles and release points, I lingered at the bar for a bit, attempting to win over an Asian beauty from a younger generation--sporting a faded Obama “Hope” T-shirt.  But, while honing in on our shared liberalism as a point of convergence, I inadvertently gave away my age by mentioning that I’d voted for President Clinton twice, and the attempt imploded right along with the Clinton legacy. 

Leaving the pub around midnight, I peddled towards home along the usual bar-lined route.  It was a good way to wind down an evening, giving up on the possibility of romance little by little, as I stuck my head in one bar after another, hoping to spot someone who might make the night, the week, or maybe even the month, a little more interesting. 

On 4th Street, I decided to pop into Harvelle’s, a happening blues club where white people with rhythm, or at least an appreciation of rhythm, go to listen to great black musicians tell sad stories through their roaring instruments.  Entering the club, I snuck past the fedora topped doorman collecting the ten-dollar cover charge, who was busy working on a redhead.  At the bar, I ordered a 7 & 7 and then pushed my way through the mostly middle-aged crowd to the back of the club to watch the thundering six-piece band.  Being one of those people who gets almost as much pleasure out of feeling pain, as I do joy, I’ve always loved the blues. 

All the seats at the little round tables were taken by those who’d planned their evening around Harvelle’s, so I wedged myself into a spot against the wall next to an attractive, full-bodied, blonde woman.  After shooting me a flirtatious glance or two, the blonde woman--over-dressed in a silky black cocktail dress with a gold-fringed neckline--tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I just told my sister you look like Superman.”

“Thanks,” I said, smiling toothily at her.  “But, trust me, I'm a lot more like Clark Kent than Superman.”

She laughed the way people do when they don’t get the joke--her eyes moving around searchingly as she tried to grasp my meaning.

Sporting round, tortoiseshell glasses, and wavy dark hair that hangs over my forehead, my appearance sometimes conjures up thoughts of Superman.  Maybe I even foster the look a little bit.  The Clark Kent line is my standard self-deprecating reply whenever I receive that compliment.  It’s usually met with a laugh.  Sometimes confusion.  Obviously, I like it when women say I look like Superman, even though it’s an impossible first impression to live up to.

“Are you here by yourself?” she asked, after a couple more minutes had passed, and the band’s song had ended.

“Uh...yeah.  I was with a bunch of friends earlier, but I got bored and decided to venture off by myself,” I said, knowing that most women were doubtful of the social value of anyone not in the company of others on a Friday night.

“Well, you can hang with us if you want to,” she said. 

“Okay…maybe I will.  Thanks,” I said, scanning the faces of the people standing next to her to try and figure out who “us” was.  “My name’s Aaron, by the way.”

“Not Clark?”

“Ha, ha, ha.  No, not Clark.  I wish.”

“I’m Daphne.”

“Nice to meet you, Daphne.  You look great tonight, by the way.  I love that dress.  It’s very…fancy.”

“Thanks.  I know, I’m totally overdressed, right?  We were just at this stupid benefit thing my sister dragged me to.  Oh—this is my sister, Gwen, and her boyfriend, David,” she said, spinning towards an older, less attractive version of herself, standing beside a guy with thinning blond hair, strategically arranged across his head to cover as much scalp as possible.  “Guys I’d like you to meet Superman.” 

We exchanged brief greetings and I could tell by the curdled expression on David’s pale, deeply lined face that he wasn't too excited about my entrance into the second act of his evening. Maybe he had a thing for his girlfriend’s little sister and didn’t like that she’d introduced me as the Man of Steel. 

As the band played on, the four of us stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the brick wall, nodding our heads to the beat.  The saxophone player absorbed most of our attention and enthusiastic side comments as he belted out his piercing, laconic notes.  As time passed and our interest in the music faded, Daphne and I took turns hollering our biographies back and forth into each other’s ears.  I mentioned the TV show I was writing for and my frustration working with a team of other writers hellbent on ensuring that their work was produced and not mine.  She told me she worked in a real estate office with her sister, hated it, and wanted to do something more exciting with her life.  She said she'd loved writing stories as a child, and I got the feeling she was hinting that she’d like me to get her a job working on the show.  I’ve met a lot of people that think that anyone can just jump into a writing career the way you might jump into a job delivering pizza.  No experience necessary.  All you need is a car.  But my annoyance with what she was saying was blunted by my appreciation for how she was saying it.  As she spoke, she constantly squeezed the bicep of my left arm to emphasize a point she was making--the way sensual women sometimes do when they want to communicate directly with your libido.  Her breathy voice in my ear seemed a bit overdone too, but I liked it so much I let her do most of the talking.

The blues band finished playing a little after 1:30 and the four of us filed out of the bar and onto the sidewalk with the rest of the “still up for anything” crowd. 

“Why don’t you come hang out at my sister’s place?” Daphne said, hooking her arm through mine as we headed towards their car.  “We’ve got plenty of beer and we’re thinking of grilling up some late-night burgers.” 

I had promised myself after I'd broken up with Rachel, that with my hard-earned freedom and the extra time it afforded me, I would pursue every experience to its natural conclusion.  I would never turn down an invitation to go anywhere or do anything for fear of missing out on an unusual happening or extraordinary event that I could cash in on someday. 

“That sounds like fun.  I’d love to,” I told Daphne.

“Oh, thank God!  Superman’s coming over to save us from our boring selves!” David said, overhearing our conversation from a few feet behind us.

I turned around and smiled at David.  He didn’t smile back.

“Do you need a ride, or will you be flying over?” he said, stepping off the curb to manually unlock a Volvo station wagon featuring a badly decaying Kerry/Edwards ’04 bumper sticker.

“I think I’m just gonna ride my bike,” I said.  “I’m a little too tipsy to fly.” 

There was no way I was going to get into a drunk, antagonistic guy’s car, so I asked for their address in Venice Beach, and told them I’d meet them there.  My excuse was that I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my brand-new bicycle behind, locked up on a sketchy street.  The street it was on wasn’t sketchy at all, and it was an old bike, not a new one, but since the bike was out of view it could be any age on any street it wanted to be. 

The ranch house Gwen and David rented was wedged in between two better lit, better maintained, two-story homes.  When I arrived, the darkness of the exterior of the crimson-colored house and the drawn window shades spooked me, and I considered hopping back on my bike and calling it a night.  But, I’m a man, and men don’t give up opportunities to hang out with attractive women at two in the morning. 

I knocked on the front door, once, twice, three times, and for several minutes my knocks went unanswered.  Pressing my ear against the metal door, I listened to the voices coming from inside the house.  Eventually I heard David’s voice say, “He’s out there knocking,” and stepped back as the door creaked open a few inches, and a pair of amused and inebriated eyes peeked out at me. 

“Superman!  Welcome!” David shouted, before flinging the door open so hard it banged against the inner wall.

After smothering me with a bear hug, David threw his arm around my neck and led me through the long dark entrance hall into the glaring brightness of the living room.  As we moved, he slurred something salacious in my ear about Daphne in a buddy-buddy tone, but I have no idea what he said.  The furniture in the house reeked of smoke and were the kind of secondhand treasures you normally come across in an alley.  The tapestries, draped over the chairs and couches, were likely there to hide the stains and tears in the fabric. 

Daphne and Gwen were sprawled out on separate couches like two courtesans hoping to be selected by a visiting John.  I greeted Daphne with a quick peck on the cheek and sat down next to her on the couch after she swung her bare feet to the floor.  She leaned towards me, hooked her arm through mine again, and rested her head on my shoulder.  I’ve always been baffled by the willingness of some women I’ve just met to immediately act as if we’re an established couple.  Physical intimacies and even pet names applied after only knowing each other for a number of hours.

“This is a cool place,” I said, tensing up as I felt all the eyes in the room watching me.  “I love your tapestries.  They remind me of my college days.  Didn’t you guys love college?  I loved college.”

“What college did you go to?” Gwen asked, as she lied on the couch across from me with her left hand tucked behind her head and her right hand strangling a Corona.

“I went to a small liberal arts school called Hobart.  You’ve probably never heard of it.”

“Was that here in the states or was that back on Krypton?” David asked.

The three of them laughed and I joined in the laughter just before it died out.

“That was in upstate New York.  Krypton blew up when I was an infant, remember?”

More laughter, which this time I initiated.   

“So, what would Superman like to drink?” David said, still on his feet, standing by the kitchen doorway.  “We’ve got beer, wine, and some stuff to mix with vodka.”

“Beer sounds great,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“Stella or Corona?” he asked.

“Stella, please.”

“In the bottle or in a glass?”

“In a glass would be great.  Thank you.”

“A tall, narrow glass, or a short, wide one?”

Gwen giggled and took a sip of her Corona.

“Ha, ha, ha, a tall one would be perfect.”      

“And would you like a glass made of lead or one you can see through?"

Daphne giggled too, lifted her head off my shoulder, and looked into my eyes to see how I was handling David’s twenty questions.

“I guess it would be nice to see through it, if I have the option,” I said. 

“You have the option,” David said.  “We like to accommodate all the superheroes that come over to our house.”

 “David just get the man a fuckin’ beer,” Daphne said, noting my growing frustration.

“You do look like Superman,” David said.

“And you look like Lex Luther,” I said, too intoxicated to resist.

“I do, don’t I?” David said, smiling out of one side of his mouth.  “Why?  Because I’m balding?  Was that supposed to be a bald joke?”

“No.  I was just kidding around.”

“Wow.  Does Superman possess a superhuman sense of humor, too?” he said.

“Just get him a fuckin’ Stella!” Daphne said.  “He’s sitting there without a fuckin’ beer!”

Instead of retreating, David advanced.  “Hey, we can’t all have perfect hair like you do, Superman,” he said, reaching down and grabbing a fistful of my hair.  “Look at all this luscious wind-blown hair.”

“Please get off me,” I said, jerking my head away from his hand. 

There's nothing more enraging than being touched by someone you don’t like.

“David, stop being a prick and get Superman his fuckin’ beer!” Gwen said, followed by a fit of inexplicable laughter.

David saluted Gwen, turned on his heel, and marched into the kitchen humming “Hail to the Chief” as he went.  There was the sound of several bottles clanking in the refrigerator and a bottle top being popped and hitting the floor.  I smiled at Daphne and then at Gwen, but no one said anything while David was out of the room.  When he returned, he handed me a cold bottle of Corona. 

“Sorry, I forgot what your order was, Superman,” he said, plopping down on the couch between Daphne and me and throwing his arms around us.

“My name’s Aaron,” I said, sliding away from him.

“Come over here, David,” Gwen said, lunging forward, grabbing him by the belt, and pulling him onto the other couch on top of her.    

“Okay, who wants burgers?!” David said, leaping up and prancing back into the kitchen.

“Burgers!” Gwen yelled, following closely behind him.  “There’s an onion in the bottom drawer of the fridge!  I’ll chop it up!”

“I’ll get the mushrooms!”

Left alone with Daphne and feeling as distant from her as I’ve ever felt from any woman in my life, I wracked my brain trying to think of something to talk about.  I was beginning to wonder if I was the butt of that night’s joke--imagining that every Friday night the three of them went out for drinks, selected a stranger in a club, and brought him back to the house to be ridiculed.  Maybe the last guy they’d had over bore a striking resemblance to Justin Bieber. 

“So, I take it you guys are all meat-eaters?” I finally said to Daphne, whose head was back on my shoulder.

“Yeah, why?  Is Superman a vegetarian?”

Gwen yelled from the kitchen: “Superman’s a vegetarian?!”

“No.  I’ll eat anything you put in front of me,” I said.

“Anything?” Daphne said.

“Anything?!” David repeated, with the accompaniment of a chopping blade.

“Sure.”

“Do you like brownies?” Daphne asked.

“Brownies?  Of course.  I love them.”

She laughed at my enthusiasm, kissed me hard on the mouth, and went into the kitchen with the others.  I watched the three of them through the kitchen doorway, busy with food preparation, making a big dinner in the middle of the night.  When Daphne returned, she was holding a cheap paper plate with two round brownies on it.

“Wow, they’re round,” I said, examining my brownie before biting into it.  “Where I come from, they're usually square.”

“My sister made them.  She likes them round.”

The brownies tasted strange.  They were also harder and less chewy than the ones I’d had in the past--as if Gwen had added a pinch of sawdust to the batter.  I’d learned a long time ago that when something tastes funny you should spit it out.  But I didn’t spit out the brownie.  In fact, I ate the whole thing and the last bite of Daphne’s, too.  Don’t forget, I was going along with the course of the evening, hoping to learn things about these people and their lives that I could use someday…while also hoping to get laid.

Soon, David and Gwen brought out the burgers on the same cheap paper plates I’d been served my brownie.  They were out of hamburger buns, Gwen said, so they served the square, badly burned patties on crumbling white bread with tomatoes, lettuce, chopped onions, and tiny mushrooms piled high on top.  The heaping contents covered in a tangy sauce--something akin to barbeque sauce--which also tasted a bit strange. 

After our 3 a.m. meal, we all smoked from the two-foot purple bong on the coffee table, and then David and Gwen crashed and headed off to bed.  As David stumbled out of the living room, he left us with these parting words:

 “Have fun you two, and Daphne, please let us know if Superman lives up to his name...”

Daphne and I remained on the couch, scrounging through each other’s minds, trying to find a common interest.  For anyone attempting to engage in a one-night stand, discovering a common interest is an essential element to moving the relationship forward from conversing to fondling.  As Daphne’s head continued to rest on my shoulder, she mentioned something about how she’d stopped eating Doritos, and I remember thinking that this was not a woman I wanted to pursue beyond daylight.  I was even hoping she would remove her head from my shoulder.  The intimacy of it, with her hair touching my neck, felt odd between strangers.  Like someone sitting next to you on an airplane falling asleep and inadvertently using your shoulder as a pillow.  Eventually the conversation ran dry and Daphne raised her lips to mine to cover the awkward silence with a barrage of hard kisses. 

Later, I remember Daphne pulling me into a walk-in closet sized room somewhere along the narrow hallway of the house and the two of us plopping down on top of a blow-up mattress made for only one person.  I remember more groping on the squeaky mattress and the brief appearance of one of her breasts.  I remember lying my head down on a throw pillow made of stone and closing my eyes and then waking up with a start, my face and chest covered in sweat, my mind racing like it had never raced before.  I remember feeling blindly around the dark room for my glasses and my boots, apologizing to Daphne for not feeling well and needing to go home, and then saying goodbye to her as she laid there on that blow-up mattress, half-inflated with air. 

… 

It must have taken me twenty minutes to execute the three-number combination to unlock my bicycle from the stop sign outside their house.  The right side of my body felt heavier than the left, and as I attempted to mount the bike and push away from the curb, I capsized with a violent crash onto the street.  The bruises running down my right shoulder and hip were there the next morning to confirm what my cloudy brain could not.  My next attempt to mount and steer the bicycle must have been successful because soon I became aware that I was pedaling through the scorching night air, fully absorbed with the terrifying thoughts rushing through my head—attacking me in cycles like fighter planes shooting their missiles, circling around behind the mountains, and returning to fire at me again.  The pattern went like this: I’d drift off into my thoughts for thirty seconds, then remember in a flash of panic that I was riding a bicycle, return momentarily to my body, and feel my feet peddling as I raced down the dimly lit streets.  As the cycle repeated itself seemingly in equal intervals of time, I tried to concentrate on staying inside my body, but discovered I was no longer running things, and that the goal of getting home safely was about as difficult and dangerous a mission as landing a spacecraft on the moon.

Clearly, I was tripping.  Something I had never done before.  And the journey home seemed to last a hundred nights.  Looking back on the scene I’d played out at David and Gwen’s little house of hell, I was curious as to just how many drugs I’d consumed and what specifically those drugs were.  The pot I take full responsibility for--I smoked it willingly when it was passed my way, taking two puffs from the bong, one a mighty one that drew cheers.  I’m sure the round brownies were also laced with pot.  Daphne seemed to indicate that fact without saying so, though I do find it odd that a verbal warning was withheld.  So, the big question is: was it the pot alone that overpowered me, or were the mushrooms in the burger of a hallucinogenic nature as well?  I seem to remember David punching the word mushrooms the same way Daphne had punched the word brownies, as if to indicate a superior qualityAnd whether the secret sauce on the burgers was laced with LSD, PCP, or just MSG, I guess I’ll never know. 

The miracle is that despite all the ghosts and goblins escorting me home, doing figure eights inside my head, I still managed to find my way back to my apartment.  A half hour ride in the real world, an endless summer in the world of psychedelic drugs.  By the time I reached my apartment in Santa Monica, I was convinced that whatever those people slipped me, had done irreversible damage to my brain.  I’d known an actor whose brother had never returned from wherever a bad tab of acid had taken him.

…       

Inside my second-floor apartment, I locked the door to the bedroom, lowered myself onto the bed, and with the light still on, quietly willed my paranoid thoughts to go away.  But the thirty second intervals of hallucinations continued, and the horror of thinking that my brain had been ruined by Lex Luther caused me to leap up from the bed and seek out the help of a friend.  I carefully took out my cellphone and called John, an actor, who was my closest friend in Los Angeles.  John lived in Burbank with his wife and two-year-old son, a good thirty-minute drive away, but he was the person I felt least guilty about inconveniencing at four o’clock in the morning.  I’d written a TV pilot for him about his childhood growing up living over his family’s comedy club and he owed me a big favor.  After four rings, the call went to voicemail and I left a long, rambling message detailing the events of the evening, and mentioning what drugs I may or may not have taken, and the horrifying effect they were having on my brain.  John later told me that I repeated the phrase “Something terrible is happening to my brain,” over and over again.  After leaving the message, I endured yet another hallucination, and then called John two more times, leaving two more messages, asking him to please come out to Santa Monica a.s.a.p.                      

I would not hear from John until three o’clock the following afternoon, when he called to say that he hadn’t checked his messages until after he’d gotten back from lunch.  He expressed his deepest concern and apologized for having slept through what sounded like a terrifying ordeal… Although, in Burbank, a couple months later, while I was attending his wife, Taylor’s 30th birthday party, she let it slip to me in the kitchen that John had listened to my messages in the middle of the night, but was too afraid of the demonically possessed man who’d left them to try and save him from whatever disaster he was facing.  I’d thought that was probably the case, knowing John’s fear-based personality, but it was nice to have it confirmed by his wife over a non-alcoholic beer. 

After giving up on John coming to my rescue, I did something that would have been unthinkable under any other circumstances: I called my ex-girlfriend, Rachel.  I hadn’t spoken to her in over a year, since I’d stormed out the front door of the house we were renting in Redondo Beach.  Not surprisingly, she, too, did not pick up the phone.  But it was a blessing because in my drug-induced state I seemed to think that everything that had happened between us was completely my fault and that I was lost and floundering without her and needed her back in my life immediately.  At least that’s what I remember hearing myself saying into the phone while leaving a sobbing message that would certainly have led to a reconciliation and more time spent in captivity.  Luckily, the message detailing what a good and stable person she was, and what a bad and unstable person I was, extended past the allotted time her Verizon phone provides for rambling messages, and a mechanical voice came on the line instructing me that I had a couple options with which to either save or destroy my future.  If I was satisfied with my message, I should press one to send it, OR if I was unsatisfied with it, I should press two to erase and re-record it.  I took a moment to consider my options, and miraculously in my psychedelic state, had a sense of the repercussions of pressing one, pressed two, and ended the call. 

Rachel didn’t call me back the next day or any day thereafter to find out why I had called her in the wee hours of the night.

Deciding to put away my phone, I then took a long shower to try and wash the drugs out of my brain with lots of shampoo and water.  I must have shampooed my hair four or five times because the next day when I went to take another shower the bottle of Finesse was empty.  After the hot shower, the drugs’ effect must have heightened or changed course because my paranoia grew into a sudden conviction that I was about to die.  I became fixated with what I perceived as the faint beats of my heart--terrified that the last seconds of my life were quietly ticking away.  Quickly conceiving a mayday plan, I punched open the screen door to my apartment, walked the short distance between my apartment and my neighbor Matt’s, and knocked on the peeling brown paint of his front door.  After a dozen or so knocks, Matt appeared in the doorway looking both sleepy-eyed and alarmed.

 “Hi Aaron.  What’s up?  What time is it?” he said, blocking the glaring security light from across the courtyard with the back of his hand.

 “Hey Matt, sorry to wake you, but I have this horrifying feeling that I’m about to die and I wondered if you had a few minutes to talk.”

 “Oh, my gosh.  Why do you think you’re about to die?” he asked.

 “Well, I think these people I don’t know fed me drugs tonight and whatever they fed me is really messing with my mind and my heart right now.”

 “Hold on a second.  Hold on.  You’re probably just tripping.  I’ve coached a friend through this before.  Don’t worry, you’re gonna be fine.  You’re not gonna die right now.  It’s just the drugs working on you.  Let me throw on some clothes and then I’ll come over to your place and talk you through it.  Go home and I’ll be over there in a second.”

 “Okay, thank you.  I’ll be waiting for you at my place.  Thank you very much, Matt.”

Expecting to be dead by the time he arrived, I went back into my apartment, sat down on the leather couch, took my cell phone and wallet out of my pockets, and holding them tightly in my lap, waited for death to come.  A few minutes later, Matt opened the screen door without knocking, and proceeded to move around the apartment, turning on all the lights in the living room, bedroom, and kitchen.  When he finished with the lights, he walked over to where I was sitting on the couch and sat down across from me on top of the glass coffee table.

 “Be careful, that’s glass!” I yelled, as he was bending his legs to sit.

 “Don’t worry, it’s not gonna break.  Everything’s gonna be fine,” he said in a slow, measured tone that was a departure from his normally fast-paced “I have all the answers and you have none of them” manner of talking. 

 “Listen,” I said.  “There’s a good chance that in the next few minutes I’m not gonna be around anymore…”

 “You’re gonna be around.  You’re just--”

 “Just listen to me please!  I’m running out of time.  I can feel the beats of my heart winding down.  I just wondered if you could do me a big favor after I’m gone,” I said, bringing up the contact list on my phone.  “Could you please call all these people, beginning with my parents, listed here under Mom and Dad, and let them know that I love them, and tell them…thank you for giving me such a wonderful life?”

 “Aaron, you’re not going to die right now.  I guarantee it,” he said.  “But if somehow something does happen to you then…yes, I’ll let everyone know how much you love them, and how much you appreciated their contributions to your life.”

 “No, please say this: ‘Aaron said he loves you and wants to thank you for helping to give him such a wonderful life’.  I like the wonderful life part because it reminds me of that Christmas movie.”

 “Okay.  I’ll say that.”

 “Thanks.  The password to get into my phone is 1720.  17 was my baseball number in college.  20 was my baseball number in high school.  Should I write it down?”

 “No.  I’ve got it.  I have a good memory for numbers.”

 “Okay, thank you, Matt, I really appreciate your doing this for me,” I said, sticking my hand out in what Matt later called a gentlemanly fashion that he found touching under the circumstances.  

 “Why don’t I go into the kitchen and make us some coffee?” he said.

 “I don’t have any coffee.  I’m sorry.  All I have is cinnamon tea.”

 “Well, then, why don’t I go into the kitchen and make us some cinnamon tea?”

 “That sounds good.  I like a lot of sugar in mine.”                

 “Okay, I’ll put a lot of sugar in yours.”

 “Thank you.  Thanks again for everything, Matt.”

 “Happy to help out.”

I turned my head and watched Matt walk into the kitchen and go about the business of making tea.  Under the bright overhead lights his gaunt face, rarely blinking blue eyes, and white, sleep-tousled hair, combined to create a sinister appearance, and suddenly I felt like I was seeing him for the first time for who he truly was... 

 “So, it’s true,” I thought.  “When it’s our time to die, we’re visited by an agent of darkness in human form, who ushers us into the next world.” 

And, to my surprise and horror, he’d been living in the apartment next door, biding his time until I made a mistake and opened myself up for the taking.

 “Hey Matt, I’m feeling a little better now,” I said, turning my face away from the kitchen doorway.  “Why don’t you go home and get some more sleep?  I feel terrible about keeping you up.”

 “Oh, it’s no problem.  I don’t mind.  We’ll have some tea, and a little chat, and then before you know it, the sun will be up,” he said.

 “Well, you know what?  I don’t really feel like chatting right now.  But feel free to pour yourself some tea in any mug you like and take it back to your place with you.  You can keep the mug, too.  I’ve got a ton of mugs.  Take any mug you want.”

 “No, I think it’s better if I stay here and we drink our tea together.  A glass of tea will be good to calm you down.  Besides, I’m awake now, I couldn’t fall back to sleep if I tried.”

Matt appeared in the kitchen doorway holding two steaming mugs of tea.  One mug had the Philadelphia Phillies logo on it, and the other one, a mug I had bought after my break-up with Rachel, had the words: “Me Boss. You Not.” printed on it. 

 

 “What is this, Matt?”  What are you really doing here?” I blurted out as he approached me with the steaming mugs.

 “What do you mean?” he said, sitting back down on the glass coffee table.

 “Did you really come here to make me tea?  Or are you here for another reason?”

 “I’m here to help guide you through your altered state, Aaron.”

 “Guide me through my altered state?  What is that, code for something?”

 “No.  Not at all.”

 “You’re who I think you are, aren’t you?” I said, leaning back against the sofa to examine his mysterious face.

 “I don’t know.  Who do you think I am?”

 “The gentleman who came to take me away.”

He laughed.  “Aaron, trust me, I am not the gentleman who came to take you away.”

 “You’re Death, Matt.  I can see that very clearly now.”

 “No, I’m just Matt, your next-door neighbor.  You took drugs tonight and then you knocked on my door and asked me to help guide you through an episode.”

 “An episode?”

 “Yes.  An episode.”

 “I don’t care for that terminology… An episode.” 

He was still holding the mugs, which were no longer steaming.  I lunged forward, grabbed the mugs out of his hands, raced into the kitchen, and dumped their contents into the sink.  When I turned around Matt was standing by the stove watching me.  He moved quickly.  I had never noticed that before.

 “I don’t want tea.  If I’m gonna die tonight, it’s not gonna be because I drank tea.”

 “Fine.  But you’re not going to die tonight.  I promise.”

 “How do you know that?  How do you know so much about when I’m going to die?” I said.

 “I don’t.  I just know that it’s not going to happen tonight while I’m here with you.  In the safety of your own home.”

 “Oh yeah?  Then when’s it gonna happen?  What are you gonna do take me outside into the dark alley and do it out there?”  

     “I’m not here to hurt you, Aaron.  I’m here to help you.”

I leaned forward and studied his face again.  Up close it looked a little less menacing than it did from far away.

 “You promise me you’re not him?”

 “I’m not him.  Do you see me wearing a black hood and carrying a scythe?”

 “No.  I don’t.”

 “Well, then you have nothing to worry about.  Now why don’t we both go back into the other room, sit down, relax, and try and watch some TV?”

 “TV?  Okay…I’d be willing to try that.”

He led me into the living room, grabbed the remote control off the arm of the couch, and flipped on the TV.  MSNBC, my favorite cable news channel flashed on, along with a smiling still shot of Donald Trump and an audio recording of his voice.

 “Could we watch something else, please?” I said.

 “Of course.” 

Matt changed the channel to ESPN, and as he watched the highlights of the Dodgers game, I watched him, watching the highlights.  Eventually dawn broke, and I began to nod off.  The hallucinations had finally stopped and been replaced by horrible stomach cramps--a product of the mushrooms I’d likely ingested, a friend more familiar with drugs later told me.  Matt nodded off too, in the reading chair next to me, and when he woke up, I told him I was ready for bed, and that he should feel free to go home to his apartment. 

We both stood up, and he gave me a hug that implied a lack of deodorant, and I thanked him for seeing me through the night.  He headed out the door, and I studied him as he walked along our shared terrace and slipped back inside his apartment, greeting Binky, his black and white cat, in kitten talk as he entered.

With Matt gone, I locked the bolt to the front door, walked into the bedroom, and locked that door as well.  Still jolted by the image of his sinister face under the kitchen lights, I assumed he would be back someday to take me to the place I was destined to go.  Maybe not in the form of my next-door neighbor, but certainly in the form of someone I knew and trusted, who’d be the last person I’d expect it to be.  That said, I was glad to know who to look for now, and relieved that this time I had broken his will and escaped his wrath to live a longer and more productive life.  I was also thankful for the drugs, and the strangers who had fed them to me, for allowing me to know just how Death would creep up on me one day, so that I would be less afraid of him the next time he appeared, and more willing to accept the inevitable fate he had come to deliver.

Although, my thankfulness did not prevent me from egging their house the next time I found myself shitfaced after dark in Venice Beach.