R.I.P. Big A

There’s a painting of him in an alleyway in Koreatown, a mural that doesn’t look like the Andrew of my self-lacerating memories – it looks like a picture of someone who wanted to exit

There’s an alleyway that runs from Follis to Koreatown. That’s where we met, somewhere in the middle.

I was scared of him when I was young. He was older, and there was something in his gaze that made me think about him while I was alone. It was as if he possessed an ugly secret about me. 

Once my friends went up the alley to the now-defunct arcade that sold loose cigarettes to scope out the terrain and make sure he wasn’t there. But he appeared from out of his mother’s station wagon. 

He looked glorious, perfect Kurt Cobain hair dragging sullenly over his eyes (mine was always too shaggy), with Lithium Jean shorts and a T-shirt with a barracuda on it. 

“Which one of you is fat?” he deadpanned, as his mother disappeared out of earshot. Seconds later, all four of us had our barracuda-less shirts up.

He grabbed one of my love handles. “You have girl’s hips,” he said.

This was something that worried me quite a bit back then. I even found myself slightly envious of the fat kids at the pool because at least their bellies stuck straight out, not at the sides in a way I imagined to be feminine. 

The fact that he was able to so quickly take a flame-thrower to my private little amoeba of insecurity led me to conclude that he was evil – and that I’d get him back for it.

For the next four years, I would ask every teenage girl I could cajole into bed the question: “Do I look weird naked?” They would say no, of course, and usually laugh that I worried about it too much.

Eventually I moved to the east end with my mother. I didn’t see him until my 18th birthday at a house party with my new group of friends, who’d developed a reputation for beating the shit out of people. We called ourselves the Winona Boys.

Andrew, now slightly overweight, ushered me over to the veranda and offered me a Heineken. Life had, for whatever reason, softened him. 

He passed me a beer. “I always liked you, bro.”

We became close after that, sharing the same demonic, politically-incorrect sense of humour and a penchant for alcohol.

I’d dropped out of high school. He was “between classes” at the University of Toronto. He had a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (one that I jokingly mocked). 

While I scrubbed dishes at an uptown restaurant, he went for bike rides and lifted gruesome amounts of weights at the gym – protein powder, no carbs, the works. We’d convene at dark in the alley where we’d met and descend the steps into his basement.

Alcohol served as a silky lubricant and brought us closer. We talked mostly about sex. And always with a slightly competitive edge, as if there were a girl in the room. 

Near the end of our basement days, I had started doing opiates and cocaine, and the conversation had become one-sided. He didn’t like the new Jesse, the sweaty, jibberish-spewing, mean-spirited guy who made his friends slightly uncomfortable.

One night, after the OxyContin had left my system and I’d run out of money after a wasted a summer wandering around the city with pupils the size of pinheads, I woke up and burst into tears. My room was a shade of blue I’d never seen before. It was terrifying. He was the first person I thought to call. I knew he had some pills over at his house that he was holding for someone. As the phone rang, I rehearsed a story of how I’d pay him back.

I needn’t have worried. With a laugh, he said, “Come on over, bro.”  It was an expression of love and forgiveness, a chuckle at the chaos that I’ve always remembered and adored about him.

The alleyway held the same shadows. When I got to his basement, he had candles lit. The room was spotless. His girlfriend played on the computer. The scene filled me with the paranoid sense that life had gone on without me. I was happy to be there, though, in the warmth with my friend.

Our visit ended with the early-morning sun and us doing snow angels in the backyard. 

I moved to Vancouver shortly after to clean up. Heartbroken over a girl, dope-sick, I got a job in a restaurant and started to write a film screenplay. 

I received a call from him a couple of months later.

He’d gotten caught doing something that carries a stiff jail sentence. I talked to his mother. She was devastated. His father was stoic, as usual.

We went for a long walk when I moved back to Toronto. He told me he was facing five years in prison and that he’d kissed the girl I’d moved to escape.

Jail, in the beginning, was good for him. The militaristic regimen helped alleviate the symptoms of his OCD. He worked out and was generally respected for his sense of humour and athletic ability. He had to dumb himself down, he told me. A little bit of intelligence was fine, but too much could get you beat up.

I was sober by that point and at work on my first novel. But my mid-20s had been deeply troubled, and I had a superstitious notion that if I opened the door to some of it, every ugly molecule of it would spill forth. I sent Andrew’s phone calls upon his release directly to voice mail. 

Once again our friendship took a long hiatus. Then one night, I looked at my gleaming apartment, my sizable bank statement, the un-proofed galleys of my soon-to-be published novel and thought, “I’ve done enough now.” I called him.

He’d finally moved out of his parents’ basement and was making good money, doing what was unclear. He’d developed a serious drug habit and was regularly suicidal but still very funny. We embraced and got to it. We did what we always did together, albeit a little more intensely.

At some point in the night I asked him about my body. I told him I still thought about what he’d said all those years ago.

He looked at me with sad eyes and lifted up his shirt. “See?” he said, gripping his love handles. “I have the same thing. You just didn’t notice. And in the end, girls don’t give a shit… and that’s all that matters, my man, right?”

One week later he was dead from a drug overdose.

There’s a painting of him in the alleyway now, a spray-painted mural that doesn’t look like the Andrew of my self-lacerating memories. It doesn’t look like the chubby, humbled one either – nor the muscle man. It looks like an Andrew I never saw, his eyes robbed of their glimmer and intelligence. A picture of someone who wanted to exit. Rest in peace, Andrew. I love you.   

Jesse Gilmour is a Toronto-based playwright and fiction writer. He gives a reading at The Axis Gallery (3048 Dundas West) as part of Junction Reads Sunday, October 16 at 5 pm.

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