We sit in the living room of the apartment his mom is renting for him as a desperate attempt to somehow force his brain back into the normal mode it operated in before the first hallucinations came to haunt his everything- she believes if he can live normally with a place of his own, it will cure the schizophrenia. There's nothing but my rolled up, ripped and threadbare excuse for a sleeping bag, two folding chairs, and a card table in this too big room. We sold the nice futon and television his mom bought a long time ago. On the table, on top of a layer of Saran Wrap, are my tattoo machines, my pigment, my needles and my greensoap, nestled amongst a pile of paper napkins from 7-11; paper towels like I preferred weren't in a budget designed around every penny being spent on heroin for both of us and crack for him. A box of black nitrile gloves sit on the very corner of the flimsy and shaky plastic surface balancing out the power supply sitting kittycorner to it, my foot pedal tucked under the table in easy reach of my right foot. It looks like a tattoo shop compressed into a prison cell until you notice the hundreds of dirty insulin needles scattered across the carpet around us; there aren't multitudes of needles scattered in most prison cells.
His arm is held steady in the clearly uncomfortable position I've bent it into, his boney, so deathly thin elbow in the right spot for the work I've been tasked with and talked into doing while high. My first- and fortunately last- tattooing job while nodding out; my best friend, boyfriend, and confidant is the only one safe enough to risk this on, he says. God, he is so thin. We are both so thin. Together we barely break 200 pounds, and he is over six feet tall. If you empty the pennies he insists we save- but aren't ever allowed to spend- out of our pockets before forcing us onto the scale, we wouldn't even be 190 together.
Electric buzzing fills the silence and then the clinking of glass joins the din as a friend drops off the vodka we are owed in payment for allowing him to sleep in the bathtub last night. I shouldn't drink, Zelda even more so, yet we do anyway. The heroin and alcohol mix in my blood and I nod harder, my edges blur to grayscale nothingness, my focus falls by the wayside.
Spiderwebs and elbow tattoos are precise with no room for sloppy lines or mistakes. I'd spent an hour and a half the night before drawing this web onto my fellow warrior's elbow, as I wanted to have a day to look at it and watch it as he moved and bent and twisted and raged and tried to murder me in a paranoid delusion. It was perfect. Everything was perfect. Everything was a perfect, beautiful, deadly swirling mass of chaotic selfishness and selflessness combined into hatred and love and companionship.
I nodded and the needle followed my weakening hand as I slipped away, caught quickly but still too late. Perfect was destroyed and strays entered the picture. Stray lines, stray souls, stray hopes being mutilated and tortured to death. We locked eyes and agreed silently to try once again. We were almost halfway there, and I handed my bottle to him so he could finish my rightful share while I tried to work the line I'd made in nod into the design I'd painstakingly drawn with purple surgical marking pen 24 hours before.
Another nod, another line. We locked eyes and silently decided to finish in the morning. Morning soon seemed hopelessly distant. Within 10 minutes of me cleaning up and packing away my machines, our "friend" and sometimes roommate overdosed and almost died while I did CPR and mouth to mouth on her for over a half hour until she finally took a breath on her own and her pulse came back to my fingertips pressed against her carotid artery. I ran her pockets once it was clear she'd survive, stealing the rest of her smack in the name of preventing a second round of lifesaving for her and preventing a round of dopesick blues for myself.
And then I set out to erase the image of her blue, lifeless, breathless and pulseless body from my mind with copious amounts of vodka and heroin. The erasing worked in a way; I erased forever the rest of the night from my memory, finding out I'd blacked out and gotten violent only when I came to hours later on the floor rather than in our bed and saw the cuts and bruises on Zelda's face, a first for me- I am not a fighter. I'd attacked my best friend, my boyfriend, my everything and beaten him bloody and black and blue without knowing why I'd done it or how I overpowered him. It wasn't until years later that I learned I hadn't overpowered him- he had refused to raise a hand to me even in self defense, a far cry from the constant attempts to kill me while in paranoid episodes. Zelda was a good boy when the disease wasn't chewing on those vital parts of his cerebellum.
Paradise was tarnished and the solid ground was shaky. The ending started within days of my blackout and lasted little more than a few months, and I will never know if my beating is what caused the sudden and drastic acceleration of symptoms. He hadn't had his first schizophrenic signs until he was 22- a relatively late onset- and for it to go into a tailspin like it did so quickly wasn't typical. I stood by Zelda through the worst of times in his life and he stood by me, but cheating is never okay and when he refused to kick her out of our room one night when I caught him with her, I'd had enough at last. The boy I'd grown up with, who'd journeyed big stretches of my path with me since I was 10, who was the one person I could always always crawl back to and be welcomed no matter how damaged I'd become, wasn't the same boy anymore. He wasn't my Zelda anymore. The paranoid schizophrenia was getting worse and even medicated now his personality was forever altered beyond repair. He became increasingly misogynistic and treated me like trash more and more. He walked away from punk rock and techno and decided rap was his culture. He stuck out like a sore thumb and for the first time in our lives, it didn't cause him pain to know he fit nowhere anymore because his spirit was owned by the sickness in his head, leaving no room for the emotions and reactions that would've made sense in those final weeks. The cheating, the lying, the name calling and the physical attacks when delusional had always taken their toll on me but I could never leave him just because he was sick- the good days truly did make the bad worth it. But the day came when it was clear that the good was gone, as was the bad, replaced by a stranger in Zelda's body. I had to leave. I had to walk away. I would kill myself with drugs because of grief or he would finally kill me in a paranoid episode if I didn't. And it caused Zelda no pain when I did- he simply was too broken now to feel anything normal, too brain damaged to be saved.
I walked away and saw Zelda only in passing while buying smack from then on, as we used the same dealer at the same dopehouse. I left bags of clean needles there for the dealer to give to Zelda, the only way left I could take care of him. I let go a little more each day but knew he'd forever leave me changed.
Within four months of my blackout, Zelda was dead. The story his mother told acquaintances was that he died in his sleep, but I was privy to the truth and the contents of the toxicology report. Zelda died of a heroin overdose, the way he always said he wanted to go if he had a choice- a final rush and then a soft, warm black curtain drawn on the "freakshow" his life had become. Euthanasia, a good death. It wasn't suicide to me no matter what the evidence stated because Zelda no longer had even split seconds of clarity where he would be able to make that concentrated effort and final decision to end his mental illness once and for all. It was euthanasia, with the giver of the good death being whatever higher power there is above, the same higher power that made goddamn sure I survived the loss of my Zelda.
His funeral was the most macabre and disturbing event I've ever been to. The entire old Blue Hill Punks crew was there, friends who turned their back on Zelda and I the day we caught our first habits. It was an open casket, and Zelda lay in his favorite ripped Rancid t-shirt, his dozen beloved brightly colored bracelets made by various friends out of cheap plastic beads still adorned his chillingly skinny wrists, and his elbow showed the half spiderweb tattoo we kept saying we would finish the next day, for weeks on end. Nirvana's "Unplugged" album played over the speakers in the ceiling in the icy funeral home room. Zelda's eyes were closed softly, the star below his right eye as perfect as the day it was first tattooed. I felt eyes bore into my own star tattoo below my left eye whenever I spoke to someone at the viewing, my living memorial and declaration of unconditional love for my best friend which Zelda had gone with me to get and given me his enthusiastic blessing on doing. I turned away from the casket and gazed across the room, registering so many faces who came to pretend they loved him too but who had all turned their backs and never thought of him until he died. I had to protect myself and put physical space between me and Zelda but not a day has gone by in over 16 years that I have not thought of Zelda, no matter how far away I was. I have always and will always love him unconditionally. The same way I love my best friend Lepurd, or my friend Dex, or Rattie or Annie or my mom and sisters and whole family. Nothing they can ever do will change my love for them.
But anger or rage towards the ones who walked away was not going to save Zelda now. It wouldn't save me. It wouldn't ease the pain or make this any easier for Zelda's mother, who was preparing to do the unthinkable and see her son for the final time before burying him. My anger was irrelevant and petty in the bigger picture of this event. I had to let it go. No matter what the old crew had done or said or thought, they were here for the exact same thing I was- to say goodbye to our friend.
I turned back and faced Zelda once again. Tears were streaming down my face, my heart felt like it was being crumpled into a ball to be thrown against a wall, and my hands shook as I reached out towards Zelda's silky smooth face for the final time. I ran my fingers down his cheek, the cold firmness of his skin reminding me he was not there, he was somewhere far above or beyond this world where addiction and mental illness do not exist. I looked carefully at each detail of his face, each line of each tattoo that was visible on his arms, neck, and his star on his cheek, committing them to memory so I would be sure to see them in my mind whenever it all felt like too much.
Zelda will never truly die because he lives on in my heart. He lives on in memories, in the black star upon my cheek just below my left eye, in the bag of plastic PLUR beads in my nightstand drawer. He doesn't die because he's one of those eternal souls, one of those who even when truly completely beaten still had a spark, even when that spark did nothing but add to the flames that were consuming him. Zelda was a warrior, he was a brave, he was a fucking total wreck insane sometimes very mean but always unique and startlingly real boy who stomped all over my soul and left scars that will never heal but also splashes of color and good memories that will never fade. This punk rock kid made an impact on everyone he met and I still talk with old friends and reminisce about the days before Zelda got sick. If you met Zelda even once, you remember him. He had that staying power and that memorable of a personality.
And somehow, knowing he'll never truly die because his memory lives on makes the unthinkable and horrific fact of his death a little less of a pathetic excuse to kill myself slowly with heroin over a period of years and more of an excuse to do fucking better. To not make the same choices I made when with Zelda and to live better in his honor.
Honoring his memory is the eternal flame I keep lit for him, burning on forever no matter how dark the nights may be.