by Courtney Dorsey
For privacy reasons names and location have been changed.
Though the painful memories are real. Stay with us, Mike; please.
This is not a love story, though I love him still. This is not one of those “the stars aligned for us” type of story. We are friends. I clear this up in the beginning because I am a girl and he’s a boy. For some reason that means we are supposed to follow some romantic comedy trajectory where, after years of friendship, we fall in love. Like it just happens that way or something. Well, like I said, we are friends. A friendship that has lasted a little over 7 years now; a friendship that blossomed during nights of endless laughter, as well as elongated discussions that often turned into heated (but civil) arguments about books, movies, etc. We talked about the future, our childhoods, anything, everything, and we were always able to be ourselves. But now our friendship doesn’t offer me any of those things. Now our friendship only brings me an immense amount of pain; pain that strikes me to my inner core, leaving me short of breath, short of answers, as I continually ask others, and myself how all of this happened to him.
I met Mike our first day on the job, tending bar at the new corporate restaurant, Billy’s. Both of us had been bartending for different corporate restaurants when we were asked to transfer and help with the new opening. I was finishing up eating a cheeseburger before my night shift and Mike walked up to me, his hair still wet from his shower (it was 3pm) and said, “I have always had respect for skinny girls who can put down giant cheeseburgers. Well, not that I mind when fat people eat them. I guess I am saying it looks better to see you eating it. Crap…I don’t know where I am going with this. You smell nice.” That is usually how Mike’s sentences ended. His intentions were good, but he often spoke from his heart without thinking first. This impulsive behavior is the driving force he continues to battle on a daily basis. First it was a little boozing, as bartenders do, then it was a little pot, which most bartenders do as well. But then, Mike headed down a distant road, a road of self-destruction on a path where his friends were unable to find him, unable to bring him back.
In the early years of bartending, our staff was full of young twenty something year olds. A bunch of bright-eyed, lost souls. The majority of us were without college degrees, excited to be earning a decent living, enjoying our newfound friendships. We stayed up too late, we drank too much, and we dated the wrong people. As bartenders, we were local celebrities, people began to recognize us all over town, and our tabs were often paid for by people we barely knew. Mike and I took to each other instantly, eventually getting an apartment together. Our personalities were compatible; the openness we were able to communicate with one another was a rarity, a rarity I have found in few other friendships. The shifts we worked together were referred to as the Mike and Courtney show. And a show it was.
Bartending at Billy’s was insane. Billy’s has both an indoor and an outdoor bar. Both bars are open year-round, constantly packed with big name CEOs, corporate men in suits, corporate women in dress pants, cougars, young girls looking for free drinks, young men looking to go home with something with a pulse. Mike could handle this crowd better than any of us. Mike could be brutally honest with anybody, even a controlling powerhouse CEO. Mike would talk to him like he was just a normal dude, because I mean, well, he was, but the CEO was unfamiliar with people not kissing his ass. There Mike would be, making fun of the guy and the guy would be throwing Mike an extra 100-dollar tip, laughing, and giving Mike a huge hug at the end of the night. Mike would put people in their place, but his intention was never to put them down or make them feel badly about themselves. His intention was to allow all walks of life to have a place at our bar, regardless of their job title. He just knew how to validate people, how to assure them he was aware of who they were, but that he accepted their humanity, flaws and all.
Mike’s flaws were many. He did not know how to say no to people. Except to girls throwing themselves at him. He had this need to please others, especially the people who were bad for him. So there these bar regulars were, having drinks after work, escaping the loneliness waiting for them at home, escaping their spouses and children. They’d snort blow to level out from too much drinking, they’d drink to level out from too much blow. They’d pass each other Xanax pills and welcome their co-workers to the newly divorced club, often saying, “It’s not so bad, man. Take this pill and down some whiskey. All you can do is hope your wife re-marries soon; alimony is a real bitch.” Mike would add, “Now that you are divorced you will have more time to come in here and hang out with me. Court is a lot more fun to look at than your ex-wife anyway, aren’t you Court? I am the perfect wing man, I promise.” I would smile and nod to humor them then Mike would walk over and apologize for involving me, explaining that he felt badly for the guy.
The regulars would pass us bartenders pills, cocaine, and occasionally ecstasy, inviting us to join their world, assuming we were just as messed up as they were. And believe me, at times we were. Constantly being subjected to good people making bad alcohol induced decisions caused a lot of us to get off work and drink too much in hopes to erase the memory of it all, attempting to silence the chaos in our heads after a 10-hour shift behind the bar. We self-medicated because we were young and stupid as we swore up and down we would never turn out like them.
This destructible bar life began to weigh heavily on all of us. The money we made began to hold less value. Many of the bartenders began to quit, taking more structured jobs. One went to rehab. Some of us, myself included, went back to college. With our early twenties now behind us, most of us were ready for a new focus, a focus beyond pouring drinks monotonously behind a bar.
Yet, Mike did not grow with us. Instead, Mike took the pills from the regulars, snorted their blow, and dropped their ecstasy. Mike found little trouble keeping friends with his new habits. There were and always will be people in the restaurant industry willing to get high. When the bar life is all you have it is easy to get sad. And man, did Mike get sad.
When you coast through life working behind a bar the world appears upside down. Mike would get to work when the rest of the world was leaving work. As he would fly down the street, he would see traffic piling up on the other side of the road. Mike was asleep while the rest of the world was awake; Mike was awake while the rest of the world was asleep.
While his family and friends would be at BBQs on the weekend, Mike was pouring drinks for the weekend crowd (the rookies) who tip less and bug you more. The job pays well, but it scrapes at your soul. Mike’s creative side became nonexistent. Once the glamorous aspects of being a bartender wore off the only challenge he endured was remaining patient. The patience and compassion he once had for people slowly drifted away as he heard himself snapping at people, but was too worn down to stop himself. He missed the sun; he used to wake up with the sun, now some days the sun existed only in his mind. The moon laughed at him and sometimes the moon failed to show its full self. The stars are all us bartenders have, those of us who are awake enough to remember to look up.
Just like that, Mike stopped looking up. Through the years we lived together our apartment was a mixture of grand central station and a nightclub. I would come home late from work and open our unlocked apartment door to find Mike and company piled up on our couch, strung out on something. I would wake up for my early morning classes only to find Mike on the couch, alone. His eyes dark and vacant, his lips dry, his hands shaking clenching the bowl of weed he was smoking. The TV flashing colors of people on the screen actively participating in society as Mike remained hunched over on the couch, aloof. Most of these mornings we did not speak. There was nothing to say. Our worlds were dissimilar; we shared the same roof, our bedrooms shared a wall, yet we no longer connected. As my day was just beginning, Mike’s day was foggy and drawn. My day had an agenda, his day had expired, like spoiled milk forgotten in the back of the fridge; Mike was rotting in our apartment.
His friends took notice of his worsening habits and often we formed plans to help him. We had interventions, Mike was defensive, there was a lot of anger, and a lot of crying but it seemed to be productive. Mike would snap out of it. Then he’d slip back. So then we got our head bartender to set Mike straight. Mike respected John more than anybody. John had a decent head on his shoulders and a way with words. If anyone could get through to Mike it was John; sure enough he did.
Mike snapped out of it. He started going to the gym here and there. He would stay in some nights and read a book or watch a movie with his brother (who also lived with us) and me. The old Mike was back. He even appeared happy at times. Mike began extending thoughtful gestures the way he used to, as he once again became aware of his surroundings. During this time when we watched movies together, he would turn and look at me to see if I was still paying attention, remembering my wandering mind and frustratingly short span of attention. Mike would give me this look and smile as he asked me how far back he needed to rewind, both of us cracking up laughing, Mike shaking his head in amazement at how easily I am distracted. I would begin to recall my last clear moment from the movie as Mike pointed the remote to the TV, both of us watching the pictures on the screen moving backward in time.
Yet, these moments were transient. Around Mike I often reacted like a wounded dog that had recently been attacked. Always hesitant to trust my surroundings, not willing to believe the current reality because it was clear that Mike might never be back for good.
Mike’s problems had only just begun. I should know; I was there. It makes me sick to admit this but I remember it vividly. It was a Friday night and we had just finished our shift. It was a little after 3AM and Mike no longer had a car or a license. He asked me to drive him to our buddy Zach’s place so he could grab something he needed. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but reluctantly I gave in. When we got to Zach’s it was clear he had been drinking (among other things). Zach was alone, his eyes heavy and bloodshot. Zach offered Mike and me both a line of oxycontin; I quickly declined. But Mike did not even hesitate. He explained that he had never done it before and Zach said, “I should not be the one opening this door for you. It is a door that never fully closes, but instead shuts you in, and locks you out from the rest of the world, a door that you will never stop knocking on, never stop wanting more from.”
That comment alone scared the crap out of me. But Mike just smiled at him like he was being dramatic, romanticizing the whole thing. Mike stared down at the pile of pale blue powder and took the credit card off the table, pushed the crushed oxy into a neat thin line, grabbed the rolled up hundred dollar bill off the table, and placed it to his nostril. After he snorted the line, I waited for something terrible to happen, but nothing did. Mike sat back, appearing to be the same person he was before.
But he was different. Oxy is a demon of a different kind. Oxy is synthetic heroin. People do not just do heroin. Heroin means I give up. Heroin became bigger than Mike. It was no longer Mike’s decision if he wanted to party that day; his body made that decision for him. First, he could feel it from one pill. Then he needed two, three, and so on. If his dealers were short on supplies Mike would settle for other drugs, often popping Xanax, other painkillers, and drinking until he blacked out.
The wear and tear this did to Mike’s body and mind was evident. Asking him a simple question like, “Hey Mike a group of us are planning on going to the Shenandoah this Saturday to kayak and camp out, care to join?” would result in Mike yelling, “Do you think I am made of money or something? I can’t take a Saturday off from work. That sounds awful anyways, it’s so hot out.”
Mike used to be up for anything. He was never the one to plan the adventure but he was always willing to come along. Now, Mike did not even want to be a passenger.
The severity of his addiction became hauntingly clear to me one day before work. It was just about time for us to leave when I realized Mike was still asleep; it was 3:15 in the afternoon. We had to be at work at 4 and our apartment was about thirty minutes away. When I went into his room I found him on top of all the covers wearing the same clothes he was in from the night before. I walked over and began to shake him.
I began yelling his name. “MIKE” “MIKE “MICHAEL” “MIIIIKKKKKEEE!” I was on top of him. Jumping on him. Shaking his shoulders. My knee in his back. My God he is dead, I thought. Too scrambled to check his pulse I grabbed his arm pulling it behind his back screaming “MIKE!”
He woke up. He began swinging at me. He threw me off of him. He called me a “CRAZY BITCH.” These words pierced my heart. We did not speak on the car ride to work. We both stared blankly ahead. Mike was in a fog.
He was gone.
These days Mike rarely sleeps. Often he slips in and out of consciousness as he is cradled to rest by heroin. I lost count of all our interventions. Nowadays, talking to Mike only results in an argument and a web of lies. Mike dropped the east coast, picked up and moved to California. Like many lost souls before him, he searched for answers out west. “A fresh start,” he claimed.
Yet, a fresh start for Mike meant circling back and ending up in a worse condition from when he left. Now he injects heroin…
It is easy to get lost. I watched it happen to all of us. But what makes Mike unable to be found? A dream deferred? Maybe. Or dreams Mike never had but wished he did? These questions linger.
Mike unwilling to seek answers. Mike continually resisting his pain. He remains numb, avoiding his fears, leaving his friends calling his name, our voices unfamiliar, as Mike slips further from reality, further from our reach.