I didn’t want to write today. I’m tired. The essay I submitted yesterday to Lumina drained me. It was so hard to write, though the truth is that it was more a process of cutting and shaping and moving around since it’s an excerpt of my memoir shaped into essay form…but the reliving still happens, nonetheless. It’s an essay about my brother, his addiction, the silence that killed him. What I’ve been writing again and again for the past few years, when I was trying to write this memoir while at the same time running away from these ghosts, these stories that haunt. I’m not running anymore.
When I first noticed the sore on my brother’s hand, it was just above his wrist, in the meaty part where his thumb and his index finger met. I knew he used heroin, he’d been doing it for years, had been in and out of rehab, but he always said he couldn’t shoot up. “It scares me,” he said.
I grabbed his hand when he reached for the cigarette I was passing him. “What’s that?” I grilled him, searching his face for what I don’t know. Guilt, maybe.
“Nothing. I cut myself.” He snatched his hand away.
“You cut yourself?” I stared at him with disbelief. I couldn’t believe he thought I would buy that. I couldn’t believe he thought I was that stupid or that gullible. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”
“Ay, Vanessa, please.” My brother only called me by my name when he was annoyed or frustrated or just wanted me to shut the fuck up. When I heard later that he had to get it stitched shut, he didn’t answer my calls for days. When we finally spoke, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t have to. He knew I knew and I knew he was ashamed. It was an unspoken thing between us—he showed me his shame and I didn’t rub it in his face.
One time, when he was living with me back in 2002, we were sitting in my room watching television. He was nodding out and when he caught me staring, he said, “It’s the methadone, sis, I swear.” I knew better but I didn’t push. Then later, out of nowhere, he said, “You know, sometimes when I’m high, I can see mom getting raped. I see it, sis. I see it happening.”
I didn’t say anything. I was too blown away by his audacity. I thought he was coming up with another excuse for his addiction, another rationalization. And I was pissed at him for using mom’s rape as a crutch. I was so wrong. My brother was showing me the depth of his pain. He was trying to show me how fucked up he really was by this cuco, the ghost that haunted him relentlessly. I didn’t really understand until this year, just before he died. (Excerpt of Lumina Contest Submission, “When the heart breaks”)
I told myself I stopped running when I started writing this memoir in earnest almost four years ago. The proof was when I wrote the first draft last year. That’s what I told myself. The truth is that I was still in jog-mode. I hadn’t gone in in the way I knew I had to. The way the work demanded. But then Carlos died and all that ended. That’s why I’m on the page today, because though I’m so very tired, the pull to the page is overwhelming and I already know what happens when I avoid it. I don’t want to be in that space. Yes, this is hard, this writing is so very hard, but the not writing and the person I become when I’m not digging, is so much harder.
My brother turned 41 exactly five months ago today. He was in the rehab on Rivington Street in LES at that point. We still thought (or wanted to believe) he was going to survive. Vasialys and I met him and mom downtown and we took him out for an expensive dinner that, truthfully, I couldn’t afford, but paid for anyway…Maybe, I knew unconsciously, on some level, that he’d never make it to 42.
My brother didn’t think he belonged in that rehab. When I visited him, he looked around in disgust at the place and the patients in it, all addicts either waiting out their lives or waiting out their addictions or both. All HIV positive, like my brother, they were all fighting demons, different demons, but still demons, no matter.
We’re all enduring our own private wars, aren’t we?
“I don’t belong here,” Carlos said. “Look at them.” He laughed and looked down his nose at them. I laughed with him to keep from crying. When I saw those patients, I saw him, my brother, and that shit was devastating.
He already had that look heroin addicts get. The sunken eyes. The hallow cheeks. The missing teeth. The gray tone to the skin. That lost, desperate look. That there’s-no-place-to-go-from-here-but-to-the-grave look. I didn’t want to see it for so long, until a former friend (she’s no longer a friend for so many reasons including this one) pointed it out, “He looks like a crackhead.”. I wanted to dig my nails into her eyes. Instead I walked away. People can be so fucking callous.
As I was writing the above, my brother’s friend, we’ll call her Chacha, called. I knew it was my brother Carlos who pushed her to call me when she did. The last time she spoke to him, he was at Rivington House, the rehab center I’d been writing about. Chacha, his friend who he loved so dearly, who I blamed for so much. Chacha, who my brother wrote about in his journals: “Positive change. New beginnings. My sister from another other Chacha is going to be chilling with me. We have so many positive plans for the near future—Entertainment Fashion Artist Expressions for the ‘Gods’! Many close and dear to me don’t understand that we have a spiritual connection. Yes, we both did major damage to each other being messy but life lesson learned, there’s a time and place for everything. But we’re on a mission to GROW.” (June 14, 2010)
My brother was living with me for a few months in 2002. I had my own three-bedroom apartment in Inwood in upper Manhattan and had taken him in. I turned my office into his bedroom and was planning on buying him a bed and was even looking into rehabs for him. He stole money from me and even called up my friends asking for money. He sold a metrocard I bought him to another friend, telling her he needed the cash to buy something for his son. And, still, I didn’t give up on my Superman. I still believed I could save him.
Then, the day after Christmas, I got several frantic calls from him. I had stayed over a friend’s house and was sleeping off a hangover when I finally answered the phone. “What the fuck, Carlos?” “Come home now!” “Why? What happened?” I shot up in bed. “Come home now.” I threw on my clothes and took a cab home. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the gash marks in my door. Someone had taken an ax to my door. Imagine coming home to that shit!
My brother was sitting on the stairs in front of my fourth floor apartment, his face in his hands. “What did you do?” I cried. “What the fuck did you do?” I grabbed him by the collar and we cried together. We were never the same after that.
A few days earlier, I’d come home to find my brother in the apartment with Chacha and a man I didn’t know. The man stared me down. Me being me, I stared right back and asked, “Who’s this, Carlos?”
“Who are you?” The guy grilled me, not flinching or averting his stare.
I glared back. “I’m his sister and this is my fucking house.”
The guy looked at my brother and back at me but didn’t say another word. I pulled my brother to the side. “Get that man out my house.”
By the time I was out of the bathroom, the guy, Chacha and my brother were gone.
When I came home to find my door bashed in, I knew that strange man had something to do with it. When I interrogated Carlos, he told me the guy thought my brother had stolen a box of drugs from him. The box had been sent by mail to a mutual friend’s job and somehow went missing. My brother and Chacha were blamed. Chacha brought the dude to my house. I blamed her for what happened and I didn’t believe him when Carlos told me that he hadn’t stolen the drugs. “I don’t even know what was in that box, sis.”
“What if I’d been home, Carlos?” I said over and over while he cried.
All I knew was that I was no longer safe in that apartment and had to move ASAP. I had to come up with four thousand dollars in a matter of days, which I did because I’m Vanessa. How I did it is besides the point. I did what I had to do and found a studio a few blocks away, in a nicer part of the neighborhood. I moved my stuff, little by little, mostly with the help of my little cousins and two shopping carts. And I gave my brother the silent treatment the entire time.
When I moved the last bit of stuff, he was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, his bald head against the red wall. “I got nowhere to go, sis.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. You can’t come with me and I’m handing in the keys today.”
I didn’t let him see me crying. I fell apart in the stairwell but I knew that I couldn’t help him anymore. I couldn’t help him at the expense of myself.
I found out later that he slept on the floor of the apartment for a few days before finally going to my grandmother’s house and begging her to let him stay. He’d lived with her before too. She put him out when he stole her stereo system and DVD player.
When I saw the journal entries where my brother talks about his love for Chacha, I knew I had to reach out to her, but I didn’t know how. I was still so hurt and angry. I had blamed her for so much of my brother’s problems. It was easier for me to blame her. My brother couldn’t have acted that way on his own. Not my Carlos. Not my Superman.
When the whole axed door incident happened, I told my brother to tell Chacha to hide. I told him that wherever I saw her, I was going to put it on her. “Tell her to run if she sees me.”
A few years ago, me and Carlos got into an argument about Chacha. He’d gone to Florida to see her and had missed his flight several times. We even sent him money to get a new ticket and he’d missed that flight too. We finally left it to him to figure it out on his own. He came back two months later via Greyhound. When I saw him, I flipped out.
“That’s why I can’t stand your fucking friend Chacha!”
“She’s my friend, sis.”
“Your friend? You call that a friend?”
He compared her to a friend I had at the time who had been my friend for years, we’ll call her X. “I love her like you love, X. You see how you can tell her anything and you know she’ll be there for you. That’s how Chacha is with me. I stayed in Florida because of me, not because of her. I fucked up. It’s not Chacha’s fault. Blame me, not her.”
I wouldn’t listen. I didn’t until I read his journals after he died.
Two weeks ago, I sent Chacha a message via mutual friend. I gave him my number and told him to tell Chacha to text me. I choked up when I heard her voice. I’d been dreading the conversation. What was I supposed to say to this woman who I’d blamed for so much? Who I’d threatened with bodily harm? Who knew that I couldn’t stand her?
“I’ve been feeling my brother’s spirit telling me to reach out to you. He really loved you, Chacha.” She started whimpering into the phone. I cried with her.
Chacha revealed that my brother didn’t steal that box of drugs from that dude that axed in my door on the day after Christmas in 2002. I started bawling when she told me. The guy put a gun to Chacha’s back and made her go with him to look for Carlos. It was Carlos who brought him to the house to show him that he didn’t have the drugs. That was when I walked in and found them in my apartment.
My relationship with Carlos was never the same after that. I never let him live with me again. I never fully trusted him again.
I found out that Carlos had been doing crystal meth for the past two or three years. I had no idea about that. I don’t know much about the drug other than that it inspired the hit show Breaking Bad and the cocktail is so volatile, trailers and houses have blown up during the process of making it. I thought that drug was a middle-America, boondocks problem. I was wrong. My brother was putting that shit in his body. Chacha told me that he’d barely been messing with heroin. It was meth he was into. He’d gotten into it with the people in his building and the whole downtown gay scene. “If anything, he took heroin to bring him down off the meth,” she said.
Chacha told me about Carlos’s pain. About how he blamed himself for mom’s rape. About how insecure he was about his weight and his looks. About how she could always make him smile, no matter how he was feeling. About how much they cried and laughed together. About how the dude that introduced him to heroin, a famous vogue dancer who danced with the likes of Madonna (I’ll give him the decency of not putting on blast just yet), is still out there performing. Lo mas bien esta el, meanwhile my brother is dead and I’m still reeling…
There’s so much I didn’t know about my querido hermano Carlos. So much he held from me too. He too was adept at silence. I’m meeting with people who knew him way back when. People like an old childhood friend who he told when they were 15 that he was the product of a rape. He’d just found out the year before. People like Chacha, who was his partner in drug use for a time until she got clean and he kept partying. She cried so hard when I told her he was gone. “He’s on vacation,” she said. “I don’t wanna believe it. I keep telling myself he’s on vacation.”
I feel like Carlos is sending me all these people to talk to so I can see him raw and exposed. All of him. His devastating pain that caused him to do these things to himself. He wants to redeem himself and his dear friend Chacha, who he wrote about in his journals. He wants me to see, not his truth or mine, but the truth as best he can show it from the side he’s on. I’m scared of what I’ll discover but I know there’s no going back now.
Mi hermano, whose apartment was so very neat. Even his closets were neatly organized, his shirts buttoned on the hangers, one pair of jeans to a hanger, the sweaters arranged by color and thickness. Mi querido hermano, what happened to you…
According to drugfreeworld.org, crystal meth (short for crystal methamphetamine) “is a white crystalline drug that people take by snorting it (inhaling through the nose), smoking it or injecting it with a needle. Some even take it orally, but all develop a strong desire to continue using it because the drug creates a false sense of happiness and well-being—a rush (strong feeling) of confidence, hyperactiveness and energy. One also experience decreased appetite. The drug effects generally last from six to eight hours, but can last up to twenty-four hours.
“The first experience might involve some pleasure, but from the start, methamphetamine begins to destroy the user’s life…
“Crystal meth is used by individuals of all ages, but is commonly used as a ‘club drug,’ taken while partying in night clubs or at rave parties… It is a dangerous and potent chemical and, as with all drugs, a poison that first acts as a stimulant but then begins to systematically destroy the body. Thus it is associated with serious health conditions, including memory loss, aggression, psychotic behavior and potential heart and brain damage.”
Meth is taken by people who are feeling depressed because of the euphoria and increased energy and alertness. Is this why you turned to this drug, Carlos?
I used to think my brother’s top row of teeth had to be removed because of the heroin, but after reading about “meth mouth” where teeth rapidly decay and fall out, I wonder about that.
I keep asking myself, the ether, his spirit: What happened to my Superman?
When we were growing up, I could go to Carlos about anything. Anything. Even boys and sex. What girl can say that about her big brother? My brother would sneak me letters from Ruben, my first love. He’d plot with Ruben so we could see each other and share a quick kiss or just hold hands and talk and giggle.
I remember one day mom left us, me, my sister and my brother, alone in the house. We decided we were going to play house. I must have been around eight or nine, which would make my brother around eleven or twelve since he was three and a half years older than me. Carlos said he was going to be the mom. He put on one of mom’s dresses and her heels and put a pair of her pantyhose on his head, the beige, skin color kind mom always wore. That day, staring at my brother and how natural he walked in those heels, I knew he was gay. My brother never “came out” to me. One day, when we were in our twenties, he talked to me about this guy he liked, a guy he met in the club scene. “He’s so fine,” he laughed. That was just confirmation for something I already knew.
“How I pray and ask my brother to help me refrain from destroying myself, hurting myself and the ones I LOVE. I find myself once again on this dark road filled with pain, mentally and physically. There are times when I feel soulless.” ~Juan Carlos Moncada, 9/25/12 10:45pm
I wish there was something I could have done to save my brother from his pain. I couldn’t then and I can’t now and I know that. What I can do is tell his story, our story, to show people how silence destroyed my family. How it killed my brother. Because I truly believe that story heals. Story saves. Story restores. And if I can’t have my brother back, at least I can have our memories.