I was sitting around in New York unemployed when the phone call came: my old friend Arno’s wife Mary, in tears. The story she told me was roughly this: Arno had gone to the South of France to help sail a yacht across the Atlantic. The boat belonged to an Irish friend of his who lived in Brazil and they were going to take it back there. But, during the preparations, Arno became convinced that they and the skipper they’d hired were incompetent and that the trip would end in disaster. They were all drinking heavily and the situation quickly degenerated into a chaos of drunken confrontation. Further, she said, the drinking was deranging Arno’s mind. He’d become belligerent and delusional, provoking first his shipmates and then some local bar rats into beating him senseless. His nose was broken and he’d wrecked or lost at least two rental cars. He was blowing large sums of money in the local casino at night and spent the days at the marina taunting his former friends for their stupidity. He’d stand by the boat on land drinking from a thermos as they worked, gleefully predicting their deaths by shipwreck and gloating over the prospect of their widowed wives and orphaned children back in Brooklyn. They became annoyed. One night while out in a local bar Arno accosted one of them and said, “You know something, Bill, your wife is a miserable fucking bitch.” Bill then punched him in the mouth, apparently as Arno had intended, though for what reasons Mary didn’t know.
This surprised me. I had never known Arno to be violent. He was always very gentle and courteous, the kind who would prevent others from fighting with a few calming words. I don’t think I’d ever even heard him yell. None of what she was saying sounded like him. But just a few months before this in New York, he was committed to a mental hospital during a brief incident of alcohol-induced psychosis. He’d been drinking very heavily all through the previous year and finally cracked up on a construction job, becoming convinced that he’d somehow ruined the whole thing and that the Teamsters Union was planning to have him killed. In reality he’d finished the job on time and under budget: his fear seemed delusional, but he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. When he was finally reduced to staring into space, rocking back and forth in a chair, drunk and muttering in terror about his imminent assassination, both he and Mary agreed he should go to the hospital.
I went to visit him there and found him in the sitting area of a dingy ward with cheap, vinyl lounge furniture and a ping-pong table. This area formed an atrium surrounded by the patients’ rooms and, at one end, the nurses’ station stood encased like a small fortress in a block of shatterproof glass. From there, in safety, a staff of stern-looking androids in white uniforms kept watch over the inmates. People were sitting around in various states of psychic disrepair. A shriveled and catatonic young Hasid sat collapsed in an armchair, drooling into his beard and staring up at the glowing red exit sign above a locked fire door. An enormous and heavily drugged black man was shuffling around the edges of the room in sluggish laps, his head leaned over to one side and his eyes glazed to an expressionless gelatin. Nearby, a small, manic white girl was bouncing a ping-pong ball off the wall and slapping it around the room with one of the paddles. She chased it around like a frisky lapdog, slapping it again and again, but nobody paid her any attention. Most just sat around motionless watching TV.
I found Arno seated at a table by the wall, looking calm but a little medicated, puffy at the eyelids and drowsy. He was also scared. He told me of the routine and violent suppressions carried out by the police-like hospital staff upon patients who’d lose control when their medications wore off. This happened like clockwork: suddenly they’d snap out of their drug-induced trances, realize where they were, start screaming and try to get out. One of the duty nurses would push a button and some suspiciously large and sadistic orderlies would appear, wrest the panicking inmates to the floor and inject them with tranquilizers which quickly reduced them to a whimpering passivity. More stubborn cases were strapped to gurneys and carried off, screaming and flailing, while the rest, whose sedatives were still active, looked on impassively. No one could react, as if their limbs and minds were somehow made of lead. It was especially bad in the small hours of the morning when the quiet became unnerving. Just the buzz of the fluorescent lights and low drone of the TV. Arno was also concerned about his new roommate, a heavily tattooed Dominican with some nasty-looking scars. He seemed violent and Arno was worried that he would lose control and attack him in the middle of the night when the nurses weren’t watching. He couldn’t sleep at all. The place was a prison full of potentially explosive zombies. And even though Arno had consented to being put in there, he couldn’t get himself out: he’d legally signed away his autonomy and it was unclear when they would release him.
When I saw the pale carrot fingers they served him, and the crumbling gray meat in its puddle of fecal gravy, I decided to visit him as much as I could and bring him some real food, just to keep him feeling human until they let him go. He didn’t belong in there at all. After six days he was released to his wife and house, on a strict regimen of therapy and Zoloft, and, of course, the promise, under medical advisement, not to drink alcohol ever again, not even the smallest quantity.
I didn’t see him for sometime afterwards, but heard through friends that he was doing well and working, sticking to his medication and therapy, “back to his old self.” We’d exchanged a phone message or two and I thought he sounded a little artificially chipper, but that was about it. Eventually we ran into each other at a friend’s daughter’s one-year-old birthday party. Mary grabbed me and sat me down to make a full report about how wonderfully he had returned to sanity, how he was the Arno she knew and loved, how he was “doing things” again, even playing tennis. Tennis. She was very eager, almost gloating, and I realized only then what a disgrace it had been for her to have her husband locked up in a mental ward. Even so, it seemed rude for her to be giving me this clinical account in the kitchen, in Arno’s presence and with so many other people around. Well, I thought, she’s a nurse–maybe it was professional habit. I could see him the whole time across the room talking to a fat redhead in a plaid shirt and reaching repeatedly for a bottle of wine. Eventually the groupings shuffled and Arno and I were talking. Neither of us mentioned the hospital. He told me about the boat trip, pending for that November, and invited me to come along, excited as he described the boat and the people and the route planned, via the Cape Verde Islands. I was happy to see him like that, and a little jealous of the adventure. I couldn’t go, but I imagined them out there in the middle of the sea, surfing twenty-foot swells in the company of whales and the infinite expanse of blue water. He drank a lot of wine while he talked, about twice as much as I did, reaching for the bottle quickly to refill his glass. I wondered about the medication he was on and how he was supposed to have stopped drinking, but it was his business,I supposed, and he seemed in control.
I left the party early and I didn’t see him again for a few weeks, not until two nights before he was due to leave. We met at a restaurant in Williamsburg. Arno was sitting at the bar with a woman I’d never met, drinking a martini. He got up and greeted me with a big hug.
“What up, mah bruh-thuh?”
He introduced the woman as Tina. Arno had bad teeth, like a cartoon pirate, and his face was stubbled with a salt and pepper beard. He was elated, and under his bushy black brows and bulging brown eyes, a toothy, slightly crooked grin lit his face with a glow of mischief. It was clear he’d been drinking and he gave off a dark, predatory vibe, as if he were his own evil twin or Mr. Hyde. He started to tell me about the gear he’d bought for the trip. He’d hired a satellite phone and was going to call me from the out in the middle of the Atlantic. He wasn’t giving anyone the number, not even Mary, but me he was going to call (mah bruh-thuh). He’d never forget what I did for him in the hospital. He stopped himself mid-sentence, turned towards a blonde woman seated alone down the bar and told her that even though her T-shirt was stupid, she had “amazing, beautiful tits.” He leaned down towards her as he said this, staring at her breasts and smiling like he wanted to lick them. She was embarrassed and surprised and about to say something, but Arno ignored her, sat up and went immediately back to his sailing soliloquy. Did I realize how fucking awesome this was going to be? Tina, annoyed by Arno’s tit digression, coquettishly demanded the number of the satellite phone.
“Arno, you’re giving me that number,” she said coyly.
“No way, bitch,” he replied, “strictly not for women. Nada. Not even Mary’s getting that number.” He gave a low, grunting laugh.
She brushed this off with a nervous laugh of her own and looked at me shyly, as if hoping to confirm we both knew he was kidding. Arno went on. As soon as he got back he was going to open a restaurant in Brooklyn. He already had the money and a partner. He was going to make a million dollars a year and buy a bigger boat than the one he was going on and sail around the world solo. He was tired of dicking around–no more of this paidbythehourchumpchange bullshit. Time to make it happen, mah bruh-thuh. He said all of this with a feverish intensity, staring at me as if I were his reflection in a mirror. It was strange: I really wasn’t sure if he was talking to me. After an hour or so he confessed his exhaustion–he hadn’t slept in days–laid his head down in Tina’s lap and began snoring. She stroked the side of his head and looked at him lovingly. I had no idea who she was. Well, so much for tearful goodbyes, I thought. I went home and two days later Arno took off for Barcelona with Bill, one of his shipmates. They were going to spend a week there and then head up the coast to France to meet the others. About six weeks after that I got the phone call from Mary.
The story went on. After they kicked him off the boat and set sail, he was beaten and robbed of his wallet at knifepoint in France, but had somehow made it back to Barcelona where he was now living in a hotel and playing his guitar on the street. He hadn’t even bothered to cancel his credit cards. He was drinking like a madman and had long since taken himself off his medication. Mary was at her wit’s end, asking me to go over and get him, or at least make sure he was all right. She would pay for the trip.
This was not the first time Mary had called me over Arno’s antics. The time he ran off before the hospitalization. When he ran off sometime before that. When he’d run off before that again. There was a consistent history. Every few years he would disappear for a few days or weeks, drinking and staying with different women until he got tired or guilt-ridden enough to go back to Mary, and she would take him in again. Mostly when she called, she just needed a sympathetic ear. And even though he was my friend, I would always tell her I thought she should dump him and move on. I didn’t think he would change or that she deserved that kind of treatment: I never understood why they’d stayed together so long. But she clung to her love for him with a masochistic tenacity and always took him back. Now she was telling me she had to pay his hotel bill because he had no credit cards, but apart from asking her to do this, he only ranted at her abusively. During the last call, he started screaming at her wildly, called her things she wouldn’t repeat, and hung up. Now he was refusing to take her calls. Could I at least call him–she was sure he would talk to me–make sure he was OK, and see if I thought it necessary to go over and help him?
What could I say? I said, “Look Mary, Arno is my friend, and I love him, but he’s being a total asshole to you. I think you should just can him and get on with your life. How can you take this shit? And how much more? Are you just waiting for him to leave you outright? You want me to call him, I’ll call him, but I’m not sure what the point is.”
“I know, but please, Max. Just call him and talk to him and tell me what’s going on.”
She gave me the number of his hotel in Barcelona.
I called and got hold of Arno about midnight his time. He was excited to hear me and, almost before I could say anything, launched into a breathless, hoarse torrent.
“Max, it’s awesome. You have to come here. Barcelona is awesome. I’m like a completely different person here. I’m playing guitar on the street. People love me here. They stop and watch me play and the women are unbelievable. You should see what I’m wearing. I’ve got these low-cut black boots, with this coiled stitching over the toe, very Dylan, these off-white linen drawstring pants and a kind of greenish-lemon sailing jacket I picked up in France with a skull-and-crossbones scarfI look like fucking Keith Richards and I’m getting really good at guitar.
“I’m speaking French fluently and I’ve even got a pretty decent body now. I’ve lost weight and the chicks are digging me. I don’t know what it is about this place but, I swear, here in Barce, when I’m walking down the street, the women check me out and they all want to fuck me. All of them. I’m on fire. It’s awesome. You should come over here right away. I’ve got some serious projects going on. I’m writing. I’m writing this piece about what I experienced in France with those racist, mother-fucking assholes, the French–you have no idea what’s going on in that country, man, the violence, I mean, everyone I met there who wasn’t French–Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians–awesome people, but the French? A bunch of violent fucking racist assholes! All they care about is money. Cheap-ass, spineless bitches. No wonder it only took the Germans a few hours to stomp all over them. Nothing but a bunch of sniveling, malicious flunkies!
“But I swear someone was gonna off me in Narbonne if I didn’t get out of there when I did. I barely made it to Barcelona. I got robbed, beaten, I nearly had to knife some guy. It was a performance piece I’ve been working on. I had just enough change in my pocket to pay the last toll on the highway to Barcelona in the rental car. Max, man, I started crying when I crossed that border, I was so happy just to be out of France. I’m staying in the same hotel I stayed at before, so they know I’m good for the money. And I’m meeting some serious players here. I’ve got this dude in Prague and we’re gonna make a music video I have an idea for and you’ve got to be in it!
“Picture this–you’re playing bass, stand-up, not guitar. Right behind you are two underage, topless French girls, but they’re like already way into puberty. They’re like fourteen, but they have big tits and they’re playing violins. It’ll blow people’s minds, man, I’m telling you. Dylan. We’ll be doing a Dylan song translated into Yiddish. Bobby Zimmerman, my ass. America isn’t ready for that shit! We’ll blow the fucking lid off. It’ll probably be banned. This producer I know who came to the party I had before I left–the party which by the way you didn’t show for and I didn’t forget–he had a great time, and this guy’s a heavy hitter. And I can get my shit on his desk anytime I want.
“You’re gonna be the eye candy in this one mah bruh-thuh. Well maybe after the French chicks with their tits flapping around to the bowing, ha ha. But seriously, just get over here. I’m telling you, it’s another world, I’m a completely different person here. I feel like a fucking butterfly. I’m open, I’m alive like I’ve never been before. And I’m not even drinking that much. So you can tell that frozen Irish bitch of a wife of mine who locked me up that I’m never coming back. Got that? Man, my voice is killing me. It’s shredded from singing all day. I gotta stop talking. Just get over here, man. Now’s the time.”
All I was able to get out of him was that he should be getting a replacement bank card in a couple of days. It was OK. He had plenty of money in the bank, but they might kick him out of the hotel where he was staying. He didn’t mention Mary’s paying the bill and I didn’t ask. I offered to wire him some money the next day, Sunday, and he said that would be great, he only needed a little to tide him over until his card arrived Monday, just “fifteen hundred bucks or so.” Fifteen hundred dollars for one day? But he forgot about it a minute later and went on rambling, more of the same for another twenty minutes.
Was Arno out of his mind? In fifteen years I had never heard him talk that much that fast in that tone. What was he talking about? Did he really think all the women of Barcelona were lusting after his drooping, gray-haired ass? And me with my forty-year-old, broken-nosed, big-eared head being the “eye candy” in a Prague-produced music video with topless, buxom French teens playing violins and singing Dylan in Yiddish did not seem like a surefire way to stardom. Maybe I was too narrow-minded. What kind of performance piece was he talking about? Provoking some local hooligans into beating him? But it was the frenzied rush of his speaking and the teenage diction that bothered me.
He called me back twice again that night at what would have been 5 and 6 in the morning his time to rehash at the same speed everything he’d already said and tell me again that I had to come, even though he knew I’d called him at Mary’s request. I couldn’t tell if he was completely out of his mind or just drunk or manic. So it was a strange situation: Mary was begging me to go and check on his sanity and bring him home if possible–she would pay for the trip–and Arno was urging me to come over and join him in his psychic revolution. I was unemployed, had nothing to do, and was worried by what I heard in his voice, so I called Mary back and told her I thought it would be a good idea for me to go. In the worst case scenario, I thought I could help him out in the midst of a serious meltdown, bring him some money and get him out of there; in the best, I’d spend a week in Spain with my old friend, travel expenses paid. Mary arranged for me to fly out the following evening.
Mary met me at a cafe the next morning. She was already there when I arrived, sitting with her coat still on and staring blankly out the window into the white November day. When I came up to her table and said “Hi,” she started in her chair and looked up at me emptily, as if she didn’t recognize me.
“Oh, Max, hi, hi. Sit down. Thanks so much, Max, really, thanks for doing this.” She looked nervous and tired. The skin under her eyes sagged over the socket bone in dark brown folds.
“Hey Mary. How are you?”
“I don’t really know what to say, Max. This has been a nightmare. I have no idea what’s going on anymore and I’m worried sick about Arno. But I can’t talk to him anymore. You know, I get some news from this woman Tina that he still talks to, but I don’t really know her, so I don’t know what she would or wouldn’t tell me. I don’t know what he’s doing. But I think I’ve finally had it with him. I can’t take it anymore. I mean, I’m still trying to be his friend and I don’t want him to get hurt or killed over there–which he just might do in the state he’s in–but I can’t stay married to the man. I just can’t. You know, we’ve only been married a year anyway, after fifteen years together. Can you believe that? I don’t even know why we did it. Jesus, fifteen years!
“And for not one of those years was he ever faithful to me. He was always a hound, always disappearing mysteriously. I knew he was fucking other women. Of course he was, but I thought he’d just get over it after a while, you know? You know, when he disappeared a few months ago before the whole hospital incident, he was holed up with some junkie-alcoholic woman he’d met on a job and they were just up in the Bronx at her place drinking for days on end, neither of them working. I don’t even think there was any sex involved. I mean, how could there have been at those levels of intoxication? Apparently he’d been involved with her off and on for years. I had no idea. But I figured it out later from looking at his cell-phone bills. He even called her the day we got married. The day! I mean, what was he thinking? What was I? Sometimes I wonder if he ever really loved me at all.”
“Mary, if I were you, I would have Arno’s stuff taken out of the house and put in storage, change the locks, then tell him, look, I don’t care when or if you come back, but you’re not coming back to my house. Your shit’s in storage and I’ll give you the key whenever you show up, but it’s over. Maybe that would actually shock him back to reality a little bit, though I doubt it. You know I love him, but I can’t defend his behavior. This isn’t your problem anymore. You need to get on with your life. Why don’t you take a trip yourself? Just get the hell out of here and stop thinking about it for awhile.”
“You’re right. I realize it’s over now, but I’m still trying to be a friend to the man, Max. I am his best friend, even if he won’t talk to me. I really think he should just come home. What is he doing over there? Playing his guitar on the street? At his age? He’s fifty years old for Christ’s sake! He does have money in the bank, but I think he’s just going to go through it, the way he’s carrying on, and what’s the point? It’s just such a waste. And what will he do when he runs out? At least the house is in my name, so he can’t get at that, thank God, but what’s he going to do? What does he even think he’s going to do? He needs help, Max, he really does, but how’s he going to get it over there? What if something happens? He’s in Spain, he doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. At least you do. That’s partly why I’m asking you to go. And he trusts you, you know, especially since the hospital. Do you think you can bring him home?”
“Mary, he didn’t sound like he was thinking about coming home–at all. He said a lot of crazy stuff, but he sounded happy, even if he is manic. If he wants to stay there and burn up all his money or try to get a new life going or even kill himself, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. He’s a big boy. I can’t promise you anything. I’ll go, but I’m going because I’m worried about him too. I can’t promise you I’ll even try to bring him home. I’ll go and see him and call you to tell you what I think.”
“Great, no, I know, that’s fine. Look, the ticket’s bought already and here’s two thousand dollars.” She pushed an envelope at me over the table.
“Don’t give it to him, please. Use it for your own expenses or in case some emergency arises or to pay to bring him back. Whatever.”
“That’s a lot of money, Mary. I’m only going for a week.”
“Take it. Just in case. Don’t worry about it, Max. I’ve got plenty of money. You’re unemployed. You can give me back anything you don’t use.”
“All right, I will. Well, look, I’d better go. I’m leaving in a few hours and I’m still not organized. I’ll call you from Barcelona as soon as I have something to tell you, OK?”
“OK, Max. Thanks again.”
Arno was ecstatic to hear that I was coming: it was awesome. We’d arranged to meet at the Plaza Catalunya, where the airport bus let out. He told me he would be wearing a black cowboy hat and playing his guitar in the square, surrounded by a crowd of listeners. On the way into the city I felt uneasy, wondering how I would find him. Haggard, penniless, with a broken nose – as Mary was imagining – or out of his mind and raving as he’d been on the phone? I didn’t know whether he was drinking or not or if he was off the medication or not. Did the drugs have anything to do with what was going on? Zoloft can produce wild and horrible effects. I looked it up. The list was incredible: abdominal pain, agitation, anxiety, constipation, decreased sex drive, diarrhea or loose stools, difficulty with ejaculation, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, gas, headache, decreased appetite, increased sweating, indigestion, insomnia, nausea, pain, rash, sleepiness, sore throat, tingling, tremors, visual problems, vomiting, and in some people, “grandiose, inappropriate, out-of-control behavior called mania.” There was even something called “Zoloft micturition urgency.” It seemed better to be off it. But apparently getting off it could be dangerous too. People got strung out. Some even killed themselves from withdrawal induced depression.
I got off the bus at the Plaza Catalunya and immediately spotted Arno in the middle of the square. He was squatting on the ground talking to three young blonde girls who were sitting around him. He had on the black cowboy hat and a guitar slung casually over his knee, like a cocky, preening troubadour. The girls were clearly enjoying what he said, tossing their heads back and laughing. I could see their smiling teeth all the way across the plaza. This didn’t look so bad. He hadn’t seen me yet, so I just took in the scene as I walked up. He looked fine, reveling in the attention of the girls and flirting. No smashed nose. Not filthy. He even did look a little like Keith Richards.
“Max, you made it! Good to see you, man. These are my friends Karin, Sandra, and Jutta. My three graces. We’re just exchanging e-mails, because Karin’s father might have a place here I could sublet. Here’s mine, Karin, borne again at yahoo dot com. Great name for a band, huh? Borne Again?” The girls were getting up to leave, all giggles and fluttering fabrics.
“Ciao, Arno,” they chimed.
“So e-mail me later if there’s something going on, OK? Bye. Thanks. And I’ll e-mail your father tonight. Awesome, man, awesome. Max! How was your trip? Let’s get out of here.” I followed Arno through some winding streets into the old city towards his hotel.
Arno was friendly with the staff and introduced me to the three young women behind the front desk. He knew all their names and they seemed to like him. They told him they had no rooms for that night but would call around and find something in the neighborhood for us, so we got a couple of beers from the lobby bar and went up to the roof terrace to look out over Barcelona and have a smoke. It was late in the afternoon. The hiss and whine of the traffic below faded into the warm sunlight and the sea stretched out to the horizon in a wide blue band. It beat the gray, trash-encrusted cold of New York. We sat up there talking and drinking beer for a while, looking out at the water.
“Arno, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see you. From what I was hearing, you were supposed to be lying in the gutter, with a smashed nose and no money. You look great.”
“I am great, man. This town is awesome. I feel like I’ve finally found somewhere I belong. And you are going to love it here. The women are incredible, especially on the weekends. Babes from all over Europe come here to party. The streets are crawling with models. You’ll see this Friday. I gotta go get cigarettes. I’ll be right back.”
When he left, I stood against the rail looking down at the street below. I saw Arno come out of the hotel, go into a bar on the corner and fiddle with the cigarette machine, then flirt with a girl who came up to use it as well. They stood there talking for a few minutes. I was a little confused. I felt stupid and relieved at the same time. What was Mary talking about? Was she just hysterical? What had I been thinking? Maybe he was just drunk when I talked to him on the phone. Now he seemed better than fine–exuberant, thrilled to be out of New York. I had no idea what was going on between him and Mary, what he’d said to her, what she’d said to him, or whether to believe any of it. What was I doing there on the flypaper of their marital problems? Arno got back with the cigarettes.
“Hey, they found us a room around the corner. Why don’t we go get settled in?”
We walked down to the new hotel and got installed in a room, a flimsy cube done up in varying shades of turquoise and blue, with cheap, minimalist fixtures. There were two separate queen-sized beds placed side by side and a small terrace facing down on the street. I dropped onto the bed. Arno turned to me and asked, “Did Mary send you here?”
“Yeah. She asked me to come and paid for the ticket.” I didn’t mention the two thousand dollars.
“She did?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
“Yeah, she did, Arno. But I came because I was really worried about you.” (My voice sounded hollow in my ears.) “And I couldn’t tell if you needed help or not. I was hearing some alarming things from her back home. She called and asked if I could come over and made it seem like you’d have to be brought home in a straightjacket.”
“No, it’s cool. Whatever.”
He went out on the terrace and quietly smoked a cigarette. I couldn’t tell if the situation bothered him or not, but he didn’t mention it again. That night we had black paella for dinner and went to bed early.
Excerpted from the novel, “Methylene Blue,” by Alan Fishbone.