23

23I was 21 and he was 28, and his name was Kevin. I first saw him at a Consolidated (“product + promotion = profit!”) show at the Kennel Club, where after hours of intense, wordless flirting, my best friend practically pushed me into his lap.

“Do you have a light?” I had asked and he smirked pleasantly at me with his dark French prairie eyes, flicked back his dreadlocks, and reached into the sleeve of his jacket, the leather one with the cow rings looped through the shoulder epaulets, to pull out fire. He was from Canada, a cardiac nurse, stunningly intelligent and smoking hot in that shabby, shredded, early-90s gentleman junkie sort of way, and had been a heroin addict for six years and clean for about eight months. 21, 28, six, eight. In the end it all added up to zero.

Before all that went down, though, one wet Vancouver morning over latte bowls full of milky tea he told me that when he’d checked into his first failed attempt rehab, his bed number had been 23. This had pleased him greatly and seemed ripe with significance.

“Why?” I asked.

The duality and the trinity,” he said in that offhand way of his, circus-y punk rock nihilism laced with mysticism and a healthy dose of Catholic aesthetic. And from that day on, fifteen years ago now, I’ve been haunted by the number 23. Indeed, the year I was 23 was a cyclone, full of braids and bikinis and rolls of cash, and trips to and from Canada, finding out all about duality.

And again, after all these years, the other night I was cleaning up after another 28-year-old hurricane who blew through, peeling back the sheets, full of sand and pizza crumbs and blood, love and sorrow, truth and lies, and Kevin’s Bed #23 came back to me. The duality. The trinity.

The duality. The endless stuggle between our higher and lower selves. The fierce desire to be actualized, be our best possible self, the he or she whom we’ve spent our whole life working towards becoming. And the disappointing slides into that he or she we once were; with the bad mouth, the sloppy habits, the arrows sprouting from our back, the bared teeth. What do you do when you’ve been fucked over, or fucked yourself over? Do you put a boot betwixt some buttocks or a razor to your metaphorical wrist, or do you take the higher road and respond with positivity and compassion? Do you beat down or build up?

When it’s you who hurts yourself, or worse, others, how do live with that? When you want so much to do right but you hear evil words come out of your mouth or flow from your fingertips, or see your own hand reach into your pocket for all the wrong reasons, how do you believe that you’re any kind of good? When you see people suffer for what you’ve done, how do you do anything but want to disappear? Do you cut off your own hand to save your arm? I went to see a friend in a state prison a while back and he said to me, hanging his head in shame, “I need to read stories about people who have done bad things, hurt people, and learned to live with it,” and all I could do was hold his hand tightly, let him know that in some small way I understand his pain, and I keep asking, how do we all find our way back to our own redemption song?

And when it’s someone else who’s hurt you, do you love them enough to forgive them and overlook their transgressions, or do you love yourself enough to know you can’t do either? Do you believe the words from the prefontal-lobe angel in him, words that dropped like diamonds from his mouth: I want to stop living like an animal. I’m hanging it up. I’m ready. I want to come home with you. I smelled you on the sheets and cried because I knew I shouldn’t be here. I want to make a mother out of you. Or do you believe the actions that speak louder than words, the acts of an animal, rooted in the brain stem; the bottles and bros and bitches and bravado and betrayal? What do you do when you know both are true, when someone you’ve come to care for is split in two and can’t find his way to three?

The trinity. The perfection of the triad. Man, woman, child. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. You, me, us. Dark, light, illumination. Balance. When you can integrate the animal in you with the angel. When you become complete.

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