This is how I became friends with Thomas. It involves a bathing suit, an opossum, and dangerously insane homeless people who live under bridges.
What is your most interesting story or memory?
A friend of mine, whom I’ve mentioned before, pointed out that we spend a lot of time talking about her, but never get around to talking about me. For me, the answer is easy: I’m not that interesting. I’m better at being bossy.
She wasn’t satisfied, so I decided that a good way around my somewhat context-specific out-of-character reticence about myself would be an interview format. We’ve gone a couple of rounds, and of course her answers to her own questions have been thousands of times more interesting than my own, but there is one thing it’s knocked loose which is interesting. Maybe.
I don’t know if it’s the MOST interesting, but it’s the first thing I thought of.
I was broke ass, living in my best friend Katie’s apartment after moving back to Houston from an eight-month vacation, so mid-1999, so I was like 21 I guess, and interviewing for jobs. Which is difficult if you don’t have a bachelors, btw. STAY IN SCHOOL.
It’s the afternoon and I’m sitting at this bus stop, and this normal-looking guy comes over and sits next to me. I don’t usually talk to bus stop people, especially in Houston, because you tend overwhelmingly to get into conversations that are either so boring or so troubling that you either way end up regretting it. It’s like the fourth-largest city in the country and crazy all over in the summertime, but I offer him a cigarette. Something about him makes me want to be nice and/or friendly. The only not normal thing about him is the not normal thing of any guy who talks to you at a coffee shop: his hair goes straight up.
So one of the latter conversations, the troubling kind, begins, and it’s like 3PM, and this guy spins this crazy wild tale about how he overdid it on the steroids at one point, which caused his brain to explode into capsules, and there’s no hope of getting his pre-steroid brain back. He has studied biology, and may have a degree in biology, so he knows what he’s talking about. So I give him another cigarette, and when the bus comes I make it clear that I’m going to buy his ride if he wants it, due to the exploding capsules in his brain, but he just chills out smoking my first cigarette and sticking the other one behind his ear.
So why was he at the bus stop in the first place? It’s the only line that stops on that block, so he was clearly just bored, I guess. I watch him out of the window as we’re pulling away, and think about how normal and nice he was, while still being nuts, and how in almost any context you’d never know he was completely out of his mind in the middle of the day with the sun shining and hair with body, volume and manageability sticking straight up and eyes the exact color of a teal tropical Skittle.
About six months later I’m practically in my own place (it’s monastery time, which is this whole other, pretty nasty and creepy story) and I’m riding the Westheimer bus, which I like because it runs 24 hours and those times when I miss my downtown bus to the monastery — which is extreme south side Houston — you can at least listen to walkman music and look at the people on the bus, if you’re on the bus, rather than staring at nothing leaning against a wall downtown like some kind of creep until the monastery bus starts again at like 4 or 5 in the AM.
We go over this bridge which is just on the edge of the inner-city area that I’m familar and comfortable with, and on the bridge (also a train trundle) I see this guy (whom in my head I haved named “Joe”) dangling something over the edge of the bridge. It’s like 2AM but I’m kind of bored, so I pull the chain and the bus stops. I walk up to Joe until I’m close enough to see in the moonlight/general city glow of Houston pollution that Joe’s holding an opossum.
Its tail is curving up and around his wrist, his fingers, wrapping and unwrapping and wiggling and grasping. It looks like a worm, like an eyeless, hairless worm. The opossum dangling from it is so much less wiggly than the tail that it seems beside the point. He’s basically dangling it over the pit, but occasionally jerks it up and down suddenly as if to dislodge or excite it. His interest in the animal and its reactions is on a scientific level.
I yell, “Hey Joe!” even though it’s not his name, because I’m kind of exhausted and just looking for something occupy my time until I can go back to the room in the monastery where I sleep.
Every television meteorologist and every orthodox bishop I’ve ever met has bought me something and later tried to fuck me. What are the odds of that? Most of them have ended up crying alone in a Vietnamese restaurant parking lot in Midtown at some point. Having bought me dinner.
Joe immediately recognizes me, and calls me something — I think also “Joe.” We’re both Joe now. I watch the tail wrapping around and up and over his wrist. It’s disgusting.
We have a good long conversation about how we’ve been; I try to tell him about how I’ve found this monastery which is so much better than staying with friends, or being homeless. He gets really agitated about how he’s got all these checks, from some or many government agencies, but nobody will cash them, nobody will take them. I promise, in this moment, to help him. To do whatever I can to make sure he’s okay. He can tell I don’t know what I’m talking about.
“Well, can I come live with you?”
We both know the answer. He smells weird up close and has an opossum wrapped around his wrist. I try to explain to him that it’s entirely likely that he’ll get his own room in the monastery, that the people there are waiting to help him. I’ll warn him about the bishop later.
All of a sudden he gets scared, and starts yelling about how I’m going to hurt or kill him.
I can read enough from his body language to know that he actually means the opposite, but can’t bear to say it aloud.
I can feel this, I mean to say: Possum Joe somehow feels a need to hurt me. To hurt my body. And he’s doing his best to avoid it.
He’s wearing nothing but a bathing suit. The white mesh lining is sticking out at his waistline, in the darkness. No shoes, no socks, just a bathing suit and a tormented opossum around his wrist.
I step back. He disappears suddenly into the tunnel, under the train tracks where we’re standing.
Almost jumping straight down over the edge, like a superhero. Almost invisibly.
He’s still screaming at me about my plan to destroy him. A train comes and I can’t hear him. It’s so loud I have to run down a block, and wait until it goes away. I’m standing outside a Restoration Hardware. Across the street is a Williams Sonoma.
I have no idea how it is that I am 21 years of age, the son of a lawyer, and standing here in the middle of the night on a Tuesday. I kind of assumed I’d be rich and going to bed every night by 12 and giving liberally to charities and that kind of thing. Teaching people to read. I always assumed I’d be all about literacy by the time I left school. Not trading death threats with the crazy urban homeless under the guise of love and caring.
“I’m your friend, Joe!”
“You’re going to hurt me! You can’t stop yourself!”
“Don’t be crazy!”
There’s a shape in the moonlight; it’s Possum Joe walking off down the train tracks, having put on all the clothes he owns and shoved the rest of his junk in a pillowcase and climbed by his nails and fingertips out of the ditch. Climbed like ten feet.
I take off after him, still yelling like an idiot. Across his back there’s a pillowcase held in his right fist. It’s swinging, not in a regular pendulum fashion, and I eventually realize it’s the opossum in there. For some reason this is the weird detail that snaps me out of it, and I realize I’m engaged in some kind of serious conflict, and my foe is retreating. But see, I have this idea that I can save him.
If I can get him to sit still, take him home to the monastery and the bishop that keeps trying to take unspecified “pictures” of me, I can get him a room, get those checks cashed, get those bursting capsules in his head checked out, I’ll be a hero.
Possum Joe, who in twenty cumulative minutes has gone from somebody I thought about making out with to some kind of victim in need of saving, will be my triumph over the ridiculous turn my life has taken. He’s not into it, to say the least. He doesn’t want to be saved by me, with his possum in a bag and his bathing suit. He doesn’t believe they’ll help him anyway, nobody will, and he’s doing fine, and he’s got all these checks just waiting to be cashed.
I duck back a block, into the residential area, and head back up the street, past the Starbucks, past the houses. Ahead three street lights I can see him, pillowcase still swinging wildly, and I yell a few times to him to come back. Come back, so I can save him. Come back, so I can be the one that gives Joe and his opossum a safe home. Come back, so I can be the one who saves.
He disappears into the residential darkness. That’s the last time I saw Possum Joe.
I wait a while, and smoke my last cigarette waiting for the Westheimer bus. Another one doesn’t come until like 5am.
I stop off at Sarah’s house, and tell her boyfriend my story. He doesn’t like me yet, but tells me he’ll kick my ass if I ever try anything like that again.
That is how I became friends with Thomas.