I originally met Robert in the sixth grade. Not even twelve and he was an orphan living with his Aunt. I didn’t know this about him for the first two weeks I knew him, I only found out about it when I told him a yo’mama joke and he punched me as hard as he could in the stomach.
I apologized, of course, when he told me his parents were dead from heroin overdoses and the matter blew over in a few minutes, but I’ll never forget the anger in Robert’s eyes that day, and the bizarre joker like laughter he had not two seconds after the fact as he pointed and laughed at my cringing from the gut.
I don’t think he was ever really mad I made a joke about his dead mom, I think he was mad that I exposed his soft spot. Robert was very kind and giving person, but he viewed the world as a prisoner does, one instance of softness and they’ll all be out to get you. That was Robert’s way of thinking. Because he never grew up with a mother, she had died far away, caring more about heroin than her own son. In a way Robert was probably more like his parent’s than he ever knew in the end.
Robert and I were sort of meant to be friends. Out of a sixth grade class of 60 from a Bukoskieaque Middle School, Robert and I were the only ones who actually seemed to like reading and learning. Neither one of us like our teachers or our school, but the one thing that kept us interested in school was the reading. The only problem was that Robert hated the books the school offered for our required reading, I thought they were okay but Robert pointed out to me how they were patronizing and low brow and stupid, how we were capable of reading better. I took refuge in our school’s supply of Agatha Christie’s and indulged on Hercule poroit, my dad watched those shows, and I wanted to be like my dad.
Robert’s obsessions by age 12 were Brave New World and 1984, both of which I had never heard of yet nor would I read them until much later in life. That’s why I started hanging out with Robert, he was always so much farther ahead of the curve than I was, and all I ever wanted to do was just catch up with him.
It wasn’t long after middle school that Robert introduced me to pot and LSD. Ever the Huxley fan, “The doors of perception have been opened to you” he said the morning I woke up and came to school with my first acid hangover. He then flicked me in my third eye and walked to class as I rubbed my forehead, annoyed with him yet again.
I was only fourteen at the time, and I had developed a new obsession. My identity became marijuana and drugs I thought it made me a badass. Unbeknownst to me Robert had already tried cocaine and had a frequent supplier, our pot dealer Andy.
Andy was a fat piece of shit. The 26 year old guy with an ugly goatee that your mother warns you about. The 26 year old man who makes his living by selling weed to teenagers. The 26 year old addict who is so desperate for customers and company he gives a free supply of heroin to a teenager.
Yet like a blind fool, I had no idea what was really going on, or if I did I pretended not to. I was so wasted most of the time it’s hard to remember what I felt and when sometimes.
Andy was the leading pot dealer to the druggie crew that hung out by the strip mall outside of school. This place became a hot bed for creepy drug dealers and malicious perverts harassing teenagers, and Robert and I were among the customers to frequent the place constantly. For most of the school it was just a place to score drugs then bounce, for the drug people like us, it was the place where you hung out.
Before long the place was a cop magnet, and everyday my friends and I found ourselves on the other side of the law.
One day the heat was on heavy, so Robert said, “My aunt’s not home lets go to my house.”
I was a little surprised to realize that despite how long I had known Robert I’d never actually been to his house. I met his Aunt before, but for some reason Robert’s house was never our base of operations.
We got to Robert’s house, Robert and I with our friends Steve and Sam. Steve was sort of a living rally point. Everyone in the group had some kind of connection to Steve. He was that guy who might not be friends with everyone, but he was definitely cool with everyone. He wasn’t the most brilliant guy in the world either, a sort of simple mix of skater, punk, and metalhead. Don’t get me wrong he wasn’t stupid, just, simple.
Sam was kind of the opposite. No one outside of the strip mall drug circle really knew or cared who he was. He was the Ben Affleck in our Dazed and Confused, our Super Senior. He was the guy who could buy us pipes, papers, and cigarettes before anyone else. He always hung out with Steve, even when Steve got tired of Sam.
Sam clung to Steve like a helpless stray dog. Despite Sam’s extensive arrest record and dangerous profile, looking back on it I can’t help but feel that’s all he ever got to be in this life, a stray dog no one in his family or school wanted. But still, Steve welcomed him, that was just the sort of guy he was.
I had always known Robert’s house was within walking distance, but until now I had never thought it unusual that I hadn’t been there yet, despite how long we had been friends. When we got to the door, he unlocked to what seemed like the gateway to an episode of Hoarder’s decorated by a midwestern housewife. The shelves were clogged with figurines and grandma knick knacks. A TV hung in the middle of the room facing a box-crowded couch. Robert guided us around the corner to a room with a silk blue cloth drape hanging instead of a door.
Aside from the minimal privacy, Robert had a cool room. Tool, Fight Club, and Dr. Hunter S Thompson decorated the room. A copy of House of Leaves sat on his desk, opened and lying face down at the half way point of the novel. A couch faced his long desk complete with a TV and speakers. Despite everything clearly being taken from a thrift store or just picked up off the street, one had to admit it was a pretty awesome haven for a stoner.
Robert grabbed a bottle of Jack, something that was always in supply on his desk, and had us pass it around as he packed his weed into Steve’s pipe. He passed it to Steve who started the bowl and started passing it along with the Jack. Robert put some Tom Waits on the speakers, and our tedious teenage conversations carried on. Steve and Robert would vent about their on again off again girlfriends, and Sam would offer advice as if it was solicited.
I usually kept quite during these coversations, I was a virgin at this time. That was something I always tried to learn from Robert, he had none of the problems with women I had at the time, by the time I had slept with one girl, he had slept with twenty. Anytime I met a girl in the school I liked, Robert had no problem reminding me that I would be having his sloppy seconds. Needless to say, sex was an uncomfortable subject at the time.
As Steve was packing another bowl, Robert clapped his hands and gave a loud “Oh Shit!” and a smile as he looked at us wide eyed through his shaggy deep copper hair that was over its usual shave off. The sudden loud noise gave us a short instance of stunned paranoia that only stoners will understand. That half a second panic attack that stops your heart, then restarts it gently as you slowly exhale.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Now that you guys are here, I want to show you guys something.” Robert said as he stood up and walked over to the corner by his closet. He picked up a canvas that had been facing the wall and turned it to face us.
“Damn,” said Steve
“Oh Shit dude,” added Sam. That was all Steve and Sam could think of to say.
I was awestruck, I had seen Robert’s sketch books and doodles in class since middle school, but I had never seen him show me anything like this.
What Robert showed us almost didn’t even seem like a painting, but a photograph illuminated with psychedelic hues. Imagine seeing into your own soul, only to find strands of your DNA and it’s double helixes in a massive pool, so you look into a single helix, to see into your own make up, only to find space, and a dark blue cloud just floating in the corner. That is what I saw that day, a psychedelic portrait of the insides of our own construction, fixed with a dark blue cloud hanging in some distant horizon within.
“Rob,” I said trying to rack my stoned brain for something eloquent and complimentary to say. “That’s beautiful.”
He chuckled at my use of such flowery language and just said, “Thanks man.” Robert knew I had a tendency for such affectionate language, but Robert was not one to show such sentiment, he found it “gay.” Of course I think it was really because it was trying to protect himself from getting hurt again.
Steve and Sam took advantage of the opportunity and riffed me without mercy. I just shrugged and ignored them. “I have to remember to stop being so emotional around the guys,” I told myself.
Still though, I could tell Robert was pleased by the reaction he got out of me, he never stopped smiling whenever I talked to him the rest of the afternoon about my status on reading his copy of House of Leaves.