Heroin, Cameras, and Lisbon: The Worst Thing That Happened in My Life
Recently I was challenged to write about the “Worst Thing That Happened in My Life”. The bit was for a promo piece promoting Legendary Horrors, an anthology of horror fiction that includes my short “Zombie Maker”. I was frankly stumped. The editor at Bards and Sages, Julie Dawson, said it could be tongue and cheek, which I would have loved, had I been able to think of something good. Oh, how I wanted to say that toothpaste had ruined my life. Or perhaps shoe laces. I even thought of a good bit where a sliver of ice had caused me to fall and start a series of events catapulting me into a horrific event. But none of these were true. Finally, I searched through my memories and came up with this bit. It’s a bit of a coming of age story. In my notes, I wrote that when I came to Lisbon, I was like a boyscout in a whorehouse. A bit over the top, I’ll admit. Here’s how the piece runs:
I arrived in Lisbon on a summer evening in 1992, bouncing along the sidewalks constructed of cut black and white stone. I sought a guide, someone who would show me things regular people didn’t see. No, that was a lie. I wanted to write stories, to live in them like Hemmingway or Burroughs.
I don’t recall how I met him. He simply appeared. His name was Gao (pronounced “jow”). He encouraged me to see the Old City. I recall my guidebook saying something about it being a bit unsavory. The area also contained the remains of the original castle.
I should have seen the danger in this. I should have seen a great many things. Instead I saw Hemmingway traversing the streets of Madrid or Burroughs holed up in a room in Tangiers. The gauze over my eyes was so thick, I doubt I actually saw that city.
We walked east, the sun stamping down on the black and white checkered sidewalks. A bus drove us around the bay to the Old City. I had to pay for Gao. I imagine now that he paid less attention to the sights and more to my wallet. After the bus stop, the character of the city changed. Squat walls had risen up around us.
The streets were a maze of smooth plaster walls, winding left and right. We delved deeper until the walls opened up onto a valley. On the far side stood the castle, brown dusty bricks towering above these mud-brick walls. Gao sat me down and disappears. I hardly noticed. I stared at the horses, three of them by the castle. I couldn’t hear their galloping. The sound wouldn’t carry that far. Their movement was like a silent picture, the dust trailing into the wind. I snapped a photograph, to capture the moment. I had no idea it would be my last.
Gao returned. He wanted to see my camera. As I turned to ask him why, I noticed the other men gathered behind me, leaning on the walls. I handed him the camera as beads of sweat sprouted along my arms and neck. He told me he needed to borrow it. He said he’d have it back to me in no time. Then he disappeared again.
There I sat, helpless, on this dirty brick wall. The horses were gone. And the castle looked run down now, a decrepit shell of a once great people. Instantly my mind went to the money in my wallet. There wasn’t much there, maybe seventy-five dollars worth. The rest was stored in a pouch around my ankle.
Gao returned without my camera. He sat next to me. I turned away from the castle to face him, though I couldn’t make my eyes meet his. His arms had bruises along them. He said he had AIDS. A heroin habit delivered it to his veins. He needed money, more than my camera would furnish. He asked for my wallet. It was not a request. He counted the money and shoved it into his pocket.
“You should leave,” he said to me. “If you stay, I will find you again. I will ask you for more money. I can’t help myself.” And I knew it was true.
I left that very afternoon. I packed up everything and checked out of my hotel. As I walked to the train station, I saw Gao in every face.
This memory clings to my flesh, crawling out to visit me when the days grow bright and hot. I cannot rid myself of it. I cannot send it back. It is mine to relive again and again. I can see the castle. It lies, burned to my retinas, at the center of the Old City. And next to me is Gao. I look at anything except his face. I wish I had. For all my memories of this place, I have almost no memory of how the man appears. Perhaps he’s a reality I wasn’t ready to face.