We had a visitor this past weekend.
Craze has a friend named Alan he's known since high school who is a really troubled guy. Until about six months ago, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a questionable neighborhood in Chicago. And to be truthful, more than his neighborhood was questionable where Alan was concerned.
He'd given up having any kind of real job more than ten years ago and instead become an unlicensed "massage therapist." I use that term loosely as I know, for a fact, that more than just massage was involved in his late night out-calls.
When I met him for the first time more than seven years ago, he had been surly and high. He didn't think twice about lighting up a joint right in front of me in Craze's apartment and ignored me in such a way that made it clear that he didn't think I'd be around for long. And my first opinion of him was that there wasn't much to like about Alan.
And months later when Craze filled me in about his suspicions about Alan's line of work, I couldn't believe that I even knew someone like this. After all, I had always been squeaky clean where any illegal or immoral activities were concerned. I certainly wasn't perfect and one person's morality can certainly be another's immorality, but I'd never in my life imagined that I would hang out with anyone engaged in prostitution. To this day, the word still sticks in my throat when I try to say it out loud.
P-R-O-S-T-I-T-U-T-I-O-N. Surely it was a word, at least in my life experience, reserved for bad Lifetime and ABC Movies of the Week. How could I know someone who did this for a living?
Over the years, Craze and I have had about a million conversations about Alan. We both knew he was on a bad path and tried to tell him as much many times. But he never wanted to listen. Things were going fine according to Alan, and while he said he appreciated our concern, we could basically go to hell.
That is, until two years ago.
Around that time, Alan's best customer moved out of town. And with him, went Alan's main source of income. What followed were 24 torturous months where Alan finally began looking for a real job. But with his lack of any real work experience and far greater lack of social skills, he never had a prayer. Several suicide attempts followed, two of which landed him in Chicago Reed, the local mental hospital, where they took away his shoe laces and sharp objects.
Through all this, Craze stood by his friend. Not because Alan was even moderately likable on many, if not most, occasions, but because Craze knew that he literally had no one else except his parents who live hours away in Michigan.
And his parents are another story entirely. They're two of the oddest people I've ever met. Blue-collar, conservative Catholics with more than a hint of right-wing fundamentalism (and some staunch beliefs that seem downright Amish!), their life experience where Alan has been concerned is an odd mix of sympathetic help offered through the filter of their stilted belief system. And to put an even stranger twist on their pious personas, in Alan's younger years, much of his relationship with his parents involved extreme violence.
How do I know this? Well, over the years as I got to know Alan more, the man, who at first haughtily ignored me and, honestly, I still found it difficult to like, began to confide things in me. Always in odd, unlikely moments when Craze stepped away for a second. He told me how as a kid, his father had beaten him up numerous times. Once he was so badly beaten that he couldn't go to school for several days because of all the bruises. Or I heard about the time he lay powerless in his childhood bedroom just listening as his father beat and then, he believed, raped his mother while she screamed.
They were the kinds of stories you cringe upon hearing. Stories that someone like me, who was lucky enough to have mostly kind parents, finds hard to fathom.
But once I knew these things, Alan's inability to create any kind of normal life for himself became much more easy to understand. And as a result, my judgments about him and his life choices became less harsh. As obnoxious as the guy could be, it was clear that, on most days, he hated himself.
And then about six months ago at the end of his financial rope (he owed money to us and his parents, his landlord, the phone company, you name it) and with the realization that he really didn't want to kill himself, he actually did something he swore he'd never do--he moved home to Michigan to live with his retired parents and try to get his life together.
The solution that I was sure would come to blows in the first week, has, shockingly, worked out pretty well. I think in trying to make amends for his horrific childhood, his parents have actually provided him a strong base of support. They encouraged Alan to go back to school to become a patient care technician and he's the star pupil. And they drive him to his evening job, where he's joined a rag-tag mob of pot-smoking outsiders and gang-bangers who work as charity fund-raising telemarketers. He's paid us back some of the money he owes us and is also paying back his parents. At 41 with the help of mom and dad, he finally seems to be getting his shit together.
And then, he arrived last Friday for a weekend visit via Amtrak. I could tell from the outset that he was trying hard to be on his best behavior. He even thought to bring me cans of the Cafe du Monde coffee he knows I like.
Saturday, we invited a few friends over for cocktails since Alan rarely gets a lot of time to socialize in suburban Detroit (after all, it's hard to build a new social network when, at 41, you have neither cash nor a car and live with your parents). But at our gathering, he actually went out of his way to make conversation, which was out of character. And he seemed to have a good time.
Sunday morning after a unusually meaty breakfast of sausage, bacon, eggs and toast in Alan's honor, Craze was about to take Alan back to Union Station when he ducked into the basement to look for a CD. Putting his coat on, Alan looked across the kitchen at me and said out of nowhere, "Do you think I'm doing good? Do you think I'm doing the right things? I'm so stupid. I've wasted so much time."
"You can't look backwards," I said after a moment, taken aback somewhat by the question. "The past is the past. You can't change it so there's no point spending your energy wishing it had been different. All you can do is move forward. . . And you're on a good path, Alan. I know it's got to be tough living with your parents, but you just have to keep reminding yourself that it's temporary. It's something you need to live through to get you to a better place. You're on your way now. And you'll get there."
Alan shook his head in agreement, but not with any kind of real confidence, as Craze emerged from the basement. And a moment later, they were both gone. Craze to Union Station and then to errands at Home Depot. Alan heading back to the train that would take him away from his old hometown and back to the place where his future is, fingers crossed, finally in the making.