I had an anonymous email a few weeks ago telling me an old friend of mine, who I have not seen for over a decade, was lying ill in a hospital in Phoenix and had just had a breast removed. The mystery correspondent thought I ought to know.
It was hard to take in, and even harder to know what to do.
I had been intensely close to Zoe for a number of years. She had been like a wild and glamorous elder sister to me. She was a barrelling collection of contradictions, a shimmering, thrumming shout of angry brilliance. She was rage, reason, romance, ridiculousness, and rock ‘n’ roll.
But mostly she was rage.
I met her in the toilet of a pub. She was stark naked except for a pair of opaque black stockings and she was sucking heavily on a joint. I walked in and did a double take.
“What the FUCK are you staring at?!” she demanded.
“I’m looking at your spliff and wondering if you’re going to share it” I answered.
She looked completely taken aback for a moment and then we began to laugh. She passed me the joint, we smoked it together and then she put on some knickers. Five minutes later she went out into the pub and took them off again.
That was how she made her money.
She hadn’t always been a stripper. She had had all kinds of crazy jobs including being a showgirl in Las Vegas – you know, the kind who wears a big feather headdress and glittery bikini. She’d been a model in Japan, she’d been a rock star’s wife and she’d even been a hooker for a while and worked with another girl whose name was Hot Sauce.
I’m telling you, you can’t make up this kind of thing and I couldn’t get enough of hearing about it.
She was a Bad Girl.
I sort of wanted to be a Bad Girl but I didn’t have the courage so I just borrowed from Zoe and she was gracious enough to allow my prurient voyeurism to tag along down her memory lane. She told me that when she was 16 she’d been married to a 6’2″ African American drag queen (she was very good at putting on false eyelashes as a result of this early marriage) and that he had had breast implants. After some months I worked up the courage to ask Zoe what she did with ‘them’ while they were, you know, um, uh, well….
“Don’t be STUPID” she hissed at me, as if I should already know.
“He always wore a bra”
Our odd friendship worked really well for a number of years. She had ambitions to become a music photographer and I was trying to break into the music business as a singer. We went to gigs together, spent endless hours on the phone having long, important conversations about life, smoked tons of weed and compared notes on our various boyfriends and their degrees of unsuitability – mine were usually too stuffy for me and hers were usually convicted criminals. She was there when I got my record deal and my first top 40 hit, and she was always my ‘date’ at parties and events. She seemed genuinely happy for me when things went well in my career, even though, in retrospect, I can see that it must have been hard for her to watch that happen while she, 10 years older, was still working as a stripper, not settled in a relationship and her career was not moving ahead with any great promise. Our friendship stayed strong through all of this and for a time she even lived in my house until she moved in with one memorable lover, the crack dealer who made a pass at me. He turned out to be the deal breaker in our friendship.
I was very sad at the time when I lost her. She seemed to vanish, quite suddenly, into a haze of bad boyfriend-dom, a downward spiral of hard drugs and domestic abuse. She was unreachable. She did not want to speak to me or to anyone we knew in common.
The next I heard she had gone back to America to live with her mother and I never heard from her again.
So, fast forward ten years and I am happily married with two little children. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember the girl I was who was friends with Zoe. So much has changed and mellowed in me over time.
And now here is the email, telling me she is gravely ill, and a week or so later another one, this time with a phone number and a request to call.
I waited until everyone else was out and I dialled the number. An answering machine:
“Hi, this is Zoe. I’ve just had surgery and nobody gives a FUCK. So don’t leave a message ‘cos I won’t phone you back because I don’t give a FUCK about you either”
I wanted to laugh because it was so very, intrinsically Zoe.
I wanted to cry because it was so very intrinsically Zoe
A whole bunch of things, but mostly rage.
I don’t think that rage helps you live. Not in these cases.
I think it makes you die.
I think love helps you live.
Zoe, I don’t know if you listened to my message.
(I’m going to leave you another one anyway, and another, and another and another and another and another..)
Here is what I have to say to you:
I give a fuck.
I love you. And I’m not the only one.
But what is most important is that you give a fuck.
Not for our sakes, but for yours
Let yourself be loved and love back, hard
It’s the only way to live