Chicago Portrait no. 47: The Comedian

Tw: rape, sexual assault

Dan once said to me that meth isn’t actually bad for your health. That anyone who tells you otherwise is putting too much stock in anti-drug propaganda and shitty research design.

“Those before and after photos are total crap,” he said. “I mean, those people do actually look like that, sure, but they’re living on the streets with no job or access to medicine or dental care and they’re not taking care of themselves. It’s not the meth doing it.”

I was studying research methods at the time, and working on my thesis, and was dazzled a bit by this comment. It seemed plausible, actually, that meth wasn’t the tooth-and-skin-eroding, rapidly-aging menace the YouTube videos made it out to be. So I said ,”I guess..,” and took a seat on the ottoman opposite him.

He was sitting in the hot pink office chair at my desk, fiddling with my laptop. His back was to me until he found a song that was suitable. It swelled into the room and he spun in the chair slowly, grandiosely, until by the time the lyrics came in and swirled around the guitars he was facing me.

And then he mentioned how much he loved heroin.

I think he said he didn’t do it anymore. I think. But I knew to worry, even though I’m sure he would have been just as offended by me conflating heroin with AIDS as he was by anti-drug videos equating meth with tooth decay. It wasn’t always like that, especially not if you’re smart, he would have said. You could do it without dying. You could do it without seroconverting. And I would have been forced by logic and by his charm to agree.

Still, that didn’t keep me from getting a full battery of STD tests after he assaulted me.

— — –

He was thin but hid it under a starched button-up shirt and a dark grey blazer. He wore jeans up too high on his frame, with a brown braided belt that clashed and betrayed his immaturity. The shirt and the jacket mostly obscured this one false note, but I saw it often enough to remember, just like I saw his birdlike bare chest often enough to remember that he was young, and fragile, and not fully developed yet.

He was 19 when he did it to me. Just 19. Now that he’s dead, I can’t even be mad, because there was so little of him there, so little developed and solidified that it feels like I was assaulted by an embryo or a ghost. I like to think that he would have grown into a decent man if things had gone differently, and that seeing him well would have drained all the trauma out of me. That then I wouldn’t flinch and glitch out and temporarily disappear whenever someone touches me the way he touched me, in the places he touched me.

But I will never be able to test any of those hypotheses, because heroin killed him.

— — –

It was a few years after he had hurt me, after which I had unceremoniously dumped him and stopped talking to him. I’d gotten a full battery of STD tests, waited six months, and then gotten tested again. I had escaped most of my external demons but my anxieties were still coiled up tight inside me, and could be set off by the minorest things.

I didn’t have panic attacks or bursts of fear; that wasn’t the mark he left on me. I just got frighteningly mad if anyone crossed me. A man flashed me on Glenview and I chased him three blocks screaming and throwing my groceries at him. He was on a bike but I kept up. I’ve never been fast before. Never have been since. My heart thrummed in my chest and I was furious and ready for a fight the whole rest of the evening. I had fantasies about murdering him with my bare hands; they kept me up late that evening, comforting me. A guy grabbed my tit on the train and I slammed him into the wall and bellowed the words “FUCK YOU” in a voice I didn’t recognize and can’t reproduce. If a man so much as muttered “Smile, sweetie” to me I would scream at him like I hoped my voice would tear his organs apart. Things like that were the legacy of my relationship with him.

He had messaged me a few times, asking for records of our old Gchat messages and trying to hook up with me, oblivious to the fact that I had no interest in him and was now physically incapable of doing the things he and I used to do. He’d ruined those things for me. Ruined my body for them. My body closed up and my mind froze like an old desktop computer if anyone even suggested doing those things anymore. He didn’t even know he’d ruined my life. He didn’t even know it was rape.

— — –

This time, though, he wasn’t messaging me asking for sex. Not at first. He had left for California, he told me. He’d left to pursue his stand-up comedy career and book a few on-screen gigs. But it hadn’t panned out, and he’d relapsed. Now he was home in his parent’s house in the Chicagoland suburbs, nursing his guilt and his cravings. He told me he was battling suicidal urges on a daily basis and didn’t know what to do or how he’d ever see the end of it.

I found myself oddly sympathetic to his plight. I had been painfully depressed before, and had longed for the release of non-existence at the exact time I’d met him. I had wanted to die and then I had met him, and then he raped me. It didn’t make the desire to die any better or worse; it just left me with a few additional issues. But I didn’t wish those feelings on him. He was so young. He’d distracted me from my own suicidality. I knew he hadn’t saved me, he’d made me worse, but I still wanted him to stay alive. I didn’t feel any anger then, and I had no delusions that helping him would bring me closure or purge me of the trauma he’d inflicted. It wasn’t any of that. I just didn’t want him to die. I just didn’t.

— — –

I stayed up with him over Gchat, talking to him about our darkest feelings. I shared with him all the strategies and resources I had used to stay alive, when I was finding existence a torment. For me, the need to blot out my own existence had abated after escaping a bad situation; I told him maybe time would balm his pain, too, if he just kept on fighting. I told him I didn’t want him to die. And I told him that I had faith in him, and that he wasn’t a bad person; he was just a drug addict who’d made a very common mistake. So common it could hardly be labeled a mistake. He listened and accepted all the succor I provided. We did not discuss him assaulting me at all.

Then he asked me if I was still living on Pratt and Sheridan. He wondered if I would meet up with him some time that weekend, for coffee or a drink. Everything came back to me in a blurry flash. The floor, my eyes going dark, the pain, his face bunched up with focus. The deadening feeling as it happened and time telescoped and I realized I could never take this experience away; it was in me now, and part of who I was, indelibly my problem. I winced inside and out. A tempatureless shiver ran from my brain to my thighs. I blinked a few times, erratically, my mind fizzling in and out of the present.

I was staring at the monitor of my laptop crying, knowing he would hurt me again if I gave him any opportunity. So I told him no. He begged and wheedled. He brought up a few memories that, to him, were fond. I blocked him.

— — –

I never spoke to him again. For years I clenched up on every train platform in Lakeview or in any crowded bar where comedy dudes hung out and traded desperate, attention-deprived jabs. I thought I saw his face a hundred times at least, but it was always some equally generic string bean overdressed in ill-fitting clothes.

I fantasized about what I’d say if I saw him, how I’d scream and ask him what he thought he’d done and make a big scene. I thought about emailing him or his parents’ or the comedy club he worked at. When I performed, I liked to think that he was lurking in the corner of the bar or the theater somewhere, hearing me and recognizing how much funnier than him I was. I wanted revenge but I also dreaded it. It seemed inevitable. It kept my fists bunched up and my eyes darting up the street.

And then I found out he’d been dead for two years. Heroin. Of course. There were loving obituaries and nostalgic blog posts penned by comedians and semi-famous writers. His friends and family came together to organize a show in his honor, where his most hilarious sketches and scripts were performed live and his best friend even read from a selection of his most darkly funny Gchats. Dozens of people came up to the front of the stage, sharing stories of his biting wit and energetic unpredictability. Nobody cried. They all laughed, fondly.

I watched the whole thing on Youtube, in my bed in the dark, not crying, not angry, not knowing what to feel. I couldn’t keep my eyes off his sister. She stood at the side of the stage the whole time, giggling in a black dress, looking completely stable and not at all bereft with grief. She read from his sketches and laughed, trading barbs with his friends, remembering what a pervvy cad he could be. I found myself fantasizing about meeting her, saying, oh you’re Dan’s sister? Let me tell you something about your late brother…And even in my imagination, she wasn’t upset. She just gave me a sad smile and said yeah, I know. I know he was like that. He was a mess.

And that was a supremely comforting fantasy, really. She just accepted my truth and affirmed it and I didn’t have to feel guilty or like a wounded animal she was taking pity upon. We could just stand together in observation of the truth and both be comforted by it. He was a mess, he did bad things, and now he’s dead. Ho hum.

— — –

The first time Dan came to my house, he opened up my computer and went through my music. I was sitting on an ottoman a few feet away, socially anxious, afraid of being judged for my musical taste. How naive. I had such worse things to be afraid of.

I remember hearing the lilting guitars of Air’s “Cherry Blossom Girl” beginning to play, and him spinning in my hot pink office chair, arms parted, fingers drifting up and down along with the melody. His eyes were closed and his chin was tiled heavenward. I watched him as he rotated until he was facing me dead on, waiting to see what he’d do next, wondering if he’d make fun of me or give me a compliment or do nothing at all. I can linger in those few seconds all day long, if I want to, watching myself watching him, waiting, nothing having gone wrong yet, just waiting, watching, being the audience he always craved but never deserved. And in that strange Schrodinger’s Cat Box of a moment, he isn’t a rapist and I am not a victim, and he is not dead, and he never relapsed, and he was never a lost cause or a bad person, and I was always, forever, until the end, weak and naive.

So I press the play button and let the future roll on, not because I want him to die, but because I want to be me. The real me. The me of the present.

Originally published at

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