The last time I saw my friend Julian was the night we went to see Bret Easton Ellis give a talk at the London Literature Festival. Most of what follows I learned from a very long, discomforting e-mail he sent me from Guatemala, out of the blue, more than a year later. I received that e-mail seven months ago; I’ve heard nothing from him since.
The Bret Easton Ellis talk took place on a drizzly autumn evening two nights after Julian’s twenty-ninth birthday, which meant we were both still a little fragile from the effects of all we’d consumed at the riotous party that had doubled as Julian’s big send-off (he had quit teaching at the language school where I’d met him and booked a one-way flight to Mexico).
After the talk, over pints of Leffe in a pub across the river from the South Bank, we discussed why seeing Ellis had been so dispiriting.
‘What he is, what he embodies,’ said Julian, ‘is the end-product of nihilism.’ His voice was strained. He was drinking quickly to become interested in where he was. ‘You know what I mean? Being totally nihilistic and transgressive is exciting when you’re younger, but… You can get away with it then. Or there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had in the destructive work—you haven’t yet had to live in the ruins. Most people who’re like that seem to wise up and realise that it’s like this fire that they’ve set in themselves, and if they don’t put it out by a certain age, they’ll be consumed. All that’ll be left are ashes. That’s the impression Ellis gave me: a man of ashes. It’s like, once upon a time he showed too keen an interest in… in nothingness, and eventually it started taking an interest in him.’
I drank my beer and let Julian’s words settle, while he peered into his glass. A montage of memories reeled through my mind: Julian as the younger punk-intellectual, at war with everything, but winning the war and exhilarated by the fight, be it on the streets amid tear-gas or within his own psyche; the acts of vandalism—all those fire-gutted cars and global fast-food outlets; and later, the deepening sullenness, the first flirtations with far-right ideologies, the sneering disdain for younger, earnest advocates of the same radical leftism he had once espoused.
We got mildly drunk that night, but Julian never shrugged off his lethargy. We said goodbye at Leicester Square tube station and I took a bus home through the rainy night, wondering about Julian—how there was something almost enviable about his anguish. Less than a week later, Julian flew to Mexico City, alone.
For his first few days there, he saw no one. He drank and wandered the streets, the city a choking carnival of noise and pollution. He hooked up with some punk contacts; vague friends of vague friends squatting in the city and playing in hardcore bands, angry and self-marginalised. An identical scene exists in hundreds of cities across the world, depressingly homogenous and homogenously depressed.
Julian left the squat one morning without saying goodbye. He took a taxi to the bus station and began travelling around Mexico: Guadalajara, Chihuahua, and Ciudad Juarez, where (he later wrote) he hoped to witness a drug-war shootout, ‘or even be slain as an innocent bystander.’ He found a punk dive bar in Juarez where he watched a gig, getting very drunk and taking speed given to him in the toilets by a young, almost effeminately beautiful punk, no older than nineteen. Julian’s Spanish was rudimentary but he befriended the Mexican and somehow explained that he didn’t have anywhere to stay that night. ‘No hay problema,’ said the young guy, ‘Quedate conmigo.’ Julian didn’t remember getting home or into bed, but later he was woken by the young Mexican unbuttoning his boxers and taking his cock in his mouth. Julian’s head spun but he was intensely excited. He ran his fingers through the guy’s curly black hair and pulled his face down on his groin. He came into his mouth. The boy gently spat out the come on Julian’s leg and swirled his finger through it, like he was painting a spiral on his thigh. Then they kissed until Julian passed out.
He left the next morning and took a bus to another town on the edge of the desert, where he hung around for a few days, reading Julio Cortázar in a café, and walking out at the periphery. He had sex again, this time with a barmaid from a place he got drunk in one night. She lived with her sister, and Julian could hear her snoring in the next room while they fucked. They didn’t use a condom. Later in the night, as Julian lay in the dark with his eyes closed, he heard the woman weeping beside him. He left in the morning. After drifting for another couple of days, he arrived at Caborca, a desert city where more punks he knew were squatting a derelict apartment block. One of these was Sebastian, a Mexican who Julian had known six or seven years previously, in Madrid. Back then, Sebastian was twenty-five, and still ablaze with youthful idealism. Now, that fire had all but burnt out. The world had not changed like Sebastian had demanded it to, but had moved on without him, brash with sunshine and thoughtless laughter. Like so many punks past their mid-twenties, Sebastian had begun to rechannel the aggression of his fading youth into a world-hating defeatism.
The building that Sebastian and his friends were squatting was a crumbling four- storey block on the desert-whipped fringes of town. There was a large courtyard in the middle, hemmed in by the pale walls of the abandoned apartments. In this courtyard the punks would pass their days drinking, smoking weed, sometimes screwing one another, and playing music when they could be bothered to on battered amps, guitars and a rusted drum-kit, though their songs were all at least five years old and they seemed to spit out the rebellious, leftist lyrics with bitter irony (all of these punks were at least in their late twenties). The numbers fluctuated but there were usually around eight of them staying there. Mostly they were Latin Americans.
Sebastian’s girlfriend, Erika, was an Argentinian who said she’d never go back to that country, so vacuously obsessed was it with image and surface. Julian would watch her through the late-afternoon tequila blur, when the sun’s glare dragged all of existence out into the open, groaning, exposed and humiliated. Erika seemed strangely indifferent to Sebastian, who grew more sullen and withdrawn as the days and weeks piled up, loitering at the far end of the courtyard with his dark curly hair and his Misfits T-shirt. The couple had an open relationship, but neither Erika nor Sebastian ever seemed bothered to fuck any of the other punks, perhaps because all the permutations had already been exhausted. After he’d been there for a couple of weeks, however, Julian followed Erika into the shade of one of the rarely used rooms, up on the third floor. There was nothing in the room but a bare mattress. They fucked for hours in the hot, empty afternoon as Sebastian and the others drank in the courtyard below. Between bouts of screwing, while he and Erika took hits on a plastic bong, Julian could hear Sebastian’s voice, unnaturally loud, sometimes igniting into harsh and mirthless laughter. Then there would be silence for a while, the nullifying presence of the desert drifting over the apartment block like a cloud of sand or slow gas.
‘What do you think is up with Sebastian these days?’ said Julian as they lay side- by-side, stoned and separate, gazing at the ceiling while intermittent shrieks rose up from the courtyard.
‘Nothing’s up with him,’ said Erika. ‘He’s unhappy. Why wouldn’t he be?’
Julian snorted. ‘What, cause he never managed to change the world? Jesus, he needs to grow up. I don’t have any pity on him.’
‘You don’t have pity on anyone. And no one has any pity on you,’ she laughed.
‘That’s not true,’ said Julian, tiredly. In the courtyard someone played a grindcore band on an ancient cassette and Julian began to fuck Erica with his fingers, while she stroked his penis, gently at first but soon tugging at it violently, so that they soon came almost together, body juices spilt on leather and dust as the slow, turgid warp of grindcore rebounded off the walls.
He stayed on in the squatted block. Days rolled past like the occasional, slow clouds in the desert sky, or the lone cars on the highway that trailed silently to the horizon. A guy called raoul came up from Mexico City with a great deal of speed. For three days they all stayed up getting wrecked. It was fun, like the old days. On the second night of the speed blitz, Julian screwed Erika again. This time it was vicious, both of them snarling, biting and clawing, the border between lust and battery obliterated. ‘Spit on me,’ she hissed as he held her legs back and plunged into her, wanting to stab and maim and lacerate. His saliva slapped the skin above her eye. She punched him hard in the jaw and he slapped her with equal force so that she let out an involuntary whimper. He felt his cock throbbing hard inside her. At one point Julian turned and saw someone standing in the doorway, the figure indistinct in the gloom. He thought it was Sebastian but couldn’t be sure. After a while the figure turned away, indifferent, and Julian gushed into the heat of Erika’s pussy, then collapsed onto her chest, wheezing as arrows of light flashed on the screen of his eyelids. He felt alone and serene in the empty drift of time. Nothing had ever mattered and why should it now.
When the speed was gone the group got back to drinking, smoking weed and hanging around. The atmosphere seemed to have deteriorated, even when the after- effects of their drug-bender had worn off. Occasionally they ate some half-hearted vegan fare, attempting to quell the sickly heave of their guts. Julian perpetually had the runs, as if something inside him had melted or ruptured. It was like someone was wringing out a filthy towel in his bowels. He didn’t screw with Erika any more. Maybe it was time to move on. But Julian was unable to summon the will to break out of the inertia that hung over the block. He didn’t really care. The insidious thing about depression is that it snuffs out the desire to do anything about it, negates the notion that there’s any compelling reason not to be depressed. He thought he’d been at the squat for five weeks but he couldn’t be sure. Time seemed irrelevant, a feeble joke.
One afternoon Julian got back from the town with two bottles of tequila. Five or six of the punks sat in the glare of the courtyard, drinking straight from the bottle. Erika was even quieter than usual, staring as if into an invisible daytime campfire, sighing every now and then. Sebastian too was silent: he had hardly spoken in days. After a while, he took a deep swig on the bottle and walked away, into the gloom of the building. Someone put on a tape, an Arizona sludge-metal band, the awful sound of empty time, the abysmal truth of the desert, of all existence tumbling in the void. As they sat amid the drone, something made Julian look up: on the rooftop, veiled by the sun’s glare, stood Sebastian. He was looking down into the courtyard below. Julian used his hand to block the sun, and watched. None of the others had noticed that he was up there. Sebastian stood very still, never once looking towards the group far below. Then, without prelude, he let himself fall forward, on his knees. He dropped from the rooftop and plummeted past the fourth, third, second floors. There was a thud and a flash of dust and he fused with the concrete. Julian cursed. The others all turned in the same instant. Sebastian had impacted head-first; his top half was flattened into a puddle of swirling human colour. His back half rose out of the fusion in low mounds, like the mesa on the empty expanse of the plains.
Erika and the others wouldn’t accept that Sebastian had killed himself. When, after a couple of days had passed, Julian tried to persuade them that that’s what had happened, they turned on him, hissing that he was scheming and malicious, he thought it was all some fucking game, he should fuck off back to England or anywhere else as long as it was out of their sight. Julian stayed one more night after that. The following morning he gathered his things. On his way out of the squat he took one last look at the patch of concrete where Sebastian had landed, which first the police and then the punks had hosed down. You could still see the blood, a rusty brown smear like a diarrhoea stain. Julian knew it would be there forever, or at least long after the punks had moved on, or died or grown old, or just walked out into the desert to be felled by the sun. No one was awake to say goodbye when he left.