Malik was just a friend of a friend, until one day in 10th grade, when he decided that we were close enough that he could address a nagging concern. He stomped up to my 15-year-old self, clad in red suede Sketchers, overalls, and a long-sleeved red shirt, (me, not Malik) ripped the red bandanna print headband from my hair and snapped “Okay, Belle. Wearing the same red headband, every single day, is not fashion!”
We’ve been friends ever since.
Throughout the years, Malik drifted in and out of my life, keeping closer tabs with Gail, particularly as we all worked to shred our individual existences in our early twenties. Where Gaily and I had destructive marriages, crushing money troubles, and dead babies, Malik had DUI’s, restraining orders, that teensy weensy felony, and copious drug usage. Still, every now and then, we would get together and we were 15 all over again. We giggled about which celebrities we found attractive, made catty remarks about how all the cheerleaders who picked on us in high school got fat, and made fun of each other and ourselves.
High school has been over for seven years. Gail has a career she loves and a live-in boyfriend that she found on Craigslist, while looking for serial killers for a laugh. I have my master’s degree, two librarian jobs, and a handful of bad date stories. Our lives are moving forward and Malik… well, Malik is headed back to rehab for the second time this year. He’s losing the car he just got and will have to struggle to find a new job when he gets out, because if he returns to IHOP, he’ll have unfettered access to drugs, once again. He’s watching everyone he loves have a life while he sneezes chunks of cartilage out of his nose, his skin turns gray, and he explains to me that getting clean is just so hard, he doesn’t know if he even wants to anymore. He told me, in all seriousness, that he didn’t understand why suicide would be considered selfish. He’s tired of fighting. He’s tired of hurting the people he loves.
Malik: ::defeatedly:: “It’s all my fault. I know my problems are entirely self-inflicted, but hearing all these people have so much hope for me…”
Me: “Well, I don’t know if it’ll make you feel any better or worse, but you’re not going to disappoint me. I could definitely be proud of you if you get clean, but if you don’t, well… it’s not statistically surprising.”
Malik: “God… thank you. It’s so nice to have someone be so practical and point-blank about it, instead of assuring me I can do it like everyone else.”
After two and a half years, I had the courage to ask a question to which I desperately wanted an answer.
Me: “About two and a half years ago, when you and Gail were over at my apartment… did you steal money from us? The next day, Gail was missing $40 from her purse and I was missing $5 that my Gramma had given me. It really upset me not knowing where it had gone, since my ex-husband used to steal from me so much.”
Malik: ::silence:: “Oh my God. I think I did. No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always prided myself on not stealing from individual people. How could I do that?!?”
As Malik cried, I told him to remember that, because of his addiction, he’d stolen from Gail, a woman who’s heart is made of rainbows and pixie dust, a woman he loves unconditionally. I told him that if he needed motivation, he should consider that. I told him that if he killed himself, because of this information, I’d bury him in pleated plaid pants and pink Crocs. Then, we went to my apartment and we giggled about which celebrities we found attractive, made catty remarks about how all the cheerleaders who picked on us in high school got fat, and made fun of each other and ourselves. When most people hear about my friendship with Malik, they just don’t get it. They see this…
… and they’re right. Malik is a user and a felon. He deserves everything he’s getting, because he’s continuing on a destructive path. Maybe I deserve to have money go missing if I continue to have him in my life. He’s also the boy who cried when the football players tossed his CD’s all over the parking lot, because he was openly gay. He’s the boy who drew me a portrait of Marilyn Monroe for my 17th birthday. He’s the guy who told off Gail’s ex-husband for taking advantage of her and abusing her daughter. He’s the guy who told me I had nothing to be embarrassed about after my divorce, that my ex-husband was the failure, not me. He may have whopping self-esteem issues and a case of Peter Pan syndrome to rival the Lost Boys, but when I look at him, I still see this…
If Malik ends up in prison, I won’t be horrified and think our justice system done him wrong. Neither will he. He knows he’s had every opportunity handed to him and he never had a particularly bad lot in life… but he still can’t get his shit together. So, if that does happen… I’ll write. I’ll visit. So will Gail. Convict or not… he’s still just Malik, the sweet kid who could talk his way out of anything… the boy who danced with us at prom… the guy who insisted we claim the makeup was ours if his mom found it… the boy who was near tears when we convinced him my house was haunted in the 11th grade… the guy who believes every conspiracy theory he’s ever heard and thinks Meth addicts are a sign of the rapture.
Malik: “Everyone knows a different Malik.” ::sighs dramatically:: “Who is the real Malik?”
Me: “I’m pretty sure that, deep down, you’re still the same chubby, 15-year-old Malik, wearing a popped collar in our redneck high school.”
Malik: “Two popped collars, thank you.”
Me: “… with a tie tied around his waist. Two ties… but that’s because you had to tie the ends together so they’d go all the way around you.”
Me: “Well, on the bright side, when you’re done with rehab, maybe we’ll get Fat Malik back! I loved Fat Malik!”
Malik: “Oh, my god. If there is one thing that is going to keep me from rehab, that’s it.”
Me: “You’re gonna miss Carrie!”
Malik: “I know! I was heartbroken about that! I was crying to a coworker about how I’d miss Carrie and when they asked who that was, I’m like ‘Hello! Carrie? The remake?!?!”
Me: “Rehab is gonna suuuuck.”
Malik: “Seriously, Belle. You are terrible at this.”
Me: “You could drive a truck!”
Malik: “I have two DUI’s, Belle!”
Me: “We just need to get you a job where there are no drugs and no one cares that you’re a felon or a recovering addict.”
Malik: “Okay, Belle, but the places that will hire me are going to have drugs, because everyone else there is going to be an addict.”
Me: “Ugh. I know! We’ll Google it!!!”
“Um… wow. The Internet… has no answers. I think you broke Google.”
Malik: “You suck at this!”
Me: “I’m a librarian, not a substance abuse counselor!”
Me: “Have you ever had sex with a married man?”
Malik: “Yeah. I found out and told him I couldn’t do it anymore, even though he was paying me.”
Malik: “Excuse me. I guess I was prostituting myself to a married man.”
Me: “Ooooh! You could do that!”
Malik: “All of your ideas are things that could get me put in prison!”
Me: “You know, the guys from Sons of Anarchy were all addicts and felons and they seemed to be doing okay. Illegal gun running? Sex trafficking? I know, I know ‘I have two DUI’s, Belle!’”
Me: “Wait… if it doesn’t do anything for you anymore, then why don’t you just stop doing it?”
Malik: “Because I’m an ADDICT.”
Me: “I would’ve made a bomb therapist.”
He’s vain, lazy, self-indulgent, and irrevocably flawed… but he’s Malik. The day he overdoses and they lower his 29-year-old body into the earth, something in me will break.