Danny and I were more than friends. We were cousins, bonded by blood. The son of my father’s brother.
Being separated by only six months- him having the edge- the two of us were inseparable. From playing war in elementary school to violent video games in middle school, to smoking pot out of a water bottle as high schoolers, then getting drunk and chasing women at bars as young adults. The problem was, I had learned to calm down and know my limits- Danny never did.
Sure, it was fun and games at first. Danny was better looking than I was and his devil-may-care attitude always charmed the socks (well, panties) off girls. I was usually there for support and to play wingman as Danny would knock back shot after shot and chug beers with some other kindred spirit party animal. It had been a joy until he started using heroin.
The effects went unnoticed longer than I like to admit. I should have noticed the signs when he started losing weight- looking more like a walking corpse than a living human or when he lost his job out of nowhere. It wasn’t until at a house party at a buddy’s house that I walked outside to talk to a girl I was getting along with that I saw Danny with a group of other useless wastes of life. He was sitting on a tree stump, back to the shed in the yard with a hypodermic sticking out of his arm. A pool of vomit at his torn-apart shoes.
I tried to scream at him, but he didn’t respond. The girl (who would end up dating me for a bit, but leaving because of my insistence to help my cousin; she wouldn’t be the last do so either) ran inside to get help while the crowd Danny was with just stared nervously, begging me not to call 911. Danny had overdosed.
He ended up being fine. I allowed him to move into the spare room of my condo as he promised to get clean and find a new job.
“I’m done with that shit, man,” he would tell me, “I’m going to get better, and then I’m going to pay you back.”
That had gone on for the last five years now. Danny disappearing out of nowhere, then finding his way back like a lost cat when he needed money or a place to stay, living rent-free in my place, then disappearing again.
I felt bad for him. I still do. He was always claiming depression and anxiety when he would lose his temper or I would snap and scream at him to get free. I even paid for him to go to rehab until he snuck out two weeks later. I had sacrificed money, time, vacation days, and relationships for this man. Always telling me, “You’re the only one who ever looked out for me, Sonny. My own mother won’t even talk to me, but you, you were always there when I needed you. Things are going to be different this time around. I promise, Sonny.”
Like a fool, I listened and believed. Not this time, though.
I hadn’t heard from Danny in eight months. I was beginning to believe that he was either dead or in jail somewhere. I have to admit in dark honesty too- it would have been a relief. Danny had spent some time In Portland then going to Seattle, but he had gotten in trouble with the law up there, so he was looking for a pace to stay here. How he was able to travel, I have no idea- hitchhiking probably.
I agreed to meet my cousin at a coffee shop on Saturday, but I was abandoning him this time. Am I a bad person for doing this?
Years of money, happiness, and self-care have been put on the backburner for this guy. I have money- I work at a publishing house as an editor and write indie novels in my spare time. I would never be Stephen King, but the publishing house paid well and the income from the books allowed for some splurging. I am about to be thirty in two months. I am getting to the age where I need to start thinking about starting a family. A wife and kids. Every relationship I have ever had has been cut off because I felt the responsibility of unknowingly enabling his behavior. That last one hurt especially.
Mary-Lynne and I had been going steady for almost a year. I was really into her- I could even see a future with this girl and she saw one with me. The only problem was that a wedge named Danny jammed too far between us. Midnight calls to come to pick him up and shelling out more cash than I would like to admit mixed with canceling more than a few dates to help him had taken their toll. Mary-Lynne had been understanding and caring at the beginning, but it was inevitable that she would reach her limits. She had given me more than enough chances.
“Sonny, I love you but I can’t do this anymore,” she told me, “I can’t be second place to a junkie who acts like a vampire to your emotions and money. I know you love your cousin but you’re just going to get pulled into that same hole as him, and we can’t have children with a junkie that steals and lies to you. Call me if you ever prioritize things.” She picked up her coat, threw some cash on the table to pay for her drink, and walked out of my life then.
Danny was at the café already when I got there. The sight of him almost made me cry and vomit at the same time. Once a handsome and charming guy was now a horror show with legs.
Where there was once a full mass of black hair was uneven scraps sticking out wildly from bald patches. His eyes, once full and blue- matching mine- were sunken pits of haze grey in the middle of black-blue patches. A flawless tanned face that used to drive women mad with full lips was ghost pale with scabs dotting around. His lips were now thin and cracked like dry-rotted rubber. Danny wore an oversized black hoodie that was stained with vomit, blood, and god knows what else. It carried the faint smell of piss that my nose caught as soon as I sat down. His bone-thin legs were covered by beat-to-hell khaki pants and he wore scuffed combat boots on his feet.
I ordered two espressos for us as Danny greeted me.
“Sonny boy!” he spoke in a cracked voice and smiled to reveal a sickening mass of yellowed teeth protruding unevenly from dark gums. He probably only had about half of his teeth left. “How’s my little cousin?”
I shook my head uncomfortably. Thinking about cutting the ties was easy, now looking into this less-than-shell of a man brought on the uncomfortable doubt.
“I’m alright, Danny, how are you?”
“Things could be better, but I am doing great now that you’re here,” his horrific mess of a mouth overextended when he spoke now, fingers scratched new scabs into the skin of his face, his breath carried across the table to bring the scent of cheap cigarettes and even cheaper alcohol added with death itself. I had the same emotions looking at my cousin that a villager must feel when he sees his home bombed in some act of war by a country that has no business being there. My heart was shattering to less than dust.
Our espressos arrived and Danny drank his in one gulp before asking the waiter for another one, “You got me, right, Danny?”
I shook my head slowly.
“Thanks, buddy. This is my younger cousin, you know?” he told the waitress, who showed obvious discomfort at having to speak to this living-dead being. “Best man I ever knew. He’s single too.” He added with an attempted wink at the waitress. I gave her an awkward “Sorry” look before she left to get Danny his refill.
“How was the Pacific Northwest?” I asked trying to be polite and keep Danny from staring at the waitresses’ ass so obviously.
“It was okay,” Danny told me, “But like, the people are so rude. Sure, they say they’re with you and that they want to help, but none of the helpers know anything. They say I need to take less and less dope each day until I’m down to nothing and that I can’t find help if I don’t admit that I’m an addict. I’m not addicted, I’m depressed and I’d rather be high than have to face my depression. They think talking will help me with my issues. Like I’m supposed to just talk and be okay, fuck you!”
The waitress returned with Danny’s second espresso and darted away before he could notice her during his monologue.
“Well, those helpers have been giving aid to people for a long time, they know what they’re doing,” I told him calmly.
“They don’t know me,” he argues back, “what works for someone else won’t work for me. I’m different. They don’t know how to handle depression, they just say that until I can admit my problems, I can’t be helped. Then, they want me to get a job? Like in my condition, I can’t be having someone else tell me what to do when I’m sad or needing a fix. They’re all just assholes.”
Classic junkie Danny. Everything was everyone else’s fault and experts were idiots who didn’t know anything.
“Danny, these people know what they are doing. They know how to help people and get them clean and rebuild their lives,” I pleaded.
“You’re just a bootlicker, you know that, Sonny?” he gave a rusty cackle that I think was supposed to be laughter, “Anyway, the reason I’m back and why I called is that I need a place to stay for a bit, man.”
There it was. I had moved in the last four months, growing up from leasing a condo to buying a townhouse on the other side of town.
“I got back here yesterday and went to your apartment but someone else lives there now, I guess you moved, huh? Could have told me.”
I shrugged, “I didn’t know where you were, I had no way of reaching you to tell you the news of my life for the last eight months.”
“Still got room for your cousin?” he asked like he knew the answer was already yes, excitement growing at the corners of his dirty mouth, “I am really going to try to get off the shit this time. I promise you this is different. I can feel it.”
For once, Danny actually was right about things being different, just not how he expected them to be.
“Danny, I can’t let you stay with me anymore.”
He paused in the middle of gulping his coffee and gave me a mean look, “Whaddaya mean you can’t let me stay with you?”
I took a breath, keeping cool but firm, “I mean, I can’t help you anymore.”
“That’s bullshit!” he exclaimed, a few customers of the café looked over. The waitress Danny tried to talk to stood rigidly with shaking hands by the counter.
“Keep your voice down,” I said lightly.
“What? Some new strange controlling your life now? You don’t have time for your favorite cousin?” he threw the paper cup the espresso had been in on the ground. It landed with a light thump as it collided with the brick floor. I leaned down and picked it up, setting it next to my own empty beverage.
“This has been going on too long,” I replied, “I can’t keep letting you take advantage of me anymore. You tell me you’re going to get better and I give you a place to stay and free food just for you to disappear until you bottom out again. I even paid for you to go to rehab until I got a call that you had run away.”
“Oh. Those assholes were so phony!” Danny cracked, again too loudly, “They didn’t want to help, they just wanted to make themselves feel better.”
“Danny, you can’t keep blaming others for your bad fortune. Sooner or later you have to take responsibility for yourself and realize that you are the reason for why your life is the way it is.,” I took another deep breath. This was like sawing my own arm off.
Danny grimaced and picked a scab off his face, fresh blood ran down his cheek making it look like he was crying blood.
“You’re just like the rest of them,” he said angrily, “It’s easy for you to say being a college graduate with a good job. I didn’t get to go to college.”
“Danny, Uncle Dave- your father- paid for you to go to school but you dropped out halfway through the semester,” I reminded him.
“Because college was such a scam. You know that. They just wanted money and didn’t care about teaching us.”
I shrugged again, “Maybe so, but you had the opportunity,” I shuffled in my seat nervously, “This is the last amount I can give you and then we are done. It’s five hundred dollars.” I pulled a roll of bills out of my jacket pocket and handed it to Danny as my way of separating myself from him. I was Pontius Pilot washing my hands clean from the execution of Christ.
“I thought you were different, Sonny,” Danny spoke. Real tears were falling from his eyes, mixing with the blood that fell onto his hoodie as more stains to join the crew, “You and I had something different than the rest of the family. Remember when we pranked Mr. Dorsey when we were little? Or how we’d pick up choice strange at the bar? I guess I was just being blinded by the snake in the garden.”
Tears welled in my eyes as I remembered the fond memories of a bygone era. I loved my cousin like a brother- still do- but enough was enough. “I’m sorry, Danny,” was all I could mouse out. Our conversation now had an audience of the small crowd in the café.
Danny nodded in contempt, “You’re sorry,” he echoed back, “Well, fuck you.” And just like that, Danny walked out on my life forever. All I could do was sit in that corner of the café in silence, holding tears back that pushed at my eyes with the force of a bullet train. My throat had a lump so big I thought I would choke on it.
I got the call fourteen months later. It was from the local police department. “Mr. Angoscia,” a man’s voice said, “We are sorry to inform you but a Daniel Angoscia has passed away last night due to a gunshot wound during an attempted robbery of a house. Is this in relation to you? If so, you can come to retrieve the body today or the state will have him buried.”
“Yes, that’s my cousin- was my cousin,” I answered hollowly, “I’ll have him picked up. Thank you.”
“I am sorry for your loss, son,” the voice told me.
“Thanks,” I hung up.
Mary-Lynne found me on the floor bawling my eyes out as I looked back with regret on how our last meeting went. She and I were engaged then and she was most helpful in consoling me and arraigning the funeral and notifying family.
Danny was buried on a Friday morning to a cold and windy day after a quick service. Most of the family hadn’t seen him in years and used the time as a family reunion while burned with the guilt of abandoning my cousin.