Heartbreak

Even In Death, My Friend Was Full Of Surprises

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
man in kitchen

The first time I saw him he was buck naked. His pale skin and bleach-blonde hair nicely complemented the cracked, yellow-brown ground of the Nevada desert.

It was my second year at Burning Man, and his camp was right next to mine. I caught a couple more glimpses of him throughout the event, in various stages of undress, but we never actually spoke.

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One night there was a dust storm. You had to cover your face to avoid getting it in your mouth and eyes. You were basically helpless. All you could do was protect yourself the best you could and wait it out.

A week later I was back in New York. Just in time for September 11th.

It was the dust storm all over again. Only instead of sand, it was ash.

I don’t remember exactly when I saw him again. It could have been months, maybe a year.

Time moved differently during this period. Everything was just swirling chaos. It was difficult to keep track of where you were going, let alone how long it took to get there.

But eventually, things returned to some semblance of normalcy. Eventually, we all came out the other side, and we were better off for it.

We understood that life was meant to be lived. And not just rudimentarily but purposely and joyfully.

And the best way to do that? Parties. Lots and lots of parties.

New York in the early 2000s was like the wild west. It was total Bacchanalia. And we deserved every second of it.

It was at these parties where I would see him. Always with a girl, sometimes more than one.

Even fully clothed he was hard to miss. With his spiky blonde hair, thick British accent, and rock and roll swagger, he was like a young Billy Idol.

Ultimately we got to talking, and over time we became friends. But I didn’t learn how truly unique and wondrous he was until we became bandmates.

My first glimpse came when he invited me to his house to see his recording studio.

Unlike the rest of my friends, who lived in places like the East Village or Williamsburg, he lived in Sheepshead Bay, probably the least cool neighborhood in all of Brooklyn.

After an hour-long subway ride, you’d emerge in an alternate New York, filled with old Russians, little brick houses, and eerie suburban calm.

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His music equipment took up about a quarter of the apartment. The rest was packed with a random assortment of items, including piles of DVDs, action figures still in their boxes, enough electronics to open a Radio Shack, and boxes and boxes of God knows what. He was basically a hoarder.

He shared the space with a black rescue cat who he doted on like a valet.

The more time we spent together, the more I picked up on some of his other quirks:

He would wear a jacket even on the hottest summer day, along with a fanny pack, in order to hold all his “important stuff.”

He was obsessed with claw machines, those games where you had to maneuver a mechanical arm to scoop up a prize. He was so good at them that he’d been banned from several places in his neighborhood for cleaning them out.

He didn’t own a car but he had a GPS, which spoke with the voice of John Cleese. He’d use it to find his way back to our hotel after he would drink too much on tour.

The deeper I fell into his weird little world the happier I was, because it distracted me from my own issues, namely my failing relationship. It was like a wounded animal that needed to be put down, but neither one of us had the strength to do it.

The issue wasn’t so much losing the relationship as all the things that went along with it. We not only lived together but had started a band together, the same one that Rex was now a part of.

The interconnectedness of it all meant that if one piece was removed, the entire thing would unravel. So we soldiered on, in solidarity and misery.

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This bitterness soon found its way into our music. One of the last songs we recorded was called “Knife Fight,” about a couple who fantasized about killing each other:

Last night I dreamt you were lying on the ground
Last night I dreamt that you couldn’t make a sound
Woke up this morning to see that you were fine
Woke up this morning to see you were alive
It made me sigh

Our live shows were no different. It became almost like theater. Snide comments. Yelling. Throwing things. It was very punk rock, but not a great way to build a music career.

The “great unraveling” happened sooner than we expected.

I met someone else and moved out. The band broke up. My new partner had plans to move to London and I agreed to go with her.

I blinked and had a whole new life.

The only thing that remained unchanged was my friendship with Rex. He had moved too, to San Francisco, to be closer to his sick mom. But we still called and emailed frequently.

I relished his messages, which were long, convoluted, and often nonsensical, but filled with wisdom and humor.

Over time these messages became rarer and rarer. Not because we grew apart but because of his health. He’d always had health problems, but in recent years they’d gotten worse. After he lost his mom they increased significantly.

I urged him to return to New York, where he could be among friends, but he refused. I think he just didn’t have the energy for it.

In fact, he didn’t have the energy for much of anything. He barely left his house and was too weak to work. The benefits he’d been receiving had stopped coming, and his landlord was threatening to evict him over months of unpaid rent.

By this point, I was back in the U.S. so I flew out to visit him. I had no idea it would be the last time I would ever see him.

When he opened the door I barely recognized him. It wasn’t the same person I remembered, the naked man in the desert, the rock god, the British bad boy.

Before me was a walking bag of bones.

His eyes were hollow, and his back was hunched. It looked like some of his teeth were missing.

I hugged him and then stepped inside his apartment, which was pure squalor. This was not the organized chaos of Brooklyn but a mad hermit’s lair.

He told me he was in the process of appealing his disability case, and in order to do that he needed to provide some missing paperwork. This paperwork was somewhere in his apartment.

I spent hours fruitlessly looking for it, then returned the next day with some friends to continue the search. I even hired someone from Task Rabbit to do it after I went back to New York. But it was like trying to retrieve a bag of cocaine lost in the snow.

In the end, it made no difference anyway. His landlord went ahead with the eviction.

When the day came, the police and building management found more than just a messy apartment — they found Rex’s body. He’d taken his own life the night before.

The following week I attended a memorial gathering for him in Brooklyn. It was packed with friends and exes, former bandmates, and various acquaintances and admirers.

Equally sad and celebratory, the love in that little apartment was palpable.

For hours we ate, drank, and shared stories about our friend. The best one came from Rex’s brother, who I’d never met before. It wasn’t a story about Rex so much as a story he’d made up about himself.

Turns out he wasn’t British. Turns out he was from New Jersey.

The whole time he had been pretending. And the lie was so convincing that none of us ever questioned it.

Why did he do it? Probably for the same reason people use Instagram filters, get plastic surgery, or falsify their resumes. The same reason people wear masks, play roles, or manufacture idealized versions of themselves.

Whatever the motive, I don’t hold it against him. If anything it only added to his legend. To have that kind of commitment to something is pretty remarkable.

I just hope it wasn’t to compensate for any perceived shortcomings. Like everyone else, Rex wasn’t perfect. But he was loved.

And to his credit, he’d left us with one more thing to remember him by. One last big surprise.

Even in death, he was still f*cking with us.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Russ Josephs is a writer, speaker, and brand strategist. His former sex and relationships column, Sex in the Sub-City, was read by 40,000 people each month, and his play, The Dick Dialogues, was produced Off-Broadway. For more, you can visit his website.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.