In front of my open garage, Monique Esmedina and I sit on the cold pavement. The fountains in her eyes seem to have shut down again, and moments of bitter silence are repeatedly punctured by sobs. After more than three weeks of trying to locate the peripatetic “Moan,” I’d nearly given up. Today I had decided it was time to finish sorting through the last of the stuff that her uncle Steven had returned to me, his remarkable soul imprinted on every piece. And now…Allah Akbar! Here comes his niece!
I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time.… We shall never see his like again.… His name will live in the annals of history.… Torn between two civilizations.… This controversial figure who became a legend in his own lifetime.… The most extraordinary man I ever knew…He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior.
Steven Esmedina would, were he here today, insist on reading the above tributes at least two times before composing himself to offer comment. Finally, he would give his response; as always, precise, concise, fearless: “Thanks, Alec. What are…words spoken in the trailer for the film Lawrence of Arabia?” Once again, Steven Esmedina is our champion. In addition, he’d think it’s pretty damn fucking funny that those bloated accolades had found their way here to begin with, into a piece about his own bloated, funkybad self. Well, I’ve got news for you, Blubbo: those raves might just as truly have been written about you! Parts of it, at least. I mean, a word or two…all right, how about “torn”?
On a summer night about 24 years ago, I first encountered Steven Esmedina on the dance floor of the popular North Park lesbian bar Diablo’s. My friend Ginger had begged me to accompany her and two of her girlfriends, insisting that it would be a fabulous experience with absolutely no problems. Somewhere across town, a similar group of ladies were certifying their friend Steve as their own mascot on a trip to the same destination.
Red lights were everywhere. It was much larger than I had expected. There was only one couple actually dancing, but 10 or 12 ladies had formed a semicircle at the far end of the dance floor, blocking view of whatever it was they were studying. I walked along the mirrored walls to investigate, noticing a diminutive guy (at least I wasn’t the only male!) standing by himself, away from the ladies, who were devouring the same remarkable something with their mournful starving eyes.
The object of this brokenhearted attention was a single woman, her hands pressed up against floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall, swaying sensuously in time to the music. She reminded me of Michelle Phillips, only if Michelle Phillips had become even more beautiful. A masterpiece of female beauty, dancing only with herself, in love with her own reflection. The ladies around her could do little but gaze and hurt and dream and hurt some more.
I began to feel intrusive. When the other guy saw me heading toward the exit, he followed. Outside, we lit cigarettes. Then he spoke.
“I was thinking about offering to buy that girl her favorite drink, but Diablo’s ran out of it last night. They’re expecting their next shipment of her bath water sometime tomorrow.”
Good one! “Could you believe that?” I asked. “Incredible. And the looks on the faces of those chicks…the whole scene, the whole situation! Fucking unbelievable…so fucking…”
“Poignant,” he declared, precisely, and I would have high-fived him, but I don’t think high-fiving had been invented yet.
Having read and admired both his and Duncan Shepherd’s criticism for many years by that time, I was happy to meet Steve in person, and he seemed pleased that I was a fan. We spent a while talking of our shared admiration for Shepherd, as well as several other regular Reader contributors. Perhaps our most emphatic agreement on that perfect summer night was that neither of us would ever be capable of forgetting Revelation in Red, a superb tableau, described by at least one noted critic as “poignant.”
I didn’t run into Steven again for several years. Early in the ’80s, though, his niece Monique began to work at the Guild Theatre, which I managed.
She would tell me wonderful stories about her uncle, during times when her tongue took the odd vacation away from its new residence in the throat of my older brother Tom. The more I learned about Steven from Moan, the more I admired him. We seemed to like a lot of the same stuff.
I was flattered that he enjoyed the musical duo that Troy Danté and I had started. When he interviewed us, he hadn’t yet realized I was his niece’s boss, nor that we had met several years before. When I began describing a certain scene, bathed in red, a single dance…it clicked. “That was you! Yeah! Oh, I’ve dreamed about that scene…that amazing bitch…that goddess…was so…”
“Poignant,” I offered. We became friends.
Since 1965, he was able to recite the entire “Dracula’s Return” side of the album Famous Monsters Speak. That’s 22 minutes in a Lugosi accent, word-perfect and never missing inflection or pause. I could toss him a random line from the script, and he’d pick up and carry on the narrative until I’d have to stop him, each of us satisfied. I was satisfied also in that I had another friend who, having fallen in love with monsters during the Great Golden Revival of the late ’50s, lived to watch his love grow. Steven was thrilled that I had saved most of the magazines and many of the other artifacts from my childhood’s “dark side,” and it was gratifying to observe the reveries they inspired in him.
When Playboy hopped into our lives, we didn’t trade one for the other. Hell, we had lots of room. Bring ’em on: Help, Mad, and on and on through the decades. It seems clear now that Steven either hit a bump in the road or lost his way when he approached Hustlertown. I imagine his conflicted heart being given a choice: Hang out here for a while or find the straight road home. For young Steven, alone, this would be a tough decision to make. He would leave it to Beaver.
“I do not like whiskey, but I do like tea. This does not mean that I wish to stop people drinking whiskey, so long as they do not want to stop me drinking tea.” — Peter Cushing, 1954
Few things pissed us off as superbly as censorship, and no one defined our view as simply and as civilly as Peter Cushing, one of Steven’s favorite actors and my all-time movie hero.
We were in our mid-30s when we realized that new restrictions were being placed on the content of adult motion pictures. The government didn’t think anyone should be allowed to let their own adult eyes witness certain acts of adult behavior on movie screens, on television screens, or originating from videotape. This decree was retroactive. Steven and I saw ourselves, even as we tiptoed through the foyer of middle age, being legally forbidden to view many of the images we legally had been able to see half a lifetime ago. Yes, our all-time adult classic, The Devil in Miss Jones, was still on the shelves. It was still, by definition, “hard core.” But now, the fruits of Justine Jones’s labors (banana, for example) are very carefully diminished.
Allow me to pull Peter back: I had a cellar, which, over many years, I had stocked with a substantial amount of…unadulterated whiskey. When I told Steven about this, he was delighted, and I was more than happy to let him borrow from the cellar. Years passed, the Government continued to dilute whiskey with increasing amounts of tea, which made me pissed. I found some comfort in the security of my now-rare, untainted stock.
Even that comfort died, however, when it became impossible to locate several of the choicest examples of my collection. One in particular (I’ll call it Esmogiveitback! Vol. I) I was sure he had borrowed for several years without returning. Throughout the years, Steven would assure me with concerned, even comforting sympathy that Esmogiveitback Vol. I had never left my home in his hands.
Three years ago, a chance encounter with Monique around the time of Steven’s scary hospitalization provided the longed-for conclusion to an annoying mystery. Commenting on the remarkable similarities she noted in the cultural tastes of her uncle and me, she asked me if I had ever experienced the singular delight of Esmogiveitback Vol. I, a discovery of her uncle’s, which, over the years, had become the talk of the block and an essential accessory for any successful soirée.
Monique is sitting, hugging her knees tightly to her chin as if she is trying to become a ball. Teardrops are still noticeable on the pavement around her, and they’re trying to transform too. Silence and sadness and rocking back and forth to the beat of a heart. A startling giggle as her head turns toward me, an infant smile while she speaks.
“So did you call him on that one? Bust him? Did you get it back?”
I think I’m glad I left it alone. To Steven and me, the more some things increased in their legal or cultural toxicity, the more we needed to locate and trap them. This was a special hot potato; less a transgressive artifact than a source of some essential nutrient. And he must have realized that he needed it more than I did; some part of it could help inspire him when he embarked on his Last Adventure.
Monique is crying again.
“He was my friend! The finest man I’ve ever known…”
Monique begins to share several pieces of herself and of Steven. The beauty of her face, too, becomes legend in a very grateful heart.
In school, she tells me, Steven had been the class clown, the witty scholar, the coolest friend. At home he felt hopelessly controlled and emotionally starved. Monique was only five years younger than her uncle. Having no father at home, Monique examined little Stevie’s résumé and offered him the position. He’d take it on one condition, he replied: he wanted to be her brother too. He knew that would be neat because he had his own brother who was a lot older (15 years), and Steven loved him more than anyone, so now Monique would love him that much too.
Steven and Monique grew close and would remain so. When grown, she had a habit of changing residences as if competing for a world record. Every time they lost contact, though, Steven knew she’d be popping in soon. He was never wrong.
Steven did have a pervasive problem that he was powerless to put right. Today some people call it negative body image.
Certainly he was aware of his intelligence, his amiability, his literary skills. But he loathed the physical package that enveloped them. At some point, he resolved that he would always be fat and short and foreign-looking and decided he preferred being called “Blubbo.”
I pissed him off by refusing to call him anything but Steve or Steven or Esmo, the last of which he once granted me his official permission to use in public, as long as it was either preceded or followed by hailing him Tongue of Tongues. Within a day, Steven had forgotten all about the conditions, and I wasn’t about to remind him.
The Glorious Squiggle Days were in the mid-’90s, and Steven understood why I would come to call them that. They were glorious only in their supreme revelation of the horror behind the mask of beauty, and they would have been so much less than glorious had my girlfriend Squiggles not been such a delicious centerpiece.
Here was an intelligent, attractive lady who had been a fan of Esmo for many years, and the fact that I actually knew El Steve must have earned me a bonus point or two in the decency department.
Steven was a frequent visitor to the home Squiggles and I created, and she would look forward to his sporadic presence. They soon became enthralled with one another; his affection being seasoned with no small amount of robust lust.
Her fascination with his literary talent led her to select his criticism as the topic of a paper she was preparing for one of her classes at UCSD. To augment her research, Squiggles borrowed my own scrapbook of Collected Esmo, which became essential in the construction of her dissertation. He was able to say hello to a period of unexpected pride; I was never allowed to say goodbye to the collection of my friend’s writings, which I spent several years putting together.
Steven once invited Squiggles and me to accompany him to a Tom Jones concert he was to review. I snuck a tape recorder into the show. At one point near the end, Squiggles asks Steven, “Have you ever heard a voice like that?” I can understand her candor without issue more easily now, when I replay the tape, noting that I am not present. Taking a powder, probably.
“Truly, he is the King of Kings,” Steven replies, honestly. It was a phrase he would use at the close of his review of the concert, attributing it to me! It was also a sort of in joke, a way to usher into print the title of one of our favorite films.
Fuck me, sweet Esmo.
After that supreme evening, things started to get ugly. Steven’s urge to write began to hide from him. Squiggles and I broke up. (The true details of the split, Steven swore, would make enthralling fiction.) With her, sadly, went my treasured collection of Steven’s writings, in a folder I had labeled “Esmolingus.”
But 1996 wasn’t done with us yet. During the same month, Steven’s beloved older brother (Monique’s father) died, as did my own older brother, whose throat had been the happy home of Monique’s tongue, over a decade before. Then my dear friend Ginger died, she who had steered me to Diablo’s (and Steven) so long ago.
The only retrievable loss in this mess would be the collection of Steven’s writing. I missed the legendary cover story about his travels with the Penetrators (a work of importance not only to the band but to the San Diego music scene, then and now), and I longed to laugh again at the other gem in which he described one deserving performer (MC Hammer?) as a “worthless fuck.” Among the writings was one article Steven would have given anything to have wiped from the world’s memory and his own. It contained a faux pas concerning a female performer’s identity that was so unlike the encyclopedic Esmedina, that I often felt a sort of unkind, sadistic need to verify its astonishing existence.
I was aware of several stages of grief, and in regard to the lost Esmolingus, I skipped past Shock and Anger and headed straight to Bargaining. If Steven would allow me to borrow and photocopy his own files, I’d make him an all-on-one-tape compilation video of several short subjects I had created, including my latest (and which was to remain his favorite), White Pussy. Yes, as in cat. Feline. Honestly.
So…as to his files…
“I never save that shit,” he told me in his casual, final-as-fuck manner, breaking my heart.
I made him the tape anyway. For the first of several times. Overuse would require frequent replacements of White Pussy.
Tongue of Tongues actually does have some value, biographically. Implications will be examined (following a peek back at the garage) in a fashion that is not for all tastes.
I reach down for her hands and help Monique up. We walk away from the open garage and into the sunlight, and on perhaps the most gorgeous day this year has yet seen, we make an attempt to understand, for our own sakes, whom or what we can most easily blame. An unhealthy upbringing? Too many chemicals?
“It was the fucking vodka,” Monique decides, for now.
The presence of Steven Esmedina’s shadow, a part of my daily life for weeks now, is like the unspoken gloom that followed the man everywhere. The inferiority complex was his shadow. He seemed to welcome it. He befriended it, confident that if he and that shadow ever stopped getting along, all he’d have to do is turn off the lights. But ultimately, he smashed those lights, and everything is deeply, dreadfully dark.
He correctly assumed that his body (which had never been as friendly as his shadow) was shutting down. He had always been in love with feminine beauty. To put it correctly, Steve was a major horndog, obsessed with sex in all its forms.
He was a devoted student of any kind of intimate physical interaction between woman and man. Or woman and woman. Woman and animal/vegetable/minestrone soup ladle. He yearned to learn and looked forward to arranging some exciting field trips.
His self-image and his deteriorating health weren’t going to help him open any doors. He was, however, proud of his tongue and its superb technique. One memorable afternoon, for my amusement, he paraded around my living room shouting some sort of Esmo Mantra/Manifesto (in tongues?) in the key of Steve:
“I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM A HUMAN BLUBBO! FEED MEEEEE! I AM A FAT UGLY FUCK WHO HAS BEEN BLESSED FROM ON HIGH WITH THE TONGUE OF TONGUES! IT NEITHER TOILS NOR SPINS YET IT IS FED! IT WILL BE FED! FEED THEN? THE TONGUE OF TONGUES! FEED BLUBBO IN RIGHTEOUS SERVICE OF WOMANKIND! ALLAH AKBAR!”
Perhaps you had to be there. Maybe not. I was on the floor in laughter for a long time. Later that day, I begged him to repeat this act for my video camera or even a tape recorder and still camera. He refused. Lately he’d started using cameras and recorders for a different kind of act. Only that kind.
Steven had called a truce between his mind and his body. The two would join in a race against the clock to mount a reunion/farewell tour. The location would be his bedroom. The show would last days or months or years or until the money ran out or somebody pulled his plug. The show would be pay-to-play; guest stars he could recruit from strip clubs or escort services. He’d pay. They’d play. What a way to go!
Headfirst Steve dove into his enterprise. He fell hard for one of his “guests” in particular, and she encouraged him and made him believe that she truly loved him, just him. No one else mattered. She assumed his surname in their ongoing production. She bled him of vast sums of money. Then she left, having given him the gift of a broken heart. His shadow, strong and sardonic, watched Steven Esmedina drift…down.
Three years ago, Monique and I would visit Steven on what he insisted was going to be his last bed, at an El Cajon hospital.
“I’m gonna die here,” he said then. “Blubbo’s done.”
“Is this the end of Blubbo?” I whined sarcastically, and he laughed. We held up the wheelchair I had brought him; the wheelchair in which we assured him he’d be leaving the hospital. We’d visit and glide him around the place, resting at his favorite spot in an outdoor picnic area where Monique and I would delight in his gradual improvement. The big red felt letters spelling ESMO on the backrest cracked him up, and he would never remove them.
Nor did I ever alter the black velvet Dracula cape with red lining that he had given me a year or two earlier. I bring it down to the garage to show Monique, who is stroking the red ESMO on the well-used wheelchair. I start to tell her how much the cape means to me…and how much her uncle meant to me and to so many others. I tell her about the last time I saw him. His dearest friend, Mike Thomas, called from L.A. to let me know that Steven was hospitalized again and that, again, this was extremely grave.
I pulled out my laserdisc of Steve’s favorite movie, El Cid, and recorded onto audiocassette his favorite musical cues. I grabbed a portable player. Off to El Steve.
The nurses at the hospital told me he was becoming unresponsive; he was in fact deeply asleep. Quickly there was music to his ear (the right one, at least). And, of course, he woke up, smiled, and chatted for 20 minutes or so. He found it very difficult to speak, so I did most of the chatting.
“I want you out of this place tomorrow, Esmo.”
“No way. Blow yourself. And learn to talk, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m gonna die here.”
“Bullshit,” I lied. “You tried that one last time.”
I’m glad I saw him one last time. Monique had been away and had missed it, and the hurt still grows.
Mike Thomas came down from Los Angeles and spoke at the funeral. A more shaken, lonely person would be difficult to imagine. As would a more moving, compassionate, beautiful speech. I can’t recall ever hearing a more perfect testament to personal value, priceless loss, and the value of friendship. Michael had been Steven’s relative through the blood of the soul. For Michael, the incalculable worth that the living presence of his friend had held for so long had become finite at some level now; all the memories and inspiration were overpowered by the cruelty of Final Loss. On that afternoon in the chapel, he defined Brotherly Love.
He would soon experience a new, unexpected pain.
Michael came back into town the following week to help sort through Steven’s effects; that useful, mournful task started to turn into a nightmare. He uncovered the reality of Esmo’s Jizzneyland and was shocked to confront the extent of his friend’s obsession with carnality during the final years.
I was saddened and ashamed when I drove over one morning to join Michael at Steven’s empty house. The single consolation I attempted that day was an honest product of the cheapest truth: that Steven had taken some care to conceal the malignancy of his seamier side from his friend Michael. This was the side that Steven gloried in: outraging the norm. In this one area, Esmo knew he had gone berserk, and he respected Mike too much to expose his rabid foam.
I like to think that Steven respected me too, but I’ll have to accept that he did so in a different way. For years he had delighted in my willingness to be a target for the foam. He would bring me a steady supply of his trophies: photos, photographic negatives, audio recordings. Souvenirs from Jizzneyland. They documented his growing delight in womankind and womankind’s manufactured delight in him. One particular 60-minute cassette, an on-the-spot bit of audio verité, essentially demonstrates the number of different ways in which one certain female can invoke the names of God and Steven in the same moaning/ecstatic phrase. Two, maybe three recognizably different ways seems to be her creative limit.
To understand that Steven loved the attention he received amid this transparent mechanical bullshit is to understand pity. It might have been similarly pitiful also had he denied his hungry, fading body the pleasures it craved.
Mike Thomas, bearing a new sting over the bruise of his personal loss, suggested that I take away the remaining Jizzneyland archives.
Among them I noticed a duplicate of one particular color shot that Steven had delivered to me two years earlier; a photograph in which he took enormous pride.
A very beautiful young lady stares at the camera, her palms and knees sinking into a thick, dark comforter. She is smiling joyously; the fact that she’s mislaid her clothes hasn’t hit her yet. The male figure lying on his stomach somewhat behind her is recognizable through general form and head of hair as none other than El Steve. His face is buried in some task and obscured, but there can be little doubt that his soul, at least, is cracking a big, wide smile.
My sympathy, concern, and admiration for Mike Thomas still increases. That dreadful morning, before we had exited the haunted silence of Casa Esmedina, Michael shared his view on tragedy: How tangible the importance of life had become, how much clearer the worth of time itself, how urgent the need to live in that knowledge, which was as real as death. And life.
I know that Michael will keep that creative part of Steven’s spirit and use it to amplify his own.
The sun is setting and Monique tells me she’s going up north and will come by when she returns in about two weeks. We’re about to hug. I miss her already. I tell her what she already knows: that Steven had always loved and treasured her. Through a new sheet of tears, she turns the tables. Her liquid eyes, her endangered smile, the whole day and this whole experience are now inviting me to collapse.
“Bill, he always said how lucky he was to have found you. Someone who was just as twisted as he was — Oh shit…I didn’t mean…I mean…”
That saved me. A more perfect compliment from Esmo is unimaginable. I hope the bitch isn’t lying.
She’s soon gone, and I’m about to close up the garage. I go to grab a few of Steven’s juvenile porno collages in the hope of discovering some hidden meaning. That task can wait. It can wait forever. I glance again at the ESMO wheelchair. His spirit is with that too. I picture him ripping through his house months or years ago when no one else was around, shouting, “I am Blubbo! El Steve!” Then, a final “Allah Akbar!” rolls off the Tongue of Tongues, and Steven Esmedina rides on into history.
Bless his beautiful, giving, twisted, poignant heart.