You know how it goes. You’re hanging out with friends, you get a little drunk and nostalgic, you start creeping on the facebook pages of old loves. Sometimes you find out they had a baby and moved to the suburbs. Other times, you find out they’re dead.
I googled a name late last night. A name I’ve known for 8 years. A name I’ve googled from time to time, hoping to find an active facebook profile but always turning up the same ancient mugshots. This time, there was a new result – a two sentence obituary from a funeral home in Florida.
I called the funeral home and left a message. A two sentence obituary is … well depressing as fuck for starters. But also an indicator that the deceased was a long way from home, broke, with no one to read a longer obituary let alone supply details.
So allow me to tell you about my friend, Lyle James Orr, aka Vomit. The following passage is an except from my book, that I wrote over a year ago, before I stumbled across his obituary.
“WE’RE UGLY AND NO ONE LOVES US.”
It was mid June of 2008, and I was walking out of American Apparel in downtown Ann Arbor, when I glanced across the street and saw those words on a cardboard sign. The sign was being held by a compact yet burly man with tattoos covering his face sitting cross legged in front of the old Borders building. Next to him was a gangly St Bernard, barely out of puppyhood, gazing up forlornly at each passerby. I was half in love before I had even crossed the street.
I plopped down next to the pair. “I don’t think you’re ugly,” I said by way of an introduction. “I’m Sarah.” I extended a hand to the human member of the pair.
“I’m Vomit, and this is Kujo.” We shook hands and then I reached tentatively for the dog’s giant head. I looked back to Vomit for permission. “Go ahead, he’s friendly.” Kujo gave my hand a cursory sniff before allowing me to plunge my fingers into his plush, dirty fur.
“Are you guys hungry? I could run around the corner to the pizza shop,” I offered.
“Hell yeah,” Vomit replied. “I love pizza! Kujo loves cheese.” Kujo lifted his head hopefully at the mention of his name.
I smiled. The two were quite charming. “I’ll be right back!” I dashed off to New York Pizza Depot and placed an order for a large plain cheese pizza. In just a few minutes, I had returned and Vomit, Kujo, and I were sitting knee to knee to paw, having a picnic. Up close, I studied the tattoos across Vomit’s face.
He caught me staring, and gestured with a piece of pizza crust. “Barbed wire. Did em myself. I can teach you how to make a tattoo gun out of an old walkman.” My eyes must have been the size of dinner plates. My four tattoos, not visible under my t shirt and jeans, had all been done in lab-sterile tattoo shops. I couldn’t imagine digging into my own skin with a piece of equipment I’d last used in 3rd grade.
I changed the topic. “Where are you two from?”
“I’m from Portland, haven’t been back in 10 years. Just picked up Kujo here about 3 months ago, in Cleveland. Lady just gave him to me, said she didn’t realize how big he was gonna be,” Vomit explained. “He’s not even a year old.”
I ruffled Kujo’s ears. “Aww you’re just a big baby aren’t you?” Vomit peeled off another slice worth of cheese and set it on the ground for Kujo to slobber up. When all the cheese was gone, Kujo started on the pile of crusts Vomit had left behind.
“Bad teeth.” Vomit grinned a big, open mouthed grin, showing off numerous gaps and rotten teeth. “Hard to chew pizza crust. He doesn’t have that problem though.” He beamed at Kujo, enthusiastically gnawing on a hunk of tough dough. They were almost more like two brothers than owner and pet, I decided.
“I have to go back to class, but I’d really like to see you again. How can I find you?”
“I’ll meet you right here. What time will you be back?”
“We’ll be waiting for you.”
I clambered up from the sidewalk and dusted myself off. Vomit and Kujo stood to see me off.
“Bye baby, I’ll see you later tonight,” I said to Kujo, ruffling his ears once more. “See you tonight!” I called over my shoulder. I jogged back to my car and returned to the Washtenaw Community College campus.
I had two more classes that evening, European History at 5, and Origins of Cinema at 7. Through it all, I could barely concentrate. I kept thinking about Vomit’s open, easy manner, and Kujo’s soft fur. My nostrils were still full of the smell of pizza and dust and something unexplainably like cinnamon rolls.
When class was finally over, I drove first to Whole Foods and loaded up a basket full of more picnic food. I had a hunch that Vomit didn’t eat a very balanced diet, so I looked for things that were easy to chew and full of vitamins – a whole rotisserie chicken, pita and falafel and hummus, a platter of mixed fruits. The chicken could be shared with Kujo but I didn’t know what else a dog would eat. I grabbed a pop-open can of gourmet dog food just to be safe.
Back on Liberty street, Vomit and Kujo were waiting right where I had met them. When Vomit spotted me, his eyes lit up. I couldn’t recall the last time anyone had been so happy to see me, and we’d known each other for all of 6 hours.
“I didn’t think you’d really come back,” he said. I feigned offense, clutching my hand to my heart and staring back at him, my head held high.
“Of course I came back! Now come on, I don’t want to eat sitting on the sidewalk again. Let’s find a nicer spot to sit.” I watched as Vomit carefully lifted his backpack and fitted it over his shoulders. He took a hold of Kujo’s “leash,” really just a length of soft rope, but Kujo was so well trained, he walked in perfect time with Vomit the whole way. We ended up across the Diag, on a mound of grass near a fountain. Vomit spread his sleeping bag out and I set out our feast.
“What is all this?” he asked.
“It’s dinner.” I popped open the fruit tray and offered it to him.
“Yeah but why?” He picked up a green grape and studied it a moment before eating it.
I shrugged. “You’re panhandling. I figured you probably hadn’t eaten much lately. And I like you. I feed people I like. And dogs too,” I assured Kujo. Vomit ripped a drumstick off the chicken and peeled off a chunk of meat for his canine companion.
After a moment of contemplative chewing, I spoke up. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why do you smell like cinnamon rolls?”
Vomit snorted a laugh so explosive, I was afraid half chewed chicken was going to shoot out his nose.
“I’m an alcoholic. That’s yeast. I’m full of beer,” he explained slowly.
“Ah,” I said, embarrassed. I stared intently at a piece of falafel.
“It’s ok,” Vomit said, leaning down to block my piece of falafel with his head. “You really had no idea, did you?” I shook my head. “Pretty sheltered, aren’t you?”
This time, I was almost actually offended. “I don’t think I’m that sheltered. I mean … I guess from some things. But, I don’t know, it’s not like I’m just locked in a castle somewhere.”
“So what’s your deal? You go to college and you feed gutter punks. What else?” Vomit asked.
My eyes unfocused as I contemplated his question. “I strip a couple nights a week. I want to travel with Renaissance Festivals and make jewelry. The love of my life, Alec, dumped me a few weeks ago and got engaged and went to California. I live with my mom. My sister is at an Ivy League school and she’ll probably take over the world someday. I don’t have any real friends.”
I clenched my eyes shut and shook my head vigorously. “Sorry, that probably just sounds like a lot of whiny bullshit.” I started petting Kujo, who seemed to sense my discomfort. He shuffled around and dropped his bowling-ball head directly into my lap.
Vomit picked up my free hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We’re your friends. We like you.”
I smiled and sniffed back a few tears. “Thank you.”
After a few moments of comforting silence, Vomit let my hand go. We dug back into our picnic, and he started telling me stories of his 10 years of backpacking across the country. I forgot all of my heartache and misery as I lost myself in his narration. Train hopping in Chicago, dodging bulls in Omaha, living off the land in the mountains of Colorado, panhandling from college kids on Spring Break in Florida. I stayed long after the food was gone, curled up next to Kujo for warmth as the night turned chilly.
Suddenly Vomit was shaking my shoulder.
“What, huh?” I had fallen asleep, there on top of his sleeping bag surrounded by early morning dew. I sat up and looked around. “How long was I out for?”
“Not long. I thought you were just listening really hard until you rolled over.”
I got to my feet, shakily. “Fuck. I should get home.”
Vomit helped me clean up our picnic remnants. “When will I see you again?”
“I have class again in 2 days, I can come and meet you when class is over. Same place?”
“We’ll be there.”
Vomit gave me a big, warm hug, and I bent down to give Kujo a kiss on his broad, flat forehead. I drove home, feeling better than I had felt in the weeks since Alec had broken up with me. I had two good friends. One of them smelled like cinnamon rolls, and the other one was a dusty dog the size of a small bear.
I settled in to a new routine. After classes 3 days a week, I would find Vomit and Kujo, often in the company of other backpackers and gutterpunks, and listen to their stories. 2 or 3 nights a week, I drove down to Toledo and stripped at Scarlett’s. I was saving money to put towards the shoulder tattoos I had started back in Iowa, to commemorate Alec’s art, but I took great pleasure in spoiling Vomit and Kujo too.
I drove past Cabela’s sporting goods mega store several times a week, and one day I stopped in to get Kujo his own backpack after hearing Vomit and some of his fellow travelers complain about carrying the added weight of dog food. I found a model rated for big dogs, with two side saddle bags and separate water bladders on each side. Vomit’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when I brought it to the big ramshackle house that served as the central hang out.
“How much did you spend on this fucking thing?” he exclaimed.
“It’s a gift,” I deflected. “Put it on him, I want to make sure it fits.”
Kujo stood stock still while Vomit made sense of the tangle of straps and buckles. Once it was secure, Vomit stood back and appraised his work.
“You little fucker,” Vomit stared down at Kujo with a wry grin. “I think she likes you better than she likes me.” Kujo fairly beamed back up at us. He looked very proud and capable with his new backpack. Vomit quickly transferred the contents of a 15 pound bag of dog food into the two compartments and we took Kujo for a test walk. Not only did he not strain under the weight, the growing St Bernard seemed to rise into it.
“Next time I go past the sporting goods store, I’ll see if they have any barrels,” I remarked.
“You don’t have to keep buying us stuff, you know. We already like you.” It wasn’t the first time Vomit had said those words, nor was it the last. I leaned against his shoulder for a moment.
“It makes me feel good. I like taking care of people.” Vomit didn’t press me for more. I thought back to just a few months before, when I was bank rolling Alec’s gallery opening. I had spent uncounted thousands on him, and in the end, he had thrown me out of his art gallery so I wouldn’t ruin his reunion with his muse, who quickly became his fiance. And even after that, I had purchased two of his sculptures for $200, so he wouldn’t trade them to another art student for a carton of cigarettes. Those two pieces were the inspiration for my shoulder tattoos. They were my proof that I had loved a great artist.
I was crying. It happened a lot, usually without me noticing. But Vomit noticed, and he steered me towards a shady hillside on our walk. He leaned me up against a tree trunk and I plopped weakly to the ground. Now I was openly sobbing. Vomit un-clipped Kujo from his backpack and the huge dog stepped gingerly around my legs to press his massive trunk against my chest. I buried my face in his soft neck-fluff.
“I just miss Alec so much and I hate it. I don’t want to miss him. He threw me away. He doesn’t care. He has his fiancee, he’s gone, he’s gone and I just …” A fresh bout of coughing sobs rendered my words incomprehensible.
Vomit sat at my side, a pillar of compassion and acceptance. He loved me, I could feel it. I could tell by the way he looked at me, a mix of adoration and wide eyed wonder. He treated me with the utmost respect at all times. Sometimes I was ok with him putting his arm around me or holding my hand, but if I wasn’t, he could read the slight stiffening of my shoulders and instantly pull back. He never sulked or complained. He just took each moment we spent together as it was, with no expectations.
I wanted to love Vomit so badly. It would have made everything so much easier that summer. Sure, I would have eventually had to introduce him to my family, and sure he would have stood out a bit if I ever took him to a Saturday morning service at the synagogue. But if I had loved him, it would have been worth it. If I could just let myself melt into the embrace he offered me, if I could just will myself to want the unconditional devotion he offered me, then I could finally put Alec out of my mind. But I just couldn’t do it.
I loved Kujo, though. Loving a dog is easy. It’s what they’re made for. It was hard to stay sad when Kujo decided he was a lap dog and trampled me into the ground as he made himself comfortable.
“All right, you monster, let her up.” Vomit pulled Kujo off me and strapped him back into his backpack. We walked in companionable silence back to the group house where I had left my car. It was a Friday afternoon, and I needed to get ready to head to Toledo.
“Go get em killer,” Vomit encouraged me. It’s what he said every time he knew I was going to work. I smiled as best as I could and drove off.
On the way down to Toledo I got such a severe shock that I had to pull over. My phone was ringing. Not just ringing, but ringing “Hallelujah,” the ring tone I had set for Alec. I stared at the phone as it continued to ring, not sure what to do. It went to voice mail. Oh shit, I was supposed to answer that. That’s what people do when the phone rings, I thought. It started ringing again.
“Hello?” I answered the phone this time.
“Sarah, jesus, you picked up, thank fucking gd.”
“Hi Alec …” I was not excited to hear from him. That is, I was thrilled to death to hear from him, but the last couple times we had talked, it had been for Alec to tell me he was getting married as soon as possible and he wanted to pretend I had never existed. I wasn’t sure how much worse he could hurt me, but I was sure I was about to find out.
“I just need to talk to you. I’m losing my mind out here and Cin just doesn’t get it.” “Cin” was the nickname his fiancee had been going by all her life. Her parents, honest to gd, named her Princess. I couldn’t have hated her any more if she had murdered a baby penguin in front of me.
I should have hung up on him. I should have told him to fuck off. I should have told him I wasn’t there to listen to his problems anymore, since he had told me he wanted to pretend I had never existed.
“What’s going on, Alec? Are you ok?” I hated how much I loved him.
“I honestly think I’m going to have to quit. This place is a liability law suit waiting to happen.” Alec had gotten a job as a counselor and art instructor at a camp in northern California for at risk youth. He was supposed to stay for 2 months, but he was barely 2 weeks in and already talking about quitting.
“All of the other counselors are constantly sneaking off to get drunk in the woods. Yesterday I was alone with 100 kids, half of who could take me in a fight. None of these kids understand you have to drink water when you’re hiking around the woods all day. They’re all dehydrated from Mountain Dew. There’s an 12 year old girl who’s already had a baby, and I stayed awake all night with a broom after I caught her trying to sneak into my bed. This place is like Lord of the Flies meets Bad Boys.”
Alec certainly painted a vivid picture for me.
“And Cin?” I questioned gently.
“She hasn’t told her parents we’re engaged yet. And they’re at their summer home out East somewhere, and she has shitty cell reception, and every time I call, she just complains about her migraines.”
“Ah.” I bit my tongue, because I was so tempted to tell him “Sucks to be you, asshole.”
“Fuck, Sarah, I’m so sorry. You thought the sun rose and set on me and I got sparkled by this high society girl who can’t even ask me how my day went.” He sounded genuinely contrite.
“You know, when you told me you and Cin had gotten engaged, I just sort of assumed she’d follow you out to California and you’d get married in Vegas on the way.”
“No, I see now that’s what would have happened if I had proposed to you at my gallery opening. No, Cin is going to school in Providence in the fall, so I guess I’m moving out there with her, and she has no interest in coming to California, like, at any point.”
I had long since arrived to the parking lot of Scarlett’s. I sat in patient, pained silence, my heart doing flips in my rib cage. What was he going to say next?
“You know what I appreciate about you? You strike while the iron is hot. You don’t hesitate. You don’t bluff. You have no poker face. You don’t hide anything.” Alec had never said so many complimentary things about me before, let alone all at once.
He continued. “Cin’s a planner. She’s got a plan for everything. She finished her bachelor’s degree when she planned, she did the internship she planned, and now the plan is Providence. So I have to fit into her plans if I want to be with her. And I don’t know if I can do it.
“I love her, Sarah, but sometimes I think she wants a little dog she can put in her purse, you know? I’m not some little Tinkerbell dog.” I knew the imagery he was trying to convey. For as many times as I had called Alec my little fox, he had often described himself as “Tramp,” from “Lady and the Tramp.” Once when we went out to Olive Garden, he had asked if I wanted to recreate the spaghetti scene, but I declined.
I glanced at my dash board clock. My shift had started a half hour ago and I was still sitting in my car, listening to the man who broke my heart whine about his fiancee.
“Alec, do you honestly want my advice?” I asked him.
“Yes, yes, I really do. Please, what should I do?”
I took a deep breath. “I think you need to stick it out. If the camp is really unsafe, then get out of there, but if there’s anything you can do to improve things, you have to try. Talk to the head counselor or something. And then, when you talk to Cin again, you just have to tell her that you need a little more attention from her.” I dug deep and gave him the advice I thought was best for him, not the advice that would get me what I wanted. “Alec, you worked so hard on your art all year, and you told me at the end it was to prove to Cin how much you loved her. But you did all that work without ever talking to her. Now you have to work with her. And she has to work with you. And if you love her and she loves you, you’ll work together and it will be ok.”
“You really do love me, don’t you?” he asked. It’s like he was making this as hard as possible, on purpose.
“I will always love you, which is why I’m giving you this advice. I know that you love Cin, so I want you to fight for her and and I want her to fight for you.” I wanted to reach through the phone and slap him until his fillings rattled. It was as if he had showed up to my back yard looking for buried treasure, and instead of turning him away or calling the police, I had handed him a shovel and pointed out all the gas and power lines. “Dig here for maximum damage,” I seemed to say.
“Thank you, Sarah. I’m glad I called you.”
“I hope I helped some.” I couldn’t bring myself to say “you’re welcome.” He certainly was not welcome, and I hoped he wouldn’t do it again.
“Good luck. I need to get going, I’m late for work,” I told him.
“All right, thanks again. Uh.”
We both paused where the “I love you” should have gone.
“It’s ok. Get back to those kids before a knife fight breaks out or something,” I said, injecting a not-entirely-forced laugh.
“Right, yeah, ok. Thanks. OK. Thanks Sarah.” Click.
I didn’t even cry. I clamped my teeth together and went inside to put on my make up. I asked the DJ to play some of my favorite songs, like ACDC’s Back in Black and Led Zepplin’s Hey Hey What Can I Do. I always performed better when I was trying hard to forget something. I spun faster and stretched further at every set, as if I could sweat Alec out of my system. With every dance I sold, I focused all of my attention on that customer. I gripped their collars like they were life preservers, and I ground my ass into their laps like I was trying to start a fire.
At the end of the night, I counted my cash. I had more than enough money to drive straight to California. I could do it. I could show up to the summer camp and really show Alec that I wasn’t afraid to strike while the iron was hot. We could drive to Vegas and get married and just keep driving. I could find clubs to dance at anywhere in the country and he could make art.
But he had made his choice. I was going to let him live with it. I wasn’t going to interfere, no matter how much I wanted to. I drove north, but instead of going home, I went to the punk house where Vomit spent most of his nights. It was nearly 5 am, and the first flickers of dawn were creeping up in the east. I found Vomit and Kujo in the backyard. The human was sleeping the sleep of the drunk in a hammock, with the dog beneath him on the ground. Kujo woke up when he smelled me and slowly ambled around me as I made my way to the hammock.
I was still caked in stripper makeup as I eased myself into the hammock and nestled up to Vomit. I fell asleep with his yeasty, cinnamon roll smell filling my nostrils.
A couple of other things I remember:
I am not an artist. I am Objectively Bad at making visual representations of things. But sometimes I get really motivated to try, anyway. Shortly after I met Vomit and Kujo, I drew a little sketch of them. The most fun part was drawing on Kujo’s big blobby fawn-colored spots.
I gave Vomit the drawing the next time I saw him. He stared at my drawing in total silence for an uncomfortably long time. Then, very carefully, he folded the excess paper around the central image and tucked it into his wallet, which was basically his photo album and scrap book. His wallet wasn’t for money, it was for memories. And he wanted to tuck my little drawing inside for safe keeping.
At one point during our brief friendship, I had to leave the Ann Arbor area for a few days. I think I was driving back to Iowa to get tattooed. It was awfully conceited of me, seeing as how Vomit had survived on the street for 10 years before he met me, but I gave him a very stern warning about how he needed to continue to eat Actual Food while I was gone, and not just beer. He asked me to write a list on his arm in sharpie so he wouldn’t forget. I think I wrote “BREAD PLANT MEAT.” We ate a lot of Jimmy Johns when we were together.
At one point Vomit was crashing on a couch in Chelsea. He called me to tell me the news, excited to be staying indoors temporarily but sad that he wouldn’t see me during my breaks from class. I kept asking him more and more detailed questions about his couch surf situation, without asking for the exact address, until I found the house. Then I got to surprise him by telling him to look outside. He and Kujo both came barrelling towards me, top speed, just like every joyful reunion scene in an airport in every romantic comedy movie from the 90’s. He invited me into the house, introduced me to the host, and we fell asleep on the floor watching The Princess Bride.
I frequently wore a pair of angel wing earrings that summer, and when I decided to leave Ann Arbor for my own backpack adventure, I took out my earrings and clipped them to the big jangly collar Kujo wore. It was covered with tags and bells and other little scraps Vomit collected in their travels. In return, Vomit gave me one of his rings. It was tight, even on my pinkie finger, and it stained my skin green, so eventually it went into a pouch for safe keeping.
I think I have one picture of the three of us, from the night I hopped a Greyhound out of Ann Arbor. We were sitting on the steps of the Greyhound station (which is now a fucking Marriot, of all things) and I must have asked another passenger to take a picture with my old digital camera. If that photo exists anywhere, it’s deep in the folders extracted from my old laptop hard drives, sitting on one of Estranged/Ex Spouse’s hard drives, since he was the Keeper of Technology and Knower of Tech Stuff. I should ask him if he would be willing to look for that photo.
Lyle James Orr. Vomit. I’m sorry I never got to see you again after the summer of 2008. Rest well, my friend.