Traveling around Europe in the winter hadn't quite turned out to be what I hoped for. It was a far cry from my previous trip around the continent in the summer.
Packed hostels full of people (foreign girls open to quick flings) and raging nightlife in the capitals of the Old World gave way to deserted or closed hostels with slumbering populations. After a lonely excursion up the west coast of France I heard my cousin was studying in Florence and I decided to say hello.
David was living with a couple of his fraternity brothers in an apartment on the far side of the Arno. I got on with his friend Gregg right away but Brad and I didn't really connect.
Something about the way he shook my hand let me believe that he wasn't glad to have me there; his words of welcome, never while looking me in the eye, seemed phony but still within the frames of a kind of a social grace that he was very comfortable with. Then there was the way he looked: Weaselish but still handsome with a carved, angular physique that he cultivated daily in the weight room.
His girlfriend, Stacy, lived with them as well and she further completed his character as he had seemingly consumed hers over the years of their relationship. Obsequious when it counted, Stacy was still spunky enough to party and live with the boys. She seemed conscious of Brad's actions in a way that anticipated the possible violence of his disapproval and that carefully knew the record and tendencies of his personality.
And it was a personality carved in rock.
I came to believe that Brad didn't like meeting new people as, I speculated, he thought he had the world generally figured out and each new person that came from the great otherness of strangers somehow upset a balance that he had to quickly right to be himself again.
These strangers weren't people to Brad, they were a great mass of insects in his way as he set out on whatever mission he was on with a rigid sense of how to get there; a martial sense of conduct that led him on the most efficient path of how to get what he wanted.
These methods included the worst form of badgering and impatience I've ever seen. He would get the rest of his gang to agree to when they would head to the movies, or whatever plan he laid out, and if it was 7:30 he would start hectoring them if at 7:20 they appeared not on course to make it (as he efficiently did the final touches on his immaculate coiffure) and if at 7:30 they weren't ready he would walk out the door no matter how close they were to being set.
I watched this and couldn't believe that my cousin and Gregg (and to a much lesser extent Stacy as she seemed resigned to her role as his personal zombie hard-body) put up with it.
I even voiced it to David and he just gently, as is his way, put it off as his friend's personality. Some stupid frat ritual linked them and now they were bent on excusing this guy's overwhelmingly pushy, impatient nature and even becoming shaped by it.
Perhaps I'm naive but my idea of a year abroad is to immerse oneself in another culture, see museums, eat strange food, etc. This is a person who confessed his great love of John Grisham ("his books are the only ones I read and I've read all of them", he bragged to me) and whom, Gregg told me, asked to have his pasta with butter and was finally shamed into trying tomato sauce after the waiters openly laughed at him.
But it was his devotion to his workout schedule that I couldn't get over.
Each day he spent, and dragged the others (shaming them relentlessly should they want a day off), to the gym where he pumped iron and shaped his body in an extreme of narcissism that I had never truly seen before and I wondered why it was excused by everyone else.
Reading on the couch one afternoon I looked up to see him flexing in the mirror, his chest like a cobra warning he would strike.
He turned and looked at me and in one of the only honest moments I shared with him he filled his eyes up with the hateful suspicion he had of me and with his shirt off, muscles undulating menacingly, he let me know that this was his territory and I was the stranger.
I'm surprised he didn't pee on my leg.
And yet I mingled with him and his minions in their hangouts not wanting to go back yet to the lonely hostels and strangers. The American students on exchange in Florence keep to themselves, filling their lives with the little dramas they transplanted from their college campuses to the more exotic locale of Tuscany with money from their parents.
They dismissed the Italian people out of hand and made no effort to get to know any of them much less speak a word of Italian. (But of course they had no problem spending Mom and Dad's money in the smart clothing shops and restaurants.)
I saw the open twitch of Brad's disproval manifest itself from his Marine-like discipline when I suggested that David skip the gym one day and see the Uffizi with me, which of course he, after a sidelong glance at Brad, declined.
What really began to unnerve me is the current of intelligence that lurked in Brad.
One of the deep impressions of that hate-filled moment that he threw at me was one of respect for a mind that could communicate so much, so consciously, through a simple brief look. He was studying law (of course) and had lawyer parents, a pedigree of the right genes and the right upbringing, the right look, and he could be articulate and even charming when he wanted.
He was one of the reasons I stayed in Florence as long as I did. Despite my disliking him I was fascinated by him, how he moved through this world, what made him work and what motivated him. I kept waiting for some kind of consequence, some kind of reckoning and realized that if it came at all I was unlikely to see it.
I thought of him many years in the future in the study of his mansion with a bombed-out look on his face pondering a divorce, f*cked-up children and lack of true friends that true hubris would some day lay upon him and it thrilled me in a dark way.
One night I came in alone, quite drunk, and heard Brad f*cking Stacy.
It was loud.
Not only did I hear her cries of passion but I heard flesh slapping together, all mixing together in an illicit, aural choreography of sex that people like him shouldn't be able to have. It was not right, I reasoned, for people like him to have such good sex. I slipped into my dark sleep to the cries of Stacy reaching up into something beyond her.
We talked of music. I remember Brad sitting at the kitchen table making some kind of off-hand remark about not caring about "what was on, as long as something's on."
That was the general policy.
If I didn't like the music, which I frequently didn't, there was no problem with changing it as long as something was on. Silence, at times other than sleeping when he strictly mandated it, seemed to unnerve Brad. This was perhaps my biggest problem with him.
Bad music is an insult and I'd much rather have silence than be subject to it. The fact that Brad would listen to anything as long as something was on revealed to me not just that he lacked any kind of culture but that he might very well be evil.
Flipping through his CD collection I came to Nirvana's Unplugged album. I asked Brad about it and he said that he didn't really like them so much but that it was on the radio and he wanted to buy a CD and that seemed like a good idea. He actually smiled at me and said "As long as something's on I'm happy", repeating his mantra in an almost therapeutic way, as I suppressed a shudder. He even bragged that he went to a concert on their final tour.
It was with the image of Brad at a Nirvana concert, baseball hat on backwards and drunk with his frat-brothers, that I finally boarded a train and left Florence.
It's been a while since I was in Florence but I still hear people bad-mouth Kurt about killing himself, saying he was a coward and how could he leave behind a wife and a child. But because I knew Brad I've seen the face of his murderers. I've felt their rage in the din of crowded bars where the urge to propagate is pounded into them by the techno-pop music of stupidity. I've even heard the powerful and intoxicating violence of their lovemaking.
The concrete world is what they concern themselves with, studiously avoiding the pitfalls of ambiguity that is the hallmark of human existence and which fueled Kurt's music and - for better or for worse - was something that existed stronger in his conscious psyche than most of the rest of us. The hard stares of Brad and his legions are a world that doesn't forgive.
As powerful as a gun, when their vision is trained on you some might wilt.
Kurt wilted under their gaze. I see him looking up from one of his beautifully anarchic solos during that final tour and seeing a legion of Brads whose eyes branded him the latest pop hero. I hear Kurt wailing "He's the one/he like's all our pretty songs/and he likes to shoot his gun/but he knows not what it means" and losing the edge of sarcasm that underscored the song.
It wasn't funny or even ironic anymore to Kurt.
When Brad bought that Nirvana CD, when he attended that concert, he loaded that shotgun as much as Kurt's fingers ever did. Smiling benignly you might even say he pulled the trigger to the tune of the next big thing.