Stepping out of the Cartagena airport, my best friend and I walked into night air so humid it felt like the steam over a bowl of soup. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were ready to lie to everyone we met. Colombia was equally ready for us. Before we reached our hotel, our over-friendly cab driver tried to sell us pot and cocaine as well as offered us women who’d happily make private porn with us. He sounded a lot like a sleazy Hollywood producer. Which is where we’d come from. We’d just left L.A. to make a movie.
As hot wind rushed in the open windows, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Cartagena. But that was nothing. Three hours later, I was in my boxers, standing in the living room of our penthouse suite, using broken Spanish to argue with a paranoid sex worker — the one my best friend had surprised me with, the one who was fully-convinced there were cameras in the walls. She wouldn’t stop screaming.
Pre-pago is the term for prostitutes in Colombia. (“Pre-paids” is the direct English translation.) The pre-pagos were loud when they arrived, drunk, and pre-paid to fuck. My best friend crashed into my room. He told me there was a surprise in the living room. I stepped out in my boxers and found a Colombian imitation of Sophia Loren, but from the 1960s — big hair, dramatic eye makeup, a tight dress to accentuate her hourglass figure. She smelled of cigarette smoke and spilled drinks. Our first night in the country, and at the first chance he got, my friend had popped out to pick-up two sex workers from a bar in the plaza across the street from our hotel.
He didn’t want to waste time, so my best friend disappeared into his bedroom with the shorter, bubblier sex worker he’d picked out for himself. The sound of her giggling voice cut-off with a sharp snap when his bedroom door slammed shut. Boom. I was left alone with my surprise sex worker, who only spoke Spanish. I can speak construction-worker Spanish from years painting houses. But other than screw (tornillo) or nail (el clavo), not many other words of my trabajando español would be helpful. Still, we did our best to communicate. She played her role. I tried to figure out mine.
Half-awake, surprised by this pre-paid sex worker, I asked myself: “Do I take full advantage of what Colombia is offering me, or not?” I never got to answer that question. When I followed her into my bedroom, we got into an intensely clumsy exchange in Spanish about the giant movie camera in the travel bag next to my bed. She freaked out at the sight of it. It seemed like she’d been in a similar scene before. All she knew about us was that we were Americans. It made sense to her that we’d be making a porn.
She retreated to the living room, saying over her shoulder, “No cameras. No porno. No cameras. No internet.” She spied paperwork spread out across the enormous dining room table. She grabbed the top of the stack — our contact sheet. “Que es!” she demanded.
“No, no, no,” I said. “Yo necessito este ‘contact sheet.’ Yo no estoy, um, playing — como se dice ‘playing’? No payaso — no, wait, that means clown. Eschuchame! Este es serioso. Yo necessito este ‘contact sheet.’”
The paranoid sex worker clutched the contact sheet in her hot angry fist, like evidence of a crime that only she saw. I was scared she’d leave with it, that she’d ruin our film on the very first day by calling everyone on the list as soon as she fled our hotel suite. Mostly, though, I was terrified that my best friend would be furious at me for screwing it all up with the sex worker and ruining our film at the same time.
“Crees me! Por favor. Yo declaro, este estan no cameras en los… walls!” I said, utterly failing to express myself.
My best friend rushed out of his bedroom to check on all the furious noise. He found me, half-naked, desperately pleading with the furious prostitute, as I continued to spit my pathetic Spanish at her. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was ever worried about his reaction. I knew him well enough to have known better. Sure enough, he looked at me and the paranoid sex worker, and then, exploded into laughter.
He always had a great laugh. A big, warm, happy laugh, the kind you’d expect from a cartoon character that everyone loved. Or, more accurately, one that everyone loved to watch. His laugh let me know that everything was okay. In that moment — the exact moment I felt it — I should’ve told him I loved him. But to his ears, that would’ve sounded hella gay. He would’ve said, “Dude, don’t be so oodley.”
That was our word for things that were gay, but without gay being a pejorative. It was a word that worked well as a rhyme, back when we all freestyled. It still served a specific purpose, outside our freestyle circles. Oodley marked a line in the social sand. It marked when a guy went too far into emotional territory. My best friend wasn’t homophobic, per se. He was down with gays. He could go dancing in a gay club, but he still didn’t like it when any dude was too soft. He was also an old school Korean guy from Chicago. If I said I loved him, that would be way too weird to him. He was the kind of dude who equated love with sex.
All the while, he was a man desperate for love. It was a feeling he never got to experience. Not from a loving partner. Still, he could never stop himself from wanting it. With every cell of his being. Instead, he paid for it. He would rent love. No wife or girlfriend, my best friend spent his love on sex workers. And they always agreed to love him back for an hourly rate.
On the surface at least, it was hard to believe this was the case. My best friend was an attractive guy, a fit guy who went to the gym regularly. He could easily find women to sleep with him. When we used to spray graffiti in San Francisco, his tag was Skin. He made sure the world knew sex was part of his identity. Like some truffle-hunting hog, he could always find it on Tinder. That was never difficult for him. I knew he felt like he had a lot to prove in bed. White girls would sometimes be surprised. In fact, America is only now coming around to the idea that Asian men can be sexual beasts. My friend certainly was that.
Often I’d meet him at The LINE in Koreatown for drinks. When I’d get there, he’d either be busy talking to a woman, or he’d have his latest Tinder hookup meet us. He would give a woman an epic night. I know all of this because he had no problem telling me about it. So much so that if I were still awake when he got done, on the way home he’d call and tell me about his latest hookup. During those calls, he’d relay stories of eating stank ass, super-long nipple hair and his fetish for fucking virgins. He also confessed how he paid sex workers to tell him they loved him — that he’d ask them to whisper it in his ear.
He did the same with his one-night-stands. Some of the women I knew well. And so, they would pull me aside and tell me how he did it. A few told me how super uncomfortable it was, others thought it was cute, but they all mentioned how he asked them to say they loved him, that he wanted to hear them say it aloud, as they came. That’s a weird kink, I thought. But I wasn’t surprised, not like them. I knew he wanted to hear it. He needed to hear it. He was desperate for it to be real.
I’m not sure if he asked something similar of the prostitute he hired in Cartagena. But I do know that eventually she came out of his bedroom and helped us sort out the situation with the girl he had gotten for me. Together, we all worked to convince her that there were no cameras in the walls. That she wouldn’t be on the internet the next day. It worked. In time, she stopped yelling. Though she did calmly demand more money. Which my best friend happily gave her. Then, she left.
One thing the paranoid sex worker got right was that we had come to Colombia to shoot a movie. Only ours was no adult film. It was an indie film. My friend’s idea. He called it “the world’s first reality film.” The concept was simple: He’d met a woman online, and he wanted me to document his trip when he finally traveled to meet her. He wanted me to record it when he asked her to marry him. We called it My Colombian Bride Vacation. It was a truly modern love story. Except all of it was a lie. We conceived a fiction, then planned to live inside of it, and film what happened. It was to be an all-real-yet-fake documentary. Nothing of the film was true — except for the people we met, and my best friend’s desperate need for love.
First of all, there was no woman he met on the internet. That was a lie. But we told everyone it was true — even our friends in L.A. In truth, there was no long-distance anything. The real reason we flew to Colombia is my friend had read on a sex tourist website that the prostitutes in Colombia were unreal. That’s why we picked Cartagena to make our reality film love story; it was a cover for his affinity for sex workers. But buried underneath all of our lies there was a genuine love story, too. To be as nakedly honest as possible: I loved him as much as one man can love another man who he doesn’t want to fuck.
We’d been partners since we met that first day at film school in San Francisco. Fittingly, our friendship began with a lie. We were both on a bus headed to the beach with a busload of Spanish exchange students. It was part of college orientation. He was at the back of the bus, speaking fluent Spanish to them. He was wearing a Chicago White Sox hat. I took a guess he was from there. So I told him I was from Chicago, too. I lied to him because those Spanish women were some of the most beautiful I’d ever seen. And he was making them laugh. He and I started talking about Chicago, and then, together, we made those Spanish girls laugh so much that the Spanish guys with them got mad.
This is why it felt so natural for us to make our film based entirely on a fiction — one that we told everyone we met. We did feel a little bad when we lied to our friends that he’d actually met a girl online, and that now we were going down there to film it. But we wanted their performances in our reality film to feel real. We didn’t trust our friends to lie as well as we did. Then, we continued to lie to everyone in Colombia.
We even hired a young Colombian woman to pretend to be in love with my best friend, to play his online fiancée. In a twist of fate, or perhaps a credit to how well he lied, he convinced this amateur actress to actually fall in love with him. Or so she claimed. And when they slept together, she did as he asked every woman he fucked to do: She whispered in his ear that she loved him, as she came.
He told me about it the next day. He bragged about how he made her fall in love with him so quickly. He said he might bring her back to America. But we both knew this too was a lie. In reality, she was yet another woman he paid to say she loved him. Try as he might, with his brags and boasts to me, he couldn’t believe her — even if just for that moment.
Eventually, it was this longing and heartache that killed him. He died naked and alone. His brother found him. He immediately called me. I ordered a Lyft. The driver asked me how my night was going, and I was so deep in shock I told her the truth. I told her she was driving me to my best friend’s loft to find his dead body. I apologized for being a bummer. She didn’t know how to react, beyond apologizing for my misfortune. Then we settled into a very honest conversation about all the twists and turns in our lives that brought us to this moment. Once we arrived, I helped his brother deal with the cops and coroner. I tried not to look when the coroner took away my best friend’s body.
Afterward, I cleaned-up my best friend’s blood. There was a great coagulated pool of it. Like a barrel of spilled Spanish wine leaked across the cement floor of his DTLA loft. As I held back tears — that eventually came, despite all my protests — I had one of the darkest thoughts I’ve ever known. It was a thought so dark only he would’ve laughed at it. As I sopped up that gelatinous pool of his blood with my bare hands and a dish sponge, I said to his absence, “I swear to god, if you give me HIV from your blood, I’m gonna laugh myself to death.” He would’ve laughed, too. I’m pretty sure, only he would’ve laughed.
Truth is, he’d been burnt a few times with STDs, so it wasn’t a ridiculous thought. He often took stupid risks. They made him feel something. Fucking a sex worker without a condom was one way he liked to feel alive — to feel the woman he was inside. Sometimes he even hoped they’d get pregnant. To him, it was like a perversely-arranged marriage. He thought perhaps a mother of his children might grow to love him. They’d be stuck together, he’d say.
He was a notorious bleeder. Like, when he got a bloody nose, it would look like he’d been in a knife-fight. I remember the day he called me from a motel room in Bakersfield. He’d woken up alone, unsure where he was. All he knew was the prostitute was gone. So were the eight balls of coke. There was blood everywhere. It was his. But it wasn’t from kinky sex. Lying in that motel bed in Bakersfield, alone, he was mad that he’d woken up alive. Again.
So what did we do? We laughed about it. We joked about the maid who’d found him. We wondered what the proper amount was to tip her for cleaning up his blood. He’d left forty bucks. We both thought that wasn’t enough. I did tell him how worried I was, how scared I was when he’d disappeared without explanation. I told him how — just like him — there were numerous times I’d woken up mad that I was still alive. But I never told him I loved him. I know now I should have.
I’m not sure, though, it would’ve saved his life. He’d told me he needed my help to stay clean. We tried for three years. But I didn’t realize how strong the coke was and how weak my friend had become. I thought of him as one of the most resilient people I’d ever known. He once saw the L.A. marathon happening and ran it. He walked up to the registration table, signed up, got a number and then ran the damn thing without ever training for it.
Which is why I mistakenly thought his heart was stronger than it was.
The last time I saw him alive, we went out to eat, and when he dropped me off, I told him how proud I was of him for how he’d stayed sober. I said it in words, and then I said it with my eyes. We’d had decades of conversations with just our eyes, across rooms, to compare notes on girls we’d just met, to silently highlight guys we didn’t trust or to note some racist bullshit that had just happened. On this night, he saw my belief in him. He tried to meet it with a confident stare of his own, but he fell short. An honest confidence was more than he could muster. Instead, he put on a semi-believable show of confidence, but I could still see his soul. So I acted like I believed him, hoping it would help him believe in himself.
I should’ve told him I loved him. That’s what he needed to hear. It might have saved his life. If not, at least he would’ve known an honest love. Which is all he ever wanted. Without that feeling of love, he didn’t want to keep waking up alive. Now I lay awake some nights wondering if saying those words he so wanted to hear could have saved his life. I guess I always will.
Please do me a favor: Don’t wonder the same thing. Tell a man you love him. I don’t know, but sometimes, I think it could save his life.