Book: Champagne Tastes on a Crystal Budget

Gary Rosen

Champagne Tastes on a Crystal Budget

Champagne Tastes on a Crystal Budget

Derek always said he had champagne tastes on a crystal budget. I never totally understood that-whenever he got some money, he spent it on crystal, and if he got a lot of money, he bought a lot of crystal. But still, every time Derek emptied his pockets at night while he was opening the refrigerator, turning them inside out to show what he got that day, out would pop a square Ziploc bag of crystal, along with other junk-phone numbers of new pals, appointment times for dates scrawled on a matchbook, ink-line drawings of dying bodies with pustules mushrooming out from every piece of flesh, flyers for bands, etc. Everything else was thrown on the floor next to the bed, but the crystal bag was lovingly placed in his purple velvet drawstring drug bag. The little Ziploc bag was so small and elusive that it would attach itself to other things, or stubbornly cling to the bottom of Derek's pocket, or find its way to the inside pocket of his Levi's, etc., and Derek would turn the entire room upside down, figuring that the crystal had slipped out somewhere between the door and the refrigerator, and tear his backpack apart, even though he never put drugs in his backpack cuz he was afraid someone would take 'em while he was walking down the street. "Fuck!" he'd say. "I fucking lost it at New Dawn!" Or "That fucking Eddie-he stole my fucking crystal!" But then he'd calm down when he wrenched the little pack of matte white grains out of his pocket. He'd look at me and turn his bratty-boy face around like he was trying to feign ambivalence, even though he only had three looks on his face he could successfully pull off-a really happy grin, like he'd just been fucked in the ass by an ice cream cone with sprinkles on top; a don't-fuck-with-me look that simultaneously scared off and attracted scads of people; and a puffed-out-lip look in the middle of sex, like this was the most mind-blowing experience he'd ever had. He did the last one too well and too often for it to be real-I think he just created it for tricks, to make them think it was a really good blow job or something, and then his face just naturally made itself up that way during any sex. For a while, though, I thought it was just for me, cuz what we had was so special and all that shit, and it was one of the things that made me fall for him. But anyway, even if his face was kinda unformed and hardwired and could perform only three looks successfully, Derek still tried to show a range of emotions. The look he gave me when he finally found his crystal was one of them-an awkward, apologetic ambivalence, composed by lifting his eyebrows up, pushing his chin down, and extending the right side of his mouth like he had some kinda slow tic. This was his "I did something that was a little fucked up" look, and he got away with murder with it, even though nobody believed he was truly regretful. Derek wasn't sorry about anything he did. That's just the way he was: if he slipped on the ice and tripped his grandma for her last fall, he'd offer up the same look and take the money out of her purse. But nobody cared. That was Derek. "Got some more fucking crystal," he'd say. "What a shitty drug. I got champagne tastes on a crystal budget though," which was really irritating cuz he said it all the time, cuz he probably didn't remember he said it all the time, even though I told him, and cuz he fucked up the meaning of the cliche-if you got champagne tastes on a crystal budget, you buy the champagne, but you run yourself into debt, don't you? I don't know. I never bothered to really figure it out. It just annoyed me.

But that's just cuz I hated Derek for getting away with everything, for being so goddamned self-centered that you couldn't hold anything against him; he would never think of you anyway, so why not just give in. So what if he said the same fucking thing almost every day and he was a crystal addict-we were in San Francisco, what else were we going to do? Besides, I liked that he got crystal, cuz whenever we were pissed off, we could just do a little and I would get an instant hard-on. Derek put his hand on my cock when I first snorted crystal to see how quickly the stuff went to my groin. That's how he got me in the first place- picked me up at a vegetarian burrito place in the Mission and took me home one afternoon, threw me on the bed, took out his bag of speed, and held it out for me. We didn't leave for forty-eight hours. I swear. Two days in his little crappy Tenderloin studio where you could hear the drag queen's stomach upstairs struggle with bad shrimp or death throes-every thirty minutes we heard this explosion of diarrhea and then a toilet flush that shook the bed. We fucked-it was incredible-my body was a million Lite-Brites on at one time, etc. I was high on speed and sex and high on that pale bratty face in front of me that looked like he had just wiped a load of snot on the back of his sleeve, and high on all the mysterious Derek history around me-a picture of Derek on Polk Street, huddled next to a girl, that was taken for one of those trend stories on male hustlers; collages of Derek on a mountain top with angels and syringes hovering about him; matches everywhere, usually with a guy's name on the back of them, comics of grotesque, squat colorful figures fucking each other in the ribs and other exotic places; children's storybooks; teen boys and old ladies ripped from their resting places in magazine spreads and entwined together in languorous perversion; dirty T-shirts, etc. When he left to get more speed, I looked in his journal. Put one of his dirty white briefs next to my nose and took a whiff. Felt like the world had disappeared outside. Feared Derek would never come back. Convinced myself I should leave and get back to waiting for my unemployment check. Began jacking off. When Derek came back with more crystal, he got himself hard, started fucking me, rained a little crystal on my back, snorted it, then told me to switch and do the same. I couldn't get hard so I finger-fucked him and did the crystal from his back anyway. I moved into his place a week later.

Derek got me into hustling. I called it sex work because I went to college and lived in San Francisco, but he just called it hustling. He kept on telling me I'd be really good at it, that guys would like the tough-guy act I was putting on, that I could be a great top, that I could learn S/M and pull in thousands of dollars, that I thought I was better than him, that he was sick and tired of feeling like a slut, that if I hustled it would improve our relationship, etc. But my unemployment checks were still coming in, so I told Derek to fuck off; he got that don't-fuck-with-me look when we argued about this, so I knew nothing could stop him, and it was just a matter of time. A few weeks later Derek told me that his major trick, John (a John named John, ha ha), had spotted me walking next to Derek and really wanted to have me in bed. He said he'd pay three hundred dollars extra to have me and Derek in bed with him, so I did it. Derek and I did a little crystal, and we ended up at this megahouse in Twin Peaks with white carpeting everywhere, silver and glass tables, bookshelves, expensive coffee table editions of black-and-white male nude photo collections-'the whole thing. John was allegedly a doctor who made a fortune selling drugs and prescriptions to users throughout California. Or at least that's what Derek told me. When John opened the door, I hadn't known what to expect, but it wasn't what I saw-an Izod and shorts over a surprisingly buoyant, round body. His hair was straight and thick and almost totally white, and he had that kinda gay face that somehow stays "boyish" until age one hundred or something. He was really friendly, but there was something cold in his eyes. John shook my hand and smiled at me like he had already fucked me a couple weeks ago and I'd loved it or something, like he knew something about me. John ushered us into the bedroom and asked us to get comfortable, got us drinks, and Derek started fooling around in bed. It was the same as when we fooled around at home after I got over the weirdness of it all, except every few minutes Derek would turn around and ask, "Is it okay?" or "Do you want us to do anything else?" or "Can you see everything?" John sat on his faux-fur-upholstered chair, his head propped up on his fist, totally impassive, like he was studying a particularly tough engineering problem. Derek and I were like arms and legs and an extra pair of eyes. When Derek yelled that he was getting close, John yelled out, "Don't come yet!" and got on his knees next to the bed. Derek pulled out of me and came all over John's face. Derek told me to do the same, so I did. John stroked us for a little afterward, his head resting on Derek's inner thigh; John was sitting on the carpet, rambling about getting another designer for his place. He wanted to make it more " California," with lots of redwood. Our come was glazing his face, and it dripped down slowly onto the rug. John went into the shower and Derek told me that we should leave, that John didn't wanna see us after he came out, so we walked out and grabbed six hundred dollars off the kitchen counter. Derek went back in-said he forgot something-then came out five minutes later.

It was my first trick, and I felt like-what-I had gotten over on someone, I guess, and thought Derek would like me more. I felt something-a heat, a high, a rush, but I never really savored the rush, cuz we hooked up with our dealer quick and abandoned the next week in a crystal ice storm. We fucked forever and spent the noncrystal money on Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear discs, matching nipple piercings, and a little silver Victorian coke spoon Derek had been eyeballing for months. I told Derek I loved him while he was fucking me one night, and then he took it as a mantra, spitting the words out in a whisper, over and over again, matching it with his thrusts until he shot in me. I asked him to keep his cock in me as we lapsed into sleep, and he did, but when I woke up, he was on the other side of his bed, and I was empty.

John paged again the next week and wanted both of us there. He told Derek he wanted us to play dress up-he had some kinda cutoff blue jeans fantasy, but we didn't have any, so we stopped off at one of the Mission thrift stores to pick up a couple pairs before we got there. John was a little pissed off that we didn't have the stupid cutoffs on, but his smile never flagged; it just got brittle, and his cold round eyes got a little slittier. Derek and I went into John's marble-and-mirror bathroom and changed into the cutoffs, and when we got into the bedroom, John was on his furry chair again, with no pants, slowly jacking off. He asked Derek if he had got the stuff, and Derek kinda grunted, extra surly, and fished in his pockets forever for the crystal. I didn't know about the deal-Derek musta been holding out on me, but he would have just told me that he forgot about it, so I pretended not to care. John grabbed his little hand mirror, like old Hollywood starlets have-gilded silver with lots of swirls on the back-and laid out a coke-size line. Derek told him that the stuff was strong, but John did the whole line, and then offered us some, which we did. John looked all crystalled out-like he was on the edge of some big discovery but couldn't quite get there. He told us to start making out, to take our shirts off, etc.-and then he told Derek to fuck me. I looked back while I was on my stomach to see John's eyes fixed on a spot in front of his face and his tongue rushing in and out of his mouth like one of those New Year's Eve noisemakers. When Derek and I shot, John snuck up right next to the bed and sprinkled his come on us. He went into the shower. Derek and I both dressed, and were gonna walk out, but John yelled for Derek to stay, so he did. "Dude, I gotta stay. I'll meet you at home," Derek said, with the shrug-smile he had nailed down.

I stopped in Castro Station for a beer cuz no one I knew would be at that shit-ass crystal-troll palace, then walked up Market, figuring Derek was gonna be there, but he wasn't. The crystal was still fucking with my mind, so I cleaned the whole damn place, twice, and even rearranged what furniture we had-which pretty much consisted of swapping the futon with the beanbag and moving the plants that Derek had bought when he decided he needed more nature in his life. Derek still hadn't come home, so I just stayed in, waiting for Derek to get back so we could hang.

Derek didn't come back for two days. I made three mix tapes, looked through my old journals, painted the ceiling of the bathroom silver, organized all of our CDs according to genre (punk, seventies, fucked-up experimental stuff, rap, etc.), and tried to write one poem for each of Derek's piercings-nose, eyebrow, guiche, belly button, nipple. Each time I finished a poem I was pissed off even more that Derek wasn't there, cuz I wanted him to come loping through the door while I was doing this stupid, romantic, literate thing for him. But he didn't come back until three or four a.m. a couple days later. I was drunk. I was pissed. We got into a fight. He said I wasn't his mother. He told me that John and he had spent a couple days fucking around, that he had bought him a couple hundred bucks worth of speed, that John was fucking crazy for him, that John couldn't get it up for the last day so he just spent the whole time jacking off his soft cock while Derek posed for him. Derek showed me the money in his pocket-seven hundred dollars-and said John wanted to take him on a trip to New York next week. I wanted to fuck around, but Derek was worn out-the last thing he wanted to do was deal with his cock. He spent a few hours in the corner drawing in his journal; one drawing was a skeleton fucking an ape. If you can imagine it, there was a lot of love in the drawing-the ape was kinda pouting-but that's where the warmth stopped. Derek wouldn't hug me or touch me or kiss me, and I jacked off in the futon, pissed that John had sucked all the play out of Derek.

Derek didn't sleep with me that night, or the next night, or the next night. I mean sleep in both ways-he didn't spoon me while we were dreaming, and he didn't fuck me in the ass. He was bingeing. I was pissed off at him, so I pretended not to want any crystal cuz it was getting on my nerves, but really I was doing crystal, just not with him. Derek didn't say much when he stopped home to change clothes or grab something to eat-just mumbled something about some trick up in Pacific Heights or hanging out with some bull dyke named Mikee-but I figured he had picked up a couple guys and fucked for days like he did with me that first time. Maybe it was the crystal-I had no evidence-just the acid inside me.

Then Derek's friend Jason overdosed. He was this kid Derek used to hang out with on Polk Street; he turned Derek on to speed, then moved on to smack. He died at his place down at Folsom and Twenty-fifth, just like that, he elapsed. Derek got the call when he was in the shower; he ran out naked, then just stood there with the phone hanging from his hand. We both went to Jason's apartment, just cuz Derek needed to do something, needed to see the body or the place Jason died, or whatever. We took a cab to the Mission, and I held Derek's hand, in between our legs, like we were trying to hide something from the world, or from each other. When we got there, the body was gone. Jason's roommates-John and Boa-were smoking cigarettes in the common room, talking about whether they could get into trouble with the cops, whether the landlord could evict them, etc. Derek wanted to leave-he hated those guys-and when we walked out, he told me that they had killed Jason, that Jason had quit smack a half a year ago, that Boa hated Jason cuz he had slept with John, etc. I thought Derek was crazy, that he just needed to unload, etc., but he kept on it and threatened to call the cops, wanted them put in jail. Then he got all silent. We walked all the way to the Tenderloin. Derek grabbed my hand, and I gave him my sweatshirt, cuz he was really cold. We sat outside our place on the steps, smoking cigarettes, and Derek got all serious, said he didn't want to die alone, said we should go up to Oregon and get out of the city, just live in a little cabin next to a river or something. When we got inside, we did some crystal, and we started messing around, but it wasn't sexual; it was to soothe each other. We just spread ourselves on each other like cream, and we kissed each other a lot. Derek looked into my eyes; his cold blue eyes had darkened a bit, and they seemed on the verge of tears. It was like an ecstasy trip or something-we felt each other's presences or auras ooze out of our bodies and share the bed with us. That night, Derek hung on to me harder than he ever had, closer than he ever had, burying his body in the twists of mine, and I caressed his arm, over and over again, like a piece of beautiful wood.

The next morning, Derek got up, lit some sage, and sat down and meditated. I had seen him do this before-the last time was the first week we were hanging out; he told me he had to clear his mind to see if we could live with each other-the answer was yes. This time he emerged out of a few minutes of Indian-style sitting and told me he wanted to quit hustling. He wanted to get a job, a real job, any job; he could do outreach for street kids- he'd already been offered the gig, he said. He told me I should quit, too, that we should both go straight, that if we really loved each other we'd do that for each other. He had that possessed, bulldog look, scrunching up his nose and furrowing his brow, willing his idea into existence.

He'd take a week, he told me, to finish up with his clients and save up some money, but that was it, and we should both start looking for jobs. I hugged him, and I guess I got this image of both of us helping each other to imagine something different, something beautiful, having the courage to change, etc. Derek had a mind of switches and knobs, while mine was all analog dial-he could just toggle something in there, up or down, and everything would change, in a second, permanently.

The first thing he did was go and get more crystal. He said he needed it to get through the week, that this was the most important week in his life and he had to be up for it, etc. Then he called up a few of his regulars and told them that he was getting out of the business-me and my boyfriend, he kept on saying, we're gonna move to Oregon. I guess he'd changed his mind about getting a job in the city-that's how I learned most of the stuff about Derek's decisions; he would never tell me. I'd just learn it when he told somebody else, like it was something he had figured out a long time ago.

That week went like this: Derek got a book on Oregon, decided he wanted to live in Eugene, gave half of his clothes and CDs away to friends, had a few dates, showed me the pictures he kept in a little shoebox in the closet, put crystal on his cock and fucked me, and bought a pile of crystal to get us through the first few weeks in Oregon. We went partying with his friends almost every night, mostly whores Derek used to hang out with, dykes he trusted, a couple of artist types, etc. Derek was saying goodbyes-one night he did ecstasy and everybody he ran into in the streets was suddenly his best friend; he held everybody's hands and turned eight years old, reciting slowly and precisely where they met and what memory he cherished of them, etc. It looked like he was really gonna do it, that we were really gonna do it- go to Oregon. That night, we stayed out all night, climbed up on top of this little cliff outside of the Castro, and looked at the little cookie-cutter domestic skyline that is San Francisco. It was way cold and windy-we had to smoke the pot.

We were at home watching Pink Flamingos-Derek loved John Waters, thought he was the most brilliant guy around-he had his own copy of the movie and knew all the lines. Whenever anybody wanted Derek to do anything political-like sign a petition or go to a medical marijuana protest or whatever-he'd turn them down and say, "Filth is my politics; filth is my life!" I thought it was cool and didn't figure out the reference 'til that night, when Divine makes her manifesto. Anyway, right after that, John paged. He wanted us to get over there. So we cabbed it, and we put those stupid cutoff blue jeans on in the cab, taking our pants off right in the back. Derek didn't wear any underwear-he dared me to suck his cock right there, and I did, cuz I'll do anything on a dare. When we got to John's place, he was waiting for us; he was real twitchy and couldn't stop moving his mouth around, crystal marks. I figured he'd been up for at least a day. John touched me and Derek all creepily, on the chest, moving down to the stomach, and then got all courtly, asking us if the house was too cold or too warm, if we wanted to listen to different music (it was some stupid Steely Dan), if we wanted coffee, if we wanted crystal, whatever. So we did a couple bumps of crystal and then went to sit at the glass table in the kitchen, while John moved back and forth from the cabinet to the countertop, making coffee. He was talking all the time-his medical office was being run by idiots; the nurses were all gossips, except for this one guy who was really cute and maybe raiding the stash of local anesthetics; he met this really sexy guy and did we know him; coffee is really his drug of choice, etc. Derek would say something back to John and roll his eyes to me like, "When do we get the fucking money?"

It seemed like an hour, but we were doing bumps of crystal, so in a very long five minutes, the coffee was done. By that time John didn't want it anymore and neither did we, so we just went into the bedroom and John told us to take our shirts off but leave the cutoffs on. He told us to start, to go on, and so we did. Derek's mouth tasted like it always tasted-tobacco and that bitter pharmaceutical crystal tinge-and we passed our chewing gum to each other during the kiss like a secret message. John jacked off his crystal-crippled cock and kept on saying, "Yeah, that's it," like bad porn. Derek pushed me on the bed and moved me on my stomach, like we usually do it. He started getting the lube out and smearing it in my ass crack, when John said, "Why do you always fuck him? Next time you're gonna get fucked." Derek kept on going but said, "There isn't gonna be a next time." John asked, "What does that mean?" Derek told him, "We're moving to Oregon!" John got up and stood right next to the bed, his soft cock peeking out from below the bottom of his shirt. "What do you mean you're moving to Oregon?" he asked. Derek pulled off of me and told him he was sick of this town and he was leaving. "When?" John asked. "Two days," Derek said, "going to Portland." I reached for a cigarette.

John told Derek that he didn't want him to go, that he needed someone to go to New York with him, and that Derek had already agreed to go. Derek said, "Yeah, well you never brought it up again." John said, "Well, I'm going, next week." I figured John was lying cuz why would he suddenly mention that he was leaving in four days and that he expected Derek to go with him? It was total bullshit. John said, "So, are you gonna come with me?" Derek said, "I can't, dude. I'm moving to Oregon." John sat back down in his faux-fur-covered chair, to get more leverage or something. He stared at Derek like Derek stood between him and 5 million dollars, like an obstacle to be surmounted.

"You can move after we come back."

Derek didn't know what to say to that; he squirmed a little and looked at me for help, so I said, "We've got everything planned," which we didn't. I didn't even know that Derek wanted to move to Portland until now. John was pissed. I'd never seen him like this-he pulled some strange authority out of his ass, like he was back in the doctor's office giving someone a prescription. "You've never been to New York, have you? But you want to go." Derek didn't know where to go now. He changed positions on the bed, sitting up against the headboard. "Yeah, dude, of course," he said. "So come and see it." "I don't know dude." "I'm paying your airfare; we're staying in a great hotel…" Derek asked, "And?" John said, "And I'm giving you a hundred dollars a day spending money."

Derek motioned for my cigarette, so I gave it to him, and he pulled a drag. I still remember looking up at him while his lips were forming around the filter, waiting for his answer. Derek didn't look at me. He just looked straight at John and said, "Okay." John said, "Great," and then started working his cock again. "You guys should go back to work."

So I turned over on my stomach and Derek started fucking me again. I played dead. I left when John went into the shower, said, "See you at home, dude." Derek ran after me, playing dumb. "What?" he asked. "Is it about the New York thing? I've always wanted to go to New York. We can go to Oregon after I get back." But after that, he didn't say another word about Oregon. It was all New York -I'm going to New York, he told everyone he was going to New York; he started playing the Velvet Underground over and over again, etc. Every time I talked to him about Oregon his eyes glazed over and he changed the subject. John picked up Derek in a taxi at our place a few mornings later. Derek kissed me good-bye and told me he'd call, left, then came back and grabbed his baseball cap, then left again.

Derek did leave a message, from the top of the Empire State Building. He claimed to be calling from John's cell phone and said he could see all the way to our place and that I should close the window. When he got back into town, he looked like hell. Told me he hadn't slept in four days, that John and he had done all the crystal that was supposed to keep us in Oregon for a month, that he was sorry, but John had asked him to move in and was willing to pay him lots-o-cash just to live there, so he was gonna live there. I wanted to talk about it, but Derek told me John was waiting outside with the taxi, and he had to run-just wanted to pick up some more clothes. I said, "Wait! We gotta talk about this! What's going on? Are you living there forever? Are you giving up the apartment? What should I do?" He was running around, looking for something, and he said, "We'll deal with it." I turned into the spurned lover. I said, "I thought you wanted to get out of the business. I thought you wanted to live with me in Oregon." Derek was on his way out, but he turned before he reached the door and said what he always says: "Dude, I've got champagne tastes on a crystal budget. It's time for some champagne."


Gary Rosen is a writer, actor, and filmmaker. His stories and essays have appeared in Strange Fruit, Cuir Underground, Frontiers, RFD magazine, and the collection Trices and Treats. His first film, Totally Confused, played at festivals around the world, including Independents Night at Lincoln Center and the Berlin International Film Festival. He currently lives in Manhattan.


"Champagne Tastes on a Crystal Budget," by Gary Rosen, © 2000 by Gary Rosen, first appeared in Tricks and Treats, edited by Matt Bernstein Sycamore (Harrington Park Press, 2000). Reprinted by permission of the author.

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