We met at a boxing match. Not a prize fight or anything glamorous like that, more like a series of hopeful amateurs fighting in a dingy warehouse gym on the south side of Houston known as 3rd Ward. I was new to that gym. Having just joined the day before, the coach invited me to come in the next morning to watch the fights if I was interested. I was, so I got there early and sat in the front row, curious to see the guys I’d be working out with. Joseph’s wife Jenny happened to sit in the seat next to mine, so technically we met first. Jenny held a baby in her lap as she informed me they were there to cheer for Joseph. She cheered like we were front row at the main event in Caesars Palace.
The first thing I noticed about Joseph was what an incredible showman he was. When it was his turn to fight, he dove into the ring head first, then front rolled into an upright stance and right into a boxer’s shuffle. I’ve never seen anyone else do that before or since. You could tell he was all about style the way he danced around the ring on long legs that carried his lanky 6’2 frame. At some point, he landed a solid right hook on his opponent’s cheek, then inexplicably backed off and did a celebratory lap around the ring while pumping his fist overhead. The referee was annoyed but the crowd went nuts for that shit. Part fighter part Mexican wrestler, he was concerned more about the show than the outcome though he clearly loved to fight. He was good too. So was his opponent, a hulking Hispanic fighter with rosacea on his upper arms and back. Joseph lost the fight that day, but he won the crowd.
His wife introduced us after the fight. I let him know I was new to the gym, I liked watching his fight, and I was looking forward to working out with him. He was like “Cool man. I need a new sparring partner.” And that was that.
If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship that’s moving way too fast but you just go with it because it’s fun, then you already have a good idea what being friends with Joseph was like, only in the platonic sense. We were instant soul mates, fiercely loyal, and overly trusting of one another. We met for daily sparring sessions that would last for more rounds than we could count. After practice we’d recover by eating cheap bowls of Beef Pho at the Vietnamese place by my apartment. I usually paid, but I didn’t mind because he waited tables at the Italian place next door and could hook it up with trays of leftover lasagna and tortellini a la panna from the kitchen. We were broke and in our twenties. Both thrusted into parenthood at an early age and both fighters. Night after night, sharing life stories over giant five dollar bowls of steaming Vietnamese broth and noodles, I’d never felt closer to anyone in my whole life.
Anyone who’s ever been a boxer knows that when you fight the same guy every day you can’t help forming a bond. But it’s really more than that. You share sweat and blood and you hurt each other in the moment so that eventually you both come away stronger. And with that you learn to trust. You trust the other person not to hurt you too much. Not to take advantage of the situation if they happen to stagger you with a well placed shot to the jaw that stuns, or a stinging punch to your small ribs, the ones just above the hip.
And then there’s the non-physical part. You learn to anticipate the other person. You can feel what they’re going to do right before they do it. It’s like being inside their head. Not only do you know what they’re thinking but you know what their whole body feels like, what it wants to do, and it comes to you in flashes that you either react to or get punched. My only life experience that compares to that level of knowing another human being is my marriage, to a woman whose moods I can predict by the sound her footsteps make in the second floor of our home. She’s the only person I will ever know as well as I knew him. My greatest failure would be in not anticipating Joseph’s final move. And it’s not like he didn’t leave clues.
There were late nights in the clubs downtown and family barbecues where Joseph made everyone feel like they were part of his most trusted inner circle. You could never leave Joseph’s party without first hearing about much how he loved you and, if necessary, would die to defend you. Coming from anyone else it would’ve sounded fulsome, but coming from him, said with such conviction, with so much feeling in his eyes, it was both comforting and discomforting at the same time. He made you feel like you were part of his own special brotherhood. The brotherhood of Joseph.
Outside of the ring, the only other time Joseph felt larger than life was when he was partying. He was the guy at the party that could drink all night and still hold a deep conversation at 4AM without slurring a word. He liked pot, but he loved ecstasy. Not that he was picky. In reality, he was always down to take take any form of hard drug that happened to be on hand. He had escapism down to an artform.
What he was escaping from is hard to put into words. His father had been a heroin addict and done time, but he was out now and they had a decent relationship. In his father’s absence his mom had done her best to make sure they were provided for. Life hadn’t been easy for them, but there was no talk of abuse or anything like that. There was the stress of being a dad. Joseph loved his daughter intensely which was the only way he knew how to love, so I understood his fear of failing her must have been uniquely intense as well. But she was also a source of pride and happiness for him.
As far as I could tell, most of his wounds were self inflicted. He had a mistress. Her name was Johanna and she was sexy in a hood-rat sort of way. His wife sort of knew about her. It was a source of conflict between them, but he could have ended that at anytime and Jenny would’ve let it go. He had problems at work, mostly because he called in a little too often and was sometimes late for his shifts. It didn’t help that he was falling in love with the restaurant owner’s daughter whom he worked with and I can only assume he was terrible at keeping that secret from his boss. None of this really explains his desperate need for oblivion in the form of pills, powders, and alcohol.
I can only describe what he was dealing with by quoting a movie; Joseph’s all time favorite movie, Tombstone. He was obsessed with Val Kilmer’s character Doc Holiday. So much so, that he was constantly leaving me voicemails quoting the movie while in character. It was a daily thing for me to hear “I’m your huckleberry!” as the entire phone message, leaving me to guess at the purpose of the call. Somehow it feels right that the quote which best describes Joseph’s mental state comes from the mouth of his favorite character Doc: “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.”
Joseph had a hole too; he tried filling it with sex, and drugs, and fighting. I suppose he wasn’t all that different from most twenty year old American males in that sense, his hole was just deeper, bottomless really.
At some point, these vices started coming between us. He started asking me to lie for him so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his wife for being out with Johanna. I didn’t like it, but how do you say no to someone who is capable of convincing you that he would die for you? A lie seemed like such a small thing to give by comparison. But then he started lying to me too. He would make excuses for missing practice, but I would later find out he was hanging out at our coach Ray’s house getting high with another fighter from our stable. I would find out because Ray would tell me. He wasn’t happy about it either.
Joseph started asking to borrow money more frequently. This bothered me less than the lying and missed sparring practice, but the excuses for needing the money started getting more and more ridiculous. As Christmas drew nearer things started getting worse. He was fired from the restaurant for reasons that would change depending on when you asked him. Then he came to me with a story about how Jenny had given him money to buy Christmas presents which he ordered online, but they were stolen out of the mailbox at their apartment complex. I knew this was the story he’d concocted for Jenny, I also knew he’d spent the money on drugs. What I couldn’t understand was why he was lying to me about it. Jenny kicked him out the following week.
Let me be clear. I still loved this man. He was still my brother and what’s more I knew him. I knew that he was spiralling, but I also believed that he would get back up when he was done. So when he finally did something that caused me to back off, just like he was doing to everyone else in his life at the time, I viewed it as only temporary.
It was one of those not infrequent days where I called to see if he was going to meet me at the gym and he either didn’t answer, or made up some excuse, I can’t remember which. But then he actually did show up. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw him enter the gym, hopeful that things were starting to turn around. He brought our drug dealer friend Chris with him, but I thought little of it because Chris was part of the group of friends we hung out with all the time. Joseph seemed eager to spar but his words were coming out slurred. He started talking to me about getting in the ring together, but some of what he was saying was incoherent. I looked at Chris and the expression on his face was like “Dude, I don’t know what’s wrong with him, you tell me.”
I took them both outside. Joseph was talking shit at this point. “Let’s go dog, thought you were ready to throw down today” and of course “I’m your huckleberry.” It was clear Joseph was on something. I asked Chris what he was on but Chris had no idea. Whatever he was on, he didn’t get it from Chris. God knows who he scored from or what it was, let alone whether it was even safe. I let Joseph know that there was no way we were going to fight while he was in that condition. It was the only time I’d ever turned him down. He insisted, got angry, and started talking loudly while making less sense. Then he puked on the sidewalk. We finally got him to go home at some point and I resolved to give Joseph some space until he worked his shit out.
He’d been staying with our coach ever since Jenny kicked him out so I knew where to find him even though I’d quit taking his calls. Again, this was just tough love. The words “tough love” were being thrown around in connection with Joseph’s name a lot in those days. Mostly by people who loved him. Everyone was tired of his shit, but nobody had given up on him yet. It had only been a few weeks since the incident at the gym when I saw him again.
I dropped by our coach’s house to say hi to everyone including Joseph. I thought he’d be mad at me for avoiding him but he was the opposite. He immediately hugged me aggressively. He told me he missed me with so much sadness in his eyes that I immediately regretted ignoring his calls the past couple weeks. Then we joked around for about an hour. He was sober, and bursting with life again. It was infectious. I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt good being in his presence when he was acting like himself again. He was super happy to see me, so I couldn’t help but mirror that feeling.
We had a good visit. Before I left he grabbed me by the arm and said we have to take a picture together. I thought it was weird but I went with it. It was weird. This was long before selfies were a thing in our culture, and back then two sober dudes didn’t just take a picture together in the middle of the day, plus it had only been a few weeks since we last saw each other. Everything was going so well I just chalked the picture thing up to Joseph always being overly intense about everything, especially friendship.
The picture we took that day was more than just a picture, it was a sign. A great big sign that I missed. Of all the people in his life, I was uniquely qualified to anticipate what was coming, but I failed him that day.
I failed my friend.
The call came around 2AM that next morning. It was our coach Ray. He sounded terrified. Joseph had shot himself in the head with a pistol. He expired upon arrival at the hospital via ambulance. My immediate response was to ask if he was going to be ok, Ray repeated the words “expired upon arrival” before it finally sunk in. Joseph hadn’t wanted a picture to remember me, he wanted a picture so that I would remember him. It was his way of saying goodbye.
What I can tell you about the scene of a suicide is that there is no yellow tape, no chalk, and no uniformed officials buzzing around taking notes. It’s a horrible mess that just get’s walked away from. Or left in your home if that’s where it happens. I arrived at the house maybe twenty minutes after Ray called me. We put kitchen gloves on and cleaned up the mess with lot’s of towels that went into plastic garbage bags. We finished with some mops. It was like disposing of a body, which is exactly what we were doing, only not to cover up a crime. Joseph’s wife and brother were coming over later, we just couldn’t let them see all that blood.
Joseph never got older than he was that day. He never watched his daughter grow up. He never ate another bowl of Pho. In my mind he is still twenty-five. Brash, good looking, and always smiling, he winks at me before diving through the ropes, popping up on the other side, ready to fight some unseen opponent.
The other day, my wife and I were watching a movie that featured a handsome, Hispanic actor. I thought to myself “That’s what Joseph would look like today if he got older.”
It’s the “if” part that still sticks in my throat.