Katy St. Clair
August 18, 2009
Josh Gottheil was in the room the first time I got drunk. It was in 9th grade, and we were all at our friend Jen’s house. I don’t remember what we were drinking, but the stuff entered into my central nervous system and immediately erased any inhibitions or self-editing that my little junior high brain was feebly manufacturing at that time. I didn’t really know Josh then, but I was intrigued. He was the sort of person that you gravitate to in high school because he seemed to really know himself already. He had a certain confidence. Everyone wanted to be around people like that, as if it would rub off on you. But after a few sips of Andre Champagne, all I could do was marvel at how small his hands were. This guy, who was obviously my superior in every way, had little tiny dwarf hands. He was sitting next to me on the floor in front of a coffee table, and he was resting his head in his hand and talking about something that went over my head, as usual (he always knew stuff that I didn’t know). I leaned in and said, “You have li’l hands.”
“Thanks,” he said, sarcastically. I think he probably rolled his eyes.
OK, I thought to myself. You have really blown it, Kate.
From then on I sort of laid-low around him. Besides, like most boys, he was much more interested in my friends Jen and Melanie.
But one day he was sitting at our lunch table. I was trying really hard not to come off like I thought his hands were small. He was talking about REM. This is right when Murmur came out; they only people who had heard of them were college radio programmers. And my mom. My mom was really cool, but that’s another story. Anyway, me and my mom loved the record and played it over and over and over. When Josh mentioned them, I was surprised, because I didn’t think they were something cool; I mean, I had heard of them, so they couldn’t be. In fact I was flat out surprised that I knew something cool that Josh knew. So we immediately bonded around REM. (Later, after his death, REM played a song for him at their Assembly Hall show… it meant a lot to me.)
How we became such close friends is sort of a blur. As junior high reached its end and we moved up to high school, our group gelled more, and we all became somewhat inseparable. And Josh still had that charisma that I longed to be a part of, so I became his Watson of a sort. He started putting together shows, which he ran like little Lollapaloozas. He had a real head for business, from the flyering (my job) to the cashiering (my job) to the percentages paid to the bands. He was always excited about some band that I had never heard of, like the Flaming Lips. He put together a Flaming Lips show and only about 15 people came. If he liked a band, they would inevitably get big. He would’ve been the world’s greatest A&R guy. Josh would have signed Nirvana, I’m sure of it.
But amid all this band promoting he was still basically a cute kid. This worked to his advantage, as bookers were enraptured with his precociousness, and female musicians and managers flirted with him, which he loved. As for me, I was still so young and insecure, that I wholly depended on Josh to provide me with as exciting a life as was possible in Champaign-Urbana. It would never have occurred to me to put on shows myself; I was Josh’s sidekick. And it was totally fucking fun. After Josh died, he was credited with really putting our town on the map, musically. He brought an energy to our town. I loved being a part of that.
When Josh wasn’t wheeling and dealing, he was usually on the make– generally he went for the unobtainable. I think if a girl made it known to him that she liked him, he wasn’t interested, on principal. Unless she was older, in which case he would flip out. You could actually see the hormones rising up off of him like steam. As for the two of us, it was always platonic. Most of my friends had crushes on Josh, but I never did. I think I just wanted to be Josh.
My favorite place to hang with Josh was at his house, with his parents. They were how I have always pictured my fantasy in-laws to be. Fred, his dad, was jovial and charismatic, like his son, and his mom, Diane, was genuine and sophisticated. And they adored Josh. I figured out quickly that he took all the risks (as I saw them, being so reticent myself) that he did because he had been raised by two people who instilled in him the idea that he could do anything. And they always had Heineken in their fridge. Everytime I drink Heineken I think of the Gottheils.
After high school Josh’s career was really rolling. He had partnered up with a guy from Chicago and they were working on dominating the Illinois concert promotions scene. We were roommates at this point, and Josh ran his business out of an office attached to his room.
Josh came back from a trip to Israel not feeling very good. Apparently he hadn’t slept very well on the trip at all, either. His folks took him to the hospital. I think it was called St Mary’s. I remember that it was Catholic. I asked Josh if they knew he was Jewish, and he rolled his eyes and laughed. I played it off like it was a joke but actually I was being serious, which is sort of embarrassing now that I think of it. But that little scene is a perfect example of how we interacted with each other– I was the Laurel to his Hardy, the Zeppo to his Moe.
I went to see him at the hospital, and his dad was there. He looked very tired but also relieved, because they didn’t think it was anything serious. They were going to do more tests. Later that week Josh called me and asked me to come over to his parent’s house. I did, and when I arrived it was somber. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I have a strong memory of standing behind the couch, and Josh was sitting on the couch. He turned his head to the side and said, without looking in my eyes, “I have lymphoma,” and he looked… confused, sad, drained. I just stood there, not knowing what to say. His mom escorted me to the door, and I started crying. She put her hand on my back and said that Josh was going to need all of us now, more than ever. I nodded my head and walked out to my car in a daze. I realized that I had no idea what lymphoma was, but I knew it didn’t sound good.
It turns out that it was probably good that I didn’t really know what lymphoma was, because I never doubted that Josh wouldn’t make it. As for him, he jumped right back in the game, putting on more shows. He brought a band that I had never heard of to town, the Pixies. No one else had ever heard of them, but he was crazy-goin’-nuts for them. Once again, a band was also intrigued with Josh and his youth, and the fact that he was battling an illness yet putting on shows was pretty amazing. Kim Deal flirted with him, and he totally wanted to bang her. They invited us out to California with them, and we went and had, as one would expect, an amazing time. That is also for another story.
His hair began to fall out and he developed deep circles under his eyes. We didn’t really talk about it very much. People started to stare at him when we went out. I do remember one day we were going around town flyering for a show, and he was talking about how his dad wanted to take him somewhere, and he didn’t want to go. “He just wants to spend more time with his dying son,” he said.
“Don’t talk that way!” I said. “It’s not like you have leukemia. No one survives that.”
“I do have leukemia,” he said flatly. Once again I had said the very wrong thing. I didn’t know that lymphoma was a form of leukemia. I think that was the first time I ever let the idea seep in that he could die.
Josh was taking an African drumming course right before he went into the hospital for the last time. The teacher had them sing the drum parts instead of play them. “Ko-ko-ko-ka-ka-ka-ka” was Josh’s mantra, usually when he was driving. I have a vivid memory of this.
After that, things went downhill. But I knew that he would pull through, because people like him do not die young. God would not take someone who loved life so much and had already done so much with it. Plus, people who have parents who love them that much… that sort of thing doesn’t happen. So I was waiting for him to get better. Also, selfishly, I needed Josh. I couldn’t keep doing shows by myself. Without him, I was nothing.
He went down to Barnes hospital in St Louis. I began, as I think most people do, to feel guilty that I wasn’t calling enough or going to see him enough. But I was scared. I also didn’t know what to say to him. How could a 19 year old, who is going out and having fun, meeting boys, being young– talk to another 19 year old who was laid up in a hospital bed? I didn’t have the emotional tools to know how to handle situations like this. But Josh weighed heavily on my thoughts. It was a hard time for me, full of excessive drinking and escapism.
The last time I saw Josh he looked terrible. He was in his hospital bed, his face all puffy from steroid treatments. Basically, he looked like someone who was dying from leukemia. I walked in and tried to look peppy and smile. He just stared at me and didn’t say anything. I made some stupid small talk. If the woman I am today had been in that room, I would have said how much he meant to me and that I was there for him. But the 19 year old was terrified of her feelings and didn’t know how to be intimate with anyone, let alone a dying friend. He just stared at me. It was getting too hard for me to bear, him just looking at me with a face of hopelessness.
I got up and he suddenly moved quickly and grabbed my hand. I said, “yes?…” thinking he wanted to say something, break the awful ice. He kept staring at me, this time he seemed to be beseeching me for something. “What is it?” I asked, tears welling up. He gripped me even tighter. He wasn’t going to talk to me, just stare into my eyes. “I’ll be back next week,” I said, “I’ll bring you a mix tape.” He didn’t blink. “OK,” I said, trying to choke back my tears, “I’m gonna go.” He wouldn’t let go of my hand. I slowly pried his fingers off of mine, one by one. I couldn’t stay there anymore. I was going to break down completely, and I couldn’t do that in front of him. Oh how I wish I had! I wish I could’ve just been real with him. After I pulled myself out of his grip, his hand fell on the sheet with a whump, and he kept staring, not saying anything.
He was trying to tell me that he was leaving.
Later that week, Josh died. His father told me that fluid rushed into his lungs and he drowned. While it was happening, Josh asked his dad for a piece of paper. Frantically, Fred found one, and a pen. “Yes Josh?!” he said, “What do you need?” Josh started to write on the paper. “I…”
“You? You need something? What is it? Anything…” said his dad.
“I Lo…” Josh wrote. And then he couldn’t write anymore. And then he died.
I lived in an alternate reality for that week. I remember going to the bank and waiting in a long line, and everyone was pissed off that it was taking too long, and I just thought, you fuckers. You have no idea what life is about. You are worried about waiting in line, when my best friend has just died. Everything seemed shallow and useless, yet at the same time life took on such importance.
Now I am a grown woman who is somewhat emotionally secure and somewhat successful. I often wonder what Josh would think of how I turned out. I have no doubt that if Josh were here, he would be a millionaire from some dot.com thing that he dreamed up. He would also be a household name. He was just that sort of person.
He came to me once after he died, I’m sure of it. It was in a dream. I was asleep in a hotel in Arizona, on my way out to California to start my life out here. I had driven out with my boyfriend Mark, and our road trip was the beginning of one long, anguished breakup. In my dream I was doing the usual dream things, like showing up to high school with no pants on or whatever, but then my dream suddenly became incredibly lucent. It was like I could feel everything around me on my skin. I was standing in a mall. Then across the atrium I saw Josh walking towards me. He walked up to me. I can’t say how happy I was to see him again, I had so much I wanted to say. But we didn’t speak to each other. He just stared at me again, only this time his face was serene and wise. He was at peace. He took my hand and squeezed it, gave me a little smile, then he let go and walked away. I woke up immediately.
“Josh came to me,” I said to my boyfriend. “He wants me to say goodbye to my old life and embrace my new one.”
“Oh.” Said Mark.
I had a sudden yearning for a Heineken.