Editor's note: Paul is not the actual name of the man described in this story. Because he is facing criminal charges, his name has been changed to avoid jeopardizing his case. In addition, Britt's last name has not been published to protect his effort to reinstate his pharmacist's license.
Paul can't sit still. His hazel eyes dart back and forth behind purple-tinted shades. He fiddles with his fake Dolce & Gabbana belt buckle. He smokes a Marlboro Light, puts it out, lights another.He asks for liquor. Beer and wine only, the waitress says. He moans, then laughs. Customers turn and stare in the dimly lit Virginia-Highland tavern. The waitress gives him a weird look. He orders a PBR.
He describes how he once bought four DVD players at a time. He kept them for friends' birthdays. When the birthdays came around, he forgot about the gifts. Either that or the DVD players were stolen. He doesn't remember.
His friend, a girl in her early 20s with long blond hair, giggles. Her pupils are the size of quarters. She stares across the table. She tries to focus, but her eyes won't stop flickering. She twirls her hair and shakes her thigh. It makes the table wobble.
"You look so familiar," she says to me. "Have we partied together before?"
It's the only thing she says all night.
Paul looks through his cell phone. "I've got 200 names," he says, "and three of them are friends."
He says he likes to dance. That's the only time he feels fulfilled, when he can move to music.
Last year, while coming down from a 48-hour binge, he wrote himself an e-mail to lift his spirits. When he feels down, he thinks about the e-mail and tells himself that he's a fabulous person. That he loves himself. Or at least he keeps repeating it.
"People don't realize it until it's all gone," he says, grinding his teeth between sentences. "They'll die and be nobody, absolutely nobody. Not me, though. I'm not going to be like that."
Brian Dew speaks loudly so he can be heard through the cell phone's speaker. He's in Denver. The cell phone is in downtown Atlanta. Five students sit around a white conference table on the ninth floor of a Pryor Street building, listening."How's the hierarchy for the coding?" Brian asks.
"It's basically done," one graduate student replies.
"Good," he says. "Now we need to find a volunteer transcriber."
The students look over pages of detailed notes and listen to Brian's instructions. Be sure to have sufficient tapes. If the person wants a cigarette break, give them five to 10 minutes outside. Be sure to call the night before to remind the subject to show up.
His research team leader, a perky blonde with tan, freckled skin, scribbles notes with a blue pen. She underlines important phrases in pink or highlights them in yellow.
He switches to marketing. How will they publicize the study? Are the new flyers made? What are they doing at Pride? They want to get as many interviews as possible. The more diverse the participants, the better the data will reflect what's going on in the city.
"I want it to move," he says. "The bullet eye is on Atlanta."
Britt's early. He saunters into a room on the second floor of a church off Peachtree Street. He takes a seat in a wooden chair in the back row. He scratches the back of his buzz cut and lightly places his hand on a friend's thigh. He's a dinosaur in this room. He knows the routine too well. It's the only way he can live his life normally.Sixteen other people - a man with a pierced chin and tattoos crawling up his arms, a petite pregnant woman with short brown hair - eventually settle in. Britt chats with a few of them. White candles are lit, even though florescent light illuminates half the room. It grows quiet.
"If you want what we have to offer and are willing to go to any lengths to get it," Britt says quickly and monotonously, reading from a laminated sheet, "then you are ready to follow these simple steps." He knows the words like he knows his mother's voice. He's heard the mantra at least twice a week for the past three years. He's grown accustomed to listening to people's personal stories: The pregnant woman worries about running into old friends at a baby shower this weekend. She doesn't know how she'll be viewed. The tattooed man speaks of finding a higher power. He recalls the time he wept so hard on the steps of a club that he couldn't see. He doodles in a sketchbook as he talks.
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