Sorrow

IMG_9699She died on the last day of March.

My best friend from high school told me that morning via messenger. I was “working” from home which translated to sporadically checking emails between bursts of packing up cardboard boxes for my move.

I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my phone, waiting for details. At first I assumed it was due to Covid-19, because that was the monster on everybody’s mind, but it wasn’t. She’d passed from complications of a long suffered illness which I’d known about, but hadn’t thought was all that serious.

“I’m just shocked.” My friend had said.

That made two of us. It didn’t seem real that someone my age, a member of our tight little high school group, could possibly be gone.

“I’m just…shocked.” My friend said again.

And really, what else could be said? I hadn’t even known she wasn’t doing well. I tried to remember the last time she and I had spoken. The last time I remembered I’d been living in New York City, which had to be five or six years ago. We’d exchanged a few messages, and she talked about some day visiting, though she never did, and now never will.

The last time I saw her in person was probably eighteen years ago. She’d come to a party at my apartment in Austin with some friends. Back then I was a person who threw parties. I was getting ready to move to Los Angeles. It was strange to see her in the city, so far removed from the tiny, farm town that we’d grown up in. I remember standing outside with glasses of wine and feeling so sophisticated even though some unruly guests were trying to set fire to a bag of Cheetos on the sidewalk.

It didn’t occur to me that that time would be the last time I’d ever see her. When we were kids, I’d stupidly thought that our little group, the Deadbeat Club, would be close forever. How could any five people who loved each other so much, who went through adolescence in the Bible Belt together ever drift so far apart?

But drift we had, and it hadn’t even taken very long. Three of them were a year ahead of my friend and I. After they graduated, the last year in high-school had been a long, lonely one for the two of us left behind. Three of us lived together in college for a while, but the drift, once it had begun, was irreversible.

I remember being in Kindergarten when she was in first grade. My older cousin Josh had told me that during recess I was supposed to call a girl a name so that the girl would chase me. I didn’t question the reasoning behind this, but I distinctly remember going up to her and calling her “chicken legs” and running away squealing in delight while she chased after me.

We spent our high-school classes passing obscene notes back and forth which, had they ever been read, would have gotten us suspended at the very least. Because she and I were neither a cheerleader, nor a football player, respectively, it somehow fell to us to raise the flag during Friday night football games. I remember standing on the edge of the field, slowly raising the flag while the National Anthem blared squeakily through the loud speakers. She stood with her hand over her heart, and when people cheered, she and I would yell, “Hail Satan!”

I remember a group of us driving the two lane farm roads one weekend night, stealing the flashing lights from construction signs. My best friend saying, “We’ve hit the motherlode,” her eyes moon big as we drove up to a row of ten or so signs all flashing yellowly together.

Other memories. Backstage at one act plays. School field trips. The time in her bedroom where I saw her birth control pills, and she panicked, not realizing that I had absolutely no idea what they were.

The summers back then seemed so long. The school year, endless.

The years since graduation are a blur.

She married. Got her PhD. Had three (four?) boys. I had a string of boyfriends, and lived in a string of cities, worked a string of dead-end jobs. We “liked” the occasional post on one another’s Facebook.

Several people from high school got in touch with me the day she died. People I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in twenty-five years. People I had never been friends with, and had barely known messaged me. Even her husband took time out from his own grief to send me a message. That was the most surreal part. That anyone would think of notifying me when I hadn’t seen her in nearly two decades.

Even if there hadn’t been a global pandemic, I wouldn’t have flown to Texas for her memorial. I couldn’t imagine what I might say to her family or her friends. Part of me was glad to have the ready excuse to avoid it altogether.

Because I’m a self-centered asshole, it was impossible to think about her death without also thinking of my own mortality. In the God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy called 31 a viable, dieable age. If that’s true, then 43 must be even more viable and dieable. I’ve reached a point in life where it isn’t unheard of for someone my age to die.

I was sad for her, for her life that had been cut short, and sad for her husband, her parents, and her boys. But mostly I found myself grieving a time in my life that exists only in memory. There are now fewer than a handful of people that really knew me when I was young. When they’re gone, then that boy will not have existed at all.

I packed my things into cardboard boxes. My condo closed early, and in mid-April, I moved into my new place. Things were so hectic that there were days I didn’t think of her at all. Then suddenly, while unpacking glasses, or struggling to hang curtains, I’d remember she was gone and feel guilty that I’d been happy.

Weeks later, I’m mostly settled into my new place. Sometimes I just stand in the middle of my living room, marveling that this place is mine. I never thought I’d be able to afford a place in this neighborhood and this city. Teenage me had dreamed of owning an apartment in a city, but the adult me who’d spent years struggling just to make ends meet had never really thought that it could happen. I remember sharing that dream with her, back in the days when anything seemed possible, and things like death, and middle-age were as far removed as the stars in a small town, Texas sky.

 

The Time Andy Killed Himself

76b“Did you hear about Andy?” Anisha asked me, leaning close to my ear so I could hear her above the throbbing bass coming from the speakers. Her vinyl dress squeaked against my vinyl pants. Her eye make-up was welded on, her hair crimped like Cleopatra’s. Her breath was alcohol and cigarettes. I felt it on my cheek as she whispered in my ear, “Andy killed himself in my bathroom last week.”

She started sobbing then, uncontrollably, as two of her friends pulled her away and walked with her outside the dance club. I stood on the dance floor beneath the strobing lights and watched her disappear. Other students continued dancing, oblivious.

Walking to my car later, a frat guy catcalled, “Hey space girl, nice pants!”

I drove home to the duplex I shared with college roommates, parked, and curled up in a fetal position. I felt like I should cry, or feel…something, but all I felt was numb. The whole world had lost it’s color, and my car, my apartment, the trees, the people around me were all the same dull gray as suppressed tears.

It was only later, when Anisha finally started attending class again, that I learned some of the details. My image of Andy was impossible to reconcile with the reality of his death. He was a year younger than me. Cute. Every time I’d seen him, at parties, dancing, or at the coffeehouse that we both frequented, he was smiling and laughing. But I understood, better than some people, I imagine, how someone could seem happy, and still want to die.

Anisha knew him best. She told me that when his parents found out that he was gay, they’d disowned him. He’d been completely dependent on them, and they’d cut him off. He couldn’t afford tuition for the next semester. He couldn’t afford his apartment, or to even feed himself. He got laid off from his part time job at a nursery. He was failing his classes. His world was falling apart.

Anisha had taken him in, given him a place to stay, and fed him, and even though she assured him that he wasn’t a burden, he felt guilty for accepting her charity. I’ll never know what was going through his head the night he pulled the trigger. Why, as a college sophomore, he’d felt as if there was no hope that his life was going to improve. I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for Anisha, who loved him, to have found him, a red, bloody mess on her pale, blue tiled floor. But I think I can relate to what must have been his mindset.

Not a day passed in my teen years that I didn’t think of killing myself.

My own parents had abandoned me when they found out I was gay, if not financially, emotionally. In the 90s I had no gay role models. No “It Gets Better Project” to tell me that things could change, or improve. I thought that being gay was being doomed to a life devoid of happiness. I’d never fall in love.  I’d never marry. I’d never raise a family. I would exist in shadows with other deviants, living some half-life, cut short by disease at best, or endure a life of loneliness at worst. I could try and pretend to be straight, marry a woman and ruin someone else’s life too, or I could accept the fact that I would have to swim against the stream for the rest of my life. Either decision seemed unbearable and exhausting.

I don’t know what finally gave me the strength to keep going, or why Andy lost his. We were both lucky enough to have loving, supportive friends. I’d like to say it was courage that kept me alive, but I think in the end it was curiosity. I was just too interested in seeing how things would ultimately play out.

In 1996, the year Andy died, I was 20 years old, and I couldn’t possibly imagine the world I live in at the age of 36. Now there are major television shows with openly gay characters who love one another, are loved, who have families. In real life, there are happy, well adjusted gay people who live their lives, not in the shadows, but alongside everyone else, in the subway, the office, the grocery store. The fact that gay people can legally get married is something I didn’t think I’d even see during my lifetime.

Even I’ve changed. I live, openly gay, in the city of my dreams, with a (sometimes) sweet, handsome man at my side. The biggest surprise to me, after 16 years of life, and watching the world evolve around me, is to discover that I’m actually happy. I never thought that would be possible.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to travel back in time to talk to the teenage me. To tell myself that everything was going to be okay. I could have saved myself years of anguish and depression. (Although maybe I’d shield myself from the knowledge of my inevitable, premature baldness). Sometimes I wonder that if I talked to Andy, would it have made a difference? Would I have been able to convince him that life was actually worth living, that things would get better? It’s impossible to say. But I can’t help thinking about it sometimes, and wishing that the world had changed just a little bit sooner.