First, I would have said thank you.
I was 35 and recently divorced–the line-drawing kind–which meant I had lost half of the New York friends that I had picked up when I came to her city fourteen years before. You and I had met in college and connected a few times since, a music show here, a bar-crawl there, but hadn’t been really in contact until Facebook put us back in touch. We reconnected that way, like so many of us do now.
That night I was disconnected and disoriented, looking down the barrel of twenty years of loneliness and financial ruin. No one knew I was broke, that I had negative three hundred dollars in my wallet, that I owed rent and was learning all the things I would have to learn again, that I had a roommate and a foldable playpen at the foot of my bed for when my daughter came each week. We read her stories on the floor. I put her at the top of the stairs, telling her to wait, and ran back outside into the dark to park the car. I did all the things single parents have to learn to do, and never talk about. I was lost, and terrified, and you were there. You invited me out, and over, and we became friends again. I met your partner, came to your parties, met your eclectic group of friends.
That first night we went back to your apartment and we had more drinks, and you held court and offered me some weed, which I hadn’t smoked in probably sixteen years, by that point, but I tried it, because I was starting a new life and was destabilized by my own sense of possibility. I thought I was the kind of person who didn’t smoke. But was I? Now, I could be anything.
Turns out I was still the kind who didn’t smoke, and I became depressed. You looked at me and said with your practiced, voice actor’s delivery, asked, “Hey, are you OK?” And everyone thought you were asking about the weed, but I saw then something that would reveal itself as one of your inimitable talents: the knack for recognizing someone in pain.
“Yeah,” I laughed.
“No,” you said. “I mean, are you OK?”
And I stopped laughing, because I understood what you meant. And I was not OK. I walked home in the rain for two miles that night feeling like I had been seen for the first time in months. This was a power you had.
You collected broken things. And when no one else was there, for me, you were there.
Your door was open. It was always open. We became friends a second time, meeting up, drinks, music shows, meeting up with old friends, parties. It seemed clear we wanted to hang out but we didn’t have a thing until we discovered a mutual love of geekdom–at one point, you, as an old school tabletop gamer put out a request to Facebook for a tabletop RPG gaming group, and I was glad to write back. “We have a group going, come over this weekend.” From the moment we started, you were hooked: ten minutes in you were literally frozen to your seat, and paid me a generous compliment, saying, startled, “Jesus, you’re good at this,” and I said, “I know,” and you said “Oooh.”
And you joined, you stuck with the group. I admit I didn’t expect you would. We were awed by your willingness to move into performance, your generosity on the ‘stage.’ Vanessa liked that you offered to help cook, and of course, clean. When other people joined, you made them feel welcome, too, in the way you had.
When you broke up with your girlfriend, you came over. You cried with us on our patio and we talked about it, and the future. “I’m just a little sad,” you laughed. Welp, I thought. “I guess this is it. We’re definitely friends now.”
When you moved to Austin some time after that, you even asked to be Skyped in. When I invited you to our wedding the next year, you passed, but sent in your place, a gift: a pair of cufflinks made from twenty-sided dice. (I confess, I never wore them. But still, they were thoughtful.) I had to text the other players today and tell them that you died. They were, every one of them, devastated. We had too many inside jokes from playing together so long. Like us all, they are haunted by your laugh. The apartment still shakes with it.
So I would have said to you I was glad to be your friend, and your friendship meant the world to me.
When you moved, we were mainly able to stay in touch via Facebook, though we met up a few times in Austin. One night I was out with my work friends and phoned you to tell you I was in town. “You didn’t tell me? You texted. Stay where you are, I’ll come pick you up.” And I told my work friends, including my boss, “You are going to get a kick out of this guy.” And they did, said you were “an incredible tour guide,” and “one in a million.” A few days ago I told them that you died, and they couldn’t believe it. No one can ever believe it.
Your Facebook posts made me angry sometimes. I know people who talk about their bosses, but who talks about their clients? It was so rudimentary and stupid. Often times, I thought I should call you and tell you:
“Look, this is 101. Never badmouth your clients online. Everyone else is a potential client, customer, or referral, and they are seeing this, and it doesn’t help you.”
“Don’t ask people to pay you to write your book. Write the book first, and I promise you, we’ll all buy it.”
I finally settled with offering gentle marketing advice, some of which you took. But it was frustrating to watch you self-sabotage this way, to fumble at the 50 yard-line, and then again at the 45, over and over, and just never seem to get anywhere, and most puzzlingly, you wanted to make sure we all knew.
“Jesus,” said Vanessa. “He’s like a one-man show on how not to use Facebook.”
Usually your posts made me laugh. I steered clear of the melodrama, the self-orchestrated failures in the outside world, like “fired from another dishwasher job today”, the mild provocations, like your silly overuse of ‘cunt’, and the tryhard transgressive stuff, like the guy who still thinks it’s funny or interesting to give the finger to photographs, or wants to hold court on Bukowski. My least favorite were your self-conscious ‘check out my menagerie’ posts, where you made your friends into these weird stereotypes to portray your life as eclectic and interesting: “hung out with a Puerto Rican, a Colombian, and a Jew today. Talked about poems.” Your lesbian friends will recognize this a little sharply. But this was all ultimately, fine, great.
I did not find your anarchist-pirate persona interesting. But I think we all found your artistic sensitivity bedazzling. You understood other people, and contrary to their expectations, you treated them gently. You could bring them into your orbit, make them part of a club. Everyone wanted a taste of what you were drowning in.
We all understood you were committed to playing a role that was mostly harmless. But it was confusing.
You could paint.
You could draw.
You could write poetry.
You could make sculpture.
I would have said you had more talent than you thought, but you needed to focus.
And back in print, there were the endless to-do lists of nothing, a bizarre hamster-wheel of waking up late, buying cigarettes, doing laundry, and some mad-dash rush to perform a series of simple tasks, followed by a follow-up post about how a menial job fell through, your car was robbed again, a customer tipped you too lightly, your neighbors were unappreciative of your smoking on the patio, you needed a job, you needed money. Whatever you were doing, it wasn’t working. This delved into a styled self-presentation I came to call “Late Patheticism.” It wasn’t clear if we were intended to take this as any kind of serious effort on your part, and yet anytime someone confronted you on it, they always got pushback. You always had an answer for everything. “It’s this city! It’s these people. No one knows how to tip. It’s my lower back.” Nothing would be taken onboard.
A few days before you died, you complained of stomach trouble, a burning that you mistook for the passing of a kidney stone. “Has anyone passed one before,” you asked, “and can you provide any advice?”
“GET TO THE HOSPITAL, wrote your mother. You replied that you had no insurance. “We’ll figure it out later,” she wrote. “Get to the hospital.”
You didn’t, and you died.
You were handsome.
You were well-educated and well-read.
You could hold the attention of the room.
Your voice was one in a million.
You could play music and tell stories.
You could cook.
You could do comedy.
You could write.
You were from Greenwich, Connecticut.
You had a bachelor’s degree from Vassar.
And you wanted to wash dishes?
Here’s what I wanted to know. We had all killed ourselves to be here. By what right were you so downwardly mobile?
I want to give a very concrete example of your charisma. One night you and I were at Buffalo Wild Wings on Atlantic avenue. I was kind of testing you. It was close to your house. We were, as you put it, “watching the fights with (my) MMA friends.” I was curious to see you out of your element. This was my mistake for thinking there was such a place.
You and I were standing out front and a dark-skinned woman, mildly intoxicated, walked by with someone who was her brother or boyfriend. You were bald, tall, flat-bearded in sunglasses and an incredibly fashionable spiked fur coat that crept to the corners of the doorframe you were smoking in. The woman swerved over to tell you she liked your coat, but she never took her eyes off you, not even when you said ‘thanks,’ making clear that was it. But by then, she had gotten a taste of your voice. Her boyfriend was embarrassed. He tried to get her to go. She had completely fallen apart. He had to drag her away. I watched the whole thing like I was seeing it on television. You acted as if it were some kind of occupational hazard.
“Do you know,” I said, “What kind of damage I could do if I were as tall as you?”
There was something in your aura that created a field of unreality, of possibility.
I would have said: stop.
You wouldn’t have listened. But I would have said it. I would have said. “OK, don’t stop. But take off a month. See what your life looks like.”
But one never knew what your friends were seeing. A trick of perception happened by way of social media. Because no one in the crowd raised their voice, I think a lot of us assumed the situation was more under control than it was. But we, your East coast and college friends, should have known better. We know what happens when a crowd watches something bad happening: no one intervenes, everyone assumes someone else is closer, it’s someone else’s job.
Social media obscured this. We forget to ask ourselves: what if it’s just us, standing here? What would I say to you?
Another confession to make: I sided with your neighbors every time. Having someone else’s cigarette smoke flowing into your house sucks. Why was this so difficult to grasp? But it was the line-drawing event for me. I always wondered: Who else is seeing this? Is anyone buying these lines of bullshit? Why don’t you understand you were the unreasonable one in this story? This was when I came to realize you were being, as they say, enabled. That you didn’t have too many friends anymore. You had fans. Buddies. People that called you “brother” in that biker way that meant more of an aesthetic co-commitment rather than “I’m prepared to call you out for not making it to your potential.”
This was the essence of the problem. Your life had become performance, and no one wanted to interrupt. Indeed, they wanted the performance to work, as we always do, even if the performer is, was, dying.
I am ashamed to say I did not intervene with you. Afterward, it would come out that a lot of interventions occurred, people were trying to talk to you, and you wouldn’t listen. But I didn’t. At no point did I tell you to stop anything you were doing. And to be honest, aside from my issues with your sense of your ambition, I didn’t really realize you were doing it. I’m not sure I had seen you drunk in the past 10 years. I watched you drink constantly but, paradoxically, never to excess.
But where else could this all go?
Maybe you did set out to die. I admit when I first heard what happened, I thought it was a suicide. Something about that seemed in keeping with the woe-as-me style you were inhabiting. I’ve talked about this with a number of people, and they all responded the same way, the same phrase. “But it was,” they said. Slower.
So here’s the last thing I have to say to you.
We’re going to bury you. I promise to never forget you, the times we had. But I’m done crying for you, even though I know I can’t control you, or what you did, or anyone. But I can make sure they were clear about where I stood. So, this heartbreak takes on a purpose. I’m also burying a certain kind of caution: I can resolve that I will never again let them wonder.
I will reach out.
I will be honest.
I will be clear.
I will tell them I love them.
I will tell them, what I should have told you.