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Alex

By Lauren Hoffman

Essay

Twenty-four hours ago, a police officer in Seattle shot and killed a man who was holding or brandishing or whittling with a three-inch knife and didn’t drop it when told. It’s clear that the story is only going to become more and more tragic as its details continue to come to light, but I can’t bring myself to try to understand what exactly happened yet. I’m not finished feeling relieved about what didn’t. The man with the knife wasn’t Alex.

I met Alex two years ago, when we were on the same inpatient psychiatric ward. Under the best of circumstances, I struggle to make small talk with strangers without ribboning my cuticles. But one of the ways you show you’re ready to go home from a psychiatric hospitalization is by pretending that being there barely fazes you. So I forced myself to smile and be nice, to voice opinions about what we should watch on television without being combative, to sit and play board games.

He was a Scrabble player, albeit one who struggled to string letters into words sometimes. A game with him lasted hours, since he’d stop to tell a story or ask that the channel be changed as a Law and Order rerun was due to start.

“You don’t seem so bad,” he eventually said to me.

I laughed a little. “Good poker face.”

“What are you in for, then?”

I was accustomed to having sprawling answers to questions, multi-clause sentences that led to self-deprecating tangents, but by then, there really wasn’t much of me left. “Just really sad.”

“You checked in?”

“I checked in. You?”

“No, they brought me in. The police. I was blacked out, but I had a knife and was walking down 2nd. I don’t know — I don’t remember.”

Over the next couple of days, he’d admit it wasn’t the first knife, or blackout, or run-in with the police. He’d been struggling with substance abuse for over twenty years and had lived on the streets in four different cities. He’d been in fights serious enough to cause head trauma multiple times.

Upon his discharge, he’d be returning to a halfway house that was, to hear him tell it, more of a crack den than a sober living facility. He’d be there alone.

He gave me his address and phone number the morning I left the hospital. I promised to call, and I wanted to, but never did. It’s one of the very few deeply codependent impulses I’ve ignored in my lifetime (I’m a the-plane’s-going-down-oh-let-me-get-your-oxygen-mask-on-and-then-maybe-we’ll-see-about-me kind of girl). I’m certain it was the right decision not to call, that it was indicative of healthy boundaries and a sense of self-preservation, but even as I write that, I taste guilt, acrid at the back of my throat.

It’s happened maybe half a dozen times since then — I’ll read a story with an unidentified male who’s jumped from a bridge or overdosed in a motel or gotten into a knife fight, and I’ll spend the hours or days until the body is identified with three different newspapers’ websites open, obsessively refreshing. And each time it turns out it wasn’t Alex, I let myself believe for awhile that maybe he’s just fine.

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Lauren Hoffman LAUREN HOFFMAN lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she pretends to know a lot about computers; by night and weekend, she is at work completing a collection of essays titled When You I Feel Because. She holds an MFA in non-fiction writing from The New School and has no cats.

19 responses to “Alex”

  1. Joe says:

    When I worked in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I also used to wonder if the stories in the news matched the patients I worked with in the hospital. I found that, over time, I would automatically superimpose those patient’s narratives into the context of any suicide story or psychotic episode in any city. I think the generalizations helped me to be more compassionate to their plight rather than simply having a curious fascination.

    …Also, that is one of the most insightful and accurate observations of the psychiatric milieu and the inter-patient interactions that I’ve read. Well done Lauren.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Thank you for reading, Joe — looking forward to the next time we get to hash over matters such as these in person.

  2. Rae says:

    This is amazing!

  3. Gloria says:

    I really hope Alex is okay. Could you call the halfway house just to do a wellness check? I don’t know if that would be healthy or unhealthy, but I understand the impulse.

    Captivating read.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Thank you, Gloria — I struggled with whether or not to call just to see how he was or if he was still there for a long, long time, and then misplaced the scrap of paper his information was on in my last move. I’m not sure whether that’s fortunate or unfortunate.

  4. Aaron Dietz says:

    “You don’t seem so bad.” – Now THAT is an hilarious line, but also one that makes a huge statement. Well done!

  5. Brad Listi says:

    This is great. It’s one of those posts that’s much bigger than its word count. Tells two or even three stories at once and makes it look easy. Always fun to read you, Lauren.

    Just really sad.

    Oof. That’s a heartbreaker.

    In a good way.

    “Literarily” speaking.

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    “I was accustomed to having sprawling answers to questions, multi-clause sentences that led to self-deprecating tangents, but by then, there really wasn’t much of me left.”

    What a great line. And one with which I identify wholly.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Thank you, Marni — my mother read this piece and told me that’s just about the most accurate description of me she’s ever read (save for the part where there wasn’t much me left — there’s some me again now).

  7. Zara Potts says:

    A great piece and one that says so very much with just enough words.

  8. Dana says:

    Wonderful Lauren. Very relatable.

  9. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    This is really moving, Lauren. I look forward to your work on here, moreso than you probably realize.

    “Under the best of circumstances, I struggle to make small talk with strangers without ribboning my cuticles.” This says it all.

    And I love the way this story ends. How you let yourself care.

  10. Lauren, this is gorgeous in its simplicity and quiet heartbreak.

    I was walking my dog when I heard the copters overhead and when they’d hovered for an hour, I knew I’d read something awful had happened later that night.

    Very glad it wasn’t Alex.

    Like you, I’m sure, I’m saddened he was someone’s Alex.

    Looking forward to reading w/ you at TNB Seattle, Lauren.

    Really moving piece.

  11. Shannon says:

    There are people I’ve met her and there in Seattle that every time I see one of those stories I feel the same way. Really excellent piece.

  12. Lauren Hoffman says:

    As a follow up: the man the police killed on Monday was not Alex, but was John T. Williams, a skilled Native American carver who was partially deaf, making it very possible that he couldn’t hear the policeman telling him to drop his knife. And since then, police in the Puget Sound region (once in Federal Way and twice in Tacoma) have gunned down three more people (at least one of whom was an as-yet-identified homeless man with a knife).

    I don’t know what else to say other than this is tragic in a way that far, far surpasses my own anxieties.

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