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.