“What the fuck happened to your hand?” I asked.
“Yeah… I hear ya.”
In the spring of 1988, I was a sophomore at a small Catholic liberal arts college outside of Boston. Although I majored in Classics, my attentions were overwhelmingly devoted to rugby. I craved the social dimensions of the rugby lifestyle as much as the bone-crushing action of daily practice and weekend matches. And while our club were admittedly the poster boys for hooliganism (a decidedly un-Catholic brand of leisure), we nonetheless took our sport very seriously. We played fall and spring seasons, practicing nearly every day of the week and playing matches every weekend.
As one of the better teams in the Northeast, we competed against some of the best colleges in the country. This meant that while the rest of the school were filling up pubs and parties on Friday evenings, we were all laying low, saving our bodies for the games the next day and our livers for the post-game drink up with the other team.
My priorities were out of whack, I dedicated my time to battering my body from all sides, and I missed out on many traditional college experiences for the sake of my team. But man, I loved those years.
On your average American college campus, Saturday mornings are left to scholars and athletes. The former are jockeying for the prime study spots in the school library (wherever that is), and the latter are putting their pre-game mixes together, their game faces on, and if their nerves allow for it, addressing the most important meal of the day.
It was on a Saturday morning that spring that I bumped into Jim in front of the school cafeteria. Jim wore the school’s baseball uniform, with a shiny purple pitcher’s jacket fending off the spring chill. I wore purple and grey rugby sweats over my uniform, my gear bag slung over my shoulder. We nodded and trudged up the stairs together, two soldiers preparing for battle.
Jim and I had known each other for years, growing up in the same part of the city and attending the same classes in high school. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but we hung out occasionally, always having great chats about baseball and music. Inevitably, the discussion would always land on The Cult and their 1985 classic album Love. I was a big Cult fan too, but nowhere nearly as intense as he was.
One day in high school, Jim plopped down next to me on the school bus. He looked concerned.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I heard something kind of fucked up.”
“Ian? Ian Astbury?”
“Yeah, what about him?”
“I heard he might be gay.”
“Really? No shit?’
“You know what? I don’t care. He fucking rules.”
This was significant to me, because we went to an all boy’s Catholic high school, where jocks were placed on pedestals and phrases like “fag” and “gay” were recklessly and spitefully used to demean anything perceived to be different or, God forbid, weak. It would have been socially risky to embrace an openly gay artist in that environment at that time.
But Jim didn’t care. He knew who he was and he knew what he liked, and if his favorite vocalist turned out to be gay (which Ian Astbury is not), so be it. Jim loved the music and that’s all that mattered.
Jim was bad ass.
As we met on the cafeteria steps that spring morning, I saw that Jim’s hand was freshly bandaged.
For the second time in as many weeks, Jim’s frustration with our professional baseball franchise had taken on a physical manifestation, with Jim pitting his pitching arm against an inanimate object. Predictably, the conflict was brief, painful, and humbling.
I had witnessed the first incident about a week before, when I dropped by to see if he was up for a party. I heard The Cult’s “(Here Comes the) Rain,” halfway down the hallway and found him standing next to his stereo, breathing heavily and seething. The floor was covered with a gaggle of items that clearly belonged on his dresser, but which had recently been swept to the floor.
“Sox lose again?”
“Hey. You up for heading off campus?”
I left him to search for acceptance.
On this recent occasion, as we picked up trays and entered the kitchen (Jim holding his tray in his good hand), Jim explained that on the evening before, it was a window pane that received the brunt of his ire. It had been 70 years since Boston had won the World Series and it appeared that 1988 was not going to be the season to end the drought.
As we sat across each other in the cafeteria, Jim’s primary concern was how he would explain the consequences of his choice to his coach.
Jim was expected to pitch that day.
I don’t recall if I was playing at home or away that day. In fact, I don’t remember who we played or whether we won or lost. I just remember sitting across from Jim and shaking my head as I commiserated with his predicament.
A few days later, they found Jim’s body.
He had taken his own life in our dormitory.
Having just seen Jim only a few days before, seemingly fine, apart from his concerns with the Red Sox, I was at a loss for explaining what had happened.
I entered the Kübler-Ross grief cycle when my roommate found me in the library.
“Joe…” he began breathlessly.
“It’s Jim… He’s dead. They found him in the dorm…”
The kind of shock that blocks out all sound and sends the room spinning.
“No fucking way,” I protested.
“Yeah man, I just heard. It’s him. Some of the guys are in [another friend’s] room now if you want more info.”
The other friend was one of our buddies from high school. There were fifteen of us who went on to this small college, and we were all relatively close.
On the way over to my friend’s room, I skipped the bargaining stage and dabbled in anger.
“That selfish prick,” I thought, “what a gutless way to check out. Why didn’t he come talk to any of us?” I wondered.
Anger soon subsided and depression hit me like a rogue wave when I entered my buddy’s dorm room and walked into a circle of tear-stained faces. There was no testing stage at that point- just acceptance.
Jim was not the first suicide in college.
One year before, another guy from our high school, who was one year ahead of us, took his life while visiting his family for the weekend.
Mick was a year ahead of us in high school. Captain of the football team and coming from a long line of jocks, he was cocky, popular, and most beloved by the coaching staff and faculty.
Mick went on to the same college I eventually did, settling in as a smaller fish in a quite larger, co-ed pond. By the time my friends and I arrived on campus, Mick had toned down his swagger. He seemed more subdued and approachable. Certainly not morose. It felt more like he was simply feeling more comfortable in his own skin.
News of his suicide rocked my friends and me. Here was a kid who seemingly had it all- looks, popularity, grades- nothing but pure potential ahead of him. There were no signs- just the final sign off.
Mick’s funeral was packed. My friends and I sat in the back of the church, all breaking down as Mick’s older brother himself lost it, telling his brother’s coffin how much he had always enjoyed tossing around the football before Thanksgiving dinner.
It was an awakening- an unwanted and unforgettable lesson that you never know what someone is enduring at any given moment.
I was told that Jim left notes, though the contents were never fully revealed to me.
I know one was to his family, and another to his girlfriend, whom Jim had dated for some time and who was a classmate of ours. Most unsettling however, was the note that he left for Mick.
None of us could get our arms around that. To our knowledge, Jim had not been all that friendly with Mick. Certainly no more or less than any of us. Not to mention that Mick had been dead for nearly a year by the time Jim took his own life.
This detail unnerved me. It pushed farther away the possibility of understanding Jim’s mindset in those final days.
News of this note caused me to consider the possibility that Jim might have been mentally ill, which was not at all easy for me to stomach. Even to this day, the possibility sits like an unwelcome visitor in my mind. Yet one who has a right to be there.
I had always assumed that people who took their own lives were selfish and narcissistic, yet somehow clear minded and therefore responsible for their actions. Conveniently, this also made them responsible for my feelings.
As more sketchy revelations emerged, we all realized that we would never understand what had happened. Acceptance of this uncertainty was our closure.
On the afternoon of Jim’s death, I sat in the window of my first story dorm room, staring out at the plush green hill across from the building, doing my best to process what few feelings I could identify.
Then I saw a ghost.
From around the corner of the dorm came a kid with curly blond hair and the red baseball jacket of our high school. Same eyes, same nose- it was Jim.
It was either a bad dream or a horrible joke.
I looked closer as he walked up to me- it was Jim’s younger brother, still in high school. He was an eerie clone of his brother. Despair held his head down like a yoke. I wanted badly to leap out of the window and run over and hug him. Instead I sat there.
“Hey… I don’t know what to say… I’m so sorry about your brother…”
“Do you know why he did it?”
He was somewhere between depression and testing.
“I don’t. I have no idea. I’m sorry.”
He looked down at the ground and continued to walk, as if the answers to his questions had a physical location.
I swung my legs back into my room, put on Love and let the tears rain down my face.
I have many regrets from my college years. I should have been a Modern Languages major instead of Classics. I should have drank less and studied more. I should have visited home more on the weekends.
But one of my biggest regrets is that I don’t remember my final moments with Jim more clearly.
I don’t pretend to think there was anything I could have or should have noticed that morning- something that I might have used to prevent Jim’s death. It was clear, even at the time, that Jim’s fatal impulses were well-kept secrets held only by him. Jim had a plan and he wasn’t going to let anyone try to talk him out of it.
I just wish I recalled more about that breakfast. I wish I could remember more vividly remember Jim talking about his hand. What inning it was when the game went south. Which player’s mistake had been so costly. Who they were even playing.
I wish I could remember what we talked about, period. I just remember sitting across from him in the middle of an empty school cafeteria, looking at his hand. That’s it.
Yet at times I wonder if that final meeting was actually perfect. Two friends sitting across from each other in a near-empty dining hall early on an overcast spring morning, each in our purple and gray uniforms- two soldiers in the same army, heading off to different battles. A private moment that was exquisite because it was so ordinary.
Two buddies having breakfast.
The most important meal of the day.