I usually think people hate me which is why when Mario hadn’t texted me since I’d rejected his poem, I thought he hated me.
But it turned out he didn’t hate me, he’d just killed himself.
Not to say it was a relief.
Thank God, he hadn’t killed himself because I’d rejected his poem. I found out from a mutual friend when exactly he’d killed himself. It was a few days after submitting the poem to me but before I’d emailed him the rejection.
That part was a relief. So to speak.
But then I was in a predicament. Everyone was posting positive things about him and his good poems. I was very depressed and playing video games all the time and didn’t know what to do. I thought to myself “Fuck, should I just publish this? Maybe as a celebration of his life?”
The problem was the poem was bad. Not his best work. Not his worst work either, he’d published that back when he was in college. I wondered whether his decline as an artist was what made him kill himself. There wasn’t a note. Not that I know of, at least. Not that I would know whether or not there was a note.
We weren’t very good friends. Mostly friendly, with the wary respect that you feel for someone who is a version of you from an alternate universe. Someone mistook us for brothers one time at a reading.
We both said “Haha, no, not brothers.”
Then he introduced himself to me.
He seemed slick and he really wanted to be liked. I really wanted to be liked too but went more for the blank canvas approach: don’t flatter people, just kind of be there and eventually people will decide they like you. Other people’s attention was like an oncoming train—just stand to the side and be ready to sneakily jump on but whatever you do, don’t meet it head on or invite it.
Please, God, don’t do that. Because then you’ll die.
We met a few other times at readings or things.
One time he challenged me to an arm wrestle. He lost. Then he challenged me again and he lost again.
He didn’t have bad intentions, he was just clumsy.
He also one time made a joke about my girlfriend that made it seem like they were friends but I asked her about it on the taxi home and she was like “I’ve never interacted with that guy ever.”
He was so pathetic he was almost sympathetic.
The less said about his social media presence, the better. I’ll say this: people two decades older who lived five states away loved him.
Again, I didn’t dislike him.
In fact, I’d even published some of his poems before.
The heart-breaking thing? He could write a good poem. Sometimes. But when he did, they were good. And my online literary magazine was just coming together and, whatever, I thought, whatever, sure. And they got a good response and I was proud to publish them.
But somehow he got it into his head that because of that, we were friends now?
This was not the case.
I became obsessed with him, though. I mean, obsessed with how averse I was to someone who seemed so much like me. Both Italian. Both with tattoos on our knuckles that spelled out a word. His was “cool.” Mine was “luck.” Both with girlfriends in the movie world. His was an actress. Mine was a director of photography.
But those similarities are stupid. What really drove me crazy is that people thought we were the same person for none of those superficial reasons. People always confused us for each other because we had the same vibe. That’s what they said. “You guys have the same vibe.”
I wanted to go to a cabin miles away and think about that for a long time the first time someone said that to me. And the second time. And so on, and so forth. Maybe ten times total, someone said that to me.
And like I said, I always thought people hated me. And I thought, well, I’m an open-minded and kind person. And even I have an aversion to Mario. And I’m sure some people don’t just have an aversion to him, I’m sure some people hate him. And if they confuse me with him…you can see where I went with all this.
That’s not the reason I stopped publishing him. Again, the poems just got worse.
They went from tongue-in-cheek understatements to cloying imitations of deadpan viral tweets.
They went from evocations of all the stupid miscommunications that reveal our mangled yearnings to hackneyed set-ups that would make you roll your eyes if they were in a rom-com, let alone a poem.
They went from smart to stupid.
They went from good to bad.
Anyway. Doesn’t matter now.
I went to the Zoom funeral for him. I wasn’t sure if it’d be a camera-on or camera-off thing but when our mutual friends (I guess just my friends now) turned their cameras on, I turned mine on too.
Bill played a song on his guitar. “This one’s called, ‘Mario’s far-io away from us now.’”
It was kind of intended as a joke but was actually a sweet song.
Then Jane did a screen-share and showed us a video she’d made about his life. Jane at this point was my ex-girlfriend, she was the director of photography I mentioned earlier. After we broke up, she became friends with Mario. I never asked if they hooked up but was haunted by the prospect.
Then Jeff showed us a painting of Mario and I thought “Oh shit.”
This wasn’t just an ordinary funeral.
This was a poetry funeral.
Everyone apparently had to do something.
Everyone had something prepared.
I had nothing.
I tried thinking of something to say or do while keeping a respectful, yes-I-was-actually-friends-with-him-too-and-this-is-a-very-painful-yet-cathartic-experience look on my face. There were twelve other people on the Zoom. I thought I had more time.
Then Jane said “Silvio, I’m so glad you’re here—Mario loved you. Talked about your work all the time, and always missed hanging out with you. Couldn’t say enough good things.”
Jane. Jane, Jane, Jane.
Formidable as ever. Her new haircut looked great.
“Well, you all know how I felt about Mario. We were like brothers separated at birth. I uh wanted to read something to celebrate him.”
I frantically searched his name in my inbox and found the poem he’d sent me, the last thing he’d ever written. Or at least, the last thing he’d ever submitted.
“This is a poem.”
And I read it and I had every intention of saying at the end “This is a poem Mario wrote and sent to me.”
But something happened.
As I read it, and heard myself reading it, and saw people’s reactions to it, the way their faces changed, I realized that this poem was the best thing Mario had ever written.
Everything try-hard was suddenly fine-tuned.
Everything lurid was suddenly human.
Everything bad was good.
They clapped at the end. They hadn’t clapped for anyone else’s tribute.
So instead of saying “This is a poem Mario wrote and sent to me” I said “Thank you, guys. We miss you, Mario.”
After the Zoom funeral one of the other people there emailed me, she was an editor at a great literary magazine. She wanted to publish the poem. And I said ok. And it was published and everyone loved it.
But I know one day someone will find out. Someone will realize that this poem sounds a lot like Mario’s poems. Someone will think “Wow, that’s weird, Silvio never wrote poems and now his first poem is great and is even published in a great literary magazine? That doesn’t really add up…”
When they piece it together, I’ll be revealed for what I am, an ambivalent coward, and they’ll know who I am and they’ll hate me.
Not that there’s anything I can do about it now.
I mean, really, what can you do?
Maybe just publish this story instead, come out ahead of it? Control the narrative?
He visited me in my dream last night. Mario.
He was dressed like the video game character.
I said “What do you want? Are you here to torture me? I know what I did was wrong but I only did it because at the end of the day…”
I couldn’t finish.
Because to be honest I didn’t know why I’d done it.
We were both quiet for a second.
Then he said “It’s a me, Mario.”
I said “I miss you. I love you. I’m sorry. I only ever hated you because you were so free, so whatever version of myself I hoped I could be, myself, which I’ll never be now.”
He just said the catch-phrase again. “It’s a me, Mario.”
I woke up and drank a glass of water. I stood out on the fire escape for a long time, imagined barrels coming down, and went inside to get ready for work.