follow_me_down_0

“Sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you do not belong.”

Kio Stark’s lyrical Follow Me Down (Red Lemonade) is a densely packed novella that wanders the projects of New York City capturing the lives of the people that live there in glorious detail—photographs melting into still life paintings, fingers smudged from handling wet paint that should have been left to dry. Sometimes you get a little dirty when you dig, and sometimes people need to disappear. Our protagonist, Lucy is unwilling and unable to turn her back on a mysterious letter that has been freed from the dead-letter office by unknown forces—a picture inside lost for twenty years, the echo of her long lost brother murmuring in the empty corners of her apartment. We follow Lucy as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. She sees the world for all that it is: dangerous and heartbreaking and kind. The characters of her gritty neighborhood streets—the people she sees on the subway as she commutes to her dull job in an office high up in the metal skyscrapers—they are her muse. These people embody her every waking hope and fear. They are her touchstone and lodestone—her dysfunctional adopted family.

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

—Genesis 3:22-23

I

Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.

I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.

Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell
? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.

Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.

II

Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed

mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.

III

Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.

Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,

suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?

Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,

a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.

IV

And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
1968.
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore

there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.

V

Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.

The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.

But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties

or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—

this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.

Please explain what just happened.

Stomach growled, reached for coffee, repeat.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Having removed all my clothes to scratch at rapidly emerging chicken pox.  I remember being naked and wandering the house in search of a parent to inform.  I was, like, 3 years old.  Where the hell were my parents, anyway?

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


Please explain what just happened.

I just got back to Manhattan after a bumpy month in Havana. I was chased by Cuban police while trying to illegally interview Cuban boxers and their families for my film Hero Traitor Madness: The Guillermo Rigondeaux Story. The basic deal over there that I have a little trouble cottoning to is agreeing to pay people under the table to tell me how they turned down millions. But there it is.

 

What is your earliest memory?

A neighbor girl’s pretty face smiling at me from her window. She was six and I was pushing three.

 

If you weren’t a writer/director what other profession would you choose?

My dream has always been to be mistaken for a jinetero (Cuban male prostitute) and questioned by police while in the company of a Cubana who in turn would be mistaken for a tourist. No dice as yet.

Liza, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, said that Mama’s Kitchen served the most authentic Southern food in New York. To me that meant things would be fried, greased, and doused in gravy but a whole new type of eating awaited me inside the red screen door of Mama’s.

Opening Words

On a cold day in the autumn of 1998, eight years after my sister died, I went back to Cleveland to visit her grave with my hus- band, David. It was a bleak, overcast afternoon in November when we drove to the cemetery. My sister Kim is buried in that city of steel skies and flat lands in a place called Mount Olive Cemetery. I like the tone of authority in the name of her burial place. It feels as though she’s been anointed, lifted to a place of holiness. The cemetery is on the outskirts of the suburbs. We drove first through the orderly suburban streets, then under a stark bridge that appeared to lead nowhere, and then through the black gates. I thought after all these years that seeing again the sight of her gray headstone and the small plot of land designated to her on this earth would devastate me. Instead a long calm washed through me. I did not cry when I saw Kim’s grave. I read the inscription composed by my family: Kim Elizabeth, July 19, 1968–April 16, 1990, Our Beloved. Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I re- spond to the world around me. It has transformed the way I think and feel about intimacy, motherhood, friendship, and our responsibilities to others. Her early death changed every pre- conceived idea I had of suicide, depression, suffering, parenthood, and our debt to another person. Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us.

I was wrong.

At her gravesite, beneath which lay the box that contained the flesh and bone that had comprised her physical self—the box that eight years earlier I had watched being lowered into the ground and had thrown dirt on top of, a Jewish ritual to signify the family’s responsibility to bury their loved ones—I was overcome with a familiar feeling of disbelief. I wanted, like Demeter, goddess of the spring who lost her daughter to the underworld, to plead with the gods to bargain back her life.

As the gray afternoon light moved through a stand of trees I wondered, as I had so many times, if Kim had really wanted to die or whether her act had been a cry for help.

I cannot go back to Cleveland without feeling the shadow of Kim over the city. It is in the color of the sky, in the shapes of the familiar houses on our suburban block, in the shade of the bushes along our front walk. Her loss is wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard. When I go into her bedroom—now turned into a kind of den, with a new desk and chair forced awkwardly into the room—I can only see it the way it used to be: Kim’s unmade bed, her clothes piled in a corner, her teddy bear thrown on the floor.

I still on occasion wake up in the morning and forget that she is gone, that she’ll never be able to have the baby she once wanted, that she’ll never know my son. I sometimes catch a quick flash of her face in my mind and it is as if she’s looking at me, trying to tell me something. I try very hard to listen.

Kim was the youngest of four girls, the only child of my mother and her second husband, the baby of our family—my baby, I sometimes thought, my Kim. My mother and we three remaining sisters reconstructed the weeks before she died. We read and reread the short suicide note she left. We recounted the last conversations, moods, phone calls; we talked to her friends and boyfriend, hoping that these conversations would explain why she’d left us. Her life and death have shaped each of us in profound ways. We talked and talked, among ourselves, with everyone who knew her, and didn’t get far. Then we stopped talking and mourned privately, each in our own way, trying to move on. But I could not really move on. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when my own son—at the cusp of adolescence, soon to be a young man—reached the age at which Kim’s life began to falter, that I knew I had to try to understand what happened to my sister. My responsibility as a mother made it imperative. I knew that in order to go on, to live my life, the life I have built with my husband and my son, my life as a writer and an editor, I had to go back and excavate her history. I had to understand why she would take her own life and whether I could have stopped her.

Kim was a decade younger than us, her three older sisters. All of us shared the same biological mother, but Laura, Cindy, and I were born from a different father. Our father came from a family of Jewish immigrants. He died when I was two years old, Laura three, and Cindy nine months. My mother, also Jewish, remarried an Irish Catholic man when I was eight years old; two years later she gave birth to Kim. My mother hoped Kim would bridge our not-yet-sturdy, second, Jewish- Catholic family and restore a home that had been shaped by grief and loss. But three years after Kim was born my mother and stepfather divorced, and our family went back to being a family of women.

When Kim died, I was living in New York City, newly married and three and a half months pregnant with my first child. My older sister, Laura, was also living in New York City, working in an art gallery. Cindy was married and training to be a psychologist in Los Angeles. Kim took her life in my mother’s garage, my mother asleep in her upstairs bedroom in the house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where we had all grown up.

The dialogue we have with the dead is never ending. That day at her grave I told myself that I would write about her for two reasons: to redeem her death, and in so doing honor her, and because I needed to understand what she had done and why in order to move forward with my own life. There were days, weeks, sometimes months when I was engaged with life—with my family, friends, and work—but it was as though Kim’s suicide hung over me, at the back of my thoughts, and it would creep up at times and I would feel frightened by it.

If I could recognize the forces that weakened Kim’s strength and attempt to re-create her inner world through my writing, perhaps I’d begin to understand what caused her to take her life. And maybe in doing so, I could forgive myself.

In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.

How had I let her disappear from view? How had we let her go? These are some of the questions I sought to answer.

Her grave that day seemed lonely amid the graves of strangers. That she was buried alone, not in a family plot (her death was so unexpected that no such arrangements had been made), represented to me the estrangement she had come to feel in life.

I took David’s arm and listened to the branches creaking overhead. I looked at the gravestones, some covered with fresh-laid flowers, others less attended. On the most fundamental level it did not seem real.

When I was a child, birds in close proximity had frightened me. Their skittish nature reminded me of my own reactions to a world made precarious by the sudden death of my father.

But when I saw a school of birds clamber over the sky at Kim’s gravesite, making a perfect V in the air, and saw one bird land on one of the monuments near her grave, I was filled with a strange happiness, as if Kim’s spirit were alive and present in the opaque November sky. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s lines in Four Quartets: “Go, go, go, said the bird: / Human kind can- not bear very much reality.”

I have twenty-one years of Kim’s essence stored up in my memory bank. The fallacy about death is its finality. Kim is as alive for me as if I were still at the foot of her bed, in her childhood room that was once my room, listening to her talk about the pair of jeans she had just bought at the Gap, or the day she had spent at one of the Lake Erie beaches, Mentor-on-the-Lake, with her girlfriends. Or sitting with her around our dining room table, her dirty blond hair fallen over her face as she worked on a thousand-piece puzzle of Mona Lisa or Monet’s Yellow Irises with Pink Cloud.

The gray November sky that afternoon carried within it the truth of something foretold. I regretted again, as I had at her funeral, that we had never given her a proper eulogy—that, too distraught, I had not been able to speak about her and the significance of her young life. Her funeral was shrouded in sorrow, shame, and incredulity. We were struggling to accept that she was gone, no longer able to shake her out of the long drift of delirium that compromised the last years of her life, never to see into her mercurial half-gray, half-blue eyes, never to touch her again. The rabbi spoke for us, said the prayers of mourning into the cold April air as we listened, hoping that the world on the other side of life was a better place. Two daysbefore she killed herself had been my birthday and she had called to wish me a happy day. Happiness no longer seemed part of the equation. The world felt tenuous and unsafe. Then I did not know how to grapple with or incorporate the violence of her act of resignation. I did not know how to grasp that she had wanted, at least that night, to die. Or perhaps had wished in those moments to be unlocked from her pain.

It seemed impossible, and I floated in the sea of my disbelief, still thinking that there had been a mistake. Though she was clearly dead—she had to be, my husband picked out her coffin—I could not accept it. I was still worried about her, convinced I could do something to change the course of what had happened. More, I was left with the belief that she had inherited the grief, loneliness, and pain of our family, and that her suicide was partially a result of this burden. I wondered whether Kim’s suicide had been inevitable.

Before it happened to Kim, the horror of suicide—that a person could take her life because of searing emotional pain—had seemed, while devastating and tragic, more of an abstract concept. Though I had known a few people who had committed suicide, one a childhood friend, over time I had pushed those losses into my unconscious. For years, even after Kim died, my defenses were formidable. If I were truly to have understood her state of mind then, I would have had to feel her pain unen- cumbered by the layers of protection I shielded myself with like thick sweaters against the cold. Every time I tried to grasp it I was overcome. It was as if I lived behind a blackened door.

In Moby-Dick, Melville’s masterpiece, Ishmael tells of his de- sire to meet the unknown when he undertakes the voyage of the sea in his quest for the whale:

Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, wild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.







To understand suicide is to try to comprehend the ungraspable phantom of life: the power of the darkness, fear, and weakness within the human mind, a force as mysterious, turbulent, complex, and uncontrollable as the sea, a force so powerful it may not be capable of withstanding its own destructive power.

After reading Moby-Dick, a treatise on the abyss and the inchoate and terrible power of inner demons, it does not surprise me to learn that Melville’s own son Malcolm died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of eighteen. Perhaps in writing the prophetic, meticulous novel of Ahab’s obsessive, diabolical quest for the white whale, Melville had hoped to crack open something of the mystery of his son’s or his own despair. Of the need to undertake the voyage, he wrote, “Somehow dreadfully, we are all cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The page has been my container, my ship; my words my compass; my memory my harpoon in my desire to wrest coherence from the unwieldy material of personal truth. Whenever I come close to understanding the terrible mystery of suicide, it eludes me again, darting away like the mercurial whale beneath the surface of the ocean, plunging further into the depths of the un- known. When I think I’ve made my peace with the white beast, it rears its head, continuing to shadow the present. There is a desire to still the chaos, but it catches me when I least expect it.

When a young person ends his or her life, the grief of those left behind is complicated by despair, disbelief, fury, guilt, and shame. But my dismay has never been directed at Kim. It is directed at the world she was born into, the past that shaped what she would have to bear, and the failure of those closest to her and the community around her to offer the support and confidence that might have sustained her. Even in our darkest moments most of us have hope that life will turn for the better.

“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “And sore must be the storm / That could abash the little bird / That kept so many warm.”

At Kim’s gravesite I told myself that I would try to tell her story. In the years that followed I periodically researched and made notes, but I always put them away again, thwarted by complicated emotions and the moral dilemma of exposing my family’s private world, as well as my own.

A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to spend a few days with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading figure in the study of suicidology. That visit changed the way I thought about suicide, but it wasn’t until I began attending a monthly suicide bereavement group and listened to other survivors of suicide tell their stories that I was able, bolstered by the courage of others living with suicide, to write my story, free of disgrace. These pages narrate the story of what happened to Kim and my voyage to come to grips with her suicide. Since I cannot bring her back, I have struggled to make her lapse into darkness and the devastation of suicide understandable. Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book.







I. Where Past, Present and Future Collide

The first “psychic” reading I got some 12 years ago was involuntary. A shoddily clad heroin addict in Hamburg screamed my future at me: “YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS!” Pressing my face against the subway window I quietly started sobbing.

The next day I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested I go see a therapist.

It’s 9:34 on a Saturday night. I’ve showered. I’ve gargled. I’ve buttoned my flannel shirt three quarters of the way and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans a little. I’ve even done ten quick push-ups to pump some blood into my frail biceps, a desperate attempt to mask inferior genetics.

I send out a mass text to my friends: “What’s the plan?”

For a few seconds, Xboxes are paused, YouTube windows are left unattended, and Gchats are interrupted. Three sets of preoccupied fingers type hurried responses.

I’m awaiting the inevitable. Watered-down gin and tonics, sweaty, rude crowds, and scantly informed discussions between twenty-two-year-olds about how “different real life is from college”. We’ll probably also talk about Kanye West’s tweets and how early we all have to get up for work during the week and why time seems to go faster when you’re out of school. It will be cool to ironically brag about how past our primes we are, because it’s not ironic. We really feel that way. Or do we? Or something. I’ll attribute our fleeting lives to the lack of any new experiences. (“We’ve kind of done it all. Except for marriage, I guess.”) Then someone will start talking about The Office and I’ll go to the bathroom, slicing my way through scattered conversations about American Apparel going out of business and how good Mario Batali’s Eataly is and how there’s no other place on Earth like New York City.

But that’s later.

Now, I’m in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. After all my careful preparation, I notice a pimple below my left nostril. God. Dark circles under my eyes. Ugh. The florescent bathroom light in my overpriced, disappointing apartment flickers.  I take a step back. For perspective. Maybe my whole will be better than the sum of my parts. Then, I see it. The biggest problem. My most glaring inadequacy: the long, dry mop on my head. Unruly wisps spilling over my ears. Rampant cowlicks hastily matted down by Duane Reade pomade. It dawns on me that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll look bad tonight no matter what.

I need a haircut.

Two full days of compulsively checking my reflection in storefront windows lead me to Tuesday, when hairdressers start their week. I call and make an appointment and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I have a plan to improve my life, I think. I’ll be a better human once I get a trim. I’ll call my parents more and tutor a local elementary school student, maybe. I’ll definitely cut out fried foods and start to spend more time outside. The sun is good for me.

I blink and it’s Saturday at 12:10. I’m late for my appointment. I rush into the salon and nearly pass out from the smell of acrylic nail polish. I wipe the crusty yellow sleep out of my eyes and tell the receptionist my name.  She’s horrifying and beautiful all at once. I never thought orange skin and Juicy Couture sweatpants could make me feel so insignificant. I apologize for my tardiness. I’m fixated on her perfectly waxed eyebrows and I stumble over my words.

She gets up from her desk. “Let me see if Kendra is ready for you.” The receptionist walks over to a hairdresser and I see them look at me from across the room. I glance down at a stain on my shirtsleeve and notice that the elastic is stretched out. My wrist looks frail inside the floppy fabric. Why don’t I take better care of myself? I should start to work out again. I should’ve showered this morning.

“Kendra will be with you in a minute,” my spray-tanned goddess says upon her return. I pretend to be reading People magazine but keep sneaking looks at her while I wait. I imagine us getting away from here, from all this. We could move to Brooklyn. She could write children’s books like she’s always wanted. We would be happy there. Sunday dinners. One week at her family’s house. Mine the next. But, nothing’s set in stone. We’d go with the flow. Her dad would understand how it is and he would like me so much. “I know how it is,” he’d say to me when I called to tell him we were staying in. “I like you so much.”

I snap out of my fantasy and I begin to worry about how expensive this place is. I can’t muster the courage to inquire about the price. I’m embarrassed by my end-of-the-month poverty. I hope they take credit cards.

Kendra yells to me: “Lou, come on over!” I don’t tell her my name is actually Luke. She asks me to sit down so she can wash my hair. My neck cranes back over a porcelain sink and, for the first time in a long time, I’m relaxed. Kendra drops a cool dollop of shampoo on my scalp. I’m lulled by an unlikely melody of running water and her smacking bubble gum.

“You want an Aquafina?” she asks.

I do want one. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. I’m weak and thirsty, but I can’t bring myself to say yes. I don’t want to trouble her. Never am I more considerate than when I’m in the company of complete strangers whom I’ll probably never speak to again.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

Like ten tiny knives, her fingernails gouge my sopping skull. Suds seep into my tearing eyes and I grit my teeth in agony. I wonder how a one-hundred-pound woman with pink highlights and four-inch heels could be so mercilessly strong.

“Is this too hard?”

“No, it’s perfect. Just what I need.” Then I make some comment about how long my hair’s gotten and how amazed I am at how fast it’s grown. She doesn’t respond, but what did I really expect her to say?

Kendra rinses me clean and taps my shoulder. “Lean up and come over to my chair.” The sharp pain in my head subsides and I let myself sink into her swiveling, black leather throne. I try to explain what look I’m going for.  She finishes my thought: “Professional, but you could still go out on a Saturday and get the ladies, right?” I think she’s mocking me. Or does she think I’m handsome?

“Exactly,” I say. She’s like a babysitter or an older sister who understands what I go through and knows what’s best for me. I’m comforted.

Now, it’s silent. She clips away.

Then, she asks: “So, are you in school?”

“I just graduated this past May.”

“Where did you go?”

I tell her. She doesn’t recognize the name. I pretend it’s not that well known.

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I mean school is school. It was fun to party.” Suddenly, I’m the Fonz. I don’t tell her about the four years of obsessive studying and meticulous extra-curricular preparation. I don’t tell her about how I perseverated over the modern-day validity of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and argued with people about the real meaning of Utilitarianism. I don’t tell her that I went out maybe two nights a week and spent the rest of the time panicked that I wouldn’t ever be able to find a job.

“Are you from Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Born and raised.” It would be too much to explain my divorced parents and stepsiblings and patchwork of suburban Connecticut teenage angst.

Kendra takes a break from chewing her gum and lets out a grumbling moan. “Luuucky.”

I wish to be the person she thinks I am.

Silence sets back in and I notice my hair for the first time since I sat down. It’s drying and I’m realizing she’s doing a terrible job.

“How’s it looking, hon? Still too long?”

“No, no. This is fine. Great, actually. You’re good at what you do.” A dumb, semi-patronizing comment that makes me feel important and suave, for a second. She smiles. I smile back.

She unclips my smock and starts brushing loose hairs off my neck. “Want to see the back?” She hands me a mirror and spins my chair around.

“Looks fantastic! Wow.” I respond like she’s just cured AIDS. I’m such an unbearable fraud. I look worse than before. I stand up and begin to feel queasy as I anticipate paying handsomely for this butchery.

“How much do I owe you?” I’m disappointed in myself at how crass that sounded.

“$55 is fine, hon.” She says it like she’s giving me a deal. I feel like I’m her best customer. I have an urge to be very loyal to her, despite the way she’s made me look. I’m a victim of stylistic Stockholm Syndrome.

“Is credit card okay?”

She pouts. “Sorry. Only cash or check.”

I have neither cash nor check. I tell her this and hand her my wallet and phone. “Let me run to the bank. Please keep these as collateral. I’m sorry.” I run faster than I have in my whole life.

When I come back from the ATM, she’s already with another client. I scurry over and give her $65 of the last $92 in my checking account. “I’m sorry. Thank you for waiting. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks, hon,” Kendra says.

I pass the receptionist. She’s reading the People magazine I pretended to thumb through earlier. “Looks nice,” she says reflexively, without looking up from her page.

“Thanks. She did a great job,” I say.

I walk out.

I never go back.

This week, I participated in a reading in New York City’s West Village. All I knew when I entered was that I was going to a new “science fiction” bookstore. That turned out only to be partially true. Ed’s Martian Book is indeed new, but what it stocks is nonfiction, namely author Andrew Kessler’s debut book, Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission (Pegasus). There’s something extremely surreal about being in a store where shelf after shelf, case after case, table after table only have one title. Perhaps that is science fiction-like. It’s mesmerizing, and I kept being tempted to open the books to make sure they weren’t blank inside (I gave in to temptation and, in fact, they were not blank inside). I emailed Kessler to find out more about his mission to Mars and his “crazy” bookstore brainstorm.

Like many a-holes in New York, I do most of my writing in coffee shops.   My husband is one of those who finds this behavior reprehensible, although naturally being his faultless mate I am exempt from such damning judgment (I think).  And I do understand how silly it seems to a civilian – “Let me get this straight – you need to ‘concentrate’ on your ‘writing’ so you go to a public place where there will be Belle and Sebastian blasting, cheesedicks flirting with baristas, and dozens of other ‘writers’ working on their own laptops?”  The implication being that of course if you were really serious about the work, and not just with showing off to the world that you’re “writing” a “novel,” you would be sequestered at home, occasionally crumpling up pieces of paper and hurling them into the trash the way tortured writers always do in their generously cast biopics.  But who has paper anymore?  And for that matter, who in New York has a decent workspace at home?

Ten Walks/Two Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around New York City with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night ramble through Central Park. Here we present a walk and an excerpt from the second talk.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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Late night in New York City. So late it’s early. Pitch black with a fuzzy, artificial yellow glow around all the streetlights. Stores are shuttered.

The only places open are some bars, some late-night diners.

A few drunks tottle down the streets, call out into the darkness, try to hail cabs which screech to a halt on the corners.

D. is walking down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pale gray Patagonia fleece jacket, trying to find his way back to a friend’s new apartment. This new place is in a foreign part of the city (way up in the hundreds), and he just wants to get there so he can crash on the corner of a futon in a room that is way too small to even be called a bedroom.

After a night party-hopping at what he derisively describes as “the parties of the rich,” D., who works as a carpenter in New Jersey, only wants two things.

Food and sleep.

He’s simple that way.

A hooker starts following him down the sidewalk, waving slightly and chirping like some exotic bird. She wants his attention.There’s nothing scary about D., the man who would become my husband. When she tells him, “Ooh, baby, you are cute!” she isn’t lying.

Of all the men who might possibly pay her for her time, of all the guys walking the streets of Second Avenue at three a.m., D. seemed, I am sure, the choicest alternative. I mean, if the seller can choose the buyer, why not choose the one guy who obviously would never hurt you? The one with the shy, adorable, slightly crooked smile?

Most guys can look back on their youth and prove they were at least somewhat cute. But D. was Super Cute. There was just something about him—some fresh-scrubbed innocence, long eyelashes, perhaps, some aura that said he was responsible–that drew the ladies.

“Looking for a good time?” the prostitute pesters him, tottering on her cheap high heels, trying to keep pace.

D. just looks up and shyly smiles.

“I’ll give you a good time, honey. You and me, we could have a serious good time.”

“I’m not interested…in that,” he tells her. And then something—does she look upset, or is it something else, something more pitiful? He tells me later that she just looked run-down–makes him say, “But I would like to buy you some dinner. Or breakfast. Come on, you want to eat?”

The hooker brightens. She doesn’t say no. She must be the type of woman who doesn’t pass up a free meal, who might not remember to eat unless someone else is buying, or cooking.

They go to a diner. D. says later that his diner date was “sort of embarrassing” because she kept cursing loudly in the diner, using the most bald-faced and un-ladylike epithets, which–luckily–go largely unnoticed in the middle of the night in Manhattan (“So then I told that motherfucker, I told him, No fucking way you come in here and tell me you want my motherfucking bank statements…”).

But he did get her to eat a hamburger (he had to keep reminding her, “You have a hamburger. Are you going to finish your hamburger? How’s your hamburger?”), with the same relentless coaxing you’d give to a child who was too busy rambling on about some unintelligible misunderstanding on a playground to remember to chew and swallow.

Then D. and the hooker parted ways, though not after she said she’d gladly “Give [him] one for free,” and he refused (no, he really did refuse; he can be prudish or simply very modest) and finally found the friend’s apartment and rang the buzzer and went inside and dropped immediately into sleep.

D. barely remembers the story about buying the hooker a hamburger. But it sort of became legend among his friends.

“Where were you last night? Where’d you go after that last party?”

“I was buying a hooker a hamburger.”

It sounded so crazy, but it was true.

They recall that not only did he do that, but he also had a habit of buying hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya and handing them out, again in the wee hours, to the homeless.

There was one woman who stood out to him, surrounded by a sea of split plastic bags, wearing a terrible old coat, the kind that barely exist anymore (wool and polyester, man’s style, with large buttons, greasy lapels). She was thumbing through a ratty paperback, a book without a cover.

 

“Whatcha reading?” Doug asked, handing her some hot dogs and a drink.

“My favorite book in the whole world,” the homeless woman said dreamily, shocked back to reality by the steaming franks in front of her. “This book is very special.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

(I happen to know that D.’s favorite book at that time was “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He also loves a book I gave him entitled “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper).

“It’s about a beautiful young woman in New Zealand who’s adopted and then accidentally finds her birthparents.”

“I’m adopted,” D. says. This is absolutely true (and so am I). “I’ve always wanted to find my birthparents. Where’d you get this book?”

The book found its owner, it turns out. It found her and it spoke to her. It touched her with its sad beauty, the way it all works out in the end.

Because of the hot dogs, because of his kindness, because of the fact that he was adopted himself, the homeless woman hands him her most prized possession and begs him to take it.

“I can’t take your favorite book,” D. says.

She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.

“I can read that book anytime I want to,” the woman says, tapping the side of her head. “It’s all in here, now.”

So D. took the yellowed, tattered Harlequin romance and stuck it in his pocket and he went home and read it. A few years later, I read it, too. It made me cry. It was actually very good.

For years, we had this book, this falling apart, sort of smelly, crumbling book in our house. We couldn’t throw it away, could we? It was like a sign. Or simply just a gift.

It’s gone now, eventually tossed because it was literally disintegrating, but the book itself isn’t important anymore. It’s the story–it’s every story–that really counts.

 

 

 

 

 

New York, man.

What can I say that hasn’t been said?

I doubt I’ve gone more than a week in my life without hearing, or seeing, a reference to that city.

They say it’s the greatest city on earth.