The Boy Who Drowned

The first person I knew online who died was younger than me. He drowned one summer, jumping from a dock, landing in a shallow spot in a lake, knocked unconscious, and under he went. I’d dealt with death before, my great-grandmother and a grandfather, and this boy had never been a person of particular interest to me, but when word finally trickled online I was shocked that he — who I knew only as words on a screen — was gone.

When I say I knew him, I mean I had never met him in person because he lived in Texas. And when I say he had never been a person of particular interest to me, what I mean is we weren’t friends or anything, but we ran in the same circles, a forum for the discussion of webcomics and pop culture, an incubator for the type of deeply layered ironic meme-mongering that was destined to define social media. On the internet he was only a vague presence I was aware of, a fellow participant in the endless chatter of people who all seemed to live so far away from me, people who were cooler, smarter, who had it together.

Oh, but this kid, he didn’t have it together. We didn’t interact directly but I knew he existed, in the way that in so-called real life you come to be familiar with people who are not personal acquaintances, but are widely discussed or disliked in the general scene. This boy, he was disliked. He’d been on the forum longer than I had, by about four or five years, I think, which meant he started posting when he was pretty young. He was perpetually outgoing: eleven years old and attempting to joke with a bunch of collegiate proto-hipsters, seemingly impervious to their open disdain, their loudly and continually voiced annoyance with him for his low content contributions to the sacred halls of their webcomic discourse.

What I knew about this boy was that I didn’t want to be like him. I didn’t want to be someone who was disliked. I wanted to stay quiet. I didn’t want anyone to know how young I was, how confused and unsmart I was. I, personally, had nothing against him, but he functioned as a kind of antitype: here’s the person you don’t want to be. It seemed the only part of himself he allowed online was the version that was not worth liking.

And, as I said, then he drowned.

*

The following is a conversation that really happened.

A young woman, I imagine, hisses under her breath. “Crap… could you help me with a question…?”

A young man (this is me) replies, “Sure.”

She begins by whispering to herself: “Why do they always ask what other people think… okay, here it is: your friends admire you for your — wit, spirit, wardrobe, opinion.”

The young man thinks. “Hm, opinion.”

A few more moments of easy silence and the young woman sighs. “Oh, what-the-frick-ever, I don’t have any of that…”

“What?” The young man raises an eyebrow.

“This stupid quiz says that my strongest sense is common sense.” She shakes her head. “That is bullcrap. Complete and utter crap. I don’t have a drop of common sense.”

“Huh.” He does not seem interested in following her lead.

The young woman has continued to read and suddenly becomes more relaxed. “Oh, well that’s not… oh.” A moment passes. “The quiz,” she is reading a magazine and one can suppose she holds it up here, to draw attention to it, “counts common sense as advice-giving stuff. I guess I have that. I guess… but I don’t want to call that common sense.”

She returns to the magazine, speaking mostly to herself now: “Because I’m stupid, I have no common sense. They need to call it something else…” And another sigh. “Crap…”

She never swears. You might have noticed that by now, but I’ll foreground it for you. It was just how she was.

She reads aloud once more: “Your friends would call you — charming, intelligent, driven, funny, confident.”

The young man waits only a moment. “Intelligent.”

“Heh… thanks. I knew I wasn’t confident or driven…”

“Actually,” the young man says, “driven was my second choice.”

Once more the young woman frowns. “Where’d you get that idea?”

The young man shrugs. “You tend to know where you stand on an issue.” He pauses. “More than most people,” the young man says. More than myself is what he means, probably.

The young woman processes this. She does some simple math and announces, “I’m ‘naturally stunning’.”

“What’s that?”

I imagine she rolls her eyes. “I’m… straightforward and down-to-earth and my subtleness-slash-naturalness makes me attractive… yeah, okay.”

The young man, who is deeply and unfortunately in love with her, thinks about this.

*

When the conversation above occurred over AOL Instant Messenger I’d known for two years and four months that my friend Rachel (I’ve changed her name) suffered from severe depression and anxiety. That day, after she shrugged off the results of her quiz, I went ahead and typed: “So, you wanna hear something interesting?” Interesting was the wrong word; engrossing was better, terrifying was probably the best. It was something that had been worrying me for days.

“Sure,” she said.

“I knew this guy who died last Saturday.”

You already know about him. The boy who drowned.

In my conversation with Rachel, I went on: “He dove into chest-deep water and drowned, probably because he hit his head and was knocked cold. He was sixteen.” A year younger than me.

Rachel said nothing. Two years younger than her.

I went on still: “Now, what really interests me is his MySpace.” One of the other forum-goers had linked the drowned boy’s MySpace page as proof of his death.

“It’s amazing,” I said. “Tons and tons of people have posted comments on it, maybe hundreds, as if they’re speaking directly to him, even though he’s dead… they’re saying goodbye. Some of them say things like, ‘Hey, I remember that time we talked in eighth grade, sorry I didn’t know you better.’ As if he could read it.”

Other online people I knew — other forum participants, the people who despised this guy — posted comments about how much he would be missed.

Remember, these people had despised him, mocked him constantly. But now there they were, writing wonderful words about him, on the page he made to represent himself, next to his family and his friends and people who — well — people who actually knew him. The comments poured in by dozens and perhaps by hundreds with the song he chose (the acoustic recording of “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” by Brand New) streaming in the background and the picture of himself he chose (his head cocked to the side, his hair in need of a cut, the hint of a smile on his lips, alive) gazing down on the whole thing. I was unnerved by the way his death was playing out online, though I could not figure out why, and I wanted to relate that to someone.

I couldn’t and didn’t pose emotional quandaries like this to many people. Rachel was intelligent, I valued her opinion. I wanted to see if she could tell me why I was so upset.

What she told me, eventually, was this: “Michael, I think you are connecting emotionally to this event. You are intellectually, factually deep, but you lack depth emotionally… you have this thing about you, this air, that says there is a right and a wrong, and a black and a white, a problem and a solution. You try to compare things and make one ‘worse’ than the other by bringing in outside factors.” Underlining the dichotomy of my reasoning habits was a non-sequitur and confused me; she elaborated, explaining that I thought dichotomously because I was too rational. I therefore obsessed with the ability of these people to so freely show their emotions because I failed to understand emotion on a fundamental level.

I believed her. I’ve always found it difficult to read with any strength or accuracy the emotions of others. In the years since I’ve realized this wasn’t entirely true, but the environment in which I grew up meant that having the capacity for emotional signal-jamming, the ability to feign strategic emotional illiteracy, was immensely helpful in not being a nervous wreck all the time. But when I was younger, my tendency to distance myself from and compartmentalize my emotions — to alienate myself from them — led me to suspect that I was perhaps emotionally dead. I suspected that other people, who seemed to have a better grasp of the emotional life, were inherently different from me. Fundamentally better. The only person I ever shared this suspicion with was Rachel.

And though it was my suspicion, Rachel had developed a habit of confirming it. It was her recurring critique of me, the allegation that I simply didn’t understand emotion, and it was a critique that worked because it supported the worst thoughts I had about myself — it explained my tendencies toward coldness, distance, and spitefulness. When Rachel told me that my fascination with the boy who drowned, that the sheer metaphysical terror the incident inspired me, was all just a further symptom of my own grotesque obsession with those who genuinely feel — those I thought of as ‘real’ people — I was inclined to believe her.

Of course, I soon realized that Rachel was in one sense talking not about the boy who drowned, but herself; she was talking about us. This was merely part of our ongoing argument.

*

Rachel and I spoke mostly over the internet. In the long run, almost all the talking we did was over the internet, though we went to school together, though she lived only a mile or two away. She found it hard to speak around me — I mean physically, it was gut-wrenching for her. She found it nigh impossible to talk in my presence. She said I intimidated her; I terrified her when we walked home together, or when we sat next to each other in class. She froze up; she just couldn’t speak. It’s alarming to think that I can upset people without trying; it was doubly alarming to me that I upset Rachel because I was in love with her. I wanted (or needed) to speak to her, to be with her in any way I could.

And so almost every night, for four to five hours, we chatted over AOL Instant Messenger.

*

We were never dating, let’s get that out there right now. I don’t know what you would call what we had — it was a relationship, an emotionally intimate one, but it wasn’t nameable in any traditional sense despite my fraught feelings on the matter. I need to be clear here: I never thought of myself as trapped in a “friendzone” or anything like that, I didn’t push Rachel to be my girlfriend after it was clear that was something she didn’t want. But she was still my friend, and I was still — as much I could be — in love with her.

We were similar. We’d grown up in the same small town, gone to the same small elementary school. We were unusual in the same ways, intelligent and socially backward. We had a mutual interest in fantasy, science fiction, and the generally strange — from Star Wars to witchcraft lore, our conversations spun out for hours, infinite digressions of the corny and oddball. We were both into anime and manga, in the days just before such things were easily obtainable in their own section at Barnes and Noble. Early on in our friendship she made it clear that she didn’t feel romantic interest in me — she didn’t feel romantic interest in anyone — and my position was, well, fair enough. We remained friends, and I nurtured my crush as time passed, comfortable in my emotional passivity. I helped Rachel construct a needlessly elaborate ninja costume once. On another occasion, completely unprompted, she mailed me an acceptance letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, painstakingly written out in purple calligraphic pen and sealed with wax. We were nerds. But that was okay, because we were nerds together.

Things went bad. They went bad so slowly that I wasn’t even aware it had happened until I looked back on it. I realized that over the course of two years our conversations in person had become less and less energetic, more uncertain and slow and awkward. When we walked home together we did so in dead silence, her hands clasping her elbows as she tried to keep herself from hyperventilating. She couldn’t make eye contact with me. If I asked a question she responded with single words. Phone calls engendered long and awkward pauses. It seemed that any and all communication — anything of substance — occurred online. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what, and I didn’t want to ask. I was afraid it was me, something I had done through my own cluelessness, my recurring lack of emotional literacy.

Finally, though, Rachel did tell me.

She had an illness; it had been bad when she was little, but as she grew older it went away. For a long time it was almost just a memory, a half-forgotten childhood nightmare — but now it was back, and it was worse.

She described the mounting pressure of it, the deepening of it she had experienced over those few years of middle adolescence, and how she had become completely immersed. She told me about what it felt like to want to take your own life, to feel entirely exasperated with even the thought of being conscious another day and every day after. She told me about the depression, about the anxiety, about the feeling that everyone was judging her or would judge her. She told me that, most of all, she was afraid of me judging her. She had decided that she’d kept this secret from me for too long, and I deserved to know why our friendship had turned so strangely. I was important to her; she didn’t want to do something wrong to drive me away. She told me she didn’t want to lose me.

I promised her she wouldn’t.

*

It wasn’t long thereafter, I don’t know how long, that she told me she loved me. I said I loved her too. We didn’t mean it in the same ways, but we both meant it.

*

When we discussed her thoughts of suicide (always online, of course) Rachel held the position that, should she choose to take her own life, it was justified because she was in great pain. There was nothing physically wrong with her, but she told me no one could say that her suicide (should it happen) was wrong, because no one had experienced her emotional pain, no one could, and so no one could offer advice on how to “handle” it. I pitifully argued, as I suppose a teenager would in this situation, that suicide was only an admission of defeat, doing my best to proclaim that it was the stronger choice to fight and embrace life against the odds. Defaulting to clichés wasn’t ideal but it was what I had.

Rachel’s inevitable response in this scenario was that I lacked a certain capacity for emotional engagement. It was easier for me to embrace life because life as I experienced it lacked a certain component that made it, in Rachel’s view, much more difficult. She insisted I could not understand her on that level. It was categorically impossible.

In the years since my own anxiety disorder was diagnosed, since I have learned about passive suicidal ideation and the many forms self-harm can take, I’ve discovered I was not entirely immune to the forces that beset Rachel. But at the time…

The conversation about the boy who drowned was the beginning of our end. Rachel had not really managed to explain to me why I was so unsettled by the drowned boy’s MySpace. She only saw it as a further symptom of my lack of empathy, some weird vicarious emotional satisfaction for me. She was wrong, even though I didn’t want to believe it at the time. I did feel sorry for the boy, and for some of the people who posted comments: the best friend who blamed himself for pressuring the boy to go to the beach that day, the girl who apologized for leading him on one night at a party, the aunt who hadn’t seen him since Christmas.

I realize now I was unnerved by the setting. There was something uneasy for me, something lurking under the surface of the whole thing: people talking to the drowned boy’s image, some of them (the ones I knew) erasing years of antagonism and insults, as if that were equivalent to being sorry, as if the boy might log in any day now and read their comments.

But he was gone. Whatever was said about him could not be felt, processed, or contested — not by him. He really was just words on a screen now.

A truism for the internet: It’s easier to deal with words on a screen than it is to deal with a person. It’s even easier to forget that a person made those words to begin with.

Over the next two years with Rachel — after she graduated and our relationship moved entirely online, after she declined an art school’s generous offer because moving was too daunting, as her relapses into depression became more frequent and intense — I gradually came to the point when I knew something was going to break.

I should tell you now, she didn’t kill herself. We both live to the end of this story. Not unscathed, but we live.

Rachel had sworn me to secrecy about her depression; it made her intensely conscious of how everyone perceived her. If people knew she had depression they would treat her differently, think less of her, and so the first step to dealing with it was to act like it didn’t exist; only she and I could know. Her mother knew, of course, and that was well and good, but as she explained to me, her mother didn’t believe in medication or therapy because they had never worked for her personally. She thought very highly of her mother, worked from her mother’s gut instincts rather than her own. So no doctors, no medicine. Still, she only rarely shared her emotional state with her mother.

We were friends for two years before she told me about her illness; we were friends for four years after that. As Rachel’s thoughts of suicide ebbed and flooded, I realized I couldn’t stand it forever. I loved her, yes, had after a fashion dedicated my life to her, made many stupid and heartfelt promises about being the person who wouldn’t abandon her, built my daily schedule around her, kept time open for the two of us to be together in the only way we knew how. But I wanted her to release me, somehow. I wanted it all to be over.

I wanted to believe that it could be over. I wanted to tell someone, explain to them what I was doing and what I had been through. So I wouldn’t have to be so alone.

I didn’t want to worry about Rachel finding out. I didn’t want to worry about her hurting more than she already was, because I violated her confidence.

This was (I thought) my problem if I ducked out of the friendship: she’d made such a big deal about how important I was to her, I suspected that if I left her it would be too much strain, a tipping point. Instead of leaving her and making her kill herself, it seemed better to just wait. I had promised her I would stay, so many times, repeatedly, over and over during her darkest moments.

There were other times when I thought about how even if I never left, if she did it anyway, then it could be because of a spiral initiated by something I said or did. I simply had to put the wrong words in the right order and hit the enter key. I was convinced I had that power and the idea sickened me.

I was in over my head. Maybe it was Rachel’s fault: for having problems, for imposing such restrictions on me, for expecting me to be able to sit there and go along with her when she said that I would have been better off if I never met her, to let her say every few weeks that she should just go ahead and commit suicide, for expecting me to listen to that so often and to still somehow talk her out of it, even when a terrible part of me no longer wanted to.

But maybe it was just as much my fault; I consciously made my choices. It was my fault for being willing. Maybe it was even her mother’s fault. We all have responsibilities. I agreed to Rachel’s terms, but I never told her I felt she was being unreasonable with me. She had so much hurt already, she didn’t need more from me. But I never told her, never even tried to explain to her, how hurt I was.

*

The end, when it came, was nothing very dramatic.

I recall a time about four weeks from my high school graduation. I had two chat windows open side by side on my computer screen. One was my best friend, and even he did not know about the issues between Rachel and me. He was morose because, in an odd instance of life badly imitating a teen romantic comedy, he’d asked the head cheerleader to prom. Knowing what you know about me, you can guess as to the type of friends I had: this was a weird move on his part. The cheerleader rather humanely shot him down, I thought, but now it was my place as his friend to console him. In the second window, Rachel was telling me that she was again seriously contemplating suicide. She was beginning to think that our relationship was and always had been a mistake, that she should never have told me anything.

The absurdity of this situation hurt. What if I mixed up the chat windows, I wondered, typed the wrong message into either one? What would this situation look like if, say, we were all physically present, together in the same room, talking over one another? How could this have played out over phone or by mail, telegraph, or Pony Express? In what context could our lives be even more ridiculous? That night I stepped away from my computer and laughed, laughed until it hurt, until I cried.

Rachel and I came to each other with those simple, dangerous requests: Tell me what I am, tell me I’m good, tell me I’m worth something. And the words we wrote, the words we read, in the end told us only the worst about ourselves. I reinforced Rachel’s idea that she was unreachable, and she reinforced my idea that I was unable to reach anyone. We were both hungry for some justification of ourselves, of our lives and the way they were. But we could not put each other in perspective. We were hungry, and we were starving.

And on some level, I think we both knew it. A month after my graduation, I suggested to Rachel that we stop talking for a while. Just a while. We discussed the matter, considering all the reasons why this was a good idea. I was going to college and would be spending a lot of time doing homework and making new friends, adjusting to a different lifestyle — in fact what I did was spend about six months mired in a friendless depression and suffered from repeated anxiety attacks that nearly pushed me to drop out, but I had no way of predicting that.

Rachel demanded much of my time, she admitted, perhaps too much, and it would be better for adjustment if we simply let things go for a while. It would be better for both of us to be separate — really, totally separate — for a time. Four words: yes and yes, followed by goodbye and goodbye.

Right click. Sign out.

*

I have not spoken to Rachel since. Not in person, and not online. She sent me an email on by birthday the following year. I couldn’t bring myself to respond.

She’s fallen out of touch with our mutual friends from high school. Always timid, she keeps away from social media — she didn’t have a MySpace, and doesn’t have a Facebook. But we’re from a small town, and people talk. I know, from a distance, that she continues to exist — I imagine her, alone or with her family, or maybe with new friends. Maybe she has a therapist now. Maybe she no longer thinks about me, or at least not very often. I sometimes think I should reach out to her, to tell her I’m sorry, but I also do not think that would be a good idea. Sometimes what’s done is done.

For the record: my friend got over the head cheerleader within a month of prom. And for his part, the boy who drowned is still drowned, though perhaps his MySpace, the collection of the few words he left the world, remains — and maybe his friends, his true friends, post comments on his birthdays he will never have, like leaving flowers on a grave. Perhaps those words, simple and inadequate as they may be, can still express something. Maybe there is something in them.

We will find an appropriate way to remember and to live.

*

I wanted sunshine, I wanted wide-open fields, I wanted to move on to expansive new pastures. I wanted to forget completely. My first semester at college was a hurdle I cleared to the rest of my life, and I lived my life while six years of it — two hilarious, incredible years, four frightening and uncertain years — sank further and further into memory. But from time to time, though more infrequently now, something washes over me, and I remember.

Eventually, I became curious. I began to remember on my own, thinking there might be something valuable long lost. When I decided to write this, I searched our words. I went back over my transcript of our conversation about the boy who drowned, which in the moment, inexplicably, I had saved.

But that’s not really inexplicable, is it? Something shifted for us both that night, and I think even then I knew it. Time keeps passing: I wrote the first draft of this essay six years years ago, as I graduated from college. I’ve revised it countless times since then, changed computers a few times. In the process I’ve lost that transcript of our chat, so now what I have is only drafts of this story. A transcript of a transcript.

Still: I can see both of us there, I can remember the fear and anxiety behind every fact I offered and question I asked; I hear Rachel’s voice in my head, saying words that she never spoke aloud. And somehow I think I can see the people we were outside those words, the people we were to and for each other. I better understand now the stupid things we said and did, how young we were, how we lacked intelligence and common sense and confidence. I see better what challenges we failed to overcome and the questions we failed to answer and the results we failed to accept.

Sometimes we must go diving into the wreck. I can still see us there. I like to think you can see Rachel and me, too, and maybe you can see how the dark and sunken light refracts and bends us both, distorting us, making us look sometimes more beautiful and sometimes more hideous than we ever really were.

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