One of my editors said that your life is too tragic for the average reader to believe so, she wants me to cut some of your tragedy out. She says that, in a non-fiction piece, both a suicide attempt and an accidental death are overkill. You can’t laugh at that phrase but I can, now. So Michael, which story do you want to be defined by? The story of your life leading up to the night you opened up your veins before crawling into bed? Or, the story of your life leading up to the night you got in a car with a drunk who drove you into a tree? It’s too hard to chose, Michael, so I’m going to start out by telling the story of your life before bad things happened to you. I’m going to tell the story of your life when you were a good thing happening to bad people.
Sometimes when my bedroom fan is on low, there’s a gentle, light, plastic clicking that reminds me of the way your untied, cat-chewed plastic shoelaces smacked the laminated tiles in the hallway of our high school. When all the students were tucked into their first period class, you were taking your time, probably walking to the down-tempo of The Shins, prolonging the last steps of freedom for the day. You just wanted to play. Play your guitar, play in the skate park, play with you paint pens, play with your video camera, play with your teacher’s tempers. School was a prison for you and your undying urge to play manifested in fidgets and outbursts and toe-taps and hat tricks and knuckle cracks. I remember the first time you caught me watching you in the hallway, you threw your hat at me and said “Cheer up!”. You were such a cheeky little punk. I made it clear that I was furious but the truth is I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for getting caught and embarrassed for being seen. I couldn’t figure out which was more unsettling to me, you seeing my depression or you seeing my attraction to you. And for a long time, both were mortifying. So that became our thing: you throwing your hat at me and me pretending to be angry.
I wasn’t very nice to you but you were relentless and it worked. Our hallway charade turned into blushing “hi”s and then to all-night instant messaging. Online, we’d unravel each other, sharing secrets and laughs. Online we could be ourselves. You could be you: goofy and thoughtful and I could be me: sensitive and open. It was hard to be these people offline because you, Michael, wanted to fit in with a group of people who didn’t deserve your admiration. You didn’t like playing sports, Michael, but you did — to be close to the type of boy you wished to be. But I loved you just how you were, artistic and theatrical. They didn’t understand your jokes and they didn’t appreciate your mind and I didn’t have the courage to defend it. And I was so abashed at my mere existence. I was too scared to be seen as vulnerable so I wore armor everyday. And one night, you told me you were thinking about death and before I could gauge your intentions, you went off to find it. I looked for you in the hallway the next day but you weren’t in school. You were in a car with paper towels wrapped around your arms, on the way to a hospital that would keep us from talking for a little while.
It was only when you were gone that people started to notice you. The few of us who were lucky enough to know you felt your absence profoundly. The rest of them began to observe the lack of attention they gave your presence. Everything was backwards and upside-down, and we could only hope that you were healing and missing us, too. But you wanted to play. You wanted to get out. You didn’t like being detained. We should have known that you’d try to re-open your veins with a half of the CD we sent you. You wanted out. Out of the room, out of the hospital, out of your skin, out of this life.
A month later, your insurance ran out and the hospital reluctantly set you free. You didn’t mind, but we were scared. You had a beard when you came back and I knew this because I heard the news pulsating through the hallways. Everyone noticed you then, Michael. And you thought it was only your life that would never be the same. We thought the worst was over; how could one boy be dealt any more pain? Little did you know. Little did we know.