Her hair is matted stiff and crusted with drool (vomit?). It’’s a nest woven by three days of sleep. She is making eye contact, but her pupils are still large, like an anime character. Her shaky fingers are grasping at the wires in her arms.
The voice coming from her is at an unusual octave. It’s between notes and sounds made up, like a sci-fi alien from television. She makes a constant stream of staccato gestures. Only vowels come out.
It would be comical, if it weren’t so terrifying.
But this is the first time we’ve seen her awake, heard more than a snore scape her lips, since she downed a bottle of antidepressants as a final cure for her omnipresent ache. And we have nothing to compare it to. We assume this new voice, this parrot head on an old woman’s body, is the new normal.
And my mind drifts forward to a fictional year from now. And I picture this woman and my toddler carrying on a babbling, sing-songy conversation that no one else can understand. And wonder what it will be like, when my toddler moves on to real words and this old person is stuck with her alien language, shaking and gesturing, and completely oblivious to the fact that, like today—like 72-hours ago when she tried to leave us for good—we can’t understand what she’s trying to tell us.
So this is that happens when you fail.
He tells me about the tar. We are nineteen and I am knee-deep in the worst year of my life, I am wearing it in fifty pound of extra weight. I am failing half my community college courses.
He says they made him drink it in the ambulance. It was black and tasted like asphalt.
He’d swallowed a whole bottle of something to end his heart ache. His reward was a gravel cocktail. He’s telling us this matter-of0factly while lying in his hospital gown. he’s the youngest person I’ve ever visited in a hospital, we’ve known each other since second grade.
I don’t remember what I say to him. I only remember feeling both relief and envy: at least he’d had the guts to try. I was empathetic that it didn’t work out.
If I had tried it, I would have failed, too. And there are people who would have been grateful for my failure, as I was for his. The possibility of winding up a vegetable, or deformed—a suicide failure, miserable, yet alive—had always kept my death fantasies from ever becoming action. I just wanted to lay down at night, and have tomorrow never come.
And I didn’t want to have to drink and asphalt cocktail.
Nine years later, at our ten year high school reunion, he brought two of the most prescient pieces of high school ephemera I never imagined existed. It was the only thing that made me well up that night, as I remembered how sad we once were, and how large the angst of adolescence can loom, long after you’ve survived it.
It is my third time breaking up with him. I’ve never been able to make a clean break. He needs me too much, and there is a sick loneliness inside me that needs to be needed.
But this relationship has suffocated me, deprived me of all oxygen. His needs are too great, extinguishing my own. He’s left chaos and destruction. I am a wreck.
We have sex almost exclusively in cars, because he’s been homeless for a year. Last night I found my voice for a while. I tell him it is over.
Now he is on the phone, sobbing. He cries more than any person I’ve ever known. He is the first man I’d seen cry openly. In the years we have been together, I have lost count of the times he’s broken down. He is calling himself a loser, manipulating me into saying he is not. He tells me his life is worthless without me, that he will never find anyone who loves him like I did.
I have cared deeply about him, but I have never loved him. I loved that he needed me. And those needs have cost me a lot.
He bellows, but he is cunning. He takes loud gulps on the other end, tells me he is swallowing Excedrine. He cries because it is burning his stomach. He tells me he’s too embarrassed to call 911. He asks me to call for him. I don’t.
I am half-terrified, half-hoping that he will die that night. At this point, death is the only way I can actually imagine being free from him, having failed to break up with him for the third time.
In the morning he calls me, before he leaves for work. He just wanted to let me know he’s okay. But we both knew he would be. Just like we both knew I’d answer when he called.
It’s 8th grade, he’s my best friend, and I am deeply in love with him. Maybe he knows this, but it never once comes up. Though, we drown each night in phone conversations (he uses his one-hour allotment on me). We talk about everything and nothing. We gossip. I laugh. A lot. Some times we pretend to work on math homework together, so that we can talk a little longer.
During the day we exchange notes between classes. We sit in the same desks at different periods and scribble each other cartoon faces and jokes. Often, we exchange short stories we’ve written, trusting each other’s feedback above anyone else.
But lately his speech has taken a dark turn. He doesn’t really tell me what is bothering him, but something is. He hands me a story that has been folded into a tight origami envelope. It says it is for my eyes only, the equivalent of a pinky swear.
I read the story and my heart pounds. I start to cry. It’s a first person narrative about man who is preparing to end his life. In the final paragraph, he shoots himeself in the head with a gun.
It is Friday. my friend spends his weekends with his dad. There are guns in the house. he and his brother are trained to use them. They shoot for recreation. I have a few hours left to see my friend alive. I know what his story is telling me.
I bring the story to a teacher with whom I’ve developed a close relationship. Though I hadn’t fully anticipated it, she does what a responsible adult does when a child sends out a cry for help. I am brought to the office. I am talking with a counselor.
I am still in the office when the vice principal and another counselor come in with my friend, who is angry and yells, Thanks a fucking lot! when he sees me. And I am sobbing. I am crushed.
I have sold out my best friend because I couldn’t imagine a life without him. And now I’ve lost him.
I spend the remaining period of the day sitting on a bench in our school courtyard. I see my friend emerge shortly before the final bell. His face is swollen red with sobs. His mother is walking next to him, her hands on each of his shoulders. He doesn’t look at me, nor say a word. My stomach sinks.
When they are a few yards away, his mother turns around and moths the words, Thank you. There are tears in her eyes. I bite my lip, nod.
On Sunday my friend calls me and we talk about nothing, or Married With Children, or how much we hate PE. On Monday I pass him a note after First period. He passes me another after Second…