for Donna Brown
I can’t count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV — nothing everyone else hasn’t suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can’t seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.
Once, while driving across the country writing suicide notes in my head for no good reason at all, I pulled off for gas in Las Vegas, New Mexico. I remember it exactly: a Phillips 66, pump number seven, $1.09 a gallon. When I went inside to pay, everyone in the store was speaking Spanish. I paid and asked the skinny Mexican kid behind the register where the coffee was. He pointed to the back. I used the restroom, then went over and got the coffee. I had decided to drive on through to Phoenix, approximately one million miles.
The store was big and new and sterile and hopeless, like the blossoming commercialism of everything. I set the large cup of coffee on the counter.
“Anything else?” asked the kid.
“Pack of Newport 100s.”
He slid the cigarettes across, looking at me.
“How much?” I said.
“Two-fourteen,” he said.
The price seemed too low. “For both?” I asked.
“Coffee’s on me,” he said.
I didn’t ask him why. Maybe he was quitting after this shift. Maybe it was store policy: free coffee with every fill-up. Maybe he recognized my turmoil and understood the power of kindness from a stranger. Or maybe he represented the invisible divinity that runs through all humanity like an old FDR radio speech and appears only when you need it the most. Whatever the case, I drove on through to Phoenix without another thought of my demise.
Another time, in the other Las Vegas, where I couldn’t get a job and was already five hundred in the hole and the air stank with shallow unfriendliness and mistrust, I was riding my bicycle down to the union office to see if they had found me a job. I had paid them two hundred dollars a month ago, and they still hadn’t gotten me any work. (The union never did find me a job. I finally broke one of their picket lines — you know, I’m sorry, but I was five hundred in the hole and my rent was coming up.) That day, I was riding along in the hot June sun, secretly thinking about throwing myself in front of a truck, when I coasted by a garage across from Bob Stupak’s Vegas World (a now defunct hotel and casino), and a black mechanic sitting on a tire in the dark, cool interior smiled at me and put up his thumb. I don’t think he understood how important that single gesture was, what it meant to me.
I am ashamed to admit that I think so much about taking my life. I have no right. I am fit. I am independent. I am a member of a privileged society. A billion Third World people would give their left lung to be in my position. They would probably work hard and shut up for a minute and appreciate their lives. But I, like so many members of my generation, am overwhelmed by a certain modern black plague — call it depression, if you like.
I have known a dozen people who have taken their lives, all of them young, none of them, in my opinion, justified. I remember the girl in Number I, who killed herself the day after I moved into a dilapidated, nearly empty apartment complex in Niagara Falls, New York. Though I’d spoken to her only once, I was horrified, struck hollow by the act. I met her father and brother that day on the stairs. They’d come to retrieve her belongings. They were haggard and gray with grief and reached out to me for some explanation, as if I could offer one. I grew angry with the girl and her thoughtless infliction of pain on the people who loved her. She had quit the game in the middle; like a spoiled child, she had thrown all her unopened Christmas packages out into the snow.
Or I’ll be leafing through a newspaper in a laundromat and see that William Somebody has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of thirty-eight, and I’ll wonder, with a little rip in my stomach: Why couldn’t he make it? Why couldn’t he see the absolute permanence of his mistake? Why didn’t he talk to someone? Why didn’t he talk to me? I could’ve told him: Life is sacred. Suicide is wrong. You’re going to die someday anyway; why speed the inevitable?
But when my unendurable dread descends, I don’t remember my indignation at the selfishness of the girl in Number I or my cleareyed missionary advice to William Somebody. All I want is out.
The fact that I am still alive amazes me every morning. I wish I had a psychological formula, a rescue kit to hand out to my fellow melancholics. I wish I could say, This is what saved me. But each time it’s something different: Kindness from a stranger. Lack of courage. Obligation to parents. Inability to write a good note. The possibility that I will have to start over again as a one-legged beggar in Tijuana or a housefly hatching out of a Dairy Queen swirl of yellow poodle droppings. Or I’ll imagine the appearance of my corpse, its state of decomposition by the time I am found, which always makes me think of the Jonestown mass suicides and how silly those people looked, all swollen in polyester heaps and black at the fingertips — the ultimate in bad fashion.
Recently, I took the worst trip of my life. It started out fairly well on a sunny, early-spring day in El Paso. I got on a Greyhound bus headed north. By the time I’d reached Colorado, I was consumed in the flames of a strep infection, my back was out, and snow was falling by the foot. I got stuck in South Dakota for three days. I began to miss all the appointments I had made with friends along the way. I ended up in New York City, not once, but twice in a period of twenty-four hours, both times against my will, the second time hobbling in a pointless, amoral fever around the labyrinth of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, talking to myself and smashing my fist into my face as hard as I could. I was trying to break teeth, draw blood, damage brains and vertebrae. People were staring at me, even the New Yorkers, who are accustomed to the insane. All the destinations looked the same to me. All the buses were the same. I stopped a woman with a clipboard whose job it was to rescue idiot travelers lost in the Port Authority.
“Can you tell me when the next bus leaves?” I said.
“Which bus?” she said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
She seemed shocked, this woman who worked in the bowels of New York City, insane asylum of the world.
“How about LA?” I said.
She looked at her sheet. “Four o’clock,” she said. “Three hours.”
“What about Washington, D.C.?”
“Half an hour,” she said, squinting at me, then glancing at her clipboard. “Gate 82. That’s the Richmond bus.”
I got on the Richmond bus, and all the way down to D.C., I plotted my demise as the snow flowed starlike across the glass. I wondered what everyone would think when they heard the news. I wondered how my meager possessions would be distributed. I wondered who would care, who would laugh, who would secretly rejoice. I wondered if anyone would feel sorry for me, if anyone would miss me.
We were soon approaching D.C., and I had done nothing but daydream about my end. My neck was sore, my tooth was chipped, and my cheek was swollen to the eye.
God, please, just let me die.
Then three kids boarded the bus, ball caps on sideways. They swaggered down the aisle. Each wore a new snow white down jacket. I caught the dull nickel gleam of a gun handle in a waistband. Two of the kids dropped into the seats directly behind me. They spoke loudly for everyone’s benefit.
“What’chu lookin’ at?”
“Lemme see that gun.”
“You ain’t afraid to show it?”
“Lookit. I got a straight bead on the driver.”
The woman next to me blanched and flattened against her seat. I felt my bladder float up into my chest cavity. Time stopped and draped itself like a braided pearl net across the aisle. One of the kids stood up. I saw the driver’s eyes freeze in the mirror. I pictured the massacre photos in the next day’s paper, my name misspelled, page four. Life was suddenly sweet. I prayed with a coward’s softness. The snow flew past the windows.