Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. ~ Thomas Merton
It’s a cold, gray summer afternoon in San Francisco when I find myself standing outside of my body. I watch as my first wife paces back and forth at the end of the hall with a piece of white notebook paper in her hands. I had left it neatly folded on the bedside table for her to find when she came home from work. Now, hovering over her shoulder from above, I read the letter I’ve written and cringe. All those late nights sneaking off to North Beach, looking for men in some peep-show heaven were too much to admit, so instead I told her: I am a porn addict and our relationship is a sham. A few lines to make her hate me just enough to let me go. But that’s not what I meant. It’s not what I meant at all. I just wasn’t ready to come out yet, not to her, not to myself.
So now I look down the hall and see my bag propped next to the front door. Run, run, run, I say to myself. Run from the pain of what is about to happen. Run from the truth. But something, maybe even courage, holds me to the ground under my feet. I have to see this through however cowardly I may feel.
Her hands start to shake like brittle leaves in a gathering gale and the paper falls out of her fingers, spiraling down to the warped hardwood floor.
“What the fuck is this?” she screams. “You bastard! You lying bastard!”
Our white German Shepherd scampers into the bedroom to hide, shaking under the bed. Then my wife tears off her wedding ring and throws it at me. The heavy silver band bounces off my chest with a dull thunk and hits the floor before rolling off under the kitchen table.
“Get out! Just get the fuck out of here! Get out, get out, get out!” comes the murderous crescendo and for a second I wonder why she doesn’t try to stab me or strangle me or claw out my eyes. I back away, towards my bag and towards the door. She beats her fists on the walls, on the table, on her chest. Suddenly I feel nothing but regret for what I’ve done. All I wanted was to free us both from the lie I’d been living but instead I’ve broken her heart. So now I do run, down the steps and into the fog, tripping at the bottom into a full sprint. At the end of the street I hear her scream, full of blood and the end of the world, and that scream echoes inside my head for days.
“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done. It’s done,” I chant to myself in between quick panic breaths that tear open my chest leaving my heart exposed to the chill and the wind. I put my head down and my feet flap hard and fast on the sidewalk as I head for nowhere at all. A bus pulls up, brakes screeching like nails on chalkboard and I get on without thinking. I find a seat and the city flies by stop by stop while I try to remember how I got here.
Six years together. Now gone, just like that. Three of them married. Some good years, some dark. But she was bright and sunshine and flowing dresses in Santa Barbara and as she shone on me I grew boundless for a while. I remember that first night in the beer garden as I saw her eyeing me nervously from the other table. Ten Meister Braus later I got up the courage to sweep her off her feet with a sneaky kiss and a smile. We ran all the way home to make love, my first time, and it was just so good to feel ok with another human being, to feel that embrace that I had only longed for and imagined.
And so not a night apart for more than I can count after that. Seven hundred happy sunsets at least, holding hands and laughing with heads tilted back in great guffaws of love.
Then a whisper one night in her ear: I want to be with another man and instead of pushing me out and away forever she pulled me in tighter and we both came, full of light, to the very thought it. So we danced through those hot sticky nights of summer searching until we found the one and he was perfect for the twenty minutes that three bodies needed to wrap themselves into one.
That night melted away through my fingers too fast and we didn’t see him again for almost a year. I had almost forgotten him until there he was, another face in the party, holding hands with his lover, beaming proudly “Hey Chris. Hey, Sherry. I want you to meet my new boyfriend!” The word hung there in italics, sharp and serrated, and it cut my heart into two pieces until jealousy pumped out of them in hot, dark spurts. That could have been me. That should have been me.
There were other lovers after that and I wore my bisexuality like a second hand sweater, taking it off and putting it on when it suited me. But it was never enough and I tore myself apart inside all the time. Depression filled me up, depression I could taste like some thick black oil on my dry and swollen tongue. The days were all dark, one after the other without end, until the memory of sunshine and laughter disappeared into the void.
Then the meth came and everything unraveled: my life, my marriage and even the sweater.
Now, as I ride through San Francisco for hours, the city doesn’t notice my nakedness at all. I am numb and shiver in the damp of dusk. I get off the bus and wander some more. There is nowhere to go. I reach into my wallet and count seventeen dollars in loose bills. She’s frozen the accounts by now, a cold retribution.
Across the street a neon sign glows: Pharmacy with the mortar and pestle flashing hypnotically. The doors slide open and the air, thick with too much perfume of Dial and Pert Plus, tickles my nose. Is this what heaven smells like? I roam up and down the aisles pretending I don’t have a plan, that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I’m outside of my body again and I watch from above as I pick up little bottles one by one looking for that specific combination of letters and words that I will recognize only when I see them.
Then there they are. “In case of accidental overdose please call…”
I shake the bottle like a baby’s rattle next to my ear. I shake it in a little rhythm, shucka-shucka-shucka, and walk it up to the counter in slow, shuffling steps. The clerk smiles at me through braces and acne as he rings me up.
“That’ll be ten-seventy-eight!” he beams.
Outside, I find a payphone in the dark. The cars whiz by on streets slick with new rain and I let the plan simmer in the back of my mind letting the phone ring until he finally picks up.
My friend’s place is small, a bedroom addition stuck haphazardly on the side of a rickety mustard yellow house in Potrero Hill. He gives me a big hug and looks me over like a mama bear inspecting her cub before I squeeze into his room. He didn’t see this coming, fooled by the act I’ve put on for all these years. We drink beers and sniff little bumps of crystal as I try to explain what’s going on. The burn and the rush fill me with hope and I forget for a little while the plan I have stuffed in my bag. I jabber on incoherently and we stay up all night until I start to think that my new life is going to be amazing.
“Are you gay?” my friend asks as my head snaps back from a line of meth.
The question stings more than the burning drug in my nostrils and I pretend at first not to hear it.
“Shauna thinks you might be gay,” he says. She should know. Shauna who used to be Sean has a nose for these sorts of things.
“No! No!” I say with a shake and a wag and I look over my shoulder for the door, for the exit, for the great escape. But there’s nowhere to run now. A parade of all my lovers tromps through the room with crashing cymbals and drums and trumpets and I worry that my friend can see them too. All the Chris’s and Jimmies and Aarons and Mikes wave and shout as they walk by, “Hey Chris, don’t you just love a parade?” I put my head down and pretend they’re waving at someone else.
“No, not at all,” I say.
My friend shrugs his shoulders and smiles like he knows something I don’t know. The fanfare dies down as the parade turns down a dark alley. I smile back at him as I pass him the tray lined with rails of speed and he doesn’t bring it up again.
The next day my friend goes to work and I am left alone with my thoughts. The euphoria of speed and beer are gone and I spiral down as the memories of the day before come back sharp and clear. They slash at me and though I put up my hands to fend them off they still cut deep. Phantoms and banshees swirl all around me calling me names. They check off long lists of faults and shortcomings cackling as they watch me squirm at the truth of them all. Liar, they say. Cheater. Betrayer. Pervert. Faggot.
I gasp and claw at the air begging them to stop. I fall over, curl up on the bed and tear at my hair until my scalp starts to bleed.
Then I remember the plan. I remember the pills and the darkness breaks just a little. I sit up and rub my eyes and for the first time in months I think I can see clearly what needs to be done.
I pull out my notebook and begin to write letters to all the people I love. The words drip onto the pages like a sweating fever. I write to my friend, to my brother, to my wife, to my mother, to my father. I apologize for all my failings and for all my broken promises. I tell them how I just can’t bear to live one more day as a failed human being.
I am relentless and I don’t even offer myself one tiny pinch of compassion. I am given over to the mind of suicide, selfish and beyond reason. All I see is my own pain and I don’t care about anyone else or the consequences of my actions.
I fold the letters neatly, printing names in big letters on each one. Then I stack them on the bedside table propping them up so they won’t be overlooked.
I find the bottle of pills and dump a pile of them into my hand. They look like little blue seeds and I begin to lay them out in front of me in neat little rows. I count out forty of them then pour myself a glass of water.
I pick up the first tiny blue pill and look at it between my fingers for a long time. I put it down then pick it back up again. Finally, I call my bluff and put it in my mouth, squeezing my eyes shut tight as I swallow. It is bitter and metallic as it slides down my throat and I resist the impulse to vomit as I take another one, then another. I take them faster and faster counting them out, “Twelve…thirteen…fourteen…” A life that might have been unfolds before my eyes. “Twenty-one…twenty-two…twenty-three…” A thousand possibilities of happiness, laughter and success rise up and fall away but they are nothing but mirages.
I lie down on the bed and fold my hands against my chest. As I close my eyes and wait, the chemicals work their way through my blood stream and I let go of my life. For a moment there is no impulse to fight or flee. I have given up. I am so tired and I let myself drift off to the very edge of sleep. It’s very peaceful here with the cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, through the open window and across my face.
But suddenly my body jerks and heaves into a state of panic. What am I doing? Apparitions and ghosts of all the people I know and love have gathered around my bed. My brother, my mom, my dad, my friends, my wife. They all look so sad and for just a moment I am consumed by an unbearable empathy.
I twist off of the bed crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
I call 911.
“I’ve just taken forty sleeping pills,” I say.
The operator is cool and unfazed. I give her the address and she sends me an ambulance like I’m calling for a Desoto Cab. Thank you and have a nice day, I think as I stumble out into the morning haze and fall down on the curb to wait for my ride.