It had just started to rain when I ran into Theo’s parents on the street outside the museum. I was trying to hail a taxi. I was happy to see them and they seemed happy to see me. I was nervous that Theo’s mother Sally would scratch my face or that his father Reg would throw me to the ground. I would have let them beat me up. But they didn’t seem inclined to any kind of violence. Or even a hard word. They pressed me to have a drink at their new apartment just a few blocks away, and I reluctantly accepted even though I was afraid. It had been three years since I’d given them the note, and I didn’t know what they knew or didn’t know.
Sally had taken to dyeing her hair again and it made her powder-blue eyes pop. Her fair skin looked smoother than I remembered. Maybe she’d had a face-lift. Reg looked like he’d lost some weight though he was still a big man, like me with forearms like hams. He fixed martinis in a shaker and passed me one as if everyone on Earth were having perfect martinis in crystal glasses at this hour. I had to hand it to Reg in his tweed jacket. He inhabited his adopted WASPy-ness so well and had as long as I’d known him. Other than his last name, you’d never suspect his ghetto-poor and Jewish childhood.
They asked me about myself, and tactfully made no mention of Heather. My eyes drifted to the prolific silver Tiffany frames featuring twin babies—a few of them in the arms of their radiant mother. Sally casually put her hand on Reg’s knee, and tucked her long legs under her skirt on the couch like the coed she had been.
“We wanted something cozier, different, but we couldn’t lose these chairs. Reg bought them for me on our first honeymoon. They’re completely wrong for the place, but we like it,” Sally said. Their old apartment in a large pre-war building was grand, with oak paneling, and had a library and a study and a pantry and five bathrooms. But it was dark in the way those apartments often are. This apartment was light or would be during the day, had a terrace at the back, and was one big open space. Presumably the second floor had bedrooms. Some toys had been tidied into a few brightly colored cubes, though a plastic sun spilled out onto the floor and winked at me.
Reg and I historically avoided talking about politics but, on this evening, we agreed that the Tea Party was a bunch of ignoramuses hijacking the country. He used florid language, a vestige of his rough childhood that he never shed, to describe a certain congressman, and made us all laugh. He got up and brought over a copy of the book I’d written that had just been published that week. It looked small in his beefy hands. I was moved.
I don’t know why Theo killed himself. We were twenty then, and if there were signs, I didn’t see them. He would jump flights of stairs, swim distances holding his breath, thrilling us, testing limits, but we were all testing limits then, especially when it came to drinking.
In the days, months, weeks, after his death, Sally and Reg and Heather would grill me, looking for clues, never angry, but determined. We painstakingly reexamined the last days: mid-winter break, exams, reading period, their Christmas holidays, the first semester, the years before. I too was looking for something I’d missed, I welcomed the search; I appreciated their gentleness with me; I wanted to understand how I had failed my best friend, and his family. But we came up empty-handed. They deserved better but I could not help them.
Theo was their second child and only boy. He had the clean good looks of his mother, and her ear for music, and the size and swagger of his father. When Heather would later say that he was their parents’ favorite, I believed her. They saw the parts of themselves they liked best in him. And he was special. He was curious about people, the world. He dove into things with enthusiasm, even if he looked like an idiot. He was entitled by wealth and looks and ability, but he was kind and careful with other people’s feelings. Maybe he was more sensitive because he knew there was something vulnerable in himself. I’ll never know.
Me, I appreciated that he embraced me from the minute he found me in our freshman dorm room. Literally gave me a big old hug and sped me right out the door so we could take it all in. He’d heard of a lecture, a party, a midnight reading, and we were off. He knew lots of people from boarding school and vacations and camp, but he included me without concern for my pedigree or lack thereof. And he included others too. In a place I was certain I would feel like an outsider, the power of Theo’s friendship made me feel like the shining school was mine, ours. He completely changed my idea of who I was, who I could be, even after he was gone. The trick, he said, is that if you feel like you belong, you belong. How you want to be in the world is up to you.
After his death, Sally and Reg turned away from each other. He moved to London. She stayed in the apartment. And Heather quickly married the closest man around: her new boyfriend Brook. Reg hated him sight unseen for having a girl’s name, which was, of course, unreasonable. Sally was indifferent. She couldn’t summon enough feeling to have an opinion.
I felt bad for Brook, but I didn’t really like him either. Though I’m not sure he noticed or cared what other people thought. He had a pretty swell opinion of himself. He was pretentious and acted like the sales of his paintings paid for his lavish lifestyle, his truly awesome studio in SoHo, when it was obvious that it was all only possible through astute investments in oil his great-grandfather had made a century earlier. But he seemed genuinely devoted to Heather, and took her away to the world’s most beautiful places to distract her, which seemed like the classiest thing he could do, really.
Reg brought his soon-to-be next wife to Heather’s wedding. Julia was a decade younger than he and Sally, and, from the back, with the exception of her blonde hair, could easily have been mistaken for Sally. I don’t know if Heather noticed, but I saw her eyes crack with fury and her throat redden as Julia came through to her in the receiving line. I didn’t understand what was happening that moment. After all, it couldn’t have been a surprise that Reg was bringing a date. You don’t just waltz into a wedding with an extra guest, even when you are paying for it. That wouldn’t have been Reg’s style anyway. Heather shook Julia’s hand like it was diseased. I was standing right next to Julia and saw that she was toast. But Heather didn’t make a scene. We’d all been trained to maintain good form. But she just stopped speaking to her father that day, cut him off entirely, as far as I knew. It was only later in the evening, when I happened to pull out Julia’s chair for her, that I noticed the large sapphire gleaming darkly on her ring finger.
Sally took me to lunch three times in the decade after Theo’s funeral. All three times, we met at a second-floor French restaurant, decorated much like her apartment, and each time she had a new beau. It was flabbergasting that she couldn’t see that these men were just crappy versions of Reg. All the things that made Reg dynamic—his strong opinions, the tension between who he had been and who he became, his uncanny ability to anticipate the shifts in the economy, his colorful language, his gleeful generosity with the money he made—were missing. Instead, I traded pleasantries with shadow men of similar size and clothing. Each lunch made me despair again for Theo’s death, made me want to punch him, sent me straight into a bender. I didn’t know what Sally wanted from me. I wanted to tell her to fucking run. To pop her pills with girlfriends or even alone. I was pretty sure the third “gentleman” was also a racist. Definitely a homophobe. He was the one she married.
I didn’t see Heather for a decade. I heard she was living in Paris, then briefly in Phnom Penh. I got a touristy postcard from her once with small bright photos of the attractions of Marseilles—which I discovered eight months later at Thanksgiving at my parents’ house. On the back, in sprawling cursive, was a verse:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.
She just signed it “Heather.” At first I wondered if she’d written those lines. But I looked them up and they turned out to be the last lines of an Oscar Wilde poem, written just after Wilde was released from prison and just before he would die, exiled in France and penniless. That verse also was the epitaph on his tomb, which maybe she’d seen at Père Lachaise. It was unclear to me whether she meant it as just the words, or if I was supposed to read more into it. Wilde had been imprisoned for sodomy. Was she suggesting that her brother and I were lovers? That his suicide was related to being gay? It was strange, but I kept the postcard and it followed me around through two apartments, hanging on the refrigerators until it must have fallen and slid under an appliance.
I myself was not doing that well during those years—all ten of them. I was drinking too much, not sleeping enough, sabotaging relationships, and sucking spectacularly at my job. In retrospect, it was surprising that I wasn’t sacked sooner. Wink Goloff, my boss, was a soft touch, and it wasn’t until I didn’t come in for a full two weeks that he called me at home to let me go. I really don’t know what my parents were noticing or thinking. Maybe they were thinking that they were just lucky to have a son who was alive, who hadn’t dived head first off a dorm roof, leaving a fucking mess literally and figuratively. Maybe they were distracted by mid-life crises. Maybe they were waiting for the right moment to say I needed to stop self-destructing and get on with my life.
The university, or Sally and Reg, or someone had a plan. Did the university want to make a statement about their sensitivity to mental health issues on campus and reach out to Theo’s family? Had Sally or Reg been looking for a way to memorialize Theo and initiated the idea for the clinic? It didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that it was unlikely that Theo would have availed himself of the clinic. It would help others. But the moment I got the invitation to the clinic’s naming and opening, I knew what I had to do. For the first time in years, I had purpose. I found all of the letters (which were few) and school notebooks in my possession that belonged to Theo. And I began to practice his handwriting.
I read countless famous and not-famous suicide notes, or death notes as they were apparently also called. I discovered that Theo was not alone in dispensing his life with a written farewell. Only a quarter of people who took their own lives left last words. I also read novels with suicides in them; I began to read poetry really for the first time. And I started boxing at a low-rent gym near my apartment. For weeks the theme song from “Rocky” looped in my head, until I took an uppercut to the chin while humming and it vanished. I used old paper from one of his notebooks for verisimilitude. I felt triumphant when it turned out that one of Theo’s old
ballpoint pens in the box still wrote, and yes, I wore gloves in case of fingerprints, though it seemed unlikely that would come up. Even if it did, I still wasn’t sure how that would matter. After all, I was going to have handled the note. That was the point. But I still wanted to cover my forensic bases. I was watching a lot of procedurals to lull me to sleep at the time.
It seemed appropriately sentimental that in the days leading up to the event, I might have gone through the stuff of Theo’s in my possession. Check. It didn’t seem strange that I would bring the note to the gathering instead of scanning it and emailing it, which felt cold and maybe tacky. Check. I decided not to tempt fate by sealing the note in an envelope which would be of newer vintage, but more importantly, I didn’t want my face to betray my lack of surprise if the note was shown to me. Check. And I read the note over and over, stone-cold sober to make sure it seemed, if you will, reasonable. Also check. But should I email the key players to let them know that I’d found a note the morning of, or wait until we were gathered? It seemed too much like a detective in a golden-age-of-mystery novel to just pull it out with a flourish without prior notification. So just before I headed out over to Penn Station, I sent an email to Sally, Reg, and Heather—though I wasn’t certain if she was coming—saying that I’d found a note and was bringing it to them. Check.
As I walked up from the little shuttle train, which connected the main station to campus, the cold settled into my stomach. The trees were like skeletal arms reaching skywards, pleading for some relief. The lawns were brown or grey with dirty, unmelted snow. I felt old compared to the seemingly carefree students throwing a Frisbee in the flat, grey afternoon. Though what the fuck did I know? Maybe they were about to kill themselves? I slowed my pace but knew I could not turn back.
As soon as she saw me, Sally held out her hands. It frightened me how intensely she did it, how much like a mother in a Greek tragedy. I was insane. I’d gone too far. I was about to increase her suffering. Maybe be the nail in her own coffin. But her fingers were on my jacket like a flock of starving birds. All her well-bred restraint gone. She snatched the note out of my breast pocket without even a greeting.
Seconds stretched out as a roar of blood crashed in my ears. I couldn’t feel my hands. This is how I remember what happened next. Sally buckled at the knee, next to her oblivious husband, but Reg had broken away from Julia, and with the grace and speed of an action hero, caught Sally before she landed. He swept her up like a bride crossing the threshold and carried her inside the new clinic, ripping the ceremonial ribbon on the door. Heather, who must have been behind me, raced after them, her wild red hair straining to keep up. I could see them through the glass in the carpeted vestibule: on their knees, the three of them, their heads together like a prayer circle. Everyone else, including Sally’s husband, Julia, and Brook, looked to me, but I just made an O with my mouth, certain that I would need to avail myself of the services of the clinic in moments, wondering if alumni were welcome.
They stood up slowly. They disappeared, and returned a few minutes later. Heather was holding some bunched up toilet paper. Their noses were red, their faces puffy. They carried on with their duties, standing together, holding hands. The university president no less made remarks; the chaplain, who had helped us with the memorial service a decade earlier, blessed it all; the ribbon on the door had been swiftly replaced, and Heather cut it. I felt that if even the slightest breeze had kicked up, I would have blown away. Julia looked at me with narrowed eyes. Maybe she sensed what would happen. Sally’s husband, on the other hand, gazed into the middle distance. And Brook, he was checking something on his iPhone, which would ease my guilty conscience in time. As they were leaving, Sally, Reg, and Heather hugged me in turn, and I had the feeling that for the first time in a decade, I had done something good.
A week later Heather called me and invited me to dinner. She greeted me barefoot with a streak of tomato sauce on her cheek. Brook was out of town. Personally I wish that it hadn’t happened in the man’s bed—much as I appreciated the million-dollar sheets. Two weeks later Heather moved out of her fucking amazing apartment and moved into my cramped walk-up. And for four months, we were incredibly happy.
We walked everywhere holding hands, we ate at restaurants we’d never been to before, we explored boroughs further afield, we went to ethnic street fairs. Heather discovered my passion for murder mysteries and bought me piles of them from Strand. She urged me to write one, and forced me to write for two hours after I got home from my new job before she would let me touch her. We had one dinner with her parents. They arrived without their spouses, and their handholding and smiling quickly gave them away. Heather cried and I toasted and wondered about their family’s lucky divorce lawyer who had hit the trifecta. I knew that it wasn’t right for me to be so lucky myself. I knew it would end. And it did.
On a Thursday, I came home from work and every single thing of Heather’s was gone. This time the note was for me and it said: “I know what you did. Love, Heather.” A page from an old book of mine where I had practiced Theo’s handwriting lay next to it.
I never saw Heather again. I heard she went back to school to become a nurse. A year later, I heard that she was married and pregnant. I myself moved out of the country, someplace cheap and sunny, to make my meager savings last until I finished my manuscript. I’d only come back a week before when I ran into Sally and Reg, my tan just fading. I still hadn’t decided if I was moving back or not.
Sally and Reg walked me to the door together. Sally hugged me goodbye, and Reg shook my hand and clapped the other one on my shoulder. As I stood by the elevator, dazed, the door opened again, and Reg held out the copy of my book with a pen. Just as I was about to write an inscription, I hesitated, suddenly unsure how my handwriting would come out.
“It’s okay,” he said.
I wrote on Theo’s dedication page and handed the book back to Reg. When I got outside, I decided to walk back to my hotel in the rain.
Delphine Hirsh is a French-American native New Yorker, a Princeton University graduate, and worked at the American Foundation for AIDS Research, occasionally smuggling Elizabeth Taylor’s silky Maltese into other countries. Her story “The Webbing” is being published in Dunes Review and won a Glimmer Train’s 25 short story award for new writers. She lives in Los Angeles, also writes children’s books and screenplays, and can be found at www.delphinehirsh.com