Last week an ominous-looking letter came in the mail from Sallie Mae. Turns out they weren’t looking for me, but wondering if I knew the whereabouts of John T., an old friend and roommate from grad school. John had defaulted on his loans. Did I know where he was?
Unfortunately, I do know. John is dead.
Ben told me on the train earlier this year, a few months before I left Chicago. We bumped into each other on the evening commute. Ben, in his ubiquitous leather jacket and swirling cloud of sandalwood, hadn’t changed much since John T. introduced us more than ten years before. Native American, Jewish, swishy, high-functioning alcoholic: if you put Ben in a short story, your writing teacher would scoff and say you were trying too hard. (Even though he intimidated me a little, we once bonded over the fact that Roxy Music’s Avalon was our favorite album, even though I survive on a steady diet of punk and he works at a country music radio station.) We hugged awkwardly. And then, without preamble, he said: “Did you hear that John killed himself last winter?”
Neither of us had spoken to John T. in a while. He’d had this way of winning your love and then, by degrees, trying to grind it away. Last I’d heard, he’d moved back to Massachusetts; that’s all I knew. “How’d he do it? I asked. Like it mattered. Ben shrugged that he didn’t know, but slit his wrists with a razorblade made of air. He was trying to be cavalier and jokey about it, because he had no other choice. John T. had been like a brother. We exchanged morbid banter for the next few stops. A woman sitting next to us got up and moved, clearly disgusted.
I disembarked first, almost embarrassedly. We had no intention of staying in touch, but smiled and lied about it. Ben took my seat, settling in with a grocery bag at his feet that I knew held a six-pack of Bud tallboys. Dinner. With a quick wave, he turned around and faced forward as the train pulled out of the station.
Nobody’s surprised when someone like John dies. No, the surprise is that he made it into his forties. Plagued by depression and a viciously self-destructive streak, John squandered his intelligence on dead-end jobs that garnished his wages from years and years of lousy credit. Every time he started to climb out of that hole, he’d do something to fuck it all up again. It can be hard to keep helping someone like that, but I did it for as long as I could, because I loved him.
I sometimes called him Happycakes, after the sign over a Mexican bakery that we used to pass on the way to Powell’s, a used bookstore and one of our favorite ways to spend an afternoon. It was like calling a linebacker “Tiny,” and we both appreciated the gallows humor of it. John took enough antidepressants to cheer up a really depressed horse. “Hey, Happycakes!” I said when I picked him up at the hospital after two weeks of inpatient electroshock therapy. I might even have called him that when his rent checks started to bounce. Believe it or not, he was full of vibrancy and laughter and joy. I think maybe he just felt everything a little too acutely.
To me, the mystery is not why John T. decided to end his life, but exactly how the rest of us form the carapace that protects us from day to day. Have you heard of Stendhal Syndrome? When Stendhal visited Florence, he was so overwhelmed with the city’s art, especially in the Uffizi, that he became dizzy and nauseated. He even had terrifying hallucinations. It was caused by a surfeit of beauty: too much stimulation, too much life, too much awe. Part of me thinks the world itself gave John T. an incurable case of Stendhal Syndrome, and it hurt too much to go on. Everything we filter out to be functional, he let in, and it drowned him.
One year during his Classics program, John took out a truckful of student loans and went to live in Rome. He wrote me long, witty letters in his tiny handwriting, describing the fresh seafood, the Caravaggios, the exclamations of Italian men when they climaxed in the rambles near the Colosseum (“Arrivo! Arrivo!”). His appetite for experience still vibrates in those letters. Even though I know he’s gone, buried in Brockton with his parents, no doubt, part of me likes to think of him still in Italy, living in a coastal cottage near a lemon grove, and having a good laugh at the expense of Sallie Mae.