Happycakes, part 1

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.

13 responses to “Happycakes, part 1”

  1. MarleyFan says:

    What a great post; I especially liked the tye-in to your nickname for him. My wife struggles with very similiar problems, so I really feel for John, his family, and friends! Are you the Rachel that is my sister’s (SSW) best friend? I’ve told Steph for years that I would really like to meet you some day…

  2. Lisa Parrish says:

    This is so beautifully observed — the tallboys in the grocery bag, the razorblade made of air. Really looking forward to part II, and hopefully many more R. Berkowitz postings to come. Once every few months isn’t enough!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Wow, this is so incredibly good. And heartbreaking.

    Yeah, I need part II now.

  4. Rachel says:

    Thanks, everyone. MarleyFan, I’ve heard a lot about you and would like to meet you too. I never feel so much “myself” as when I am around SSW; she is a walking miracle of a person. Sweetness must run in the family.

    L.P. and Jeremy, I really appreciate your comments. Some beautiful elegies have been put up on TGW already, and I hesitated to add another, but that letter from the void really hit hard.

    Part 2 soon, I promise. Today I’m filling in for Bryan, but it won’t take another of his overseas trips to pull me out of hiding.

  5. Missy says:

    Wow. This is a hell of a way to hear about someone you used to know, and care about, and have complicated feelings about, dying. Rachel’s right–the amazing thing is that he lived that long. Reading this brings him back–I can hear his nasely voice, his self-conscious laugh; I see the cowlick at the top of his forehead, making his dirty blond hair shoot up and then flop over, can see him standing with his hip cocked to the side, his belly jutting out.

    I’m not sure why you gave “Ben” a pseudonym, but you get him exactly right too. Exactly. Right down to the ubiquitous tallboy at his feet. I really can’t believe he’s still alive. Having people describe this as a good post (which, of course, it is)–alluding to your writing, which is heartbreaking and lovely–feels kind of weird to me as I sit here trying not to cry during my office hours. I don’t know if I can really explain this, but it reminds me of how I felt watching that one South Park episode about Joseph Smith and Martin Harris losing those pages of the Book of Mormon. When something that you are intimately familiar with is represented so accurately, in a way that doesn’t just gesture towards something but actually *captures* it in as close to a TRUTH as you can get, it’s weird to hear it evaluated by others. But god, Rach, this is just beautiful and what you say about John suffering from a surfeit of beauty seems so, so right.

    RIP, sweet, sad John. I hope somewhere you are wearing a sundress and feeling, finally, happy, in huge, unequivocal, throbby, feeling way.

  6. WW says:

    just to add to the chorus, this is really wonderful, and painful. and timely. my nephew killed himself last week and I’m packing to go to his funeral right now. he was 21. I almost wish he had been in a car accident; the randomness of such events can be much more comforting, and explainable in their unexplainablenss, than suicide.

  7. Rachel says:

    I am so sorry to hear of your loss, WW.

  8. Tim Wager says:

    Wendy, I’m very, very sorry to hear about your nephew. It’s just too sad.

  9. Tim Wager says:


    Thanks for the beautiful post. I think many of us have known self-destructive people whose company we adore at the same time that we fear what they could do to themselves. John sounds a lot like some people I’ve known and with whom I’ve been close. One never really knows if they will either “find the help they need” or somehow, some way, avoid taking their own lives. I’ve never been through the suicide of a friend or loved one, but I’ve had to imagine what it might be like. Thanks for telling us about Happycakes. I’m looking forward to hearing more about him.

  10. WW says:

    thanks, so much. it is awful. my stepmother had such an interesting response: “sometimes the choices people make are really hard, and really permanent.” a reaction that is so emotionally responsible — not taking on any guilt/blame/etc that people often do.

  11. slade says:

    a very close friend of mine killed herself quite a few years ago. right around this time of year. sounds like the same bipolar agony that John went through. she once said when she was “up,” it was only nominally better as she knew she was headed back down anytime soon. there was no releif. for her, i am glad she found her releif, though for the rest of us, of course, it was, and still is, a terrioble loss.

    sorry for all of you who have lost loved ones. i often think of my friend and am sad we don’t have the chance to know each other as we age.

  12. PB says:

    Beautiful writing Rachel. The portrait comes alive, evoking so many people we have all known and watch struggle. And I am struck by the idea of the Stendhal syndrome, how we process stimulation as humans, some people overwhelmed by a daisy, others who hohum at the Brooklyn Bridge. What is the balance? What is healthy processing of pain and beauty and what is not? It is impossible, which is why we relate to all the Happycakes on some level–we recognize how much it takes to sort and manage the day to day, rushing in at such speed and chaos.

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