There’s been a recent spate of suicides in the community I once lived in — Key West, Florida — and with those has come the rush of anger, guilt and tremendous sadness. It’s not something unique to Southernmost Florida, obviously, but the dark underbelly of living in a state of constant Summer, where everyone assumes every sunset begets a fresh party (and where many live as though it is), takes a particular toll, especially after Hurricane Irma and its devastation to the Keys. I have never seen so many suicides in such a short window of time.
I’ve had several friends kill themselves. One classmate shot himself in a Missouri telephone booth as his horrified parents listened on the other end. But, most notably, there was the older male couple, both hair stylsts of fine repute in Indianapolis, Indiana with whom Greg and I were quite friendly throoughout the late 1980’s and early 90’s. We dined with them and vacationed with them and they mentored us. They introduced us to some of the finer things in life; they always had fresh and fragrant flowers and so I did, too. They even personally took me to a wholesaler to show me the best stems. They were also the dreaded restaurant guests who made multiple Friday night reservations and would decide last-minute what was the hippest place to be seen, cancelling all of the others; they would refuse any table near the kitchen or the bathrooms. Some of it was a little precious. We weren’t celebrities or wealthy and had no right to some of those expectations, but they wanted every moment to be uncompromised, to be special, and I admired that quest for excellence. When we hosted a rather large party with them, they alerted the press and a particularly-obnoxious “society” tabloid in Indianapolis, and I bristled, asking them to rescind the invitation, which they reluctantly did. As misguided as it was, I know they meant well. They wanted the evening memorialized and for others to envy us. They loved cosmetic procedures and would show off their new chin or refreshed eyes. We drove in a fierce snowstorm to Chicago to see the tryout of a Broadway musical and NOTHING would dissuade them, not even when we witnessed trucks literally sliding off the road into ravines. They always ordered dessert and they’d send wine to our hotel room for no good reason, except to start an evening in New York off properly. They were committed to “making memories.” One of their favorite phrases was “Isn’t this perfect, guys?” And it usually was.
As time passed and others came into our life, a baseless resentment and possessiveness grew . They openly called a new male couple, younger, in our radius “friend stealers” and would not be in their presence. The relationship dwindled due to their jealousy, plus our own growing discomfort at their covetous demonstrations. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t all play in the same gay sandbox. Wasn’t it more fun for 8 or 10 to invade a party or a male strip club together? I never had a clique in high school — I was a clique of one — and the prospect of having a genuine posse was a delight to me. But they wanted no part of it. Their calls and invitations were less frequent and their comments when we were together were passive/aggressive. We became uneasy about the inevitable confrontation. Maybe it was their age. They felt threatened by our younger friends. Or they genuinely felt abandoned and wronged. We probably could have navigated it with more sensitivity, but I resented the power grab they exerted. Had they mentored or had they “groomed” us? Had I missed a hidden agenda? Ultimately, they devolved into the two handsome men in black sunglasses in a lot of framed photographs and that is where they remained, frozen in time, on bookshelves or nightstands. We were cordial, not effusive, when we saw them but I got a personal Facebook message when my novel ‘The Cool Part of His Pillow’ was released, how proud they were, how they couldn’t wait to read it.
I don’t know if they did.
Shortly after that, we got a call that they had hanged themselves, together, in their library. For one, the rope broke, and he survived, only to do the same thing, alone and this time successfully, in less than a year’s time, in that same room in the same apartment.
We were devastated. They were no longer part of our radius, but many tears were shed. What had brought them to that moment? It was too difficult to contemplate, and still is, the image of them looking at each other in nooses, ready to step off a ladder or sit down very hard. (I don’t know the precise details, and don’t care to.) Rumors, of course, flew, intimations of drugs abuse, a financial calamity, a terminal illness. A few speculated that they simply didn’t want to face the infirmities and indignities of growing older and pointed out their vanity, the Botox, the dyed hair. Their codependency was obvious. Rarely would one do anything by himself. Perhaps this was their way of departing together, although it didn’t quite work out that way. I can only imagine the survivor guilt of the one who didn’t die, their spousal pact destroyed by a length of faulty rope, and how he bided his time until friends and family looked away long enough for him to buy more rope.
I can’t looked at those framed photos now. I have, in fact, replaced them all, but they’re still there, behind the new picture in the frame, a surprise reveal that occasionally takes my breath away when I switch out photographs. At a Halloween fundraiser party. Toasting at The Royalton in New York, which set our group back almost $200. Watching fireworks from their rooftop. For me, tragedy hangs over every single one of them. If they misguidedly presumed their dramatic deaths would confer immortality or some kind of legend, they were wrong. What I see is barely-there foreshadowing of their inevitable ending and I forget the laughs, the drunken shenanigans, the comportment they taught us by example. They robbed me of joy. They muddied memory. All I see are smiles hiding their grisly, unspeakable Plan #B and another shadow in the photo: The Grim Reaper.
The suicides of late have left me numb. I wasn’t acquainted with most of them, but I know people who knew and loved them, and they are shattered. Life will never quite be the same. Sometimes, vindictiveness IS the point: “I’ll show you. You’ll be sorry.” What a legacy. For others, it’s a deep and black well of despair they cannot climb out of, and the last thing they consider is the effect on others, or they assume others wil be better off when they are gone. I am no stranger to depression. It seems to roil in my DNA. My grandmother required electric shock in the 1950’s. Other relatives in my direct bloodline have experienced great periods of disruptive “melancholy”. My own brother, who battled his own demons, died too young from an excessive reliance on pharmaceuticals. But I have never experienced misery so all-consuming I wanted to make a permanent exit. Drive toward the horizon and disappear, if just for awhile? Hell yes. But there is always something to live for. My husband. My cats. My mother. My sister and her wife. I cannot pretend to understand suicide, but I try to say the right things, not blame the departed, to recognize warnings, to sensitively steer troubled folks toward counseling and intervention…but I can never quite shake the anger, the echo of “what a waste…what a fucking waste”.