I do not know you, and I will never know you.
You made sure of that.
We are from the same place, but we’re both gone from there now. The place defined by it’s proximity to better places, a nameless suburb shoved between the wealthy ones on the lake and the skyline that gives it value. The place with the potholes that take too long to patch up, the long abandoned movie theater, an economy of Goodwills and ever changing local Mexican joints. Our parents were mechanics, plumbers, bus drivers, waitresses–nothing lofty. They were raised in a time when people could still make it all work without being dignified, without being classy. We both used foul language. We didn’t wear designer jeans. We never spent more than 20 bucks on a haircut. I know these things about you, James, not because I knew you, but because I know that place.
Your older brother was in my class when we were kids, so you must have grown up near my neighborhood. It was the nice side of town, but still sort of tragic, one street away from the nicer suburb just across the tracks. We grew up on barely on wrong side of prettier things. We saw the mowed lawns, clean store fronts, gardens, swingsets in backyards. You and I, we had perspective. We saw the roads that led out, taunting as they stretched on for miles. Close enough to touch but somehow just evading our grasp.
Anyway. Your brother. He was smart. I remember he was a good writer. A little chubby, just a couple years shy of his growth spurt. “Once again,” my teacher would say, “Mike got the highest grade on his story.” He’d always read them aloud, proud, shoulders pushed back while he sat at his desk. I wanted to be just like him. He was so good that people actually listened. He had power. Anyway. I’m sorry. I’m sure you knew he was talented. I’m sure you spent your whole life hearing about him. I’m sorry to do that to you, too. But he was so good. And I’m sure still is, in spite of everything.
Our parents were mechanics, plumbers, bus drivers, waitresses–nothing lofty. They were raised in a time when people could still make it all work without being dignified, without being classy. We both used foul language. We didn’t wear designer jeans.
I know you had a habit of driving around at night. They talked about that afterward, when they were trying to justify it all. I t was a normal night. He always just drove. I had the same habit when I was your age. Seventeen is tragic for us all, James. We spend so many years making promises to get out, thinking something better waited for us in the other towns with the shopping malls. “I’m fucking over this place,” my friends and I would say, smoking out back after school let out. But then you reach the age you think it might happen–a license, free access to your mom’s Malibu after she gets off her second shift job. All the freedom you could ever ask for, a wheel to steer you there, and still no where to go except your friends’ dingy basements. This was my 17: the discovery that the horizon will always be far away. The spot where the sky meets the land challenges you, calls you out a bit further, makes you believe in better things. But it is all just a mirage. Just because you can get somewhere doesn’t mean you won’t end up parked back in the same damn driveway at the end of the night. It was probably the same for you. And it’s brutal. And I get it.
I moved away from that town for a while, but crash landed there for a couple years when I tried to sort my head out again. I was back there the last years you were there, probably the whole time you were in high school. It’s even worse when you crawl back after leaving. The potholes seem deeper, flat tires almost guaranteed. The jokes about being stuck there forever become threatening instead of funny. We all were promised we could be bigger than where we came from. But then you leave and learn it’s fucking lonely to grow bigger than the cage you were raised in. So we shrink ourselves to fit back in, because things are safe inside. It’s hard to break free. I get it.
Anyway. I drove around a lot when I was there last, burning through a tank of gas in a couple days. Driving made my mind shut up. Maybe yours too. My fingers would clench the wheel tightly and I’d stare blankly, taillights ahead more rare as the night went on. For hours, James. And I’d remember those places: the place my dead best friend lived. The place I sat with friends after junior high. The ice cream place my grandpa used to take me to, the one with the real whipped cream. The funeral home next door we buried him at. The bar I celebrated my last birthday in with the one friend I had at the time. He moved to the east coast a couple months later. I drive alone, but in that town, there are always so many ghosts with me, James. I think you’d get it.
I wish we would have stopped next to each other at a red light that last night. I would have looked like an adult to you, maybe, even if I don’t look that way to myself. Maybe my music would have been a little loud, and you would have glanced over. Maybe our eyes would have met, and maybe you could have read the grief in mine, and I could have read it in yours. And maybe we both would have felt a little less alone. And if I was feeling brave, I would have rolled my window down, and said “follow me.” I would have driven to the Denny’s on Oakton and we would have had coffee and a cigarette and I would tell you that it gets better, not because I believe it will, but because someone told me that when I was 17 and it made me choose to keep going. And I’m sad that you didn’t choose the same thing and I don’t know why because I didn’t even know you.
I would have told you I’ve been struggling so long to find a place to land this mess of myself safely. There has been very little rest, moving back and forth across the country, hoping that running until I lose my breath will help me find something that helps. I would have told you that I am totally underwater but I am still breathing. And that means something. It means something inside me is not silent yet. And there’s something inside of you making you breathe too. And, God damn it, James, it should have meant something to you. But it didn’t.
You killed yourself that night. Flung yourself off the highway overpass near the trailer park on the other side of town. They didn’t charge the driver who ran you over, because boys are not supposed to fall from the sky; there was no sign warning of such a thing. I wish I could have taken you to Denny’s instead. I wish I could have stopped you. But I don’t even know you.
I saw all those people lined up outside the funeral home a few nights later. I was heading to a poetry reading downtown, thinking it might make things lighter for me. There must have been a hundred people lined up, James, and they were there for you. My best friend’s kid sister was one of them. She told me you were class president, that nobody knew how sad you were. You were in her math class, she said you were smart, always had your hand up first. Yours was the first wake she ever went to. “If he had just told me how sad he was,” she said, “maybe I could have helped.”
I would have driven to the Denny’s on Oakton and we would have had coffee and a cigarette and I would tell you that it gets better, not because I believe it will, but because someone told me that when I was 17 and it made me choose to keep going.
But here’s the thing I know that they don’t, James: people like us learn to be quiet for a reason. Our sadness is heavy, crushing, real. Dangerous. It takes courage to muster up the guts to shout “I’m fucking sad today” through clenched hands and crying eyes. And most people don’t respond. No one thinks to hand you a sweater to keep you warm. My phone has stayed silent for months at a time during my deepest depressions. Friends cancel plans. Get angry. Stop showing up. Talk about what’s wrong with you behind your back. They don’t all have bad intentionsafter all, it’s hard to understand the weight of the grief that settles into your bones during the bad seasons if you’ve never been there yourself. People want to say they would have done something differentthat they would have showed up, been there with you for the whole damn ridebut they just don’t want to think about themselves being responsible for boys jumping off highway overpasses. Staying with you would have been the hardest choice they could have made. There would be nothing in it for them. I don’t know if they know that. But I do.
I don’t have some magic solution to all of this yet. Please forgive me. But what I know is this world of late night driving is not easy for anyone, James. It’s hard to grow up fearing the world offers you nothing but cracked concrete and graffitied movie theaters. But, James, seeing all those people lined up to say goodbye to you, all those people desperate to know why you jumped, made me realize I do not envy you. And I don’t envy you because I have hope. I didn’t know it was there until I watched our town feel the weight of your death. It rattled me. You took your sadness and showered it down onto all those people who wanted you here. And now you’ll never find relief. You’ll never get to see a better day. And now I get to choose that the last feeling I feel before I die will not be the one that is telling me to throw myself off a bridge. I will not leave in darkness. My own suicide cannot be the thing that people I don’t even know write me letters about. I think I can be bigger than the town that made us. Every mile on the road gets you somewhere. It just has to. Maybe I’m naive, but I think I can find places to crash land other than the Kennedy Expressway. There are places that can put us back together, James, if we’re willing to let them. I am beginning to understand this all. I am just beginning.
I’m sorry, James, to have never known you.