Daydreams In Memoriam
On January 6th, 2001, the local news reported that a man dressed in a sweatshirt, blue jeans, and running shoes had been found lying face up on the pavement, his arms outstretched, a small spot of blood staining the ground under him. The man was discovered on the Heritage Trail, a 30-mile stretch of asphalt where runners jogged in the brisk winter weather, and where sad boys went to kill themselves.
I was eleven at the time, eating my Fruit Loops before school as the report played on the kitchen television. The police claimed they were treating it as a homicide, although suicide had not been ruled out. The word “suicide” rang in my ears like other dirty words you knew at that age but didn’t truly understand.
The bridge where the man jumped was a mile away from my middle school, and a week later I decided to crunch through the snow to see where it had happened. The bridge towering above me cast a dark shadow in the late afternoon, as the frost covered shrubbery of the woods spilt onto the path from either side. The bridge, some fifty feet in the air, was used by the townspeople to cross over on their way back from their office jobs in NYC. I looked up to the spot I imagined he had jumped from and thought to myself, “This is not a sure-fire way to die.”
I scanned the ground, partially expecting to find a large bloodstain where he had landed, but all I saw was broken shards of beer bottles strewn around. I put my hand to the cold asphalt and traced where I guessed he would have landed, lying on the ground for hours; broken, but not yet dead. Waiting for the hour when his mission would be accomplished. At the base of the bridge there was a pink scrunchie that caught my eye. It was probably left by one of the teenage girls who frequented this very spot: The older kids would sneak out of their windows to come here, to meet and drink and smoke and fuck. The ground I was examining was sacred. It was where first kisses and bong hits and fingerings had taken place. The secrets of adolescent frivolity hidden in the woods, drowned out by the dense, swinging branches.
I wondered if he had screamed when he landed and his legs shattered, or if he had waited patiently and silently for his moment to come. I began to circle the spot, semi trucks blazing over the bridge and drowning out my thoughts. Even if he had tried to change his mind, no one would have heard him. The coroner’s report would later reveal that he was not on drugs and that no alcohol was in his system. He was simply there one day, and then he was not.
I wondered what it would mean for him to be so sad that he thought the only way out of a town known as the birthplace of Philadelphia cream cheese was to jump off a bridge. I wondered about the teenagers who fucked and sucked and pissed at this very spot throughout the school nights and weekends. I wondered if he had been invited to these carefree celebrations of youth if he would have jumped at all. When we’re young we feel like nothing can harm us. That every pill and bong rip we do will still amount to a killer job with an incredible life. But what about the boys and girls who do the same pills and the same bong rips,
and all they want it to add up to is numbness; a numbness so infinite that they never have to fake a smile again?
I walked the three miles home from the bridge thinking about suicide. It mystified me and I became drawn to it. It became an obsession of mine for the next decade.
My family used to take a trip to Long Beach Island to stay with my aunt for two weeks at the end of every summer. We would pack up the white minivan with sodas, steaks, and sunblock, and make our pilgrimage. The summer of 2003 was different though. Although it still contained the sporadic bursts of joy like eating cherry Italian ices that stained our hands and bellies as we sat under umbrellas, and setting crab traps in the lagoon behind the house, the trip had an air of mystery about it. Four days into our trip my aunt announced that her neighbor had hung herself in the shower. She informed us that although it had happened months ago, the woman’s children could no longer afford to keep up with the mortgage on the house and were planning to sell most of her possessions in a macabre foreclosure sale. I walked the half-mile down to the dead woman’s house and watched as flies and other insects scuttled out from the overgrown grass while I walked through the front gate. The house had a smell of lint and mothballs, and inside were tables covered with doilies and small tea cups. I wanted to pretend I had to use the bathroom just for the chance of seeing where the woman spent her last moments gasping for breath. Instead, I purchased a tattered copy of The Little Prince I had found on a table for three dollars, and promptly left.
As a child, I would often get lost in daydreams of what my funeral would be like. Some children fantasize about being president, or an action film star, or a astronaut; all I could think of is how I would never amount to that much reverence in life. Instead, I would lose myself in thoughts of how much people would miss me when I was gone. I imagined people would never be the same once I was gone, how they would regret ever telling me to go to my room or brush my teeth or ground me. I would be forever immortalized as the boy who performed as The Tin Man in the school’s musical and ate microwaved popcorn under his fifth-grade teacher’s desk. My parents would weep in the pouring rain as they positioned red roses on the mausoleum they would undoubtedly have erected in my honor. I imagined my mother screaming to the heavens, “If only we had let him choreograph dances to the entire Spice Girls CD like he wanted!”
I think a lot of these morbid thoughts came from the fact that I knew I would never be the type of son that they had wanted. I knew, even from early on, that something was different about me. I never took an interest in sports or fast cars, and my palms grew sweaty every time I talked to my classmate Anthony before science class. I never thought about myself ending up with a wife and kids. I just imagined my parents throwing themselves on my casket as it descended into the ground, absolving me of all the things I knew I would never be for them.
“Did you really want to die?” “No one commits suicide because they want
to die.” “Then why do they do it?” “Because they want to stop the pain.”
– Tiffanie DeBartolo
Tyler Clementi was 18 years old when he took his own life. He was a Rutgers University student in Piscataway, New Jersey when he threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and fellow hallmate Molly Wei, had set up a webcam without Clementi’s knowledge and filmed his sexual encounter with another man. As it was happening, Ravi proceeded to tweet a play-by-play to his 150 followers, outing Clementi in the process.
Without a word to anyone about his feelings on the matter, Clementi drove an hour to the GW Bridge and placed his wallet and cellphone on the ground before leaping to his death. There is something haunting about the fact that Clementi thought it was pertinent to post on Facebook about 10 minutes before he died, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” A final farewell etched onto the Internet, the very medium where his secrets were exposed.
Around the time this news reached my ears, I had streamlined my obsession for suicide facts and turned them into plans. I began to write practice suicide notes in the spaces between my study notes for Introduction to World Religion; I began researching how long a person needs to hang before the lack of oxygen kills their brain.
Friends worried about me as I began to eat less and retreat into my own little world, sitting on the couch watching endless episodes of generic TV dramas. As time went on, I began to fanatically search the web for advice on how to come out, and advice other gay men struggling with depression had for suicidal youth. My life had become a terrifying binary: what life would be like once I outed myself, and what life would become when I ceased to live it.
Seventeen-year-old Carlos Vigil took his own life in New Mexico after years of bullying. He posted to his Twitter timeline right before he ended his own suffering: “I’m sorry to those I offended over the years. I’m blind to see that I, as a human being, suck. I’m an individual who is doing an injustice to the world and it’s time for me to leave.”
When I read the news reports I was 21 and had finally come out. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of two years and moved to NYC in the hope of finding something that made me feel less hollow. As I rode the subway to work I thought about the people pressed against me so close that I could smell the vegetable cream cheese bagel someone had for breakfast. I thought about what it means to want to be seen and heard as more than just a human. I remembered the searing shame of wanting to be anyone but myself, and how close I had come that night that I purchased a bottle of wine and a bottle of pills, wanting to stop it all for a moment of clarity. Later on the same night I would flush both the alcohol and pills down the toilet, sleeping naked on my bathroom floor, shivering and shaking throughout the night, and not because of the cold of the linoleum floor.
I used to stare up at my ceiling at night and think of naked women. I considered it my own gay-litmus test and was determined to make myself pass for straight. I would imagine bare breasts and pray that I would get hard beneath my jersey-knit sheets. I never did, and in turn would pray for God to take away the attraction I had to abs and beards. I would fight myself as I thought of changing in the locker rooms at school, and found myself getting excited. The only time I felt grateful was when I thought how lucky I was that people weren’t able to see the sexual thoughts racing through my mind. I would continue testing myself for hours until I could barely keep my eyes open.
Turning on my lamp, shame bubbling up in my throat like bile, I would turn over on my stomach and take out the worn copy of The Little Prince I had gotten from the estate sale years ago. Touching each and every page, looking at all the pictures, I would try and imagine how she felt when she read the same book I held in my hands. I would wonder if somewhere in the pages there was something that stopped her from ending herself sooner; a phrase that had pushed back her eternal silence, even if only for a few more months. The book is about a prince who lived on a small asteroid and crashes to earth, and now has to grapple with the harsh realities of the adult world. The prince doesn’t understand the cruelties of what he is witnessing but tries desperately to make sense of them all. The first time I read the book, a certain quote stuck with me. I wrote it on a notecard and kept it under my pillow to look at whenever I would have nightmares about being outed. I pulled it out whenever I read about another gay teen taking his own life. Eventually, I would write this very quote in the margins of the same notes I had once practiced saying my goodbyes in: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Shawn Binder is a creative nonfiction writer currently writing his book I Can Self Destruct from which this essay was excerpted. Shawn currently lives in Florida while his book searches for a publishing house.