Like all my stories, this one begins in Dallas.
It’s not a typical Dallas story, though.
If I were telling you the same old same old Dallas story maybe I’d talk about how the guys and I used to race to school every morning, not outta excitement but because we woke up a few minutes before the bell. I’d tell you how one day Slugger hit 70 miles an hour on Preston and nearly flipped his Mom’s Toyota to avoid side-swiping a Mercedes. Then he hopped out with his hands to his head saying, Holy Shit! with the milk from the cupholder spilled all over his uniform shorts, and how the woman (turns out she’s someone’s mama) in the Mercedes comes out, screaming Lord Almighty You Boys Oughta Be Smacked, proceeds to administer said smacking to Slugger who is now staring at this woman between smacks and maybe it’s the fear of death, or maybe its all that perfume that the Highland Park moms wear, or maybe its the fact that it’s the morning, but Slugger pops a woody. Then the mom jumps up an octave, her hair explodes out of its curls and she starts sweating, gets inquisitive, like: Who Are Your Parents Young Man? What Is Your Name? and he starts making up shit and we just tell him Slugger Shut The Fuck Up and Ma’am He’s Going To Be Late and get out of there, our bodies shaking with laughter as we settle, sweating into our seats for Mr. Evans’s history class. Except in Texas all the teachers are old school about discipline, especially history teachers who happen to be baseball coaches. So as we’re doubling over in pain that afternoon in the mercifully cool late March weather with Coach Evans yelling in our ears and we tell him the story. He loses it laughing, and then we tell him Slugger’s new nickname, Erectile Dysfunction Slugger, and he likes that so he joins in. ED Slugger lasted three months. Those days were like an episode of Friends—familiar, fun in a boring way, and filled with white people.
But this is a story about sadness, the kind you fold up inside neatly until you can’t make any more creases. This kind of sadness, you’ve never seen it before. You used to think you did, that is until it hits your buddy, your best buddy, the guy that knows all the bad secret shit you’ve done, the guy that you say stupid shit like I’d go into battle with you, man. He’s half Asian and you can throw whatever slur you want at him like Chinc, or The Beast from the East, or just China—even though he’s not Chinese, he’s half-Taiwanese—you pretend you don’t know the difference even though you speak fluent Mandarin. You still call him Shanghai Noon and Yellow Cowboy, or just Chairman Bill cause his parents gave him a white name like William. But you, you know the rule, which is only you can give him shit for being off-white, and when someone fucked with him at a bar you cocked your fists, but Bill’s like, Let’s Get Out of Here Man, and you get on Central Expressway north and drive away back to your suburban paradise, bathed in streetlights, and your body’s still glowing from the whiskey when you get to your backyard.
That backyard’s actually where you are now, you haven’t seen your buddy Bill in four months—you’ve spent the last four getting lost on campus in Palo Alto, smoking dope, riding the bench for the baseball team, quitting baseball, and crawling into girl’s windows. The good stuff: you’ve been reading, too, and your head’s swollen from a term of learning more than you’ve known your whole life. The scary stuff: you feel like you’re heading somewhere, distant, scary, and the ground is slipping out from under you and you try to tell that to Bill like man, everybody gets down sometimes but nothing in your lexicon can approach what’s happened to him, sitting there with his nerves splayed out, twenty pounds thinner than his already thin frame.
Later, he told you that it all began his senior summer. Then he clarified, saying that’s when he started sleeping so much. That’s a sign, an early preference for nothingness over pain, you think. Your stomach sinks, because with your English major you don’t need someone to explain what sleep is most similar to — to die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream.
The only two other things you can really remember about Dallas, Summer, 2008 are: The Recession and pot. That was the first time you experienced either. Your dad was high up at a big homebuilding company, so of course that went to shit. One night after dinner your parents sat you and your three brothers down, explaining what had been happening the last three months, how your Dad was now technically unemployed and how his stock options were now—well, fucked. Then Bill showed up, just knocked on the door out of the blue.
Your whole family knew him, they were accustomed to this sort of gesture—and he said, Get in the car, and you said, Thank god. Slugger and Carson, your boys, were in the backseat, eyes streaked with rubies. You drove up Preston, headed East on Northhaven, past Hillcrest, to one of the ghost town neighborhoods. The front lawns—solar systems of FOR SALE signs, old furniture, and cardboard boxes—scrolled by. The road: winding, the windows: down, Bill’s driving: smooth. Stop here, Carson said. Alright General. That’s what we called him. Bill then explained, calmly, clinically, that since I was headed to school in California and since my family would probably be going on welfare soon I might as well start smoking some weed. It was both of our first times, and Slugger and Carson were more than eager to pop our cherries. If you were watching from the outside, down the street, in the fading light, you would have seen a pair of brake lights smiling red and smoke leaking out of the sides of the car, gently.
What happened next was surreal. I found this on Google maps, Carson said. It’s been vacant for months, Slugger said. The house looked like the houses I would see all over Palo Alto in a few months. Rancho style, tan on the outside, long but only one story, with French doors in the back and plant cacti in the front. We had to hop a fence, but the backyard was worth it. It must have been at least an acre or two, gently rolling, with the strangest collection of trees—Japanese tea, magnolia, cedar, oak, and some pines. You think we could smoke that? Carson said, pointing to an impossibly tall pine. He started laughing and I started seeing double. This all looks brand new, Bill said. The Recession, I said.
A big greenhouse was in the middle of the backyard, and we used our phones as flashlights to get to it. Inside we found a pool, stretched lengthwise, flanks pierced by silvery moonlight. Faded blue and orange tiles tattooed the bottom of the pool. Though it clearly hadn’t been heated or cleaned in years, the water was balmy, clean. With the woolen weed feeling between our ears lingering, we were like kids again, playing at monsters in the shadows.
Bill pulled himself out of the pool and I had to squint to see him leave the greenhouse. Walking on the balls of my bare feet, I followed him outside. He must have thought he was alone, because he was making a heaving, coughing noise and cursing to himself, God damn it, rubbing his eyes with quick, jerky movements. I approached him noisily, playing at being aloof, just to give him time to stop sniffling. Silver beads of moisture rolled down his cheeks, and his eyes were puffy. They cracked when I looked into them.
Hey, hey, look at me. What’s wrong? I asked. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Bill cry: in the fourth grade, sleeping over at his house, his parents found us playing video games at three in the morning and his father’s incredulous anger brought him to tears; in the tenth grade and in my car he cried over a girl, fixed his eyes on the sunroof to hide his tears. Hey, hey, look at me. I’ll always help you. Come on. Just tell me what’s wrong.
I couldn’t break through and he couldn’t stop crying so finally he broke away and tried to get to his car, mumbling something like I gotta go. I saw him leave and I saw Carson (barking like a seal) and Slugger (hissing like a watersnake) in greenhouse howling with laughter. Sometimes I cry too, I said. Sometimes you just gotta get it out. But what I didn’t grasp was that the despair seizing him had a hundred different beginnings, and, unlike my father’s unemployment, (which we called temporary) my anger issues, (which my parents called acting out) and the abandoned yard we were loitering in (which we called Grotto of Sin) it was nameless, faceless, and impossible to conceal.
Later, when Bill was really fucked up on the depression, emaciated from laying in his bed all day, he would say memories of Dallas that senior summer were all that kept him going. That’s the only way I ever got a gauge on how bad it was.
The next day, I was at the office helping Dad pack his professional life into a little cardboard box. As I stuffed a framed family picture into the box I laughed and said, Last time I was here, you were teaching me long division. He laughed too, said Time flies, and smiled in that wincing way of a man wondering whether his best days were behind him. Finished, we left the office empty and tidy. Later, I was holding the elevator doors open because Dad forgot something down the hall, a man not much older than me stopped me and asked, You’re Stephen’s kid, aren’t you? His face was young but wrinkled from stress, and the bags under his eyes aged him considerably. Yes sir, I said. He grabbed my hand, squeezing hard to make a point, and said: Your father is a good man. Don’t ever forget that. When he walked away without a box, and took the stairs, chafing to get out of my tucked in shirt, I realized he had been waiting for me, just to say that. Downstairs saying goodbye to the security guard my Dad’s voice wobbled a little and his eyes moistened. That was my father—he was resolute, but not unfeeling. Sometimes he would bend a little under the pressure, but he never broke, and he always regrouped. Within a month he was back in an office at a new company, with a higher salary and better position. Bill and I were long gone from Dallas, burrowing deep into our new lives as college students.
Freshman year started off good for all of us. Carson picked up lacrosse at Duke, Slugger pleased his father as an economics major at Vanderbilt, while I fell in love with every sixth girl in Palo Alto. And Bill, way up north at Bowdoin, buried his sadness for a little while under the leaves and all their colors. Dallas led the state in job growth during what we could later call The Great Recession. We flew back to that city we called home for the holidays and to our beds with white, clean sheets freshly made up by our mothers. You could barely hear over all the brainiac bragging at the Christmas cocktail parties, Actually I just took a class on the Israeli Palestinian conflict and you’re wrong, and the bad boy chest-thumping in line for a Whataburger: Look at what we drank, and I bet you wonder what she was like in bed. Christmas lights lit up the cafes on Pearl Street and the Dallasites were abuzz about the new bridge being built to span the Trinity, talking like it was a spaceship, and big enough to launch the poor black communities on the south side into the stratospheric prosperity that swaddled us whites in the northern suburbs.
Soon enough, I was staring out the airplane window as the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, a carpet of glittering lights, shrunk to the size of a pearl and tucked itself away beneath the clouds. I pulled an old letter out of my backpack from Mom, the one she gave me when I left for college, the one she said not to open until I was in my dorm room. She went all-out on the Hallmark tackiness, picked a card with a dog that looked like ours, with black felt ears attached to the front. The glue was wearing off but everything that mattered in the letter was the same. Maybe it was her being a mother of four boys or maybe it was her trying to be tough—but she was demure about her love for us, bottled it all up, let it gush out in streams of letters, gifts, and cookies.
What I loved about that letter was that it sounded so girly, something I was unaccustomed to. She even drew little hearts over her lowercase I’s, something my cheerleading captain, pink-wearing ex wouldn’t even do during the peak of her girlhood. The letter was weapons-grade love in prose. She squeezed the writing into every little margin of the card. It said things like: I’m so proud of the young man you’re becoming, I know you’re going to have a great time at college, remember to go to class, try new things but don’t change who you are, etc. Something that stuck out: she told me specifically that everyone gets a little down at some point during college, and during those moments, all you need to do is go for a walk outside, preferably somewhere secluded and sylvan, and breathe deep. The kind of exercise that makes you realize how little you and your problems are. Who knew she was a Buddhist?
That didn’t save me from the slump, though. I partied through my first term of college like I wasn’t being graded for it. After failing a midterm and dropping a class, I stopped getting out of bed in the mornings. Instead I’d just sleep through class and tell my roommate I was sick, then go study alone in the library at 3 in the morning and pretended I didn’t hear when the janitors said Son, you can’t be here this late.
Shit like that made me angry. I’d get in fights at baseball training, throw my glove off and try to break some kid’s nose. After the second fight coach sat me in his office and said, You’re not coming back to practice until you sort yourself out. He arranged for me to see a counselor through the school, one of those twenty something, fresh out of grad school counselors who treated you like you were a textbook. I made it through a few minutes in his office before I felt like crying. When he passed the tissues (in a metal container) my teeth started grinding.
Since I was no longer waking up for early morning practices I’d get blind drunk at parties and get in people’s faces, trying to push them to the brink, waiting for them to say Fuck off. I’d get this itch in my molars that wouldn’t go away until I got hit in the face. A plea for help, the counselor would say. I had plenty of enemies, stopped getting invited to things. Some of my friends were really worried about me, I later found out. They even wanted to sit me down for some kind of intervention. But it was too late. I had already exiled myself, actively avoiding their concerns.
In my dreams I’d kill myself. Well, technically I never finished the job, but apparently that’s a rule: you can’t die in your own dreams. The dreams were lucid, and I’d rub the imagined walls of my dorm hallway, feeling my way through the dark to the door. Outside, I’d walk west, in a beeline toward the Pacific. Bushes and thorns would tear at my pajama pants but I’d keep plodding on, numb. Crossing busy highways, trekking over farmer’s fields, and weaving through backyard fences, I didn’t stop until I saw sand and waves. Then I’d swim like mad until land was a distant memory and stare at the stars, letting the sea into my mouth and throat. Then I’d start sinking, and just wait for the last bubbles to float up, up, up. That’s what the counselor would call a suicidal fantasy, a DSM-IV warning sign for depression.
Tell me something I don’t know, I’d say.
One day, during the slump, I saw that a kid jumped out of a bell tower at Brown. They had to peel him off the pavement like roadkill. Why were all these promising kids at the best schools across the nation doing jumping out of windows, I thought to myself. Either way, the story snapped me back into reality, and I started having the strength to get out of bed. Crawling my way out of the hole, I clung to life like never before, didn’t stop until I saw sunlight. Spring couldn’t have come at a better time.
On a Friday night he called me. The phone rattled in my pocket and I, knowing who was calling, ignored it. The little vibrations reverberated through my jeans and the rooftop shingles. Beyond deciding not to answer, I didn’t think much of the call. Who’s that? a friend asked.
Across Governor’s Avenue, at the range, a solitary golfer drove his iron into the turf. The setting sun caught the clump of ball, dirt, and grass as it slid into hillside.
I don’t know, I said. I’ll call him back tomorrow.
I would have answered If I had known.
Over three thousand miles away, Maine was thawing slow and the air was still bitter cold at Bowdoin. Bill, who locked himself in a bathroom stall—as he later told me—put the phone back in his pocket and cried, gently. Had I known how still he was at that moment or later that evening as he collapsed, alone, into a pile of snow by his dorm, I would have answered. Just a week before we talked and he laughed and I slept comfortably knowing he was a little better. Besides, it was evening and it was warm in Palo Alto and the crickets were singing sweetly.
Against the snow, his face was still hot from the sobbing. The earth was warm and the cold nestled against the sleeves of his jacket, and I don’t know what else but he scraped against that rockbottom will to live, or at least not to die in the snow. That was when he knew he had to fly home, and fast. The next time I heard his voice, a full week later, he was in Dallas with the high school trophies and childhood teddy bears lining the shelves. Only half of him was home. The other half was still in that snowbank, shivering.
That week I walked quickly and spoke briskly to hide the guilt clumping in my stomach. I called him, emailed him, texted him, left increasingly concerned voicemails. Finally, I looked up his Dallas home number and called his parents. His mother answered after the second call and said in an assuring tone, Yes, he’s home, but he’s sleeping right now. Can he call you back? It was five in the afternoon in Dallas. I said Of course, just let him know I called.
He didn’t get back to me, but I got to him, maybe on the fourth dial, a day later. The voice coming through the phone was soft; Bill’s always was. I apologized, pled for forgiveness for not answering his phone call the week before. Don’t beat yourself up, he said, his sadness had nothing to do with one ignored call, he reported. It wasn’t retribution, it was unconsciousness — (he had been asleep for nearly a week, eating one grudging meal a day in silence before returning to his room).
When he did answer and I said How was your day? He’d find a word that didn’t sound as bad as terrifying. Then I’d say I know what you’re feeling, and it’ll be over before you know it. Go for a walk, maybe a run I’d say. It’ll make you feel better. He never did, so I stopped asking, because it was pointless — we were in two different places.
Each yearned for what the other had. He, desperate with pain that left him dazed, wanted my life—one with squeaking good reasons to get out of bed, a waltz of sleepy lectures, baseball mits, and echoing laughs in the dining hall—and I, filled with late term grade dreading, wanted somewhere quiet, where I could sink my fingers into time like putty—Dallas. Of course it wasn’t fair to Bill to equate well-since-I-quit-baseball-I-kinda-miss it to dropping out of life entirely. I imagined him staring at the ceiling fan, peering though its blades like prison bars. I’d think the same—prison—about the lines of my academic planner—something I had bought during the post-slump grade panic, something I would have called gay in high school. But the lines of my planner were aloof to big, scary things like depression and suicide watch.
Then there was a month left until the end of term for me, and I couldn’t wait to go home and cure my best buddy. For Bill it was a month of being sent to places with couches and diplomas and Let’s talk about how that made you feel, and when that didn’t work, a sea of Citalopran, Prozac, Wellbutrin. He wasn’t the same on the pills.
As the day approaches I reach out more and more to make sure he’s just as anxious to see me and I wonder whether this isn’t a manifesto of desperate dependence on the feelings that aren’t’ even my own. Feelings that aren’t really anyone’s, so severely remote on the taxonomy of common emotion that they disfigure their owners.
Outside the airport there are middle-management men with paunches and cowboy hats, and my little brother pulls up in the Honda, it fits him like a hand-me-down, dated and comfortable. He’s giddy to see me and pops out of the car, laughing for no reason. I say, Get out Ben, I’m driving, and take the wheel — we take the north exit out of DFW and when we get to Loop 12 the creeks are swollen with water that looks like it fell yesterday, and the trees are neck-deep. Homes lit with candles for the past three days. I put on the same playlist you hear at every party in California, and he starts bumping his head to it in the hat I gave him before I left for college, doesn’t stop playing it for a month.
Flood lakes spread across the horizon and all the farm-market roads are submerged, and I don’t see a contiguous stretch of green until we get to University Park. He pulls up in front of a liquor store and starts mumbling so I go inside, get him a case of Bud Light. When we get back to the house, empty—my Dad had a job in St. Louis those days and my parents commuted—he says, Big Bro, we’re going to need more than a case. My guts start getting loose, warm with anticipation. Get one of your friends to get it, I say as I go upstairs. I know you all have fakes anyways.
I go to the front lawn.
I stay out there and slip into a trance watching the kids swarm around footballs, soccer balls, baseball bats, in wild patterns, mud arcing through the air. Mommas peek their heads out of the front doors and start screaming Dinner! The sun starts to go and I pray that I’ll hear cicadas, but they aren’t around this year. Its humid from the raining and flooding, and only when the sky cracks with green and thunder hits like a mortar do I flinch and head inside. An hour later Carson and Slugger are at the front door, their hair deflated and water running from their lips, and they yell Motherfuck! What took you so long!
Ben has some high school kids in the garage and they’re taking turns taking pictures with beer cans. I go to the fridge to get the nice stuff, and one of the girls who used to watch baseball practice in high school, who used to wear a bow in her hair, stops me and says, You’re Ben’s older brother, right? She’s older now, sexier and more confident, but I coil up inside, and say, Who’s Ben? I try to shoulder past she gets in the way and I almost stop.
More of the guys are back, and we’re pretending like its high school all over again. We separate by age; college upstairs. I should be checking if the doors are locked and telling Ben to turn down his music but I drink another beer and my nerves go quiet. We’re all goofy, dancing low, all the way low on our haunches, listening as the cheap subwoofer I bought at sixteen money squeezes out a bass line, and it wiggles through the carpet. Pea green and embroidered with a little yellow, a tactical color choice on my mom’s part when she gave birth to her fourth son and started opting for durability over aesthetics. Every bone I broke until I was 12 was in this room. The old lego sets get mixed up now with the Carson’s Marlboro Red’s and my Shiner Bocks. The rain smacks at the window panes and purple lightning streaks outside like synapses and the house shakes a little bit, but we’re dancing to reggae, rap, and its rhythmic. We start singing and the gutters rattle like they’re going to rip off the house. It feels like sailors singing shanties on a sinking ship.
Where’s Bill? Carson asks. Bill? Isn’t he still at Bowdoin? I say. I grimace at that. But I lie again and say, Oh yeah I guess he’s still in finals up there. The next morning I see a text from Bill that just reads, sorry, I was asleep, and I put on a cap over my dirty hair and get in the Honda, driving fast. Did you read that David Foster Wallace book I sent you? Is the first thing I ask him when he sidles up to the side of the Honda. He’s wearing a brown sweater, one that used to fit him better, hangs from his still broad shoulders like a scarecrow now. He’s lost at least thirty pounds and his face looks haggard, his hair less curly. His sweatpants hang a little, flap in the back. You look good, I say. You been working out? He smiles and laughs, and we keep making jokes on the ride back to my house. His humor’s dark, and sometimes he just stops talking altogether and we both watch as Dallas wakes up, the pickup trucks and suburbans hauling across town. We grab some donuts and jalapeno kalaches, like it’s the morning of an elementary school sleepover. It’s a Thursday but it might as well be a Sunday morning, and we both feel pure, new.
When we get to my house we head out back to my mom’s garden. We sit down and when we start talking we don’t stop for a week. Not every day was pure, happy, talky. Yeah There were the bad days, the ones that came out of nowhere, flying low so I couldn’t spot them on the radar. They’d hit and the screen would blaze with green and Bill’s face would go ashen, embalmed by the fact that its college and everyone’s moving on with their lives but he’s back home with his mom and dad scratching at his door saying, Bill, did you take your pills today? On those bad days he’d go AWOL. I stopped texting and just drive up to his house and wait for his Mom to come out and say, Maybe tomorrow.
But the good days, the really good ones, Dallas would be all sunshine and Bill and I would laugh in the backyard, mom’s monkey grass at our feet. David Foster Wallace’s life, bound in a golden volume I got for Christmas is sitting on the table and my dog’s sleeping by the back door. Glasses with clear water, like a fresh start, kept us cool and sometimes the breeze would move in and rustle the trees. Fast food bags would accumulate in rings until we cleared them off the table days later, and sometimes when we got talking about something good, Bill would look at me and say I haven’t felt that excited about something in a while. The good days.