I was in the library writing a paper when an old friend from high school called. It had been a long time since I’d talked to her, but I was in the library so I didn’t pick up. She left a message and I listened to it – who leaves voice messages anymore? It was cryptic, something about checking her Facebook and wanting to talk to me. I ignored it and figured I would call her back when I had the time. Just as I put the phone down, though, I got a text from another old friend. I read it, and I read it again, then I reread it once more. I think I was having trouble working out the letters in the little text bubble; they didn’t fit right. I got up from my chair and walked out of the library.
“Christian died of a heroin overdose yesterday.”
It didn’t make sense – but it did. The chasm that had grown over the years between me and the friend and neighbor I grew up with had been bridged; or it had disappeared altogether. His death allowed me to see him again – but it didn’t.
This year is the year that the American novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, social critic, and my personal hero James Baldwin would have turned ninety years old. Baldwin’s reach as a writer can’t be understated; from his intensely personal examination of religious awakening in Go Tell It on the Mountain, to his unwavering confrontation of the state of race relations in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin has managed to explore facets of American culture with a profound uniqueness, a poignant ease. His work reverberates within me in a way that other texts just can’t. Knowing this, after Christian’s death, my mom sent me one of Baldwin’s short stories about a man and his brother who struggles with a heroin addiction, entitled “Sonny’s Blues.”
“He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done”
There is no great block of ice. No defining feeling that represents my relationship with Christian. Christian is a memory, a representation of my youth. I grew up with Christian, and after I left for college, our relationship had, for the most part, ended. There are a million words and a thousand stories I could tell to describe him, but none of them seem like they could do anything to help me grasp what had happened to him. Memories started to rush through my head. I remember when we first met at a block party in Los Angeles; we realized we were in the same karate class and instantly became friends. We played airsoft—like paintball but with little plastic pellets— in his backyard and hopped the fence of the the school across the street when it was out of session to skateboard on the same legendary banks that Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva started skateboarding on. We climbed on rooftops and snuck out at night. He was my friend and I loved him. Here I am, though, sitting on the steps behind Baker library at Dartmouth, as my friend explains to me over the phone how Christian had died, from a heroin overdose.
“And she ran to the living room and there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up, and the reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound”
Christian is real to me again, but only in death. There is no way to escape the weight and reality of that fact. I wasn’t there for his death; I can’t even go to his funeral. It’s as if someone took an anvil and dropped it on the emotionally organized desk of my youth. And I can feel my body tearing as I try to lift it. The finality of it all has forced a conclusion to a story that I didn’t think would end for a long time. And now I feel singularly responsible for his existence in my memory, what was a two-sided relationship has been reduced to a singularity, and it is a singularity that I feel like I can’t possibly understand. To remove the anvil from the desk would be to allow my relationship with Christian to disappear. I’m not willing to do that.
"Oh well. I can never tell you. I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I'd die if I couldn't get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. And I didn't know," he paused, still flattening the beer can, "I didn't know, I still don't know, something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn't think that that was what I'd been trying to do- and-who can stand it?"
This death has brought a kind of darkness to me that I didn’t know existed. A completely unique kind that I need to somehow shed light on in order to understand who I am now that Christian is gone. I need to re-organize. The anvil is there on my desk and if I can’t lift it I need to make sense of it. Where has he been these past years? How did this happen? For these answers I turned to my friends, specifically the one who had sent that earth-shattering text– George. He was a friend of Christian’s too; they were in rehab together for a recent period of time where they had developed a relationship. He allowed for an insight into Christian’s life that I didn’t have, a present one, one that wasn’t confused by a nostalgic re-memory of the past. He told me about the friendships Christian had in rehab, that there was a mixed group of characters, people who he loved and idolized. I wanted to meet them and know them. But I can’t do that, I can’t know them and I can’t know Christian in the way that he was when he died. I have the parts of him that I have and that’s it, and that would be it. Forever.
“Freedom lurked around us an I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth…I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.”
Reflecting now on that moment when I heard that Christian had died, with Baldwin as the organizational force presiding over my cluttered desk of thoughts and emotions, it seems as though I had been immersed into a part of the world that only comes through personal experience. The darkness of pain, suffering and death, the stink of self-loathing that festers when all you can see is the darkness; they are realities that will exist as long as suffering, pain and death do. But the darkness is a communal darkness, one that stretches across the sky and lurks outside of the comforts of love, family and home. To listen to each other in the darkness is all we’ve got to keep from drowning in it. And in this interaction, each person is an equal participant in the creation of a kind company that can evoke an understanding that pushes past itself and allows the darkness to be seen for what it is. But Christian is gone. The freedom from the weight of this experience comes through an act of expression and audience. The audience I want and need is gone, or the expresser is; the ability to connect to my friend and communicate with him in the darkness is gone. And now I can only be with him in solitude, in death.
Talking To A Friend [Alone At Night]
When the streetlight pushes onto me,
And the shadows rush out,
And scatter up against the walls
And along the street,
Parceling my body’s weight
Equally and effortlessly
Against the cement,
And I watch
The cool motion of my shadows
Swirling around me,
And me, walking heavily
As they converge at my feet,
And I think about myself,
And the light
Pressing against me,
For the shadows to run
Down and out,
And allowing them to dance
And to see me
And to let me see them
And I know,
That when the light dims
It will just be me
Alone in the dark alley,
Whether to look back
Or go straight.