CW: suicide, eating disorders, self-harm
In college, Henry would say, “I’m going to make a self-portrait,” before going into a stall, dropping pants, and squatting.
Once, I borrowed the expression but he said, “you don’t eat enough to portray yourself accurately.” I laughed, but he was right, and I knew it then too.
Remember that screensaver of the piping that built itself into darkness? It would twist in and out of itself until—”twist,” I suppose, isn’t the right word; there were only right angles but the result was intricate. This is what I thought Philosophy was: pushing the aesthetic limits of straight lines and right angles.
But Henry was not like that.
He used to say that he liked reading Nietzsche because it made him feel manic. On weekends, he would get high with his roommates before retreating into his room and doing Calculus.
I didn’t eat much then, and I often felt light-headed. But I chose this over feeling so stuffed that stale bread pushed on the inside of my brain; carb-structures crowding neural folds; wet, masticated elements staggering from my stomach to my esophagus, negotiating against the logic of cilia.
Our conversations were patterned. Often, he would start with a statement, and finish with a suggestion:
“I’d like to explode and die and sing all at once,” he would say.
“Sounds exhausting,” I’d reply from the couch.
“And a bit redundant,”
“Now, there you’re wrong and I’ll prove it. Read this,” he handed me a newspaper that headlined: “Woman Dies from Pyrotechnics at Gender Reveal Party.”
“Okay, you’re right,” I conceded, “Not redundant. Not enough, in fact. Can we add vomit to the list?”
“Of course! Brilliant!”
“Actually, is it possible to vomit in reverse?”
“Of course it is, we can go to the dining hall right now.”
We spent more time in his dorm than anywhere else. He was always there, so that is where I wanted to be. The suite’s window overlooked the sports fields and the valley. Sitting on the tan, concave couch, I would soak up the falling sun. If I hadn’t eaten that day, then orange light would obliterate me. I loved that alone but, sometimes, we shared it. Looking out the window, I’d hear his door open behind me. Nothing was said.
I never knew if he was watching me or the sunset, but I enjoyed the ambivalence.
I was studying Biology and worrying about biology related things. Henry was studying Philosophy and Mathematics; I don’t remember ever seeing him worry.
At school, I would miss my puppy, Earl. Occasionally, my family would call with complaints that had price-tags. Never once have I been home sick.
Henry’s family visited the first weekend of every month, but I was convinced his parents didn’t actually share any genes or memories with him. They were very reserved, very formal. They seemed slightly unsettled by my presence in their son’s room.
I liked his sister. Mira was only fifteen, but she already had a mind that rivalled Henry’s. When I met her, we discussed Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, political polarization, and vegan noodles. All of this within the ten minutes it took Henry and his parents to come to a consensus about dinner plans.
“Do you have any questions about, Henry?” She asked, as he returned to earshot, “About his medical history, or how he lost his virginity, or if he’s been arrested?
“Real nice,” Henry said,
“Has he been arrested?” I asked.
“Only in terms of development.”
They shared wit, love, perfect black, and a laugh which no room could escape.
He was sophomoric, for sure. Gross. Gratuitous. Scatological. He taught himself to do stick-and-poke tattoos on his own time and thighs. The left thigh read, “talk less,” and the right, “listen more.” At first, I thought it was kind of sweet, even sexy. Then he pointed out that, since he had not used a mirror, they were easiest to read when he had a bowel movement.
At times, his humor was almost repulsive.
“I don’t understand why Oedipus Rex is such a tragedy. So what if he fucked his mom and killed his father? Most people want to do that.”
In his defense (or, perhaps, my own) most of the men I’d met at school were mere ego-enthusiasts. They thought they were The-Young-Yeats, or the next Ginsberg, or Zizek, or whoever else was in style that week. They would never have allowed themselves to be seen as stained or gross, but they nauseated me all the same. I wanted to reject them completely.
Besides, Henry was funny.
Sometimes we’d play conversation like it was catch:
“I lost a miasma of me plasma,”
“I saw Parisians with secretions,”
“Were they flopsy with the dropsy?”
“No, but they drew schema of edema,” then he would stand and fall to the ground as if his legs were Jell-O-filled.
“Oh dear, are you feigning a paining?”
“No, sorry, just off-kilter from the philter.”
I don’t want to give a detailed description of our sex life, but I will say this: Henry was so comfortable in his own body, with all of its internal motions and suspensions, that occasionally this comfort was contagious.
A connecting concept: we were both fascinated by evolution. The idea that every thread of a person’s identity could be deconstructed and then reconjured into a logical system, built upon our gene’s singular goal: to survive and reproduce. It was another game. “Why did you buy a blue pair of jeans?” Because the sky is blue and it makes me think of infinity, and infinity is endless, and I want others to believe I am endless in every way, like a hole ending in a hole. And I want to believe it too. Why do we put water into bottles? Because we wish to contain the ocean, because we want to ingest and inhabit that power. Why do we admire sunsets? Because museums are too expensive. Why are you sitting down? … Well? I don’t know—I’m just doing it.
Then his sister died.
Apparently, Mira hanged herself.
I don’t know why I say apparently.
I remember the approach: going up the stairs to his dorm and walking past a police officer who was looking out the window, watching the same field I could see from the couch. Outside his dorm, another officer. Inside, his roommates waiting. Someone had called us all here, I imagine now. But Henry was not in this collection of bodies, this circle of faces. Someone told us, told me, that there was news but we were waiting for Henry to come tell it. My memory is not clear. The police had been there when his parents called to tell him? They were there for his safety? After his initial reaction, he said he just needed to go outside. And I guess that’s where he was, outside, in the fields somewhere. When he walked into the room and told us about Mira (this I remember) the room broke to bits without blinking. They surrounded him in hugging and tears and shock—but I didn’t move, I couldn’t; I just stared. Bones hollowing of anything worth spending.
Next thing, we were travelling the five hours to his hometown. Him and I, and his roommates.
We let him out at the funeral home where his parents were waiting. From the backseat of a Subaru, I watched him and his parents crumble into one another. A second crumbling (third? Fourth? Fiftieth? Every second? Every time the memory recurs and the wound recalls itself? Every time is the first time.)
The family required burial within twenty-four hours. The next day, we watched Henry and his family toss the first fillings of dirt onto a lowered pine-box. It was cold and windy and October. I either refused to wear a coat, or forgot to bring one.
I also remember the color red, like sirens. But, of course, this doesn’t make any sense.
He spent a week there, then decided to finish the semester. I don’t think he wanted to be home, not then.
When he returned, I learned that gift baskets are given by grievers: dark-chocolate, salted caramel cubes; sealed pouches of dried pineapple, papaya, mango, strawberries and bananas; crumble-cakes, coffee cakes, cake-cakes; yogurt covered raisins; the spoils of a small town’s sympathy stacked alongside a suitcase.
Smoke filled the room too, him and his roommates made knife-notches in the table every time they got high. Communal grieving and shared trauma. No more Calculus, they played GTA-V on someone’s Xbox. I would stay to watch, to gaze, to graze, to binge, dubbing dozens of dark-chocolates the ultimate installment in an exhibition christened: just one more, this is the last one, I swear I am an ugly-fat-puss-packed piece of shit, the sweets are not the funny part like your self-worth is, your selfishness, your weakness is not the point here, please stop making this about you, please stop please stop please stop please wait
I’m pretty sure he stopped looking at me long before I faded from his whatever it was. Was it a time? A place? A dumb, pointless story? Whatever it was, it turned its face to the sick, purple light of grieving. Every piece of furniture became just another pullout-couch with no mattress.
I bought a book on the Body and Trauma in a half-assed effort to learn how to help. I read fifty of the four-hundred-plus pages before I decided it was too medical and too not-instructive. The word “too” should have an opposite-match like “cold” has “hot” and “death” has “this.”
“Too not-instructive” sounds like something he would say; something clunky, not concerned with clarity or its own containment.
We barely lasted the semester.
Other predictable things happened before the end: he gained weight, I gained weight. We stopped having sex, we stopped going to class. I started cutting myself for the first time since high-school; little, horizontal cat-scratches on the soft part of my forearms. They healed quickly. He wanted to know why I was doing it. I said it wasn’t because I was depressed, even though I was depressed; it was because I wanted to do it.
He wanted to know why.
I said because it reminds me that I can make this happen. My body will heal itself despite my will. I said more predictable things to him but I can’t remember if he listened or if I listened to him listening. After that conversation I did more predictable things but not around him: crying, cutting more, binging, purging, drinking, cutting more; I started to wear big, spacious sweaters in his presence.
One night, I made a mistake. I tried a cut of a different shape, a shape that was too deep. I had never seen this much blood pour from my own body. Frightened and alone, I drove to the hospital because I wanted some back.
Not a mistake, said the nurses. Not a mistake, said the Doctor.
Large security-men with badges, no guns, checked my bag and found no weapons. They walked me to the psych ward, took my shoes, gave me sticky socks for sitting on a hallway-bench with a needle in my arm. There were no rooms. We all sat in the hallway. There were no rooms. A woman with black and white hair said: “I’ve been to hell and purgatory, and heaven, been, and came back to see my favorite nurses who, luck being, are not working tonight.” A man’s eyes strained toward nothing and he spoke to me about his times in Vietnam. He was too young to remember fighting in that war, so he lied. Ginger-ale, and saltines were our provided food. I waited six hours. Some professional spoke to me for ten minutes. It was dark outside but there were no windows.
A girl was dragged, kicking and screaming, from an unseen door into an unseen room. Security-men and nurses and the Doctor also disappeared into the screaming room. Someone near me vomited something orange and chunky. The screaming stopped and the large-guards, the Doctor, and the nurses processed out of the unseen room, returning to their own unseen places. Six more hours passed and another provider told me there was another room in another hospital. I wanted to know if I could go home? Not until my psych-evaluation. This is how they paraphrased it: psych-e-veil. The kicking-screaming-being-dragged girl walked out and, sucking her thumb, sat down across from me. She watched the muted TV above my head and three more hours passed.
An ambulance took me to another hospital, farther away, with a room in a different psych-ward. For forty-eight hours I practiced sleeping, talking to providers, acting like I ate the food, and living. An older man, (obvious stitching scar across his neck) who was also acting alive, revealed to me that he was Jesus Christ reborn (because who else could do this?) A young girl (younger than me) said Jesus Christ was a liar, and a devil, and that she was schizophrenic. She loved the real Jesus and the two of us got along well. There were windows but I refused to call my parents because my age was legally an adult’s. The hospital said this method wouldn’t work because of insurance—I had no money, of course. My parents seemed concerned when we talked, but I convinced them I was fine. They didn’t bring the bill up for a few weeks, which was nicer than anticipated.
Then I went back to school.
I found Henry in his room, he said hello and then launched into a new idea. Despite everything he had lost, there were still these hypomanic, or pseudo-manic, or drug-induced (who cares?) upswings, but they were different now.
“I’ve been using the 3D printer on campus and look what I made,” He showed me a blue piece of plastic.
“What is it?”
“Look,” he attached this blue piece of plastic to the side of his desk. Then he picked up his backpack and hung it on the plastic. It dangled safely above the ground. I looked at him and waited for the next part, but it never came.
“Now you can hang your bag on the side of your desk, or at a table in the library. Now people won’t have to just let their backpacks sit on the ground in the dust and whatever else is on the ground. Isn’t it a good—like, don’t you think people will want this?”
“Oh, yeah. I guess people might want that,”
He looked at me with deflated eyes and said, “maybe you’re right.” We both watched the bag sway gently.
Of course, I never told him where I had been. How could I?
My birthday happened somewhere in the month that followed. A couple days after, we had dinner at a friend’s apartment. His friends: vibrant, stylish people with bohemian outlooks. I felt awkward in my oversized green sweater.
The bohemian folks liked to have “string-sessions” after their supper. Ukuleles, guitars, and mandolins materialized. I never learned how to play an instrument, but a tambourine was provided so I could at least be arrhythmic.
I helped clean the plates and dishes in a conjoined kitchen, scrubbing away the evidence of my existence while worrying about species and something to do with mitochondria.
When I came back to the cleared table, there was a cake with candles ablaze and everyone started singing happy birthday. I didn’t know how to react then, but I do remember eating some of the cake. It had a crisp, lemon frosting, and a little melted candle wax.
I don’t remember any of their names. I’m not sure I ever really knew them.
I have two secrets, here is one: I can spit better than anyone you know. The consistency of my spit, I can cook it until it holds form. My assessment is not measured distance or speed, but accuracy. I can hit a dime with the confidence you twist a doorknob. Like the Annie Oakley of saliva, I have a favorite trick—I can be running, jogging, walking, it doesn’t matter; I will toss a tear into space and catch it again, and again, and again. Playing catch with myself. The ability to cook was developed by a child who thought that saliva had nutrients, and could thus ward off hunger; a strict diet of the self. The accuracy just comes naturally.
My second secret is that I have no gag-reflex. It should be obvious why I keep this a secret—the fact is low hanging fruit for the lewd and the laughable. Comments would circulate around my potential in the porn-industry. Imagination would play around the question: “how did you find out?” The closest truth is that I’m a failure as a bulimic: in this way, my body refuses to let go.
At the end of the semester Henry left school and moved back home. We talk occasionally, and he is doing well.
The book I bought and never read is still sitting on my shelf. Often, I pick it up and run my fingers over the front: it is blue and features that famous Matisse collage, Jazz. The temptation to open it up and read is nonexistent. The front is enough—the body is trapped, but dancing.
I still have those hospital socks too.
After that party with the surprise-birthday-cake, I went on a walk in an attempt to undo the calories. Henry went back to his room. While walking, I texted him a link to that Daniel Johnston song, the one that everyone covers, Some Things Last A Long Time. I know it’s too sentimental, but something needs to hold you to the ground.
This was how I knew to share myself then: with someone else’s words, bridging the gaps I could only burn up in.
After walking, I returned to the room and found him lying in bed with his headphones on. I crawled in next to him. Did he take the headphones off? Or did they continue playing as he turned and pressed his black hair into my sweater, burying the rhythms of grief? I only remember holding him there.