I visited his studio apartment the morning after. The smell was horrible. I guessed maybe 12 hours had passed, I wasn't quite sure. A large piece of plywood was installed in place of his door because the firemen had kicked it down. There was an inch of space between the top of the plywood and the door frame. I asked an Asian college student across the hall if I could borrow a chair. He handed me a metal folding one without looking at me.
Peering into his room, I saw that everything had already been cleared out -- his twin bed, minifridge, potted plants. In their place was a black box, right there in the middle of the floor -- making a soft whooshing sound. Was it sucking out all the smoke? The scent of human blood? What was it trying to take away?
There was a bright white outline along the left wall, an enormous shape that was thick at the bottom and tapered into spatters at the top, a waterfall in reverse. This is where the blood had been bleached out. I stepped down from the chair, trying to catch my breath. The Asian student was standing behind me.
"Pretty weird, huh?"
"Yeah," I said. I didn't tell him that he'd been my boyfriend, that I had slept in that room for months.
"Fucking idiot. He could have killed everyone in the building."
"Yeah, I know." I smiled at him. I didn't know what else to do. I felt like apologizing. I felt like punching him in the face.
"His name was Tim," I said, then turned and walked out of the building.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The campus newspaper headline read, "Gay Student Commits Suicide." The article went on to describe how Tim set his apartment on fire and shot himself in the head. There was no mention of the pills he had swallowed.
Tim had come out at a gay pride rally at our Iowa City, Iowa, campus earlier that year. The only problem was, Tim wasn't gay, not really. I was a four-month detour from his heterosexuality. He was grief-stricken over the breakup with his girlfriend of eight years and was desperately searching for a companion. I was that companion, a warm and consoling presence, introduced to him by his sister, Jen.
Tim was a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy-next-door type, a free spirit willing to try anything. Jen encouraged him to go out with me. After our first date he was insanely happy that we had hit it off. I was wary at first, but also punch-drunk at the thought of this handsome "straight" man dating me.
Within days we were spending all of our time together, doing all the things couples do: movies, restaurants, bars, cafes. But after a couple of months things started going awry. We had sex less and less. Tim admitted that maybe he wasn't gay. He missed his girlfriend and couldn't stop thinking about her. And yet, he didn't want us to break up.
It was the middle of winter, snow and ice all over the city. We both sank into deep depressions. We continued seeing each other, but were hardly talking. Most of our time was spent drinking, smoking and sleeping in each other's arms. Neither one of us wanted to be alone. One day I told him I couldn't take it anymore, that I couldn't date someone who didn't identify as gay. He said he understood. We parted ways with the promise that we'd remain friends.
I lost hope in everything. I hated school, the city I lived in, my body, my face. I pushed myself to buy a bottle of sleeping pills. Just go buy them and see what happens, I told myself. One morning I did it: I had the bottle in my bedroom. I was very still and calm, determined to shove all of these white pills inside my body. Within a few minutes I gulped down all 90 of them, handfuls at a time. I lay back on my bed and felt as if I really accomplished something. It seemed that everything was going to be taken care of. I started dozing off. But then a jolt of fear shot through my body. Is this what I really wanted to do?
I wimped out. At the hospital I was given a charcoal mixture that made me throw up the pills, after which I passed out. When I awoke I was in intensive care, talking constantly and incoherently even when nobody was at my bedside. I shat the liquidy charcoal mixture all over myself. A nurse had to clean me up and change my bedsheets.
There was a brief stay at a mental hospital. I knew one of the orderlies from a local gay bar and was ashamed to be seen by him. I kept to myself most of the time, hanging out in my room and in the smoking lounge. My roommate was an 80-year-old farmer who had attempted suicide. He would wake up in the middle of the night and walk around the room talking to his dead wife. After a few days I told the psychiatrist that I was aware of the mistake I had made, that I didn't really want to kill myself, and that I just wanted to be at home, in St. Louis, with my family. To my surprise, he approved my discharge. My parents picked me up the next day.
At home I thought of nothing but Tim. How could I tell him what I'd done? Would he be mad at me? Would he ever talk to me again? We had talked only once since the breakup, a tense and forced conversation that left me feeling worse than before.
A few nights after I arrived home I decided to call him, but his phone was constantly busy. I knew he had call waiting. Had he taken the phone off the hook? I called Jen. Busy. I called his mother. Busy. I called Jen's girlfriend. Busy.
It was only when I called Wendy, my best friend, that I got through to somebody. She said she was on the other line and would call me back the next day. This wasn't like her -- she always called me back right away. I could hear a tremble in her voice. For some reason the thought occurred to me that maybe she had been raped. I was confused and concerned, my heart was beating rapidly.
"What's going on?" I said. "Are you OK?"
"I'll just call you back tomorrow."
It all seemed so obvious, right there in front of my face. But I couldn't piece it together. "Look, you're really scaring me. I need to know what's going on." I heard her take a deep breath. "Something terrible has happened." Pause. "Tim committed suicide."
My friends drove me from St. Louis to Iowa City. We left at 2 a.m. When we arrived in town at 7 a.m. I asked them if we could stop by Tim's apartment. As they waited in the car I walked up to his place on the second floor, one step at a time, slowly and methodically, wondering if all of this was really happening.
Later that day, Jen called the detective and asked where all of Tim's stuff had been taken. Everything had been thrown in a dumpster at the "cleaners," a business that specialized in scrubbing up the messes bodies make. We looked up the address in the phone book and drove there, chain-smoking the entire way.
There was only one dumpster. We climbed into it and started opening the trash bags on top. Tim's clothes were coming into focus -- singed, black, wet, covered in blood. I rifled through another bag and found a book I had loaned him. "James and the Giant Peach." The cover was sooty but the book looked fine otherwise. I picked it up and felt my fingers sink into something gooey. The back of the book was soaked in blood and brain matter. There was a bookmark inside. I cracked the book open to that page and saw a picture of James and his insect friends sailing over the ocean atop a giant peach.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Sandy, Tim's mother, invites me to join his family for a private visitation at the funeral home a block away from her house. I have passed this funeral home -- a modest one-story, brick affair with shrubs in front -- a million times without giving it a second thought. It's right next door to an adult bookstore I used to visit.
Sandy has requested that the morticians not embalm Tim. The wake and funeral will be closed casket and this is my last chance to see him, my only chance to say goodbye. I'm surprised we're allowed to see him at all. What will his body look like? Will there be signs of decay? What did they do to his face? I'm unsure of how I will react, afraid of breaking down in front of others. I prefer my grief to be private. But I can't pass up this opportunity to say farewell, to stare wide-eyed at death.
We all walk to the funeral home together -- Sandy; her husband, Mark; Jen; Jen's 8-year-old daughter, Ali; and me. It only takes three minutes to get there. The funeral director does his best to remain neutral, shepherding us to the visitation room. The room is medium-size and sterile, neat rows of metal folding chairs, a purple curtain against the back wall. An anonymous room that could serve as a makeshift stage for a local talent show. There is one religious icon: a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary situated among some potted ferns. I hear the low sound of something like a jet in the distance. It's the low whir of air conditioning, or a machine that puffs out white noise to create a soothing ambience. The same sound as that black box in Tim's apartment.
I steal a glance at his body on the table -- a pressed sheet neatly covering him up to his shoulders -- and quickly look away. I feel like the awkward outsider who's been invited to a family Christmas dinner. I shouldn't be here. I walk out of the room, deferring first visitation rights to his immediate family members. I walk around the foyer, sweaty palms in pockets, hearing muffled sounds of crying and cooing words, questions from Ali, who doesn't quite understand what's going on. Jen comes to check on me and we step out for a cigarette. My hands are shaking. What do you say at a time like this? I don't say anything. Sandy steps outside and asks me if I want to go in. Yes and no. Yes.
Now the room feels different. The air has a different charge, a hush of expectation. This is it, I think. This is what I've been invited to do. I stand in the aisle between the folding chairs: I can see his face is disfigured. I'm crying silently. I'm not the type to put my palms over my face when crying, but I put my palms over my face. The tears are strange, warm, gushing. I have to keep wiping them away, clearing the snot from my nose.
His face is twice its normal size. A crooked row of black X's runs from ear to ear, his eyes are stitched shut. One eye is raised inches above the other, a bulbous mass of damaged cartilage and vessels and bones propping it up. There are splotches of red, bruised spots, flaps of skin. The left side of his mouth is stretched and split. The hair is matted and clumped in back. His head had split wide open and the mortician had tried to put it back together again. This is the best he could do. I think of Humpty Dumpty. I think of Frankenstein.
His flesh is still pliable, lukewarm. I delicately pick up his arm, run my fingers over his arm hair, lift his fingers up to my face. I pull the sheet back, all the way past his feet. He is completely naked. His body has been washed and has a soft glow. It is perfect. I have the urge to lie on top of him, run my fingers through the hair on his chest and legs, kiss his ruined lips, pretend we are just sleeping.
I want to stay here for the rest of the night, looking at his body. (How much longer will he be a body?) I tightly clasp his hand, as if I'm holding him up from over a cliff. My voice surprises me, a low murmur coming out like a dark thing from a cave: I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry.
I look over his body, looking more intently than I ever have in my life. His blond hair, his tan skin, his collarbones forming their slight V. The dark hair on his chest fanned out in a symmetrical way, his ribs showing a faint trace of their arc. The hair on his stomach furry like a nest. His legs are muscular, athletic, sexy, his feet large and polished, his toes perfectly proportioned. The smooth hair on his arms and legs is dark, too, his knees and elbows youthful and unscarred. His fingers are long and tapered, three sections of horizontal notches on each one, whorls on his fingertips, unique coded markings all their own.
I put his fingers in my mouth, bite softly down on them. I run his palm over my face, wiping away my tears, kissing the back of his hand. I lean down and press my lips against his swollen cheek. I pull the sheet back over his body and hold him for a long time, just the two of us in the room. I don't know if this is how to say goodbye, whispering in his damaged ear.