(Getty/MikeNelson)

He went to Burning Man and never came back

I watched as his life became performance art, a spectacle of glitter, cartwheels and "embracing your awesome"


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Liza Monroy
September 4, 2016 3:30AM (UTC)

“My ex-wife got remarried fast,” Andy said the night I met him at our ten-year college reunion. “I’m that guy in the crappy romantic comedy ‘Good Luck Chuck,’ where every woman goes on to find the love of her life right after him.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said.

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“I was born with bad luck,” he said. “If something bad can happen, it happens to me.”

That night, Andy and I learned we’d gone to college together but hadn’t known each other. At a potentially awkward reunion karaoke session, he belted James’s “Laid” like a professional rock star. He was Robin Williams-esque — charismatic, over the top, the instant center of gravity in any room he walked into. Dubbed “Most Likely To Be Famous” in his high school yearbook, he married his college sweetheart, lived in a suburb, and got the kind of job he thought he was supposed to have instead. He felt like a black sheep, he said, in his family of physicians and attorneys.

When I entered his orbit, we were both divorcées in our early thirties. I was just out of another destructive relationship with a guy who drowned my computers in a bathtub. After his divorce, Andy moved to the big city — Boston — lived with tattoo artists and sought his calling as an independent filmmaker while maintaining a day job as an administrator at a lab for Alzheimer’s research.

I’m going to get Alzheimer’s one day, he wrote to me. Both my maternal grandmother and grandfather suffered severe dimensia (sic), as did my paternal grandfather.  The risk is high … and it scares me more than anything. I already have a genetically flawed memory … I often times do not recognize people when I run into them and I see how hurt they are because they think I don’t care … but that’s not it.  It’s my addled brain, my damaged fluff. I am losing my own history because the record in my mind is missing fragments.

What I thought would be a college-reunion hookup turned into a long-term relationship. But after he moved from Boston to Brooklyn so we could live together, signs that this relationship wasn’t right began to appear.

We moved into a new apartment in Prospect Heights. What I saw as the ideal home, a sign we were moving up in the realm of adult life, Andy called “uppity.” I accused him of wanting to live in a Bushwick loft with pop-up canvas walls and fifteen artist roommates. He denied it. “I want to be here, with you,” he said, but we both, on some level, must have known it wasn’t true.

I came home from work to find him binge-watching reruns of “ALF,” the ‘80s show about an alien puppet. Andy talked about feeling like an alien himself, about how he didn’t know what it meant to be human. He admitted the flipside of his high-highs were low-lows. He never felt he was good enough, or that he belonged anywhere, but no one really understood — myself included — as he appeared so happy-go-lucky.

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But what really drove us apart was his unlived youth. He wanted to go out all night to shows and events like the zombie march, Pillow Fight Day and the Mermaid Parade. We’d met in an intersection; he was headed deeper into the wildness I was moving away from. During his way out of rational responsibility and my way toward it, we collided before forging on in opposite directions. When he said “We’ve reached the end of our road” on the morning we broke up, we were lying in bed, the sky flat and gray over Brooklyn. We’d both known it was coming — and yet we’d been “almost” right for each other.

The direction of his Facebook journal post-breakup revealed our incompatibilities anew. There’s a picture of him at the Coney Island mermaid parade. He’s in neon face-paint, dancing at a Moby show after-party. “This is my Valhalla,” he posted. I hate crowds. I longed for solitude and he thrived at massive Events-with-a-capital-E. Satisfied with the adventures I’d had traveling and being young, I sought to create my own quirky version of “settling down.” Andy, on the other hand, was looking to reclaim that unlived part of his youth.

Still, few months after breaking up, both of us were finding dating unsatisfying. We questioned whether we’d been wrong. Couldn’t we could do away with the “almost”, we wondered? Maybe we were right for each other after all, and the timing simply hadn’t been.  In the midst of reconsidering, we both left for a month — he upstate to work on a film shoot, and I to a writing residency in Columbus, Ohio. In Columbus, I started seeing someone. Unlike with Andy, there were no questions. It was easy. We knew this was it. Within six weeks, we were engaged.

Remember when i told you that you'd meet your future husband right after me? Andy wrote, recalling his "Good Luck Chuck" fate.

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Oh Andy, I replied. The perfect woman for you is still out there. You’ll see. You're a truly special guy, and the right one is just going to be a match, no questions, doubts or hesitations.

Maybe, he said, but I'm not really interested in finding her right now. I think this is going to be my year of living recklessly. Less caution, more wind. Reward doesn't come without risk, right?

***

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He bought a silver cargo van he emblazoned with the words BURN YOUR STARS BRIGHT in blue painters tape and left to drive across the country, go to Burning Man and make a documentary he was calling “Notes to Self,” about the art of preserving memory. I watched the photos he posted as his life became performance art, an online spectacle of glittery nail polish, cartwheels in parking lots, and enormous cutout gold stars he held up atop his van, reflecting the sun.

***

On the way back out onto the road after his first Burning Man, he visited me in Santa Cruz, where I’d since moved and gotten married. We walked out on the pier and he told me a long story about meeting a mermaid in the desert, how he’d gone to San Francisco to find her again, and various transformations he’d undergone since the festival. He wore Hakama pants and a silver burqa that revealed only his eyes and said he’d discovered his true identity as a whirling dervish. He was tranquil and frenetic at the same time. My concerns flared, but I said nothing. Andy was an adult, even if he was reliving those younger years he’d missed out on. When I asked him what happened to the documentary, he said he was still making it, but it wasn’t of the utmost importance now. His life was the art.

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“I’m a professional appreciator of moments,” he said.

And then he was standing in my kitchen, meeting my husband. As I made salads, Andy told Jason the mermaid story.

“A woman who was dressed as a mermaid?” Jason asked.

“No,” Andy said. “A mermaid.”

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An hour with both of them in the same room reified how much your choice of partner creates and impacts your daily existence. I could have lived in a world where mermaids were real and everyone was on a cosmic quest toward magical destiny, where I would be a passenger on a Ken Kesey-esque adventure, searching for those “secrets of the universe.”

While Andy needed to “ramble,” as he said, I craved home, security and attachment to a place and partner. My single mother had worked for the Foreign Service, I was her only child, and we moved every few years. My father was a different sort of wanderer. He became homeless and alcoholic. Was it any wonder I so desperately needed to follow Flaubert’s advice to “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work?”

His “year of living recklessly” turned into two and continued after that, seemingly endless. In my laid-back, small-city routine, I obsessively watched the very different journey Andy chronicled. A flicker of excitement registered every time my Facebook notifications showed a new Andy post. Some loved watching him as inspiration, others as reality-show-type trainwreck. Though I veered toward the latter at the time, Andy had undeniably journeyed far from the man who held a day job and played it safe. He lived as if he’d never left the “Playa,” traveling the country with few specific plans. He wore a furry vest with nothing underneath in the middle of Times Square. He helped the homeless in Reno in a pirate costume. He stood atop of his van wearing a unicorn head. He left little bottles and chalk messages all over the country with “Secrets of the Universe” (“Secret of the Universe: If you are in a place and you are not feeling it for whatever reason, GO WANDER, and the universe will put you exactly where you are supposed to be.”)

I met all this with a mixture of sarcasm and intrigue. When we’d first broken up, Andy said, “I don’t think I’m meant to love just one person, but to love all beings equally.” I’d scoffed, but then he actually went and did it. He posted compulsively about the lessons he was learning through the interactions he had on the road.

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“Epic things happen when you don't let hurdles keep you down, and instead accept serendipitous chance and fate.”

“Water flows and water falls. Down is not always a bad direction.”

“Some of the most beautiful things are for a limited time only. Keep your eyes and your mind open, or you're guaranteed to miss them all.”

“There are no silver linings. The cloud itself is awesome.”

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What is he really even doing, I wondered, pedaling fortune-cookie wisdom? I was glad he was finding value on his vision quest, but worried all his sparkle was a reaction to some deep pain.

The month after I saw him, he drove to the Playa off-season and got his van stuck in the mud, where it remained for eighteen days before he could get help digging it out.

***

In the spring of 2015, a few months before his third year at Burning Man, he returned for what would be a few months in New York City, a rest stop in the city he loved, where he’d started this journey. He had just settled in to his artist loft with fifteen roommates in Bushwick when he reported on Facebook that he had woken up off-balance with blurred vision. The next day he’d gone to the emergency room. He posted photos from the hospital: the inside of his brain, his heart, vials of spinal fluid. My unease deepened, but I reached out only with a brief get-well-soon message. He posted an update: he’d had a stroke, and doctors had discovered five lesions on his brain. He’d feared Alzheimer’s and dementia — brain diseases of the elderly — but now it seemed he had more immediate reason for his fear. In Oliver Sacks’s case study, “The Last Hippie,” a correlation is found between a Hare Krishna’s seeming state of enlightenment and brain disease when, described by his swami as “an illuminate” and told that his “inner light was growing,” he turns out to have an advanced brain tumor. I wondered about Andy, how serious this was, but he had returned to his daily life seemingly without setback, posting videos of trading jokes with the barista of his favorite café. I hoped everything was as back-on-track as it seemed.

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That was May; I was due to give birth in June. “I found out you were pregnant via a Facebook photo,” Andy wrote. “How appropriate, and how wonderful. I love you. I’m so happy for the lessons we learned from each other so you could be ready to meet ‘him’ and I could be ready for all ‘this,’ right now. I would never have been ready for my current life without that time with you. I’ll come visit after this year’s Burning Man. I cannot wait to meet the new game-player you two created a time-and-space machine for.”

I was anxious about his return to Burning Man so soon after having a stroke. The desert, with the heat and risk of dehydration, not to mention the drinking, partying and drugs that went with the territory, could be dangerous. I didn’t mention it, only that I was glad he’d be coming to Santa Cruz to meet the baby. As she grew up, I figured she’d look forward to eccentric Uncle Andy’s post-Burning Man visits. When he told me he was meant to love all beings equally, he also said he realized he wasn’t meant to have kids of his own, but to be Uncle Andy to all his friends’ kids.

Strolling downtown with Jason and our newborn last August, a sign outside a costume-and-lingerie shop caught my eye: Eighteen Days Til Burning Man!

Which translated to, Andy’s visiting soon!

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On August 15th, while on one of the many Target runs Jason and I made for something we suddenly realized we needed for the baby, a text came in from a friend. I checked Facebook for the first time that day. It was already a mess of tributes and shocked friends.

He never made it to his third Burning Man. 

That no cause was given made some surmise suicide, but I knew that was impossible. He loved life too much to die purposefully, much less right before Burning Man. Over those past three years, he’d come to call himself by many names, one of which was “Magician.” Well, he pulled the ultimate disappearing act. It was a private death for a man who put everything on public display.

***

 I’d thought Andy’s road trip needed to be ended — where is this going? I thought the answer would provide justification for it. But he was right; the road trip was for its own sake. Andy would have appreciated the way it all looked now that he wasn’t here to see it. I’d wanted to see the end, to know what he would do with what he gained. Instead it has both an abrupt ending and no end at all.

Over the following weeks and months, the way I saw his journey shifted. What I’d seen as Andy’s playa platitudes, dismissible as New Age, Burning-Man-went-to-his-head joke-fodder or entertainment, took on a new gravitas.

He was right about the “Two-Buck Chuck” thing and even about having bad luck.  Maybe he knew more than he let on. He’d posted a phrase he encountered in a fortune cookie soon before he passed: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” He’d constantly quoted the fantasy novel “The Last Unicorn”: “There are no happy endings because nothing ends” — was this, too, fortune-cookie wisdom, or was he more in touch with some mythological realm? He’d viewed his life through the lens of the legend of Dragon’s Gate, about a koi that dares try to leave the pond, swim up a dangerous waterfall, and, if he could evade numerous perils en route, transform into a dragon. Andy was getting images from the legend tattooed on his body in stages, as he accomplished steps of his journey. Was he the koi who made it through Dragon’s Gate and transformed, or was he one who perished in the attempt? His death either cements or undermines everything he came to believe.

Mythologizing the self is healthy behavior, Tad Waddington writes in Psychology Today: “For people to have meaningful lives, they must put their lives into a narrative, a story, a myth.” If it was so, Andy achieved this. Usually a rationalist, I chose to believe Andy was like Icarus — he flew too close to some sort of secret or forbidden understanding and was “called back.” Logic tells me it’s more likely that smoking and lack of rest overly taxed his already compromised nervous system.

One year from his death, close to what would have been his fourth Burning Man, I still scroll to the image of his van stuck in the mud. It reminds me of a children’s book I picked up called “Beautiful Oops.” It reads, When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something Beautiful! I took a snapshot with my phone and posted it to the “Embrace Your Awesome” Facebook group, a page where Andy’s friends shower his memory with cultlike devotion, such as tattoos of his face and his aphorisms. One of these, the photograph that remains his banner on Facebook, distills the statement he was making with his life: “One must dare to be himself, no matter how frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” It’s the truest thing I’ve come to believe. It’s from a fortune cookie.


Liza Monroy

Liza Monroy's new book, "Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire," about the search for love with the aid of her mother, a "profiler" for the U.S. State Department, comes out in October 2016. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband, pug, baby, and unruly potbellied pig.

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