Peter Netherland’s lost recordings
I am not sad now.
Sad is too light a word, like using steam to build a bridge. What weight could such a bridge hold? But the world is bigger than our sense of it, and, depending on conditions, steam can hold a lot. Trapped inside a cylinder, it can pull a chain and lift that bridge, no problem.
I won’t argue with you, or myself, about what I mean. Even if there is no word, we know the thing. The broken glass of laughter from a far room. Taking a shower and wondering how your hands don’t pass through yourself. Long nights of silence and echoes under a yawning sky. It doesn’t color the world. It is the world.
Most people have this experience–depression, if you see a doctor for it–as a fleeting visitor, tromping around with muddy shoes a while before making a thankful exit. For a minority, this thing is cultured, personable, even welcoming. Like a friend we don’t like but keep around out of obligation, or their usefulness to us, it has its place with us at the table and in the passenger seat, every sensation filtered through its cool and unavoidable presence. Wherever you go, whatever you think, there it is.
How funny that unshakeable thing transforms into a friend.
This essay is about two people I knew growing up. I met them in middle and high school: one my age (I am now 47, in 2017), and one a few years older. They are dead now.
I have been in no hurry to write this. Partly it was from my distance from them: one I knew only in passing. The other was a wild kind of friend…in 1990. Since disappearing in 2005, he re-emerged only in 2015. I met him at a reunion that October. He was the same.
But part of my lack of action has been that thin and terrible too-good friend. Not like the old days: no, that airless haze is long gone. But it has been a little gloomy, being back at a job to build up money to have more time like the time I had bought with my previous savings that I could have used better. It’s not hard work, and sometimes I enjoy it, but every week is entering 40 hours and clicking Submit: to hours in the car or on the bus or subway, staring at screens, wondering what am I doing?
Whether from citalopram, or antibiotics, or the sun coming out (if you’re watching for it), I’m feeling the moss fall off. I have saved money. I write every week and the second draft is filling in, the third draft kicking at the door. (I haven’t written here to put my energy there.) I’ve learned how to work my health. I have a couple friends and a girlfriend who gets it all. Maybe there will be nothing to eat by 2050, but until then, it really will be all right.
High school dreams have come back. The most prevalent one was on regular rotation in my thirties: the now-me back in high-school-then, sitting behind a desk gone small while I made up classes I forgot. That one had an uncanny realness–the walls the same tapioca brown, adult faces pinched or tired, the kids clued in to how it was all an exercise–and made sense the way dreams do. The rest are vague impressions from that time: terror of failure, anxiety about and boredom with harassment, and girls, those shrill creatures. There’s no story: just wide-lens closeups with everything crisp and huge. Whoever it is deep down making these dreams warps memory’s plastic further.
The dream resurfaced with going back to work, putting writing on the back burner and wondering if it’s any good. When the second person died–a woman my age, not a girl for a long time–it did not affect me. But maybe it did. Now that things are good and solid underneath, I can think about them.
Peter’s reputation met me first. Turning memory’s knobs sharpens the high school band hall and the L-shaped room full of cubbyholes where instruments were stored. For once it wasn’t loud and crammed with people maneuvering oblong cases. Some hubbub started beyond the L’s hook, and girls near me made their faces more sour than usual. “That guy’s a drug addict. Stay away from him.”
Terrified as I was of drugs, of bad influences, and of doing anything wrong, I left the other way. But a steady trickle of secondhand whispers followed me, shaping Peter’s image. Did you hear what that guy Peter said? Did? Gawd, I can’t believe that. Man, that guy’s hilarious.
Peter was not at all the earnest, churchgoing, middle America team player Burleson High School prided itself on. He did drugs. He blasphemed. He was not simple. He was trouble.
Meeting Peter in the flesh was as much a relief as a disappointment. After school one day, there he was: in the same corner of the L-shaped room, sitting on the small countertop by the square steel sink where students like me rinsed their reeds and mouthpieces. His constant, wild look grabbed me: bleach-bypass hair shocked upright, thick glasses framing small marble eyes, his head rotating in constant tiny songbird jerks. He looked like Eraserhead. He held a guitar in his hands.
Aside from a name, his words to me are lost, but they were friendly, and too loud. It was something like: Hey, man, you look like somebody who’d appreciate a Carl Perkins song.
Carl Perkins and Paul McCartney, performing “Get It” on McCartney’s 1982 album, “Tug of War”. (Image credit: do you know?)
And he played a song, country or blues or slow rockabilly, his voice smooth but a little high, his playing very good, at least to a high school kid. Others aimed hostile looks, but I watched Peter close his eyes and sway with his playing, this performance just for me. Maybe a little too much and veering schmaltzy, but Peter did not struggle as I did in my own artless practice. He was in a state I never knew playing music: ease.
This guy doesn’t seem so bad. And then the relief, and the opening that comes with realizing the truth is not what everybody says it is.
Peter finished the song. “Hey, man.” (Every interaction with him opened that way: hey, man.) He pushed his glasses up with one finger; he was always pushing up his Coke-bottle glasses. And he started talking. Peter’s speech was a deluge. Words gushed from him, an idea building to two-thirds complete before connecting to another, or nothing. Peter talked with me, or at me, for maybe twenty minutes. I remember floating with it, saying yeah or oh, wow here and there. It was about music, mostly, and science, and assholes at school. There wasn’t room for me, and that was fine.
Frenetic described Peter. Nothing violent or out of control, it was more like a cartoon character’s energy: revved like a puppy, excited to see the world but without grasping possible downsides. His hands moved and his head darted and his average legs made long strides while he talked and talked, always thinking aloud. A random sentence might be something like: “Hey, maybe it’s all right that Texas executes so many people. All these thunderstorms…gotta put all that juice into somebody. Zzzap!” I can’t stand by the specific words, but he said things like that, and that’s a tame example. Keep stringing sentences like that together–whether they related or not, whether they ended up in the same place or not–and that was what talking with Peter was like.
Most impressive to the teenage me was his skill of invoking the most foul comment possible unconcerned with, or unaware of, the horrified gasps to follow. There were so many! But I remember so few. The only specific examples I can remember are:
- In a grocery store with a low-rent couple that tagged along with us, Peter wanders down the detergent aisle. He heaves a jug of bleach in each hand. “Hey, you kids oughta get this and clean yourselves up. Maybe she should drink a little. Got a third chute to clean out, know what I mean?”
- One of his numerous bands was playing out in the country. Foolishly, I take a girl to meet him. He’s affable, saving it up. Just before we go, he addresses the girl. “Now, if y’all fuck, be sure and use a condom. Okay?”
- Late at night on a golf course, walking and smoking cigarettes with a group of the mildly drunken. Peter paused in the moonlight to stoop over and slap his thighs, hamboning ’bout dem nigger-folk.
Some people cackled at that last one; there were some groans. Always unsure what to think or do, I appreciated Peter going the distance. Peter was incapable of second-guessing. He was too frazzled, pushing too hard ahead, not quite careening but just within control. Whatever the off thing about him was, it held him but did not squeeze him. He saw no need to rein it in.
In high school and most of college, Peter wasn’t someone I hung out with, or met and went somewhere with. He had no reliable phone number, no fixed address. He had a truck, a car, his Mom’s car, a truck of unknown provenance. At times he had nothing. Peter was a creature of moments and chances.
Peter was a little off, but he was no threat. He possessed a prodigious if inchoate intelligence he could not focus. He could not synthesize a larger whole, but in hindsight I see him only slightly more burdened with this than anyone else at that age. Still, he had a burden greater than mine. He came into the world scrambled.
Peter introduced me to drugs.
Alcohol did not interest me: my parents’ house had come with a late-Seventies status-symbol bar, and after sampling some paint-thinner-smelling bottle one latchkey-kid afternoon, nothing took. (I still don’t get it.) But Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs permeated my middle school years, and by the time I met Peter–1984, I guess–ceaseless propaganda had made clear that drugs led to the Hieronymus Bosch world of horrors imagined by the era’s televangelist moralizers. Constant drilling by school counselors, walls lined with anti-drug posters listing pills and their destructive potential, the threat of cops walking their drug dogs down the halls (though I can’t say if this was ever done) set the tone. My literal honor-roll mind gobbled up the message as intended: drugs were the end.
Some Friday evening, at the home of the high school’s self-declared misfit king, Peter played his guitar while others smoked outside or huddled around the dining table, lost in Dungeons and Dragons. Peter and a couple older guys I never saw again were talking music as they passed guitars and basses around, along with a bottle of something colorless and powerful. I was likely the youngest, recently invited to hang out with these giants at the house lost in scrubby woods. I was uncertain, and uncomfortable, but made no noise to leave. (I was too young to drive. How did I arrive or leave? Memory shouldn’t be taken too literally.) Night hollowed out the windows and warmed the incandescent light. There was so much going outside to smoke that the flow to one of the big guys bringing out a joint was unremarkable.
To me it may as well have been a grenade. There it was–marijuana–passed around like it was nothing. It was Peter who offered it to me. “Hey, man, you’re welcome to join if you want.”
Even at that first meeting, as much as I enjoyed and was even awed by his scattershot intelligence, I knew Peter needed to be kept at a little distance–just a little, to give me time to react. I was fourteen, still fuzzy on where good sense became paranoia, and still stung with getting a B in algebra the previous year. I had to watch my step.
Chips in the adult-world edifice let light penetrate the fear. The Communists couldn’t keep the lights on or feed themselves, but had continents of zap-blasters poised to destroy us all. Jesus had no answers I could tease out of the gibberish offered in his name. Blacks were filthy and evil. I hadn’t read Hunter S. Thompson or Vonnegut yet, but I had read a lot of science fiction, and LeGuin and Heinlein were all about haughty authorities being strung up by their own arrogance. I was far too timid to make a big break, but my private suspicions had grown strong roots.
Peter holds the roach out. It’s sloppy, barely smoking. Nobody’s looking at me, nobody’s pressuring. It’s just Peter and me. “Uh…”
“Hey, man, no problem, no anything, man.” Peter delves into one of his little maelstroms: hands up with mild gesticulations, head bobbing and shaking like rubber clockwork, the wild hair tossing as his eyes squinted and opened and he talked and talked. “It’s just an offer, man, and never take an offer as a compunction. In fact, never feel compelled to do anything. That’s an important thing to hold close, man. I was reading Maupassant–”
That’s not from memory, of course; no way could I retain the words so clearly. But I remember with what I believe is utter clarity his sense of welcome, lack of pressure, and immediate absorption into his own personal stream-of-consciousness. I have yet to meet anyone who can hold such court on Maupassant. It was weird, but it was also fine. I didn’t try pot for another five years, but it was Peter who showed me it was not what the powers said it was.
Weekends at the king’s house, a house band assembled. As the audio-visual nerd, I was asked to record their sessions. I made an effort, bringing the heavy Sony open reel tape recorder my Navy dad had bought while on leave in Japan. Loaded with quarter-inch Radio Shack ConcerTape and combined with its included phallic microphones, I unknowingly rendered their high school efforts to mud. But they were grateful, and so was I.
I switched to a Sharp double-cassette recorder after the birthday my grandmother bought it for me. I bought TDK standard oxide tape: the middle-nice stuff, short of superior and too-expensive chrome tape. One afternoon, after the recording was done, I put a tape in for fooling around. Somewhere among the breaks and hum, I captured Peter doing this:
Peter on the Farm – April 6, 1986 (listen)
I still have the tape.
That’s all of my Peter high school memories. College is more expansive. There are nights at parties, if that’s what are called a gathering with beer and video games and those elaborate role-playing games with the funny dice, Peter always too loud, always annoying, but never asked to go. By himself or with others, he would play guitar. While I sweated my GPA, he passed through a hazy archipelago of no-status service jobs, each island separated by smoke. He had a sequence of bands that cross-pollinated Jerry Garcia and David Bowie, none any good. I saw him at grimy middle-of-nowhere bars and corporate chain places where it didn’t matter who played Tuesday nights, each new set of bandmates more stoned and indigent than the last, all of them talking big talk I sensed was fooling themselves. Peter was someone I was glad to see, if never quite sure how to handle. After an afternoon or night, I was also glad to leave.
1990 was my Peter year. Back in Fort Worth after an intense semester in Boston, I was rattled and ashamed. I hadn’t been able to escape. I wandered 1989’s last weeks in a daze.
“Man, I’m really thinking I need to get out of this place. I need something big, something to blow up everything keeping me down.”
The December night was cold. Peter and I were outside, him smoking, a porch light fending off scrubland dark: that’s all I remember. His staccato exposition was about that, whatever the exact words were: the need to move away for a big change.
I said something like: “I don’t know. There’s a lot right in front of you if you just see it. Take advantage of that. It’s expensive to head out. I get that now and I didn’t before. Maybe you should focus on TCJC.” Tarrant County Junior College (now TCC) was where everyone went, for a while.
I’m ashamed to have told him this. My path wasn’t his. I wasn’t in a place to see that, caught up as I was in being the hero of my own adolescence. But also, I might have sensed a big change would be too much for someone unable to hold an entry-level job for more than a couple months, who could not focus, who had no boundaries. Kindness and fractured intelligence don’t make up for a psychiatric issue. Maybe I thought I was protecting him.
After that cold night, I saw more of Peter. We would talk more–meaning, I asked a priming question and then listened as he went on–at gatherings, at hole-in-the-wall coffee-and-donut places, in parking lots between his band’s sets. By this time he had a dependable ride: a white Ranger pickup with a distinctive trapezoid camper top. We would sit in it as he puffed out the cracked window, smoke white in the blue night. The excitement (perhaps ridiculous) of being in some deserted mall parking lot while Peter smoked pot was unnerving, and wonderful. He lived at his mom’s house, just another post-war rectangle a few blocks from his elementary school and a few more blocks from the high school–everything the same.
After Christmas but before the next semester started, I spent several days with Peter. I remember them as accidental. Peter needed a ride, some help moving an amplifier, moving some furniture someone had given him. I pulled out of my parents’ attic the little desk of my elementary years and offered it to him. He was making a fresh start at TCJC and I wanted to encourage him. He was delighted. “Hey, man, thanks. I really, really appreciate this.” He was sincere, even more so given how ridiculous he looked squeezed behind the tiny thing, the borrowed kitchen table chair too big to fit underneath.
Afterwards, we walked around the combined community center, pool, parkland, and nature area. It was the city’s drop-off point for the season’s now-unwanted Christmas trees. Piles of them, streaming tinsel, made me unbearably sad. Peter walked with me–not sad exactly, but interested in seeing what I saw. Now, thirty-seven years later, I appreciate what a gift this was.
Peter’s hand, December 1990
We look out over the season’s debris, December 1990
Maybe a dozen times over the year, Peter and I had late-night weekend talks. Peter’s intermittent TCJC studies gave him tons to talk about: more Maupassant, how Hemingway was a pussy, the early experiments the psychoanalytics made with psychoactives in attempts to better understand mental illness. This last was of great fascination for both of us: I remember the allure and terror, and respect that Peter had conducted such experiments himself. He did not seem to have retrieved any insights, but talked for hours about how psychoactives connected to Huxley, and then Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Haight-Ashbury as “social remediation from all the big-dollar mind fuck”, and on and on.
At a long-gone Sound Warehouse, we perused the LPs and the considerable VHS music documentary section. I remember the warm halogen spotlights in contrast with the hard, fluorescent-lit LPs. It was warm there with Peter while he was a little more jazzed than even his amped-up usual. I persuaded him to get the Jethro Tull documentary. We watched it that same night at his mother’s house. No need to worry about being loud–I never met his absent mother aside from hi. Peter talked over the show, regurgitating volumes of music trivia, laughing at Tull’s live performance mistakes.
I think these pictures are from that night:
Peter and mom, December 1990
Peter’s bedroom, December 1990
I went home very late and did not feel alone.
In August of 1990, my father bought a car for me: a blue Honda Civic sedan, new. (At the time, I thought I would be buying it, but I never got a chance. I’m not sure I realized the windfall at the time. To show my gratitude, I kept it 23 years.) After growing up with and then driving Seventies-era and one 1982 American car, the step change from junk to Japanese has no words. The car may as well have been a spaceship. Starting it made no more noise than a rabbit’s sneeze, its air conditioning of mythic power, like out of Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire”.
Peter and I took no special trips in it. It was all weekend nights of driving around the old neighborhood, schools we’d gone to anchoring the corners, the world dark but for blue mercury streetlights and the aerospace dash, the air conditioning whispering as the little town dozed a hot sleep. Peter talked and talked. “Hey, man, this car’s old.” He laughed at how I bristled. He was grateful for me driving him wherever he was going. “All right, man, take care and we’ll see you on the flip side.”
Out of everything, those nights are the most Peter to me: headlights in the dark, him in the passenger seat laughing at his own jokes, my sense of shame held off a little while by new car smell and Peter.
1991 must have been busier, though I still saw Peter. I remember a night near that hambone golf course, where Peter observed again and again “this tree looks like a spade.” (Referring to a young cottonwood, he meant the tool, not the ethnic group.) 1992 could not have been much different, but I graduated college that year. The fall I counted down to graduate school in 1993, and have no memories of him. And then none until 2015.
I didn’t miss Peter. Maybe this is cheap and denies him a sincerity I owe him. Maybe, as I understand it now, we were the sorts of friends we could be for one another. That’s the best truth I have from twenty-four years in the future.
Peter was not headed for success as our society measures it, but he was no threat to it. He used drugs to self-medicate and experiment. If he could have bought them at the corner store, he’d have likely found some combination to calm him just enough to hold better jobs, maybe finish school. Peter’s crummy growing-up home life I learned about later: divorce, an older brother much more of a mess, mother absent and depressed, father just absent. I learned his father had some role in psychology and marveled that the father had not done anything to get Peter psychiatric help, at least that anybody knew. Peter was on his own, more or less.
In 2008 or so, I asked a mutual friend about Peter. The information was that Peter had lived with (or been in the care of) another mutual friend, until Peter’s inappropriate behavior became intolerable. Peter was kicked out. He had gone to New Orleans. There was no word of him after Katrina in 2005. He’d drowned, I supposed.
The news was like finishing a good but not fantastic book: the writer had done well and held my interest, but the book had come from the library–I hadn’t made the investment myself–and back it went. What else was there? It was too bad. Peter made me laugh. I was grateful, but he had been gone a long time.
Eight years later, Peter lived. Pictures proved it: Peter at a restaurant table with two mutual friends, the same hair, the same little eyes behind big glasses, the crooked smile with missing eye teeth filled in by a disliked bridge. He seemed small, a child at the big table. His smile was tight-lipped.
When I saw him in October 2015, I was struck by how unchanged he was. His movements were less jerky, but they were the same ones. His more mellow patter flowed unabated. To those who had participated in a long-ago video project he had directed, he presented T-shirts. Before and after, he performed on guitar.
Peter Netherland, October 2015
He pigeonholed me later, his one-sided conversation pouring out arcana I don’t remember. He was happy. For someone who’d lived on spare change, he looked good.
I was happy to see him, glad he was alive, but he was so unchanged meeting him was dreamlike. I gave him my phone number with reluctance. I didn’t want any long and aimless phone calls, but I hope I didn’t show this. For what I can remember, his enthusiasm never dimmed.
Later, I would be told how Peter had moved beyond youth. He held the same starter jobs, but he held them. He was saving money, paying things back. He did not smoke, drink, or do anything stronger. He was getting it together, making amends, supporting others. He had overcome it all to return, if not to a home he never had, to an equivalent goodness. The friend that found him repeated: he’s doing way better.
After leaving, my Canadian girlfriend admitted she’d hardly understood what anyone said, given the accents. “Just like me thirty years ago,” I said. “But I can understand now.” Then we flew home.
A few months later, Peter was killed by a single shot to the back, fired by his brother, apparently during an argument.
I’ve been told that the mind can be a dangerous place, and so to never go in there alone. Call your sponsor, call your therapist, call whoever you need to call. You can even call me. If you’re giving yourself those signals, give yourself that permission.
It’s good advice. The fire alarm is comforting hanging there on the wall, advertising trust. I’ve never pulled it at 2 a.m., but that’s because I’ve known it’s there.
Even though I’m not sad about it, even though I’m not ashamed that I’m not sad, I wish Peter had pulled something for himself and gotten out of there and back to some place clean and bright and possibly lonely but at least whole, with a dogeared edition of Maupassant and his guitar.
The Western Place, Burleson, Texas (Image: NBCDFW.com)
I met Lauren in seventh grade band. She played clarinet, while dithering and pressure assigned me the oboe. We squawked and honked our way through the autumn of 1982, our noise sealed inside an auditorium’s flaky acoustic tile. I never got the oboe to make a noise other than a garbage truck crushing geese.
Oboes sat center front, in the band’s first concentric crescent, just in front of the conductor. Hordes of clarinets were to one side, flutes the other, neither producing much more than a whisper. Lauren sat in that first row, her paleness, her hurricane of curly red hair, and her thick tortoise-shell glasses impossible to miss. She smiled, and she laughed, showing all her teeth. I thought she looked like the cartoon Shamu appearing on commercials. Hey, when you smile, you look like Shamu. I had no intention of being mean. The Awkward Age was upon us all.
I didn’t talk much. Middle school was a shock: bells, rush, adults having decided we were not quite criminals, everyone scowling and mean. My plan’s wisdom was confirmed by the snarls from the first-row girls–except for Lauren. Lauren was silly, sure, but never mean.
I don’t remember what got us to talk, but she quizzed my New Wave knowledge, which was zero. She made elaborate mini-posters on notebook paper: hearts and stars around “Toto”. I responded with blocky notes of “Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops”. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t get it. She laughed, choppers flashing white. She thought I was funny.
It never occurred to me we could be friends. Friendship was shifting so radically I wasn’t sure what that could mean. Her husky deadpan ended in breathless laughs.
Like all true dorks, I became an audio-visual assistant. Aside from wheeling projectors around, the position afforded passage to the A/V Room. An oversize closet within the forbidden faculty area, it was doubly shielded from bullies and screeching. I could hide out during lunch and watch Star Trek episodes taped off TV. Pathos aside, it was a respite.
Lauren became an A/V assistant. Her early Eighties glam Swatch fashion clashed with the drab equipment: multiple Swatch watches, Guess jeans, switched coins in her penny loafers. Why she wanted to associate with fashionless rejects was a mystery.
“What would happen if I let this go?”
Lauren had a 16mm film reel poised on a table’s edge, her freckled hands just keeping it from rolling off. (I’d forgotten this entirely. She reminded me the night I saw Peter again.)
Eighth grade started wrong. Mono clobbered me so hard I missed the first weeks of school, and I was pressured to catch up. I was threatened on the bus and in hallways, had my locker door slammed shut by someone bigger hissing faggot. My hands shook so badly teachers complained about my handwriting. Whether my lack of appetite and vomiting was from Epstein-Barr or nerves, I don’t know. But in the A/V Room, this girl threatening to loose a film reel did not compute. I couldn’t see, or denied, that she wanted to play.
“It would unroll on the floor and get scratched up, and I’d have to roll it back up.”
Along with my flat response, I remember little of my inner life: fatigue, confusion, annoyance. Secret protocols of what could be said to girls, and how and when, were in play: rangy boys delivered threats about talking to “their” girls the wrong way. (I once said something like: “She’s yours? Did you buy her off the classifieds?” I learned to choose my audience carefully.) I probably thought it was a setup.
She laughed. That’s all I remember.
High school was better. She dropped band while I persisted. Bullies lost interest; I kept quiet. Algebra II was comprehensible even after struggling with Algebra I. Lauren and I continued to share accelerated classes.
We never talked much, but there were moments when something would spill over and we connected: some quip about a pop figure, or a crisp observation of a classmate. She remains the sole female human I know who likes The Blues Brothers. I love that movie. I watched a copy so much the tape wore down. When other girls groaned en masse at my adoration, Lauren alone smiled: “I love where they drive through the mall.”
For a minute–hours of adult time–we rehearsed the movie. This don’t look like no expressway to me! Do you see the light? What light? We’re on a mission from God. She smiled and laughed her husky laugh, and then it was class again.
Once, she came to school drunk. I remember my amazement: you can do that? I’d been around drinking, even what the TV hysterions would later label “binge drinking”. It bothered me, but understood it as a cheap thrill. Only much later did I learn of all the fellow students dealing with beatings or neglect on the hard end, arguments and mental mind-twisting on the softer end. Moralizing adults and I didn’t understand kids drank for the same reasons anybody drinks.
After whispers, the incident faded. Outside of school, when it coincided for us to be at the same absent adult’s house, she drank with abandon. I remember a photograph snapped in that era of bygone innocence: Lauren sagging in a closet, passed out. In retrospect, I’m glad she decided to indulge at such places, where she had protection and someone to keep her airway clear.
She found a beady-eyed boyfriend who only cared about money, and all her attention went to him.
I left high school my junior year and did not see her again. I learned she went to a rich university. From 1990 to 1993, I worked as a photographer at that university’s Greek parties, and though I later learned she belonged to one of our better-lubricated client sororities, I never saw her.
Sometime in 1993, we had a phone call. She was happy to hear from me. I was surprised she was at her parents’ house, college graduate going places and all. At the end, she said: “Call anytime. I’ll be here.” Her voice dropped with here.
Ten years passed before we spoke again. On an overnight job, we shared some emails. She was married and working a middle management job, still living in the little town, her written voice still crisp with intelligence and fatal humor.
I saw her in the fall of 2005, when I last drove cross-country. I had a list of people to see. I was driven by a need to apologize, though I’m not sure what for. I think I believed I had missed something, like all those outed secrets I never picked up on, and wanted to make amends for being so thick. I’m not from here. I couldn’t read the subtext.
Lauren lived in one of the tract-made McHouses that undergird suburban America, and have become raison d’etre for our high school town. At last revived from the coma of the early Eighties oil crash, the town had metastasized indistinguishable houses and strip centers and gas stations along every axis of the Texas flat, all beaming with fluorescent emptiness. Her house was standard Texas brick-box roofed with a clownish peak, but tidy, open and welcoming inside. It was not crammed or empty, the furniture solid and clean, the colors muted, everything well-matched. She was unchanged. In good spirits, she was happy to show off her home and her husband–a smiling plank of Latino who liked to drink too. They were a weird match–him tall, dark-haired and softly chiseled to her softer explosion of red and freckles–but they liked each other well enough, and the purpose of their drinking did not seem to be the blurring of each others’ edges. On a first-name basis at the chain steakhouse bar, we talked about cars and school and now. She was clingy with him.
One night the three of us went to one of the town’s original freeway bars, a faded sheet-metal barn just over the county line. The town’s home county was dry, but its northern neighbor allowed liquor, and thus bars and drive-through booze stores (there are such things) clustered just over the line. Since my eight-year-old arrival in 1978, the glowing yellow smiley-face of The Western Place rose above the freeway’s flat. There’s no counting how many times I drove by it. I considered it unfinished business, and now, at last, we went in.
Outside, the blackness roared with horsepower spilling over the freeway. Inside was a different world, neon wash and simple tables that could have come from the Sears catalog. A girl off her teenage bloom gave our IDs a disinterested once-over and we were among the jeans and boots. Recorded music played as we sat. We got some looks, and the waitress had little interest in three people obviously slumming. Then the discomfort was comfortable. Then it went away.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember. This–the beery air, the soft light brighter than sophisticates would tolerate, the nearness of others in their knots as they waited for something to happen, around a table with a woman I’ve not really known but who had been a friendly touchstone since seventh grade and her tall husband, my Sprite to their potable gasoline–it was the heart of something. She still had her Shamu laugh. So this is why people like bars! We were sharing something of the past but on its other side, a thing here and now of light and music with the metal walls holding the world at bay. I was happy to be there.
Her husband thought the drinks were weak and we left after twenty minutes.
The years following brought intermittent messages. She got a job teaching. The marriage soured. Her drinking increased to the point of reprimands at work. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital.
Late one night, she sent a message: Are you there? I really need to talk to somebody. The directness shocked me. Yes, I’m up. I can talk. I waited. It was ten for me, midnight for her. Then midnight for me. Then later. My fear gave way to annoyance. I went to bed. When I woke, there was a message. My dad was up. Going to work.
The exchange rankled me. I’d ended relationships to escape B-movie histrionics and had no interest in revisiting them, even at a remove. On Facebook she trumpeted her borderline diagnosis, posted Sylvia Plath poems, made obvious hints at self-harm. I didn’t answer her next late-night need to talk, and the next morning she was fine, she said. I wondered what my place was, went through questions of selfishness, obligation. Then I contacted someone. Lauren was checked in on. She was fine, though she was not.
We had sporadic and self-limiting talks. She found a compatible psychiatrist. I tried to encourage her without patronizing, and probably failed. Her humor maintained: she wrote about a student, after doing poorly on a test, announcing, “I need a whiskey.” She sent me a long diatribe about her husband, who had moved out.
I remember making a decision. At the other end of divorce and therapy and scaring myself clean, I at last accepted something: you can’t lecture people into walking away from their demons.
I admit something else: I sympathized with the husband. I cringed reading her last message, full of circular grievance. I had enough of that in my own marriage.
She improved, or appeared to. Messages resumed and were brief and encouraging, sometimes jokes: We finally have a pho place! There’s somewhere that has no pho place?
When she complained about the small town and her limited life, my tongue loosed. You have no reason to stay. You can get a divorce. You can sell the house, sell everything. Live on the beach, in the mountains. Move to New York. To Paris! You really can. She needed to stay to take care of her dad. He was healthy.
Another admission: I lost interest. I had been stuck too long in my own wallowing. I didn’t want to be around someone determined to dig their hole deeper, even if that was only a Facebook message a week. She had a suite of mental health professionals, a purposeful job, friends close by. They could help her better. She checked herself in again. I saw that as avoidance, or wanting attention.
On November 1, 2016, I received a text message: We have lost Lauren. It was early after not sleeping well, and even with scratchy thoughts I didn’t need it spelled out. I did not gasp or freeze. I felt no shock or grief. Traffic roared outside, and the radio chatted downstairs. Windows framed a grey sky and trees newly naked. I remember a great pause. Soft crackling moved through me, and then relief, then a rueful disgust: not at her, not at all, but at whatever human flaw we have that drives us to indulge self-destruction. I sighed. I thought something like: well, she’s not moving now.
Struggling with how bad I should feel about myself for lack of grief comes and goes. How petty to dismiss someone’s struggle, no matter how made-up I think it is. From the far-away outside, all her problems seemed blown out of proportion. Still, can I show no sympathy? I’ve had sucky times and needed help. Can I not allow she had suffered some injury–some series of serious injuries, as almost all the women I know have–that were finally too much when the last support beneath her fell away?
Calls came. I wasn’t upset. I realize now this could be what it may feel like to be the old grandfather: seen it all, can sympathize, can listen for the place where the right joke goes and smart enough to not jump in the deep end.
As days passed, my annoyance turned to something like what I imagine parents of adolescent children experience. My lecture is relentless. Why are you torturing yourself? If the marriage isn’t working, get a divorce. Get a new job. Go somewhere, do cabaret. Anybody who tells you to torture yourself is someone who needs getting away from for good.
Borderline personality disorder, says the literature, is characterized by unstable relationships, unstable identity, fear of abandonment, and self-harm. About 80% of sufferers are able to put it behind them, given the right therapy. About 10% commit suicide. No doubt her doctors knew all this, and knew that borderlines resist treatment and are quick to disappear. Maybe they were proceeding with caution to not scare her off. Keep working, keep finding value in what you do, because there is.
Should I have talked to her more? I don’t know. When I offered to talk about my own experiences with those cruel mirrors, she didn’t answer. I can sympathize with her being tired of that conversation, fifty minutes and a copay a week.
People seemed to expect me at the funeral, which surprised me: I was far away and had never known her well. The funeral was a full-on Old Christian extravaganza: hours of kneeling. I’m told the parents were crushed, enervated. I imagine their wrung looks, limp handshakes. Maybe this was not a surprise.
I learned that Lauren had a fractious home life growing up. While doting on her father, she had disowned her mother as much as she could living in the same town. Mother and an older sister had always looked down her, relentlessly criticized and undercut her. I don’t doubt it. Family can be a crucible.
It’s too bad. That prosaic thought is the one that comes up, staring like an empty can. I know what it’s like to feel the night yawn open and the silence pour down. But in the end, I got the right medicine, medicine in the Native American mystic sense. Things were dealt with, or faded, or walked away from. It must be hard to walk away from things when you share a little town.
I wrote that this essay is about two people, but in the act of memory I excavated a third: a tall, pale, denim-clad and thin-lipped band kid I knew as CJ. He is alive, as far as I know.
School mornings, the student parking lot slowly filled with beaters. Given the mid-Eightes era, these were mostly American heaps, paint faded and vital fluids dripping, mechanical soundness assured by fathers and uncles. This was Texas, so there were pickup trucks.
CJ had a typical one: a Ford, I think, the standard two-tone white plus yellow, or maybe faded brown, high off the ground, the chrome mostly pits. A mid-Sixties monster, it was loud but not modified to be so, running as smoothly as the worn mechanicals allowed. A country kid through and through, CJ took pride in its durable rust.
Mornings, CJ swept his truck in a wide arc, coming to rest in his student lot space like a great ship nestling in its berth. A few of us had gathered and he nodded, smiling, rolling down the window to let the radio out. Over the AM crackle, Paul Harvey flickered out to the mulberry trees and dented chainlink fence. We listened: me, a friend, kids from band, kids in metal-band concert shirts, kids in their blue corduroy Future Farmers of America jackets with their names chain-stitched in yellow. No one spoke. We looked down at the cracked asphalt, or out at the little houses compressed by sky.
Paul Harvey….Good Day?
Harvey’s piece said, CJ turned the key on the local DJ chatter and everyone stirred. A few smiled. There was a sense of relief. It was a little easier to face school now, not because of Harvey’s pablum, but because those of us who needed quiet togetherness had gotten it. Big and affable CJ had given it.
A year ago, a mutual friend reported running into CJ. Their talk was brief. CJ looked battered. Life had been hard. There was no sense that it would change.
I like to think I would have offered CJ something. Whatever cash I had on me, or to share a substantial meal–anything not patronizing. Aside from those parking lot mornings, I didn’t know CJ at all, but he gave me something then of great substance, even if it was invisible, even if it had no name.
Rodney Dangerfield and Robin Williams, ca. 1980
Talking with Marc Maron, Robin Williams shared a story. He was at Rodney Dangerfield’s club, and Dangerfield was sweating buckets. Jeez, I’m sweating, I’m sweating! Rodney Dangerfield is nervous about going on in his own club. Williams tells him to calm down. It’s all right. You’ve got the gig.
Peter and Lauren did not have the gig. Peter bounced from home to job to place to band, never able to root himself. Lauren had a softer life than Peter, but not an easier one. CJ’s life was hard. All were kind. For all the indignity chance or neurology threw at them, they lived, and I knew them.
I’ve never known what my gig is. Equal parts not wanting to limit myself, to defy convention, and acting out of fear have put me in this place. It has taken many years, but I have redefined it as a good place. I have somewhere clean to go, with a warm bed and a full pantry. I have all the things American consumerist society expects a person deemed successful to have, more or less, but it is not those things that make my place good. The best good I can think of is knowing that all these things are ephemera. Some calamity is out there itching to take it away. Or there isn’t. Beyond all that, the best thing is the people I have known, however it was I knew them, and what we did for each other, as tentative and incomplete as it often was.
Answers no longer interest me. Any meaningful answer is the entry to a bigger question. What is the question? Look up or look down. Wherever you look, it’s worlds without end.