I Will Carry You (Part III)

Previous: Part II

III. Ruins

I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.

I never thought this day would come, this beautiful, horrible day in which I watched as you traded your life away, and it was gone before I could answer your desperation with my faulty attempts at lies, gone before I had the chance to even open your eyes, and I…

I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.

Please, tell me how to live.

Teach me how to live and love at once because they seem so contradictory.

Give me answers for why I hurt so much, why I must relive this day, this pain, unto eternity.

That, at least, makes you immortal. But you never wanted to be immortal. You were just like me – we saw the trap there, we warned each other of it. I guess none of that matters anymore. You’re immortal whether you want to be or not. Endless life is just as much a prison as certain death.

Now, I can’t seem to remember… those words you said to me that day… the last words that spilled out of your mouth before you gave them the order to choke, and it’s so ridiculous to me, I’m so caught up in them. A lifetime of words between us and the ones that seem to matter now are the ones I can’t recall. People make such a big deal, such a fuss, over last words, last moments, last letters, but they aren’t always salient. Sometimes they don’t exist.

Though if there’s any consolation, I guess you were able to choose them all. Most of us never have the chance to plan out our deaths the way we stage theater plays, but you – you took complete control. And if all the world’s a stage, life itself was yours for the taking.

What hurts is that you chose to take it without saying goodbye.

Next: Part IV

Taiga (Chapter 10)

I am not a philosopher, nor am I a writer. When I set out to transcribe this story into countless rows of words on a page, I had no intention of crafting a murder mystery or a crime novel. Maybe it seems like it, but that’s not how I felt. As I write I am only trying to understand something that cannot ever be understood – so it may be futile, but I am doing it anyway, so here I go. The section that follows contains all of the interesting facts surrounding Taiga’s death that have stood out to me over time.

In the days that followed, the biggest immediate question was that of suicide or murder. The community jumped to murder. For most people, the idea of Taiga killing himself was a complete impossibility. He was too perfect, too good, had too much going for him – and besides, they’d found me, an infamous good-for-nothing perpetually-drunk party-goer, standing over his dead body. Murder, clearly. Case closed.

But the thing is, I don’t think it was that simple. At this point in my life, if you were to ask me murder or suicide? I’d probably say both. I don’t think there’s such a clear-cut difference between the two. I might say, maybe he killed himself, but even then it’s murder, because society drove him to do it – but is that taking out his agency, his rationality? Is that too quickly framing a potential murderer? We tend to think that all questions must by nature have answers, easily explainable, rational answers. That’s not always the case.

If it was straight-up murder – that is, another person entered the basement, shot him, dropped the gun, and left before I got there – then who did it? It may as well have been me, but it wasn’t. Taiga and Isabella were having roommate problems – so was it Isabella, who upon his death almost instantly disappeared, never to be seen again? Maybe. This was another possibility that it seemed the community had failed to consider. But I honestly don’t think it was her. She was too strong-hearted – by which I mean, if she and Taiga had really been having such a significant issue that couldn’t be solved through words, she would have just moved out and found somewhere else to live. I don’t think she would have snuck into the basement of the library and shot him. To this day I wonder what happened to her, where she went and why. More unanswerable questions. Maybe a third party for whatever reason shot Taiga, kidnapped Isabella, and vanished. Maybe that third party killed her, too, and her body was just never found. But why this, why now? Who was that third party – someone from work, the guy he was dating, the drunk who slashed him across the thigh that one night? Why would they take both of my roommates – and not me? Maybe, after Taiga died, Isabella just up and left completely on her own volition, as part of her own way of processing the event, and she just never came back. I hope that she’s okay. I believe that she is. Perhaps one day in the future she’ll contact me and all these questions will be answered – but I am also equally prepared to accept that I’m just never going to know.

And what if it was suicide? Granted, I have no authority to speak on this subject – but as an outsider looking in, I’ve come to believe that most people driven to commit suicide actually go through with it not because of one singular reason but the buildup of many. I will never be as eloquent as Taiga was, nor do I hope to be – seriously, I haven’t changed that much – but if I really had to say it, I firmly believe in this very real metaphor that Taiga slipped through the cracks. Not by being invisible, but by standing out in a way that made it so nobody paid attention to him. I suspect that too many people, including myself, forgot that Taiga was himself a complex human being, that he had his own life, his own backstory, his own relationships, his own emotions. It took his death for us to remember that.

A lot of bombshells dropped in the weeks following. For one, Taiga Tatekawa wasn’t his real name. His ID was fake; he had a lot of money but nobody knew where from; the questions of how he passed his job interviews and even enrolled in a university, in a time and place where identity is so rigorously scrutinized, may never be answered. And why the fake identity in the first place? But all of this was covered up or overlooked in favor of the Taiga Tatekawa that we had known – or that we thought we had known – and I had no objection. The fact that he had lied about his name, and possibly his family and his history, didn’t make him a bad person. This is another thing his death taught me – people are more complex than we think. We can be simultaneously survivors and victims and perpetrators, and that doesn’t take away from who we are. I, for one, believe that Taiga’s deceit wasn’t out of malice. Maybe he was undocumented. Maybe he was a runaway. Who knows? Does it matter?

It might matter, depending on the paths and possibilities that we are brave enough – or paranoid enough – to entertain. I hadn’t mentioned this before, because it wasn’t important, but all of this happened around the time when our country was going to war. And it wasn’t one of the countless quiet, censored, professional-army wars. The draft was coming, and for once in our nation’s history, it was coming equally. There were no college deferments, no buy-outs, no substitutes, and up to a certain level even politicians were being put in uniform and shipped to boot camp. I couldn’t have cared less about all of this – I had such a bad track record, I was pretty sure I’d either be straight-up rejected or my superiors would get fed up and discharge me within a week – but I think it was scaring Taiga more than any of us knew. He never said a word to me about it, but I suspect he was stressed at the idea of being forced to participate in a war, maybe even being forced to fight, as a pacifist who espoused human love. And if the officials from the War Department one day walked in on one of his lectures and chose his side of the room to enlist, his fake identity would have automatically, unwillingly, come to light. Can our imaginations now even come close to the reality of how he was feeling at the time?

And what about me? I was just one of many. It may not seem like it, given that everything I’ve written has been from my perspective only, but Taiga had a whole line-up of classmates, juniors, and hopeless folks like me that he’d been trying to help. It’s not to underestimate his emotional strength and resilience, but I think that he’d been trying to take care of too many people, shoulder too many burdens on top of his own – and in the end, maybe drowning people, like me, pulled him under. I still remember that night when he’d first written the four characters of his fake, chosen name to show Isabella, and I can’t help but think: standing gracefully in a river, drowning in it. Like the stories of people who walk into the sea and never come back.

It’s easy for people to look at everything I’ve written and say suicide. It’s also easy for people to look at all the evidence and say that I killed him. As survivors, victims, and perpetrators, we are arrogant. We think we could have seen the signs, we think we can understand all the facts, we think we can look into a dead person’s heart and mind and deduce the simple reasons why they killed themselves or why someone else killed them. But after all this time has passed, I have to ask – do any of these questions even matter anymore? Does understanding the circumstances of his death matter more than understanding the circumstances of his life, the people he saved, the people he changed? Accepting the things we will never know is difficult, but hasn’t it always been more productive to focus on the things we actually do know, the memories we have, the emotions that can never be taken away?

When I first sat down to write this tale, I was incredibly determined to kill myself once I’d finished. A satisfactory, understandable conclusion – write my life story, put it in the paper shredder, and then die. But as I reach the closing of this chapter it occurs to me that this work, this stack of several dozen sheets of paper filled top to bottom with my completely unreadable scribbles, is not my life story. It’s someone else’s. At this point, Taiga’s death makes sense, but not mine –

So then what else can I do but go on living?

Love Letters to the World We Made (VI)

Previous: V

We are going to make it.

You may not believe me now, but we will. I know that we will because every time, every year, we come back to each other. Every year, we live our separate lives in a shifting, reflective parallel, and this parallel is of the kind that only people like us can see – people like us meaning the artists and the authors, the full-hearted queer and quiet spirits, all the sensitive, tragic, broken-but-not people who, even after all they have suffered, still find ways to live and love, still find ways to make it. “I’m not one of them,” you say. “I’m not enough.” But you will always be enough to me.

It doesn’t have to be that we don’t talk except for the random nights you call me on the verge of tears, desperate for help, desperate for advice and validation and love. It doesn’t have to be that our only interactions take place on the wrong side of the railing, on the firelit edge of a bridge. It doesn’t have to be that some people must live their lives this way. But in this world, this is how we live.

I lean against the railing and call out your name, and the beauty in your heart rages up within your words, fired in the kiln of pen and paper. Every time, you take your suffering and you pour out love. You might not recognize that it’s love, because we are trained to think that love must take a direct object – but love cannot be limited. I trace the scars on your arm and your stomach and you turn them into delicate masterpieces worthy of an art gallery. I brush away your tears and you capture them in sails of broken glass. I soothe the pain in your voice and you use it to heal my heart – and every time, every time, I can only think: it doesn’t have to be this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but this is how it is. And we are going to make it.

Always, we make-believe like children that our meeting was coincidence. We pretend that the intersection of our lives, the parallel nature of our highways, was never meant to be. We say that it could have gone any another way, and while it’s true that our histories could have been different, it can’t be denied that our parents, our goddesses, our hearts, lifted us up onto a tandem bike and set us free.

I don’t know how to ride a bike. And, I think, neither do you. But together we are going to make it.

One of these days, I promise to myself, I will take you to the ocean. As the sun sets above the sea, as the waves crawl in to graze your feet, as our shadows embrace in the glowing golden light, I will show you how beautiful life can be. I will show you that it doesn’t have to be this way. And when you lay your head against my chest and start to cry, I will cry with you – and then we will keep pedaling, riding on our separate but parallel highways, headed towards a future that we cannot see, but one we are both determined to meet. If it takes all my life, if it takes all of your life, if it takes the world –

It’s still okay.

All that matters is love. And we are going to make it.

Next: VII

Chaotic Minds

The images flash through my mind;
I look out the window and see
People drowning themselves in tragedy,
A world of violence and greed
Based only on fantasy,
And I know I don’t belong here –
But I’m forced to share this dream.

Before the night is over
You tell me to close my eyes,
Try to soothe my soul with lies:
A promise that this world is good,
That we can be happy and always free.
You insist we can live forever,
And I say that’s not my wish –
But you won’t answer me.

Why do I live,
Why do I die?
This dream was never mine.
Just take my life away, I cry –
Unlock the door of my reality
And set me free.

I wrestle with my heart and hands,
I’m not brave enough to take it.
You say that I’m a coward,
Too sensitive, too weak.
You offer me a bedsheet;
You offer a pitch black knife.
But that’s all you can give –
And in the end only part of me wants to die.

Sitting on the ledge, you ask me why.
I wave my hands to the world,
To the arrogance and hatred,
The superficiality.
I paint the bloodthirsty violence
Onto an illusory canvas,
Begging you to see –
But in the end you’re just as blind as me.

Why do I live,
Why do I die?
This dream was never mine.
Just take my life away, I cry –
Unlock the door of my reality
And set me free.

Wake me up,
And set me free…
So that one day,
I can live again.

Life Beyond the Setting Sun: A Short Story

The tales speak of a strange phenomenon where the shadow of a person who has loved deeply throughout their lifetime may on the day of their death wander the earth until the disappearance of the setting sun. Of those tales, the one below is, in my opinion, the most convincing.

Last year, the first Monday of April, at roughly eight o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on my balcony enjoying a leisurely breakfast when the call came. I picked up, irritated – I don’t like being disturbed on my days off – and asked who it was. “I need you to come over to Bren’s place,” the voice said without any introduction. It was our manager. I said fine, hung up, and sat there for another half hour finishing my cereal.

Looking back I can hear the pain in her voice – or maybe that’s just reconstructive fantasy. Whatever the case may be, I didn’t think anything was wrong that morning. I had no idea that my life was changing right before me, totally spinning out of control, everything I had built in the past fifteen years completely falling apart. I thought that I had all the time in the world – and so I sat there, eating cereal, rereading my favorite book, savoring a cup of coffee, while my partner hanged himself.

People in our line of work commit suicide all the time, but you don’t hear about it. I’d never imagined Brennan would, but in a strange, retrospective way, I’m not surprised. There’s more to us than you think. 

When I got to his apartment the police and paramedics were already there. Even at that point I had no idea of the tragedy that had befallen us. Some of our younger colleagues were there too, standing outside the building, and when they saw me they started to stare with faces full of horror, grief, and pity. None of them spoke to me, and I got irritated with them because I thought they were being disrespectful. Then I pushed past the police line and went up the stairs to Brennan’s room. The door was closed, guarded by a pair of stoic policemen, and Kiara, our manager, was standing outside.

I think that at that point I knew. I saw the look on her face and this horrible feeling started forming in my gut; my chest tightened and for a moment I couldn’t speak. She stared at me with tear-filled eyes, said hoarsely, “Henry, I don’t think you want to go in there.” 

Of course I went in. How could I not?

I don’t think words can even convey everything I felt that day. We’ve known each other since first grade, Brennan and I, and we’d entered this business together straight out of high school. We pulled each other through the first few years of scarce work and low pay. At one point he paid the rent for my apartment, and another time I bought him dinner for two weeks straight. After that, because of some immensely kind senior colleagues and Kiara’s hard work, we were able to make it. The next ten years went by in a flash. Our popularity wasn’t always steady, but for the most part, we survived – or at least I thought we had. Clearly, I was mistaken.

You know, we didn’t always have the greatest relationship. It’s hard to work with the same person, to see them almost every day, for years and years on end. We got angry with each other at times. But we also cared for each other more deeply than most people realize. I was best man at his wedding, and became godfather to his kids. When his wife died of cancer I cried an ocean and then spent a couple of weeks practically camping out at his place, helping take care of his daughters. He was also the first person I came out to about being gay, and the reaction I got from him was the most loving and supportive one I’ve ever received. Honestly, I don’t know who I would be or where I would have ended up if I had never met him. That morning, standing in the middle of his living room, I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it – and that’s why afternoon found me once again at the edge of my balcony. Sitting on the rails, staring out into the self-manufactured darkness, I was in that moment utterly devoid of thought or feeling. Of course I hadn’t really “planned” this – I think most people don’t – but whatever the case may be, I was completely ready to die. I was just waiting for the right moment to do it. 

And that’s when he appeared.

I thought I was hallucinating. He stood a little to my left, leaning forward with his hands on the railing – not a ghost but a silhouette, a dark gray shadow with depth and form, at once both faceless and recognizable. When he spoke his voice was deeper and more full-throated than when I’d known him in life. With a slight tinge of anger he warned me, “Don’t you dare.”

I choked. “Bren?”

“I didn’t kill myself just for you to follow me, idiot,” his shadow replied. “Get off there.”

I swung my legs back over and joined him on the safe side of the railing. “How…”

“Listen, Henry,” he said abruptly. “When the sun sets, I have to go. I just came to ask you to take care of my kids.”

I swallowed hard, still trying to comprehend what was happening. “Wait,” I managed to say. “What?”

He shifted so that his face – or what would have been his face – was looking my direction. “Take care of my kids,” he repeated, and this time he really did seem angry. In all the years I’d known him he had never spoken with such force. And it worked – I couldn’t refuse. I mumbled some kind of agreement, and from then on, knowing he had guaranteed my life, he seemed to relax. 

I stood still for a minute, trying to form my thoughts. It was a good thing that I had already cried my heart out that morning, because now there were no tears to break my voice. I asked slowly, “Why’d you do it?”

“You of all people know why.”

“No, that’s not … I meant, why did you leave me? And your kids? Why now, without any warning?”

His shadow rippled with gentle, sorrowful laughter. “If I warned you, you would have stopped me… And listen, you know, I got in too far, for myself and my family. I’ve been dealing with some dark things for years that I’d rather my children not have to be a part of. Look, don’t misunderstand. I love you and I love my kids and I love all the work we’ve done. But I couldn’t escape it, and in the end I think it’s better for you all that I move on. Don’t be angry with yourself, Henry. It is what it is. Just let me go.”

After that he refused to talk anymore about his death. Instead, standing together on the balcony watching the sun lower itself to the horizon, we reminisced for four hours about his life. We talked about the time we first met – sitting across from each other in the same first grade class – and about the time we mutually decided we weren’t going to attend college. We talked about his marriage, his wife and kids, and about my boyfriend and our plans for marriage. We talked about our work, the minute legacy we had left behind. We talked about all the beautiful things we had seen and done together, and all of the suffering we’d endured together, and what I thought the rest of my life would look like. Towards the end, as the red-orange sun hovered just above the horizon, I asked him, “Are you happy?”

He thought about it. After a minute he said carefully, “I’m not happy, but I am content. How about you?”

“I don’t know,” I started to say – and then darkness enveloped the world and he was gone.

And so it was. My partner died, and I lived.

Since then I’ve quit my job – I realized I couldn’t do the work without him – but I’ve found another one, relatively low-paying but simple and fulfilling. My boyfriend and I got married, and we adopted both of Brennan’s kids. Now we’re a happy family of four. I still think of Bren often, and time has not soothed the hurt, but in a way, I’ve found peace. 

As they say, life goes on.

Aren’t Many Like Us

I remember that day. On an overnight island trip, we woke up early one silent, misty morning. We rose from our beds, exited our tents, and wandered the paths down to the beach – together. We walked, side by side, parallel to the shoreline, watching the waves crawl across the sand. We held hands. We found rare seashells. We embraced this quiet, powerful moment of communion, something that neither of us could put into words back then, something that many do not understand even now. It was a morning I will not forget.

I close my eyes and wonder why the image of this day comes so strongly to my mind. But the answer comes to me quickly: I probably wouldn’t be alive today, if you had not given me memories such as these.

I wasn’t the greatest friend to you, I know that. In middle school I was struggling with symptoms of depression that I couldn’t understand. I was too focused on myself, on my problems, to see yours. But still you held my hand. Still, you stood with your back to mine and promised we would face the world together. And we did – and we won.

We won, because we both made it out alive. And although we are divided now, separated by time and distance and situations over which we have little control, I know that if I ever need you again, you will come for me. And if you ever need me, I will come for you. Together we will stand, back-to-back, alone in the rain, until the storm subsides… until the world decides to let us free.

Because, as you told me so long ago, there aren’t many like us.

Sleep, Wake, Sleep…

As the sun creeps slowly below the horizon I sit at my desk, earphones in, thinking myself haunted. I see faces at the window that aren’t there. Voices from the past scream into my ear, giving impressions of beauty and sorrow from a time long gone. I close my eyes.

One of the songs on the playlist pulls at me; I put it on repeat. Slowly I listen with care, feeling the rhythm of the dead musician’s pain, the lyrics made even more tragic by the circumstances of his life and death. It makes me think of something… something I can’t quite get at, a feeling I can’t name. I wonder what I’m doing, listening to this song in the silence.

After four or five times around I realize that the night has settled, and it’s about time for me to go to sleep. I turn the music off. As I stand up I glance over at my bed, at the blanket and the sheets, and I wonder with a sudden heaviness: what if I just never woke up?

I think about what would happen. Who would find me, what they would do, who they would call. The suffering it might create. But even then, it would be easy, right? Just close your eyes and drift into nothingness, and it’ll be alright.

Yes. It would be easy – but only for me.

People die in their sleep all the time. Some want to die, others don’t. Some actively seek it out, others have no idea what’s coming to them. And then there are some people who just have a strange, ambiguous feeling, as if their life is rushing very quickly towards some undefinable conclusion – and all they can do is close their eyes and go along with it, because in the end that’s all any of us can ever do.

Who am I?

I close my eyes, stop thinking, and just go to bed.

Pieces of a Shadow

My heart fills with fear when I realize what you’re doing. I stare at you, sitting on your bed with a calmness I haven’t seen in years. I watch as your fingers deliberately tie the rope. I call out to you, confessing my love, pleading for you to live, but you can’t hear me.

Please, stop. I can’t lose you.

You can’t even see me. I fall to the floor, reaching in a panic for the tiny pieces of darkness scattered across the room. Most of them dissolve in my hands without form or depth; others, like shards of glass, draw pain and blood. I give no mind to the scarlet running down my arms onto your carpet. I struggle to fit the dark pieces against each other, trying to stitch together a shadow so that you can live again. But it’s no use, and I know it.

You’re not even dead yet, and in my head I’m already reciting the speech I’m going to give at your funeral.

I watch as you sit at your desk and write your letter, a short note overflowing with pain and anger and sorrow. I close my eyes and pray into the silence that you won’t sign it. But you do, happily. You stand up and cross the room, and I don’t open my eyes again until you’re hovering ten inches off the floor.

I thought I could save you. But all I could do was give you a broken shadow and a formless hope that you would make it.

She Saw My Scars

She calls me in the middle of the night, for the first time in months. I’m sitting at my computer listening to music when my phone goes off. I pick it up, surprised, and say, “Hey, are you okay?”

“Hi. I just need to talk to you,” she tells me. “It’s been kind of bad the past few days.”

“Where are you?” I ask.

“Outside my house. There’s a community pool in my neighborhood. I go there when I need to think.”

“Okay,” I say. I make a mental note of that. “Well, what’s up?”

“So we went to a hot springs bath the other day,” she says. “And I cut, right, and my parents didn’t know, and I forgot to cover it up. And my mom saw my scars… she saw my scars and started blaming me. She started yelling at me saying how she doesn’t even put that much pressure on me to do good at school or anything but she does, she does, she just doesn’t realize it. She doesn’t realize she’s causing so many of my problems and she just blames it all on me.”

My throat tightens in anger and pain as I try to find a way to answer her. This, I find, is a common thread among many of us – people who don’t understand, who don’t listen, who blame us for our own problems without realizing that they’re the cause. And at this age, many of us are just stuck with these kinds of people. It’s worse when they’re your own family and you can’t do anything about it.

I start asking her about her plans for her future. I want to hear what she wants to do, where she wants to go. She can’t give me anything concrete – people who are suicidal usually don’t plan that far ahead. I stare at the wall of my room and tell her slowly, “I have an old friend who was in a similar position. We were talking one time, and he explained to me, ‘But I’m willing to burn bridges as I stand on them for a life I’d rather live.'”

I let that sink in for a moment. She says in a small voice, “That’s a good quote.”

I tell her, “Plan for a better life. It will hurt, but if your family relationships are toxic, that’s a bridge you should be willing to burn. Pursue your own life, your own happiness, because that’s more important in the end.”

We sit in silence for a little while. Finally I ask her, “Well, what do you want to do?”

She says, “I kind of want to go to Korea to teach English…”