I want you to know that I love you. I know this seems strange to see at 5:15 on a Tuesday morning, but I really need to tell you that right now. And you’ll always be my friend.
Reading these words on my phone in the stifling August morning heat, covered in beads of sweat and my head pounding from one too many IPAs the night before, my mind drifted towards a night almost two years ago. The glare of the sun poked through the cracks in the blinds, the beams of light illuminating the dust. I had to go to work, and staggered out onto the trash-strewn blacktop and hopped in my truck. As I drove south along the lake, I repeated the words over and over in my mind. As I spent the day indulging the needs of affluent vacationers, elderly couples and hyperactive kids in the hot sun, the words gradually faded away.
I got drunk again that night and woke up the next morning to a similar scene. The words from the day before came back to me, and I was taken two years back once more. I had been sitting on the steps behind my dorm room, gazing out of the orb of moth-ridden light towards the inky black river when I received a call from my friend James.
“I was about to get on the highway on the wrong side and uh, drive against the traffic. I really thought I was gonna do it, so I called you instead.”
He always had a matter-of-fact way of speaking, a way that always reminded me of a police officer, and a way of making simple everyday observations subtly hilarious. This, however, was anything but.
“Why were you gonna do that James?”
“I don’t know man, I’ve just… I’ve just fucking had it, that’s all. I can’t maintain.”
James had had a hard life. Absent father, abusive mother, always bouncing from one place to the next. He’d settled into a routine of delivering pizza and living with an Aunt and Uncle who didn’t speak to him since I left for college. Over the next half hour, I calmed him down, reassuring him to keep his head up.
“Thanks for the good words,” he said, “Anyway, I need to tactically insert a pizza into a domestic residence.” He chuckled and hung up.
Thinking back to that night, I texted James back. Everything good? I sat on my couch for ten minutes, then added Call me. I went outside, got in my truck, and went to work.
A day went by, then another, and before I knew it, a week had passed. I wondered where he was or what he was doing, if he was okay or alive. He had a way of disappearing sometimes, folding his tall lean frame into his Dodge Charger and taking off for a couple days at a time. It was his crown jewel. He loved that car, driving from Boston up Vermont Route 89 through the tumbling cascade of green mountains to the border and back in a single night, a midnight rider rolling through the blackness.
I can remember five or ten or maybe twenty nights where I joined him, drifting out to the city limits, onto the interstate and flying. One hundred miles per hour, churning through the mileage further and further north, the sleek black car invisible all but for the lights. When he saw a rest area, he’d pull off the road where we’d roll down the windows and listen to the night sounds of the birds and the insects echo through the darkness and feel the fresh open air slip into the car. James would roll a spliff.
“Look at this spliff,” he’d say, holding an absolute monster up to the light. “This is a fat spliff. A mean L. This spliff will burn your house down and steal your wife.” He’d light it and off we’d go again, as if a slingshot had pulled us back and released at the apex of our potential energy, faster than before. James’ voice would fill the neon glow of the car’s interior.
“Now Waterhouse, there’s a volunteer fire department in the town of Monroe, Massachusetts, population 82, that all lives in a single boarding house across the street from the fire station. They spend all day sitting on the front porch just getting fucking obliterated, and when there’s a fire they all rally across the street, hop into their 1955 model fire engine, drive over a curb, clip the guardrail, and fight that fire.” He took a drag of the spliff. “I’ve seen this happen.”
And on and on and on this would go. He’d drop me off at my house as the sun was coming up and I’d stagger up the stairs, exhausted and delirious, and fall asleep until late afternoon. He was the greatest driver in the world. All he needed was one in his hand and four on the road.
I reached out to mutual friends. No one had heard from James. It had been about ten days. I called my friend Lilly.
“He’s talked of suicide to me this summer,” she offered. “Think about it, other than us, he has no one. And how often do any of us really see each other anymore?”
What she said made sense. I was gone for long periods of time, James always dutifully seeing me off. I’d wake up with a crippling hangover to find that not only had he not slept, but he was still drinking.
“I stayed awake so that I could see you off to Iceland.”
“I’m here to see you off to Kyrgyzstan.”
“I’m here to see you off to jury duty.”
A year older than me, he always seemed to be infinitely wiser, as if he had known things of which I could not conceive. When the bombs went off at the marathon, we tried to find an escape route. He led the way, and as he rounded a corner, he turned back and thumped me on the chest.
“Don’t come over here,” he barked. It was too late. I saw a man with a tourniquet on his leg being loaded onto an ambulance.
We walked to Chinatown, chain smoking Marlboro 27’s. When we got there it was as if nothing had happened. Life went on as usual. Old men peddled steaming mysterious vegetables and ducks hung in a row by their feet in a window.
“You’ve really got to hand it to these people.” James said, dropping his cigarette to the gutter. “They really don’t let acts of terrorism fuck with their large scale ventures in commerce.”
I had resorted to searching for his relatives on the internet. Each name and phone number I found was tinged with uncertainty. I did not know the names of any of his relatives or where they lived. His mother had disappeared to Buffalo.
One night, my façade cracked. I threw things at the wall. I ripped the sheets off my bed as my vision blurred with tears. I spent the night awake, sitting by my window, staring into the falling rain illuminated by a streetlight. I wondered if I would ever see my best friend again, idly smoking marijuana resin out of a dirty pipe in a feeble attempt to numb myself into unconsciousness.
I thought about the last time I saw him. James would dutifully visit me at college as the years went by, at first in my dorm rooms then later at an old ramshackle blue-grey house with a rotting front porch. He would sporadically make the trip north, usually appearing at my apartment door in the middle of the night, often unannounced. Most recently, James had babysat me while I soared on hallucinogens by the lake.
“James! Look at all these shells, we need to walk on them! Fuck!”
There was no way he ever could have fully understood the nature of my consciousness, but he would do his best to play along.
“Look at these goldfish snacks man,” he said, pointing to the writing on the bag. There was a sadness in his voice that I did not detect at the time, mistaking it for hungover misery. “They’re baked. That’s why they’re so happy.”
The next morning, I made my bed and checked my phone. One missed call: James. I dialed back as fast as I could.
“Hey man.” Hearing his voice, I felt a wave of relief rise up within me.
“James! Holy Shit!” I could barely contain it. I took a deep breath as the wave broke and rolled back. “Are you okay? Where the fuck are you?”
“I’m uhhh, I’m at a psychiatric hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. I’ve been here for a little bit.”
“Are you okay?” I asked again.
“Yeah I’m okay, health-wise and legally, which is good. Quite fortuitous actually. Hold on, I need to give this guy a cigarette.”
I could hear a muffled conversation in the background.
“Sorry man, that was my boy Kevin, he’s addicted to crack cocaine.”
I was supposed to drive home to Massachusetts in a week. I made plans to stop in Brattleboro to see him.
Slowly circling the old brick buildings and sprawling lawns of the Brattleboro Retreat, I had no idea what to expect. As I rounded a curve, I spotted James, standing high up on a hill above a parking lot. I parked the truck and tentatively sauntered up to where he was standing with several other people, a man in his 60’s with shaggy white hair and glasses and a girl about my age with scars covering her arms.
We locked eyes as I approached. He was significantly thinner; his face was gaunt. He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face, as if it were a totally normal occurrence for us to run into each other under such circumstances. He raised an eyebrow at me, ashed his cigarette, and grinned.
“What’s up man? Welcome to paradise.”
Later that night, we sat on a porch of a woman who had recently left the hospital and had a house in town. James had moved on to outpatient, so he could leave at night. We sat in the darkness, dumbly smoking unfiltered Newport’s.
“I was 100% fully committed to the idea of killing myself,” he said. “It had just been the perfect fucking storm of events that week. I grabbed 4 bottles of wine, and took off up 91.” He gazed into the darkness.
“What made you decide to come here instead?” My voice seemed small next to his.
“I was about 20 miles from Canada, taking it at about 140, broken bottle of wine on the floor, cigarette burns all over the seats. I was about to just drive right into a concrete barrier when I saw a sign for a hospital.”
There was a long silence before either of us spoke again.
“This time I’ve spent here,” he said, “this time I’ve spent here has been the best month of my life, and I’ve had the best possible experience I could have had. I’ve needed this for almost ten years. I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression, severe anxiety, and severe alcoholism. I suppose you could say I’m getting all of my birds stoned at once. I’m giving it another shot.”
We sat for a long time that night under the rain. James was getting ready to leave the hospital and move into a house deep in the Vermont woods. His savage burn across the state of Vermont had totaled his vehicle, and he was about to experience some serious isolation.
“There’s no internet, cell service, or television. I have to buy a chainsaw. When a tree falls in the road its quicker to chop it up and move it than it is to take a different road.”
I told him I would write.
“I’m actually excited,” he laughed. “It seems like the kind of place where some serious fucking respite could occur.”
And now, as the bulging land between us stretches into the fall and the hills unfurl themselves in fantastic bursts of red, orange, and yellow, I stand on my back deck and look toward Brattleboro. I’m with you in Brattleboro, I think to myself. I’m with you in Brattleboro. My mind, soul and spirit are there in the bleak white incandescent linoleum corridors, sitting at the Chelsea Royal diner drinking midnight cups of coffee, walking in slow ponderous arcs around the reservoir. I’m with you in Brattleboro, where you sit smoking cigarettes and listening to the Rolling Stones; gazing out the window into the barren, melancholy, autumn woods. I’m with you in Brattleboro, and I hope to see you appear like an apparition in the night at my apartment door, strange, ragged, weary, but unbowed, having driven across the land in your shuddering burning chariot, face bent to the wheel, to appear illuminated by the pale moon shining through my stairwell window. I’m with you in Brattleboro.