24 October, 2007

A Tragedy at Ten: Justin

He broke my cigarette. Just like that: took it and snapped it in half and laid the two pieces on the table like it was the most natural thing in the world. Then he asked to bum another. We started talking, of course, because how do you not strike up a conversation with someone approaching you in a coffee house that way? At midnight, after closing the place out, we carried our talk outside to the cold February sidewalk. It had begun to lightly snow.

“You like tea?” he asked, looking at the sky distractedly, then wiping the moisture from his thick-framed glasses with his T-shirt.


“Sure. Is there another kind?”

A friendship was inevitable.

The irony now is that, as I sit here writing, I have to little to say about who Justin was as a person. He was a couple of years older than me – nineteen – and willfully eccentric. Most people who knew him might say he lived to make people laugh. If that meant exploiting his quirks, he’d do it. The way he’d argue in favor of such concepts as prohibition and socialism struck me as an extensions of that: an affectation to keep people on their toes, guessing, or perhaps merely to assert his individuality – I never knew for certain. He was also a mass of contradictions. While he espoused the glories of independence, he lived off his wealthy parents’ monthly stipend; eschewing materialistic pursuits, he spent money frivolously on novelties and gadgets. Whatever his faults, though, that carefree persona made him endless fun to be around.

There is a song by Tom Waits, one of Justin’s favorite musicians, entitled “Tango Till They’re Sore.” Starting with a shambling, drunken piano, it stumbles almost accidentally upon a tune, with the addition of a trombone and double bass, as Waits’s cigarettes-and-whiskey growl dredges us the singer’s infamous after-hours ambiance. Great as the song is, the chorus can still choke me up, after all these years:
Let me fall out of the window
With confetti in my hair
Deal out jacks or better
On a blanket by the stairs
I’ll tell you all my secrets
But I lie about my past
So send me off to bed forever more
I recognize now that there was so much about Justin Bruton that I couldn’t know. The person he truly was, when I thought of him as a friend, was buried beneath a blithe facade. It took many years for me to come to grips with the cynical idea that no one ever really knows another.

Justin took his own life on this date, ten years ago. Whether he did so only as a more determined echo of his past suicide attempts — the unavoidable succumbing to his chronic depression — or as an escape from retribution for the murder of his girlfriend, Anastasia, what’s certain is that I was oblivious to his intentions, to the darkness in his heart. It’s hard to justify our friendship now, yet I somehow manage. The part of him I knew was good. Is that enough to base fond memories on?

23 October, 2007

A Tragedy at Ten: Anastasia

A full decade now, and the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun. Though the precision with which I do so has been dulled with time, I will not ever forget her. Even as we strive to hang on to those we have lost, remember them just as they were, it is a failing of our minds to truncate and generalize our every recollection until, eventually, all we are left with are a few hazy snapshots, some, if we are lucky, slightly more vivid than others.

This is what I remember most about her: her wide, white smile of rounded teeth; the way her narrow shoulders hunched as she laughed, when her head would dip slightly forward with the single, clear “Ha!” like a small dropped glass. Always so easy to laugh, but so stingy with it, like she were being taxed for each additional peal. I used to strain so hard to elicit more — a sustained chuckle, a bout of giggling, anything to get that laugh to roll, shimmering and high — but only infrequently did I succeed. Once, I can recall her laughing to tears, though I cannot remember just what I had said or done, merely that she’d sat there, on that sofa, holding her face and shrieking with glee as her eyes brimmed and overflowed. The moment was beautiful.

She was good at comforting. There was a night, when I was betrayed and my heart was broken, when she laid my head in her lap as I cried messy, heaving tears. Stroking my hair until I was done and out with them, she then kept watch as I slept with her dampened knees as my pillow and finally awoke brave enough to bear a lack of human contact. Never was it mentioned, nor did she remind me of the nurturing she offered, as though the whole evening had been nothing. The other friends lucky enough to have her soothing through piques of sadness must know the same gratitude I felt for that solace without strings — the only true kind.

She’d yearned to see Paris, New Orleans, the dangerous and dank corners of London. Old places held her in thrall with their storied decrepitude and, had she been the type to believe in reincarnation, I’m certain she would have fancied one of her past selves as an adventurous member of eighteenth-century France’s petit noblesse or a plucky Victorian socialite. Just beginning college, however, and working retail at a toy and novelty store meant her means were scarcely great; leisure travel was not to be readily had. Today, it is no feat for me to imagine her having occasion to indulge in those much dreamed-of excursions. When I think of her, she often stands in the British Isles, atop some weather-beaten hill by the sea, her fine, chestnut hair whipping over her face in salty gusts. Facing the wide, gray ocean, she stands alone and confident — the way we always hoped she would one day. But, for all its apparent dolor, the image is comforting to me in a way. I do not wish to remember her as I last saw her: a carved wooden doll in an ornate box. Her spirit was too bright for that, too lighted by potential.

However accidentally, hers is an indelible mark. Though most all of us who knew her will remain in our own ways grieving and angry for a time longer, we will still have those hazy snapshots to bring us some vestiges of happiness from the moments she illuminated our lives.