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?