The summer when Harry took his life must have been not only frightening for him, but a product of a profound, existential disappointment.
We were like thumb and forefinger, he and I, from 1971 to 1978, a total of 8 years. Close friendships are similar to marriages. But when we were still young, our friendship soured. He had a bright, quirky mind, and a terrific memory. He was an artist and painter, a guitarist, and a poet. His poetry was beautifully gnarly and not always easy to follow. With his terrific memory, he could grasp references that were beyond us, certainly beyond me. It frustrated him that we, that I, could not quite apprehend the invisible abstractions in his poems, and sometimes after reading them he’d quiz us, quiz me, which always set me on edge. What I would often do was to rewrite his poems in my own words and images, trying to mirror them in a fashion that would let him know that, yes, I did get them, on some intuitive, if not literal, level. This seemed to mollify him. However, the course our lives were taking put distance between us, and it was only later that I began to see how out of tune he was not only with me and others, but with the world, and with himself. In 1978, after our second fistfight, we went our separate ways.
He was not the first friend with whom I would part ways.
There was Sebastian, Mo, Violet, Charlie, Gala.
I’d grown away from them all, for various individual reasons that had no easy remedy, not an odd thing. People often make connections arising from the sets we’re acting on, but when the movie is over, back to unemployment and that’s that. In moments of introspection or weakness, years later in fits of a pleasant nostalgia, I sought out some of these old friends anew, meeting with them over dinner or a drink, or conversing on the phone. But it quickly became apparent that there was a reason each of them had either been jettisoned from my life, or had turned away from me, or simply fallen away.
What do we expect? Some, if not most, friendships end. Sebastian was a shallow man who thought he had depth, but he didn’t, and he was ultimately boring. Mo was a glib New Yorker with whom I shared the dream of being a musician, but when he that for designing women’s shoes, he acquired a flat dimension and took off for outer space and I remained earthbound. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) Charlie’s friendship turned out to be purely the once-upon-a-time proximity of our junior high school lives and did not survive the time or the distance. And Gala? She was, in the final analysis, a failed artist who was a superlative little judgmental shit with a large chip on her shoulder who found herself when she became a well-paid bureaucrat with the power to hire and fire people who had skills she never would; talentless and unoriginal. And Violet was lost and laterally drifting, like myself, and we ended up moving past each other without even realizing it.
The intersection of what they expected, and what I expected, diverged at a certain unforeseen but inevitable (I think) point, a failure to rendezvous based on a miscalculation of mathematics. The numbers would never add up, or in any event, in those cases they didn’t.
Was David O. a different case? Was Eduardo V an exception? Or Jim? I don’t know about them. These were friends who died in the full flowering of our friendship, and we’d never gotten past that amount of time in which things sometimes fall apart, if they’re going to. Would their friendship have withstood the test of time? Who knows? David was murdered while still young. Eduardo died of AIDS complications nearly three years after we met. And Jim took his own life, in a different country and for reasons I was never privy to other than the part played by genetics. Perhaps in some cases it’s not an inevitability.
Down on his luck, his family disintegrating, he’d reached out to me anew in 2009, 31 years after we’d gone our separate ways. A burly, hairy handsome fellow when we’d been friends, he’d grown bald and thin. We got together 3 times. The first time, when he came by my office seeking to sell his paintings, desperate to get out of financial straits. The second time, we had lunch at Casa Vega on Ventura Blvd., like old times. And again like in the old days, we went to Corky’s — reopened after it had been closed for a little over a decade or so — and shared coffee and conversation.
We never did get together again after that. Less than 2 months later, he was dead.
In his youth he’d been a wonderfully fat-mouthed atheist, blasphemous and iconoclastic. But now he’d discovered Jesus. I thought it odd, sad. It reminded me of the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne,” in which he sings about Jesus that “only drowning men could see him.” Afterwards we went to the Sherman Oaks Park across the street, and, sitting on a picnic bench like once upon a time, he read a new poem to me. I wanted to tell him not too, but he was eager to do so. He probably wanted to verify something. I felt ice in my veins, a feeling of déjà vu already clouding the moment. He did read it, and I had no clue what it was about. Neither of us made much of it, and later, with a sinking feeling I gave him a ride home. There, he made me the gift of one of his paintings, and I gave him a copy of my novel, Heartfelt Affectations, which ten years earlier I’d dedicated to him and to David. We promised to get together again, soon, and parted.
Shortly after that he’d called me on a Saturday evening just as I was about to go out to dinner with my wife, son and father–in-law. I knew it was him, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I’d been avoiding him. I let the call go to voice mail. He left a longish message thanking me for being kind to him, for being open to resuming our friendship, his voice fraught with selective nostalgia. He said he’d found a new place to live, and that the stars were beginning to line up. He said positive things, but his voice was sad, tentative, exploratory, but probative of what I did not know. Nonetheless, it stirred a lot of deep, sweet, intense and primal memories we’d forged in our youth, though this present-day Harry, like the historical Last Days Harry, made me nervous. Did I want to introduce this man to my wife and son? I half-heartedly promised myself to call him later in the week, and I did, repeatedly, but he never answered, and we never spoke again.
A little while afterwards I learned that he’d committed suicide.
Then shortly after that, the Corky’s we used to read our poems to each other over coffee when in high school — he, David and I — was closed down a second time, and eventually torn down.
I guess that some things just aren’t meant to be.