Five months after we met, I watched The Hours for an introductory English course. This course was taught by a predictably so-so adjunct instructor with flaky skin and thin hair, who was passionate about August Wilson and The Madwoman in the Attic, and who gave me that single B-plus that—as I’m sure you remember—caused me to cry for hours and question the course of my academic career. My certainty of my passion returned when I watched The Hours in conjunction with Mrs. Dalloway. Mrs. Dalloway was a book I fell in love with, and a book I’m sure you’re very, very tired of hearing about. You’re tired of hearing about Mrs. Dalloway, and Tom Waits, and how Brian Griffin has to be based on Jonathan Franzen. I’m tired of hearing about the Goo Goo Dolls, and democratic socialism, and how the 12th Doctor and Clara had zero chemistry, but we listen to one another anyway. The two of us have that comfortable spouse-like friendship where we’ve both accepted we must occasionally indulge one another’s obsessions. I am asking you to, momentarily, indulge my obsession now. A lot of what I’m going to tell you involves Mrs. Dalloway.
I know you don’t like spoilers, but it’s important you know this one spoiler about The Hours because I’m trying to make a point here. Sorry, but I’m going to tell you now that Ed Harris kills himself. Ed Harris’s character is dying of AIDS, and he thinks he’s failed as a writer, and he has alienated all his friends save his ex-lover Meryl Streep, and because of this—this, and so much more—he slides quietly from the window of his Manhattan home. Don’t worry. This is not much of a spoiler. You’re smart, and you know film, and you would have figured it out. The fact is heavily foreshadowed. In an earlier scene, Harris says to Streep, “I think I’m only staying alive to satisfy you.”
“That is what we do,” Streep replies, “That is what people do. We stay alive for each other.”
He jumps anyway. The decision to jump isn’t selfish or thoughtless or cruel. It’s desperate. It’s hardly a decision at all. It would better be called an impulse, a disease.
That was line has stayed with me. I think it’s because I’m realizing, as I get older, that I don’t do much of anything for myself, or at least not entirely for myself. That is not to say I sacrifice my own needs for those around me. I’ve learned time and time again you have to put on your own air mask before assisting others, so to speak. I engage in basic self-care—work out every day, feed myself vegetables, disengage with those who treat me poorly—but my deepest passions are always directed outward. An ex once rolled his eyes when I said I wanted to write for an audience, then shook his finger at me and said, “No! No! No! You write for yourself. And if you don’t write for yourself, stop writing.” This made me cringe. It was what you have would called a “dump button.” It seemed so self-aggrandizing, condescending. Who writes solely for themselves? What’s the point of writing for yourself? I write for other people, and I am writing this for you, and what the hell’s the matter with that?
A week before I saw The Hours, we were sitting in Dean Esquith’s class. The chairs were parted in a semi-circle, a set-up Esquith preferred as he felt it encouraged the kind of open dialogue and lack of lecture-based teaching structure worshipped in our residential college. You were just across the room from me. We had watched the first episode of The Decalogue in the previous class, as it seems my freshmen year of college was defined by watching depressing films for academic credit. The Decalogue, in case you do not recall, is a Polish film series consisting of 10 short films that explore the moral implications of each of the Ten Commandments. The first film—exploring “Thou shall have no Gods before me”—features a man and his son. The man worships his computer, trusts its wisdom above anything else, and the son is just old enough to begin to question conventional teachings about God and the afterlife. After seeing a dead dog, he asks his father what happens when we die, and his father gives him a stark response. Death is the end of all vital functions and, in all likelihood, a dark slate of primordial non-being. Later on, the boy wants to go skating. He uses the computer—the sacred cow, the graven image—to calculate whether the ice can hold his weight. The computer assures him it is safe to skate.
Of course, it is not. Much like Ed Harris’s death, this is no spoiler. It is obvious the boy will fall through the ice and die. A student noted as much in class that day, raising her hand to note, “When I heard that violin playing while kids were skating, I knew something was going to go down at the lake.”
“Yeah,” you said, “Literally!”
Our eyes met. No one laughed but you and me but, my God, how we laughed, boundaries of classroom etiquette set by the gravity of the discussion at hand shrinking under the weight of our giggles. I love laughter, and all the unalloyed joy and liveliness that accompanies it. Good comedy is all about timing. While your joke may not have been wildly clever, it was well paced and, by this virtue, brilliant. After a 20-minute discussion about God, and wrath, and fate, and the finite nature of human existence, we both needed a laugh.
I knew then we would be close friends.
I think that moment represented a key difference between us, a difference that I think is in part why we’re drawn to each other. You get tangled up in the day-to-day: gaining a few pounds over Christmas break, losing your car keys, receiving a job rejection, a romantic rebuff, a feud with a friend. I find daily setbacks upsetting, but ultimately empowering, a chance to come back stronger and harder the following week. What derails me is the existential and the unfathomable, topics that do not seem to encumber you in any perceptible way. You are able to push troubling cosmic mysteries to the periphery. You do not worry about aging, and dying, and the afterlife, or the lack thereof, as you see little point in contemplating all that is upsetting but unchangeable. You need me to keep you from getting tangled up in life, to help you look to universe and see how very small our problems are in comparison. I, in turn, need you to pull me back to such problems, encourage me to remember all that is quotidian and occasionally flippant.
Sometimes, though, it’s very hard for me to connect with such day-to-day matters. I never told you this, but during my freshmen year of college I was so terrified of dying that I wanted to die.
It all started on October 27th, 2007, my brother Jake’s 20th birthday. I attended a hockey game at Michigan State University’s ice arena, near the Breslin Center, with Jake and our Uncle John. At first, it was fine, a pleasant and completely normal evening. When we bought the tickets for the game, John and I teased Jake at the entrance. We asked the attendant if, as Jake was the birthday boy, he could sit in Sparty’s lap during the break between the first and second period. The man laughed, handed us our tickets, and we went inside the chilly stadium. We found our seats. The game began. Sometime during the first period, everything shattered.
Someone scored a goal. I clapped. I think I was laughing. Everything was okay and then, in a moment, nothing was okay. I suddenly realized how temporary it all was—the game, my brother, my uncle, the seats we were sitting on, the stadium, the school, the city, the state, the earth, myself. There would come a time when nothing would exist at all. I had always known, of course, I would die one day, and the world would end one day, and that time itself would eventually cease to be, that the universe was being ripped apart with each passing minute, but I knew better than to dwell on such things. I always kept them on the periphery, as most people do, but in one swift moment my knowledge of mortality became all-consuming.
At first, I thought something had to have happened. Maybe someone had burst into the arena armed with a loaded gun. I turned and looked at Jake and John, both men leaning forward with their elbows resting on their knees, watching the players on the ice below pass the puck back and forth in a triangular pattern. I surveyed the totality of the arena, fans dressed in green and white, wrapped up in light spring jackets, smiling, cheering, some sipping on clear plastic cups brimming with beer. Nothing had changed but me. It felt so strange that no one was screaming out in terror. Didn’t they know what I knew? How could they not know what I knew? I felt as if something, a dark and tar-like liquid, was seeping through my lower back into my knees and arms and legs, and then into my lungs and my organs. I felt like it would choke me. I felt like I would die right then and there.
When I went to sleep that night, I hoped I would feel better in the morning.
I did not.
I felt worse.
For months, I felt old. I felt as if some part of me had been transplanted somewhere else in space and time, like some sliver of my brain had become undone from the linearity of my own narrative and was prematurely looking back on life. Part of my mind was old, and was close to death, and was bitterly ruminating over how quickly it all went by, how short it all was.
Carrie, here’s the part you will not like. Here is the part about Mrs. Dalloway. Please keep reading, even though I know you’re sick to death of this book, because I swear I have a point. About halfway through this breakdown was when I read Mrs. Dalloway. To cope, I channeled Clarissa.
I thought Clarissa was very brave. She did not think she was brave. She thought she paled in comparison to the stoic Lady Boxborough, but she was wrong! She did not give herself nearly enough credit. The things she did—the silly things—were important to maintain a level of sanity. Clarissa, at times, reminds me of you. In spring, I sent a card and a gift to my father because he was recovering from surgery. As I walked to the post office to mail the gift, I thought of Clarissa. I thought of her wandering through London and realizing, with a sudden harsh snap, that all this must go on without her, that it is possible to die. I thought of how Jake, chronically forgetful, would never think to buy a DVD and a greeting card for our dad, would never think to decorate the dungeons with flowers and air cushions, to be as decent as he possibly could, because he was stuck on the fact we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship, and that the whole thing is a bad joke. Jake was the angry one, the brooding one, the politically aware one, too swept up in a world of Great Big Ideas and Great Big Problems to be occupied by small matters. When the depression first set in, a little after his birthday, I went to his dorm room to borrow a book. I found him there alone, drunk and cursing President Bush with his small dormitory window open a crack so he could smoke cigarettes in secret. He was hunched over on the corner of his bed, a little bundle of green sheets gathered at his feet. He told me if you read the manifesto, there’s a chance the revolution is still coming, that Marx might have had the process correct if not the timing and country. He said that Marx never said the revolution would not be violent, that violence might soon become necessary to progress. He paraphrased a line from Hugo’s Les Miserables, although I’m not sure he knew it was from Hugo’s Les Miserables, about how we call the brutalities of progress revolutions, how the human race is treated harshly but moves forward. He told me he thought we were on the verge of unrest, violent unrest—that something had to give soon because we had lived, too long, in ignorance and fear and complacency, rhetoric I think he borrowed from the anti-war protesters he had been hanging out with that night. He assured me though, as a trace of fear spread across my face, that it would fun fighting this battle.
“Living in Utopia, that would be boring,” Jake said, “But fighting for it, that’s the invigorating part. And we’re the generation that’s going to fight and, more than that, we’re going to win.”
He did not know my fear was more for him than the world. I was afraid because in that moment I felt painfully useless. My brother was drowning in his own anger, an anger stemming from a sense of disillusionment that was completely legitimate. I could not tell him things were not as bad he thought. They were exactly as bad as he thought. I wanted to say something to help him feel better, but anything I could think to say—that it would be okay? that he should not dwell on such things?—would be no more than comforting lies. In the long run nothing is okay. What he was talking about—war, class conflict, the inequitable division of resources, the possibility of violent revolution—were fears too big to be washed from his consciousness by mere soothing words on my part. I just let him talk until he fell asleep.
Clarissa could be yanked out of this kind of darkness, to at least a small degree, by reminders of those little domestic tasks that dotted her life, the ones that could alleviate people from the pain of the larger world. Scholars we read in my freshmen English seminar were too hard on her. They said she was superficial, a signifier of the lost dreams of post-World War I Britain. They did not understand Clarissa the way I did. She knew she was superficial, danced in her own materialism because she recognized that such frivolity was a distraction and, however shallow a distraction it might be, it was absolutely necessary for survival. She threw herself out of the house and onto the streets. She decided she would just buy the fucking flowers herself if that’s what it took to make people happy, even happy in a way that was hopelessly fleeting.
I tried to buy flowers. I tried to remember we stay alive for one another. It was very, very hard to remember these things during that time.
Do you remember the riot? It happened when we were freshmen. It was not a riot born out of any particularly righteous motivations, Jake’s gang of anti-war protestors lacking the organizational skills to throw themselves onto the streets in objection to the invasion of Iraq. The energy Jake thought would break forth upon the city was over, of all things, basketball. Fucking basketball. Our school burned down half the city over a basketball game that we lost, although I’m not sure it would have mattered if we won. It was a thing that happened at least every couple of years, during the end of college basketball season colloquially referred to as “March Madness.” Do you remember the e-mails? We got e-mails in our university inboxes all week, signed from Lou Anna K. Simon, but probably written by an intern. These e-mails contained instructions for Saturday night, when the alleged riot would occur. Only at Michigan State University was a riot a planned event. I was told Cedarfest, the name given to the pending chaos, was not a university sanctioned event and we were strongly discouraged from participating. I was told it would be in my best interest not to go outside that night or to get involved in the festivities in any way. Although forecasters predicted Saturday would be a warm and muggy evening, the e-mails advised anyone living downtown to keep their windows closed as police officers may resort to using tear gas on the unruly student body.
I was not doing well the night of the riot. I forgot about the emails when I left my dorm with a bottle of over-the-counter painkillers and a notebook with a rose embroidered on the leather cover. I sat under a tree somewhere outside the Kresge Theater. I thought to myself, like Clarissa thought, that is it is possible to die. This refrain was pulsating through my brain in rhythm with my beating heart—it is possible to die, it is possible to die, it is possible to die. If I could die right now, I would not be happy, but I would be nothing. I would save myself the apprehensive torture of waiting, save myself from a life consumed with the ever present knowledge that all this would—in 60 years or so—go on without me. I sat there, under the tree, contemplating ending it all, when I heard a voice.
“Hey,” the voice said, “Hey, you.”
I looked up. A young man on a skateboard was riding by, wielding a 40-ounce bottle of light yellow beer.
“Under a tree?” he said, “You should be partying.”
It was then I saw them. Police. Everywhere. Some of them were riding on horseback, some of them in cars, some of them just walking. They were all marching north and there was, in the distance, a dull roar of screaming and cheering. There was a strange scent in the air that reminded me of the fly spray I used on horses during summer camps as a child, a plastic and chemical-laced scent. My eyes began to sting. I noticed then that there were people passing me by, walking down the sidewalk in front of the tree, dressed up in green and white, bearing large M’s and S’s and U’s on their shirts, and carrying six-packs of beer and handles of hard liquor. Then, I remembered the riot that half the university was dedicated to attending. I remembered that, if I wanted to be alone that night, the best place to hide would be the dorm.
I went back to Snyder-Phillips and I locked myself in the private bathroom. I crouched under the shower wall on the orange and white tiles. I took out my notebook. I flipped through it until I found a fresh sheet of yellow paper. I made two columns. “Reasons to Live” and “Reasons to Die.” It was easy, at first, to fill out “Reasons to die,” because self-hatred and anger and pain are such self-indulgent emotions that they spill out easily. You’re ugly. You’re fat. You have poor social skills. Your brother is smarter than you. Your bad at math. You just used the wrong “you’re” by mistake. It went on, like that, for awhile, before I wrote, at the bottom of the page, “Not to mention, you’re wasting paper!”
I paused and looked at those words. You’re wasting paper. It was kind of funny, wasn’t it? Dark humor. Sick humor. The kind of humor that, since childhood, I had a penchant for. I wrote, in the “Reasons to Live” column, “You’re funny.” Then, I thought of you. I remembered The Decalogue, remembered you saying, “Yeah, literally” and how our eyes met, and how we laughed. In the “Reasons to Live” column, I wrote, “Carrie likes you. You could be friends.”
I think it would be unfair to say you saved me. It would, in fact, be irresponsible to say as much as this disregards the graveness of suicide, makes my crisis seem entirely too much like a choice that I somehow logic-ed my way out of. It is not a choice—it’s an impulse, a disease. I think the animal saved me, the part of me that wants to survive and copulate and keep the species going against all real reason. I think I was grappling for any reason to live, no matter how minute. What I think is significant here is what my brain delivered when I was scrambling for hope and meaning.
I know what you’ll think here, Carrie—“Jesus Christ, another obscure reference? Does she have to be the Dennis Miller of the creative nonfiction world?” But stay with me, please. I have a point!
In her “Shipwrecked,” Janna Malumud Smith marveled at her newfound obsession with Robinson Crusoe in the aftermath of her mother’s death. She realized, upon reflection, her mind had made a metaphor—the ship was her mother, and she was Robinson, desperately ransacking the vessel for some sacred memento. She marvels and the ingenuity of the unconscious bubblings of the mind, how in our weakest moments our brains bring us what we need to survive. “Praise the quirky mind,” she writes, “Present yourself at the front desk of its repository, request any volume from its stacks, and discover, once again, how the runners deliver up what suits them: ‘Bring her Defoe.’”
My mind did not bring me Defoe. It did not bring me a book or an author at all. Instead, it brought me you.
I think my brain wanted to help ground me, to remind me that I do not exist entirely for the sake of myself. It was a lesson I could only properly digest years later, after much therapy and self-reflection, when I was in a place stable enough to welcome epiphanies. (I want to remind you, and everyone else, that you cannot have a healthy epiphany when your brain is plagued by mental illness, and that I did not climb out of that abyss by the virtue of my own strength and inquisitive mind. Depression kills strength and the inquisitive mind.) I sometimes think of my ex, wagging his finger while crying, “No, no, no! Do it for yourself.” This just makes me feel sad for him, and for others who share the sentiment. I cannot do it just for myself. It is impossible to do anything entirely for yourself. We were all born into a net of preexisting connections. I am healthier now, but as I’m sure you know, I have never entirely disengaged with dark thoughts over the inevitable and the unchangeable. I sometimes need something physical to bring me back to the present moment, to fill me with gratitude for my life, however precarious that life may be, as it exists right the fuck now.
We stay alive for each other. I stay alive for you, and for so many others. That’s what people do.
 Remember that argument we had about whether Robin is a boy’s name or a girl’s name? Robinson is basically the same name as Robin, and Robinson Crusoe is a boy, SO I’M RIGHT!