It wasn’t until Colby’s successful third attempt that I learned of the previous two. On New Year’s Eve, behind a locked door, with his father’s shotgun. Before that, in the bedroom with a bottle of pills. Before that, some other place, some other failed escape. He was sixteen years old. He was the first of my friends to commit suicide, but he wasn’t the first to die, nor would he be the last.
E was my best friend freshman year. We bonded pretty quickly over rough households that splintered each of our trifecta of siblings onto their own solo warpaths. Our shared experiences with mental illness in our families brought us together, but our coping mechanisms pushed us apart. In the remote acreage stretching over sparsely inhabited ranch land where we lived, there weren’t many options for distractions. While I turned further and further inward, E was driven outward to more typical high-school activities: to cheerleading, dressage, boyfriends, and skipping school to spend the afternoon in the woods with friends.
The high school was huge. Over 4000 students, many of whom traveled an hour or more through the hill country or around the lake to campus every morning. The ag barn and athletics complex took up half the school’s buildings and more than half of its funding, but at least we had the top 5A football team in the state to show for it. State fair days were school holidays, as most kids would have had to skip class anyway to help their parents sell livestock at market. Anytime it rained for more than a few hours, we were all sent home, as the rural roads were prone to flash flooding. Despite the huge class size and wide geographic area the school drew from, the student body was almost entirely white and working class. A black family moved in once. It took only a few weeks for a noose to appear in the oak tree in front of the school. The school of course took it down and made a show of trying to find the kids responsible. But the whole fuss faded away too quickly for comfort. The family didn’t leave their kids at the school for long.
It was, in most senses, a fiercely white, rural, redneck school as Texas is prone to producing. The only thing about the whole place that bode of its far from nightly news ordinariness was the exotic game ranch that bordered the football field. During games, it wasn’t uncommon for zebras, ostriches, and other wildlife to line up along the fence to gawk at the spectacle, some becoming antsy as the lights glared and belligerent small towners grew drunker and wandered around beneath the bleachers searching for trouble to get into.
In the October before Colby found his father’s gun, E’s trouble found her. Driving down a winding one-lane road through the woods, her car fishtailed on some gravel and rolled. Her head smashed into a tree and though they kept her on life support for days, she never woke up. Her boyfriend, the last to hear her voice and the only one to hear the crash through the cell phone, killed two people in a car crash of his own two weeks later: a young man and his baby, blameless bystanders to a careless round of teenagers racing. A voice hushed but not hushed enough told me the child had been decapitated, her tone aiming to sound distraught but falling short at crass.
E’s funeral felt off to me. Older and wiser now, I realize that no one knows quite how to grieve for the very young. It is, however, much harder when you know the double lives that were lost: the exuberant outgoing public persona known to all and the hidden person who had a lot to live through and leave behind. E always let just enough of her troubled side show to seem normal. She did just enough of the “bad kid” things to burn off some steam, and in doing so crossed just enough social lines that her loss made an impact: in the athletes she hung out with, the druggie kids she occasionally smoked or popped a pill or two with, and in the artist-musician crowd where she left behind a couple of ex-boyfriends.
For months afterwards, it seemed her death resonated. Colby’s shotgun suicide on New Year’s seemed an echo of the same pain we were already experiencing. In the months that followed, a plane crash killed Brady’s brother, the pilot. Danielle, diagnosed bipolar, went off her meds and disappeared for weeks, eventually turning up several hours away. Only pale, white-blonde Daniel, her boyfriend, could bring her home again and years in an institution followed for both. Sophie, sweet, sad, drunk crier Sophie, with the incredible record of three rounds of rehab before her 18th birthday thanks to her parents’ bottomless coke stash, learned of her father’s second family in Houston before truly bottoming out. Katie attempted suicide twice and Summer once, neither successfully; they were both in love with the same boy and both used pills. Neither got the guy. Dopey, loveable, harmless Matt rocked back and forth over a half-empty bottle. “I’m such a fuck up,” he repeated again and again. “I’m such a fuck up.”
Eight balls became so cheap and so common that they filled the school. The pot and pills that were gateways in middle school became counterweights in high school as kids tried to mellow out their edgy coke and meth highs. Numerous overdoses happened both on and off campus, eventually reaching the point where a student OD’d severely in the bathroom, yet no one found it remarkable enough to bother calling for help. No one was sure anymore what was a suicide attempt and what was just an accident. Drop outs, burn outs, deadheads, rehab and mental-institution patients, and juvenile delinquents became common statuses at the high school. Of the people I considered friends, only one properly graduated; a few eventually got their GEDs, but the majority dropped out, burnt out and faded away well before their senior year.
At age 20, I made a list. On the paper, I wrote down the name of every friend I thought would still be alive in 5 years, and in my head I listed all those I thought would likely be dead—from suicide, from overdose, or from taking foolish risks—or alive but entirely withdrawn and unrealized. The list in my head was longer than the list on my page. Worse were the ghosts in my day-to-day existence. Occasionally, I got phone calls from E’s mother (unstable and difficult, though better medicated these days), missing her daughter and complaining of injustice, and from my own (unstable and difficult, sporadically medicated), still alternately insisting on her ability to sense the future and also somehow that she sensed I was already dead.
With that list, my decision was made. I bought a one-way plane ticket out and fled 6000 miles away, for years refusing to look back. Every now and then, word would trickle in of another death, an alcoholic friend who’d hung himself in the closet on his 22nd birthday without warning, or another former friend who’d simply given up on life and gone nowhere. I felt sadness at the news, despite my lack of surprise, but I knew it couldn’t be my responsibility to try and untangle that fatal flaw in those I’d left behind. The opposite of the kids in that town, my escape was from death. And I was never going back.