Today’s piece is one I have been dying to share for a while now, well before I came up with the idea for this month’s collaborative project.
This is a piece written by my aunt, Julie. In many ways, she has been someone I have idolized for so long. As I grew up, I was always so proud to have so many interests in common with her. To me, she was like the success story I wanted to one day become.
I first read this piece a few years ago. I still remember how relieved I felt when I finished it. I remember feeling like “Oh…okay! She’s not flawless, she’s human. Cool, I can be that. That’s attainable.” It was as if, in that moment, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I remember feeling this urge to share the story with everyone I knew, in hopes that they would feel the same.
This was long before I started to go to therapy, mind you. This was well before I was comfortable admitting that I struggled with anxiety and depression. This piece was one of the first real eye-opening experiences I ever had with regards to anything involving mental health. It was one of the first times I realized that maybe I wasn’t okay, and if I wasn’t, that wasn’t wrong. It was one of the first times I didn’t feel alone.
When I knew I wanted to share pieces for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, this is the first one that came to mind. Not only is Julie an extremely talented (published) writer, but she’s also a volunteer counselor for the Crisis Text Line.
In case you have never heard of it, the Crisis Text Line is a 24/7 support service for anyone, in any type of crisis, at any time. It is an AMAZING resource. Check it out if you haven’t already.
Although I could go on for hours, I don’t want to ramble too long before introducing Julie’s piece. I hope it touches you in some of the same ways it did for me. Here it is:
The Fall of Strangers
Sometimes I write that she runs to the edge of the rooftop. Fifteen stories below, I’m running uphill on the sidewalk. She speeds up for momentum, so that she’ll fly past the instant when she might change her mind. The park isn’t safe at this hour, so I’m under the streetlights. I feel strong, so I lengthen my stride and decide to run farther. She vaults out past the edge, and gives herself to gravity just as I’m fighting it. For a second, she’s in flight. Our hearts are pounding. A few more steps and I’ll catch up to her.
Other times I write it straight: In 1996 I witnessed a suicide in New York City. I abandon imaginary details. I don’t really think she was running. Not at her age, in her state, or in those shoes: sullen mauve pumps, one of which landed askew next to her. It would be wrong to say she launched like a diver, or dove like a bird of prey. For all I know she might have been pushed. I only know for sure what I finally saw: her body on the pavement, head smashed beyond recovery, brains fanned out across the sidewalk.
I was working that year as a biographer’s assistant, at a small desk built into the underside of a loft bed in a one-bedroom apartment. Those were the early days of telecommuting. The woman I worked for lived just across town on the Upper East Side. We’d check in by phone, but most of the time I worked alone, interrupted by field trips to public libraries or longer getaways to private archives to find letters and diaries that belonged to people I had never met, most of whom were already dead. When I worked at home, days often ended at five o’clock with me realizing I hadn’t spoken a word to another living person all day.
I loved my job, loved holding the aged, handwritten letters of strangers, examining the journals of others and exploring the idiosyncrasies of families that were impeccable on the outside and daft on the inside. They felt familiar. I grew fond of the people I researched, and they became my community by proxy. I had freedom to work when and where I pleased, and to disappear whenever I wanted to. I lived with my fiancé, who was finishing medical school and rarely at home. When he was, he was fitfully asleep, or a shadow of himself, consumed by work.
I was good at being alone, I thought, even though I was lonely some of the time and mildly depressed—a condition I dismissed as indigenous to New York, something I could handle.
At the end of the day, every day, I got out to run. Running in Manhattan put me back among people. And there were no people I would rather have mingled among more than the people of New York City. I would run from our apartment on 107th street through the neighborhoods on Amsterdam and Columbus, past the bodegas and towering apartment projects over to the giant hill at the upper western corner of Central Park. I’d run into the park and make a double loop around the reservoir. I’d pass people on rollerblades, lovers in arms, children with nannies. And by the time I got to the East Side the crowd was all Burberry and fine terriers on leashes. When I wanted a shorter run, I ran through Riverside Park along the Hudson, over broken crack vials and, further south, through the islands of flower gardens set in the cobblestone. I ran by people on park benches staring alone at the river, people with children and dogs, teenagers in tunnels. I ran in every kind of weather, from the worst heat to the heaviest snow. Running was my drug, my release, my state of grace.
By the time I left my apartment that afternoon the sun was setting. I ran down West Side Drive, from 107th down to 72nd Street and back again, and then on past my own block. A light rain started to fall. Ahead, I saw the lights of fire trucks in front of a building—maybe a fire alarm or a car accident. There were no police lines, up, and no one seemed distressed. So I kept to my path.
A group of people stood looking, their eyes all pointing to something on the ground. As I passed them, I suddenly saw her: a woman in her mid-fifties, curly hair, gray skirt, a single shoe on the ground near her foot. Cinderella. Her head had made a pit in the pavement. But there was no pit. The side of her skull was flattened against the ground. Her brain speckled the sidewalk all the way to the small bushes that bordered the building from which she had dropped. The same sidewalk where I suddenly realized my feet were falling. Now I was on tiptoe, horrified, leaping past what I had already disgraced.
Of all the thousands of ways we encounter strangers, meeting someone at the moment of their death is possibly second in intensity only to meeting them at the moment of their birth. Between those extremes, we pass by with indifference in grocery stores or airports, or confront with clear intention on battlefields or in bars. But to witness this woman alone on the pavement, destroyed, was more than I knew what to do with. I had no basis for processing it, no precedent for understanding the absurdity of how we had just made contact.
A few minutes faster and I might have blocked her, stopped her, or obstructed her fall. Maybe just one person on the street below would have been enough to change her mind. Then again, she might have struck and killed me. But I wasn’t there when she fell. Should I have been? I was no one: a pedestrian, a jogger, a passerby. The cement was there to catch her.
I stopped running and sat on the curb. There were footsteps behind me, and then a hand on my shoulder.
Over the next several years, my fiancé, Mike, became my husband, and we moved to the suburbs of San Francisco to raise our two children. One afternoon my friend Stephanie called and asked if I would go to see Jason, a friend of hers whom I’d never met. She was traveling, and had received an email from him saying he was in trouble. He had stopped drinking a while ago, but was drunk today, far gone, and sounded like he might be thinking about taking his own life.
I don’t know what made her think I was qualified to give that kind of support. My husband said it might be safer—for Jason and maybe for me, too—to call 911. That might have been true.
“What am I going to find?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just think he needs someone.”
I drove to his house. I didn’t find it easily, but soon realized that he lived in a house behind a house.
When I reached his door, I noticed the lights inside were off. Maybe I was already too late. I wondered if he was hurt or if I was going to get hurt. A small sign on the door read JASON—a note to help people find him. He wanted to be found.
I opened the screen door and rang the doorbell. I waited, then knocked. Still nothing. I opened the mail slot and yelled into it. “Hey Jason! Answer the door!”
Another minute passed, enough to scare me.
Finally I heard someone coming. He opened the door. His eyes were red and glassy. At the base of his bleached-blonde hair were black roots, tousled as if he’d been sleeping. He wore sweat pants and a T-shirt. “Hey,” he said. The apartment smelled like cigarettes and maybe pot. Definitely alcohol.
“I’m a friend of Stephanie’s,” I said. “She said you weren’t feeling so hot so I came over.”
“Stephanie,” he said slowly. “That girl. She’s good people.”
He opened the door wide and let me in.
“She was worried about you.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. I have a fever or something.”
His apartment was dark and stuffy. A small plant struggled on the kitchen table. He sat down on a small couch by sliding glass doors.
I sat down in a chair facing him. And there we were. I remembered once sitting in a therapist’s office back in New York. I was crying and crying—I couldn’t handle it after all—and she leaned down to the floor and pushed a box of tissues toward me without ever lifting her ass off her chair. I never went back.
I didn’t come there to sit back and stare at this man. I had nothing to say to him politely over a coffee table.
I said, “I’d rather sit on your side. I came here to make sure you’re okay.”
I stood up and climbed over the coffee table straight to him, sat next to him and took him in my arms. He fell into me and I squeezed him hard. He shifted and turned so he could fit more closely. He sighed. “Thank you,” he said. He pulled his legs close to his body and curled up. I think I said, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
He wasn’t crying. He breathed heavily in big sighs. Maybe he was relaxing, or just trying to breathe. I didn’t know how much he’d had to drink, but I guessed a lot.
We were quiet for a while. I had rushed over quickly after my friend called, right after a shower.
“Your hair is wet,” he said. “You smell so clean.”
“I think I know how you feel,” I told him. “I’ve felt exactly the way you’re feeling right now.”
“When?” he asked. “Tell me.”
But I couldn’t. The answer was “yesterday.” I thought it would terrify him.
Yesterday: I pulled the point of a razor across my skin and made a cut on the back of my left hand, on the flesh between my finger and thumb.
I wasn’t even close to admitting what I had been feeling in the previous weeks. I kept my life in a rush of accomplishment, so the empty spaces would blur, and was now at a halt, alone, leaning against a counter in my bathroom.
The pain stung, corrosive, but the color was rich and red—unmistakably healthy. The sight of it made me feel strangely robust, in spite of how I felt emotionally. Here was the blood that propelled me forward, the same blood that could tell me I was young and fertile, or mortally injured. I took my time, in no rush to see it end. Then I thought of my children and husband and job and responsibilities, covered the cut with a sober band-aid, and left the house.
I wondered, if someone was going to confront herself finally and truly, if it could only be done violently.
But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to die. I want to look over the edge, to confront the stranger in myself, and stand my ground.
“A while ago,” I lied. “I cut myself to sort of punctuate what I was feeling. It was like this huge cavern of loneliness and despair opened up in me, and I could make it small and manageable and put a band-aid on it. I didn’t think anyone else would understand.”
“I know,” he said.
But he didn’t know, didn’t see that the band-aid was still on my hand.
“So I’m here and you don’t have to be alone,” I told him.
“You know, you sound like you’re good at this,” he said. “The way you just showed up and let me hold on to you. Like you know twelve-step programs.”
“I don’t know. I guess I think it’s something we all need at one time or another.”
“That’s how sponsors are supposed to be in AA. They’re supposed to be there for you.”
“I mostly know them from The Wire.”
“I love The Wire!”
“Yes, well, Bubs is all I know about AA.”
There was Jason, this stranger in my arms, suddenly very much alive. In that apartment, I might have found anything. Or he might have never even let me in the front door. He would need therapy from someone more professional than me, or an intervention, but at the moment, he just wanted to shoot the shit.
We talked about television, about his sponsor, and about differences between suburban and city life. I said it wasn’t as easy to walk outside and enjoy the anonymous comfort of humanity like you can in the city when you feel alone. Jason agreed, or nodded, or mmhmm’d.
“But do you do this a lot?”
“You mean show up at stranger’s homes when they’re sad and sit on the couch with them?”
“No, I don’t.”
“And Stephanie just asked you to come over?”
“Stephanie. Shit. You know when you let people lean on you, when you help people, you forget about your own problems.”
Stephanie had called more friends, people Jason knew, and in a little while they showed up with their baby and gave Jason more distraction, more love, held on to him when it was time for me to go home to my own family.
That night he called. He sounded happy, relieved—and maybe a little in disbelief that the world had come through for him, stood in his way of a path he didn’t really want to take at all. And I told him that he rescued me, too. Months later I told him that it really was the day before that I had been feeling the way that he had. That it was my own vulnerability that qualified me to hold him up, to really understand how he felt, to hold him like some kind of fragile scaffold.
One of the bystanders had come over to me. He must have seen me run straight through the crime scene (was it a crime?), and I was ashamed.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I nodded. That anyone should be asking how I was doing when a woman lay dead twenty feet away astonished me.
But I wanted the comfort. I asked him what happened, who she was. He said no one knew.
“Did she live there?” I asked, indicating the building above her.
“I don’t know. If she did, nobody knew her,” he said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” I said, and stood up. “Thank you.”
I couldn’t pick up where I left off. I walked home because it didn’t make sense to run. Nothing made sense. I had no idea how long that feeling would last.
At home, I turned on the television to keep me company. Four different channels had shows about suicide. They were melodramas, made-for-TV movies, a talk show, and stand-up comedy. I turned it off.
I walked back up to the scene. The entire block had been tied off with bright yellow tape and flares at 109th and Broadway to prevent cars from coming down the street. From a distance I could see the woman’s body was covered now, her shoe still lying next to her.
I wondered who she was, what had provoked her, what weight had brought her down. There was nothing in the papers the next day, nor any day after.
I called a friend and she came over. We put our feet up and had a drink. She spent the night and slept next to me in my bed like my sister used to. We talked in the dark and soon fell asleep.
** Originally published in the anthology Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, editing by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist **