WHEN YOUR LIFE is a broken record playing against your skull. When your past is a single theme. When you've put on the headset and dropped the needle in the worn-out groove and turned up the volume until everything else is silence....
That's how I imagine suicide. I have to imagine because imagining is the best I can do. I have to force likenesses, forge metaphors, because I don't know what happens when someone jumps out of a tree wearing a noose fashioned from a wool balnket. I don't know what it's like when someone decides to die, to will his brain to "off" and defy his blood and breath. That split second out on the limb - what's the click, what's the mechanism? How does the music sound just before the jump?
The Rolling Stones were out of character for Craig. He read Ruskin, Arnold and Hopkins. He smoked cigarettes but not dope. He rarely drank. He wasn't into kinky sex or down-at-the-heels surrealist poetry and he wore thick, black-rimmed glasses, the kind that have never been in style.
Craig grew up in Akron. His father is a sociologist, vaguely Unitarian, and his mother is the daughter of Methodist missionaries. After high school Craig went on scholarship to a good state university in New York, majored in English and worked full-time at a grocery store. Five years ago this fall he came to Southern California for graduate school.
My friends and I met Craig in a literary theory seminar. At that time my friends were male and exactly two in number: a Vietnam veteran who saw the world as a Jacobean tragedy and a recently sprung Catholic who spit venomous aesthetics. We nabbed Craig after hearing him talk in class - he was smart, very smart. We wanted him for our seances.
I don't know how many times I sat across from Craig in some Coast Highway coffee shop, picking at the remains of an hours-old chef's salad, eying a table of cold cups and doing less talking than listening. If it was after 2 a.m. Nick - the ex-Marine - would be coughing. By then he would have finished his usual nocturnal harangue - all doom, admonition and gaseous metaphysics. He would be lighting his thirtieth cigarette and trying to calm down, having convinced himself that none but he could feel a ripeness in the spheres. Paul, too, would be quiet; in the throes of ennui, tired of his worn barbed, pre-dawn ployglot, he would stretch out in the booth and gesture toward Craig.
"Well, what do you think, Stark?"
Funny, how men call each other by last names. For me he was always "Craig" - will always be, I guess. Funny, too, how little I recall of anything Craig said. Tones of voice, expressions, mannerisms, yes, and I know he held forth on Victorian poetry. But beyond that I draw a blank.
One thing I do recall. The morbid Rolling Stones song he always punched on juke boxes, the one he played over and over. Late one night I asked him why he liked it. He answered but I couldn't hear above the music, so he scribbled on his napkin: "Because my personality is a disease."
A friend kills himself; you get a letter from someone who has heard. You sit in your living room 3,000 miles away and try to take it in, the sudden absence.
you dont ask why. You simply hurt. And if you could wrench out the offending organ - that source of pain fast becoming a rage which, however futile, won't contain itself - you would. You'd do anything to stop the march of imagination.
He let his hair grow and didn't trim his beard. He wore his tennis shoes until the canvas flapped when he walked. He slept less and less; often I'd come into the teaching assistants' office before my 8 o'clock class and find Craig there. Mute, bleary-eyed, he'd give me a perfunctory nod and go on with his reading.
"You want to get some coffee?"
And occasionally he'd say "Okay," put down his pen and close his book.
We'd walk across campus, past stands of pine and aspen, through a fog that seemed to exaggerate the buildings' futuristic facades. The commons would be crowded; we would take our cups outside and sit on the grass, where Craig would blink and fidget like a creature unused to daylight.
Craig wasn't at home in Southern California. He was puzzled by what he perceived as its unreflective optimism - the worship of pre-fab theories of progress, the love of infinite novelty. Once, in an ironical moment, he misquoted Tennyson: "Let the great world spin forever down the ringing graves of change..." It wasn't until much later, as I was reading for an exam, that I realized the word was "grooves" and that the slip had been intentional.
Craig also distrusted the rampant fertility, the sense that in Southern California anything could take root. He made some sort of distinction between "natural" danger and "wild" danger, natural danger having to do with ordinary threats like car wrecks and burglars, wild danger having to do with poison oak and prickly pears. And he was indignant when he found out that "Return to the Planet of the Apes" had been filmed on the campus where he was working toward a Ph.D. in English literature.
In certain moods Craig wouldn't speak except to mutter puns. I could say "good morning" and get a fantastic, garbled reply which, when translated, would make sense only to someone good at close textual analyses of Browning. And whenever Nick, Paul and I complained about this antisocial behavior, we would be referred to Bacon and his four classes of fallacies, in particular the idola fori - misunderstandings owing to the unstable nature of words.
He was a difficult friend, Craig; sometimes my phone would ring and Nick or Paul would say, "Stark is down again." I'd drive to the apartment Craig shared with another graduate student and find him propped up on the sofa, surrounded by books that hadn't been off library shelves for years.
The idea was to reduce the world to primitive dimensions - to make him coffee, to brush his hair. To scratch his back and entertain with limericks. To convince him you would be his friend through wild or natural danger.
My feelings aren't rational. They aren't fair. They are unrelenting and in that sense no doubt un-Christian, but they are there. I flout the dead - I don't believe in excuses, in emotional justifications. I can't believe that a man's personality is a disease. I can't believe that Craig didn't hang himself out of spite - spite for me, for Nick and Paul, for the branch he tied his shredded blanket to. I'm angry at him, not because he didn't want the world made larger but because he didn't even want the world reduced.
What's hard isn't remembering the good moments - the texts he explicated, the money he loaned without thought of repayment. What's hard is forgetting the bad ones. And trying not to hate those who call themselves liberal and humane and who insist that the time I spent worrying over Craig was time directed toward some good end. It didn't make me feel good. And it didn't do any good for Craig. To believe I "helped" him is to believe that, like a kidney machine or an iron lung, I performed a purely mechanical function, and there's something gruesome about thinking of friendship that way.
I've tried to understand his suicide, but understanding is beyond me. Perhaps there is no acceptable explanation.
So I'm left with my imagination. I'm left with the darkness and a song. I'm left with a vision of Craig sitting up after midnight, cutting a blanket into strips and braiding his own noose. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Kofi Tyus for The Washington Post