Not in Custody

He played the theremin like a weirdo and used to hang upside down on a contraption screwed into his door frame.

Call my ex-housemate Dawson. I’m short but he was shorter. And tinier, bonier, thinner, with an oversized head and eyes. He told me once that he had been born with a tumor pressing on some gland that allows you to grow. That made him small.

He played the theremin like a weirdo and used to hang upside down on a contraption screwed into his door frame. He liked me more than I liked him. I think he would be surprised to know I didn’t really like him. I can fake it pretty well.

One time before I left our house to be with my family -- he didn’t have a family that loved him, his mother had disowned him for being gay and his father, a heroin addict, had died in prison -- for Christmas, I was so annoyed with him that I said right into his face, spittingly, with intense hatred, “You are a very small person.” He looked like he was going to cry. He probably did after I left him alone in the house.

He deserved it. He was scary-smart and could be charming if he needed to, but lacked real, believable human kindness. He would do things to me like this: I once went into the office we shared in our house, all full of good intentions, and start talking about a song I liked. I had a question about it, and I wanted to ask him for the answer because he was smart. After I hummed the tune and described it, he feigned ignorance of this well-known song, but finally said, “Oh, that! That’s not a song, that’s an INSTRUMENTAL.” I said, “What’s the difference?” He said songs must have words. I said, “You knew what I meant.” He said in his usual schoolmarm voice, “I would think that as an editor you would care about differences like that.” So don’t just rebuff my attempt at conversation, Dawson, call the validity of my professional self into question, too. That’s a great way to be friends.

He had a soft-brushed, womanly Southern-accented voice. Like a woman from Tennessee had trained him to talk just like her. Which one obviously had, unwittingly. His mom. He fell in love with and then doted on unattainable straight boys in that old familiar storyline in which, when they failed to love him back and live happily ever after, he had a built-in excuse (they are straight) that spared his own ego. It was sickening to watch. And he knew it, so he would talk about it constantly to me.

My beloved grandmother passed away the summer of the year I lived with Dawson. I inherited a lot of kitchen implements, dishes, etc., from her. One was a gray speckled bowl, which I found broken into several pieces one day. I said, “Dawson?” I was very upset. He said it was just a bowl, and he purported not to understand the big deal. I felt like he did it on purpose to get back at me for drinking some of his beer. I was so furious I was going to kill him. So our third housemate, Sweet Angel, took Dawson aside, outside my presence, and explained what any decent person would have known: that this was a sentimental object and breaking it was a terrible thing to do, even if it was an accident.

Dawson understood, I guess, and he bought me a stainless-steel bowl to replace the heirloom he had broken. Get it? Stainless steel can’t be broken. So smart.

After we moved out he got in to a very good law school, in his mid-30s. I was proud of him and told him so. But then he graduated, and the years went by and he couldn’t get a job. He seems to have tried and tried. I asked him several times on the phone what the problem was, and he said finally that he thought he was too “weird” for people. But, I thought, lawyers usually have unpalatable personalities. And the kind of law he wanted to practice was more backroom, not grandstand and glad-hand. I am left with the feeling that he must have shot himself in the foot repeatedly. How could you not parlay your blue-chip J.D. into ANYTHING? Not even an ambulance-chasing job? How could you get through this elite law school, pass the bar, and then fail to get hired? For years on end?

Last May, a few weeks after he committed suicide, his friend and mine (through him) sent me a message saying Dawson had died. I wasn’t surprised, given his prolonged descent and the kind of person he was. So coldly logical, so devoid of love. I can just see him wrapping up his affairs like this was the only thing to do now.

His death put me in that small club of people touched by suicide. People who are supposed to then always wonder if they could have done anything to help or save the person.

I called my brother who, along with my parents, had met Dawson once and had told me they did not like him. I said, “Remember Dawson, my roommate...” He said yes. I was walking across a bridge, clasping my cell phone. “He, well, killed himself...” My brother interrupted me with the words “Oh, no,” but it was not a casual “Oh, no.” It was the most serious kind, spoken in a hushed and husky voice, which means, “No, take it back and let’s make believe you didn’t just say it.” I struggled to get through the conversation, my voice kept failing when I tried to say something. My brother was upset too and questioned me: Was I sure Dawson had committed suicide? I had to admit that the friend who had told me had only found the obituary by accident, and obituaries never say “suicide,” so in fact we didn’t know “for sure” even though it was abundantly obvious to us.

From inside my ambivalent but real pain, I saw the life vest my brother had thrown me. I walked the rest of the way home and got right on the computer and worked the hell out of Google. The city where Dawson lived had a police database. I typed in the date, his address. Sure enough, there was a police report from that night, with the official description: “Suicide: Not in custody.” No name, but the apartment number and date and everything was the same.

So much for brief fleeting hopes of natural causes. I sat there for a bit. So small, this death, I thought. That’s it: “Suicide: Not in custody.” The last words on a life. I never did find out how he did it, and I truly don’t want to know.

Every cliché and stereotype you can imagine about suicide floated through my mind over the next few weeks. I cried just once. But pretty hard.

At the time he died, none of the major life slots was filled: No love interest or partner, no job, no money. No prospects. Two-hundred thousand dollars of law school debt. The panic must have been unbearable right before he decided what to do. That makes me wince every time I think of it. I know what it feels like to be down, like that, right down on the floor. But I’m sitting here typing this. I didn’t say “Fuck you” to everyone I know in the world by offing myself.

The social compact demands that you keep living as long as you can. Today would have been his 40th birthday.

The last time I talked to Dawson on the phone he had told me he was out of food and not sure what to do. He had been asking me to come visit him for years, but I never wanted to. I joked that we should make a “non-suicide pact.” A bit of gallows humor. Because I was very down, too, at that time. He said yes. He agreed to the pact. And he broke it.

But I still have that stainless-steel unbreakable bowl in my cupboard, the one he gave me to replace the one he broke, after someone told him that was the thing to do. The day he broke it I never imagined he’d be gone just like my grandma, in the space of a few years. I use the bowl now to beat eggs. I use Grandma’s wine glasses and pans. I’m still here, trying to be a better person. _Caption: That's "Dawson" reflected in the window, taking my Halloween portrait in 2003._


This was my first suicide, and it was the preamble to last year's legendary "Summer of Death." Celebrities dropped like flies. Also: People I knew kept committing suicide! But the ones that did were people I had always kept at arm's length. So I have a theory: Maybe we sense right away upon meeting someone that they will eventually f*ck us over by committing suicide, and that is why we never really warm up to them.


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