A Series of Confessions

Originally published August 2018

My friend Bill went missing earlier this summer. His car was discovered in a wooded area several miles from home. His body not long after. He left a simple note with instructions for whom to notify. When the police called, they explained my contact info was also in his wallet and could I answer some questions.

“How did you know him?”

We met when I started waiting tables and bartending at a tavern in Rye, NY, two years ago. He was a regular in the truest sense. Every afternoon at 3 o’clock he took his place at the bar. He sipped his two Budweisers slowly, alternately offering pleasant conversation and comfortable TV viewing silence.

“When did you last see him or speak to him?”

I saw him on Spring Break when we traveled up to NY. My partner and I had a drink with him one evening and he asked if there was any way we could join him the following afternoon for lunch at his beloved yacht club. He’d asked me to join him there for a meal several times, but I’d never done it.

This time he asked again, emphasizing how much he wanted to show me the most beautiful place in the world. But the kids would be with us. They didn’t have the appropriate attire and frankly, I didn’t want him spending that kind of money on us when there was a chance they wouldn’t appreciate the outing. I basically just did a quick run-scenario in my head and thought, Nah, not a good idea.

Next time though, Bill, when the kids aren’t in tow, I promise we’ll go.

I called to check in with him in May. He didn’t have a cell phone. But his routine was clockwork, so I almost never missed him on the landline. Not that I called him often. Anyway, I wanted to see how he was. He answered in an unusually chipper voice,

Hey, I said, you sound happy, what’s going on?

Oh nothing in particular, he replied.

That puzzled me.

Ok, well I’m glad to hear you so upbeat, I figured you had some news or something.

No, no, just happy to hear from you, he said.

We chatted for a minute or two, and then I wrapped it up.

Alright then, well I’m glad to know you’re well, say hey to everyone up there for me.

Okay, I will!

It almost annoyed me how sanguine he was. Not that I begrudged him cheerfulness, but I worried about him and would have felt better to know there was a particular reason for his lightheartedness.

A couple weeks later he emailed a brief note about news in the neighborhood. I was sitting at my desk when it came in and thought to immediately reply, but then paused. Real mail is always nicer to receive, so I pulled out a notecard and envelope and wrote him a reply. He’d sent me a few articles and cartoons clipped from the New York Times throughout the year. I flipped through the piles of paper on my desk but vaguely remembered throwing out the items he’d sent in one of my recent attempts to purge. I didn’t want to have to admit I’d thrown out his envelopes (and likely the contents), so I put the notecard aside for the moment thinking I would find his address later. The notecard was still on my desk when the police called.

Why am I writing all this? A few reasons. Bill isn’t the first person I’ve lost tragically. He’s not the first person who no longer walks this earth who I wish I could go back and change a few scenes or phrase things differently. But really, it’s so much more than that.

Two weeks before he passed, Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was all over the news. And Kate Spade’s. There is that uptick in talk about mental health and not judging people who suffer from depression and all the attempts to sound thoughtful and concerned and committed to making this world a kinder, gentler place for the fragile.

I’m not criticizing those sentiments, but I find them in the same category of talk as when a school shooting happens. We are all distraught for a moment, and then inevitably have to carry on with who is still here and all the mundane details of life. Nothing really changes much.

I cannot accept the cycle of outrage and pain, followed by quiet surrender to the grind. 

I was having coffee with a close friend months ago. We were discussing our own mental health, how stressful parts of our lives are, how chaotic things feel sometimes, how we both struggle with ADHD. She was wondering about getting on medication.

Rach, look at me, I’m a middle-class woman with a stable job and good health insurance, she said. I’ve called individual therapists and group practices. I’ve left messages or encountered mailboxes too full to accept a new one. No one gets back to me. I’ve talked to women at my Bible study and I swear they just don’t get it. They give me this concerned look when I talk about struggling with my life, and they promise to pray for me. I am literally asking for help and cannot get it. If it’s this hard for me, how does anyone get help? I mean, no wonder we have an opioid crisis, it’s easier to find a dealer than actual support.

A few years ago I had an affair with a married man. It was wonderful and tragic. Toward the end of our relationship he said that he occasionally asked himself if he could go back and erase it, our meeting, our first conversation alone. But he was sure he wouldn’t.

He was a military diplomat and had been faithfully married for many years. They had a good life despite their challenges and he always spoke respectfully about his wife. We were both flattered by one another’s attention. I was a single mom of two little ones I’d just lived through an epic escape from an abusive marriage, and the religious worldview that had led me into it to begin with. I was still rebuilding, and I was still vulnerable. He was tall, handsome, strong, and did important work in the world.

He told me he felt like he’d been an observer of life, not truly living it until we got together. He opened his soul and shared thing with me that he’d never shared with anyone else. Though I’d felt like the vulnerable one to begin with, I quickly realized I had the beating heart of this precious human in my hands. It felt sacred and scary. I felt truly loved and cherished for the first time in my life. I was elated and ashamed.

Early on I giddily mentioned this relationship to a friend in an email. There is just one problem, I wrote, he is married. I was swept up, totally oblivious to what I was writing. She was horrified and quickly sent me a reply urging me to immediately stop it.

You are an emotional terrorist. If you were walking into a building with a bomb, I would feel compelled to stop you. The same applies here.

That shook me.

I finally stopped trying to break up with him when I realized that I wasn’t trying to end it because of moral conviction. It was my ego not wishing to be judged, it was fear of being found out, being labeled a homewrecker. I couldn’t bear to have a precious connection reduced to a sordid affair.

I sent a very rational reply immediately. But I sobbed about her words periodically for months. I tried to break up with him several times. He understood. But our chapter wasn’t over. We couldn’t stay apart long. I cannot pretend that our relationship was purely altruistic. Of course there were needy parts of me that drank him in. But I will not say that it was evil or purely selfish. It wasn’t.

And it wasn’t because I thought breaking up would be better for his wife. I knew our relationship was tilling the soil of his heart that had been packed down and unreachable. Somehow I knew that this crisis was good for more than just me and him. But I couldn’t imagine saying that out loud. What narcissistic bullshit to explain my actions as somehow good for the person I was wounding most.

I am not ashamed to admit I prayed for both of them everyday. Sometimes I still do.

If anyone has seen it all, can handle the nuances and grey areas of life, it's God. When I left religion, I left behind the concept of sin and all its guilt-inducing doctrine. I think of the Apostle Paul’s words often, All things are permissible but not all things are beneficial. It’s so much harder to make decisions by truly discerning what is beneficial or not, when in reality it's never really 100% one or the other. “Sin” as motivation for behavior modification is handy for those who wish to control others. It’s helpful for those who wish to avoid doing the hard work of thoughtful choices and possible failure.

I am rambling now. What is all this about anyway? In part, regret.

I regret not writing to Bill more. I was aware of his acute isolation. I wanted to help but it was often awkward. The problem with being so isolated is that when you experience connection it’s like the sky parting and the hallelujah chorus starting. And you just want it to keep going. It can easily get obsessive. I know that firsthand. And I was always worried about that. I worried about him being too attached to me. I wanted to push him into the world, encourage him, help him… but I was afraid of him depending on me too much. That’s the brutal truth. And now, I wish I had done better by him.

When I think about my relationship with the married man, a main element of our passion was writing to one another. Long letters short notes, funny texts. But long letters especially, we loved pouring out our hearts to one another.

And so, when I look back on my history, I see ways I have miscalibrated… held back when I wish I had given more. Explode when I wish I had held back. All this passion. If only I'd handled it better. I am determined to mine the wisdom from the wreckage.

The answer can never be to eliminate passion, compassion, or willingness to act.

I was talking to another friend the other night. He’s going through an awful breakup. I did my usual thing; listen, and then articulate some blunt reality with a reminder about the good things that come from shitty chapters.

Rach, when are you going to start writing again? He asked, I miss reading your stuff.

So I have decided to try to write more, especially about the things you tell best friends and lovers. To let you know that isolation is a plague we are all touched by at some point. But if I can do my part to prevent it from taking another life I will. I can’t save anyone, but I will be here if you need to be cheered on in your choices to save yourself.