The renewed discussion of suicide following the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has brought back a particularly disturbing experience I had in college that I think about at least once a week.
I was sitting in the computer lab, a tight space with rows of big, flat Apple computers that simultaneously obscured your face from the view of one side and reflected it to those on the other side, when a stranger sat down two seats from me. Something was off about him. Maybe it was the mechanism by which he sat down, his posture, his body’s cadence as he locked into the screen and methodically shifted windows and began scanning a command module. I was 19 or 20 at the time, and he seemed to be several years older, mid to late 20s. I could no longer focus on my work, not that I did much of that anyway. I snuck a glance and saw a cold face, brutally configured and maintained like a mint coin, with just as much plasticity. His head was shaved nearly to the skin but was still jet black like a swimming cap. I couldn’t make sense of his body proportions under his oversized, dirty white shirt.
I can only look in spurts, fearing that his gaze would turn me to stone. His head doesn’t move. I continue to look — with as much stealth as possible — and notice his arms. They are lined with cuts, both left and right and more severe than any I’d seen in the documentaries we’d watched in my high school psychology class. He’d laid the rail road tracks and gone down the street at least once, evinced by the thick raised scar running about seven inches up his inside wrist. My eyes tracked up his arm further and there was a cluster, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ band logo, but made with cuts. A sun burst of scars. To this day I suspect I could draw each line from memory.
For all the time I spent staring, he doesn’t show any awareness of me. I don’t mean that he hasn’t shown any of the typical body language that one normally does when someone has been staring at your for five minutes — he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of anyone else in the lab where there are at least 7 other people chatting about calculus equations and what not. I take another look at him and notice his shirt is not a plain white tee: he’s written in sharpie all along the bottom. The bottom six or seven inches of the shirt have what looks like a manifesto on them. The only thing I could make out was, “Your words are fundamentally meaningless.”
By this point it was long obvious that this guy had been through more than I could ever imagine, so much so that he seemed alien to me. Part of me wanted to tell him it was ok. Another thought I should ask if he was ok. “Well, say something,” I thought to myself. “You can’t see that and not say something.” But everything that came to mind to say felt ridiculous. Maybe that’s how he wanted me to feel, to push me away when in fact me saying one of those things would do wonders for him in the long run. I remember feeling angry at him a short time after I felt that sympathy. I though about what a lost cause he is, that he’s the one who’s ridiculous and that I’m under no obligation to reach out to someone who believes so strongly that words have no meaning that they would write it by hand on a T-shirt they wear in public.
So I didn’t say anything. After about 20 minutes he abruptly cut off his computer and left, long shirt hanging over his dirty cargo shorts, clunky flip-flops slapping behind him as he strode out into the hallway, turning one direction before whipping around and heading out the other. No one else seemed to see him. He was a ghost. The TA’s stationed in the lab were supposed to come around to check on people but no one did. I told a friend about this last weekend and she wondered what happened to him. We had the same thought: “I wonder if he’s alive?” As I write, I regret giving him what he wanted: more silence.
If Bourdain and Spade show us anything it’s that suicidal ideation isn’t obvious in someone. They can seem to have it all and be enjoying it while carrying that darkness. All we can do for those in that mindset is listen. Maybe that way we’ll recognize that low humming silence before it’s too late.