Six weeks ago, a friend who hadn’t spoken to me in twenty-five years killed himself.
I’m not sure Chris would want me to call him a friend these days, but for a decade of our lives from middle school to graduate school, we were brothers of the brain like gunslingers are brothers of the gun, both a little trigger-happy to show off our talents to each other and everybody else.
Back when it was fashionable to do so, we were told that we were “gifted” and placed in a class in middle school for kids like us to…do gifted things. It had a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, sort of loose but institutional, with all I remember of its organized curriculum being that we watched Twelve Angry Men and The Caine Mutiny to debate their moral questions.
What I remember more vividly is that this one guy had nothing but scorn and mockery for me from the moment I joined the class, and I only found out later the cause: our teacher had told him that I’d scored higher on the qualifying IQ test than he had.
(No, I have no idea why an adult would tell a thirteen-year-old that someone else was smarter than he was. At the most charitable, I can imagine she might have been trying to “humble” him in some way because he, like me, didn’t always show much patience for people who weren’t interesting.)
From the start, Chris seemed eager to prove that his kind of smart (logical and reasonable and scientific) was more valuable than my kind of smart (creative and intuitive and humanistic). I wasn’t quite as invested in that battle as he was, but when he made fun of my weirdness (writing stories about ghosts, playing D&D), I was just as quick to make fun of his (dressing like Alex P. Keaton, having the politics of a fifty-year-old).
Unfortunately for him, I’d been trained by my father to befriend smart people who were mean to me, and I just steadfastly refused to be dismissed. Over time, we discovered some interests in common (computers, Star Trek, and science-y mayhem) and realized that we were probably the two people in town most likely to understand (and put up with) each other’s shit.
So we became friends, sometimes even best friends, and an odd thing started to happen: we each drifted a little closer to the other’s brand of smart. Chris read more literature and I read more science. I persuaded him to try role-playing games (Star Trek only, because it was the least fantastical), and he persuaded me to experiment with radio scanners and chemistry.
When I crack an arcane scientific joke even today, I’m channeling a little of Chris.
It worked, I think, because we had different ambitions. I was never going to be a doctor (as he later became), and he was never going to be a writer (as I later became). I sometimes helped him write stories for school, and he was always a great scientific advisor on guns, chemicals, poisons, and a lot of other things that should probably have put him on a watch list.
Together we got into the kind of dumb mischief that only occurs to people who know more about theory than practice. Our motto was, “Well, why wouldn’t that work?” only to discover exactly why, usually with injury and/or destruction of property. We distilled something in Chemistry class that made the teacher say, “You know, I have to work in this room another twenty years.”
He got me my first job (with his father’s inventory company). We double-dated to the prom. We stole street signs together with our girlfriends’ names on them (both of which Orlando luckily had). He once bought me a gallon can of vanilla pudding because I always complained when restaurants only had banana. He introduced me to the movie Heathers which he said had me written all over it, and I introduced him to The Planiverse. He was the best man at my wedding (which didn’t work out), and I was the best man at his (which did).
His childhood was as harrowing as mine, though in different ways. He had a streak of romantic chivalry toward women that, like mine back then, bordered on co-dependency. He could, like me, be impatient and mean when people weren’t using their brains in a way he respected.
(He did not agree, though, that Norman was a genius because to him, genius implied useful application. He was also not a fan of David Lynch or Monty Python for similar reasons.)
I have no idea what to call our relationship between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, but we definitely put up with more from each other than I have since from others in my life. Maybe we really were brothers of a kind, stuck together by virtue of similar talents and interests and traumas, able (at least back then) to take it for granted that we’d circle back into each other’s lives.
This is a terrible and selfish remembrance, isn’t it, all about his intersection with me?
The truth is that I can’t really tell you what he was like more recently as a friend or a husband or a doctor or a father of five when he died. I’m guessing he was still a Christian and a conservative and a rationalist, and I doubt he did much stealing of street signs these days without my lawless influence.
What I can tell you is that even when we weren’t friends or didn’t agree, when he thought I was crazy or irrational, he was still a powerful force in my life reminding me to do something more interesting with my talents.
I have no idea (and now never will) if I had any positive influence on him.
A quarter century ago, I cracked a bad joke at a bad time with no harmful intent beyond poking fun at an uncomfortable situation. It created a lot of problems between him and his wife, and my impending divorce almost became theirs. I always assumed we’d somehow run into each other again and I’d say, “Holy shit, am I sorry about that. I was basically out of my mind, but I’m better now. Are you? Awesome.”
That can’t happen anymore.
I’m not sure why he ended his life at the time he did in the way he did, but I know he had a vivid memory and a tendency to chase theory off a cliff. His mental theater could play the good things that should have happened and the terrible ones that did in high definition over and over.
Which is another thing we had in common. Maybe storytelling, venting those memories, is what saves me. Or maybe it’s just medication and luck.
I wish I could have told him, “As someone who pauses brains during surgery for a living, you of all people know that you are more than your firing neurons and you don’t deserve the movies they show you. Tell them to fuck off. People will miss you when you go.”
That’s as logical as I get, old friend.