Originally published in Squalorly, April 2014
When I was in the Coast Guard, one Saturday afternoon one of my shipmates drove to Worcester, where he rented a hotel room and hanged himself in the bathroom.
The first any of us knew about it was the following Monday morning, a grey and hopeless daybreak so typical of southern New England. A small, stoutish civilian woman, wearing thick glasses and a librarian’s nut-brown suit, milled awkwardly on the mess deck as breakfast wound down and we were told what had happened. She was the counselor, sent by the brass up in Boston to ensure that performance on all sensitivity-related metrics fell within acceptable parameters—as specified by the personnel manual, of course. Her face was open, almost encouraging, but she never smiled.
Did that make her indifferent or stoic? It’s not hard to make one look like the other, especially in a conspicuously masculine environment like that. Bury yourself in your work. Eat alone. Live inside your own mind for a few days. If you cannot avoid being drawn into a conversation, do what you must to keep it superficial.
That day, it didn’t matter what I felt. I was slated to spend the workday breathing in fumes and grinding layers of old paint off the metal deck in the forecastle. I had no time for sensitivity. My morning was crouching and kneeling on a cold steel floor, hanging onto the deck growler as it screamed metal onto metal, its toothwheels bouncing and spinning and sliding, always just on the verge of wrenching itself away from me as I pushed it harder into the deck. Hours of this, until my hands itched uncontrollably from the vibrations. Conversation would have been impossible.
I wasn’t the only one who knew the tricks. The counselor sat patiently on the mess deck for the entire workday, sipping on charred coffee, waiting for someone, anyone to sit down with her. No one did. She watched as my shipmates crossed through the compartment and crossed again, ignoring her. I caught her eye a couple times; I felt sorry for her. I almost sat down and started talking to her, admitting to feelings I didn’t feel, maybe convince her that she hadn’t wasted her time driving down here, that we weren’t uncaring and heartless. But that seemed disrespectful somehow, both to her and to my dead shipmate.
I remember three things about him: he loved Frank Zappa, he had been trying to quit drinking, and he was a generally abrasive and difficult person. Four if you include the fact that he hanged himself. There must have been a point where I knew more, because I knew enough to know I didn’t like him.
This is how I deal with death. My mind lets the dead slowly dissolve until they become placeholders, little more than impressions of half-remembered dreams. I refile them, somewhere toward the back, where pages and details are more easily lost and never looked for.
This is the only thing that scares me about death, the knowledge that the same thing will eventually happen to me.