Who’s getting fucked more?
Who’s getting fucked up more?
Who’s more fucked up?
And who’s just more fucked.
She usually won the first three, so I’d claim the last one by default. With anyone else I knew then, I’d have won hands down. Easy.
The first petals were blooming on the ’90s when I met Casey in a playwriting class in New York. I was living in Hell’s Kitchen after college, temping as a proofreader, and she’d come from Philly to be an actress, changing her name from Cindy along the way. Casey had scored small roles in a couple of features and did extra work and modeling in product shows. She liked the play I was writing, said she identified with the protagonist, a gospel singer who swears she’s missing a breast, although she clearly has two. Casey had been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, what we used to call “manic-depressive.”
The first time we went out was to a bar in Chelsea with a group after a play workshop. When I got up to go to the bathroom, Casey insisted on coming with me, warm as high school. She pushed open the door of the stall and stood over me, talking, as I sat on the toilet, and then leaned over, her hair tickling my face, and flushed for me. She was still wearing the crown from her role as a deposed princess in the play and she adjusted it in the mirror as I imagined Cleopatra would wear it, the jewels of rose and aquamarine glittering low on her forehead between her gray-green eyes. Her cream mohair sweater matched the highlights of her soap opera hair — an improbable shade of blended blondes — and the light tan of her skin accented the unnatural whiteness of her big teeth. She was slender enough for both coasts, with smallish breasts which she admired with a perfect security I envied. “I love my tits,” she said to me and her reflection as she sprayed a musky perfume across her neck and chest, catching me in her scent.
Upstairs at the bar, she chased Amstel Light with Wild Turkey 151 and belched extravagantly without apology, a Barbie that burped. It seemed she was on a mission to talk to every man and woman in the place. She would focus her eyes, her vivacity, on each person with an almost frightening singleness of purpose, her hand on theirs, and then turn and light up another stranger with the same intensity five minutes later. Maybe it was all an act, a consuming bid to be remembered, but I thought she was genuinely interested in most people, a quality I don't share.
We started seeing getting together almost every weekend. At Columbus, the star-strewn Upper West Side hotspot, Casey monitored the crowd and if we weren't getting the attention she thought we deserved, she’d lean in and press her lips, glossy nude, against mine, matte red. These were our only kisses, kisses offered for the provocation of drunken soap actors and hedge-funders, as she pointed out the ones she’d slept with, done coke with. She dated an Oscar winner for six months that year, while my zenith was an affair with a married Tony nominee. Every juicy tidbit of experience is regurgitated down the celebrity food chain. At the margins of that world, twinkle and twirl, fuck and remember. At the center, black out.
But then I wouldn’t see her for a month at a time, because if Casey couldn’t show up with bells on, she didn’t show up — for a date, for a job, eventually losing even her beloved receptionist gig at The New York Observer. She walled herself in her apartment, and days unfurled into weeks of chain-smoking in front of the television. Then she’d get back that spark and call out of the blue with plans for us to go downtown, through unmarked doors into rooms as weirdly strobe-lit as the beginning of a drugged sleep.
We were sharing a smoke outside a bar on Delancey when she told me how she'd started with men. The summer after 10th grade, she’d volunteered at a facility for severely autistic children. She and the last remaining teacher were out on the playground with the kids, just before dusk. He was about 30, dark-haired, and handsome. He called her over to the edge of the playground past the slide and pushed her face-first against the chain-link fence, nuzzling her neck with assurances, then he pulled down her pants and took her from behind as the children watched, swinging on the swings, up and down on the seesaw. The sun set over the highway’s exit ramp and she didn’t turn around until she was told. The kids don’t know how to tell, he said, and they liked it anyway, they liked what they saw. He never tried it again, although she continued volunteering there for the rest of the summer. She said she was okay with what happened.
I was shocked that she didn’t present herself as a victim. I’d also lost my virginity to rape, back in my small town in Southwest Virginia, and struggled daily with the way it still seemed to define me. She shrugged. It wasn’t so bad, not the way she would’ve planned it, but it was fine.
The offhand, almost deadpan way she told the story was surely an attempt to gain distance from an appalling vision, and yet I wanted to be her, a non-victim. By conjuring exactly the right mix of words, by whitewashing or purpling the prose as needed, the magical, transmutative power of language can make the representation of the truth — for a moment or for an eternity — become the truth.
Casey didn’t believe in birth control or safe sex, but she didn’t worry about AIDS until her best friend, Michael, died of it. After that, she got tested because they’d once shared a rent boy, but she turned up negative, as she’d said she would. There were no plans to die slowly, at the mercy of her body’s will.
She phoned from a hospital outside Philadelphia. At LaGuardia, on her way to model at a toy fair out of town, she couldn’t go through security. She dropped her bags. She couldn’t move. A line formed behind her, becoming a curious gaggle as they realized she was lovely and she looked crazy. From the locked ward, she called more than she ever had before, her speech punctuated by the artificial pauses of the heavy smoker. She had a way of dragging dramatically, sensuously, on a cigarette that added a slight moany whistle to her speech, a sound I have heard with other smokers, but never with this same deep absorption. (Or maybe I have never listened with such deep absorption. Although I considered myself straight, I wondered, not for the first time, if I was falling in love with her.) I knew why she needed me now; I was the only one outside who understood. My history of depression — she fed on that. With other friends, in the real world, she could speak of other things: the men, the acting, the jobs, but not about her secret wish. In the hospital, there was nothing but the daily exploration of the wish, which the doctors thought they could root out and hold up to the light for inspection and destruction.
For years she had done what her humanity and her intelligence required of her, performing in various types of therapy and imbibing the cocktails of myriad drug combinations. A famous Park Avenue psychopharmacologist had taken her on pro bono, an interesting pet project, and though she was a good pet — lively, obedient and splendidly ruffed — he failed. She had only committed herself until the panic passed. She wanted to be in complete control of the outcome.
In the psych ward, Casey was one of the only ones who had not made an attempt, the new girl, an arriviste. She immersed herself in this subculture, becoming more comfortable, already ankle deep in black water since her father, exhausted after a gambling binge, shot himself in their kitchen when she was 12. She was his little girl, his protégé, her life circling vertiginously back to that day. She’d worshiped her father, and seemed both annoyed and amazed that her mother, stricken with cancer for years, clung so tenaciously to life.
She filled my ears daily with information, the research her raison d’être. Hanging, they all agreed, makes you look guilty of something, your head slumped in indignity, your feet dangling. Pills are good if you plan well — pills from the doctors who love to give you pills, and when you’re sure the pills can’t help you anymore, you hide them, you hoard them, the accumulation of a thousand tiny promises. If they clean you out, you start again.
When Casey got out of the hospital, she invited me to her apartment to watch her favorite movie, Harold and Maude, in which Harold pratfalls his way through one fake suicide attempt after another. I didn’t see her again before I left to spend six months in Greece, and when I came back, she was doing well and no longer seemed to need, or even appreciate, my company, as if our friendship had been a mere corollary of her illness.
We both stayed alive and married actors. By the time I got in touch a couple of years later to invite her to a play I’d written, both marriages were falling apart. She savaged the play but started calling in a sudden firestorm of interest now that we were both in trouble again. I wanted any attention from her I could get, so I pretended not to care about her motives. We met in the East Village to go drinking. She wore a lime green tank top with no bra, khaki shorts, and two-toned brown alligator cowboy boots. Teenaged boys stared. I stared. She told me about the renovations she and her husband, Patrick, had been doing on their loft, trimming all the moldings in deep red, and the sex she’d had with a born-again woman who’d given her a crucifix and kept begging for its return.
My story was simpler: I’d told my husband I was leaving, but I didn’t know where I was going. We had six more weeks on our 10th Avenue lease, both too poor to move out, him on the sofa, me in the bed, his kitten and my sick cat and their stinking litter box, all in one room. Casey said her mother had died a few months ago and she felt relieved. She’d been waiting for that.
If this were fiction, I’d set the following scene in a restaurant with a view of the park, the two of us cozied in a velvet banquette, me studying the sprinkling of freckles on her nose revealed in the late afternoon light, crème fraiche and martinis coating our words.
Instead, it happened over the phone: she asked me if I wanted to come with her. She’d been saving up pills and was sure her supply had reached overkill. She’d reserved a room at The Paramount, the Philippe Starck place du moment conveniently located only two blocks from my apartment, and said she’d buy champagne too, the good stuff. She was living off her mom’s insurance money.
“We lie down, side by side on the bed. On it, not under the covers, that’s important. Then we’re falling, and neither of us will ever be alone.”
For an instant, I was flattered. I felt the beginning of wetness. Wait — no one else would even consider going with her. Selfish bitch. I didn’t say that. The psychoanalytic triptych of suicide: the wish to kill, the wish to be killed, the wish to die — my girl, she had all the bases covered. I wanted to tell her to call me back, I’d think about it. I wanted to leave her hanging. If she’d caught me on the wrong day … She knew it.
Don’t ever ask me that again, I told her.
She was chastised, she was penitent, her voice silky. “Okay, will you be there with me then? Just be there. Please. I can’t ask Patrick.”
I can’t be there. If you even tell me when and where, I’ll try to save you. I don’t want to know.
“A favor then,” she said. “You’re the only one I can ask. I don’t want him to find me. It’s not fair. If I leave a note asking the police to contact you first, will you come and identify my body? Please, please can you do this one thing?”
Identify her body. I should be grateful she hadn’t bought a gun and asked me to shoot her. Without thinking, yes, I said yes to the most repulsive thing I could imagine. She’d bargained me down, asking her highest price first, and I was too weak to refuse her. She decided it wouldn’t be that week, so could we see a movie on Saturday. No, we’d see three movies in one day. And so much to do: the haircut, the highlights, the facial, the French manicure (no colors — death should look simple and fresh), maybe even a pedicure. Montaigne argued that “the voluntariest death is the fairest,” and Casey planned to embody that sentiment at its most literal.
She was set on the method touted in the how-to manual, Final Exit by Derek Humphries, an Englishman whose last two wives had how-to’d themselves to the next plane. She’d practiced using the plastic bag without the pills, and noting its morbid humidity when closed, she bought waterproof mascara and a new foundation guaranteed to be smudge-proof even in the tropics. She wanted to look perfect. And I would see her frozen in time and name her.
The morning after she called with her offer, I creased the “P” section of the yellow pages with sweat trying to find the name of her psychiatrist; she’d told me once. I read over every name — New York is lousy with shrinks — but none of them sounded right. It wouldn’t help to tell Patrick because at this point she was completely open with him about her wishes. He spent the nights monitoring her prescriptions and making love to her as if it were the last time. But he knew she was Daddy’s baby, and who, in the end, could compete with Daddy? The month before, Patrick had taken her camping in upstate Pennsylvania, the trip his last best hope to revive her. She had cried — the first and only time in front of me — as she spoke of lying in the tent, her husband sleeping beside her, choking on her own breath.
The next time she called was to cancel the movie, so I went out instead with my rebound beau, a British journalist. Over the next couple of weeks, I left several messages. Now I would handle things differently. I didn’t know how to get out of my own way, as my grandfather used to tell me, much less help anyone else get out of theirs. And I didn’t know how to pray then. It never occurred to me.
On the morning of Halloween, I phoned from work, and when Patrick answered, I knew. She’d done it two days ago; he was sorry, he hadn’t called most people yet. No, not in a hotel, there in the house after he had gone to work. He found her when he came home on his lunch break. She was 32.
I left my temp job and my husband met me at The Subway Inn on 59th Street, where he wiped my nose and tried to get me to eat between pints. In spite of everything she’d told me, I was profoundly shocked. I thought her skin was tougher than mine. I thought she was safe because she was so damaged.
She didn’t leave a note, but Patrick found on her computer a one-page story about a woman who laces her husband's morning coffee with the sedatives she then uses to overdose. He dozes unconscious in the easy chair while she dies a few feet away, alone but not alone. I was disgusted; it was as if she wanted a prize for sparing him that horror.
I’ve been trying to buy distance — the distance that time provides, that therapy provides, that getting it all down on the page provides. But lately I’ve awakened in the middle of the night, terrified that she’s in the room, that she is furious with me. I am afraid that I am an unreliable narrator, of my life and of hers. Perhaps the dead are the only reliable narrators because their stories are all they have left.
I’m making you burn brighter, baby, I promise her. This is not an expiation or a punishment. This is not an exorcism or a eulogy.
The funeral was in Philadelphia, for family only. A week later, Patrick brought her ashes back to New York in a jeweled box for a party in her honor, as he called it, en route to a sprinkling in Aruba, her favorite vacation spot. Lashes to ashes. Bust to dust.
The day before the party, Patrick invited Casey’s women friends over to go through her things. I was late and everything with a designer label was gone. I stood in the red-rimmed living room with a pregnant woman who stopped sobbing just long enough to bum a cigarette. From the remains pile, I chose several sweaters, all in shades of cream, the crown Casey had worn that first night, and the alligator cowboy boots, even though they were a size too large. I’ve worn them until the heels are ground down low and lopsided and I’ve never polished them — she’d hate that. These boots always spark curiosity, and when I say, “I got them from a friend who died,” they are regarded with even more interest, as am I. You get respect walking in the shoes of the dead, even if it’s not wise.
I took the journalist to the party with me. Fanned out on the coffee table were commemorative photographs you could choose from, including one of Casey taken on the camping trip the month before, her penultimate trip out of Manhattan. She’s leaning dangerously over the prow of a kayak in midstream, smiling that toothy smile, the sun dappling her shoulders, not looking at all three-quarters dead. I ate only strawberries from the buffet table and got drunk enough for two days. Finally, I locked myself in the bathroom because that’s where the scene took place that I don’t understand, no matter how many times I play it in my head.
I stood at the sink where you applied the makeup for your death mask. It is the instant of turning from the mirror that I cannot apprehend, staring into my own eyes for the last time.
Do you look back?
I can’t look away. I am nailed. I didn’t love you; I was never even in love with you in any conventional sense. I felt too strongly the desire to be you, to inhabit you, be under your skin and yes, inside your head, as miserable a shuttered room as that might have been. The only person I’ve ever wanted to be, and you didn’t want to be.
I talked the journalist into moving to L.A. with me when I had a screenplay optioned a few months later. In preparation for the move, I read “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay on the precipitous rightness of leaving New York at a certain time in one’s life, and I was heartened. I quickly found myself even less happy in La La Land, however, because people smiled at me regardless of my expression (have they no concept of mirroring?) and because I was expected to drive myself. I didn’t write. I didn’t get a job. The relationship burst into flames. When I wasn’t sleeping, I spent most of the time curled in a corner of the big, white-tiled bathroom, afraid to face the wide-open spaces of the apartment, much less the sickening expanses of that city. When I ventured outside, I saw horrible shapes in the feral, shimmying heat; I thought I saw my own face. Before my books were unpacked, I was back on a plane to New York. Goodbye to all That, and Hello to all This.
To paraphrase Socrates, it’s not that I have lived an “unexamined life” — it’s that I might have examined the wrong parts of it.
When I decided to write about Casey, I checked the DSM-5 for the definition of “bipolar I disorder.” The symptoms read like a list of her personality traits, and not surprisingly match the hallmarks of the wild “charisma” of many celebrated suicides. Between the effects of the medications and the bedrock of her illness, I don’t think I knew her at all. It takes years, if ever, to understand the relative authenticities of our relationships, and I’m still reeling with her, exaggerating and distorting the ways in which you know and don’t know anyone. My playwriting teacher said that it’s brave to stand in the presence of questions and not have the answers come back to you. It’s also very painful. That is the risk one takes in staying alive.
I’m not getting fucked up anymore, but I still feel fucked sometimes. By myself mostly. It’s all a matter of perspective. Grief takes many forms. This is one of them.
Kimberly Elkins’s novel, What Is Visible (Grand Central/Twelve), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, won the 2014 Langum Prize for Historical Fiction, and was chosen for several Best of 2014 lists. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Iowa Review, The Chicago Tribune, Glamour, Slice, The Village Voice, and Best New American Voices, among others. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and has also won a New York Moth Slam.