The man I was deeply in love with when we were both twentysomethings was murdered last summer.
He was more than brilliant, more than talented, more than handsome, but he’d inherited his father’s bipolar disorder which he refused to manage with drugs, preferring instead to outwit the illness by quitting everything and everyone that mattered to him and running somewhere else to start over again, hopefully where his own dark moods couldn’t find him. He did this again and again. In his twenties, this seemed romantic, adventurous—he left one college for another, left one graduate writing program for another and another and then another.
I met him at one of those graduate programs. In any room, he was the first person other people wanted to talk to—he had inherited his father’s charismatic charm and his mother’s beauty. He had been captain of the high school football team and senior class president, had garnered an appointment to the Naval Academy, gave that up for writing and then published a story in The New Yorker while he was still in college. He was preternaturally accomplished. But he was also unpredictable, impulsively self-destructive. And soon enough, I found my formerly ordered life now in splendid disorder. Our friends said they were never sure we would show up to class until we did. Because often we didn’t. Often there was some emotional ruckus that distracted us. He convinced me to move out of my dorm and into a rural motel with him, the Town and Country Motor Lodge with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a crusty yellow plaid herculon fold out couch that served as our bed, and once he got me there, he then convinced me not to go to class, not to write, not to, not to, not to do anything but run around with him.
When summer came, he left school with no plans to return, having applied to yet another graduate program (his talent was such that he was accepted here, there, and everywhere, his talent the medium for his flight), while I, under his influence, had failed my classes and ruined my status at the university. As we packed up our motel room, he came up with the idea that we should leave the country for a while, spend a month or so in Isla Mujeres, filled with expatriates, other runners. We could be one of them. Two of them. I refused to accompany him. I was exhausted. I needed a break. It was difficult enough to deal with his charismatic craziness on my native soil, to argue with him in my native language. So I went home to my parents’ house.
And off he went to Mexico, black depression nipping at his heels as he sped away.
On the first day of that trip he somehow forgot the name of his hotel, a hotel he never could find again and where he had left all his belongings, now lost forever. He ended up in a different hotel, a hostel with hammocks, where he slept with some other travelers, Mexicans who offered him their marijuana but who he feared would steal his wallet while he slept. He wanted to come back to the U.S. cleansed and purified, as if mental illness were something to be sweated out or better yet outrun. After a month, he came back broke. And still ill. Still lost. And I still loved him.
I joined him that August after his return, took a sleeper car on the Amtrak train, a two-day trip, to meet him at his grandmother’s house in Mississippi, where I found him thinner, browner, but happy to see me even after all the castigating letters he’d sent me from Mexico about how I’d abandoned him. We slept in a back bedroom filled with the suite of furniture from his parents’ old home. They had divorced. Their furniture ended up at his grandmother’s, some in that bedroom, some in the basement. Maybe it was the evidence of that broken marriage in that bedroom we shared that made his grandmother so determined to create something whole. Or maybe it was because his grandmother knew that her beloved grandson was a spinning top, like her son-in-law, and somebody needed to stop the spinning before he destroyed himself and everything around him, as her son-in-law had.
Because that summer, his grandmother nudged at us every day to go on over to the courthouse across the street, get married, and have a church wedding later. She dressed me up in a filmy chiffon aquamarine negligee with a matching peignoir, a costume she plucked from some drawer from some dresser and then had me model for my perplexed boyfriend, telling him, “This is for her wedding night.” Finally, she resorted to telling visitors that we were in fact already married but just hadn’t had that church wedding yet.
Not a fact.
What we were, in fact, was engaged.
I wore the cornflower blue one-third carat sapphire gem he’d given me on a gold chain around my neck. Too uncertain to get an actual ring, we bought that instead. We said we were being original. But we were actually afraid to marry, to be alone together again. He was a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t sure I was up to it. He wasn’t sure he could behave. So we would be engaged. Perpetually. To the frustration of his grandmother who wanted things settled.
Nonetheless, that summer did settle us, became a respite from the tumult of the past school year together, from the tumult ahead. I still dream about it. It was my first visit to the deep South, to its slow, friendly rhythms. We spent August sleeping late, the drone of the window air conditioner a metallic lullaby, eating food from the pans his grandmother’s maid left on the stove (food not hygienically refrigerated but no one ever got sick, despite the Mississippi heat), visiting with his various relatives, his aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, his cousins. At his grandmother’s house we were safe and I was not in charge of taming his moods. I could enjoy his humor, his intelligence, his passion. Other people looked after him.
At the end of the summer, he went off to his new graduate school. I moved home.
We wrote letters. All his were apologies for his past bad behavior, for the ugly things he’d said to me, including, on our last parting, his comment that he hoped I’d rot.
He could be that ugly.
The last time I spoke to him was almost thirty years ago. I was married by then, to someone else, not to him. I had just given birth to my first child. I don’t know exactly how he tracked me down, found my number. He was living at his grandmother’s house again—she’d left the house to him—in town with his suitcase always open, snapping shut the locks and heading out of town the minute the depression started to hit. He’d called to tell me that a married couple we’d admired for their stability had divorced. So there. So much for our admiration. I’m not sure why he wanted to tell me that, except maybe to say, Look, there is no stability. That thing you wanted that I couldn’t give you doesn’t exist.
But I had that thing now. And a baby daughter.
We were both thinking, She could have been ours.
I never heard from him again.
Then, a few months ago, I saw his obituary. He had been murdered in Thailand.
It was his illness, apparently, that finally drove him out of the country for good, to decades of teaching jobs in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and then, last summer, a particularly black mood that drove him abruptly out of his apartment in Thailand—where the friends who saw him the day before he bolted reported that he was clearly not himself. It drove him into a hotel room in a seedy bar district, a district he wandered, probably with the lost face he wore in the strip of photos he sent me taken in a photo booth at Isla Mujeres thirty-five years earlier.
Two weeks before he was killed, a couple of tourists had been badly beaten in that same Thai bar district. I believe they survived. I’m thinking that my boyfriend walked those same streets, was confronted by those same thugs with iron rods and wooden bats. But he wasn’t left in the street, wasn’t taken by ambulance to some hospital. Maybe something interrupted his attackers after they’d robbed him but before they’d managed to club him to the ground. Or maybe they had, and somehow, somehow, he’d managed to stagger back to his hotel, get to his room, lock the door, sit down at the foot of the bed, where he died. Maybe he didn’t know how badly he’d been beaten. He probably just wanted to get back to his hotel room, sit down, catch his breath, take a shower. It’s impossible to know the condition in which he arrived there because the camera in the hotel lobby was broken. It’s impossible to know what he was thinking because he died alone, left no note, made no call. And then his body was collected and cremated before a police investigation could even be opened. Cause of death: respiratory distress.
I can’t even describe my emotions at discovering his death. But I will tell you this: I wasn’t surprised.
I had hoped that age would calm him. I despaired that his illness meant all his early promise led to nothing further, that his relationship with me, and then whatever ones he later pursued, had led to nowhere: not to marriage, not to children, not to a secure home.
Nothing stable in his life but his illness.
My life with him would have been like my life with him.
So I drove to Mississippi. I wanted to see his grandmother’s house, to revisit the very clear memories I had of our time there. There was no other way of getting close to him, of returning to the past. His mother was dead. His aunt and uncle I’d met so long ago were dead. His great aunts and uncles were dead. His grandmother was dead. But her house was still there. The sight of it was anguishing. This stately home built in 1902 where I had felt so safe—as long as we were there together with his family around, he couldn’t do anything too rash, too wild—was now a decaying thing. Clearly no one lived there anymore, yet it had not been sold, was still owned by the family, what was left of it. No Trespassing signs were taped to the front door. The windows were broken on both the first and second floors (behind the broken glass still hung the window shades, with tassels, pulled part way down against the southern light), the stucco walls were water stained and yellow-brown, the porch steps and ceiling battered and broken, the lattice work torn. Around the back, the small yard and the few trees at the edge of it were covered in kudzu, that foreign invader of the south that winds itself around every tree, every telephone pole, every signpost along every interstate. It has to be hacked back, practically macheted.
The house looked as if it had been beaten, like my boyfriend himself.
I took pictures of it all, front, side, and back. I took pictures of the street, lined with magnolia trees and crepe myrtle trees and old fashioned black gas lamps, a sloping cobblestone street that led all the way down to the Yazoo River. I took pictures of the old courthouse where we did not get married, of the back bedroom windows beneath which, inside, we had slept in his parents’ old bed. I took pictures of the beautifully restored and stately homes around his grandmother’s ramshackle house, many of those homes refashioned now into law offices. Hers was the last family home standing. The neighborhood and the family and even my boyfriend had moved on.
I don’t know what has become of his ashes.
I wanted to leave a note in the mailbox by the front door, a mailbox already stuffed with uncollected circulars, clearly as unattended as the house. But I did not. Who would collect such a note? And in it what would I say?
So I wrote nothing. But if I had written something, it would have been, I remember you.
Adrienne Sharp is the author of the story collection White Swan, Black Swan, a Barnes and Noble Discover Book and a national bestseller; the novel The Sleeping Beauty, named one of Booklist’s ten best first novels of 2005; and the novel The True Memoirs of Little K, a finalist for the California Book Award and translated into six languages. Her latest novel, The Magnificent Esme Wells, was published by Harper in April.