Creative Nonfiction: Douglas and Other Forms of Statues
By Orleans Saltos
I've never considered taking my own life. Nonetheless, the word ‘suicide’ has cast a long shadow over my life. My sister has made four attempts. Almost every day I fear hearing from a nurse that she has been successful this time. Even though my sister is in counseling and on medication to manage her mental illness, I can still feel the crushing weight of that word. It's like a perpetual bleak prophesy of impending disaster.
Then one day, instead of a call from a nurse regarding my sister, I received a text message from a mutual friend.
Dear Carrie, there is no other way to say this. I’m sorry to tell you in just a message and not in person. But I want to let you know Douglas took his life on Thursday. Maybe we can chat in happier circumstances. Love, R.
For a long time, I sobbed beneath the torrent of a burning hot shower. Douglas and I were scheduled to meet at Café Strada and talk about old times. We promised to do this frequently. I knew if I visited the cafe now, I would still expect to see him, greeting me with a warm smile. I sat with arms wrapped around my knees under a steady pelting of water and tried to recall the last time I saw Douglas. Was it when I joked about the new girl I spotted him with at the Berkeley Marina's Fourth of July fireworks? Or was it when I ran into him on campus, his face beaming with pride at having landed a job as an instructor? My memory drifted even further back to when I first saw that tall, attractive man with sunshine-colored hair and Neptune-blue eyes wandering down the hall with a class schedule in hand. He only needed a sword and a mount to be a heroic bronze statue or a hand-carved frieze galloping along the corridor.
After I learned the means of his death, I googled: “Does it hurt to hang yourself?” My computer screen lit up with links to suicide hotlines and resources for finding help. “No, no. Not for me!” I wanted to say to the search engine. I only wanted to know did it hurt him? I imagined how his belt might have felt like a solution in his fisted hands, a promise of peace.
We were never more than good friends. Had I, so attuned to a life of walking on eggshells around my sister, instinctively sensed the trouble within him to want more? I had mastered the art of detecting trauma solely by looking at a person’s muscular structure and posture. I should have thrown him a life jacket or flashlight to find himself out of the darkness. Perhaps if I had taken better notes, writing down his words by hand as if they could travel up to my frontal cortex to enable me to say the words that would have kept him alive. But I have sufficient experience not to blame myself too much.
His memorial was held in a bland university classroom. It was a place meant for temporary occupation, comfortable and undecorated with walls a default eggshell white. It was good to see so many old friends. We talked, hugged, and then exchanged guilty looks as though we crossed a line by being too alive there without Douglas. They asked me to read the eulogy I wrote for the book made for his mother. I hate public speaking. My first words were too loud in the microphone. The feedback caused the people in the front to cover their ears. Embarrassed, I wanted to stop. When I felt myself trembling, I concentrated on the electric hum of the overhead light, a steady and pleasant sound like a firm hand on my back.
I heard of Douglas before I met him. The girls in the computer lab were a-twitter about Professor R’s cute new graduate assistant. So naturally, to substantiate their claims only, I had to see this guy for myself. My reconnaissance found a tall, broad-shouldered, and exceedingly handsome man with some terrific biceps. He had the bonus of a smooth, melodic British accent and a dry, languid wit that made everything he said sound intellectual and funny at the same time. My report back to the girls was that the new guy was intelligent, beautiful, and looked just like some classical Greek sculpture. I am not sure which of us took the sculpture analysis one step further and came up with the nickname “Greek God,” but I continued to use the acronym “GG” as my nickname for Douglas for many years. His attempts to decipher what it meant became so self-debasing (Grotesque Gargoyle, etc.) that I finally had to admit what GG stood for just to stop his delusion that it meant something terrible. His response was simply, “Oh?” Not an “of course” kind of “oh” with that mix of satisfaction beautiful people get because they are so used to being admired. Instead, more like a “You’re messing with me?” kind of “oh,” like he struggled to believe he would ever be given such a flattering nickname. I had to scribble down “humble” along with his other attributes.
Douglas was more than good looks; he was a great friend. In my presence, he was lighthearted and wholly biased on my side during any of my endeavors or complications with others. He was quick to slice down my perceived enemies. To this day, when I feel I need some invisible backup, I say aloud, “Slimy profiteering bastards!” imitating his crisp indignant accent for the full effect. He was thoughtful and encouraging when I needed it and made me laugh with his witty emails deep in wild polysyllabic metaphors. How could he be such a cheerleader for me but not himself? I don’t know. I will hold on to my many fond memories of him fiercely, knowing they will be no more made. I will protect my happy friendship and press it between the pages of a book like a four-leaf clover. I’ll place the book up high so as not to be sad. So high that I’ll have to stand on tiptoes to reach for it when I need his loyal support again. I’ll reach for Douglas. I’m going to remember it all this way. Douglas, I’m going to remember you this way.
There was a brief pause when I finished. When I looked up, I saw that my friends were in tears. But my eyes were dry, and my mind was preoccupied with the beating of my pulse in my ears. Behind them and through the windows, I saw a tall, strong man silhouetted against the glaring white of a campus building under a too-bright California blue sky. The man's head tilted to the side, and his arms were held in opposing movements. He looked just like a Greek statue, and I had to suppress a smile.
Orleans Saltos is a professional illustrator and an emerging writer. She was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Ecuadorian immigrants. She now lives in Berkeley, CA.