I know this because of a handful of vague posts on Facebook. One reads, “My heart is broken in so many ways right now.” “Heaven has an angel way too soon,” reads another. Briefer still, a crying emoji. “What happened?” people write in the comments. “We can’t say,” reply those posting, “the family wants privacy.” “Sending prayers,” answer the uninformed.
It’s 10:30 now and I’m blurry-eyed, flipping through my phone. It can’t be anyone I know very well, I think, or I’d have texts or phone calls or, well, something. Everyone is asleep here: my daughter in her room, my wife upstairs near the baby’s room so she can comfort him when he cries. I’m alone in bed, the blue blinking of the muted television washing over me.
In high school, the people now posting would have all fallen into the same cliques: centered around theater, choir, musicals. I used to play bass for their shows—electric bass because there was no upright at our school, and me because there wasn’t anybody else. At the ice cream social, the sequins on their sparkling trousers and bow ties caught the spotlights and seemed to explode into diamonds. During Tevye’s dream sequence in Fiddler on the Roof, the audience of dulled parents gasped loudly at something wild happening on the stage, but I could never look up from the sheet music to see what it was for myself because the bass line was pounding so frantically.
I’m not sure I’d still be in contact with any of them if it wasn’t for this technology. I know it’s true of Charity Larsen, who’d posted that her heart was broken. She’d worked at the art house movie theater in college. I once teased her when she asked for my ID to see an R-rated movie and she’d hissed, “Don’t give me any fucking shit. My boss is right fucking there.” It’s true too of Sarah who’d posted the crying emoji. I don’t really remember her from high school—she would have been a year older—but last year she ran an online weight loss group and helped me lose ten pounds. Her son plays bass too, and she sometimes posts his videos. He’s better than I was at his age. He may be better than I am now.
I wish it wasn’t true of Kim, who’d posted about heaven and angels, but it probably is as well. She was one of my first friends. I still remember her mother’s red hair bound tightly in a ponytail and her glasses perched on the end of her nose. A devout Christian, her living room wall bore a giant wooden crucifix, so much a fixture as to feel like a natural outcropping, like the unevenness in tree bark. My mom, skeptical of the faithful, would always say of her: “She’s someone who actually practices what she believes.” When I slept over, I took forever to fall asleep, lying wide-eyed in the dark, the occasional car’s headlights sliding through the suburban windows and sweeping about the room. When Kim’s mom came through to check on us, she would ask, “Are you still awake?” I’d nod. At other sleepovers, the parents had scolded me. Kim’s mom said in a kind whisper, “It’s OK. Just close your eyes.” Years later, when I was eighteen and it was a day or two before I left for college, I stopped into the Dairy Dream for soft serve, and she was behind the counter, her hair in the same style, the red streaked with gray. She recognized me right away and said, “You should stop and see Kim before you go. She would love to see you.” I can’t remember if I did.
I drift off to sleep and the phone screens merge with dreams.
In the morning, it’s a long while before I remember someone might be dead. On the subway, I flip through a series of emails from one of the overnight support teams before I even think to check Facebook. There’s nothing new. The chugging quivers my shoes. Bodies are pressed against me—all in the least erotic ways possible.
Like everyone else who works in technology in this city, my work day always begins with a crisis or a series of stand-up meetings and I’m lucky today because there’s no crisis. I wander through the office hallways, phone in hand. Black-and-white artistic photos of the city line the walls. Another new status that may be a clue: “It’s OK to not be OK. Call me anytime.” It’s from Kim. I know it’s not original, but I know what it means, and it’s not good. Maybe it makes more sense then, why the family wants privacy, if this is a suicide. I make my way into the first stand-up in a small windowless room off from the main corridor.
In a stand-up, the team goes around in a circle and we each say what we worked on yesterday and what we’ll work on today. It’s the perfect chance to not listen. I keep thinking about a troubled guy named Donny. I don’t know how closely he fits into that theater group, but more than once he’s posted things like “I quit” or “I just can’t do it.” I know he’s lost a child. I only vaguely remember him from junior high school: doughy with high frizzy hair and a perpetual scowl. His grandpa owned an ice cream parlor, and everybody liked the grandpa.
I should be paying attention to this meeting but I’m not. I’m thinking too of the girl who died last year—suddenly from an aneurysm. I was surprised how bad it hurt. She was part of the same clique. I hadn’t seen her in years, maybe decades. There’s a class photo—it’s the grade a year older than me in school all spread out among the gym bleachers. The whole lot of them: their hair sky high, their pants pulled way up on their waists, their faces smooth and thin like fresh pieces of paper. Amy is standing next to Becky, who’d died just out of high school in a car accident, rammed by a drunken driver.
The first stand-up ends; I realize I wasn’t paying attention. I pull out my phone, which is horrible etiquette, but I’m a team lead so fuck it. Amy believed a lot of what I believed. She had a way of wading into charged Facebook political discussions and laying waste with a smile. There’s a picture of her from back in high school with an M16 and a shirt that says, “The patriarchy isn’t going to fuck itself.” My co-workers, my friends, are all still talking and laughing. I miss Amy in a weird way and missing her feels very lonely. We’re not supposed to miss someone we know only from online. That’s not your real life of course.
My friend Troy took the M16 picture. He hasn’t chimed in yet, I notice. No vague status, no tear-filled comment. Who else hasn’t? We’re on to the next stand-up for the next project and a different team shuffles in.
We called Troy “gung-ho” in high school. I didn’t like him then because he’d dropped my bass amp when unloading for a gig. Don’t worry, he’d said. I could drop this off a ten-story building and it would be OK. I wish someone would drop you off one, I’d mumbled back, never pausing to wonder why I didn’t carry my own amp if I was so concerned. He wanted badly then to join the Marines, and he signed up almost as soon as we threw our graduation caps. We’ve been friends for a while on Facebook. Like Amy, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him in person. I’m not listening to this stand-up. A new comment has the hashtag “#IllWait” and then I know.
My breathing slows. The other voices drop out. “I’ll wait” was his tag line. I know he didn’t make it up, but he loved to post a controversial opinion and follow it with “I’ll wait.” Never about anything real. “Name a better thrash band than Forbidden. I’ll wait.” “Name a better ’80s sitcom than Cheers. I’ll wait.” “Name one way Padme is hotter than Leia. I’ll wait.”
Troy: a fervent Obama supporter with a devilish sense of humor, a liberal in most things but not gun ownership. He was in Iraq. He’d seen some sick shit, but I don’t know what exactly. That all sits unposted somewhere between the statuses about truffle fries. He loved to post memes mocking the very idea that guns could be regulated. “Where should we turn in our guns?” read the caption of one, superimposed over what were meant to be hardened criminals. He’d butt heads with Amy in the comments, and those discussions were not jokes—especially after a shooting, which was more and more often. He was one of the few who argued for “better mental health” as a solution and really meant it. He often posted about fellow soldiers’ suicides and called it an epidemic. Confused, distracted, I wander back to my office. I wondered how he would have done it, thinking for some reason of Robin Williams hanging from his closet ceiling, too dazed to consider the obvious.
My aunt once fell on the ice and hurt her wrist. She told me that for a long while after, she’d had sudden flashbacks of her feet slipping on the silver pavement, her arms sailing ahead through the crisp air, crashing downward—all as if it were happening again. This must be what PTSD is, she said, and God help you if you’ve been through something worse than falling on the ice.
When someone dies, their online spaces sit undisturbed at first—as if their owner might return any moment. Amy’s header reads “Hang on. It gets easier and then it gets okay and then it feels like freedom.” Except it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t. Then slowly the mourning posts accumulate and bury the rest like moss growing over the floor of an abandoned cabin.
Troy’s last post is still a video of a bull terrier watching his owner exercise, his eyes darting back and forth wildly as her head appears and disappears from the frame as she does sit-ups.
Two days pass and his family shares his obituary. He was an IT security consultant in his day job—which in general none of us care about on Facebook—and his other accounts (his Twitter and his LinkedIn) boast a nicely posed portrait with a knotted necktie. His obituary shows a goofier Troy turning suddenly towards the camera in surprise with a smile. No photos of him in uniform.
What can I post about Troy? His service, his humor, his political insights. Work is over now or at least everyone’s at a company happy hour. The gym is empty. My Nikes stomp on the slick rubber of the treadmill. I’d posted about another friend only a week ago. She was a different story altogether though: older and she’d lived a long, full life. This was something else. Maybe I would say that. It’s weird to only post about people dying…but what can I do if people die? A mix of noise—the rhythm of my run, my breathing, the music on my headphones—doesn’t fully cover the low blare of the TV.
I could post more vaguely about depression. It should be less of a taboo subject. But Kim’s already done that, and anyway this seems like something much deeper than even the word “depression” can cover. I don’t even really know what happened.
I beep the “cool down” button, slow to a walking pace. The towel is rough on my forehead, like a cat’s tongue. I refresh Facebook and now at the top of the feed is a set of beach wedding pictures: one larger and two smaller squares, all bathed in the reds and oranges of twilight. The larger one is just my wife’s BFF Monica in close-up flashing a giant toothy smile, her hair, brown like her eyes, up and bound in some sort of silver tiara. Freckles sprinkle across her nose and cheeks. I think it’s a selfie. The treadmill comes to a stop.