Friday, December 16, 2005

For Stan

You remember That Guy.

Well all knew that guy when we were growing up. You and he were part of some strange double helix, always crossing paths, somehow bound together. In a parallel universe, that guy was you, and you were him. You were alike, sometimes eerily so, but life and fate broke differently for you than it did for him, and from a few simple branches an entirely different life opened up. Maybe he had better luck than you did, maybe worse, but you couldn’t help thinking that his life could have been yours.

My guy put a bullet through his face last week.

“Stan committed suicide,” my mom said, and I wanted to hang up the phone right then, without saying a word.

When I was in seventh grade, some new neighbors moved in right across the alley from us. There was a boy a year younger than I was, and his name was Stan.

Stan was a lot like me. He was a smart kid, just like I was. He loved to read, just like I did. His mother taught at the high school, just like my mom did. When it came right down to it, we were the same kid.

And yet we weren’t.

We tried to hang out a few times, tried to be friends, but it just didn’t take. I was an eccentric kid, but Stan was downright strange. If I was a carnival inside, Stan was a funhouse. Even then, even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, something was wrong with Stan.

In High School, we saw each other in the teacher’s parking lot, where our moms parked. I got into Speech and started competing in tournaments. The next year, so did Stan. I got into Debate and Persuasive Speaking. So did Stan.

My best friend, Bobby, was one of the only friends Stan had. Bobby said Stan stayed up all night reading. Man, I loved to do that.

Still, though, we were different. Stan was just like me in that when he got interested in something, he went a mile deep, but he stayed up all night reading comic books, not non-fiction.

We were on the same debate team once. Mathematically, we were the strongest possible team by far. Practically, we were a disaster together, so similar and yet somehow not. I found another partner and it worked out for me. Stan found another partner and it didn’t.

That’s how things went for us. It’s not like everything worked out for me, but enough did that I felt like the world was somehow fair, was somehow manageable. Stuff didn’t really work out for Stan.

I had a few conversations with him in high school, and we were as awkward as ever. I was still eccentric, just like him, but it was different. I was in a place that other people could reach, but didn’t want to go. Stan was in a place that no one else could even get to. I didn’t fit in everywhere, but Stan didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

I didn’t really understand why. There wasn’t a dramatic difference between us—not really. It was more of a threshold, a thin line between us. I was on one side and Stan was on the other. That line was the difference between being reasonably happy and being something else.

Stan wound up going to a college that was the opposite of my school. I went to a place that stressed being an individual, while Stan went to a place that focused on being part of a group. I majored in English. He majored in pre-law. I would see him behind the fence every summer and exchange a few pleasantries. Stan’s life had veered off from mine.

After I got out of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Neither did Stan. He passed the bar but decided that he didn’t want to practice law. My mom and his mom were friends, and I’d hear little pieces of information about his life from time to time. Every detail just reinforced what I already knew: Stan wasn’t comfortable in his own skin, and he made bad decisions because of it. Stan fought addiction: to food, to alcohol, to everything. I had that personality, and I had addictions, but I was lucky—mine were things like gaming and working out. I was just as compulsive as Stan, but my addictions improved my life instead of crippling it.

Stumbling around for a career, I wound up in computers. I was lucky again, because it was exactly where I needed to be. Stan went to grad school and wound up with a master’s degree in urban planning. He finally got a job and everyone hoped he would finally be grounded.

Grounding is a funny thing. Somehow I bumbled through adulthood until I woke up one day and realized that I was grounded. Eccentric, yes. Even odd. But certainly grounded. I had a routine, one that had value and made me feel secure.

Stan would never get grounded.

As it turned out, though, I was right—something was wrong with Stan. He was bi-polar, although he wasn’t diagnosed until he was nearly forty. And somehow knowing what was wrong didn’t help him much, even with medication. Somehow all the things that give people nourishment from life, that sustain them, gave nothing to Stan.

In the end, he moved to Austin, only ten miles between us. Right about the time I realized I was grounded, Stan had a minor stroke. That’s what he told his mother, anyway, although no one was really sure. He said he couldn’t read anymore, which would have been a terrible blow for someone who loved to read as much as Stan.

He tried working at a law firm just a few weeks ago—I don’t even know how—but his behavior had been so erratic that he was already on notice. It just wasn’t working out for Stan, but then nothing ever seemed to.

One day last week, in the mid-afternoon, Stan sat down in his recliner, a time during the day when I’m often sitting in my own recliner. While I watched Eli 4.4 run around happily, watched kittens run around like furry anarchists, and listened easily to my wife’s laughter, Stan sat in his recliner with a gun in his hand and thought about all the things I never had to, felt the despair that I’ve never known. Then he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

When I heard about Stan, I thought about the line between us. We might have been on either side of the line, but it was still ours. What would his life have been like if he had just been on the other side of the line, if he could have just stepped over that invisible threshold? And if he had stepped across, would I have taken his place? Why did he wind up just inches beyond that threshold, while I wound up just inches on the other side?

So this column is for Stan, and I hope that in some parallel universe, he’s sitting down at his computer, writing a column about how lucky he is not to be some guy named Bill, while his son plays and his wife laughs in the next room.

I walked outside after I finished writing this. A cold front was blowing in, and the dark skies were spitting rain. The wind stung my face. I jammed my hands into my coat pockets and started walking.

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