Steele and I road our bikes all over Austin. He was very much in to simplifying his life. Biff, the third roommate, was even more of a Luddite than Steele. Steele was the son of a North Little Rock farmer. The three of us spent two and half years of college together, trying to meet girls, celebrating when we turned 21…and before….and after, making dinners on Friday nights in a big wok we got at a Chinese market, having a good time.
Steele, though, was harboring a secret; his father’s secret life. He brought Steele in to his affair and made him promise. The weird, crazy-making part was that everyone in North Little Rock knew the whole story, including Steele’s mom. She played the part of ignorance, his father played the fool, and Steele, from a very young age, was his father’s incestuous confidante.
When Steele’s study group at school asked him to cheat on a project, he snapped. Within a week, he was completely soggy with bourbon. We called his family. The took him home, which, in retrospect, was the last place he needed to be. We didn’t know what to do. Steele was dead within another week. Shotgun.
I burned my calendar. I found rage and pity. I stood looking at his bike for hours, pulled it into my apartment, waited for Steele and his crazy mustache and his overalls and his sometime acidic sarcasm to show back up. Biff and I had bought him a globe when he changed his major to geography from business. He loved it: geography, changing his major and the globe. I have a picture with him lying on his bed, the globe replacing his head. He loved that. It took me years to forgive him and myself, to let him have his grief and me to have mine, to allow myself to reenter the world, the spinning globe, without Steele.
Here is what I wrote in my journal in my first year of medical school about Steele.
3 October, 1987
In two months it will be two years since you shot yourself. So why did I cry again today for you, feel lonely again without you? What was the feeling that you alone felt? Something so novel, like Einstein or Beethoven, but different…something you couldn’t and wouldn’t tell. What did it feel like?
I am still young enough that today I felt that when I love, I love differently than anyone else–a mixture of love and prayer and idealism and the weather. But your feeling was beyond unique, your singular, private mortal emotion–a cancer of the soul. Was it absolute black, without even the little sparkles and shafts of color I see when I close my eyes? Was it black beyond blindness? Or, maybe you really saw the emptiness, and that’s why you created the void in your brain, in my heart, in the world.
I don’t often think of Steele, but on days like today, when the ER trauma bay rooms a suicide attempt gone south, I miss him. I don’t really get it, suicide, but I have a little space in me, from Steele. A little space that allows the unanswerable questions and the emptiness and the pain to just be. Allowing this space in me stops me from clawing at the walls of my heart and it creates a little garden where the memories are tilled and are finally safe.