Dedicated to Jason Braman.
Things I want to remember: Hissing “yesssss” at each other through the phone. Listening to “Arnold Layne” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” at full blast in your room with the strobe light flashing. Drawings created with ball-point pens and colored pencils ― your doodles. Hippie beads, scarves and that cape I made you from a red velvet bedspread we bought at the Goodwill in the Oregon District. The way you carried one of those ’70s flowered suitcases as a book bag at Centerville High School, circa 1988. Songs you wrote and played for me on the guitar. Trudging along in the snow-covered golf course behind my parents’ house admiring the sun’s glint in the ice-covered trees. You, an almost constant passenger in my red Chevette.
Remember how we could read each other’s minds? People thought it was something we, the wacky and iconic couple, made up. But we knew it was true. I wonder if you’ve been reading my mind in the weeks since you’ve been gone.
I’ve been wearing that silver and opal ring you gave me, on a chain around my neck. My body has spread a bit since that day in high school when you got down on one knee in home-ec class and proposed to me. It doesn’t quite fit my ring finger, but on the chain it lays right on my heart. Back then, we had read books about soul mates, astrology and numerology checked out from Woodbourne Library and we knew we’d be connected forever. Back then, forever was a philosophical concept we also discussed for hours while hanging out at Denny’s or in David’s Cemetery. I’ve been wearing this ring to remind me I once had that kind of connection with another human. Even though it has been years since I last saw you, I miss you so much now. Like crazy. You left me way too soon.
Things I want to forget: Visiting you in the psych ward at Grandview Hospital and Twin Valley Medical Center. Having to tell you I can’t see you anymore because you stole beer and over-the-counter medication from my house. The vague sense of relief I felt when you canceled plans for us to get together because you were “sick,” although I was sure it was because you’d had too much to drink.
All these memories I want to crumple up. After all, you are my coming of age story. We were inseparable for nearly three years during that time when we lurched through poems and art and music and books, grabbing pieces of who we would become. Pieces of me are swimming with your ashes in that Wisconsin lake, and I feel pieces of you in me like lumps under my skin.
You are the person who convinced me I could write, even though you, too, could cook words into a gourmet meal. I remember reading you a piece on the phone that began with a letter to you. At the end, you were crying. I doubt I’ll ever publish that piece. It’s about such a dark time in my life ― geesh, it’s titled “100 Days of Winter” ― but I reprint the letter to you here:
Sorry I’ve been out of touch this past year, but I’ve been really busy going crazy. Burying my I-can-hold-a-day-job self in a morass of self-loathing has taken a lot of my time.
I know I’m not supposed to say I’m “crazy.” Or “nuts.” I know those aren’t politically correct terms. They offend someone. But I am crazy now. Here’s how I know: Sitting in my doctor’s office, in the windowless basement of some rectangular brick building, I started to cry because some soft-serve song about “remembering people” played on Lite 99.9 FM. It’s supposed to be nothing more than the background noise in the office, dimming the buzz of the florescent lights, but this song was on a DVD played at Kier’s sixth-grade graduation featuring smiling portraits of all the kids who were moving on to junior high and lives of teenage malaise. I started sobbing ― guttural cries that made me double over and start choking. I freaked the receptionist, who took me right back to an exam room. My blood pressure was something nearly unheard of, like 100 over 200, and she told me to breathe, panic spreading across her face like a wine stain on carpet.
I also know I’m crazy because of what happens to me at night. The hand of a ghost reaches into my brain and turns up the volume to 10. Boosts the bass, too. I’ll think it’s time for bed, and all of a sudden the cells in my body are humming a catchy show tune and tap dancing. Some nights, my head is an engine running full speed with no oil, metal scraping metal, a pain so intense I am almost paralyzed with fear that I’m dying, for real this time. Still other nights, I’m sent scampering to my journal, freestyling verse like some hot shot hip hop from the big city.
The moments when I can’t breathe remind me I’m crazy, too. It’s always something trite that gigs me out. Like thinking about a meeting and I haven’t written my stupid weekly activity report. Or because of a kitchen cabinet, like when someone goes on a search for hot chocolate mix and then puts everything back in the cabinet pell mell. I have to pull out everything, check for sticky spots on boxes and crumbs, wipe down everything, and put it neatly back in the cabinet the way nature intended.
Now, you know normal people don’t do these things. So I say I am crazy.
But enough about me. What was it like when you went crazy? Did you know it in one flash, like the Three Kings seeing the Star of Bethlehem? Or did it creep up on you? Was it like the feeling you have when a wispy Daddy Long Legs crawls up your leg?
Remember when you wanted so badly to be Syd Barrett, the madcap laughs, be crazy just like him? We used to make fun of you and call you “Syd the hairclip,” remember? So it was kind of funny at first when you really did go crazy. We thought you’d snap out of it, that it was one more of your eccentric experiments in living. But as time passed, it seemed a trap set in your brain was clutching you tighter and tighter. We would sit around my dining room table with somber faces, clutching glasses of wine as we discussed your latest antic or despair. “What happened to Jason?,” we’d ask, shrugging. Not everyone believed you were crazy, but I did. I believe it about myself now.
I should have gotten in touch with you sooner. I know you understand me. You always have, and you have never judged me no matter what. I can’t say the same about anyone else. Please write back soon.
I wrote that so long ago, but it’s still tinged with truth, at least from my version of this story that was your life. In my version, your life seemed utterly tragic at times ― so tragic that one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and creative people I will ever know was smudged with medication and booze and schizophrenia and pancreatitis. Really, though, you lived through a bullhorn, lived on your own terms. In moments, it may have felt a bit pathetic that you hadn’t quite found your niche when the rest of us “adapted” ― I wear high heels and blazers to work sometimes for chrissakes ― but I wonder now who is pathetic and who is true and free. If you were here, we would talk for half a day about this alone.
I have rewritten this piece 276 times. Waited a month to publish it. Only tonight, during a discussion at my book club about a memoir that reminded me so much of the terror and raw beauty that was you, did I realize it’s a dishonor to not put it out there. And so I do, even though I feel as if nothing I could ever write will serve your memory justice.
I hear you were truly in love when you collapsed on your couch. This makes me happy, because that is what you deserved. And regardless the pieces we remember, regardless of the way we choose to fit them together, those of us who knew you will never forget Jason Braman.
I promise to remember you as the tortured genius, the effervescent teenager I so deeply loved, with that laugh and skip and wry humor.
See you on the dark side of the moon.