I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The very first days following my mother’s death, my father and I were alone. Then my brother and his girlfriend joined us. And then my uncle, aunt, and cousin. It was nice to have company there. It helped make things lighter. It gave the days the form of a social gathering, and so we could organize getting food, make conversation over the dinner table, talk over what had happened and would happen now … and my father, my brother, and I couldn’t retreat inside ourselves. We had company. It made everything float, in suspended reality.
About a week after her suicide, we had her funeral.
All of these days my father often lay on his daybed—in the open area of the mezzanine, where he had his library and his desk—his eyes closed, his hands folded on his chest, in his pajamas. He mourned and he meditated on my mother’s brutal ending. He worried very much about her going to heaven—suicides weren’t allowed in heaven. He tried to commune with my mother, again and again, begging her to come see him one last time. He struggled greatly to reconcile the senseless tragedy with his spiritual beliefs.
There was the very heartbreaking question of what would become of my father. He couldn’t remain there by himself. He was too old, too deaf, and too alone in Florida, where my parents had been each other’s primary company and not especially close to anyone else. My brother wanted my father to come live with him in New Jersey, and for a moment that was the plan. But then my father resolved to stay there, in the house that was his and my mother’s, where they had intended to spend their final years. He looked upon this now as a promise. And so my brother tried to be brave and said he would, in that case, move to Florida. He and his girlfriend drove back to New Jersey, and my brother packed up a few suitcases and drove back down. But the next day he lost his courage—he just couldn’t do it, he couldn’t leave his life in New Jersey.
And then our company left. And next it was my turn.
For many of my relatives, traditional Vietnamese, it was my duty to look after my father now. I felt so much enormous pity for my father, for all he had lost, and for his present heartbreaking situation, but I just couldn’t live with him—not with our horrible relationship, and not there, in that house, on Merritt Island. I just couldn’t. I was determined to leave when my flight came due. I needed so much to feel again. To be back home, in the loving comfort of my boyfriend, in the midst of my friends, my interests.
When the day arrived, the day of my return flight to my boyfriend, to my life, there was eagerness and joy in my heart. When the airport shuttle van arrived, I said my goodbyes to my father and my brother. They walked me to the van, we embraced again. I put my suitcase in the back, climbed onboard, and took a seat amongst the other passengers. I turned around to wave out the window, but the glass was tinted—they couldn’t see in, but I could see out. My father stood there crying openly and convulsively. I turned back around in my seat with the blackest pain in my heart.
* * *
I arrived back to Berlin a broken shell, like a soldier returning from war—blown apart by the horror, the devastation, and the unreal stress of being under fire and in a constant state of emergency. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. What I needed most was simply to feel again. So that evening my boyfriend and I went out for dinner. The next day I went to the large department store on Alexanderplatz and just browsed—looking at things, picking them up, touching them.
A few weeks went by, and a package came in the mail for me, from my mother’s life insurance company, informing me of the remittance that was due me. I had never thought about this. It was an amount that was, for me—I lived a life of constant financial worries—a large sum of money. I was so grateful for it—it would relieve me from the worries of how to pay rent or eat for a few months. When it came, my boyfriend and I took the blue-and-white check to the Sparkasse Bank on Rosenthaler Platz, with some anxiety that they would not, for some reason, accept it, but he explained what it was in German, and they did, and we deposited it. I told myself that my mother had granted me these precious carefree months, and that in gratitude and honor of her, I shouldn’t waste them. And I threw myself into my work.
I had been working through a crisis of personal paradigm, of my root set of beliefs, which I’d been engaged in for the last years, writing through it, and now I burrowed in with a kind of maniacal fervor. I made copious notes, developing diverging strands of thought at once, which then became increasingly complex, like different roads, each one accumulating more and more of its own particularities and becoming more and more abstract, until I started to feel my mind straining under the weight of holding up all the threads at once.
I also, as a precaution, though I didn’t feel under any specific threat at the time, sought out a therapist. I didn’t want my mother, and her sad ending, to be responsible for my falling down a pitiable path.
* * *
I had to move out of my attic apartment in the contemporary art museum at this time. Someone I knew a little bit generously offered me to stay in his apartment for a pittance of rent, since he was living mostly abroad. Except for some of his belongings, I had the entire apartment to myself. It was on the sixth floor of a corner tower of one of the “workers’ palaces”: austere, massive post-war edifices sitting up and down the Karl-Marx-Allee from Strausberger Platz to Frankfurter Tor. To look out the window was a vertiginous experience, it was a wildly sheer drop down the side of the tower to the concrete sidewalk way down below. I burrowed into my work, putting off, during each session at my desk, coming up for air.
At some point, on going to bed, in that zone of fading consciousness, I started feeling a mesmerizing force pulling me to the window, beckoning me to throw myself out. The spell was so powerful, and I became so frightened. Each time, my boyfriend would throw his arm across, like a safety bar, and hold me tightly down to reassure me, but the force was so dark and menacing that many nights I lay awake, too afraid to fall asleep.
Some months passed and the ex-girlfriend of my friend whose apartment it was came by to look for something she’d left behind when she used to live there. Meeting each other for the first time, and our most apparent topic in common being the apartment, she asked me how I liked it. “Very much,” I told her. And then she said, “A tragic thing happened though… ” And I knew in a flash what it was. Before she had said it. She continued. “An old woman lived here before us and threw herself from the window.”
At this time I came down with a strange flu that afflicted a number of people I knew as well. It didn’t just break out and reach a peak and then improve. Instead it maintained a monotonous consistency from day to day, and seemed to just persist and persist, taking up to, for some, about three weeks to finally recover from. But mine continued and continued. It wouldn’t go away. It lasted one month, and then another, and another. I became miserably oppressed by never feeling well, each day cut down by the monotony of illness, never being able to do much of anything, just always coping with the feverishness, the flu-ish aches and pains, the fatigue.
It was my boyfriend Josef’s idea to take a small holiday, and following in the footsteps of a friend who had just returned from there, we went to Sardinia, and stayed at the same cheap and functional bed-and-breakfast—bunk beds, plastic dining furniture—on the ground floor of a private house. But it was perfect, in a way. We were fifteen walking minutes away from the beach, and because there was no other occupant of the neighboring bedroom, the one with the bunk beds, we had the floor to ourselves. The sand and the ocean and the sky were immensely beautiful colors, pastel blue and green with lavender, extending for miles and miles around, like I’d never seen before. One day, on the beach, I broke down and cried and fretted to Josef, letting out all my fears and worries of being severely ill and how miserable I was to be sick always, and he tried to reassure me. We took little bits of heroin.
Some time after our holiday, my “flu” started to break up a bit, and then it stopped being a permanent condition, although I would, from then on, become sick extremely easily and for long spells during the winter months. Still, this was an improvement to the miserable constancy of before.
With his girlfriend gone, gone was the last stronghold of normalcy in my brother’s immediate life, and he was free now to carry out his destruction in the all-out manner that he required. There would be no more brakes on his descent. He was going to burn in hell, and the flames and the fumes and the stench would be as odious as he could make them, to satisfy his self-loathing.
It took my brother no time at all to descend the depths like a pro, and to create the picture of florid depravity all around him. How did he know of such depths so instantly, my brother, whose adult person had, till then, been so adequately expressed within the scope of middle-class life—work during the week, malls on the weekends, Pottery Barn for the house—never anything going beyond, never having any contact with anything beyond?
He was stewed around the clock. In no time, another alcoholic moved in, sealing my brother’s coffin. The house became party central, a den of alcoholics, addicts, transients, and all the depravity that comes from such damaged and impaired living. My brother was the ringleader of all this, because he went at oblivion the hardest, seething with a vengeance that had the mark of dangerous flamboyance. Those around him spoke of him, his depraved escapades, with an awed reverence. As my brother’s body and mind became more and more destroyed, as he began to resemble a corpse more and more, as he ended up in the ER more and more, as the police were called to the house by outraged neighbors more and more, amongst that group of people, he was looked upon as legendary.
During these months following his girlfriend’s moving out, Johnny avoided me, as addicts do, avoiding their family and loved ones, who are desperately trying to bring them back to the fold. I saw my brother only twice then. The first time he was red-faced and swollen. The second time, he was gruesomely emaciated, and had dark yellow eyes and skin from liver damage. On both my visits, he lay in a blitzed state on the couch, with the stains of cleaned-up vomit, every now and then jolting awake, to blather incoherently, flap his hands spastically, before passing out again.
I had started out, in his downward trajectory, by giving him lots of room, just trying to be there for him and encourage him to get better. I ended up pleading with him, out of desperation, to stop killing himself, to not leave me alone in this world, to not do this to our parents, who had loved him more than anything. My brother’s way of destroying himself was more traumatizing to me than my mother’s or my father’s death. Both my parents had lived long and incredibly full lives. But my brother reviled himself, and life. He was disfiguring both into the most grotesque, sordid, worthless thing, out of his contempt; and then death would come. This is how he went about destroying himself. And that is what happened.
* * *
It was in November that my brother’s roommate called to tell me he was in intensive care and the doctors were saying he might not make it. Seven days went by, and he did make it, that time, and they released him into the regular care unit, where I was allowed to visit him. I walked into his room while he was asleep. He was a shrunken corpse in the bed—he was almost average height for a man, but he weighed eighty-six pounds. He had crusted blood all over his face—they had unsuccessfully tried to insert a tube through his nostrils into his stomach, to bypass his damaged pancreas and feed him, and they hadn’t bothered to wipe the blood from his face. He could hardly talk, the devastation and damage, emotionally and physically, had been so traumatic. He could only whisper a little bit with great effort, and I would bend my ear close to his mouth to hear him. I stayed with him for a few hours. And then I took the train back to New York. As soon as I crossed the threshold into my apartment, I started crying uncontrollably, the convulsions just rose up and they wouldn’t stop. I got drunk and fell asleep. The next morning when I woke up I already had tears streaming down my face. Then I sank into a deep depression.
And then, after meeting him again, on the heels of our random, absurd, drunken collision, I was back. Back to my usual day-to-day, of laying in bed and feeling unwell, of nearly a year—ever since seeing my brother in the hospital. And perhaps like Cinderella, or perhaps not, I don’t remember the story, I didn’t even think about what had just happened to me. I had become so numb from pain that the strange new events didn’t elicit any response in me. I simply went back to my sad reality, my constant, my station, and resumed my place. Consciously.
But another part of me was altogether not the same. As if under a spell, I was watching the videos I’d found of him online, looking at photos of him, playing back the handful of memories of him, over and over. The doing of these things was not exactly conscious. It was as if, at the entrance of these activities, my consciousness suddenly became unplugged, or it would remain somewhat on, but dumbly disabled, as if the conscious “me” would be drugged, chloroformed senseless, tied up, but still there, vaguely, in some sense, at the scene of the crime.
He contacts me each day to meet up, but each day I decline. On the fourth day, I wasn’t even thinking on it, but a voice said, snapping me out of my reverie for a second, I can’t be like this, daydreaming all day, in a fog. My life was problematic as it was. So, without even knowing what I was doing, that I was doing it, I found myself getting out of bed, and calling him, saying I needed to talk to him. It was clear what these words meant. We agreed to get together in two days. But in that time something else in me formulated a rebuke, and a voice again appeared in my head, but this time said, But maybe he’s the best thing for you. This happy guy. I was passive to this debate, but just like the first voice could command my behavior remotely, and I would blindly follow, the second (different or same?) voice had equal powers, and simply commanded me the other way.
Sunday rolls around. We had said we would meet later that night, after he got off work. When he gets in touch with me about it, he’s obviously confused by me, no longer sure about what’s happening.
We meet in a mist of rain under the awning of Kellogg’s Diner.
I remember feeling insecure, self-conscious, and as I approached Kellogg’s I tried to take the path with the least chance that he would see me coming, so I wouldn’t have to suffer his watching my approach. He was watching though (he happened to mention later). But as I neared, and then looked up from the ground toward him, he had already turned his head, pretending to look the other way. He didn’t trust the situation now and avoided looking directly at me.
We have no destination and just start walking. I try to make some small talk with him, to ease the tension. After a few minutes of walking, standing at a corner, he points to a bar he notices off the main road.
The bar is small, new, and empty. We sit on high stools at the counter and talk for a while about this or that, and then, a few minutes in, his face clouds with turmoil, like he’s struggling with some idea. He’s looking downward with steely determination, doing battle with something.
He continues like this for another minute or two, and then suddenly reaches out and takes, or rather grabs, my hand. When my hand accepts his, instead of rejecting it, happiness is returned to him. It took me a minute to do that, he says beaming. I had to build up to it.
He’d ridden his bike right under my window the night before. He’d thought about calling me. His ribs are bruised from drunkenly fighting on the bus later.
I tell him he doesn’t dissimulate.
More green conversation.
Lying together in his bed—his bed, a full-sized futon balancing on a flat-file cabinet, dressed in a sheet with a big hole in the center of it and wool blankets inadequate for the frigid fall night, enclosed within the storefront by mostly makeshift means, a hung sheet, cardboard—he shows me things from some of his old notebooks: jottings, souvenir ephemera that’s been pressed into the pages. When I get out of bed, out from under the meager warmth of the blankets to venture down into the pitch-black basement to use the bathroom, coming up the steep staircase I say, “It’s soo cooold!” He says, “Isn’t it like being on a boat?” “It’s like camping!” “Oh, what you have to endure.”
I leave him the next morning. That night he writes me, “Going to bed. Wish we were camping.”
Bernadette Van-Huy is a founding member of the artist-group Bernadette Corporation, whose work includes the collective novel Reena Spaulings, published by Semiotext(e), the film Get Rid of Yourself, and exhibitions at galleries and museums such as a retrospective at the ICA, London. She is working on her first solo book, excerpted here. It is a memoir, of a period in her life of exceptional happenings, of the bad and good kinds.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee