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I was supposed to sing “Proud Mary” at karaoke, but an upset stomach kept me home with my boyfriend. When hunger finally struck, I reheated some leftover ham and we ate with my parents.
My cell rang. As considered answering, I wondered: did he want to know my plans for New Year’s? did he want to apologize for our friendship falling apart?
“Angie?” A woman’s voice, timid and shaking.
I was Angie only to high school classmates and their parents. I’ve joked that I killed her junior year and replaced her with Ange, someone who didn’t evoke over-bleached hair and pointy acrylic nails.
“I have some bad news about Rone.” The tremor became a shriek. “He’s gone!”
With no idea I hadn’t spoken to their son in eight months, she and her husband clung to the familiar name first on his contact list as they shouted into the receiver.
They found him when they came home from work. They loved Rone, they said, although I know he didn't believe it. They asked me to tell everyone we both knew.
Rone's note, passed during junior year's Honors English, still rests in a shoebox in my parents’ house amid relics of a time in my life I aim to forget.
“I’m gay….like, Oscar Wilde gay. Thoughts?”
As the brunt of rumors, mockery, and a series of cartoons detailing various ways I could be killed, I was a good candidate to hear a secret. I had no entourage, no group of people to tempt me into spilling the beans. That year, a teacher summed up the trajectory of my high school experience by telling my parents, “I don’t think Angela’s classmates like her, but I think they finally respect her.”
I made my first call in a crumpled pile on the kitchen floor.
Although I'd home-schooled senior year, I was taking the same AP Exams as Rone and Greg, and after studying turned into dinner at Chili’s and a trip to movies, we were inseparable. Rone and Greg were both born in the Philippines, and their parents were randomly but frequently strict.
We bought season passes to Six Flags and rode the same roller coasters once a week. We used Greg’s camera to take movies of ourselves singing in the car, and staged photo shoots in my living room as my mother played photographer, hitting the shutter button through tears of laughter. Greg was the schemer, Rone the straight man, and I? I didn’t know.
I'm not sure what I said to Greg. The bare minimum. As I sat in silence and tried to eat, my boyfriend and parents speculated as to the "how." I couldn’t bear to remind them of Rone’s Sunday morning shooting trips with his father, of the guns in the house. His parents hadn’t offered any information on the means to his end, but I didn’t need them to tell me what I already knew.
I sent the same terse email to dozens of acquaintances and sent my boyfriend home. I had to babysit the next morning, and alternately cried into and punched my pillow before drifting off at dawn. The worst part was remembering all over again.
Rone never called to make plans, could never decide what kind of food he wanted to eat, or how he wanted to spend his time. I drove him everywhere. When he didn’t call on my birthday, with the excuse, “I figured you were with your boyfriend,” I backed away.
Months later, he called while I was at work and didn’t leave a message. Life went on. My bitterness hadn’t run its course. I was 19 and didn’t know how to be anything but an asshole.
He Myspace-messaged me on my next birthday. "MYSPACE?!" I didn’t respond.
Would I have felt differently if we never stopped speaking and he killed himself a few days after we went to the movies? Would there have been a road connecting the teenager who couldn’t choose a restaurant to the young man who loaded the gun when the house was empty? The question I wonder most: Would he still have done it?
A co-worker of Rone’s started a MySpace page in his memory. I posted the wake information, then sifted through years of photos, investigating them for hints concealed within each expression. I couldn’t bear for those who didn’t know Rone to see him as some dressed-in-black stereotype, so I shared photos: at Senior Prom, cutting the penis-shaped cake I baked for his 20th birthday, him flipping off the camera and grinning.
At the funeral home, I was enveloped in hugs and tears from those who actively sought my discomfort years before. I spotted Greg, and gripped his arm as we looked for Rone’s parents. Characteristically solemn, their eyes filled with tears as we approached. I hugged them for possibly the first time in all the years we’d known each other.
Rone’s mother reached under her chair and handed me a paper bag. Rone had picked out a belated birthday present for me on a family trip to Atlantic City. They found it in his room.
I felt a weakness in my knees as Greg and I turned to a sight I will never forget. The casket was open, leaving no doubt how Rone had chosen to take his life.
His countenance was a vague shadow, its features far apart and undefined as if rebuilt from wax. It somehow reminded me of when robbers on television stretch stockings over their faces to disguise themselves. It remains the most horrifying sight I have ever witnessed.
I knelt before the casket with Greg, the three of us united one last time. I told Rone I’d just wanted to give him space, that I was so angry at him for leaving everyone behind. I thanked him for the gift I'd yet to open. I prayed he could forgive himself. I prayed he could forgive me. Eventually, we rose and waited with Greg’s mother while everyone took their moment to say goodbye.
Rone's parents flew his body to the Philippines for burial. They'd discovered his sexuality during freshman year of college by searching the browser history on his computer, then ignored their findings and never spoke of it again.
We send each other Christmas cards. The first year after his death, they signed Rone’s name next to theirs. They still have the same address. I think all the time about how they probably had to repaint the bedroom walls.
On the way home, I opened the bag. A box tied with paper ribbon contained a license plate bent in half and filled with plastic sheets: a photo album. I half-hoped for a note.
My boyfriend had passive-aggressively talked his way out of attending the wake, and I asked my parents to drop me off at his house. I needed to be around someone who hadn’t shared my ordeal. A friend was over, playing video games –- it took me years to realize he didn't want to be alone with me. We dated on-and-off for the next two-and-a-half years; he kept trying to leave and I would not let him. I could not lose both the living and the dead.
My friendship with Greg hasn't been the same since I called him from the cold tile. Rone was replaced in our trio by the elephant that is his death; as the person whose experience was closest to mine, Greg holds my best chance for solace. But we don't talk about it.
Greg moved out of state for work, but was recently back for a visit and I brought my fiancé to meet him. Later that night, as my fiancé and I were in bed, I burst into unstoppable tears. Seeing Greg reminds me that I lost both living and dead anyway.
I met up with Rone’s college friends after the second night of the wake. Although I had been close to them all, Rone was our common ground. We were now a group of confused, hurt young adults who had no idea why their friend was gone. Rone was the friend we went to with our problems, who could make us laugh enough to forget what bothered us. He gave so much we never realized we didn't really know him.
We promised to stay in touch, but didn’t. How have they moved on? Have I?
In 2010, an eighteen-year-old gay Rutgers student committed suicide. Family and friends reached out, wondering if it brought up old memories. I appreciated their concern, but I think of Rone every day.
Sometimes I smile, like when a car drives by with loudly-singing teenagers. Sometimes someone brings a gun to their forehead in a movie, or says “that makes me want to kill myself!” and my nervous system responds with nausea, tremors, and an instant cold sweat. Every few months I have dreams in which I discover his death was the result of a crime, or that he never died at all.
As the “It Gets Better” campaign becomes a movement, my feelings are bittersweet. Would Rone have taken solace in messages of hope from others?
As much as I am afraid to dwell, I’m more afraid to forget, and so I continue to haunt myself in the space Rone left. I hope to permit myself to focus on moments captured in photos stored in an album given to me with an intention I’ll never know. I would be lying if I said I had not contemplated suicide during my bullied youth, but I never will again. I don’t know what it takes to follow through.
For that, I will be eternally grateful to Rone.