Some ghosts haunt us until we write them down. Some ghosts never leave.
On 9/11, friendship, & suicide
**Trigger warning: suicide, drugs, alcohol abuse**
I’ve been running towards and away from this story for years.
I’ve imagined writing it as a google map essay (inspired by this one by Dinty W. Moore).
I have a NYC subway map up in my writing room, with push pins marking the places that remind me of my old friend.
175th and Audubon, where he and I would rollerblade to to buy the best Northern Lights weed in the city.
Palmetto and Evergreen Ave in Bushwick, where we’d rollerblade to from uptown Manhattan to cop that black that was so good, even WuTang rapped about in “Can It Be All So Simple”: Now I’m a weed fiend jettin’ to Palmetto.
The song samples Gladys Knight & the Pips’ cover of “The Way We Were”:
[Intro: Gladys Knight]
Hey, you know, everybody's talking about the "good old days," right? Everybody! The good old days
Well, let's talk about the good old days!
It’s ironic that that’s exactly what I’m doing right now: thinking about back in the day, the mid-90s. I wouldn’t call them the good old days, shit wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a lot simpler. And my boy was still alive.
Maybe I can’t stop thinking about him because the 21st anniversary of 9/11 just passed. Or maybe it’s because September is Suicide Prevention Month…
You probably know exactly where you were when you heard a plane struck one of the towers. And you know how it felt when we realized it was a terrorist attack.
Every September 11th over the past 21 years has been different for me. What I remember. What I avoid. I still haven’t been down to the memorial. I’ve walked by. Stared from a distance. But I haven’t gone in.
This year it was him my mind & heart kept going back to. I’ll call him Dave. (No, that’s not his real name.) He was my ex-boyfriend’s brother.
Scene: Spring 1994 — corner of Academy St and Vermilyea Ave in Inwood, uptown Manhattan
I am sitting on the stairs of IS 52 crushing a dime bag on a folded paper bag.
(I know, a school, the horror! Don’t worry, it’s a Saturday. Also, I’m 18. Forgive me.)
A guy walks over. I don’t look up. I notice he’s extra animated because I can see his pacing feet in front of me. I never look up when men try to get my attention. I learned early that’s not safe.
I take a Philly cigar out of my bag and split it down the middle, throw the tobacco on the ground next to me, cut off the end, blow on the paper to moisten it, then put the weed in and roll. The result is a perfect blunt, the diameter of a pencil. I hold it up and smile.
“Oh shit, you’re really good at that.”
That’s when I finally look at him.
The man gives me a wide, friendly smile and keeps pacing. He takes out a folded bill from his pocket, opens it, uses his pinky nail to scoop up a bit of the contents. He inhales. Pushes the bill towards me. “Want some?” I shake my head.
This is how I met him, Dave, my then boyfriend’s brother.
I am a student at Columbia University in love with a drug dealer from uptown Manhattan. That drug dealer is his brother. We’ll call him Fabian. Fabian is a small time dealer though he swears he’s the next Tony Montana. On our first date, he had me feel the .22 caliber slug behind his right ear. The result of a drug robbery gone bad. Says he was shot at point blank range. Says he jumped out the window to avoid getting killed. He was able to run in this condition. It was years before I realized how ridiculous that story is. The guy had what Dominicans call muela, the gift of the gab. I was 16 when I got with him. I believed him.
Dave is a computer programmer, drives a Mercedes Benz and owns a house in a gated community in West Orange, NJ, where he lives with gay partner.
Dave is Fabian’s half brother, a son Fabian’s father abandoned in DR when he moved to NYC. Dave was raised in poverty by his mother in DR until she gave him up for adoption when he was ten or eleven, to a couple who lived in NJ. Dave found his father and Fabian when he was in his late 20s. His adoptive parents are long dead. His mother still lives in desperate poverty in DR.
Dave loves drugs. All of them. I will learn later just how much and why.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I got to work ten minutes before 9, which was rare because I was always late. I found my coworkers huddled around a radio, pale-faced and worried. That’s how I found out a plane had hit the North Tower. We were sitting around that radio when we heard the South Tower was hit. There was no denying it–we were being attacked. We all jumped when we heard one of the office phones ring. It was so quiet in that office. Everyone got up to check whose phone it was. It was mine.
To this day I don’t know how the call got through. Cell service was down after the towers were hit. But somehow Dave got through to me. I was the first person he called. He was under a van. He was screaming. Frozen with terror. He sobbed as he told me about the bodies falling around him. I yelled at him to run. I could hear my coworkers footfalls as they came running. “Run, Dave. Ruuunnn!”
Later he’d tell me I snapped him back to reality. He crawled out from under that van and ran. He ran and ran and ran. Not long after, the towers came down.
15 years later Dave jumped in front of a downtown train on 59th St and Lexington.
I once read that when someone jumps in front of a train, they always make eye contact with the driver. I don’t know if this is true, but I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head since.
He called me a few weeks before he did it. Wanted to hang out. It’d been years since we’d hung out like that. Blame it on time, responsibilities, old resentments that stuck. I was at work. Said: Maybe some other time.
Summer 1994 Inwood Hill Park
It is the summer after my freshman year. I am an avid roller blader. I work for summer housing at Columbia so I have a place to stay that isn’t my mother’s place or my boyfriend’s parent’s house (of course he didn’t have his own crib). After work most days, I rollerblade all over the city. Dave hasn’t skated since he was a kid and has never rollerbladed. He buys a pair, takes lessons at Chelsea Pier, and begins taking rollerblade missions with me.
He picks me up at Columbia and we rollerblade to Inwood. We stop at 175th and Audubon for the best Northern Lights in the city.
We end up in Inwood Hill Park, where we smoke until we can barely keep our eyes open.
I know why I smoke and rollerblade so much: to avoid the reality of my relationship. He’s cheating. I know it, but I can’t prove it. One night, I stay over his place but he doesn’t come home. I wait for him by his fifth floor window. It is dawn when I see his car drive by slowly. He looks up. We make eye contact. When he gets into bed, he smells of motel soap and another woman. I say nothing. The next morning, I put on my blades and leave.
Dave never says anything but I notice there’s something really sad about him. He and his lover get into fights on Dave’s walkie talkie size cell phone. When Dave complains to me that his lover is nagging him about never being home, I tell him, “He probably misses you.” Dave rollerblades away.
Spring 1995 -- Cabrini Boulevard and 191st St.
I sleep over my boyfriend’s house and get up early to rollerblade to class. I get hit by a car in front of Mother Cabrini HS in Washington Heights. My boyfriend does not show up at the hospital. Dave does. He stays with me in the ER. He drives me home when I am released. I have stitches on my left nostril, two black eyes and a knot on my forehead from where my head broke the passenger side window. A week later, I am back on rollerblades.
Dave and I are best friends. We do everything together, like I’m his girlfriend except we don’t have sex. This is the summer I start rollerblading to Brooklyn from Inwood. I start out early and come home late. Anything to avoid home. To avoid Fabian and what I know but don’t want to know–that my drug dealer boyfriend who has a weed spot in the handball courts of Inwood Hill Park, is having an affair with a fifteen year old who fake friended me.
Dave joins me one day for a rollerblade mission. We start in Inwood Hill Park. Stop in the Heights for haze. Blade to a handball court somewhere on the East Side. We smoke, play a few games, keep rollerblading. That’s when I introduce him to the weed spot on Palmetto. The spot is seedy looking. You have to enter the vestibule and slide your money under the door. Then a hand passes you your product.
I charged my college friends $20 for a dime bag. (Don’t judge my survival.) Once, I had a big order to fill for an upcoming party–25 bags. After buying the stash, I was making my way down the block when I saw the police. They had a bunch of people lined up against the fence of the projects. I’d seen those people copping at the same spot I’d just left. I opened my jacket, showing my exposed midriff and pierced belly button. I pulled my tank top down & pushed my tits up. I smiled as I approached. Winked at them. Said hello, my voice drenched in honey. They smiled back. Said: “Be safe. It’s dangerous out here.” I waxed innocent: I know. I’m going home, officer. Thank you. I fingered the bags in my jacket pocket. My heart hammered in my chest.
Lesson: when you’re cute and flirtatious, you can get away with mad shit.
Dave starts teaching me how to drive. We drive downtown. He puts me behind the wheel of his 1996 Mercedes Benz E-Class on Seventh Avenue and 14th Street. Says: “Drive. If you can drive here, you can drive anywhere.” I am shitting myself, but I hit the gas and go. I somehow don’t crash his car. (I’ll do that later, right into the wall of his garage. The repairs will cost him 2K.)
Later that summer, Dave takes me to see Frankie Ruiz at Les Poulettes. Frankie’s jaw is on fire. It’s like his jaw has a mind of his own. It almost looks like he’s grinding his teeth except his mouth is open and he’s singing. Frankie is coked up. I know because this is what Dave does when he’s done too much. Frankie still sings the shit out of his songs. He can’t dance. He can barely move. His eyes are closed. Head thrown back. Jaw a tornado. But his voice is puro Frankie.
I cry and sing along. I think of Fabian. I have just broken up with him after catching him with yet another woman. I am drunk and hungry to get even, though the truth is I am not built like that. But I can flirt. I can lavish in the attention. I can dance with men and let them buy me drinks and give them my beeper number.
Dave meets a woman he spends the rest of the night dancing with. When the DJ announces last call, I start looking for Dave. He is nowhere to be found. I even go into the men’s bathroom. I go downstairs, the dance floor has been closed for an hour. I find Dave passed out behind a speaker. He asks me to drive. I can’t. I’m too drunk. We cross the Holland Tunnel and he pulls into a motel, too wasted to drive the rest of the way home. I cry myself to sleep and wake up crying.
I move to Woodside, Queens where I have a beautiful apartment with a deck and a view of the NYC skyline. I cry every night on that deck. Dave and I hangout all the time. We rollerblade, go to the beach. He doesn’t tell me that Fabian is now in a relationship with that woman. Dave befriends her. I feel betrayed but say nothing. This is the first betrayal.
There were so many betrayals after that. I betrayed him. He betrayed me.
I was at a writing conference in Miami when he did it. I can’t say I was surprised. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t. He’d threatened to do it so many times over the years. Maybe we thought he was crying wolf. Maybe we felt helpless to do anything about it. So much had changed since those simpler days. He had a wife and kids, a house in the suburbs, a good job making six figure money. What could go wrong? Why would he take his life?
Some of us are haunted by ghosts that never leave…
I didn’t come back in time for the memorial. I realized soon after that I hadn’t forgiven him for so much. The betrayals. The ways I felt he turned his back on me, when the truth is probably more benign–we just moved on. We all do.
I haven’t finished writing this essay. I know I will one day. And maybe it will be a google map essay. Today, I looked up how to create a google map. I stared at the subway map on my wall and added a pin at Chelsea Piers. The slideshow of memories is on loop in my heart. He was such a big part of my growing up years.
RIP Dave. I will remember you, always.