In a chain coffee shop on a busy street, sitting in booth seats upholstered in wine-colored imitation velvet, the babble of strangers around us like a shield of white noise, Gideon tells me he’s been thinking about suicide. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he makes his meaning clear. I realize that the next thing I say will be vitally important. The thought is excruciating. He stares at me expectantly—I choose to say nothing. I don’t engage on the topic beyond a sad smile. Now, I replay that tape of the two of us, seated across from one another with mugs of flavorless coffee in our hands. I reexamine the arrangement of my face, reevaluate my performance: did that smile languish, even briefly, into bitterness?
Gideon is perceptive; he notes my discomfort and lets the conversation flow away naturally. But he is still hurting, and it’s only natural to pick at a wound. Eventually he paddles back to circle that point in the murky water. He peers into it, balancing his body against the edge of the canoe, getting the sleeves of his white t-shirt wet, while I watch from the shore. My feet sink into cold, coppery sand. The long, thin reeds that grow along the bank come up to my neck; stripes of amber gone purple in the twilight, their dry touch swiping across my jugular. When Gideon looks up at me, his expression is gentle, apologetic, almost tender; he must suspect this is not easy to witness. I know he is thinking kinder thoughts toward me than toward himself. But he doesn’t know this isn’t my first rodeo. He doesn’t know a more innocent friend would serve him better here.
Eventually Gideon calls to me, asking, in a tone that manages to be both mild and desperate, if I struggle with mental health myself. I take a breath and speak at length, drawing out words like stitches over skin, keeping my voice light, as balmy as a warm summer evening. I talk about the challenges of my childhood, the idiocy of my early twenties, the mistakes made out of insecurity, fear, and, sometimes, love. But I don’t answer the question. I don’t say “yes” or “no.” Gideon, always focused and attentive, nods, but we both understand that I am holding back. The disclosure of vulnerabilities he desired can’t happen. Some small and starry-eyed part of him slips, stumbles, and falls away. I hear the splash he makes as he makes contact with the water.
Later, I Google “what to say when someone wants to kill themselves” and panic at the thought that I did the wrong thing, again. Did I push him into the hole? Did I help him dig it? Did I chuck a shovel at him from the flatbed of a truck, and then drive away? Emotion wells to the surface then, in tiny, painful bursts, like blood through a pinprick-sized hole in the skin. I bury the feeling without looking it in the face. But it returns to uneasy life, waking me up at four in the morning. In the bruised, poisoned violet half-light of this room, I see Gideon standing there, at my bedside. His eyes are ringed in wet-looking shadows, like the circles of condensation left by shot glasses abandoned on a table.
I imagine driving through the night, my hands steady on the wheel, down a road through the wetlands. The puddles on the asphalt shine like mirrors. Parking on a wide shoulder seeded by raggedy weeds, I unfasten my seatbelt and emerge into the kaleidoscope of my life and its million mysteries. I lean back against the car trunk, warming my hands with my breath. Gideon hands me a paper cup of gas station coffee. We watch the pink-and-blue portal of the dawn sky slide open. He laughs at one of my wry jokes, and I can’t help but smile, with huge and unfeigned joy, even though the childishness of my emotion spoils the punchline. The early morning air is a treasure of light. It tastes like a potion of healing. Like something uncomplicated and pure. Something that grants everlasting permission to dream, as though everything is still only beginning.
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