A couple of weeks after we returned from my brother's place, I was reflecting on how there is a certain kind of spring day that restores one's faith in possibilities. After a furious winter, a northern spring softens temperaments as surely as it does the ground. There is a palpable shift in mood, a brighter spirit borne of a warmer sun and lengthening days.
It was just such a day when Rich and I had returned from our respective classes and were relaxing in his room before heading to the caf for lunch. The sun was high but not overly hot, and a breeze stirred just enough to keep the room comfortable.
Every room had one large window frame, split into two fairly large windows which slid open toward either wall, revealing flimsy screens held in place by unremovable bolts, which, of course, most students removed. Rich, having removed both screens, was sitting in one window, straddling the other, one leg inside and the other outside. He was smoking a cigarette, his face turned up to the sun, his eyes closed. It was his favorite perch on a sunny day. I smiled at his beauty, shaking my head slightly in a kind of disbelief at both that pulchritude and my own good fortune.
I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth, all the while running the water, a habit of which Rich had been so far unsuccessful in breaking me. I heard a noise like a bump and Rich say, "Goddamnit" in his particular way, which was to accent the first syllable so it sounded like GOT-demmit.
I stepped from the bathroom, smiling, prepared to see him rubbing his head with the angry look on his face that indicated he was mad at himself for doing something stupid. Seeing me smiling would make him smile, too. Then I would say something like, "klutz" and rub whatever he had hurt.
I can see myself smiling. I can see the slightly perplexed look on my face as I stepped into an empty room. I can see myself turning in a half-circle, absurdly, to look behind me. I can hear my voice, trailing off a single word, "Wha...?" I can even feel the unseen force which pulled me to the window, even as I felt myself willing my body not to move. In slow motion I moved to the window, the typical shouts and yelling on a college campus suddenly registering in my mind as atypical screaming. In that moment of crystal clarity as I approached the window, in those few seconds before I would be overcome with shock, I prayed that I would not see what I knew I would.
Still in slow motion I reached the window in which Rich had been sitting, putting my hands on either side, when suddenly the world accelerated to light speed. I saw what I knew would be an image burned into my brain before my head was even out the window. There on the ground, one leg twisted cruelly behind him, lay my beautiful lover, my best friend. His eyes were open, and the look on his face was one of extreme puzzlement. "How did I get here?"
Even as I pulled back, I felt the urge to hurl myself forward to join him on the ground. The headlines from the next day's paper flashed in my head: "MURDER/SUICIDE?" And just as I felt I couldn't keep myself from flying up and out, an insane thought rushed into my mind: he's alive. Not `maybe' or `what if?' but a very definite `he is alive.' I bolted from the room, through the hall and down the stairs
I had the presence of mind to yell out, "Call 911! My roommate fell out of the window!" as I raced by the front desk. I do not know if they heard me, or if someone else had already called, but by the time I got outside, I heard sirens in the distance. I felt absurdly comforted by that.
Outside, on that incongruously beautiful day, a semi-circle of people was surrounding Rich's broken, prostrate form. I elbowed my way through, and swallowed hard as I saw his frightened eyes darting back and forth, trapped in an immobile head and body. I fell to my knees next to him, and choked back sobs as someone called out, "Don't move him!" His searching eyes met mine, and I felt his relief as I touched his forehead with mine and whispered-cried, "It's okay. You'll be okay. I'm right here. You're gonna be fine."
He made a kind of gurgling, moaning sound, and I knew he was dying. I begged him not to; I remember feeling incredibly angry. How could he do this to me? At the same time I know my anger was shaded with gratitude, sorrow and fear. I felt bizarrely happy that I was with him, intensely sorrowful at what would be my loss, and afraid of never being whole again.
"Hang on, baby, the ambulance is almost here. You're gonna make it, I promise."
"Ungh, li-...," he managed. He smiled one last beautiful smile and tried to say something else. A single tear rolled from the corner of one eye and then both eyes glazed over and I felt his presence leave as surely as if someone had switched off a light. He was dead.
I threw my head back and felt the sun scorch my eyes as I screamed in agony, keening like an animal, "Nooo..." I beat the ground with both fists and then hugged him to my chest.
"Rich, Rich, come on, come back, you're okay, you're okay, please come back, baby, please come back," I heard myself saying over and again. I stepped out of my body and knew I was hysterical and out of control when I heard someone saying tearfully, "Someone help him."
I nodded insanely, yes, yes, help him, looking around for that voice of comfort which recognized he just needed a little help. By then I was the only one of the two of us who could use help, but it took a moment to realize that faceless voice was referring to me.
The paramedics burst through the circle and pushed me back as they prepared to administer CPR. One of them spoke to me as they moved briskly but not frantically.
"What happened? How far did he fall?"
The question was like a slap. Yes. They need information. The more information they have, the more likely they will be able to save him.
"From the sixth floor," I said calmly. "From there," I pointed up towards our room.
When? Could this guy be serious? "Yesterday morning. We thought he was just napping. What the fuck do you mean, `when?' Just now."
They moved with grim methodicalness, and one said with only a hint of impatience, "He fell five minutes ago? Or fifteen?"
"Oh," I said, chastened. "Not ten, more than five."
They pumped on his chest, they bent their mouths to his, they tried jolting his heart back to beating; they worked on him as I knelt there knowing he was gone but still praying for a miracle. None was forthcoming.
A radio crackled. Voices, some there, some disembodied; a paramedic talking to a hospital...something about indications of massive internal bleeding, no respiration, no pulse, something flatline and CPR without response.
One of the paramedics checked his watch. "12:22 p.m." He shook his head, as if to clear away the choked sobs and murmurs of disbelief surrounding the horrific tableau which had just played itself out. "Let's bring him in," he said, finally.
I stood and calmly walked over to the first floor window directly behind me. I just as calmly reared back and put my fist through the window. I ignored the shouts behind me and would have smashed another window if strong arms hadn't gripped me, pulling me back and turning me. It was Cal. He pulled me to him and gripped me tightly.
"It's okay, it's all right," he said repeatedly, rocking me gently.
I wept and screamed muffled cries into his shoulder. The paramedics were wheeling Rich to the ambulance. He pulled me off of his shoulder.
"Do you want to go with him?" he asked.
I nodded dumbly and he led me to the ambulance, one arm around my shoulder.
"This is his brother," he said to one of the paramedics. "He wants to go, too. And he needs some medical attention," he added, showing him my torn and bloody hand. "I should probably stay with him. Can I ride with you, or should I follow in my own car?"
"Jeez," the paramedic said softly as he cradled my hand. "Come on," he said in answer.
I sat in the back of the ambulance, Cal by my side, never taking his arm from my shoulder. I rested my left hand on Rich's chest as the paramedic tended to my right. I think he told me it was pretty bad and would have to have a doctor look at it at the hospital, but by then shock was setting in and I don't remember much else.
The hospital scene was a blur to me. A young internist sewed my hand up in the emergency ward, telling me he was very sorry about my brother. Another doctor came to me and asked if I wanted to call my parents, or would I prefer he do it? I was confused, why would he call my parents?
"It's okay," I said, "you don't have to call my parents. I'll be okay." He looked confused and it came to me through my mental fog what he was asking.
"Rich isn't my real brother. He's my...best friend. I haven't met his parents, yet. I think they might be in Europe. We just started living together this year." I think I was trying to explain why I didn't know my best friend's parents, but I knew I was on the verge of babbling incoherently, so I simply stopped talking.
The doctor put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and simply said, "That's all right, we'll find them."
The next thing I remember, I was running outside of the hospital. I don't know where I was going, or how long I had been running, but then somehow Cal was with me again. We sat in a parking lot, leaning against a tree and Cal held me as I cried and sobbed until I thought I would lose my mind. Sometime later we were walking, or rather, Cal was walking and half carrying me.
We must have stopped by a payphone, because a short while later a familiar car drove up. It was Tort. He got out of the car and hugged me without saying a word. Then we drove back to campus.
As we parked in the dorm parking lot Tort turned to me with a worried expression. "Listen," he said quietly, "the cops have been talking to the guys on the floor. They're waiting to talk to you. If you don't feel like talking to anyone right now I could just take you somewhere else. I've already tried to tell them there's someone they need to talk to first, but they won't listen."
I didn't grasp what he was saying, so I just shook my head and wordlessly got out of the car. I hadn't even considered that I would have to relive the experience, but of course there would have to be an investigation. I involuntarily shuddered at the thought, not wanting to have to go over what had happened. I hadn't even considered the fact that the police would want to rule out a couple of ugly possibilities before calling it an accident.
Sure enough, as we walked into the lobby an officer met us. He approached me without even glancing at my friends. "Are you Richard Jefferson?" he asked.
"One of them," I replied.
"What does that mean?"
"That's my roommate's name, also."
"The deceased?" he asked.
I flinched, as if he had slapped me. I choked back bile and said, "Yeah, the deceased."
"If you wouldn't mind, we'd like to ask you a few questions."
I glanced around him standing by himself. "Is that a royal `we'?" I asked.
I didn't even get a rise out of him. "I have an associate upstairs," he said, evenly.
"That's fine. Let's go," I said, glancing at his nametag, "Officer Babcock."
Then he spoke even more formally. "You are under no obligation to answer any of the questions we ask you. You have the right to have an attorney present at anytime we are asking you questions. If you would prefer to have an attorney present but cannot afford one, we are obligated to provide one for you. Any answers you give us, whether or not in the presence of an attorney, can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand these rights?"
"Am I under arrest?" I asked, preparing myself to start losing my mind all over again.
"No, at this time, you are not under arrest. I'm merely informing you of your rights."
"I think I can save you a lot of time," Tort interjected. "There's a..."
"What's your name, son?"
"Were you a witness to the...incident?"
"We'll take your statement after we talk to your friend." He crooked his finger at me. "Let's go upstairs."
Tort wheeled and stormed off to an exit, loudly complaining about "ignorant fucking pigs."
"Your friends aren't winning you any," the cop said, as we made our way to the elevator.
"Actually, that's one of my least favorite people on the floor. And are you suggesting that I'm going to need friends?"
Cal stepped into the elevator with us. "Everybody needs friends," he said, as the doors closed.
Up on our floor, guys were standing in the elevator lobby looking either shocked or depressed or both. A few started to approach me, but when the cop put his hand on my shoulder everyone backed off. My stomach was starting to roil, both from being back on the floor and being made to feel like I was guilty of something. Some of the looks I got told me that I had company in that feeling.
As we approached my room I started to hyperventilate, and probably would have fainted if it hadn't been for Cal once again holding me up and then holding on to me.
"There has got to be some other time to do this," he said to the cop, who had stood impassively as Cal helped me.
"No, no," I said quickly, as I straightened up. "I want to get this over with."
We entered through Rich's room to find the housing director, our R.A., Allen, and another cop waiting for us. As Cal tried to enter with us, Babcock held up his hand, telling him to wait outside. Before he had time to protest, Babcock had shut the door in his face.
The other cop, plain-clothed, stood and approached me with his hand outstretched. "I'm Detective Burns," he said. "I'm very sorry about your loss." His grip was warm and somehow sincere. He had a face of carved granite, all crags and deep lines, and yet he wore that face with an air of gentle calm.
"Thank you," I said.
Rich had been one of the housing director's favorite residents. He sat staring out the window, shaking his head slightly, looking very much in shock. He seemed not to notice that we had come in.
Allen approached next, trying hard not to break down, but the instant he put his arms around me I felt his body sag and he burst into tears.
"I'm so sorry, Jeff," he said, as we swayed together. "I'm so sorry."
"Thanks, Allen," was all I could manage.
Detective Burns cleared his throat. "Gentleman, if you wouldn't mind, we would like to speak to Mr. Jefferson alone for a few moments. Is that okay with you, Mr. Jefferson?"
Allen started to say something, then thought better of it. He went over to the HD and helped him to his feet. "Come on, Rob, we're going to wait outside for a few minutes."
Rob Beatty, our housing director and Allen's nominal boss, responded by jerking forward and burying his face in his hands. He sobbed uncontrollably as the rest of us stood uncomfortably.
Feeling myself about to break down again, I turned to Allen. "Get him out of here," I said, quietly.
Allen took him gently under one arm and urged him to his feet. He guided him to the door and spoke to me before leaving. "I'm going to be standing right out here. If you need to end this, just open the door."
"Okay, Allen, thanks."
As the door was closing, Detective Burns was indicating for me to sit. I sat on the couch and he sat across from me; Babcock remained standing.
"I'm sorry to be doing this, Rick," Burns began. "May I call you Rick?"
I nodded. He had obviously spoken to more than a few guys on the floor to know what I went by.
"Can you tell us what happened, Rick?"
"No," I said, with an air of someone who would not be elaborating.
Babcock bristled. "Your cooperation now is going to make this a lot easier on you in the long run."
Burns held up a hand to quiet him. He waited for me to speak.
"It's not that I'm not willing to cooperate, Detective Burns," I said, ignoring the other. "It's that I don't know." I started to cry, but willed myself to finish. "One second he was sitting in the window, and I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth, then I heard him swear, and I stepped back into the room and he...he was gone." I burst into tears again, but had myself back under control in a few minutes.
"What do you mean, you heard him swear?" asked Babcock. "What did he say?"
At some point I must have decided I wouldn't answer his questions because I remained silent as if no one had spoken again. I felt his eyes burning into me, but sat regarding my hands in my lap.
"You stepped into the bathroom, then heard him swear, then stepped back out. Was it because you were alarmed at what he said, or how he said it? Can you give me an idea of how he sounded?" asked Burns, almost apologetically.
"He said, `goddamnit,' like you'd say when you hit your head on something or bang your shin. Like I'd heard him say a hundred times. He had this way of saying it, too. It was sort of like, `GOT-demmit.' It meant he was pissed at himself for doing something stupid. I don't know, I can't explain. But I know I was smiling when I came out of the bathroom, `cause I was gonna see him rubbing his head, or his arm, or something. He wasn't just gonna be gone...forever." I broke down again, and this time made no effort to control myself. I sensed an equal measure of patience and impatience from the two men.
"Can you tell u...me if he had been under any kind of stress lately? Was there anything bothering him, any trouble at home, that kind of thing?"
"There's not the slightest chance he killed himself," I said. "He was the happiest, most well-adjusted person I have ever met."
"Did his parents know about...how the two of you were living together?"
The insinuation felt like a slap. I didn't know how to respond. "Did they...you mean? I don't know. I don't think so," I said miserably.
Babcock's turn. "Look, we know the two of you were living in an openly homosexual relationship. Could someone have used that against him? Or against you? A threat of exposure, or something like that?"
I was starting to get pissed, and felt strangely grateful for the chance to feel something other than black despair. "Yeah, now that you mention it, he did say something to me about a secret cabal that was implanting electrodes in his brain while he slept. They were blackmailing him, and he was convinced they were aliens contracted by his parents to get him to change his deviant lifestyle."
Everyone took turns being quiet all at once, then Burns tried again. "Were his..." A loud knock interrupted him. He glanced at Babcock, who crossed to the door.
Tort was standing there with an angry look on his face. He had his arm around a slight girl's shoulder. She looked wide-eyed frightened, and at the same time shocked and sad. Her wide eyes were also puffy and red, and she seemed on the verge of tears again. I couldn't place her, but thought she must be someone who knew Rich.
"This is Samantha Hartley," Tort said. "She saw everything."
"What do you mean?" asked Babcock. "`Saw' how?"
Samantha spoke in a bare whisper. "I...I...was watching. I live across, in Wently." She was referring to the dorm across and north from our dorm.
"Bring her in here," said Burns, gesturing to Babcock. He stood as she approached. "Ms. Hartley, I'm Detective Burns. Why don't you sit down?" He indicated next to me.
Samantha looked at me. "He was your roommate?"
I nodded, avoiding her eyes.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "We...my roommate and I...we used to try to watch for him. It was just a game, really. We're not really voyeurs or anything, but the first time we saw him sitting in the window, we went crazy, he was just so sexy. So then we got binoculars, but only for when he was in the window, honestly. We never tried to spy on him, or anything..."
"Ms. Hartley, can you tell us what you saw today and where you were?"
She jumped slightly at the sound of Burns' voice. "Yes. Yes, of course. I'm sorry, it's just that I'm still so shaken up." She got up and went to the window, not getting too close. She pointed. "I live on the sixth floor of West Wently. You can see my room from here.
"I got home from class this morning and my roommate was at the window, with the binoculars. I got excited. `Oh my god, is he there?' I asked her." She turned back to me. "I was talking about your roommate, I meant was he sitting in his window like he did sometimes right before lunch. She said, `Yeah, and he's got his shirt off,' so I started going nuts, trying to grab the binoculars.
"She gave them to me after a minute, and I saw that she was teasing me about him not wearing a shirt, but I wasn't too disappointed because I got to see his face so clearly. He's so ungodly handsome that we just started to eat in your cafeteria, so we could try to run into him.
"He was just sitting there, like a movie star, eyes closed, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He looked so awesome."
I smiled a little and nodded. Yeah, that was my picture of him, too, I thought sadly.
Samantha continued, "I was just going to hand the binoculars back to my roommate, when he moved. He brought his hand up and took a drag and then it looked like he was taking the cigarette away, but then he was fumbling with it, and he jerked up and it looked like he yelled something. Then he kind of like snapped his hand out like he was shaking the cigarette out of it and lost his balance, and he...he...he fell." She burst into tears and I stood and pulled her close to me, crying too, but silently.
Detective Burns stood and inclined his chin to Babcock, who turned and left without a word. "Do either of you smoke?" he asked, as he himself moved to the door.
I shook my head, and Samantha gave a muffled, "No," from my shoulder.
I thought it was an odd question. "Do you want a cigarette?" I asked, surprised and irritated at his apparent callousness.
"No," he said. "It's just that if you smoked, you'd know what is was like to have a cigarette stick to your lip. You're barely holding it between your fingers, so when you go to take it away, it stays in your mouth and you end up with the lit end between your fingers. Hurts like hell. I got into a car accident once just because of that.
"Your friend burned his fingers, that's why you heard him say, `goddamnit.' He was probably already off-balance when he instinctively jerked his hand out to get rid of the hot ash. Unfortunately for him, he was perched in a sixth-floor window when it happened.
"I'm very sorry for your loss. I've seen my share of tragedies, bad deaths and accidents. They're not easy to get over. If you only remember one thing I tell you, remember this: get some grief counseling as soon as you can. I know the University has the resources. Use them." He turned to leave.
He looked at me, one hand on the doorknob. "Yes?"
"Thank you," I said.
He stretched his lips slightly and nodded almost imperceptibly. He left without another word.
Samantha had regained her composure and went to the bathroom for some tissue. She came back with some for me as well. Such a small gesture, and such a touching one.
"What will you do now?" she asked.
I sat down hard on the couch. "I don't know. I can't stay here, though. I guess I'll go home. I don't live far."
"Can I go with you?" She looked surprised that those words had come from her mouth, but didn't try to retract them or explain.
I looked at her for the first time. Her dishwater blond hair was straight and lifeless. She had a button nose surrounded by freckles, which made her look even younger than she must have been. Her blue eyes, when not red and swollen were probably very attractive. She looked to me like she could be my little sister.
I thought briefly of her horrified shock, watching her crush fall to his death. She wouldn't want to be looking out of that window any time soon. She was reaching out to me because of the shared horror.
"Of course you can," I said, uncertain as to why I answered so readily. Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses, I suppose. I regarded her through my own bloodshot eyes for a moment. "Rich was more than just my roommate. I loved him more than anyone in my life."
She stared at me blankly for a few seconds, then shook her head, in what I at first took for disbelief. A large, single tear rolled down her cheek. She put her hand to her mouth. "Oh, God, that makes it so much worse. I'm sorry for asking to come with you, I don't even know why I did. Would you rather be alone?"
"I don't know what I want or what I need. I don't want to have to think about anything right now. Either come with me or don't; I don't know if I want to be alone or with someone. Neither is appealing to me."
That was true enough. How could I know have known that things were going to get even worse before they got better?