Checking Out Early – A Younger James Dean

If anyone was toying with a death wish it was Chris. A childhood friend of my brothers, I came to call him my friend after my brother left home for college and he stayed to live and work. For years he had responded to the pain of his dismembered family life by playing at the darker edge of the burgeoning Punk movement.

For many outsiders Punk must have seemed nothing but negative and dark, but for participants it was often filled with a life affirming catharsis. Unleashing our emotions in a ferocious truth telling scream was revitalizing. This was back before the “Goth” or “Emo” scene accentuated the depressed aspects of the punk movement.

It was hard to find romanticized death in the early punk days, but Chris gravitated to it wherever it could be found. I remember him playing over and over one song in particular that glamorized James Dean’s death. “Die young and leave a beautiful corpse” was one of Chris’s motto’s.

I always enjoyed spending time with Chris. His perspective was incisive, searching to distill what truth could be found in a world that seemed crazy. His quick cockiness protected a deep emotional sensitivity that in quieter moments left him available to giving and receiving kindness. Of all of my brothers older friends, Chris had time for me, and seemed genuinely interested in friendship as we outgrew our school days.

A strikingly brilliant student Chris was also strung so tight he seemed like you might snap a finger off if you shook his hand too hard. I remember one day discovering that when bending over Chris could barely touch his knees, this while still in his early twenties. The caring family and beautiful lover he fantasized about always seemed out of his grasp. His loneliness and anger must have been unbearable.

Chris channeled his suffering into an ever twisted self-destructive passion. It increased his natural tenseness a hundred fold. Still his brilliance enabled him to endure and focus stress longer than seemed humanly possible. Eventually he took to tattooing himself during his night-shift at work using a razor blade, ink and lye. He found release in romanticized self-mutilation.

His drug use played at the darker side of drug culture as well. Mixing and injecting speed, cocaine and heroine he pushed his psyche with increasing intensity. Ultimately, despite his outwardly logical approach to life, he came to believe the devil was reaching out to him. Not religious before his drug use, he grew increasingly delusional. He wrote disturbing letters to friends about Satanic visitations, stalked at least one woman, finally following her to a different part of the country. It was there he killed himself, jumping off a building to his death, presumably while on drugs.

His bizarre letters turned out to be messages from a terrain that was bringing him closer and closer to death. In hindsight they would of course look like clear signs of his impending suicide.

The news came to us on Christmas Day. It hit my brother the hardest. He looked completely emptied of himself. I felt the death as if it was happening all around me every moment: Chris’s hand slipping out of mine as he plummeted into a great chasm, my hand reaching out too late to stop him from falling into an endless darkness. What hurt me the most was knowing that Chris died alone and lonely, echoing the sorrow he had lived with.

While I had known other high school friends who died, Chris was the first suicide I had been close to. I saw that as many of us went on our happily organized lives, getting jobs, going to college, partaking in traditional family careers, some of us would be culled along the way.

His death usually visits me every Christmas. Certainly it has faded over the years, but I can still hear his somewhat psycho-laugh, and see him enjoying his ritual Sunday omelet at the restaurant where I worked. I think at times he wanted to be a part of our family. With all of its chaos and oddities it was always a place to go and get a warm meal and some sane conversation.

This force I’m writing about, its after the vulnerable ones. Chris was not only one of the best and the brightest, but he was bereft of real family. He was left to fend for himself in a world that hides some pretty ferocious boogie men. No matter how old we are there is still a child within that can be preyed upon.
previous chapter: “A Younger James Dean” ~ next chapter: “Sex and Death”

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