He volunteers with the organization I work for, and that’s where I meet him: a late night meeting in the glass lobby of a sleeping dark office building ends later than it should. I’ve just started this job; it should be perfect, but I don’t think it’s right for me, because my boss doesn’t get my jokes. He grew up brown in Alabama; his best friends were his mother and the tolerant few. He is Muslim and gay, an anxious combination. He’s always wanted to live in Atlanta; for him, Birmingham is the no-rate town he left in a cold dead second. I’ve lost all hope in Atlanta; to me, it’s the fourth-rate city I only live in because I can’t get out. This is the city he dreams about. I don’t understand dreaming for this town, this sprawling ugly town; where the sky doesn’t even know how to get dark at night. He can’t explain it. He stares out the windows at Peachtree Road; night slows the city’s metabolism; the headlight-glimmer traffic shines ghostly shadows over his face. I never get to know him very well, but I recognise it in him this night. We’re both just barely hanging on.
He’s the kind of friend who drops by to deliver the oatmeal-macadamia cookies you told him you like. He won’t stay for a coffee, he’s far too busy, but you’ll have a tough hug and a rough scraping kiss, stubble harsh on your cheek. He’s so polite he makes me want to take etiquette classes. I have him over to dinner, and less than a week later, a thank-you note in my mailbox proves manly stationery exists for those willing to seek it out. I feel like I’ll never be so organised; I’ll never post a thank-you note within seven days of an event, no matter how thankful I may be. I never seem to have stamps.
At my birthday party, under fairy lights at a small tequila cantina, he meets Deb and it turns out they’ve known each other for years, but never talked. It’s a city that homes and homelesses 5 million people, but it can feel as small as a high school. You can’t meet anyone who hasn’t already met your whole life, just outside the edge of your vision. You turn your back, and everyone you’ve never actually met is making out with everyone you’re not speaking to right now. Sometimes I want to see, a map of everyone I know and everyone they know and everyone we all know. Sometimes I want a map to my strangers.
That night, he and Deb bridge all the moments they could have met and started their friendship, but never did. “I saw you at Eyedrum last week,” he says to her, “at the opening.” Deb’s in a group show at an abandoned warehouse masquerading as an art gallery. Eyedrum hides, crouched between abandoned factories on Memorial Road, secreting the cutting edge of Atlanta’s critical art scene.
“I saw you at New Street,” she says. In an old ranch-style house just barely disguised as a music venue, Deb plays and sends sad chords, like thick rough rope, through the living room window to those of us listening outside, drinking on that front lawn, warm in that summertime night. We catch that rope, tie knots in it; we hold on, and we sing along.
Later, he brings me a beer and pushes a chunk of lime into the bottle for me.
“It’s amazing to meet her,” he says. “I see her paintings everywhere.” It’s true. Deb is outrageously ambitious.
“Her work is beautiful,” I say, “My apartment is a Deb Davis gallery.”
“She always seems really humble and open,” he says. That’s true, too. She’s outrageously modest. What do you do with a rock star like that?
We’re eating Mexican chocolate cake and listening to the Mexican guitar and drinking Mexican hot chocolate to keep warm, as the night gets dark and the dark gets cold.
And over the next few months, they talk to me about each other. He loves her art, the emaciated tortured figures, and her music, ghostly murder ballads; I guess he loves these things because he spends all his time working for Social Security, an artless aching institution. She loves his warmth; rock and roll has made her tired of cold stages and cold drugs.
Deb grows tattoos like sideburns down her face. She paints and has three bands and a job and a girlfriend, and she knows why silence loves sound, so she cannot sleep. He wakes up at four to eat a healthy breakfast and go to the gym. And then he wears a perfectly pressed suit and tie to his job at Social Security, in a concrete building with no windows. I desperately try to make sense of a job that seems to consist of group therapy sessions for traumas I am lucky enough not to own; I fail. The three of us are far too busy to spend time together, but we feel close. Bound together by the strings on Deb’s guitar, by fairy lights over a birthday, by ribbons tied around cookies delivered for no reason.
Because I never get to know him very well, he has no flaws, no imperfection. He is scrupulous and quiet and caring and kind. He is completely good, so he is never really human. And I have no faults for him; I don’t have the day he forgot to meet me, or the time he forgot my birthday. I don’t have the night he got wild drunk and took off one too many items of clothing. The things we all harbour, deep underwater fears and doubts, never surface between us. He is beautifully unfinished, the pencil sketch lines of Deb’s half-done paintings.
Another night they come over. It’s hot and humid, the kind of Atlanta night that necessitates beer and open doors. Deb climbs the stairs to my apartment; I’m waiting for her at the top. She hands me her new CD, wrapped in inky stamped kraft paper, the kind of lo-fi beautiful aesthetic she lives her life within. He shows up a minute later and returns my Tupperware. My lime-green living room has orange-wood floors; it’s filled with books and Catalan tiles; there’s hardly enough space for the three of us. I light the candles Deb set on top of my record player, and I open the beers he brought: Sweetwater, Chimay, Urquell, Guinness. Mentioning my newest project, my voice goes dry, and my nerves show. I’m acting in a friend’s play, and I’m not much good.
“The play opens in November,” I say. “The writing is ok, but the acting is preposterous.”
Deb says, “I’ll be there.” She looks at me. “For sure.”
“I won’t be able to make it,” he apologises, looking down. “I can’t be there.” And I believe him, because he is so organised. Months ahead, he already knows that he won’t be there.
“It’s going to be a crazy few weeks,” I say. “I leave for Mexico the day after the play closes. In the middle of all that, it’s my birthday. I’ll be 25.”“I won’t celebrate another birthday ‘til Luke comes home,” Deb says. Her brother has been first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq for five years; she looks down, where a tattoo of his name feathers across her arm. She blinks. She’s waiting for Luke, holding on, for a different resident of the whitest house, for the world to do something else something different something else. It’s 2006, and she’s waiting for an end to the war. But it feels like it might never end, like maybe it started before 9/11, before the ’48 founding of Israel, or earlier even than that. We’ve all been waiting, all this time, and tonight, Deb’s waiting hard.
He nods slowly. I get this feeling, cold, like he understands her better than I can. “Birthdays are hard,” he says. “You know, my birthday party last year was wonderful; everyone was there. It was so right, it was perfect. I never want another party.” And I see it again this night; he’s holding on to something. Tight.
Two months later, I drive home through humid orange ugly Atlanta afternoon and get a message from a stranger; I pull over and listen, hold my breath and wait. One month before his 36th birthday, Deb and I face everything he never told us.
He’s so organised, he planned every detail; he took gun safety classes, and called the police so he would be found quickly. He pre-paid his gas bill and left contact information, so he could be buried in 24 hours, as his parents’ Islam requires. In his absence, we meet his whole life, everyone he’ll never speak to again. We stutter and stumble over the note he left, an apology for grief left behind, an apology we don’t really want. No one knew about his plan, so we can only conjecture: maybe he was in love with a married man, maybe he had always been in excruciating pain. We can only comfort ourselves: maybe this brought him peace. But I can’t say, because I never got to know him very well. I really only knew he was just barely hanging on.
He would have been 41 this year, this month.
Hear Nija Dalal reading Hanging On at the launch of The Real Story project on October 19, 2011 at The Deaf Institute, Manchester: