The semester prior to his suicide, my friend and I spent afternoons lounging around on a defective, footless sofa I had borrowed without any intention of returning. I was either going to donate it to Goodwill or steal the cushions and trash the frame, leaving it in a dumpster somewhere to collect vile rot. Early that same autumn, right as the heat was lifting, the owner, a classmate of ours who had held on to the sofa’s feet, had been exposed to our graduate program as morally corrupt in ways that were so hysterical that his sins appeared at once devastating and cosmic. For that reason, and because he had bullied my friend the previous academic term, during our first year as unofficial residents of Central New York, I had an intense desire for the owner to endure punishments of every order, whether severe or frivolous or petty.
But so on. The dusty air blasted through the expired filters my scummy landlord had lied about changing, while down on the sofa we deluded ourselves into thinking we could somehow switch gears from digressive conversation into mature productivity. That didn’t work out, so instead we listened to Pavement’s entire discography on shuffle on Spotify. If you haven’t spent time with the band’s five albums and nine EPs and four extended reissues or explored the rabbit holes of their underrated B-sides, you might register this sonic experience as little more than the disjointed racket of pretentious slackers obsessed, for no apparent reason, with borderline nonsensical indie rock of the 1990s. I am embarrassed to confess that that was exactly the kind of art we studied and emulated.
My friend and I saw each other as hopeless writers, misunderstood prophets, critics of our cultural moment who rejected obvious and reductive politics. We never indulged the ordinary pursuits because we yearned to write masterpieces, timeless works infused with nihilistic joy and dissenting imaginations. We believed in our vision and our aesthetic, so when Stephen Malkmus crooned, “wait to hear my words and they’re diamond-sharp / I could open it up,” in the song “In the Mouth a Desert,” we swore those lyrics spoke to us directly, spiritually, as though Pavement embodied a celestial mode of offbeat artistic creation.
At the same time we remained detached from our lofty ambitions, skeptical of our dreams. We knew what we were, after all, which was graduate students scammed into university contracts with subpar health insurance. We lived off measly stipends and soggy pizza left over from department meetings. We taught undergrads we pitied in composition classes we hated, and we had an excessive tally of opinions that chafed our superiors. For example: We preferred grammar to metaphors. We considered Frank Ocean a better poet than Robert Hass—or Bob, as our famous professor called him—though we devoured his work, too. Like Malkmus, we thought of the sublime, of beauty, as muddled. “Heaven is a truck / it got stuck.”
We were each “an island of such great complexity,” as Malkmus sings in “Shady Lane / J vs. S,” except we took seriously its cautionary tale: “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation / of the sequel to your life.”
I wrote stories. My friend was a poet. We were full of giddy potential, love for idiotic jokes, fuzzy notions begging to be clarified into true art, until one of us peered into the foreseeable future, or maybe the next gray day, and decided living wasn’t worth the trouble.
We met during an orientation for our MFA in creative writing, in a lecture hall inside a building shaped like a castle. My friend had on a Wowee Zowee T-shirt, and we immediately fell into a long argument about whether Pavement’s underrated third album was its best. I’ve forgotten all the finer points and subtleties, but “AT&T” still hovers at the top of my list of favorite songs, so whoever was pro–Wowee Zowee was right. Mostly I can recall being aware of how insufferable we sounded. It was August 2017 and we were two baby-faced millennials raving about the capricious music of Generation X.
My friend was fresh out of undergrad and had been raised dirt poor on the outskirts of Detroit, in that region of the poverty scale where the connecting threads of some people’s kinship hardly make sense. His Iraqi Chaldean father had waltzed out of the obligations of parenthood years earlier and died a few years after that. The intimate history of his white mother, especially her shoddy employment record, was a topic my friend avoided elaborating on during social gatherings. Scattered between Michigan and West Virginia were siblings and half-siblings and relatives, some outright refusing contact with other family members. He considered it miraculous that he’d stumbled into a bachelor’s degree and then admission to a fully funded graduate program, let alone his true calling and poetic voice—a voice that would, time and time again, astonish me.
I wanted to punch a memoirist for talking about the class in which he had given my friend a dose of headache medication.Tweet
I identified with him immediately. Growing up I wasn’t not well off—by the time I came along my refugee parents had escaped their abysmal socioeconomic status—but I knew something about isolation and estrangement, from both the outer world and my insular community of Khmer Rouge genocide survivors and their children, none of them particularly empathetic to my queerness. Like me, my friend had assuaged his loneliness by pursuing a relationship with art, and music in particular. And like him, I understood what it meant to come from a tough and bankrupt city, having weathered my childhood and adolescence in Stockton, California, home to the nation’s third largest Cambodian American population, and, originally, Pavement and its band members. Both cities had been developed as prosperous hubs—Detroit the former automotive capital of the world, Stockton the bygone inland seaport of the California Gold Rush—and both had ended up degraded and depressed. So we found visceral recognition in the rebellious and jubilant lyrics of “Box Elder,” the scrappy, standout gem of Slay Tracks: 1933–1969, Pavement’s debut EP:
Made me make a choice
That I had to get the fuck out of this town
I got a lot of things to do
A lot of places to go
I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way
And I’m afraid to say that you’re not one of
For years I listened to “Box Elder” oblivious to the fact that it was recorded in Stockton on January 17, 1989, the same day as the Cleveland School massacre, the decade’s most fatal school shooting. When I discovered its uncanny connection to the massacre I continued to listen to it anyway, armed with a willful disbelief. The connection went deeper: my mom, already traumatized by surviving the genocide, had witnessed the shooting at Cleveland Elementary. She worked as a bilingual aide, teaching ESL classes to the Southeast Asian kids, including the five killed and more than thirty maimed by the white gunman. The gunman, who killed himself before he could be arrested, imagined that his neighborhood had been invaded.
There weren’t many people who could understand the specific cultural contexts my friend had experienced as a half Iraqi Chaldean poet from the outskirts of Detroit. Not some of our peers in the graduate program, not the other writers we knew who represented so-called marginalized communities, and not the counselors and psychiatrists employed by Syracuse University. We’re minorities within minorities, I’d often repeat to my friend, in an attempt to subdue his frustration with the compounding obstacles of his life.
Without trying, my friend and I challenged what people think of as normal American minorities—and, for that matter, normal writers enrolled in an MFA program. Or at least it appeared that way. We came to writing late in college, as first-generation students, and had no parents or mentors or well-meaning high school teachers who’d cared to nurture our existential creativity. Our unknowing mothers stuffed us with junk food and bad television. He worked shitty jobs throughout his undergraduate career, busing tables for a while at a café owned by a racist Thai couple. I spent my adolescence at the beck and call of my parents, who always required assistance at our car repair shop. Obtaining a driver’s license was less a feat of youthful freedom than a qualification to chauffeur customers to their homes, to shuttle younger cousins back and forth from school, to escort my grandmother to her appointments with the one Khmer, and Khmer-speaking, doctor in town, to sacrifice precious study hours during weeknights to help my father load and unload heavy equipment and auto parts. From an early age, my duty, like that of my older siblings and cousins, was to alleviate the pressures of sustaining my community’s livelihood in the shadow of war and genocide and two million deaths—a quarter of Cambodia’s population in 1975.
Even so, my friend and I tried to resent no one. We adopted an aura of queerness described by José Esteban Muñoz in Cruising Utopia as “a mode of ‘being-with’ that defies social conventions and conformism and is innately heretical yet still desirous for the world.” We were hungry for connection, a constant state of “being-with,” as others failed to empathize with us, and we failed to act normal.
This was why we idolized Pavement, with its albums distorted by lo-fi static. The band’s reckless chords resisted the gloss of conventional rhythms. Its lyrics captured the chaotic feelings of being jaded yet big-hearted, doubtful yet sentimental—feelings my friend and I thought were missing from literature, culture, perhaps even the world.
The first time we met I wondered if he was gay. I’d be kidding myself if I said I didn’t immediately notice his handsome beauty; the way his dark, wavy hair called to mind an earnest, self-conscious Louis Garrel; that he had broad shoulders but never cared to stand or sit upright. I appreciated that he wasn’t freakishly ripped, even though he taught me how to curl biceps more effectively than what I’d picked up at the YMCA. Later on I learned that he had a deep appreciation for male beauty and that he worshipped women, fell for them hard. He dreamed of cool chicks who’d grant him unwavering self-confidence. He spent months reading a Joni Mitchell biography he kept forgetting under the passenger seat of my car, a 2000 Honda Accord. He was always leaving his belongings there: his backpack, overpriced water bottles, and, one time, a wedge of gouda.
Men, it turned out, had no sexual effect on my friend, despite his mother’s frequent claims that he was a fruitcake. Still, I thought his spirit was queer, the same way I associate Pavement with the flamboyant subversions of snarky glam rockers—notwithstanding the nerdy, ill-fitting clothes and the cheeky disillusionment so intrinsic to the residents of California’s drought-ridden, agricultural Central Valley. “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough,” Muñoz writes, “that indeed something is missing.” Without a doubt, hanging with my friend, you perceived the world as too small, too limited, too short-sighted. You’d think—or maybe this was only me—that society had to be operating in profoundly inexcusable ways if no secure place existed for him to thrive in.
One October day, during the semester before my friend committed suicide, we were planning the undergraduate composition classes we were teaching and, as usual, listening to the jagged sounds of Pavement. It was another lazy afternoon, unremarkable until a B side, which neither of us recognized, started playing off my laptop.
A live recording of a concert, the track starts with a simple progression of notes on the guitar, high to low, a brief downward cascade, as the crowd applauds the previous song. The guitarist produces variations of this progression, displaced into lower and lower octaves. A steady drumming creeps into the melody, and words trickle in: “Baby, baby, baby yeah,” that last exclamation stretching into a prolonged drawl. Malkmus repeats the clause five times over, each iteration of yeah sustaining more of his breath, the tempo increasing through a rapturous crescendo until his singing explodes into painful howling and baby drops from the lyrics as yeah gets shouted, repeatedly but never monotonously, his voice blasting as loud against the atmosphere as it can reach.
After an eighth and final yelling of yeah, the final third of the recording transitions into its most legible lyrics:
She abused me
For no apparent reason!
She confused my hopes
For a blistered lesion
It’s torn, torn clean apart
It’s torn and it’s torn
Torn, torn clean apart
The crowd cheers and claps. “This is our last song—it goes out to Sonic Youth,” Malkmus announces before the recording stops, abruptly, like a stern father killing the vibe by yanking the stereo cord out right out of the bedroom wall.
My friend and I listened to this three-minute B side, from the redux reissue of Slanted and Enchanted, with rapt attention. The escalating succession of baby and yeah drew us out of our lesson planning and forced us to sit there and wait patiently, suspended in Malkmus’s straining voice, his fragmentary lyrics, until the song cohered into euphoria. But the promised catharsis never occurred, and when the ending arrived, almost as a jokey afterthought, after that sudden and literal stop, my friend and I just stared at each other. Then we burst into laughter.
Maybe I am overinflating this memory, which comes back to me often, persistently, in the aftermath of his suicide. Still, something about our introduction to “Baby Yeah” felt primal. That song unlocked within us some unbridled, unpretentious, mysterious feeling.
I want to ascribe precise meaning to that feeling, or at least I’ll try to. Baby yeah: an affirmation of what remains unsaid, for something that doesn’t yet exist. Baby yeah: a seductive and sentimental call for human connection. Baby yeah: a tender, riotous cry of wishful passion.
Another short B side was already halfway done by the time my friend and I had finished laughing. I had the sensation of being exposed, open and receptive to my surroundings, as though I were “torn clean apart.” I felt complete with genuine affection for him.
We turned up the volume and played “Baby Yeah” again.
Months later, during what would become his last weeks of living, my friend was crashing on my floor every few nights, a twenty-dollar yoga mat the sole cushion beneath his body. Maybe if we had admitted to the precarious balance of his mental and physical state, I would’ve told him to crawl onto my bed. We could’ve lain head to toe, under my sheets, like kids at a sleepover.
But he never wanted to burden anyone with the slightest of inconveniences, so we pretended that his racing thoughts were all right, however false that sentiment rang. Neither of us owned up to the truth, that my friend chose to stay on my floor, and the floors and sofas of other classmates, too often for him to feel well rested or even OK. He hanged himself the day he retreated to his own apartment.
What is remembering other than revitalizing a corpse that will return to its grave?Tweet
In one of our last conversations, I told him that I thought music was the least cool of the arts. We were making chana masala and fried chicken crusted with almond flour. I needed him to be healthy, high off sustenance. What’s beautiful about music, I was saying, is that everyone can appreciate a good melody. Consider how, in the grand scheme of the universe, there’s not much difference between the technical prowess of a high school loser in honors band and Stephen Malkmus singing wonky tunes on Pavement records. How music appears wherever you happen to be. How ubiquitous it is: Patti Smith crooning in a used bookstore in the East Village; Chance the Rapper bouncing against the aisles of the Syracuse Trader Joe’s; Whitney Houston serenading the dark corners of a dive bar. It made no sense to rely on your music taste—or, dear god, your skills—to elevate yourself to some higher cultural echelon. That could only upend the communal experience of listening.
This is why, I finally said, I don’t give a fuck about anyone’s goddamn band. And why I won’t give a fuck about yours.
My friend began to crack up, but he soon settled into himself. After he was discharged from the psych ward of the local hospital—it was there that he showed me the scars from his first attempts to kill himself, which were, at the time, red and crisp and healing, his shame hiding behind his loose hospital gown, his bashful grin covered with his fingertips all shoved against one another—I kept trying to help him laugh.
When my friend committed suicide, successfully this time, I couldn’t eat for days. I barely made it up or down the stairs without hyperventilating. My thoughts splintered into nonsense. I didn’t trust myself to drive, and when I was forced to, in that first week of mourning, I found myself paralyzed in the parking lot before my doctor’s appointment, listening to the same CD that had been lodged in the stereo of my Accord for over three years. My friend adored that mix, which had Lauryn Hill, New Order, and Half Japanese on it. He’d join me on my errands so he could hear “Doo Wop (That Thing)” with the windows rolled down.
I was grieving, that was obvious. But it was more than that. My organs seemed displaced from their proper locations, precariously stacked on top of one another in a dangerous way. Sirens were going off throughout my body, and my insides, my feelings, my thoughts, were all obstructed. Was I hungry? Was I hurting? And what of the murky torrent of entangled emotions that kept trying to slam its way out of my torso, that toiled away beneath my suffocating, impenetrable grief?
I lashed out at mourning classmates with cruelty or total disregard. It felt horrible and irresponsible to indulge in these retaliations without truly understanding them, though I wasn’t even sure that my peers had registered them as such. Maybe my gut reactions were valid? I was hopelessly repressed, my grief having eclipsed other equally pertinent feelings, good or bad, healthy or not. For weeks I carried within myself the desire to explode, to force a catharsis, but I remained too tired, too swollen with unexpressed impulses, to address my needs.
I’m sorry about the vagueness, the abstract language, but so on. The imprecision of my sensations frustrated me to the point of self-destruction. It grew, this internal blockage, this debilitating repression. It kept surging with no release in sight.
OK, fine, a concrete anecdote: The day after my friend’s death, a poetry professor invited our whole graduate program, about forty students, to mourn collectively at his house. The faculty provided the soggy pizza. There was seltzer for the recovering alcoholics and a fruit platter from Wegmans arranged on a table. The cold spring sky washed the living room in a pale light. Taking in the professor’s bookcases and minimalist furniture, I saw flashes of bright amorphous shapes, as though I were staring at the back of my eyelids. I felt an acute disassociation, due to the shock and also the consequences of what I’d been doing the night before. Thirty minutes before the associate program director called to tell me about my friend’s suicide, I had stupidly ingested a sativa edible, potent with the promise of giggly awareness. The phone call launched me into a horrifying and surreal state that lasted through the night. Up until this point—until this furniture, until this gathering of people—I had confronted my friend’s nonexistence mostly stoned.
We mingled and exchanged somber small talk for an hour, at which point our professors surprised the room with a counselor from the university church. The man instructed us to sit in a circle, atop and between the sofas, whose feet, I noticed, were sturdy and fastened to the floor. He asked everyone to share their stories or impressions of my friend. He wore a priest’s outfit, jet black with the white collar; I wore a neon blue and yellow windbreaker I had bought when I accompanied my friend on his first trip to New York City.
My professors and classmates offered their stories to the room. They sang their sorrows, called my friend a good guy, said that he was a talented poet, that he was handsome and charming in his pensive shaggy demeanor. Sitting there I couldn’t bear the idea that others could reminisce so easily and fondly about him, even those classmates he had admired. I wanted to punch a memoirist for talking about the class in which he had given my friend a dose of headache medication. A violent inner rage flared and was swelling, my nerves produced jolts of numbness that crawled under my skin and terrorized every memory I was summoning, and my voice began to slice through everyone else’s stories, my own stories fleeing the chaotic storm of my grief-stricken mind. I had decided that any memories that didn’t belong to me amounted to a superficial display of empty condolences. They were performances, and nothing more.
Eventually my barrage of interjections brought the collective sharing to a halt. The counselor directed his knees toward me, placed his hands firmly on his own thighs. “Do you feel like you could’ve done more to help your friend?” he asked, repeating a question he had originally posed to the room. “No,” I said, “I did everything I could.” I explained my and my friend’s last weeks together, intending to hammer into everyone a debilitating guilt for their negligence. “I want you to know,” he responded, “you should be proud of being there for your friend, in his time of need.” Tears glistened on the cheeks of the room. I was crying, too, but hated myself for doing that, for doing that there.
But the promised catharsis never occurred, and when the ending arrived, almost as a jokey afterthought, after that sudden and literal stop, my friend and I just stared at each other.Tweet
Later, as people dispersed and kept chewing and swallowing more pizza, the counselor pulled me into the entryway. We stood in a mess of shoes. He said he meant those words, really he did, he was being genuine and true. But my rage only compounded my grief, crowding my head with resentment.
It is easy to portray my behavior in this anecdote as mostly benign. It is also easy to assign my actions a sympathetic explanation, in the retrospective and mechanical way those things go. I felt abandoned by my friend. I felt guilty for not doing enough to support him. I was angry at those who had neglected his struggles. But if I’m being honest, I’ll never fully understand the nebulous reality I inhabited while grappling with his suicide—all the designer drugs I consumed, the bursts of adrenaline sending me into fits of mania and then directly onto the floor, where I sobbed and heaved for hours, where my friend had spent so many nights. I can tell you only what I found helpful.
During the weeks that followed my friend’s death, I awoke each morning, and from every cloudy nap, thinking maybe it was all a dream. A drug-induced nightmare. I checked my phone periodically to see if I’d received any signs of life, or rebirth. I ignored calls from relatives and messages from other people whom I later cut out of my life. I would tell a close acquaintance from college, a former best friend, to stop contacting me. Her life, I texted without remorse—her heteronormative relationship with her fiancé, who was yet another former friend of mine, her stupid engineering job at Google—had begun to disturb and disgust me.
Among the last texts I’d received from my friend was one about Fat Tony’s album Smart Ass Black Boy, with the instructions to check out the song “BKNY – feat. Old Money.” I revisited this conversation one morning at the end of May, my mind hazy and incoherent. I laughed at the corniness of him texting me—whom he referred to as “Tony” or “Tone-Tone,” since he bestowed a nickname on everyone he loved—a track by a rapper named Fat Tony. I inserted my AirPods and listened to “BKNY.” When it ended, I hit replay. And then, after four minutes, I hit the button again. And so on.
For two hours I lay within the confines of “BKNY,” having stepped inside the textured layers of Fat Tony’s chill rapping, like the stoned narrator in the prologue to Invisible Man descending into the depths of Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”—a record the narrator longs to hear on five phonographs all playing at once. In brief spurts I remembered, truly or maybe in the closest approximation to the truth I’d experienced since his death, what it felt like to hang out with my friend, that surreal ease we embodied on some good days, with no responsibilities but writing sentences and lines of poetry, or simply hunting for inspiration. These were the days when we didn’t take ourselves so seriously, as millennial idiots getting paid to write, when we roamed the streets of downtown Syracuse laughing at nonsense: antagonistic looks from passersby, the trash caught in the heaps of yellowed snow, shiny wrappers of the junk food we’d inhaled as kids, how every upscale restaurant in Central New York believed pickled red onions could transform a dish into fine dining.
At which point I turned to “Baby Yeah.” The entirety of that afternoon and night, I journeyed through the depths of the song, which I set on repeat. I dissolved into a deeper and deeper sadness with each repeat—not the grief of my past few weeks, the disorientation traversing the eternal distance between me and my dead friend, but the melancholy of sinking into myself by virtue of my newfound willingness to embrace those memories he had left behind. Tentatively, and then less so, I allowed my friend’s presence to become reborn in my mind, for it to vanish, again and again, with every iteration of that downward melodic progression, of Malkmus lamenting “it’s torn / torn, torn clean apart,” of that sudden and flippant invocation to stop. I was crying, I swear, harder than ever.
What is remembering other than revitalizing a corpse that will return to its grave? The memory always reaches a limit. Final frames of a reel that fade into depressing blankness. The more history you have with the deceased, the more endings you will suffer through.
If emotions are the waverings of the mind, then the overwhelming experience of grief, and all the frustration it produces, can spin you into madness, a dreadful internal force thrashing against the walls of your mind, your body, your spirit. How do you escape? Perhaps by spinning so hard into the truth that you collapse.
Even now, more than a year after my friend’s death, I will listen to “Baby Yeah” on a loop, though not for nearly as long as I did in those first months of mourning, when the song could go on for weeks. “Difference lies between two repetitions,” writes Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition. (Stephen Malkmus recommended another book of his, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [co-written with Félix Guattari], in Artforum. But so on.) “The role of the imagination,” Deleuze continues, “or the mind which contemplates in its multiple and fragmented states, is to draw something new from repetition, to draw difference from it.”
Repetition allows for reinvention. I am rereading Deleuze’s words as I parse the enigmatic purpose of my obsessive listening. I wonder if the repetition of “Baby Yeah,” and the retelling of the tender history it evokes, and the echoing of each baby and each yelled yeah—if all this enables fresh understandings, radical feelings never before experienced that can dismantle the blockage, or at least replace it with something else. Perhaps this is Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return, which Deleuze describes as the “power of beginning and beginning again,” and I’m confirming for myself that regardless of the infinite suicides I might witness, regardless of how doomed and nauseating modern civilization might be (at least according to Nietzsche), I would always choose to relive those awesome, brutal years with my friend.
And, yes, I do think my friend also grasped the power of repetition. Why else did he submit to those undying dreams of his own limitations?
The January preceding his suicide, he emailed me the last poem he would finish. Actually, he sent it three separate times within the span of ten minutes, having made the slightest of revisions. “Avec Amour” ends:
. . . the other night I passed by the outdoor pool
where I swam every morning the summer
my first girlfriend moved to Japan,
and I noticed how the snow almost seemed
to be falling out of the moon
as if it were a hole leading to another day,
another hour in the past
made of nothing and causing
It’s possible that “Baby Yeah” guides me to “another hour in the past” I cannot otherwise access. The song could be “made of nothing and causing everything,” the way I keep my friend alive in my imagination, the way I allow him, finally, to die. Maybe he needed to know, simply and practically, that he could stumble upon portals other than the lifeless moon, or even will them into existence.
My favorite sentence in Difference and Repetition reads: “All our rhythms, our reserves, our reaction times, the thousand intertwinings, the presents and fatigues of which we are composed, are defined on the basis of our contemplations.” I want to share this with my friend. I wish I could reassure him that his presents and fatigues are valid. Yes, they inform your rhythms. But—please, hear me out—don’t you think difference breathes in the expanses that lie amid your monotonous thoughts? Even as you see in the future only suicide, your mind fosters so many novel meanings that are essential, rabbit holes leading to unknown hours and possibilities, and maybe if you wait, for just a bit longer, these meanings will bleed into your being, restructuring the reserves of your spirit, and maybe then, after a serious exploration of all that is true, you, my dear friend, will feel something akin to new.