A Letter to “Johnny”
You didn’t try to hold it there, you didn’t try to hold it inside of you even when you should have. Dammit, Johnny, why can’t you just do what’s right when someone holds a candle to you & tries to compare you to their idols? You were the first human being I came to trust in a long time, & in one single motion you broke all of it – all the respect I had given to you. You were my idol, you were my role model, & you threw it all away just so you could be the antihero to your friends, friends who in three years won’t even remember your name when they hear it in conversation or your face when they see it on the streets. You try so hard to impress them, but they don’t give a shit about you, they never did & they still don’t now, not even after what you did. You sit & sing with them, & you think it is worth trying to fit their definition of “human”, but it never will be. You’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your talent – I don’t pick idols easily, & I once found you good enough to be one, but I watched as you threw it all away. You could be so much more than you are, but for some reason, you don’t want to be. There was once a time when I respected you; that time is quickly becoming a memory, a part of the past that sometimes will be thought about or reflected on. You’re becoming complacent, you’re losing the one thing that made me look up to you, & think of you as a friend.
Now, I know you’re probably sitting there shaking your head & throwing caution to the breeze, probably got a tumbler of vodka in one hand & a cup of coffee in the other – I haven’t seen you in a long time, but I assume you still drink your coffee black, with a pinch of sugar & a quarter teaspoon of salt. I never understood how you could drink it that way, but to each their own, I guess? Or at least that’s what you always said to me.
Getting back to the subject of this letter, the message I wanted to be sure to insinuate as the words fell to the page is: you screwed up big time, man. Let me tell you that again.
You screwed up big time, man.
You had only one chance to get things right with her. She loved you, & you knew she was fragile, you knew that emotionally she was weak & easily broken. I told you when you started with her that you better not break her heart, because it would break more than her heart; it would break her entirely. You practically had her eating out of the palm of your hand & polishing your sheets. Do you know how many people she never came to trust at all, & yet once, she told me blatantly that she trusted you implicitly, that she trusted that you would keep her safe, that you would wrap her in your arms when she was shaking & afraid, that you would be there for her just as she was there for you when you needed someone? You played a very important part in her life, & you threw her away like she was nothing. Like the napkin, under your cup of coffee & sugar & salt, just to soak up whatever was left over. You threw her away, Johnny. Think about that for a moment. Just stop & think.
Yes, that was when you had to go along & leave her behind at some freaking gas station in the middle of Route 79. You freaking ruined her damn life, you made all her dreams go to hell in the single instance you decided to leave her. Your little “buddies” had recently told you how much better it was to be single, asking you “wasn’t it better if you could have your one-night pick of any girl?”, asking “wasn’t it better not to have that baggage dragging behind you & weighing you down?”. Wouldn’t it be better if you could do anything you wanted – anything? – without having to worry about being “loyal” or “devoted” or “reliable”, or any of those other virtuous terms your buddies threw around?
I thought you were better than that, “Johnny”, I really did. But I guess that you weren’t.
Against all judgment, you listened to the leeches you knew, & you broke her in the most irreversible way you could, by breaking her heart & her trust in you.
You told her to go inside & buy you a cup of coffee & a little shaker of salt & sugar & then when she was inside, you drove off casually. You drove off casually as if she didn’t mean a thing, as if leaving her meant nothing, as if it was as easy to leave her as it was to decide which blue t-shirt you wanted to wear that day.
I don’t know what was going through your mind as you did that, I really don’t. I’ve got a good imagination & it still makes no sense to me. Even though you did this act casually, you must have been very irritated at her to actually be able to carry it out; even I do not believe you are so low that you could think it was entirely the right thing to do, that no part of you questioned this decision. Doubt probably plagued your mind as you did it, eating away at you inside as you told your friends what you’d done, & it probably was your sole nocturnal companion for months afterward. In fact, based upon how much the tone of your letters to me changed during that time, I’d say that the action of leaving her like that almost destroyed you completely, although you would never admit that in words.
Don’t you see? By breaking her, you only broke yourself more. That’s how it works, Johnny. That’s the way it goes.
Yes, I know your relationship had been quite rocky, I knew that for a fact, & I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have broken up with her. While she might have been fragile & gentle & meek, as much as I respect her, I must say she was also clingy & insecure, & perhaps it was difficult for you, with all your own problems, to deal with hers as well. In fact, breaking up with her might have been best for both of you. I only know that if you had made the logical decision that breaking up with her was what you needed to do, you should have told it to her gently & explained that you had tried so hard to love her, but couldn’t find it inside to love her as much as you thought she loved you. That would have been the right thing to do. You could have made things okay between you, you could have been a decent person for once & been polite & gentle. But your “buddies” wouldn’t think you to be “cool” if you showed your emotions; they would only settle for hardcore cruelty & vicious heartbreaking, tossing her & the respect she had for you out the open window, as though she were just another rung in the ladder.
I don’t think you understand how true her love was for you; as much as she complained about you, as many impertinent things as she bitched at you for doing, she still loved you, deep down inside. She sometimes tried to act like you didn’t matter to her when you were around, but you were the light in her world. She told me that once, a few weeks before you left her crying at that gas station, & I believed her.
I don’t blame you for not knowing how important you were to her – she didn’t exactly make it obvious, I know that – but I do blame you for what you did to her.
You broke her damn heart, you understand? Do you know how many hours she sat there talking to me about what happened, & crying on my shoulder, & drinking cups of black coffee until she became too jittery from all the caffeine? The caffeine made her have panic attacks, & I had to sit there & hold her hand as she hyperventilated, trying to tell her that I knew what it was like, & that she really was going to be okay. But it didn’t help her, not really. She had a nervous breakdown because of you, you know that, right? She used to come over to my house every day for a while after that, then she stopped showing up, & I worried about her. I didn’t have a car at the time, so I walked all the way to her house, all five miles, & knocked on her door. It took me almost ten minutes of knocking before I finally got her to answer the door, & I was damn close to calling the police to kick her door in, when finally she unlocked it & let me in. She was a mess. She hadn’t eaten in two days, & was more disheveled than I’d ever thought was possible. She explained to me that she didn’t know what to do without you. You were the thing that she took care of, that she took great pride in babying, in caring for, & when you took that away from her, she had nothing to care for, not even herself. You were the thing by which she judged her own worth, the one thing in which she defined herself by.
Just between you & me, come to think of it, I don’t think you should have stayed with her, but you left her in such a shitty state that it wasn’t worth all the pain you caused. You could have done the right thing, the difficult thing, & been honest with her. But what you did was difficult too, in a heartless, childish way. The pain you felt in return was justified.
Hey Johnny, do you remember that time you went sleep walking & you set my trash can on fire? You didn’t remember it the next day, but I sure as hell did. I was letting you spend the night sleeping on my couch, that one time you & her had that awful fight & you sought refuge with me, & you fell asleep about five minutes after you got to my house. I stayed up working on the painting which was currently my project, & then suddenly I smelled smoke, so I ran downstairs & saw the trash can with flames shooting out the top. I grabbed it & put it on the driveway & sprayed it with the hose until the fire went out. The smoke alarms were going off. You just sat up there, sleeping, oblivious to the fact that you had lit a match & dropped it in the can while you were asleep. Oblivious to the screaming alarms.
Oblivious is how I see you. Oblivious to the fact that it is only by being kind that you will ever find any lasting happiness. Oblivious to the harm you were capable of causing when you didn’t pay attention. Leaving destruction & broken hearts in your wake will only make you bleed in the end.
I would tell you important things, like what my name is now, but I don’t really think you would care to hear about them. You are always so self-absorbed in your own little fantasies about how things should be; how impossible snow should fall in the summer, though even if it did, all of the flowers would die. Yes, do your shocked, fake inhale of a scream. You want everything to be the way that you want it to be, whether or not everything & everyone you love will be harmed as a result. Is that what love is to you?
Pain? Is that what your mother & father taught you when they kicked you out at only seventeen years old? Is that what they taught you when they beat you for getting the wrong size of eggs at the store? Is that what you learned when at seventeen you were homeless for a couple of months? You were out on the streets, & you saw a lot of mean stuff out there, & felt it inside you like ice. It cut you right to your core, right to your soul. The world broke you before you were even old enough to understand what broken felt like. You abandoned the people you loved, because they had always abandoned you.
That is the thing that’s interesting to note: that two people with similar personalities can be broken by the same hell, & emerge from it with very different ideas of what it means to rise. Me? The hell made me stronger; made me see that I could become more than I thought I could, helped me become impossibly determined, made me realize that if I could rise out of it I could do anything, how important it was to try, to put as much effort as you could into being kind, even if you weren’t always perfect. It taught me how to validate myself, how to tell myself that I was good enough when there wasn’t someone else around to tell me that instead. It made me realize that doing the right thing was always the thing you should do, even if it hurt, even if you didn’t think you could; that integrity was the code by which you should live your life.
It took a long time, but I got there. Yet, with you, the hell made you broken, it made you bitter, it made you want to hurt others in the same way that you’d been hurt. It made you feel like if you could only cause an ounce of pain to the world that it had caused you, that maybe you would feel like you’d had your revenge. But it didn’t stop there; it never does. Cruelty is the leech that feeds on cruelty; cruelty begets cruelty.
I keep on asking myself what makes us so different from each other. It kind of scares me in a way, not knowing the answer, because I wonder if this tiny factor had been different, perhaps I would have turned out to be the same person you are now, destroying just for the hell of it. It scares me to think we are so similar.
The world & your so-called “friends”. You know them & claim to love them; but they want more than your money. They want to break you. They want to take the soul out of your chest, they want to hold you back & make you stand & watch as your soul is burned. & as it dies, you’ll slowly die too, but you’ll still be alive, still be breathing. But not alive. Never alive, not anymore.
There’s a big difference between you & I in that aspect. Pain makes you want to destroy; it makes me want to build people up. You had just as much of an opportunity to learn from what happened, & you threw it all away. You threw it away. Because you couldn’t be bothered to care. Because it didn’t fit in with the ideas of what the persona you put on every morning would do. Pain made me realize what it was like to feel, & once I started feeling something other than pain, I was able to use my knowledge of suffering to make sure other people never had to feel the same way that I had. I used my knowledge to make people happy, to show them that you could do this & that it does get better.
Once, you were given a paper bag by a very wise woman. You were walking through the dirty musty streets there. People swarmed in multitudes like bees. & there she was. You were looking for your next girlfriend; you hardly noticed this middle-aged woman wearing plain clothing & holding a single paper bag from a grocery store in her hands.
You walked past, & you caught her eye. For some reason, she felt compelled to give it to you. She walked up to you & said,
“This will help you very much.”
She held it out to you. You thought she was a crazy person far below you, how dare she give you something, how dare she even speak to you. But you took the bag from her, for some reason, even if it was just to get her to shut up & stop shoving the bag into your hands.
You walked away, not even bothering to say thank you to her. You walked down the street, & as you did, you tried to find a trash can in which to discard the bag. You probably thought it was her drug stash or feces or old wormy burgers gathered from trash heaps & dumpsters behind shady restaurants. But then your curiosity got the better of you, or perhaps you were just very bored because you still hadn’t found somewhere to dispose of it. You opened the bag. Inside was a wadded up piece of a hamburger wrapper. Curiosity extinguished, & a trash can now in view, you threw the bag into it, never noticing that taped under the wrapper was a key built from solid gold. That was the key of knowledge, & you cast it off with the garbage, just because that was what surrounded it. If you were a miner, you’d find the largest chunk of diamond & would throw it away just because it was surrounded by coal, never bothering to see if there was more behind the veil. You could have done so much with it, but idleness, complacency, was your greatest sin.
Yet that is not the most despicable thing about you. Perhaps, even more than my disgust for you for leaving the woman you loved at a gas station in the middle of nowhere just because it would make you look better, is how you were faced with the chance of saving someone’s life, & you let them die in front of you. Not just let them die, but killed them. Not literally, so to speak, but you did it all the same, & you may call it by any name or face you like, but it won’t change the fact that a man died because of your inaction, & then because of your lies. You watched him break in front of you & you didn’t even care. He came to you because he wanted help, needed help, pleaded & begged for you to do something, but you did nothing. He was your friend, & you ignored him in his greatest time of need, because you simply didn’t want to care, because you found it better to tell a bitter lie than to miss a chance for revenge.
I remember him – short of stature, frizzy brown hair, usually dressed in a football jersey & jean shorts. I saw him a few times before all this began, & once after the rumor started spreading, & all I can remember was the way he looked like he was shattered inside, how I could hardly picture him looking more desperate. He came to you, trying to get you to speak on his behalf, to tell his girlfriend the truth, that he hadn’t cheated on her & that it was all a misunderstanding. The thing was, you knew that he was telling the truth. That day his girlfriend thought he’d cheated on him, you & this man had been sitting in your living room watching football together.
But when right in front of you she asked you for the real truth, because she didn’t believe him, you lied. You freaking sat there & lied, you told her that he hadn’t been at your house that day. You fleshed out the story, made it sound very legitimate & everything. The reason you lied was simply because you were jealous that he’d gotten the girl you’d always had a crush on – you thought he was below her – but in truth, he was ten times the man you’ll ever be. He was more loyal to his girlfriend than you ever were to any person you supposedly “loved”. You lied right in front of your “friend”. You even told her that he’d told you how much he’d enjoyed having sex with her.
I wasn’t there in that room, but I can only imagine the look of utter pain & betrayal on his face as you said those words. He tried telling her you were lying, but she could not hear him. You stood there, smugly thinking about how you’d hit him where it hurt the most, & dreaming about holding her hand, how because you’d been the “honest” one, she’d now flock to you, the hero. You were thinking to yourself about how you were causing the same depth of pain to another person that had once been dished out to you. You thought it was your retaliation to a world that did not love you as much as they should have. You reveled & rejoiced in the fact that you had broken a man, that you finally had gotten revenge.
I wonder if you still had that smug expression on your face when you received the phone call that a week later he’d shot himself in the head.
I wonder if you were still smiling when the girl that he’d supposedly been cheating on learned of his suicide, & learned of the rumor & promptly went to go tell his girlfriend that nothing had happened between them, as they mourned together for your lies & the power you had to break him, & rightly blamed you for his death. You killed him. You fucking killed him because you told a damn lie, just because you were jealous of who loved him. He was your fucking friend, & you killed him, you broke the law of what friends are supposed to do : to be there when no one else is. You weren’t the one who held the gun & put it in his mouth & pulled the trigger, but you might as well have been. If only you told the truth, he would never have gotten to that point, at least not because of you.
As he sat there in his office, the cold metal of the gun clamped in his sweating, trembling hands, he was thinking about your lie, telling himself he had to do this because the girl he loved would never believe he was innocent, & if this wasn’t the case, nothing else in his life would mean anything. As he sat there in that office, putting the gun between his teeth, he was thinking about you & the hellish way you’d broken him. As he pulled that trigger, & the bullet entered his brain, his last thought was probably of how this would be the only relief from being broken so irreparably, & that there was no turning back now.
I wondered for a long time if you were still smiling when all this happened. I wondered for a long time if you ever learned your lesson, that hurting other people is never the cure for the pain inside yourself. I wondered if you ever thought what you did was wrong. I wondered if you ever lied awake at night, unable to get any sleep at all, because you were sobbing too hard into your pillow, mourning for the mistakes you’d made.
Now I know the answer to this question.
Now I know that you have learned your lesson.
I heard about what you did. I heard about how weeks ago you were out walking in the streets at night. It was raining & it was damn cold, & you were wearing your thin leather jacket, & were soaked to the skin. You just wanted to get home & get dry. It was almost midnight, & you asked yourself why you were walking home in such weather, why you hadn’t just called a cab. You’d had a long day at work & felt exhausted.
It was at this moment that a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, & for a brief second, a figure on top of a nearby roof was illuminated. You shielded your eyes from the rain & looked up.
In the haze of the storm, you saw a man standing on top of the building, seven stories up, feet on the edge, poised to jump. He looked down from the edge, nervously shifting from side to side, as if trying to decide what the right moment was to end this. To end this all. It was too rainy & he was too far up to make out any of his features, but something inside you clicked, & for perhaps the first time in your life, you felt empathy for another human being.
A chill ran down your spine. The memory of hearing of your friend’s death hit you hard in the head, right where the bullet had entered your friend’s skull, & then the memory hit you again in the heart you didn’t even know was still beating inside your chest.
You saw a desperate man standing there, a man whose death was imminent, & you knew what you had to do.
Without thinking, without hesitation, you ran in through the downstairs doors of the building. You bolted up all those sets of stairs, ran down corridors, hoping, praying the whole time that you wouldn’t be too late to save him. Chills ran down your spine. Your heart pounded so hard you could feel it. It was still there. Your legs were on fire but you kept running.
Not this time. Not this time.
Not this time.
You finally reached the stairs to the roof. You surmounted them, shoving open the door into the night, you slowed to a walk. The figure heard you approaching & turned quickly.
You panted for breath. It was still raining. It was thundering rain. Deafening rain. & it was near freezing out. You were so cold, soaked to the bone, your bones hurt because they were so cold. & yet you didn’t notice any of this. All you saw was a man standing on the edge of the roof, on the wall meant to keep people from falling off. All you saw was someone who needed help. All you saw was someone who was in pain.
Someone that you might be able to save.
Maybe you knew a little of this pain. Maybe, in all your moments of guilt, maybe you’d had those sleepless nights as you contemplated what you had done. Maybe you had felt the stabbing sensation in your brain, the all-engulfing pain, the horrible agony that filled your every moment. You did not know exactly what this man was going through. You had never stood on the edge of a roof, prepared to jump. You had never known pain that deep, & yet you knew a fraction of it, & it was enough; enough to make you human.
You walked slowly towards him.
“Don’t come any closer!” The man shouted over the cry of the rain. “Or I’ll jump.”
You stopped in your tracks. You didn’t know what to do, what to say. You suddenly realized now how utterly unprepared you were for this moment, & yet you were speeding towards it anyhow. It was the only thing that you could do.
“I won’t.” You shouted back.
“Why are you up here? I’m going to jump. There’s nothing you can do to stop me.” There was something painfully numb in his voice, something matter-of-fact, as if all the feeling had been killed inside of him long ago. The matter-of-fact way in which he said these things perhaps scared you most of all.
Your heart was pounding, because you were so afraid that you wouldn’t be able to save him. You had no freaking idea how to get him down. If you tried to grab him, he’d jump. If you tried to talk him out of it, he wouldn’t listen.
But you couldn’t just stand up here & do nothing. It made you feel sick to your stomach to imagine the man turning, taking a deep breath, one last deep breath, & leaping from the roof. With you watching, unable to do anything this time.
“I know what you mean.” You stated quietly, so quietly he asked you what you had said.
You repeated the statement clearer, stronger. Above the roar of the storm.
There was a moment of silence.
“How?” The man finally asked.
You took one step closer, so he could hear you a little better. Your face was so cold, & your clothes were so heavy with rain. You heard the rumble of cars in the distance.
You took a deep breath, & you finally were able to say out loud what you had done, & take responsibility for your mistakes. You told him the whole story, how you met your friend, how you became jealous of him, how it was because of you that he was now dead.
You stood up there on that roof for more than an hour, in the freezing rain, soaked to the skin, in the middle of the night, talking to a stranger, a man you might never see again, & trying to help him to stay alive. You stood up there & told him your story, & after a while, he told you his. You learned about the pain he was going through. He told you what it was like, & the cold dead heart inside your chest slowly began to beat again, tentative life wondering if it should flow back into both of you again. You heard all the things you could have listened to your friend say, but had forever missed the opportunity to hear. You listened to the stranger talk about what it was like to hurt so bad inside, a pain without any escape, a nightmare without an end. You listened as he told you about the many failures which had happened to him, how he’d once been unstoppable, but failure had broken him down through the years, & how one final failure had brought him to the place that he was now. He told you about how hard it was for him to get out of bed each morning, how he’d forced himself for the past few weeks to get out of bed at all, to keep himself from dying, but he finally reached the point where he just couldn’t take it anymore. That was why he was standing up there that night, that was why he was about to jump.
That was why this had to end, he told you.
It was only after a great deal of conversation had happened that you realized the stranger had stepped down from the edge of the roof & had turned to face you, to make talking easier, & you found you were standing closer to him than before. The man sobbed, his voice alternating between bitter hatred, startling numbness, & torturous pain.
When he was finished telling his story, he looked to you for guidance. You didn’t know what to say to him. Who were you to say that things could get better for him? Who were you to say he shouldn’t feel the way he felt, or that he’d be okay, or give him a compelling enough reason why he should stay alive?
So you said to him,
“Let’s go downstairs & get ourselves some coffee. It’s damn cold up here, & I don’t know about you, but I sure could use some.”
The man paused for a second, then nodded. He realized that by leaving the roof, he was abandoning his plan of jumping. By agreeing to the coffee, he was making the promise, even if it was fragile, that he wasn’t going to kill himself, not tonight.
So the two of you went down the stairs. You felt an enormous sense of relief once you’d cleared the roof, & were safely inside the building.
You & the stranger, who didn’t seem much like a stranger anymore, left the building & walked a few blocks to a coffee shop you’d never been to before. You opened the door to the cafe. It was amazingly warm inside, & only then did you realize how cold you really were. You were so cold you were shaking, but it was probably just as much from stress than it was the weather.
You bought the coffee, & when it had arrived & you’d drank several sips of yours, & your hands were starting to feel less numb, the man looked at you with an expectant expression.
“What can I do?” The man asked. Desperate pain filled his voice. The feelings which had compelled him to get on the roof were still very present, & still very painful, but he was willing to listen.
You set down your coffee.
“I wish I could tell you more. I wish I could tell you that everything is going to be okay, that you won’t be plagued by sorrow or failure or loneliness anymore. I wish I could do something to make you stop hurting like you are. I wish I could give you a solid answer, a cure of some sort. But I can’t. Pain is pain, & the only way you can cure it is to beat it.” You continued, “Give it another day. Give it one more day. Just stay alive, for one more day, & if you still feel like you do tonight, give me a call, & I’ll try to help you. But if you can make it through tomorrow, you can make it through the day after that, & if you can make it through that too, you can keep on doing that. Just keep taking it one day at a time, until maybe things don’t hurt so much anymore.”
The man reached out & took the napkin you’d written your number upon. He held it in his hands, looked at it briefly, then folded it & put it in his pocket gently.
“Thank you.” He said quietly. “Thanks a lot. This means a lot to me.” He swallowed hard. “Everything you’ve done for me tonight. You didn’t have to do any of it, but you did. I could have jumped, & no one would have known until it was all over. But you’re right.” He nodded once with resolution. “If I’ve made it this far, maybe I can make it further. Maybe things can get better for me. It seems kind of impossible to say that, but the thing is that it also feels good to say that.”
You nodded once to him, a nod of great respect. You & the man finished the coffee, & after a while, he stood up & told you he was ready to go home, & to get changed out of the wet clothes. Then he’d go to bed, & maybe things would be better tomorrow.
“I’m Frank, by the way.” He said.
You told him your name. Frank & you shook hands. He thanked you once more, the most genuine “thank you” that you’d ever received. & you were thinking about how even though you were a person who had done horrible things before, maybe redemption for your mistakes was possible.
It is our moments of genuine kindness, towards others & ourselves, that show who we are more than our mistakes. We can’t ever make up for what we did or didn’t do in the past, but we can make things better in the future. We can choose to change. We can choose to be kind. We can choose to be there for people when others are not. We can choose to make the world a better & more beautiful place. We can choose to go the extra mile. We can choose to be better. We can choose to get better.
I saw you the other day & something about you was different. You stood up straighter. No longer did you speak with bitterness & hatred. No longer did you treat others as if they were all below you. You smiled at me genuinely, & it was the most authentic smile I ever saw upon your face.
You told me the story of how you saved Frank. Frank called you the night after this happened, & told you he was feeling a little bit better. You heard from him periodically over the next few weeks, & he’d just called you last night, the one month anniversary of the night you helped him save his own life, & he told you that he had gotten a new job, & that he thought that everything really was going to be okay now. That he was going to be okay.
& it is because of you that he still lives. It is because of you & your existence that another glorious man walks the face of the earth.
& it is because of this that I forgive you for what you’ve done, because you took the ashes of that person who hurt others, & you grew into something beautiful.
You are a new man now, & I forgive you.
I forgive you.
I can honestly look at you, & say that I am proud of who you have become. I’m proud of you.