This work contains references to addiction and suicide, which some may find distressing.
People tell me I used to burn; a Greek god, a prince among men. I was Apollo, Hermes, Zeus. A marble-clad and marble-carved boy with soft eyes and hair like corn silk. I was the star and I was the sun and I was the boy and I was a fool.
I don’t remember much of him, the boy that I was. He’s a fickle memory with the gaps filled in by others. University friends remind me that I was a scholar bathed in ichor. Nico tells me I could re-write the backs of cereal boxes and have people hanging off my every word. Ben likes to emphasise the fact that I was a train wreck.
It had been 1985 and the tail end of summer, but we still wore our sweaters and button-ups even in the steamy London heat. Nico tells me I was the pride and joy of Cambridge, and after re-reading some of my old publications in their journals, I can see why. I had spent most of my final year as a university student day drinking and reading good poetry in smoky rooms. The other half had been spent night climbing buildings over campus.
When I’d first read Whipplesnaith’s ‘Guide to Night Climbing’, I was sixteen and had dreamed of spending careless hours lost in the parapets of Trinity College and other such monolithic buildings. Despite my fear of heights, night climbing became a well-attended pastime of my sober self. I would sit with notebooks or a rumpled copy of Gatsby into the early hours of the morning, watching the sunrise. And sometimes, I would test how close I could toe to the edges.
Nico tells me we had been between classes in the library when I first asked him to join me. Back then he still hadn’t learned not to be skittish whenever anyone raised a hand at him. Eternally patient—yet there had still been a harsh set to his jaw in our college days and he had worn turtlenecks to try and hide the scar that hooked from under his chin down to his neck. Sometimes he would still have to change because he looked too much like his father in white button-downs.
He thinks I was high, I think I was drunk—but no one could really tell back in those days. Either way, my prose had been dripping golden onto the page beneath my fingertips while Nico had copied drawings from medical textbooks with a light hand.
I’d been trying to convince him for several minutes. Nico had been decisively ignoring me, switching his gaze between the book I had presented to him and a study of a male thigh with the skin peeled back. ‘I think you should try it.’
Nico’s nose had scrunched back into his face, unimpressed.
‘I don’t like heights.’
‘Neither do I.’ Nico said I’d been slurring my words, that I had this manic look in my face I recognised from several pictures taken at the time—eyes wide, hair messy, glasses askew. ‘It’s fun, you’ll see.’
‘Still doesn’t sound like a good enough reason to scale a building.’
I laughed, put my feet on the table.
‘Are you saying you won’t do it?’
‘I didn’t say that.’ Nico liked to indulge me back then in all my many wonders. My obsession with knowing everything about London, my love of Johnny Walker Blue and strawberry gin. Sometimes I get flashes of a life wandering campus with him, mumbling facts about structures and plants over my shoulders. Sharing cups of coffee and buttery pastries. Those memories feel sugar-woven, sacred.
When Nico describes the boy he said yes to that day, he includes details such as wrists so thin Ben could wrap his thumb and pointer finger around both of them and track marks retreating from the inner part of my arms to the crease at my elbow. But I still looked at Nico and saw a broken thing; and Nico still looked at the way people watched me, and wanted people to watch him in the same way.
But I wasn’t just burning, I was burning up.
What I don’t remember, Nico does; what Nico doesn’t know, Ben does. I’d asked him if he wanted to climb a building to the backdrop of Nico’s records playing in the living room, sat on one of the back steps of our share house, drinking mulled wine we made in the microwave and smoking cigarettes into the wee hours of the morning. Ben was a curse and a blessing—the boy had been a ball of anger with a fistful of alcohol and half the sense to write poetry filled and written with blood.
‘What are we going to do once we get up there? Jump?’
He’d laughed in a cloud of smoke, mirthful with the warm alcohol. Sometimes Ben could be a pleasant drunk. Ben told me I’d laughed at the joke as well.
‘There’s a view.’ Apparently, I’d told him how I liked to write up there, and draw up there and he found that amusing, tipsy as he was. But he had agreed because Ben said yes to everything no matter how ridiculous.
‘I’ll buy some rum,’ Ben cheered, clinking our plastic cups together.
‘Vienna will chip some cash in.’ My then-girlfriend’s favourite drink—the bills would come out of my wallet but I didn’t really care.
‘Is she coming?’
‘Maybe.’ I’d shrugged. Ben tells me I looked tired. I’ve seen enough pictures to know my eyes had hollowed their way back into my skull.
Ben had been a hurricane that had hit me at the wrong time, had taught me how to feed addiction. He’s a different creature now than he was back then. Wild and angry and whirling in his youth, now mellowed and soft. There’s still a bitter tang to everything he writes, and he can still write, but the Paris air got into him along with the guilt and dismantled the last of what was left of the angry boy.
I’d made myself a staple in his life, and he told me years later that he had wanted nothing more than to stand beside me in photos, to be near me. I don’t have the heart to tell him I had known that; that I had seen his broken pieces and found myself determined to fix them. I did neither of these things, but still Ben tells me he was drawn in by my brightness and wanted nothing more than to bask in it.
Vienna was a pipe dream and a house fire. I have no one left to recount to me the memories of her. I know now she was a catalyst, but the good moments outweigh the bad in my own memory. That’s probably why I don’t remember asking her.
I do remember one of the few sober nights, lying in my cramped share house bed, the both of our backs against the cold of my unmade sheets; her hair fanned out, looking like fire across my shoulders; and the white expanse of linen that cushioned us. We lay and stared for a long time at each other, I remember trying to memorise her face, as if with urgency. I’ve tried to draw her, even tried to describe her in detail to Nico, whose more deft artist’s hands should make light of the work. But she comes in waves.
This night is the clearest memory I have of her. We were both sober, and stretching on my bed in the light of the moon was a thing of innocence. I remember she had features like a bird, slight and thin, but that her nose was white and straight and dominated her face. And her eyes were like saucers, you could lose yourself in them, like I often did. They swallowed and arrested and demanded and in moments like this their edges softened. I don’t remember the colour. I like to think they’re brown because it’s warm, but sometimes I have a fleeting image of blue. I’m never sure.
That night we lay for a long time like that, untouching, the tips of our noses centimetres from each other, until at last she closed the gap and leaned the arch of her side profile against mine. Together, we both breathed one slow and shaky breath.
I couldn’t deny I had been in love with her, any less than I can deny that she had wanted to destroy me while I had wanted to fix her.
When I look back on it now, it was selfish to invite them all to my suicide. I had worn a soft pair of jeans and my favourite sweater—navy with a stretched collar and braided knit. Withdrawals had been painful shivers and the sobriety paints the entire night in crystal focus. The one thing I wish would cast into obscurity is my most solid memory.
I chose the senate building because it was my favourite, and we passed the bottle of rum back and forth between us as we scaled the side of the building. I remember Ben whooping into the night air, my fingers wrapping around Vienna’s stocking-covered ankle as we climbed. When we reached the top, Nico exclaimed to us, ‘Everest!’
I didn’t drink. I remember kissing Vienna, her hair on fire in the setting sun. I remember Nico and Ben roughhousing, and Nico pointing out the monuments he could find, and me filling in the blanks behind him. I remember looking at the people around me who I had dedicated myself to fixing and finding them mended. There was finality in the moment and an overlay of anxiety, both from the lack of substance in my system and the impending end.
Eventually, Nico tells me, I had stood and walked to the edge, preaching to them as I spoke of all of their wonderful qualities. Ben told me this was something I did often when drunk: jerking my head about and using wild arm gestures as I addressed each of them, proclaiming my love. I remember only this, the slow way I had spun, the ground before me and a breath of relief.
Nico had caught me and Ben soon after. I can still hear Vienna’s scream in the back of my mind if I try hard enough, the choking feeling of my button-up as the two boys pulled me back from the edge slowly. Golden me, illuminated in the sunset.
I was no longer a God. I was Icarus, burned trying to touch the sun.