The year I really grew up actually started two months before. I was 21 then, in November. I was sitting alone in my girlfriend's dank basement apartment. My dad called. He said, "son, your dog is dying."
But that's a prelude, and for another time. Tonight, my story is about Jason, and about the next year, the first year I really grew up. The year that started ten years ago tonight.
I don't really remember when I met Jase. But there are a lot of memories. I remember walking towards the main entrance, on the second floor of LHS, and Jason smiling and swinging his backpack. I don't remember where we were headed. I remember skipping 5th period (we all had 4th off and first lunch) so we could finish watching Billy Madison for the 18th time, or so we could keep playing Street Fighter Alpha in his basement.
I remember his patented line: "You're a deeee-iiick! Get outa my house!" I remember the night I was sitting on his bed, and he poured beer on my shoe. It ran off my shoe and onto his blanket. And somehow that was my fault, and I got the line. I remember laughing in his kitchen one night, laughing so hard I almost puked, and I remember the night we took turns downing double shots from a handle of Captain Morgan until I did puke. He ended up worshiping the toilet, and I spent several hours under a bush in the back yard. I remember teaching him the Mohawk words of greeting, the "words that come before all else." Years later, before I really understood the depths of his darkness, he still held those words close in a way that makes me feel a little less sad now.
And I remember his guitar. I don't remember the name of the instrumental he wrote. Blue something. I don't remember the notes or the tune. But I remember the tone, and the slow building as the melody unfolds, like going somewhere else, like the world of suburbia, and high school angst, and nights spent driving around listlessly looking for anything, and the girl who wouldn't look at me after I asked her out, like all of it was some dream and now I was waking up in the real world. Waking up in the world where I belonged. It was about four minutes, but it always felt a lot longer.
This blog has been dead for a while. It's been more than a year since I last wrote here. And I suppose it's fitting that I resurrect it now, and for this. For death. The year that I turned 22, and the five years that followed, those were death's years. But none more than 2001. 2001 was the year that began the Suicide Squeeze. A vice of confusion that squeezed adulthood into us and pressed down hard, fast and relentlessly. I lost four friends in 14 months, and more over the next five years. And I've never really talked about any of them. Now that it's been ten years since it started, it's probably time to say something. If only so I don't forget. So this will be a chronicle, of sorts, a decade-old memorial. It's probably about time I took the journey. And tonight is Jason's night.
Jason loved music. He loved a joke. And he loved hallucinogenic drugs. LSD, 'shrooms, E, Special K. I guess I'll never quite understand, although I dipped in all of them at times, what they did for him. They were his refuge from something, but became the place he couldn't escape. I remember the day Janine broke up with him. We were standing on the corner, and he was yelling. I think it was cold, but it might have only felt that way. He was swinging his bag, angry, and he followed it with a hit of paper. I think it might have come off the sheet I bought that fall that lasted into the winter. I don't remember that part clearly. I remember wondering why he would want to take acid at a time like that. And I remember not saying anything.
By the time we all drove to Seattle, he had begun to show the strain. Who knows what crevasses the drugs opened in his mind, but they were beginning to widen by then. Alex and I drove together first, then Jase and Dan followed a few weeks later. To hear Dan tell it, Jase drove with a kind of fanatic adherence to illogical principals, putting the car in neutral on any downslope, and riding the pedal to the floor on an incline. Seeing how he operated on arrival it's easy to believe.
When we settled into our new home, Jase started to wander. Over the year, he was more and more prone to strange outbursts and changes of mind. I would come home to find him alone in the living room, moving like someone stuck in a vat of jello. If he acknowledged me, he would stop, and smile his lopsided smile. "Tai Chi," he would grin. But it wasn't. You could see he was just trying to make sense of space.
He invited random strangers to our house. One night, he brought home a couple of Ave Rats, the homeless kids who scam and busk and hustle on University Way. They were nice enough, but I had to ask them not to shoot up in my bathroom anymore. Jase loaned them his guitar the next day, and it never came back. He didn't believe that could happen, that they'd just take his guitar. I remember him on the living room floor, half squatting, other half in a lotus position, rocking and scratching his head and asking himself why. He wasn't angry at himself for the obvious mistake of loaning a strange, homeless junkie his guitar. He was asking why they had taken it and not come back.
By the time our year in that apartment ran out, Jase was gone. But we were all a little too young to really understand. I'm not sure what we would have done if we did, or if we could have done something. But the fact was, we didn't. Jason's erratic behavior and swings of mood were annoying, frustrating, but not frightening as they should have been. We were supposed to be out on the first of October, 1999, and everyone else had a plan of where to go. I was at school in Olympia, for a short lived stint at Evergreen. Alex and Dan found a place in Northgate up the street from a strip club. But Jason seemed lost. Well, no, he was lost. I came back on the second, and found him still in the apartment, none of his things packed. I was furious. But there he was, sitting on the living room floor, in a four-bedroom apartment empty of anything that wasn't his. And I couldn't stay angry, because he was clearly scared. He didn't seem to understand where he was, really. He told me he wanted to go home.
I don't really remember what happened over the next year, for him. Jason packed some few of his things and drove his old beater home. Home to Lexington. I remember that Shar was worried about him, and called us. But I didn't know what to say. Jase found his way into a halfway house. He would call, once or twice a month, to say hi. Then it dropped to six weeks, then eight.
And then, on January 29th, 2001, my mom called. I don't remember where she got it from. Dan called right after. Ma Dukes had called him, too. We gathered up in the Summerhouse. I remember two scenes from that night. In the first, we were sitting on the stoop in front, silent. In the second, we were on the couch, talking. I don't remember anything that was said.
Over the coming days, we got more of the story. He had been doing better, was the story. He was living in a halfway house in Vermont, and when I talked to him the last few times, he sounded clear. But the voices wouldn't stop talking to him. Eventually, he did the only thing he could do. He knelt in the bathtub, over the drain, and opened his throat. It sounded like he didn't want to leave a mess. He was always considerate, in the oddest ways sometimes. I don't know how he managed, but, when he had lost most of his blood, he found his way outside. That was fitting. Jase was always happiest in the woods. He let the last drops go in the air, in Vermont, in January. It was cold that night. There's no other kind of night at that time of year in Vermont. But I hope he could see the stars.
I remember two conversations with Jason, late in the game. I'm not sure when the first happened, but it was one of the last times I saw his face. He had the same look he had when the Ave Rats took his guitar. He was pained, didn't understand something. And he said to me, almost pleading, "Shonkwaia'tishon Wat'ganowalando. Prayerful greeting, Creator. You taught me that, Ev. I remember," (Mohawk friends, please forgive my egregious misspelling). The second, and the last time I spoke to him, he was doing well, he said. He wanted to send me money he owed me. I was driving his car when two tires went flat. He wanted to pay me back. Some now, some later.
It was ten years ago tonight that it happened. Ten years ago tomorrow that they found him outside the house, and ten years tomorrow night when word found us. I'm on my couch with my laptop, writing in candlelight. Our power just went out, again. It was out for two days from 4" of snow, a laughable situation if it wasn't so fucking cold. It came back this afternoon, then blinked out again. I've got enough battery to finish my post and an air card to post from, and I'm glad for that.
I remember you, Jason. You had the brightest smile, and the goofiest laugh. You were a monster if you landed Ryu, and I don't know if I ever won against you in that fight. You had the most delicate hands. All they needed was a string, and the world melted away. It was a frightening world, then, as it is for everyone at 17, but I think perhaps more frightening for you. I wonder where your music took you. I wish it could have taken you somewhere far enough that you didn't have to leave us forever, somewhere you could go on it and then come home.
I was so angry, when they told me. Angry, and scared, and guilty. Angry, and scared, and guilty, and no room, then, for real sorrow. But tonight is ten years. Almost exactly now, near midnight. And tonight I cry for you, Jason "Cheetah" Hester. For the first time, after all these years.
I wish I had known how to help you, or even that help was deeply needed. I wish I could have seen past the petty annoyances and understood your pain. I wish I could have told you what your guitar and your laugh meant, back when we still had them. I wish we could have saved you. And since I know that I can't change any of those things, I'll change the one thing I can. Tonight, my friend, I'll cry for you.