Walt and I were sitting in the bleachers of the football field of my middle school. What we were doing there, I don’t know. I just knew I was so happy to see him. Ecstatic, even. Enough so that I didn’t notice the peculiarities. Why did he have a rifle in his hand? Why were the bleachers on the wrong side of the field? When did he grow that goatee? Not that I cared. I was talking to my best friend that I’d thought… something had happened to. He mocked me for my exuberant reaction to seeing him. But who cared? That I was talking to him again, and that I embraced him, was enough to make me overlook the fact that I was dreaming and he was, in fact, still dead.
We were talking about my love life. Just as we had always done. Not long before that, my then-girlfriend Libby had exposed the depths of her mental illness. Or her desire to play that part for whatever reason. While she fell apart, locked in my closet and screaming at me, the guilt I felt at our impending breakup was replaced by indifference.
Walt was unmoved by my situation. I wouldn’t even be here, he explained, if I’d never left Julie. I was wondering when he would bring that up. Walt, Julie, and I were the three musketeers. We all got along so seemlessly, and were so close never even seemed to worry about being a third wheel. Which he wasn’t. He was going to be the godfather of our children. He had already disappeared – died, wasn’t it? No, he’s right here! – by the time Julie and I went our separate ways. Had he been around a little bit longer, the two of them could have happened. It’d been obvious that he wanted it to. There was no doubt that Julie was going to come up, in this conversation at the mirror image of my middle school football field.
Sitting together on the bleachers, I tried to explain to him that sometimes things don’t work out like you expect them to. That when I was with her, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t know yet that it wasn’t meant to be. If it had meant that he wouldn’t have… gone away… maybe I would have stepped aside. But I just didn’t know. His anger at the situation was palatable. I couldn’t be angry at him for going away. I missed him too much. I did want him to stop being so mad.
He asked why I couldn’t be more accepting of Libby’s eccentricities. That depression and mental illness demanded support. Would I have ditched him if he’d told me how unhappy he was? This jolted me back to flashes of reality. The brief realization that I was talking to a dead man. I explained that ever since… something… I couldn’t remember what, I couldn’t invest in that kind of thing anymore. Anything remotely suicidal. I related the story of my ex-roommate Dennis and how he was expressing suicidal thoughts one night to anyone who would listen. My friends scrambled to help in any way they could. I just sat there at my computer. Paralyzed. Stubbornly refusing to engage.
This just made Walt angrier. Standing now, he looked down at me contemptuously. Who the fuck was I to wash my hands of someone in need? What kind of friend was I? What kind of man was I?
I rose to meet him. I told him that I couldn’t invest in someone who would, when things weren’t going their way, lock themselves in a closet. Then, I saw him grip the rifle. Reality came tumbling forward. The memory of the phone call. The funeral. The gravestone. Walter Aaron Zsaszich, 1979-2000. I looked at Walt and said that I couldn’t invest in someone who would take a rifle to their head.
Walt was yelling at me after that. He was telling me how I had abandoned him when he needed me. If I hadn’t, he’d be alive. If I’d tried harder, he’d be alive. If I’d ceded Julie and he’d found love, he’d be alive. If I had been a friend to him at all, he’d be alive. It was at this point that he lifted the rifle, aimed it at his head, and pulled the trigger. He didn’t die. What was left of his face just kept screaming at me. I remember that he shot himself over and over again in front of me while all I could do was sob. By the time I woke up, three quarters of his face was gone and his jaw was just hanging there.
That wasn’t the first time I’d had the graphic part of that dream. For a few years after, they seemed to come on an annual basis around the anniversary of his death. The conversation always differed, but the setting and the conclusion were always the same. The first time I had that dream, a couple weeks after his funeral, it was the first step in my coming to terms with what had happened. Julie and I had called him on Thursday about hanging out on Friday. We didn’t hear back. On Friday, we thought about calling him again but decided not to. He’d been going through a bit of a loner phase. Saturday, we reconsidered. I left a message on his cell. His step-father called me back. On Friday Night he had a bad trip. He walked out into the woods, and he shot himself.
As the dreams indicate, there are a lot of things I wonder about. Had he been out with us, no drug trip and no suicide. He’d be alive today. Probably. Had he not accepted some bad advice from Julie and myself, he wouldn’t have been in that bad place. He’d be alive today. Maybe. Had he not had that gun, he’d be alive today. Maybe. Had he not had that gun, he’d be alive today. Probably. Had he not had that gun, he’d be alive today. Yeah.
Walt’s death was a confluence of events. He wasn’t a depressive or suicidal person by nature, as near as we could tell. There was, however, a certain… darkness… about him at times. That was the case of a lot of people I knew. Dennis far moreso than Walt. But Dennis is alive. No drugs, no gun. Libby was darker and more disturbed than both of them combined. As far as I know, she’s still alive. Drugs, but no gun. When I think of the a missing component that most likely would have saved Walt’s life, the absence of a gun would be it. The bad place he was emotionally would have eventually been moved past. The drug trip would have ended (he wasn’t a regular user). It was the gun that made it permanent.
It’s been over ten years since this happened and I still don’t know what lessons to draw from it. I remain of the belief that it was not the position of the government to keep his gun from him. Or his family’s gun, it turned out. I am sure that whatever I went through, his parents and the owners of the gun have gone through more. I didn’t see it coming. Should they have? In the end, it is something that just is. Or was. He left a lot of broken things behind. I won’t say that I will totally ever heal. But I’m mended, at least, while he’s still dead.