Christopher Urban

We called him Rob, Robby, sometimes even RPG, his full name being Robert Peter Garretson. He lived in a small studio apartment with his girlfriend in a flashier part of Brooklyn than where I lived much deeper in the borough. An aspiring graphic designer, his craft, as he always referred to it, never involved digital tools or serious equipment of any kind. From what I understood, his work was of the old fashioned sort: he'd actually draw the designs out on paper and pen and do the coloring later, all by hand, without the aid of a computer. Mostly he made posters for bands, ads for literary magazines or political journals (especially at the height of Occupy Wall Street, which we both felt a part of), non-profit organizations, and, of course, the occasional commission from friends, usually other artists who in turn would repay him with artwork of their own.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the type of work my friend did wasn't in great demand. No doubt digital was a much cheaper option for clients and it took Robert longer to complete projects than most designers, who eagerly employed the most cutting-edge technologies. One wrong move with the coloring or measurements and he'd have to start over from scratch. Needless to say, he was always short on cash, behind on his bills, and could only continue to live in the city in the first place because he had a wonderful girlfriend who agreed to support him, not just financially, but artistically too. She truly believed in him, he told me once while we were out having drinks at a bar whose interior resembled a mountainous ski lodge.

Vanessa, his long-term girlfriend, didn't much care for me. I was always getting Rob to stay out just a drink or two longer than she approved. Rob had given me a taste for neat single malt Scotch, something he often bragged about to the bartender, or whoever was sitting next to us—or even Vanessa—though she didn't care at all to hear about what we fondly referred to as our “Scotch practices.” But the last time we went out together, I remember Rob refused any Scotch and instead drank a glass of water with each light beer he consumed. He told me he wasn't staying out late tonight as he planned to go back home and do some work on his book.

This was not the first time my friend mentioned his “book” to me. Rob was an unconventionally talented graphic artist: whatever he may have lacked in technique he more than made up for with his idiosyncrasies (his words). I never did get to see the big book, as he called it—the book he'd supposedly been working painstakingly on ever since I met him around eleven months ago.

Except for one page, a pen and ink drawing of a rather anthropomorphic platypus, I never saw the thing. The title had something to do with endangered species: "Swimming with Endangered Species," I think. The picture of the friendly, if dolorous-looking platypus, resting next to a wooden cabin in an enchanted forest reminded me of The Wind in the Willows. Quite pleased with this comparison, my friend promised to show me more of the work as the story developed, but, as I've said, he never showed me another drawing, and for all I know this lone sketch of the platypus was the only page of the book he ever completed.

And it's mine now. He gave it to me. I almost said it was a gift, but the truth is the picture was left to me in a suicide letter he wrote a few days before he killed himself. Both the note and the drawing were signed as he always signed his work, with his initials: RPG. That smile on the platypus's mouth (or beak, I mean—they're such strange creatures, just as my friend was a strange creature) seems more haunting and mysterious to me now than it ever did when Rob was alive. Looking at it recently, it's as if the animal's trying to communicate with me in some ancient or recondite language, an update on the state of my friend's soul in the afterlife, or something phantasmagorical like that.

The picture grew unbearable to me, and not long after the funeral, a horribly sad affair, I put the drawing somewhere in my nightstand drawer, buried in the very back underneath other papers and obscure objects, and forgot about it. Or tried to. The week before Rob died, his girlfriend left to attend a two-week-long business trip somewhere out west. Utah, I believe. Vanessa, a businessman, or businesswoman, I should say, traveled around the country visiting companies in the capacity of a consultant. She would spend the week—sometimes more, sometimes less—with her clients, shadowing a different employee each day or half-day, or maybe even for only an hour, and then write up a big report before she left for another job, typing out details of the inefficiencies of certain areas here, where this or that person could improve there, how that department might be run more smoothly, how to cut costs by half at this date, and that sort of stuff. It was interesting but demanding work, and I couldn't help but think that she took her stress out on poor Robby (as she fondly called him).

As one would expect, she was quite hard on my friend in their home life together. She was forever on his case about how he could improve certain aspects of himself, especially eating and sleeping habits and, as I've already mentioned, she hated our drinking, which she found excessive. But she was also quite kind to him in a rare, motherly way as well—a caring way that I was admittedly rather envious of. She really did take care of him. Not just cooking and cleaning, but teaching him how to do those things as well, along with suggesting fashion tips for dressing sharper, improving his posture, and reminding him to smile.

It sounds odd to say that my friend killed himself, though I suppose that's accurate enough way of putting it. He starved to death. An act that represents nothing less than the total renunciation of the will: the refusal to eat. That's what did him in. Rob was forever surprising me. Just one example was his long and absorbing relationship with the businesswoman, who (not that it really mattered) but was much older and shorter than him, almost comically shorter, as Rob was well over six feet. When I got the phone call from Vanessa, I figured she was calling to complain about our drinking, but when she told me the news about Rob and how his death had come about, I couldn't help but think to myself, “That's Rob for you," as if the absurdity of his death was a kind of final proof or outward manifestation for the deeply enigmatic character of the young man who was (may his soul rest in peace) Robert Peter Garretson.

I knew for a fact that every time Vanessa went away my friend dreaded her absence to the point where he could barely function in his everyday life. His physical condition, as well as the condition of the apartment would always suffer from her leave, and extra attention would be required of both when she returned. He would practically have to be forced to shower; clothes he'd been wearing for days would need to be peeled off, as would the sheets on the bed from sweating out those blue nights alone without her. The windows would have to be opened or closed depending on the season, dishes scrubbed thoroughly and put away, coffee filters emptied, milk tossed out—all kinds of stuff. And sure enough, one by one, Vanessa saw that all was put back in its correct order.

I remember thinking when Rob told me all this that Vanessa would not, could not, be happy with someone who did not require as much work as my friend here did. It seemed to be in her calling, as if the more a thing or a person needed fixing the better. Rob smiled to himself when I told him this. He must have begun starving himself a couple days before Vanessa took her two-week trip to Utah, where a pharmaceutical supply company required her expertise immediately, just before the end of the financial quarter. I can't imagine how my friend managed to eat (or drink!) nothing for 16 or 17 days straight, but especially on those first days when Vanessa was still around and hovering over him like a nutritional shadow. I pictured my friend getting ill just before Vanessa had to leave for the airport, at which time she probably called his bluff. For he told me that he had on more than one occasion gotten her to cancel a trip before just by feigning a stomach flu, and so I have to imagine her accusing him of crying wolf, even if this time he was, of course, telling the truth. "Don't you feel ashamed for keeping her from her work? After all, she agrees to support you," I said to him one night over drinks. "Love works in strange ways," was what he told me. And later at the bar, when we were both quite drunk, he kept on saying to anyone within earshot, “Who knows what evil lurks in our hearts?”

Two weeks is a long time to be without someone you love, but not so long in the grand scheme of things. It's not so long if that person is the one you'll later marry and spend the rest of your life with, which was how things seemed to be progressing for my best friend. But I can just see her, Vanessa, using that last Utah trip as a kind of test, a chance to see if Rob could put into practice all that she had been teaching him, the things he needed to do to live like a responsible adult, a real man. Most of the time when she was away on business trips I didn't see my friend much. In fact, I saw him less, and sometimes I didn't see him at all, as was the case with this last trip. Rob and I had some communication by email and texts, mostly sports gossip, but not once did we hang out during those two weeks. Obviously I regret that I didn't try harder to reach out to my friend during this time, but he can be pretty stubborn and, generally speaking, I've grown accustomed to not meeting up with him while Vanessa's away, almost as a rule (and you can guess who came up with that one.)

To be fair to Rob, these times when Vanessa was away were not completely miserable for him, lonely and idle as he was. For he showed me a Rilke passage on idleness once—not that Rob was a great reader, but he did like to read when Vanessa was away—and looking around at that huge mess in his apartment that day, one certainly got the impression that he, Rob, I mean, put a lot of faith in idleness, as if that were the one true place where new ideas came from, which was indeed what the great German poet himself believed. It should also be said that it was no secret that my friend suffered from depression, although he hated the word and never once used it. He talked openly about feeling down, though, but refused to take any medication for it, fearing it would alter what he called his core self ("Whatever that means, but you know what I mean, don't you?" he confided to me one night over tall glasses of beer. And I did know. He meant the ever-changing shiftlessness of the self, the fact that each of us is many more than just a single person throughout a lifetime, for better or worse. This was the subject of many of our drunken talks.)

Vanessa agreed with Rob's anti-meds philosophy as long as he promised to improve his eating habits and sleep at least seven hours a night. Looking back, I'd like to think that his death meant more than just a means of ending his insufferable depression. I know it sounds childish, reprehensible even, but perhaps because he was my best friend, at least in New York, a city I'd only lived in for about a year, I like to think that his death had something more artistic or meaningful about it, as if the act or the way he died aligned him with the saints, who often starved themselves in the name of purity. Other times, when feelings of guilt rush over me, I think I had something to do with it, with pushing him over the edge.

I had given my friend two books featuring slothful protagonists: The Bathroom, about a young Parisian who stays in his bathroom for weeks at a time and an old Penguin Classics copy of the great Russian novel Oblomov. I thought he'd get a kick out of them, especially the last one. After all, it's a novel about a young man who refuses to leave his apartment and enter into society: the main character doesn't leave his bedroom until page 172 or something ridiculous like that. I loved the novel for reasons that I loved all great literature, namely, its ability to convey ambiguity—the secret sauce of life. Anyway, I lent these novels to my friend because I thought he'd enjoy them, and wake up a little from his slumbering existence! And yet I see now that after finishing my copy of Animal Farm he became, somewhat inexplicably, a vegetarian, and A Fan's Notes only made him take up smoking again; a Bolaño novel produced an obsession with obscure Germanic board games for weeks on end, and so on and so forth. In hindsight, I should have been more careful with my recommendations. For it was just like Rob to try to outdo Oblomov and that unnamed narrator of The Bathroom.Beyond the unforgettable sorrow that comes with untimely death, I bet Vanessa also felt a vague sense of guilt and responsibility for her great loss, like a general who loses a soldier on his watch, only this wasn't just any soldier but her poor little Robby.

I can imagine (though I'd prefer not to) what my friend looked like sleeping the sleep of forever on the long, ugly-orange fainting sofa Vanessa had bought at an antique furniture store the day before they moved in together. Next to the sofa on the ground would have been Rob's cell phone, the battery no doubt drained from missed calls and texts from his concerned girlfriend (sadly, only one or two from me). And next to the dead phone, the letter, of which contents I know only about the platypus picture that was to be given to me. Finally, beside the letter was my old copy of Oblomov, left open but face down (for he despised bookmarks) at a page I can only guess, but if I had to I would venture to say it was before page 172, just before the main character leaves the apartment.

We go through life not expecting our friends to die, just as we don't truly believe that we ourselves will one day die. There is nothing worse than losing a friend and I took Rob's death pretty hard. Throughout this difficult time there was one person who more than any other showed me a level of compassion and kindness so magnificent that I could only hope to one day repay it. For the sympathy she gave me I will forever be in her debt, for she helped me with so many of the little things in life one tends to neglect after a sudden catastrophic loss of a dear friend. Haircuts, alarm clocks, hot meals, back rubs, pep talks—I'm speaking, of course—to Vanessa's infallible practicality.

We began a relationship almost immediately after Rob's death, though in the end I wasn't really boyfriend material for her, not quite raw enough for her to develop. My preference, say, for cutting my own fingernails and toenails—something she spent great time and care on with Rob—proved irreconcilable, and so she left me, or rather, we left each other to fend for ourselves in a city that takes an extraordinary amount of time to adjust to. I still don't know what to make of my friend's death (or life).

I just know that I can't let that happen to me. I want to know, I want everyone to know, what it meant.


Christopher Urban

Christopher Urban's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Pear Noir!, This Recording, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

Christopher's Articles at KGB Bar Lit

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