On Private Agonies

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent suicide of fashion designer L’Wren Scott, which has been in the news a lot lately. I wasn’t super-knowledgeable about her designs — though I heard her dresses were immaculately cut — and while I remembered she was a stylist at a time when being a stylist was a “thing,” I didn’t know much about her outside of her work and her famous Rolling Stone boyfriend. She was one of those “fashion sphinxes” in my mind immaculate, glamorous in a very intimidating, dramatic way, a bit rarefied and remote. Though by all media accounts she was a lovely person, she had a smooth, shiny surface. The surface, obviously, covered a lot of pain and suffering, and though I didn’t know her, my heart goes out to her loved ones and family.

Suicide has not often touched my life on a personal level. When I have heard about it in my life, it has usually been a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, that kind of thing. Except for once. It was someone that I knew very briefly, one of those early 20s/NYC friendships where someone might orbit within your circle for an enchanted half-season and then drift out of it, lost to a thicket of projects, relationships, dates, road trips, career changes and just life. I will call her Emily, though that isn’t her real name. She was the ex-girlfriend of my roommate. They were still friends, and one day she stopped by to see him at the duplex apartment where I lived.

I remember when I met Emily, she turned to me and gave me such a huge, genuine smile, one that lit up her huge blue eyes. It was 1997 or so, and I was new to NYC and getting used to the fake smiles, the way people scan you up and down discreetly or sort of just half-grin and stare over your head, looking for someone else more important to talk to. But Emily’s smile was warm and welcoming, and she looked you straight in the eye. She wore all black, kind of early 90s Daria-tomboy, and a baseball cap worn backwards, which on her looked very, very cool. She was pale and blond — a white-blonde, her hair long and straight and fine. She looked like she could be the slightly sporty-Goth tomboy member of the Breeders. You could tell immediately she was intelligent from the way she listened and spoke; you could tell she was kind because she immediately offered you whatever drink or gum or food she had in her hands. We got along instantly.

I was just 21, 22, and I was looking for mentors, or at least big-sister types that could give me a model of how to get through my new city with a certain verve and aplomb. I had a career mentor, a dark, exotic, beautiful woman who hired me on my first film jobs. But Emily was my fun, creative big sister, someone to play and have fun with, at least for a little while.

Though we met initially in the foyer of my apartment, our friendship really developed over the phone. She would call to talk to her ex, getting his advice and counsel, and I would answer the phone — this was the age well before cell phones, an era of answering machines and landlines and cordless phones. We would always end up talking for 15-20 minutes before she asked for my roommate. She would always ask how I was doing, what I was up to: she was genuinely interested, and had a friendly, easy way of offering advice without being busy or a know-it-all.

And she told me what she was up to: she worked as a film programmer, but her dream was to play music. She had gone through some difficult breakups, I think. I loved talking to her, so of course I was excited when she finally said, “We should hang out! Let’s go to the East Village and get dinner next week!” Honestly, I was so excited, more excited to hang out with Emily than I was to go out with any of the guys I was dating at the time.

Emily and I went out to Three of Cups, a kind of beat-up Italian restaurant in the East Village. It was a late summer night, warm but not muggy, kind of city-enchanted. I remember she wore a long black skirt, her baseball cap, a black t-shirt and carried her guitar case with her. I saw immediately that the radiant energy she gave to me was simply what she brought to the world as a whole; she was friendly and engaged with everyone, and had a warmth and openness to her manner that encouraged everyone to see her as their friend. She had a gift of creating what I call “non-demanding intimacy,” where she gave you the warm focus of her attention but also the space to judge your own thoughts and experience as you told it without imposing her own opinion.

We had a good-girlfriend kind of dinner, and talked about love, work, art and just life in general. At the time I was a buzzing assemblage of whims, dreams, ambitions, projects, dates and minor panics, but talking with her helped me spackle together the disparate parts of myself into something that resembled a whole — at least for a few hours.

Afterwards we wandered around the East Village and got a drink at a few different bars; I think about three guys gave her their numbers. She just had that way about her — she saw them as happy little presents, was grateful for them and laughed at her good fortune before losing them at the next bar. At the end of the evening, she gave me a huge hug, told me I was awesome and we would hang out again.

I think maybe we did hang out once again, but then life shifted in that way it does in your early 20s. I got a bunch of film production jobs, so I wasn’t around much anymore to answer the phone in the apartment. Emily moved to Brooklyn, quit her job, then I heard from my roommate that she moved out of NYC? I can’t remember. I do remember talking with her on the phone a few times, catching up with her, happy to hear the support and interest in her voice. I asked how she was doing; she seemed optimistic about her music and the songs she was writing. She was going to start a band. It was clear she was going through a lot of changes, but she framed them all in such a positive way that her sense of challenge and curiosity was infectious.

Time passed, as it does. Lives drift and change and fill up schedules, as it does. And then, about half a year later, my roommate told me the news: Emily had killed herself. Pills, he said.

I remember feeling intensely sad, but not sure what to do with it. I didn’t match the grief that Emily’s loved ones had, and yet I felt such a loss — a strange, strange loss. I thought back to the memories of those phone conversations, that night in the East Village, of feeling grateful that someone genuinely kind and interested seemed to sense I needed a confidante, a friend. Those memories have a strange, blank heaviness in the space where Emily was. They are like photographs — I walked out of the frame and into other, new images eventually, but Emily in my narrative would stop there, never to move beyond the frame anymore. There would never be another memory with her in it.

I regretted not spending more time with her, or not making an effort when we both said, “We should hang out again.” I regretted not going beyond her bright, effervescent surface and being content with just that. Of course, it’s highly likely she wouldn’t want anyone probing — and maybe her bright surfaces were a protection against that — but did it serve my own comfort so much that I didn’t pick up on clues she was more troubled than she seemed?

Emily instantly came to mind when I read more about L’Wren Scott, as well as thoughts of the ineffable mysteries that other human beings are. Can we truly know someone? Is the gap between our outer presentation and inner landscapes so large? Is it possible to reach people beyond their surfaces? Can we be so committed to our facades at the expense of our inner selves? Do we ever really know someone? I just don’t know. I don’t presume to know. I only had questions after I heard Emily died, and I’m reminded them when I read about L’Wren Scott.

I don’t really know anything. Lately I think about what it means be to be known. Not famous, not someone you hear about, but known well. It takes bravery to let people in, to be honest about yourself and who you are and what you feel, to “put yourself out there.” It is agonizing often, but hiding out only eventually creates isolation and that horrid feeling of being alone and disconnected in the world. Sometimes I think humans are so limited in our abilities, and tortured by this: to comprehend, to give, to be there, to live up to the ideals and dreams we desire. And yet we can’t give up, I think — because the alternative is just a sad, mysterious darkness.

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