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Fiery Steeds: An Argument Against Suicide

March 15, 2021

A little dog, a warm bath, and a daylit dappled spray of color — is this not enough? And I thought, well no, not for her. This woman had a tragic story, she took her own life, this muse of Bonnard, subject of Nude in Bathtub, which you can find in Pittsburgh now, a city that needs it. But I was wrong, I misremembered. One of Bonnard’s models did end up a suicide, but this painting is not of her but his wife Marthe, or the memory of Marthe (he painted her for nearly half a century but never let her age on canvas; she was a reverse Dorian Gray). The name of the dachshund I do not know. But I trust it lived as one with the Tao, seeking neither to extend nor extinguish its life, eating, sleeping, barking, playing, pooping little poops and, ultimately, achieving all the immortality that art has to offer.

I’ve thrown away most of my life now and I doubt I will ever get back to Pittsburgh to see this painting. But maybe. There is always some hope. It just gets smaller over time.

On the last full day of my friend Nathaniel’s life I went to see an exhibit at UVA’s art museum. By the time of his funeral the weather was beautiful, but that day, which was a Sunday, it was cold and rainy and I probably would have just stayed home if it hadn’t been my last chance to see the exhibit. But what exhibit was it? I cannot remember. Looking it up online I can only find this: Fiery Steeds: French Romantic Studies by Carle Vernet from the Ritzenberg Collection. That show did in fact close on March 14th, 1999, but it rings not the faintest bell for me and I don’t see why I would have been interested in the horse pictures of some Frenchman. Maybe there was something else there that has eluded my googling. It is unnerving not to be able to remember. I remember remembering everything from that time. I remember when life was memorable, and now that it isn’t, why can’t I at least get to remember when it was? Must all turn to cloud?

I did not invite Nathaniel to come with me, though he was at home in the house we shared. I saw almost nothing of him that day. Our paths crossed in the kitchen at some point and he told me that he had finished one of the books I had given him for his birthday the previous week, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, and that he had liked it. That copy now sits on my downstairs bookshelf next to the other book I gave him, Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, which he never got to read. I think he really would have liked that one too. Or disliked it in an interesting way. I also gave him the double CD of Sun Ra’s singles. After he died I took that back too, but later I loaned it to somebody and the discs were returned warped and unplayable, so right now I am listening to it on Spotify. I did a really good job with his birthday gifts that year. At least that’s something I don’t have to regret.

It was a couple years later that I took my first trip to Pittsburgh. That was also on a Sunday, Memorial Day weekend. We had two carloads of people driving from Charlottesville to see a big noise show there. It was just something to do, an adventure. After the show and a stop at Denny’s — where I first learned of the existence of the dish “Moons Over My Hammy” and therefore also of the song “Moon Over Miami” — we drove straight back. If Nathaniel had stuck around maybe he would have been with us, he might have enjoyed it. For a long time I would have thoughts like that. I hated that he was missing out on all the cool things that went on after him, that he did not get to see what happened and who turned up, to delight in the world’s display. I hated that I did not get to share experiences with him, did not get to hear what he thought of things. There was never anyone whose opinion I valued as much as his. He had a great gift of appreciation, a critical flair, a cool romantic intelligence that frayed to some freaky edges. And he was my friend.

The last book he read was Songlines. The last movie he watched was Withnail & I, a laserdisc that I had checked out from the library and put on in our living room that Saturday night, though I am not sure that counts because I think he was asleep for most of it. The last album was Blood On the Tracks, which I could hear coming from his room late into the night, played two or three times. Some of us measure our lives with these things but the measuring must come to an end someday.

It is getting late and I do not think I have time to get to that argument I promised you. I have gotten distracted. Not that it matters. The fiery steeds of our fates will carry us where they will regardless. Won’t they? That night I was lying on the living room couch reading a book. I heard Nathaniel in the kitchen. And I had a thought, just a little thought, like the thousand little thoughts you have in a day— maybe I should go talk to him. But I did not move. The moment passed, he went back into his room and started playing the Dylan album. And I never had the chance to see or speak to him again.

That moment is the one I regret more than any other in my life. It was a jewel of inestimable value, I had it in my hands, and I let it slip through my fingers. And ever since it has been too late.

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