My Unhealthy Obsession with My Dead Middle School Crush

We barely knew each other as kids, but years later I was still so fixated about his death that I got a tattoo of his name. At 30, I decided it was finally time to figure out why.

My Unhealthy Obsession with My Dead Middle School Crush

Editor’s note: This article contains a description of someone who died by suicide

One overcast June day during the summer I turned 30, I borrowed my mother’s car and drove to the childhood home of my middle school crush. I no longer remembered the street names, but I knew instinctively how to get there, like feeling for my ankle in the dark. He’d lived on a cul-de-sac three streets removed from the main drag, in a part of town I’d call quiet — though the town itself was decidedly quiet, nestled in the woodsy hills of southern Connecticut. Little had changed in the decade I’d spent elsewhere. I passed the same novelty mailboxes: a cow, a barn, one carefully modeled to mimic the house behind it.

When I arrived, I parked across the street, tires tilted on someone’s neatly trimmed lawn. The house looked the way I remembered it: a New England ranch with a triangle of stained glass above the front door. I looked down and wondered if I’d chosen the right shirt for the occasion. What does a 30-year-old woman wear to meet the mother of her dead middle school crush? I should have worn something that made me look older, I thought, or at least further from adolescence.

The boy — I’ll call him Brett — had been dead for 17 years. He’d shot and killed himself when he was 14, barely old enough for his voice to have stopped cracking. I didn’t know Brett well. We were in school band together. He was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player, and I was a decent clarinetist often lectured about not living up to her potential. Sometimes we rode the same bus home, where I once touched the sole of his combat boot because another boy claimed it was authentic. I’d called his house dozens of times just to hear his voice and hang up, including the morning of the day he died.

During the six months our lives had overlapped, I thought I’d come to know Brett well, but the truth was that I’d known him only as the sum of details an infatuated teenage girl picks up on: the contents and rotation of his wardrobe, the path of hallways he navigated between classes, the kind of car his mother drove when she picked him up from school. I believed I needed these details to defend the depth of my devotion in the hypothetical battle for his affections.

In the end, I missed something monumental. I now know the kinds of details a woman finds out much later, while tirelessly attempting to reconcile a boy’s unexplainable self-directed violence: how many bullets remained in his pocket, the last thing he’d said to his best friend, that his mother had just bought him a new pair of sneakers.

Brett died on the first day of our spring break. I heard the news two days later on a payphone outside of the public library, while people walked in and out of the entrance like it was any other Monday. Our community was small, and it didn’t take long for the news to spread. We grappled amongst ourselves while the rumors proliferated: He’d shot the television first, he was wearing the combat boots, he’d done it to be like Kurt Cobain, who had killed himself only a week earlier.

When school resumed, I expected some kind of clarifying vigil, like in the episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 when side character Scott Scanlon accidentally shot himself. But there was no vigil. There was no tacky collection of teddy bears and flowers around Brett’s locker, and, later, no dedication in the yearbook. There was a curt message over the intercom during homeroom announcing that we’d “suffered a loss,” along with a reminder to visit the guidance office if we felt the need to do so. “He would have wanted us to move on,” one teacher said.

I waited for some authority figure to acknowledge the absurdity of it all, but no one did. Later that week, Brett’s empty desks were relocated, and his trumpet solos were reassigned. I assumed an administrator had cleaned out his locker in the hours before or after school, when no one was around to stare. It was less like Brett had died than like he had never existed.

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I understand now that schools have a protocol for dealing with student suicides, one that often discourages public displays of grief and remembrance, so as to not glorify the death, which risks potentially influencing other students to repeat self-destructive behavior. I understand, too, that the ’90s were a different time, that suicide was (and still is) highly stigmatized, and that I grew up in a Waspy town unwilling to accept the repercussions — or perhaps, the partial responsibility — of such a tragedy.

But 13-year-old me did not understand those things. I understood that a person I cared about had ended his life in a violent, unexplainable way, and I had been told simply to move on, not ask questions, and accept this catastrophe as it had been handed down to me, so full of holes. I didn’t believe Brett had wanted us to move on; I thought Brett had been trying to tell us something, and if we moved on, that message would never arrive.

After a couple of months, it seemed like Brett had dissipated into the collective past. I tried hard to keep him in the present without drawing attention to myself, subtly dropping his name into conversations or not so subtly carving it into the desks in the library’s basement. I didn’t know how grief was supposed to look. If I perceived my behavior as abnormal, it was only because my reference points came from TV shows and movies, in which the problem of mourning was always neatly resolved in under two hours.

My mother encouraged me to journal about my feelings, but my feelings were too enormous to comprehend. The only emotion I recognized was the shame I felt for holding onto something I was expected to let go. Feeling shame itself seemed shameful, so instead of writing down feelings I wrote down clues: things Brett had said, hearsay I’d gathered around his death, all of those trivial details I’d collected about him when he was alive. If I let myself believe that he’d left me these clues, I could also believe there was some tenuously corporeal connection between us.

Sometimes I arranged the clues into a story. I wrote a play for a high school drama class about a boy who kills himself and is grossly misunderstood by his classmates. Later, I submitted a series of poems to my school’s lit journal about guns and suicide and the oppressiveness of suburbia. I narrativized his life and death over and over, the scenes of which I composed on an electric typewriter while my high school boyfriend sat on my bed playing an unplugged electric guitar. He was unbothered by my fixation with Brett, maybe because Brett didn’t pose a threat, but more likely because I presented Brett as an absolute: You want me, you get him too. I understood my fixation as the nonnegotiable side effect of a self-assigned moral obligation to tell Brett’s story. I was too righteous to notice that keeping myself entangled with a boy I could never have was also a welcome and even thrilling kind of heartache compared to the other dismal, quotidian woes of my existence.

Along with my recorded clues, I kept a small collection of things from the year Brett’s life had intersected with mine: a softly aged map of our school, a photocopied glossary of French curse words that Brett had held in his fingers. The most fruitful item was a VHS tape with a 27-minute recording of our holiday band concert. I watched this tape two or three times a year, which seemed both too often and not enough. Though it’s easy to get pulled into sentimentality, most screenings were operations of pragmatic scrutiny, bent on dissecting Brett’s expressions in search of the seeds of imminent death. It was easier to think of his violence as part of a larger narrative that we had overlooked, rather than an impulsive act that could have been diverted. During one screening, when I was in college, I noticed Brett turn his head in a way I hadn’t noticed before, and the shock of something new sent me to the floor, where I pressed my face into the carpet, expecting the earth to suck me in headfirst.

My efforts rarely resulted in such theater. Over time, the heartache lost its edge, and Brett became simply part of the fabric of my existence. I found an unlikely comfort in the unchanging nature of our ill-fated relationship: a static narrative in the chaos of an unfolding life. I returned to him over and over, like rereading a beloved novel and pretending every time that I didn’t already know how it would end. Sometimes I dragged him from my memories into the present, mentally sketching him into the mise-en-scène of my life: a co-passenger on a train trip or sitting across from me at a 24-hour diner. When I was 26, he sat nearby while I got his name and the years he’d lived and died tattooed between my shoulder blades.

“Who’s Brett?” the artist asked me.

“An old friend,” I said, for simplicity.

I thought of the tattoo, at the time, as a kind of symbolic closure, like cauterizing a wound. This was an unabashed lie to myself. The tattoo was the opposite of an end; it was a way to permanently externalize an internal conversation. I didn’t get it in order to move on, I got it so I would remember to never move on.

“Why is this 30-year-old woman fixated on a boy she barely knew?” a graduate advisor asked, when I petitioned to write my MFA thesis about Brett’s suicide. This was a question I’d been running from for years, to which I didn’t have a simple response.

“That’s part of what I’m trying to figure out with writing,” I answered.

“I don’t buy it,” she said.

I knew she meant she didn’t buy it as a thesis topic, but I heard: I don’t buy your devotion.

Can’t I just be fixated? I wanted to say. Can’t the fruits and the intricacies of my fixation matter more than the motivations behind it? But I said nothing. I sat there in silence, a 13-year-old in a 30-year-old’s body, while she tried to convince me to shift my focus away from the thing I’d decided was my life’s purpose.

Her question stayed with me but thwarted nothing. I found another advisor and spent three years researching the sociocultural history of suicide in America. The more I bound my obsession to academia, the more legitimate it appeared — not just to the outside world, but to me. The research bestowed me with the kind of courage and credentials I felt like I needed to justify my years of relentless digging. Why was I fixated? Perhaps because suicide does tricky things to people. It was an imperfect answer, but weighty enough to support me while I indulged in the kind of open dialogue about Brett that I’d waited nearly two decades to initiate. I told Brett’s story to kind strangers in suicide support groups; I tracked down dozens of middle school classmates, piecing their scattered memories together into a more complete picture of a boy none of us really knew; I requested the police report of his death, miraculously still archived after that many years, and confirmed the details that had, up to that point, never been more than rumors.

I was high enough on my own openness that I appealed to Brett’s mother to share her experiences with me. I did so under the guise of scholarship, but I desperately wanted her validation — a thing she had no reason or obligation to offer me. When she agreed, she suggested meeting at her house. I wasn’t sure if she still lived in the same place until she sent me the address. I stared at it in my email, laughing out loud at what I had done with my life.

I sat in my car for what felt like a long time that day, thinking about all of the ways I had imagined the interior of Brett’s house to be, and how those fabrications would soon be replaced by a real memory. This signified a new kind of loss: the loss of an absence around which I had papier-mâchéd my identity.

Brett’s mother invited me inside, and I followed her down a hallway lined with half-open doors, one of which might have been the door to his old bedroom, but I made a point not to decelerate. We sat across from each other on a leather couch, in front of a plate of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

“How should we start?” she asked.

I stuck to the solid ground of scholarly inquiry, explaining how Brett’s death had inspired my research into suicide, that I was focusing on the ways we grieve and come to understand suicide culturally. How I thought that if I better understood her experience, I might better understand the experience of suicide as a whole.

“How did you know Brett?” she asked. “I don’t remember you. Should I?”

“No,” I laughed. “We were in school band together. We had some mutual friends. I had a crush on him.” The story of my grief crouched in the shadow of hers, a dandelion at the base of a giant sequoia.

“I guess I’m just not sure why someone who only had a crush on Brett would become so fixated on his death,” she responded.

I knew that question would come, and I told her a partial truth: that our community had stigmatized Brett’s death and encouraged us to move on, which left no space for someone like me, who had barely known him, to voice her outrage and immeasurable sadness. I wasn’t ready then to tell her the rest: that my relentless pursuit of a deeply unreachable resolution and justice around Brett’s suicide was a process with which I’d fallen deeply in love; that no matter how many clues or truths I gathered, I knew I would continue to search, because I couldn’t imagine what my life would look like liberated from that insatiable longing.

“Grief has a hierarchy,” I added, cautiously alluding to the dynamic between us. “I’m still not sure I’ve found my place in it.”

She nodded kindly. “I’m sorry it was so hard for you,” she said. She didn’t need to say that, nor did she need to invite me into her home or share her memories of Brett or make me a plate of cookies, but she did anyway. These were small, uncomplicated acts of kindness that put something huge to rest inside me. Her sympathy seemed to signify my acceptance into some unspoken inner circle that promised, if not resolution, at least a kind of honorary recognition. It was not closure; it was a sweet, makeshift end to a journey defined by its endlessness. It allowed me to let my inner 13-year-old pause for a moment, before trudging on.

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Candace Opper’s memoir, Certain and Impossible Events won the Kore Press Institute Memoir Award Contest judged by Cheryl Strayed, and will be published Fall 2020. Read more at www.KorePress.org.