What are you working on now?
I’m working on a memoir about failing which is another thing entirely. “Doomed Mary” is actually part of another project, a series of essays I’ve been working on for the last two years, more of an exercise in memory than anything else. I’ve been writing these essays pretty much to myself in order to make sense of moments and people from my past. I should also probably point out that “Doomed Mary” is actually about 2000 words longer, but I figured I’d cut it down a little for this.
Mary was the older sister of a friend of mine, the kind of sibling that slipped us dubbed cassette tapes of Pink Flag by Wire and bought beer for us with her fake ID when we were freshmen. After she moved to college in the city, we only saw each other once or twice, but she’d tell me to let her know when I was in the city every time. “We’ll hang out,” she’d tell me with a smile.
Mary’s family was self-described old money, which in the Midwest, tends to mean more 19th century than Mayflower, save for the occasional escaped New Englander or aristocrat whose family made it west at some point for whatever reason, like the descendant of the Romanovs that was born right up the street from where I attended kindergarten. I’ve always had a deep fascination with old money, because my family is anything but.
The idea that money is the root of all evil sounds just about right to me. I’ll gladly take any cash anybody wants to give to me, but I try not to lust or obsess over it. I don’t mentally count dollar bills to fall asleep, yet for some reason, there’s something about artists that come from privilege, or that write about it, that has always fascinated me. I love that Edith Wharton was related to the actual Joneses on her father’s side and used that knowledge of old American money to write her books. I love that F. Scott Fitzgerald let his obsession with wealth drive him to write just about everything he ever had published, and I love the Mitford sisters that weren’t nazis. Gertrude Stein, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Diane Arbus, Leonard Cohen all were born into rich Jewish families. A castle in England still bears Edward St. Aubyn’s family name.
Mary had an opportunity to be one of those types. She wanted to make art, but she wasn’t prepared to give up the lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to. She went to school to be a painter and played guitar in her spare time, but she also knew she had a safety net. That’s what she told me when we bumped into each other at a New Year’s Eve house party in a McMansion filled with punks, skaters, and whoever else knew that the host’s parents were out of town. She told me that’s why she wasn’t going back to school when the semester started back up in a few weeks: “That’s not how you make art,” she said. “Art can’t be taught.”
That seems reasonable enough for somebody to think, of course. Yet while you might not be able to teach art, but it sure is easier to make it when you have money because money buys time, money buys supplies, and if you chose to go down the route Mary no longer wanted to travel, money can buy an education. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a rich kid who, I’m assuming, was probably a terror for the serfs and servants that lived on the grounds of his childhood estate long before he went to war, wrote two of the greatest novels ever, found Christ, and developed his anarachist beliefs. There isn’t a whole lot of historical basis for this claim, I just like to think that many of the great thinkers and artists that came from money were brats. John Thoreau was really disappointed when his son, Henry David, told him he didn’t want to take over the family business, and was more interested in living alone in the woods. Karl Marx’s wealthy family was disappointed when came back from school with a massive beard and told them about these really great ideas he’d been developing. Yet these people all came from good backgrounds; families of means, ones they could fall back on in case they needed it, and ended up doing big things--literally changing the world.
I was invited to the party by a person I called my friend, but really didn’t know that well. The so-called-friend disappeared (literally never to be heard from again), but Mary kept me company, telling me the party kinda sucked and I was more fun to talk to. We spent an hour sitting and just doing that: talking. She got drunk, I was already drunk, so we talked like drunk people do on New Year’s Eve at a party. We talked about life in a way that feels extra important because of booze and the changing of the calendar year. You tear the last of the twelve months off the wall, so that means everything starts fresh. I was sixteen, Mary was nineteen. I was the youngest person in the room, but the booze made me feel older. She’d broken up with the guy in a band the week before, and described their sound to me as, “Something like post rock, but post that – whatever that is,” and told me she was fine with it, that he wasn’t good in bed, that she was sick of going to see his band play and the never-ending opening acts that just stood up against the amplifiers with their guitars and just let the noise come rushing out, like somebody was slowly letting the air out of a balloon and into a microphone. I lied and said yes when she asked if I’d listened to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. She told me that sounded like a symphony compared to some of the crap she had to listen to.
Realizing I was too drunk to drive and had no place to crash, I asked her if I could sleep on her couch. She smiled and said sure, and we left the party at a quarter to eleven, Mary insisting that she wasn’t too drunk, and could drive my car back to her place. When you’re sixteen and stupid, “I’m not too drunk” sounds reasonable, so I obliged, and we were off before the crush of revelers all started walking out the door a few minutes after the clock struck midnight. When I walked outside into the frozen last minutes of the year I realized I may have proposed something to Mary by asking her to let me sleep at her place on New Year’s Eve, but I wasn’t adult enough to discern what exactly I was really asking until we were walking towards my car. I started to panic.
I’ve walked through a few empty cities during the holidays before; ghost towns filled with big buildings and the few souls stuck with Thanksgiving shifts. Christmas lights reveal their colorful glow for me and me alone. It is like Brooklyn on Yom Kippur, when people are inside begging to be inscribed into the Book of Life for the next year. These things are frightening to me. Cities aren’t supposed to be quiet. They’re supposed to be full of people, loud noises and ceaseless movement. But that particular drive, through a desolate Chicago and its suburbs, was downright frightening. A simple turning of the volume knob on the radio could have fixed that silence but for some reason was never employed, and Mary, taking the long way, was silent too. When we took the exit off the highway -- prematurely according to my mental map – Mary finally broke the silence. “Do you think you’ll do great things?” she asked me. It was a strange question for somebody to ask out of nowhere, but if you ask a 16-year-old that’s slowly sobering up, it can toss their mind down an existential crisis wormhole.
“I guess,” I said, cautiously, knowing this was the sort of question where there is really no good answer. You sound cocky if you say yes, but if your answer is no, you doom yourself to fulfill your own prophecy. Mary didn’t reply, and the silence commenced until we reached the private garage of the tall glass box building in the heart of downtown Chicago where she lived.
Her apartment was relatively bare. Some people might equate a sparsely decorated apartment in a new building with floor-to-ceiling windows that hint at sleekness or modernity, but for Mary, it felt like something else. As soon as I became acquainted with my surroundings, I really noticed Mary for the first time. Her hair was dyed black with a few perfect green streaks, the type of dye job that—I realize now—you didn’t do yourself at home. She had a septum piercing and several tattoos strategically placed where her father couldn’t see them.
“How’s school?” I finally asked, sick of the weird silence. She didn’t answer back. Instead, she pressed play on her stereo, “Savory” by Jawbox blared over the stereo speakers, a whole beautiful mess of guitar before everything else kicks in. I’d last heard it while laying in the bed of the girl I lost my virginity to. She didn’t know that she was my first. “Savory” made me think about lying and wondering if I should tell her, maybe that would have eased her very apparent dissatisfaction with what had occurred between us. The song ended, she took out the CD, put in another, and cranked up the volume.
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “Only European businessmen own apartments in this building for when they visit Chicago. All the other tenants are the mistresses of rich guys.” She emptied a baggie of white powder onto her glass table, herding it all together with a credit card. “That’s why my dad had this place to spare,” she said with a laugh as she used a Visa to separate the coke into lines. She rolled up a five dollar bill and bent her head down, her bangs fanning out on the table. I felt this weird bit of disappointment that she didn’t use a larger banknote to do her drugs with, like she should have kept a spare fifty around to make it seem a little more glamorous. She did the first line and said normally she’d be more generous, but she didn’t have much left until tomorrow. I told her it was cool.
“So you aren’t sure if you’ll do great things,” she said as she pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger. She laughed, “I don’t know if I will either.”
And that’s when Mary started talking. She was a sophomore in college, but already she told me, she was tired of the rat race, that she didn’t have the passion for art anymore, that she couldn’t find a muse, that it was all bullshit anyway, and that the only things she really liked, she said with a light laugh, were drugs and fucking. I’d say she talked and talked, but it was really the cocaine talking, ferrying the thoughts from her brain to her mouth. “This is how the other half lives,” she told me. She said that coming from a rich family was a crippling thing, a hinderance, an albatross. Then she spent the next hour talking about her “fucked up family full of people who throw money at problems,” until the sun came up.
When she was finally finished talking, just as my eyelids were about to shut for good, she asked if I wanted to go in her bedroom. I’m not sure if it was from fear or exhaustion that I told her no no, that I would rather just pass out on the couch. She just stared at me for a second. “Whatever.”
I woke a few hours later to the sun shining brightly through the floor-to-ceiling windows on every side of the apartment, and found a note on the door that said Mary’s dealer, Carl, would be by around 11, and if I minded sticking around to give him the $300 dollars on the table. I thought about it as I opened the fridge which was empty save for a bottle of sparkling water and a hunk of brie with the plastic rewrapped around it. I was hungry and didn’t want to meet Carl, so I left the money behind, walked down to the garage, got in my car, and drove away. And just like the friend I went to the party with, I never heard from Mary again.
She overdosed a year later a day after getting out of a rehab out west that had been in the news because a celebrity had recently checked in there. “She painted a lot while she was in there. She seemed really at peace,” her brother told me a year later when I bumped into him at a house party not unlike the one I’d sat with his sister at. "She was a really talented artist. She could have done anything she wanted,” he said as he bit his lower lip to compose himself for a second. Obviously talking about the loss of his sibling still cut deep. He took a sip of his beer. “Some people don’t realize how good they have it,” he told me before chugging the rest of his Old Milwaukee and crumpling the can in his hand. “The ones that do are usually the people that end up doing great things.”
Jason Diamond is an Associate Editor at the Mensjournal.com. He's the former Literary Editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and has been published by the New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Tablet, Vulture, The Awl, and many other great people. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two cats, and a dog named Max. He's on Twitter at @ImJasonDiamond