Note from the author: The film Breakfast at Tiffany’s plays a significant role in the following essay, but this is in no way intended to justify or excuse the film’s offensive use of whitewashing and stereotypes (Mickey Rooney, a white actor, plays a Japanese caricature). The names and some details have also been changed to protect anonymity.
“There was once a very lovely, very frightened girl.” This is the opening sentence of a story that “Fred” is writing. Holly Golightly’s singing interrupts his typing. Her voice comes through the window. This is one of the more famous scenes in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Fred” looks outside and sees Holly sitting on her windowsill in the apartment below. She looks up at him and smiles. His story, of course, is about Holly, and it’s entitled “My Friend.”
* * *
Selena, who jumped to her death from a 36-story building in Manhattan, reminded me of Holly Golightly. In part, this is because she sometimes acted like Holly, and it was a pretty believable portrayal. I sometimes, less convincingly, played “Fred.” I once believed this connected us.
* * *
Selena didn’t look like Holly Golightly. I mean she didn’t look like Audrey Hepburn who played Holly in the movie. Hepburn is so slim in that long, black dress, but Selena had hips. She looked a little bit like Marilyn Monroe, except Selena’s eyes were very dark and gleamed like a vinyl record.
Truman Capote, who wrote the book Breakfast at Tiffany’s, wanted Monroe for the lead role. Even if he had got his way, it wouldn’t have mattered. By the time the film came out, Monroe was already dead. My point is that Selena was more like the real Holly Golightly.
I recognize I am not describing Selena like a real person, but as the inhabitant of a giant movie screen. I had trouble seeing her as someone who lived in the same prosaic world of disappointments and insecurities that I did. To put it another way, I never really saw her at all.
* * *
In the years before Selena moved to New York, before she drifted away and then fell and then jumped, we hung out once in a while. My best friend, Richard, had grown up with her and would sometimes invite her out with our group of friends. This was when we were in our early twenties and lived in Toronto.
Selena, if she showed up, would always be late. When she arrived, she would say something like “I got lost in time” and then look around, slightly astonished. She had this way of looking everywhere and nowhere at once.
It didn’t seem all that implausible, when it came to Selena, to think that she had literally slipped into some kind of realm where time froze. When Selena spoke of getting “lost,” she often touched her hair, not in that ditsy way of twirling it with one’s fingers, but burying her hand deep beneath the long and shiny strands. And then she would smile in this way that made it hard to be annoyed with her. I think it had something to do with how her eyes crinkled slightly beneath the hinge of her pink-rimmed sunglasses. It made me think of the thin cracks in frozen puddles that as a child I played a game of walking upon, lightly as I could, trying not to break them. But they almost always splintered beneath my feet.
* * *
There was an ice storm the night before Selena’s funeral. In the morning everything was frozen. The dead leaves looked like amber fossils and the berries of the appropriately named holly plants appeared like rubies encrusted in crystal. Everything, including the sky, felt brittle like it could break apart with the slightest motion.
Tree branches fell beneath the weight of the ice, cutting through power lines. Thousands of people, myself included, would be without light and heat for the next several days. The day had a mythic quality, which I believe Selena would have appreciated. I remember thinking she was a kind of Orpheus, mourned by nature—her absent song embalmed the trees. As a very secular person, it was the kind of thought I would ordinary dismiss. But, right then, nothing was ordinary.
* * *
Selena and I never had what you might call a real conversation. But we had a little routine between us—a game we played.
Selena would sometimes call me “Fred.” That’s not my name, of course, but rather the name Holly calls her love interest in the movie. Fred is actually the name of Holly’s “slow” brother who she abandons when she moves to New York.
When Selena called me “Fred,” I would say, quoting from the movie, “I am not nor have I ever been Fred . . . My name is Paul—Paul Varjak.”
“Fred” or Paul Varjak’s next line is “And I love you.” But I never said that part.
“What, do you think you own me?” Selena would say, quoting Holly.
And we would carry on the scene from there.
“Fred/Me: “That’s exactly what I think.”
Holly/Selena: “I know. It’s what everybody always thinks, but everybody happens to be wrong.”
“Fred”/Me: But I am not everybody, or am I? Is that what you really think? That I’m no different from your other rats and super rats?”
That’s usually as far as we took it. “Fred” in that scene is referring to something that is handled with significantly more delicacy in the film than in the book: Holly is a prostitute. “Rats and super rats” is a euphemism for her johns. Selena was no Holly Golightly in that respect. Selena went on a lot of dates with a lot of guys though, and I thought most of them were basically “rats” or at least real slime balls. But I didn’t judge her for this. I mean, to her face.
“It’s like she doesn’t want to be with a decent guy. She’s more comfortable with the rats,” I had said to Richard on a few occasions.
Richard thought I should stop worrying about who Selena went out with and just ask her on a date myself. It was pretty obvious I guess that I had feelings for her. Richard was right. I should have just been straightforward with Selena. But I wasn’t good, back then, at being direct about that sort of thing and especially not with someone like Selena. This wasn’t because I thought she was much too beautiful to want to be with me, although that was a big part of it. She was also too hip. Selena’s eccentric wardrobe was like a code I was clearly not cool enough to decipher: bright slanting flashes of color across her body and shirts with a single word on them whose meaning I usually understood, but had no context for.
I never came close to asking Selena on a date before she moved to New York. But then she came back to visit Toronto one summer. I asked her to have coffee with me, but for the expressed purpose of giving me advice on searching for an apartment in New York. I was planning on moving there in the fall. It’s a cliché, but Selena and I were both the kind of people who dreamt about living in New York, which happens to be where Breakfast at Tiffany’s, like so many iconic books and films, takes place. It didn’t surprise me that Selena moved there before I did.
She agreed to the coffee. But then when I sent her a couple of Facebook messages, trying to arrange it, she never wrote back to me. I believed she thought I was using the apartment search as an excuse to have a date with her. This annoyed me as I thought it was rather presumptuous. And I was even more annoyed that she was, of course, right.
* * *
On some level, I perceived Selena was pretty wounded beneath her quirkiness and trendiness. But I didn’t stop to examine why that darkness was so alluring to me.
What I am calling darkness is usually, in clinical terms, called depression. I am not sure if desiring to die means you are ailing from depression or any kind of mental illness. Whatever we are to call this darkness, this inclination towards suicide, nearly everyone in my family is acquainted with it. I had an uncle who laid down on the train tracks, and there was a teenage cousin who took her life in a way that her parents wouldn’t reveal. My mother tried to kill herself, but tumors got her first. When the cancer arrived, she seemed to embrace it like the one decent man she’d been waiting for all her life. I certainly had failed to protect my mother from her own darkness.
I didn’t know how to articulate it back then, but I wanted to make Selena feel safe. I wanted to, if not erase her darkness, give her a place to hide from it. In this way I was more like Holly’s older husband Doc Golightly than “Fred.” Doc gives her everything she needs to feel safe at his farm near Tulip, Texas, but she runs away to New York and changes her name.
In the scene where Holly refuses to come back home with Doc, she tells him, “You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a taller tree and then to the sky.”
I am not sure why the film leaves out the moral of Holly’s allegory. In the book she tells us: “That’s how you’ll end up . . . If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
Maybe Selena had met her fair share of Doc Golightlies and just wanted to spare me the inevitable result of loving a wild thing. But everyone who knew her or thought they did, found themselves like Doc—looking up, 36 stories, at the sky.
* * *
I had barely arrived in New York when I sent Selena a Facebook message. I felt I had a pretty legitimate reason, this time, for her to see me. After all, I was a friend from back home. Showing me around the city was just the courteous thing to do, right? She couldn’t really say no, I figured. But apparently she saw it differently.
When I told her I had arrived in New York and looked forward to seeing her, she wrote back, “Sure, but next week. I’m really busy.”
The following week she said the same thing and then stopped responding to my messages altogether. I wouldn’t say I allowed this to quite roll off my back. Through rejection’s hastily crafted lens, I told Richard that with her barrage of colorful clothing and her cultivated quirkiness, Selena was “a phony.” He didn’t get the reference, though Selena would have: Holly Golightly is described in both the book and the film as “a phony, but a real phony.” I was leaving out the “real” part. I wouldn’t say it to her face, but from Selena’s perspective, I thought calling her an ordinary fake was just about the worst slight imaginable.
I told Richard, this time quoting from just the book, that Selena was “a crude exhibitionist, a time waster, an utter fake . . .”
Notably, in the book, “Fred” is gay. He is in love with Holly, he says, “a little,” but his infatuation is not distorted by sexual desire. I’ve always admired that.
In response to my rather dramatic judgements of Selena’s character, Richard said I shouldn’t be so hard on her. He told me that she had just got out of a bad relationship and was having a hard time.
“Well, we’re all having a hard time,” I said. “Selena’s parents pay her rent in New York, and she’s absurdly beautiful. How hard a time could she be having?”
* * *
This is what I know. Selena took what witnesses describe as a heavy wooden object, possibly a chair, and used it to smash the window of a relative’s Upper East Side apartment on the 36th floor. And then she jumped. She didn’t leave a note. Foul play was ruled out. All of this comes from an online newspaper article, which includes two photographs: a close up of the broken window and a long shot of the entire building. In this second picture, the shattered window is just a black dot, and at the bottom of the picture is the roof of the coffee shop where she landed. Her family first told Richard that Selena died in an accident, but then had to admit the truth when the article was published.
The only thing I will ever know for certain is that she jumped.
* * *
I had lived in New York a year and hadn’t seen Selena once. But then I moved to Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
“Selena lives there,” Richard told me. “It’s a good excuse to see her.”
One Sunday afternoon, I sent her a Facebook message. I told her we were neighbors now and that “we should have coffee, sometime.” To my surprise, she wrote back right away and asked me what I was doing “right now?”
Selena recommended we meet at a coffee shop near her place. I Google mapped it and saw it was a half an hour walk from me. But I didn’t suggest we meet half way because I knew half way just wasn’t her style. Instead, I said that I lived right around the corner from her.
Because I said I lived so close, I had to run to meet her on time. It was incredibly humid out. My shirt turned nearly transparent with sweat. The run had been just long enough to appreciate how pathetic I was for immediately agreeing to the time and place that was convenient for Selena. My thoughts just then, like everything else in the heat, were a bit warped. Instead of wishing I had been honest about where I lived and just suggested we meet somewhere else, I found myself thinking how self-absorbed Selena was: she expected people, especially men, to drop everything for her company. Who did she think she was anyway?
The café was a converted diner with red vinyl booths that my sweaty skin kept sticking too. In the corner was a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox, but it was purely ornamental; the music was coming from the speaker overhead. It was a song I had never heard before, although I was sure Selena would recognize it had she been on time.
I slowly sipped a double espresso. The AC was on full blast, and my sweat soon turned cold against my body. After about half an hour, I began to wonder if Selena was standing me up. I imagined it wasn’t even on purpose—she just plum forgot. I pictured her sitting in her apartment, bored, flipping through a glossy fashion magazine with a vague sense that maybe she was supposed to be somewhere, but probably nowhere important. I imagined the phone ringing and some male friend, who wasn’t her boyfriend, but thought he was, inviting her for lunch at a SoHo restaurant—his treat, of course. She was about to cross the Williamsburg Bridge on the L train to meet him, completely oblivious to my existence. I was fuming. I couldn’t wait to get home and send her a curt Facebook message, letting her know that she was “a crude exhibitionist, a time waster, an utter fake . . .”
Then she arrived. She walked into the café like it was a movie set. She took off her pink-rimmed sunglasses, her eyes barely a shade darker than the lenses and gave me a little wave. She wrapped her arms around me despite the dampness of my shirt. I must have looked like someone who had run a lot further than from just around the corner. But she didn’t say anything about that. She gave me another squeeze and said something like, “Fred, darling, it’s been far too long.” I forget about the waiting, the imagined SoHo suitor, and all the times I had felt rejected by her. All I could think about was how I was still in love with her, but just a little.
I offered to buy her a coffee, and she said she didn’t drink coffee in the summer, but to just get her something cold. I bought her a lemonade because she was wearing a yellow dress. She looked at me approvingly and then said it was “too cold” in the café or maybe she said “too dark.” At any rate, it was too something, and we should leave. She lived just across the street, and her roommates were away. We could go there.
She offered me a shirt to change into: a man’s shirt. We sat on her couch drinking murky tap water, and I thought about kissing her, but the sofa cushion between us seemed like a vast distance from her mouth. We talked a lot about New York. I must have sounded like a tourist guidebook, just naming certain coffee shops and streets I liked.
Selena went to the kitchen to get us something to drink with alcohol in it. I told myself that I would kiss her when she returned. I nervously inched myself a little closer to her end of the couch. I could hear her rummaging through cupboards. As I waited, I began to examine the living room. I don’t recall the last time, outside of a funhouse, that I had seen so many mirrors in a single space. For a moment I chalked this up to Selena’s vanity, but then realized the mirrors were meant to make the place look larger than it was. I snuck a peek down her short hallway and my reflection, in a full-length mirror, jumped out like it was trying to startle me. I sat back on the sofa and took note of an old Tiffany lamp with a little crack in the glass shade and a small lime green shag rug that stung the eyes a bit to look right at it. I imagine these had been purchased for almost nothing in thrift stores, but could be passed off as hip in an intentionally campy sort of way, especially in Brooklyn. Fat splinters snaked across the hardwood, which even the deepest coat of red paint was unable to hide.
I asked her, trying to make my voice heard over the clinking of objects in her cupboard, how her singing was going. But Richard had told me that Selena worked as a restaurant hostess most days and a bartender most nights. It was pretty clear to me, especially now that I had seen her apartment, that she hadn’t exactly made it as a singer.
Selena came back from the kitchen with two tumbler glasses filled to the brim with room temperature white wine. I mentally prepared myself for our kiss, but I couldn’t seem to make myself move any closer to her.
“He was telling me what an amazing voice I had,” Selena said.
I realized she had been telling me a story for a few minutes, but I hadn’t been paying attention because I was so nervous about the prospect of trying to kiss her.
Eventually I pieced together that Selena was talking about a musician she met at a show. He was in a band I gathered that I should have heard of, but hadn’t.
“He invited me over to record a song in his studio,” Selena continued.
I thought that she was telling the story of how she was finally getting her big break and had only wanted to see me to brag about this. She was being, to quote “Fred” in the book, “an insensitive, mindless show-off.”
“He turned his extra bedroom into a recording studio,” Selena said.
I nodded, trying not to show my resentment.
“Or that’s what he told me . . . but, of course, there was no studio.” As soon as she said this, the dark lacquered shine of her eyes suddenly turned worn and dull.
And then she laughed, before leaping up and going to her bedroom. I could hear her giggling. She emerged a moment later wearing one of those trucker hats that were ubiquitous amongst young, often bearded, and obviously very cool men in Brooklyn. The hat was a size or two too big for her. Her eyes concealed beneath the brim, she sat down on the couch and slouched down so she was a good head shorter than me.
“So when I told him I thought I was there to record a song, he looked at me with this kind of mean grin.” And beneath that big mesh hat, Selena tried, pitifully, to raise her lip into a sneer.
“Then he said: ‘Uh, you mean you actually thought you were here to sing?’” Selena said these words in a deep, yet winey baritone, then threw the hat across the room and laughed even harder than she had before.
“That’s terrible,” I said and felt valiant.
Selena swatted away my indignation with her hands.
“It happens,” she said. “It’s just kind of funny . . . I guess I can be kind of dumb.”
“No, that guy was a rat. No, a super rat,” I said.
“He was just a guy,” she said.
I wondered if she had stormed out on him or had ultimately done what was expected of her. But I didn’t ask.
I wanted to tell her that I would never do anything like that. I wanted to tell her she did have an amazing voice, but I had never heard her sing.
And I still wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t.
It occurs to me now that I wasn’t as different from Selena’s musician “friend” as I imagined myself to be. For a while, after that day in her apartment, I regretted that I didn’t at least try to kiss her. But now I regret letting Selena swat her story away like it didn’t matter. I was inside that story too: the story of what men wanted from her all the time. It was a problem that she must have never received much sympathy for: the problem of being amongst the very beautiful—how it made the friendliness of others, especially heterosexual men, always suspect. The cost of freedom, Auden said, “is often to be lonely.” It occurs to me the same could be said for beauty. If nothing else that afternoon, I think Selena wanted me to understand that.
* * *
Holly talks to “Fred” about experiencing a “gruesome” feeling she calls “the mean reds.” “Fred” wonders if she means “the blues.”
“No,” says Holly. “The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”
* * *
Lately, I’ve been feeling haunted by Selena’s soul, although I am not sure I believe in souls. But if Selena’s soul is haunting me, it takes the form of the absent half of a sentence: a guilty conditional floating in my mind, which begins, If I had only known, then . . .
In Pagan Europe, to avoid being haunted by the souls of suicides, it was common practice to bury them at a crossroad. According to A. Alvarez in The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, the reason for this was because the traffic above would keep the suicide’s soul from rising and if the soul still rose, it would get turned around at the intersection, head in the wrong direction, and never find its way back.
The rest of the guilty conditional has something to do with how, many years before Selena did it, I nearly killed myself. For a period of several months, my own suicide played on an endless loop in my mind. I had the pills. I had researched how many I would need to swallow in order to ensure I died. I was filling my prescriptions and not touching the pills—I was stocking up. I also had the hotel where I would do it bookmarked on my computer. I planned to succeed where my mother had failed. I felt I lived, during this time, more in a film of my own death than in my actual life. I had already killed myself in every way, but in act. And this last gesture, to complete my death, was just a matter of time. One day, I told Richard all of this. I realize now I told him so he would do exactly what he did—he made me go to the hospital, and I didn’t leave for a month.
* * *
For the funeral we were told to wear something colorful in Selena’s honor. I had on my navy blue scarf, which was the only item of clothing I owned that wasn’t gray or black. I could almost feel Selena’s eye roll on me.
Selena’s parents, her brother, and a male friend from New York with a baby blue bow tie gave short speeches. Because of the blackout, they spoke in candlelight, their faces partially illuminated and their bodies almost invisible like children telling ghost stories. They mostly echoed each other. I heard about a Selena I didn’t know: how she was giving and generous and kind. The friend with the blue bow tie spoke about how talented and passionate Selena was about singing. I wondered if he was just another rat or was what he claimed to be: her one true friend in New York.
I hoped that the people close to her would unveil the real Selena, the person she had never felt safe enough to reveal to me.
I imagined that if everyone there spoke honestly about the Selena they knew, I could come close to a fully realized picture of who she really is, was. But as soon as I thought this, I knew I would not form a whole, but just incomplete relational lines cutting across other half-formed relational lines, a messy intersection pointing in a hundred directions: a crossroad in which what is lost is not Selena’s soul, but the possibility of ever really knowing who she was.
What everyone agreed upon at the reception was they didn’t see it coming. Everyone kept saying Selena “had so much to live for” or some variation of this, repeated like an incantation. I overheard a couple people mutter something like “but she was so charming” and “but she was so beautiful.”
I could have told them, “But she was too beautiful. She was so damn beautiful that you couldn’t even see her.” At least I couldn’t.
If I could have, I would have realized Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn’t connect us. What Selena and I shared far more than a favorite movie was an understanding of what it feels like to no longer want to live. It is a conversation we might have had in some world similar, but slightly different than this one—one where the glass of that window is stronger than her desire to die. And the chair scratches, but doesn’t shatter the window, or the door is kicked down before she jumps. Later, in the hospital, we would talk. I would speak to her, for the first time, as a friend. I would tell her that I too was once hospitalized for the disease of not wanting to live. I would tell her I understand or think I understand. She would smile a little: a smile I had never seen from her before, not full of secrets, but full of relief that she didn’t have to be pretty or charming for once.
* * *
It had been about a year since that afternoon in Greenpoint when I wanted to, but didn’t kiss Selena. I had not seen or spoken to her since. Richard gave me an occasional update. It didn’t seem like much had changed. She lived in the same place and had the same jobs. And as for the singing, Richard said, it was hard to say; they weren’t in touch all that often.
I told Richard, listing off numerous practical reasons, that I was seriously considering moving back home, but the truth of the matter was that my relationship with New York was not all that different from the one I felt I had with Selena. I was in love with the city, even with the glitzy, over the top parts of it like Times Square and Broadway. And I was absolutely smitten with the Brooklyn Bridge, the warehouses in Red Hook, and the hanging streetlamps of Orchard Street. The city had an inviting majesty, but was also elusive. I had lived there two years and knew my way around a bit, yet I didn’t feel like it was known to me—that it ever could be. I lived in a perpetual state of longing for the city I lived in. In short, despite my affections for it, New York didn’t seem to want me there or was indifferent to my presence because it had so many admirers already. Of course, I took what I felt was the city’s rejection of me with about the same maturity as I took Selena’s. I found myself saying to Richard that the places in the city with literary and bohemian cultural history were just shells or haunted Disney worlds—a lot of beautiful old brownstones and eccentric narrow streets to disguise the fact that nothing of real significance was actually going on. If this description reminded Richard of a certain very beautiful mutual acquaintance of ours, it was supposed to. I had decided that New York, like Selena, was “a cruel exhibitionist, a time waster, an utter fake . . .”
During my last few weeks in New York, as I was preparing to leave, Richard came to visit me. He also wanted to catch up with Selena. I couldn’t pass up the chance to let her know I was leaving without making a big show of it. I assumed it was the last time I would see Selena for a while.
When Richard and I made that same trek I took a year ago from one end of Greenpoint to the other, I made sure we took our time. When we arrived late, and not the least bit sweaty, at a bar just down the street from Selena’s apartment, she shot us a look to express her disappointment. I shrugged it off and leaned back in my chair.
Selena was looking at the drinks menu. She said something about how she was not used to ordering drinks for herself, much less paying for them.
I sat up a bit and said, “You mean men always buy you drinks?”
“Pretty much,” she said.
Her fingers were buried deep into her hair, her eyes looking at me and not at me, at everything and nothing. I thought to myself how glad I was to no longer wonder what she was looking at.
“Well,” I said leaning back a little further, “I’m not buying you a drink.”
There were few things I had said recently that I meant so unequivocally, so I repeated it more earnestly.
“Seriously,” I said, “I’m not buying you a drink.”
And that’s the last thing I remember saying to her.
* * *
The night before Selena’s funeral, a friend asked me if I wanted to meet for a drink. I told him I did, but I couldn’t stay out late.
“I have a funeral in the morning,” I said.
When he asked me who died, I started to say, “My friend . . .” But I stopped myself. Instead, I told him, “This girl who killed herself.”
I felt like I was revealing something I shouldn’t. Even though I didn’t mention her name, I still could have easily just said, “This girl who . . . was killed in an accident.” But for some reason it seemed important to be specific about the way she died. It’s what I thought Selena would have wanted me to do: to speak with an honesty she so rarely experienced in life. But I don’t know. How well did I know her, really? I just think she would have appreciated, just then, that I didn’t call her “my friend.”