My family’s house, a slight variation on essentially the same blueprint for the tens of thousands of McMansions of Plano, Texas, is an expression of my mother’s sunny aesthetic: the second floor is mostly confined to the periphery, allowing space for the fifteen-foot windows that fill the rooms with relentlessly cheery light.
The sun! I think I must have a photosynthetic nature. I can feel downright spiritual when I’m in the sun! My mother rhapsodizes, but I’ve always found all that blue sky and sunshine a bit oppressive. In dense and intricate Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since I was twenty-two, spaces feel personal, a person’s size and voice seem enough to fill an area. But as a kid in Plano it felt like I could do anything – I could get punched in the liver on the running track during gym class; I could curse at my rising archipelagos of acne; I could hear the students outside my high school spread the news that yet another kid had killed himself – and the impassive blue dome would absorb it; the moment would pass and then there would be only that silent brightness.
It was my seventeenth birthday, in February of 1999, and I was driving home from school.
The sky out my windshield was faultless, another bright day of a winter drought. The city had begun to ration water supplies; police officers patrolled the subdivisions for rogue sprinkler usage. Plano was one of the fastest growing cities in America, but the hard and dry earth beneath it was not always accommodating. On that day, as tractors stripped the prairie in outsized swaths to make way for future mini-malls and housing developments, the arid dirt rose in miniature dust storms, drifting masses of brown and orange.
School usually let out at 4:15 pm, but on that day I was driving home, and it wasn’t yet noon. I had arrived before the first bell that morning to find the school’s faculty red-eyed and listless. My first-period teacher, famously affable, snapped into a rage at a snide question from one of my classmates. By the third period, students were wandering the halls and slumped against their lockers, where they sobbed. The administration, not knowing what else to do, let school out early. And so it was not even lunchtime, when I was driving home.
My parents moved us to Plano for the reasons so many move to Plano: jobs, good schools, a town perfectly engineered to render successful families. Plano, famous for its prosperity, regularly appears in magazines as one of the country’s top cities to raise kids. It is an invented, anonymous place, a patchwork of chain stores, corporate branches, and mass-produced houses, all arranged for productivity and simplicity, like a new airport.
Recently, on a visit home to Plano, I walked with my mom through one of the town’s manicured parks. Pausing on a little observation deck, we looked out at the city’s bright and bland geometry. Well, she concluded, it’s a place to raise a family. Everything makes sense here. I knew you and your brother would be safe.
And so we lived in Plano, because, at least in part, Plano seemed to promise our safety. But, as it turned out, even in that sunny city there was a tremendous darkness that resurfaced sporadically, in terrible and sudden forms.
Within one year, in the mid-1980s, as Plano rapidly transformed from a farm town to a proper suburb of Dallas, five students at my future high school committed suicide. Reporters arrived, en masse, to deliver familiar and vague explanations: the lonely plight of latch-key kids, the existential emptiness of a town without history, parents’ relentless pursuit of wealth to the neglect of their children, the strange psychological phenomena of suicide clusters. For a year or two, the city struggled to overcome an unwanted notoriety (The Suicide Capital of America, reporters dubbed it), but Plano continued to proliferate, and the instant city was expanding too quickly for any memory to stick to it for long.
And yet, like a supernatural curse, that particular darkness returned. During my Sophomore and Junior years, eighteen kids died in an epidemic of heroin overdoses, then another cluster of suicides.
What did I know of those deaths? Little, at first.
Many times, in those months, I arrived at school to find it hushed by the news of a death of another kid I didn’t know. Mine was a class of seventeen hundred students; the deaths were at a distance from me, but also all around me.
One day, a boy whom I had never met raised a trashcan over his head during lunch. He screamed at the tables, and hurled garbage across the cafeteria. That night, he shot himself in the head with his father’s pistol.
My classmates and I affected a grim and cynical tone, a deepening of our standard adolescent mien, when reporters came to interview us. Our adolescent ennui justified into crude sociology: Of course, we would say, it makes sense that a lot of people can’t tolerate such a sterile, soulless place. Of course, this rich, spotless city neglects what is most important. All this success, we would warn, comes at a price. We would recite our reasons and take a kind of perverse pride in the fact that, despite all our comforts, despite our orderly, healthy lives, news people came to ask us how we survived it.
But when a friend of mine, Ken McKinney, asphyxiated himself in his family’s car one night, there was no longer any perverse pride. There was no real explanation, only the senselessness of a sixteen-year-old kid, gifted and charismatic, killing himself.
After Ken’s death, the school counselors spoke with us about grief and depression, but their words seemed as vague and inadequate as anyone’s. And at last it seemed clear that there would never be a way to explain any of it. On my seventeenth birthday, I arrived at school to learn that the night before, one of our counselors had shut her garage door, started her car’s engine, and waited until the fumes took her life.
As I headed home that day, westward in my parents’ Ford, the city of Plano gave way to blank lots, where workers were stripping and levelling the old farmland to make way for new retail franchises and subdivisions. The wind gusted and paused, and the dust that the backhoes and tractors stirred accumulated into strange figures, earthen Rorschachs. The clouds drifted like rusty ghosts out onto Parker Road. The city was growing so quickly that the street was nearly unrecognizable from even a month before.
Eighteen kids had killed themselves, and now our school counselor, too. The dust was doing something I had never quite seen dust do, hanging over fields and roads in shapes that seemed to defy physics. I felt exhilarated and afraid, subject to the sway of strange new forces. The clouds drifted into the road, and I accelerated into them, reckless to whatever they might conceal. Inside each, my windshield browned, and, for a moment, I couldn’t see to the hood. Again and again, I emerged, heightened and cavalier, to the scrubbed blue day. I picked up speed, and abandon. More dust-clouds gathered around me; they seemed personal. I took a right at a traffic light a half-mile from my house to look down the long empty stretch of Communications Road, over which rested the largest cloud yet, sitting there like a sci-fi time-portal for coming traffic, as if to swallow modern cars and deposit them in some gritty Texan past. I accelerated into the brown.
Inside the cloud, at forty miles an hour, a sudden human figure. A person, leaping away from my hood, but it was too late to swerve or break. In an instant, my car halted, and the explosion of my airbag flung my arms to the roof. The fact of what I had done – I have hit someone, I have killed someone – opened another future, one forever marred by this moment. The dust did not dissipate; my windshield was an opaque trapezoid, through which I could see nothing.
When at last the wind swept away that cloud, I exhaled. The figure in the dust had been either a trick of the light or else a trick of my mind. It was not a person I had hit but an SUV, its chrome bumper reflecting my face from a distance no greater than two feet.
Suicide is contagious. Psychologists call it The Werther Effect, and its influence is easily measurable: after a well-publicized suicide, not only does the overall rate of suicide increase, but there is also a dramatic spike in the rate of single-driver car crashes. Psychologists offer various theories to explain the phenomenon, but no one can really know why this deathly consensus is wired into our thinking, why the compulsion to death can pass so easily and so subtly from one person to another. I still can’t explain the Plano suicides, why they began that year and why they stopped, and I don’t know if my own near-fatal collision was bound to those deaths by some algorithm of social cognition. More than a decade has passed, and when I talk to my Plano friends about that grim year, none of us can agree on the numbers of the dead, and we have trouble remembering the causes that we explained so certainly when we were sixteen. But I can still see that human figure, leaping in front of my car, even if the wind finally erased him into Plano’s immaculate sky.
Photograph by exalthim