I had some bad news recently: last month, my good friend Damon died suddenly, without warning, at his home in Santa Monica. I want to write about him, but I’m in fear of sounding trite or clichéd, since Damon loathed triteness and clichés. But I’m going to try to get something down on paper, as much of a tribute as I’m capable of.
I’m in that state of shock, of disbelief, of confusion and incomprehension that comes after someone close dies. After all, we know that things don’t just disappear. Maybe in a movie, a magician can make something vanish in a pouf of smoke, but in real life, nothing disappears; it transforms, perhaps (water into steam, wood into ash), but it doesn’t disappear. So how can a person — a personality, a force, a bundle of irony and wit and loyalty and irreverence and love — be here one minute, gone the next? How can it be that there will be no more reminiscing, no more dinners out, no more commiserating over life and its travails… How can it be that we’ll never again talk about Mapp and Lucia, or The Pursuit of Love, or Brideshead or Diana Vreeland or Frank O’Hara or our imaginary gardens or Abbot Kinney or Martha Stewart or moving to Bridgehampton/Montauk/the Springs or Alec Guinness or bread pudding or Palm Springs or Follies? This makes absolutely no sense at all.
Damon and I were neighbors at the beach in Venice for the five years that I lived there. Our building was small, with two units on the ground floor (mine in front, Damon and John’s in the rear) and one upstairs. Our apartments shared a patio, so we could zip from one kitchen to the other, if only to commiserate about the latest dreadful upstairs neighbor. (One trashy couple plagued us endlessly. One morning, Damon came to my kitchen door to tell me that in the middle of the night, he just couldn’t stand the TV noise any more. “I tiptoed outside and flipped the circuit breakers for their apartment. Ah, blessed silence. I stayed up all night, enjoying the quiet. Then at 5 a.m., I tiptoed back out and flipped it all back on.” The brilliant crowning touch was a few days later, when the power went out in all of Venice and Santa Monica. Damon and I were standing in the front yard, surveying the darkness, when the upstairs neighbor joined us. “I can’t believe the damn power has gone out again,” he said. “Mmmmm,” Damon replied, studiously not looking at me.)
Damon worked from home and was known to raid my fridge during the day if he was out of coffee or milk, or if was just looking for a snack. I called him one day on his home phone and got “The number you have called has been temporarily disconnected” — he hadn’t paid his phone bill. I thought a moment, then called my home phone number, and Damon picked up on the first ring: “Oh, hi, Siobhan — I’m hanging out in your kitchen till my phone gets turned back on. I drank your Diet Coke.” It’s not everyday (not ever, really) you end up with a neighbor who feels free to commandeer your apartment, and you’re delighted.
Once I moved to New York, Damon and I struck up a feverish email correspondence; the pile of printouts currently stacked on my living room floor is a good four inches thick. They range from frivolity (shopping as therapy) to angsty (the big life questions) to utterly, delightfully inane (the imaginary adventures of our alter egos, a pair of drug-addled b-list types who apparently traveled the world getting into situations with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Jackie O), with a significant portion devoted to books and theater. Pretend you’re me, ten years ago, working at a bland and dreary job, watching the clock, trying to keep up the hateful billable hours, listening to the woman in the next cube (possibly the most inane woman on the planet) endlessly plan her daddy-funded dream wedding, when *ping!* comes an email that starts off like this:
6/6/00: Furthermore, understand completely about states of dispiritedness as have been in one for years. Have often had trouble with idea that Life Is A Cabaret. More often have felt it to be an 8 a.m. lecture on Applied Physics that goes on through lunch. You fall asleep, you wake up, you fall asleep, you wake up, and still some old bald man is droning on about Infrared Frequencies. Talk about your Gravitational Pull! Talk about your Inertia!
Really, is it any surprise that for years, as evidenced by the printed-out pile next to me, I apparently did nothing but email Damon?
We were as like as peas in a pod. A good portion of our email exchanges would probably be incomprehensible to anyone else, since there’s a lot of “As you well know” and “I don’t need to tell you” and “It goes without saying.” The emails are funny — really, remarkably funny, I must say — but they’re also almost painfully honest and raw, filled with our fears and disappointments and doubts (often draped in irony), and our inability to figure out how to proceed.
Checking in before heading off to therapy, the notion of which now bores me to pieces. Can’t get into a talking-about-myself-and-all-my-little-problems mode these days, so just sit and stare at therapist who, in obligatory therapeutic manner, just stares right back. Tick tock tick tock.
We had an ongoing game of coming up with memoir titles. Damon was a pro at this: he had a whole series of imagined memoirs, starting with “I Don’t Mind Walking” (later revised to “No Thanks, I’ll Crawl”) and culminating in what he saw as his late-in-life look back at everything, “Enough Already.” He also had a title for a self-help book on an as-yet-to-be-determined subject, “Brace Yourself.” In real life, he worked in development for the movies, which involved contact with lots of people — famous and not — who were ripe pickings for his acid pen.
2/22/01: Well yesterday was a garden of earthly delights. I had a 3 p.m. meeting at Warner Bros. which is in Burbank or something. It took me four freeways and one hour to get there. It was stop and go much of the way until the clouds finally broke on the 134 and we got up to speeds of 40 m.p.h. However a truck in front of me lost its tarp and its contents began to rain down upon us. Millions and millions of Saltine crackers and dried corn — I AM NOT KIDDING! — snowed the skies. I had my window open so my car quickly filled with these delicious tidbits — meant, no doubt, for the slaughterhouse chickens of West Covina. I mean I was literally picking Saltines and dried corn out of my hair and sweater during the meeting. Plus, I was meeting with one Paula Weinstein who had a toothpick in her mouth the whole time! I AM NOT KIDDING!
Damon’s boyfriend, John, tells me that he wishes that Damon could have had the garden he always dreamed of, and in our emails, there is a surprising amount of garden talk, given that we were each living in apartments, tending at most to a few potted plants. Gardening, I think, represented a way of life outside the day-to-day concerns of the working stiffs, a connection not to nature, but to a civilized, quiet, private life, away from the travails of city living, and perhaps away from our own time (especially after 9/11), back into some idealized 1930s British idyll:
10/9/01: Nerves decidedly shot as evidenced by huge start at sound of barking dog this a.m. Must seriously consider moving to countryside where plan would be to obtain pair of half-glasses and sweater with elbows out which would indicate to world that I am harmless old he-spinster who is to be left alone to write memoirs. Plan includes learning to put up fruit and veggies (“canning” I believe they call it) with possible cottage (literally) industry such as mail-order truffle business to bring in coin. You know what I mean?
My last contact with Damon was after my most recent blog post. Among our many, many joint obsessions was Marian Seldes and her inimitable, regal Grande Dame bearing; in fact, it was Damon who gave me the copy of Bright Lights that Marian signed for me. After reading the Marian post, he wrote simply, “This, of course, has special meaning for me, for several reasons. Thanks for it.”
Since John called me with the news of Damon’s death, I’ve spent a lot of hours remembering my time in Venice, and a lot of hours reading our old emails. I remember Damon telling me that after his mother died, his friends got used to him bursting into tears out of the blue. I feel like that now, going through the emails. In fact, I feel a bit like Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve: zipping from one emotional state (laughing helplessly at some classic Damonism) to the next (in tears at the idea that there won’t be any more Damonisms) and onto the next (so angry at myself that I didn’t keep up the friendship as well as I could have, and thereby depriving myself of the fun and reward of Damon’s presence in my life).
All those emails serve not only as the chronicle of our friendship, but also as a journal of my first few years in New York. Reading them over, I’m struck by how difficult a time it was for me. I was struggling to figure out a career that made sense (still working on that one, but with less angst), struggling to find friends, struggling to meet that elusive “someone special.” I was lonely and isolated, and felt quite at sea most of the time. Our cross-country, 90-percent-digital friendship, it occurs to me now, was probably my most vivid and reliable relationship in those years.
Never having looked back at these emails before, I’d had in my mind that they were mostly just silly, fun exchanges, but I realize now that they played a much more important role in my life. Through his steady stream of emails, Damon shored up my fairly unstable self and helped me through some dark days of the soul. And on top of that, he provided me with a lot of outright joy.
I have a sweet snapshot of Damon and me propped up on my desk, taken during a weekend in Vegas that involved listening to a lot of Abba. Damon is mugging a bit, but I’m just smiling away, clearly so happy — and feeling so lucky — to have such a great pal.