Down in the River to Pray

This is what I knew:

My nephew Benji graduated from drama school. When he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he wore a sultry Lauren Bacall wig and a cream-colored satin evening gown with padded shoulders. His make-up was perfect, his lips the color of blood and desire. My mother told me he looked stunning. And that after the ceremony he argued with his father and my sister, his stepmother but the mother who raised him.

Then he left for New York.

It was 1988.

Fourteen years later, my mother told me Benji had disappeared. He came home one day from his job at a restaurant and trashed the apartment he shared with a roommate. Then he left. No one knew how to find him or if he was even alive.

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she added, “He has HIV.”

I put a story together, which, at the time, didn’t need to be correct: it just needed to be a story that made sense. I thought estranged. I thought “We don’t know where Benji is” meant Benji moved and changed his phone number because he didn’t want to talk to his family any more. Many of us have been on one side or the other of that wall, but we know it’s a wall that exists because we agree to it. We know we can find or be found if necessary. And six years after Benji disappeared, it was necessary that I find Benji.

I needed to find Benji because my mother died and left Benji and her other grandchildren a little money. Because she didn’t know what happened to Benji, she stipulated that the money would go to “living grandchildren.” If Benji wasn’t alive, his share went to the eight other grandchildren, not to his father, his next-of-kin.

As my mother’s executor, I had to find Benji, if he was still alive.

I thought about the last time I’d seen Benji. It was the mid-1990s. I was in New York for business. We met at a restaurant near the Met. He didn’t mind coming uptown, he told me when he picked the restaurant. His face was freshly washed, and he wore a shirt with an open collar. It must have been fall because I remember us eating at a table on the sidewalk and Benji wearing a brown tweed sport coat.

Benji held his fork in his left hand while he cut the pork cutlet, then switched his fork to his right hand to take a bite, the way he’d learning growing up in the Midwest; he hadn’t adopted any big city cutlery affectations.

“I’m still waiting tables,” he said, when I asked what he was doing.

“But I’m rehearsing a play,” he added, slurring his words like a Chicagoan does.

I smiled. “That’s great. How often do you perform?”

He shrugged and stabbed another piece of cutlet, holding it on his fork, suspended in front of his mouth, while he answered. “It’s just some people I know—in this warehouse space, but I think it could lead to some auditions.” He put the cutlet in his mouth.

I noticed his sport coat didn’t fit well, and I thought he probably bought it at a thrift store just for our lunch. I didn’t know how Benji usually dressed, whether the satin gown at his graduation was to shock his parents, upstage his drama school classmates, or to come out. Maybe he didn’t own a sport coat because he didn’t lunch uptown that often. Maybe he didn’t wear men’s clothes. At the time, I assumed he thought I would feel more comfortable if he didn’t look showy, and I had been oddly touched. My cheeks reddened at the memory of Benji considering my comfort when he got dressed that day. The idea that Benji might have covered his flamboyance for me was touching in the mid-1990s, embarrassing in 2008.

I hadn’t been a very involved aunt. I was 18 and Benji was 5 when my sister married Benji’s father, a widower with five children. It’s true that I was focused on college, on love, on my own marriage, but I also avoided my sister, who could be dramatic, telling stories that were inconsistent with previous stories—and sometimes with reality. I could understand if Benji went dark just to avoid her.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child.

But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

“We don’t know where Benji is” was not just parent code for “Benji doesn’t want us to know where he is.” It wasn’t just Benji code for “My father, a crewcut cop, is uncomfortable around me because I wear makeup, and my mother lives in her own reality. So I am not going to make the trek home for Thanksgiving when I can make some good tips if I stay in New York and wait tables.

All of that may have been true, except that Benji really had disappeared.

*     *     *

By the time Benji arrived in New York, in 1988, more than 22,000 people in the city had been diagnosed with AIDS. The records from that time don’t distinguish between HIV positive and AIDS. They don’t distinguish male or female, black or white. They don’t break the numbers down by neighborhood, age, or method of transmission. They document diagnosis and death. At the end of that year, just over a third of those ever diagnosed were still alive.

*     *     *

I’d been an investigative journalist and an academic researcher. I had skills—information-finding skills, people-finding skills. I knew how to dig, uncover what was buried. This is what I found:

Social Security did not list Benji as deceased. The last address they had for him was the apartment he’d left a mess.

He was not listed among New York City inmates.

No criminal or civil charges had been filed against him, not for panhandling or prostitution or assault or anything.

He was not listed as a sex offender in the state of New York.

He’d last been treated at Bellevue Hospital as an outpatient in early 2002; as an inpatient the previous year.

His Medicaid card was expired.

There had been no death report for someone with his name in a public place nor of someone with his name having been taken from a public place to a hospital in any of the boroughs that make up New York City.

They could check by description.

In 2002, Benji was thirty-six years old. He was five foot eight, slim, but not an athletic build. His skin was white. His hair was brown, his eyes were hazel. His eyelashes were long. He had long fingers. His features were delicate. He looked like he wouldn’t be able to grow a beard, but he could get a surprising five o’clock shadow. He had a big smile with large teeth that had never known orthodontics.

They said there were no reports of anyone with that description.

*     *     *

I didn’t want to talk to my sister or her husband about Benji. I didn’t want to go into their pain. I didn’t know what the story was that they had decided they could live with, or how much of it was true. I wanted to find Benji without talking to either of them, but my sister called me. She knew what the will said.

“We didn’t know Benji was missing until two months after he left his apartment,” my sister said, adding that they found out when his boss called to say he had Benji’s last paycheck and wanted to know where he should he send it. My sister immediately called Benji’s roommate who told her about the damage and gave her the number of a friend who’d helped Benji move his things to a self-storage locker. My sister’s voice took on a tone I recognized from the time when she was a teenager about to tell a secret to me, seven years younger. It’s the tone of voice a soap opera character uses just before they cut to commercial. “She said he might be living at the storage locker, but no one had seen him for weeks. They were all very worried.”

I started to imagine what I would have felt if I were the parent remembering the argument the last time I’d spoken to my son, the angry parting, emptiness, loss, longing, an ache that I would have woken up to each morning—sometimes not right away, sometimes after a few minutes of feeling like the world was normal, the conversations over whether to call him or wait for him to call.

I thought about Benji living in a five-by-five-foot windowless storage unit. I tried to imagine a scenario in which he could have lived for six years with untreated HIV, without the kind of job that reported earnings, without ever being picked up on the streets because he didn’t have the kind of income that came with Social Security contributions.

My sister told me she and her husband looked for him as soon as they heard he was missing. They drove from Chicago to New York. His father staked out the self-storage locker. I imagined him sitting in a rented car, maybe a Ford Taurus, by himself, sipping coffee and eating take-out burgers, replaying old conversations, rehearsing the one he might have.

After a week, Benji’s father talked to the police, one cop to another. No, he didn’t want to file a missing person report.

Then they went home to Chicago.

“I called the storage place six months later,” she said. “They told me Benji’s things had been auctioned. No one had paid the fees. They never even let us know to come and get them.”

Before we hung up, my sister told me the story she believed, the story that I knew didn’t have to be true as long as it made sense: “I think he threw himself off a bridge,” she said.

*     *     *

I called Benji’s younger sister, the sibling he was closest to, the way the oldest sometimes is with the youngest. The one he would trust to lie to their parents when they asked her if she’d heard from him.

“I really don’t know where he is,” she told me. “The last time I saw him was a little more than a year before he disappeared. I went to New York to visit him. He’d changed. I mean, he was a real jerk. As I got into a cab to go to the airport, I told him so. I said, I’m not going to come back if you’re going to be an asshole.”

Fuck you.

“I talked to him after that, though,” she said. “Once, right after 9/11.” He was OK. She told him she loved him. That was the last time she talked to him. She was quiet, and I thought maybe I could hear her weeping, so I talked.

“Do you remember the time I visited?” I said. “It was during the Olympics. Oh gosh, you must have been eight, and we all went to the pool, and you and Benji pretended to be synchronized swimmers.” I described the two of them diving into the water then bursting out with exaggerated smiles and arms extended, then submerging again to do handstands on the bottom of the pool, their legs extending above the surface and scissor-kicking, nowhere near synchronized.

We laughed.

“I’ll find him,” I told her.

*     *     *

I flew to New York.

His apartment—his last known address—was on the East Side, near the East Village, in a dirty yellow brick building above a space that’s been a sandwich shop, a Thai restaurant, and a vegan cafe. He could walk from there to Bellevue.

Benji’s roommate didn’t live in the apartment they’d shared any more, but I found her. It wasn’t that hard. She asked me to meet her at a park near the East River. We sat on a bench where we could see the Brooklyn Bridge. It was October, but warm enough to sit outside without a coat, even with the breeze off the water. The sun was sharp, and we both wore sunglasses. I noticed we also both wore black. I hadn’t paid attention to that when I dressed, but it was obvious, the two of us sitting side-by-side on the bench, as though in a pew.

She lit a cigarette and took a drag. “We met at the restaurant where we worked. We usually worked different shifts so it made it easy to share a flat. We weren’t what you’d call friends. Benji had his own friends—artists and other actors.” She flicked her ash. “Most of them were waiting tables, too.”

He’d been hospitalized for AIDS-related pneumonia the year before he disappeared, she said, but he’d gotten better and been re-classified as HIV positive. She dropped the butt of her cigarette and ground it cold. “He was getting treatment, but he was starting to get paranoid.”

I turned toward her. “What do you mean?” I asked.

She took a deep breath. “Benji was a good roommate. He didn’t cook much, but like, he always cleaned up the kitchen—even if I was the one who left it a mess. We often slept at different times, and he was quiet. Considerate of that, you know?” She reached in her purse for another cigarette, but didn’t light it.

I nodded. “He was always good with his younger brothers and sister,” I said, “willing to play with them and be silly.”

She fumbled with the cigarette. “Then he started complaining that he didn’t get parts he’d auditioned for because other actors had trash talked him and accusing his friends of shit like that. I came home one day and found everything in the kitchen broken. He’d slashed his mattress with this huge carving knife. He’d pulled everything off the walls.” She lit the cigarette.

I imagined Benji tearing down a poster of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the kind you can find rolled up for quick sale from any of a dozen street vendors, tearing it into strips. I thought about him throwing a jar of mustard at the wall. It shatters. He is surprised at how the thick liquid dulls the sound of glass on wall. He expected something like the clear tinkling of a breaking window when a baseball hits it. He was no good at baseball.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child. But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

I think about him grabbing a bottle of PBR from the shelf of the refrigerator, knocking the neck on the counter. The bottle breaking jagged, below the cap, him lifting it to his lips and drinking, the points of brown glass piercing his lips, blood staining his mouth, the taste of beer and blood, the rustiness running down his chin. He throws the empty bottle at a row of spice jars above the stove. The cheaply made rack, held only by a single nail, falls to the stove, spices mixing with alcohol in the shallow pans under the coils of the electric stove, the smells of cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg mingled with hops reminding him of Thanksgiving at his parents’—pumpkin pie and bad beer.

She let the ash gather on the cigarette, not smoking. “And he wrote something on the wall above his bed, in this really red lipstick.” She wrote it in the air, as though using the ash of the cigarette to make words: “If you want to know why, call my parents. And he wrote their phone number.”

I didn’t ask her why she didn’t call. “Do you know how I can reach any of his friends?” I asked. She gave me the number for James. She said he was a painter.

I stood up. “Thank you for coming,” I said. We hugged. She started to walk off, then stopped and turned. “You’ll let me know if you hear anything,” she said.

“Of course.”

*     *     *

In 2002, people were living with HIV. It had been more than ten years since Freddy Mercury died of AIDS, more than ten years since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. In New York City alone, more than 62,000 men were living with a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Fewer than 2,000 of them died that year.

Recording-keeping became more sophisticated, statistics more detailed. In 2002, Benji was one of thirty-three men in his neighborhood who were HIV positive, without AIDS. Probably one of a dozen white men.

*     *     *

Before calling James, I looked him up on the Internet. He’d had one or two shows in small but good galleries. I scrolled through the images. They were grotesque. Distorted. Open wounds. Blood on chin.

I met him on a bench in the plaza by St. Mark’s Church. Pigeons collected at our feet, looking for handouts. Leaves swirled with the light breeze. James wore expensive jeans. Cashmere scarf. His nails were recently manicured. Lots of product in his bleached blonde hair.

I wanted to ask so many things—things I didn’t need to know to find Benji, but wanted to know, to feel that I knew him, and somehow that seemed wrong, like I’d had my chance to know Benji and I would just look curious, like someone gawking at the scene of an accident.

I pulled a red pashmina from my bag and wrapped it around me. “I didn’t see Benji very often, but I remember that he asked me to dance at my wedding,” I said. “He was nine and very awkward, but he took it very seriously.” James smiled. “He was a terrible dancer,” he said. We laughed.

I asked him about his art, and then if he ever painted Benji. If he said yes, I knew I would offer to buy the painting. He knew it, too. He shook his head. “No,” he said, too quickly. “I wanted to. He had this vulnerability, this softness.” He closed his eyes as though imagining Benji before he turned violent. “He never let me.”

He crossed his legs. “The irony,” James said, “was that Benji had just qualified for Medicaid. He was excited to be able to get treatment.”  He paused, and I waited out the silence. “But he was becoming very erratic—he’d be fine one day and the next day just plain mean.” He picked fights with all his friends. Burned a lot of bridges. “We weren’t surprised when he lost it that day at the apartment,” James said. “We all knew it was the disease, or maybe the drugs—I mean, it wasn’t the real Benji,” he said, “but most people couldn’t take it after a while.”

“Benji called me from the apartment that day and said he had to get out of his place,” James said. He showed up with AJ, who worked with Benji at the restaurant and could get the catering van. They loaded Benji’s things, whatever they could carry that he hadn’t broken, and drove to a warehouse with storage units. On the way, Benji gave James his watch. He gave the AJ something, too. James didn’t remember what. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them again. “I offered him a place to crash. AJ did, too. But Benji said to leave him at the warehouse.”

James looked at the birds gathered at his feet. I heard him swallow and take a breath. “I called the police and asked what we should do if we saw Benji on the street and he was acting crazy.” He looked up, towards the sky above the church. “They said not to approach him.”

We sat quietly for a while, then James stood up to leave. “You should talk to AJ,” he said as he gave me a drive-by hug. “He was the last person to see Benji.”

*     *     *

New cases of AIDS peaked in New York City in 1993 and 1994. Benji was twenty-eight years old then.

*     *     *

I called my husband and told him I would be staying in New York a little longer.

“Are you getting somewhere?” he asked.

“Not really. The trail’s pretty cold.”

I told him what the police at the precinct told me: Hundreds of men in their mid-thirties died every year in New York City and remained unidentified. If a missing person report had been filed, they might have connected one of them, but probably not.

“Benji isn’t even a cold case,” I said.

“Why didn’t his dad file a missing person report?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t help me find Benji now,” I answered.

“You know, Lo . . .” My husband’s voice was tender. “If Benji had AIDS-related dementia, and he wasn’t being treated, odds are he’s dead.” My husband is a physician, and he took care of the first case of AIDS in the small town we lived in during the 1980s. No one else would.

“I know,” I said. “I’m starting to think my sister’s right—that Benji was depressed or psychotic and jumped off a bridge. There’s just no trace of him.”

Benji alive but missing made closing my mother’s estate more difficult, but my job as executor, my feelings as Benji’s aunt, and my attraction to tracking down answers to difficult questions had become jumbled. I didn’t want Benji to be dead. I also didn’t want to learn that some of my sister’s stories were true; it was easier to believe she consistently made things up.

“Maybe you should come home,” he suggested, still tender.

“I kind of feel like maybe I’m doing some good just by meeting with his friends. They seem to get something out of talking about him. He just disappeared. No one had any closure.”

“Why didn’t his parents have him declared dead?” my husband asked.

“Probably they just wanted to hang onto a little hope,” I said.

“Well, if you’re hanging onto hope, wouldn’t you file a missing person report?” he asked. I didn’t answer.

Hope, someone told me once, is believing in the best possible outcome without any evidence to support it. Some people don’t find comfort in hope; they find peace by ending the ambiguity and uncertainty. They create a story with an ending. They would hold a memorial service where family and friends could talk about the person the way they wanted to remember him—his smile, his generosity, his innocence. They would console one another. Embrace. They would have a meal together. They would laugh at the funny stories about him and wonder if it was okay to laugh. The way I was doing with Benji’s friends.

*     *     *

The restaurant Benji worked at had closed. AJ had a job at a different restaurant, an Italian place in the Village. He said I could meet him there before the place opened for dinner. He unlocked the door for me and led me to a square table with a red checked tablecloth. He brought me a plate of lasagna and a green salad with vinegar and oil dressing. “You want some wine?” he asked. I did. He brought me something red and put a small arrangement of chrysanthemums on the center of the table. They smelled like Homecoming.

I picked up my fork and took a bite of the pasta. The cheese stretched from my fork to the plate. I spun my fork to break it off. I didn’t feel hungry, but I appreciated AJ’s thoughtfulness and tried to eat. The cheese was hot. The sauce rich with garlic and basil. A little sweet—a sauce with a little sugar. I stabbed some lettuce.

“No one saw Benji for a week after he moved to the warehouse,” AJ said. “One day he walked into the restaurant, through the door that led from the alley to the kitchen. He was still wearing the green cotton T shirt he had on when we dropped him at the storage locker.” I imagined it pitted and stained, the sourness of his unwashed skin mingled with the cloying smell of weed clinging to his clothes. His eyes bloodshot. A week’s worth of stubble. His hair unwashed and stringy. I could picture him standing in the kitchen, all stainless steel and clean white tile.

AJ picked up a fork and turned it around in his hands. “I thought the boss would tell Benji to get out, to go home and take a shower, get some sleep. But he put down the knife he was sharpening and reached under his white apron into his pocket and pulled out a silver clip with some bills. He took the bills out, licked his fingers, then culled a series of twenties from the pack.” I imagined the bills as freshly starched and ironed as the chef’s apron. AJ continued: “He held the money out to Benji and told him to take them, and take as much time off as he needed.”

Benji took the bills. He threw them in the air as though they were ticker tape. He looked up at them and laughed as they drifted to the freshly washed floor. For a moment, he looked like a child. Then he looked at the boss and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want your fucking money,” he said, and walked out. “I went after him,” AJ said, “but he told me not to come near him.” No one saw him after that.

I asked AJ if Benji had anyone special.

He dropped his head. “Not really. Everyone loved Benji,” he said. The way he said it, I knew AJ loved him more.

I apologized for not being able to eat. I told AJ I didn’t have much of an appetite. He nodded. I took a sip of wine, but I was still looking at AJ when I put the glass down and set it partially on the salad plate. The glass wobbled before I caught it, but some of the wine splashed onto the newly laundered tablecloth.

I stood up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He stood up. I touched his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me. I waited for him to pull away. His eyes were wet. Like mine.

*     *     *

Between 1990 and 2004, there were 2,272 suicides by residents of Manhattan. Seventy percent were males. Almost sixty percent were white. Twenty-two percent were in Benji’s age range.

Ninety percent chose falling, hanging, overdosing, shooting, or getting run over by a train.

Only eight percent were found in an outdoor location other than their residence (see “falling.”)

Non-residents—those who travel to New York to commit suicide—are far more likely than residents to jump off a bridge into water.

The police don’t keep records of people who jump off bridges. They would tell an unreliable story. Not all the bodies surface.

Impact, not drowning, is thought to kill most. The body hits the water at eighty miles per hour, shattering bones and brain and internal organs. Like getting hit by a train.

*     *     *

I called the attorney handling my mother’s estate and told him to send a registered letter to Benji’s father: We all hope and pray that one day we will find Benji, but we are distributing the estate with the assumption that Benji is deceased.

After, I walked by myself to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It wasn’t the closest bridge to Benji’s apartment or to the warehouse or the restaurant, but it was the most popular bridge for suicides, even though it wasn’t the highest. Perhaps people choose it because with its granite and limestone arches like windows in a medieval church, it is the most graceful.

The wind was blowing, and the air off the East River was cooler than it had been. It smelled of fish and diesel. I pulled a long black chiffon scarf from around my neck and draped it over my head, crossing it under my chin and tying it behind my neck. With my dark glasses, I might have looked like a 1960s movie star.

I thought I could feel the bridge sway a bit as I walked in the pedestrian aisle, a level above the cars, and I wondered if it was the wind or the traffic or my imagination. Or maybe it was me that was unsteady.

Near one of the stone arches, I stopped and opened my purse to pull out a tube of the most scarlet lipstick I found earlier in the day at Macy’s. I leaned against the rock as I applied the lipstick, tracing lips from memory. Then I looked out over the river, at the ferries and tugboats. Below, I knew, the water eddied around the column that reached deep below the surface. I gripped the railing. The metal felt smooth and hard and cold.

I walked to the middle of the expanse, to the lowest point in the parabolic curve formed by the cables that connect the bridge to its supports.

I wondered if the wind blew that day, and if it was cold.

I wondered if it was dark.

I wondered if Benji looked at the skyline of a city he thought would fulfill his dreams.

If he closed his eyes.

I wondered how long he stood there before climbing over the railing onto the steel beams that extend out over the water and walking to the edge.

I wondered if a crowd gathered.

If anyone said a prayer.

Lois Ruskai MelinaAfter careers in journalism and higher education, Lois Ruskai Melina is focusing this chapter of her life on creative writing, particularly literary nonfiction. Her essays have been published in the anthologies Borne on Air (Eastern Washington Press) and Forged in Fire (University of Oklahoma Press). An excerpt from her unpublished memoir appeared in Oregon Humanities magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


“Down in the River to Pray” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction winner, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Lois Ruskai Melina!