Hokahey! But Not Today





It was an urban legend. I had only heard about it but had never known anyone who received a 4.0 because their college roommate killed themselves, but that was the rumor. Seemed fair enough to me. If your roomie commits suicide, how the hell are you supposed to concentrate on getting good grades? I guess if you had a nightmare of a roommate - one who ate all your food, constantly left dishes in the sink, or never paid rent on time, then I could see how it might seem like a relief. I have had some bad roommates in my day. I had one who used to sleepwalk, and one time she sleepwalked into my room and peed on my desk chair thinking it was the toilet. I had another who would immediately have sex with any guy who she knew I had a crush on, and yet another who was a raging alcoholic and would have violent outbursts punching in walls or breaking chairs late at night. But as bad as they were, I never wished them dead. 


I did, however, have one roommate who wished himself dead.


His name was Nick and he was my roommate during my junior and senior years of college at UC Santa Barbara. He was ten years my senior, soft-spoken with flaming red hair and a matching beard and mustache, around 6 feet tall, and skinny to the point of almost looking malnourished. Perhaps his vegan diet was cause for his gaunt appearance, although he made a hell of a good mashed potatoes with miso gravy. He had been attending UCSB for at least ten years, not because he was like Animal House’s Bluto, only staying in college to avoid facing the real world, but because he was studying for his PhD in chemistry in hopes of attaining a professorship somewhere.


We didn’t hang out much. I was, after all, twenty-one years old and focussed mostly on partying and fucking rugby players, but we got along great. We shared a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the town adjacent to the university called Isla Vista, which at the time was the most populated square mile west of the Mississippi rife with horny college students. Nick slept out in the living room on a single mattress on the floor and let me take the bedroom which you had to walk through to get the even tinier bathroom. Nick was very courteous and respectful, always knocking before entering my room to get to the bathroom or his part of our shared closet, and when he knew I was asleep and needed to enter, he so very quietly slid open the door that separated the bedroom from the living room as to not wake me. 


Nick was heavy into music and had the greatest CD collection I had ever seen filled with everything from reggae to punk to country from bands I loved to ones I had never heard of. It must have been worth thousands in the mid 90’s. I didn't even have a CD player at the time, only a shitty boombox and a few cassette tapes on their last legs, but Nick gave me free rein of his music and CD player. When the weather was warm, I used to lie outside topless on the chaise lounge and study while listening full blast to his music that I coveted so much. He also had a sweet VHS and laser disk player which I could use whenever I wanted.


He never complained when I came home drunk after a night of partying and used the microwave to heat up a burrito while he was asleep, or when I puked quite loudly into the toilet after drinking too much while he was asleep. He was by all intents and purposes a great roommate. I would go so far as to say he was the best roommate I had ever had… 


right up until he tried to kill himself in my car.



It happened during finals week of fall quarter my senior year. I had heard that during exams some students get so stressed out that they have to go to the emergency room either due to the dangerous consumption of stimulants, or just being so overwhelmed with studies that they have a nervous breakdown. I had never seen nor experienced this, nor had I seen Nick behave in any manner more than just being super chill. So it surprised me to learn after one horrible night, that for weeks, maybe even months, my soft-spoken vegan redhead roommate had been gracefully falling apart.


I had been studying for an English final all evening in my room when I just couldn’t absorb any more information. I went out into the living room to take a break and saw Nick putting on his jacket to leave.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m just going out for a walk,” he said. An hour or so later, Nick came home soaking wet.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was at Campus Point and I fell in,” he said. Campus Point was the surf beach on the East side of UCSB. At low tide you could walk out onto the massive slabs of volcanic rock and watch the sunset or look for interesting sea creatures in the shallow tide pools. It seemed very implausible that Nick fell in. The rocks were but a few feet above the water. But I didn’t bother asking for details nor analyzing the situation. I had already amassed enough analysis from my course on Shakespeare’s Hamlet that evening during my studies.

“I am so sick of studying,” I said. 

“So am I.” Let’s watch a movie," he said.

“OK, what do you want to watch?” I asked.

“Something funny. How about Animal House?” He said.

I looked at the ample stack of alphabetized VHS tapes, found Animal House, put it in, and curled up on the floor with a pillow while Nick lounged on his mattress. After the film, I retreated back to my room and went to bed, which is what I assumed Nick was going to do as well. I had a full day of classes and studying to do the next day so I needed my rest. 


The next morning, I awoke at the ungodly hour of 8:00am to get to class, got dressed, brushed my teeth, and then opened the sliding wooden door that separated my room from the living room/Nick’s bedroom. I knew immediately something wasn’t right because Nick’s bed wasn’t made, and he always made his bed. Then I noticed that his bike was still in the kitchen where he kept it, leaned up against the wall as usual. His brown backpack was on the small table near the front door but Nick was nowhere to be seen. I knew he wasn’t in the bathroom because I had just used it.  Maybe he had taken another walk. I had to get to class so I grabbed my bike, also kept in the kitchen, opened the front door and walked it down the side of the apartment towards the carport where I parked my brand new Honda Civic that my dad had recently bought me for me for an early graduation present. 


It wasn’t there. I immediately figured it had been stolen. It was not uncommon for cars and bikes get stolen in Isla Vista. Getting your bike stolen was a sort of rite of passage at UCSB. Luckily, mine never did. I was vigilant about keeping it indoors whenever possible. But cars getting stolen wasn’t so commonplace. In a panic I turned around and went back to our apartment to see if the keys to my car were still there. I always left them on the little table by the front door, so if they were still there, then my car had definitely been hot-wired and stolen. If they weren’t there then maybe Nick took it. I opened the door, eyes directed only at the table. No keys. The only explanation I could think of was that perhaps Nick had some sort of emergency. But that didn’t make sense. He would never take my car without asking, even if he were bleeding out of his ears. Never.


Were we robbed? I quickly looked around. Everything was still there, and aside from Nick’s VHS and laser disk player, there was nothing of much value in our apartment. It was your basic shitty one bedroom college apartment with old orange carpet and walls that needed a fresh coat of paint. I was running late for class, so I locked up, rode my bike past the now empty carport and to campus hoping that when I returned I would have an explanation.


During class I mulled over what possibly could have happened. Did someone come into the apartment in the middle of the night, kidnap Nick, and then steal my car? Was Nick being held hostage somewhere in Santa Barbara County? The review session for my Hamlet final was futile since the only thing I could concentrate on was my missing roommate and car. I couldn’t care less about why Hamlet pondered killing himself. The dude had issues.


After class, I pedaled home as fast as I could hoping to see my shiny red Honda Civic back in its parking space and Nick at home. But as I turned the corner onto my street, I saw that the carport still had no car in it. I entered our apartment and looked around. Everything was still in the same place as before - Nick’s bike was still there, Nick’s backpack still there, Nick’s bed still unmade, but no Nick. Now that I wasn’t in a rush to get to class, I could investigate a little more to see if I could piece anything together. I stepped into the tiny kitchen. Maybe Nick, or his captor, had left a note there. Then I saw something very strange. On top of the counter were a few of our kitchen knives including the big one that we used the most. They were all clean, just lying there. Did the kidnapper stab Nick, then clean the knife and left it out to dry? The whole time I had lived with Nick he had never left any dish, knife, spoon or bowl out on the counter. None of this was making any sense.


When evening approached and it started to get dark out, I called campus police and told them that my roommate was missing as well as my new car. The policeman I spoke with told me, quite nonchalantly, that this sort of thing happens “all the time” during finals week - roommates get stressed out and go for a joy ride in someone’s car. 


Not my roommate 


“We’ll send someone over,” he said. About twenty minutes later two campus policemen knocked on the door. I told them of my missing car and the oddity of Nick’s bike being left behind as well as all his school books. And the knives. They began looking around as did I. I went over to Nick’s unmade bed and searched for a clue. I pulled down the disheveled sheets and comforter. Nothing. I looked through the short bookcase next to his single mattress for maybe a ransom note or a cryptic message that had to be deciphered. Nothing. I then grabbed his pillow and lifted it up, which is when I saw the huge, fresh blood stain. 


“Oh my God!” I shouted. “There’s blood here!” A shock of adrenaline pulsed through my body as fear set in. Images of a serial killer slashing Nick’s throat and then forcing him into my car to be held at ransom ran though my mind. The policeman came over and inspected the stain. It was deep red and still glistening with moisture.


“It looks like a nosebleed,” he said, again without pause. I may not have been a forensic detective, but I most certainly knew that there was way too much blood for this puddle to have been made from a goddamn nose bleed, and even if it had been a nosebleed, Nick would have had the wherewithal to change his sheets and not sleep in a pool of his own fucking blood. Nick was fastidious about cleanliness. Merely turning over the pillow was something I would have done, but not Nick. No way. 


These cops were starting to piss me off. They looked around a little more, and aside from the random array of knives on the kitchen counter, there was nothing else to consider.

They told me they would put out an alert for Nick and my car. After they left my apartment, I looked through the little brown address book Nick kept by the phone and called a few of his friends that I knew asking if they had seen him. No one had. I was now too scared and distraught to sleep in the apartment that night. What if the kidnapper came back for me? I rode my bike to a friend’s house and slept on his couch dreaming all night about Nick and blood and my car. 


The next morning I rode my bike home and again as I approached the empty carport, an overwhelming sense of dread washed over me. I walked through the front door and immediately saw the red light blinking on the answering machine. “You have two new messages,” it robotically said. Here we go. I pressed play expecting the worst. The first message said, “Aimee, we have information on your roommate. Please call us back.” 


He’s dead, I thought. “Information on your roommate?” If he were alive they would have just said, “He’s alive.” A great heaviness hit my chest and my throat constricted as the tears started welling in my eyes. The second message then played and said, “Hi Aimee, this is campus police. We found your car and your roommate. He’s ok. Please call us back as soon as you can.” The immense buildup of horror that had just overcome me suddenly released out of my body with so much force, I started crying and heaving at the same time out of sheer relief that Nick was alive.


Oh thank the Lord almighty! The bile that had been slowly making its way up to my throat stopped in its tracks. But still, what the hell happened? I called the police back. 


“What the hell happened?” I asked. The police told me that Nick had tried to kill himself but gave no real details. 

“There is some blood in your car on the dash and steering wheel. We tried to get most of it out but there is still some left so you’ll want to wash it off and disinfect it,” he said. Why was there blood in my car? They told me that they had found it abandoned in a faculty parking lot in front of the chemistry building and had found Nick passed out on the floor inside the first floor office. The cop said that Nick’s wrists were cut when he was found. I was so perplexed and reeling from finding out that Nick was alive I couldn’t even begin to piece together what possibly could have happened. 


“He is in the hospital and he is ok,” the cop said. I got on my bike and rode to the police station, retrieved my car keys, then rode to the chemistry parking lot. I unlocked my car and got in. Large coagulated mounds of blood spotted the steering wheel, gear shift, and console. It looked as if someone had been eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the strawberry jelly had oozed its way out of the bread and plopped all over my dash. In the back seat lay a green rubber hose, but I was too distraught to wonder why it was there. I put my bike in the hatch and drove home in a dream-like state. When I got to the apartment, I used some paper towels and Windex and cleaned my car trying to convince myself that the coagulated blood was indeed strawberry jelly instead of the remnants from my roommate’s botched suicide attempt. 


My last final, on Hamlet, was the next day and I unfortunately still had to study. I did what I could but so many questions were swirling through my mind that I kept having to review the same page over and over until I simply gave up. That evening Nick called me from the hospital. His speech was slurred and lethargic as I am sure he was quite sedated. “I’m sorry I took your car,” was the first thing he said. That was how conscientious Nick was of others. After having almost died from massive blood loss, his first thought was to apologize to me


“That’s ok,” I said. “I’m just glad you’re ok.” I wanted so badly to ask him why he tried end his life and what had transpired that night. Where did he take my car? Why was he in the chemistry building, and where was he when he cut his wrists? But I resisted. I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do was rehash the most horrible night of his life thus far. 


The next morning I rode my bike to class hoping to get this final over with as soon as possible. The last question of the test read, “What is the meaning behind Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy and why does he make his final decision?” Was I on Candid Camera or involved in a horribly cruel practical joke? Hamlet had issues, sure, but my only concern at this point wasn’t why Hamlet wanted to be or not. I wanted to know why my roommate didn’t. A cruel coincidence of an exam question nonetheless. When I got home, sure that I had failed my exam, I had to start packing to leave for winter break. I looked through Nick’s music and put on a CD from a box set of reggae, dancehall, and ska that he had recently purchased hoping it would calm me down after all that had transpired in the last 24 hours.


I left campus the next day and flew home to Colorado for break praying to God that Nick would remain alive and not try to off himself again after he was released from the hospital. He called me the next week sounding much better. I straight up asked him what had happened that night, and this is when he told me the most insane, heartbreaking, darkly humorous tale of accidentally staying alive.


Nick told me he had attempted to end his life six different ways that night thankfully failing miserably with each subsequent attempt. As he recounted the events of that evening, my eyes grew wider and wider in disbelief. This is what happened:


Attempt #1 - The night that Nick came home wet from his walk, he hadn’t tripped and fallen into the ocean. He had walked out on the rocks at Campus Point and purposefully jumped into the water hoping to drown. But upon jumping in, he realized that the water only went up to his chest which, unless you don’t know how to swim, isn’t cause for great concern. So, he then tried to swim out past the breakers but kept getting pushed back with the waves towards shore. The rip current was not in his favor this evening. 


“I kept banging up against the rocks,” he said. “It wasn’t the peaceful submersion that I had been hoping for. I knew that drowning would be no picnic but I was being tossed around by waves in a way that didn’t seem conducive to sinking beneath them. So I gave up, and decided to come home.”


“OK,” I said. “Then what happened? You seemed fine when we were watching the movie.” Actually, Nick had always seemed fine. I had never seen him act distressed or sad or even super happy. He was even keeled all the time, which may have been part of the problem. He continued the story.


Attempt #2 - As Nick and I watched Animal House that evening, unbeknownst to me, he had slowly been swallowing sleeping pills in hopes of drifting off into an unwakeable slumber. “I didn’t know how many to take, and they were just Tylenol PMs,” he said. “But I obviously didn’t take enough because I woke up in the middle of the night still alive.” I chuckled at this because last I heard you have to be alive to wake up. 


“What about the knives and the blood on your pillow,” I asked. The story was getting weirder and weirder.


“Oh yeah. That,” he said…


Attempt #3 - “I tried  to cut my carotid artery, but man, that shit is hard! You have to cut through the skin and then the muscle to even get to the artery. So I cut a little, but you know that knife we use, it’s pretty dull,” and I knew exactly what he was talking about because every time I had ever tried to slice a tomato, that stupid knife just squished the skin down until the seeds and flesh popped out from the pressure of the dull blade. 


“It would have taken me all night to cut my artery,” he continued “So that’s where the blood came from, the superficial cut on my neck.” 


I had never heard of someone trying to commit suicide by slicing through their carotid artery, especially without a mirror to guide them, however, I was thankful that I wasn’t awoken by Nick in my room, in front of the only mirror in the house, trying to saw his head off. That wouldn’t have definitely put a damper on finals week.


“So you just decided to turn your pillow over?” I asked.


“I don’t remember all the details from that night,” he said, “but I think I was so groggy from the sleeping pills that I just didn’t want to bother getting up to change my pillowcase. I wasn’t profusely bleeding. It was just kind of seeping out slowly so I think when it stopped, I flipped over my pillow.” Turned out I was wrong about Nick changing his pillowcase even if it had blood all over it. You think you know someone. Sheesh.


“But the knife was clean,” I said. “And it was on the counter.” I felt like I was in one of those detective shows trying to figure out the details of a crime.


“I didn’t want you to find a bloody knife so I washed it,” he said. So, the guy was doped up on sleeping pills, bleeding from his neck, and on a suicide mission, yet had the courtesy and wherewithal to wash the damn knife with which he had just tried to slit his own throat. I could only speculate the voice in his head at that point - “Well, I really want to kill myself but first I must wash the dishes as to not leave a mess.” Nick was always more thoughtful of others than of himself, and as he continued the story, I realized that this personality trait was what may have saved his life. 



Attempt #4 - Nick proceeded to tell me that after his unsuccessful and painful attempt at slicing through his carotid artery, he figured he would take my car in a last ditch effort and try to asphyxiate himself the good old fashioned way. So he grabbed the garden hose from our backyard, drove to an empty parking lot, hooked it up to the tail pipe, and waited. “But nothing was happening,” he said. “So I got out of the car to see what was going on and the damn exhaust pipe had melted the hose.” This is why the hose was in the back seat of my car. Thus far, Nick had already tried to drown himself, overdose on sleeping pills, cut his carotid artery, and now seemingly one of the most failsafe ways to kill yourself, according to the movies, had also proven unsuccessful.


I was surprised he didn’t give up after this, but as he continued the story, I realized his thought process that night was so skewed by depression, hopelessness and helplessness, only a deus ex machina, as I had learned in my Shakespeare class, could have saved him. And as it turned out, did.


“Oh my God!” I said. “Then what happened?”


Attempt #5 - Nick already had my car so he figured he would drive up to the small town of Buellton, about forty miles northwest of Santa Barbara for his finale. Somehow, someway, he had the capacity to check himself into a cheap motel upon where he drew a hot bath and opened his wrists lying in wait for the hot water to aid in slowly draining his veins. 


“I knew I was getting close because I passed out but I could tell that my eyes were still open, and at that moment, I thought about you and your new car that you loved so much, and I had just stolen it. I felt so bad because I knew you were probably freaking out,” he said. 

“Plus, I was getting so frustrated because this technique wasn’t working either.” So he heaved himself out of the bathtub, wrapped some towels around his wrists and a sheet around his body and left the motel in order to get my car closer to campus where it would be easier for someone to find it after his job was done. How he snuck out of the hotel only wearing a sheet with bloody towels around his wrists baffles me, and I never asked how he did it. Maybe he went out the back. Surely the night monitor would have called the police after seeing a bleeding man in a sheet walking past registration, but those night monitors have seen so much weird shit, maybe it didn’t even phase him.


“How were you able to drive back after all that had happened? Hadn’t you lost a lot of blood already?” I asked. 


“I don’t know,” he said. “I just felt so bad about taking your car that I was determined to drive back down. I was tired for sure, but I was just concentrating really hard on staying awake. I actually thought for a split second of driving your car off a cliff. That probably would have worked,” Probably, he said. “But it was your brand new car. I couldn’t do that.” That was so Nick-like. In the throws of death, while watching his body being drained of life, he was thinking of me. The towels around his wrists impeded the bleeding enough for him to stay alive and drive forty miles through a windy valley road, but not enough for some to escape all over the steering wheel and console. 


I thought, if he were as adamant about dying as he was about returning my car, he probably would have succeeded. Thank God he was not.


“Jesus,” I said. “But what the hell were you doing in the chemistry building?” 


Attempt #6 - Final attempt. After he miraculously made it back down to Santa Barbara, he drove to the parking lot of the seven-story chemistry building, Phelp’s Hall, and decided that enough was enough, that he was going to take the elevator to the roof and spend the last seconds of his life plummeting towards the flagstones that bordered the building.

     

This, he told me, was when exhaustion, blood loss, and the deus ex machina, otherwise known as the night custodian, disrupted Nick’s final attempt at peacing out. After having parked my car, he somehow managed to stumble into the first floor office and then collapsed, blood still seeping from his wounds. Had the custodian not walked in that particular office at that particular time, Nick probably would have perished and been found the next day by a very unlucky chemistry student.



That poor janitor. I can only imagine the horror she felt upon seeing my roommate that night lying in a puddle of his own blood, on the cusp of death, shrouded in a thin Motel 6 sheet. It must have looked like a toga party gone horrible wrong. The only thing missing would have been a dick drawn in magic marker on Nick’s face. 


The janitor called 911 and Nick was taken to the local hospital where he stayed for the next few days under a 72 hour psych hold. 


As he told this horrific story to me, I still felt like perhaps it was a set up and that at any moment he was going to say, “Gotcha!” I didn’t want to believe that anything like this would happen to Nick nor me.


“But why, Nick? Why did you want to kill yourself?” I asked, thinking that these were words I never thought I would utter. 


“I’ve been beyond bummed about not getting any nibbles on the college-teacher job market. I’ve applied to so many places and… nothing. I don’t really have a Plan B and I’ve invested everything I have, for years, in prep for the job that I want. I’m in a lot of debt, and I guess I just snapped. I’m not afraid of death, so that night, I figured now is as good a time as any.”


This sad yet brutally honest statement reminded me of when I went to Cabo for spring break the year before. There was a bungee jumping facility near our hotel and a few of my friends took the plunge. Not me. I was way too scared. But at the top of the platform, before each person stepped off the ledge, the bungee employee had them yell, “hokahey!” which they told me was a battle cry in Cherokee that meant, “today is a good day to die.” The twenty-something bungee guys thought it was a cool thing for customers to say before jumping off a very questionable platform strapped into even more questionable safety gear and hopefully not dying in the process.


No hokahey for Nick. Not that day.


I returned to Santa Barbara and the apartment after break. Nick had been in therapy and all his wounds had healed. Winter quarter started, then moved into spring. Nick resumed his usual duties as a teacher’s assistant for the chemistry department and I was getting ready to graduate. Not many people knew about what had happened. It wasn’t broadcast in the school paper or otherwise. Suicides or attempted suicides aren’t good publicity for future applicants. 


We didn’t speak much of the incident. The only time he mentioned it was once in the kitchen as we were getting ready for the day. It was rather warm outside and Nick was lamenting that he couldn’t wear a short-sleeved shirt because the scars on his wrists were so noticeable. 


“God these scars are so ugly. I wish they weren’t there,” he said.


“Well, then you probably shouldn’t have tried to kill yourself in my car,” I replied in jest.

 

We both laughed. That’s how cool Nick was, allowing his roommate to joke about his failed suicide attempts.


That spring I graduated and moved out of the apartment and out of Santa Barbara. I never saw Nick again, but many years later I was able to locate him through social media. He was thankfully still alive and kicking, never having tried to end his life again and had even fulfilled his dream of becoming a chemistry professor at a college back east. He was married and seemingly doing really well. Almost thirty years had passed since the incident. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind rehashing the events of that night so I could write a funny essay about it, about the night he tried to kill himself. He enthusiastically agreed and began by telling me that it could indeed make for a funny anecdote, that he had been so pathetically incompetent at self-extinction that night with the way he was fumbling around trying to just get it done that it might have made for a bad Jim Carrey movie.


In our last of these email exchanges, he apologized again for messing up my car with strawberry jelly and then wrote, “I can’t imagine what you were thinking that night.”


I remember quite clearly what I was thinking that night - that I would never see Nick again, that he and my car were at the bottom of a cliff somewhere, that my GPA was definitely going suffer. I did, however, have one other thought I never told him as I felt a little guilty about it, but people do and think strange things when they are going through trauma. If anyone would understand this, it would be Nick.


I remember that evening after the police left but before I went to my friend’s house to spend the night, I was standing motionless in our shitty living room looking around for more clues as to what might have happened the night before. First, I focused on the short bookcase on the back wall where you kept all your chemistry books with the bright yellow “used” stickers on the spines. Then my eyes languidly ticked over to your unmade bed and the other bookcase beside it with a few plants and dusty nick nacks on it. Slowly I scanned further right towards the entertainment center where you had all your wonderful music neatly alphabetized on the shelves. And then, just for a split second, a minuscule fleck of time, in the throes of not knowing what had happened to you, where you were, or if you were dead or alive, I briefly wondered, as my gaze lingered in that corner, if you didn’t make it, if I would be the lucky one to get your CD collection.