Read The Collective Online

Authors: Don Lee

The Collective

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ALSO BY DON LEE

Yellow

Country of Origin

Wrack and Ruin

THE

COLLECTIVE

a novel

DON LEE

W. W. NORTON & COMPANY | NEW YORK LONDON

for

Jane Pappalardo

CONTENTS

Begin Reading

1

There’s a road in Sudbury, on the outskirts of Boston, called Waterborne. Famous for the great blue herons that nest there, the road cuts through the immediate floodplain of the Sudbury River. It’s lined with red maple, white oak, and dead ash yellows, long ago decimated by a virus. It curves and dips, wending through hills and an alluvial marsh, rising once again past meadows and farmland, then descending in a series of hairpin turns. It’s a beautiful road—smooth, continuous, unsullied by houses or businesses—and therefore popular with bikers, runners, and drivers in a hurry. To no one’s surprise, hardly a month goes by without some sort of accident on Waterborne.

It was around three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in late September 2008, partly cloudy and unseasonably warm at seventy-six degrees, the tincture of fall edging the flora. Joshua Yoon, thirty-eight, was on his afternoon run on Waterborne, hugging the road’s left edge so he could watch for approaching cars. He had intended nothing for that day. The week before, in fact, he had arrived upon the method he’d use, suggested by a group on the Internet: he was going to put a clear plastic bag over his head, fasten the bottom of it around his neck with Velcro, open two canisters that would pump helium through tubes into the bag, and within minutes he would be unconscious and dead. Painless, quick, and efficient.

Once you decide to kill yourself, studies have said, there is clarity. You become focused. Your mood brightens. You’re blessed with a profound state of well-being. These sorts of decisions, momentous as they are, come willy-nilly. They begin as passing whims, an indulgence of reverie, and then, unbidden, they sharpen and coalesce within you, and you begin to fixate, and plan. You pay your bills, you write letters of instruction, you update your will, make funeral arrangements, buy an urn, label all your keys. There are only two things left to be determined—how and when. You have choices. You feel relief and joy.

This is not to say that Joshua was entirely lucid then. He was taking pills, so many pills. He was on antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, mood stabilizers, sleeping pills, and painkillers, their effects aggravated by a recent experiment with robostripping, something he’d learned teenagers were doing, spinning a bottle of Robitussin centrifugally on a string to distill pure DXM to the top. He was high, perhaps even hallucinating—not that it mitigates anything.

He was running on a stretch of Waterborne where drivers are slingshot out of a curve and accelerate. He heard a car coming, and, rather than keeping to the edge of the road, he drifted a few feet onto it.

Did he really mean to do it, to be hit by someone and killed? Could he have been so callous, willing to burden an anonymous driver, through no fault of his own, with a lifetime of trauma?

To this day, I am not sure. I go over and over it, and still I don’t know. Maybe Joshua, my old friend, had only wanted to feel the whoosh and rev of the car as it went by, the inches between death and continuance, how arbitrary the sway can be between the two. Maybe he had yawed drunkenly into the car’s path without volition or meditation. Yet the impulse had probably come across Joshua before, more than once, running on that road, to step in front of a speeding car, ending everything right then and there. Whatever the case, there was a witness, a driver approaching from the other direction, who claimed she saw Joshua veer abruptly and unmistakably into the path of the car.

The timing of it, the multiple, trivial interruptions that could have prevented any of it from happening: a stoplight, a phone call, a detour for ice cream, a playmate needing a ride home. A few seconds would have made all the difference.

A few seconds before the car came out of the turn, the little girl in the backseat, three months shy of her fourth birthday, had unbuckled herself and climbed out of her safety chair to pick up a book she had dropped. Her father was driving too fast, a bit impaired himself, having had a few drinks earlier at lunch. He disliked seat belts and would have eschewed them altogether if not for the insistent warning beeps. That day, he had compromised by clicking in the lap belt and flipping the shoulder strap behind his back. He turned around to yell at the girl to get back in her chair right this minute. Then he glanced around and saw Joshua, ten feet in front of him on the road, too late to do anything, but swerving on instinct to avoid hitting him head-on. The car swiped out Joshua’s legs at an angle, crushing one of them and snagging the other on something, maybe the bumper, so his foot disarticulated at the ankle, much like twisting a chicken bone off at the joint. The impact vaulted his body into the air in deranged cartwheels, and the car itself flipped and rolled in the other direction, tumbling repeatedly and brutally, until it squashed to a rest against a stand of white oak. By then, the man and the little girl were slowly dying inside the car. Joshua was luckier, if one could call it that. He landed on his head on the asphalt, and the blunt-force trauma to his brain killed him instantly.

2

Joshua did not have any identification on him that Saturday on Waterborne Road, and originally he was listed as a John Doe, the police unable to figure out who he was, no one recognizing or missing him, until his original preparations became apparent.

The week before, he had scheduled a housecleaner to come to his rented cottage on Monday morning. It was a first appointment, the arrangements made by email, and Joshua had told the woman that if he wasn’t home, she should just walk in—the door would be unlocked for her. By habit, he never bothered to lock his front door, but it was uncharacteristic of him to hire a housecleaner. In general, he shunned visitors, and he had never been known for his cleanliness.

She arrived at the appointed time, and when she came inside, she saw a letter addressed to her on the kitchen table, a letter with the numbers for the Sudbury police and an attorney in Cambridge, with instructions that the woman should first call the police, who should then contact the attorney, giving him possession of the labeled keys on the table, along with the urn in the box that was in the hallway closet. The letter explicitly instructed the woman not to enter his bedroom. She should depart immediately, Joshua wrote, not touching or cleaning anything. He left her payment in cash on the table, and apologized for the trouble.

In the bedroom, the police found the helium canisters and plastic hood. They deduced that Joshua had been planning to kill himself by this method (the Internet history on his laptop revealed the particulars) sometime between Thursday, when he’d bought the materials (date-stamp on a receipt), and Monday, when the housecleaner was due to arrive. He had been very meticulous, working out a way for his body to be discovered before it bloated and decomposed, yet for some reason, after devising such careful plans, he had suddenly annulled them, running out in front of the car instead of gassing himself.

There was a criminal investigation, replete with autopsies, toxicology reports, an accident reconstruction, interviews, and search warrants. If Joshua had survived, he would have been charged with two counts of manslaughter.

I am certain that Joshua never imagined anyone in the car would be injured, much less killed. But the little girl’s death, much more so than if just her father had died, overshadowed the entire episode, redefining it from a tragedy to an atrocity. Consequently, what I initially felt for my friend of twenty years—besides a numbing shock—was shame, not grief.

Why couldn’t Joshua have waited and killed himself in the privacy of his cottage, instead of imperiling innocent bystanders? Although I learned later that the driver had not been so innocent. His blood alcohol level had been .092, above the legal limit. Skid marks showed he was weaving on Waterborne on the preceding straightaway, and he was driving an estimated fifty-one miles per hour in a thirty-five zone. Just hours before, he had ordered three glasses of Malbec with his pork Milanese at a Concord restaurant, and perhaps had drunk more after he’d left with his lover—a sales associate—and gone to a motel with her.

No matter. Instead of flattering obituaries and tributes for Joshua, there were articles tinged with rebuke. Instead of being celebrated as an Asian American novelist of minor yet significant renown, Joshua Yoon was being remembered as a murderer.

There’s an established protocol to this, writers committing suicide. It has to be done with some dignity, honor, perhaps even panache, in order to establish the proper legacy. Gas would have been acceptable. Plath used gas, as did John Kennedy Toole. Hemingway and Brautigan shot themselves. Hart Crane jumped off a ship, Primo Levi down a stairwell. Woolf drowned. Mishima chose the most gruesome method, seppuku, Malcolm Lowry the most commonplace, pills, which—combined with his chronic alcohol abuse—had led, the coroner concluded, to his “death by misadventure.”

Yet suicide is an act of solipsism, or narcissism—I’ve never seen much of a distinction. The suicidal are incapable of thinking about whom they might affect, whom they might harm. They have vacated all rational considerations. They’re only thinking of themselves, and the exigency of the situation, which is to make it all stop.

Why had Joshua wanted to die? In the days afterward, everyone (except my wife, who knew better) kept asking me that question. My answer, only half in jest, was usually: He was a writer.

Yes, he was depressed—obviously. But this was not something new or atypical for him. Aristotle called it melancholia, the predisposition artists have for depression, prone as they are to being morose and antisocial and self-flagellating and megalomaniacal. Indeed, without that inclination, no one would probably become an artist in the first place.

Still, everyone wanted a reason, something concrete and understandable, like a degenerative disease or excruciating heartbreak, and I suppose I hoped for one, too. But no, Joshua wasn’t sick, and he wasn’t in love. He didn’t have a psychotic breakdown, he wasn’t bipolar and hearing birds speaking in Greek, nor was he facing sudden destitution. He had had money at one time, but frittered away almost all of it. Nonetheless, he was getting by. Although he rarely received any royalties for the three books he’d published, he had a part-time position as a writer-in-residence at Wheaton College that provided him with a modest income and health benefits. He wasn’t a gambler or a sex addict or a (nonprescription) drug user, he wasn’t a pervert, he wasn’t having an affair with a student, he wasn’t being extorted by pimps or dealers or loan sharks (unless you want to count credit card companies). No one was threatening or blackmailing him, there were no scandals in the offing, he wasn’t about to be disgraced or lose his job or reputation.

So he had no reason to do it, and yet he had every reason. He had never married, never had children, never even lived with anyone. He had chosen to steer clear of any distractions or obligations that might interfere with his writing. He was willing, nay, eager, he said, to make whatever forfeitures were necessary in the pursuit of his art. This was what you had to do if you wanted to be a real writer, he said, if you wanted to strive for greatness, for perfection. You had to be dedicated. You had to sacrifice.

That was why he had moved out to Sudbury nine months before, to that dank, isolated little cottage in which he had lived as an ascetic. The place came with a few basic furnishings, and Joshua kept it spartan, bringing only his files, laptop and printer, clothes, flat-screen TV, and extensive book collection. I visited him there once. Wood paneling and appliances circa 1950s roadside motel, thumbtacked sheets in lieu of curtains. Instead of getting shelves, Joshua had stacked his books against the walls, and then screwed hooks into the floors and wood panels and connected them with a series of bungee cords to keep the stacks from toppling. In the kitchen, he had boxes and boxes of Sapporo Ichiban ramen, purchased from the Japanese market in the Porter Square Exchange. It was, essentially, what he had been eating every meal for weeks. He was like that, obsessive with his habits, eating the same thing or listening to the same album over and over, until he finally got sick of it and switched to something else. He made the ramen with—I’m sorry to report—packaged bologna that he sliced into thin strips, cabbage, and the yolk of an egg.

He would get up early, make coffee, write, eat ramen, write, go for a run, shower, write, drink a beer, eat ramen, write, watch TV (the Red Sox) or a DVD (mindless action thrillers, his taste in movies surprisingly lowbrow), then get into bed with a book. He did this pretty much every day, save for occasional treks out for fast food or takeout meals, and visits to his psychiatrist. His schedule had varied only twice a week during the spring semester when he had had to drive to Wheaton to teach a fiction-writing workshop. He didn’t go into town, didn’t go away for vacations or holidays—only trips to New York for research. His parents were dead, and he had no relatives to speak of. He didn’t have a girlfriend, and he no longer saw any of us, his old friends, albeit our little group had by then fragmented and dispersed of its own accord. That was the extent of it, his life. To me, it was a rather lonely and—I don’t want to say this, but I will—pathetic existence.

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