Losing his brother leaves rocker Jace Christenson struggling to understand how it happened, and what he can do to open the door to conversation about suicide and mental illness.
Losing his brother leaves rocker Jace Christenson struggling to understand how it happened, and what he can do to open the door to a conversation about suicide and mental illness. A trip to visit an old friend who runs the tattoo parlor where he got his first tattoo soon nets him a conversation piece, in the form of a semi-colon tattoo, but the pain of grief is still overwhelming. Reconnecting with his band is an obstacle he's not sure he can overcome. It takes some time away with best friend and fellow bandmate Troy Paulus to finally get him to open up and accept that the things he's feeling are normal parts of the healing process. And if along the way, the two grow even closer, than that's just a bonus right?
As he stood in the lobby of the tattoo shop, staring at the walls and waiting for his appointment, Jace glanced down at one of the few uninked spots on his left arm and rubbed it with his finger. The action was almost reflexive, a slow, soothing circle of pressure right at the wrist as he stared at the art without seeing it.
Two weeks, fourteen days, and the sting of it all hadn't even begun to fade. Others had said it would, not like he'd believed them when the words had come tumbling out of their mouths. Empty platitudes, remorse uttered without meeting his eyes. He'd watched their body language, the way they shuffled back and forth from one foot to another, wishing they were anyplace but right there in front of him.
Some had even claimed to know how he felt, as if they were privy to his innermost thoughts and could ever have any idea what it was that he'd been thinking...or feeling. Loss had warred with rage almost from the moment he'd gotten the call to tell him his brother had died. But the more he learned about Brian's death, the more fury had won out over grief.
So senseless. Such a god damned waste. How any of them could call themselves Brian's friends and claim never to have seen a single sign that Brian was struggling made him hate each and every last one of them. But the one he hated the most was himself. For not having been there, for being so focused on his goals and on his career, on proving everyone who'd never believed in him wrong. And he had, with every song, with every album, he showed them that all those hours locked in his room with his guitar hadn't been a waste, that he hadn't been destined to sit on some street corner in some city playing for whatever change people chose to toss in his guitar case. But while he'd been rocketing towards stardom, he'd had less and less time for the one person who'd always believed he'd succeed.
Stepping into Brian's apartment for the first time after his brother's death, he'd seen the signs of decline in the haphazard way things were piled on shelves and dangling from hangers in the closet. He'd seen it in the contents of his brother's fridge, take away cartons and TV dinners, when Brian had always been so conscientious about the things he put into his body. Jace was the one who would live on carry out and delivery if his bandmates let him. His brother had always loved to cook, but from the dust on the pans, it hadn't looked like Brian had cooked so much as an egg in quite some time.
He should have been there, should have called more, should have done something to make sure his brother knew he wasn't all alone in the world. Jace closed his eyes, trying to forget the image that had suddenly swum up to haunt him. The coldness of the morgue, the drag of metal as the drawer was opened and his brother's body was revealed. Brian's face swollen and mottled, the dark, angry bruise around his neck, those had all been bad enough. But Jace had asked questions and the medical examiner had revealed to him the healing scars on his brother's legs and stomach, all round from cigarettes Jace had never even known his brother had been smoking. Or maybe he hadn't been, maybe he'd just been putting them out all over himself. Jace couldn't even light one now without bile rising up in the back of his throat and making him want to vomit. Maybe that was the one good thing to come of it all.
"I'll be right with you," Sherri called from the back, tearing his attention away from the wall. This time of night the place was empty. He'd chosen the last slot of the day for a reason. Less chance of running into someone who knew him, or worse, had known him when. It was odd, being back in the old neighborhood, but Sherri had done his very first tattoo, and he couldn't see having anyone else do this one. More than that, though, she was a friend, and tonight, he really needed one.
His thumb resumed making circles on his wrist as his eyes darted around. Little had changed in the seven years he'd been away. Some updates to the artwork, but the same glittery painted sugar candy skull masks adorned the black walls, making each of them stand out.
Jace found himself wondering how much of a mask his brother had worn as he'd plodded to work each morning, trying to hide the fact that inside he was screaming, crying, breaking into jagged shards more and more with every passing day. How much of a mask had Brian been wearing when they'd video chat, and why hadn't he been able to see through it? Why had he never noticed that his brother was spiraling into a dark vortex of depression and self-loathing? When the fuck had it all begun?
In between some of the masks, she'd hung his album covers, all four of them in order from the first to the latest. He stared at his face staring back at him from the debut one, his red-blond hair tied back with a blue bandana, his blue eyes glaring defiantly, the darkness of the cover making his skin seem ghostly pale. Arms crossed, he'd been leaning against his drummer, who at five inches taller than him had looked stoic and proud. He had a copy of the image from the photo shoot blown up and framed on his wall back home. They'd all been so overwhelmed then, feeling nothing but lucky and excited for the road to come. He'd never imagined that road would somehow lead him to this moment.
Jace came to stand in front of the mask that had always been his favorite. The blues and greens had reminded him of how fascinated he'd been with the ocean. How anxious he'd been to see it, peering through the windshield of the bus the first time he'd headed out to California. As soon as he'd grabbed his backpack, duffle bag and guitar case, he'd asked someone to point him in the direction of the coast. Ignoring everything else, he'd made his way to the shore and spent his first day on the west coast watching the waves roll in while gently strumming his guitar.
Had that been the moment when he and Brian had first begun to break apart, or had it come sooner? Had it come the moment Jace had bought a one way bus ticket? Or before, when he'd spent his last summer home doing every odd job anyone would give him in the hope of adding to the stash of money he'd been saving since he'd gotten his first guitar.
He'd promised his parents he'd graduate high school, and he had, he'd even stuck around until Brian had gone back to school in the fall, his little brother envious of the fact that he didn't have another year of classes and studying to look forward to. Not like Brian was far behind.
One more year, Brian had been fond of remarking. Then I'm leaving too. Maybe I'll find a college out where you are.
Only he didn't leave. Dad's stroke during Brian's senior year had left him unable to do much for himself, and Brian, ever the responsible one, had put his own dreams on hold to help their mother care for him.
Maybe if he'd been as unselfish, Brian would still be here today. Maybe if he hadn't been so hell bent on seeing the ocean and masks and Mardi Gras and the space needle and every other damn whim that had caught his attention, his brother might have had a life of his own, instead of one tied to this town. Not that it had been a bad place to grow up, just that there was little to offer that they hadn't seen or experienced. Boring. It was boring and even a bit stifling at times. Even the dating scene was pretty dead. Looking back, Jace couldn't remember the last time Brian had talked to him about a relationship, or even someone he'd been excited about seeing from time to time.
Just how empty had his brother's life become, while Jace had been off on one adventure after another, touring, writing, seeing the world from the tinted windows of RVs and a specially designed bus? As empty as the eyes of the masks on the wall, he supposed.
Her warm tone cut through the darkness and pain that had been threatening to drown him again. Since Brian's death, the tone of his music had turned bleak, filled with bitterness and regret. It was likely to stay that way for a while. Still, he turned, and put on his best fake smile, the one he always wore when he was forced to attend some event that was more about the money and less about the music. Maybe he had his own masks after all.
"It's been a long time," she said as she reached out and touched his arm; tentative, hesitant, as if unsure of her welcome.
"Yeah, it has, but I'm glad you're still here. Was afraid you'd have run off somewhere by now with Arnie or Armand or whatever his name was. What happened to that guy anyway?"
"It's Arnold, and I married him. Wasn't going to run off anywhere though, this place has been home to my people for six generations. I've got too much family here to want to leave."
"Thought he was getting a transfer or something? Going to be some big time executive down in Dallas."
"Turns out he loved me more. Loved me enough to stay. Maybe he's not a big time executive, but we have a little girl, and season tickets to hockey, and that's better than some high rise corner office and him always being gone."
Jace couldn't help but smile for real then, at the joy in her voice and the way her eyes shimmered with pride. Maybe if family had meant as much to him, he wouldn't be here right now, getting the tattoo he was preparing to get.
He hugged her then, mostly because looking at her radiant face was too painful of a remainder of everything he'd lost, but also because he really had missed her, and her shop. She was one of many who'd tasked him with running errands for her, or given him odd jobs like sweeping the floors and washing the windows, helping him earn enough to achieve his dreams.
"I heard about Brian," she said softly as she hugged him. "I'm so, so sorry."
He swallowed hard, fought against the tears burning the insides of his eyelids, threatening to spill down his cheeks.
"Thanks," he muttered, dragging in a rough lungful of air as he stepped back. He exhaled with a shudder and composed himself again, though his smile was back to being forced.
"Come on to the back and tell me about what you want done."