The Golden Suicides by Melissa Yancy
Even before I was captured by the premise of The Golden Suicides, I was hooked on its voice—sharp, funny, original, pitch-perfect. The voice belongs to Hannah, whom we meet as a child, an adult, and a teenager—with these epochs triangulating around the buildup and aftermath to her older brother Gabe’s death and his previous cultish devotion to Simone. The author is so sure-handed with pacing, dialogue, characterization, and every other invisible element of great fiction that it’s hard to imagine this book is a first novel. As a reader, I live for the moments when someone expresses something I’ve felt, but in a way I’ve never thought about; these pages are full of such moments, and this is a writer I’d follow anywhere. —Rebecca Makkai
“It is possible to control Los Angeles by being the one with the most vivid fantasy about it.”
—Theresa Duncan, The Wit of the Staircase
My brother joined the world’s smallest cult. There were precisely two members: one founder and one adherent. But isn’t every romance an indoctrination into another self at the exclusion of others, a lens through which the everyday world is transformed?
Except the consequences are not always so final. It is only the end that tells you what to call things, what kind of story is being told. At the beginning, all fever dreams are the same, the fuse that crackles to life, the singular call to burn.
I was twelve years old when I met her. Girls liked my older brother Gabriel, and I had no sisters. He was a quick-change artist, the nerdy 1980s lead who only needs to shrug off the oversized glasses and Members Only jacket to emerge as an object of interest.
I took in everything about the girlfriends: smears of gloss, pearlescent nails, perfumes announcing what kind of girl they aspired to be—powdery and soft, or musky and complex. I had liked Rachel, the last girl. She bypassed pleasantries, gave everyone nicknames, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of punk. She smelled like deodorant and Irish Spring. She called me McSmarty, although I was not especially smart, and never shooed me out of my brother’s room. Later I realized she was the lesbian bassist in his friend’s band, not a girlfriend at all.
At twelve, I resisted our own mother as a feminine ideal. I thought of her as plain, always dressed for the outdoors, but in truth she knew how to wear her own skin. (She gives good scapula! my father, ever the dork, once said, when she’d worn a backless dress.) I longed for the rare family weddings where I might see her in cocktail attire, wielding her crystal-encrusted clutch. The clutch was the shape of a camel at rest, its back draped in a gilded carpet, and had been a gift from my father’s mother, who had no daughters of her own. In anyone else’s hands, the clutch would have looked grotesque and colonial, but with my mother’s simple dresses, her hair pulled back, it held talismanic power, like a superhero’s secret weapon.
Being twelve and sandwiched between two brothers, I searched for things that spoke to that secret.
Years after my brother’s death, my mother confessed I was her only pregnancy they had planned. “Who would choose to have kids over a span of eighteen years?” she said, then, “Did that sound wrong?” But she was too young when she’d had my older brother Gabriel and too old when she’d had my younger brother Benjamin. And I could see her wondering then if there were some character defect she had caused. “Sometimes it feels like there are people too remarkable for this world,” she had said. Of course, that was facile. That was not how I thought of it at all. But I wanted that story for her. Gabe had been too good for this world.
My father had come from cold people and my mother had come from too many people, so each wanted to remedy their upbringing in our home with warmth and order. In some ways they were an unlikely couple—Mrs. Hale and Mr. Pale, my petty uncle Lewis called them—but they shared an interest in creating a family life with intention. Every night before bed, my mother set the table for breakfast, with fresh cloth napkins and cereal bowls and tiny glasses decorated with a motif of cut oranges. Years later, when I thought of my childhood home, it was my mother’s simple gesture, repeated nightly, which came to me.
But Gabe went to art school in California when Benny was only nine months old, and we were no longer whole. We were so spaced out I felt an unspoken need to be the centrifugal force bringing everyone together. I was like a member of two distinct families—a sense of dividedness I am sure is shared by children of divorce the world over—and I was determined to experience both as a whole.
So Gabe’s returns from college were domestic festivals, with groceries to last a season, fresh sheets snug at the corners, and the walkway swept, heralding his arrival. My father would gas up the car, as though, with Gabe home, a spontaneous road trip might call to us. He didn’t want to waste any minutes of a visit with a pedestrian errand.
Before this trip, though, Gabe had announced a girl was coming to dinner. I had overheard him telling my mother about her. Simone. She was working for one of his professors, he said. My brother was a comic book nerd, so “art school” conjured images of his weird high school friends, only in smocks. I hadn’t even considered the glamorous girls to be found there. “What’s she like?” my mother asked, her voice registering the potential significance.
“Brilliant,” he said. “In every sense of the word. You’ll see when you meet her. She has this shine.”
After my brother’s death, my mother told me that by IQ standards, Gabe was a genius. But they’d kept the test results secret because they didn’t put much stock in those assessments, and they weren’t sure how that information would shape him. “Just barely,” she clarified. “Barely a genius.” It irked my mother how much Gabe had been fascinated by Simone’s intelligence, which was different from, but not greater than, his own. But my brother had never betrayed much depth of thought. Growing up, he had said so little and sketched so much I imagined his head was filled with onomatopoeia: Pow! Kaboom! Blam!
“What about me?” I had asked her. “Am I a borderline genius and you’ve been keeping it from me, too?”
She swallowed her laugh.
“Hannah, you have just the right amount of intelligence,” she said.
“I am pretty sure when it comes to intelligence, more is more.”
“Not if you want to be happy,” she said.
When I met Simone, I was dressed as an ass. Our school production that December was Don Quixote and my lack of theatrical talent had earned me the illustrious role. I had memorized the entire play but in the auditions my affect was too flat. My drama teacher had asked me to read the lines again with more modulation in my voice, but the modulation came with dramatic arm gestures against my will. It is the books! It is the novels that have ruined him! With each note from my teacher, my performance deteriorated until she could only shake her head.
When I got home from rehearsal that night, I was still dressed in jodhpurs and a sweat-stained T-shirt. On my head, I wore bunny ears glued to an old headband, and on my backside, a sewn-on tail I needed to tuck between my legs before I could properly sit.
I hadn’t expected them so early. I had planned to change into my peach-colored crocheted cardigan with a daisy on the breast, my most of-the-moment attire.
On seeing me, Gabe could not stop laughing. “Gabe,” my dad admonished him, but he could not stop. “It’s the look on her face,” he said.
“Simone,” he said, “this is my little—”
“Ass,” I said. I was twelve. If I was going to suffer this humiliation, I would use every opportunity to swear with impunity.
“My little ass,” Gabe followed.
“Hannah,” I said. I held out my hand. “As in Hannah and Her Brothers.”
“A budding Woody Allen fan?” Simone said. I had never actually seen Hannah and Her Sisters, but adults referenced it so often when they met me I had started introducing myself this way.
“Lord help us,” my mother said, coming in from the kitchen. She held a spatula in her hand.
Simone took up space in the room. She was only a few inches shorter than my brother, and wore a crushed velvet jacket the color of malachite, the shoulders adorned with bronze epaulets, a general from a secret kingdom of women.
“Would you like to change, Hannah?” my mother said. “Dinner is almost ready.”
“Oh, I’d like to change,” I said. I wanted to transmogrify. But now my little cardigan, which had minutes ago been the pride of my closet, felt juvenile and twee.
Gabe, who I’d regarded as an overgrown child, now looked older, more formidable standing next to Simone. I saw our house, my parents, my younger brother Benny, through an outsider’s lens, a consciousness I’d never had before.
My mother had put out the good plates, the ones with scalloped edges, but I don’t remember exactly what we ate. One of her standbys, most likely, a roast chicken with green beans and take-and-bake dinner rolls.
I willed toddler Benny to behave, as I always did during Gabe’s brief visits. He didn’t really know our little brother and Benny was not best experienced in small doses. He was both rigid and mercurial, particular but not particularly consistent. I felt performance anxiety in Gabe’s presence. But even Benny was enthralled by Simone, watching her as he pinched his chicken, his fingers missing his mesmerized mouth.
At the dinner table, Gabe and Simone told stories of art school. The school was expensive and impractical, and my parents had nearly exploded in applause when Gabe had expressed interest.
Between fifth and seventh grade, Gabe had been sent home multiple times and eventually suspended for drawing violent cartoons at school, incidents later relayed to me with great amusement, on account of the school social worker’s theory that these increasingly disturbing depictions were in response to my birth and my brother’s resentment at having been displaced in our home. No amount of persuasion could convince the school administrators the drawings were mere fantasy, the material of comic books and mythical universes. Many of them were graphic representations of dismemberment and decapitation. My brother, who had never been much interested in vocabulary, had become briefly obsessed with the word defenestration, drawing elaborate tower tossings with medieval flair, such that one math teacher, unfamiliar with the term, mistook it to be a foretelling of suicide. If my brother harbored actual fantasies of violence, we had seen no evidence. I had never even seen him kill a spider. But eventually my parents had convinced him he could draw whatever he wanted so long as it wasn’t on school time. He complied, sort of. Henceforth, he limited his gore to faithful recreations of disturbing historical events, so he could insist the illustrations suited educational purposes.
Now, as Gabe and Simone talked about art school, it became evident Simone didn’t just seem older, she was older, no longer a student but working alongside one of the professors. I noticed my parents make eye contact as they registered this.
I watched Simone’s hands as she brought them to her water glass, her fork, her cloth napkin, as though there were greater articulation in her joints, like a pianist’s. On her middle finger she wore a lion’s head ring, its mouth agape. My parents were dutiful about avoiding off-putting interrogations, so I filled the silences with my own chatter, the food growing cold on my plate.
“I wish I were at least the goat herder,” I said, complaining about the school play. I could not imagine someone like Simone would let herself be relegated to the part of an ass. “He gets to hold a ukulele. I’m on my hands and knees half the play.”
She laughed. That’s what I remember. I had made her laugh.
“And what do you think of Quixote?” Simone said, regarding me.
I’d had plenty of time to contemplate it in my hours as a human prop. I didn’t know if Don Quixote was supposed to be funny or sad, and our drama teacher said that was the point. There was a reason people still read it after all these years.
“I feel bad for Sancho Panza,” I said.
“Why?” Simone said. “What would his life be like without Quixote?”
“Too much sanity may be madness,” I said, quoting the play.
She clapped her hands together and leaned forward.
I had delighted her and was terrified by the shiver of pleasure ripping through me, as though I had pleased my favorite teacher and the coolest girl at school and the sister I did not have, all at once.
“Don’t you ever pretend you’re someone you’re not?” she said.
“Not in real life,” I said. “Like, in public.”
“Gabe did,” my father said. “He went through a phase where he insisted on dressing as The Incredible Hulk.”
“Or not dressing,” my mother said. “It was awful. More than once I had to take him to the grocery store shirtless in ragged shorts. I thought someone was going to call child protective services.”
“And he would actually smash things,” my father said.
“You do make a rather hulking figure,” Simone said to Gabe.
“And he still grunts,” I said.
“I do not,” Gabe said.
“You do!” the entire table shot back. Even Benny, who had been humbly working on his finger-to-mouth aim, pointed a stubby digit at Gabe.
I have recollected that evening so many times that I know what is left must be pure reconstruction, bits of verbatim memories from other times pasted onto the gist memory of our first meeting. And do I really recollect a guardedness in my mother’s face, a tightness in the jaw I hadn’t seen before? Is the memory a pastiche of other moments? But my junior high yearbook confirms I wore jodhpurs and bunny ears—an ass indeed. That much is true.
Back then, Simone had thick, dark brows that met the blonde fringe of her bangs, giving her eyes a hooded intensity. Years later, she kept her brows arched and thin, creating a scornful expression, a way of shaping her face in the way she shaped so much of her outer life, obscuring what was underneath. But forever when I pictured her in my mind’s eye, it was that first face, with the thick brow, I saw. The other, newer face was never able to supplant it.
Puberty had not yet arrived (that was how I thought of it—as a train pulling into my station, carrying faraway goods), and back then I foolishly assumed puberty would transform me into a different person. Perhaps someone like Simone. I remember looking at myself in the mirror at the end of the night, willing a change. Looking for the face hidden beneath my own. I remember regarding my brother differently, considering he must be more interesting than I’d acknowledged if he were able to bring a girl like Simone home. I remember climbing into bed and telling myself I would hurt my brother if he ever took her from me.
This morning, I find a spot between the narcissistic—a Tesla with a California classic brown-and-gold vanity plate that reads BRAINDR—and the nerdy, an old Honda Civic with the plate AMYLOID, as in the clumps of proteins that aggregate in the organs, slowly degrading bodies and minds. Down the aisle is one of those stubby toy cars with the plate DFBRL8R, which could either be a joke or an advertisement.
This is Los Angeles, and everyone arrives in the garage late and angry, taking deadly tight corners, even though they are coming to work ostensibly to save lives. When I first started working here, years ago, I worried about accidentally hitting a world-class surgeon, one of those whose hands are the only hands in the world capable of performing some specialized procedure. Now I kind of gun for them.
There is a special circle of administrative hell made for medical school dropouts, and it is where I’ve found my home.
I am the chief of staff to the vice dean of medical education—a glorified administrative assistant, much lower, in the true order of things, than the executive or special assistants, who wield real power. Like a special prosecutor, a special assistant can be deputized to do just about anything. If you work here long enough, I’ve surmised, they will bestow upon you the title of chief-of-something, a consolation prize for opportunities lost. I serve as an intermediary to the students—as a priest is an intermediary to God—who forever believe they are failing, but who would prefer not to make such admissions to the dean or the vice dean, or to anyone who has been through what they are going through and would be in any sort of position to help them.
Medical students wish for nothing more than a sorting hat à la Harry Potter, a tool that will select their specialty for them. Once, by sheer accident, I gave a student good advice and now they all think I’m Dumbledore.
The joke among my colleagues is that I’m the computer program ELIZA, the early chatbot before the days of personal computers, programmed to mimic the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. ELIZA could parrot human intelligence with responses such as “Tell me more,” and “I see.”
“What I hear you saying is,” I will say to the students and repeat back whatever they have said to me. This time of year, when a bunch of fourth-years are lined up outside worried about Match Day, I can spend half the day saying, So what I hear you saying is, you’re worried.
I am on my way to the Art Beat committee meeting when our public relations director stops me in the hall. Art Beat is the medical school’s literary magazine, an attempt to make doctors more like people; the staff has determined I’m most qualified to edit the anthology because I’m willing to select poems that don’t rhyme. Although history offers up an astonishing number of famous doctor-writers, I have learned the average physician writes poetry as poorly as everyone else.
Kristen, the PR director, looks like she’s been sent from central casting, in her tailored pastel suits and formidable heels that threaten to leave divots as she speeds along the floor. One of the researchers once told her academics don’t trust people in suits, implying she should look slovenly if she wanted to be accepted by them. “I’m not the one who needs to establish trust,” she told him. She acts like everyone works for her because everyone does. There is only one Kristen and there are 3,000 faculty; if 2,999 are behaving, there is someone who can’t keep their mouth shut, their fly buttoned, or their prescription pad locked up. In the mornings she spins in like a dervish, leaving assignments in her wake.
Today she has an extra cup of coffee in her hand, which can only mean she needs a favor.
“There’s a developing situation I’m going to need you to deal with for the dean.”
“Of course,” I say.
She hands me the coffee. “It’s Dr. Bautista.”
“No, no, no,” I say. I push the coffee back to her. “Next assignment. I can clean the anatomy lab. Anything but Dr. Bautista.”
Kristen refuses the coffee. “I’m serious. I’ve got to deal with DACA. The media is all over Aroon.” Of the seventy medical student Dreamers in the country, we have four in our school. Aroon is Thai, and photogenic, and because he challenges the prevailing narrative of Latin-American Dreamers, every media outlet wants to “round out” their stories with him. Reporters are practically camped outside his dormitory.
“I need you to tell Dr. Bautista to shut up,” she says. “For now.”
My throat produces a squeak of protest.
“What? You’re good with her. You’re good with difficult people.”
“I thought I was a difficult person,” I say.
“You are. That’s why you’re good with them. You speak their language.”
“I’m insulted,” I say. I take a sip of the coffee. It’s the good stuff. Kristen never skimps.
“You’ve always left meetings with your digits intact. Besides, you work for Dr. Ramsey. Every day.”
Vice Dean Ramsey is an acquired taste. He’s a pathologist by training who looks just past a person when he’s speaking, a habit I imagine he developed while avoiding the faces of cadavers.
“I’ve come to terms with that crazy.” I put my hand over my chest. “That is my special crazy.”
“Before you go, you have food in your teeth,” she says.
I’ve developed a habit over the last several years of not looking in the mirror. My colleagues are familiar with my lack of personal grooming and have learned to point out these details.
“I have Art Beat in two minutes.”
“Please. Fuck Art Beat. I need to go deal with CNN,” she says. “I’ll send you the details. Read your email.”
“Likely excuse!” I shout after her.
There is an energy on campus that can only be described as earthquake weather. It takes a lot to unsettle doctors. There are the occupational hazards of the profession (death, flesh-eating bacteria), and the occupational hazards of academia (committees, tenure), and the vagaries of reimbursement schemes and NIH funding, and the nature of research itself, which is mostly concerned with evidence against things, and the valley of death between discovery and application, to name a few. Against this backdrop, there is a special affection reserved for students and trainees, a cross between what a feudal lord may feel for his subjects and what a master may feel for her apprentice, which manifests in an understanding that the doctors—not spouses or children or administrators or the president—are the only ones permitted to torture medical students. They are fiercely protective of this right.
I check my email and begin by deleting the standard campus fare clogging my inbox—the latest draconian guidelines for travel reimbursement; updated campus parking rules—ninety-four pages in length; grand rounds and more grand rounds; and a reminder, yet again, about my overdue “sexual harassment” training module, which, in its most recent iterations, has interpreted the subject broadly, and taken on a strident tone, warning against all manner of microaggressions (A gay person is not an accessory, protests one young interviewee).
At the next email, my index finger goes rigid on my mouse. The body of the message contains no text, only a series of questionable-looking links. We had a ransomware attack last year (Russians, they say) wherein hackers infiltrated hospital records by targeting university accounts of gullible administrative staff, like me. Now there is a university-issued sticker on my monitor that reads CyberSafe, and I have sat through a three-hour training, where each section ends with the refrain, like a hymn, You Are the Shield!
The phishing emails have gotten smarter. Half the staff fell for one last month announcing there had been a ransomware attack and employees should update their security software immediately at the link that followed. Some are made to look like they are from executives, usually our CFO, whose real emails are such strange, short missives, without capitalization or punctuation, that they are indecipherable from the actual attacks.
This email doesn’t look sophisticated enough to be phishing. Thought you would find this interesting, is the subject line, sent with a high-importance flag.
Most of the email’s links are long URLs, all jumbled letters and numbers, but I recognize one of the domain names. It’s a website associated with Alex Jones.
I Am the Shield!
In the months after Gabe’s and Simone’s deaths, I used to get weird messages all the time, but I haven’t received one in years. I’d had my name scrubbed from all our websites at work to avoid random people finding me.
There was a time when I read all the strange messages and the theories they expounded, when I wanted to believe my brother and Simone could have been murdered, or my brother wasn’t dead at all, but had disappeared to save his own life. And every day I would look for ways he might try to communicate with me to show me he was alive. I found a faded ticket stub for a Guided by Voices concert at the bottom of my driveway and a soiled Frank Stella exhibition poster discarded alongside my building’s dumpster with boxes of cassettes and a gutted couch. I took the Stella, convinced it had been meant for me, and hung it on my kitchen wall. The painting on the poster looked like a rainbow of flat boxes within boxes, until you stared at it long enough and it became a pyramid rising or receding away. My mind strummed the optical illusion over and over, like a song.
Once, I had even heard Big Star’s “Thirteen,” the kind of song they never played on the radio, and been convinced that that too, must have been a message from my brother, as though he could have engineered such a thing.
The truth was too sad and strange to believe. It still is.
MELISSA YANCY’s story collection, Dog Years (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), was winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and a California Book Award and was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, The Missouri Review, and many other journals. The recipient of an NEA fellowship, Yancy works and lives in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @melyancy.
Featured image by Angelina Litvin, courtesy of Unsplash.