That’s the news I got from my friend John — exactly 10 years ago to the day — late at night on a nearly deserted North Adams street corner. I had just started my senior year at college, and having turned 21 the previous month I was enjoying my new found freedom to legally imbibe alcohol. Which is a roundabout way of saying I was shitfaced and staggering home from the bar as John dropped this surreal bombshell on me.
He was near hysterics and I had to slow him down to figure out what the hell he was talking about. When he calmed down enough to speak, he told me a whole slew of things. But the only things I remember are 1) Felissa’s dead and 2) she killed herself.
Felissa was a sweet girl from Dedham who I met the first week of freshman year because she was on the same floor as the girl I started dating. I’d love to be a little more classy here, but if I’m being honest I have to say the first thing I noticed about Felissa was that she was hot. Beautiful even. She had a pretty face with sharp, crisp features. Her hair was long and usually in beautiful, tight curls. Felissa was always dressed to the nines and I have very few memories of her without make up. She had an athletic figure because she was a swimmer, and a damn good one at that.
But as beautiful as Felissa was, her personality was her magnetic quality.
She was so kind. And not the perfunctory or superficial kindness either. Hers was genuine and she would’ve helped anyone who needed it. I remember immediately getting the feeling she wasn’t used to taking a lot of ribbing from people, because when we all got to know each other well enough, we started making fun of each other. And she would always act so shocked when we began tearing into each other. Which of course just made us target her more.
Not in a mean way. It’s just that we elicited such a reaction from her that it was hard to resist the urge not to mess with her. So we’d rag on her about being a Rainbow Girl, which we constantly referred to as a cult. But that was nothing compared to the Sunny Bunny antics.
She had a stuffed rabbit she loved more than anything in the world. A beloved childhood plaything she just couldn’t give up, so it tagged along with her to college. It was a perfect symbol of innocence for a truly innocent person. But unfortunately for Sunny Bunny, Felissa lived with some sadistic bastards. That’s why Sunny Bunny would constantly end up missing. Nay, kidnapped is a better word. Felissa would receive pictures of Sunny Bunny blindfolded, in gang colors, with weapons and booze in the picture. Or hanging from a noose in the stairwell. I know it sounds mean, but Felissa would feign fury for a minute and then grudgingly smirk and laugh about it all.
She also dated my good friend Joe, who loved her deeply. The pairing was an odd couple deal because Joe was about as messy a guy as you can imagine. Not only that, but Felissa was a Type A personality. She studied like crazy, making herself nuts over every exam and paper. It couldn’t just be a good result, it had to be great. Joe, on the other hand, seldom woke up before noon and didn’t go to bed until 5 a.m. He got pretty good grades, but like me he’s the kind of person who can coast and still do well. Needless to say they were quite a pair.
Felissa was a very good friend for two years, and since we grew up 35 minutes from each other we were able to hang out during the summer as well.
Then Felissa spent a semester in Florida. When she came back second semester junior year, everything was different. At least to me. Felissa had a life-changing experience down there. She met new friends, had a blast and didn’t hesitate to voice her displeasure over being back in Massachusetts. She’d comment on how cold the weather was, how much she missed her Florida friends, how she wished she could be back there. Blah blah blah.
It went up my ass sideways.
In my eyes she was being incredibly snotty and holier than thou. I felt like all of a sudden we weren’t good enough for her anymore and it stung. But instead of talking to her about it, I pouted. Then I talked behind her back, tried to turn people against her and bad-mouthed her to all my other friends.
We grew distant. Our old gang was broken up, and Felissa transferred the next year opting to stay home and go to school while commuting. I never saw her again, and I hadn’t talked to her in months when she reportedly took a bottle of pills, waded into the waters off Wollaston Beach in Quincy and drowned. Some doubted whether or not it was suicide, but Felissa was the strongest swimmer I knew.
By the time Felissa decided to take her own life I’m certain I wasn’t even a speck on her radar screen. Yet I have harbored a lot of guilt this past decade for potentially contributing to her death. What if I had just talked with her? What if, instead of back-stabbing her like an 8th grade girl, I had just reached out to her and been open and honest? Would it have made a difference? I don’t know. With suicide, people seldom have the answers they need. This is no exception.
I took Will to the cemetery where Felissa is buried. Armed with a vase of flowers and a heart full of guilt and trepidation, I tried to remember which portion of the cemetery her plot was located. After several minutes of wandering and searching, I was frustrated because I just couldn’t find her stone. I know it sounds crazy because dead people are dead and they don’t hang around cemeteries, but I wanted her to “meet” Will. And I wanted to apologize.
But I couldn’t fucking find her. Just then I heard Will chirp “Dada, I jump.” I looked over and realized, in a panic, that Will had climbed on top of a flat gravestone and was jumping up and down. I raced over and picked him up, horrified and trying to explain to him that he can’t jump on these “rocks.” But as I scooped him up something caught my eye.
Will was jumping on Felissa’s stone.
I’m not sure what that means. Probably nothing. But then again, maybe the universe works in ways I’ll never understand.
When Felissa came back from Disney World, she gave presents to all the guys I lived with in my townhouse. Dave, Sean, Mike and Joe. She got them all a really nice glass mug, and it was laser-etched with their first names and “69” because we lived in Townhouse #69. But she never gave me one. Probably because I had already started distancing myself from her. I remember being so hurt that she didn’t give a shit about me.
A year after her death, I received a package in the mail with an unfamiliar return address. When I opened it my heart nearly climbed into my throat. The bubble wrap revealed a Walt Disney World glass mug with my name emblazoned across it. A handwritten note from Felissa’s mom said that she would’ve wanted me to have it.
I wasn’t a very good friend back then. If I had been a good friend to Felissa, maybe — just maybe — she’d have a family of her own today. Even if we didn’t remain friends, perhaps I’d see her out somewhere and our kids would say hi to each other instead of my son inadvertently jumping on her grave.
I still have that glass but I’ve never drank from it. It will always remain empty. It is my personal reminder that there is nothing in this world sadder than unrealized potential.
And I hope this story reminds at least one person to never give up on a friend. The people who need the most help are the ones who never ask for it, so never stop reaching out. It could make all the difference in the world.