The madman stepped out of the shadows three feet away and smiled broadly.
Under the harsh yellow streetlight, his blonde hair was white, the angles of his face gaunt. His eyes glinted with light from another world. It was my best friend John, or at least John’s body with a schizophrenic parody of him in residence. The scary thing about John as a schizophrenic wasn’t what he was doing right now, it was knowing he might do anything, that prediction was impossible.
“Hello, initiate,” he said, flipping a coin and snatching it from midair. “Heads,” he said, holding his palm open to me with a penny, tail side up.
I fought back my fight or flight response and focused on some here-and-now questions.
“When did you get out of the hospital?” I asked him.
He whispered, “The temple was never completed” and ran off into the night.
At this early stage of madness, he was eerily himself, handsome, self-possessed, and affable. Months later he wandered up to me ragged and filthy, with broken teeth. His personality faded in and out like a badly tuned radio. After a moment of lucidness, he would cackle and dance clownishly away, his rags flying. It was quietly nightmarish to see a friend’s face with someone else’s eyes in place of his. Same house, different tenant.
I met John a year before when he drove onto campus in his red sports car as a new student and asked me for directions. I pointed him the right way and we both seemed to know instantly that we’d be friends. Every day was filled with spiritual discipline for John, from end to end, such as praying, repeating “affirmations”, and exercising diligently as part of his practice. He had spiritual roots in various western mystical traditions along the lines of the “Power of positive thinking”, “A course in miracles” and the St. Germain “I AM” stuff. Somehow he wore all this lightly and with good humor.
John had more charisma than anyone I’ve ever known, to this day. Blonde, handsome and athletic, he had a cheerfully relaxed yet commanding nature that made people actively want to cooperate with him. I remember sitting in his room one day when we heard yelling from outside. Looking out, we saw one of the giant baseball jocks pushing this little guy around and yelling at him. It was an absolutely unfair fight. John hopped out his ground-floor window. He strolled over to the jock, grabbed him by the collar, (which he had to reach up to) shook him and lectured him like he was a bad dog. The jock complained, made excuses, and walked away, downcast. I remember feeling as though some fundamental, physical law had been broken as I watched.
“How did you do that?” I asked him as he strolled back inside. He looked at me as if to ask “Do what?”.
In those days I was a “Joe Spiritual” type; a soft, friendly, flexible sort. My head was full of Alan Watts and Baba Ram Dass. I did yoga well enough to teach it but didn’t work my muscles at all. John decided this would never do. I needed to Yang the hell up. He asked me to come with him on a nighttime run.
“I’m a sprinter.” I whined, “If I go too far I get a stitch in my side.”
This was the truth, my whole life I could run like a bat out of hell for about three blocks and then have a nice little lie-down on the sidewalk while friends administered CPR. He looked at me under mock stern eyebrows and said, “This is jogging, ya dope. We’re not trying to go fast, we’re trying for smooth, comfortable distance.”
Our campus stood on sandy landfill beside the Gulf of Mexico. It was common knowledge that the gates of the college stood seven miles from the “Sunshine Skyway” bridge, heading south out of town. That Spring evening, as the sun was setting, we went pounding off campus; John, practiced and graceful, and me trying to look that way. We ran out of the city lights and south into darkness. I could hear birds calling, cicadas buzzing and the steady crunching of pebbles and shells under my sneakers. My breath was ragged and uncertain. Slowly, the bulk of the Skyway Bridge rose out of the night, blacker than its dark surroundings, and topped with two red beacons. We slapped the nearest end of the base and rounded for home. I found my stride. I discovered that my body could become a loping animal and take me for a ride. We rolled home after fourteen miles and I felt fine.
I got up the next day, and I still felt fine. My image of what was physically possible for me had changed forever. It is ridiculous, and it DID happen. If I had tried it on my own it would have been over in minutes with no surprises. With certain other people, I might have made the distance but suffered physical consequences. I don’t know why I didn’t suffer, except that John’s confidence seemed to be big enough to contain me too and strong enough to act as a kind of behavioral placebo.
I was the one in the theater department but John, (working on a BA in political science) was tapped to play the lead in the big show that quarter. He was always kind of playing himself in real life, with a bravura performance that held up pretty well when adapted into a leading role on stage. It wasn’t great acting, but it was a gripping performance. With a kind of dark ironic foreshadowing, the play was Archibald Macleish’s “J.B.”, a retelling of the story of Job. There was golden John, playing Job, the especially blessed man whose every blessing is removed bit by bit, by God himself…to win a bet.
I played one of the hypocritical “comforters” (3 rather cardboard personifications of various philosophies people take comfort in). I look back and see John and myself on stage, him filthy and mad with despair and me dressed as a priest muttering spiritual cliches to comfort him: Very strange.
I left for Spring semester in London and returned to find John surrounded by doting, worshipful followers (who hadn’t been there when I left). John said they were talking about leaving school and getting a “place in California” to experiment with creating a community. In other words, an extemporaneous cult had sprung up around John and was growing quickly. It was a social/spiritual circus and my first-person experience of a cult of personality being born. I didn’t like what was happening and I didn’t like John the cult leader because – Why? Just why? Why did any of it need to happen? I was auto-grandfathered into some sort of number two spot because we were best friends. Someone told me I appeared to be the power behind the throne. I suppose this was because I was quiet in that way that lets people make up their own stories about you. After a moment of feeling stupidly flattered (“Really? Me?”) I thought: What power? What throne, for God’s sake? I loved John and “community” intrigued me, but the energy felt compromised with naive and shadowy motivations from all of us. Every time I thought of playing a part in that community I smelled power. I didn’t leave based on my principles so much as getting away from the wrong smell.
I left for a Summer acting program out of state and as I returned two months later, John had wholly decompensated. He was undeniably insane. All those adoring fans were now scornfully saying that they’d always known there was something wrong with that guy. There WAS always something wrong with John, but it was hidden in plain sight among so many things that were right.
He was such an entertaining bastard. Every day was seasoned with show-business. He was self-infatuated and self-important but you forgave him because there was nothing small, cheap, or jealous in him. No problem, have fun, John. He was funny, inspiring, kind, and frequently noble. It was the last friendship I poured myself so completely into; the end of childhood, somehow.
John pushed back the borders of the possible for me. I’ve always felt magic in the world, hidden just behind the obvious and mundane. He helped me see that you can grab handfuls of it. What he lacked, finally, was the ability to thrive as an ordinary man, he had no room for that experience. Something in him was compelled to rise up and close the distance between himself and the impossible. Much of what he did was chosen for its difficulty. When you go big and intense enough you begin to mirror a myth, and there was an unmistakable Icarus pattern to his life. That myth includes the fate of falling from the apex of your intensity. Schizophrenia is real, it ripens, and there is often a twilight of sanity with flickers of the unraveling to come. I don’t know how to distinguish cleanly between his passionate intensity and the madness that followed. But there is a connection. No person in their right mind rides the edge that hard.
Profound bravery and the ability to pull magic out of the air may be gifts that are only available to those standing dangerously close to the edge.