Gray Matters

'It's odd that I met you,' said the late Spalding Gray. 'It's too many coincidences.'

He cried the most when he talked about the house.

"Home" never meant anything to me except my current address. This made me uniquely unqualified to help Spalding Gray, who loved, to the core of his Buddhist soul, a home. The Sag Harbor paradise that was just the right distance from the city and the neighbors, was gone. He couldn't go back to it now because when "they" bought it, "they" put in a god-awful swimming pool.

So why did he ever sell it?

"I knew what killed Marilyn Monroe": Gray
photo: Thomas McGovern
"I knew what killed Marilyn Monroe": Gray

"I didn't!" he pleaded. The piercing eyes scanned me for any molecule of understanding.

Others suggested he get a bigger house when his second son was born. "They" sold the house and moved him into a bigger house in what other people would consider an actual neighborhood.

"I can't walk there!" he cried. "I used to be able to walk, but now there are houses and cars. . . . I'm a walker!"

He followed my gaze to the crutch, now propped against a chair.

"Well, when I don't have a fractured hip I am!" he said, laughing.

While his crying was overt, his laughter was private and brief. When he laughed, his tears disappeared. His eyes were immediately not red, his lips not quivering.

He said he was in a klesha, a Buddhist hell, made of his lost home and all the other curves and coincidences of his thoughts.

"So what now?" I asked, still imagining myself helpful. "You can't go back; you can't be happy where you are. Do you move somewhere else, or do you suck it up and be happy in this new house?"

"I don't know!" he wailed.

I suggested he do a monologue about it.

"No," he insisted. "I can't do a monologue about this. It's too personal."

I thoughtlessly reminded him that he had done monologues about his mother's suicide. "This real estate issue can't be more personal than that."

He gasped. "You don't understand!"

He was right. I didn't understand that pouring his heart out onstage didn't necessarily make anything better. Spalding Gray spoke about his pain so he could freeze it, hold it out in front of himself, and sharpen it. This talent gave each of his monologues at least one gasp, showing the audience members their own pain in its most perfect form. (Of Pol Pot's revolution in Swimming to Cambodia, he says, "Children were torn apart like fresh bread," and that line will be with you forever.)

How did I kill Spalding Gray? By not empathizing with his house troubles? By shrugging helplessly when he cried about putting on a "happy act" in front of his four-year-old? No. I didn't even recognize I'd done it until later, when he left and people I didn't know swarmed around me to ask about him. Something had nagged at me the entire time we spoke. But it was formless, and I didn't think to say it, to hold it out in front of me and sharpen it.

The distance between us, the fame that separated the "somebody" from the audience, was deadly. If you're drowning and famous, people will watch you drown. We'll wonder which of the other people is the paid caretaker who will save you, or think perhaps there's a stunt coordinator. And if you die, we'll think, "Wow, I was there when he died." What we won't do is help.

I'm sure I was one of thousands who had the chance to help Spalding Gray, and my interaction with him was so brief that he wouldn't remember it now, in Nirvana, or a klesha, or sitting on a beach by the Indian Ocean. But I had a chance to help and I either did nothing or worse than nothing, depending on how you count someone's tears.

The last line of Swimming to Cambodia is "I suddenly thought I knew what killed Marilyn Monroe."

I've known for years what killed Spalding Gray.


Davis Sweet is co-author of the forthcoming comic novel Make Over. He edits The Bean Magazine (beanmag.com), a political satire site, with Tony Hendra.

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