When he was about thirty my friend married a divorcee fifteen years his senior. She came from money, and her first husband had made money as a top executive with a company you’ve heard of. When he left her she went to work, which is where my friend met her. He was diligent but not particularly ambitious, reliable if not romantic: evidently he represented for her the more authentic way of being to which she then aspired. I stood up with the groom at the wedding; afterward he moved in with her and her two teen-aged children. Everything in the elegant townhouse was a shade of white: the rugs and carpets, the sofa and stuffed chairs, the grand piano, the linen on the dining room table where my friend and I sat drinking a whole bottle of amaretto together one Saturday afternoon.
The daughter, a vivacious go-getter, was an accomplished high school student who went on to graduate from a top-tier university. Afterward she built a business selling yachts, or maybe it was thoroughbreds. The son was a different sort: indifferent academically and, as far as my friend could discern, indifferent generally speaking. After dropping out of high school he hung around home for a few months, a concentrated aimlessness that evidently persuaded him that he needed to get tougher, more disciplined, more focused. And so he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
It didn’t go well for him at boot camp, and after a month or so he was given his general discharge from the Marines. He returned to his mother’s house for a few more months before deciding on a new plan: he would go stay with his father.
His mother, my friend’s wife, opposed the idea. The boy’s father had left her for a younger woman; afterward his relations with his ex-wife and daughter had been acrimonious. He rarely called his children on the telephone; he never visited them. The son, though, admired his father. Handsome, rugged, charming, successful, sophisticated, the father was everything the son was not but wanted to be. Evidently it had been the father who encouraged the son to join the military. And now the father was inviting the son to come for a long visit, maybe even to move in with him.
Leaving the family for the young girlfriend was only the first tack in this man’s midlife course change. He fancied himself an adventurer and a writer in the tradition of the author whose work and life he most admired: Hemingway. And so, quitting his corporate career and his young girlfriend, he moved to Idaho to ski and to write. A year later he was growing a beard and buying a place on the beach in Key West. Supposedly he was cooking up some entrepreneurial scheme to finance the boating and fine dining and gambling, which was the reason he gave for sharing the Key West place with his new business partner, a man he had met in Idaho. We’re fixing the place up, the father told the son; come on down and help.
A week later the boy was dead, having hanged himself in his father’s Key West beach house. I’m pretty sure he left a note; I don’t know if the father ever told the mother what it said. Within a year my friend’s wife had begun an affair with a man in her commuter carpool. The divorce took another year to be finalized.