Scene 117: Daytime Emmys & Real Life Tragedy!
INT. AJ’S APARTMENT — HALLWAY — EVENING
AJ and Emile make their way down the hallway toward their apartment. They tow their
luggage behind them, the wheels of their bags clicking against the tiles of the floor.
As they turn the corner to approach their front door, they are confronted with a blue
sticker sealing up the neighboring door.
AJ leans in closer to read the sticker.
It’s from the coroner’s office.
AJ’s eyes widen.
“Emile, why is our neighbor’s door sealed with a notice from the coroner’s office?”
“Ummm, I’m not sure. Let’s get inside, and then I’ll call the phone number on the sticker.”
My heart sank, and I felt the sudden urge to vomit.
Two days prior, I’d presented at The Daytime Emmys. Miss Vivica A. Fox and I handed the award for Outstanding Morning Program to the team from Good Morning America. It was one of the coolest experiences and proudest moments of my career, and they had even aired part of the clip the next morning on GMA... That was awesome! I always love when people reach out to tell me they just saw me on TV; the support means the world to me. I’ve worked so hard to get opportunities like this one, and I felt an unexpected sense of comfort on that stage in front of a theater full of so many of my colleagues, many of whom are also personal idols of mine. That was the universe telling me that I belonged...that I was again worthy of the moment.
I enjoyed the accomplishment for about forty-eight hours.
My boyfriend Emile and I spent the day after the Emmys poolside in Palm Springs. We work really hard and decided to give ourselves this single day to relax and put career goals to the side. It’s so important to check in with ourselves from time to time, and if you’re in a relationship, as I am, it’s also important that your partner knows you’re still engaged and present. We enjoyed the mini vacation, but the next day we headed back to LA and the grind continued.
As Emile called the number on the sticker, my mind started to spiral. I’d just spoken to this neighbor, Robert, two days before while I greeted my makeup artist and my date for the Emmys.
We’d decided to get ready at my place and leave from there. Robert had spent the morning standing in the doorway and mumbling to himself. I’d seen similar unnerving behavior from him before; we’d been neighbors for seven years.
It left my guests and me feeling uncomfortable both for him and for ourselves, so I made the decision to call security. I’d never done this in the seven years that we lived just inches from each other.
“Hi, my name is AJ, and I’m not sure what can even be done, but my neighbor has been standing in his doorway rocking back and forth all morning and mumbling to himself. He’s done this before, but I have guests, and it’s really freaking them out, and it’s freaking me out now too. I’m not sure if you can send someone to check on him, but I would hate if I didn’t call and he ended up doing
something to himself or to someone else.”
“Sir, we completely understand, and we’ll send patrol over to check on him shortly.”
I thanked the man on the other end of the phone, and we continued to get ready for my big day.
As we left for the Emmys, we kindly wished him a good afternoon and headed for the tenth floor elevator. It was the last time I’d ever see him.
As we were entering the elevator, three security officers were exiting. I pointed toward our neighbor’s apartment and mouthed, “Please, just make sure he’s okay,” and then we were on our way.
As I paced back and forth in our living room recalling the events of the past forty-eight hours and beginning to take ownership of this devastating event, Emile got some information from the number he’d called. Robert had jumped from his living room window the day before while Emile and I were sipping margaritas poolside in Palm Springs.
I immediately collapsed on the couch. How was this possible? Why would he make such a tragic choice? What could I have done to prevent this? Was there anything I could’ve done to show him more kindness in the past seven years? I had called security on him for the first time in seven years, and hours later, he had taken his own life. Was I to blame for this man’s suicide?
My mind was going to some pretty dark places..
I was taking full ownership of this monumentally tragic decision that our neighbor had made. I knew it wasn’t rational, but I’d never experienced something quite like this, and the swell of emotions consumed me. The wall between our apartments and the space between our front doors was no more than eight inches or so wide. Eight inches away this man had struggled, alone, for seven years, in an apartment that is an exact replica of ours, only flipped. We’d witnessed odd behavior from him before but had never considered that this could happen. How could someone ever make that choice? I asked myself over and over, “Could I have helped this lost soul?”
I prided myself on living authentically and connecting with others, yet I’d failed for seven years to connect with a man living just inches away. That’s been a tough pill to swallow, and the emotions keep hitting me at the most random times. I feel guilty for not doing more, grateful that I was not home to witness his death, and fearful of what could’ve happened had he made a different choice and decided to act out in a different way, possibly harming myself or someone I love.
Mental illness is so often overlooked because the stigma attached to it tends to make us uncomfortable. I’m not sure if he’d ever been diagnosed, but it’s clear to me that he was not well and unfortunately saw only one way out. That breaks my heart.
My family came to town the following week, and that helped me to cope. Emile’s mom was here, too, and she prayed for me, which eased my heart immensely, but the weeks afterwards were difficult. Finding a way to get back to “normal” proved to be a tall order. I spend most mornings home alone, sitting at my desk and working on my book while Emile is out earning a paycheck. Usually, I love this time alone because it’s my time to be creative and write from the heart. In the weeks following Robert’s death, however, I wasn’t able to focus because our apartment complex had finally begun the process of cleaning out his space.
In my family, when someone passes away, we all come together to reminisce and share stories of our lost loved one. Their possessions are divided up compassionately and given to whomever appreciates them the most. Robert apparently didn’t have friends or family, which made his story all the more tragic. For weeks, my mornings were spent listening to random men tear apart his home and throw his life down the trash chute, about six feet from my front door. It was devastating.
I felt anxious for weeks and on the verge of tears.
Each time I left my apartment, I struggled to stay calm, and each time I returned, I would unlock my door with my head down to avoid catching a glimpse of that blue sticker, which remained on his door for nearly a month. One morning, I said a prayer and then opened my door to head out to a coffee shop, only to find a large trash bin blocking my way. It was about five feet tall, and I had to physically remove this bin filled with Robert’s belongings just to exit my own home. That hit me hard.
I’m a pretty resilient dude, and I make the choice to live each day with gratitude and joy. That wasn’t easy in the weeks immediately following his death.
I had suffered from depression at different stages in my life, and as I processed the emotions attached to this tragedy, I could not help but feel compassion for Robert. Less than two years prior, staring out my bathroom window—less than a foot from his window—I’d nearly made the same choice. When faced with the same decision, he’d made a different choice.
If that isn’t some profound shit, I don’t know what is.
I could feel that the universe was sending me a message, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I was feeling some weird version of survivor’s remorse, mixed with this deep guilt for having called security, layered on top of the shame I was feeling for having spent the past few months typing away at my computer, working on a book while my neighbor suffered in silence.
I later found out that security had been called multiple times both before and after I’d made my call the day of the Emmys, and that certainly eased some of my sense of guilt. The LAPD had even sent a unit to his apartment with a psychiatrist, who’d cleared him.
I KNEW at that point that his decision was not a result of my phone call, but my heart still ached for him.
One morning, as I was leaving my apartment, the young man who’d been tasked with throwing away Robert’s belongings stepped onto the elevator with me, pushing a bin of my neighbor’s things.
The bin was full of dress shirts still on hangers covered in plastic from the dry cleaners.
“Hey, buddy,” I said, “I know this is some pretty heavy stuff, and I’m sure it’s not easy, but we all appreciate the work you’re doing. Just know that I’m praying for you.”
This young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, looked up at me with a look that showed me how deeply he appreciated those words. “Thank you. Sometimes people just hide stuff.”
His words hit me hard, probably because they were both simple and profound at the same time. They were the sign I was looking for. Everyday people go through stuff; I do, you do, we all do!
One decision could have sent me out my window, but instead I chose to take a step back, reevaluate my life, and chart a new course. If my goal was to write a book that could change lives, I could not let his tragedy stop me from sharing my story. I realized in that moment that this is all about so much more than him, or me, or any of the roadblocks and rock bottom moments I’ve had to overcome to write this book. Robert saw no option other than to take his own life. If this book could help even one person fight depression and find happiness, then I would finish it not in spite of his tragedy, but because of it. I am determined to finish this book to honor him and to honor every person whose story was never shared.
The Daytime Emmys protected me from being home to witness Robert’s tragic end, but his decision reminded me of the importance of connecting and sharing our common hopes, fears, and dreams. We’re all in this together, so I press on.