My Friend Ellis


First Person

Photograph by Ben Ross Davis.

Twice in his life, Ellis made a contract with himself. He’d promised he would give himself five years and by the end of them, if he still wanted to kill himself, he would. Both times he’d made this contract, he still wanted to die at year five. But since, for a few months during each five-year span, he had a break from his compulsive ideations, he told himself it meant that the clock had reset and the contract was void. That, and he didn’t want to kill himself, not really.

I met Ellis in New York when I was twenty-six. He was the soft-spoken cybergoth—black mesh top, bleached-blond hair shaved to a perennial buzz—who always danced by the speaker stacks at warehouse parties. The angles of his jaw and his heavy brow lent him a harsh beauty.

He told me about his suicidal thoughts the first time we had dinner. We didn’t know each other well, really at all, so his pain alarmed me.

“I’ve had them ever since I was young,” he added.

“Me too,” I said.

I had my first suicidal thoughts in fifth grade. During some terrifying barrage of insomnia, I woke up, went down to the knife drawer with the idea that I’d know what to do. But once I got there, I was stupefied. I didn’t know if I should hack or slice or stab—and how long would this take? The fantasy I’d had in my mind did not pan out. I got tired and confused and eventually went back to sleep.

Had Ellis already sensed I would say this?

I saw that we were the only ones in the restaurant—it was new, with neon sculptures on the walls and tepid noodles. My vision condensed into a tunnel around this person, this stranger sitting in front of me. It was cold, even indoors, so Ellis had kept his jacket on: black, military style. When the food arrived, I saw a chance to break eye contact. I did not.

He looked back at me, head slightly bowed, showing me the crown of his hair. What I saw was an intimacy I couldn’t refuse.

Our shared suicidal ideations would become the foundation of our friendship. Outwardly, he was fastidious. He worked as a data analyst for a hedge fund. Yet he had an instinct for aesthetic precision and an artist’s tendency toward self-mythology. As a staunch environmentalist, he read mostly e-books or books from the library, easily upward of eighty a year, mostly novels, ranging from Jean Genet to the Broken Earth sci-fi trilogy. He went to Equinox seven days a week. Fearing the wasted energy of “decision fatigue,” he stuck to his routine, always: Soylent for meals at home or macrobiotic dinners at Souen in SoHo. Dinner rarely went on for longer than ninety minutes, and if you arrived late, he’d be waiting outside the restaurant reading a book—a soft rebuke. His robotic habits found their ideal complement in industrial techno. The way he danced at raves looked like an exercise routine—repetitive, with slight variations that visualized the music. He didn’t take drugs. The endorphin rush people often associate with weight lifting would be enough to carry him through to sunrise.

In Ellis, I detected a libidinal drive to service—such as his determination, during dinners, to fill other people’s glasses before his own—which made him a master; he had the power, at any moment, to withdraw that service. He was a strange and gentle man. He was endlessly moved by the Hudson River. He adored cinema verité and slow cinema, often spending overcast afternoons alone at MoMA in those dark, hagiographic theaters that ban popcorn or drinks.

This solitude came with a shadow. During group dinners, I would look over and catch his face, expressionless, with his hazel-green eyes opened wide, as if staring inward at a place I couldn’t reach. It terrified me. I’d zoom back in to the group conversation and then glance at Ellis a second later. By then, he would have changed his expression to pleasantly neutral, which is how I knew he’d caught me noticing.

I smiled when he laughed, especially at things no one else in the group found funny. His sense of humor was as unpredictable as his attention; he would sometimes abruptly leave a conversation. I would be talking and suddenly see the spark in his eye snuff out. It always stung, no matter how many times it happened.

It’s not so uncommon for young, sensitive boys to fantasize often of suicide. We met regularly at Deluxe Green Bo, in Chinatown, where we talked about our suicidal ideations as though commenting on the evening news playing from the mounted TV. We had an unspoken agreement that, following these disclosures, we would not need to convince each other out of our ideations or say the other’s feelings were wrong. We’d hear the other person out, acknowledge it, offer one of the basic services of friendship: witness.

Over dumplings, we distinguished the varieties of the suicidal impulse: fatigue, boredom, the death drive, panicked helplessness, deluded martyrdom, a relief from pain (acute, nagging, or numb), or out of revenge. Most of these weren’t serious impulses. Some, we intellectualized. For instance, Ellis sometimes told me that his ideal model of suicide would be the truest form of altruism where, like a plant, he could offer himself entirely to other people’s sustenance until he was stripped for parts and used to death. (Category: deluded martyrdom.)

He really was in a lot of pain. I should say that Ellis felt suicidal in full knowledge that he had no reason to be. He understood that he had close friends, a supportive family, a successful career. He once wrote to me that the sixth grade was the first time he conceived that killing himself might be “a good idea.” Years later, he would be diagnosed by a university psychologist at Columbia with major depression. In emails, he wrote of his depression to me like the arrival of monsoons, whose floods he knew came with the seasons and required him to drop everything to make room once they arrived.

During the worst months, he could ideate on suicide more than fifty times an hour, reaching up to five hundred times a day. Depression was wired into his brain. In times when he could not push forward for his own sake, he did so for others. There were, I know, times when I needed him more than he needed himself, and perhaps he chose to stick around to convince me to stick around. We had this thing where each time we parted, all he said was “Hang in there.”


To love someone who is depressed, even if depressed yourself, is to take on the delusion of embodying, in your very presence, a reason that compels someone to stay alive. These were the implicit stakes of our friendship.

I relished my routine moments with Ellis. At raves, he would always hover around the speaker stacks with earplugs in so he could get the best possible sound. Whenever I showed up to the party, I knew I would find him in that spot. In the morning, after the party was over, the sun would show brilliantly over the subway gratings in Bushwick’s warehouse district, and we’d walk back home saying barely anything to each other. Even boredom was steeped with radiance. What infused these otherwise unremarkable walks with meaning was my idea that, one morning, he might not be there.

I tried to be entertaining and funny around him. I knew he liked the way I danced, so at parties, I would at least try to dance well, even if I was tired or bored or wanted to sit down. He never asked me, or expected me, to play this role, but I performed it dutifully, out of gratitude, out of faith, out of foolishness, out of frivolity. My mind fixates on the times when he seemed gripped by physical mirth. Like when a techno track he’d recognize would come through the speakers, and his body would collapse into urgent, childlike glee. Or the carnal look on his face when he dipped his body in a hot tub—he appeared so fully human, reacting to this fleshly sensation.

I mostly just wanted him to feel better. For years I kept a clipping of “Poem of Regret for an Old Friend” by Meghan O’Rourke, which I’d cut out of a magazine the week that I’d read it and taped onto the inside of a floor-level cabinet where I kept my laundry detergent. Every time I wanted to read it, I had to crouch. I imagined its opening lines to be about forgiving, or at least trying to make peace with, a friend’s suicide:

What you did wasn’t so bad.
You stood in a small room, waiting for the sun.
At least you told yourself that.

In my apartment in Bushwick, I thought of someone longing for sunrise that could never come too soon, and instead choosing sudden darkness: the relief of final rest. Sometimes I wondered if loving Ellis meant allowing him to choose that final rest. I did not want to keep him in this life, just for me, if it only made him suffer. I could at least allow him, if he chose, to close in on himself fully and finally. I could release him from my dependence, maybe assure him that he could be proud of me if he left me alone, that I’d somehow been made better because of the joy and struggle of our trying friendship, that I could at last be fine on my own.

Years later, I’d moved out of that Bushwick apartment and was living in Berlin. Ellis visited for a month. I would sit in the kitchen of his sublet going on about my problems and preoccupations as he cooked me lentils or soliciting gossipy updates from him on the New York scene. The forks, the metal fridge, the glasses, and backsplash tiles all seemed glaring, dazzling, frenzied with lazy sunlight. His last week in the city, we had lunch at an organic café. As he approached the entrance, I saw he was wearing a bucket hat and sunglasses, because it was summer, and the summers in Berlin can be so generous. Over lunch, we talked about some people we both knew, the science fiction he was writing. We spent the entire afternoon there, reclined against large pillows. Sometimes my mind drifted out of the conversation just so I could stare at Ellis and think of how strange he still appeared to me after all these years. He was facing the window, so his pupils, peering at me from his peridot eyes, narrowed to a prick. After this, Ellis would go back to New York, and by the time the darkness of winter came, our lunch would be but a memory of one sunny afternoon when the restaurant’s open windows were stormed with light that warmed our backs.

Before we got up to leave, I asked him how he was, and he said he was less depressed than usual since he was in Berlin, a city he loved. And then, because I knew I might not see him again for a very long time, I decided to tell him.

“I say this because I love you: If you ever wanted to kill yourself, you have my permission.”

He looked at me, reached over and squeezed my knee. “I hope you wouldn’t say that, because it would mean you’ve given up on yourself.”


In time, I found a sustained and unremarkable happiness. In my mid-thirties, I regarded my former suicidal ideations with curiosity because I could not remember how they felt. It’s almost cruel the way the mind forgets pain. Can forget anything, really, including the suffering of others.

After the pandemic, I moved back to New York to study journalism. I had won a scholarship. I went out less, spending my weekends writing, alternating between stints at my desk and walks in the park, and I no longer saw Ellis weekly, dancing by the speaker stacks.

Over coffee one day at MoMA, our conversation—about the exhibitions, the books he was reading—hewed to the surface, which made me impatient. I don’t remember a single thing he said. Now that I was an editor at an art magazine, I must have found the sound of my own voice more interesting. It had been a long time since I texted Ellis during an attack of suicidal panic. I now saw him only a few times a year.

One evening in September, Ellis attended a reading I gave at Blade Study, a small gallery downtown. I hadn’t seen him for several months. He came up to introduce me to a woman with a broad smile. “This is my girlfriend,” he said. I tightened my face to hide any surprise or embarrassment. I hadn’t even known he was in a relationship. They had been together for almost a year.

I went outside to find him before he left, as people were making their way to the bar. These were new friends, who didn’t know me back when I still lived in that bedroom in Bushwick with no windows, where mice ran inside the walls and I lay in bed until sundown, staring at the ceiling. I glanced around. I couldn’t find him. Where was this man, who taught me to court boredom, or how to trust happiness that isn’t guaranteed? He was here, somewhere, present in his absence. Somewhere in this city, I knew there was a man who carried with him, in every room he walked into, a witness of my pain, and in every room I walked into, I carried my witness of his with me. I stared at the crushed cigarette butts littered beneath the gallery’s window ledge. Eventually, I gave up looking for him. I caught up with the others down the street.

An adapted excerpt from Mean Boys: A Personal History, out from Bloomsbury this April.

Geoffrey Mak is a queer Chinese American writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Guardian, and Artforum, among other publications. He is cofounder of the reading and performance series Writing on Raving.