By C. Kevin Smith

I was driving my red Fiat with the bad clutch down Pacific Coast Highway, as I often did, but on that winter Sunday evening in 1986 everything felt different. I was twenty-two years old, and for the first time in my life I was going by myself to a gay bar.

I parked and went inside. It was a casual neighborhood joint. I stood next to a post for awhile, trying to be invisible, then sat down on an empty stool and ordered a Long Island iced tea. I drank it quickly, aware of the men all around me. Even though I was sitting, I held on to my glass tightly as if for balance. When my drink was empty, I ordered another one.

At some point I fell into a conversation with a man sitting next to me. He was short, with a light brown moustache and friendly eyes. He told me he was a police officer. When he suggested that I follow him in my car to his apartment in Santa Monica, I said yes.

I had never gotten behind the wheel with so much liquor in me before, but I was determined to see this through. I drove the red Fiat up the winding road through the canyon, following the red lights of the man’s car in front of me, aware that my senses and judgment were impaired. Out of the chaotic swirl of intoxicated thoughts I heard a whisper: I am not driving safely. I should stop. I should pull over. Instead my foot pressed down on the gas pedal, and I raced through the tunnel of trees to my destination.

A quarter of a century has passed since that night. Recently I have been grieving for gay teens who have killed themselves after being relentlessly bullied at school. I have thought back to my own childhood and wondered what it was that kept me alive when I experienced similar treatment. Though the idea of suicide never occurred to me, I know now that there is more than one way to erase yourself. Is that what I was trying to do late that Sunday night in Santa Monica in 1986?

At the man’s apartment I fell into his bed, and we had unprotected sex. The next day I awoke with an epic hangover, fears of viral infection, and a determination never to do anything so self-destructive again. Something inside me had snapped, but I reassembled the broken pieces and carried on.

Today when I remember that night, I feel sorrow for that suffering twenty-two year old, gratitude that no lasting harm came of his poor judgment, and wonder at what sometimes causes us to throw ourselves into the darkness, as if our greatest desire were to crash.

Originally published in The Sun as Readers Write: Warning Signs, February 2012.