No person who has never been the cause of another person’s death can understand the plight, which becomes the life, of the person who has. For instance—
Let her name be Girl, because she never got to grow up. She stayed a girl (Girl) in every way, and will never change her girlish ways. Until the bitter end of her life she liked to talk in a high singsong voice, like so many young girls. It was annoying. There were other girls, plenty of them, who couldn’t have stood to be Girl’s friend, who (pardon the expression) would not have been caught dead with her.
She smelled bad, too—a little like the dirty dog her family had, a little like cheap fabric softener sheets. Let everyone else remember her as an angel, smelling of lilies (at the funeral, they acted as if Girl had descended from heaven to die) but you haven’t forgotten that she smelled like laundry chemicals and her dog, which spent its days chained up, eating its own shit in her backyard.
Hygiene meant nothing to Girl, and now it never will.
In truth, if it hadn’t been for you, Girl would never even have combed her hair or shaved her legs. But luckily, or unluckily, Girl would adopt any habit you had, and do anything you said.
And there you are in your wedding dress, fourteen years older than she’ll ever be. You look away from the mirror, down at your bare feet on the dressing room carpet, and hear your mother call from the other side of the door, “Well? Honey? How do you like it?”
You’re about to say, “Perfect,” but when you look back into the mirror, there
There she is—
Girl, eyes all bugged out, face blue.
Still, somehow, your own life just goes on and on. You get a divorce a few years after the marriage, your mother dies, you move as far away from that town as you can get on the same continent, you have a pretty decent job in an office where they let you keep to yourself and do your job. You have sixty-two Facebook friends, mostly from college, people you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of as friends back then. When Girl’s clueless mother friends you on the same day your ex-husband (remarried, six month old baby) friends you, you realize that Facebook is like the afterlife:
Everyone’s together again, without bodies, and no hard feelings—
You spend a lot of time on the Internet.
There are nights you might have a dream in which Girl is perfectly alive and says in the voice of an adult (so real you can smell her breath, which, after all these years underground is very sweet), “I forgive you. It had to happen. It wasn’t your fault.”
You sleep a little longer the next morning, so full of the incredible relief, the sweet-sick smell of her, the breeze blowing over you (you’re always at the seashore with her, you’re always walking barefoot on the beach) that you don’t notice the thing up ahead of you in your dream.
At first, it just looks like shadows on the shore, maybe a rowboat. You keep walking. You and Girl don’t need to talk. She’s in a better place, and you’re there with her (although, unlike her, at the end of all this you’re going to get to leave) and the sea is full of silvery wrinkles, very calm, and all that salt-sweet breeze, and you keep walking, and suddenly it heaves—
It heaves up—
It heaves up the Thing—
Which is a mass of dead Girl. Eyes bugged out. Rope around her neck. Something has hoisted her up off the sand (something black and many-handed) and it’s swinging, swinging, swinging her around in the air.
“Betsy?” (That’s your name, although you prefer Elizabeth now. Still, you must seem like a Betsy because it’s what you always end up being called.) “I’m thinking of heading out of the office early. I have some personal time coming. Want to join me for a drink?”
All these years, you’ve carefully avoided having friends in real life, but Young Woman is fun to work with. She’s a few years younger than you are. She has an odd and exciting sense of fashion—buttons in strange places, one earring with a feather and one with a key, a scarf scattered with peace signs and pinned to the lapel of her vintage mink with a rhinestone skull-and-crossbones.
Sometimes she makes you laugh in meetings so hard with just the raising of an eyebrow that you have to leave the room to compose yourself.
“Okay,” you say to her, surprised to hear the word come out of your mouth.
A drink turns into drinks. The music in the bar (they call it a pub, but it’s a bar) is loud, but you think she just told you that she’s had sex with every boss in every office she’s ever worked in.
“And I’m (not?) proud of it!” What did she say? You nod.
Now, she’s married, but she’s fucking Mr. Svalina. (Is that what she just told you?) You ask her to repeat this surprising bit of information several times, to be sure that’s what she’s just told you. She has to toss back a shot of tequila before she can say it again, bursts out laughing, sweeps her hair away from her face. “I’m fucking the boss again!” You let your mouth hang open dramatically for a few seconds, and then you both start laughing so hard that everyone at the bar turns to look at your corner table.
Luckily, they’re all drunk, too—men, and horny, and not annoyed.
But, Jesus. Svalina? He’s got to be thirty years older than she is!
“I’m so sorry,” Young Woman says. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t burden you with this. It’s my cross to bear. But you can keep a secret can’t you?”
“Oh my God, yes,” you say to her, and genuinely mean it. “Oh my God,” you say. “Keeping secrets is my specialty.” (Drunk, slurring the words.)
She asks you why, are you fucking him, too, and you both start laughing again, and the waiter doesn’t ask, just slams down a couple more shots of tequila.
“Well,” you say, “no, but I have a cross to bear, too.”
You look away. Coy. Trying to intrigue her, you suppose. In your life, always a little drunk, you’ve told a few acquaintances, a couple of roommates, and your ex-husband that you have this secret, this cross to bear, a guilty conscience because—
Because you were awful to a girl in middle school and (coincidentally) (tragically) that girl died.
“Holy shit. You’re fucking Everson?!”
This time it’s sincerely hard to catch your breath. Everson! He has two rows of eyebrows over each eye! You cross your legs fast and recall how, once, Girl wet her pants at a slumber party laughing so hard about something so dumb no one else was even laughing. All the other girls ran from the room, squealing, along with you. Gross! Oh my God! I’m gonna barf! You feel a spasm in your bladder and feel panicked for a second, but then Young Woman (who from now on will be referred to as Friend) puts her hand on top of your hand, and leans toward you, and it seems to you that she’s speaking very quietly. (But, really, she has to be shouting, doesn’t she? They didn’t turn the music down just for this.) Tell me, she says. Tell me the whole story.
You have no intention of telling her, or anyone (ever), the whole story, but you’re happy to tell her part of the story. It’s quite a story. And because you live a pretty solitary life you wouldn’t mind the attention. It’s not unfamiliar, this attention. Even at Girl’s funeral, people came up to you. Just like this. Touching you, saying how hard this must be for you. Even Girl’s mother, who is now your Facebook friend. You start the way you always start, with the saddest, truest part—
“I had this friend,” you say. “I was thirteen. She was, too. She was a follower. Really needy. I was her only friend.”
Friend nods. Go on.
“We hung out a lot. Probably too much. I wasn’t very nice to her. I know it’s every kid’s excuse, but my parents were getting a divorce. Actually, they got back together after everything happened, but at the time my dad was moving across the state, and I was pissed, I guess, although I never thought about my parents’ divorce.”
Yeah, but of course you were angry. Who wouldn’t be? Dad leaving. Little kid . . . Little kids always shove that stuff into their subconscious, act it out instead.
(You pretend to consider this, take comfort in it–although it’s everyone’s first impulse to tell you this. She might as well be reading from a script.)
“Well,” you go one, “for whatever reason I was always telling this friend all the time what to do, and something about how she’d just do it made me even more angry. She’d jump into a pool with her clothes on, or close her eyes and run across the street. I mean, not that I told her to do this. She’d just—”
That’s not normal. Friend shakes her head. That wasn’t you, that was her.
“I’ve thought of that,” you say. “And, let me tell you, I’ve paid a lot of money to a few different therapists to tell me that.”
Friend laughs ruefully, knowingly. She’s been in therapy, too. She tells you about one therapist with a lisp, mimics him. He grabbed her breasts. She had to sue him. She won, and took a three-week trip to Puerto Rico with the money. You laugh about the incompetence of therapists for a while and then she turns the story back to you, and hers becomes a hushed, sad laugh. Tell me more, she says.
And you’re happy to tell her a more. Not the whole thing, of course, but a little more. Maybe even a little more than you’ve told the others. She’s got a hand to her chest, and she’s waiting, as if she’s scared of what you’re about to tell her next—
Not scared of what happened, you think. She’s not scared of you, she’s scared for you.
“So,” you clear your throat, you go on, “my friend told me she always had this fantasy that she would kill herself, that it would really get back at everyone, really get everybody’s attention.”
Friend nods. You sigh, look at the ceiling. It’s plaster, yellow, cracking.
“And instead of doing any of the things you’re supposed to do–” (self-deprecating head-shake, hands to the cracked ceiling)—”like tell a trusted adult, I just kept this information to myself.”
You’re not sure, but you think there might be tears in the pink guttery ducts of your eyes. Something feels wet there anyway. Friend seizes, then caresses, your hand.
Yes, there must be tears. Her hand is sweet. Her hand is smooth and warm. She is really with you, completely present, not like your ghostly Facebook friends. She’s right here, on the edge of her seat. A special listener. A listener with a gift. A real audience.
But her rapture, true as it is, is also not entirely unexpected. People feel so bad for you feeling so bad about this. You’ve seen it on them, in their eyes. Watched it transform their faces from putty into stone, back into putty. You’ve smelled it on them, and it smelled the way you imagine a rubber plant might smell—clammy, and absolute, like a deep trust in something completely insincere.
And such empathy, why not?
They can so easily imagine themselves in your shoes!
How many people have had friends they tried to ignore, or whose neediness they took advantage of, or whose deaths they secretly wished for, or whose warning-signs they were pretty happy not to notice?
There but for—
So, here, the story is about to stop. Yes. Its climax is this moment of semi-truth. This is where you ended the story when you shared it with your college roommate, your ex-husband, your therapists (both One and Two, never even getting this far with Three). This is story enough. This is plenty of guilt for any thirteen year-old girl to have borne across the forthcoming years.
But Friend won’t let go of your hand.
Tell me, Friend says, Just tell me, Friend says.
Can she sense, somehow, that there’s more?
“Well,” you equivocate. “Well,” you explain: Here you were, and you knew Girl wanted to die, or said she wanted to die, and, just think, you didn’t tell a soul!
It’s slightly disappointing, Friend’s response. She says, as if no one else has ever said it, But you didn’t want your friend to die.
You’ve heard this before. The roommates, the therapists, the ex-husband. If what you’d told them had actually been true they might have been giving you good advice (although none of them could have known what it was like over at Girl’s house: her mother asleep on the couch, her father storming around, sniffing the coffee cups, muttering—)
But, of course, this wasn’t even the beginning of the story.
Still, you pretend to let Friend’s words sink in. You stare into your empty shot glass. You pretend to consider what she’s said. Then, you look from the shot glass to the cracked yellow ceiling again, breathe in, deeply, as if sharing a very dark secret—
“Well,” you tell her then, “. . . maybe I did.”
Friend looks at you sadly.
“Yes,” you say (pretending, bravely). “I think maybe I wanted her to die.”
Friend shakes and shakes her head. She’s wearing those earrings—the feather and the key—and they begin to waft around furiously in her black hair.
No, she says.
You place tremendous emphasis on the word, as if only now, placing it down between you, have you realized the incredible weight of it. You say the word as if you’ve never said it aloud until now. You focus your eyes just over her shoulder, as if you can’t bear to look into her eyes, as if taking your own evil in, as if it were in the air beyond her, hovering and incomprehensible. This is the yes that always inspires the explosion of compassion:
One of your therapists leapt to her feet, seized you in her arms. One of your roommates burst out crying. Often you have thought that it was this yes thatwas the moment when your ex-husband decided that you were strong and kind enough to marry. (His mistake—how could he have anticipated your coldness?) Another of the therapists told you that you no longer needed therapy, that being able to say that word proved that you were a hundred times healthier than the average human being.
Now, you’ve said it again, still anticipating the exclamation, the embrace, the—
So you’re surprised to hear her say, Did you just say yes?—
Not as if you’ve shocked her, but as if just checking to see if she heard you right.
“Yes,” you say, again—
But this time it lacks all profundity, and Friend says nothing. Friend remains completely silent across the table for what seems like a very long time, and then she sort of snorts it back at you. Yes?
You freeze. You try not to look at her. You try to keep your eyes on the spot just beyond her shoulder, and now you can’t even blink. Your eyes are going dry. In your peripheral vision, she doesn’t seem to be moving at all. Is she looking at you? Is she smiling? Finally, you can’t help it, you have to take a peek at her, so you look at her forehead, not her eyes, while taking in as much of her face as you can.
(Is it possible that there’s no expression on her face at all?)
You try to read what you can there without betraying that you are reading, still avoiding the eyes—
The eyes would be a terrible mistake—
But then you can’t help that either, and you are looking at her eyes. They are remarkable eyes. You thought so the first time you met her, introduced by Svalina. There’s a thin ink-black strand around each of her pale-blue irises. Uncanny, really, so intense. You can see why Svalina would risk everything to sleep with her. She snorts, it seems, again, and says, Well (sounding, actually, a little distracted, impatient)—
Well, even if you did want her to die, so what? God, if every time I wished someone dead, someone died . . .
And then she’s flagging down the waiter, as if she’s done with this conversation, as if she thinks she’s heard the whole story, and she’s bored. This is the first time it’s occurred to you that maybe she wasn’t shocked to hear you say Yes because it was shocking, but because it wasn’t. You’ve disappointed her with you story.
“But, maybe,” you say (and try to catch her eye now, and can’t) “maybe my wanting to see her die inspired her to kill herself. She was a show-off. I was her only friend.” You try to convey the drama with your tone, since the details aren’t doing it, but she can’t hear that, perhaps. The music seems suddenly cranked up again. It’s the Boss. You hate these old guys. Their raspy tunelessness. Their bleeding billionaire hearts. Their sentimental lyrics. The waiter slaps another couple shots down in front of both of you. Friend picks up her little glass, and then, startlingly, slides over to your side of the table. She pulls her chair right next to yours. You can smell her hair. Long, black, shiny. Sage?
She puts her hand on the back of your head, and brings the little glass to your lips, tips it, smiles at you from the corner of your eye as you swallow. She picks up the other glass then, and pours the tequila into her own mouth, and then takes your face in her two hands and pulls your face to hers, leans in, spills the tequila from her mouth into yours.
A cheer goes up from the guys at the bar, who are turned all the way around in the barstools, raising their beer bottles in the direction of the kiss.
Friend laughs, kisses your cheeks, says, Ignore them. You needed that more than I did. You haven’t finished your story.
Although, even at the time, as she’s staring into your eyes, you realize it’s probably just that you’re shit-faced, not that Friend is reading your mind, you still have the feeling that she’s seeing the whole thing taking place in there, in that little corner of your brain—
Some cortex or thalamus or whatever that is, some little gaseous cloud of memory, and truth the tucked away somewhere inside you, that place where Girl lives—
That she’s pulling it out of you, the memory of it, the way a magician might pluck a coin from behind your ear or draw a long silk scarf out of some orifice you didn’t know you had. She’s looking into your eyes, and, it seems looking straight at it—
She can see it—
The way you and Girl locked Girl’s bedroom door, and how you were saying to her, You owe it to your fucking mother, I mean, what is this, passed out every day on the couch, and your dad down there sniffing the coffee cups?
“You think so, too?!” Girl said, as if it relieved and alarmed and amazed her that anyone could be thinking what she’d been thinking, that anyone could so completely read her mind (which wasn’t really that hard for you since every time she went to the bathroom and left you alone in her bedroom you read her stupid diary.) Of course, you tell her, putting a hand on her shoulder. And think how freaked out everybody will be at school. Like Peter Maniscalco.
(She’d had a crush on Peter since fifth grade, and he had no idea she was alive until she died, and then totally freaked at her funeral—about all that you were a hundred percent right.)
And Leanne? Jesus, she’ll puke her guts out when she thinks about how bad she treated you—
You paused. You let that sink in. You could see it sinking in to Girl as she looked around her room—although she was also probably thinking about how she was going to miss a lot of this, too. She had a poster of Tom Cruise (blech) on the wall over her bed, and about ten thousand pictures she’d cut out of magazines: country estates and little cabins in the woods and flower gardens in England, like maybe she was going to have such things some day.
Now, she was realizing, she could forget all that. She was only halfway through Gone with the Wind. (I mean, she’d seen the movie so she knew how it would turn out, but still . . . ) She might have been thinking of that awful dog, too, and wondering who would feed him when she was dead.
That might have been the clincher.
Leanne called her Piss Pants, and Zit Head.
Leanne would go crazy when they gathered everyone at the school gymnasium to tell them Girl was dead.
“How will I do it?” Girl asked you, and you told her calmly, simply, that you’d brought a piece of rope with you from your father’s shed.
(Once, he’d said to you, That’s hangman’s rope. You still have no idea why he said that. But you’d looked up noose-tying on the Internet, and he was right. It was exactly the right kind of rope, and happened to be just the right length and width.)
You opened her closet door to show Girl how sturdy the pole in there was. You shoved her ugly dresses and stinky sweaters out of the way and held on with both hands, let your legs swing around under you. You didn’t have a lot of upper-body strength at that point (pre-gym) so you couldn’t hang on very long, but long enough to prove that it wasn’t going to give way under the weight of a girl—
And she wasn’t even five feet tall. Once she got herself up there, Girl’s feet would be at least four inches off the ground.
You’d seen it done on TV—
A stool, kicked or pulled out of the way, and then the plunge.
The guys at the bar are gone. Friend watched them as they were leaving, looking disappointed. One of them blew her a kiss, and she smirked, licked her lips, looked back at you and said, wearily, as if bracing herself for more of your dull story, going through the motions now that the male audience had gone, So, okay, you actively encouraged her. You helped her do it. It’s not the first time. You’re not the only person who’s ever done something like that, you know—
As if she’s heard this story before.
You feel the tears spring hot into your eyes as if by some chemical process—some amino acid mixed in a test-tube with a few powdery grains of truth.
You say, “But, God, what kind of a person would do such a thing?”
You, she says.
Now, she’s looking at you fully again. The bartender and the waiter are whispering over by the cash register now, nodding in your direction. This was all fun and games when it was just two drunk women fooling around. Now, one of them is sobbing, and it’s you.
Friend has fished a cigarette out of her purse, but she isn’t lighting it. She says, Just tell me. Just tell me what happened and get it out, get it over with.
You can barely catch your breath. Over your shoulder you see the waiter and the bartender (everyone else has emptied out of the place) forcefully turn away, their gazes fixed on the television where some game you’ve never seen played before is being played. Sticks. Knee socks. Referees making wild motions in the air. Fans waving the flag of some country you feel quite certain you’d never find on a map. Friend looks from your face to the backs of your hands, as if observing them from a great distance, a great height, from inside that ceiling crack, as you’re spilling tears all over them, aware of how stupid and ugly you must look. All this hysteria. It’s got to be for something. There has to be some part of this story she’d never guess—
She starts to fish around in her purse (for a match?) and then glances behind her, at the door, as if she’s thinking of leaving, going out there to smoke, and you feel what you could only have described, later, as panic, that you’ve bored and disappointed her, and—
For the first time in your life, you tell the story—
You go ahead and tell her the whole story—
How you had to tie the noose six or seven times before you got it right (thanks again to the Internet and its five billion pieces of holy gossip, information, and advice) and then how Girl, lower lip quivering, let you slip it over her head without even a whimper, still looking around her tacky room the whole time, telling it good-bye.
How, after you pulled the little stool from her vanity out from under her (hunkh—that was the last word Girl said) you slammed the door shut and didn’t open it again for a very, very long time.
And then you closed it again, slipped by her mother (still passed out on the couch) and went home. When the phone rang in the middle of the night and your mother told you what had happened, you burst out crying, or at least you tried, and although your mother never asked you another word about it when you claimed you hadn’t seen Girl at all that day, and that you’d never had the slimmest, had the vaguest, had the slightest—
Still, your mother always gave you a fish eye when Girl’s name, Girl’s suicide, any suicide was mentioned for the rest of your mother’s life, so that it was almost a relief when your mother died.
Friend stands up as you are telling her about the funeral (almost oblivious to Friend now that the details are returning to you, and finally, you’re saying all of the out loud) and about the ugly white dress they’d stuffed Girl into, and how—
Friend walks straight over to the cash register.
(Is she paying your tab?)
And, then, without bothering to come back for her coat, she walks straight out the door.
By the time you get out there, too, she’s gone, and you’re standing outside the bar in the rain.
It’s a long, wet walk home.
In the morning, Friend is at her desk. She smirks a little when you stop by to say hello, to give her the coat she left behind at the pub, to thank her for—
She waves you away. Here comes Svalina. He’s got a pile of forms with him, and a pen in his mouth, and he doesn’t look at you as he passes by, but you can smell his cologne (like whatever might be extracted from the gland of a mole or a mink during the height of summer) and Friend turns away, staring deeply into her computer screen, waiting for you to leave.
When you don’t (because you suddenly can’t move) she looks back at you, and the computer screen is still reflected on her face:
Staticky light, an impression of terrible depths and surprises—
And the noises of the office surge around you. Coughing. Sputtering. Someone’s printer galloping through reams of paper, shuttling them onto a tray one by one, while someone else is shredding just such paper in another corner of the office, and someone is laughing, forced and thin, about something that must not be very funny.
In a few days, Friend’s blog will have been read by more people than you have ever met or known or passed on the street or imagined in your life. Other bloggers will call it viral—
A million members of a choir, the choir loft on fire, the music burning up on their keyboards, in their basements, in their offices, and coffee shops, and studio apartments. All singing a song, the same song, a song about your blood—
Calling for it, crying for it, desiring to spill, to spill it, to spill your anonymous blood—
Which is only anonymous until one bright detective housewife with some extra time on her hands manages to find your name, your office phone number, your Facebook wall, your previous employer, your college roommates, ex-husband, neighbors—
And the mother of Girl, who’d always suspected, and who’s sobered up since her daughter’s suicide—
But all you know at this moment, standing beside her desk, is that Friend is looking you in the eye, and you see yourself in there, upside down and haggard and lonely and stupidly gasping and sobbing (again) at the same time.
And you look around at this ugly workplace, all these cubicles and this carpeting and the stupid slogans thumb-tacked to every inch of vacant space, and realize for the first time that you really liked it, that you maybe even loved it—
The place, the persona, the future, the past—
What it was, and what it meant to you, and that—
That it’s over—
That it’s gone—
That it’s all gone now. Now that you have been led to your closet, and handed your noose.
–Reprinted from Vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2010)