Her brother called me last night. He has this voice, like a radio jazzman. Low and round. Makes you feel like you’re swallowing it right through the phone.
“Valerie?” He said. “It’s Allen,” he told me. I already knew because, unlike me, my phone never forgets a name. “News isn’t good,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m not gossiping,” he told me. “I just need to talk to someone.”
“Go ahead,” I told him, feeling shitty for being curious.
The eggs are burning. I grab the rubber spatula from the ceramic crock next to the stove. It’s persimmon colored. The crock. That’s what the tag said. I bought it at Target for eight bucks to add a splash of color to the kitchen, but it just looks obnoxious. I flip the eggs. It’s too late. They’re brown and crusty underneath; flecks of charcoal sprinkled over top like pepper.
I do this. I get distracted thinking about yesterday or last week and forget all about what I’m doing. My husband says I do it driving. That’s why people honk, he says. I don’t think so.
I chuck the eggs in the trash and get the box of Cornflakes down from the cupboard. My son hates Cornflakes, (he says they taste like wet cardboard), and he will complain. I put the entire gallon of milk next to his cereal bowl. At least the cardboard won’t sit in milk for ten minutes while he pushes his hair around on top of his head. Apparently, there exists some secret requirement that 8th-grade boys must mold their hair into a specific set of gravity-defying geometrical angles before school each morning.
I sip from my coffee cup and look out the window over the sink. The roses are coming. A bud here and there. Peeking pale white among the thorny greenery. I love the early season. Full of potential.
I wonder if she thought about that. Potential. I’m trying to remember back in the beginning how it had been. When we met. The soft, dewy part of our lives, early spring. Before the kids and the husbands. Before even earning a living. How did we manage? Loans, I guess. Parents. Yes, before we were the parents.
We are somewhere, but I’m not sure the name of the place. Gabrielle maybe, in New Orleans. It’ll be gone later, with Katrina, but we don’t know that in the ’90s. We’re at a table with a booth on one side and I’ve taken the booth. I like to sprawl a little, make sure my legs are on display, and I take up as much space as possible. Like a Macy’s mannequin. That’s how I am. She likes attention as well only she’s loud. That’s how she does it. With her voice and perfect heart shaped face and this thing she does with an eyelash curler I’ll never figure out.
She’s talking and I’m not listening. It doesn’t matter because what she’s saying, it’s not for my benefit anyway. The restaurant wants to know about her. She’s leaning back in her bistro chair and waving her Virginia Slims-you could smoke then-and her blonde hair falls so far down her back pieces get tangled in the spirals of the chair. She’s wearing a ridiculous California style leather mini-skirt and those Come-Fuck-Me spikes I hate. She should look like a hooker. She does look like a hooker. But this is Gabrielle. It’s the 90’s. There’s a zillion-year-old woman directly behind her dressed like a goddamn nun, wearing diamonds and a faux fur. No shit. An actual honest-to-God faux fur.
We’re not eating, although the food on our plates is supermodel food it’s so damn beautiful. We are, however, drinking. And drinking. And also drinking. Pretty much that’s what we do. That and be in love; with the world, with ourselves, with each other. We are high on it. We could lick our sweat and bathe in our own piss we love ourselves so goddamn much.
“Come on Mom. Gotta go,” says my son. He’s standing over me now, backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Sorry baby,” I say and collect up my coffee mug and put it in the sink. “Did you finish your cereal?” A useless question since I can look right at the bowl and see he did not.
“I’ll eat at school Mom. We have to go.” He’s already headed toward the garage.
I sigh to myself, mostly for effect, as I put the bowl full of cereal in the sink. The reality is I’m relieved he rushes off to school every morning. It makes me want to take out a classified ad, scream to the neighbors, call everyone I know: I HAVE A MIDDLE SCHOOLER WHO WILLINGLY GOES TO SCHOOL. I feel like I’ve accomplished something enormous. Like I’ve raised a Nobel laureate.
I’m easily amused.
The drive to school is short. I try not changing out of my PJ’s, but my son gives me a soft, “Uh, uh, are you, uh, gonna wear that mom?” I look in the mirror. The middle-aged homeless woman staring back at me needs to try harder. So, I try harder. I brush my hair. Slide into my fat jeans.
He’s out of the car. Like always, very quickly and then, abruptly, his movements slow like all the other boys. No racing to meet friends for these guys. Not anymore. Head kicked back, chin jutted forward, one thumb hooked in the jeans pocket, backpack slung easily over the shoulder and the dreadfully self-conscious casual stride. These guys are all so cool they don’t even have a bell schedule. I flip on the radio and pull out of the parking lot behind a dozen other parents, all driving SUV’s, exactly like mine.
What about her kids? How old are they now anyway?
“Her kids,” Allen said. “I’m especially worried about the kids. You know I don’t think they know.”
“How can they not know?” I said.
“Well the older one, Matt, he’s away now. He joined the Navy and they’ve got him stationed somewhere. I think it’s the Middle East. I’m not sure.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“And, Kaitlin, she’s in high school but she’s not-”
“Not what?” I said. I’m feeling sick at this. Remembering the last time I saw little Katy. There’d been something wrong. Her eyes.
“She’s not right. Exactly.”
I turn up the radio. It’s classic country music. Sometimes I can’t tolerate the station. Not because I don’t like it but because of the memories. There’s a traffic jam on the narrow residential street that fronts the school. Nothing new but I have more trouble with it today. Banging my fingers on the steering wheel; mouthing curse words to myself, secretly hoping the driver in front of me will see them and be offended. Finally, for no reason at all, because I know that it will save no time and probably make things worse, I whip out of the line make a tight U-turn, wincing as my tires squeal and probably leave rubber streaks in the smooth asphalt behind me. Shit. Who am I?
I had planned on stopping at the grocery store but decide it’s safer to head straight home. In the garage, I turn off the engine and close the garage door. I can hear the dogs barking inside but I sit, unmoving.
I think again, what about her kids? Allen called me a year ago as well.
“Valerie? It’s Allen Lohman. I’m X’s brother. Do you remember me?”
“Sure, yes I do,” I’d told him although at first, I wasn’t so sure I did. I was thinking he better not be calling me to sell me something because I was busy and I hated the telephone anyway. Then I got a picture in my head. A tall man at X’s wedding. Thin, gaunt even. I wasn’t drinking then. So, I remembered. “Yeah,” I said again. “How are you, Allen?”
We talked a bit, catching up. Although we’d never been close so it was more like getting to know each other. Turned out he’d given up booze about a year after me.
“I’m worried about X,” he’d said. “I don’t know who to talk to about it. Have you had any contact with her lately?”
I’d felt embarrassed. Worse. Ashamed. At the time I lived less than an hour from her. “No,” I said. “Not in a few years.” I corrected myself. “She’s called a few times. Drunk I think. Not making sense. Really late at night. But otherwise no.”
It wasn’t the whole truth.
“My family won’t listen. Everyone thinks she’s fine,” he told me. I heard this terrible crack in his voice. Like my son trying not to cry. Allen must have been near forty by then.
“What is it?” I asked. But I knew.
“She’s maintenance drinking. I saw her a few weeks ago. Her hands shake. She can’t work without a drink. But she maintains you know.” He went on, but I knew the details. How it always goes. “Our sister died you know. And our mother.” I told him I knew. Pancreatitis. Bad. Alone. I was close to X then. I remembered.
He wanted something from me, but I didn’t have anything. We were far apart. Me wrapped up tight in my house in California with my children and my dogs and my husband. Him, in another state and a different life, invisible from where I stood.
And X? She’s been gone for years. From my life anyway. These terrible things he was saying about X should have made me feel something. But nothing came. I told him I’d give her a call some time. Maybe check-in. I’d try I thought. I didn’t. That was over a year ago.
It’s a long time when I push open the car door and step out into the garage. I only know it’s been a while by the cramp in the back of my legs. I shake them out a bit and make my way into the house. The dogs, (I have an outsized black lab named Meatloaf and ann undersized mutt chihuahua named Killer), rush me at the door and I have to brace myself against the wall to avoid falling. I crouch down and finally give it up and sit on the floor near the laundry room. I let them have a lick party on my face.
I’m staring at her, watching her yank down the rearview mirror and apply cherry red lipstick to her full, lovely lips. Then she’s scrunching big wads of hair- she’s got that ridiculous thick blonde curly hair that everybody in the world except the person who has it would kill for-into a softball-sized knot at the nape of her neck. She looks stunning. There’s this guy we know in L.A. He has a limo and drivers and coke. We have his number and whenever we want we just dial him, and he shows up. We’ve never tried calling him during the day but if we’re out, partying and we call, he shows up. Not him. His limo, with him inside, in the back. He’s not a big man. Maybe thirtysomething. Older than us. Always in black clothes. Black hair. Hard to make him out exactly. The limo is dark. Middle eastern I think. No accent. Sometimes there’s another guy with him, but never other girls. We can bring other girls if we want. We have this one married friend who comes along sometimes. We have to hide the limo around the block, so her husband doesn’t see, and she sneaks out to meet us. He’ll drive us around wherever we want. Just doing lines, getting wasted. Whatever. Sometimes he runs errands. I saw a gun once. I guess we don’t think about it.
I like coke. I like being awake. A lot more than smoking weed which always results in very long naps which generally put an end to the party. This guy, this friend of ours, he’ll give us coke all night. We drive to Hollywood. Up Sunset and the Walk of Fame. Check out the Frolic Room. We spend a lot of time in there. We like the way the red disc lights make our bodies glow and the drinks are seriously hard. He never goes inside. Just waits for us.
I’ve had a few more than necessary and I start dancing with some dude like sixty. X tells me to cut it out and drags me over to the bar and sits me down on one of the red leatherette stools. I whirl around and scream at her. Coke does that to me sometimes. Makes me mean. I tell her she’s not my fucking mother and then we’re just staring at each other kind of squeezed onto those stools up against the mirrored bar in the middle of the Frolic Room. We both twist our stools away from each other and then catch sight of ourselves in the mirrored back bar. We glow bright strawberry red under the lights. I try to open my eyes wider and straighten my face into something less fucked-up-looking but it’s useless. Suddenly we both start laughing like there’s an inside joke.
I push the dogs away and haul myself to a standing position. I should eat something, I think although I won’t. I’ll have more coffee. My fourth or fifth cup. I can’t remember.
That’s how we got along, I think. Loans. Parents. And the Blanche Dubois thing. We laughed about that.
I go into my study and settle down at my desk. There are three neatly stacked piles of papers waiting for me. Labeled: Bills; Current To Do; To Be Filed. These days I enjoy organizing. Probably to an obsessive degree but my vices are few, so I give myself permission to go to town on that one.
I flip open my computer and log on to Quicken. Numbers are good. They absorb me. I pull a stapled document off the top of one stack and unfold it. I click to open our checking account on Quicken. Hit reconcile and enter the balance from the bank statement. My mind immediately drifts to last night.
“Yeah someone is going to have to talk to the kids I’m sure but it all happened so fast. So goddamn fast. I don’t know,” said Allen. “Oh, God. None of us knew.” His voice sharper now. His tone escalating. “We all should have taken better care.” The words through the phone were jagged and mean. Not something I’d want to swallow at all. I held the phone away from my face. Swallowed hard and brought it back. “Right?” he asked.
The second time I get arrested, she’s with me. I know she feels bad about it. In the morning, when she picks up from jail, she keeps saying she should have been the one driving. Not because she was sober-she wasn’t-but because she’s a better drunk driver. That’s true. She keeps on about how many times she’s been pulled over and gotten away with it and how she can talk her way out of it and after a while, I’m just annoyed. It’s not going to help me now. Plus, I’m feeling pretty sick. It’s like that with me. I get hangovers. She doesn’t.
The whole way back to our apartment she’s saying how it’s going to be fine and it’s no big deal and fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. But I’m not feeling it. Those blue lights and the two cops and my nearly naked butt on the cold cement waiting for another police unit to arrive because I was too loaded to even do the stupid drunk test; none of that felt like a joke. And I ask her if she knows police cars don’t have handles on the doors in the back? And when that bulletproof partition thing goes up you are pretty much locked inside a little tiny box. It’s like being buried alive and it freaked me out.
She says I’m being dramatic.
And spending the night in a cell with a girl limo driver who is drunk and pissed off and smells like puke, that sucks too. And, by the way, I tell her, that one phone call thing? That’s bullshit. If you’re wasted they can just shove you in a closet and ignore you. Apparently.
She tells me to calm down; what I need is a drink.
I spend the morning at my desk clearing out paperwork. I get a little writing done. Less than five hundred words. Around 11:30 I take a break and wander into the kitchen. Think about eating. Give it up. Open the drawer that holds the dog leashes and set to untangling them. For some reason, we’ve had trouble pitching the leashes that no longer fit our dogs. Despite my commitment to organization, this is one area in which I’ve failed badly. The result is a kitchen drawer crammed with enough dog paraphernalia to start a doggie daycare.
I finally locate the appropriate equipment, leash the dogs, and head outside. The day is brilliant. Cool and sunny and crisp. Really perfect. I should do this more often, I think. It’s generally my husband’s job.
My neighbor is outside in his garden as we pass by. He’s wearing thick gloves and waving enormous pruning shears. The garden is a hilly patch planted thickly with fruit trees and flowering plants. He’s old. Has one of those faces, so deeply creviced, his eyes nearly disappear when he smiles. He’s lived in his house all his adult life, he says. He hands out persimmons and lemons and sometimes pomegranates to the lucky passersby. “Hey ho,” he says and waves. “Nice out.”
“Yes sir,” I say. “Perfect day. How ya doing Max?”
“Oh good, good,” he says. “And all you?” He always asks about the whole family. “Terrific Max, thank you.”
He turns back to his work-Max is not one for long conversations- but adds. “Be sure and
pick up some lemons on your way back.” He gestures at the little basket he’s left down by his mailbox.
“I will, thank you. You have a good day.” He waves his shears up over his head.
I think about Max. He was alone when we moved into the neighborhood fifteen years ago. But his house is large and covered with the touch of a woman. A little embroidered sign in the kitchen window says: God Bless this House. The garden is scattered with miniature fairies molded from concrete and ancient turquoise gazing balls. On the front porch, two old rocking chairs each with a faded and dented calico pillow. He sits out there sometimes. Rocking. Always in the one on the left. I’ve never asked him. I’ve never seen children or grandchildren. Mostly he keeps to himself.
But maybe that’s our fault.
We turn right at the end of the block and head through an opening in the chicken wire fence allowing us access to a trail. In all the years we’ve lived in the neighborhood I’ve never been sure why there’s a fence here. It’s tipped over now, nearly touching the ground in some spots. Held up by six-foot posts of varying vintage. The land it fails to protect is private, but nobody has ever shooed me off its gorgeous trails or told me I couldn’t let Killer and Meatloaf happily pee among the eucalypti bushes and jasmine.
We walk along a while, the dogs zigging and zagging across the path. I see a little nest of bottle caps and cigarette butts a foot or two ahead and nudge the dogs away hoping to prevent them from swallowing any of it. I bend down and begin dropping the bits into one of the extra poop bags I carry. I always bring extra for just such a task, figuring this is the least I can do. A couple of cans, the tall ones, empty but sticky on the outside where the beer has congealed with the dusty terrain creating a sort of gluey brown muck. I stick my hand inside a plastic bag and use it as a glove to pick up the cans.
I’m reaching for a bit of trash further back, under the penstemon bush and meatloaf is nudging my elbow. Drooling a little. I’m pushing him away, but he isn’t giving up. I look at him. In his mouth, something soggy. I recoil. Lose my balance and land on my butt in the dust. “Fuck Meatloaf, what the fuck?” I say as if he’ll answer me or at least be sorry. He steps closer with the thing dangling from slurpy, foamy jaws. Cujo. He’s fucking Cujo.
I back away slowly, sort of slithering on my backside. Oh God, Oh my God. There were kids out here partying.
“Meatloaf,” I say, trying to sound calm as if this will help him understand English. “Just put it down, ok? Drop it. Drop it.”
Meatloaf, in his entire life, has never obeyed a command other than “Come get your dinner.” He stares at me, drooling, the horrible thing hanging from his mouth. He takes a step toward me.
Killer is behind me, popping up and down, making these ear-splitting yeep-yeep-yeep noises. I think seriously about thwacking her right out of mid-air. I do not.
“Cujo,” I say and correct myself. “Meatloaf! Drop it.” He suddenly bounds forward-a thing I have rarely seen him do-and drops the THING in my lap. I scream. Jump up and back up several feet.
I know what the THING is. Oh my God. I know.
Meatloaf was still a puppy, maybe eighteen months old, when he brought us a hunk of deer. We found the rest of the animal, dead by SUV for sure, up on the highway behind our house. It’s what retrievers do. It’s a gift.
I’m peering down at the slobbery thing on the ground. Covered with mud and dry leaves. Whitish blue. About the size of a small foot. Yeah, I decide, that’s what it is. A human foot. I can see the toes defined and sticking out with mud between them.
I taste vomit in my mouth.
I yank at the dogs’ leashes and we get back down the trail and out past the fence and up the street and back home as fast as our ten legs can carry us.
We’re going to die. It’s too dark. We’re on Kanan Dume between the beach and god knows where. Some guy is having a party. The fog has dropped thick as goose down. I’ve got my feet braced up on the dash like maybe that will save me in a crash. My stockings are torn at the toes. Rips running up my shins, like scars. When did that happen? I think randomly. I’m not wearing shoes.
“Jesus,” I say. “We should stop.”
“Stop what?” She laughs, kicks her head back. “Stop tripping? Too late baby.” She’s not looking at the road. Dashboard light on the skin stretching over her clavicles. Up one jagged shoulder. She’s too thin. I’m going to throw up. She’s going too fast. I hate Kanan Dume.
“I mean it, I say.” You can’t see a fucking thing. She tells me to shut up, it’s not a problem and we’ll be there in like five minutes.
“You’re just tripping,” she says. “Seriously. You’ll be fine. Close your eyes.” I don’t.
She’s right. We’re both tripping. But I’ve done shrooms before. I don’t like it when she talks to me like I’m twelve. “Fuck that,” I say. But I have no follow up.
She tells me to quit being such a baby. “You gotta see this guy’s place,” she says. “You’re gonna love it, Val. He’s got a fucking pool on the roof. You can see all the way downtown. The lights baby, you can see the lights.”
I’m staring at her mouth, not moving as the words come out. A torn black hole in the middle of her face. It terrifies me. I close my eyes.
There’s a concrete divider and we’re on it. Inches. I can’t breathe and she’s laughing. Screaming almost. I close my eyes and I’m trying to think how to pray. I’ve never done it, so I make it up. Like dear God don’t let me die right now. I’m not ready. I’m fucked up. I don’t want to be dead right now. Or if I have to be dead make it not hurt, please.
I’m blowing air out of my mouth in quick little hoots. Hyperventilating noisily, I guess. Because she looks at me. I’m clutching at my seat and hunched forward. I look up at her. Barely.
Jesus Christ, she says. Whatever. She slows down
She tells me I’m not her fucking Mama. Then laughs. Just kidding, she says. Inside joke.
The cops don’t find a body. Nothing more. The foot? Not a foot. Weenie roast.
“Package of Oscar Meyers, still in plastic. Guess that’s why old Spot there couldn’t just eat ‘em up.” the heavy-set officer tells us cheerfully. I am annoyed that he’s having such a good time. Also, that he’s addressing his comments to my husband. I’m thinking about telling him the fucking dog is named Cujo, not Spot. “Folks go out there with those little whatchacallits?” he says. “George Foreman’s?” He smiles. I think it’s at himself for recalling the name.
My husband is a patient man. After the cops leave, he makes me tea and tells my son it would be better to “let mom have some alone time right now.” He sits beside me on the little loveseat in my study and watches me sip tea and says, not for the first time, perhaps I might see someone. I don’t tell him about the call from X’s brother but for a long time I sit quietly, sip my tea and think about it.
“Yeah, I know,” Allen said. “Unbelievable. We are all shocked.”
“Uh,” I said because I couldn’t come up with anything else. I felt my heart pound in my chest. I wasn’t liking this conversation. Being pulled into his pain. I stay away from this sort of thing. Does that make me a coward?
“Allen,” I said. “When?”
“Friday, it happened Friday.”
Today is Tuesday. Allen’s call last night came on Monday. Whatever this verbal interaction was, it was going to shit, and I had been trying to come up with a way to ask the next question without sounding macabre. Finally, I figured I’d just throw it out there and ask. Fuck it. “How? I mean exactly how?”
Once I said it, I realized it was not something I needed or wanted to know at all. My thoughts were zinging around inside my skull and he’d already started telling me and as he was telling me, my brain was replaying the last time I spoke to X. Maybe three months ago. It was like three sterophonic concerts playing in brain all at the same time.
She’d called me. Well past midnight. Nearly three in the morning where she’s living. We both have families now. Kids. Things are different for both of us. It’s been a long time and it’s too weird an hour, so I worry. I answer.
“X? Is that you?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she’s breathing into the phone and I know immediately. “God,” I say. “What the hell? Are you ok?”
She says she’s fine. Totally, she says. Sorry, she scared me. Just wanted to say hi. She misses me. Don’t I remember? Yeah, I say I do remember.
She talks for a while. Bleary, smeary words but not too off the wall. Makes plans. Promises things. It’s nice. Even though I know she’s drunk. I think maybe she’ll do it. She’ll come visit like she says. She has ideas. Good ones. That’s how she is. So smart. Funny. I feel something in my stomach.
“Where are you,” I ask her
“You don’t want to know,” she says, and I can hear she’s smiling. But she’s right I don’t want to know. Not now.
We say goodbye and I’m standing on an edge. I take the coward’s way and step back from her. I can’t do it again, I think. I can’t love her. Next time, I know I won’t answer the phone.
“It was her husband,” said Allen.
“Her husband what?” I asked but I really didn’t want to know this part. I just didn’t know how to stop it.
“He found her.”
“She’d been in the hospital. Did you know that?”
I shook my head into the phone as if he could see me. I guess he did because he said, “Yeah, right, of course, you didn’t. You said that. You haven’t had contact with her in, how long did you say?”
“Months.” Not true. “Sort of. She’s been calling, texting. I don’t answer.” I took a breath. “Sometimes I don’t anyway. It’s hard to know.”
He was silent for a minute, then he said, “I know. It’s ok.”
This week almost every day. I told myself it was ok. She’s a drunk. Just like me. Only it’s been almost twenty years since I quit, and X doesn’t want to quit. It would different if she wanted my help. That’s what I kept saying.
Friday night. She’s texting. I don’t know where she is. Probably out east somewhere. Maybe it’s 2 am in her city. That’s what I heard anyway.
I picked up my phone and switched on the bedside lamp. Cryptic messages. Poems; songs we loved once. One or two words I guess I’m supposed to decode.
The phone buzzes.
The text I recognize. Song lyrics…”City lights lay out before us…”
A pause then:
“I got a plan to get us out of here…”
The phone buzzes again and again with the same message but she won’t answer or respond. This coming from an unfamiliar number. A strange area code. But I know it’s X. The only person in the world who would send me those lines. I shut down the phone; keep my thumb on the off slider so long it starts to hurt. No more.
“Yeah,” said Allen. “In and out of the hospital last six months I guess. They told people different things. Female troubles, whatever.”
Nobody would have believed that, I think. Nobody who knew her.
“Checked herself out AMA last time. Just went home,” Allen continued. The weight in my chest is sinking lower into my stomach. “Said she was fine. He went away a few days on a business trip.”
“Who?” I ask. Stupid question.
“Her husband. You know how he travels.” A pause. “I mean, he still travels, like he did, a few years ago.” We’re both embarrassed over my failure. “Anyway, he was gone about a week. Found her when he came home.” It sounded as if he’d moved the phone away from his mouth.
“You still there?”
“Yeah, sorry. It’s just really awful Val.” Why is he calling me Val? She called me that, but I don’t know him. “She’d been dead for a while.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. I do not want to know this. I send him mental telepathy willing him to stop talking.
He keeps going.
“In their attic. They’re out in Nashville now. They were, I mean. I forgot to tell you. I mean I didn’t know till I heard.”
His thoughts are fragmenting. This whole conversation disappearing into the ether and he keeps talking.
“Nobody knows…doing up there. Going through…photos…empty whiskey bottles…That’s what they think…”
Stop it. Stop it. I set the phone down on the bed next to me, but I could still hear his voice. That round voice carries. I picked the phone up again.
“Some idiot …kind of animal trap. Oh, Jesus, I don’t know.”
And like that, I saw it. As clearly as if I were watching a high definition replay on my husband’s widescreen television. I saw exactly how it happened. My beautiful friend. Before her brother says one more word, I know exactly how she died.
“Rattrap,” Allen says. “She caught her foot.”
I’ve stopped breathing. I know the rest. I’m watching it happen.
“They found her up there. She’d been dead maybe three days. Lost too much blood, I guess. She passed out Val. Too drunk to call for help maybe. Fridays were always bad for her. I got terrible drunk texts on Fridays.”
Me too. Oh shit, me too. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh my God. Me too.
My son is waiting in the car and I am still not ready to go. It’s been a slow morning. I am in the downstairs bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. I’ve discovered if you stare long enough-I suppose ‘long enough’ varies from person to person-your face starts to break down into its component parts: nose, chin, eyes, lips, forehead. And then further: left eye, bridge of the nose, right eyebrow, upper lip, freckle on the right temple. Pretty soon your face is no longer a face. It’s an infinite series. A succession of smaller and smaller parts, which never lead to a core. Never tell you who you really are.
X is dead.
What sort of person does that? What sort of person turns off the phone and lets someone die? I look in the mirror at my dry eyes. Left eye, then right.
You, I think. You.
My son blows the horn. On a normal morning, I would say something snarky to him. Tell him he’d be walking to school for the rest of his life if he did that again. Today, I ignore it. Climb into the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition and open the garage.
Before I pull out, I look over at him. He’s a beautiful boy. Long muscled, fine-boned, streaky blonde hair and one of those elongated foreheads that make men look as if they are thinking serious thoughts all the time. He looks up from his phone. Crinkles his brow. “Mom what?”
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s ok.” I smile at him and reach one finger out to touch his ear.
“So, I was thinking,” he says. I can hear it in his voice. A boy with a glimmering secret in the palm of his hand. “There’s this party on Friday at Jamie’s and I…”
I smile to myself. All the way to school, my baby boy talks to me about child things and grown-up things and sweet teenage things. When he gets out of the car, I watch him do his coolest cool boy all the way across the quad. I don’t drive away until I can no longer see him. I’m parked on a leafy side street not far from the school. I think about the things in my life that are true and the things I wish so badly were not.
The memorial will be next week sometime, Allen said. Will you come, he’d wanted to know.
I’ll try, I told him.
I think about that word. Try. Try to be a friend. Try to call. Try to love. Try to forget. Try to stop. I wrap my arms around the steering wheel and let my head sink down onto the back of my hands. The sun warms my left arm and I concentrate on the way it makes my skin prickle. After a long while, I sit up, and turn slightly so that I can hold my face to the light.