The casket is empty when I reach the front of the room. She was twenty-two and now she’s gone. She was my best friend when my dad was going crazy, quickly, absolutely - before prison and then after he was taken - and now she’s scattered in the water at a beach where we grew up. Half of her ashes will remain at home, with her mother, her brother - now a two-person family in a house built for four.
I feel empty about death now: about the living; who gets left behind to clean the ashes that get spilled? And the dead; who gets too much of something pumped into their veins, too much to come back, to wake up? What’s the difference between a controlled substance and an uncontrolled substance? Her mother held my face in her hands, a hand on either cheek, and said, “You’ve grown up. You all do that.” We quit being friends in high school. We waved, we took different paths.
I flew home with red eyes and no pens in my bag. I had all these thoughts and no way to put them down. When I heard, I was just hours from leaving San Francisco, already headed that way, the wake just days away. My sister’s getting married this Saturday, and that’s a good thing. It was a good thing a week and a half ago too, the dizzy Sunday I spent boarding a plane back to New York. I have to write and present a speech about love in the absence of life, and it’s hard. Pens break.
But that was before: before she died, before, when I woke up every morning thinking there’d always be more time. And there isn’t. I see her oars by the casket, the picture boards, the flowers, golden hands holding cards in place of a religion I don’t understand.
You’re godless and sweet and I’ve fallen off the fence and I’m standing up on your side. I don’t know any more about death than I do about life, except that there are things none of us can afford to miss. So go kiss a stranger, pick up the phone - do anything. Do something. You weren’t there, but you’ve got to know that I mean it: do something.
The wind howls, shutters shake and bend, all the while I’m curled around an arm, a bracelet I’m playing with. I’ve really done it this time, I think, I’m not getting out without examining this one. This is a repeat. I don’t repeat. Is this a step forward or a giant step back? The thoughts come in waves, sometimes in warring pairs.
He held me back, he said not to pick a fight where there wasn’t one. He was right. Maybe five feet in front of me, a boy who bothered me last year - whole weeks of mockery, everything from New York to my too-dark hair - and then made a pass at me. He looks the same, younger almost, and I freeze. I promised to do something. I said I’d go wild. He was the jock to my Juno.
I don’t. I say something about “Mike Tyson-ing him,” which makes no sense, even in the heat of the moment. And then there are arms around my waist. I bury my face, away from the scene, the sight of myself, and I feel better. I don’t need more than this, just this, some air in my lungs, a hand in my hair. I let it go.
It’s nice when someone or something moves you, pushes you, but it’s equally nice when someone or something makes you still, keeps you calm, keeps you inside of yourself. This is my heart in my chest, my chin in my hands, index fingers tapping in Morse code on my skin, my feet barely touching the ground. I’m not in love with the feeling, just grateful for it. The same could be said about the person who gave it to me.
our lips raw with love
and how you gave me
everything you had
and how I
offered you what was left of
me” —Charles Bukowski, Raw With Love
My heels are killing me, walking from the bus to her apartment, and then to campus. I hear them click as I walk, a delay, one foot behind the other. I look like a working Barbie, a blowup doll in black pants. My mouth is pink and wide, a nearly two-year-old coffeemaker in a Safeway bag at my side. My old roommate gave it back to me. She’s graduating.
I’m two years late, but I’ll be a year early, so the math evens out as best it can. If I’d stuck it out the first time around, found a loan and stayed at my old school, I bet I’d be going into publishing. I’d have talked myself out of writing professionally - who does that? Can I do that? - and I would’ve done something lucrative, something less fear-inducing, brilliant, but not quite what I want. And I’d be okay. That’s the curious thing. Nothing terrible would’ve happened.
For whatever reason, I’m here in San Francisco - heels laced up, phone buzzing in my hand. I live close to the ocean, my apartment is freezing, my roommates are kind. The thing I miss most about New York is my mom. My life here is warm and purposeful, at least most of the time, and I feel lucky more often than not. I don’t always build things to last, and for that I’m entirely grateful to this city for letting me pick and choose - for allowing me to be from somewhere else while really, honestly belonging here. That’s what makes it easy to stay.