You talk and talk and talk about death. You talk about it in the abstract, you talk about it in the specific. You talk about how no one else has the balls to talk about it (goddammit!), how no one else is willing to even consider the inevitability of their eventual demise. You talk about how materialistic and clueless the masses have become, how they actually believe that they will be the first ones in the history of the universe to live forever. You sit on your threadbare throne in the middle of the university campus centre, a sophomore masquerading as an ivory-towered professor, and you talk. You pontificate about the irrationality of those around you, all the while deluding yourself that by cognitively manning up to death you will somehow keep its nerve-gas vapours from seeping into your own alveoli.
And I listen.
I listen and I watch you, with your apple cheeks, your yellowed fingertips, and your Levis-button-fly-faded-blue legs. I listen and I watch as you and your underlings suck at your Benson & Hedges, all the while debating the merits of Kierkegaard versus Nietzsche, Sartre versus Tillich, each point sounding as original as the views of any Philosophy 101 student who might be milling about. But I keep such critical thoughts at bay. Your mind is brilliant, after all. It deserves to run free. So I listen and watch all of you baby Kafkas, as you ponder and pick apart such weighty issues as futility, authenticity, and existence.
But mostly I just watch.
I watch as you casually flick ash in my direction. I sit mute and adoring as your words and your smoke blow against my face, reminding me of the relentless burn of a March wind. I watch as you stomp your Doc Martens across the campus centre floor, your pubescent swagger a childlike parody of each university student who surrounds us. And I wait. I wait until you return from the vending machines with a paper cup of coffee (always one cup, never two; why never two?). Once back on the sofa, you resume your deep conversation with your fellow deep thinkers, ignoring me as I silently obsess about the ways that I might court death, that I might convince death to come just a little bit closer (yes, right there), in order to snuff out the despair that's begun grabbing at my ankles each morning from underneath my bed. Eventually I scamper off to the washroom, my Keds squeaking as I go, each shoe too white, too freakishly new, each a glaring symbol of just how much I do not belong here.
Once inside a stall, I push down my jeans and etch your name into my thigh. For here's what you don't know. Here's what you can never know. I own you. Not with words, but with this razor and this rivulet of red dripping onto the toilet seat. Your name fills its trench, then overflows. With a paper towel, I blot the borders until they are clear once more. I crumple the towel in my fist, then scamper back to the sofa, my Keds announcing my arrival before I even reach you. Later, as you head outside without me to pass around a pilfered bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, I stuff the bloody towel into your now empty paper cup, daring you to find the hidden treasure. Once back next to me, our legs barely touching, you chase your Schnapps with yet another cigarette, using my cup, using my need, as your ashtray.
I start to bring my own posse to the campus centre, to allow my own swagger to cross the floor to the vending machines. No longer will I wait for a proffered cup of coffee that never comes. I will buy my own goddamn cup myself! Not to mention a bag of Cheetos, the snack that your pretentious self so objected to, clicking your tongue whenever I licked my orange-tinged fingers. Now, as I walk by your sofa, I wave my stained hands in the air, hoping that the mere scent of manufactured cheese will waft towards your face, as your goddamn smoke always did towards mine.
Because, guess what?
I will not be another of your little underlings anymore. I will not be your disciple, your minion, your flat-chested flunky. No longer will I listen to you go on and on ad nauseam about death and dying, as if you have any clue what the hell you're even talking about. I am sixteen, for fuck's sake! I want to drink, I want to get high, I want to drink and get high while lying spread-eagle across the asphalt of the university's main road, all the while knowing that I am somehow immortal, that I will somehow dodge the proverbial bullet.
Take that! And that! And that again!
But don't be fooled. As I swagger across the campus centre floor with my fuzzy orange fingertips, I still see you. I still watch you. I still listen. I still need you and crave you and wish you and dream you. I still want to float away on a river that's red, curled up against you like a baby shrimp. So don't be fooled.
It's not working. This swagger and this bravado isn't goddamned working! Why don't you notice me? Why don't you care? How can my absence from the right side of the sofa go so undetected by you? I used to be your sidekick, your buddy, your confidante (even if most of your ideas were bullshit). How can you keep pontificating when I've left so much space behind?
But then, so quickly, my space gets filled up by another girl. By another goddamned girl! A girl with big tits and big, wide eyes, and not much else. A girl who doesn't have brains enough to know what the hell you're talking about most of the time, let alone disagree with your words (even if only in her head). A girl who seems to stare at you like Bambi to Thumper, as if you're god's greatest gift! A girl who makes your apple cheeks redden, a girl whom you have the audacity to bring outside to drink your Peppermint Schnapps, your hand tucked into the back pocket of her acid-washed jeans, claiming her. Did it somehow escape your mind that I am the one who's already claimed you?
And so I begin to disappear. In theory, at least, if I begin to shrink, then my need will shrink, too. The smaller I get, the smaller you'll become. I cannot need you. I do not need you. At first my stomach starts to growl. Next, my stomach cramps against itself. Finally, my stomach raises its white flag and begins to forget about what hunger even is. You may still be talking about dying, you may still be intellectualizing death, but I'm the one with arms like popsicle sticks and legs like willow branches. I'm the one who is willing to move closer and closer to the cliff's edge (closer than you and your philosophic prattle will ever dare to go), hoping to get a peek of what lies on the other side.
I stop going to the campus centre. I start staying at home, reading Dostoyevsky. My parents start to worry.
I decide to get rid of my bed's box spring and shove the head of the mattress into my closet, the overhanging clothes forming a cave around me. I hold my knees against myself and rock, attempting to push myself back into the womb, back into before. Unlike you, so unlike you, I become the one who is straddling the line.
I am taken to the family doctor. I'm advised to start eating more green vegetables, bread, and meat.
Time passes, but my need for you, you with your goddamn yellowed fingertips and your button fly, won't shrink. If anything, my need grows, until it becomes a fat, globular mass that burrows deep within my concave chest. True, I'm no longer banging my fists against the floor, howling with grief. I'm no longer keening theatrically, begging all and sundry to Look at me! Look at me! But still, if you place an ear against my bony chest, you will hearing something, a barely audible something, underneath the soft thud, thud of my heart. If you really listen, you will hear a soft moan, a fragile thread of sound that comes from somewhere deep and will not stop. Like the cry of an abandoned child, the whimper of the broken. A requiem for the dying.
My parents' worry kicks into overdrive. I'm taken back to the doctor. I'm sternly lectured about my mood. I'm told if things don't change, I'll be put into the hospital.
Instead, I do the only thing I can do. I grab my knapsack, a fistful of twenties, and make like the wind. The train I take to Niagara Falls may not lead me to paradise, but it's still to somewhere, somewhere far away from you.
The story of Niagara Falls doesn't matter here. All you need to know is that standing by the Falls reminds me that this is where lives have ended, either by accident or on purpose. Mostly on purpose. One leap and it's game over. There are no second chances once you're falling through the air, just a rush of pure freedom or horrific regret.
Somehow knowing the Falls is so close at hand is oddly comforting. If I ever need it, it's just a twenty minute walk away from my motel. More than once I bring something to throw over the railing, opening my fingers to watch it descend into the white roar. I want to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I want to know. The Falls sound like nothing else I've ever heard. They sound like what would happen if you stuffed all the possible noises in the world into one container and shook it up. They sound like I feel. Angry. Alive.
Months pass. They always do. My mood finally lifts and I decide to stop being a runaway/high school dropout and rejoin the populace you once scorned with the flick of your cigarette. School becomes my drug of choice and I focus all of my energy and passion into proving that I'm as smart as you. No, fuck you, I'm smarter.
And so, months become years. School turns into a steeplechase, with me trying to leap over one hurdle and then another. Eventually I become a psychologist (I'll bet you didn't see that coming, did you?). For years I'm a therapist to hundreds of wounded souls, people who likely once filled spaces next to posers like you.
I marry a nice man early (much too early), then divorce. Later, with two children in tow, I marry another nice man, but this time the matrimonial glue manages to stick. I become the mother to two more children. I work, I parent, I love. I finally let go enough to let my branches begin to bud and flower. Not that things are perfect (when are things ever perfect?). I'm still too stubborn, still too mute. I still seek out the safety of closets, I still have waves of feelings that can crash through walls, a tsunami of hurt. I still have scars, scars that I sometimes rub when things become too much, but they remain my personal hieroglyphs, ancient messages from another time, a time before medication, before meditation, before I was taught the words I needed to ask for help. For you see, my erudite little friend, I am no longer waiting to pinpoint the moment when something becomes nothing. I am no longer straddling the line.
Once in a while I'd think of you. I won't lie about that. What would be the point? So yes, once in a while I'd think of you, but in a fond, almost distant kind of way. Like you were a weekend trip I once took somewhere (Where was that place again, honey?). A nowhere kind of place, pleasant, but forgettable. Occasionally I'd wonder if you'd contact me, if only to catch up. A temporary thought, a little blip in my mind. Perhaps you'd ask to "friend" me on Facebook. Likely I'd take a day or two (or even three) to consider, but then I'd probably (maybe) accept. It wouldn't make much difference, really.
Maybe through a handful of emails we'd reminisce about that crazy, messed-up time from before (We were so dramatic then, weren't we? Ha, ha!). It's possible that we'd even venture onto ice that's slightly more precarious, tiptoe towards that frozen-in-time night when our lives intersected. Remember that night? Don't tell me you've forgotten. Don't tell me you don't remember how a depression-addled me happened to stumble into the campus centre and do a Kramer-like pratfall across your sofa. And don't say you have no memory of me pulling you (a stranger!) into a corner, throwing all my woes at you and daring you to catch them. I'm sad! I'm alone! I need you to chase after me if I make a run for it and find me! I need you to listen!
And don't tell me you forget how you in turn pulled me out of that corner, plunked me down on the sofa next to you, and let me stay in that hallowed place for months and months, allowing me to glom onto you, like a leech stuck between your toes. And don't pretend you that you forget how you once suddenly reached out, grasped my cold fingers, and squeezed some hope back into me, if only for a moment. Please, please, please don't ever forget that (By the way, did I happen to mention that I am now a generally stable, well-medicated adult, who worked for years as a psychologist?).
It wasn't as if I was planning to look you up or anything. I've had too much going on, after all, with four children, manuscripts to edit, and a kitchen that isn't about to clean itself. I've had barely enough time for my husband or my current friends, goddammit, so who would expect me to take even two minutes out of my incredibly hectic day to try and contact someone who didn't have the decency to buy me a lousy cup of fifty cent coffee (who the hell can't spare a measly fifty cents?). Besides, if you've been willing to wait almost twenty-five years to talk with me again, when I can be found so easily on bloody Facebook, then you can wait a few weeks (or months) more!
Now I guess it's your turn to make me wait (and wait and wait). For you see, I've learned that you, that Levi clad, sixteen-year-old, close-to-forgotten you, have died suddenly. And by died suddenly, I mean that for whatever asinine reason, you chose to end your life by your own hands (were your fingertips still yellow?). This is all I know, and it is more than enough. To be honest, right now it seems like almost too much.
Now I find it ironic that in the years that followed my adoration of you, my anger at you. my anger at me, I became a clinical psychologist, and you--you became someone who decided to make the political personal. Instead of me, the obvious choice, you became the one who chose to leave the party earlier than planned and to not reach out to the one person who was still desperately waiting for her turn to offer up that goddamn cup of coffee.
In the years that followed me at fifteen, as the depression slowly dribbled away and I began to see you for you, I always assumed that someday I would tell you what your brief knowing of me had meant, how being allowed to sit next to you (legs touching and fingers once squeezed) had temporarily stilled my frenzied grief.
I always meant to pay you back. Once the depression was doused and my fucked-up-ness gradually faded from fiery red to a still there, but more manageable pink, I had the best of intentions to pay you back. Now the best I can do is pay it forward, and that just isn't good enough for me. Not yet.