On the plane home during my 8th grade class’s trip to Rome, I sit next to Vasily. I am 14. I have a large cup of Mountain Dew in my lap, its contents looking like they could glow in the dark. I drink a lot of it and then put it between my legs, fall asleep with one of the airline playlists in my ears. The stale cold air blows on my face, the propellers humming under my legs. I wake up. “100 Years” by Five for Fighting is playing. The soda is cold between my legs. Vasily looks over at me and asks something. I don’t know if I answer him. I go back to sleep. Sometime during the flight, the soda tips over. I wake up, my lap wet, but I don’t care. I go back to sleep. Every time I wake up again, that song is playing: “I’m fifteen for a moment, time for just another moment and I’m just dreaming…” And Vasily, Vasily is always next to me.
They obviously don’t have enough songs on that playlist.
I love Michael. He is the sweetest unavailable man I have ever met. He has big, kind, brown eyes like a dog. He is spiritual. He is a therapist. He is young, but older than me, which I like. His long straight hair reminds me of mine. I tell him I have never been to see Amma the Hugging Saint. He tells me we must go.I think we might have good chemistry, of that sort, you know. I have been asking him to hang out with me over and over for a long time. Usually, he is available, eventually, to me. He never asks me first. That’s how I know he’s not interested. Still, he is kind. He is also handsome. Those things, when paired together, make for a good time for me. At least I am not alone.
We are watching the never-ending line of people go up to this old lady, Amma, who has a similar energy to my maternal grandmother (like she has seen everything, the way a character in a book by Charles Dickens has seen everything) and receive their hug.We have never slept together, Michael and I. I am very glad about this, though if he were to ask I might have trouble saying no. It feels like a wedding ring when you’re as alone as me, sleeping with someone, even though I’m smart enough to know it usually makes everything worse. Each time the proposition is as much an honor as it is a disappointment. But he never asks. He never even kisses me, and there are, as far as I can tell, many opportunities.
He is my friend. That’s why I like him so much, I think: he is actually my friend.
We wait in line. We got our tickets hours ago, at 10, and it is 2 before we receive our hugs from this cherished, holy woman. Someone tosses rose petals as I approach the altar. I sit in front of her. She is leathery, old. She is wearing white. Her dress feels like the embroidered sheets my grandmother used to use. It feels just as clean and soft and cool. She mutters something over me. It doesn’t feel ethereal like I expected. She holds me a little mechanically, like a nurse. She touches my head and pulls away. She actually looks at my eyes. I wonder what it would feel like to look at that many eyes seeking a mother in one day. She looks like she knows, and is over it. She understands seeking a mother’s love better than anyone.
I live with an old man named Bob, and he is the chillest landlord I have ever had. He is 75 and takes his cat, Gatito, on road trips to New York (we live in New Mexico.) He drinks cheap scotch and seems like the kind of person who has never yelled in his life. He is mostly retired but he recycles tequila bottles for a local hotel. He rents rooms in his house to nonbinary people, polyamorous artists who never actually stay in their room overnight, and me.I am pacing on the cold brown tiles in Bob’s kitchen, telling my mom about Amma, the Mother.
She says, “I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“Vasily was killed in an accident.”
“His girlfriend was also killed. They hit a tree.” I can hear my mom’s anxiety for me in her silence. “Her baby was in the car too, and survived.”
I think about a lot of things in that moment. But mostly, I forget how to think. I rush ahead of my feelings, my thoughts loud and almost screechy, moving like the subway. My first coherent thought is that Vasily being dead is quite dramatic. It’s a lot. I have never been good with a lot. This comes down heavy like Santa Fe rains at night, and I feel as if I am homeless in it.
I am like a live wire. I am talking to drown out the static. Whenever I talk to my mom I get a lot of energy. We get very intellectual together. We psychoanalyze. We appreciate. We judge. We are the best of friends, and we might secretly hate each other too. We are like the most fiercely enamored frienemies. Usually, I get worried that I have overwhelmed her, and I apologize. She says it’s okay, but not that there is nothing to apologize for, which is what I want her to say. Right after apologizing, I start talking very quickly, again, and worry that I am overwhelming her, again. But I have to talk. It’s like when you’re in third grade and you know the answer during a lesson. You wave your hand around. You yell, “Teacher!” If you could, you would step over your classmates to get that teacher’s approval first. Or I would.
That’s how I feel with my mom at 28. She is the teacher, and one of my classmates, at the same time. I want her to want to hear me, and I hate that she wants to talk.
And during the pauses I take to breathe, I remember how Vasily is dead. I try to think about it like a scary news story, anything to make it distant. It’s really hard to think about at all though, like trying to imagine a color that’s not in the rainbow.
It’s been two weeks since Vasily died. That time passed like the rest of my life: I posted a sweet memorial to my middle school friend on social media, the reality of his (and maybe any) life and death too brutal to really acknowledge. I go to work at a fancy liquor store, where I restock wine and whisper to myself. I feel like I don’t belong to the earth. I have been feeling like that for months. Maybe years. I am secretly mad at everyone. My friends have all moved away, or they don’t want to talk to me. The pain builds like pain always builds for me: it is like a ship on the shore, like pressure on wet sand, so heavy. But it doesn’t really feel like pain. It doesn’t feel like much at all.
I am pacing in circles in my room. It has been two days, almost, since I ate, and definitely that long since I slept. I have wondered if I am schizophrenic, but I am too scared to think about that.
Meanwhile, the walls are talking to me. They are turning into men I have loved. For some reason, these men are menacing, like assassins, or angry fathers. The paint on the canvas I did art therapy on turns into blood. It moves. It reminds me of the copious amounts of orange blood on the walls at the end of Taxi Driver, that my cousin told me Scorcese made orange so the movie would not be rated NC-17.
That is when I remember: I promised to house sit. It is July 4th.
I pack a bag, the spirits and things whispering and talking and shouting for my attention. I am drowning in air, the ether speckled with faces. I have never felt so strange.
Outside, every cloud looks like an angry face. Everything I look at looks suspiciously humanoid, like my mind is trying to upset me. I assume it’s my mind–if the clouds are really mean and angry faces, every single one, then I must pretend they are not. If I don’t, I will certainly go to bed for the rest of my life.
I walk toward Elizabeth’s, and as I do, knowing it is six o’clock in the evening (a kind of witching hour for bad men, my mom once told me) I see Maya Angelou. She takes my hand as I walk up St. Francis Drive, toting my overnight bag. Emma Watson takes my other hand. And there is Belle, holding Maya’s. I caught Maya’s poetry a few times during my teens and her strength and love took me like holy fire. Then I forgot her. Emma was the girl I always thought I wanted to be, skinny, pretty, organized (read on a fan website that she got good grades), famous. And Belle, Belle was what I loved when I was little. Of all the Princesses, she was me.
I reach Elizabeth’s only to find she is still home. “So sorry Alma, I decided not to go. I texted you.”
And I forgot to pay my phone bill.Elizabeth serves me soup and watches while I push bits of it into my mouth every time I remember where I am, barely hearing what she says. It tastes like nothing. If my mom were sitting with me right now, trying to have a conversation, I imagine she might cry. Elizabeth just watches me with growing seriousness. She used to work in mental health. She asks me a question and I answer two minutes later, saying “What?” She asks me again, and I forget to answer, again. I forget to listen to the question.I ask if I can stay over that night and she says yes.
I lay on the couch bed in her spare room as the pink walls dance. Or are they yellow? All I know is I see my grandparents together. The grain on the walls begins to swirl. They are making love, in front of me. I see Adriana, the mother of my friends from childhood, who died of an aneurysm when I was eight. She stands behind me, all lit from below with her hands on my shoulders.
The branches knock on the bathroom window, and they look like someone I know. It is the man I loved in college, trying to get in. He is skinny and brown, just like a tree branch. He is telling me he loves me but I know he is lying.
I see my grandmother’s shy angel face as I mention my mom and ask if she loved her. She says, Yes.
Why keep that secret?
My heart is a secret I was too afraid to share, she tells me.
My grandfather’s face appears in the grain on the walls over and over. He looks angry, like those faces in the sky. He has a beaky nose, which I don’t remember him having. We are all loved in this world. Why do you doubt it? He booms at me.
I tell him I am sorry but I am still afraid of men, can he please leave?
The nightlights look like faces, my mom’s specifically. Everything changes so that my fingernails resemble my face at five, framed in an angelic bob, my dark eyes almost blank. The cats on Elizabeth’s shower curtain lick themselves and stretch as I pee. When I look directly at them, they stop.
I pace a lot, and forget that I am pacing. The hours pass and I don’t notice. I lose another night of sleep, watching the fairies explode inside Elizabeth’s living room.
I go to the hospital the next day. I stay for six days. Apparently, I am not schizophrenic.
My roommate in the hospital is a heroin addict with three grown children. Her son is mad at her because she and her other son like to get together and use. I don’t tell her I have been flirting with opioid addiction for years, the only thing keeping me from complete dependency the fact that opioids are not available to me most of the time. I’ve never shot up though. I hope I never do. The fact that no one I know does it makes it easier.
She has stomach problems, and tells me about them. Our room smells funny at night, and I know it’s from her stomach problems. She is a small, thin woman but she has the most noticeable belly. My mom always told me that a noticeable belly on a skinny person is a sign of sickness. I don’t know if this is true, or true for her, but from what I know, she and her body are probably not particularly aligned at the moment.
I wake up one night, moonlight streaming in from the hospital courtyard. I realize my roommate is sitting up in her bed. People are always waking us up for things, vitals, to give us Ambien, to give us Ativan (they stop giving me Ativan after the second night and I don’t like it, but I don’t tell anyone), or just to ask how we’re doing. I look at my roommate, her face lit by moonlight, her black hair shining. She waves to me, and I wave back. She makes me think of the seed-maidens falling in the movie Fantasia during the Fall-Winter Sequence. I see her melt gracefully to the ground in my mind’s eye, giving up, becoming one with the earth.
Loneliness is different here. I am surrounded by some of the loneliest, most dejected people I have ever met. I can finally come out and say, “Hey, that’s me too.” Laziness, or my profound desire to never go to work again, is different too. I don’t have to work. The consensus is that I shouldn’t. Every hour of pretty much every single day is about my care. I have to attend a meeting in a professional-looking conference room, all about my care. There are five psychiatrists available to us, and at least as many counselors. There are chaplains and peer support workers. There is a representative from Medicaid who meets with me to see if I am eligible. I am not, but that, like everything else, matters as much as everything else that felt like it could kill me a few days ago: not at all.
Like every other weighty, sad thing, I forget that Vasily is dead. It only occurs to me a year or two later that the news of his death came only a few weeks before my first psych hospital stay ever. It might have been the thing that finally got my nervous system to quit. Maybe it was the crowded Amma convention, with the thousands of people and the smell of vegetarian food frying and the Charter Club pajamas (blessed by Amma) priced at $115. Maybe it was my growing dependency on alcohol. Maybe it was the fact that I was a 28-year-old weirdo with no health insurance and no friends and no hope.
Growing up, Vasily and I had a few things in common: we were outsiders, we occasionally struggled academically, and we both had trouble getting our heads wrapped around reality the way it was. Vasily wanted to be a rockstar. I wanted to be famous for something, hopefully something good. I don’t know what his reasons were, but at a young age, I decided that fame would bring me the money and the connection I desperately needed because I could not imagine succeeding in life otherwise. Once, in eighth grade, we got ingrown toenails at the same time and were excused from PE for a few weeks while our parents figured out how to deal with them. We would sit on a bench swing we had on our playground and talk. He showed me his big toe and I showed him mine. He told me about his plans for fame, and his dedication to his dream was stronger than mine. I could lie with the best of them, but he told me that Ringo Starr, Jimmy Paige, Paul McCartney, and some others were making an album with him. They were all meeting in his garage.
I pretended to believe him, partly because I wanted it to be true. That my struggling friend could enjoy that measure of recognition and success made me happy, even if it was only in his head. It was also nice to imagine the kinds of impossible things I regularly imagined happening actually happening.
I remember the day I found out Vasily wasn’t interested in me romantically. It came as a blow, even though I wasn’t interested in him either. My whole class (all seven of us) was crowded around the bench swing, and I don’t know what the conversation topic was, but it was something to do with dating, or pairing, or partnership. And Vasily said, “No, not Alma. Not her. So later, when Vasily grew his hair out, and started crashing his cars and having babies, I felt okay in quietly saying to myself, “No, not Vasily. Not him.” We weren’t even Facebook friends. We were, in my mind, separated, by two states, my common sense, and that bruised ego that raised a hand whenever I thought of him.
It’s interesting how you can think these things, think yourself different, separate, until the tide of fate comes and takes away your friend, literally drags him away. It’s not a metaphor this time. You are not only separated by physical distance and the fact that one of you didn’t go to college. You think people don’t matter, or what we’re doing here is silly, until that person you intentionally forgot falls off the world, and the memory of him falls through the ceiling of your own delicately protected psyche just to remind you that you have a heart. That friend who adored cars comes back to remind you, the girl who doesn’t drive yet, that you’ve driven yourself so far off track, that you are literally alone in the desert without water. Alma, he asks, why don’t you love yourself?
And your honest answer is, I don’t know. Vasily, I finally know what’s wrong, and it’s that I am all alone. Now that you’re not here, there is one less person on the Earth to take for granted.
And Vasily says And whatever else you have, don’t take that for granted either. I love you. Goodbye.
Because sometimes it seems true, that we’re all just here for a moment. The bashful beauty of things waves to me behind I window of fear, asks me if I’ve eaten today. From that unguarded place called my heart, everything is like a bent stem, too soft, too beautiful, almost more alive than I am, and maybe on its way out. Everything is a precious friend that will disappear one day. Maybe that’s why I hide from it, and it disappears, and my heart, always being born into this world, breaks a little. Every little bit of pain is an open invitation to finally arrive, here, to be with whatever this is, whatever I have. Whatever I am.LikeComment