Marly was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. I had been there. When she went off the treatments, she decided she wanted to die at home, and she wanted me to be there with her family. So I sat, and I waited, and I was destroyed.
There are no metaphors, no words for such a feeling. You are left with no doubt, and endless doubt.
We stood around the bed, counting her breaths, holding our own. Her father held her hand. Her mother sobbed. Her grandmothers prayed. I felt as if I was being undone one stitch at a time. She was sixteen years old, but there in the bed she could have been ninety. Everything about her that had once smiled was now gone. She hadn’t been awake for days. The last word I’d said to her was good-bye - but I’d meant for the afternoon, not forever. Afterwards, I told her I love you so many times it hurt. But I had no way of knowing whether he heard or not.
I repeated it now - I love you. I love you. Please. I love you. Then it came – that one small gasp. We waited for the next one, but there was no next one. You expect death to bring some new form of punctuation, but there it is: one small gasp. Period.
I know people say that when you die your life flashes in front of your eyes. I have no idea what Marly saw. I will never know. But after that last gasp, after that loud silent moment when everything left, suddenly our life together flashed before my own eyes. It couldn’t have taken longer than ten seconds, but it was all there: our sixth-grade dance, the first time we’d gone out as a couple together, doing the box-step in a gymnasium decorated with purple and blue balloons; watching movies together in her den, curling up together under the blanket her aunt had made when Marly was born; meeting at our new high-school lockers, passing notes, sharing books, or simply smiling at the sight of each other; going on double dates with Fred and Sarah, holding hands underneath the table, feeling her charmbracelet press against my wrist; the two of us retreating to the dark of my room, her hand rising under my shirt, my whole life bending over to kiss her; feeling her growing lighter in my arms as the treatments took more and more and more of her.
It passed so quickly. And when it was gone – when all of it was gone – I was left with nothing. It was as if all the moments had died along with her. Everything had died. Everything except me. And that was arguable. There were times when I felt I had died, too.
When you die, the heart just stops.
When she died, my heart just stopped.
I knew she was dead. In every hour, every minute, every second since that one small gasp, I knew she was dead. How could it be otherwise?
I had known her seven years, since we were nine. We had been together for three of those years, until she died, just four months ago.
Her absence was all that mattered to me now, just as her presence had been all that mattered to me then. The people around me measured their days in hours, or class periods, or meals. I used to measure the days in glimpses of her face, touches from her hand, words sent back and forth through the air, all the things I’d tell her. I had never before experienced a love so elemental. And I never would again.
B + M
We had carved it everywhere. The trees where we walked The benches where we sat. On the bedposts. The walls. Still there, every time I looked. There was no way to erase her without removing myself. I wanted to remove myself.
I was what remained. And that’s what my life felt like: remaining. I went through the motions. I drowned myself in homework and tests. I pushed myself as fast as I could through each day. I tried not too look closely at anyone else, because they had what I’d lost – seeing them touch, seeing them happy made me bitter, jealous, sad. I was old at a young age – I knew things that nobody around me knew. I knew the truth of grief, the truth of watching her slowly die, the angry emptiness of remaining. I made myself hard and sharp. I became secret and self-contained. Solitary.
This was not a choice. It was what I had to do.
The cold within me froze my features, made my eyes red, my thin lips blue, and spoke out in a voice that grated in my own ears. I iced the air wherever I went. I chilled all the conversations.
Love was to blame for this. Because when love ends, the cold is what you’re left with.
It was all I needed to feel.
Life goes on. Get over it. You’re still young. It’ll get better. Blah blah blah. At first people had tried to draw me in and draw me out. They’d tried to make it better . After Marly died, my friends grew closer and I grew apart from their closeness. They tried to make me return to a world where there were colors besides black and gray, gave me consolations and invitations and conversations that grew more and more one-sided as my side shut down. There was no way to explain to them how I felt, because if they’d been able to understand, there wouldn’t have been any need to explain. I knew some of them loved her – genuinely loved her. But not in the way I had. I knew they were grieving, too, but I needed distance for my own grief. I chose to edge my way along the crowded paths of life, keeping sympathy away. I didn’t want it. I didn’t need it. I wanted and needed Marly, and she was gone.
I wanted to die.
That Friday, that day before Valentine’s Day, was no different. I walked through the hallways of our school and paid as little attention as I could to the stamping and wheezing and chatter around me. Some lockers were decked with construction paper hearts – to me, the only thing they had in common with real hearts was their ability to be torn so easily. Black hearts – I wanted to see black hearts in the halls, hearts that smelled like smoke and weighed as much as sadness. While everyone else focused on their boyfriends and girlfriends, on roses and carnations and dates , I looked out the windows at the bleak midwinter. The last bell of the day had just rung, but it was quite dark already, with a fog covering over the parking lot and the football field and the town beyond. I wanted to be out there, evaporating.
* * *
When I was I was at my locker, unloading my books, I was accosted by two boys with two armloads of flowers. They were both freshmen, and I only knew their names because our school didn’t have that many pairs of freshmen boyfriends. One was short and hesitant, the other tall, lanky, and hesitant.
“Would you like to buy a carnation?” Tiny asked meekly.
“The proceeds go to Key Club,” Tim quietly chimed in.
“I’m allergic,” I told them flatly.
“You could give one to your girlfriend,” Tiny offered.
“Or your boyfriend,” Tim said even more quietly.
“My girlfriend died four months ago,” I replied curtly. “And I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“I’m sorry,” Tiny said.
“That’s awful,” Tim seconded.
“You have no idea,” I said, standing now and facing them. I did not appreciate their invasion of my space. I did not appreciate their murmurs of care. I fell out of the hold of whatever had been keeping me from lashing out. I was as tall as Tim, so much taller than Tiny. They wilted a little as I spoke. “You have no idea at all about anything, do you? How long have you been together?”
“Two months,” Tiny answered.
“And four days,” Tim added.
“Let me tell you right now – that’s nothing . You could plant fields of carnations for each other, and that won’t prevent what’s going to happen. You think you’re in love? You think it’s even possible for you to be in love? I’m going to tell you something, for your own good. Then you can decide whether or not to give me a flower in return. There is no such thing as ‘in love.’ Love is not something you can ever get inside of. You might think you’re there. Sure. But then you hit the border and realize you’ve been outside the whole time.”
I looked at Tiny and pointed to Tim. “I don’t know how it will end,” I told him. “Maybe he’ll find someone more attractive than you. He’ll cheat on you. He’ll lie to you. He’ll swear that it’s love.” I looked at Tim and pointed to Tiny. “And maybe he’ll leave you in a different way. He’ll grow distant. He’ll become a mystery you can’t solve. Or maybe something else will intervene. He’ll get sick. He’ll need you more than you can bear. It will be too much, and because it’s too much, you’ll know that you never really made it in love. You couldn’t push far enough to be in .”
They just stood there for second, shocked. Then Tim, mumbling down to his flowers, said, “White is for friendship, pink is for crushes, and red is for love. Which do you want?”
“I want this all to be over – is that really so hard to understand? I don’t want to have anything to do with anyone. As far as I’m concerned, nobody else exists!” I yelled.
“Sorry,” Tiny said, wiping his eyes. Then, seeing that it would be useless to pursue their point, he leaned into Tim and they both moved away.
The fog and the darkness outside thickened. But when I stepped into it, I couldn’t disappear completely. I could still see the things immediately around me – buses the color of caution lights, smokers gathered on the front steps, cupping their hands for fire. It was only the distance that was blotted out. Not my footsteps. Not my clouded breathing. Not my thoughts.
What did it feel like to touch her skin? What was our biggest fight? What were the exact words she said when she told me she’d go out with me? What else will I forget?
Marly, in my mind, said, Stop it.
But if I stop it, it’s over , I thought back. I knew she wouldn’t want it to be over.
The church tower was invisible now, but it still rang out in the clouds, once every fifteen minutes. I felt the vibrations of time as I walked on, the railings of the graveyard now beside me. I kept walking, even though Marly was there. Her resting place, because it contained the rest of her, her own remaining. The things I loved were gone, and no coffin, no marker could preserve them.
Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold.
Picturing her crying. Feeling her tears soak into her shirt. Knowing there was nothing, nothing that I could do.
Having her scream at me - Go away. Having her tell me she was all alone, that there was no way for me to understand how that felt. Telling me to leave, but letting me back in after a phone call, a note, a day passing.
I plunged past, into town. A loving couple loitered across the sidewalk in front of me, holding hands, nestling against the cold. I had to run into the street to get around them. I wanted to yell.
Her voice in my head: There should be a minimum speed limit for people in love walking on the sidewalk. They’re worse than moms with strollers. Or maybe just my own voice in my head, disguised as hers.
I passed the park with the playground swings and the diner with the jukebox booths. The trees we’d vowed to climb and the benches where we would sit reading next to each other, her arm pressed so closely against mine that I’d feel it when she turned a page. The street we would’ve taken to go back to her house. All of the places that had been bled of purpose. I couldn’t feel anything for them anymore, except loss. The past was ruined for me.
My parents were away for the weekend, so I stopped at a quiet, forlorn deli far enough into the outskirts of our small suburban town to be private. I sat at one of the two tables and singlemindedly plied through my homework and ate food without taste. The light was fluorescent. No music played. That was all right with me.
When I was done there, I took a shortcut through a thick veil of trees to get to my house. Closer to the center of town, the houses kept one another company, the doorways only a conversational distance apart. Here, however, the houses kept to themselves. Ours was an old and dreary recluse – I hadn’t even liked it as a kid. Even though I knew every step of the shortcut, every step of the yard, I found myself groping through the darkness that had set in, so full of frost and fog. I made it up the front steps and had just put my key in the lock when I stopped and looked at the old knocker on the door.
There was nothing at all particular about the knocker, except that it was very large. It had been on the door for as long as we’d lived in the house, which in my case was as long as I’d been alive. I had walked past the knocker for years without seeing it, or caring if it saw me. But this time something made me stop. Something made me look. One moment it was just the ordinary knocker. And the next moment it was . . .
It was not in impenetrable shadow, as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light around it, like the lowest flame on a gas range. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked exactly like she used to look when she’d stop in the middle of studying to talk to me, her glasses turned up on her forehead. Her hair was stirred, as if by breath or hot air, and though her eyes were wide open, they didn’t move. That, and the shock of seeing the startling blue of her eyes again, made it horrible. But the horror seemed to be on my side, not hers.
Before I could even gasp, she was gone.