hard to explain.
what just happened, i mean.
like is the beginning of the story the fact that we tried to reheat used coffee over the flame of a votive candle?
or is it that we caught norovirus from spinach?
is this a mystery or a tragedy or both?
we accomplished none of our tasks. that is truth.
i did not get to see burvil. i did not pack my books or clothes. debo did not even remember to give me the vaseline oil that i cannot seem to find anywhere in DC and which i've mentioned in no less than 9 texts over the last few months.
we did nothing.
which isn't entirely accurate because we puked up all of our guts and then sat and froze in the dark.
and we laughed a lot.
i noticed though, twice, how easily my laughter could've slipped over into sobs.
and i held back. i kept it together.
the hilarity sits so close to grief is the thing.
a few days before i left to drive down to memphis, i went to the grocery store in an outfit i knew was cute. i don't even remember what it was now but one of the female security guards at the nursery school on the way to the market stopped her car and rolled down her window to tell me my outfit was everything. and i felt five miles tall.
i wanted to get that on the record here but then there wasn't time for words before i left.
time moves so fast.
i left memphis earlier than planned, because there's this siege mentality that sets in-- and i'mma just tell you this like this is a thing that may happen to you even as i hope it doesn't-- when you've survived poisoning and then are submerged in freezing temperatures for 24 hours plus.
it's just like everest garebear kept saying. it's like we're climbing everest. we watched all those documentaries, why aren't you girls prepared?
we did not purchase this experience we tried to tell him.
he didn't get it.
i'mma leave a pretty rough review for the hôtel sordide.
we circled back to jessica yet again, by way of challenger.
because i wrote about challenger while i was there and then debo told me all of my memories about all of the adults going into a room were wrong because it was like two adults, and then her sister chimed in to say a solid 50% of her memories were wrong and so now we do not know whose memories are correct, if any. we are all maybe wrong? we were all there and we do not even know what happened.
i look forward to reading my biographer's account of this story, because clearly none of us can be trusted.
we are all of us unreliable narrators of our own lives. read on at your own discretion.
i want to ask burvil, who has dementia, but we can't see burvil because we may be contagious.
because we were poisoned. and because i googled what to do when you are poisoned, we are now aware of the existence of a website entitled IWASPOISONED.COM.
the police came the night jessica died.
i did not know this. also, i did not know she died at home.
or i did not remember. knowing and remembering sit awkwardly adjacent. but then i was 3. i was a child. i probably never knew. why would i have?
the police weren't supposed to come. according to debo, they'd worked it all out with their doctors beforehand and the police were not supposed to come, but they did.
debo remembers the flashing lights of their cars.
i'm laying on her stomach. we're perpendicular, in a position we've assumed so often, as she recounts this.
i don't think-- and i could be wrong-- she sees the tears falling across my face. from below, i sense her looking ahead as she tells this, rather than down at me. (in this moment, i am also in the moment of being five or six and lying on her lap whilst she and burvil talk about the wife of the man who held me when i was an infant and carried me all around the IRS introducing me to people, the man whose wife died after a car accident, in a police car, as she laid her head back to look at the stars), but i do not look at her and so i do not know, and anyway, we do not even know the things we think we know, so what does it matter?
i'm a 40 year old woman with my head in my mother's lap as she recounts how, when i was 3, my friend was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor on the 4th of july 1984 and died on that 27 december, my parents' wedding anniversary.
she remembers there were not supposed to be flashing lights.
i remember mostly pictures.
i'm aware i'm struck (you'll note, maybe, how mediated my feelings remain--), as she's telling this, by the reality of jessica's personhood. by the fact that she was an actual person, just like me, just like the me that i remember feeling like i was.
in hearing debo talk, i am struck by the enormity of jessica's parents' loss. and i am struck, maybe for the first time in my life, by the enormity of the loss of her.
(and i am, in writing that, struck by such an enormous guilt for not having felt all this sooner, such a tremendous guilt that it took me forty full years to arrive here [but also, as a researcher, as an academic, how wild, how telling, and this speaks to the interwovenness of the memories, that i'm having to listen to the soundtrack of netflix's challenger: the last flight to write all this, to put it into words and onto your screen. you are reading this because of challenger. and, let us pause and take a breath together and note that that is how history works and also that it is bananas.])
and i'm aware of this maybe, in large part, only because a dear friend is in the midst of a prolonged miscarriage and, as her friend, i am aware of her loss. or maybe, because of my mother but also because of jessica, i am aware of the enormity of that loss. i don't know. but i am aware. i am alert, i am sensitive, i am aware. i feel i have always been aware, though i did not have the words, which made it hard to identify the feelings which filled my body.
when we've talked about this in therapy, my therapist always wants me to go back and tell things to my younger self, and i've never been able to do that.
yeah, sure, i've cried and tried to absolve myself, but something about hearing debo talk about it, something about the swiftness, the suddenness, the granular details, the specifics, the dates (my therapist knows how i love the concreteness of dates!)-- they went on vacation for the 4th and jessica suddenly started throwing up and couldn't stop-- something about this telling-- with debo emphasizing the lights and how ruth knew jessica's mother robbie because she was there, visiting, that summer-- something about the way she tells it now, for the first time in maybe ever, i actually feel how it probably felt then, as a child, to know that this could've been me.
that was the thing, then, for debo and garebear. it could have been me.
that's what my therapist wanted me to deal with-- the guilt that it wasn't.
but i think the thing undealt with is the threat inherent within that fact.
it could have been me.
it is that easy.
it is that sudden.
life is all we have and, so abruptly, it is over.
it can, always, just as easily, have been any of us.
it is, all of it, that fragile.
the literary thing would be to say what a sobering thought!
but also this is so banal, so stupidly obvious, it's a waste of space to even commit it to words.
and yet, i go on........
casually, so casually, on a date last november, i told a man that my friend died when i was three and he said ohmygod.
and i was somewhat taken aback to have (1) said that, and (2) gotten that response.
he'd seemed so chill when i mentioned that i'd been raped.
when donovan died, i never thought that it could have been me. it was something altogether else. which wasn't to say that the loss hit any less hard or any less cold. it was a blow, believe me.
it was a blow from which i still reel. the loss is ongoing. i have learned to live with it, but it is a hole towards which my brain is apparently now wired to run.
my therapist and i have identified a pattern. whenever i'm missing donovan, something else has occurred which needs processing.
i think we're equally fascinated by this phenomenon. how he isn't so much a trigger as a signal, saving me all over again as he did the first time.
i do not know how jessica operates in my life, except that it does not seem to be similarly. if anything, she is a space around which i have pitched a thicket of work-arounds.
this loss seems to be something different. something so different that this feels like the first time i've ever quantified it as a loss.
she was there and then she wasn't.
i remember her mostly from pictures. a set of pictures my father took of the pair of us on the front porch of our house on harbert, opening a smoke-filled box of crocheted alligators from my grandma ruth in that summer of 1984.
her hair had fallen out by then but the striking thing about these images is how normal we look in them. so evident are the dynamics of childhood friendship.
the thing i remember about challenger, the thing i didn't include in the finding jackie post about challenger, is that it was one of the two times i remember, as a child, wanting to self-harm.
and i do not know that i did. all's i remember is the wanting. the desire. the working out of how it could happen and the awareness of what a relief it would provide.
that time it involved a bench, the top of which i wasn't supposed to lift because it was very heavy and it would hurt little fingers.
it wasn't dark so much as the window was small and the sun had moved beyond it. in my memory, and my memory is so vivid i struggle not to believe it, i stood there, that day, all of the adults i knew (whichever combo of adults they were, however real this memory is) behind the shut door, and i contemplated how it would feel to put my little fingers beneath the weight of the lid of that bench.
much as i'd either just before or just after, lain in the dark at nursery school, my nap mat beside the teacher's rocking chair, and deliberated about whether or not i should place my fingers beneath the runner, to see what it would be like, seeking the feeling or the pain, i do not know which, for they are different. though i do know it wasn't about the response to my doing it because, when i imagined it, i imagined it would occur in total silence.
i imagined i would be able to take it without a sound. the adults would never know.
because, let's us kids be honest, the adults really never do know.
always, always, there would be silence, when i was hurt. always, always, for whatever reasons, i would be wired to aim to hold it in. even when i was legitimately injured, with broken bones, i would pull myself together, and shove the bone back into my arm and craft a less embarrassing story than what'd actually occurred.
from so early on, i was already, even then, telling stories. stories were safer. always, always, i instinctively seemed to believe, the reality was to be concealed. (this is why it's wild, how honest i am being here now. but though also what is this, but another story........?)
always, always, i have felt myself to be too much-- emotion, feeling, stuff-- for my little body. always, always, there has been an inadequate amount of space for me to fill. always, always-- and i want to be clear, my parents are not at fault here-- i am full to bursting and there is nowhere to go.
i didn't know you were so sensitive, a friend who has known me for over a decade said a few months ago. which, well yeah. i am words and nerve endings with but the barest layer of skin, but then i guess this is a testament to adaptation: confirmation i've learned to hide it pretty fucking well.
i'm not 100% sure these memories of the bench and the rocking chair are real, i do not trust myself as a narrator. but also, if we trust me as a narrator (which, honestly, what reasons have i given us not to other than the fact that memory is weird and i'm a woman?), i've two early memories of deliberating about self-harm.
i'm aware that, whether or not i waited to act upon them until my late 20s, the pain i experienced in my late 20s has earlier echoes, it was already there, in those moments, when i was less than five years old, in the dark.
i wonder if i secretly have a life goal of buying that house on harbert.
of living in that house. of having all of the people i have loved over and swanning about, in costume, in all of the rooms that exist now only in my memory, opening the doors the adults closed and throwing lavish parties.
it sounds unbearably sad when i write it there.
but it's a thought i've had.
like the only way to write the story, to get the story out is to go back and stew in it and live in it and fucking own it.
with complete, all-encompassing, total wild abandon and joy.
i thought people could disappear.
i don't remember jessica's disappearance. what i remember of that Year that Everyone Died is comparing genitalia with matthew stubblefield when i stayed over at his house while my parents were at my mother's grandfather's funeral.
what i remember, much later, is the jolt of recognition upon seeing photographs from the holocaust, and attaching jessica's name to whatever feeling it was i couldn't then let myself feel.
what debo remembers is a year wherein they could not catch their bearings. a year that was really, really hard.
i know they parented me as best they could with all we did not know then.
what i hear when i hear all these stories-- the stories of how joe would take pam out to the airfield to watch the planes land while burvil cried in her room, the lights of the police cars the night jessica died, debo seeing garebear alone in his library with a glass of wine listening to sad, sad music and thinking about vietnam-- is that we were all of us just fumbling forward, traumatized fucking messes, each and every one, with no supports, no frameworks for what was happening. and how fucking bold to have kept going. how fucking bold to have gone on without that, because i could not've, i'll tell you. i could not have. i could not have done what they did then, getting through it, without support or therapy or frameworks. i would have died. i would have. i feel lucky to have just been a kid and not an adult. i feel lucky to have not been in charge.
this makes me so grateful for libby. for libby being there. for libby being a constant in my life. for libby having been there then.
i have no memories of this at all, so i'm superimposing it onto my own past. but i am so fucking grateful that libby was there then.
it's too much, too neat, but i swear to god this happened: on the drive home, a car in the right lane didn't so much as run into a bird as interfere with its flight path and contribute to its murder.
and i watched, in no way implicated, merely a witness and not even a birdlover, and yet nonetheless moved. because this thing we're all doing is so fragile, it can change in an instant.
you're just going on your way and suddenly you're 39 and you're having a heart attack and maybe you're working in a hospital and conveniently located to a defibrillator and you live and so, as a result, when i come into this world, i get to know you and i get another 31 years with you. but maybe you aren't there or you are there and you don't survive.
fragile. it's all so very, very fragile. i'm 40 now. joe was 39 when he had his heart attack. i might've never have met him, but i did. i don't know if it's true, as it is in my memory, that he came over to the house on harbert after challenger and was behind the shut door. what i do know is he was the love of burvil's life and he survived to write encouraging notes on my stupid paint-by-numbers of horses in the late 1990s.
garebear had wrist pain out of nowhere so i forbade him to help remove the pine tree branches blocking the drive.
debo and i booted and bundled and went out there and in, for real, like ten minutes, we cleared the mess that had blocked us in.
the pine needles were iced.
it was beautiful. like they were coated in glass.
our photographs did not do it justice.
it made me wish i could paint.
when i arrived in memphis, when garebear and debo met me at the exxon they kept telling me the street coordinates rather than saying you know, that gas station everyone says has the good sushi.
i said the one thing i wanted to do during my stay was to see the street named after mj. lol. you know we didn't. because this was a trip where we got to do nothing we wanted to do.
on tuesday night, as i recovered from my IWASPOISONED.COM and debo, though she did not know it yet, was only but hours removed from her own experience, in the middle of the conversation about jessica, somehow we sidetracked in that way you do when you go down family rabbit holes.
and we got to reminiscing about that one time in winter 2021. when she sent me a text message about her friend who had been hospitalized with covid.
we'd been worrying about him for days.
the text message read: james has gone home.
it was accompanied by a photograph of james in a car, waving at the camera.
I SHIT YOU NOT I THOUGHT HE HAD DIED.
admittedly, this was-- i've not gone back and reconstructed the timeline, but i'm pretty sure-- maybe, at best, a month out from the date rape, so i was not emotionally well let us just say, but seriously.
i thought he had died.
i texted lindear omg.
then i collected myself and i called debo and was alarmed by her joviality.
when she asked me how i was, i told her i supposed i was ok but i was surprised by how upset i was about james's death.
and she said WHAT?!?!
james had not died. james had recovered and gone home from the hospital.
i had misunderstood.
we laugh about this, hysterically, cathartically, as i lay on her lap. this is the point at which i'm aware, for the first time, how close my hysterical laughter is to seeping into sobs.
we laughed about this for at least thirty minutes, and then garebear came down and we explained it all over again to him and he didn't seem to get the humor, but the laugh felt good, excepting that moment i was so acutely aware of its proximity to grief.
this is, maybe, hopefully, the thing i'll remember about this trip.
so much laughter.
sitting in the dark, laying in laps, laying three across a bed under quilts in the freezing cold, laughing. not so much with our guts, because those hurt, and our faces were half frozen, so not so much with those either.
but the sound of it and the sensation, of all that laughter in the dark.