MY FUNERAL SONGS

1-800-273-8255 – Logic

Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.

Jump Around – House of Pain

 

It felt good not to feel. JF adjusted his position on the snow bank, scribbling into the notebook that his therapist, Nico Tesoro, had given him at their first session. It was hardbacked with lines; it had heft. The numbness crept from his ass and the back of his thighs down through his calves and ankles all the way to his toes, and then back up, settling deep in his chest. His heart hurt, fingers cramped from writing in the cold.

And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb. And she’ll always get the best of me; the worst is yet to come. All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love. This I know, girl, I know.

Since Morgan’s death seven months ago, anxiety had taken on physical sensations: less space for air in his lungs, his breath caught, half-full, half-empty. He couldn’t eat or sleep more than a couple of hours, awakening in the dark at three or four a.m. covered with a slick of sweat, his heart pounding, mind in a whirlwind.

His loss had turned to dread. Each day seemed endless with no forward momentum, no belief that he would ever feel any different. JF wondered if it would be better if he were dead. Suicide presented itself as a potential solution.

JF had thought about simply not being, free of pain. But a mensch had to get down to specifics. How would he do it? Pills were the easiest for sure, the most comfortable, and he would be in solidarity with Morgan.

He’d scoped out the medicine cabinet at home and ransacked his moms’ separate night tables on either side of their bed while they were at work, carefully replacing everything as it was.

All of the sleeping pills and benzos had been cleared out. On a visit to his dad, he’d discovered, to his surprise, the same deal. No oxys, no benzos, no sleeping pills, not even a bottle of Percocet.

Hanging was the macho way to go. Usually this was done in basements or attics, right? Well, they didn’t have either one in his apartment. Also, a side effect was shitting and pissing yourself. Did he really want his moms to find him like that? And it hardly seemed a painless or sure-fire way to go. What if you half-strangled yourself? Then what?

When he was about ten years old, the father across the street had killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. Apparently, CO is odourless and colourless and tasteless and will cause reasonably swift loss of consciousness. On discovery, the body will look peaceful.

The asphyxiation route wouldn’t work for JF. No one in the family owned a car, for starters.

Readjusting his position on the snow bank, sitting cross-legged now, JF remembered how he used to feel more a part of things – his family, his classmates, the whole fucking human race. He’d had friends. But his obsession with Morgan had expanded, little by little, to take up so much space in his mind and heart and being that there was little room for anything or anyone else. He found himself isolated and alone. A pinball aimlessly shooting and bouncing off walls, going nowhere.

Yet, his obsession with Morgan was probably the most interesting thing about him.

JF felt an invisible pull, welcoming surrender to a force that felt outside of himself. Sliding down the snow bank, he walked, creaky and frozen at first, then more agile, until he was standing in front of Morgan’s house beside the pretty pocket park blanketed in snow. She’d lived in this sprawling white Victorian home with its pale pink trim, its turrets and tower, like a fairy-tale castle or a fussy wedding cake. He needed to be inside the house where Morgan had lived, inside the room where she’d slept.

There were no cars in the driveway, and JF rang the bell. A petite brown-skinned woman answered the door, and he started talking before he could think of what to say.

“I’m a student of Professor Rosenblum’s. I left my music here… the other day.” Just as he got the words out, a plumbing truck pulled into the driveway, and a big man hoisted himself out, heralding his arrival with a clanging belt of tools.

Pase por favor!” the woman called out. “The problem is upstairs.”

The plumber walked in, with JF trailing close behind. Water was sluicing down through the ceiling, dripping from the pear-shaped crystals of the ornate living-room chandelier.

While the housekeeper and plumber went upstairs, JF hung back and then padded down to the basement, where he knew Morgan had moved her bedroom for privacy. He passed through a laundry room and found a closed door with a sign that said, Do Not Disturb!

He wondered if it would be locked, but when he tried the door it let out a sharp whine as it opened. So here it was: her bedroom, her girl cave.

On Morgan’s bureau, in a little glass dish sat the silver chai necklace she’d worn every day. Chai meant “life” in Hebrew. Despite how troubled she’d been, Morgan had always had plenty of joie de vivre. JF gathered up the chain and pendant in his palm and stuffed them into the pocket of his damp parka.

Morgan’s bed was covered with a quilt in pastel blues and greens, and marbles had spilled out onto the coverlet from a black velvet pouch. They were a wonder: not only cat’s eyes, but glass globes with swirls of colour, elaborate designs of flowers, and symbols and hieroglyphics that confounded him. JF hadn’t known she was into marbles.

Had Morgan collected marbles, or played games with them, maybe with Collier? What else didn’t he know about her?

He sat down on the bed and the marbles rolled to his thigh. He gathered them in his hands and let them fall back onto the quilt through spread fingers. Some rolled off the bed and made a hard pocking sound as they hit the concrete floor.

JF knew Morgan had suffered. He’d wanted so badly, so deeply, to comfort her. To quiet the voices she’d heard inside her head, to calm the terrifying hallucinations. But he’d felt helpless. He could only be her friend, but had longed to be her lover. Would that have done her any good?

The scarf Morgan had worn in the colder months was slung over her desk chair, its blues and greens deeper than the hues of the bedspread. He buried his face in the scarf. It still held her scent – a salty sweet mix of sweat and patchouli. He wrapped it around his neck to feel its warmth and softness. Unbearable.

JF sat for a bit – it was hard to tell how long – before he heard footsteps and voices from above and crept stealthily upstairs, skulking out the front door.

 

BEFORE I DIE….

I want to not feel dead

I want to talk to Morgan’s ghost or spirit or soul or whatever

I want to travel to Costa Rica to see those sea turtles

 

JF stood outside Nico’s office, the door ajar. He could see that it was its usual mess of strewn toys, Chinese take-out cartons stained and dripping greasy brown and orange sauces, and multiple to-go coffee containers on every possible surface.

JF kept his appointments with Nico, one of the few constants in his life now, a regular window of time, which gave a shape to the void he felt himself in… the void that was him.

When Nico spotted JF, he stood up from his desk to his full uncomfortably tall height, lanky and physically awkward with enormous hands and feet, large dark eyes, and long wild black hair streaked with silver, which he’d pulled back into a ratty ponytail and tied with twine. He was wearing one of his loud Hawaiian shirts with a turtleneck underneath, baggy gold wide-wale cords, and fuzzy slippers. Though this would be their fourth individual meeting, Nico’s appearance still came as a surprise.

“Hey there! I thought you’d stood me up.”

JF shrugged. “I can’t do our session –.  Not today.”

“Well,” Nico loped over to JF, patting him on the shoulder. “How about we walk, and talk while we’re walking.”

A statement, not a question. Nico didn’t wait for JF’s answer, just suited up in his parka and boots, and headed out, locking his office door.

They made their way toward the mountain, not far from Nico’s office. Nico had a slow, shambling gait as they headed into the wooded path, black ice beneath a dusting of snow. It was nearly twilight and there were not many people around, which suited JF: the occasional cross-country skier, two elderly people snowshoeing, the odd dog walker. Now and then Nico lost his footing in a long slide, the snow obscuring the icy patches, and JF steadied his therapist so he wouldn’t take a pratfall.

“Last week you were starting to talk about Morgan,” Nico said in his deep gritty voice roughened by decades of chain smoking. He had the breath and the yellowish fingernails and teeth to prove it. “Tell me about your relationship.”

They headed uphill. “Relationship?” JF heard the snarl of sarcasm in his tone.

“Okay. Your connection.”

“Well…” JF stopped as a flock of crows flapped overhead against the darkening sky and glimpsed a crescent of silver moon. “I helped Morgan with her homework now and then.  We were in Science together. She panicked before exams and I was sort of her tutor.”

“It’s great that you’ve got a gift for science. You can do a lot with that.”

JF was not looking toward the future. The planet was fucked, the climate apocalypse within sight.

Yet, he’d felt more alive when he was with Morgan, hopeful. She had an intensity about her that was contagious, that infected him, made him burn brighter too. And she was beautiful and sexy as hell with her nearly black hair, rippling and shining over her shoulders and down her back, and her pale green eyes, the irises spiked with flecks of gold and blue.

“I went to her house once,” JF said. “You know, to study.”

It had begun to snow and Nico drew a tuque out of his pocket and pulled it low over his forehead.

JF remembered that afternoon with Morgan, which had stretched out into evening. Her parents were out at some sort of gathering or meeting, he had no idea where. They studied first at the dining room table and when it got dark, they went outside and brought steaming cups of mint tea and sat in camp chairs looking up at the night sky. It was fall and the air was crisp and clean, the night clear. JF pointed out Aquarius, the water bearer, and then Pegasus, the winged horse. Morgan couldn’t see Pegasus, so she came over and sat in JF’s lap. He put his arms around her, feeling the plush firmness of her body, then took her hand in his and traced the formation of the winged horse. When she finally saw it, Morgan gave out a gleeful yelp. He could have sat there forever.

Remembering, JF felt a rush of pleasure.

Nico was looking over at him, short of breath from the climb. “You’re smiling. What are you thinking about?” He breathed heavily for a few minutes then tapped his parka. “Mind if I…?

Again he didn’t wait for JF’s okay, but lit up one of his stinky French cigarettes, inhaling deeply, with a sigh of satisfaction. He held it with his fingers furled inward facing his chest.

JF didn’t want to tell Nico – or anyone for that matter – about his evening with Morgan. It was one of the few memories of the two of them together that he cherished as his alone. At the time, he had no idea that in a few months she’d be dead. Weird to think of it now. Nico was waiting for his answer when a big fat skunk came waddling across the trail, its black and white striped body stark against the snow. The creature let out its stink.

“Oh, geeze,” Nico said, “Let’s move on.”

They pressed on uphill, Nico coughing as he grunted, “So I sense you had a strong connection with Morgan.” What? Did he read minds? Nico was staring at the blue and green scarf wrapped around JF’s neck. Did he know that it had been Morgan’s, that JF had stolen it? How could he?

Sneaking into houses, stealing a dead girl’s stuff just wasn’t JF’s style. In truth, he’d always been a bit of a goody two-shoes. He hated himself.

They came into a clearing, and while Nico stopped to catch his breath again, JF looked up at the sky. All he could see now were whirling white flakes dancing against the deep blue, Morgan’s favourite colour.

They continued on, walking and talking. JF felt so afraid, uncertain about what to do next – next hour, next day, next week, next month, next year. Unless there was no more next.

 

WHAT AM I AFRAID OF?

Living more than death

What has been stolen

What remains

 

They arrived at the top of the mountain, at the lookout, the chalet behind them. Dusk brought a gauzy twilight softening the glow of the hundreds of twinkling lights below, their furred halos like dandelion puffs about to blow and disperse in the winter wind. Nothing solid or stable, everything in flux.

“It should’ve been me,” JF said, looking straight ahead. “Or maybe we could’ve died together.”

“But you didn’t.” Nico’s gritty voice was firm, his voice lower than usual.

JF’s chest hurt, his heart crushed.

“The world needs you.”

JF snorted at this absurd, sentimental notion. He had his mom Rachel’s raucous laugh that seemed to come from his nose as much as his chest, and now he mimed the gag reflex but coughed instead, hacking until his eyes teared, hot and stinging. He wrapped Morgan’s scarf tighter around his neck and rubbed the sharp points and smooth curves of the chai charm he’d shoved into his pocket, pricking his fingers until they bled. They stood there for a long while until there were very few other people, just a few dog walkers.

“For next week, I want you to write a little each day or night,” Nico said. “Let’s say, tonight, while you’re sleeping, a miracle happens. When you wake up tomorrow, what are some of the things you notice that tell you your life has suddenly gotten better? Think about it.”

Nico went into the chalet to get them both a coffee. JF stayed put, taking in the view from the lookout.

He found himself remembering some of the random platitudes he’d read about loss and grief in the little pamphlet the school counsellor had handed out to their whole class after Morgan’s death. Especially the one about having to grieve what he’d lost – truly sit with it. Because then he could appreciate what he’d kept. You must reckon, face your own darkness. Maybe that last one was from Oprah?

Nico had told him, “Bad things that have happened blow up and warp our beliefs about ourselves… We have to confront our negative beliefs. I’ll share one of mine: I think I’m a clumsy oaf and all I’m good for is work. Now you can confront one of yours.”

In family therapy, Nico had passed out M&Ms, giving seven pieces each to him, his moms and Guy, his dad. They had to sort their candy by colour. Green was for words to describe your family. Orange symbolized what you’d like to change. Red indicated what you were afraid of. Yellow was your favourite memories of your family. They each took a turn to give their responses and then picked the next person to talk.

The activities they did, like his writing assignments, seemed lame and cheesy at first, but despite that, his moms, his dad and even he got into it. What else could they do? His moms wouldn’t let up… they just would not quit. At some family meetings, the four of them had ugly fights where they cried and screamed at one other. But somehow, after these devastating sessions, JF felt a release, a calm and cleansing exhaustion that soothed him like the sound of the train at night, clattering by not far from their apartment, regular as clockwork. It was almost like a friend during these long days and endless nights.

JF was looking forward to that steaming cup of coffee. He wanted to hold it between his hands, against his chest. So now he had another writing assignment. His final line wasn’t written yet… “whenever” wasn’t here yet. Today wouldn’t come again.

JF and Nico would wind their way down and around the mountain until they got to the bottom, out of the woods, and onto the street. He’d go home. His moms were waiting for him. Maybe there’d be pizza. He wasn’t alone.

The only way out was through. Just take a step.

 

 

Red Becoming by Sharon Bourke

 

Vibration before sound, that’s how it starts. You could be at school, at home, anytime, anywhere. You hear mumbling and feel your lips twitch as you mouth words. Keep on your noise-cancelling earphones, never go anywhere without them. Listen to The Weeknd on continuous loop, I Would Die for You, and sing along with him.

Even though we’re going through it
And it makes you feel alone
Just know that I would die for you
Baby I would die for you, yeah

Beneath, around his voice are other voices, talking just to you. They whisper, then hiss through clenched teeth. You will die for you, you will die, yeah, baby yeah. Don’t listen. They crank up the volume and play tricks until you can’t hear The Weeknd, only horns beeping, children whispering and weeping.

You’re failing several of your courses in Grade 11 because so much is flooding in through eyes, ears, nose, mouth, every pore in your skin, so you can’t concentrate on your teachers. Take Math.

Open your text and read.

Make connections between the numeric, graphical and algebraic representations of quadratic relations and use the connections to solve problems.

Construct tables of values and graph quadratic relations arising from real-world applications (e.g., dropping a ball from a given height.)

The words are too black and the space white blinds. You snap shut the text and see every grain and scratch in the cover.

Soon school’s out for summer and maybe you’ll be well again. Drawing like mad, he he. Making new cartoons. You have an idea for a graphic memoir, a joint project with Collier, a day in the life sort of thing. If you can only hold out till summer. So far, you hide, hope to appear normal.

Parents ask about your day, well, what can you say? When mom hugs you, it’s electroshock. You see how you hurt her but you can’t help it. Colours make sounds. Yellow is a beep, beep, beep.  Blue, waves rolling in, crashing shore. Red, a scream, which is why they call it bloodcurdling.  Mom’s voice is silvery. Dad’s hard, geologic. Sleep is out of the question. There is an old doll’s head with red glowing eyes, she spooks you.

Time is the abyss, sad, weary. 

You hear a black feral cat, skinny, yowling, like an ambulance coming. There are more wild stray cats in a pack, pack-cats. Coming for you.

They try to woo you to their side. We love you, Morgan. Listen and you will survive. They threaten and terrorize you. We will turn your vagina black.

You text Collier from the girl’s washroom at school and then go into the yard for a cig. This is one of your worst days ever. You’re scared. Your mind’s going.

It’s happening again.

Meet me out front.

“Coll, Coll, Coll!”  You rejoice when you see them and put away your earphones into your backpack. They’re not helping today. “Thoughts out loud, too many thoughts. Being born, it hurt to come into the light.

“We’ll walk it off,” Coll tells you.

“I’m scared,” you say. They are the only one you can trust.

You head to the Lachine Canal, the day so hot you know the sun is alive and will peel off your skin and scorch your heart.

At last you’re alongside the river and feel the breeze off the water. Collier sweeps his arm around you and their touch is different from anyone else’s – it calms you – a little. You glance over to them and see a feral cat on their left shoulder. Its gem-green eyes.

“Coll, there’s a black cat on your shoulder? Do you see it too?”

They tap both shoulders, shrug, then shake their head no.

But you still see the creature. When the light hits its eyes, they glimmer like emeralds. Now it yowls.

“Coll, hear that?”

The cat leaps to Collier’s other shoulder.

“Sometimes my mom pretends she’s a bird,” Coll says, apropos of nothing. “A wild, weird, scavenging bird, picking at garbage. She likes being this bird, calls it the haw-craw. I told you all about that and it got inside your head, Mor.”

Maybe she put the feral cat into your head to torture you. Your cats will eat her birds.

You pass by the sculpture garden and there are families gathering to barbecue, kids kicking a ball around and you feel outside of all normal life on this radiant spring day with the buttery sun and cerulean sky. You like the sound of that word, cerulean.

Then you think of the doll’s head nightlight, your math book, classmates. “Everyone is trash-talking me behind and in front of my back.”

Collier pulls you in close to their chest.

A wind picks up off the water, the sun hiding behind a puffy cloud. You know the earth is laid waste. Fear makes you ill.

“C’mon Mor, let’s break into a clip.”

In no time or all time, you reach the rocky beach and your whole being is filled with light and loveliness. The wind goes wild, but you don’t care because the sun beats down in waves that match the ones washing toward shore. You both strip off your clothes and slide down the rocks into the lapping frigid river and gasp in one moment. Together. You cut the back of your thighs sliding down and it feels good, that sting.

“Mor, you drawing lately?”

“A bit.” What you see and hear and know.

Collier splashes you and the river water is frigid against your cheeks, burns your eyes, spurts up your nose. You splash Collier back and get into a water fight like you did as kids. Now a clear blue sky of the mind and warm dazzling sunlight.

You stay in the water a second, a minute, an hour. Shivering when you climb up those sharp rocks, Collier gives you a hand. They are so agile and move with a grace you can never muster. You both scramble into your heaped up clothes, which drag on wet, clammy skin. Part of you awake now, which had been dormant. Bringing you back to the quiet of before. Where are the voices now?

 

 

 

 

 

When I was a teenager I was in love with a girl called Morgan Rosenblum. Our gang had a clubhouse on the Lachine Canal: a battered old bright orange container that was never used or carted away, and we hung out there after school and on weekends. It was the place to be.

Morgan’s 16th birthday party was in May, and Montréal was beginning to get warm at last. Nine of us arrived early to set up. We had loads of munchies, plenty of beer and wine and weed, but it was bigshot me who brought the supply of Oxy. I had access through my dad who used the pills for pain relief after his near-fatal trucking accident.  There were stashes here and there in his apartment and I stocked up, cagey, little by little, until I had a whole mess of them.

The party was the night I was going to get next to Morgan. I had plenty of friends, but she barely noticed me, maybe because I wasn’t artsy enough. At first, I hated that she called me Jean-François because no one else did, but later I liked that she used my formal name – the only person who chose to – a sign signifying, well, something.

Morgan was a talented artist who drew cartoon stories, and hers were in colour, all the bright yummy hues of hard candies. Because of Morgan, I immersed myself in graphic novels, which I’d known nothing about. I heard her mention Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, Aislin and Jillian Tamaki, and I immediately got hold of their books, so I’d have conversation-starters. Morgan loved Indian food which I’d never tried, but when my Dad planned an evening out for the two of us, I told him I wanted to go to an Indian place, “Darbar,” Morgan’s favourite.

I thought long and hard about what to get Morgan for her Sweet Sixteen and decided on a set of drawing pens I’d overheard her talking about with Collier, her best friend.  I saved for weeks and made a trip downtown to Omer DeSerres to buy them, and couldn’t wait to surprise her at the party.

In short order, bottles of red and white wine were poured, beers popped open – Louise brought some Makers Mark – and that went around our circle and kicked off a lifelong love of bourbon and its smoky warmth.

Tony, who played five instruments and had his own band, was in charge of the music. Collier put out gummy bears, and Morgan lit a joint and passed it around. Penny had baked a lemon-filled cake with indigo blue icing – Morgan’s favourite colour – and soon everyone was high, attacking the chips and peanut M&Ms, the gummies, and the licorice Twizzlers, as the munchies set in.

“Ready for birthday cake?” Penny asked, a friendly redhead who got us all involved in a weekly game night like a bunch of seniors, and who took great trouble to hide her ample breasts and belly under baggy tops.

“Tributes!” Collier said. “Tributes first, why we love the lady of the hour.”

“I’ll start,” said Penny, tugging at her sweatshirt. “I love you Morgan because you’re fucking kick-ass. You remind me never to take any shit, from anybody. Still working on it.”

The group cheered, and when the hubbub quieted, Tony spoke up. “You’re hot, Morgan.  You’re fucking hot.”

“Oh, shut up, you dick,” Collier hissed.

“Well, it’s true,” chimed in Louise, looking around at the rest of us from behind her thick, black-framed glasses. “Morgan is a hot beverage, to quote Starbucks.”

“You’re incredible, the most talented person I know,” said Katie, the brightest girl in our class, tops in science; she spent all of her vacations in St. Johns, Newfoundland, where her dad lived and worked as an oceanographer. “I would trade both feet for half your talent,” Katie added, pulling back her pale hair and twisting it up on top of her head, her long, willowy arms bare and graceful in a white tank top. Funny that Katie would envy Morgan, as Katie went on to become a noted conservationist – famous enough that I read about her in the paper – working to save sea turtles.

Morgan leaned in and kissed Katie on the mouth to hoots and hollers.

“You saved my life,” Collier said. “Again. I’m a cat, with nine. And lots of near-misses.”

Collier was born a boy, but when I knew him in high school, he called himself two-spirit, fluid. Fluid was milk and orange juice, not people. That made most of the boys and mean girls go off over his fluid, two-spirit business. Thank God he had Morgan, and they went way back.

Everyone was quiet after he spoke. Of course Collier had to be at the party, but except for Morgan, none of us were really close to him, though he had my respect for being who he was despite the fact that it earned him mostly grief and abuse.

I watched Morgan kiss Collier, a long deep dance of lips and tongues and mouths that radiated through their bodies and into ours as we all got lost, and I wondered if I had it wrong about the two of them being just friends. The others must have been having similar thoughts because no one hooted, hollered or cheered them on. We just went quiet.

When they drew apart, I drank Morgan in. She had a startling beauty, not a classic or conventional type of look. She was a tall, curvy girl with athletic shoulders and thick dark hair that flowed all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was a creamy olive and her eyes, almond shaped and heavy-lashed, were a pale sea-foam green that took you by surprise because you expected them to be brown. Her lips were full, and she had a strong prominent nose, which only added to the character of her face. I overheard her talking one day in the hall with Collier, “I love my big schnoz,” she said, “It’s the only thing I got from my dad.”

I would’ve liked to hear more of their conversation, but Collier shot me a look, pure poison.

The tributes to Morgan went on. When my turn came, I kept it simple. “I love you Morgan.” I was too drunk and high to worry, and the words just tumbled out.

She looked at me for a brief moment with those pale green eyes, then tilted her head back, as Collier cooed, “Aww.”

Penny lit 17 candles on the blue cake, one for luck, and Morgan covered her eyes like a little girl before making her wish. Collier’s eyes were shut at the same time wishing right along with her. I wish I knew her wish, I can only imagine. And what did I imagine? I know now what I wished I had wished for her. And for myself.

Most of us had brought gifts. I didn’t see Collier give her anything unless he did so when the two of them were alone together.

Penny gave her a giant white vibrator called The Magic Wand. “You will never need man, woman, or anyone in between – again.”  Katie presented Morgan with a package of vintage issues of Raw, and Tony, a year’s supply of Dentyne Fire, her favourite gum. Now it was my turn. I handed her the package I’d carefully wrapped in shiny midnight blue gift paper and silver ribbon. When she opened it, Morgan sighed and touched her heart. She came over and held my face between both hands and gave me butterfly kisses on my cheeks, lips, eyes and neck.  I didn’t want the moment to end.

The dancing started after midnight. I passed around the Oxy feeling pretty full of myself, and swallowed mine fast without thinking, watching as my more experienced friends crushed and bit and chewed the pills to get the biggest buzz. I was feeling no pain but the effects weren’t as intense as I’d expected or hoped. Morgan and Collier got up together to dance, and everyone fell away to the sidelines to watch the two of them move together.  They danced down to the floor and their heads swivelled and bounced, their arms undulating like plants beneath the sea. And then as Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman came on, they slow danced, holding each other, Morgan dipping and Collier dancing up into her, bending deeply at the knee so his lanky leg was between hers to be closer still. Morgan and Collier. How could I have missed this?

After a while, Morgan slipped outside – I had these antennae always knowing where she was – without having to look.  Everyone else was still dancing like crazy. All at once, there was a deafening beat on the ceiling of the container, and I heard Collier shout out something.

I rushed outside with a few of the others. There was Morgan atop the container dancing, drunk and high and wild. Others crushed out of the clubhouse as Collier tried to soothe Morgan, to talk her down, literally and figuratively. Who knows what she was seeing and hearing and feeling?

I later learned that Morgan, even cold sober, saw things that were not there, but hid it from others except Collier. She also heard voices speaking inside her head. That explained the earphones she rarely took off because they helped drown out the internal noise.

I came to understand a bit of that noise myself.

Tony and I boosted Collier up so he could climb on top of the container. Up on the roof, he put both of his arms around Morgan enveloping her as she cried and laughed and laughed and cried, something I’d seen Collier doing, too. We could hear the murmur of his voice and her painful cries.

Collier crouched behind Morgan and hooked his arms beneath her knees, helping her scooch her bum to the edge of the container, and when she let go, a net of arms and hands were ready to break her fall and get her back inside.

We barely had time to breathe a collective sigh of relief because not long after, a crew of boys, a year or two older than us, showed up at the party and crowded into our clubhouse.  Word had gotten out. After they’d helped themselves to our provisions, their leader Luke insisted we play Truth or Dare and everyone was game, except for Collier.

“Not playing,” he said.

“Then piss off,” Luke ordered.

“Not going anywhere,” Collier sing-songed.

“Come on Coll,” urged Morgan. “Don’t be a party pooper.”

He shook his head, his long platinum hair swinging around his pale, thin face.

“Bro, if you aren’t playing you need to get out of here.”

“Don’t call me Bro.”

Luke gave Collier a dismissive shrug and muttered under his breath, “Freak.”

More beer, wine and bourbon were passed around, and Luke had brought more weed, boasting that it was laced with cocaine, and a second batch mixed with LSD. As he passed around a rainbow joint, a light rain began to fall on the roof with a soothing sound that reminded me of the ocean which I’d only visited once in my entire life. People settled into a circle along the edges of the space, Luke and Collier on either side of Morgan with me opposite her, as the game started with Louise. She asked Tony, “Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”  He slugged down his beer.

“What do you hate about yourself?” Everybody laughed, though it really wasn’t a funny question.

“I’m a shitty musician.”

“No way,” said Penny. “No truth there.”

Tony turned to Louise. “Truth or dare?”

“Dare.”

“Kiss Collier in their most private place.”

The pronoun was considerate, the dare cruel.

“Collier’s observing,” said Morgan, pulling them into her hip so they were sitting as close as possible.

But before things could escalate, Louise leaned over and kissed Collier lightly on his forehead. It was a great move, his brain – thoughts, sense of himself – his most private place. Even Collier smiled, a saddish, secret smile.

Everyone looked at Collier, waiting.

“Okay. Morgan, truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

I looked at Collier, and we both felt a rush of relief because he would never dare her to do anything humiliating or dangerous.

“Who’s the love of your life?”

“Tu es l’amour de ma vie.”

“Shit,” said Katie. “Tell us something we don’t know.”

The game went on and on deep into the night going around the circle many times.

Luke turned to Morgan. “Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” she said.

“I dare you, Beautiful, to let me make you feel better than you ever knew you could. Or would.”

“Fucking poet and doesn’t know it,” Collier murmured.

It was quiet, the rain had stopped. Everything then happened too fast. Luke hustled Morgan outside while three of his friends held Collier down. Some of us tried to free Collier. In a druggy, delayed reaction, the rest of us surged out of the container, looking for Morgan, so we could stop Luke from whatever he was doing to her. We searched the canal, ducking into other containers and old, stranded train cars, but there was no sign of either of them anywhere. In desperation, we ran up and down the tracks. Still no luck.

Finally, Katie called 9-1-1.

I dream of this night again and again. Some nights, I am the rat, squeaking, as he feasts on crumbs with ash caught in spills of blood-red wine and stinking beer. Other nights, I’m the police, arriving at the wrecked bright orange container, empty of kids, smelling of booze and beer and sweat and weed. Some nights, I am Morgan, terrified, unsure what is inside and what is not, hoping the voices inside my head would shut the hell up. Other nights, I’m Collier, loving Morgan as I already do, knowing that I couldn’t save or protect her, as hard as it was to save and protect myself, having to live with that – or deciding not to – spending months on the psych ward, a padded, protective prison, wondering if I could go on in this world that is cruel and ugly with few glimmers of light.

It was close to dawn when the police found Morgan alone in an abandoned shoe factory along the canal, near the town of Lachine. She was not breathing, and medics rushed her to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The cause of death was opioid overdose. There was evidence of sexual intercourse though no one will ever know if it was consensual or rape.

We all went to the funeral, and later, Collier organized a small memorial service for her closest friends. Somehow I got invited.

It was cold and bright on the May afternoon of the service with a sharp wind off the water, and the sun making gleaming fish scales on its surface.

We all gathered on the rocks descending to the waterfront beach on the Lachine Canal, one of her favourite spots, where you could still glimpse the sculpture, which looks like upraised flames or hands reaching for the skies. Apparently, it was Morgan and Collier’s special place, this beach, and they liked to shimmy down from the rocks and swim in the chilly water, kite surfers in the distance. They are the only two people I’ve known who actually swam in that rocky, restless, filthy Canal.

We each had a chance to share a memory of Morgan. And then while her mom held the oak urn, one-by-one, we reached in for a handful of her ashes and tossed them into the foamy water.

Morgan’s mother tolerated my presence at the funeral and at the memorial service, but she was cold, dipped in Plexiglass. Maybe it was simple, pure grief and had nothing to do with me and my part in Morgan’s death. I’ll never know.

I intended to go and see her, to ask for forgiveness. In fact, I planned it all out in my head and on paper, but by the time I got up my guts to go to her home, she had moved out west. I did write her a letter some years later, but she never responded.

After Morgan’s death, I hid my smarts in high school though I managed to do all right. I loved biology, anatomy, understanding life and death, health and illness. I had a secret dream of becoming a doctor, but never pursued it. Not because I wasn’t bright and tenacious enough, but because deep down inside, I felt rotten to the core, hardly a healer who first and foremost would do no harm.

I managed to squeak out an acceptance from McGill, but broke down during my freshman year and had to take a whole year off. The shrink I saw tried to convince me that what had happened at the party would have most likely have happened anyway.  Even if there was a grain of truth in that notion, it didn’t help. Nothing did.

I became a recluse, cut off my family, my friends. For a few years, I didn’t go to school and was out of work. I drifted, stayed in shelters and grabbed meals at food banks. I thought I spotted Luke at the Men’s Mission one night, but he was so dishevelled and broken and dirty, I wasn’t sure it was the same guy.  Whoever he was, he took no notice of me.

My life was no longer my own.

In The Book of Numbers, God tells Moses that the Israelites must designate six cities of refuge so that anyone who kills someone by accident can flee there. The murderers will be protected from the wrath of the “blood avenger,” a family member of the deceased.  The roads were to be well marked, free of obstacles, and wider than regular roads, so that those who have killed someone unwittingly could go there easily and without delay.

I never found my city of refuge. I remained in place.

I ran into Collier one more time, much later on. We were well into our thirties by then, and I stopped into a café near the McGill campus. Collier greeted me more warmly than I expected and we sat down for a chat. He told me that he had taken over Isolatoes after the original owner died… the man who had taken Collier in when he was orphaned and homeless had been like a father to him.

Collier asked me to stop calling him “him” and “he,” and to use they, awkward and confounding as I found this pronoun. I tried to make myself conscious and respect their wishes. They looked well, their platinum hair twisted up into a bun, decked out in high-waisted jeans, heeled boots, and a billowy white-ruffled blouse. Collier no longer sported the ironic smirk that was like a hand covering their face during the painful years of high school.

We both had the speciality of the house, an Isolatoe, a scrumptious coffee drink with cocoa, coconut milk, Kahlua syrup and cream. I needed some sweetness in my life.

Collier filled me in on the past twenty years of their life. They had gotten a degree in set design from Concordia and worked for some years in local theatre. Then when Paulie got sick with kidney cancer, Collier took time off to care for him. After Paulie’s death, Collier decided to take over the café. One of Collier’s dreams was to host a reading and performance art series at the café, and I could feel their excitement about this future creative venture.

We talked a bit about that night.

“You know, Morgan was expecting a baby,” Collier said. “Ours.”

I felt an electric shock pass through me. Though so much time had passed, I said, “I’m so sorry.”

Collier nodded. “But I’m thinking of adopting a kid, a girl. I’m making a trip to an orphanage in China this spring with my partner, Cole.”

“Wow, that’s wonderful,” I said. My own life at the time was still stuck, and sucked. I liked my work as a biology teacher at Park View High, the same high school I’d attended, hoping to ‘make a difference’ and all that, but I was terribly lonely and haunted by ghosts. My penance.

Collier told me that every year they went back to the beach on the Canal and sat for a while honouring Morgan and feeding bread crumbs to the seagulls, as they’d done together.

“I still talk to Morgan in my head,” Collier said.  “I dream of her, and she’s alive. With me. Again.”

We started a tradition that afternoon where I joined Collier at the Lachine Canal beach on the anniversary of Morgan’s death, and we thought of her and spoke of her, and remembered her life and how it had touched ours. It helped a little.

And that’s when a woman came over to our table to talk to Collier. Her name was Andrea Boise and we all got to chatting. Turns out she was training to be a Physician’s Assistant.

I have Collier to thank for connecting me with the love of my life, only myself to blame that I could not hold onto her. But that’s a different story. No, maybe not, perhaps I just have this one story and that’s enough.