How did this become my life?

 

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.