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Prism

Poetry & Prose | April 22, 2015

Katherine

It’s 3:45 AM in the Pit and we’re hours into a cheerless, unnecessary all-nighter. Rory and I are here because we can’t sleep, and from the looks of it, so is everyone else.

The lab’s weird tonight, too clean and quiet, without the Red Bull cans and junk food wrappers that are usually scattered around the desks. I’m not really sure what’s fueling us now. Whatever it is, it isn’t enough.

The quiet seeps into my ears, into the cracks into the walls, into the vents that keep the computers cool but the people cold. I try not to think too much about how much Alex’s wisecracks alleviated the awkwardness. And the tedium.

“I hope Anna’s doing all right,” says Rory, his normally exuberant voice frozen.

I look up, surprised. Neither of us have talked about this yet. We’ve been avoiding it, burying ourselves in this indefinitely-extended project. We’re hacking away at it, trying to write Shell scripts to do the muddy work for us—donkey work, Sameer called it—but our hands are shaky and can’t even keep up with our brains enough for donkey work. The Pit, it seems, has lost its sense of steadiness.

I guess it was named the Pit because it’s still and underground, but the name doesn’t fit. Even cave walls move and change form, and things grow from above and below.

I should probably answer Rory.

“Yeah, me too,” I say racking my brain for who Anna is. I find myself hoping she’s okay, too.

This campus is just small enough for a few celebrities, a select few people who, for some reason, everyone knows. Alex was one of them.

I’m not grieving, not really. The news didn’t really make me sad, and it didn’t really make me angry. All it did was stab me like a little pocketknife in the side, which might be bearable except that it twists every time I move.

Without thinking, I pull up an old Data Structures project and read the comments. Alex was my TA, so the words are his, separated from my code by two slashes.

// you could break this into a separate function

//definitely optimize this, you can make it run faster. I believe in you!

//please, please, I’m begging you, never use a Switch Statement again.

I read through the comments again.

“Let’s take a break,” offers Rory.

“What? Why?”

“Because we’re not getting anything done, you look like hell, and you’ve been staring at a two-year-old Data Structures project for the past fifteen minutes.”

“Fair enough,” I answer, leaning back in my chair.

“Did you get the email from the dean?” Rory asks.

“No, what did it say?”

“They’re trying to get people to write stuff about Alex for the memorial service. It’s in the chapel in a few days.” The aggressively non-denominational chapel. The phrase floats through my head before I can think about it, and immediately I recognize it as something Alex said once.The knife twists a little.

“Do you think you’re going to write something?” Rory asks. He’s a talker, I’ve realized, one of those people that bubbles over with chatter when they’re stressed out.

“No, I didn’t know him that well,” I say. Which is true. I know he lived with Will, I know that he made people laugh, and I know he liked to code. That’s about it.

“I think I’m going to try to do one,” Rory says. “He was just really–funny and chill, I guess. And smart. I feel like I should say something, so people know what he was like here, you know?” He gestures around the lab.

“You should. I think that they’d appreciate that,” I say, though I’m not sure who “they” are. The family, maybe. Or Anna, whoever she is.

We work in silence for a little longer. I look away from my screen for a minute and catch sight of Rory, who looks like he’s about to cry.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah,” he answers, in a voice that indicates that he definitely isn’t. “It’s just kind of weird in here.”

“Yeah,” I answer. I’m really lousy at consoling people.

“You were at that party, right?”

“Yeah, I was.”

“Did he seem okay to you?”

“I’m not sure,” I answer. It’s a neutral answer and a lie at the same time. He thinks I mean the type of not sure that’s the absence of information, when really, I mean the kind that’s the stalemate of two opposing forces: Yes. No. Not sure.

“You don’t think that maybe he–”

“No,” I say, firmly. “I don’t.”

I can already see Alex’s story seeping out of this building. People will hijack his life. They’ll write about him for his memorial service and whisper about what happened that night, trying to figure it out. It’ll probably be discussed, quietly, over these greasy keyboards and then repeated in dining halls. It’ll get diluted and broken down and pieced back together into something that people can understand.

It probably won’t even vaguely resemble the truth. But I guess if you’re dead, you lose claim to your story.

The knife twists so hard at the word dead that I pick up my backpack and walk as quickly as I can into the chill October air.


Anna

“You really shouldn’t do that, you know. It’s bad for you,” my mother says wearily as I fumble with my unopened box of American Spirits. “When did you start smoking, anyway?”

“Recently,” I say, tearing at the plastic wrap.

“That much is obvious,” she says with a small smile. “It’ll kill you quick, though.”

“Yeah, and oxygen will kill me slowly,” I retort, but there’s no malice in it. It occurs to me how strange it is that I’m sitting here, joking with my mom about my smoking habits. We’re all a little confused, I guess. She’d jumped in her car and driven the two hours from Connecticut to Boston after I called her and choked out the news, and took me up to our beach house on Cape Cod to save me from the mob of the well-intentioned.

“This isn’t a good way to cope,” she tries again. I want to ask her how the hell she would know the best way to cope with having a dead boyfriend, since I’m pretty sure she’s never had one. I keep quiet, though. As usual.

“I started smoking before he died.” I say. I see her flinch a little at the word died. It’s weird how people are so afraid of the words. There’s a whole world of euphemisms, too. Kicking the bucket, biting the dust, passing away. It’s passing away I hate the most. “Mom, I’d like to be left alone, if that’s okay.”

She gives up, gets up from her lawn chair (which isn’t on the lawn, but on the porch) and opens the door. “Anna,” she says, hesitantly.

“Yeah?”

“It’s okay to let yourself grieve a little bit.”

I smile, less sincerely than I meant to. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

After she shuts the door, I’m alone with the sandy, salty smell and the little waves bumping against the shore, teeming with living and dead things.

I haven’t said many words since this happened, except “okay” in response to “how are you feeling?” I try some out.

“Ocean,” I mumble. “Sand. Shell. Dead. Dying.” I hesitate. “I love you,” I say, the words rolling out to the living and dead sea. I remember him saying them a year ago, and me saying them back even though they were too soon and too much. It occurs to me that I won’t say those words again for a very long time. The ocean, which I guess is more dead than alive, doesn’t say anything back.

You’re always so fatalistic about everything. Alex’s voice jumps at me before I can push it down. I can remember his voice so clearly, but somehow I keep forgetting his face. Every so often I have to close my eyes and dig. Then I’ll find details; the bright blue of his eyes, the way his face lit up when he talked about something he was excited about. But never the whole thing. I’ll have to look at pictures eventually, I guess. And then I’ll remember.

Alex believed in confronting problems head on. I thought I did, too. But with my avoiding pictures and talking to ghosts, maybe I gave myself more credit than I deserve. “I wish you’d stayed,” I say to the ocean again, in the same way I used to tell him that I wished he’d cut his hair. I guess he did stay, for as long as he could.

“Anna?”

My mother’s voice breaks through my inner monologue. Or inner wallowing, Alex would call it. She’s in the doorway, sort of leaning against the frame. Did she get thinner, or did I imagine it? She’s frowning, and there are more wrinkles in her forehead than I remember.

“Anna,” my mom says, and I realize I’ve been staring at her without answering.

“Mom?”

“Have you thought about what you’re going to write for Alex’s memorial service?”

“ I wasn’t going to write anything. It seems–I dunno. Like a lot.” Alex’s family had this idea that people could write things down about Alex on notecards, little eulogies that could be put up at the service or read aloud. It’s a little ridiculous. It seemed like something someone would do at a Sweet 16 or something, and honestly, what I was supposed to say?

“Did you think about doing it for the family? If that’s what they want, what will they think if you refuse to do one?”

“They’ll think I’ll grieve in my own way,” I say, even though I know that no one’s that understanding.

“Do it for them, sweetie. Say something simple. Something nice.”

“Dying isn’t simple. Or nice,” I answer. You’re always so fatalistic about everything.

“Just try,” she gives up. “I know you. I know you don’t want to be babied. But don’t get lost in your own head. People are here for you.”

I give up, too. “No, you’re right. Thank you.”

She hands me a notebook and pen and disappears back into the little house. I finally fish a cigarette out of the box before I realize I’ve forgotten a lighter.


Will

I heard once that if your roommate dies, you get a 4.0 for the semester. I must have been in high school, or maybe freshman year of college, when the place was fun and foreign and more like summer camp than home. For the record, it isn’t true about the roommate. Not that it could matter any less.

I push my (undone) homework off my (borrowed) mattress and search my suitcase for something that isn’t wrinkled. I don’t think I’m supposed to wear black–it’s a memorial service, not a funeral–but I wouldn’t know the rules, so I settle on a very dark grey shirt and hope it could pass for either. I keep getting the buttons wrong, buttoning them one too high or one too low. It’s on my third attempt that I find the mirror and catch sight of my face. My eyes are red and puffy, and I guess I’m crying. It makes me look younger and older somehow, pale and gaunt and like someone who’s been crying for his entire life.

I finish buttoning my shirt with the help of the mirror, and smooth my hair down with my hand. I’d forgotten to tell Rory to get a comb when he went back for my stuff, but I don’t really care. Mostly I’m thankful that Matt and I don’t have to stay in that apartment alone.

Even though it’s been cleared of his things, the place is a minefield of Alex; the Fight Club and Pulp Fiction posters on the walls, the stolen dining hall cups, the “Periodic Table of Things that We Will Never Drink Again” that I started but he maintained religiously (Cr – Coconut Rum, Kk- Knockoff Kahlua, Cs- chocolate and strawberry milk).

On day two, I turned around to tell him something and realized he wasn’t there.

On day three, I heard his voice beating against the walls of my head, asking me desperately if he should tell Anna that he cheated on her over the summer.

On day four, we didn’t go back to the apartment.

I’m hazily aware of walking to the Aggressively Non-Denominational Chapel with Matt and Rory, and eventually talking to Alex’s family. They’re nice people and I hope I’ve said the right things, but I can’t make out the details from the buzzing that’s started to cloud my hearing.

Katherine comes over and hugs me, silently. I think I hug back, but I’m not sure. She’s still holding on to my arm–which would surprise me, if I were still capable of being surprised–and we face a wall that’s slowly filling up with little handwritten notecards and photos attached with pins.

Hey Alex, miss you, buddy. The team wouldn’t have been the same without you.

I frown a little. What team?

Heaven needed an angel. We miss you so much, but everything happens for a reason. I know we’ll see each other again one day. xoxo

I remember vaguely, the first week of first year, having one of those vaguely philosophical and strangely intimate conversations that freshmen do. I remember Alex telling me he didn’t believe in fate or God or any of that. I’m pretty sure he’d laugh at everything happens for a reason, and dismiss it as overly optimistic, delusional bullshit. A bit like I’m doing right now.

It does make it seem less empty, though. The thought that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d left five minutes earlier or later, if he’d had one less drink, if the driver that had hit him had been paying attention, because everything happens for a reason.

I scan the wall for Rory’s card, and find it.

Alex was brilliant, but also hopeful and enthusiastic and willing to help anyone who needed it. Everyone loved having him around.

“That’s not true,” mumbles Katherine. “It was pretty polarized, actually. A lot of people liked him, a lot of people didn’t.” I look at her but don’t say anything.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’ve broken the secret rule to never insult the dead. Wouldn’t you rather remember him and not a made-up version of him?”

“Well, that person didn’t think it was a made-up version,” I point out.

“No, I guess not.”

We keep reading. I learn that Alex rowed on his high school crew team, and that he had to stop rowing a few weeks before college because he messed up his knee. I read about the Pit, which I didn’t know existed–as far as I can remember, he always just said he was going to the labs. I remember him coming in just after sunrise to go to bed, trying and failing not to wake me up, our sleep schedules overlapping by an hour and a half.

Anna, who hasn’t made eye contact with me since this whole thing happened, pins up a short note written in small, careful handwriting. I can’t read that one. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to.

Katherine’s reading, too. I chuckle at a note that was pinned up by an old friend or distant family member about something he’d said when he was little. I point it out to her. “This one’s a good story.”

She’s smiling, but it’s the kind of smile that only involves the corners of your mouth. “They’re all good stories, aren’t they?”

Photo byけんたま/KENTAMA (Flickr via Creative Commons).