IT IS A HUMID NIGHT in D.C. and the air feels clotted and dense, like it’s on the verge of hemorrhaging outside instead of raining. It’s sick air, damp and shameless; the perfect conditions for reminiscing.
I slow my pace back to my hotel where Frannie is already waiting for me in the lobby bar because I don’t want to be a sweaty wreck when I get there. It’s hard not to hurry, though. I’m excited to see her, my best friend’s older sister, and I don’t want to keep her waiting. When I was younger I was always on time. It was a point of pride back in my teens and twenties when I thought integrity was measured in units of small courtesies. It took me years to understand that no one really cared about things like that, that the little things were too little to ever really amount to anything of value. But because it’s Frannie I’m seeing, I’m suddenly back in teenager mode and I’m sweating the small stuff. Tonight it all matters.
Also, the hotel I’m staying at has a weird social justice theme throughout and I want to be there when she sees the mural on the way to the lobby bathroom that is covered in definitions of every conceivable gender since man felt guilty about having his first hard-on. It feels like overreach to me, assaulting someone with all that information when they’re headed for a piss, but that’s the way life is now. Lots of information and nowhere to put it. I want Frannie to understand that I didn’t choose the hotel, that it was just somewhere my company had a corporate rate, because even after all these years her opinion still matters to me and I don’t want her thinking that this is what I’ve become; a middle-aged guy who stays at social justice hotels. Nothing, in my mind, could be worse. I’d already thought of what to say if she asks me if I do the whole pronoun thing: He in the streets and a they in the sheets would be my answer. If she didn’t laugh I could always burn the fucker down.
A loud shout billows out from a bar and I poke my head in and for no other reason than I’m in D.C. my first thought is that the President must have been shot. But it’s just a football game and I feel a little bit let down that it’s not something bigger. Cleveland versus Pittsburgh are battling it out and I wonder why anyone would possibly care.
When I finally get back the hotel bar is stuffed to the gills with happy drinkers, but I pick her out right away. She’s at the bar, her back toward me, toiling away over a glass of red wine. She has her chin in her hands and her feet are resting on the foot rail. She’s smaller than I remembered and I wonder if she’d always been this petite or if it’s a new phenomenon, if she is at that age where the years start to flatten people out, turning them into two-dimensional versions of themselves, a copy of a copy.
I tap her on the shoulder and when she turns around I almost gasp.
Her smile turns instantly to worry.
“What?” She asks, alarmed, “Do I…?”
“No!” I hurry to answer, trying to head off at the pass whatever terrible thing she might be thinking, but it’s no good.
“You think I look like my mother, don’t you?” She puts her arms around me and draws me in for a hug. “It’s okay,” she says as she squeezes me tightly, and then whispers thinly, “I know I do.”
“No,” I say again as we find a table and take our seats, “that wasn’t what I was going to say.”
But she just smiles. At fifty-four she doesn’t have it in her anymore to need to always be right. That’s a younger person’s game, unwinnable, but irresistible until one day it suddenly isn’t. Besides, what does it matter? That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for Seth.
The waiter comes by and I order a Paper Plane.
“Ooh,” she sits up a little, intrigued. “What’s that?”
“Let’s see,” I’m glad for the distraction and count the ingredients off on my fingers as I say them as though I’m reciting the names of the patron saints of self-destruction, “bourbon, amaro, lemon juice and Aperol. All in equal parts. I like it because it’s hard to fuck up.”
“That’s a great quality,” she looks far away as she sits back and drains the rest of her wine. “Maybe the greatest.”
The waiter brings my cocktail and I slide it over to her without a word. She takes a quick sip and slides it back, wincing and shivering ever so slightly like that much joy isn’t good for her.
“That’s so good,” the words practically ooze out of her. “I’m going to get that the next time I have a drink.”
“The next time? Why don’t you get one now?” I ask her, unsure what it is she thinks we’re doing here. The waiter lingers while she ponders it.
“No,” she says finally and hands over her empty wine glass in what feels like an act of surrender. “I think one is my limit.”
“Okay,” I shrug at the waiter as if to say, Some people, huh?
“How long are you in town for?” She asks when the waiter leaves. Her chin is back in her hands, resting heavily.
“Just the night,” I take a huge swallow of my cocktail. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and sour, and I already want another one and another one after that.
I wish she’d have another drink, too. It would make all this so much easier if we were both a little drunk, but maybe she doesn’t need that. Maybe she doesn’t get sad anymore when she talks about Seth. Maybe it’s just me.
“How’s the new job?” she asked.
“Fine,” I say, searching for the waiter in my peripheral vision. “The people are nice. The work is interesting enough.” I wrack my brain for something else to tell her and the best I can come up with is, “I’m done most days at five which, these days, seems to be the most important thing.”
“Uh-huh,” she drums her nails on the table. She has no husband or children so maybe being done at five doesn’t seem like any great shakes to her, and I suddenly get worried that by saying that I was being insensitive towards her, but she doesn’t seem to care.
In fact, she looks content. She’s smiling and I get the feeling that she doesn’t get out a whole lot.
“How about you?” I ask, happy to have a break from my end of the small talk. “How’s your work?”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I’m still doing social work so it’s tiring.” And then as if to underscore the point she reiterates, “I’m tired a lot.”
“Got it,” I say, hoping I sound appropriately empathetic.
“Also, I’ve been doing dog walking to pick up some extra money.”
“Really?” I ask, genuinely interested and more than a little confused.
“Does that seem weird?” She laughs a little. “I mean, I know it does,” she corrects herself before I have a chance to say anything, “but I’ve kind of become an animal person.” She leans forward like she’s about to tell me the best secret since the formula for Coke. “Adam, I’m a little bit of a shut-in."
“No you’re not,” I wave a hand at her, hoping it isn’t true, but it sounds like she actually might be. “You’re just an animal person who likes to be alone and sleep a lot. Seems like quite a leap to shut-in?”
She smiles at me and laughs a little, and for a second I thinks she’s about to tell me she’s only kidding. But she doesn’t. Her smile is dainty, and now she looks sad but not unhappy.
“How about your parents,” I prompt her, trying to change the subject. “How are they?”
The bar is alive with chatter, and I’m keenly aware of a thousand conversations going on around us and wish I was in any of them instead of this one.
“Old,” she shrugs as she says it. “They have this ongoing argument about which one of them is going to die first.”
“Wait, do they each think that they’re going to die first or do they think the other one is going to die first?”
She laughs. “The latter. It’s competitive. Neither one wants to be the first to go. It’s like they’re each living to spite the other one, and I honestly think it’s the only thing keeping them going at this point.”
“That’s so weird…” I say, but when I think about it, it really isn’t. Given climate change and pandemics and everything else out there that’s dying to whisper “checkmate” in your ear as you draw your last breath, it’s as good a reason as any to want to stay alive. When she sees that I have nothing else to add, she starts laughing and it feels like the first honest moment since we said hello.
“I know, but they’ve always been weird. You know that, right? You’ve known them since you were what? Thirteen?”
“Uh-huh,” I nod, forcing myself not to do the math that will tell me it’s been thirty-six years. “Thirteen.”
“God,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s remarking on how long it’s been or about the fact that there’s a good possibility that the only thing keeping her parents alive is a nihilistic game of chicken.
“So,” I say, still not ready to get to the Seth part yet. We will, of course, but I want to delay it for a few more minutes, maybe get another drink in me, flatten myself out a little more so I can slip away under a door if I need to, “how many animals do you have?”
She grins. “Your face when you asked me that…”
“What?” I ask, trying to look as innocent as possible.
“You looked so disgusted when you asked me that. It was like you were asking me if I voted for Trump.”
The bar is peaking. Everywhere I look people are in mid-conversation, mid-drink, mid-peck on the cheek. It’s a room full of endless possibilities except for our little table. There’s only one way our night ends and it’s the same as the last time I saw her and the time before that. With the small talk all but used up, there’s nothing left to do now but talk about Seth.
The problem is there’s nothing left to talk about. We meet each other like this, every couple of years, to catch up, to commiserate about our average lives, to lay eyes on the pieces of the past that die when someone close to you kills himself. There really isn’t anything left to talk about insofar as his suicide goes, though. We’ve gone through it all a million times; all the details, the timeline, how weird it is that you can buy a suicide kit off Amazon, what he must have been thinking as he wrote his shaky suicide note that was so full of love for everyone without mentioning a single person by name. And maybe that’s cynical of us. Maybe he was full of nothing but love at that moment, knowing the pain was finally going to be over, putting to bed all the years of indecision about whether or not to do it, love for the life he had and how he’d done his best to live it. I love you all, was how he closed the note, and I didn’t doubt it for a second.
For most people, the suicide of a friend or family member leaves behind a mountain of unanswered questions. Why? is the question that usually starts off any conversation about Seth when I’m with a mutual friend, and it always leaves me feeling a bit baffled. Did you know the guy? I’d always wished I had the guts to ask. Did you ever have a conversation with him? I’d never known a more inevitable fact than that Seth was going to kill himself one day. He didn’t want to be here and it wasn’t because of anyone or anything. He lived in his own head, and it was a painful place. It’d been that way since we were kids, and he’d always been looking for a way out, testing the waters with a few half-hearted attempts along the way, a few memorable late night conversations that started in tenth grade and always ended with us both in tears, his shoplifting a copy of Final Exit from Crown Books when it came out. Killing himself was the least surprising thing he ever did. That it surprised so many other people was.
Frannie is the only other person I know who feels this way. She tells me about the arguments she has with her sisters and parents about it, how she gets off the phone with them feeling like they’d just spent the last hour and a half talking about two different people. She misses him, mourns for him, and like me, she thinks about him all the time. He’d been in a few punk bands and she tells me she listens to his albums constantly.
“It makes me sad,” she tells me, rubbing her hands along her jeans, “but I don’t feel desperate or crazy about it anymore. Just a little…” she is searching for just the right word, but I already know where she’s going to land, because what else is there?
“Sad?” I offer the word to her, a meager pittance.
She kind of sighs.
“Right. That about sums it up, doesn’t it?”
“What else is there?” I say, not meaning it as a question as much as an offramp from this line of thought if that’s what she wants. I’m also happy to keep talking about it, too, if it’ll help. It is what we’re here for, after all, to use each other as reality checks, and it’s what draws us back together from time to time, compels us to periodically sit in silence together, sip our drinks and stare forlornly into the nostalgic middle distance.
She seems restless, though, and she must sense that I’m about to call it a night when she suddenly asks, “Do you want to come back to my place?”
My question probably comes off a little too shocked-sounding because we both know that’s not what she means. It’s not easy to reconcile the punk rock princess I’d exalted in my youth with the self-professed shut-in, animal aficionado I see before me, but it’s still the same person. She’d been so confident as a teenager, snarling and wise, and she turned Seth on to all the best bands – the Clash, Adolescents, Misfits – who in turn had shown the rest of us the way in the form of mix tapes, perfectly used army jackets, and other holy relics we studied and worshipped like they’d been passed down from some high priestess. To us, she was barely even a girl; she was a god.
My hands shake slightly as I pay the check and then we’re walking down the street. The sun is down and it’s cold out now. Frannie has her hands jammed into her pockets and walks quickly, not looking back to see if I’m following. Her footsteps echo up and down the empty street and I keep feeling like it’s too quiet out, that when we get in her car and turn the radio on we’ll hear the news that there’s a meteor headed straight for earth, and we have just hours to live.
She starts the car and one of Seth’s records starts playing. I mouth the words but then stop myself. It doesn’t feel like the right moment for a sing-along.
“Want me to drive you by some of the monuments?”
“Ok,” I kind of shrug. I’d forgotten I was in D.C. for a minute, and when she drives me past the Washington Monument I mumble a kind of wow sound that makes her laugh. We pass more statues and museums, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and she doesn’t say a thing, which I’m thankful for, because what is there to say? It feels important to run out of words sometimes, to let a thing speak for itself.
We’d been driving in silence for ten minutes or so with just Seth’s voice, the volume turned low so that it came out as a snarling whisper, to keep us company when she says, still looking straight ahead,
“You should know,” Frannie starts, “that one of my animals – my cat, Paul – is really really old. He’s in bad shape. I’ve been thinking of putting him down lately.”
“Oh,” I say, staring straight ahead, “that’s okay. Wait, I don’t mean that it’s okay. I just meant that I’m okay with it and…” I don’t know what the fuck I’m trying to say, so I stop the freefall and choose the most direct route. “I’m sorry about your cat.”
“Thanks. And I know what you meant. I didn’t think you were saying you were cool with sick old cats.”
“Right,” I say, looking out the window, “but just to be clear, I am really cool with some sick pets. In fact, I prefer a dog with big old leaky cataracts, and I won’t even look at a parakeet unless it’s got that feather rot thing where it looks half bald. I’m super cool with that.”
I sneak a look at her out of the corner of my eye, but it’s too dark to see if she’s smiling or not and I decide to just shut up until we’re back at her place.
We turn on to a residential street, and as she slows down I try to guess which house is hers. They all look alike, though, and when she pulls into the driveway of one I feel a little disappointed that it looks like all the others. I’m not sure what the fuck I was expecting, though. A replica of their childhood home? A full-scale model of CBGB? We all have to live somewhere. Why did it have to be any more complicated than that?
She parks in the garage and I follow her in through the kitchen. A pitbull rushes to greet us and she rubs his head roughly and then starts flipping on lights. The house is cleaner than I imagined, but the smell of cat urine is pretty strong. I knew it would be. She has photos everywhere, and I stop and look at one of her and Seth at their house. Me and a couple of our other close friends are in the background.
I don’t notice her right behind me and jump a little when she speaks.
“There are so few pictures of him smiling.”
“He really hated being told to smile,” I chime in, adding nothing. The Clash shirt he’s wearing is painfully familiar, and I can almost hear him telling his mother to hurry up and take it already. His voice is clear to me, ringing suddenly in my ears, and I am back there with him as if no time at all has passed. The Southern California sun holds no sway over us. We have our game of D&D waiting inside, set up on his parent’s dining room table, and next to that, a stack of CDs we pledged our eternal souls to, committing the lyrics of each and every song to memory as though they were an alibi, something that if we knew by heart would one day save us.
“This is Ira,” she says as I slowly disengage from the photo, pointing at the dog who already has his face buried in my crotch.
“Sid…,” she points at a cat lying under the glass coffee table, “…and Henry,” a tabby who is arrogantly sashaying in the other direction as though what Ira and I have going on is too distasteful for him to even acknowledge. She walks over to the couch where an old beige cat was laying peacefully on a heating pad. “And this is Paul. My old guy.”
“Hi Paul,” I say, wishing Ira would stop trying to cuck me in front of the other critters.
“He doesn’t look that bad to me.”
She sits next to the cat and carefully strokes his head. It doesn’t move at first, and I’m worried that it’s already dead, but then it furrows its brow, a little indentation of joy creases its forehead, and I can see that it’s alive. Barely.
“He’s bad,” she gives him a little peck, slaps her hands on her thighs, and stands.
“This isn’t that bad,” I motion around the apartment, saging it with my obvious lies. “I was expecting much worse.”
“You were?” She kind of crinkles her nose at me like it’s the least believable thing I’ve said all night.
“Yes! Just the way you described it all. Much much worse.”
“What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” I try not to look at Paul, worried that a sustained gaze might push him over the edge into the feline netherworld. “Lots more urine stains. And little trails of kitty litter dribbling off in every direction. Usually…” I trail off, realizing I’ve been describing my mother’s house. “It’s just not that bad.”
“Huh,” she mutters dubiously and walks off into the kitchen.
I take the spot on the couch next to Paul and very gently touch him with the tip of my index finger. I snatch it back instantly, though, revolted. It’s a terrible feeling, like touching the skin of a dead person. Not an animal at all. It is coarse and cold and cursed and as much as I tell myself that it’s just skin, I can’t stop myself from feeling like I’ve just contracted some terrible wasting disease.
I hear the fridge open. “Do you want a drink?” She calls from the kitchen.
Turpentine, is what I want to shout back, but I control myself and act polite. “What do you have?”
“Wine and beer.”
“Did you lose you liquor license?” I try to joke, but it falls flat. Other than the sound of Ira’s collar jangling as he licks his prodigious set of testicles, there isn’t a sound.
“Huh?” She calls back.
“What kind of beer do you have?”
“Um…” she pauses to do some digging. “IPA. Is that okay?”
“You don’t like IPA?”
“No, they’re so gross. Too earthy and morose. They remind me of…” but I don’t finish and start to laugh instead.
“What?” She comes back into the room with a beer for herself. “Tell me.”
There’s no way to explain to her what I mean, because it’s just a feeling I have, a vague recollection of something distant, something that might be a dream, the childlike feeling of being lonely and a little bit sad and never for a good reason. I never had to explain these things to Seth, though. He understood it. Understood about the little non-sequiturs and random snags of thought I always got caught up on that weren’t about the thing itself, but always about the numbness that got in the way of feeling the real thing.
“This isn’t going to make any sense, but they remind me of sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car after he and my mom got divorced. The smell of it. Stale cigarettes and maybe a little body odor. It reminds me of those quiet car rides when he would be taking me back to my mom’s house after spending the weekend with him and how we never had anything to say.” Even as I’m telling her this, I know how stupid it sounds. How random and idiotic, but telling her these things is as honest as I know how to be, and besides, it’s exactly what I would have said to Seth if he were here. That has to count for something.
She’s about to take a sip of her beer, but stops, hoists the bottle up in front of her face, and scrutinizes the label. It looks like she might be starting to cry, but then, almost apropos of nothing, she says, “6.5%…”
She is mesmerized by the beer, but then she snaps out of it and spins the bottle around to show me the label.
“6.5% alcohol content. Pretty good.”
I’m not sure what we’re talking about anymore, so I nod and smile, “Pretty good.”
“I’ll be right back,” she says as she puts the beer on the coffee table, and when she’s out of the room I start to worry that I’ve said something that’s upset her, maybe even freaked her out a bit. God knows I didn’t mean it. I just don’t want to feel bad about Seth anymore. That’s why I came here. That’s why I wanted to meet up with her. I’m not sure what she wants, but I suspect it’s the same thing. Closure, a way to end the conversation, because there has to be an end to it. It can’t just go on forever, can it?
When she comes back into the room she’s carrying a reusable canvas shopping bag. She sits on the couch next to Paul, puts the bag on the floor, and carefully, like she’s handling plutonium, pulls the cat onto her lap. She lightly strokes its head, and I see that she’s quietly crying. Tears stream down her face and they’re starting to land on Paul’s head. Not unhappily the cat furrows its brow as she continues to softly stroke him. It’s a touching moment and I want to do something, say something to comfort her, but I’m at a loss so I just stand there, watching.
“Will you stay with me while I put him to sleep?” She asks me without looking up, and I see that she’s pulling a metal tank out of the bag, and then a Ziplock bag and some zip ties.
“What…?” I’m too stunned to finish the sentence, my body starts shaking and I feel like I’m about to pass out. I reach behind me and pull a chair underneath me and sit down heavily into it. This was how Seth killed himself. A tank, a bag, a hose. Simple as that. I’d come close to typing in “suicide bag” into Amazon a million times, but could never bring myself to do it. Just typing the words felt like a curse.
“You don’t have to do anything,” she goes on handling Paul gently, “but if you’d just stay…”
As she speaks, she’s already sliding the cat’s skinny, beige body into the Ziplock. There’s not the slightest bit of resistance from him. His eyes don’t even open as she pushes him in and pulls the bag shut around him. She feeds in a tube from the tank, uses the zip lock to make a seal, and then turns the knob. At some point I will have to ask her why she has this stuff in the first place. Had she done what I couldn’t and typed it into the search bar? And then did she add it to her cart, and then did she buy it because she wanted to see what it would be like to have it? To hold it? And then it hits me, like a bolt of lightning, how much differently this night could have gone, that in the endless variations of life the truly good outcomes are relatively few. We talk even when there is nothing left to talk about because we need to talk. We need to convince ourselves that memories are just memories, that the past is no truer than dreams.
The hiss of gas is the only sound in the room, and I realize I’ve been holding my own breath the way I do when I’m watching a movie and the hero is underwater, and I try to see if I can survive as long as them. I never can.
Tears are flowing down Frannie’s face, but she’s still not sobbing or moaning, there’s no beseeching or wailing. Maybe she’s praying, I think, or maybe this is one of those feelings for her, like what I’d just told her about being in the back of my dad’s car. Maybe she’s stuck in a memory and isn’t even here in this room with me anymore.
I look down at the cat. The look on its face is just as peaceful as it was before. I don’t know how much time has gone by, but it feels like hours.
She is hugging herself, and I should probably go and put an arm around her or say something comforting, but I can’t make myself move.
More time goes by, enough time to…well.
I finally find the internal switch that lets me speak.
“Do you think…” I start to ask, but I don’t need to finish my question. We both know a dead thing when we see one.
— ADAM GREENFIELD
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