September 2012

Emily

Emily says she’s coming to see me. She’s driving her ’94 Toyota Corolla from New Hampshire to New Mexico and my studio apartment in the middle of Kansas is the halfway point. Over the phone, her voice sounds excited, almost frantic. “I’ll be there in eighteen-hours,” she says and then hangs up. We haven’t talked in a couple of years and I’m afraid of what she wants. We met in college and were friends for a semester before I traveled home to England.

At the grocery store, I wander the aisles, trying to recall what she eats. A vague memory lets slip she’s vegetarian, possibly vegan. It’s unclear; we never spent that much time together. I remember in fiction workshop chatting with her about Louise Erdrich and Annie Dillard, and hanging out a couple of times at a smoke-filled pool hall and the coffee shop on campus. To be safe, I buy some humus and flatbread, a carton of soymilk, and a bag of pre-washed carrots.

At three in the morning, Emily calls me again. “I’m here,” she says. “My brain was full of energy and I decided not to stop.” I tell her my address, a new complex next to a football stadium and a concrete tornado shelter. A few minutes later, I watch her car pull into the parking lot and then her thin figure trudge through the recent snowfall to my building.

I wait for Emily at the doorway. She’s dressed in skinny black jeans and a loose green T-shirt that has some rock band on it I don’t recognize. We hug and her eyes scan my apartment. There’s a large beige couch next to the window and an inflatable queen-sized mattress on the floor. The pale blue covers are tussled at the end of the bed, revealing the cream-colored sheets underneath. Nearby, a stack of paperback novels serves as a passable nightstand. A black table lamp in the corner casts an orange glow across the room.

“Great place,” she says.

“It’s small,” I reply.

“You should see my house. It’s a dump.”

“Do you want anything to drink?”

“I don’t want to sleep,” she says.

She gestures toward the coffee maker and fixes us two cups. I notice her forehead is sweaty, and that she keeps touching her eyebrow piercing. We sit on the couch and talk for what seems like hours. She mentions her slam poetry and the homemade CD she produced and sells at readings. Then she changes the subject to her mom and the recent disagreements she’s had with her. She stares at me with her shining blue eyes. I can sense she wants me to say something. With every word she utters, with every pause she offers, it looks as though she’s about to cry. I can’t work out what the issue is, whether she’s running away from someone in Keene, or if she fears what awaits her in Albuquerque. She’s always been divided and torn by the two places, as if each town represented a different part of her. As the night progresses, my energy lulls and I offer Emily my bed. I take the couch.

 

In the morning, I head to class. On my return, I find Emily nestled on the couch, drinking more coffee, and reading one of my short stories. “This is interesting stuff,” she says. She puts down my manuscript and ties back her long brown hair with a rubber band. “So, are you going to show me the town?”

We spend the day digging through thrift stores for blue jeans, white tank tops, and cheap, sparkly jewelry. We visit the second-hand bookstore and she buys a sci-fi novel, and two vintage postcards: one to send to her brother and the other for a friend back in New Hampshire. At the coffee shop, we run into some students from my master’s program. We talk for a few minutes about British literature and Emily recites the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in a strange, ethereal voice. While Emily’s in the restroom, they tell me that she seems nice, if slightly crazy.

 

In the evening, I take Emily through the snow to my neighbor’s apartment. Valerie’s hosting an organic food night and the first thing I smell is freshly baked oatmeal cookies. Valerie welcomes us in and takes our thick, winter coats. On the kitchen table are bowls of sautéed green beans, fluffy mashed potatoes, and diced carrots, and a jug of steaming brown gravy, and on a silver platter a half-dozen corn-on-the-cob smothered in butter and dashed with black pepper.

“Looks amazing,” says Emily.

Valerie blushes a little. “Thank you,” she says. “We also have some red wine.”

We pour ourselves glasses of pinot noir and meet Valerie’s roommates—two women also in grad school, studying biology and public health. Emily captures their attention with her boundless energy and manic smile. She talks to them about her past work with women prisoners. “I taught them poetry,” she says. “I taught them how to express themselves without violence.”

Valerie mentions she worked in a crisis shelter, also teaching women poetry. She finds a spiral-bound anthology she compiled of the women’s work. The two of them read the poems together and Emily laughs at Valerie’s jokes and touches the small of her back. The night advances to the couches and we all sit and listen to lo-fi indie pop until Emily requests The Cure. I notice Valerie is in a recliner by herself. Every now and then Emily sends Valerie furtive glances, which she ignores. The five of us eat cookies and drink more wine. The night blossoms into a deep discussion about the upcoming presidential election.

Later, back at my apartment, Emily changes into pink pajama bottoms and a tight red tank top. We joke around for a while, and she gushes over my friends, their food and liberal politics. “Things are different in Albuquerque,” she says. Then she complains about her sore neck and notes how wonderful it would be if she could have a massage. I don’t pick up on her cue for a few minutes and by then it’s too late. The moment has passed and she’s talking about the crime rate in her neighborhood.

Sometime after midnight we wish each other a goodnight and I turn off the lights. She slinks over to my bed and wraps her body in my sheets. We stare at each other across the room. Her eyes are bright and wet and she smiles at me. She begins telling me about a guy, Brandon, she dated for three years in college. “One day he lost it,” she says. “We were driving to Springfield. He was speeding and the cops pulled him over. As we waited for the cop to come to the window, Brandon whispers, ‘I have a pistol in the glove box. Tell him it’s yours. I have a record. I’ll get jail-time for this.’ ”

“So, what did you do?”

“I told the cop it was mine. Spent a night in jail. Got community service. Then had a large fine to pay.”

“That’s insane,” I say. “I’ll never understand Americans and their fascination with guns.”

She laughs, her mouth nuzzling the pillow. “It was strange that I was with Brandon. I’ve always been attracted to women.”

I can’t tell if her revelation is true, or if Emily’s trying to turn me on. But then I remember the way she studied Valerie and touched her back. She goes into explicit detail of her first lesbian experience with a girl she met at a local swimming pool. The girl seduced Emily while she lay on a pool recliner. After she finishes the story, she says, “I have to leave in the morning.”

“I understand,” I lie, not sure what has gone on or what the situation is between us.

She smiles and closes her eyes.

 

At six-thirty a.m., she wakes me with a gentle shove.

“Christopher,” she says, running her hand through my short brown hair, “I’m going now.”

Emily’s face is an inch from mine. Her eyes are bloodshot and her pale complexion looks ghostly in the early dawn light.

“O.K.,” I say and throw back the sheet.

We stand awkwardly next to each other and I help with her bags. Outside the door, we hug. Her skin is cold and her body feels hardly there. She takes a step backward and she looks me in the eyes, expectant.

“I want to come back,” she says. “To see you again.”

“We should arrange it,” I say. “I’ll have plenty of free time once the semester is over.”

 

***

 

On Facebook, Emily is tagged in a picture. She’s in a poorly lit bar with a man I don’t recognize. He’s barrel-chested, wearing a black dress shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, revealing a beige T-shirt printed with a doughboy cartoon. Emily looks drunk. Her lank hair is glossed with cheap red dye and covers most of her face. Her eyes are squinting and her mouth is curved in the approximation of a smile. She gives the metal sign while balancing a mixed drink. I think little of the photograph until I read the text beneath it: “Don’t let those bastards break you.” I don’t understand what this means and I click on her name to visit her profile.

People I don’t know are leaving messages of condolence on her wall. Strange names write “R.I.P.” again and again. I stand back from my desk, numb from disbelief in what I’m reading. She’s been dead two weeks. There’s no information on how she died. I have a strong feeling she was involved in some type of accident: a drunken hit-and-run or an accidental fire in her house. I Google her name and search the results for the cause of her death. I find nothing at all on it and a sickness flushes through my body. I lie down on my bed and stare at the half-emptied packing boxes that clutter my room. I’ve been in southwest Virginia for a few days after a year in Michigan, depressed in the endless snow and the long tail of a relationship breakdown.

A few minutes later, Emily’s mother writes on the wall. As I read the long post, I start to cry. Emily shot herself with a gun she purchased over the summer. Her mother doesn’t know why she bought it or why she committed suicide. Emily left no note and had no discernable reason for taking her own life. She had a job teaching high school in the fall. Her mother addends her post: A week ago there was a religious service held at a temple in Albuquerque. I never knew Emily was Jewish. Or perhaps I never bothered to find out. I think of the last year when I barely replied to her messages. Then I compare my behavior to that of her friends, who have composed poems in Emily’s memory and also posted music videos of metal and Goth bands she loved. I can tell she means so much to them. My personal connection feels slight and fleeting and I’m unsure why her death has affected me so strongly. Looking back through old emails, I remember conversations we had about our lives, the futures we would have. Both of wanted to be writers, explorers of the world around us.

 

That night I call Molly, a girl I met at a recent summer writing conference. She doesn’t answer at first. Then she calls me back. I explain to her best I can what happened to Emily.

“Christopher, are you O.K.?” she asks.

“I guess.”

“The whole thing sounds awful. Have you talked to anyone about it?”

“Yes, to some friends here,” I lie.

“Good,” she says.

Molly pauses. I hear the reluctance in her breath. I should never have called her. We’ve only known each other a month or so and this is a difficult conversation to have with anyone.

“She was 25,” I say, after a minute.

“That’s too young.”

“Yeah.”

“Listen, Christopher, I’m with my parents. At dinner. I have to go. Call me if you need anything, O.K.?”

She hangs up and I pace around my room, unsure what to do or where to go. I remember vague plans about meeting friends for a drink. But alcohol seems like a bad idea at the moment. I try and keep busy, unpacking clothes and paperback novels, arranging and re-arranging the position of my reading lamp, before finally sitting down to flip through an old album of photographs. There are pictures of my ex-girlfriend—the two of us on a lake beach in Michigan. The water is deep blue and the sunlight is pure and radiant yellow. We appear to be happy, but I know that I was not. Her smile reminds me of Emily’s and I close the album and place it in my nightstand drawer.

Before bed, in the clinical glare of my white bathroom, I sip a glass of warm tap water and take some ibuprofen. I can barely look at myself in the mirror. I feel guilty. I keep thinking that if I’d acted differently, responded to her messages or called her, then maybe Emily would be still alive. I head back into my bedroom and sit on the window ledge. The glass is dirty on both sides of the pane. I stare past it, out at the fading light. In the distance, I can just make out the curved architecture of the college library and I imagine the stacks inside and the books that carry on past where I can see them.