Another Year Older

Nonfiction / Jessi Terson

:: Another Year Older ::

On the morn­ing of my 30th birth­day, I left the apart­ment to buy a liter of whiskey. I opened the front door and hur­ried­ly stepped over an amor­phous brown splotch.

A few min­utes lat­er, I hauled my paper bag up the front steps. Only this time, I noticed the dead squir­rel smeared across the con­crete. One of the flies hov­er­ing over its body land­ed on my bare leg. After a few dry heaves, I remem­bered to close my eyes. I took out my keys and blind­ly fum­bled with the lock.

As soon as I man­aged to get inside, I quick­ly poured myself a shot. And then anoth­er. The floor, which had been pitch­ing back and forth like a tilt-a-whirl car­ni­val ride ever since I woke up, slow­ly evened out. For a moment I stood com­plete­ly still and let the whiskey burn a small cre­ma­to­ri­um in my mouth.

Final­ly, I took out my diary and sat down in the mid­dle of the kitchen floor. The page I want­ed, an entry from a few weeks ear­li­er, was already book­marked. For the last few days, I had been reread­ing it con­stant­ly. Reliv­ing that one morning’s first cup of cof­fee. The three missed phone calls from my moth­er. Then the moment when I signed onto Face­book to see if my friend Matt had com­ment­ed on my sta­tus. Instead, I found a sui­cide let­ter, along with a note from his par­ents inform­ing me of the upcom­ing memo­r­i­al ser­vice.

I took anoth­er sip of whiskey and let the burn slide down my throat. And then I flipped back through the pages of my diary—watching each year van­ish with a flick of my thumb. The din­ners Matt nev­er ate. The way he always apol­o­gized when­ev­er some­one bumped him on the train. The time he stared straight at the sun, as if it didn’t burn his eyes. I took out a pen and began to under­line the pas­sages where I should have seen the warn­ing signs: omens of my friend’s demise scrawled out in blar­ing red ink. As if my words were lit­tle scabs that had nev­er flaked off.

By the time my guests arrived for my birth­day par­ty, I was drunk enough to for­get about the dead squir­rel. Though not quite drunk enough to for­get that I could have seen Matt one last time before he killed him­self. A mutu­al friend had sug­gest­ed that I invite him out with us. But I hadn’t. Because, truth be told, I thought his con­stant sad­ness would be a drag.

I don’t remem­ber too much from the night of my birth­day. I know that I start­ed off wear­ing tights and lat­er yanked them off, bran­dish­ing them like a matador’s cape, dar­ing the dark smear of night­ly objects to knock me down. At some point, I mis­placed the ash­tray. So I let my friends ash in the palm of my hand. When I woke up, I spent an hour rins­ing out beer cans. I got down on my hands and my knees and scrubbed cake off the kitchen floor. But whether I actu­al­ly thought about turn­ing anoth­er year old­er, it’s hard to remem­ber.

A few weeks lat­er, I stared out the win­dow. A small, mun­dane act. Noth­ing worth recall­ing. Only, the room was very bare. A small cot and a kno­b­less chest of draw­ers. The space was door­less, so I could hear the occa­sion­al clipped scream from anoth­er room. Then the rus­tle of the nurs­es’ scrubs and the rat­tle of a vital signs cart being pushed down the hall­way.

Thick black bars inter­sect­ed the win­dow­panes and divid­ed my view of the sky into twelve sep­a­rate squares. A smudge of white fluff drift­ed past one square. And then anoth­er. For a sec­ond, the liq­uid droplets resem­bled noth­ing more than a splat­ter. A moment lat­er, the shape shift­ed to a small albi­no squir­rel, its body being dragged across the sky.

When the cloud van­ished from my win­dow, and there was noth­ing left to notice, I glanced down at my wrist. There wasn’t much to see there either. Only a faint white line. A bare­ly dis­cernible scratch. What could I say? I guess I didn’t real­ly want to die. Unlike Matt, I only want­ed a “near death” expe­ri­ence. To see a bright flash. Or hear the sky rever­ber­ate with tacky vio­lins. Maybe, like Orpheus, I thought I could bar­gain way my back once I had proved my remorse. But I nev­er saw the light. The clos­est I got to death was a dull ache. And a new pair of hos­pi­tal socks with the sticky white bumps on the bot­tom.

In the end, I missed two months of work and spent most of my time in an out-patient facil­i­ty with recov­er­ing drug addicts and pros­ti­tutes. Every Fri­day, the group ther­a­pist passed a buck­et of crayons around the room. We chose a few of our favorite col­ors and then wrote our goals for the week­end on a blank piece of paper. One time I wrote “Matt is dead.” When the ther­a­pist point­ed out that this was not, in fact, a goal, I took my black cray­on and vio­lent­ly scrib­bled over the words. Under­neath, in small, smug let­ters, I wrote, “Draw a black blob.” The fol­low­ing week, “Go to hell.” The week after that, “Col­lect all of my tears into a water gun and shoot peo­ple in the face.” At some point, one of the hero­in addicts burst out laugh­ing. “You know every­one dies, right? Get the fuck over it, Kid.”

Even­tu­al­ly, I left the out­pa­tient pro­gram and found a new job at a sand­wich shop. I spent most of my day cram­ming mounds of let­tuce on a BLT and watch­ing the avalanche of lit­tle green shreds crash over the bread crust. If I was feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly emp­ty, I might stiff some­one an extra squirt of may­on­naise, hop­ing the dis­ap­point­ment on their face might jolt my heart back into some rhythm of remorse.

At night, I’d come home to an emp­ty apart­ment. I’d pour myself anoth­er shot of whiskey, sit down in the mid­dle of the kitchen floor, and let the addict’s words rever­ber­ate in my ears. “Get the fuck over it. Get the fuck over it.” Stop scan­ning the crowds on the sub­way for Matt’s face. Stop tak­ing out my phone and reread­ing his last few text mes­sages. Stop star­ing at my joke of a scar. The last of sev­er­al half-assed attempts to reach out and find him. On his own terms. In his suf­fer­ing.

And now I sit on my back porch, drink­ing alone. As usu­al. And maybe it’s only because I’m not drunk enough yet, but I’m sud­den­ly con­scious of the fact that I’m turn­ing anoth­er year old­er and noth­ing has changed. My friend is still dead. My heart is still hollow—it’s thump as loud as a squir­rel walk­ing on glass.

Mean­while, each year pass­es more quick­ly than the last. As if the old­er I get, the faster the earth spins—like a child try­ing to make her­self dizzy. Before I know it, it will be next year. I’ll turn anoth­er year old­er and watch the straight-laced num­ber 1 col­lapse into a gan­gli­er, slop­pi­er 2. I’ll feel the floor tilt, and in a pan­ic, I’ll take off my tights and fran­ti­cal­ly wave them in the wind, hop­ing God, or at the very least, a voyeuris­tic alien race on a space­ship sus­pend­ed some­where in the stars, will see me. Because for some rea­son, I no longer know how to see myself.

Nor do I exact­ly know how to “Get the fuck over it.” Not real­ly. My exper­tise seems to end at slic­ing per­fect cir­cles of toma­toes. Or cut­ting a sand­wich into two sym­met­ri­cal halves. They’re not the mak­ings of a life. But they are the lit­tle cre­ations that fill each day. Things you can lat­er hold in your hands. Even when your insides are emp­ty.

And next year, when I turn thir­ty-two, I will look back at the last year and try to acknowl­edge the young woman sit­ting on her porch, dili­gent­ly plac­ing one word in front of anoth­er. As if they could form a path. As if there was some­thing to fol­low.

I take a moment to look up. Two squir­rels play a game of chase on the grass. A shape­less white gauze drifts across the sky. And it is only a cloud. I put the whiskey down and pick up my pen. One more word. And then anoth­er.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I began writ­ing this piece a year after one of my close friends com­mit­ted sui­cide. I have prob­a­bly writ­ten fifty ver­sions of this sto­ry. Some­times it ends up as a poem. Some­times it’s the first twen­ty pages of what will quick­ly become an aban­doned nov­el. If it was pos­si­ble to wave a mag­ic wand and make my pain sub­side, I’d prob­a­bly stop writ­ing about this par­tic­u­lar top­ic alto­geth­er. But no mat­ter how many birth­days seem to pass, noth­ing changes. The loss nev­er becomes some­thing I can artic­u­late. Or account for. So I keep writ­ing. Rear­rang­ing the words, the para­graphs, the page length.

In this par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of the sto­ry I chose to focus on my inabil­i­ty to recov­er. As one of my fel­low out­pa­tient par­tic­i­pants points out, “Every­one dies.” I am not the first per­son to have ever lost a close friend. Nor, of course, will this be the only per­son I ever lose. Even­tu­al­ly, I will lose every­one. But the guilt that comes with sur­viv­ing a sui­cide is its own par­tic­u­lar type of pain. Yes, every­one dies. But not every­one choos­es to for­sake the human expe­ri­ence. So in that way, I par­don myself slight­ly. And I give myself per­mis­sion to keep writ­ing this sto­ry, in all of its myr­i­ad of forms. Here is one of them.

 

Jes­si Ter­son’s poet­ry, per­son­al essays, and fic­tion have pre­vi­ous­ly appeared or are forth­com­ing in Rose­bud Mag­a­zine, Cleaver Mag­a­zine, Mad­hat Annu­al, The Los Ange­les Review, and Beloit Fic­tion Jour­nal. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with an MFA in poet­ry. She cur­rent­ly resides in Chica­go, Illi­nois.