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.