The funeral is on a hot summer afternoon. Flies buzz, cicadas sing, and the wind blows. The sun feels like an assault, with the blinding, burning sphere stabbing through the blue sky releasing an oppressive heat. Cars pass by. Birds chirp. Time ticks. The world continues along, unfazed by her suicide.
I feel a cloud passing overhead, cooling and quieting the world for a moment.
“Is it her?” I ask myself.
I imagine her family inside…mourning. Her mother weeping, her father gritting his teeth while clenching his fists, her brother cursing to the heavens, and her devoted sister barely able to lift her eyes off the floor. Cousins and uncles will fidget, uncomfortable in their funeral suits.
I am guessing her few friends are inside, stunned by the loss. I see children running about, unaware of the strange somberness.
Here I sit outside, waiting in my car, smoking a cigarette, my back wet with sweat, pressed against my seat. I am nauseous, pallid…. a disaster. No one knows I'm here. No one knows who I am.
This is impossible, I think. It can't be. My hands are shaking.
The congregation start to file out of the church, my heart races in my chest. I can’t catch my breath. I have to get out of here. I turn the key of the old Buick's engine and drive away.
How can she be dead?
After high tailing it out of there, I don't want to go home and be alone. I eat lunch at a crowded diner.
When will she be cremated? I ask, as if someone is actually listening. I choke back water imagining her body being shoved unceremoniously into an incinerator.
Surrounded by the noise of people, I suddenly feel ill. Darkness rises from the pit of my stomach, heat creeps up my neck and makes my body sweat. I spew a foul smelling vomit across the table; half-digested club sandwich and fries like a wreckage upon the tabletop. The waitress and other diners look at me with utter disgust. I scramble to stand and make my way to the bathroom. Once inside, I curl around a toilet, continuing to puke, convulsing in pain through my ribs.
No! I tell myself. She had not forgotten about me! She couldn't have! How could she do this … how could she do this to me?
After the heaving subsides, I hide in the bathroom for a few minutes, trying to pull myself together. I return to the table to find a busboy cleaning up my mess with a large gray rag. He pushes the thick, vile liquid back and forth across the table, leaving a putrid smear across the Formica.
I throw down a twenty, as if to apologize for the filth, struggling my way out the doorway.
I was too late; I tell myself as I drive recklessly home.
She must have thought of me! I was on her mind; it was me she called looking for help… but I was too late!
Of course I had known the whole time that she was capable of this. I saw signs right from the beginning, promising myself that I would do something when the time came. How could I have missed it? I promised to help, a promise I did not keep!
I was too late.
When I get home I pull off my vomit-stained clothes and collapse into bed. For four days I sleep as if I were dead, only getting out of bed to shower and use the bathroom. I find solace in my bed. Sleep… I fall… it catches me.
On day five, I force myself to get out of the cocoon I made for myself. I can’t take any more time off work or I will be fired.
This morning I force myself to take a shower, hoping to wash off the grime of the past week. I wipe the steam from the bathroom mirror, shocked at my haggard reflection. My beard is patchy, my flesh is sallow, even my skin seems sunken and grey. What shocks me the most are my eyes. They are completely bloodshot, as well as completely empty. No life stares back at me in the mirror. I touch my reflection trying to believe if it is actually me.
I splash cold water on my face in an effort to stir the engines of my body. I am glad I remember the routine of the morning, or else I am unsure I would make it out the door. Habits drilled into me from my childhood come flooding back. I dress, brush my teeth, pull my pants on one leg at a time. After the monotony of getting dressed, I ride the train to work.
At work, I complete my mundane tasks with careless efficiency. No one is aware of my change in mood. No one sees the dark cloud over my head, or the massive weight of depression sitting heavily on my shoulders. I sit at my desk and type aimlessly at my computer, talk on the phone to clients, engage with coworkers, trying to fit into the buzz of the office.
Part of me just isn’t there. I’m still in bed, dreaming. I continue to fake my way through work, anxious to get home so I can go back to asleep.
For two weeks this continues. I drag myself up, go to work, come back and sleep. It is like I am caught in a continuous loop. I slip into myself. I start chain smoking again, picking up the habit I quit years ago. I forget to eat, to drink, to call back friends or family. I lose ten pounds. I constantly throw myself into a cold shower trying to wake myself up from this hell I am living. Nothing. All I can do is sleep. It’s my only escape.
You have to understand – sleep is the only place I feel safe. The daylight hours are ripe with despair. I don’t want to see anybody. I don’t want to do anything. I am hanging on by a thread, I am going to snap at any minute.
Today as I’m walking home from the train station, I feel a jolt run through my body. It brings me back into the world. For the first time since she died, I do not want to rush home and get into my bed and escape into my dreams.
I feel a sudden presence behind me. I turn, there is no one there. I cannot put my finger on it, but I feel I am not alone. I turn once more, but still nothing. A nervous laugh slips out of my throat as I realize I must actually be going mad.
I hurry home and try forget about the fact that I clearly might be insane.
After a mediocre dinner, I sit outside on my building’s front steps and lift a cigarette up to my lips. I may as well face it; I am definitely a smoker again.
If I wasn’t in a state of depression this would be my favorite time of the day, almost night. Cars that have been zooming up and down the street all day finally get to their destinations. The traffic thins out and the street falls silent. I seem to be the only person in the world.
I feel the presence again. Funny thing is I am not concerned this time. I don’t for a minute question my sanity. I know instantly that it’s her. I can actually feel her sitting next to me. I look, she is not physically there. Still, her presence is strong. A wave of warmth washes over me and heat radiates from my head to my toes.
I start to laugh. It is a sound so foreign to my ears.
Through my laughter I hear a voice.
“Hi, babe.” Shock overwhelms me. It must be inside my head. I reach out in front of me only to grasp air.
The voice is real, more real even than my own voice. This voice has a breathy cadence to it, completely different to my husky baritone voice. I can’t help but respond.
“Hi?” I ask timidly into the night air, still not 100% convinced I am not losing my mind. I wait a beat before whispering the next question.
“Is that you?”
Seconds pass as I hold my breath, scared that even the slightest disruption to the air may break the spell.
I exhale all the air stored up in my lungs, allowing myself to breathe.
“I can’t see you,” I say quickly. Even though I cannot see her, and I know that this defies logic, I feel the wisps of her long black hair, I can almost feel the warmth of her skin. I can tell she is wearing a sleeveless white blouse and a short school-girl’s skirt exactly like the one she wore on our first date. She is sitting next to me. Sure as the air I am breathing, she is sitting next to me.
I am ecstatic.
As soon as I accept in my heart she is there, she is gone. I can’t feel her anymore. There’s only emptiness next to me. The darkness stirs in me again, leaving me alone with my desires.
Perhaps I imagined her. My mind maybe is broken. Is this what mental illness feels like? I put out my cigarette on the step and start to stand up, feeling her again. My legs can’t hold my weight and I fall back. I turn to the street, feeling her presence there, doing a cartwheel across the pavement, laughing. She is carefree and giddy with excitement. A smile creeps across my face. A pleasant burning grows in my belly. I am able to stand.
She reappears next to me. I still can’t see her, but the feeling of her is so strong, I know she is there.
“I can’t see you,” I say to her, hoping this declaration will make her magically appear before my eyes.
“There’s nothing to see silly,” her singsong voice says in my head, amidst clouds of emotions and imaginary words. “But I’m here.” She teases, begging me to find her.
“I can’t touch you,” I whisper.
“Yes, you can,” she coos. “I can feel you the way you feel me.”
“That’s not enough,” I confess.
“It will have to do,” she laughs.
I must be crazy. How can this be real? She is dead… Isn't she?
The gentle evening wind carries strands of her hair into my line of sight, invisible. I have never been so happy. I am giddy.
“I love you!” I blurt out.
She says nothing. The silence is deafening. I turn to her invisible form, and can feel her brown eyes knifing into me. I feel her with every ounce of my being. She has to be here. I’m not crazy!
“I love you too….in my way,” she says. “Just not how you want.”
My emotions twist around. Anger starts to dominate. I remember all the times she hurt me with those exact words.
“What do you want from me?” I hiss as the memories wash over me.
“We have unfinished business, you and I. ”Her silky voice is calm and warm, there is a sexiness to it. It soaks into my brain and relaxes my muscles. The timber of her voice was always what allowed her to work her way around me after her meanness wounded me to my soul.
“We do?” I say. I have no idea what she is talking about, but the thought of not having to say goodbye lifts me up and out.
“Why did you come back?" I ask.
“Oh, I never really left, so technically I am not back.” she says. “I could have gone, they wanted me to go, but I chose to stay for a while. I have things to do.”
I light another cigarette. I blow smoke vengefully into the night around me. “I miss you! This hurts.”
“I’m right here. You have to understand: I am closer to you now than we ever were in life."
What she says feels right. I take a long drag off my cig and think.
“I still want you,” I blurt out. "You were the one.” I exhale, dejected.
"I know," she says. “I’m sorry.”
The sadness that had me in its grasp for the last few weeks starts to wrap its icy fingers around my throat cutting off my air supply.
"Why did you come?" I ask trying to save a tiny shred of my self-respect.
"What do you want me to say?" she snaps back. "That I shouldn’t have done it? That I made a mistake? Maybe I did, okay. I don't know!"
"But why me? Why are you here? You never cared about me! If you did, you wouldn’t have done it and left me like this.”
She pauses. "That's not true. I was just...too late. I always... came back to you in my head. When we met -- I wasn't looking for someone to love me. I didn't want to be loved. I hated the thought. It disgusted me. But you never let me go, you were always there, and in the end..."
"I don't believe it."
“So was it my fault? I did fail you. When you reached out … and I wasn't there?” The weight of my guilt crushes me.
The silence is so thick.
Finally, she whispers, “We both made mistakes."
"Do you forgive me for mine?" I ask.
"Do you forgive me?" she counters.
I think about it, but cannot answer.
"Do you remember me telling you I loved you, the last time we talked?"
“Yes.” The word gets stuck in her throat
"Did it mean anything to you?"
"It made me sad," she says. “It made me realize it was over."
"It never even began!" I accuse her.
"There is such thing as real, true, everlasting love, “she says.
"I was prepared to give you my love.” I am trying to handle my anger.
"You have given it to me. And I'm here to finally accept it. I'm grateful, I really am."
"Then … now what?"
"Yes... now what … indeed."