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Contemporary Drama Sad

After months of draught, it had poured the previous night for hours on end, which may have contributed to why I couldn’t sleep. Hail as big as grapes crashed down on parked cars, bitter rain oppressed evergreens, shrubs drooped from the sheer volume of water, puddle ponds collected in the street, kitchen skylights vibrated from the incessant splat of the downpour. Storms like this were frenetic operas of discordant sounds in my mind, a soundtrack to my delayed longings. After I finally did fall asleep, I overslept deep into morning.

Bleary eyed, looking out the kitchen window at 9 a.m., I thought, there’s sure to be damage in Gulf Ridge. The massive lake on my front lawn was a baseline indicator of flooding throughout the area. My boys had already suited up, grabbed their brown bag lunches, and trekked to school. I had them well trained. It was just me and the pooch in the house. Even Froot Loops the bitch hadn’t budged from her dog bed yet. Hubbie was long gone on the morning train to downtown Manhattan—a one hour and twenty minute commute poor guy—and the absence of the storm’s thrashing sounds felt oddly discomfiting.

There was an eerie hush: treetops stood unwavering; there was no wind, no perceptible movement. A tired autumn sun had cracked through. Outside the window, the street looked as if it had been sealed in time. Where were the joggers in their pilly woolen caps? The dog walkers with their booted and sweatered dogs? Drivers in cars behind fogged up windows? Why did my morning tea taste so bitter? I could hear the distant rumble of the commuter train in its cinematically perfect audio, as if created on a Foley-set, a Doppler of dramatic irony, galloping like a headless horseman, not far away.

On this peculiar morning, and the lack of street activity of any kind felt more like the stillness of New Year’s Day. But that holiday creates a quiet seat with hope and aspiration. On this morning, on this day, I felt like I was seated in doom. There was a heaviness in my bones, a lethargy that was unfamiliar and unwelcome.

I flicked on the local news on the family room flat screen TV to fifty-five high-res QLED inches of the local Spelling Bee; a fender bender on Main Street; a replay report from the opening of a parking lot mini-mall with the new Starbucks (finally). Basically, nothing important. Skirting the crappy tea, I instead poured water into the coffee pot and pressed on. The beans engine began its wonderful familiar grind and I shuffled over to the study to get my cell phone, which was still asleep in its charger. I always put my phone to sleep when I wanted to focus on writing; and truth was, my editor had been calling a lot those past few weeks, trying to get me to pony up. In her old-fashioned mind, she thought when someone didn’t pick up that you just kept calling back until they did, because maybe the person was just in the other room.

I popped the cord out of my cell and pressed the power button. My iPhone 4 slowly powered up. The screen populated with cued up texts and email alerts.

Did you hear about Jolie?

I am devastated.

Didn’t you notice how emaciated she was?

I’d heard there were affairs.

There are no words.

Holy Christ! Should we go over there?

She was starving.

They said there were welts all over her mouth!

Did you know she was depressed?

The messages stacked up, continuously loading one after the other. My heart was racing. The sensation of bowels shifting, stomach sinking, my body tingling with brutal nowness—the reality of life singeing through sinew. I called Jolie’s cell phone. It rang three times. Voicemail. I left a message:

Jolie, are you okay? What is going on? Please call me as soon as you hear this. My phone was off but I’m up now. I love you. It’s Eve. Call me. I’m home. Where are you?

I opted to call Rebecca; she always knew what was happening with everybody else. I scrolled through my contacts, selected Rebecca Jackson, and hand shaking, pressed the call button. I could smell the coffee starting its brew. Rebecca picked up on the first ring.

“’Becca, it’s Eve. I’m sorry to bother you. What happened with Jolie? No one is saying anything but everyone is talking.”

“Eve, Jesus Christ . . . you didn’t hear?

“Hear what? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know how to say this—”

“Say what?!”

There was a sustained moment of silence. I could hear a crackle on the phone line, as if we were communicating long distance, from separate time zones.

“Eve. Jolie’s dead.”

***

The sky was fully detoxed from the previous night’s storm, cerulean blue, near cloudless on that fateful morning. They said Jolie walked her boys to school and then had a morning meeting with the Director of the Special Education department. Apparently her youngest was not thriving in the general education classroom, as they did not have the resources to afford him the appropriate education to meet the needs of an exceptional child, and we understand there are some challenges on the home front, the department head had said. Rebecca shared this inside piece of information with me. In true small town fashion, Rebecca’s cousin was the assistant principal. “Principal Hanes said it was time for an intervention, even called it a ‘friend-tervention’, if you can believe that.” Rebecca reported.

Distraught, Jolie had ambled off the school grounds in a daze. She must have felt gutted. Rebecca said that Joe the Crossing Guard said she was walking languidly, face down in her phone, text fingers flying. She was mere blocks from home when a van driving up the hill didn’t see her step off the curb to cross the street. There were vapor mirages at ground level where a hopeful morning sun met the cold wet asphalt; the van driver said he was “blinded by a wicked glare.”

“When I came up the hill and rounded the corner, it was so bright,” he told the officers on the scene. Her body figure was indecipherable in the sunlight, like she wasn’t even there.

“I slammed on the brakes. It happened so quick,” the driver confessed, rubbing his eyes.

The accident scene had been cleared for an hour by the time Rebecca was relaying it to me. The whole thing had happened sixty damn minutes prior. 3600 seconds. Like a ticking time bomb counting down to a dark demise. Jolie was knocked over the hood of a Honda Odyssey with New Jersey plates. She was flung twenty feet from the corner of Phoenix and Dove Streets, by the blue hydrangea, precisely where we used to meet for our walks. Everyone knew we’d meet there; we were frequent walking partners; the town was small, the news of her accident spread quickly. The eerie hush was offset by wailing cries that overtook the neighborhood instantaneously. I had visions of the Malibu brushfire I’d seen on the news as a kid, roiling out of control, consuming a dry mountain landscape, turning life to cinder in a flash, incinerating hearts and innocent lives in its path.

Friends and neighbors were standing in their driveways, pacing, rubbing their heads, talking over hedges, wiping their tears, checking their phones, calling the school, or anybody. A strained sense of agony gripped my street; gloom hovered, chaos frizzled like electricity. A few friends went straight to the hospital; many stayed home. By mid-afternoon, they closed the elementary school where her sons attended.

Even Joe the old crossing guard stationed at Miller’s Gate said he’d heard. The screech of the breaks was god-awful, just the most horrendous racket.

The moment eye contact was established with a fellow acquaintance, the pain was universally poignant. At Westchester Medical Center she was pronounced dead. Her forty-three years of life slammed straight out of her. She was hurled into death. I went to the hospital and cried uncon­trollably into Rebecca’s arms. Of course she was there. Despite her mean streak, she was always on the scene and had proven to be a reliable friend.

Jolie. Dear decaying lost Jolie. She was my first death. In my self-absorbed state of shock, I was more scared by the reality of what had happened to a woman I knew than I was sad that she was forever gone. Because she had been disappearing, and I knew it. I was getting used to people being gone. Like the van driver, I was blinded by the light. What I did see clearly was that any one of us was susceptible to tragedy, to being punched in the face, kicked to the curb, hurled into death by how precious life truly is.

The toxicology report was produced within a week. The level of narcotics in her bloodstream was enough to fell a horse. She was fully loaded and stumbling out of life. Rumor stirred that she had a herpetic outbreak all over her mouth. It was revolting. My thought? Stepping onto the street in front of that damn van was no accident. Her ugly end was a choice made with intention. She did it to save herself. She’d been fighting a ferocious malaise, which may have come to light.

It was suicide.

At the end of the week, the funeral took place at her church, Redemption Community. The pews overflowed: family, friends, relatives, neighbors, even teachers from the school were there; many gathered around outside the arched double doors trying to peek in, trying to mesh with the mourners and further become one. Her death gave birth to a tenaciousness to connect.

The wake was at her parents’ house, two towns over. I was last there when her folks were selling off their retro furniture and awesome record collection. Today, her parents sat like weathered stones on a sofa in the center of their living room.

Visitors moved slow­ly in a trance-like state, making small talk, picking over catered cold cuts from paper plates, star­ing at framed pictures of Jolie’s magazine editorials throughout their home. I sauntered from room to room wordlessly inhabiting the silence of death.

People spoke in hushed tones; I could hear the tick of the grandfather clock. The house had wooden floors and smelled leathery. Groups of friends clustered holding each other, weeping. I did not know how to approach her parents, I was afraid of what I’d say. It was the first time when I knew that nothing I could have said would have made a difference.

“She was like a best friend,” one mother commented, blotting her tears with a folded linen handkerchief.

“We were very close. She used to tell me everything,” said another.

“We were going to make plans for the boys to get together,” spoke another voice.

These so-called friends were theatrical and fake, glomming onto the drama of the moment, as if Jolie’s death was harder on them than it was her husband, her young sons, her parents, or her real friends. Everyone wanted to feel seen, to have their pain validated. It was selfish and sickening; I was coming undone! I could not hold back my anger.

“LIARS! You are acting like phony fools for the sake of decorum? For the ritual obligation of showing dismay that someone has died? She never mentioned any of you as friends.”

 The truth spewed straight out of me like projectile vomit. I couldn’t control my mouth, my brain, or my emotions. The room stopped and stared. There was silence, chatter ceased, then the gut-wrenching sound of Jolie’s mother wailing re-set the room.

The women who’d said all that were the same women who mostly referred to her as Jolie the Model; they’d only ever shared a few after school events. I could see it all clear as day. I hated that these women were so needy when the situation required peace, respect, dignity, reflection. How was it that this beautiful yet socially uninvolved mom was the recipient of so many close friendships? Why did everyone feel so compelled to cling to her former existence as if she were such an integral part of their hungry little lives? How the deceased’s resonance becomes intensified to any one individual is the voice of one’s own mortality. We magnify the guilt of what we didn’t do correctly, and then it consumes us bitterly. 

“I should have been walking with her that morning,” Amy said. “If I had turned on my damn phone, she might still be alive.” 

“Oh, you were one of her mom friends, I am so sorry,” said an elderly neighbor to me at the wake, as if I had beckoned her to look at my suffering, note my loss, give me attention for a moment, too. I did not deserve it, although I guess I had commanded it. I had never felt more alone in a room full of people. My grieving always felt best when I kept it to myself, but this was not like any feeling I had ever known. I could acknowledge the unfair horror of having had lunch with some­one on Monday and attending her funeral come Friday. We all lived its absurdity, cowered to the tragedy, were perplexed by the wasted life, we cried out because it was just so unfair—and that it could have been one of us. Death is unique in its universality that way, for in it there is unity, sometimes more compulsory than in life. We feel fragile, if not somehow responsible; yet knowledge comes. Clarity comes in chaos.

By late-morning, after an awkward start by the food table, followed by a cup of tea in the kitchen and a long talk about the rainstorm the night before and the weather that surreal day, we were taken upstairs.

“It’s tragic that the driver didn’t see her coming when all she wanted in life was to be seen,” Kyra whispered to me as we slowly walked up the carpeted staircase, holding the creaky wooden banister.

There was a deafening silence when Jolie’s mom reached to turn the doorknob to her dead daughter’s old bedroom door. Inside it was eerily still, cold, frozen in time—the only room of the house not overflowing with people, matter and life. Not knowing what to say, I thanked her mother for being so helpful—but in fact I was frightened, overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of what was there. An anti-noir presence of bleached sunlight streamed through the windows, highlighting old books and coveted fashion magazines amassed from years long gone by.

Teen heartthrob posters clinging onto walls underneath strips of yellowing scotch tape spoke out to no one in particular; a hairbrush; framed photos; an Oasis album sitting in its sleeve atop the stereo; a mirrored closet door ajar; an ancient Cabbage Patch doll tucked onto a rocking chair; a pair of Converse low top sneakers tucked beside the bed. It was a time capsule. A memento, an homage, a shrine.

Everything seemed to be how Jolie would have left it so many years ago, when she was still a resident of that easier life. I was stunned by the similarity of her possessions to those of my own kids. We walked quietly in a procession around her bedroom, looking more closely than we ever had cause to before at pencils and desktop stationary, a TV remote control covered with peeling stickers and fingerprints; a jewelry box we dared not open. It was a terrible thing to be in that room and I didn’t know how long I would be able to take it. We wanted so desperately to touch her belongings, just one last tactile connection, but knew we were not to disturb these artifacts. The bedroom represented Jolie herself: a shell of history for a woman who wasn’t there. Why had her parents never updated it? Why did it exist locked frozen in the past of her youth? We studied her things, slowly touring her room, for the last time ever in that space, for the last time ever in that house, for the last time ever in the company of those exact people in such a confounding moment, for the last time feeling as regretful, remorseful. Hopefully for the last time.

I had no idea that we’d had such similar upbringings, so much overlap in how we were as teens, or young twenties. In my private thoughts, from my database of facts acquired up until her death, her past was only her modeling career. As an adult, Jolie died as she had lived: unseen by anyone that could have made a difference.

Several days passed. Then weeks. Every day her absence was weakening me. I had to look deeply into my life and assess the options. I owed it to myself to start to resolve these feelings of decay. I didn’t want to grow dead in suburbia while the world was ever changing on the flip of a dime, the slamming of a break. I needed to solidify something concrete and true, even truer than death. Time was running out.

September 19, 2021 07:08

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