what began as year-long challenge has become perpetual until further notice
20 years ago today, October 8, 1994, at the age of 19, my best friend from high school died.
She had been happy-go-lucky, a flirt, pretty, simple, loved her horses. I knew her for a little over two years.
The circumstances leading to her death are all too familiar; her ex boyfriend who had been so charming in the beginning started taking drugs – pot, mushrooms, god knows what else. He’d become violent with jealousy, punching a hole through the windscreen of her car during an argument one day as they were driving home. One evening he pushed her up against a wall outside a pub where luckily at that time someone saw and intervened. She broke up with him, but not before another handful of similar incidents.
She started seeing someone else.
Her ex began stalking her after work, waiting by her car.
When she died, I was a month from my 18th birthday and it was my first encounter with human death. I heard about it the day after it happened. I was the second weekend into a new job in a cafe, it was 11am and the phone rang. I overheard the name of another friend’s mother – but small town, you know, that’s bound to happen. A lunch order, probably. My bosses didn’t tell me. They knew, all day. Perhaps they didn’t want to be short staffed. I think that’s one shit of a decision, if you ask me.
My boyfriend J at the time came to collect me at 4 and kept the news until we were in the car.
A and A are dead.
Just like that.
When someone tells you someone has died, a part of you just steps outside of yourself and makes a face, shakes its head. Can’t be that A. Not possible. Wrong person. Bad joke.
Then I erupted, I saw all the people outside on the street, outside of that sudden hell of the car, and hated them for not going through this horror. They all looked normal. I hated J; I wanted the seconds back before I knew, before he’d robbed them from me.
Then the shocked brain sifts through the facts.
The evening she died, A had been missing for a whole day.
Her ex boyfriend had been driving.
He hadn’t stopped stop at a stop sign and took out a young guy on his way to work.
She was pulled from her what was left of her car in only a bedsheet and a pair of socks.
There was a knife in the car.
The other driver was seriously injured but survived.
My friend’s ex boyfriend died instantly.
My friend stayed for almost an hour.
For a long time it coated everything in my life with a fine layer of silt, the kind that eats away at paint if it gets wet. I would easily say that I grieved for years. For the first year I drove to her gravesite every evening, and these days when I see miniature red roses I’m instantly there, then, breathing turned clay.
I lived in a small town where folk embellished facts, bandied bullshit around, and for a while the circumstances around the death of A became a self-perpetuating tale, until people got on with their lives and the details – hearsay and fact – got mossed with time. And then there were a number of other deaths and funerals – 10 in 18 months – that eclipsed my friend’s.
The years following were lonely without my friend to share them with. For a while I bonded with her grieving mother who I thought I loved, and who I thought loved me, and who was repelled and fascinated by the inquest into the death of her daughter. I was completely blindsided by that. Would I read the report? I was so young and so completely out of my depth in dealing with anything like that and I couldn’t say no. Instead, I read the document blurring my eyes; I don’t know entirely what was written in that report.
One word: contusion. I gave her that much.
There are, in the world, certain words in certain orders that I don’t need to make part of me; what’s in this world and beyond it are much, much bigger than us and this subjective construct we call closure.
And then one day I realised I’d stopped going to the cemetery, I hadn’t seen her mother in over two years because the last visit had been so mortifyingly awkward. A didn’t occupy every facet of my day, and life seemed to be trundling along.
At the beginning, amidst the shock and the fallout, and with all those other funerals punctuating the last of my adolescence, I never thought happiness could be possible ever again. And, of course happiness zips in and out of life much like a house cat: it’s there, but the minute you want it to do something it does its own thing.
And I realise that, had she lived, A and I would very likely not have remained friends. She was from a group I was trying in vain to be accepted into, and with my being then-vegetarian, making my own clothes and deeply loving the arts I didn’t remotely fit the mould. While none of this had mattered previously, in the weeks before she died, A was beginning to make it known that things were changing between us. She was already beginning to cut me adrift, and it’s those hanging teenage questions and the parting of ways that were the glowing wound behind the grief for her lost life. I missed her but I missed more the girls we had been before things began to change.
A whole other life later I wonder who she might have become, what she, at the age of 39, would be doing today; how old her many kids would be, what she’d look like, and if she’d still have time for her horses.
I haven’t written many poems about her. Just these two.
The poem 1994 was written in 2006, An Inventory of Imaginings in 2012. If you’d like to read along with the recording, the poetry can be found on this post
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