(Painting by Carolyn Yagjian)
Lao Tzu called us all straw dogs, I think as I snap a dead twig between my fingers. My lover says it was a baby oak tree and I say, “funny, I thought it was just a branch from an already old one that had lived its tree life to the fullest and died naturally.”
He points to the ground and shows me that what I had thought were weeds is really a forest floor of baby oaks, each one small and vulnerable, trembling. I say we should take one, make it into a bonsai and watch it grow. He says it’s difficult. Oaks, even baby ones, push their roots down deeply into the earth and are hard to take with you. I tell him that it makes sense; you can’t take anything with you.
We are walking through the canyon collecting plant medicine in the chaparral as I tell him about Ari, my beautiful friend who took his own life before I left home. He puts his arm around me and says that I just need to get outside more. I need to keep going. He says this place we are in is sacred to the Chumash people, a place they believed souls stopped in on their way to Shimilaqsha, the Land of the Dead. This time of year, the canyon is covered with California Poppy, bright orange flowers the color of saffron robes. The wind rustling the leaves and petals all around us sounds like the peace of prayer flags.
The legend says that when the dead fly past this canyon on their way, two ravens are waiting. They swoop in and peck out the human eyes of the dead. It sounds cruel, but it is an important step to stop watching for and wanting what we can no longer have. The soul instantly reaches for the field and picks two bright poppy flowers to push into his empty sockets. Then, he can see his way to Shimilaqsha, where he will be given new eternal eyes of blue abalone.
I laugh as we pass the poppy and not because it is ironic that Ari died of too much heroin purposefully mixed with Xanax, but because his eyes were already as blue as abalone. So what now? Maybe it was those already eternal eyes in a frail human body that made him so sensitive he always saw too much. Maybe it was this fluke of Creation, this mistake of the Maker that made him say it was his time to go there, to the land of the abalone eyed Eternal people because this place was just too painful.
Postal women wearing pigtails give me a strange comfort. Or braids down their backs in the heat of a southwestern sun that is showing no mercy. She is pushing her mail cart down Main Street, dancing to dodge out of the way of the weary shoppers and crazy talkers, with her headphones on and levity to her step. There is a rhythm to the bouncing of her hair that tells me she is ok being here, maybe even what the unhappy call “happy,” and that means a lot because God only knows what horrors she has seen.
It’s ok to be here. There’s so much bad shit in this world and so many of my friends have died, but it is ok for me to wake up, to part my curly hair with a sharp comb, to tie it back twice with elastic bands the color of kingfishers and to feel the prettiness of being me and being alive in the bounce of the braids on my back as I walk under the sun.
It’s ok to be here, right? To still be happy sometimes despite those huge, soul shaped holes standing like burning bushes in the middle of the street, blinding me to the basic things I need to do to just get through everyday. They demand that I think about all that has happened. I drove three thousand miles westward to get away from these questions, driving through desert towns with no air conditioning and an old dog asleep in the passenger’s seat and everything I cared about in the world except for them filling the back of my van up so much that I couldn’t see through the rearview mirror and that was fine with me because one look back would have turned my heart to stone.
Some say it’s survivors guilt, what I’ve got in my gut, heavier than gravity and maybe that is what is keeping me here, whether it is ok or not. The rabbi said life was a gift and the funeral pamphlets had a poem that said we shouldn’t grieve because God needed him and took him back. Well, I needed him and his mother did, too. And his sad, slipping away girlfriend who went from friend to friend with his face freshly tattooed over her heart trying to find out a little more about him. She was left to pick through the bones of a bad relationship that got cut short after an ugly fight and before the reconciliation. She wanted us to tell her if he loved her, but we didn’t know. Now she will never get the break-up, the anger and pain that, with time, gives way to sweet forgiveness or indifference or a few phone calls a year later saying how are you these days, where are you these days, these days I think about those days.
We needed him and God took him and I’m not surprised. God steals from all of us. Or maybe we all needed him, God too, but Ari needed to do what he needed to do and somewhere he is where he wanted to be and he can hear all of us down here crying and we shouldn’t be
Is it ok? Is it guilt or pain or just some ancient question still lingering in that long line of planets exploding and stars dying and friends destroying themselves in an eternal sequence of days and nights and all the works of hands unfolding in a time-lapsed forever on the backs of my eyelids when I’m moving past the mail lady, toward the bus, trying not to cry. Someone read parts of Ecclesiastes at the funeral and I laughed under my breath because Ari and I were both poets and we agreed once that we liked it when we needed a line like that and couldn’t tell if we were quoting the bible or Turn!Turn!Turn! by the Byrds or T.S. Eliot.
Under the hot sun, for me, it’s a question that has become a crude, mundane mantra that I am singing like a jingle for the commercial of Life asking me to buy more time, to try out its Plan, to hold on, get old, keep dancing or, at least, just smile like the happy, silver haired old couple by the ocean on an anti-depressant brochure or a passing vitamin billboard. It’s ok.
Dreams of making love to the bodies of friends no longer on this earth.
I wake up with this line in my breath and on my skin and I want to write it into a poem. I sleep a lot these days. My dreams are gorgeous. When the dead come, they come perfectly- ready to be kissed and touched, their perfect bodies returned to me for a moment and celebrated in the simplest way I know, touching and kissing that is something more than sexual because it happens even when it is my grandmother. It doesn’t matter who it is, I am just so happy to see them and so delighted with their living bodies, those expressions of their souls down to the purest forms before and after all the other things we ever thought we were or needed to be. I take them in with all of my senses like a child licking a rock to know it completely. In my dreams, the dead come with smiles, but their eyes are bright with the burning of knowing everything beyond our biggest question. I don’t ask them for answers because I’ve learned that when you do, they disappear. The dead don’t like hearing that they are dead. Maybe being dead is a big secret to the dead or maybe when we say that word, “dead,” they know what it means to us over here and if that is the way we see them now, what more can they say to us?
Ari shows up in the same black jeans and t-shirt I last saw him in, his broad chest and strong shoulders filling out the fabric with that wounded soldier slump and down on his luck swagger that all of us girls went crazy for. He is carrying his beat up and coffee stained copy of David Foster Wallace’s, “Infinite Jest,” with hundreds of pages doggie-eared and the spine losing its grip on the pages. This is what he was reading when he died. He left it at my house and I wanted to keep it, to search every single word for one last piece of him, a clue, even a fingerprint, but his mother came for his things.
In the dream he is doggedly handsome, dark hair and thick eyebrows, lashes longer than I’ve ever seen since. Their blackness is the color of crows on snow, as if someone drew all of his features carefully and consciously with kohl against his fair skin. He is ornery as hell, smiling like he did in life when he knew I was mad that he stole my money or smoked crack in my bathroom or hustled my friends or when he just got out of rehab and needed a place to stay and knew the exact way to charm me into a chuckle and then into forgiveness and then into opening my arms and my heart and my everything up to him again and again despite all of the bad things that happened between us.
A month before he died, he showed up on my porch with nothing but that book and his cd player full of sad, sad Elliott Smith. I was about to close the door on him when he said, “Hey, wait, watch this.”
He pulled a cheap brass flute out of his pocket.
“It’s magic,” he said, pressing it to his lips. The little girl in me was intrigued. Curious cat, I stood there trying not to smile and waited for it, whatever it was going to be.
He began to play and hundreds of tiny white feathers flew out of its holes and floated all around him. I laughed despite myself. I reached out and pushed my hand through the flurry.
“How did you do it,” I asked, grabbing the flute and trying for myself, but nothing came out.
I told you, it’s magic, he answered, grinning because he knew he already had me and I saw his hands were shaking so I knew he was sober. I also saw the hole in his down jacket when he pushed the flute back in and took out his cigarettes. I thought of the classic cartoon image of someone completely broke pulling his pockets inside out to show he had nothing at all save a single butterfly. The flute trick was Ari’s beautiful version. I then remembered scenes of Ari, strung out and dope-sick, screaming spit and hatred, threatening my life outside of my apartment window, demanding money. I remembered leaning out of the window, unafraid, and saying calmly, “the police are coming, Ari.”
He ran and disappeared and I shook my head, not at his desperation, but at my own weakness because even then I found him beautiful.
After the flute magic, I noticed a strange resignation in his shoulders, a sense of calm I had never known him to possess. I followed him in and followed his gorgeous boy smell through the hallway and watched his tan neck and curly hair and kept thinking that every strand had been counted. I knew something bad was going to happen to him soon, so I vowed to just love him as much as I could with the time I had left.
After the funeral, his mother had taken his t-shirts from my floor and sealed them in a plastic bag and said that whenever she misses him, she opens that bag up, but only for a brief second because she doesn’t want to lose it- that amazing, one-of-a-kind smell of her dead son. After she left, I curled into a fetal position and cried for hours. In the dream, I can smell him again and the smell is as uniquely his as his fingerprints. It will never be again.
“Got a cigarette,” he asks.
“No, sorry” I say and then I risk the disappearance, “Ari, why did you do this?”
He laughs and points to a hole in his head. I don’t know what he means, but he doesn’t want to talk about it, so I don’t push it. He starts asking about the funeral- who was there? What did they say about him? I laugh and tell him all of the details as if we are just sitting on the corner gossiping. I kiss his neck and ruffle his hair. I feel his body in my arms and I will not let him go.
Ari Daniel, I say, Ari Daniel, over and over again, singsong, smiling. It was his name, he always said, that was the problem. It was his curse. His mother didn’t realize it when she named him that, but he insisted she had cursed him to a life of being the Lion of God facing lions in the Lion’s Den.
“What a conundrum,” he used to say, laughing, “no wonder I’m always at war with myself. No wonder I’m such a nightmare headcase!”
A nightmare headcase. It was one of the many phrases Ari coined and all of his friends picked up and spread like a contagious cough. If you’ve ever wondered who came up with a certain phrase or joke that traveled to you over many miles and through many mouths, you can trace it back to Ari. He was one of those people.
We are kissing and I am crying and the hole in his head is getting bigger. He is disappearing. I tell him not to leave. He laughs and says, “Are we having an Enya moment?”
“No!” I hit him in the arm, “god damn you, Ari.”
An Enya moment was that moment in a movie when the cheese gets too thick and everyone’s fate unfolds too quickly and all of the loose threads are tied together too haphazardly and you feel cheated out of your skepticism with the universal loving sounds of an Enya song and people finding redemption in slow motion. I laugh hard at him teasing me, but he’s gone.
It would be a lie to say I didn’t feel it. The body remembers. Springtime is the worst time for deaths. I have lost so many people to the spring. It is like they were just holding on until winter ended and then, after seeing one last dogwood blossom or hearing one last peeper toad, they had to go. We tell ourselves a lot of things to make sense of the senseless. I have convinced myself that it’s significant, that the springtime needs energy to fuel the bursting of color and life from all of those recently frozen buds and branches. Since energy can’t be created or destroyed, life has to take it from somewhere and that’s all that death is. This myth connects all of my springtime dead to new life and to the endless cycle and so, it’s like a big natural circle, right? It’s ok.
It would be a lie to say I didn’t know it was coming. The body remembers what hasn’t happened yet and there are signs. He shoots up in your basement, his leather belt tied tightly around his bicep and his face is beautifully and tragically determined. You sit on a stool and watch. From an angel’s eye view, your long hair is laying down your back and moving slowly like kelp, undulating in the otherwise still and silent room. When the rush hits, he stands up and takes his shirt off. He says, “Do you like my body? Am I sexy?”
You tell him yes, he is, and he sits down at the battered drum set in the corner and begins to play full speed, frantically. He is moving in fast-forward as you slowly circle him, leaving traces of yourself across the room in hazy after-images as you go, cleaning up the cigarette butts, holding back tears.
There are so many signs. He gives away his things. He falls asleep on the bathroom floor and doesn’t recognize you when you lift him up and walk him to your bed. He disappears for days. He walks on bridges during raging storms and you drive by and beg him to get into the car, but he tells you he is ok walking the ten miles home uphill in the lightning and rain because he needs to think. You know he is waiting for another car, one that will deliver him from his pain with pills and stamp bags and the camaraderie of strangers sharing the same desperate fate, but there is nothing you can do about it. He sees you are scared and picks up a twisted piece of metal laying at his feet and holds it high above his head and smiles that smile that is so sinister and sweet all at once. His face is one that leaves you unsure if he is an angel or a demon when he does you wrong or stands by your side truest blue.
“It would just be a nice quick jolt,” he says, “I’m ready.”
You shake your head and drive away. You aren’t mad at him. You know his torture and you know his nightmares. You know that every day that he wakes up is a feat of a thousand lifetimes.
You bury the knowing because you can’t keep chasing crazy like a rainbow and you have your own nightmares.
Springtime is the worst time. The year before Ari died, my mother had cut her own throat and now the date is seared into my body’s memory so deeply my descendants’ descendants will feel it. It was the worst time of my life.
Everyone has their nightmare, their lost ones, but we somehow keep moving and it is astounding. We keep moving, but we are forever altered.
Even though she survived, I sit with her and zone out like when your eyes stick on something and your vision blurs and it feels good. I watch her hands and smile. It all feels like borrowed time. I am suddenly sure she didn’t make it. She is a ghost and my prayer was answered: Give her back to me for just one day. This is that day and I am seeing her as if I have only one day left and my eyes are burning with tears and love so intense, so huge, the heart can hardly hold it. I quote Zelda Fitzgerald’s famous words, “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”
“What, honey?” She asks.
To the greeting card companies that print it and to the people that love it, that quote is understood as some praise of the triumph of the human spirit, but to me, it’s eerily haunting. How much can a heart hold? Some people don’t make it. Sometimes the cost is too high. Who can pay the price? The measurement might be greater than the square feet of the sky, but sometimes it is just the size of a small, human fist and the muscles are tired of fighting.
Lover, don’t be ashamed.
It’s a line in the hook of a song I am writing, sitting on my bed thinking of Ari when his girlfriend texts me, simply, “One year.” It would be a lie to say I wasn’t already feeling it. I knew, although I didn’t count the months. I was reminded that morning when I grabbed a coffee mug with the Starbucks Siren and her crown of stars emblazoned on the enamel. That symbol will forever make me sick. That is where Ari went to do what he did, where he asked for the key to the bathroom and locked the door behind him and they didn’t find him until closing time.
Time can forgive all sins and so can I.
It’s a breathless feeling. It’s a life punched out of your gut feeling. It’s a mindfuck feeling. It’s a feeling of only being able to sit back and take it: life, death, and the irreversible fact that there is nothing left to do. Your mind runs in circles trying to figure out a way to call him, to tell him you love him, to say don’t do this, but it’s done. All you can say to the person who called to tell you is, “What?”
They repeat it a few times after a few whats because this exchange is almost scripted into our dna.
“Ari is dead.”
“Ari is dead. I’m so sorry.”
“Are you alone? I’m coming over.”
No No No No No No No
You scream it with your whole existence at an invisible Intelligence that cannot and will not bring anyone back. You scream it to brace yourself against the soul-splintering plunge into the mystery, the horror, and the awe, yes, even the slight awe you feel knowing that they have passed on to be in Eternity or Nowhere or Everywhere or you have no idea where.
Though they are gone, you hallucinate them everywhere. You relive every memory and even the bad ones are now precious. The silly ones are sacred: Blair Witch Project slumber party on his mother’s couch and we are eating pizza and screaming at the TV and maybe someone was screaming the same things at us but we couldn’t hear them, Don’t go there! Don’t do that! Turn around! Look behind you!
The time in the diner when he stood up in the booth and said the Pledge of Allegiance to screw with the jerks at the next table who were trying to start trouble. When they walked away, confused, he smiled and said, “Sometimes, you just gotta flip the script on em.”
You loved him, your coyote trickster. You loved his sick little smile more than anything and you search for it on his brother and mother at the funeral. That morning, you saw a video his girlfriend put online of him pushing her around in a stolen grocery cart through the labyrinth of back alleys. They were just kids. They were high as kites, but you were so happy to hear his voice, see his face, his smile, life. You realize he is gone as you stand next to the hole in the earth staring at the hearse arrive as his mother’s knees buckle. Someone catches her and your eyes roll shut and you cannot believe they are about to bring out your perfect friend in a box, your stay-up-all-night dancer, your exquisite schemer, your kiss a cop and run, wild lover. The rabbi says Jacob wrestled an angel and won, but Ari wrestled a demon and lost. His older brother cries, throwing two packs of Marlboros into the ground and everyone covers him with dirt and you haven’t slept in days. He is gone and after the funeral, all of your friends are standing under the bridge, placing paper lanterns into the river because the Japanese say that they will guide him to his next shore. Everyone is weeping and he is gone and someone is singing Desperado and then Amazing Grace. The lanterns are lit up like lost souls, drifting away then swirling rapidly in a current that takes them out of view. His best friend thanks you, pats you on your shoulder and says, “That’s a down girl, right there,” which is something Ari always said about you.
Queen Tara, please take his pain. Drive all his monsters away so that I can know it’s safe to say goodbye.
They are just words, written as a petition against a life without consolation. A feeble prayer in a song I whisper as my hand sloppily brushes the strings. One year and all my wounds are reopened, screaming with wolves’ teeth and Kali’s tongue.
In the dream he is gone and I am standing at his grave, calling his name. There is a long corridor of Oak trees and darkness. Where is he? Three angels approach on horses. They are invisible, but wearing robes of light so you can see their forms. You are terrified, but love is greater than fear so you step in front of their flight and say, “Where is my friend?”
They are taken aback by your courage. They can see in your eyes that you may be human, but your love is divine so for a moment they mistake you for their Master. They are about to answer you when an owl screeches and wakes you up and you are in your van sleeping by an ocean three thousand miles away from where you left him and the questions and all of it and he is never coming back, but your heart is holding, holding on.
Deadly nightmares can’t be whisked away
by some human kisses on a very cloudy day.
But your eyes were blue when I was telling you
But your eyes were blue when I was telling you
that I’m holding on until we all pass safely through.
It was a promise I made to him. He said, “Just give me some to straighten out my life.”
I told him I couldn’t wait for him, but I loved him no less. He jumped out of the van and disappeared between the row houses. What if I would have pulled him in and headed west right then, just one week before he died? What if he would have answered my text, “Are you awake,” when they were just finding his dead body in the Starbucks bathroom. His beautiful body. I don’t think I was the only girl remembering that gorgeous body as they lowered the box into the earth. Damn, what a perfect creation he was. How much can the heart hold? You tell me.
Sometimes it can hold too much and it’s always the huge hearted that die young. It makes me wish their hearts were built smaller or with more filters or less feeling or anything, but then, they wouldn’t have been them and you loved them, as they were, so much.
You keep loving them and talking about them and you never let words like death steal your love. This is all we can do. Hold on.
To Ari and all of the others, to that shy girl who sat in front of me in science class in the seventh grade and always looked so sad and one day walked into the woods with her father’s gun and never walked out, to this one, to that one, to all of those who cannot hold on - I am so sorry. I don’t know what else to say except I’m so sad, sorry and still here.