By Patrick Shand
I rarely ever look up into the sky at night, but tonight I do. I pause for a few long moments, despite the cold late-November air, and just stare at the stars. I’ve heard people describe stars in many different ways. I’ve read books where stars are diamonds glittering out from a dark abyss, and poems where they’re little will o’ the wisps stuck in the black, tarry sky. But now, looking at the clusters of the stars spread generously through the sky, I think that there is no better way to describe them than saying simply what they are: Stars.
I turn away and walk into my house. Before trudging into my room to start work on one of the last college essays of the semester—or, more honestly, surf the net aimlessly in a quest of endless procrastination—I feel one last pull back toward the stars. I turn to my mom, who is half asleep in front of the television.
“It’s a beautiful night out. So many stars.”
She gets up off the couch, sliding her glasses up the bridge of her nose. The two of us, her barefoot, step out onto our front stoop and look up at the unusually bright sky.
“Wow. So many,” she says. “Look at those three.”
“I think those are the Little Dipper,” I say, proud that I recognized the constellation. Then I take a closer look. “Erm, or Orion’s Belt.”
I can’t really tell what’s different about this night, if it’s the number of stars or just the way they each glow, but something about the sky has changed. Something is a little more beautiful. I wonder what it is.
Her head, which had been resting on my shoulder, nestled up to the crook of my neck. I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek against the fabric of the hat that covered her formerly jet-black, currently greenish/something-else hair. The smell, expensive hardwood floors and—oddly enough—Playdoh that I came to associate with her filled my nose. Under those two smells, there were traces of the sampler Bambi perfume she’d sprayed on her wrists and neck just a few hours ago at the mall.
I thought about extending my arm and reaching for her hand. It would have been a ballsy move, considering where we were. Her dad, a pleasant and quiet man, was driving us down the parkway after a trip to the mall, in which her entire family accompanied us. Her chipper mother sat in the front seat, her even more chipper brother sat alongside of us on the bench seat, and behind us was the middle child, a righteous dude in his own right, passed out due to exhaustive Christmas shopping. So that family environment was not quite the right time to go for the hand grab, especially since it was the first time I was meeting them.
It was only the third time I was hanging out with Jackie.
Also, I hadn’t really figured out our relationship either. As she was probably the warmest, most loving person I’ve ever known, she was a pretty hard girl to figure out. The closeness that had developed so quickly between us could have been a very organic start to an intimate relationship, but on the other hand, it could be me misinterpreting female signals again—emphasis on the “again”. It could very well be just a friendly, platonic thing. She’s tired, my shoulder is there, elementary my dear so-and-so.
I wasn’t even sure what I felt for her at this point. The only thing I knew was that it was something strong.
As her breathing slowed and she fell asleep, my head propped up against hers, the music of Pink Floyd pumped from the car stereo. The entire family seemed to dig it. I’d never really been interested in checking out the band, but that night, with Jackie’s quiet snore lulling me into a trance, I became their biggest fan.
I have no idea why I’m looking at the computer right now. I hardly ever go on Instant Messenger, as there are few people I can tolerate talking to for extended periods of time, so it must be that same weird pull that made me look up at those stars. Whatever the case may be, I surf the net aimlessly for a few minutes before logging into my Facebook account to check if anyone commented on my profile.
No profile comments. No friend requests.
I scroll down the page, looking at the recent activities of my friends. Facebook is busy tonight. People are commenting each other, RSVPing to events, joining groups. Something catches my eye. “10 of your friends have joined the group…” Before I read on, I realize that I’m seeing something very odd. What do any ten of my friends/acquaintances have in common with each other, other than misplaced love of reality television? And what would make all ten of them want to join a group to express their mutual happiness that they’ve agreed on something?
I read on.
“10 of your friends have joined the group R.I.P. Jackie.”
With each plod of my heart getting heavier, I click the link to the group, morbidly curious but not aware of my worry. It can’t possibly be anyone I know. Half of the kids at my commuter college are on my friend list, so it’s probably some poor albeit random girl from Molloy College. The page loads quickly, and I suddenly know without having read the first words of the group’s description. I probably somehow knew the moment I saw the words “10 of your friends have joined the group…” because I don’t have to read the next words to feel my lips tighten at the corners so quickly it’s almost painful, pulling down into a frowning leer that would surely just be the preface to the upcoming teary outburst.
Her first and last name. Car crash. Fatal. Instantly.
I race to join the group and comment on the page, feeling absurdly that if I let it out quickly that it will be over, like a band-aid being pulled off… which still always hurts. But as I type my meaningless vomit of words on the screen (which, sidebar, says “Don't even know what to say. I hadn't seen you in so long, but you're still such an important part of my life. I love you so much,” which is completely true but still not even close to what I really want to say to Jackie), I begin to realize that I don’t really believe what the group says. Because if it’s true, if this terrible thing had really happened as this memorial Internet group said it had, then how could the stars have looked so beautiful tonight?
Jackie, our colorblind friend Woobs who had a beautiful singing voice, and I had our hands stamped with a big red X by a lanky, tattooed bouncer outside the door to the Crazy Donkey, a venue I would later frequent pretty often. The first of the opening acts had just started to kick off their first song, and most of the kids were clinging to the walls, sipping their non-alcoholic beverages with their Xed hands, waiting for the band they came for to start. I doubted anyone had even heard of the dread-locked trio who were banging away at their drums and blaring their horns on stage. Then again, I was just coming to know Jackie.
When I saw her, skanking by herself in the middle of the dance floor, singing along to the spitfire lyrics, something moved deep inside of me. I was amazed that no one else heard it, because to me, it sounded like a ship making that fatal scrape against a gargantuan iceberg. I felt a dull pain in my gut as I watched her, watched the circle grow until a bunch of kids, Woobs included, were skanking along to the song. I heard Woobs’s beautiful sing along to the repeating chorus of the song, and I felt myself start to hum. The ache in my gut as I stared at her feet moving to the sound of the snare morphed into a pull toward the pit, the pull to join.
I trudged over to the middle of the floor, and she caught my gaze. There was a smile in her eyes, but it wasn’t the one that she always gave whenever she greeted me, or whenever she talked about one of the many things she was passionate about. It was encouraging, but fleeting. Just like that, she was absorbed in the music again, and swept away in the pit.
My cheeks burning and my heart racing, I decided to sit it out this time, and wait until the big band came on. Jackie had shown me some of their songs, so I was more familiar with them, so I wouldn’t, you know, look like an asshole in front of everyone else.
By the time that first band finished, I felt a warm hand grab mine. This time, I followed the pull and went with her to the outside patio, which reeked of smoke. Aside from a few people about as tattooed as the bouncer, everyone was inside.
She let go of my hand and by the time I was able to look at her, she had a lit cigarette in her mouth.
“I really wanna see you in the pit,” she said.
She always stood so close when she talked.
“I know, it’s just…”
“I taught you how to skank,” she said, taking a drag.
How come she never smelled like smoke?
“You did, and thank you, but I don’t really think I’m that good at it,” I replied.
“Ah, come on, you’re fine.”
As she talked, I remembered the first time we hung out. Just us. Her room. You don’t know how to skank, I’ll teach you. Laughing.
“What if… I don’t know,” I said. “All those kids, you. They’re all really good. I’ve never even been in a pit before, I wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t want them to…”
Her hands were on my face, making me look directly at her. Two thick braids stuck out from under her beanie, framing her pretty, simple face.
“No one’s gonna make fun of you.”
I sit outside 7-11, the beer I bought riding shotgun in my car. I know what I’ll do. I’ll take a drink and pour out some beer for her. It’s what rappers do when their friends die. I think.
Why hasn’t the world stopped?
I’m remembering. Remembering our times. Our most recent conversation, via Myspace. Her “son of a bitch, i haven't seen/talked to you in like forever and a half! how've you been kid?? happy [early] birfday!! i'm living in freeport now, we should chill like fo' realz. except less pretend-to-be-ghetto ~Jackie” and my fucking response, my “Ahhh you live in Freeport! Awesome, yeah we'll definitely chill.” and I can’t take it. :] The dull pain turns into a pull which turns into a yearning for the past. I miss the blissful uncertainty of when I first met her, how I wasn’t sure what I felt or what she did, if anything. I can’t believe I hadn’t taken her up on her offer to chill, and as mundane as it seems, it feels like the last time I saw her until now was all one comically huge mistake. Would she even like the person that I am now? Would Jackie, if I were sitting next to her, talking to her, be able to find that timid, red cheeked kid who was afraid to dance under all of this person I’ve become?
I run my hand over the bag they put the eighteen pack in, feeling the texture, letting my mind wander.
Something clicks inside me, and I suddenly remember something. Years ago, in an oddly deep conversation I’d had with a friend, a conversation that seemed almost meaningless when we had it, this friend told me that she saw the ghost of her grandmother sitting on the basement steps as she slept. She said that the way the ghost looked at her, from the way the room felt around her, she’d felt a transforming state of peace come over her. As I talked to her, I was skeptical, but also a bit unnerved. She told me that the reason she saw her grandmother’s ghost was because she had been ready to. Simple as that. Ever since that conversation, I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I would never allow myself to be ready to see a ghost, as that would rock my comfortable little world a little too hard.
Many people I’ve known have died. Whenever I thought of a dead loved one, I would whisper the words notreadynotreadynotready under my breath.
I look in the passenger seat, where the beer sits. Clenching my fists, I scream for her, scream to see her, scream that I’m ready.
Tired as hell.
Waiting. Anxious. Amazed.
I trudged over to my door in my pajamas, almost not believing it when I saw her standing on my stoop, smiling, looking about as tired and anxious as I felt.
She came in, wrapping her arms around my neck in that slow hug of hers. When she hugged, she didn’t give fish arms. She didn’t even give you the hug-version-of-a-firm-handshake hug. She just wrapped you up, wrapped me up, in her. She smelled like expensive wood, Bambi, but now the crisp smell of August morning air clung to her faded green t-shirt. I used to wonder how I smelled when I hugged her, if she ever tried to pick out the specific scents, if she really ever thought about anything like that when we hugged, but now I knew her enough to know that thinking this stuff was dumb. After a long moment, she let go.
“Alright,” I said, my hands resting on her shoulders. “Walk to the Nautical Mile or… erm… loaf around on the couch?”
“Loafing sounds nice. But… hell, both?”
We walked outside. The sky was still dark, but God I knew it would be beautiful. We walked for an hour, talking, reconnecting. It had been only two months since I saw her last, but in the year I’d known her, I’d come to realize that Jackie didn’t move through life at the same pace that I did. She had been on family vacation in Australia for over a month, and I was the first friend she was visiting now that she was back. I felt insanely proud.
She told me everything.
She opened up to me in a way that shocked me, stupefied me, and made ship-to-iceberg sounds in my gut that I truly wondered if she heard. Since I’d seen her, she had done wonderful things, making people’s days like she so often tried to do here. She’d also done dumb things, that the two of us laughed at, but there was something profound going on in my heart when she told me all of this. All throughout our friendship, through all the time that I had grown to admire and love her, she was an idea. She seemed like the embodiment of confidence, this unstoppable force that went out of her way to make everyday people smile, even if it meant pissing them off first. But when she told me these mistakes, when she opened herself up to me, I realized that Jackie wasn’t just those things I thought she was. She was also a person. A flawed person, just like me, that loved and lost and fucked up royally. And that knowledge made her all the more incredible.
We went back to my house and made with the loafing. My mother greeted us in the morning, and asked Jackie how she got there and where she was supposed to be.
“My uncle lives a few blocks away. I was staying over there tonight. My family just got back from down under, so they figured I should spend the night over there. Something about them missing me.” She laughed.
“So,” my mom said slyly, “how did you end up here?”
“Happenstance. And sneakiness.”
“Do your parents know?” she asked.
“Nah,” Jackie replied. “Well, maybe. Probably. If I were them, I’d know. Where do you think I inherited my sneakiness from?”
My mom looked from her to me, smiled, and went into the bathroom to get ready for work. She left Jackie and me, on one of the last times we had hung out, alone. I loved her spirit, her smile, her way, and so much else, and she told me that I was one of the best friends she’d ever had… and yet, we grew apart. Not due to anything that was said, or how I felt about her, but simply because growing apart is the way of the world. Our flawed, beautiful world. But, thanks to that year and thanks to that night and thanks to Australia and thanks to my mom and thanks to happenstance and thanks to Jackie, she gave me something that night that, no matter how far we grew apart, I knew would be able to stretch across continents, a bond that would hopefully transcend anything that came our way.
The memories wash through my brain, some clear, some fuzzy, all of them out of order like a spilled deck of cards. Sitting on the hood of my car, the first and last full beer of the night in my hand, I squeeze at the memories, trying to find something palpable, something I could connect to, something I could do, because oh God, I am ready.
But, as it turns out, ghosts don’t seem to exist.
There are just memories. Flawed memories, the good and the bad in focus with all the intricacies and fodder blurry in the back. I grit my teeth, trying to put them all in order, trying to form a narrative in my head. Based on a true story. That was the title of her Myspace page. Hah. I remember that I would hardly ever comment on her page or her pictures, because there was a time when I was usually either at her house or talking to her on the phone. The first three digits of her number, 428, pop into my head, but I can’t remember the rest. Fresh pain hits when I look through my contacts, and realize that her number isn’t even there. My phone had been destroyed at an outdoor concert that got rained out a while ago, so I’d lost all the numbers. As deep as our connection was, I feel staggeringly guilty that I’d never made the effort, been too wrapped up in college and my career, to get that number again, to solidify that connection that once nearly defined my day to day existence.
The regret is almost as powerful as the grief.
I don’t want this night to be another bullet on my list of regrets. So I remember…
It was fairly late at night when she called me. I never questioned her impulses, so when she called me and told me that she wanted to watch the sunrise that morning, I instantly agreed. There was no foreseeable downside. I’d walk through my town, just about two miles or so to the train station, which was admittedly dangerous in Freeport, but I’d done riskier things. While that happened, Jackie would be taking her own adventure, down the long, long street that led from her huge house to the Rockville Centre train station, that—despite the smaller risk of being robbed—was still pretty frightening. In retrospect, I realized that I hadn’t even thought about any of that before I told her I’d meet with her. The way I imagined it, there wasn’t really anything that could stop us. We were unstoppable forces, pulled together like gravitation. Yes, if the sun would rise, we would be there to watch it.
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t agree.
Applying an odd little tactic called “reason,” they argued that it was very dark, very late, and I would indeed be robbed. I argued that I needed to go, which I fully believed. I had told Jackie I would. She wanted to. And I knew that she would be there, ready for that damn sunrise, the moment that I arrived. She, at least, was an unstoppable, uncontainable force.
Me? Maybe not so much.
I called her moments later and told her that I couldn’t come. I could hear disappointment in that voice that I knew so well, and I hated it, and I knew that it wasn’t at all directed at me, but I still felt horrible. I wanted to see something beautiful with her. She had a list of things that she wanted to do, and she told me that seeing a sunrise with me was now a bullet on that list. I didn’t want to let her down.
I wanted to show her something beautiful.
I can almost chuckle at how simple it is. The moment I think about it, it’s clear to me. How I had not thought about it before is a testament to how oblivious I can be at times. But now, now, with memories of her pounding in my heart, shifting like ice scraping against metal in my chest, I drive.
I drive down the Nautical Mile, where she showed me her flaws and her true beauty.
I drive into the closest parking lot and wait in my car. It won’t be long now.
When I thought about her, about my time with her, I only felt what I had felt for her, my side of the experience that I took away from our friendship. When I begged for her ghost, I hadn’t felt her at all.
But now, as the night sky turned pink, as I watch the sun rise through the windshield of my car, she is here. I don’t need to look in the passenger seat next to me, and I don’t need to pray for ghosts or grasp for memories. I feel her.
I drop my hand into the seat and touch the fabric, holding it as if it were her hand. I start the conversation simply.
Absurdly, I wait for a response. There is no disappointment when it doesn’t come, because I know now that our connection doesn’t just reach across continents, it reaches across the stars. How could anything as small as a car crash stop that? Jackie moved through life at an incredible pace, but she always found time to stop for anyone who needed her to be there.
My hand tightens on the seat.
I tell her how mad I am that the last words I said to her were so utterly devoid of meaning. How I needed to finally see the sun rise with her. How I wanted her to know how deeply I felt about her, and that though years had passed, our connection was something that I would always have, even though I would never see her again in this lifetime.
I’ll probably idealize the sunrise in my mind later on, filtering out the way it was so gradual, how clouds obscured the rising disc, how the sky just turned a shade of slightly grey blue by the time it was over, and I laugh. The sun, with its flaws, because of its flaws, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Holding onto the seat, I smile, tears streaming down my cheeks, and open up to her. I tell her that I miss her, what I’ve done, who I’ve become, how I’ve fucked up, how I’ve succeeded, how I’m confused, and how I just love her so fucking much.
This morning, I tell Jackie everything.