“Have you been experiencing any problems?”
The doctor stares at me, fingers poised over his keyboard. The room is the colour of bone.
“What kind of problems?”
“Just general. How’s your sleep? Digestion? Aches and pains?”
I came to the doctor for the first time in five years to tell him about Jer, but he doesn’t fit into any of those categories so I hesitate. I look down at my feet, dangling between the metal stirrups of the examination table. My hands shake.
“Sleep I guess.”
“You’re having problems sleeping?”
“I fall asleep. And then I wake up.”
He gets up from his seat and crosses the examination room, which is small, so it only takes him one step, and he opens the top drawer of an old metal filing cabinet and peers into it while I wait. Finally, he steps back and hands me a pamphlet. It says SLEEP HYGIENE in big blue letters.
I stare at the pamphlet. “Thank you.”
“If you need anything else—” He closes the door before finishing his thought. I am alone to peel off the paper gown and quickly redress in solitude. It’s true that I haven’t been sleeping, that I’ve been taking too much melatonin to counteract the insomnia and as a result have been suffering graphic nightmares. But what I really wanted to say was that three months ago, my friend Jer killed himself. He walked into the water down at Sunset Beach and ten hours later the coast guard pulled him out. I guess I wanted to know whether, in his professional opinion, the weight of one body could crack the world.
In addition to that, I planned to tell him that two weeks ago Jer showed up at my front door. That he’s been sleeping on my couch and hasn’t shown any signs of budging. But I don’t mention any of that, because I’d feel bad for calling him a problem. Anyway, I’m alone before the doctor finishes telling me where I should place my need, so I gather it and hurry home.
The day he arrived I was getting rid of everything I owned. Nothing fit anymore.
I wasn’t expecting the physicality of grief. I’d been at the restaurant, and there was a phone call for me. I dropped an expensive bottle of wine that they ended up taking out of my paycheck. I could have explained it to my manager but I didn’t, I just dropped the bottle and the phone and I walked out. They thought I got dumped. I was lucky they took me back the next day.
Jer and I grew up together but we weren’t that close anymore. Just saw each other in passing every year or so. I got some e-mails from old mutual friends and teachers in the weeks following but I didn’t reply to any of them. The silence in my apartment grew huge; it picked the meat off my bones. So when he showed up at my door, early on a Sunday morning in September, he took one look at me and there was a long and terrible silence and then he said—“Holy shit Kat, you’re wasting away. Lucky for you this chef needs a couch to crash on.” He pushed past me and walked down the hall to the living room.
I hadn’t even started the upheaval yet, and there he was. He didn’t have much with him, just a backpack. He looked the same. He was still at least six inches taller than me. He was skinny but solid. His hair was too long and greasy and tucked behind his ears. He smelled like incense and deep-fried food. He wasn’t blue and grey like I’d been dreaming. I followed him into the living room. I didn’t say a word.
“Jer.” I finally said. The audio track was off. He moved to unpack things and chatted away to me but it was all coming in late, the words and his mouth moving at different speeds.
“Don’t worry, it won’t be for long.” He already had his few possessions lined up on the table. A book, a toothbrush, a neatly folded sweater on top of which he took off and carefully placed his watch and ring. He looked up at me apologetically.
“Of course, stay as long as you want.”
Most mornings, I sleep in. I lie awake between the hours of three and six A.M., and then I sleep deeply until at least eleven. By the time I make it out of bed Jer is almost done his workout. I get dressed in my room and listen to him panting and counting out jumping jacks. He does four sets of twenty-five, and then starts in on sit-ups. At first I was worried that the people downstairs would complain about the noise, but so far so good. I take my time getting ready so that I don’t distract him, even though he usually has his headphones in playing something frantic and wordless.
When I finally come out of my room, he makes me breakfast. I think he feels like he’s putting me out by sleeping on my couch and wants to repay me in some way. He was working as a chef at a Seafood restaurant downtown when he died, so I never object to him making me meals. Plus it’s not costing me anything because he doesn’t eat. But he does keep leaving the fridge open for some reason, which distresses me. He never used to be forgetful when we were kids.
We sit next to each other on stools at the counter while I eat, and he tells me kitchen stories or else we talk about the books he’s reading because that’s what he does for the rest of the afternoon once I leave for the dinner shift. He likes historical fiction and autobiographies best. Right now he’s reading about John Wayne and he struts around the kitchen quoting him and drawing imaginary pistols from imaginary holsters. He tells me to get off my horse and drink my milk and then he aims a finger at my heart and fires. You got me, I say.
He’s really not a bad houseguest. His mom’s an elementary school principal so he’s always been polite to a fault. And it’s kind of nice having the company. Someone insisting that I eat and go to work on time. And even if we haven’t hung out much over the past few years, we’ve known each other since we were eleven, so what am I supposed to do? I can’t ask him to leave.
The thing is, we haven’t talked about him being dead. It’s making me pretty uncomfortable, actually. I guess it’s why I hesitated to tell the doctor. Because I know he’s dead, like I really know, I’m not crazy, and I’m pretty sure that he also knows. But now it’s been a couple weeks, so I’m not sure how to bring it up.
After he died, all I could think about were the stupidest memories of him. Stupid in that they weren’t particularly meaningful or in any way significant to the friendship I had with him. We’d seen each other in the ugly and vulnerable grips of childhood, and then adolescence, and then our early twenties. So why couldn’t I remember any of the good stuff?
I kept replaying the last conversation I’d had with him, which had taken place nine months earlier at a bus stop downtown. We’d run into each other by accident. He was living back home again but was seeing some girl out in the suburbs. We escaped the rain together for a few minutes under a bus stop shelter and I explained to him where he could catch the train he needed. That was it. I can’t even remember the exact words we exchanged, I can’t remember the route I’d suggested, if I’d walked him to the station.
And another memory of sitting next to him in a math class and finding a single grey hair growing out of the side of his neck. Hadn’t I held it up for the class to see? Everyone laughed and he turned red and played at snatching it out of my hand. I started collecting all the tiny betrayals I’d enacted against him and held them in my pockets like tiny sharp rocks.
A silent memory of him sitting across a beach fire from me. Lit orange against the dark.
Threads from a sweater I could no longer remember owning.
It was like I’d lost all the substance of him already. It was gone from my mind. All I could find were fragments of small talk and even those seemed fabricated. There was a dull edge to everything. There was no hunger, no length of sleep, no depth to my memory of him. Instead I had dreams of water. Dreams of wandering around our childhood homes in the dead of night. Of endlessly looking for him across the crowd at a party. And then there were hours that moved like melting wax, slow at first and then sudden and burning. I tried to stare through the ceiling into other people’s lives—were they awake? What was the worst phone call they’d ever received? How do you get over that?
He walks the same, his shoulders tensed up and his steps quick. He always clears his throat before speaking and then his sentences turn up as questions. He puts his arm around my shoulder in a joking way and there’s a weight to it. He tells me his younger sister’s applied for college back east, and he hopes to hell that she goes. He showers and comes out smelling like the same bar soap he’s used for years, the same one his mom used to buy for him when he was a kid. Nothing is buried.
At the end of the fourth week, I have a night off and I ask him to go for a walk to Granville Island. It’s late October, cold and sunny.
“I don’t really have a jacket for that.” He doesn’t look up from his book, a thick collection of Russian literature.
“What about your sweater?” It lies folded on the coffee table next to the couch, his ring and watch still on top of it.
“It’s not as warm as it looks.” He goes back to his book.
I go into my room and riffle through my closet until I come up with an old grad sweatshirt that I should have gotten rid of a long time ago. It’s navy blue and the string at the neck is frayed from years of idle gnawing. I bring it to him and throw it over his book.
“No shit. You still have this?” He stands up and holds the sweatshirt out in front of him. It says LION PRIDE across the front, my last name across the back. “I always worried you’d end up a hoarder.” He puts it on and dodges my slaps. The arms barely reach past his elbows and the hood is tight around his face.
“That’s really nice on you.”
“No seriously. I think we should go out. You might get hit on.”
“Seriously. It’s my only afternoon off. You can watch me get day-drunk and then we can come home and you can read your depressing book all night long.”
“Come on. Give me a spin.”
He spins for me. It’s theatrical at first, his long limbs trying at grace. Then he slows. He stops and we both catch his reflection in the window. I open my mouth to say something and it’s like a ripple breaking a surface of water. Something about his size makes him look helpless. The game’s over. He struggles out of the sweatshirt and hands it back to me. He sits down and says he knows a good take-out place.
I give in. I sit down next to him. I put my head on his shoulder, just for a second.
We order Chinese food. I pick the Set Feast for two so that he feels included. Then I walk down to the Wine store and I buy the cheapest bottle of white. I buy him a little bottle of Bailey’s that he won’t drink, just for old time’s sake.
The food comes and I peel off the cardboard lids and arrange the aluminum containers on the coffee table next to Jer’s things. I sit on the floor across from him. The wine is too sweet and I finish my first glass too quickly. Everything tastes like salt and the broccoli is too green, the chicken barely present under too much batter. Nothing tastes real, and I devour it.
“Have you been to Portugal?”
“No.” I spit black bean sauce on his sweater. He pretends not to notice.
“I went last spring. Did I already tell you about it?”
“I was supposed to go with a restaurant buddy of mine but he ditched out at the last second. I was gonna just not go at first but then I thought, fuck it, life’s too short.”
There is a pause. I stab more broccoli with my fork. I laugh, hah. I put the broccoli in my mouth but am suddenly so full it feels like there is no room left in me at all, so I spit it back onto my plate.
“Sorry.” I pour myself more wine. “Did you like it?”
“Loved it. Loved it. It was fucking rad. Best two months of my life, hands down.” He nods slow, smiles. “And really it was good in the end that my buddy didn’t come. It was the first time I was really alone. Like I met a couple people, but mostly I just went for walks around whatever town or city I was in every morning as soon as I got up, and I’d just spend the first half the day fucking off and end up wherever by the end of it, at a coffee shop or outside the city at some random train station or whatever.”
“Look at you, the lone wolf,” I finish my glass.
Either he doesn’t hear the sarcasm or he chooses to ignore it. He continues. “Well, I mean, there was a girl at a hostel in Lisbon. We had a thing for a while. She worked at the front desk and led these free walking tours that no one ever showed up for so it ended up just being the two of us and, yeah. She told me she loved me after two days—I know, I know—but I really think in a different life I could have just stayed there, or at least I wonder about it sometimes. But in the end we said goodbye and even that was all good, we wished each other well. Just happened like it was supposed to.” He raises the glass of Bailey’s like he’s going to drink it. Old habits die hard. “Hands down, best time of my life.”
“And then how’d you feel when you got back?” The wine bottle’s empty and smudged with greasy fingerprints; I look at it and not him.
“Yeah, fine. Don’t worry. I sound like a flake. I never thought for a second a different country would change anything. That wasn’t it.”
I pack up the food. I tell him it’s there if he wants a midnight snack. He says he never really liked it anyway. I slide a fortune cookie across the table.
His says YOU WILL BE FAMOUS. He shudders.
Mine says YOUR MOST MEMORABLE DREAM WILL COME TRUE. I shudder.
“In bed,” he says. “Works for both.”
I stare into the bottom of my wine glass.
“You should go back to the doctor.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” I’m drunk. I’m mean.
“I’m not telling you what to do. It’s a suggestion.”
“I hate that.”
“You talking about my future. Should should should.”
“Okay, you could go to the doctor again. Just saying, I hear you up in the night.”
“Yeah well, I guess you could mind your own fucking business.”
He raises his hands in surrender. He turns to pick up his book. I pace across the living room and stand behind the kitchen counter like it’s an island separating us. I glare across the divide at him.
“You know you’re dead, right?”
He looks up from his book. We stare at each other for a long time.
“So who the fuck are you to be giving me advice.”
He’s quiet. The room is ringing.
“Maybe you should move on.”
He sighs, nods. “Yeah, okay. You’re right.”
He stands up and starts gathering his things. The book, the toothbrush, the sweater, the watch, the ring. He walks into the bathroom and comes back out with his bar of soap. He puts that in his bag, too.
“I didn’t mean now.” I’m drunk and I’m mean and the room is ringing. I lean against the counter.
He zips up his backpack and puts it on. He stands in front of me and looks at me expectantly and when I don’t say anything he nods, says he understands, walks towards the door.
“Stop it, Jer. I didn’t mean now.” The audio track is off again. My words drip.
He stoops to put his shoes on and I don’t mean to but I walk out from behind the counter and I walk over to where he’s tying his shoes and I kick the side of his foot.
“Ow,” he says, halfheartedly, because of course he doesn’t hurt.
I kick him again.
And again, lightly.
There’s something gathering in my chest, below my throat. If I let it out, it will start with a sound, a wail that will ruin everything. I swallow it. I want to kick him harder but I don’t and eventually he stands up and drops his backpack to the ground so I kick it instead, hard, and this time he stops me. He takes my arms and he holds onto them and waits for me to stop shaking and the thing in my throat is coming back up and I want to throw his stupid fucking backpack off the balcony because he’s dead and he doesn’t need his things anymore, and I pull my arms away and I look at his face and it’s still a surprise, an impossible joy, a miracle, and for a second I’m happy and I don’t trust anything in the world. I start to cry.
“I’m drunk,” I say in explanation.
He nods and we stand near the doorway until I catch my breath and hold it long enough to stop the stuttering sobs. The kind of crying you usually do when you’re a kid. When every sadness is so brilliant, magical, new.
“I gotta go, anyway. I’m burning daylight, kid. Don’t worry.” He pats my shoulder in that way of his. He tells me again not to worry.
“Now?” The wail turns into an anchor and I sink to the floor next to where he stands. He’s wearing ugly wide legged jeans that smell like dirty laundry. I lean against his leg. He pats my head with his hand and when I look up he smiles and I know the fight’s over. He picks up his bag and pauses.
“Don’t you wanna know why?”
I shake my head, no.
“Are you gonna go to the doctor?”
I nod my head, yes.
“Should we talk about anything else before I leave?”
I shake my head.
“Okay. Can I have a hug?”
I stand up and we hug. We never really did that when he was alive. It’s not a long hug and his body doesn’t feel like anything. The anchor lifts, it spread through my body and downdowndown through my fingers. I don’t have a word for it, but it’s something like regret and yearning and it fills me completely. He turns and he opens the door and he walks through it. I close it after him and he’s gone.
Later I sit on the balcony and sober up with the darkening sky. I think about a girl somewhere in Portugal who loved Jer after two days and who will probably never know he’s dead. She’ll carry around the possibility of him, and he’ll surface in her dreams whenever she feels doubt. She’ll wake feeling better, and she’ll wonder what he’s doing in that moment, and she’ll hope for something good. I imagine a million of her into existence. The stars above me blur, their light stretching out across the years. Eventually I find my way to the couch and I fall into a long sleep.