You: campaigning your teacher to allow me to be the model for the life drawing class, even though since we both are students, it’s against university policy. You just want to see me naked, I say coyly, pleased when you blush. In a white tee shirt, peering at me from across the porch, asking what’s the deal with me and that guy I’m with sometimes. No deal, I grin. Standing in my kitchen at the Pearl Street house, in a grey hoodie, your long arm slung over my shoulder. A smell of coffee, and paint. To kiss you, I stretch up.
You, by your own description: tall, funny, and very serious. You: buried in the yellow pineapple print sweater. I think it’s kind of beautiful, that sweater, in a tragic way. Only 21 year olds can get away with being buried in something from Urban Outfitters.
Death is impossible when we are young, when we feel wide open and absurd, and rarely absolute. Things, feelings, whole selves change, and change again. Every outfit is a costume; every pose a temporarily held posture, looking for the right fit. Being young is having our whole lives to learn how to connect our own dots. It is trusting in the grace of time.
It also means not understanding any of that yet.
A heroin overdose, I cried to your roommate a few weeks after your funeral. Who just DOES heroin? You did. Nine years later, and I’m still pissed.
When I was 22 I knew what I was going to do with my life: write books, help women, fight oppression with poetry. I was a righteous activist, and a shameless flirt. My beauty products were pink lipstick, Manic Panic, and bike grease. You were lanky and creative, an artist, a skater. I remember your bathtub filled with bright rubber balls, left overs from an art project or a party, or both, and you, swimming in color.
Someone introduced me as Sarah, Feminist Poet Babysitter. How thrilling to be summed up so neatly – one day I'd drop the babysitting, and be a Feminist Poet. It was impossible to think I'd be anything else. I filled a lot of notebooks for many years, including the year you died. Each feeling or passing thought was dutifully documented in gory or boring detail. But here’s a secret: writing everything down doesn’t mean you’re a writer.
I drank a lot after you died. To read those notebooks is to become acquainted with a wreck: whisky at the Sundowner, homemade gin gimlets on the front porch, a bottle of wine in bed. (When you’re 22, every drink is your drink.) I wrote and I wrote, without saying anything at all. It took years to learn to truly speak; to pull the sadness from my body, like a long hair from the back of my throat.
Someone is knocking at the door. We’re kissing, in my bathroom at a house party; your hands are in my hair. You’d been following me around all night, poking your fingers into my side, sliding a hand around my waist, and I was pretending to be annoyed; but grinning, you were getting away with it. I still remember the surprise of my heart in my mouth, and the slight taste of tobacco on your tongue. How we giggled like kids, hands everywhere.
I can’t finish this paper, I said to a professor, angrily. His classes were my favorite, but the early part of the spring semester was a blur of sobbing, sleeping, and drinking. Writing papers seemed unfathomable. I had uneven bangs and a scowling baby face, indignant with grief. I was his favorite, too, and he took me to lunch, told me to finish my paper as he paid for my meal, and gave me a book. Written mostly for his dead wife Michiko Nogami, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert is a collection of beautiful poems that became my guide, and my guilt. You and I weren’t in love. But you no longer alive was the saddest thing I’d known.
In my late twenties, casually flipping through an astrology book about love, I’ll read that people born under my stars often have a thing for limbs, hands, the forearms. I will think of you and your long fingers, the sweetness of your palm, the purpled pull of a needle in your arm.
So many of the men I am attracted to taste a little like tobacco when I kiss them. There is something about the hands of these men, too, that connects them. Men who make, men who create. This past winter, sleeping in someone else’s bed, for the first time in years I dream of you. You were in the room, sitting in that sprawling way that tall boys do. Taking up space.
I’m not a strict believer in the stars, but the older I get the more I search for patterns. Connections are everywhere, or at least it comforts me to imagine that they are. Many of the men I’ve been romantically linked to are born in January or December. You were born in the fall, but died in December, on the longest night of the year, and I still after all this time see no pattern that appeases, cannot find any sense in those stars.
Here are the facts: finals were over. Christmas break was just beginning, and so were six-dollar pitchers of PBR at the Sundowner and endless games of pool. I flew home the day it snowed so much the busses stopped running, and the university closed for two days. The roads in town couldn’t be plowed fast enough, cars were sliding off the streets, the whole valley was quietly blanketed with thick white snow that floated down for days. I was two states away, showing your art to my mom, when a text appeared: I have to tell you something about Austin. The airport was closed for a week.
Our little town is fox colored and well behaved in the fall, red and gold by day, and inky blue by night, clear and crisp. I’m about to turn 23, which feels unimaginably sophisticated. We’d been drinking coffees in the evening, playing Mario Kart on the porch, but now we’re in motion, biking to the foothills. It’ll be too dark to hike by the time we get there, but it doesn’t matter. The point is to go somewhere, together. So here we are, two long legged friends on bikes, reckless and lovely, my dog Charlie running beside us on the pavement. You turn to look at me over your shoulder, and I am looking back.
More facts: you weren’t an addict. You were curious. Boredom, a blizzard, a bad idea. You weren’t alone, but someone left you. My heart twists when I think of the one who found you.
In your obituary, your father is quoted as saying he didn’t always understand your art, but he liked it. I still smile at the line about how you liked all your art classes: woodshop, sculpting, drawing, painting, ‘even poetry’.
From my place to yours was a 10 minutes on a bike, but I took a bus to your funeral, an hour on the A-B route, to the bleak Denver suburbs, where the ground was frozen and the sky was grey and your art school friends chain-smoked in trendy jackets. They were an affront to me: how dare they smoke here, how dare they show up here with their safety pinned jeans and awkward haircuts? My hair was flat ironed twice. I tried to look nice, worthy of something, but what exactly I’m still not sure. But when a kid dies, it is kids who show up to mourn.
It is difficult to imagine Jack Gilbert, a man who in photographs appeared composed and finely drawn, crawling on the floor, sobbing, searching for hairs of his dead wife, as he describes in one of my favorite poems, ‘Marriage’. But I believed him, because if he did it after the death of his beloved wife, then I could certainly do it after the death of my beautiful friend. It made me feel less alone in my sadness, but also ashamed by it, overwhelmed by its strength, the way I read and reread your text messages, the way I cried when I drank. The way I returned to my grief, again and again.
You were sometimes melancholy, occasionally quiet. I remember a sketch you did of your face, the quivering black lines on a white page, the dark whirling eyes.
Friends organized a memorial at Dot’s Diner after New Year’s. A person came, uninvited; there was a fight, someone got punched. It seems fair, even now, that there should be someone to blame, but the terrifying truth is sometimes people just die, and no one is ready.
A confession: I sometimes forget. I forget that you died, and I forget that you lived. I opened Facebook recently and went to your page, something I haven’t done in years, looking for proof of life. Did you exist? Do you still? What kind of lovely man did you grow into, what are you creating? Surely it’s me – I’m the one who left. Even the girl I was is gone, or morphed into someone different. It is impossible that you died, but it is also impossible that so much life has happened since.
It was a long time before I stopped thinking everyone I liked would die. I dated a guy who went ice climbing one weekend. THAT IS DANGEROUS I yelled. I was aggressively selfish. DO NOT DO THIS TO ME. He went, but because he had a maturity and an understanding of my emotions I did not yet have, he texted me sweet and mundane messages throughout the weekend. Lots of snow here. Erick forgot to bring toilet paper. Just saw a cool looking tree. Translation: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
The snow comes down the heaviest in the spring, but in the Rockies there’s a saying – if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes. Things change.
The April sun is warm and bright. There is a house party at your old place again, a good one. I dance until my hair sticks to my neck with sweat, and then in the bathroom, J takes the clippers to my head and gives me a buzz cut. All night, I let people touch their hands to my fuzzy scalp, as though I am being blessed, or am myself the blessing. I let my hair grow for years after that night. It suits me, my long hair. I wonder if you would like it.
Being young can feel like one full-bodied disaster after another, disasters that are rhapsodic and funny and terrible. I’m still young. My disasters are still happening, still undiscovered, still to be outlived. And when we are lucky, we live. The one who left you and the one who found you. Your parents. The too young to drink art students outside the funeral home - they have new fashion, quit smoking, learned new ways to be themselves. We get the grace of time.
In the end, there is no end. The tangle of grief swirls in and out. Patterns appear, and then disappear. I haven’t yet become the writer I thought I would be, but the ragged edges and anxieties of my early twenties rounded off into something smoother, something more content. You are a constellation – here, seen, there, unseen. I remember dancing with you in the living room at your house, and the lightness of your hands. You were so alive. I can’t explain how alive you were. I can’t write it. I couldn’t write you back into life then, and I can’t do it now. I only write this – that I can still hear you laughing, and I can see you looking at me. I’m looking back.
Sarah Lowe is an American writer and yoga teacher. She runs a small yoga studio in Shanghai, where she lives with a dog called Dog.