Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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When Chris died it was a shock. No one had ever really died before, although everyone in his group of friends had almost died at least a couple of times. Like on drunken drives through Old San Marcos Pass, where if your car’s engine dies, you’ll roll off a cliff before you have time to start it up again. Or diving at Red Rock: Chris was the first to jump off that tall, narrow rock into that tiny pool of water. If he had drifted to one side or the other, he’d have landed splat on the pink sandstone. Once, Peter Smitz hit his head on the bottom. He was paralyzed for a while, but not dead.
So when Chris fell off the back of Mickey Rolf’s truck and died, it just seemed so weird. Mickey was driving through our nice, clean neighborhood, down the smooth gray streets, with Chris and his dog, Kayan, sitting up in back, and the next thing he knew Chris was gone. At first, Mickey thought Chris had jumped out to fool him. But the dog was gone, too. So Mickey drove back the way he came, observing the twenty-mile-per-hour speed limit, he said, until he saw Chris lying on the pavement with Kayan licking his head. The blood was running into the gutter, where it mixed with some foamy water from someone washing his car up the street.
Actually, Chris didn’t die right away. He was in a coma. They took him to Cottage Hospital and put him in intensive care. No one was allowed to visit him except his family, but his friends gathered at the hospital anyway, hanging out in the hallway, crying, and hugging each other. They gave his parents cards and presents to put in his room for when he woke up. His mother went on about how happy she was that “the gang” was all there. She praised God that we were all OK and asked us to pray for Chris.
Chris’s girlfriend, Hannah, and I have been friends since junior high. Last year, when Chris died, we were best friends. Since Hannah had started dating Chris, she’d gotten involved with all the popular kids, and I, by association, was almost popular; I’m way too fat to be really popular.
Hannah loved Chris more than her own family. Of course, she hates her mother and thinks her brother is a loser, and her stepfather, the doctor, makes her clip his toenails at the breakfast table. She always said she would die for Chris, and she would have. She was that much in love. Mrs. Lunt, Chris’s mother, loved Hannah because Hannah always helped her with the housework and helped Chris with his homework. (Really, Hannah just did it for him while Chris alphabetized his CDs or read High Times.) She also loved that Hannah’s stepdad is a doctor. Chris’s dad is a vet, but you can tell that Mrs. Lunt thinks doctors are better than vets. She wanted Chris to be a doctor.
One night, while we were drinking Kool-Aid spiked with Everclear in the lemon orchard, Chris told Hannah and me that his mother said he should try to have dinner at Hannah’s house at least one night a week, because Hannah’s stepdad could help him get into medical school. We laughed about that really hard. Chris laughed the hardest of all. He wasn’t even planning to go to college. After graduation, he was going to move to Lake Tahoe and work on a fishing boat in the summer and the ski lifts in the winter. When you work the lifts, Chris told us, you get a free season pass. Hannah was a year younger than Chris and wanted to drop out of school and go to Tahoe with him. “Stay in school,” Chris told her. “Go to college; you’re smart.” But Hannah secretly planned to take the GED after our junior year and go with Chris.
About ten days after the accident, I was at the hospital with Hannah, and Mrs. Lunt asked us, “Do you want to go in and see him?” She’d invited Hannah in before, but this was my first time. We pulled back the thick white curtain that was Chris’s door — it made a sound like a shower curtain — and stepped inside. Chris was on his back. There were tubes in his arm and one up his nose. The white sheet was tucked under his armpits. He looked too thin; he had been bulky before — not fat, just bulky. His eyes were shut but his eyeballs were rolling back and forth under his closed lids. I was watching them, wondering what he was seeing, when suddenly his eyes popped open. I grabbed Hannah’s arm.
“He does that,” she said casually. “He just opens his eyes every now and then.”
His eyes were as blue as ever, but slick and glassy. He shut them again, and they continued roving under his lids.
“He has a tube in his penis,” Hannah whispered. She pulled down the sheet and showed me. I looked at his penis carefully. It was just lying there like it was dead or something. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a real penis. I wondered what Hannah was thinking; if she was thinking about sex, or just thinking how cruel it is to stick a tube up someone’s penis. Hannah sighed, tucked the sheet back under his armpits, and sat down in the chair by the head of the bed.
“Sit,” she said, and patted the chair beside her. I squeezed half my butt onto the chair with Hannah’s.
“Hey, Chris,” Hannah said, “get better, OK? I love you.” I could tell she was crying, and I didn’t want to look at her.
“Get better soon,” I said, “ ’cause if you don’t, I’m gonna have to take care of Hannah, and I really don’t want to do that.” Hannah laughed and wiped her nose with her finger.
“We’d better go,” she said. We stood up and she leaned over and kissed Chris on the cheek. “You can kiss him if you want,” she said.
“No, that’s OK,” I said. I had never kissed him when he was awake, so it seemed weird to sneak a kiss when he was asleep — or seemed to be.
The next Saturday, Hannah called and said that Mrs. Lunt was going to have a prayer session that night, and that we had to call everyone and tell them to be at the Lunts’ house at seven. Hannah read off a list of people, and I spent the next hour on the phone. I felt important making those calls. I wasn’t Chris’s girlfriend, but I was his girlfriend’s best friend, and I had been instructed by Chris’s mother, via Hannah, to organize a prayer session. This made me the third-closest person to Chris, after his family and Hannah, so I would be third-most traumatized if he died. People were really nice on the phone, as if they expected me to start crying or something. The guys actually talked with me, which they’d never done at school or at parties.
My mother baked some brownies for me to bring to the prayer session. I had never been to a prayer session before, and I worried the brownies would seem dumb and nerdy, like I thought it was a Girl Scout meeting or something. I was just going to leave them in the car and eat them myself — I’d already had three of them on the drive over — but at the last minute I grabbed the plate and carried it into the house. Mrs. Lunt held back tears when I handed her the brownies.
“Oh, God bless you,” she said, and she kissed me on the cheek.
“They’re from my mom,” I mumbled, but she didn’t hear; I was glad, because I secretly enjoyed getting all the credit.
It was exciting to be around so many popular kids. Watching them all arrive was like watching the celebrities walk down that red carpet before the Academy Awards. The surfers showed up in their VWs and Dodge Darts, with empty surfboard racks on top. A few football players drove up in trucks. The girls came in big groups, all crammed into someone’s mother’s car, sitting on each other’s laps. Jeremy Vance pulled up in his parents’ mobile home. He’s the smallest guy in school — tiny and wiry like a chimpanzee — and he drives the biggest car. It’s got two beds, a dining table, and a kitchenette. The girls all love him because he’s funny and a good artist. The guys all love him because it’s like he has his own apartment or something. He just parks the mobile home at the beach or in the mountains, and everyone goes there to party. The guys get drunk and pass out in the beds, and the girls cook in the kitchen — gooey cakes or chocolate-chip cookies with double the chips.
At the Lunts’, Jeremy double-parked the mobile home in the middle of the street and left the front door open — “in case anyone wants to go in there for a private cry session,” he told me later.
When everyone had arrived, Hannah and Chris’s brother and sister began handing out xeroxed copies of songs and prayers. “Do you want me to hand those out for you?” I asked Hannah. “No,” she said, which sort of bummed me out. I wanted everyone to know I was a Lunt-family insider and not just a guest.
Mrs. Lunt said to Hannah, “See if you can get everyone to stand in a circle out on the patio.”
I hopped up from my chair and announced, “Could everyone please stand in a circle on the patio!” Then I went into Chris’s room, where a bunch of guys were hanging out, looking at his things. “Could you guys come out to the patio?” I said. They jumped up and obeyed as if I were the queen.
I peeked my head in the doorway of Jeremy’s mobile home. Three guys and two girls were in there smoking a joint. “Hey,” I said, “could you guys come out to the patio? We’re forming a circle for the prayers.”
“Yeah, sure,” they said, and Jeremy smashed the roach into the sink.
When everyone was on the patio, Mrs. Lunt thanked us for coming. Mr. Lunt bowed his head to hide the fact that he was crying. Mrs. Lunt wasn’t crying, though. In fact, she sort of glowed as if some spirit had possessed her. She talked about God and the power of prayer, and then her voice choked a bit. She coughed, smiled, and said, “Let’s start by holding hands.”
I suddenly realized that I was standing between Sharon Lee and Rudy Downs, the two least popular people there. Hannah was holding Chris’s brother’s hand on one side and Jeremy’s on the other. Damn, I thought. Why didn’t I get next to Hannah?
Mr. Lunt closed his eyes, and then Mrs. Lunt dropped her head and begged Jesus to save Chris because his work on earth wasn’t finished yet. She told Jesus that Chris was going to become a doctor and heal the sick and do God’s work. I felt bad that it wasn’t true. To myself, I prayed that Chris would get better because Hannah loved him and because he made me laugh.
When Mrs. Lunt was done, everyone said amen, and there was some sniffing; a few people had started to cry. “Would anyone else like to lead a prayer?” Mrs. Lunt asked.
I looked to see if Hannah would say anything. She was still holding Chris’s brother’s hand, even though almost everyone else had dropped hands. When no one spoke up, Mrs. Lunt said, “OK, let’s start our song book.”
Everyone picked up their xeroxes, and I cursed myself, thinking, I should have said a prayer. I should have been a prayer leader. I decided that I would say a prayer at the end — one that would make everyone cry, and Mrs. Lunt would walk over and hug me.
I belted out the first song so that everyone would know that I really wanted Chris back: “There is a season, turn, turn, turn . . .” Sharon Lee and Rudy Downs on either side of me were just mouthing the words, and I got mad at them: Why’d you come if you’re not really going to sing?
There were a few more songs, then some prayers that everyone read together, then a couple more songs, and then Mrs. Lunt said, “Does anyone want to say anything before we break the circle?”
Mickey Rolf took a step forward. Everyone was hushed because they knew how hard this had been for Mickey. He’d been so upset that he’d stayed home from school the week following the accident, and he’d barely spoken to anyone since he came back.
“I think about Chris every minute of every day,” Mickey said. “I keep thinking that if I’d taken a different road, or if I’d told him he couldn’t bring Kayan in the truck, or if I just hadn’t picked him up at his house that afternoon, he’d be all right today. No matter how I look at it, it seems to be my fault and . . . and . . . I would give my own life to have him pull out of this.”
Then Mickey started bawling, and Mrs. Lunt wrapped her arms around him. When Mickey raised his head from Mrs. Lunt’s shoulder and saw Mr. Lunt standing behind her, he wailed so hard that everyone else started crying, too. I was crying and wiping my nose with the linen handkerchief my mother had given me, but all the while thinking that Mickey had just ruined my chance to say a prayer that would drive everyone to tears.
People went inside, where there were potato chips, coffeecake, carrot and celery sticks, the brownies I’d brought, and a big bowl of punch with a ladle, like at a school dance. I wanted to eat a big piece of coffeecake, but I was too embarrassed to do it in front of everyone, so I rushed behind the table and began ladling punch into cups. Mrs. Lunt put her hand on mine and said, “You and Hannah are quite a team.” I smiled, and continued pouring punch until there were about twenty full cups on the table.
After that, I didn’t know what to do. Hannah was sitting on the piano bench with Mickey. They were both crying, and he had his arms around her. People seemed to be waiting in line to talk to Mrs. or Mr. Lunt. Jeremy was sitting on the couch alone, so I went and sat next to him. “God, Taffy,” he said, “I’m really sorry. I know that you spent a lot of time with Chris ’cause of Hannah, and . . . well, I’m just really sorry.” He patted my knee, and I started to cry. I was scared because it felt like I was out of control. I was so sad that I just didn’t know what to do. Jeremy put his arms around me and I sobbed into his chest. Honestly, at that moment, I didn’t even care if no one noticed that Jeremy was comforting me.
When people started leaving, I helped Hannah and Mrs. Lunt clean up. Then Mrs. Lunt was overcome with emotion, and she sat down on the couch. Hannah was starting to crack, too. “Go sit down,” I told her. I finished cleaning up by myself, trying not to look at them on the couch. It didn’t bother me that they weren’t helping. I needed something to do. There was a brownie and some coffeecake left over, but I was too sad to eat, and so just slid them into the trash.
Walking to my car, I passed Jeremy’s mobile home. The curtains were open and a bunch of people were in there — the surfers, the really tan and thin girls. I knew that after what had happened, I could easily join them. But I felt kind of sick with sadness, so I just listened to their muted voices through the aluminum walls, then went home.
Alone, in my bedroom, I buried my head in my pillow, but I couldn’t even force out a sob. There was a painful lump in my throat, as if I had swallowed too much peanut butter and couldn’t get it down. I thought of things to make myself cry: Chris and Hannah holding hands at school, the way Chris’s silver fillings flashed when he laughed. But the more I tried, the less I felt like crying. Finally, I gave up and went downstairs to the kitchen, where I stood with the freezer door open and ate butter-pecan ice cream straight from the carton without a spoon. I ate until my finger went numb and ached to the bone.
Exactly a month after the accident, Hannah called me around ten at night and said, “Will you come with me to the hospital to visit Chris?”
“Of course,” I said.
Hannah picked me up in her car, a red Saturn her parents had given her on her sixteenth birthday. We sang along quietly to the radio. Hannah pulled a cigarette from her Mexican basket purse, and I lit it for her using the silver lighter that Chris had bought her. Hannah kept that lighter on the center of her dashboard, where some people have a Jesus or a Mary to protect them from accidents.
When we got to the hospital, Chris had been moved to a different room, one with a door. Mr. and Mrs. Lunt were sitting in the hall, and Mr. Lunt smiled and told us to go on in.
Hannah immediately went to Chris’s side and kissed him on the cheek. He was much thinner than the last time I’d seen him. His face had shrunk and his collarbones were popping out. His hair was getting long, with fluffy curls like little clouds around his face. The room was full of flowers, stuffed animals, cards, and half-deflated balloons. While Hannah talked to Chris, I looked around for the card I’d given him. I found it behind a coffee mug with bears all over it that said, “I Can Bearly Stand A Day Without You.” I pulled the card out of the envelope — it was unopened — and set it in front of the mug. On the front was a drawing of a dog in a hospital bed with a thermometer in its mouth. Underneath it, I had written, “Kayan.” Inside, it said, “Get Well Soon, Dog-gone It!” I had added, “Chris, it’s been so great getting to know you this year!! You’re one of the coolest guys in school, and I hope we can be friends forever!! Get better quick ’cause Hannah is driving me crazy without you!!! Love ya. Taffy.”
“Do you want to come talk to him?” Hannah asked.
His eyes were open and looked faded and phlegmy, the whites sort of yellow, and the blue sort of gray. I waited until he shut them again, and then I leaned down and whispered, “Chris, you fucking better get better soon. This has gone on long enough.”
When I was that close, I could smell him. He smelled a little like the dead birds my cat always leaves in the garden. It made my stomach turn, but I kissed Chris on the cheek, anyway, because after all that had happened I felt like we were friends, even more than we had been before the accident.
I went out in the hall to leave Hannah alone with Chris for a few minutes. Mr. Lunt was honking into a yellowed handkerchief, and Mrs. Lunt was smiling as if she’d had a lobotomy or something.
“I’m sure he’ll be OK,” I said.
“God bless you, Taffy,” Mrs. Lunt said, and she hugged me.
Hannah left the radio off on the drive home. She smoked and talked about how she was thinking about dropping out of school to be with Chris anyway, even though they probably wouldn’t be moving to Tahoe this summer. I told her I’d drop out with her, if it would make her happy.
When I got home, my parents were already in bed. I ate a bowl of peanut-butter Cap’n Crunch and watched Jay Leno. He wasn’t halfway through his monologue when the phone rang. It was Hannah.
“Chris is dead,” she said.
“But we just saw him.”
“Mrs. Lunt just called me from the hospital,” Hannah said. “He died a minute after we left.”
“Oh, my God,” I said. “That’s so weird.” I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel anything. I was just thinking about what people would say at school, how the story would be that Hannah and I had visited Chris late at night, and he’d died a minute after we left.
Everyone who came to the prayer circle was at the funeral, along with all of Chris’s relatives. Hannah’s mother and stepdad came, and my mother, and a lot of the teachers from school. It was strange to see everyone all dressed up. I wore one of my mother’s dresses, made of black silk with purple pansies and a sash around the waist. I thought it made me look thinner, but no one said anything, not even Mom, who usually notices those things. Jeremy Vance was about ten minutes late because he had to park his mobile home outside the cemetery — the road was too twisty and narrow — and it took him forever to walk from the street. Mickey Rolf came with both his parents. He cried the whole time, and his mother stroked his head like a baby’s. His father turned his face away and stared into the distance every time Mickey laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Hannah sat in between her mother and her stepfather and didn’t talk to anyone, including me.
The minister spoke for a few minutes, then said, “The Lunt family has asked that anyone who wishes to say something about Chris come up and do so now.” I didn’t even consider going up. It didn’t seem to matter anymore if everyone thought I was in the Lunt-family inner circle or not.
When it was over, Hannah’s parents whisked her away to the car, where, Hannah told me, she threw up next to the tire.
After the funeral everyone went to the Lunts’ house. It was crowded at first, and then a big group of kids left to go to the Smashing Pumpkins concert. “Chris would have wanted us to go,” they all said.
A couple of girls from school said Chris was “in a better place.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I said, and walked away.
Everyone was talking about how me and Hannah were the last ones to see Chris, but after a while, it just didn’t seem that important.
Hannah stayed home from school the next week. I had no one to sit with at lunch, so Jeremy Vance invited me to have lunch with him and his friends. The first day, I said no, because I didn’t want him to see all the food that I had packed in my lunch bag. But the rest of the week, I put yogurt and fruit in my lunch to eat with Jeremy. Between classes, I scarfed down my real lunch — two ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a Coke, and a row of Oreos — that I had hidden in my locker.
For a couple of days, it was exciting to eat with the popular group. Everyone asked how Hannah was and told me to tell her they said hi. But by the end of the week I just missed Hannah — and Chris, too — and I could tell no one looked at me any differently; I was still just Fat and Friendly Taffy Smyth.
A couple of weeks later, I was walking home from school when I saw Mrs. Lunt pull up at my house in her silver Cadillac. She got out and waited for me in my driveway. For some reason I felt like crying.
“Hey, Mrs. Lunt,” I said.
“I brought you a present,” she said, and she held out a paperback Bible with a picture of happy teenagers on the front.
“Thanks,” I said, looking down at the cover so she wouldn’t see my lip shaking.
“It’s just so strange,” she said, after a long pause. “You spend your whole life taking care of your children, taking care of your babies, doing everything you can to make them safe. And then one day they die anyway, and there’s nothing you could have done.”
I sniffed and wiped my eyes.
“You know,” she said, “Chris was going to be a doctor. He wanted to heal people. . . . Isn’t it ironic that the doctors couldn’t heal him?”
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s ironic.”
“His English teacher told me that he wrote a wonderful paper about origami. I had no idea Chris was interested in origami. Do you know what origami is?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Hannah’s into origami.”
I wanted to tell her that Hannah had written that paper. I could feel the words coming up my throat, insisting on leaving my mouth.
She said, “Hannah’s father told me that Chris would have made an excellent surgeon because he had such agile hands and thin fingers. Thin fingers — isn’t that interesting?”
I stopped sniffing and looked up from the Bible. “But he didn’t want to be a doctor,” I said. “He wanted to work the ski lifts in Lake Tahoe and ski all winter.”
Mrs. Lunt gave me a look like I’d just said there was no God.
“And he didn’t have thin fingers,” I said, rabid thoughts foaming in my brain. “He had big, bulky fingers.”
Mrs. Lunt blinked and put her hand to her throat. “Why are you saying this?” she asked. She blinked so hard that tears squeezed out of her eyes.
My heart was banging and my hands were clutching that Bible as if she were going to snatch it away from me. “Hannah wrote that paper about origami,” I blurted out. “She wrote all of his papers.”
Mrs. Lunt coughed out a little cry and said, “I think you need to read that Bible.” She pointed a quivering finger at the book and said, “Read it.” Then she got in her car and zoomed away.
I rushed into the house and lay on my bed with the Bible still in my hand and sobbed. For some reason, I thought of the time Chris got a carrot stuck in his nose. I thought of how, when he was drunk, he would pretend to dance like an Irishman. And I thought of when Chris and I had run out of gas in Hannah’s car on our way to pick her up from work. We’d hitchhiked the rest of the way to Shakey’s Pizza Parlour; he hid in the bushes while I stuck out my thumb and waited for a car. “People will always stop for a pretty girl,” he told me.
When I’d finished crying, I went downstairs, ate two bowls of Golden Grahams, and called Hannah.
“Mrs. Lunt gave me a Bible,” I said.
“Yeah,” Hannah said, “she gave me one, too — a Youth Bible.”
I said, “What’re you gonna do with it?”
Hannah said, “I dunno. Keep it, I guess.”
“Do you think she gave all of Chris’s friends a Bible?”
“No,” Hannah said, “I think just you and me.”
After we hung up, I put the Bible at an angle on my desk, like it was just lying there. I hoped that someone from school would stop by and see it and ask, “Do you read the Bible?”
“Nah,” I’d say. “It was a gift from Chris’s mom. She gave it to me a couple weeks after he died.”
“Cool,” they’d say.
“Yeah,” I’d say. “Cool.”
Jessica Anya Blau