Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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The day begins with a dream: A tsunami is coming, and my brother and I are gathering our belongings. We don’t need to speak; we make a good team. After we’re done, I go back for something, while my brother remains in the street. When I return, he is gone. He has left without me. A panicky dread crawls into my intestines, and I find it hard to breathe. How will we find each other? I sit on his old leather trunk, fold my hands in my lap, and wait as the darkness creeps in around me.
I awake from the dream alone, feeling sore and tired. The midmorning sun floods the New York studio apartment I share with my boyfriend, who’s already left for work. On the bedside table is a card with a picture of a sunflower on it. Inside, my mother has written in her elegant cursive: “Decide to wake up each day with a smile.” Each word is underlined individually. It takes courage, I think, for a mother to write that after her son — my brother — has committed suicide.
It is the first week of classes for me, a surreal expanse of time in which the days have too many hours. As in a dream, I do everything in slow motion: I nurse my glass of orange juice; I wander the apartment while brushing my teeth; I flip through my boyfriend’s CDs, looking in vain for some music to enliven me. I can no longer listen to my own CDs, just as I can no longer think of anything related to my childhood or former life in Los Angeles. I pause before the loose photos of my brother I keep by the bed. His shy smile is so real it hurts. I turn them face down, knowing I will turn them face up again later.
In the shower I try not to think of my dream, which is still clear in my memory. While I’m washing my hair, my boyfriend calls from work to check on me and leaves a message: “Good luck today, my love.”
In the elevator I feel the now-familiar tightening in my stomach that I can’t will away. I hold my breath as I step outside into the biting cold of January in New York City. The wind burns my lips and cheeks, and my legs feel as if I haven’t walked in a long time. Snow covers trash-can lids and fills the gutters. My throat constricts, and I command myself to breathe slowly. In my head is a running commentary that will not shut up. It really happened, it says. There will be good days, and there will be bad days. And you will be here for both.
On the subway to the health clinic I hear a crackle over the intercom and then a fuzzy voice: there is an emergency on the train ahead of ours, and we will be held up momentarily. Several people shift their feet and frown. Others remain motionless, as if time has frozen. Good days and bad days. Sometimes a small thing, like a delayed train, is enough to change a day from good to bad, to open a space for the thoughts to sweep in: I am not getting anywhere. I’ve accomplished nothing. I can’t even do the simplest things anymore. Two months after my brother’s suicide, and this is where I am. I don’t even recognize myself. But today is going to be a good day, I think. At least I’m not in the train that has the emergency.
“And why are we here today getting blood tests?” the nurse at the health clinic asks. I’m amazed he can’t tell by looking at me. I feel as if my grief were visible on my skin.
“I’ve been having a lot of stomachaches lately,” I say, pushing up my sleeves. I have felt eviscerated without my brother.
“For how long?”
As the needle goes in, I look down at my feet, dangling like a child’s. Even good memories hurt — like when my brother and I got our fingers pricked at the doctor’s and then got lollipops. I always wanted whatever flavor he picked.
“Family history of irritable bowels or stomach problems?”
I nod, still holding my belly. I’m hoping he doesn’t touch it with cold hands, and that I don’t start crying. I give a urine sample and feel the last of my dignity drain out into the cup. Grief is physical. It is phlegm and snot, vomit and tears, for months on end.
“Goodbye now,” the receptionist calls cheerfully, and I am glad to be outside, where I can sit in peace and breathe.
Today I don’t pick up my course syllabuses, buy books for classes, fill out registration forms, or get answers to my student-loan questions. I fall asleep in the computer lab, exhausted. In class I choose a seat at the back of the room. (The old me always sat in front.) The thought of writing a thesis when I can barely get dressed in the morning is unbearable. I am overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar faces, and I fear people’s questions. I am no liar, no actress; I don’t know how to hide pain. When we go around the room to introduce ourselves, I recall the girl I was, who would have spoken proudly of her accomplishments.
On the way home, I stop to get spices for dinner, but when I get back I see I already have those spices. I keep the new ones in their bag with the receipt so I can return them tomorrow. (Somehow I will end up throwing the bag away, and when I discover this, I will rage and cry all out of proportion.)
Then it’s time for my daily talk with my parents on the other side of the country. I reflect on my day: How much it hurt to get on the elevator, and how I held my breath as it descended. How I waited until the last moment before class began to step through the doorway. How yesterday I’d been eager for spring to arrive, but today winter felt right.
“I think I’ve had a good day,” I say to them sincerely.
“You know,” my mother says, her voice even with mine, “I think your father and I had a good day, too.”