Some identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.
The receptionist knew who you were the moment I said your name.
“Oh, him,” she said. “He doesn’t have a stone yet.”
She opened a drawer, extracted a photocopied map of the cemetery, and used a neon-yellow highlighter to draw the route to your grave in section 38. I thanked her and wondered how many times she’d given those same directions in the two months since your death.
I got in my car and stared at a man operating a gas-powered leaf blower in the exit lane. I sat there paralyzed, afraid my car’s tires would mess up his neat pile of leaves. I imagined you saying, Just drive past him, Scotto. What the fuck are you waiting for?
The man made a face at me like: You got a problem? I shifted into reverse, made a herky-jerky 180, and left through the lot’s entrance, my heart pounding. I turned onto the cemetery road and gripped the steering wheel with suddenly sweaty hands, staring into the rearview mirror until the man was out of sight — at which point I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at myself. It took so little to overwhelm me. Because of my neurodivergent mind, I struggle with new experiences, regardless of their severity: I’d never before received a sudden glare from a man with a leaf blower, so my brain went into fight-or-flight mode.
A few weeks before visiting your grave, I’d had a long talk with my doctor, who’d said I was “almost definitely autistic” and then referred me to a specialist for confirmation. It was a relief to understand why every social task — from giving a class lecture to saying hello to someone — was incredibly difficult and draining for me. But it was also a bummer to realize that these difficulties were probably permanent. I’d always hoped life would get easier once I’d mastered how to act.
Since childhood I had made a concerted effort to memorize every normal-seeming behavior I encountered. When interacting with people, I would reach into my memory for specific examples of how to talk and act, and I would try to copy those examples. I got good at it, having built up an enormous number of memories to pull from, but the performance never became habit. I had to think hard about every gesture and phrase to make sure I wasn’t being weird. This was exhausting. And I still annoyed people when I got overexcited. I still got crushing nerves when I had to do anything social. I still misread other people’s intentions. The only thing that changed for me was that I learned to use alcohol to turn off my head. As you know, since you were there, I was drunk for my entire twenties. I loved living this way, but as I aged, the hangovers got more brutal, the blackouts more frequent, and it became apparent that I’d die if I didn’t make a change. So I quit drinking.
Then I started again. Then I quit again. Then I started again.
This went on for years.
I was too nervous to take your advice and go to AA, so I talked to therapists. They said I was anxious and depressed and gave me medications, which calmed me down slightly but had horrible side effects: diarrhea, teeth grinding, numb arms, an intense desire to die. The therapists encouraged me to talk about my past and how I’d been raised. Finally I told one therapist I didn’t think this was about my past. It was about my present. “My brain is doing something to itself,” I said. The therapist validated this feeling, but the exchange didn’t lead anywhere.
Eventually I realized that my issues were difficult to uncover because for my whole life I’d been concealing how atypical I was — not just from others but also from myself. And I still didn’t know what condition I was hiding. I read about schizophrenia, sociopathy, psychopathy, and bipolar disorder. None of them seemed like what I had. It took me forever to look into autism, because I didn’t think autistic people could do well in school and hold down a job, like I had. I might never have looked into it if my wife hadn’t sheepishly pointed out that I had a lot in common with the autistic girl on the TV show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.
Reading about adults who had learned to mask their autism felt like reading about myself, but I couldn’t get an official diagnosis because my insurance didn’t cover the cost of a specialist, and I couldn’t afford seven hundred dollars for one session, let alone the multiple sessions needed to diagnose me. I called the autism center at the university where I worked, but their wait list was almost two years long. I called a half dozen mental-health practices near my home in rural Virginia and left voice mails that nobody returned. Maybe it had something to do with COVID. Or maybe nobody at these places could help with my particular issues. Or maybe it was somehow obvious from my voice mails that I was wrong about myself. For all I knew, the many similarities between my inner life and the inner lives of high-functioning autistic people were nothing more than that: similarities.
Driving ten miles per hour through the rolling, gravestone-covered hills, I imagined you listening to these thoughts and saying, I always thought you were a little retarded. Against my will I pictured you tapping your wrist spastically against your chest while rolling your eyes up into your head and slurring, I’m J.P. Scotto. I’m J.P. Scotto.
I strolled among the headstones in section 38 until I spotted a patch of grassless dirt. Beside it a wrought-iron stand displayed a laminated piece of paper with your name and dates of birth and death on it. You were fourteen days younger than me, and today fell in the two-week period when we weren’t the same age. I’d just turned thirty-five, and you never would.
“Hey, man,” I said.
This felt stupid.
Your plot had almost no decorations. Someone had left a cylindrical red candle. That was it. I started to step onto your dirt rectangle but pulled my foot back because I didn’t know if it was disrespectful.
I wondered if your corpse still resembled you or had turned ghoulish. Your torso was definitely a mess of sewn-up postmortem incisions. Maybe your toes still had hair on them. I smirked, remembering the guy on your college football team who’d said you had “wolverine feet.”
Then I thought: It’s been a couple of months. Does he even have skin anymore?
I could have googled it, but I didn’t want to know.
You’d donated most of your organs, so the body in your coffin was basically a scarecrow version of you. I liked knowing that living people might be seeing through your corneas and passing urine through your kidneys and exercising with your heart. Thank God they don’t do brain transplants, I thought. Anybody who’d gotten your brain would’ve woken up from surgery a total asshole.
I heard you laughing at this. I could remember your laugh really well. It was a letdown that I could hear it only in my head.
None of these thoughts felt emotional or meaningful enough. They felt kind of regular. I was holding in a fart because I didn’t want to fart on your grave. I considered telling you I was angry at you for abusing your body until you died young, but then I thought better of it. You’d loved drugs. It was who you were. It was useless to want people to be anything but who they were.
I thought about apologizing for missing your funeral. The excuse I’d given everyone was that I couldn’t bear to see you in a coffin, but that was a lie. The truth was the social dynamics would’ve stressed me out, and I probably would’ve had a few drinks to shut my head off, and I didn’t want to do that, especially because during our last phone conversation — which came after your final stint in rehab — you’d encouraged me once more to try AA. The last time I’d had a drink was on your last day alive. I’d been on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and gotten into a shouting match with my mother-in-law. I would’ve been able to avoid the argument if I’d been sober. Since then, every time I thought of drinking, I remembered you telling me to go to meetings, and that helped me fight the urge.
I paced around and wondered if I should just leave. I noticed that the plot near your feet was occupied by a man named Spike who’d died in 1990, when you and I were just three years old. I liked that his name was Spike. Who the hell is named Spike? I took a picture of his headstone and sent it to my wife, who responded with a GIF of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wished she were with me. Telling her stories about you while standing at your grave might have been cathartic.
A breeze blew, and my ears got cold. I pulled my sweatshirt’s hood over my head and stuffed my hands into the pockets. The morning sun hit the autumn leaves just right. The tree branches wobbled. Everything was quiet and safe and beautiful. I decided to walk around and read the graves of people from bygone eras. I thought about them milking cows and going off to war and being miserable and racist. I thought about how different the world had been for them and how different the world would be for the weird, sad people who would wander around here in a hundred years, looking at your grave and Spike’s and being intrigued that you and he had lived back in that destructive age of plastic and gas. I thought about all the bones underneath me. The only real difference between my bones and those of the dead was that mine were still getting carted around by some magical meat.
Damn, I thought, I love this.
I decided to come here every time I was in town, so I could feel confused about what to say to you and enjoy looking at old graves.
I found a small section of gravestones with recent death dates. One had a picture of a BMW carved into it. Another had a framed photo of a man in a sailor’s uniform. When I came across the graves of people born after me, I took out my phone and googled them to see how they’d died. One boy had died at seventeen of an asthma attack. Another at twenty of a gunshot wound to the leg. Some obits were vague about cause of death but then said to donate money to opioid-recovery programs in lieu of flowers.
I called my wife because I felt lonely. I told her the graveyard was beautiful and tranquil, but when I’d stood by your rectangle of dirt, I’d felt nothing special. “I wish I’d brought something for him,” I said. My wife suggested I bring a poker chip next time so you could gamble in the afterlife. I laughed. My wife had never met you, but she knew from my stories that you loved to play cards.
I asked how things were going in Virginia. She told me she planned to jog with the dog, and the chickens were free-ranging in the yard. I told her I missed her and couldn’t wait to come home. She said she missed me, too. We talked for a while about this and that, until I stopped paying close attention to what I was saying and just flowed along comfortably without worrying I would say something wrong. I could really only get into that headspace with my wife, because she knew I was weird and didn’t judge me for it.
When I hung up, I was standing at your grave. I’d wandered back to it without thinking. I looked at Spike’s headstone and said, “Well, Spike, your new neighbor is a fucking handful.” Then I walked onto your rectangle and stood on top of you. I thought about the last time we’d gotten drunk together, at a bar in our hometown. When some old high-school classmates showed up and said hello, you bragged that I taught at a famous university. Nobody in town knew this because I had no social-media presence and no hometown friends. Some people were surprised because they thought of me as a shy jock, not someone who could teach college, but you knew better. You knew I had a capable mind even if I had — especially as a teenager — an awkward energy.
The evening of drinking was a blur. We sat on bar stools and leaned toward each other and argued about the fate of the human race. You kept saying Trump had good ideas, and I kept calling you a stupid fucking idiot. Eventually your wife joined us, and we competed to make her laugh. At some point she took a picture of us smiling drunkenly. Five years later she would text me that picture in the middle of the night, not forty-eight hours after your death, and I’d be stunned by how young we looked.
We never got drunk together again. We were both alcoholics, and I had to get away from you and people like you to save my own life. You went in another direction and landed in jails and rehabs and finally six feet under where I was now standing and thinking about you in Miss Guldbrandsen’s seventh-grade social-studies class. You kept raising your hand to ask or answer questions, which I never had the courage to do. I marveled at your willingness to say what was on your mind. I still do. I go through life afraid, full of things I want to say but unsure of when and how to say them.
A woman was pushing a double stroller along the cemetery road. I thought maybe it was your wife and sons coming to see you, but then I remembered that the boys were probably too big for a stroller now.
I needed to leave. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, and it was time I got back to my parents.
“All right,” I said. “I’m here for you. I know you’re down there, and I know you’re not. I know both things are true. I love you. I love you.”
It felt good to say, “I love you,” twice because we never said that to each other in life. There’d been no gap between thinking it and speaking it. Usually I plan out what I’m going to say and make revisions to be sure it doesn’t sound too stupid. It was refreshing to remove that filter.
Before I could start criticizing myself for being corny, I walked briskly back to my car and fired up the engine. Then I sat there, still waiting for something to happen, something to tell me that your death was real and I was living in a world that didn’t contain you. I wanted to feel something more. I started crying, which was a small relief.
I put the car in drive and crept forward, sniffling and wiping my wet cheek with my shoulder. A woman was walking a beagle, an elderly couple tottering behind her. The man in the couple was wearing a Tennessee Titans hat, and I thought, Who wears a Titans hat in Upstate New York? I laughed because I could imagine you wearing a random team like that. It reminded me of how, after your death, I’d found a series of TikToks you’d posted in 2019 while stoned and listening to music. In one video you were wearing a Rams hat and mouthing along to the chorus of “I Will Always Love You” while driving. You were trying to be funny, but you were so high you seemed insane.
I took a right. And then another right. And another. I was circling section 38.
I drove around it three times and parked again, close to your grave.
I didn’t like what I’d said to you. It wasn’t powerful enough. I wanted to say something that would float down into your decaying brain meat, something that your spirit would feel.
I thought, What the fuck is a spirit?
I thought, Where the hell did you go?
Did your essence reside in that dirt, or was it loose in the universe, all around me and inside me and inside everyone — less mean now, purer and kinder, unpolluted by your body’s needs, free from whatever horrible childhood experiences had made you such a bully?
I remembered stumbling down a street with you in Queens, drunk on sake in the middle of the night. You wrapped your arm around my shoulder and hissed into my ear, “I’ve broken all ten commandments, Scotto.” I told you to shut the fuck up, and you said, “It’s true.” I thought about whether you could have killed someone. You always said you brought a baseball bat along when collecting money from people who owed you. Had you ever beaten someone to death with it? My face must’ve shown my concern, because you busted out laughing and pointed at me.
Even now I didn’t know if you were joking. I pressed my forehead against the steering wheel.
“You’re a stupid fucking retard,” I said to myself. I wanted to hear you in the insult, but I heard only me.
I sobbed for a minute. This experience was new, and new is always hard for me. I hate change, and therefore I hate death. I hate birth, too. Honestly I wish I could be crystallized inside a single day in middle school, watching you raising your hand in social studies, neither of us having ever had a drink.
But in the world nothing was crystallized. Everything rose and crumbled over and over. Shapes shifted. Buildings burned. Creatures emerged from the ashes ugly and hungry and ready to fight. A memory hit me: Eleventh grade, after football practice, we all went to a restaurant that sold twenty-five-cent wings. On the car ride there you told me a story about two gay clowns sixty-nining. Later, while eating chicken wings with our teammates, I kept repeating your clown story, trying to communicate how funny your delivery had been and getting really excited about it. Finally you cut me off: “Jesus, J.P.,” you said, “you’re fucking obsessed with me.” Everyone stopped eating and looked at us. “If you want to suck my dick,” you said, “feel free, you stupid faggot.” Everybody laughed, and I tried to play it off, but you continued: “Guys, I bet I can get Scotto to suck my dick right here in front of everyone. I think he has a crush on me.”
I was surrounded by cackling hyenas.
Fine, I thought, sitting in my car at the cemetery, I was obsessed with you. You excited me. You were funny. You said things I couldn’t say. Fuck you. I’m obsessive. It’s how I am. Fuck. I’m sorry.
Thinking about you being mean to me somehow made me miss you even more. Most people danced around my being weird, looked at me aslant, waited for me to calm down. You called it out. Sure, you did it in the shittiest way possible, but it was still an acknowledgment that I rarely got.
I couldn’t leave you with I love you. The words were sweet, but they weren’t the conduit I needed them to be. I wanted to give you something better, on the off chance you had a spirit and it was there in the cemetery.
I got out of the car and returned to your grave. I knelt and kissed my palm and genuflected. The grass was hard under my knee. I pressed my palm onto your rectangle of dirt. The earth was hard and frigid. I didn’t allow myself to indulge any thoughts, just held my hand there and gazed at a thick tree. If words tried to come to mind, I quickly wiped them away. I wanted it to be just me and your body and the dirt between us. I stayed like that for maybe ten seconds. Then my mind began to overflow with things I refused to say, and I got up and hustled to my car. I followed the receptionist’s neon-yellow directions back to the main office, where the leaf-blower man was gone and a gigantic iron gate stood open, a massive threshold that led to Route 16W, just a regular old road in the land of the living.