I still have the same sex fantasy about my dead friend that I had when she was alive. I try not to let it happen often, but when it does, she’s still super into it – toenails red, shaved here and there, happy to play in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. Before we remove ourselves from each other, we talk about what an awesome idea this was. We giggle and stuff. Our bodies are the bodies we had in twelfth grade – lithe and tireless. She glistens with a soft, damp sheen. The lights are all on. She doesn’t care that I’m not part of the cool group she usually hangs out with. None of it makes much sense.
Sometimes, when I’m done fantasizing, I apologize out loud.
I never make it past the sex part, but if the fantasy comes into my head when I’m doing other stuff and not horny enough to bother, I imagine that there’s no cleanup involved; she just pulls her jeans on and raids my parents’ fridge. Maybe we watch cartoons in the living room. The scene outside the window is gray and featureless. I have no idea where my parents are.
The first death in my high school class was the most popular girl. Or maybe she was just the one I liked best. She didn’t die until two years after we’d graduated, which wasn’t too long after the entire class had painted Virginia Beach red on our senior trip. Or maybe that’s just how we like to remember it. What I really remember is the car wash we put together to get us there.
The dead girl was the car wash’s bandleader. I didn’t know her well then, but she was the first to enlighten me on customer acquisition: put the three hottest girls in the class out by the road, waving big pink signs. I noticed that she didn’t nominate me. She didn’t nominate herself, either. She told me I was on rear bumper duty, and pointed to the butt of a gigantic green minivan we’d just started on. She turned, crouched over a twelve-gallon pail, and wrung beige water from a peanut-shaped sponge. She was wearing a blue tank-top, black shorts, and flip-flops. When she leaned into the bucket, balancing on her toes, the creases in the sole of her foot shifted, and I couldn’t look away. When I think about how alive she was, I see that fluid relief map of creases and valleys, a vortex of science and beauty that no one saw but me. Then her foot came down. Suds flecked her ankle. I wanted to blow them off.
I always tell people that she and I were the girls out by the road. Not because it means anything, but because I’m sure it’s more interesting to them than anything else I have to say.
We were sitting in the senior lounge one day, and a girl I knew, who is dead now, asked the dozen of us, “Has anyone here not seen me naked?”
No one raised a hand.
I remembered a big trip we took junior year, when the girls were all changing on the bus and the boys were trying to get good vantage points, but the light wouldn’t allow it. Later, another of the girls, a brainy but aggressively religious future Earth Science teacher, told me how shocked she’d been when our dead mutual friend had simply dropped all of her clothes.
She was what the religious girl would have called a “free spirit,” but she didn’t work her way through the entire class or anything like that. She’d had the same boyfriend since we’d met. When the date of her death comes every year, I sometimes forget that he died in the car with her.
I was a liar for not raising my hand, but I felt even guiltier for never having seen her in the nude. Now, I wonder how full of shit everyone else was.
Once, at a bonfire, I took a photo of the girl who saved me. This was before I thought about her that way. It was also back when my parents fought and I spent evenings flipping a razorblade between my fingers instead of doing homework.
She’d just taken a long swash of beer and shoved some guy I didn’t recognize away, her palm flattened against his chest.
“Hey K–,” I said. “Smile.”
She seemed annoyed and slightly weirded out.
I asked her to the senior prom over the phone. Without pausing, she said, “I would, but I’m going with my boyfriend.” I borrowed a tux from my dad, feeling small in it, adrenaline shuddering through me, and showed up alone. She arrived in a green spaghetti-strap dress, her arm linked through her man’s. She smiled and touched me on the shoulder. When she got a minute away from him, she asked me to snap a good shot of her in front of the buffet table her mom’s catering company had provided.
K– and I did our first year of community college together. She skipped class and belted out songs on her acoustic guitar while everyone else was learning. A week before the accident, I told her how bad my parents’ fighting had gotten. She showed me some guitar chords, the same ones I start most of my own songs with now. When I welled up, she shoved a tissue into my hand.
I only ever had those two photos of her. Before the wake, one of our classmates told me he had nothing to remember her by, not even photos. I gave him the weirded-out one.
So I went to this open mic in whatever city I was living in at the time, and the duo playing when I walked in reminded me of someone I knew in high school. These two were crooning their own version of “Sir Cawline,” and I don’t know what made it happen, but I remembered how this girl, who died in a car accident two years after we graduated, was the only one in our class I could talk to about songwriting. There were fifty-two of us. She knew folk tunes, she could play any indie stuff you ever heard, and she scribbled her own lyrics during math class. I’m talking really powerful stuff that sounded like it could have been written a hundred years ago, but you knew when you heard her yowl the words over her uke or her guitar that this was something that mattered now.
But yeah, the duo. This was a long time after high school, back when I didn’t think much about any of the people I knew there anymore, but something about the way the fiddler’s hair moved when she turned her head made me think that these two were actually in my high school class, which also made me feel like an asshole for not being able to recognize two people from a class of fifty-two. But I never paid attention back then. To anything. Class lessons, parents’ insistence that my music sucked, nothing. I remembered lyrics, sure, but I could only talk about songwriting. Every lyric I ever wrote ended up on a crumpled piece of paper in my wastebasket, and I bet none of it was as good as her stuff.
The duo, though. They caught me singing along and called me to the stage. We finished out the song together, then two more folk songs – “The Shoals of Herring” and “Angeline the Baker” – with me helping out on guitar. Something loosened in my chest when I heard my own voice blend with theirs, those two people who I might have gone to high school with, who may have been there when the best songwriter in our town set her tassel across her cardboard hat, right along with us. I suppose we were a kind of band then. Maybe I really was in a high school band, I thought, and I was pretty good – we created real harmony. Then the duo went into an original song that I didn’t know, and the people gripping their drinks in the glowing corners of the bar stared at me, wondering why I was still there.
K– and I were in the auditorium that doubled as the drama club theater, watching a dress rehearsal for a shitty student-written play that we’d both auditioned for and totally bombed. She convinced me that being supportive was a thing, and I had nothing waiting in my dad’s house but leftover chicken, a box TV, and three channels, so I let her pick me up. As the lights went down, she grabbed at my shoulder, and her nails dug into me. “I’m scared of the dark,” she said, as if it were something important that no one else knew. A kid I didn’t like very much stood where the curtain had just been, a dumb pork-pie sitting on his dumb flattop, announcing his intention to solve the murder of a local waitress. K– linked her other arm under mine and kept her hand on my shoulder, and I thought about confessing to her my lifelong aversion to being touched without my permission. I’d tell her how I socked my aunt in the nose for pinching my cheek when I was eight, how even my dad, who thought I was making everything up to get attention, who used to pin me under him and tickle me until I pissed myself, eventually stopped slapping my butt and tackling me. Maybe I’d tell her that this could be something we did every week, sitting in a theater and watching a thing we’d like to be a part of, but also being a part of our own thing down here. Her breathing became measured. The skin of her inner arm melted against mine. I didn’t move.
The waitress’s name was never spoken in the entire play. It was fucking terrible.
The best wake I’ve ever been to was for a girl from the class above me in high school. The line to view the casket was pretty long, and the people coming out always had a couple of tears just on the verge of tumbling out, but the atmosphere outside was different. It was summer. No one could ignore that. I started talking to some people about what bands would be in town that weekend. I did an impression of an asshole-y show promoter that everyone knew, and I got a few laughs. For a couple of minutes, I actually forgot why I was there. Then I broke the threshold of the funeral home and saw the girl’s mom in front of the body, pretending to take everyone’s vapid comments to heart. Her daughter lay there, all pasty and mannequin-y, clutching a bouquet of some pink flower. Her face reminded me of spackle on drywall.
I thought of something that would make the mom laugh. It took another fifteen minutes to get to the head of the line, and I went through every joke construction I could think of, through everything you’re not supposed to say at a wake, but I choked. Not even choked, actually – I gave up. All I said to the mom was, “I’m really sorry. We all loved her.”
It was a fluke. I swear, I can be funny.
The night after we heard about the accident, a friend and I both witnessed K–’s screen name pop into our AIM Buddy Lists. My friend and I were talking about a collaborative writing project we’d planned in order to distract from the fact that we’d soon have to look at our other friend’s dead face. It was a fan-fiction thing where we’d each write from the perspective of our favorite fictional wizard, and mine was this girl with a snake tattoo who would someday be the savior of the world, and the main enemy was a big red cloud that could talk, and in the end the girl would defeat the big red cloud and save everyone and then magically vanish into thin air until someone needed her again.
K–’s name blinked in – NoW1ngsOnM3 – and I don’t know if my friend tried to say anything to her, but I typed something like “Hi,” and I’m not sure if it was just muscle memory from all of our chats about volleyball and board games and dating, or if I really thought she could answer me, that she would reassure me that it was okay to talk about other stuff after finding out her face was smashed to pieces against the dashboard of her boyfriend’s sputtery old beater.
My friend and I don’t talk anymore, but someday I’m going to write my own wizard story. An original one. I just need to remember whether K– had any tattoos. I don’t even know who I’d ask.
We made a short movie for Cinema Arts class where K– wore nothing but a blue bathrobe and pretended to be a flustered high-school girl scrambling to put an outfit together for a date with her boyfriend, played by a homely dude who could never actually be her boyfriend. I forget whether we did that on purpose or if he was the only person we could find. It was a small class.
The cool thing was that we filmed it on my parents’ camcorder, so there’s only one VHS copy, and I have it. I would watch it once a year after the accident, on K–’s birthday, right up until I got a girlfriend.
I played the boyfriend’s friend, which meant I had to sit on a couch and play Mortal Kombat and say things like “mega bitch.” K–, who I didn’t know as well as I’d tell people, said to me, “Art imitates life, I guess.” I was suddenly conscious of how gelled and spiky my hair was. I forget whether I did that for the movie or if it was actually my thing.
She tied the bathrobe, sat on the floor of the darkened classroom, and picked up the receiver of a black rotary phone, remembering the fake digits of her fake boyfriend’s fake phone number. She shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I pressed REC. Her feet were pointed toward me. She looked up at me, waiting for me to call Action, the one time she ever depended on me for something. With the spotlight on her, I noticed moles and freckles I’d never seen, noticed how uneven her hair was chopped at the ends, let myself be overtaken by the fact that no one in the world looked exactly like her or was doing the exact thing she was doing now. For a moment, she was actually the bathrobe character, dialing up her dweeby boyfriend while a pretty decent spiky-haired idiot sat in the same room behind him, eyes pasted to the TV screen, ignoring what was important, not smart enough to pay attention.
Then I remembered her character wasn’t supposed to be wearing glasses.
At K–’s graduation party, I helped her mom roll foiled potatoes over the grill. I regaled her with stories about my siblings, how I was always jealous of K–’s relationship with her brothers because mine were both assholes (I used the term “a-holes” because K–’s grandma was lighting a cigarette behind me), and her mom told me not to worry about it.
Then K–’s mom touched my shaved head and told me she was glad her daughter and I had been so close on the track team, and that she’d had more photos of me on her fridge than anyone K– was ever friends with. She added, “Sorry K– wasn’t interested in being more than friends. She doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. We’re very happy you’re here.”
My armpits started to sweat. I looked around at K–, who was straddling the patio’s railing and wearing a tight red t-shirt that read I Eat Glue, sharing a joke and a fruit punch with her boyfriend. What had she told her mother about me? That once, during a camp-out, we’d massaged each other’s bare backs and I’d breathed a little too hard at how warm her skin was? That after one of our most arduous meets against a city school that hated us, I knocked back four bourbon shots and told her I like girls?
The potatoes were done to perfection. Before K–’s mom could serve everyone, I snatched the stack of blue paper plates and plopped a potato on every one. The foil singed my fingertips. A queue formed at the buffet table, and I scooped macaroni salad for everyone who wanted it, remembered who was vegan without having to be told, filled glasses with whatever I could reach. K– and her dude never moved.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said K–’s mom.
Of course I didn’t, I thought. That’s the point.
I walked past K–, descending the patio’s tiny steps right in front of her so it would be impossible not to catch her eye.
“Hey,” she said. “Come chill with us.”
“I should probably get going.”
“You’re not going to eat after all that?”
Sometimes I imagine that I walked across the lawn and back to my house, disappearing around the bend of gray road like some Woman with No Name who had no more use for this town or the fifty-two blank faces she endured it with. I’m sorry, K–, that we can’t all be close enough to the center of the universe that we’re soaked in the same plasma you are. In this fantasy, before I walk away, I tell her, “K–, I don’t wanna marry you or anything; I just hoped that you sometimes thought about me when I wasn’t there,” and she apologizes, but somehow I’m so far away already that I don’t hear it. If anyone asks why I’ve never visited her headstone, I pretend that it really happened, that she really was sorry, and that way, just for a second, I feel sorry too.
But I didn’t do any of that. I filled a plate, sat alongside her, and poked at a lump of roasted corn while she polished off her drink and talked about the future.