Death is like an ill-fitting coat you can never remove. You don’t forget the day you started wearing it. A day like any other. A sunny day, perhaps. A day far too warm for a coat. But a well-intentioned friend slipped it around your shoulders before you could protest; before they themself slipped off into a silent sunset, never to re-emerge. Or maybe it was a cold day, and you put it on knowingly. You saw winter approaching. You knew the air would chill. But spring and summer have come many times since, and you've never been able to take it off. On the hottest day of the year, when the sun shows no mercy, it remains. Heavy. Stifling. Constricting. Enveloping you.
I got mine one mid-December. I was 19, and with the optimism of youth, thought I wouldn't be wearing any sort of coat that year. A misspent child of the American heartland in Saint Louis, Missouri, where winters bite you into submission, I'd since moved to California. There, each day was simply a different shade of mild. Mild, and gold. I’d seen enough afternoon skies and hill-grass rippling in the breeze in the "Golden State" to know this was no name plucked from a euphemistic void: California looked, quite literally, golden. And my experience had been living up to the gleam. I was becoming sure that a misspent childhood maybe, possibly, probably could be erased. Or if not erased, written over in gold.
I was en route to class, driving to San Francisco from my house across the Bay when the phone rang. It was Anna, one of my closest friends from high school, her voice high-pitched and on edge. The last time she’d rung in such distraught panic had been a year before. I’d missed her calls and later encountered a voice mailbox full of terrified messages laying out the realisation of a pregnancy. She wasn’t one to tip over the edge for little things, and my heart sped up when I heard her tone.
“Noel is dead.”
She didn’t mince words.
“Hit by a car late at night.”
Noel was Anna’s best friend, and a good one of mine. We had one of those high school groups that relied on each other, for sustenance physical and emotional. Many of us came from variously broken homes and found family in each other. We spent endless hours together. We lived together. With that phone call, our family of scratched-up misfits felt its first real, untreatable wound. Noel was a soldier in the army. He was driving home from base when he saw a woman stranded on the side of the motorway, and stopped to help. As he walked back to his car, a passing driver slid on ice and struck him.
The conversation was brief. With thousands of miles between us, there wasn’t much to say. I hung up and continued driving, conscious of the golden beauty around me, conscious of how jarring golden beauty was in that moment, and wondering why I wasn't crying.
Noel's funeral was in Saint Louis a few days later. An open casket just in time for the festive season, surrounded by iridescent cloth and wood and a room full of people – real, live, breathing people with real, live colour in their faces and real, live tears on their cheeks. Noel looked like a doll. All gaunt and sunken, and nothing like, well, Noel. Tributes were made. Friends spoke. Family spoke. Army buddies spoke. It all seemed to a paint a picture of someone else – a picture as contrived as the made-up Noel in the casket.
After the funeral, I wanted to be with people I understood, in places I knew. My often boyfriend, always best friend Jude had made it home from California the day before, but I hadn’t heard from him yet. So instead, that freezing winter evening I rode with friends in the back of their car to my old high school to take my sister, still a student, to a theatre rehearsal.
And then that night it came. Another city, another car, another phone call from one of our scratched-up high school lot, Mack. Another voice of distraught panic. More words not minced.
“Jude is dead.”
“My Jude? You’re joking.”
Of course it was a joke.
“Rebecca, Jude is dead.”
My head became very loud. There was something in there that was very, very loud.
“I don’t believe you. I don’t fucking believe you. That’s not possible. How do you know? You can’t fucking know that. It’s a fucking mistake.”
The loudness suddenly stopped and was replaced with a slow pulsating quiet. The world around me looked like snow suspended in a glass globe. I hung up on Mack. I called Jude’s house. Someone I didn’t know picked up. An uncle. Jude’s uncle. And then I knew.
I dropped the phone and the silence quivered and shook. Everything was white. It was night-time – why was everything white? And then, in slow motion, the white became permeated with static. More and more and more static. The quiet turned to a raging roar. Everything was in motion now. Everything was a plane crashing. Everything was a bomb dropping. Everything was a hammer falling. It smashed the glass globe. Every colour of the rainbow in the most sickening overload and it was brown and black and everything was screaming.
No. Wait. Me. I was screaming. It was me screaming. Just me. I couldn’t stop. I fell out of the car and tried to walk and failed and curled up on the black tar of the school parking lot, and screamed. I don’t know for how long. Long enough that someone rang Anna and she arrived, and I was still screaming.
The following days blurred into obscurity. I suppose that’s what happens when you lose the only thing in life you were certain you needed. I spent most of my time at Jude’s house, with his mother and sisters. I saw friends. We talked. We talked about heroin. It was heroin that did it. I drank. I didn’t have a room where I was staying, and I woke up each morning on a dark green couch, wondering how the couch was real yet Jude was not. They burned his body. I wrote a eulogy. It was about soulmates. I picked funeral music. It was Jeff Buckley. I gave the eulogy. Spat some hollow words before a crowd: "Soulmates. What is a soulmate? Jude was mine." I woke up on the dark green couch again. Christmas came. I saw more friends and drank more. During a night of this, shortly thereafter, another phone call came.
That familiar distraught panic spoke down the line.
“Alexei is dead.”
There were no words left to mince.
This time, I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I didn’t quietly ponder why the world was still so goddamn beautiful and California was still so goddamn gold when everything in grasping distance was so goddamn ugly. This time, I laughed. Nothing made sense any more. It was an absurdist play that I was somehow dropped in the middle of. I didn’t know the ending. I didn’t know my lines. I didn’t even speak the language. So I laughed. Heroin had it in for us that winter, ey? How funny. What a comedy of errors.
The winter holidays ended, and January meant return to California. I flew back, leaving behind one dead soulmate’s ashes, two dead friends’ bodies, three grieving families, and a whole life I thought I’d already left when I moved away a year and half before. Now I realised I never really had. But like Jude, Noel, and Alexei, that life finally died that winter. Months passed in California. No one there knew any of my dead people. I retreated into myself. I made art. I wrote. It was all about Jude. I became obsessed with my own – with everyone’s – fragile mortality. Everything was too short. Too fleeting. Too gold. California was too close to home.
By summer, I was on a train in Europe, floating alone from city to city. By the following winter, I lived in England. And that’s when I was gone. Really, really gone.
Over the near-decade since, the untreatable wounds of our splinter group grew deeper. Every year or two, I discover another death. No more heroic stories of cars and ice and helpful strangers, though. Jack was cancer. Miles was drugs. Lycus was drugs. Cerise was drugs. I don’t know what drugs. Maybe heroin. Maybe not.
I don’t get a phone call any more. I’ve been gone for too long. These days, it’s usually a Facebook message or sometimes just a passing Facebook status that catches my eye. RIP. We’re pouring one out here tonight in Saint Louis for another homie. Gone but not forgotten. He was a good dude. Posted at 8:53pm. Four likes and 45 condolence comments. I don’t cry. My heart barely falters. I wonder what’s wrong with me. I tighten my coat, the one I can’t remove, and turn off the screen. ●
* All names have been changed except the author's.