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Cold Pastoral - Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash.
As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, The Opposite of Loneliness, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.
Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. Taken from The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of Marina’s writing, Cold Pastoral is a story which meditates on the beauty and brevity of human life.
We were in the stage where we couldn’t make serious eye contact for fear of implying we were too invested. We used euphemisms like “I miss you” and “I like you” and smiled every time our noses got too close. I was staying over at his place two or three nights a week and met his parents at an awkward brunch in Burlington. A lot of time was spent being consciously romantic: making sushi, walking places, waiting too long before responding to texts. I fluctuated between adding songs to his playlist and wondering if I should stop hooking up with people I was eighty percent into and finally spend some time alone. (Read the books I was embarrassed I hadn’t read.) (Call my mother.) The thing is, I like being liked, and a lot of my friends had graduated and moved to cities. I’d thought about ending things but my roommate Charlotte advised me against it. Brian was handsome and smoked the same amount as me and sometimes in the mornings, I’d wake up and smile first thing because he made me feel safe.
In March, he died. I was microwaving instant Thai soup when I got a call from his best friend asking if I knew which hospital he was at.
“Who?” I said.
“Brian,” he said. “You haven’t heard?”
I was in a seminar my senior year where we read poems by John Keats. He has this famous one called Ode on a Grecian Urn where these two lovers are almost kissing, frozen with their faces cocked beneath a tree. The tragedy, the professor said, is in eternal stasis. She never fades, they never kiss; but I remember finding the whole thing vaguely romantic. My ideal, after all, was always before we walked home -- and ironically, I had that now.
I watched as the microwave droned in lopsided circles, but I never took the soup out. Someone else must have. Charlotte, perhaps, or one of my friends that came over in groups, offering foods in imitations of an adult response and trying to decipher my commitment. I was trying too. I’d made out with a guy named Otto when I was back in Austin over Christmas and Brian and I had never quite stopped playing games. We were involved, of course, but not associated.
“What’s the deal?” people would shout over the music when he’d gone to get a drink and I’d explain that there was no deal to explain.
“We’re hanging out,” I’d say, smiling. “We like hanging out.”
I think we took a certain pride in our ambiguity. As if the tribulations of it all were somehow beneath us. Secretly, of course, the pauses in our correspondence were as calculated as our casualness – and we’d wait for those drunken moments when we might admit a “hey,” pause, “I like you.”
“Are you okay?” They asked now. Whispering almost, as if I were fragile. We sat around that first night sipping singular drinks, a friend turning on a song and then stopping it. I wish I could say I was shocked into a state of inarticulate confusion, but I found myself remarkably capable of answering questions.
“They weren’t dating,” Sarah whispered to Sam, and I gave a soft smile so they knew it was okay that I’d heard.
But it became clear very quickly that I’d underestimated how much I liked him.
But it became clear very quickly that I’d underestimated how much I liked him. Not him, perhaps, but the fact that I had someone on the other end of an invisible line. Someone to update and get updates from, to inform of a comic discovery, to imagine while dancing in a lonely basement, and to return to, finally, when the music stopped. Brian’s death was the clearest and most horrifying example of my terrific obsession with the unattainable. Alive, his biggest flaw was most likely that he liked me. Dead, his perfections were clearer.
But I’m not being fair. The fact of the matter is I felt a strange but recognizable hole that grew just behind my lungs. There was a person whose eyes and neck and penis I had kissed the night before and this person no longer existed. The second cliché was that I couldn’t quite encompass it. Regardless, I surprised myself that night by crying alone once my friends had left, my face pressed hard against my pillow.
The first time I saw Lauren Cleaver, she was playing ukulele and singing in a basement lit by strings of plastic red peppers. I remember making two observations during the twenty minutes my friends and I hung around the concert and sipped beers: one, that I wanted her outfit (floral overall shorts and a canvas jacket) and two, that she was skinnier than me, a quality which made her instantly less likable. She was pretty apart from a very large nose, and I’d seen her around campus, riding her bike along Pear Street or smoking cigarettes outside the library. She had the rare combination of being quiet and popular; a code that made her intimidating to younger, fashionable girls and mysterious to older, confident boys. We moved in different circles and I hardly thought about her again until the morning after I first kissed Brian, whom she had dated intensely and inseparably for two years and nine months.
I’d never had an ex-girlfriend before and I didn’t like it. Adam and I were each other’s firsts and I’d only had month-long things since the two of us broke up. One thing I am is self-aware (to a neurotic fault) and I recognize that a massive percentage of my self-esteem depends on the attention of a series of smug boys at the University of Vermont. The problem is I’m good at attracting them: verbally witty and successful at sending texts. I’m also well dressed, or try to be, and make fun of boys in the way that reads as I like you. Perhaps it’s not a problem so much as a crutch, but I have this pathetic fantasy that I’d be more productive if I was less attractive. Finally finish some paintings or apply for funding of some kind. The point is that Lauren Cleaver and I were not friends because Lauren Cleaver and I had all this in common. This, and Brian.
His parents arrived the morning after the accident — and his roommates emailed a few people they thought might want to stop by. I wanted to go, and felt like I had to go, so I put on a pair of black jeans, a black sweater and asked Charlotte to borrow black boots.
“They don’t fit you,” she said. “And besides, you don’t need to have black shoes.”
I wasn’t sure. And felt guilty for pondering my red ballet flats as I walked the seven-minute walk to his house. I figured I wasn’t supposed to be capable of that kind of thinking, and I felt like an alien. I feel that a lot, actually, in a lot of circumstances. Like I ought to be feeling something I don’t. My father used to tease me at the table by implying “cold Claire” had brought in the draft. I had three older sisters, all beautiful, and I was always less affected than them, slow to smile. I remember finding it extremely hard to open presents as a child because the requisite theatricality was too exhausting. My sisters forever humiliated me over a moment in fifth grade when I’d opened a present from my grandmother and declared, straight-faced, “I already have this.”
We walked upstairs and I felt immediately like I shouldn’t be there.
It was cold for March, so I walked quickly. Brown snow still hugged the sides of our streets and the pines leaned in like grey walls, still limp with yellow Christmas lights. Whenever I slept at Brian’s, I called him as soon as I passed this certain stop sign — timing his arrival at the door so I wouldn’t have to wait. “I’m here,” I’d say, a block away, and he’d meander downstairs to let me in. This time, I knocked.
William let me in. Roommate and rich boy from Los Angeles. We were never friends, really, just occasional cohabiters, but we awkwardly hugged and he asked me how I was.
“Fine,” I said, instinctively. But he understood that I wasn’t.
We walked upstairs and I felt immediately like I shouldn’t be there. It was smaller than I’d imagined: Brian’s parents, two adults I didn’t recognize, and five or six of his closest friends. They huddled together in the corner next to a plate of bagels and an untouched platter of fruit. His mother was actually sobbing into the side of one of the women and I felt suddenly and extremely claustrophobic. The whole world was stark and bleak and I realized I couldn’t think of a single thing I was looking forward to. Brian had begun to be that for me — the thing at the end of the day I could think about when everything else was boring. I looked through the open door to his room and saw that his bed was still unmade.
“This is Claire,” William said. Tactful enough to stop before attempting to label my relation. I held up a palm to the room and I wondered if anyone else had needed to be introduced.
“Claire,” his father said. “It’s good to see you.” He sounded genuine.
We’d gotten along at that brunch, though the whole thing was kind of an accident. Brian and I had slept late and when his parents arrived at his house at 11:00, I was still in his bed, naked. I got dressed quickly — embarrassed to put on my heels from the night before — and was invited by default to eat eggs at Mirabelles. We laughed about it later.
“Good thing you weren’t some one night stand.” He bit at my ear.
“Good thing,” I said, and punched him.
Brian’s dad gestured towards the untouched food but I said I was fine and moved over to the circle of his friends. I could tell at least one of them, Susannah, didn’t want me there. You don’t know him, I’m sure she was thinking. We don’t know you.
Apparently, they’d all been together at the hospital on Tuesday night and they were sharing stories in hushed voices about how and when they found out and waited, how and when the congenital aneurysm took place. I wanted to ask exactly how it all worked, how it all happened, but I couldn’t really engage. I kept looking into Brian’s room at the lump of a comforter piled on his sheet-less bed, at the light spilling in from his window, speckling its folds, and decided it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
When Lauren Cleaver walked down from upstairs, everyone turned. Her face was swollen and red and she was breathing in in staccato bursts. She must have gone upstairs to collect herself. To calm down, stop crying. There was an older boy with her who I recognized from pictures as Brian’s brother. He was holding her by the shoulders and saying something into her ear. My mind raced, imagining the dinners she must have had at his family’s table. The trips she may have taken with them, the grandparents she must have met. She’d have watched movies at his real house clad in sweatpants and sweaters. Spent time with his brother, his mother, met his dog, his uncles, his high school friends.
I knew, of course, that their breakup was mutual and long coming.
Lauren looked thin and beautiful as she walked down the stairs and I realized that of course I wasn’t the girlfriend. I can’t explain how or why, but it filled me with a profound, seething anger…followed, inevitably, by waves of a familiar self-disgust. Brian was mine, I wanted to cry. My nose he’d kissed on Friday, my shirt he’d slipped his hand inside. The last time he’d kissed Lauren was in June and I knew they no longer talked. I imagined for a moment what he would have been like if Lauren died — if he would have romanticized their relationship and lamented the loss of their potential reunion. But it didn’t really seem like she was engaged in rationalization; just that she loved him a lot. Or had.
I knew, of course, that their breakup was mutual and long coming. Brian and Lauren were beyond associated, and their collapse was slow and necessary. I also knew that only days before, I’d engaged in late night deliberations with Charlotte over whether or not to break things off — that only days before I didn’t think of Brian the way I thought of him now — but neither of those things seemed to matter. She was harrowed, drastically, and my cheeks were smooth and dry. I felt inadequate, cold; our relationship abruptly grounded.
For some reason I hadn’t until just then tried to think of the last time I’d seen him. But it must have been Tuesday morning when I darted out of his room and off to class. I’d forgotten my computer charger so I had to ring the doorbell again and I crawled back into bed fully clothed for a minute before I left. I wished I could remember the last thing he said to me but I couldn’t.
The gathering came to a close around noon when UVM’s president (whom none of us had ever seen before) stopped by to give his condolences and explain the logistics of a campus vigil scheduled for a few days later. No one wanted to be the first to leave, but eventually Susannah said she had a rehearsal and kissed his parents on the cheek before heading back into the snow. Others followed suit and I was pulling on my peacoat when Brian’s mother came over and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Claire,” her eyes were still welling, “thank you.” I nodded, opening my mouth and then shutting it. “Brian told me about you, you know that? When I’d call him to check in, he’d tell me about you.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“He was an amazing guy.” It sounded so stupid. I wasn’t expecting it but something about speaking to her made my face squint up and I covered it with my hands because I’d started to cry. She moved her hand back to my shoulder and I thought about what Brian would think if he could see us.
“James and I were hoping you could say something at the vigil,” she said. “William and Adam will be speaking as well and it’d be nice to have you.”
“Sure,” I nodded again, instinctively.
“Good,” she said. “I think he’d like that.” There was silence for a minute as she studied me. And it struck me for the first time that she thought I was his girlfriend.
“Sure,” I said again, for no reason. Comprehending, finally, what I’d just said I’d do. What I’d just agreed to without thinking.
That night, it sleeted. Thick waves of ice rain pelt down on our pines and the Burlington streets were once again reduced to dark slush. Charlotte and our gay friend Kyle sat around my apartment and tried to watch The Royal Tenenbaums but abandoned it halfway because the whole thing felt stupid and we felt bad for laughing. Personally, I was trying not to think about the fact that I had to stand up in front of the university in two days and say something about Brian. Stand stupidly with a piece of printed paper as Lauren and the rest of them silently sobbed. I’d probably try to get choked up and fail under pressure.
“Who’s she?” a girl would ask.
“Apparently they were hooking up?” her friend would answer. They’d look at each other, wax dripping off their candles and onto their paper cup holders, eyebrows raised.
I had a headache and around three we finally divided off to our beds.
That’s when I got it. No subject line; just the name, Lauren Cleaver, bolded in my inbox:
Hey I have a strange favor to ask that’s kind of time sensitive. I’d appreciate
if you gave me a call but understand if you don’t want to. Let me know if
you don’t so I can figure out some other way to do this. 917345837.
I called her immediately. It was 3 a.m. but the message was sent at 2:15 and I didn’t feel like waiting. It started ringing and I sat up.
“Hello?” Her voice was strained but clear, and I remembered that she was a singer.
“Hey. It’s Claire.”
“Hi.” There was silence for about five seconds and I wondered if she was trying not to cry. “Do you know where Brian’s journal is?”
I didn’t know he’d had one but didn’t want to admit it. Once again I got strangely possessive; like I had something to prove.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay. Well, it should be in the third drawer of his dresser. He should still keep it there.”
“Alright.” I wasn’t sure where this was going. I heard the small pop of an inhale and realized she was smoking a cigarette. It made me angry.
“Do you think you could take it?”
“Because he wouldn’t want his parents to read it.” I paused and we let silence hang between us again. “I’ve thought a lot about this. It meant a lot to him. His parents will clean out his room and they’ll read it and it will upset them and…him.”
“Why don’t you take it?”
“Because…I don’t have any reason to go over there.” I thought about this for a moment.
“Ask William to take it.”
“I don’t want William to read it.”
It was a command, not a question, and I didn’t like the way she was talking to me.
“But you want me to?” I was genuinely confused. She paused and I heard her inhale again.
“You’re not going to,” she said. It was a command, not a question, and I didn’t like the way she was talking to me. I’d always thought she was shyer, soft. “Call William and tell him you left some clothes there you want to pick up…you did sleep there right?”
I didn’t say anything. Neither did she. I kept the phone pressed to my ear but it sounded like she’d moved it away from her face and I wondered again if she was trying not to cry.
“Listen,” she said finally. “Just. He wouldn’t want his parents to read it, okay? They wouldn’t want to read it. There’s shit in there about them and him and — if you can’t do it I’ll just figure something else out.” I imagined for a second the way I’d first seen her: singing in that basement with the ukulele and red pepper lights. She’d seemed so cool, so nonchalant. I wondered if she’d hooked up with someone after that show. Not Brian, obviously, but some other boy with an unshaven face. I wondered if he were in her life now. If she had some guy whose bed she looked forward to when everything was boring. If he knew where she’d been that morning and how he’d felt about it.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you.” There was silence again and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hang up. I wondered if she knew I was speaking at the vigil, but figured she must have. I thought about saying something but didn’t, and we stayed on the line for a while longer, cross-legged on our beds.
“Bye,” she said suddenly, and hung up before I could respond. I meant to go to bed but I couldn’t sleep — and found myself clicking through all 700 of her Facebook photos before I passed out with my hand on my laptop.
The question of whether or not I was going to read it wasn’t a question. As soon as I had its worn leather — slipped out, as predicted, from his third dresser drawer — I went into our central library and up into the stacks. I’d taken a sweater, as well, a plain green one he wore a lot but wasn’t distinct enough to be recognized as his, and put it on, which made me feel both sad and safe. I sat at an old desk and opened it from the back, flipping until I saw my name for the first time. His sentences were short, unembellished, repetitive, and it was clear he wasn’t lying to anybody. I scanned, quickly, eyes sliding back and forth across the pages, reading paragraphs, excerpts, lists:
I’m acting weird. I know I’m choosing to distract myself. The Claire thing feels uncertain. A distraction. Re: Lauren, I feel like I’m still not comprehending it all. I act like everything is fine and even now I choose to deal with Claire stuff instead of…
Lauren on Saturday: I sent her a g-chat to which she didn’t respond (she was at band rehearsal) then texted her. She responded upon leaving, then I responded, then she either didn’t respond or did while my phone was dead. Then I emailed her and she may or may not have seen it but didn’t respond and…
Lately I’ve felt a kind of numbness. Like this feeling like I’m faking it all — but maybe it’s just because I’m used to being in love. Like I can hug her and move my fingers along her neck but it’s not real. There’s no emotional desire for closeness. She feels it too I think but it’s funny because I wait for her text messages, hoping she’ll contact me and get really pissed and insecure when she doesn’t. I know she waits before responding which is…
I need to slow things down. I won’t hook up with other people if I have her as an option and I shouldn’t be entering something serious again. But then again, it’s like what William said with his whole, why change options if this one is good. I like Claire. Maybe I need to stop lying to myself about that. I want a girl that’s full of life and enthusiasm and optimism and creativity and assumed profundity. Who I do not have to brag to. Who I can engage in a dialogue. I want honesty, more than anything, probably because Lauren and I lost that. I just don’t think Claire is that person — too sort of sad all the time and self-deprecating. Or maybe she is, and I just need time to myself to…
I worried a lot this week that Lauren might actually be the right girl for me long term which was depressing because I haven’t had to deal with that whole mindset for a while…Not that I made a mistake in breaking up with her. But in that we might have ruined the potential for a future together of some kind. It needed to end for now. THE relationship needed to end for this time of our lives. But it’s obvious I’m not over HER as a person, I just need to admit it. (I know she feels the same.) She had a gig in Laurence the other day and I nearly felt sick thinking about the guys who’d be there to…
I had a dream last night where Claire and I were in a Lauren/Brian state of our relationship. She didn’t want to hang out with me (or I sensed that) and I was compensating by being pathetic and always acting, like pretending that I was happy and cool and fun because I felt insecure about how she felt about me. I’m starting to think Claire should just be my girlfriend!? I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m just exhausted. BUT it also diminishes the fantasy. Why CAN’T we? Maybe thinks it implies there’s something wrong with the relationship. Some reason…
I almost feel like I’m settling. I dunno. Maybe I’m just not totally over Lauren (true), maybe I’m just unsure about her on a more fundamental level. The fear of course is to start dating her and then not stop. I just need to find out if she can be imaginative and interesting and spontaneous and make me laugh and want to build something together. BE something. I guess I’m not crazy about her. Or don’t really know how I feel. She’s sort of into pretension and that’s unattractive. She just has this look on her face a lot. Sort of aloof and wide eyed and her lips purse slightly, when she’s looking somewhere or reading the computer. And it just really turns me off. I look at her at those times and I just think like, fuck, I need to get out of this. And then I feel bad about it because part of me really does like her. Lauren was hotter — or at least had a better body (more in shape.) And the sex was better. But it’s probably because Claire’s so clearly insecure when she’s naked and…
I walked a few blocks down Pear Street, passing people who didn’t know me and felt anonymous and fat.
I went into the bathroom and threw up. I rinsed my mouth in the sink but felt nauseous again and returned to the toilet to vomit a second time, and sat down on the toilet, pressing my fingers into my forehead. I’d never felt so disgusting in my life. Not disgusting — but vacant, punched, like someone had taken a wrench and shoved it into my stomach and twisted it around. I tried to remember that I’d had thoughts like that too. Tried to recount the pros and cons list Charlotte and I discussed from the depths of my bedroom: he was over-emotional, too cocky, didn’t shower enough. And I’d had better sex too. But it didn’t matter.
I walked out of the bathroom and down the narrow staircases through the books and emerged onto the street and the blaring sun. I opened my phone to call Charlotte but realized I wouldn’t know what to say. I walked a few blocks down Pear Street, passing people who didn’t know me and felt anonymous and fat. I stopped when I got to the quad and turned around because I had no destination in mind; I thought about texting Kyle but realized, again, that the prospect of articulation was too exhausting. I think the one thing I really wanted in that moment was to text Brian and crawl into his bed; complain about Brian and the vigil and his death and fall asleep with his arms pulled around me and my hair tangling against his sheets. I took out my phone and called Lauren Cleaver.
“Hello?” She said.
And I hung up.
That night, I got really fucked up. I had four drinks before we got to the party and did a couple of lines in the bathroom, which I hardly ever do. Spencer was the one with the coke, always was, and he dragged me and Kyle in behind him and locked the door.
“Claire bear,” he said. “Claire darling, you’re first, you poor thing.” He was gayer than Kyle and the two of us exchanged a look.
“We’re not talking about it,” Kyle said. “That’s the rule.”
“That’s not the rule,” I snapped. “You’re making me sound like such an asshole.”
This time Kyle and Spencer exchanged the looks and I remembered then that they’d hooked up a few times sophomore year. I’d expected everyone at the party to be apologizing, offering condolences, but it turned out to be the opposite. I think they were all afraid to approach me or figured it wasn’t their place. That, or fewer people knew about Brian and I than I thought.
“Hey, I’m gunna go,” I said, attempting to be genuine. “I’m fine, really, I’ll see you guys in a minute.”
“Clairee,” Spencer cooed.
“Look, I’m fine,” I said again. “I’m actually feeling great.”
And I was. The coke had me instantly angry and empowered. Fuck Brian, I thought now. Fuck Brian and Lauren and his parents and his vigil. It was unfair of them to involve me in all of this and I wanted to scream at one of them, steal a car and drive home to Austin. I would never tell Lauren what Brian had written about her. Never tell her that all this time he was still thinking about her. Doubting their decision, hoping she might text him. I imagined she must have been doing the same thing — loving him alone at night, thinking of him while she was with other guys — and denying her that knowledge, denying her something, gave me pleasure.
The music pulsed and I wove through bodies and red cups looking for faces I knew. I felt confident, now, defiant, and I wanted a circle of people to enter. To tell a story to and hear them laugh. But I couldn’t seem to find anyone I really recognized and the faces crammed in the living room of 398 Brown Street seemed younger than ever.
“Who are these people?!” I shouted to a boy next me. I’d never seen him before in my life.
“What!?” he shouted back.
“I said, who are these people? I feel like they’re all eighteen!”
“What!?” He said again. But this time he walked past me, shrugging, and I went back into the bathroom where Kyle and Spencer were making out.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, backing away, but Kyle opened the door again a second later.
“Come on,” he said, taking my shoulders. “Let’s go home.”
I woke up the next morning with a headache behind my left eye and thought seriously about calling Brian’s mother and telling her I just couldn’t do it. That it was going to be too hard. But I think part of me, deep down, wanted to do it, because I didn’t call all morning and by the time the sun set again, I knew it was too late to cancel. I had to prepare something and that was that.
The pressure of the deadline, of the task I had to complete, clarified my already numb condition.
I opened a Word document and stared at it for a few hours. Charlotte kept bringing me food because she wanted to help and didn’t know what else to do — but I let most of it sit cold by my computer, Brian’s musings on my body still fresh in my mind. We watched the end of The Royal Tenenbaums around four (she thought I could use a fresh start) but I was as lost afterwards as I had been before. I played with the idea of framing the whole thing in Keats’ Grecian Urn — talking about how there was something romantic in preservation at a moment of static bliss. But the whole thing felt like an English paper and I realized a note of optimism might actually be inappropriate.
Around 10:00 p.m. I started to panic. The pressure of the deadline, of the task I had to complete, clarified my already numb condition. I was upset and anxious and overwhelmed — no longer by the circumstances themselves, but by my mandate to assess them. How was I feeling? How we were all supposed to be feeling? What did Brian’s death say about our generation? The ephemeral nature of life? The need to cherish?
I gave up on profundity and tried writing honestly. Brian was an amazing guy. Even when he was busy with his own work and issues, he always took the time to listen. But every time I wrote these sentences, phrases from his notebook echoed back at me. “I almost feel like I’m settling.” “There’s no emotional desire for closeness.” “Lauren was hotter — Claire’s so clearly insecure when she’s naked.” They pierced me, deeply, and I’d entered a realm of insecurity I’d never been in before, wary to acknowledge it. I hated Lauren Cleaver more than I hated anyone in my entire life and I thought a lot that day about whether she’d sent me to pick up his journal on purpose. Knowing I’d read it, knowing I’d get hurt. But I remembered how swollen her face was, how raw her eyes had been, and had another thought entirely: that she’d asked me in an act of self-protection. Scared what she might read. Scared of the rejection she might discover.
I was about to give in for the night and resolve to wake up early when I got another subject-less email in my inbox:
Thanks for today. I know Brian would be very grateful.
I’m sorry if I was cold last night — it’s been an extremely hard few days for me, obviously. But I ought to acknowledge this is also hard for you.
I’ve attached a document with some thoughts you might be able to use tomorrow. No pressure if you’re all set, but I figured I owe you one.
I opened the attachment. There were lyrics from his favorite songs, a copy of a poem he wrote freshman year. Things he’d said about ‘what he wanted to be when he “grew up,”’ a link to a funny op-ed he wrote in the school newspaper. There were also bullets she’d written up describing him — endearingly confident, full of a genuine wonder, contagiously enthused.
I didn’t want to be, but I was grateful. I kept it open beside my other document and began writing. I clicked on the link to his article, listened to the songs she mentioned and jotted down lyrics. I was so relieved and distracted by the new material that it wasn’t until thirty minutes later that I thought about Lauren for the first time without also thinking about myself. She loved Brian. It was so remarkably, indubitably clear. And whether or not he understood it, he’d loved her back. At first I’d thought it was a favor, some kind of thank you for picking up the journal. But as I scrolled through her document again I realized it had nothing to do with helping me. Nothing.
I finished a draft of my remarks and took a shower for the first time in two days. My hair was tangled and matted in the back, and it took me nearly twenty minutes to pick it apart with my pruned fingers. Halfway through, I became exhausted and sat cross-legged on the floor of the shower – the water pelting down on my hunched back, echoing up and filling my head with nothing but its steady pounding. When I got out, I put on Brian’s sweater and got back into bed. I was going to tell her. Let her know what Brian had written — let her read it for herself. Just so you know, I would write in an email, he still loved you all along.
But before I opened my computer I leaned over and pulled Brian’s journal out of my backpack. It was long, enviably full, and this time I opened to a part near the beginning. I was tired and hurt and the headache behind my left eye had never quite vanished — but I read the love story of Lauren Cleaver and Brian Jones until 5:30 that morning.
The service was uneventful. Five hundred or 600 students gathered on the main green at 7:30 the next night and the chaplain’s office handed out small candles tucked inside paper cups. I wondered if they recycled these from vigil to vigil but abandoned the thought when I was led to stand with William, Adam, and Brian’s parents. They said their pieces and I said mine, his mother struggling to contain herself when she briefly addressed the students, thanked the school. When I took the podium I was worried people would whisper or wonder why I was speaking, but they didn’t. I’m not even sure they distinguished what I said from the others. I’d spent the first half of the vigil searching the crowd for Lauren’s face but I couldn’t find her and wondered if she’d decided not to show up. But just before I began speaking, I saw her strawberry blond hair from somewhere near the back left – illuminated and glowing from the light of her small candle. When I quoted his article, the audience emitted a small laugh and when I read from his favorite song, they got quiet. Endearingly confident, I said, full of a genuine wonder, contagiously enthused. I looked right at her when I said that, and she nodded.
When it ended, they had these bagpipes play, and I waited around with the others as the students slowly blew out their candles, walking over waxed grass to their dorm rooms and libraries. Lauren came to say goodbye to his family but I could see now that she felt as uncomfortable with her role around them as I did.
I chased her down before she had a chance to leave the gate.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hi.” We stood there for a second, silent.
“Thank you. That was…he would have liked it.”
“Thank you,” I said awkwardly. “For the stuff.”
“No problem,” she looked down. “I wasn’t sure you were going to use any of it. You didn’t get back to me.” I didn’t say anything. I looked at her and realized that she’d starting crying again, silently.
I had their story in my bag. The secret that he, too, had never let things go.I thought about the things he’d said about her in his journal. The morning after they first kissed when he’d spent 40 minutes writing her a three-line email. The game of bowling where they got high in the bathroom, the way he’d described her collarbone and her smile and the first time he saw her band play in the basement during the storm. The first time they had sex and didn’t use a condom and the first time he came home with her for Thanksgiving and met her alcoholic mother and the discussion they’d had about it afterwards. How he’d said he held her and told her it’d be okay and that he’d always be there. The bad poem he wrote for her and the good song she’d written for him. The time they thought she was pregnant and the time his grandfather died. How they’d said how much they loved each other and how they always would. How he worried he loved her more than she loved him and that she had a crush on a boy named Emmanuel. And I thought then of how he’d described things growing old. Growing similar, habitual. How he’d begun to wake up in the morning without rolling over to kiss her. How he’d started to resent the time away from his friends, her nagging habits. How he’d begun to look at other girls and compare her to the hypothetical. How’d she’d begun to ignore him too and how they’d gone along anyway for another six months, another year. How it’d ended and how he’d felt free and young and energized. But then how he’d begun to miss her. And doubt himself. And worry that they’d screwed things up forever. How he’d loved her, still, whether or not he understood it, and how, when it came down to it, I could never really compare.
I had their story in my bag. The secret that he, too, had never let things go. Had it tucked inside his journal with a note I’d slipped inside. Thanking her. Telling her I didn’t want to talk to her again because it would be too hard. But I looked at her then, with the tears dripping slowly down her thin cheeks and I knew, in the end, it’d be better if I kept it. Better if she never knew.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was all I could get out. “I’m so sorry,” I said. And walked away.
That night I went out again. Charlotte, Kyle and I went to a party down on Pear and I saw this guy named Marshall who I knew from my Russian lit class when we were both on the fire escape, getting some air. I usually don’t smoke but I bummed a cigarette off him and when he gave it to me he half smiled. Marshall was handsome. Smart. And suddenly, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, I wanted him to love me. I stayed out there with him for nearly an hour and we talked about a lot of things and moved closer and closer together. Eventually, we were both shivering and he asked if I wanted to go back to his apartment with him. I did. I’d never wanted anything more. But as I watched him smile back at me and zip his coat, I saw everything in the world build up and then everything in the world fall down again.
Taken from The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan