You Will Be the Living Equation
Originally published in Annalemma
I. Practice Problems
You should know this before the first blast turns you cold, before the first wave of sympathy strikes: there will always be two kinds of people. The first kind will want to tell you about the time their dog died, or their best friend died, or their father or wife or child or aunt or grandmother died. This is fine, this is necessary; this is how they measure grief or pain or loss and the raw, hard cost of death.
The second kind will sit with you in silence. They will have nothing to say, because they will understand that pain is not something that can be shared or solved, that pain is not a checklist or a questionnaire. They will understand that pain is not only loss, is not only sad, is not only one thing and not sometimes another thing altogether. That pain is not quantitative, but that it can be marked off with chalk lines on a cell wall just the same. That pain is not a landscape, and yet we carefully map its roads, its quick peaks, its long dips and even the smudges on the page that obscure intention or effect. That pain is not psychic, but that it does sometimes offer a moment of brief, bright clarity.
That pain is not you, but it is yours, and you cannot return it ever. That it will be with you like an old war wound or a scarred-over burn, even when you've forgotten what it means or where it came from or who drilled it into your skin, when the very first nerve ache began.
Well, here’s something awful. This is what your mind will say to you, stalwartly, like an old British colonel. Well, here’s something awful; while you lay yourself down across the living room floor, carpet fibers carving creases into your cheek and palms.
Oh, my God, your mother will say. She has been best friends since childhood with Danny’s mother, but she will not cry and you will fight about that later and often.
Holy shit, your best friend Marie will say, and she will cry, and for that you will accuse her of being in love with Danny ever since the three of you were small.
You were always jealous, you will shout, and fling your arm out like Sarah Bernhardt, and she will never forgive you. Years later, you will bump into one another in a department store and smile too much. You will be flustered because she has grown thin and pretty, and because when you both were eight you made all your Barbies lesbians, though you didn’t know the word then, and you swore a pact never to have anything to do with boys. You both hated Danny, because when he and your brother played Star Wars they made you be Princess Leia, even though you wanted to be Darth Vader and fight with a light saber. Poor fat Marie always had to be Jabba the Hutt.
This is your first death, and it will slightly separate you from your mind. It will turn you both into cordial neighbors. At first your mind will try to give counsel, will say things like, Come on old girl, stiff upper lip and all that, and Now then, mustn’t carry on so. Your mind has always been embarrassed of excess.
Your body will ignore your mind. It will learn new tricks all on its own, tricks like ‘curling up into a ball at the foot of the bed’ and ‘betraying you utterly in front of absolute strangers.' It will become desperate to telegraph your grief. When you think people may have forgotten about Danny, it will force you to remind them by bursting into tears during AP Psych and also sometimes fainting in the middle of Homeroom—though the true cause may be your new habit of skipping breakfast. This is not to say that your sadness will only be acted. Truly you will feel small and lost and separated, just a bit, as if someone has strung a bed sheet between you and other people.
Your teachers will sympathize and award you just-passing grades, even when the only homework you turn in all semester is a comparative study of Anne Boleyn and Danny. (Your European History teacher will remark to your Senior Choir teacher that any common sense you used to possess must have been drained drop by drop over the last few months, but only over egg salad sandwiches in the teacher’s lounge and well out of your hearing.)
Your classmates will not be so kind. Corey Fletcher will tell everyone that you’re just a drama queen, milking tragedy for all it’s worth. Marie will tell everyone that you’re just as crazy as Danny was. She’ll probably slit her wrists eventually, you’ll overhear her telling her new friends as you pass by her locker. You will be sent home that day for putting a long deep scratch down the side of Marie’s face with your painted-black-on-purpose fingernails.
Eventually you will reject all of your friends, especially the ones that didn’t cry. And especially the ones that did.
You will want to talk about Danny, will desperately want to talk, but no one will let you. Don’t dwell on it, your mother will say, you’ll make yourself ill. When you call your brother at college to ask about the afterlife, he’ll tell you not to be so morbid. You’ll ask him if it was morbidity or genius or both that led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
Neither, he’ll say. It was a parlor game.
You’ll think about killing yourself. Of course you will. For a moment you’ll picture yourself floating among water lilies and reeds, hair and skirts spread like Ophelia or the Lady of Shalott. You’ll murmur, the web flew out and floated wide, but since this really isn’t applicable to your situation and since when you were ten you almost drowned in your neighbors’ pool and it really was quite horrible, and since you can’t think of any other poetic way to die that wouldn’t hurt just as much, you decide not to.
Your body will seem strange and fragile to you. Your skin will feel like paper and your bones will feel like porcelein and you’ll eat almost nothing but fruit, which you'll crave like you were pregnant. In fact, your parents will begin to worry aloud that you are pregnant, until you start pointedly leaving tampon applicators smeared with blood in your parents’ wicker wastebasket.
Your father will grow silent and sad. You are his favorite and one night he will make pancakes shaped like your initials, just like when you were little. You will refuse to eat them and he will tip them into the garbage disposal one by one, then flip the switch and stand there, listening to the loud whir and scrape of metal on metal, staring at the buttermilk bits disappearing down the drain.
III. Solve for X
Your mother—as always, as ever—will be the strong one. She will be stoic at first, then angry, and finally, exasperated. She will take you to a therapist, who will tell you to cut it out with the fruit already; don’t you know you can get sick from too much vitamin C? You’ll wonder how he knew—of course, your mother must have told him. Bitch, you will think, and decide to be rebellious. You don’t need a therapist. You don’t need anybody.
That’s your decision, of course, the therapist will say. You will roll your eyes and sigh loudly. But, he will add, it might be good for you to have someone to talk to. Your mother tells me this is your first death; you’ve never dealt with anything like this before.
You will hear the words, First Death, with Emily Dickinson capitals, and you will panic. You will think, Good lord, will there be more of these? You will think of all your future loves lined up like tin soldiers in an oven, colorful and shiny, melting down as you look on in horror. And you will think you may have a Nervous Breakdown right then and there. The therapist, whose name is Dr. Mueller, will agree to see you twice a month. In the waiting room he will tell your mother that unless you’re feeling better by fall you should postpone college for a while, even though you’ve already been accepted. Fine by me, you’ll say, and shrug.
She’s lost a lot of weight, your mother will stage whisper to Dr. Mueller. You’ll just shrug again. You will feel like a punk. You will feel embarrassed and cool, like a rock star talking about politics.
At this point your mind will want to get away from you. It will start to take trips, to go off and watch birds or catalogue flowers or read calm novels where no one dies in tights or duels. It will grow squeamish at the sight of your now awkward, angled body. It will avoid mirrors.
You will wave whenever you spot your mind in passing, but it will duck down its head and pretend not to notice. I’ve lost my mind, you will complain to your mother.
I know, she will say, the corners of her mouth white and sagging. She has no imagination and counts out exact numbers of chocolate chips before she makes cookies. That’s why you’re seeing Dr. Mueller.
Dr. Mueller will ask you to call him Curtis and will act more like a teacher than a doctor. You won't really like him, but he will listen to you talk about Danny if you want to. And you really want to. You’ll tell Dr. Mueller lots of things about Danny. You’ll tell him how Danny wanted to write a book about a Godzilla-like monster so big it could swallow the whole world but because it doesn’t, people worship it and call it God. It would be a thinly-veiled novelization of his religious beliefs, you will say.
Curtis will narrow his eyes a little. Are they your beliefs as well?
Oh, no, you will tell him proudly. I’m an agnostic. He will nod and ask you where you think Danny is now. I strongly suspect, you will say, that he is nowhere at all. Then you’ll worry that this sounds too clinical, as if you didn’t care, but Curtis will have already moved on and so you’ll cry by yourself later, wrapped in your down comforter even though it’s ninety degrees outside.
Another time Curtis will ask you if you could tell that Danny was depressed. Oh, sure, you will say. Yeah, for sure. This will be a lie. You will feel that it would look bad for you of all people not to have noticed, not to have known.
IV. Undiscovered Equations
The summer will drift along in lonely jerks like tumbleweed. You’ll spend it alone and bored, falling asleep at odd times. You’ll go driving through thunderstorms, so slowly and aimlessly that drivers behind you will honk, giving you the finger and mouthing like fish behind their rain-spattered windows. You'll learn to read Tarot cards, training yourself to find meaning in everything. You'll find Danny in nothing: not in the romance novels from the local library, not in the Victorian poets you'll be reading because you think you should, not in the first-person shooters you’ll become addicted to when you visit your brother in his dorm.
You’ll start to miss your mind. While you are reading Danny’s emails for the four hundredth time, you’ll want to cry but nothing will happen. You’ll push air out with your lungs, force a cry, even squeeze your stomach like a squeaky toy. This will not work; it will feel more like the dry heaves than sorrow.
You’ll sit for a moment and think hard. Then you’ll go downstairs. I think I want to go to college this fall, you will tell your parents while they are watching television. Your father will nod, carefully looking at dancing stars instead of you. He will act as though there was a spell and his moving or speaking could break it. Your mother will annoy you by hugging you so hard that your bra clasp cuts your skin. And your mother is not the hugging type, which is no doubt why she gets it wrong.
To your surprise, you will immensely enjoy yourself at college. Your roommate will sleep too much and listen to bad house music, but she’ll be funny and sarcastic. You’ll gain the freshman fifteen, which is good because then you’ll be rounded instead of angled. You’ll take Philosophy 1001 and feel sorry for Danny, because he would have loved college and now he’ll never be any smarter; he’ll never know any more than he did at seventeen.
One day a flyer will go up in your dorm, announcing auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; you will audition and land the part of Helena. An older girl named Tanya will be playing Titania because of her height and her long red hair, and the two of you will become friends. It will be good to have a friend again.
Your parents will call every day at first, then less often when they discover you’re always busy. When you apologize for not visiting, your father will practically yell into the phone, No, no, stay busy, honey! That’s fine, that’s good!
You will sometimes forget about Danny. Then you’ll feel guilty and try to cry, but it will feel like bad acting, a reflection of someone else’s sadness. Besides, the noises you make will annoy your roommate. You sound like a goddamn cow, she’ll say.
Your parents will come to see your play and so, to your acute embarrassment, will Jeannie, Danny’s mother. She will hug you and cling to you and whisper hoarsely, I wish Danny could have see you up there, he would have loved it, and you won’t know what to say because Danny hated theatre.
It just isn’t as specific as film, he’d say, and you never knew what he meant so it always made you mad.
Jeannie will smell like soap and smoke. How sad, your mother will whisper to your father, she must’ve started smoking again, and Jeannie will hear and turn pink and white. She will also smell a little like Danny, though not really like Danny but like his house. But still. There will be something unnerving about her, a reminder of Danny that you maybe think you don’t want or need. You will resent this, and smile at her a little too coldly.
Excuse me, you will say, but I have to go backstage and change out of my costume now.
On your next visit to Curtis (you still won’t quite have found your mind, though it’s been coming around more often) he will tell you this was perhaps not the kindest way you could have behaved.
Oh, you will say sarcastically, really? It is, sadly, the only retort you will be able to think of. You will be mortified. You will respond with silence for the rest of the session, finally giving Curtis two tickets to your play and driving back to the dorm in a huff to run lines with Tanya.
No one ever has any practical solutions for anything, you will complain.
I have one, she will say, and smile. She will tell you about a cast party Oberon, really a sophmore named Robb, is throwing that night.
At the party, you will get drunk as a lord. You’ll stumble around Oberon/Robb’s house with your tongue loose and thick and a warm blanket around your brain. Oh, sorry, you’ll keep saying as you bump into furniture, and everyone will laugh, mostly good-naturedly. At some point Puck will corner you in the hallway and you'll be swept away by his sparkly eyebrows and pointy ears.
The next morning, you’ll wake up on Robb/Oberon's couch, headachy and mouth-cottony and feeling altogether wretched. And suddenly, before you can get up, before you can even really move, you’ll start weeping. You’ll know then what those Victorians poets meant when they used the word ‘weep:’ a faucet in your face, pushing out tears. You will cry the way that you never even cried for Danny when you really, really meant it. But you won’t be crying for Danny. You won’t know why you’re crying, but it will seem that this cry might be good. It will seem that this cry might be the kind a person is supposed to have: cathartic, healing, devastating. A revelation. A hard pinch; a sharp pain to remind you you’re awake.
And you will look up and there—there your mind will be, standing sheepishly with its hands in its pockets, scuffling its feet a little. I got bored, it will say.
Oh, you’ll shout, queasy and swollen and relieved, oh, it’s you! I’ve missed you! You will sigh and try to hold still so your mind can get settled.
Shup…tryna sleep, someone will mutter from the vicinity of the floor, but you will only smile a little. You will be comforted, and you will be full of sadness, and you will never, never be solved.
|Amber Sparks's work has appeared in various publications, most recently in Barrelhouse, Wigleaf, Lamination Colony, Annalemma, and New York Tyrant. She is the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and a contributor at literary blogs Vouched and Big Other. She lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two cats.|
Annalemma Magazine is a literary and arts journal printed biannually and updated weekly online. Founded in 2007 with the expressed mission of engaging as many people as possible in the life-changing experience of telling good stories, Annalemma’s print issues are a lavish celebration of colorful artwork and photography that accompany short stories and essays from writers of all ages, nationalities, disciplines and echelons of the publishing world.