I originally wrote this piece in Tim Wendel’s (one of the best teachers I have ever had) class at JHU. My thesis advisor, Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson then asked to publish it here. I have pulled this directly from my JHU thesis and I have not read it in a while. It feels like a time capsule in several layers. February 15 marks five years since the death of “Matt,” whose name has been changed. I then submitted it to a few publications by which it was all promptly rejected. I am glad to bring it back to the light, see what you all think, and see if maybe there are changes I could make to take another stab at publishing it. Aside from the name change, this story is entirely true.
A viewing for a twenty-something isn’t normal and everyone knows it. People struggle with the proper facial expression, whom to greet, where to look, when to move, how long to stare at each picture, whether to hang up a coat or drape it over an arm. It can be a forty-five-minute utterly self-centered struggle over meaningless decisions, because something far more important waits just steps away.
I found myself making these pointless choices in February 2013. My boyfriend Chas had joined me. He took my coat and turned me toward the deceased’s father, standing back, while I endured an awkward hug.
I hadn’t touched this man before. I could tell he didn’t remember my name. He shared a list of his late son’s recent accomplishments. “Going back to school in the fall,” he glanced toward the casket. “Working at the church,” he glanced toward the casket. “And then this,” one more blue-eyed look toward his dead son, as he trailed off.
I didn’t know an appropriate word. I settled on sighs and sympathetic noises. My mind flipped through memories of his son, like Polaroids in an old album: I’m vacuuming while he mops at the café where we worked. My glittery pink prom dress and his matching cummerbund. A bouquet of red roses in his arms, a vision I can see from my sixth-floor-room. His lip bulging with dipping tobacco as I sit in his lap.
His dad and I pretended to be equally engaged in a conversation we couldn’t really have, not honestly. I was there when this started, and neither of us could fix it. Eventually we let space separate where we stood, without really ending the conversation or wishing goodbye or saying, “What the fuck? How did this happen,” which is what everyone, worried about hanging or carrying a coat, was really thinking.
Eight years earlier, I am seventeen years old and standing in the bakery of Panera Bread, my first job. The guy I’ve had a crush on for more than a year now—despite the tenures of two other boyfriends—is mopping near the soup station. He serves more broccoli cheddar than any other soup. I know this pisses him off because everyone who orders broccoli cheddar is “the same,” and we are teenagers and sameness is supposed to piss us off.
He’s rolled up the sleeves of his polo so that his biceps flex visibly with each stroke over the red tile floor. His sneakers are filthy below a pair of cargo khaki shorts he wears year-round. It’s snowing, so customers are sparse. Through the windows the parking lot is white, glittery, gorgeous, and Matt and I are two of the few who haven’t been sent home tonight because of the slow business. I am concentrating—underneath the brim of my black “trainer” visor—on removing icing from the countertop with a plastic knife. I’ve called my dad, who has agreed to pick up the excess pastries for a homeless shelter where he helps out. Bags of Danish, bagels, and muffins surround me. And I’m scraping, scraping a stubborn spot of icing, trying to not reveal that I’m aware of Matt’s proximity.
Matt abandons his mop and meets me in the bakery. I can tell he’s only bored, so I try to curb my excitement and strike the most relaxed stance an apron allows.
“Hi Debbb,” he draws out his nonsense nickname for me. (In a few months, he will write “To: Deb From: Matt. Now I fit in your wallet!” on the back of a senior photo of himself. I will keep it in a memory box for years.)
“How are your prom plans coming along? You and Sarah getting a stretchhhh limo?” he laughs at himself.
“Meh, fine. I don’t know about the limo. We’re just gonna go together,” I say.
He looks me in the eyes and smiles. Expectantly.
“Can I go with you?”
I wait to respond.
“I mean it’s just an idea. You can be all Ms. Feminist Deb and go with your friends if you want, but I do look pretty good in a suit.”
I wait again. His face is serious, lips pressed tightly, eyebrows raised, waiting for me.
“Yea, okay. You can come,” I hear myself say. My blood pumps faster than at track practice. I’m giddy but try to hide it for the rest of the shift. I try not to look at him and be tempted to feel a bit of ownership. Sweep, mop, wipe. Look normal. Sweep, mop, wipe. Act normal.
Eventually my dad comes. We load up the baked goods, and I say goodnight to Matt. I can’t wait to get home and write in my journal.
Taking Chas’s lead at the viewing, I walked around the room and surveyed the pictures Matt’s family arranged on poster boards. They wrote his name in marker at the top of one littered with photos of him and the high school football team. Maroon uniforms and game faces, a million miles away yet right down the street.
Realizing I’m not in any of the photos, I selfishly started classifying them in my head: “before Amanda” and “after Amanda.” There were far more “before Amanda.” “During Amanda” there were no photos. No record of the time when he fell into this hole, out of which he could not crawl. Did I remind them of too much? Did they just forget me? Did I matter?
The timeline was easy because of the way his face looked. An attractive young man with eyes the color of Caribbean waters, a toothy smile, and a strong squared jaw had morphed into a blotchy and bloated shell-person with empty eyes and yellowed teeth. I tried to focus only on sympathy and compassion, but I couldn’t get the feeling of relief out of my head. Relief that I had gotten away.
With my prom date intact, I write down my work schedule from the master on the bulletin board near the meat slicers. Each shift I share with Matt gets an asterisk. I need to make sure he’s really coming to the dance. I keep our conversation going to lay the groundwork for a romantic evening in the fifteen-dollar pink dress I bought at Goodwill.
My boss, Kirsten, approaches me three days later during a non-asterisk shift, “Be careful with Mr. Bauer,” she says, emphasizing his last name.
“I know,” I say. Kirsten’s prom date fifteen years ago couldn’t possibly have had eyes this blue. (Years later, I will wish I had taken her advice.)
At every asterisked shift, I make a point to speak to Matt about the dance. It is my own insurance that I won’t be Sarah and her now secured date’s third wheel, that sad person who dances in a small, charity-case circle of three. Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved,” blaring through the speakers.
On the night of prom, my cheeks are bronzed, each eyelash is in place and thickly coated in black, and both breast lifters are doing their respective jobs.
My dad and I pick Matt up from his parents’ house. After a long internal struggle, I have opted to arrive already in the backseat. The dads shake hands and Matt climbs in. I try not to think about the pathetic nature of riding in the Honda Odyssey with my date, my father at the wheel.
As I attempt to keep my strapless dress afloat throughout prom, he sneaks small kisses, and I feel like the princess this thrift store dress awkwardly mimics. Girls of high social status are watching. I dance with the guy they’re watching. I have done it. He is actually here, he’s with me, and just maybe he might feel the same way.
At the casket, I sought and found the courage to kneel. Chas asked if I wanted him to come with me. I needed to do this alone—transmit thoughts to a lifeless body I last saw alive six years ago. My knees cracked on the hard kneeler as I knelt to look in.
His deflated hands were plastic, folded the way they always fold dead people’s hands, the way the living never hold their hands. Those hands used to hold me. I used to hold those hands.
He was an alien. His pale, powdered face was drawn into a look of satisfaction. His lips were shiny pink, and each fake eyelash was equally spaced from the next. The lines in his forehead that had always been there were dusty.
I looked down the length of his body, which wore an outfit Matt never would have worn when I knew him. In the casket with him were nods to his life: an Orioles keychain, a Ravens schedule. I closed my eyes and thought the thoughts I hadn’t managed to say to say out loud years before. His powdery façade remained peacefully posed. He listened.
Matt picks me up from my parents’ house. I have been ready for an hour—since the time he said he’d be here. I skip out to the car and settle into the leather passenger seat of his Chrysler.
“Glory Days, okay?” he asks.
I feign excitement. I hate sports bar chains.
We eat and talk amid kitschy memorabilia. A sled nailed to the wall above our heads threatens to drop. He’s looking at his cell phone throughout the meal.
Then, getting up from the table he says, “Excuse me. I need to talk to Barrett.” He rises before receiving his pardon.
“Yea, sure,” I say to his back.
He returns ten minutes later. “Sorry. He needed. Something.”
“That’s okay,” I get back to normal date conversation.
Months after prom we have fallen into a relationship. I have moved to college, though my school is just a few miles from my house and his house is even closer. One night, I am sitting in his parents’ living room with his mangy and unkempt dog. Matt is upstairs.
Matt was in a car accident recently. He says someone ran him off the road and kept going. His car is gone, with little explanation, and I don’t really ask. Tonight, I am waiting to give him a ride to a friend’s, and then we’ll grab dinner.
Matt’s still upstairs, and I have no idea what he’s doing. It’s been a long time. If I go up there, I don’t know what I’ll see, so I wait. I would like something to do, a book, a game. I stare at my whittled down fingernails, hoping for a hangnail to chew. I can’t bring myself to touch this dog. The poor thing’s fur is separated into small dirty sections. What is he doing?
Matt returns after forty-five minutes. He already has his coat on and asks, indifferently, if I am ready to go.
From my prisoner’s chair I can’t even answer him. I half expect the dog to explain.
“What were you doing?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What were you doing?” I say, stopping and turning him around to face me.
He’s stuttering, searching for his explanation. “It’s really embarrassing. I don’t want to tell you.”
I stand there and stare at him. He’s jerky, fidgety. I don’t want to cry, but I can feel tears welling up. I don’t understand. I’m not certain I want to.
“Fine. I have Athlete’s Foot,” he drags on. “I have to put on this medicine and not put on shoes for a long time while it works its magic,” he smiles waving a magical hand, an invitation for me to join, to soften up, to not cry. He can smell my skepticism.
I look at my own feet and then at his. I walk to the door and down the front steps and take my place in the driver’s seat.
I told Matt I still had his letter, that sometimes I read it just to remember him, his handwriting, his nicknames for me. I thought I saw him once in a Royal Farms parking lot but couldn’t bring myself to approach. Did he see me too? I sped away with a racing heart, and I was sorry for that, for a long time.
I looked at his hair and remembered running my fingers through it and thought the sweetest memory I could think.
I tell him: “I try to preserve you the way you were that time you came to see me sing. The lights were yellow and dimmed. The hall was decorated for Christmas, and the air smelled like rosemary and rye and every time I looked down you were in the audience smiling up at me. The entire show, you were smiling.”
Months pass and Matt gets stranger. He has a seizure. He is hospitalized. He acts like nothing has happened, and so do I. We carry on, always needing to stop at his friends’ houses: to get CDs, retrieve a left key, something. And I wait in the car.
One weekday I’m in class when Matt’s father calls me, “Have you seen him? He hasn’t called me. I haven’t talked to him in twenty-four hours.”
Matt hasn’t only disappeared on me, I think. I tell his dad I have no idea. I haven’t heard from Matt either. His dad rattles off a list of people he’s asked about Matt’s whereabouts. I have asked them too, I say.
I tell his dad about the money he borrowed from me for his “cell phone bill.” I can hear his dad’s voice getting higher as I pace around my dorm room, the sweaty phone stuck to my face. I am so naïve.
Some weeks later, I still haven’t heard from Matt, but his dad’s concerned calls have stopped. I’ve tried to begin the breakup process, if only in my own head, since we have never really talked about it. Eat ice cream. Watch When Harry Met Sally. Go out with friends. Repeat.
I run into Matt’s friend Mike in front of my dorm building. He’s holding a case of Natural Light under his arm; a cigarette hangs from his lips. We commiserate in concern over Matt.
He is “back,” according to Mike. I have no idea what back means. Mike says “he’s in deep” as he lights another unsupported Camel, just after tossing the last one.
I listen. If I chime in, I think, Mike will stop giving me information. I need information.
“He’s on things, maybe meth, always scratching his arms. And those nose bleeds.”
Meth, meth, meth, I repeat in my mind reminding myself to look on Wikipedia.
“He’s nervous, always paranoid.”
Mike continues. He might have tears in his eyes. I listen as he pours out stories about the person I know. Knew? I lean on a concrete pillar and look down at the ground, still processing.
Mike suddenly punches the pillar and staggers away from me and into the trees near the building. I go back upstairs where my friends are watching TV.
Mike texts me the next day: “Broke my hand.”
I gave Matt one more goodbye thought and then looked away from his closed eyes. I left the kneeler and saw that a few of Matt’s friends were at the viewing. As I worked my way back to Chas, I gave slight waves to the people who seemed to remember me (proof that “During Amanda” did happen). Mike was among them, older than he’d been that night at school, more somber but less emotional. I gave one more sympathetic glance toward Matt’s dad. Chas helped me put on my pea coat one arm at a time. We headed outside to go home.
After my talk with Mike, Matt floats in and out of my life a few more times. Our official break up sort of happens when I tell Matt, firmly, to stop calling me. At this point, we haven’t spoken in months. I tell him that I can’t date someone who slips in and out of my life, whose dad calls me at midnight looking for him, who cares so much and then doesn’t at all. Someone who lies so easily, has problems he can’t admit, much less face and correct. I’m healing, somewhat: dating a frat guy I don’t care about and training for a half marathon.
Four months later, I’m just home from seeing a movie with my roommate when my sister calls. I can tell she is trying not to cry as she starts to talk. She tells me that Matt Bauer broke into Panera and robbed a cashier with a gun. He was wearing a bandana over his face, and his hair was bleached blond. He had locked his keys in his car so he kicked open his own driver’s side window and sped away. No one was hurt, but the police can’t find him. (I’ll later learn that he successfully robbed three or four restaurants before getting arrested. Rumor will have it that he gets a “jail tat.”)
We walked out of a viewing for a twenty-seven-year-old who “died in his sleep.” I exhaled and held Chas’s arm closer to my side. I knew I could talk if I wanted or be quiet if I needed to.
Arriving at the cold car I thought about how you can’t save everyone, but you can save yourself. I thought of what I learned when I was far too young. And I really tried to cry. I tried to feel more about the loss of this person I did love. I wanted to feel bad for not answering his letter long ago. I wanted to feel bad for not letting him twelve-step me. Yet, I realized my decisions had not been meaningless, after all. I knew that I didn’t blame myself because when I drove away from that funeral home, I got distance, all over again.