The Dead Girl’s Room

When I moved in, the apartment was littered with a dead girl’s belongings. The nondescript furniture in the living room and kitchen didn’t bother me; it was the red coffee mug, the pink lip liner, the dried-up fern perched on a windowsill. Though I knew it was past saving, I dutifully watered it for weeks.

On the other hand, everything in her bedroom made me shiver: the closet full of empty hangers, the white bed frame, the mattress stripped of sheets, her empty dresser. I was hesitant to touch anything I knew she had touched. I hovered over the toilet seat and wore flip-flops in the shower. I got take-out and ate standing up.

The apartment was on the first floor of a small red brick building on a street with a seedy bar, a liquor store, a pizza place where drunk kids stopped on their way home. At night, from behind the barred windows and drawn blinds, I would hear them cackling.

The apartment — which I walked into for the first time on the day I moved into it — was older and grimier than it had appeared in pictures. The walls were off-white and lumpen where dents and holes had been painted over without being repaired. The bedroom was dark red, the walls bare except for an “I voted” sticker above the dresser. Tiles were missing from the kitchen floor. Light-loathing, inch-long insects with too many legs scurried along the base molding. The bookshelves were covered in a layer of sooty dust, the counters and stove crusty with food residue. There was no air-conditioning, and on stuffy summer evenings I dragged my single fan with me from one room to the next to stay cool.

But the place had its charms: high ceilings, wood floors, and large windows that let it in a flood of tree-filtered light. The doorknobs were made of glass.

I didn’t know the dead girl, only that she was to have moved out of the apartment after her graduation that spring. A friend of mine who’d gone to college with her planned on taking over the apartment in the fall; I would live there for the summer while he was abroad.

A few days before I arrived, the landlord emailed me. There had been a terrible accident. On a clear day, shortly after her graduation, the girl and her boyfriend had taken a road trip to visit her family. En route, they both fell asleep, he at the wheel; she died instantly.

Now the landlord was worried that the apartment wouldn’t be ready for me. When the girl moved in, he wrote, her mother had cleaned the apartment for her, but under the circumstances, he didn’t know when her parents might come to collect her things.

Immediately, I looked her up on Facebook. Her pictures showed a thin, pretty, confident girl with long, reddish brown hair and long, skinny legs. I Googled her and learned that she’d been gifted, accomplished, unanimously admired by her professors and peers, had been published in the New York Times, had a job waiting for her at The New Yorker.

I sobbed as I read, for the first time grieving someone I’d never known, but also grieving for myself because I was alive, and convinced I could never be as good.

For months I’d been looking forward to that apartment, to the summer before my senior year of college and my first time living in a new city — a small East Coast city that I’d never even visited — with no friends or family living nearby. I viewed the prospect with relief. I’d spent much of the previous year worrying about other people: my parents, who were splitting up after thirty years of marriage; my best friend whose heart was broken by my other best friend. I longed for time and space to reflect on what had happened, what was next, what would last.

My goal for the summer was to write every day, to read as much as I could, to learn how to be alone. I read A Room of One’s Own and quoted Woolf in my journal: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”

I’d come for an internship at the alumni magazine of the university’s medical school. My job involved writing profiles of notable students, faculty, and alumni, whom I interviewed about their research on harnessing our immune systems to fight cancer, growing replacement blood vessels and organs in petri dishes. The workload was light, too light. Some mornings, I would stroll into my corner office around nine, write a couple of sentences, email my friends, and then read literary magazines until  late afternoon, when it was time to leave. If the heat didn’t kill my motivation on the walk home, I went to the gym. But most days I headed straight to the apartment, greedy to begin an evening free of obligations.

It took me a while to shake the guilt I felt when I was alone and idle — at school if I turned down an opportunity to socialize, if I spent my free time watching TV instead of running from extracurricular to extracurricular, I was made to feel there was something wrong with me. So in those first few weeks, I reached out to my neighbors; I brought them a case of beer in exchange for their wi-fi password, and we went out for burritos once. But I discovered I preferred reading books and cooking for myself in my un–air-conditioned apartment; once I’d accepted that, I avoided interacting with others as much as I could.

My journal entries and emails from those early summer days are imbued with a sense of urgency; I was consumed with a need to figure out what I wanted and believed as soon as possible, suspecting that when I graduated, my ability to grow would, somehow, completely cease. I would be stuck with my bad habits and the gaps in my knowledge; my shortcomings and blurry vision of myself would leave me stagnant, while my peers wrote books, made music, saved lives. “I want to be brainstorming original ideas; helping to create the kind of world I want to live in, not just passively inhabiting it,” I wrote in my journal one night after work, sipping a beer in the stuffy apartment. “I live like I’m immune to death. What if I have a brain aneurysm that suddenly bursts and I die?”

Among the things left behind was the girl’s bed — a full-sized, boxy thing that probably came from Ikea. Though she hadn’t died in the bed, the idea of sleeping in it bothered me. From an article about her in a campus newspaper, I learned that she’d spent a lot of time in her bed. Her mother said she had treated it like a desk, that it was where she did her writing. In a picture of the bedroom that I’d been sent when I was considering whether to move in — and which I’ve studied a number of times since — the bed is unmade and her laptop is open on top of it, partly covered by a floral comforter, as if she had just climbed out of bed. Books and clothes litter the floor: an inside-out pair of jeans, a toppled-over pair of brown leather boots. More clothes spill out of the open dresser drawers and the bedside table is cluttered with a coffee mug, a hairbrush, a tissue box.

That first night in the apartment, I put brand-new sheets on the bed, but as soon as I lay down, the mattress fell with a thump through the box-spring. A closer inspection revealed that it was thoroughly broken; I didn’t want to think about how that might have happened. I realigned the mattress, hoping that if I lay perfectly still, my weight balanced directly over the middle, the mattress would not seesaw. In this position, I tried to sleep, but each time I shifted my weight or leaned to scratch a bug bite on my ankle, the mattress teetered to one side.

At last, I gave up and pulled the mattress to the floor, but still I couldn’t get comfortable. The mattress held a deep impression of her figure into which I did not fit. Near dawn I fell asleep at the edge of the mattress with the light on and the bedroom door ajar — my methods for keeping ghosts away.

I kept this up for about a week.  Then I called the landlord and made arrangements to have a new bed delivered.

That night I broke the old bed into pieces; it was too big to fit down the narrow hallway, so I had to take it apart. As I had with the rest of her belongings, I treated it delicately at first, slowly unscrewing each screw, stacking the pieces in a neat pile. But I grew impatient. It was going in the garbage anyway, I reminded myself, and stepped on the planks until they splintered. I felt like I was committing a sin, destroying one of the few connections I had with the girl, whose spirit I suspected could be kept alive through her possessions. But I was also pissed off that I had been inconvenienced by her death — a late move-in, a dirty apartment littered with worn-out junk, restless nights. I wanted to sleep; I wanted my selfish summer.

The newly claimed bedroom inspired me to make the apartment a home. I hung pictures on the walls, bought an orchid and a basil plant, rugs and candles, filled the cabinets with groceries, put my books on the shelves, hung my clothes in the closet.

I avoided doing anything about the bathroom for as long as possible, though, because it frightened me. The window had been painted over for privacy, and the overhead lamp was broken, so the only light came from a small desk lamp clamped to the doorframe. The ceiling was covered with coffee-colored stains, the walls layered with thick paint that coagulated here and there like infected wounds that someone tried to stitch up. The ancient claw-footed bathtub badly needed a new layer of varnish, and the floor tiles were crumbling. When I had to use it, I always checked behind the shower curtain for axe murderers and kept the door open while I peed.

When, at last, I forced myself to clean it, I saved the drain for last, knowing it would be clogged with her hair. Using a paper towel to keep my fingers clean, I pulled at the strands caught in the cross of the drain, playing a tug a war until I fell back with a tangle of hair between my fingers — my hair, dark brown and thick, entwined with the thinner auburn hair that I knew were hers. I shuddered, gagged, threw the clump in the toilet, flushed without looking.

One day, looking for a pen to write in my journal, I discovered a fine, green, felt-tipped pen, its cap covered with bite marks. She must have gnawed on it there, I thought, while writing in bed. Another day, while taking out the trash, I found a stack of soggy Moleskine notebooks out near the garbage cans. Some of them were nearly empty, so I plucked one from the pile to keep for myself. The pages were wet — it had rained recently — and ink bled down the creamy paper. I fanned out the pages and left it on the stove to dry.

There was no name or date on the flyleaf, only the words “The Human Genome.” I compared the  boyish scrawl to the handwriting on a Post-it stuck to her fridge; it was similar enough that I convinced myself the notebook belonged to her. Inside was a brief timeline of the Human Genome Project. It ended with the words “Where are we now?” written in large letters and circled. A mirror image of the words had bled into the opposite and subsequent pages, eerily echoing the question. “99.9 % (of) humans are similar,” the writer noted. The rest of the writing was impossible to make out, and the rest of the notebook was blank.

I was flooded with the sense that it was my task to fill those blank pages. I would write the stories she didn’t get a chance to, I thought. I chastised myself for all the days I’d wasted — climbing into bed at 8 p.m. and binge-watching television. The weeks were racing by and I hadn’t done any of the things I promised myself I would — I hadn’t written a brilliant essay, lost weight, contemplated the meaning of life.

“I FEEL INADEQUATE,” I wrote in my journal. “I feel like I’m falling behind. I fear graduation. I fear the monotony of 9–5 everyday for the rest of my life. I fear having to accept and settle for a comfortable job—but not one that excites me. That challenges me daily.” It was the same feeling the dead girl described in an essay she wrote shortly before her graduation. In it, she confessed to feeling scared of leaving college, but also being convinced that the best years of her life were not behind her. She urged her peers not to give into the feeling — that it was “somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving.”

I was angry at myself for feeling so defeated, but I couldn’t help suspecting that the dead girl in whose apartment I was living had done more in her twenty-two years than I would do in my whole life. I’d heard about the dead girl’s memorial service, the church in her hometown filled with hundreds of mourners, more still standing outside open windows in the pouring rain to listen as people shared memories of her, read excerpts from her writing, spoke about all that she might have done.  Though I knew she must sometimes have felt the way I did — had laid in the same bedroom feeling awful for sleeping too late, procrastinating, cutting corners — in her death she had, it seemed, become perfect.

The dead girl had written a play; it was unfinished, but was being performed anyway, at a small theater in New York City, on the night that I finished my job for the summer. That day I said goodbye to my co-workers, packed my things, left the dead girl’s apartment, and drove to Manhattan. The play, performed by mostly recent college grads, turned out to be about a group of young people living on a ship, partying their days away, smuggling weed between Canada and the U.S. for cash, drifting in the space between youth and adulthood. They were scared and lonely and wanted to stay anchored at port, rather than float out into the unpredictable, unforgiving sea. It was a musical, part funny and outrageous, part poignant and profound. One line in particular I remember the cast singing: “In the blink of an eye, I will live, I will die.”

When the play was over, I approached the director, who had been a classmate and a friend of the dead girl. I told him how much it meant to me to see the play, and I gave him a letter to pass on to the girl’s parents. He nodded and quietly promised he’d get it to them.

Then I got in my car and drove out of the city.

Almost exactly a year after the girl died, my college boyfriend and I took a road trip. It was a clear day soon after our graduation. He was at the wheel.

An hour into the drive, I thought of her. I can’t remember what triggered it—perhaps we passed a sign for her hometown. Maybe the music turned to one of her favorite bands. But I think it was my boyfriend’s untouched cup of coffee grown cold.

“Aren’t you tired?” I asked my boyfriend. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”

He assured me he was fine, really he was.

If I was tired, I should sleep, he said. I should sleep.

No. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, fall asleep.

Last spring, a collection of the dead girl’s essays and stories was published. Reading it was, for me, like living in her apartment: it both inspired and incapacitated me. I felt that I could have written those stories, that collection — and yet, I hadn’t.

At that point I hadn’t yet dealt with rejection at all, because the fear of failure had largely kept me from writing. With every day that I didn’t sit down in front of my keyboard, the idea of writing became more unbearable. I was afraid that writing would force me to admit how much less talented I was than the dead girl. I would see that my sentences weren’t as beautiful as hers had been, how much less I had to say. And then I would know that I had failed to take her place, to take advantage of the opportunity she had given me.

For a long time this essay was about the dead girl. Only when I let it be about myself could I finish it.

I’d seen her death as a sign that I was supposed to be a writer: her death had created a vacancy in the crowded world of aspiring writers, and that space was meant for me. The apartment, the pen, the notebook — these clues confirmed my theory.

Now I realize the signs weren’t signs at all.

There won’t ever be any signs.

I have to make a space of my own.

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