How Grief Works


I am on closing duties, three am, Saturday night breaking into the pale of Sunday morning, the last drunk customer is gone, and I have wrung out the last smelly wet rag, secured the mouth of every pour spout with cling wrap, bleached down all surfaces, so all that’s left is to drag the beer-infested rubber floor mats on my way out for Serge, the other bartender, who is already hosing down a long queue of the club’s sticky floor mats, his figure illuminated by a single street lamp, as if holy, shrouded in a deluge of white mist that, I realize, is the gentle rain falling from the sky, crap, I have to run, I yell to him as I spring on my weekly odyssey toward Wetherspoons, where my friends are sure to be found already pissed drunk if not throwing up, and if I am lucky, I can get a few shots in myself before retiring for the night, except luck is not on my side tonight, of all the nights I have been closing down at one bar to drink at another, cheaper, bar, I have somehow left my ID behind, and the doorman who usually knows me by sight and loves smiling his we-are-all-in-this-together smile has hardened into a stone-faced sentry, insisting, without a shred of regret, that I cannot be let in tonight, because for some mysterious reason this usually half-empty squat of a dumpy hangout for musty broke students, where well drinks are £3, and a basket of fries £1, is over capacity, and that’s not even counting the restless queue snaking around the corner, not to mention it is illegal without an ID, he drills into me, and I turn to leave after crying out son of a bitch with the impotence of a child, at the same moment the rain decides to turn heavy, my bed is still at least a whole thirty minutes away, an eternity considering my terrible sobriety, and the fury makes me want to sob, the way I have many nights before and will many nights after, but I don’t, I hold myself in the container of myself and shove my hands deeper into my pockets and march ahead, eyes downcast toward my sneakers, whose edges are already darkening from sloshing through the night’s puddles, when suddenly, a boom! and I am flung backwards, for a violent second I think, I have been hit by a car, is my face okay, my bones, my life, my god, I am on the ground, a sledgehammer throbs inside my head, wait, no car to be seen when I look up, instead, a face, soft, misty, belonging to a real-life human, who, I should add, is already helping me back onto my feet, he is apologizing profusely, even though I was the one fuming and walking without looking, smashing my forehead against the steel bone of his chin, and I manage to say only “oh, oh, oh,” into the halo of swirling stars in my vision, utterly shaken, first by the collision, then by the stranger’s beautiful smile, both eyes full on crinkling unlike any smile I have seen in a long time, and with one hand rubbing his jaw and another still holding mine, he asks if I want to come along, the solemn question decorating the night like a grand star pulling together a shabby Christmas tree, how his eyes glisten from what must have already been a long night of drink, god only knows where he came from, what he was doing, prior to knocking the wind out of my life, all these questions worming through the crowded tunnel of my head and what comes out of my mouth is “yes,” sure as a knife, the kind so sharp it cuts time into two distinct parts so that you may look back and forever rearrange your memories as “before” and “after,” as in I will later recall my life as the period “before David,” and “after David,” but at the moment his invitation has dissipated my sour, sullen fog, I am springing forward again, excited, to retrieve his umbrella that has flown out of his hands at the moment of our collision, and together we claim the umbrella like it is our lost child, thank god it is unharmed, our precious baby, and then we are running down a cobblestoned alley, into a pub whose entrance is so low even someone of my short height has to bend to enter, and my heart thumps in my ear, whooshing of adrenaline, and David just, he just stands there, straight as a cello, folding up our umbrella-child with the dignity of someone fulfilling a moral duty, after which he leans it, ever so carefully, against the wall where other umbrellas lean, then he comes to me and leans into my ear to tell me this is his favorite pub, before disappearing and reemerging with a small tray of sugary shooters, the disgusting kind, but on this night I am not myself, I am looking at David’s face, lit up like a slowly-warming kettle, and the only reason this terrible drink on a wet night after an exhausting shift and getting 86-ed at Wetherspoons will later take on such mythic proportions in my memory is because two years later David will die, or is it three, see how hard I will try to blur the dates of our meeting and his passing, because two or three years is too little time to have with anyone, let alone my David, and for many years after his suicide I will experience time as a hard, immutable thing, heavy, sticky, unmoving, because in every iteration of our pact, which we will revise fairly regularly while both of us are still alive, we agree to never let each other go, we will act in unison, we will either choose death or choose life together, god willing, until the ripe old age of dentures and incontinence, though it is not hard to see later how little we believed in this fantasy of old age, see? how it sticks out, awkward, like comedy, a failure of our imagination, a fevered dream consisting of the most prosaic tropes, such as losing one’s teeth, losing one’s bladder control, ha-ha, wouldn’t that be hilarious, and yet—, the truth will be that in those few years, I will also have a kind of happiness I fear I never will experience again, the happiness of absolute surrender to an unbelievable fantasy of being alive for a long, long time with someone I never doubt will be gone from my life, only because blind faith is truly the only way out of the kind of loneliness I was accustomed to before I have David, and in those two to three years that I will have David, hope really will work in such a way, as if built from real pieces of accruable and transferable units, so if you don’t have enough of it yourself, you can pool what little you have with what little someone else has, and together, you will have more of the elusive, damned thing, and if you are brave of heart you can even borrow against your small pool of hope to buy a bigger fantasy of The Future, and stack these bets all the way up to amount to a life worth living, filled with Dreams, I will write bestselling novels and he will someday go to university, as long as no one sees through this thin veil of hope to notice that what is real is often too wicked, too impossible, I will be always too tired, too lonely, too poor, too busy, too stressed out, always working, all those jobs to put myself through school, and extra hours set aside for the drugs and alcohol to sink in so they can get me through the always-schooling and the always-working and the always-despairing, and David will be just as burdened, his own life a bustle of menial jobs, or else sad as a whistle, daily, and our only reprieve after the reality of each day’s exhaustion will be these secret death talks we retreat into, which we will hold with the regularity and seriousness of international peace conferences, though at first, we will speak only in the most abstract sense, death-as-a-concept-only, not that any one of us is actually going to do it, that would be most alarming, utter preposterousness, lighten up, we are only recharging ourselves with the idea of death, have you heard of gallows humor, so that we may appreciate the urgency of life, yes, juxtapose the two, life and death, death and life, an exercise of intellectual curiosity, never mind in truth, we are both scared shitless to confront the persistent, daily suffering we cannot see the ending of except through a death fantasy, the frequency with which “What did you do today?” gets met with “I cried on my walk to work,” or the way everyday tasks take on an unbearable dimension, “Oh, love, I’m fine, I cried too because I ran out of milk,” so shameful will this desire for death be that at David’s crowded funeral, when all everyone will ever say is “I wish he had just said something, just told us he was struggling, we had no idea,” because in their world, David will be the most happy-go-lucky person they have encountered, and that is another reality that, though different from the one I will share with him, also holds true, because he really is the friend who will buy everyone a round of beer on his last penny, the friend you can count on for troubles urgent or mundane, the one who walks into a party and everyone else bucks up a little, who listens to your stories as if you invented storytelling itself, which means I will fail to reveal to everyone that he did tell me, because to reveal that detail will also reveal that I failed to keep him alive, not only that, but I had not even considered keeping him alive, not through his institutionalizations and suicide watches and pills he refused to touch, because I had not considered he would really dive off the scaffolding of our shared, constructed hope into the final fall, which leads to the other, bigger question of how do you expect others to believe you after you have worshipped death like a prayer and it comes for one of you that you didn’t really mean it, how sick must you be to make light of such a thing, and look what happened, and for a long, long time after putting David to rest I will remain chained to my defenseless position, unable to exit a dead end, afraid of accidentally romanticizing a fatal tragedy, ready to shatter at the slightest caress, angry at the failure of our coping mechanisms, our shallow belief in our invincibility, frightened by the very prospect of living into the next day, how voraciously I will hunt in every minutiae of life a hint of my dearly departed, for instance, inside a bird’s wingflap, atop the glistening shell of a slowly moving golden insect, something luminous in the ocean’s salty low tide, the whisperswirls of trees fat with leaves, until I find myself growing attuned to that indescribable quality of light that sits outside of everything I have ever experienced, so that as the years pass, I, too, will slip through life as though much of life is unreachable, how grief works like grease, slippery, transparent, an anointing barrier that lets you see what lies beneath but keeps it all out of reach, cruel and distanced, away and gone: dissociate the revolving seasons of bone white snowfall, springtime’s magnificent blue-gray skies, the pink dusk nights of the year’s hottest summer days, those mundane drab wet autumn evenings, all shimmering with unreasonable beauty and life, a whole world turning without a shred of consolation, and then there are rare days I realize, with a start, how I have looked, really looked, for his memory, without rest, and that appetite accrues over time into something that feels like hope, like what sheer luck, right? to have gotten as close to the edge of something sublime and then let this life reel me back, let it carry me along, let each day’s end be enough to justify the next day’s beginning, even if much of the world, like him, remain out of reach, I stay, here, in memoriam David.



Cartographies of Heartache

I have been visiting prisons as long as I can remember and have lost count of the number of times my picture may have been taped to the wall of a cell. Visits Upstate meant early morning departures on the weekends. Trips to the County meant mostly middle of the day and evenings. Geography lessons of heartache experienced through small towns and cartographies of captivity. Same waiting spaces. Same security wanding and invasions. Folding your arms over your underwire is supposed to silence the screeching of the hand-held metal detector. Some correctional officers invested in showing that you are just another number attached to the number of someone deemed less than human.


On the Semblance of Solid Ground

Neither of us can comfortably bend our minds around the gap between leaving and having been left behind, even for a brave possibility.