I would insist that I saw you two times, on the morning you died - but no one else knows this.
When I arrive, belly growling, to pick you up for breakfast, the entrance to your apartment building is blocked by flashing lights. It is just past the gray dawn, in that space when things have lost the dim of twilight but are not yet reflective. The bright lights stand starkly against the dull background of everything else. The stucco is dingy with morning shade. The grass is a damp spring green, pretending its moisture won't disappear within the hour. The cycling lights scatter the normalcy of morning ritual, break the day into disarray.
The strip of green space between buildings is closed off, and there are police officers swarming everywhere, black-suited ants gathering around a bread crumb. I approach the thin line of flimsy yellow plastic - this mighty, uncrossable barrier that separates us from them, the fluttering tape which clearly divides the wrong side of the law from the right - and say, Excuse me.
And then, again.
The rookie guarding the tape turns and shifts, and I look beyond his dark uniform to the blue tarp, lying spreadeagled across the grass. It is a very ordinary blue tarp, like many others I have seen. Except, this one seems to have feet.
Excuse me - I’m trying to reach my friend’s apartment... I'm here to pick my friend up, for breakfast.
I say this, while staring over his shoulder at a small, brown foot. It has strong, well-defined toes and a soft arch. Kahlua-and-milk skin, with a slight pallor creeping in. Right now, this foot is holding very, very still. It is resting at an uncomfortable angle. It is rising to meet a shapely leg, gracefully curving to greet the edge of this very ordinary blue tarp, lying to cover a spreadeagled something. Something which formerly may have been someone - that someone's Kahlua-and-milk skin, now painted in pallor. Someone has mistakenly left this behind - slipped out of that foot like an ill-fitted or ill-fated shoe, and
You’ll have to come back later, he says, Miss.
As an afterthought, punctuation.
We can’t let anyone through until the detectives are done collecting evidence.
Collecting evidence. Of course. Because this, I realize, is not a movie set. This is not the beautifully filmed movie of my life - the prewritten scene in which I arrive to gather my dear friend, for casual breakfast. This is a crime scene, an accident. This is a different story, altogether - someone else's movie, which I have mistakenly stumbled into.
This scene is what they call the aftermath. Something valuable has been taken, discarded, destroyed - something dropped to the ground with its hands up, maybe, or maybe not - either way, it will not get up again. Whatever happened, the moment has broken. The ants are all swarming, now - bustling to pick up the pieces. The air is quietly smothering, buzzing with stories, everyone struggling to untangle themselves; to bare the lines of this heavy story, and somehow make it bearable. To banish the shadow which clings to the ground, with their explanations.
I thank the officer calmly, still staring over his shoulder. I am unnerved. I am disjointed. I am equal parts shocked, and disturbed, and selfish. I am still hungry. I am wondering if you'll still be waiting, mad that I left without you - standing in your apartment, maybe, tapping your toe impatiently - but then I dismiss this. It’s not your style. You are probably lost in a book, or your own thoughts - doodling robots, or typing the poem you wrote last night. You were too shy to read it over the phone, but you said it was good, and promised to bring me a copy, today. I still want to hear it, but I am afraid you’ll chicken out. This is what I’m thinking about, as I pull back out onto the asphalt.
I drive to the place where we like to eat breakfast - this clinking, sizzling formica paradise, filled with halogen light and the smell of fresh pancakes. Hot coffee, with cream. I try to call, first - leave my bag in the booth and drop my last quarter into the pay phone, but your phone just rings and rings. I've missed you. I order from the plastic menu, thinking Maybe you just fell asleep. We were both up all night, before we made plans to meet. An hour of sleep and an hour to shower was always enough for me (but I was better at those things, in those days - we all thought we could run forever on empty). You were wine-drunk and sweetly poetic, feeling easy with the world. We spoke of hopeful things. You encouraged me to write more, excited about your own progress - told me to grab my notebook, and pick you up for breakfast. I needed to rest before driving again, so I begged two hours of runway, and said goodnight, then. You blurted I love you. It was the very last thing I expected to hear from your silly, sincere mouth. In the pause of my awkward shock, you laughed from the belly, and hung up the phone.
If I could tell you anything, I would tell you I fell asleep smiling. I would tell you, also - I might have slept longer, if not for the dream in which you stood above my bed. You stroked my forehead with cool fingers, smoothing the hair from my eyes as I slept. It was just a sweet gesture - your hands felt soothing, gentle and dewy as morning grass. When I opened my eyes, the look on your face was tender, and indescribable. I woke, then - and the moment dissolved too quickly.
If I could tell you anything, right now - I would describe that day from within myself. I am blissfully selfish and unaware. I eat breakfast quietly, savor my coffee, remain alone and immersed in my poems, for the moment. When I arrive home, the day passes, quickly. The phone rings, once, but I am too busy living my silly, bustling life to answer. When it rings, again, I answer - even though it is dark, and I've already climbed into bed, bones weary from the weekend. His words are the very last thing I expect to hear. He talks for what might be forever or merely ten minutes - but all I can think is
That foot -
that foot - it was your foot it used to be your foot and your foot was so pale I was so close and I didn’t know it - I didn’t know you - you were stains on the grass you were foot under tarp you were no longer human and I didn’t look closely enough to see you I didn't recognize you...
He says, Funeral.
He says, Investigation.
He says, Meg - when was the last time you talked?When was the last time you saw each other?
I tell him anything but the truth. I do not mention our poems, or our breakfast plans. I do not mention the morning dream, or the movie scene, or the ordinary blue tarp, or what it is covering up. I erase my own tenderness. I use my words like an ordinary blue tarp, pulling them over all of the most important things.
I say, We spoke late last night, and everything was fine... Everything was fine.
I think, Fine. Foot. You. You're fine. Your foot.
Your. Foot. Your. Foot. Your. Foot.
In my head, I repeat these words until they are no longer words - they turn into sounds, disconnected from all meaning.
If I could tell you anything, I would tell you that the last time I saw you, you were under a blue tarp which was anything but ordinary. But, just before that - I swear you were standing over my bed, my forehead under your cool hand. I imagine the indescribable look on your face in that moment matches my own, on nights when I push back the the sweaty boy-hair of my sleeping child, thinking of what is to come for him. Sometimes, I’m convinced you knew just what was coming for all of us.
Just so you know, friend - I learned some things from you. I write when the thought strikes me. I seize the moment, more. And I've never again missed the chance to say the three words you blurted to me - no matter how shocking or inappropriate it may be - winedrunk and with poetry on your breath.
I would tell you that this helps me make peace with death.
How do you expect me to feel?
I’ve a lump in my throat
the words I can’t speak,
I mustn’t exorcise from deep inside
so I say,
"We are living on the cusp of the now"
and retreat to the quiet solace of my room.
Words are just words,
memories tainted with glory
marred feelings ruthlessly lurk below
How do you expect me to feel?
I can’t do it on my own
Reach down and lend me your hand,
I can go on from there
Maybe down a path less trod
perhaps the direction of the waning sun
Maybe I really will meet god
Maybe he isn’t so bad
(by A. Burgueno, 1998)