Somewhere, We Are a School of Fish: an extensive lesson in letting go

For Mason

I saw a man emerge from the fog as if he were born from it,
and I thought, This is a peak experience, because I knew it was about to end.

—Chelsea Hodson, ‘The New Love’

Or was it less
eloquent than that, purely muscular,
some meaningless twitch?

—Stephen Dunn, ‘Zero Hour’

An infographic says: “We are a collection of moments.” And I instantly think: Glasses. I think of being in the eleventh grade with my marker gliding into the looping shapes of aviators; that day, in study hall, a boy with translucent glasses like a grandma’s sat down across from me, and I made a conscious decision: This person is important to me. And I like to believe that he—you—did too. One day, beckoning me into a connecting room, you took my portrait, and you kept it for as long as I can remember; taking it out periodically to show me at age 19, 23, 30… After high school, reunited at a party, I told you about how I got kicked out of someone’s apartment just because some girl didn’t like that you had a crush on me. You said, “That’s because she has penis envy,” and I said, “That’s not what penis envy means,” and then you kissed me for the first time in the dead cold of November, on a stranger’s front porch, right before I decided to follow you home. So that was that: months were spent trying to reconcile weeks of constant togetherness against your weeks-long disappearing acts; one minute I’d be using your toothbrush like it was nothing, watching you mold the leftover wax from candy coke bottles into the shapes of animals, eating globs of honey roasted peanut butter and using the same spoon; laughing at a girl on My Strange Addiction who was addicted to her pillow named Boo. And then, the next minute, I’d be waking up to two missed calls after not hearing from you for weeks. “Are you trying to call me?” I’d text. “Yes, I’m baffled,” you’d say. “Why are you baffled?” I’d ask. “I got distracted by the life and you. I want to hold you.” I’d consider never speaking to you again, right before I’d inevitably respond, “I feel like you want nothing to do with me.” After which, you’d say, “I wish.” It got better after that; over tequila shots, everyone joked about you and I recreating Grant Wood’s American Gothic. One night in the middle of February, we walked home at five in the morning from your friend’s house; ignoring the cold, at the top of a hill, we stood back and stared at the snow, draped gently like blankets over the pine trees. You lamented the absence of your camera, and we both just kept gazing upward, knowing that you were right: nothing ever really does look exactly the same way twice. (I often begged to be your girlfriend, and you would always say the same thing: “I’m just trying to make it last longer.” But I never heard you correctly; clinging to my same old wounded narratives, I could never believe that anyone would ever want to make anything last with me.) Eventually, summer came. From the highest point in the county, I scratched at a rash of poison ivy that had declared armageddon across my stomach and felt anxious about ground lightning as you and my best friend raced out into the field. Suffering from spiritual trauma, I was feeling superstitious; some cult leader had just predicted that the rapture was about to happen. Fearful, I looked at you from across the way—tall like a power tower, my jungle gym of a boyfriend—and all feminist pretense went out the window. Prone to limerence, my infatuations had always bordered on psychosis, and you were no exception: I imagined that you were dust and I was the rib that god pulled from it. (Through your bedroom window, we watched the storm, and you told me that you wanted to see the moon explode; to watch as the oceans engulfed us all. Then we both laughed because: how dramatic. Calling your bluff, I said, “No you don’t.”) Another moment: Crack. We both heard the sound of your friend’s beagle getting hit by a car, and the last thing I can remember before I receded into a different kind of relationship, at a different college, in a different place, is waking up to the canned laughter of I Love Lucy; I looked up and you were smiling. So it goes: we could never get it right. I missed your call, and you couldn’t read my mind. You had a girlfriend, or I was hung up on some other guy. (One time, at a black light party, some girl kept smashing glitter into my hair; you pulled me into the bathroom and said, “I love you.” Then your girlfriend barged through the door with a look in her eye that gave me deja vu—of course I was in no position to say it back. Muzzled by someone who would’ve killed me if he’d seen us in the same room, trying my best to be someone different, I left you with glitter falling from me everywhere like dust. And it killed me because you looked pale as a little kid with stage fright, like you were about to vomit.) But, despite all that: there were still moments. Once upon a time, I was 21, and you were 22, and we sat on a swing set at two in the morning, eating orange popsicles with jokes on the sticks; we rolled on molly in the middle of nowhere, and you put me on your shoulders so I could be closer to the moon. We almost fell racing up a hill, and then I stopped to look at you. “Seriously,” I said, “I don’t want this to end,” and your face dropped, like you knew what I meant. You said, “Just enjoy it while it lasts.” After that, I went away, and then I came back; I found you on the beach. My Mike’s Hard watched from someone’s tailgate as you tasted the residual sugar coating the inside of my mouth, and when we saw the sun set from the roof of a crumbling church, over our sad-sorry town, I imagined all of my future boyfriends spotting a sliver of moon through the fading light, feeling jealous for reasons they couldn’t place. Did these synchronicities ever really stop? I don’t want to believe that they did. (One Halloween, you went as the devil, and I went as a fallen angel, and we ran into each other like some cliche poem about fate; another time, when I was away at college, and suffering from my most recent heartache, you facetimed me out of the blue, as if you’d licked your finger and sensed a shift in my sunny demeanor as you held it toward the sky; or that other time, when you looked at me and said, “You’re a virus,” and I laughed, like, “That’s exactly how I feel about you,” and then you caught me the moment Charli XCX said “Boom Clap!”) At the very least, I don’t want to believe they stopped until the perfect moment: I was 24, and you were 25. We rolled the windows down to blare Who Knows Who Cares by Local Natives, and I said, “Every time I listen to this song, I think of you.” And you got so excited; carried away by one of those moments of recognition between friends, you practically shouted, “Me too!” I know people say this all the time, but: you felt like home. Not “home” as in “warm & cozy,” but Home, and all of its messy complications—its toxic dynamics normalized by familiarity; dust swirling in a sunbeam; the dishes and the homework that I didn’t do; looking in the mirror and poking at my face, adolescent and lonely and aching to be perfect; its hushed kitchen conversations and family secrets; recycling bins filled with vodka bottles as empty as I was claustrophobic; the anxiety of growing up and old and forgetting which floor boards creak the loudest; tiptoeing out the side door and making a break for it; some buzzing porch light calling my name like a siren as I returned from the darkness, finally free from all expectations, and collapsed into your arms, ready to give up the whole fight for a moment of respite with you. (In other words: it was nice, after suffering from so many years of insomnia, to finally have someone to stay up all night talking and staring at the ceiling with.) But now you’re gone, as in gone-gone. Or, to put it more bluntly: dead. And I couldn’t help but selfishly wonder: Now what? when I stared into your casket and staved off a My Girl moment, like: Where the fuck are his glasses? All the time we used to fake fight about who was more stunted: “You’re the baby.” / “No, you’re the baby…” on and on, like that. But, at 29, I’m still just a baby, and, at 30, you were still just a baby, and no one should ever be where you are at in this stage of life. At your wake, I dissociated as I stared at a tiny pair of blue Nike baby sneakers; my brain filled with air and turned my face vacant and aimless as a balloon; I leafed through your old photo album and felt myself regress back into a kid with a crush, scrolling through your social media and trying to scheme her way into your life. It’s dizzying, isn’t it, realizing how much you will never get to know about a person. But I knew I knew how you looked when you were sleeping, and that thing in the room wasn’t you, and suddenly I was trying so hard to decipher my role in your life. “Ex-girlfriend” felt wrong, but so did “old friend,” and this grating voice inside me, with a note of possessiveness that I thought I’d abandoned at the age of 20, kept insisting: No, it was something else entirely. Later, I counted 1, 2, 3, of us who had quit drinking for good, and my survivor’s guilt manifested as an unfunny joke and exercise in statistics, like: 4 addicts walk into a bar, only 3 can survive, which one dies? And then I gagged as I took a bite into a quarter pounder with cheese, because: How could I have ever gone about my life as if he weren’t suffering, as if he were already dead? Some anxious part of me had been practicing for this moment, but I didn’t expect to feel as if I’d lost a limb, and I wondered whether my grief bordered on psychosis just like my infatuations once did. Send me a sign! I thought, as I began to assign meaning to the most mundane images. (A dish soap bubble that I perceived as flying a bit too high for a bit too long, a low hanging hawk staring back at me from among the trees, a construction cone that sketched me out in the parking lot; one website said to look for cardinals, so I looked for cardinals, but then I realized that cardinals are fucking everywhere, and my boyfriend made a joke, “There’s a lot of dead loved ones outside our window.”) Desperate for evidence of an afterlife, I watched YouTube videos about quantum physics that went beyond my comprehension, and I discovered the multiverse; some physicists believe that beyond the visible universe, there is a patchwork of infinite other worlds, each a slight variation of our own. One narrator said, “Such conditions as ours are given in only the smallest percentage of all possible universes,” and I remembered this time when you and I watched Disney’s Oceans. There was this shot of a school of fish leaping from the water, trying to escape a great blue whale, and you said something, like: “Somewhere, we have all experienced what it’s like to be a school of fish.” Another video said that NASA found evidence of particles rising from the earth, potentially moving backwards in time, and in a way that they never thought possible; this means that there could be an identical world that runs parallel and counter clockwise to our own. Upon learning this, I wondered whether you’d always been tuned into that backwards frequency; that the world was blowing past you because your body got trapped in a place that didn’t move in the right direction. Our one friend said, “I wish we could’ve preserved him in the summer of 2013; we would take him to look at the stars, and we’d keep him there forever,” while another said, “I just like to imagine him playing the guitar and surrounded by shag carpet.” In an attempt to justify the intensity of my grief, I entertained the thought of some divine connection, and I was led to this woo-woo concept called Twin Flames. One website described this kind of relationship as “not a soul split in two, but a reflection.” It called you a “catalyst,” a “crucial spark,” an “inverted image.” One time you told me, “You’re all morals, and I’m all impulse.” And I thought of your hand appearing in my peripheral vision, holding onto the crack in my friend’s passenger side window; how the light turned green, and I screamed bloody murder as she pulled you through the intersection on your skateboard; how you smiled at my horror as you let go out into traffic. Another time you told me that, when you made art, you didn’t think about making a statement; you just went with whatever made sense, and you did whatever felt right. I said, “Everything I do is about making a statement.” And then you gave me a photograph you took because you said you didn’t need it anyway, that it was nothing to you: a ramshackle house in the middle of the woods, perfectly centered and almost perfectly reflected in a pond—a mirror image. (Coincidence?!) I suppose there weren’t many lines that you wouldn’t cross, and there weren’t many lines that you wouldn’t ask me to cross, too; sometimes my fear made sense, other times I held back in a way that I now regret. Regardless, I always fumbled, dipping my toe into the other side, sometimes wading in up to my ankles: the rules never really did apply to you. (Of Twin Flames, someone wrote: “At the end of the day, they help you realize a version of love different from other types of relationships.”) Do I honestly believe in the existence of Twin Flames? No. (Or, maybe I do, and I’m just trying to seem less insane.) But one article I came across said whether or not Twin Flames exist is irrelevant; it told me to think of my curiosity as a springboard. It said, “Something about your meeting with this person has brought you here—there is a trigger within you that needs addressing.” And upon seeing the word “trigger,” I instantly thought: Failure. Because despite all my best efforts at self-consolation, despite telling myself over and over, It’s narcissistic to assume that someone needs saving; despite my own mother saying, “Caring would have been all consuming,” I still feel as if I need to make it right. I need to hammer it into a digestible story, filled with secret meanings and some semblance of beauty, because: this is what I always do. (Chelsea Hodson once said something that should be considered an ancient proverb: “You can’t trust a writer. She’ll see a cigarette and call it a house fire.”) So I scoured all of my journals and notebooks, I broke into my old laptop and spent hours recovering videos and photos; desperate for concrete evidence, I scrolled years backward through all of my social media archives, until I approached the part I’d dreaded most: our Facebook messages. One year ago, you sent me a poem of yours that I’d overlooked; one line said: “Where the glassy riverbed had led was the place we’d always imagined.” Weeping, I texted my friend: “I feel like we all took him for granted.” Then I scrolled further, and there it was: the portrait you took of me in high school. It’s maddening, isn’t it, how the very best of someone comes sharply into focus after death. After that, I took a week off work; I did nothing but not-eat and cry. I mourned the things I would have said, had I known that you were on the last leg of your ninth life; toxically positive things that I’d usually never say to anyone. Things like: You were always too big for your body anyway, and, We all have problems that we won’t outlive. I wondered whether or not I told you I loved you the last time that I saw you; not the passive kind of “love you” that you casually fling at friends, nor the ravenous declaration of “I love you!” that slips out when there are no other words for desire, but “I love you,” as in: you matter. That night, you seemed different; your personality was blunted, and you were skinnier than I remembered. But you insisted you were on the upswing; you said you were gaining weight. (I want to believe that I said it when I dropped you off downtown; at the very least, I want to believe I gave you something light to carry wherever you were going.) There is a condition called “complicated grief”; it can arise from a feeling of invalidated loss. Anxious, and at my limit, tired of perceiving my own grief as disproportionate to the situation, a springy young psychologist on YouTube told me: “Grief involves positive feelings and memories, while complicated grief generally makes it tough to access the memory or loss in a way that enables you to have a positive or honoring feeling.” She said, “It could be due to a negative belief that you have about yourself.” I don’t believe in Twin Flames, but the woo-woo sites did say: “Being unable to love your twin flame is a lot like being unable to love yourself.” And I must confess that I always felt like an imposter in your life; never “it” and always “other.” But, I understand: trying to decipher your significance in a dead person’s life can be a really selfish and fruitless effort. It’s kind of like asking whether the sun or the grass loves you back: you can never know for sure. And, besides, many cynics will argue that all manner of human connection is just a matter of survival; a belief in love requires faith in something that goes beyond human nature, and I have so little faith in my own goodness. (Am I a fool to believe that we always shared an integral feeling of “not enough” in almost all manner of things?) Did I ever love you selflessly? I guess this is what my “complicated grief”—those nasty little intrusive thoughts and beliefs—is all about. And, according to this logic, I’m supposed to sweep those thoughts and feelings aside in order to properly honor your memory: their truth or lack of it is to be regarded as irrelevant. So, here goes the list of things that I’ll miss: the insides of your wrists; those small moments of tenderness; that time you gently took my arm, and, upon noticing the scars, asked in a bad accent, “Deed yeh hoirt yeself?”; how you seemed to exist outside of this capitalist hell hole, and looked all wrong inside a shopping mall; the way you were always changing your hair, or dying your pants, or painting your shoes; how you could take the town I’ve lived in my whole life and somehow make it new; your queer acts of empathy—like that time in high school when a large girl broke a chair and you slammed it in the trash just to distract everyone from laughing; or that doodle you drew of a cartoon pencil in varying states of depletion, its face growing more and more distressed as it got shorter and shorter, until, finally, it shed a tear; the way you explained it to me, “Pencils get used and people just don’t care. But it’s supposed to be funny, too.” So many faces dwindle and get lost in wherever fading memories go—so many details slip through grey matter and land in those fickle brain sections that can’t be accessed—but you have always remained vivid, forcing your way to the forefront: you’ve never been easy to forget. (Sometime within the three years we were estranged, I saw you out and decided to drag my drama your way. I said, “Your face is going to flash before my eyes on the day I die,” but you were too out of it to hear what I had to say.) Not all feelings need to be claimed, and not all connections have a name—you taught me that. From you, I learned that there is no moral high ground, and people are neither good, nor bad; that fixed categories and humanity don’t mix, and we are all so much bigger than our boxes; that none of us belong to anyone, and, anyway, I should know by now: you can never own a creative person because a piece of them belongs to everyone. I was once so prone to thinking in extremes: everything was always all or nothing, and that’s such an unsustainable way to be. When you live like that, you hold on to everything. And this—this has been an extensive lesson in letting go, a slow unraveling of a possible fate that was rendered more and more unlikely as it got closer and closer to its ultimate defeat. So it goes: my words mean little now that you’re not here, and yet I still write them down; in a room, I looked for you—even though I knew you couldn’t show—and I thought about how life is filled with so many unfair paradoxes, like: It is both a comfort and discomfort to know that his exact amalgamation of traits will never happen again. All the songs about heartbreak and missing someone possess a note of finality that wasn’t there before, and I listen to Taylor Swift’s The 1 on repeat; my mind echoes the lyrics, as if I’m speaking to you inside my head: If one thing had been different, would everything be different today? And I experience a feeling so bittersweet, it’s like someone stuck a green Jolly Rancher inside my mouth; I can actually sense the sting of it on my tongue. I look again at our Facebook messages—yours ranging from coherent, to disjointed, to completely nonsensical—and, one year ago, you sent me a message in three parts, like a poem. It said: “It was and / Still is / U no question.” (What was it that I said before about realizing all the things you will never get to know about a person? Oh, yeah: It’s dizzying.) Some remaining embittered part of me wonders whether you sent this to an arsenal of old flames; wonders whether you scrolled through all of your female friends, like spinning through a rolodex, and, arbitrarily, landed on me. But then there’s this softer part—a part that I’ll resist deeming narcissistic; the part of me that honestly believes it. Once again: there are so many things that I’ll never know. But, if it was true, then I feel so lucky to have ever been chosen by you. And of the many certainties that I wish I could’ve offered you while you were still here, I’ll name two: 1.) I will never be that young and careless, in this place, with anyone else, ever again, and 2.) On the days you weren’t in study hall, I noticed.