Samantha did come with me to my house. I don't remember anything from the ride home, and I have only the vaguest recollection of my parents' shocked, sad faces as she and I told them what happened. I had called first, both to let them know I was coming, and because I was afraid there might be a news bulletin about a student named Richard Jefferson having fallen to his death. I guess nothing could have prepared them for how I'm sure I looked. I know my mother cried and hugged me, and my dad never seemed to take his hand from my shoulder. Oddly, I don't think they asked me about my bandaged hand, though now I'm sure they must have.
It was late at night, and I hadn't eaten since the day before. I wasn't hungry until my mom put a plate of leftovers in front of me. I smiled grimly as I thought of something Rich had read to me from of one of his Nietzsche books: he defined instinct as forgetting about lunch while the house burns down, but eating it later in the ashes. That only made me think of Rich's books and clothes and music. I wanted some of it before his parents took it away. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to get up from the table and go back.
Then I thought of his parents, and felt awful. I had never met them. Rich had not spoken of them much, other than to say they were kind of off in their own world. He had not seemed overly fond of his mother, whom he described as being aloof and a little strange. Not matter how aloof she may have seemed, this would be a terribly heartbreaking tragedy. I hated the thought of seeing her like I was sure to see her. I was shaken from my funeral reveries by something my mom was saying.
"...can stay in David's room. I just put fresh linens on the bed."
Samantha was saying thank you, and my parents were encouraging me to try to get some rest. I knew I wouldn't sleep, but Samantha looked exhausted, so I suggested we go to bed, too.
Thinking of her sleeping in Dave's room made me realize that I had yet to make that awful call. I showed Samantha to Dave's room, and she hugged me like she was not inclined to let go.
"I have to call my brother," I told her, peeling her arms off the back of my neck.
"Will you come back?" she asked.
I shook my head as I shut the door.
I don't remember much of the conversation with my brother, but in later days he told me how clearly it stuck with him. Our mother had finally gotten hold of him half an hour earlier, after trying all evening, so he was starting to come down from the shock. I was calm, almost listless; I had been crying so much, I told him, I didn't think I had any tears left. He was getting in his car and driving right home. I told him not to. It was late and I had to go back to school in the morning and talk to Rich's parents. Just come home tomorrow night; I'd be back then. He reluctantly agreed, then almost left on the spot because I sobbed once as I said goodbye. He said it was the most unnatural sound he had ever heard, like someone had knocked the wind out of me and then hit me again before I had time to recover. I convinced him I was going to pass out from exhaustion as soon as we hung up, but promised to call in the morning before I went back. I have no recollection of whether I did call or not.
The strangest memory I have of that time is that I think Samantha crawled into bed with me later that night. I think we made love, and I think she went back to my brother's bed before morning. I have absolutely no idea whether it was a dream, a false memory, or if it actually happened. If someone put a million dollars in front of me and told me it was mine if I could say whether it really happened or not, I'd have only a fifty-fifty chance of being a millionaire.
The mind, when overwhelmed by shock, operates on level that normal, unaffected people would call insane; my subsequent behavior after the funeral would be classified by almost anyone as insane, and by many as criminally insane. By comparison, however, I know the madness I experienced was restricted to the first few days after Rich's death. What I did later was an act of pure love, though I am prepared to admit that the most charitable definition of it would probably be `irrational.' But then, in what world do love and rationality coexist?
The next day, both of my parents wanted to stay home with me. I insisted they go to work. Samantha and I would go back to school; I had to talk to Rich's parents, after all. I already felt slightly guilty about not being there for them when they got the call, and for taking away the one person who might be able to help them make sense of what happened.
Samantha and I left soon after my parents that morning, and the trip back is another blank spot in my memory. I do remember having a horrible sensation of foreboding as we drove back onto campus. Oddly, the foreboding had less to do with returning to the scene of the horror, and more to do with seeing so many people who were blithely unaware of how much their lives would change with the next corner they stepped around. They all seemed so young and happy and normal, and had no idea how radically their lives might change the next time they stepped into a bathroom, or closed a door, or went to buy groceries.
It's not the earth-shaking decisions that affect you, I realized, with horrific certainty, it's the quotidian ones: some silly choice you make about whether to eat in or dine out; whether to cross the street here or wait one more block; whether or not to catch a few rays before heading to the caf for lunch. I doubted I would ever fear losing someone again by accidental self-defenestration, but I would never again brush my teeth without thinking about the time it did happen.
It was horrible to walk down my dorm hallway and see the faces still so shocked. Disbelief made it almost impossible for anyone to say anything intelligible to me. Eyes, most averted, said only, `This can't be,' when furtive, quick glances did meet.
More horrible still to walk into that room and be possessed by an impossible hope that maybe it had been just a terrible dream; maybe I could will myself awake and hear his voice coming through the other room. How I would leap into his arms and hold him and dance with him and never let him go! Hope is the foulest emotion I know. In that moment, for the first time I understood completely why Shakespeare's inconstant Richard was prepared to hate any man who tried to give him hope.
As I crossed through our bathroom I stopped to regard the ravaged face that once had considered a lunatic profession of love where it had just been discovered. I thought ruefully that had I done it, it would have given us even more time together.
No. I would not allow myself to wallow in regrets for what would have made a perfect thing even better. I had experienced something transcendent, and I would not debase the memory by changing the slightest aspect of it. That decision planted the first seeds of healing: it would be a long road, I knew, but that was the first inkling I had that I would not curl up into a ball and die.
I went into Rich's room and sat on the couch. Since I didn't know his parents and didn't know how they would react, I decided I would choose a few things that I wanted to keep as remembrances. If they were the kind of people who would want me to have something of his, I could always take more; if they were either too consumed with grief or not the kind of people to think of such things, I wouldn't end up with hurt feelings or regrets...I would have my keepsakes.
It was without the slightest compunction that I lifted his two collected works of Nietzsche off his shelf; I knew he would want me to have them. Leaves of Grass I picked up and put back a couple of times. I had never been a huge Whitman fan, but Rich had averred more than once that you could not understand essential Americanism without having digested Leaves of Grass. I had argued they upset my stomach, for which he called me a philistine. Better a philistine than a Phyllis Schlafly, I returned. He told me I was arguing degree and not kind, and very little degree.
I felt myself moving back towards a dangerous self-pity: how would I ever find someone as witty and companionable as Rich? I felt the tears welling again, started to try to check them, but decided the best thing I could do for myself, at least early on, was to give vent to my emotions whenever they threatened to spill over. I walked back into my room with Nietzsche, Whitman, Rich's favorite sweatshirt ("Ohio State" in gothic red lettering), my favorite sweater of Rich's, and a bottle of his cologne.
I shot a few blasts of cologne onto my pillow and laid down, taking in the scent with great breaths. On about the third, I let out the howl of an animal caught in a leg trap, and sobbed until I thought my chest would cave in. After ten minutes or two hours, I fell asleep.
* * *
I awoke to the sound of voices, and to that hated emotion, hope. I heard Rich's voice, and for an infinitesimal moment I believed I had dreamt everything. It was, strangely enough, the scent of Rich's cologne that gave the lie to my momentary hope. I knew in a horrible instant why the scent was so strong, and whose voice I was hearing.
"I think his suitemate is here, let me check." I heard Allen's voice, and a woman's muffled sob.
I sat up in bed as Allen poked his head into my room. His eyes were red from a fresh round of crying, and I didn't need to hear Rich's voice to know who was in his room.
"Hey," Allen said. "How are you doing?"
"Oh, you know, not too good, not too bad. His parents are here?"
"Yeah. Do you think you can talk to them?"
"Of course," I said. I took a deep breath and ran my hands through my hair. I stood and walked through our bathroom into his room.
His father was standing by his son's desk, apparently holding himself up by leaning on it. His mother sat on the couch, a handkerchief pressed to her mouth. He was tall and handsome; Rich in thirty years or so. She was shriveled and shrinking into herself by the second. I couldn't say what she looked like, unless it was grief personified.
Her only child, I thought. Rich was right: there is no God.
I approached him first; her, I was afraid to address. Her sorrow bore so deep that she seemed to have the substance of a sandcastle: I was afraid that if I touched her she would collapse into herself and melt into the couch.
Holding out my hand, I walked to him. I was surprised by the weakness of my voice. "I'm so sorry for your loss," I said in a barely audible choked whisper. "I'm Rick, I was Rich's suitemate. He was my best friend, and I loved him very much."
His father looked at me as if I had spoken a foreign language. He blinked twice, then fell on me like he was attacking. I actually took a step back, before he was on me, pulling me to his chest and burying his head into my shoulder. I held him tightly back, and joined his sobs.
"Oh, God," he cried, muffled by my shoulder. "Oh, God. Oh, God."
"I know, I know," I said, rocking him slowly, crying into his shoulder as he cried into mine. "It's not right, it's not fair."
After some time we disengaged and I looked to where Rich's mother sat. She hadn't moved. She looked like some terrible Greek statue, some too-true artist's rendition of raw emotion. I sat down next to her.
"Mrs. Jefferson?" I began.
She said nothing, only silently shook her head. For a moment, I was thrown: was she telling me she wasn't Rich's mom? Or not married to his dad?
The clarity of her emotions to me was as instantaneous as my momentary confusion. She shook her head to say, `don't talk to me, don't look at me, if I feel one thing more I will burn up in this spot, leaving nothing but an inky stain, a shadow, a silhouette of a mother's love.'
I looked helplessly to Rich's dad, who also slowly and wordlessly shook his head. His sign language meant, `don't feel bad, no one can touch her right now, no one can reach her.' I saw in an instant that grief was tearing them apart, not drawing them to one another. This was grief as an infection, mourning as a cancer.
I saw, too, that it had the power to hurt me. Just how vile it would turn out to be was still a day away, thankfully; at that moment I would not have been able to handle anything more than my own roiling emotions.
After some interminable seconds or hours, Rich's father spoke. "I'm sorry to ask you this, Rick, but do you think you could tell us what happened?"
Rich's mom choked and shook her head again. I looked back to his father, shaking my head now. I raised my eyebrows; maybe I shouldn't do this now?
He nodded his head, pulling his lips back grimly, there won't be a good time for this, get it over with. I saw my own resolve reflected in his. I touched his wife's hand, and she recoiled as if stung by a wasp.
I looked into his eyes again, silently imploring. This isn't right; I shouldn't do this right now. His face betrayed no pity: impassive, ineluctable. Tell.
I stood and walked to the window. I tried to pick out Samantha's room across the way, tried to imagine her looking out her window on that awful day. Could it possibly only have been yesterday? I spoke in a monotone, not daring to turn back to face Rich's parents.
"We both got back from our mid-morning classes around eleven-thirty or so. We were relaxing for a little while before going to the caf for lunch. It was a bright, beautiful morning, so Rich took the screen out of his window and was sitting on the ledge, one leg inside and one leg out. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when I heard him swear, like he had hurt himself. When I stepped into the room, he was gone.
"There was a young woman who was watching from across the way. From what she told us, we pieced it together that Rich had burnt his fingers on his cigarette and lost his balance when he jerked it out of his hand."
His mother made eye contact with me for the first time. "Richard didn't smoke," she said, as if I had missed some essential part of the story. Not, `I didn't know Richard smoked,' or even, `Richard never smoked around us,' but an insistent, emphatic statement of fact.
I held her eyes for a moment, then shrugged my shoulders. "I guess he had an occasional cigarette," I lied. He smoked constantly when we were drinking, and chain-smoked when he was writing a paper through the night.
She shook her head, and seemed almost angry. "My Richard did not smoke," she insisted, clearly agitated.
I looked to his dad, who merely lowered his eyes and shook his head slightly. I couldn't tell if he meant not to press it or that his wife was slightly nuts. Probably both, as it turned out sadly for me.
Both her attitude and the fact that she referred to him as "Richard," the formal name he detested, had me frazzled. "Well," I said, "he somehow lost his balance and fell. It was an accident," I added absurdly, as if his mother's denial of his smoking might make it seem otherwise.
"Of course it was an accident," she said, quite shrilly, staring at me like I was some kind of lunatic. "Why would you say that?"
"I...I just meant...I mean..." I looked again to Rich's father, who was squeezing his temples between the thumb and middle-finger of one hand. `Thanks for the help,' I thought.
After an interminable moment, he came to my rescue. "We're going to have visitation tomorrow at the Grieg funeral home. It's on the eastside," he said, meaning the east side of Detroit.
Well-off suburban Detroiters always refer to their home communities as either `eastside' or `westside.' In a somewhat-less-than-charming dichotomy, `eastside' tended to mean old-money Protestant, with `westside' having the connotation of new-money Jewish. The divisions are not always stark, and are becoming more blurred as time goes by, but for years they persisted.
Rich's paternal grandfather had been a very wealthy car dealer and real-estate magnate, leaving each of his two sons a number of dealerships and pieces of property when he died. Rich's father had sold his interest in the dealerships to his brother, apparently preferring academia to autos. Rich had told me how his father's colleagues always reacted somewhat startled the first time they were invited to his Grosse Pointe mansion. One colleague in particular must have been impressed: she became Rich's mother.
I had been to that house a few times myself. It was a beautiful Tudor mansion on a cul-de-sac with a guard-house at the entrance. It had been the family home for three generations, Rich's father taking it over as part of the transaction of selling his dealerships to his brother. Evidently, the deal had not been done without rancor; Rich had told me he hadn't seen his uncle since he was a boy.
One of Rich's (and my) favorite features of the house was its proximity to a small, private cemetery, just on the other side of the cul-de-sac. I was amazed when Rich pointed out some of the names on the large, ornate markers. They coincided with many of the most well-known streets in Detroit.
As we stood over his grandfather's grave, a thought occurred to me.
"Holy shit," I said, "are you the Jeffersons that the street is named for?"
Jefferson Avenue is the main drag in Detroit, running parallel to the Detroit River, on which sits the huge Renaissance Center, the city's flagship towers.
"Could be," he had smiled and shrugged.
"So this will be your final resting place," I had said, mock-solemnly, with all the flippancy with which youth considers death.
"It had better not be," he had told me. "I'm claustrophobic. The idea of being in some hole in the ground drives me nuts, even if I'm not really there. You better make sure I don't end up like that."
"No problem," I told him. "What kind of pagan ritual would you like me to oversee for you?"
I can still see his broad, beautiful smile. "I want a Viking funeral."
I laughed. "You got it," I had told him. "Let's make a pact: whichever one of us goes first gives the other a true Norse send-off."
"Promise?" he asked, utterly serious, no longer smiling as he shook my hand over his grandfather's grave.
"Promise," I had said, more solemnly than I had meant to.
That had been some long-ago and far-away conversation on a lark between two lovers who would live forever. How could it be that it had come to pass that forever ended so soon?
I looked at Rich's devastated parents and felt some of my sadness shave off into bitterness. This was so unfuckingfair.
"Have you made other arrangements, as well?" I asked his father, echoes of that far-away conversation in my head.
"There will be a public funeral mass at St. Ignatius of Loyola," his mother said stiffly, "the day after tomorrow. Then his family will bury him privately near his home."
"You can't!" I blurted, before the thought had even registered in my mind. Burial was bad enough; Rich would have found a Catholic mass absolutely abhorrent.
His mother must have assumed I was objecting to a family-only burial. She spoke coldly. "What we choose to do as a family is our business. There will be visitation and a mass for his...friends...to attend."
"I'm sorry, I don't even know why I said that. Please forgive me. Of course I will respect your wishes. I don't know why that came out of my mouth."
"This is a very difficult time for a lot of people," his father said, resting a hand on my shoulder. "We're not ourselves, either."
I thought for a moment. "Can I help you with any of Rich's things?" I asked.
His mother positively glared at me. "We're taking all of Richard's things with us."
I glanced at his father. His momentary start told me they hadn't discussed this. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, then looked again to Rich's father.
"I'll help in any way I can," I said simply.
"You've done quite enough," his mother said. "Thank you," she practically spat the words.
Her words struck me like slaps. I tried to source her apparent anger. Was she blaming me for Rich's death? Or did she perhaps know something of our relationship? Christ, if she refused to accept the idea that her son smoked, I could only imagine the towering catholic rage she would work herself into over the idea that he was gay.
My emotions were still too raw to try to respond to her in any rational way; I knew anything I said in response would only have the potential of turning a very uncomfortable situation into an ugly one. Time to go.
"I'm expected back home soon, so I have to go now. I'm sorry to have met you under such awful circumstances." I turned to leave, but as I reached the door, Rich's father called out to me.
"Rick? We'll see you tomorrow, right?"
I turned to regard him. His eyes were welling and his lower lip quivered. His sorrow pierced me nearly enough to excuse his wife. I walked back towards him and he rose with a kind of relief. We embraced tightly.
"Of course I'll see you tomorrow," I said.
I looked down at his wife, who was staring past us out the window. She seemed to be willing me out of the room.
"Mrs. Jefferson," I said, by way of farewell.
I left them alone, with their grief and their hellish task.
* * *
The funeral home was awful, as I expected it to be. Everyone from the floor was there, friends of Rich's from high school, and a couple of siblings that I recognized immediately as the Stacy twins, James and Laura.
I felt an absurd stab of jealousy when I saw James Stacy. They had more time together than we did. I banished that thought as I saw how shaken both he and his sister were. I approached her first.
"Laura? I'm Rick. I talked to you a few times on the phone. I was Rich's..."
"I know," was all she said, cupping my face in her hands and shaking her head. She hugged me tightly, then turned to her brother. "This is my brother, James."
James and I regarded one another for a long few seconds. I didn't know how to react, and neither did he. In the end, I guess it was the rawness of shared emotion which drew us together. He offered me his hand at first, but I pulled him into an embrace and we sniffled into each other's neck. We pulled apart wordlessly and the two of them left me to join what I took to be a group of old friends.
I was standing uncomfortably alone, about to walk over to some of my floormates from school, when my brother walked in.
My brother and Stacy.
I broke down when I saw her, and she rushed to me and held me tight. She shushed me as she held me, the comforting it'll-be-okay shush, the I'll-always-be-here-for-you shush.
Dave stood behind her, one hand on her back, one hand on the back of my head buried in her shoulder. His eyes were bloodshot and miserable, and I couldn't look at him for long because his sadness for me made me feel worse.
"On the plus side," I said, pulling away from Stacy and rubbing the tears from my cheeks, "I can't imagine ever feeling worse than this. How are you two doing?" I asked, absurdly thinking to inquire into their budding relationship.
Stacy, taking me to mean `how are you two holding up?' just shook her head slightly and said, "Oh, honey, we're just so sad for you."
Dave, his newly developed sibling sensibility fully engaged, simply said, "We're okay."
We stood awkwardly at the back of the room. I waved perfunctorily toward where Rich was laid out, without looking directly at his casket. "He's...you can..." I trailed off, unable to articulate the mundanities of funeral home etiquette.
Dave touched my shoulder. "If it won't offend you, I'd like to go say a prayer for him."
"Not at all," I said. "In fact, Rich would probably appreciate it. If I know him, he converted on the way down. He was a strong believer in hedging your bets." I was only half-joking. He once told me you had nothing to lose with a death-bed conversion. If we were right, he said, it wouldn't make a difference, and if the other side was right, it could save a lot on eternal air-conditioning bills.
"Are those his parents?" Stacy asked, indicating the couple in a sort of macabre receiving line near the casket.
"Yes," I told her, "he seems like a good guy, but she's so shell-shocked that I don't know what to make of her. I met them at school."
Whether it was coincidence or prescience, I'll never know, but in that instance Rich's mother and I locked eyes. She began to shudder like she was having a seizure, and in slow motion I saw her claw-like hand rising from her side to point a savage finger at me. She was making guttural noises and a sudden silence descended over the gathering.
"You!" she cried out into the silence. "Him! He's done enough! Get him out!"
Almost comedically, I looked behind me. As I turned back, Rich's dad had left his wife's side and was coming towards me. Behind him, his wife's hysterics mounted.
Everyone stared at me as Rich's dad approached. I kept swallowing hard to keep the bile down, but I knew I was a minute away from having to run from the room.
"I'm sorry," he said, his eyes red and rheumy, his voice choked. "She's not herself right now. Maybe it would be best..."
I held my hand up. I couldn't speak, couldn't think. I turned and walked briskly out into the lobby, and from there out to the parking lot. I found some helpful bushes a few paces away and heaved up what little I had eaten in the past days, plus some things for which my body evidently had no more use.
My brother came to me as I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, his face contorted with worry. He grabbed hold of me and held me. I was half moaning and half sobbing.
"Good Christ," I said, muffled into his shoulder, "I didn't think it could get any worse."
We pulled apart. "What the fuck is up her ass?" he asked, shaking his head. "I know grief can do strange things to people, but still, that's just freakish."
"I don't know, maybe she's been hearing whispers on top of the whole mess. She was making it plain to me when I met her that she didn't approve of her son associating with the likes of me."
It was then that Cal came outside. Cal, who had been my lifeline from the instant the tragedy unfolded, seamlessly and selflessly continued in that role.
"Time to go," was all he said as he approached.
"Why?" I asked, starting to get angry, "What's..."
"Doesn't matter," he said. "The point is, Rich wouldn't want us here to feel bad with a bunch of people who didn't know him very well anyway. It's time for us to go say goodbye the way he would want us to. Who the hell cares what they say over his shell? We had his spirit. And the last thing his spirit would tolerate would be you being made to feel worse by his lunatic mother. Besides, we have to get ready for the party."
"What party?" I asked, falling right into it.
"The one I just invited everyone to at your house. I caught your parents as they were leaving to come here, and told them Rich wasn't much for formal good-byes. Now they're on their way to a party store instead, to pick up the beer and munchies. Everyone is expected in about an hour. That gives us just enough time."
Now I had to smile. "Just enough time for...?"
Cal raised a quizzical eyebrow at me. "You certainly don't think we're going to show up to Rich's farewell party sober, do you?"
I actually laughed then, and felt another healing seed beginning to germinate. "We ain't waitin' on me," I said, as the three of us headed for Cal's car.