For a while I didn't have any dreams. At night I slept peacefully and I woke up rested, with none of the detritus of half-forgotten dreams to cloud my mind. Of course you don't really notice that sort of thing while it's happening. Instead you just notice that you're happier and more productive, and why would you ever think to question something like that?
People used to tell me I had a lot of passion. I remember when I was still in school I had a professor praise the fire in my essays, the conviction with which I defended everything I held dear in this world--which, since I was young and stupid then (or anyway younger and stupider), I'm of course a little embarrassed about now. But around that time there was a girl who loved my convictions, too. She worshiped the ground I walked on, and sometimes I think everyone needs a little bit of that.
So, I said I'd probably link to the stories I was writing on here. It turns out that at least in these early stages, "one a month" was a very conservative estimate. I've written several, all set in the same fantasy world. For ease of reference, here's a list:
We've finally reached the end of this weird, indulgent project I've been working on all year! It's been fun to have a definite goal. A lot of the stories I wrote here were part of a longer piece that got lost along with my netbook, which I lost when I made the mistake of taking it to a sketchy laptop repair place here in Seattle. It was very nearly finished, and I wanted to tell the stories without just writing the whole thing again. (I may still do so at some point, but not just yet.) This whole project has been about the stories we tell, how they change in the telling, how we contradict ourselves for the sake of narrative, or sometimes simply because we've forgotten what the truth is. I'd be happy if you read them again now that it's complete. So much of what I was trying to do relies on the contrasts between the various stories. I'm already happy if you read even one of them, of course, and even more so if you ever smiled, or thought about something differently, because of the words I've been stringing together here for almost eight years.
I think it was probably a New Year's party where I first kissed you, and even with midnight as an excuse it took far more absinthe than was wise to convince me it was a good idea. I'd convinced myself it would be no big deal, that we could continue our little game like nothing had happened.
For a while we just basked in the glow of the moment. Then you said something like "So what does this mean?" and everything I thought I knew shattered in that instant. Instead of answering I just lost balance and fell against your chest, and you smiled and said "You okay?"
And I wanted to say, no, of course I'm not okay, you stupid boy. With five little words and the entire world changed. Instead I just mumbled something vaguely about having too much to drink and you deftly maneuvered me over to a recently vacated couch, where we sat down and I leaned my head on your shoulder and vaguely nodded as you spoke.
I could see the face of the future. I used to run away because it was a game, and it amused me at the time. Now I'd have to run away because the alternative was to stop moving altogether, to settle down and let life happen. And as much as I hated how you'd changed the entire world just now, I hated the idea of a changeless life anymore. So I told you I was sorry, even though I hate apologies, and you smiled and told me it was okay, completely unaware what you were forgiving me for.
You only took me across the mountains once during the winter--home to see your folks for the holidays, allegedly, though we didn't actually spend much time with your family while we were there. You said you didn't like the cold, which was definitely true, but in the quiet moments where you were driving from place to place and you didn't think I was watching I could tell you were actually afraid.
And it made sense. I watched you change into a different person everywhere we went. Someone from your past, maybe, or just someone you thought was more palatable for these old friends-your demeanor and your mannerisms changed instantly and completely. Each version of you was slightly catered to whoever we were talking to. At least your laugh remained the same. I've always known you had your faults, but your laugh was always perfect.
I told you what a surreal time this whole trip had been once, and you laughed. You laughed at everything back then. I imagine it's the one thing about you that's stayed the same. Except this time I asked why you laughed, and you looked afraid again, then thoughtful. "It's easier," you said. "Every time I come back it's a reminder of how much everything changes. Even me. Especially me."
"Easier than what?"
"If you can't manage a sincere laugh at something that terrifies you, you're living your life wrong," you said. Then you distracted me with stories about the old place, about the life that you'd left behind. I could never tell if you were afraid of the past or the future, and it was only now that I realized it was probably both.
I keep thinking of this promise I made to Eris once, full of words like "always," and how I knew even as I was speaking it that it wasn't a promise I'd be able to keep. I keep thinking of how she smiled and kissed my hand and gave me a look that said she knew it was meaningless, too.
I convinced myself the thing I needed to fight was change: that the reason we both knew it was bullshit is we knew that we'd both change, that the world would change around us. Life is a storm, I thought, and I'd just have to be a rock strong enough to weather it for both of us. (It went without saying that the chaos of life would blow her about like a leaf in the wind.)
Even once the inevitable finally happened, after we'd both betrayed each other, after we made a half-hearted stab at reconciliation, I believed that change was to blame for everything. That maybe things could have been different. But I keep thinking of the morning I made that promise. How I'd known in that moment that she would always be alone with me. How I'd resolved to be steady and unchanging, when the one thing that might have saved us would have been a willingness to change with the leaves.
We already had problems by the first winter. I guess it's probably pretty obvious by now that we had problems by our first meeting, but I realized it that winter, when I tried to create a ritual to stave off the passage of time, staying up all night for the solstice. It had been such a beautiful thing in the summer, but now the days were short and the nights were cold. Things had already changed.
We were curled up together in front of the fireplace, drinking hot chocolate, because that seemed like the sort of thing we should make a ritual of. Somehow it all felt hollow, and the more it seemed that my plans were falling flat the more desperate I became. She saw that, of course. She's always the first to notice my flaws, and the first to point them out--because, she always liked to say, she values honesty above all things.
I said something like "I just don't want anything to change between us," but that was a lie, and I think I was mostly trying to convince myself. Of course I wanted change. I wanted things to be like they were in my mind, all whimsical and perfect. I wanted the world to change for me. I wanted, more than anything, to believe that I wouldn't be forced to run when I couldn't lie to myself anymore.
I came back to Seattle once, hoping to pay my sister a surprise visit--it turned out she was out of town that week, of course, because that's the sort of thing that happens. So, finding myself with a sudden surplus of free time, I wandered through the city, revisiting my old haunts. There's something comforting in the unchanging. Eventually I found myself in my old neighborhood, where the most important of my old haunts had been: a used bookstore next to a coffee shop. They were places I still thought of when I thought of 'home,' which probably explained why, for so long, I'd felt restless and irritable. It's hard to feel safe when home is thousands of miles away.
Except when I reached the block, the bookstore was gone. In its place was the hideous blue of a Chase bank, sitting there like a bad set from a sci-fi movie. It was as if they'd put it there intentionally to taunt me--as if to say "This used to be a place of comfort, a place full of knowledge and secrets and hidden treasures." How could something so beautiful become something so utterly soulless?
The coffee shop still stood, at least. I ordered a chai tea and didn't dare ask when the bookstore had gone. It would have been like asking when the earth had come unchained from the sun.
It's hard to believe we've very nearly reached the last month of the year. December! For Thanksgiving I've gone home to eastern Washington, and a truly amazing freezing fog crept in last night, leaving a thick coating that almost looked like snow on the ground. I sometimes forget, in the maritime temperate climate of Seattle, how beautiful winter can be. Or how dangerous. (I've not forgotten the cold. Cold is something you never forget.)
Six months ago I wrote stories about eternity. This month I am writing stories about changes. Autumn is of course usually the season of change, but by the time December rolls around I always feel like everything is in flux. You can't get the sunset to stay still, for instance, but even culturally. We move at a breakneck pace through the holiday season. After Thanksgiving it becomes the race for Christmas, and then Christmas comes and goes and you're left cleaning up the tinsel, just in time to ring in the new year--and the new year is a holiday all about changes.
Some of these stories I've been waiting to tell since I started this project, and some of them, of course, I'm making up as I go. Regardless, I hope, if it can't be warm where you are, it is at least beautiful.
When I fled my old life, I spent a lot of time in solitude. I tell people it was "quiet contemplation" but I'm not sure if I was really contemplating anything so much as I was basking in the silence, learning to accept that it was okay to do nothing but exist for a while.
After a while I began to imagine that I had died. That was reason it was so quiet in my new apartment, why I didn't answer my calls or my emails or basically anything. Eventually, the calls and emails tapered off, and only a few dedicated individuals--my sister, mostly--kept trying. I thought that was fitting, really. The dead aren't something we think about. This world is made for the living. When the dead depart, we pay our respects, then we forget.
Once I emerged from my tomb, I started writing again. They were sad stories, stories about death and mortality and isolation. People started wondering if I was depressed (because when I was actually depressed they just thought I was being weird), but it seemed important. It wasn't until much later that I realized I was writing a eulogy for the life I'd led.
Is that so strange? I felt that in some way I truly had died, and some new self had moved in to replace the old one. The habits and quirks of my old self were gone. When I finally realized that, I asked my sister over and we held a wake. And somewhere in the middle of all this I realized I no longer felt like a ghost.
I was never more convinced that Eris had no appreciation for death than when she almost died in a freak accident, sometime last year. She kept telling me she should have died, that the odds were as stacked against her survival as they were against the whole event happening anyway. And she was so fucking cavalier about the whole thing. I called her out on it, of course. She just shrugged.
"Worse things have happened."
"You almost died."
"C'est la vie, I guess." Then she smiled like she thought she was the cleverest fucking thing. "Or maybe that should be c'est la mort?"
Which was typical Eris for you, really. For me, death was the only sacred thing. For her, it was a shrug and a bad joke. I'd almost say the idea that it might matter to someone seemed utterly alien to her, but she knew it mattered to me. When she finally, inevitably betrayed me, what hurt most is the fact that she chose the one thing that I held sacred to do it with--a story about death, something that had made me who I am, something so sacred I'd kept it secret until she came along. Then she took my secret and published it in her sister's fucking lit mag, just because she wanted to do something to hurt me.
The last time that we spoke (before she showed up on my doorstep years later, anyway) I told her she'd violated something sacred, and she just shrugged and said, "I don't understand why you're so upset. Stories are meant to be told, aren't they?"
And she really believed that stories might give us some sort of immortality, because as far as she was concerned, death had no meaning. The part that really hurt, though, was the gnawing fear that maybe she was right.
I was crashing at Alex's place for a few weeks last year, and since the last time we'd spoken before that was years ago and also ended with a lot of shouting, there weren't many safe topics of conversation. Mostly we just didn't talk, of course. We very studiously avoided situations where a conversation was likely--it's easier than you'd think, really.
Since I'd just had a brush with death, I kept having these dreams where a star fell on the house. I'd hoped being in Alex's house would make them go away, but instead they just followed me there. The first night there, I had the dream again, and woke up with a start. Then I felt her next to me and closed my eyes and tried to relax. We would both survive until the morning.
She woke up next to me and asked, sleepily, "You all right?"
The smart thing to do was say "I'm fine, just a bad dream," and go to sleep. Instead, I said, "I keep dreaming I'm dying. Some nights I'm scared to go to sleep, and I just want it to stop."
"You always used to tell me you weren't afraid of death, because life is narrative and your story will always live on, or some bullshit like that."
"All philosophy is bullshit when it comes to death. That's why we keep trying. We always think we've found the sole exception. But we haven't. And when we actually deal with death, we have to confront that."
"Sounds like more philosophy to me."
"Probably. But it's bullshit that helps me sleep at night."
And for the rest of that night, at least, I slept soundly.
Did they ever destroy that 24-hour place where we used to hang out? I know they were going to. I was crushed when I found out, and spent the evening writing down little stories I remembered about the place. Things we'd said, or things that happened there--you know how it is. I probably sent you one or two, for the sake of old times.
We have this macabre fascination with dying things, you and I. Not that we'd ever admit it, or even really talked about it. There was a time once--it must have been at the diner, I guess--where you asked me about it, and I almost talked about it. But we talked about everything but death, because that's the one thing that's always on our minds, isn't it? And since nobody ever says what they mean--least of all me--how could we ever actually talk about it? Besides, words have no power in the realm of death. It's something you experience. You can describe the shape of it with words but not its texture, its color. Words can't look death in the eye, and they certainly can't grin back at it.
So that moment came and went. You kept looking at me like you thought I was going to cry, and I wasn't sure what to do, or what to say. Which, as you might imagine, is new to me. It's been years since that day, and probably the diner has been destroyed now, but I finally figured out what I should have said.
"We should go to a funeral together."
When you were in London, I used to think of what would happen if you died while you were there. That probably sounds worse than it is--it was just this fear I had. As if distance made it more likely that you'd be hit by a bus, or something. I don't know. Anyway, when you came back, and we finally met at a party and sat out back and watched the wind tear the leaves off the trees, those thoughts didn't go away. We'd been talking philosophy and how people change, and as you talked I imagined you still and cold and composed in a coffin somewhere.
Eventually I just asked you, "Have you ever thought about death?" and then when you smirked at me I immediately regretted the question, because of course you had. But you actually suppressed the smirk. I still don't know if that was on purpose.
You told me how you used to go to funerals of people you didn't know, for reasons you could never quite articulate. "I guess I was just obsessed with death," you said. "Maybe I still am." Then you smirked again and said that you didn't want to get all morbid tonight. But your smile seemed thin after that, and your smirk looked more like a mask than ever. You looked as human as I'd ever seen you look. Who was I to intrude on that?
There are basically only two holidays that I really appreciate: Halloween and New Year's. (There's also May Day, but that's not really a holiday in the US, and anyway that one is much more personal) They're the only ones that feel genuinely human to me, because they aren't trying to be about anything else. I've written about the new year extensively (just look at January and December in my archives), but less so about Halloween. I guess it's harder to know what to say, because it's mostly a holiday about having fun. But it's also, inescapably, about death, which is why there's ghosts and zombies and vampires crawling around.
But now we're moving into November, which opens up cheerfully with the Day of the Dead, and, more to the point here, is six months after May. When I started this project I knew there would be a pairing of life and death, and I knew that May had to be the month of life, so it fell to November to be the month of death. It would have worked well for October, of course, but it's fitting here, too. November is the point where you can't pretend that winter is still a ways off. It's coming, and it will always come sooner than you think.
Of course, despite the fact that I've always known I wanted to write this month about death, I haven't had the faintest idea what I'd write about, because my usual framework of ghosts and the absurd isn't here for me to fall back on. I had this idea in my head that death required some sort of special treatment that I was afraid this framework wouldn't support.
And that's absurd, of course, because I talk about death the same way that I talk about anything else I've written about here. Death has been a part of my life from a very early age: I can't talk about who I am without, ultimately, talking about death. Why should my characters be any different? Even if they haven't known anyone who's died, death is a constant companion for us all. So perhaps I can learn something by approaching it from someone else's perspective, for once.
When you called and asked if I could pick you up from the airport, I made plans. I guess it doesn't really matter what they were now, but I made them. I wanted you to have fun when you got home from London, because at the time that was something I cared about.
Then I remembered what happened every single time I'd made a plan for you. How you always had a better idea, and how I always quietly let you have your way, because that was the sort of thing I did, and anyway you seemed happier that way. But I kept trying, because I figured one day you'd be happy if you were surprised, or even just if you let someone else drive for once.
But I learned what sort of results I'd get if I made plans for you: nothing at all. Just this once I wanted to actually do what I'd planned--and, if I'm being honest, I think I wanted to repay you for all your years of disrupting our plans. So I decided I'd just skip the bit about the airport and go and do alone all the things I'd planned to do with you.
I'd hoped to get a sense of smug satisfaction as I ignored your texts, but, true to form, you wouldn't even grant me that. Instead I just wondered whether we would have actually had fun for once, like we'd come so close to doing so many times before.
It was sometime in the fall that we first met, wasn't it? Some party neither of us really wanted to be at, where the city was shrouded in fog and the evenings weren't quite cold enough to keep us from hanging out on the back porch and staring at a city that seemed so beautiful and quiet. So we sat there in the dark and watched our breath cloud the air and talked about how we both hated parties, and I made plans.
I had the whole evening planned out. I'd walk you home, then I wouldn't let you kiss me and I'd vanish into the fog. In the morning you'd call and I'd keep dancing just out of reach. And everything went exactly according to plan, like you were some character I'd made up. I don't know if you ever understood how frustrating that was. Things aren't supposed to go according to plan. It's supposed to be this dance.
The thing is, I figured that the only reason my plans all turned out so well is you had a plan of your own. The hope of that result kept me from even considering altering my plans. So I kept dancing away, right up until the point where you finally gave up following.
One of the biggest ironies of living a life so obsessed with plans is you don't even have time to consider whether or not you're getting the results you wanted out of them. I remember my calendar used to be full of these little notes for weeks in advance: lunch dates with people who were useful to know, parties full of the sorts of people who went to parties to network. So when the 24th rolled around, for instance, I'd know exactly what my day would be like, who I'd be talking to, and all that jazz.
It was seldom very pleasant, but I did it, because everyone around me seemed convinced that without plans, there was only chaos. So my life was very orderly, of course, and also extremely hectic, because it takes a lot of effort to maintain all that planning. And despite living at all times on the brink of disaster, I'd look at people without my organization and say something like "There but for the grace of God go I."
My sister has always been the one who helped me step outside of myself. She showed up unannounced and cancelled all my plans, and despite my initial anxiety, my life did not collapse. I was able to relax and only spend time with people I actually liked, and it dawned on me then that the only thing my plans were actually accomplishing was making me hate my life.
I remember once I was delirious with fever, and instead of staying home in bed like a smart person I decided I'd follow through with the plans I'd made with Alex the week before. It was something stupid--she was out of town and she promised to buy me ice cream when she got back. She noticed I was sick right away, of course, but when she asked if I was all right and I gave a weak "I'm fine, it looks worse than it is" she brushed it off.
This was back when Alex being gone was the worst thing that could happen to me, and I managed to endure a week of that because I had fixed in my brain the thought that at some point in the future we were going to get ice cream. But the moment was here, and I was barely able to focus on the fact that there even was a moment.
We sat in the corner of the ice cream parlor and she talked. She probably told me about her trip, but I couldn't understand any of the words. It was all I could do now to focus on the ice cream, the very thought of which had sustained me. Now it was my anchor to the real world, and Alex was just some dim memory, something that happened to someone else.
Later on she told me she had fond memories of that evening. "It was just so . . . so you, you know?" And I did know, but I don't think she really did. She didn't understand that this innocent plan we made helped me realize that the relationship I clung to so desperately was just an illusion--no more real than the fever dreams. And suddenly I wanted something tangible. I wanted something I could sink my teeth into, cold enough to make my head ache and send chills down my spine, sweet enough that that wouldn't stop me. She could never offer me anything more than an idea, I realized then, and somewhere in my heart I knew that ideas are just a prison.
Of course I'd never talk about this. It was a realization that took place subconsciously, and my waking mind spent all its energy trying to fight that realization. But everything changed from that point. All because we made plans.