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.
It was always impossible to make plans with Eris. She was just one of those people who is made entirely of chaos--and that was probably part of the draw at first. Sure, she'd always stick to the letter of any plans I'd try to make, but there was hardly any point to it. She destroyed the spirit of the plans just by being there. So way back when I still called her 'porch girl' I started making these elaborate plans, just to see if she'd actually follow through with them. And no matter how convoluted she always kept them perfectly, and despite that the entire thing was ruined.
She reveled in the chaos, of course. She has this infuriating little smile she does when things go wrong, like it's just so exciting and why aren't I enjoying myself? I saw that smile a lot. Somehow, though everything went according to plan, nothing turned out the way I expected. I never really understood it then, but I think it was mostly just her reaction. Like she knew how I wanted her to react and she refused to follow the script. She had her own idea of a good time.
The most infuriating thing is how often she was right. Her suggestions always stuck with me, as crazy and unpredictable as she was, while my own plans were utterly forgettable. I'm confident now she was quietly mocking me--no matter how intricate my plans, she could do better without thinking about it, without trying. But she would always, always give me a chance, even after the end had come and gone.
October is actually the month where all of this started. I wrote seven ghost stories for October last month. Later, when I was talking about the ghost stories to a girl I'd never speak to again, she asked if I did something like that for every month. "I do now," I said. I tried to do something for November, but it didn't happen. Then I thought about it, and I decided that I wanted to do this project, with themes and counterpoints. May would be about life and November would be about death; then I filled in the rest of the months and have been tweaking that list ever since.
October didn't get much tweaking. April was always about plans and October was always about results. I don't think I'm using "results" in the typical sense of the word, though, because when I hear the word I think "he gets results!" But the results for these characters you've been getting to know all year aren't always good results, because they don't always make good plans. (Sometimes I'm not even sure good plans really exist.) Results are what happen when plans meet reality. The explosion that follows is sort of like the one that happens when matter comes into contact with antimatter.
I started feeling weird about how I never trusted anyone, so I started hoarding secrets--that way, when someone started asking why I doubted them, I could hand them a secret. "Here," I'd say. "This is for you." And it was mostly just a test. Everything is a test.
It was the same thing with Eris. We'd reached the point where I needed to say "no, I totally trust you," so I dug up one of my buried secrets. "Here, you can have the one about my friend who died in middle school." I wrapped it up neatly and gave it to her in a box. I told her I gave her this because I trusted her, but really it was because I doubted her. Because I wanted to see what she'd do with something so precious to me. So I watched her and I poked and prodded her, and I even got myself to believe I was just proving how much we trusted each other.
Eventually all the little tests, trying to get her to prove that I should still trust her, became a ritual. She never fought back or complained or anything. I built an entire relationship on doubt, and still, when she finally did prove me right, I had no idea it was coming. By the end I doubted she was even capable of betrayal.
It hurt, of course, but part of me was secretly pleased.
Before I fled my old social circles--that festering den of liars that I loved so much--there was a kid I dated, whose primary virtue was that he didn't seem like the rest of the people I knew. He was obsessed with uncertainty and doubt and the ephemeral nature of reality, and for some reason that was relentlessly charming, and made me want to follow him blindly wherever he wanted to lead me.
My sister laughed at me when I told her about him, because she saw herself in my descriptions of him. She said, "You can't trust people like me. We're inherently untrustworthy." And that just sounded like the sort of charmingly self-deprecating thing people like that would say, so I didn't really pay it much heed. But she said something that stuck with me.
"The best thing you can do for someone like that is to doubt them," she told me. "When you've embraced the ephemeral nature of the world we live in, the last thing you need is someone trying to make you into some sort of immovable rock."
I didn't listen, of course, because humans never listen to the good advice. But when my gossamer anchor disintegrated, suddenly the full weight of it struck me. I don't even remember this kid's name, but I do remember how important it is to give in to doubt every now and then.
For most of my life, the people I've been closest to have tried to maintain a careful distance from me, because as far as they're concerned I'm just a ticking time-bomb, waiting to go off and betray any trust they gave me. And that's probably fair, of course, but it made me doubt myself, too. I doubted myself so wholly and completely that it became a part of who I was--a little bit of stability to cling to.
Alex changed all of that, or at least tried to. She trusted me implicitly, and in so doing she robbed me of a carefully constructed identity. Any time I tried to tell her, she tried to reassure me, like I was a child telling her about monsters under my bed. And I just let it happen, because against something so powerful as trust, what could I do? Every effort to revive that doubt failed, no matter how I tried. Her soothing words drowned the self to which I had clung so desperately.
So one evening, as she was whispering about how she wished I could see myself from her eyes, I resolved that there was one weapon against which trust could never stand: betrayal. Her confidence in me would be shattered, and I could finally be free of the tyranny of trust.
Doubt sort of defined our relationship, didn't it? And really it sort of defines all human relationships--we can't just go around trusting each other, after all. We keep our guard up around random strangers, so why not around people who are close to us? Just because you were important to me was no reason for me to suddenly assume that you had my best interests at heart. I never had your best interests at heart, after all. Anyway, a breach of trust can happen entirely on accident, and if all of our endless fights were any indication, that was bound to happen sooner or later.
So of course I doubted you. I had no reason to do anything else. It's nothing personal, it's just that life is simpler when you operate under the assumption that people are going to let you down. And it's not like I was wrong: you did disappoint me, time and time again. So doubt was just another thing I did in order to survive.
For the longest time you used to send these drunken emails late at night--I assume they were drunken, anyway, because I'm generous--talking about trust. Telling me you trusted me, or saying how much it hurt that I didn't trust you, or asking that I show how much I trust you. Not often, just every couple of months, usually when I'd done something that brought the doubt that formed the seed of our relationship into the foreground. You were fond of swearing that you'd never betray me--as if I even knew what the word meant. I've always been far too sensible for that.
I assume you got your answer, anyway, when I never wrote back. For all of the problems we had, I always thought our relationship went well precisely because I kept my expectations low. Unrealistic hopes have destroyed civilizations and brought empires to their knees. What hope did I have against that?
Something about you seemed fundamentally untrustworthy from the moment we met--I think it was a Labor Day barbecue, wasn't it? I can picture it clearly: you complaining about America's lack of appreciation for the labor movement, about how by rights this should be on May Day, about how most Americans simply see it as an excuse to eat hamburgers and get drunk. I can still hear your sarcastic tone, still see your ironic little smirk. I showed up late and didn't know anyone there, but I knew two things as soon as I saw you: I knew that you liked me for some reason, and I knew that was probably a bad thing.
I drank more than I usually do that night. I'm not good at parties, and you were making me uncomfortable. It didn't help. I ended up ducking out back for air after even more people showed up, and I wasn't really surprised that you'd followed me out there. I was surprised that it didn't bother me anymore. Perhaps the alcohol had drowned that little seed of doubt. You asked if I was feeling okay, your tone abruptly lacking the carefully constructed irony from earlier, and that put me on edge again. As if your apparent sincerity could be anything more than artifice.
I answered honestly, because honesty is usually the best way to get rid of someone. But you stayed, and I made what I have often thought of as the worst decision of my life then: I decided to just let you stay around. So long as I kept that seed of doubt alive, so long as I didn't let myself trust you--well, there was no harm in seeing where the evening would take it, was there? I was fairly certain the evening would end with you in my bed, except when we reached my doorstep you simply leaned in close and told me to call you when I was sober.
And that's how I stopped watching the doubt I'd spent all night nurturing: in that moment I was certain I'd misjudged you. I let it grow wild, and from that moment on, the only thing I was uncertain of was myself.
September always feels like something is ending to me. Or rather, a lot of somethings: summer is ending, and with the coming of fall it becomes official: the year is almost over. That endless period where the sun never sets has gone away, and the days are getting shorter. This isn't a bad thing, of course. Sometimes summer is more dead than the darkest nights of winter. The sharpness of an autumn breeze carries a beautiful new life with it.