When I was fifteen I loved my friend Rhonda so much that other girls said it was sick and my dad said she was a devil who had me under a spell. They were all envious, of course. They could not possibly be expected to understand. Rhonda and I went everywhere together, so we were together that day on the school courtyard when we met Derek. He was doing handsprings on the concrete, making it look easy. Rhonda nudged me, wearing her lit-up look of discovery: Lookit that guy! He was not her type. She liked blonde husky Teamsters no longer in high school; her last boyfriend had shot himself in the foot to get out of the Marines; tattooed on his arm was a pipe-smoking baby and the words BORN HORNY. Derek on the other hand was dark and feline. When he stopped jumping and sat down on a bench with a carton of chocolate milk, Rhonda cornered him in that smiling interrogate-a-stranger way.
So what's your name? D-E-R-R-I-C-K, like an oil derrick? No? Where did you learn those acrobatics? Aren't you scared you'll slip and snap your spine? Would you be paralyzed? If you got paralyzed, what would you do for fun? Really? So paralyzed guys can jack off? Who do you have for civics? Mr. White? Get this. His wife miscarried last summer at Disneyland. No, really, on line for the Matterhorn! It's true, they belong to our church, First Presbyterian!
It was all anthropology to her. But his answers were fast, so Rhonda liked him and of course he liked her -- no, not that way. He was gay. Those two could talk on the phone for hours. He cracked her up because he was stupid but smart -- knew all the movie stars' birthdates but believed Los Angeles once had castles and kings and queens. He squared his jaw and said knights used to joust on the beach "in the old days." Rhonda encouraged this but I told him it was ludicrous. He mimicked my voice, wee wee wee.
Because Rhonda was both of our best friends, we three spent all our time together. Derek had a car, so on Saturday nights we three drove up to Hollywood to drink coffee and watch the cross-dressing prostitutes. Look at those faaaags in their cheap nylons, Derek would say, like it was okay for him to say it. Faaaags. Queeeers. Derek and Rhonda swung down Sunset arm in arm with me trailing behind. Derek would whirl around on his deft penny-loafers and blink, putting his hand to his mouth as if just noticing that I was there. Well, I'll be darned! It's Roo! Rhonda would laugh. He was hilarious. He was hilarious about me. My feet. They're like boats! My ears. My teeth. My virginity: Roo has never been popped! You will think I should have gone away or punched him out but never. Derek and Rhonda spoke a secret code. They riffed in it about movies and cars and me, and Rhonda would put her hand on Derek's arm and say Dthgerthgek, sthgop thgeasthging hthgethgr, which meant: Derek, stop teasing her. But she was laughing. Because damn, Derek was funny. If things had gone differently he could have been in sitcoms. He could have been the comedian who did gymnastics.
All these years later I wonder sometimes if Rhonda was trying to get rid of me. I don't blame her -- if she was seeing how much she could let Derek say and do before I couldn't take any more and split. I was not a perfect angel to her. Maybe she thought I had it coming. Derek liked to begin sentences with The reason Roo has never had a boyfriend is and finish them with whatever jumped into his head. Because her incisors are little and brown. Because she listens to top forty. Because she's frigid. Because if a guy came to her house, her bald crazy dad would chase him away with a pitchfork.
In the car, on the freeway, he stroked the gearshift: Roo, come up front and make friends with thisssss. You might leeeearn something. He made girly pleasure noises. Just rub it here. And here, ahhh.
At the mall: You never buy anything that's not on half-price sale, Roooo, youuuu cheap Jewwww.
He liked the rhyme. So did Rhonda, the way it made his lips a muzzle. So he drew it out. Oooooooo.
You wonder why I stayed. Because Rhonda was there. You ask was I a masochist. You ask how much in fact could Derek say and do before I went away and the answer is everything, anything. I would not ever go away, because Rhonda was there. I'm still trying to live down those things he said -- examining my ears and teeth, are they okay, well sure but no but sure but are they really? You ask did I have no self-respect?
No, none, but still, did that give him the right?
At a school dance during our junior year, Derek was capering around to an Elton John song and pointing at me, saying sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Which was true. He seized me by the arm and led me to the stairs and said This is because I pity you. He kissed me. Dry and quick, but still. Then he told Rhonda and she rocked back and forth on her heels in that teenage-girl way, ha ha ha.
Only when Rhonda and I left for separate universities and Derek stayed in LA could I be certain never to see him again. They stayed in touch. He told Rhonda about the clubs in Hollywood. The guys. There's this faaaag with a body like a pear who hangs out at the Glass House and when we tease him he shows us his fist and goes, "Want this, fuckahs?" And there's this other guy with a forked dick. Rhonda always warned him to be safe. He told her sure but sometimes guys get high and stuff happens fast so shut up. She said You stupid shit, be safe. At first it was a joke but then it wasn't. Mind your own business, Derek said. Reckless, spat Rhonda. Mind your own business, you boring bitch, he said and hung up. She never called back.
Fast-forward to the high-school reunion. Rhonda and I were wearing dance dresses again -- hers light, mine dark, as always. Crossing the hotel lobby, we could see white mylar balloons trailing green ribbons -- our class colors -- in the ballroom. Music from our graduation year pumped through the speakers. Grown-up cheerleaders were shouting like nubile girls. Hiiii!
In the corridor stood an easel mounted with a posterboard on which were painted the words In Memoriam. It was a list of all our classmates who had died.
We already knew about some of them. The suicides: the guitarist who shot himself, the mother-of-four who drove off a pier into the sea. The former tennis star killed in a carjacking. The sick ones. Others surprised us. Her? But how? Was she that one who wore the same shirt every day? The list gave only names, not dates or reasons.
Rhonda stamped her foot and swore.
That stupid shit.
Derek was second from last on the list.
I warned that stupid shit.
The crowd was flowing through the doorway and pulling us in. Couples jived on the dance floor, women who wanted so hard to be recognized and wanted their viewers to think, Hey -- she got hot! and sharp-suited ex-track stars with double chins.
Our ex-classmate Teresa elbowed her way up to us as we were leaving the buffet line.
You saw that about Derek. She jerked her chin toward the easel. She made a hugging gesture. He died in my arms.
When Derek got really sick with AIDS, Teresa let him stay in her apartment. Their families had been friends when we were kids, and the difference between her and me was that she could never tell when he was being mean.
She had the darkest red lipstick.
He had a vision at the end, she said, sipping Southern Comfort and Orange Crush -- our unofficial class drink -- as we found a table. She had a bracelet of shooting stars tattooed around one wrist. Sinking into her chair, she narrowed her eyes at Rhonda.
He described his vision out loud while it was happening. He said someone was waving to him from the window of a Porsche and it was you.
He was a gifted acrobat and a devoted son and he was dead so young and that was sad.
Stupid shit. Rhonda speared a broiled shrimp. What a completely fucked-up and pointless way to die. Her eyes were red and wet but her jaw jerked from side to side, its sinews making a pop-pop sound, the way they always did when she was mad.
Teresa turned her plate around as if it was a steering wheel. I mean, that's funny, isn't it? She flashed a smile at Rhonda that was not a smile. You of all people. In his last vision.
A new song started, and I feigned being absorbed in it, the way I used to in the car or on the beach, so that no one would pay me any mind. That ditz. She loves her top forty. Because no way should Rhonda and Teresa see, no way should anyone, what I was thinking. Yes, he was a gifted acrobat a gifted acrobat a gifted acrobat and so nice to his mom his mom his mom. But such an SOB to me -- he knew. He knew. And now he couldn't do that anymore. If I stared hard enough into the disco lights, no one could see me smile.
And we were all together, but apart.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Feeling happy when you hear of a death, even for an instant, flings you right beyond the pale. Beyond confession. Beyond civilization. Way beyond conversation. Some might say beyond humanity. And yet it happens. Frissons cannot lie. The tingling feels at first a little like relief, a soda-poppish hsssss. Then it sinks in, coldhotcold, like liquid spilled onto your pants. And once you know what it is you know what it is.
You think Wishes come true. You think Uh oh. You cringe. Taboo.
Once you know, you do not want to know. It is the last thing you would like to know. We blather about self-awareness -- oh how Zen it is. Yet who I am is someone who rejoiced at knowing a young attractive man was dead.
Okay, just for a moment. Just a bit. And maybe again, like a flashback, once or twice afterward. Maybe it's flashing back right now. But hey. You wrestle with that feeling, once you realize what it is. You blot it out, you mop it up. You try to sandblast it from your heart. And fill that blank space with responses that seem more acceptable. Picture a funeral. Fix your mind upon his mom. Hear yourself saying How sad.
Because if speaking ill of the dead is a sin, then how hot will you burn for one tiny smile?
They always tell you this: When someone dies, you will feel sad.
They warn you about sad. It seems so pure. Painful but clean as fire, the way it looks in movies -- crying jags. And so you think you know. It has been drummed into your head by sad songs (last chance ... last kiss ... tell Laura I love her), sad films, fairy tales, King Lear. Sympathy cards glimpsed on the drugstore rack -- why would you look closer at them, or open them, unless you had to -- bear generic greetings, punishingly brief. By these scanty prompts you are prepped in the basics of grief -- Grieving for Dummies.
And you trust that when the time comes, you will deal with it. You trust that the time will not come tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. And most likely it won't. But then one day it does. And then it becomes real. Not a movie after which you can walk out of the theater into the sunshine, not a maudlin song you can switch off, but your life. Your life in death.
When that day came, you told yourself: And now I must be sad.
And, chances are, you were.
Sadder, quite likely, than you ever could have dreamed. You had no clue how bad it could be, how you could feel stabbed straight through the eyes, flayed in the wind, drowning in gelatin. It lasts.
But that is sorrow. And while you never dreamed that it could feel so bad, I'll say this much for sorrow: At least you expected it.
What you did not expect, and what Hallmark never hints about, is all those other ways you feel when people die. Weird, messy, nasty, sticky, scary feelings that slop over the rim of sorrow, or poison it, or take its place.
You were not warned. You were not taught. No one ever sat you down and told you: Some deaths, someday, will make you sigh with sweet relief. Other deaths will make you say It's all my fault! Sometimes regret will spin you in a lonely oxygenless orbit. No one ever sat you down and said: Some deaths will horrify you. Grisly things no one should see will imprint themselves on your eyes. There are such things as never and forever and too late. You never knew before that death does funny things to love, and love does funny things to death. They never said some deaths would shame you. Some would make you selfish. Some would silence you, as if you had come to live at the bottom of a well.
And some would make you glad.
You tell yourself: This is so infantile. Like cheering when the Wicked Witch of the West melts. You tell yourself: Be civilized. Grow up.
Characters in hardboiled crime novels are always braying, I'm glad he's dead! But in that context it's okay because they're talking about scoundrels. The devil take him! The world's a better place without Smitty! Fiction is full of jubilations over the deaths of crooks and slavedrivers and maniac kings. We have our own villains in real life, yet the mature strategy is to get away from them, to build a grown-up life among nice kind loved ones. Only a masochist wouldn't try to flee, such that by the time your former tormentor dies, you are so far away in your new life, driving a Corvette or an Abrams tank or watching your children swim, that you'll never even hear the news.
But now and then you do. And then, uh oh. Wishes come true. My friend Catrina was fifteen when she heard that two of her cousins had been in a car accident. One boy sustained massive head injuries and the other was killed.
And I thought, Whee! She stops herself. That's terrible, isn't it? Am I terrible? But they were both such bastards.
That stubborn, stubborn joy.
The joy that dare not speak its name.
The dead are gone and cannot speak up for themselves. They're down -- why kick them when they're down? With death they have been dealt the cruelest blow. You hear others around you say: She was so brave. He was so young. She will be missed. He worked so hard. A shame! A life cut short! Death is so cruel.
This is no game of hopscotch you have won, no drinking-game or dormitory fight but something at once eternal and immaterial. What hubris to insert yourself into the picture, thinking you have "won."
But I have, you say with that smile.
Because death is cruel, and life is too.
Louis Armstrong had a hit song in the '30s which said it all. It went I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Teresa had brought Derek's yearbook to the reunion, hoping that Rhonda would be there so that she could give it to her. I couldn't just throw it away, could I? Teresa said in a high voice like a screen door slamming shut, draining her glass. But I kinda couldn't keep it. All around us, our ex-classmates were dancing: divorced or depressed or bankrupt or alcoholic but luckier, no matter what, than Derek. Teresa fingered the book's padded cover -- those cost $2 more than regular covers but Derek had champagne taste -- with its our-town design, a seagull and a lighthouse and a boat. She flipped to the page she had signed herself, that way-back June: just Have a bitchen summer! with a smiley face over the i. Then she flipped to the page Rhonda had filled with line after line of tight rounded script: Remember when we lost our flipflops on the Ferris wheel? Remember when we threw up after drinking Clamato? Remember your birthday when we went ballroom dancing? Remember when we saw the amputee? The yearbook was open on Teresa's lap and she bounced her knee. See that? It's yours now, it's yours, she said and snapped it shut and thrust it at Rhonda. He's yours. He was. Each of ours, and everyone's, to do with as we wished.
Excerpted from "The Farewell Chronicles: How We Really Respond to Death." Copyright ) 2005 by Anneli Rufus. Appears by permission of the publisher, Marlowe & Co., a division of Avalon Publishing Group.