The day replays itself on a loop in my imagination. It’s like watching a movie, except that stretches of the reel have been damaged and I must reconstruct the missing frames: An afternoon and an evening in early October in Los Angeles, nothing out of the ordinary.
It is possible I was at the restaurant, ferrying plates of vegan burgers and rice bowls from the kitchen to the hungry patrons, plates clattering, glasses of vegetable juice spilling over. It is possible I was apathetically listing the ingredients of four different salad dressings to a difficult customer. Or perhaps it was a few hours before that, at The Container Store. Was I holding two bookends in my hands, deciding between stainless steel and black, as he wrapped a belt around his arm and tightened it with his teeth? Was I waiting to checkout, eyeing the bins of unnecessary objects bordering the checkout aisle, as he forced the needle through his skin and into his vein and emptied it of its lethal dose? And then how long was it, until the actual moment of his death? Was it five minutes, or fifteen, or twenty? Was I just arriving back to my parking meter, pleased that there was time left on it? Was I headed South on the 2, singing along to Josephine Baker with the windows rolled down? Was I back home, fumbling with my new bookends, when he slumped over, sunk ever deeper into his heroin coma, and that last, soft exhale left him?
What a horrific incongruity of circumstances.
* * *
It was seven years ago that I met him at a coffee shop. It was the kind of coffee shop that was always bustling and a little sweaty. You had to hang around for a table, and the table would have crumbs on it. It smelled ripe in this coffee shop. It smelled like hungover college students who had not showered, who were having lox on their bagels and strong, black coffee.
He was very beautiful. He was tall, with black hair and green eyes, and hands that looked like they could fix—or break—things. He had a booming laugh and a bright smile, but he walked around a little cowed, like someone who is ashamed of himself.
I might have been beautiful. I was tall, with Bettie Page bangs and arms full of books—but at 25 I didn’t know it yet. I had had little experience with men—no high school boyfriend, no college sweetheart. In love, I had only ever been left wanting.
It was spectacular, the way he pursued me. It was early spring in Boston. The trees had small, tentative blossoms but the air was cold. I would leave my books, my open laptop, my essay at a stopping-point, and I would walk outside to the front of the coffee shop to smoke a cigarette. Like magic, he would also come outside to smoke a cigarette. Scuffing his shoes against the sidewalk and laughing a little too hard and a little too often, he would keep me company. I couldn’t take him seriously. He claimed to be a musician, but he was twenty-seven and working in a coffee shop. He smelled like stale cigarettes and anxiety. Something slightly acrid. Coffee would leak out of his chin from a hole where he used to have a piercing.
After he hired my roommate for a job at the coffee shop, I could not get rid of him. Suddenly they were friends and he was in my apartment all the time. I condescended to sleep with him, then, because he was so beautiful. But I did not like the way his body moved. He told me about his failures, which were many, so that we ‘could make an honest start’ and I laughed at him. But he was in such earnest, I started feeling like maybe I was holding his heart between my teeth.
Months passed in this way and it was like he gained life force with every advance towards me that I granted him. He became even more beautiful. His posture straightened. I had a futon for a bed and somehow it ended up on all different sides of my room. We had so much sex in that room I am surprised the walls are still standing. One time he sat me on the table and pushed his face into my sex until I saw black. Until I saw stars. Until I saw the universe. Those were beautiful days.
I don’t know when my wariness of him relented to love, but my god did I pay for it. His devotion was rapturous, intoxicating. And here’s the truth: I wanted to believe that he wanted me enough to be better than he had been before. That our love had given him a new purpose, a new strength to be good. It was an amateur’s mistake. When we were awake, we never stopped talking. But when we slept, he held onto me like my bed was the ocean and I, a life raft. I ought to have seen it then.
I went to Greece for six weeks that summer and our phone bill was obscene. He was already struggling with the bottles, then, and was spending the summer figuring himself out. I thought it was just that easy. I think he knew better, but I don’t think either of us expected him to fail as spectacularly as he did.
I’m not asking you right now, he told me one day on the phone, both of us so optimistic. I was on a hilltop surrounded by olive trees, taking shelter in the cool of my hotel room. Outside, the high-summer air was electric with hot sun and cicadas, but just so you know: someday I am going to ask you to marry me.
* * *
Many times, he left me.
The first time he left me for Marissa. Marissa who had a propensity for self-destruction that matched his own, and an equal lust for lurid sex and substances. Marissa who was beautiful and reckless and new to town. Marissa, who was the new waitress at the restaurant where I worked.
For six months after he left me for Marissa, he left me again every night in my dreams. Every night, a new and different betrayal. Sometimes, we were in a park, green lawns sloping out in every direction. I would go looking for him and find him, mid-coitus, with a girl behind a tree. Sometimes, we were at a party and I would see him exchanging glances with Marissa across the room. And I would find them, then, embracing in the coatroom. My response to the betrayal was always the same: I would collapse at his feet, sobbing, and wrap my arms around his leg and he would cast me off like a beggar and lead the other girl away from me.
One time I dreamt that he was in an old world opium den in old world Boston. Wanton half naked women were draped over him on a settee where he lay, nodding off.
Wake up! I said. There is a tsunami on its way here. We have to leave.
But he could not rouse himself, he could not understand me. I could not get him out of the place and eventually had to leave him there, to be destroyed by the tsunami and swept out to the cold, dark Atlantic.
Before he actually left me for Marissa, I never thought he would leave for another woman. Before he left me, I always feared it was the heroin that might seduce him away. Heroin was the greedy ex-mistress always beckoning to him from across town, from the dark alleys and dirty public toilet stalls where he had whiled away so many years of his ruinous youth. In the end, I suppose I was correct.
* * *
This is not a story about heroin. The heroin, we escaped. But the bottles, we did not. I watched, disbelievingly, as they took over our life and then laid it to waste. They started accumulating—slowly, at first—around the perimeter of our room, and in the recycling bin. Green and brown glass bottles, emptied of their beer. Then tall, clear bottles emptied of their liquor. Bottles of every shape and size. Eventually, small plastic bottles that fit inside of pockets, for the insides of trains and movie theatres. There was a bottle for every occasion. In the beginning, these bottles only gave me pause. Not a day passed that we did not accumulate more of them, but they were just something we were going to have to work through, I thought. I did not realize the extent to which these bottles held sway over him.
Then came the night the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1912. In my bedroom in Porter Square, the buses rattling along outside the window, we made love off of the side of my bed and he forgot he was not wearing a condom. It was because, for one thing, he was drunk. But really, it was much more than that. He loved for things to be going wrong. He was like a bludgeon to happiness, that man. It was never accidental if things took a turn for the worse, not really. He felt it was transcendental, I think, the pain of loving and then of destroying. Being the object of his love, it might have benefited me to know that sooner.
Six weeks after I had dosed myself with the morning after pill, a tiny bundle of cells remained, multiplying. On the bathroom floor, looking at that little pink plus sign, I felt both profound terror and a small tremulous elation. I stayed there sobbing until he came home from work. This was the moment of reckoning. It felt like we were placing a bet we could not assure. It was a stress that I could bear, but the weight of it on him culminated in ever more empty bottles everywhere. I carried the stress of that, too, and of not knowing how to remedy it. Something was giving way.
It was a bitterly cold winter in Boston that year. Old women were slipping on the sidewalk ice and breaking hips. We were living in a house by the seaside, then, in a depressed blue collar town where everybody smoked cigarettes. Our room was dark and drafty. We were poor and he was depressed, but I was not regretting my pregnancy. Do you know what it feels like to be pregnant? Let me tell you. First of all, you are constipated. You are bloated and nauseated and all of your organs feel compressed, like you have eaten four Thanksgiving dinners and no amount of loosening your belt can alleviate the pressure. But there is something magical about it, too – a primal biological imperative that connects you to all other animals and back to the beginning of time. The small life inside of you is infinitely fragile and infinitely precious. I had a heightened sense of self-preservation. I took extra care when crossing the street and felt more wary of strangers on the train.
The other thing I remember about my pregnancy is being awed by the way sex and life are so intimately linked. The act of sex and the act of creation had always seemed very separate to me. But our child was growing inside of me and as my breasts became more bulbous, as my belly became convex and my thighs thickened, his desire for me swelled out of all proportion. He was constantly touching me. His longing was unquenchable. Our child was an aphrodisiac.
I had dreams about this baby. Her name was Mabel, or Isabelle, or Georgia. She had his dimples and the shape of her eyes was his but, instead of green, they were brown like mine. In my dreams she sprang from my womb fully formed, joking and laughing.
Here’s what happens with the baby: it has Down Syndrome.
I am halfway through my pregnancy before we find this out. The first hint of a problem arriving just after we find out the baby’s sex. The first hint of a problem arriving just after I send a message to everyone I know that says: “It’s a boy!” There is no question about whether or not I can keep the pregnancy, then, and so I decide that I must kill my child. My options are as follows: they can cut it up inside of me and pull it out in pieces or they can kill it intact, and induce the early delivery of a stillborn Down Syndrome child. Allowing this child some dignity, I pick the latter. But then I must wait ten days before anything can happen.
As if to protest its imminent death, the baby starts kicking me. This throws me into a state of panic, anxiety and guilt that is irremediable. Because, remember, I do love this child. I am inconsolable. And you can guess what he is doing. The bottles are everywhere. He is falling asleep on the porch with a lit cigarette between his fingers when it is ten degrees outside. He is frothing himself into a drunken panic and speeding off in the car late at night. He is getting angry with me for feeling so upset. It’s just some cells! He says with a raised voice. With a voice that is almost yelling, It isn’t a child, yet! You know that! But I have been carrying these cells for four and a half months, and I know better.
When we go to the hospital seven days later, the doctor injects a serum into my uterus. The needle is very long and thick. This would be the easy way for my child to die, explains the doctor. But the child does not die and I feel like I am torturing him. I am prolonging the child’s death. I am letting people poke and prod the child; I am letting doctors fill his environment with poison, and the child is not dying. I am a monster. And then the worst part happens, the day when I go to the doctor and they must inject poison directly into the child’s little body. I am watching on an ultrasound screen: the child is dodging the needle like a prize fighter and I am sobbing hysterically, but I am trying not to move because the needle is penetrating through many layers of my skin and muscle and uterus and it hurts, and the more I can keep myself still, the faster it will be over. Finally, after four tries, the doctor succeeds in killing the child. I am shaking like an epileptic.
The labor and delivery take hours. I can’t remember if it is twelve hours or fourteen or sixteen. But eventually, my small dead child is born. This is when the bustling comes to an abrupt halt. All of the nurses and doctors and anesthesiologists leave. Two of my friends leave, at the arrival of the dead child, quiet, hands over their mouths, eyes rimmed with tears. In the bed, I feel clammy and drugged. I can feel that there is a great deal of wetness where I am sitting, but my legs are still numb, mostly, and I lack the necessary energy to move myself, anyway. My body feels like a heavy, useless object and my brain is dulled. In the haze of the silence and the clamminess and the fatigue and the pain medication, I am holding my small dead child. He is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and nothing about him looks Down Syndrome. The child has my mouth and his legs. The child is about the length of my forearm, still, but warm, and even though the child is dead, I have the craziest impulse to hold on to him as long as I can.
He is not actually present at the arrival of the child, because he had gone downstairs to smoke a cigarette. But now he is sitting at my bedside, smelling of vodka. I pass him the child. It is just the three of us in the room, now: the small dead child, myself, and him. He is holding the child along his forearms and he is rocking back and forth. He begins crying, softly at first.
I’m so sorry, he begins saying to the child. Over and over again, I’m so sorry. This is my fault.
He is sobbing, then, taking in big heaving pulls of air. All of the guilt and all of the failures and all of the penance for every wrong he has ever done in his whole life is represented by this small, dead child. This, he will tell me later, is the thing that he loved and now he is holding it and it is destroyed. He passes the child back to me, still sobbing, and he runs from the room. He gets in the car and he leaves me there at the hospital, alone and emotionally void.
I wish I could tell you that I leave him after that, after he has failed me, after he has become another burden for me to bear at the moment when I am drained of all reserve. I wish I could say that.
* * *
It seems to me now, that it had very little to do with Marissa herself. His departure, in retrospect, seems more of a giving up. A choice between the wreckage of our life together, which was a thing he could not bear, and a complete giving over to substance—a far easier territory for him to navigate than sobriety, under any circumstances. It was an unmooring. The girl herself, I believe, was incidental.
He and Marissa began their stint together on a months’ long bender. They got into fights—sometimes with other people, often with each other. They ran up huge bar tabs and got so drunk they forgot to pay. They threw up in public and knocked over tables. Six months passed in this way, and I was as far from Boston as the contiguous states allowed, poor and isolated, house-sitting for a friend in Los Angeles. I survived on a paucity of food and sleep. I drank too much and watched the late early-morning hours pass in slow succession as I smoked cigarettes on the back porch and grieved. And I came to understand something about the gravity of alcoholism. I don’t mean its seriousness. I mean gravity in the sense that if my ex-fiance were a comet or an asteroid, hurtling through space and he passes me, I exert the pull of a planet. Even if I am Saturn, I merely warp his trajectory a bit and he carries on. But his addiction is a star: it’s a blue giant or a red supergiant. It will pull him off course completely, until he eventually collides with the white, burning heart of it and annihilates himself.
* * *
If I have failed to locate myself at the precise moment of his death, certainly the exact circumstances surrounding the moment that I learned of his death are scarred into my memory. I had just gotten out of the shower and was getting ready for work. I pulled on black tights, a black skirt, a black bra. I had not yet put on a shirt. A text message came through on my phone. It was from a very old friend, someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time.
I left my phone on the living room table and went back into the bedroom to finish fixing my hair and as I was in there, I thought to myself, I hope he isn’t texting to tell me that Jason has died. It was a simple, fleeting thought. When I got back to my phone, I read:
I hate to be the one contacting you about this, but have you heard about Jay?
Immediately, I could not breathe. My heart was beating so hard and fast it was almost audible and my hands were shaking so violently that I had to make fast jabs at the keyboard to type. I was astonished at my reaction. I wrote:
* * *
The next day, nauseated from grief and rum, I lay on the couch in a stupor. Falling into a fitful sleep and then waking with a start every ten or fifteen minutes to a world in which he no longer existed. I strained to remember what it felt to interact with him physically, but could remember nothing. The details of his body—the taste of his mouth, the texture of his skin, the heft of his limbs—had been completely erased from my memory, reduced to a dark landscape in the far corner of my mind. I began replaying, in my imagination, the circumstances around his death. Was he in a bathroom? Was he on a bed? Was there music on? Was it early evening or late at night? I was horrified by the fact that his girlfriend had found him while he was “still warm” but that it had been too late to resuscitate him. What had kept her those few minutes too many? Had she lingered at work for one last drink before heading home to him? I was horrified by the fact that he had been cremated by the time, three days later, that the news had reached me. I kept replaying, over and over, the image of his cold, still body on a rack and someone pushing it into the oven. There is no model in my imagination for what cremation looks like. Does the skin peel off in small flames first, or is the body reduced, all at once, to ash?
I will have more dreams, now, and in these dreams he will be dying. Each night I will try to save him, and each time I will be too late. He will be in a bathtub, a syringe sticking out of his arm like a quill, and I will reach him just as the last slurred words are leaving his mouth. I will beg him to say a word of kindness to me, a word of affection, but he will not recognize me. I will find him loitering at an afternoon tea party before a large English manor. He will be ashen and covered in lesions, losing consciousness by a tree and I will try to find someone to help. I will get lost amongst the strangers at the party, trying to find someone to come with me, but each person will dawdle and take me to some other person, who just needs to get this one thing before they can take me to the person who can help me, and they will lose track on the way there, stopping to chat with a friend, and I will never make it back to him. I will find him dead, but still warm, in some strange apartment, in the bed of some new, strange girlfriend, who is not me.
"Even If I Am Saturn" was inspired by real events.
M.R. BRANWEN is the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the consulting fiction editor of Dig Boston, where she recently established the publication's first monthly fiction series. She is also the senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, where she periodically pinch-hits as the managing editor.