Friday, May 03, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two.

A missive from Lloyd on his mention in the last chapter:

That Lloyd sounds like a jerk.

He didn’t use the word jerk. The word he used summed up his thoughts perfectly but it’s a lot less offensive in his locality than to most of my North American readers, so let’s just say ‘jerk’ which isn’t nearly as evocative, but it’ll do. Lloyd comes back later, near the ground zero of this tale, but I don’t remember him in the next part. Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.

For some reason, I remember Dale instead. He was tall, Korean, a good trombone player and either dated a friend of mine or (for reasons best known only to them) didn’t mind people thinking that they were dating. He is the first person I remember speaking to after Zoe’s funeral no more than an hour later, one of the groups of smokers lingering at the double doors beside the breezeway. He was giving cigarettes away to anyone who stopped to chat. I didn’t smoke but took one, grateful to concentrate on the nicotine alone.

He was a music student and I was in theatre, so I didn’t know him very well. I always thought of him as a friendly if quiet guy, so it was surprising to find him holding court with such authority. Everyone got a smoke and an “Are you okay? You’ll be okay,” rundown. I remember the shell-shocked mourners smoking and staring at anything other than each other, and hearing Dale say “If anybody here – anybody – ever gets that bad, you can call me. I’ll give you my number. I don’t care if it’s 4am. Just call me, I’ll talk you down or find somebody who’ll help. Anybody.”

I heard him say it four or five times over the three cigarettes he’d given me, which made me nauseous, which was better than thinking about Zoe. He didn’t make the offer earnestly; it didn’t sound like he expected to change anybody’s life or dedicate himself to telephone psychiatry. It sounded more like a matter-of-fact, pragmatic offer; something along the lines of nobody wants to see this again. Call me, it might help. Don’t let it happen again.

I knew twin brothers, Frank and Conrad (aka Con), both music students. I got along well with Con and could never have a conversation with Frank. There wasn’t any tension or dislike, but if we met in the hallway we’d nod at each other and nothing more. If I met Con, we’d gossip or talk about TV or movies for five or ten minutes. This always struck me as slightly weird, regardless of the fact that they were two different people and for me to assume they’d have the same personality shows up how unimaginative I could be at the time.

This has nothing to do with anything, other than the fact that Frank and Con held a party on the first Saturday after Zoe’s funeral. I don’t remember if it had been planned before or was just a response to do something that felt far away from everything that had happened that week. I knew their parents had gone away for the weekend – their mother’s birthday – and that was enough.

Dale is the first person I can remember at the party because he is the first person I’d ever seen shotgun a beer. The practice is rarely performed by anyone other than high school students and frat boys and I haven’t witnessed it since 1992 or so. It’s best performed over a sink; Frank and Con’s laundry tub provided the appropriate mise en scene. Dale took two tall-boy cans and shook them a few times as the setup. He found a bottle opener on his keychain and angled it into the bottom of the can until it pierced the metal, sending foam streaming out from the hole which was then juxtaposed directly into his mouth and down his throat. Being a friendly sort, he then did the same to the second can and handed it to me.

I downed it, surprisingly. I thought the foam would choke me, but the hole was small enough to have aerated it into something close to nothing and I’d finished the can in a minute and a half or so. The cold beer hit me as hard as I expected and the party was filled with very loud music and lots of smoking and people talking about anything other than Zoe. I don’t think her name was mentioned once by anyone, although thumbnail sketches of the events were overheard at all corners;

“Worst week of my life.”  
“I just went home and locked my door and boom. Wasn’t talking to anybody.”  
“You guys had better behave yourselves because I’m not gonna sit through anything like that ever again.”

Joanna was there. The story was that she had been Zoe’s roommate on a class trip a few weeks before, and she knew that there were rumblings about what was coming. I didn’t care about the story; rumours were just that and not to be asked or talked about. She drank a glass of wine from a bottle somebody had stolen from their parents' house and she carried herself with the same quiet she’d been holding since the funeral. They had been friends since grade 10 and she seemed more shaken than sad, on the outside at least.

The party was looking to be an all-nighter (“Lots of couches in the basement to crash on, if you wake up with somebody you don’t remember don’t blame me”) and sounded a lot more fun than it actually was. This was compounded by the return of Frank and Con’s parents. I was there when his parents walked in the house (obviously not as away-for-the-weekend as had been planned) and his mother not looking horrified, just deeply surprised. This had all the potential of a John Hughes moment but didn’t quite feel like it.

Even when Frank started singing Happy Birthday.

We all joined in for a chorus. His mother smiled. It looked like might get away with this, yet.

Five minutes later, it was very clear that nobody was getting away with anything. I heard excuses and requests to leave the house and threats to call the police (I don’t know if they were actually called) and it appeared to be a good time to join the exodus and exit. I’d never been at a party that had been busted before, the experience didn’t seem nearly as much fun as one of the aforementioned John Hughes moments but it wasn’t that kind of party and hadn’t been that kind of week.

I ended up talking to Joanna, waiting for a bus. She said very little and I didn’t ask anything about Zoe. But I was hoping for something. I was 16 years old and a movie buff and I had a very cinematic sense that maybe she was about to share some fact or story that would explain why Zoe did what she did and put everything into context. I thought it would have been the perfect movie-moment, if that doesn’t trivialize everything.

Which it does. I knew that even then. I still hoped.

No story was forthcoming. And I was just smart enough to know it wasn’t my business to ask.


It might be unrelated, but I think Joanna carried Zoe’s story into another place. Around a year later, she performed a dance routine in a stark, backlit performance space. Her piece was choreographed to a Morton Feldman piece. I was videotaping all of the presentations that year and hers was the only one that’s stuck with me. I trimmed it down to the bare essentials on an old master-and-slave dual VHS deck at the time, monkeying with the volume levels to make her soft-spoken introduction audible.

She introduced it this way:

This piece was written by Morton Feldman for Mark Rothko, a friend of his who had all his friends turn on him and all bad things happen to him, and ended up committing suicide in 1970. This is just after he’d done several works to be put inside a chapel in Texas, a non-denominational chapel they've called Rothko Chapel. And after he died, the owners of the chapel (I think) commissioned Feldman to do a piece commemorating Rothko. That’s it. I just wanted to explain that he’d died committing suicide.


The piece is hard to find, performed rarely and not easy to listen to. When you do find a recording, it’s hard to forget. There’s a good live recording on YouTube which shows off its complexity, worth watching. Joanna’s piece matched it well; lonely, filled with long slow movement and ending when she curled into a ball and simply disappeared into the shadows.

Point taken, I thought, seeing it all through the camera’s viewfinder.

I might have been wrong. Joanna discussed it after the performance (which I also taped) and never mentioned Zoe or anything about death or suicide, she just talked about how much she loved the music and was only concerned with the fact that the whole piece was 25 minutes long, and where should she end it?

I found a box of old videotapes a few years ago, converted them to digital before they turned to dust and shared a few clips with friends. I don’t watch any of them with any regularity. But I remember Joanna’s. ______________________________________________________

Lloyd comes back early, for a minute or so.

I forget who asked it; I know it was a girl, probably a grade below me. But I remember her asking Lloyd if he was going to write a song about Zoe. I remember that he didn’t cringe exactly (I did), but looked uncomfortable for a second and muttered something about it wouldn’t help anything, he wasn’t the guy to do it. I thought it was a stupid question and probably not a bright thing to do in the first place and yes, Lloyd was a good singer and our school was the kind of place where one could do that type of thing, and if he’d chosen to do it he’d have done it well. Which made it no less of a bad idea.

A pointless idea, maybe well intended.

Or something that somebody saw in a movie, somewhere.

Or a sentiment that was awkward and maudlin but really, where were the guidelines for dealing with a case like Zoe’s? You couldn’t change it and fixating on it was grim and ignoring it left a hole in your part of a collective memory and wasting time wondering how to cope with it in the right way simply resulted in wasting time while wondering how to cope with it in the right way.

I’d seen lead-ups to cases like Zoe before; it made me more susceptible to what followed. I was still twitching, remembering Toni. Who I had known long enough to call Antonella.

Continued in Part Four


Patti said...

Your writing always leaves me with few words. I quietly await the next installment.

Anonymous said...

A song was not written. However a brilliant movie was eventually made...

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