Monday, June 02, 2014

Stations of the Breath - Part Six


Continued from parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Interlude



Not everything matters, but everything happens.  
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Monday morning in the last week of March, 1985.

I walked into school early, close to 8:00am when my classes didn’t begin until nine. A few years before I would have shuddered at the idea of arriving early at school, but I had come to enjoy and depend on that routine.

Three people were sitting on the floor against their lockers a few feet away from my own; Madeline and a flute player named Lilia on the other side of hall, and Lloyd sitting closer to me. They were talking softly to themselves when I walked in and stopped when I reached my locker.

I remember this, but didn't particularly notice it at the time. Nothing struck me as unusual.

“Did you see the Oscars last night?” I asked the group. “Prince won and showed up wearing a ridiculous purple snood."

Nobody said anything. Lloyd looked at me and didn’t smile and almost imperceptibly shook his head. Madeline didn’t look up from the floor. Lilia looked like she’d been crying and said “Michael? I still have your 'Purple Rain' sheet music. I’ll bring it back in a few days, is that okay?”

“There’s no rush,” I told her, wondering why this would be something to be upset about.

I thought I’d walked into something that wasn't my business. I turned to my locker, stashed my coat and bag and sat down to my textbooks. Ingrid (a violinist, I think) walked in a few minutes later and Lilia stood up in tears within seconds, burying her head in Ingrid's shoulder. Ingrid held her composure for a few seconds before until Lilia's sobs grew louder and her own eyes began to water.

I stood up for want of something to do - maybe to ask if I could help or to just leave the hallway and not be unwanted company. I glanced at Madeline, who looked sick with tears in her eyes but not exactly crying; I'd either missed it or she was just getting started. Lilia's sobs were getting louder and Lloyd was watching the three girls slowly, looking like he was going to say something.

He didn't have to.

You knew? somebody is going to ask.

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that I don't know why and if you want to make a case for selective, after-the-event memory, be my guest. I probably knew simply by process of elimination; if something had happened, and the first three people I saw were upset, and we all knew Zoe, it was probably Zoe. Everything that had ever been precarious about her felt obvious and unavoidable.

You knew.

Yes but I can't explain why and don't want to believe that knowledge was derived from anything other than logic. But It didn't feel like logic and the awareness of that - the conviction and the sickening realization something was very wrong - was distinct and unwelcome.

I had to ask somebody. I felt like a monster even suggesting it. I wouldn't risk asking Madeline; she looked despairing and ill and it scared me. Lilia and Ingrid were crying loudly enough that I wasn't going to disturb them. Lloyd won by default. I prepared myself - hoping  - that he'd explain that  I was wrong, maybe rolling his eyes in exasperation before telling me something no less awful. Maybe somebody’s parent or a teacher had died.  Something that didn't feel so impossibly close. 

I said “Zoe?” as quietly as I could.

He nodded.

I waited for the followup. I watched him until I realized that he didn't know anything else and if he did, it wouldn’t add anything to the situation.

The blunt truth hit me; This is horrible.

I sat down. Nobody spoke. It was quiet for a short time - two or three minutes. I remember having cried, not the act of crying. I like to think I did it quietly.

We heard doors being unlocked in the music wing. Chairs and stands were dragged into place. Somebody hit a few notes on a piano, played some scales and a few chords before segueing into a halting version of ‘The Rainbow Connection.’ The kid playing it probably didn’t know Zoe and at least he or she wasn't singing.

I think Lilia said “Somebody should ask him to shut up,” in a small voice.

I’m sure I said “Somebody should break his neck," quietly.

More people arrived and the song became irrelevant. I can't remember if it had already stopped when Gloria came in, cheerfully swinging a large handbag. She was a music student with soul aspirations who loved singing 'Ease on Down the Road' from The Wiz. She might have been humming it just then, not it matters then or now. Ingrid ran down the hall to meet her. They were far enough away that we couldn't hear exactly what Ingrid said, but Gloria stopped and stood bolt upright, her mouth open in surprise, dropping her bag in shock like a cartoon

The blunt truth returned in slower, colder detail; This. Is. Horrible.

Something random and inappropriate hit me, hurting. I'd read a book a few years before, one of John Powers' memoirs of being a Catholic schoolboy in Chicago in the 50s. He wrote about driving to meet a girl with his car radio turned off, determined that anything he might hear would not be tainted if the girl rejected him. I didn't remember how the book ended, but the idea led to a cringing, cold memory of a Queen lyric; not the song entire or even the tune, just a line from 'Hammer to Fall';

Make the bed
Light the lights
Lady Mercy won't be home tonight

I was seventeen and had attended five family funerals where the circumstances had been clear. My grandfather's was the most distinct; he had a heart attack and I was told he was dead before the hit the floor. The others had died quietly in their sleep. It was sad but contained. You administer the rituals, dry your tears and go about your business. Those facts had been definable edges around death for me. But I didn't see them - feel them - around Zoe. Everything came back to the simple fact that she killed herself and nobody stopped her.

Be fair I thought; it's probably true that nobody could have stopped her.

Then Be honest; what did anybody do to try and stop her?

I didn't have an answer and was just aware enough to know any answer wouldn't matter.

And I wanted to call Antonella.

I knew she probably wasn't even at her school yet. And didn't know Zoe. And had nothing to do with her in the slightest. But I wanted to call and say I know somebody else who'd tried to kill herself and this time it worked and she's dead and you're still okay, right? Tell me that. And tell me you're sorry for trying it in the first place.

The pieces felt right, but I knew they were nonsense. I wasn't going to call Antonella. It wouldn't help.

There must have been some traffic in the hallway, either kids I didn't know or I didn't think they knew Zoe. I don't remember anyone else being told about it for a few minutes until Celeste (of the scarred sliced wrists a few months before) and Dee came in together. They were inseparable at time and entered laughing, quieting when they saw us and responding quite differently when (I think) Lilia let them know.

Dee got weepy instantly. Celeste looked shocked before looking blank and sat down at her locker a few feet away from me. She never took off her coat or let go of her bag.I looked at her eyes and her wrists. The scars were still relatively new.

Con and Frank came in, both with a broad what's-the-joke? smile at the sight of a hallway of crying kids. Somebody told them and Frank looked shocked and started asking questions. Con just looked unbelieving. He stared at me and I shrugged, offering the international sign of Sorry, but yeah... and we didn't have to say anything else.

They spoke to Madeline. I looked back at Celeste, waiting for her to explain Zoe.

Waiting for her to promise she wouldn't kill herself.

Waiting for her to tell me that Antonella wasn't going to try to die again.

Almost thirty years later, I'd sincerely apologize to Celeste for everything I radiated in her direction if it came up, if it in any way mattered to the way things are today? But how the hell do you put it into words? I'm sorry for dropping a load of responsibility on your shoulders. Sorry for mixing apples and oranges. You had nothing to do with Zoe's death, that was entirely due to her. And I was, and still am, delighted that you walk the earth and if you'd said anything at the time I would have screamed at you. I honestly hoped you might know something that would make anything happening that morning sound sensible or less awful.

I stood up to go somewhere - anywhere - and thought I was successfully not crying. Dee latched to me immediately, holding my hands and telling me to look at her eyes, saying "Michael, this isn't your fault. This isn't your fault. You couldn't have done anything. None of this is your fault."

That was weird, then. It's weird now. I didn't think Zoe's death had anything to do with me and didn't think I'd suggested otherwise in word or deed. Maybe I just looked terrible. Or she thought I was the type to take the blame. We never talked about it. Why would we? Who willingly wants to revisit an incident like that?

I headed to the boys' washroom with a sink where I could splash cold water on my face. It would either stop me from crying or at least wash some of the morning away. I saw Lloyd following me, not sure if it was concern or just the same impulse for escape. I was soaking my face and drinking water from my cupped hands when he came in looking serious but quiet.

I didn't know what I was feeling. Anger almost describes it, but it was manufactured. Consciously. Anger is easier to keep under wraps than sadness. I was controlled when Lloyd walked in, then lost it after a few breaths, then clawed my way back long enough to spit out "I hate this. This is a mess. I can't think about this. I didn't even cry at my own grandfather's funeral, and I can't..."

With that, I broke down immediately, like the shout when I found out about Antonella. This one felt worse - a response to something lost rather than something frightening. I sobbed into his shoulder for a few seconds and it all passed through. I don't think I was holding on to him for long and felt dizzy and spent almost instantly. And - slightly - more together.

Lloyd looked more serious but stayed dry-eyed. "I wish I could do that," I said. "You're controlling yourself. I can't do that."

"I don't feel anything," he said. "I can't cry."

"You're lucky."

"I just can't."

He looked sick. I wanted to say something comforting or even grateful, he'd pulled me back together after all. But I understood that numb feeling; I was going to hug him, but stopped because I wasn't sure if it would help or be something else to be numb about.

Somebody asks Did you ever talk about it?

No. The dead started burying the dead there and then.  And there were far better incidents before and after worth remembering instead.

I left the washroom and headed out of the downstairs hallway; it was filled with people in shock or tears and awkward looks between those who didn't know anyone involved. I passed the school office and saw Victoria (never 'Vicky'), who worked on the lighting crew and was sarcastic and tough in a charming sort of way when she wanted to work it. We'd been friends the year before, but I was under the distinct impression that I'd become too conventional for her.

She came up to me with tears in her eyes - unmistakable - and a weird fixed grin and a shrug, saying "Now that's a stupid way to get people to pay attention to you, isn't it?"

Her voice was cracking but she chuckled, blinking out a few more tears. I was watching yet another person who didn't know how to respond and therefore was throwing everything at the situation. It scared the hell out of me.

"Fun's fun until somebody gets hurt, right?" she laughed/cried.

I had no idea what to say. Someone else started talking to her and I kept walking. I passed the principal speaking to an adult I didn't recognize from the faculty - a parent? - and heard him say "There's a lot of holding-on today, a lot of tears, but I think it'll be normal in a day or so and we can take it from there..."

I wanted to say What's normal, now? and didn't.

I went back downstairs. There was a school-wide announcement that used the words death and Zoe in the same sentence and some mention that there would be a family-only funeral in the next few days; details for condolences would be available in the office. It was creeping closer to 9:00am and not everybody in school was going to be in pieces, the world was preparing to carry on.

I went to a music class that morning - Mrs. Burkhart, who clearly remembered Zoe from choir, didn't stand at the front of the class but stayed in chair near the door saying that she wouldn't be teaching that morning. She said "I don't think a lot of people are going to come to class, and I don't think anyone will be much good if they do..." while staring at the floor. I had a history class that went that way as well. 

The rest of the day is a blur - on my way out (early)  I saw Zoe's last boyfriend, who I didn't know well, listening to a second announcement about Zoe's death and saying "Now, that is depressing" to his new girlfriend as he stared at the PA speaker with great care. I didn't say a word and wished I hadn't seen it.

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At the end of the day, I did something I regretted instantly. I'd walked home and my mother was having tea with friends; she asked me about my day and I'd said "A friend of my committed suicide" in a matter-of-fact fashion. I'd wanted to have gone home to quietly hide out before trying to talk about it, but had answered automatically. There wasn't anything else on my mind.

Having said it, now I had to get out of it, or at least get away from the concerned looking people in the room. One of them was a former Sunday School teacher of mine - an experience which felt impossibly distant, just then - and she was a kind and lovely woman (still is), and her first response was to reach for her purse and say "I think maybe Michael needs to talk about something with his mother just now."

She couldn't have been more wrong. I didn't need a sermon. I wanted to be alone. I tried to formulate a polite way to say and my voice disappeared. I was dry. I had nothing left for the day.

My mother's friends left soon afterwards. She said "Do you want to talk about this?"

I said "No, I do not."

She thought about that, decided it wasn't worth pressing. She asked "Are you okay?"

I said "I'll go to school tomorrow." Which wasn't really an answer, but I felt that it would make it clear that if I'm well enough to go to school, everything must be fine.

My father came home and we had the same conversation (give or take a few verbs). My parents were sympathetic but smart enough to watch me and wait to see what I needed. I went to bed early,  dreading what I was going to see the next day and who would be crying and what could possibly come out of this. I  actually managed to sleep for a bit believing At least it's over. The worst is over. It was better than hearing Lady mercy won't be home tonight, repeating.

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At around 9:30pm, Oliver called. We'd been friends the year before and had spent a week the previous summer at my Uncle's place in Coboconk piloting a decrepit (and thankfully underpowered) motorboat around the local lakes. We were both film buffs and that bridged the gap in our personalities - he leaned towards the punk, I leaned straitlaced. He was into Kung Fu and Bowie and Blade Runner and had changed schools. We'd been out of touch for awhile, so the phonecall was a little surprising but not entirely out of character.

After some small talk, I said "I don't know if you heard about Zoe..."

He cut me off, saying "I don't have any sympathy for her. I think she did this just to get attention and it got away from her. It's cowardly. I despise her for it. Bullshit, all of it. That's all I've got to say."

Did he call because he knew Zoe would get under my skin? Or did I just get Oliver in a particularly Oliver mood that night?  I didn't say anything for a few seconds. Then I asked him if he'd seen any good movies recently. He sounded a bit surprised, talked about some Reg Hartt cartoons and the conversation faded and we eventually hung up.

I was done with him after that. I honestly don't know if he called to pick a fight; sparring was a favourite pastime but he took it as well as he gave it most times and I don't think there was anything genuinely cruel in him. Let's call it immaturity instead, with a full admission that I wasn't any more advanced in that regard, just in a few different places. We remained cordial when we saw each other but I didn't seek out his company.

A shame, really. He was smart and weird and not a bad buddy but thought that a sparring match over Zoe was a worthy pastime before her body was cold and I wasn't interested. Screw the concept of not approving and leave it flat and cold as the offer. Just call it not interested. Oliver was welcome to knock himself out on the issue. Neither of us lacked friends. But I couldn't trust him after I'd seen what he did when he was bored.

Maybe I was wrong. Or oversensitive. But on a basic level, there was one sentiment I couldn't shake - Zoe deserves better than being treated like that regardless of what she did. I didn't seek out that thought. I found it beside me. I didn't need to announce it formally and wasn't going to apologize to Oliver for it.

Take care dude. Eat a peach. Life goes on.

In a mini-epilogue, I got back in touch with him a few years ago in the casual, Facebook Hi-how's-life? way and that's fine. Teenage melodrama has an expiry date. 2014 isn't 1985. I'll run into him downtown one day. If he has the same feelings about Zoe, they're his and won't be part of the conversation. If they've mellowed, I still don't care. We'll probably have a beer and talk about Blade Runner.

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The next day, Zoe's family decided to open the funeral to her friends.



...to be continued.

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