I tried so hard not to write about this.
The last month of the summer, I ate little more than green tea ice cream and whole wheat Eggo waffles. Green tea ice cream soothes; you can almost eat it without noticing. Whole wheat Eggo waffles are what Luke Gallagher and I ate by the boxful when we were younger. We had a system: get up early before your parents are awake, wrap eight waffles in paper towels, put that delicious whole wheat tower in the microwave, 2-ish minutes, butter them while they’re warm, tear them up, inhale them.
What is that thing? That thing they have at funerals? You know, the ball. The thing they wave around. The smelly ball.
There’s this video of Luke and I when we were really little. I’m sitting on the step leading up to his house, and Luke comes toddling up to me with binoculars and a spyglass. He hands me the binoculars and sits down next to me. He looks through the spyglass backwards, and I tell my mom we’re looking for “dustbunny birds.”
My dad comes home and surprises me with another tub of green tea ice cream, and it’s freezer burned, which is a shame.
Luke died this summer. He died at 5:36 p.m. on August 8th. I haven’t yet been to the place he died, but I’ve seen pictures, and it’s just a bunch of green. A nice spread of grass, a curb, and the stump of the tree. 65 miles per hour—not slow but not stupid fast. Fishtail, fishtail. Motorcycle hits the curb, stops, Luke keeps going. Luke keeps going. Tree. I still don’t know the full story. I need clinical detail. I need to have been there.
“Look,” my brain says. “All I’m saying is you don’t die if you’re a good rider and you’re not being stupid and you’re wearing your helmet and your jacket and your boots and your pads and no car hits you. You don’t die from a little twig of a tree.” And I say, “Well, he did, so…” And my brain says, “You don’t die in a place with nothing but grass.”
Luke was not reckless. He was preoccupied with practice and mastery.
and more and more and more I cannot
When we were little, it felt like he could do anything without even trying. And he never bragged. It made me so mad. It’s okay, he’d say. Just try again.
We once kidnapped our little sisters’ dolls, took them up into the treehouse, and sat on the trapdoor. My brain says: “Once this dulls, you will be far away from him. You will have nothing left.”
He and his dad, Mark, taught me to ride a bike. That was on Northwestern Avenue.
My mother (Tracy) and Luke’s mother (Treacy) are best friends. Both mothers struggle with depression. Both older children take after their mothers. Luke was depressed the first two years of high school; I didn’t see him much then. At the time, I described it as “the phantom ache of a missing limb.”
Junior year, Luke started electrician training at the tech school. For the next two years, he came to all of my plays, and I went to both of his circus performances. Our families got together more, like we used to.
Senior year, he started dating Nicole. We’re talking honest-to-goodness love. The first time I met her, we told stories and laughed a lot, and I thought: Yes, thank you. This is right. You belong here.
Some vocabulary Nicole and I have developed:
easier — There’s no such thing as “better.” Just “easier.”
sad stuff — Note the difference between talking about something “normal,” with the constant underlying fact that Luke is dead, and actively talking about the fact that Luke is dead. The latter is “sad stuff.”
phase — The flavor of hell you’re experiencing right now.
And at first, there were only two phases—numbness and sobbing. Nicole joked: “It’s a good thing we’re taking turns.” When one of us was numb, the other was sobbing. And the minutes passed.
Laughter is different now.
It’s around 4 am,
one of those nights
without sleep, and
my mom says, “I
could be in my bed
right now, with my
little white dog and
my little white
Nicole leans over
to me in the middle
of the funeral.
out the swinging
incense burner, and
she has the
The smelly ball.
Luke’s sister Rylee and I
send each other photos of
us making weird faces,
rendered in stark relief by
the flash. My dad is driving
us home. We are howling.
We are howling.
The dead are not cold. In books, it’s always “his cold hands.” His hands were not cold. They simply had no warmth. They felt fake.
(My whole life, I have struggled with shame over my own emotions. “So, you’re feeling that, but isn’t that kind of silly?” Such an outlook is now untenable, and I must swiftly eradicate it. Because what I’m feeling is already enough to demolish me. I cannot also weather shame.)
We once stayed up all night drawing dragons with colored pencils. I’m sure that at some point in our eighteen years, I told Luke I love him. But I cannot remember doing so. And I say “I’m sure,” but really,
how can I be?
There were long periods of time when we didn’t see each other, but when we did, it was just like it always was. My mind often tricks me into thinking this time is no different. This is just another span of separation. This is temporary. Soon, my brain says, and lies.
We once turned an entire abandoned construction site into a giant mud pit and wallowed there for hours. A pickup truck full of teenagers rolled past, and they whooped joyful encouragements at us. They must’ve been younger than I am now. They looked like demigods to us. He and I never talked about anything so serious as emotions. We just laughed. His laugh his laugh his laugh his laugh his laugh. He had a petrified piranha on a shelf in his room. I could never fall asleep with it there, looking at me through glassy yellow eyes. When I slept over, he’d hide it in his dresser, beneath the t-shirts.
You didn’t know him. You didn’t really know him.
Half the articles called him Local Man and half called him Local Boy.
The car ride takes 45 minutes.
Treacy is alone on the porch.
She’d called my mom first,
trying to tell her on the phone,
but her voice
we didn’t know until
on the porch with Treacy
on the porch with Mark and Treacy
on the porch with the neighbors asking me, “I’m sorry, who are you?”
on the porch alone while Treacy tries to reach Nicole’s mom
in the kitchen, calling my boss because my best friend my brother
in the backyard, looking up at the stars and at nothing
on the living room couch with Mark
in the kitchen while my dad calls funeral homes
on the living room couch with Nicole
in the entranceway, leaving
in the car, leaving
in my room
Nicole told me:
The day after it happened, I was in the car and I burped and I just started crying. Because if he’d been there, he would’ve said, “Ooh, so hot.” And we would’ve laughed. So I was crying over a burp.
This colonizes everything. Every little thing.
Rylee was away at summer camp. When her parents drove up to get her, she decided to stay. The first time I saw her was at the memorial, wearing one of Luke’s shirts. She told me later that one of the camp counselors had brought her out to a field in the middle of the night, given her an axe, and let her throw it. She told me she took the axe and she threw it and then she went and picked it up and hacked at a nearby tree and hacked and hacked and
see? There it is again. “Isn’t this a bit much? What you’re feeling is ugly. This is all so ugly.” Shut up shut up shut up shut up Luke and I decide we want to take a walk around the neighborhood. We’re five. Our parents say okay. They equip us with watches and say, When the numbers say one and two and zero and zero, I want you back here. We take huge bags of pistachios with us. We take a walk. We go home.
Luke and I decide we want to get on top of his backyard shed. We gather all the lawn furniture we can find, and we build a tower. The tower is rickety, and the roof shingles are scalding hot. Luke goes up first. Luke always goes first.
Luke and I are swimming with our families at Beaver Dam. Luke takes off his socks, fills them with rocks, and lets them drop to the bottom. He dives down after them. The water is dark and I cannot see him or follow. When he resurfaces, socks in hand, I ask him not to do it again. Why? It’s fun! And he lets them drop, and he dives. And I wait.
Luke, Nicole, and I are at our graduation party, at Luke’s house. We take a silly photo, and we eat the cake with our names on it. The badminton net is set up over the tightrope. Luke and I team up to play against Nicole and Uncle Mike. Every time we score, we assume power stances and let out a triumphant Wah! I remember thinking: This is more like it, this is the right way to be, this is what has been missing. When we leave, I hug Treacy and tell her that I love her. I hug Nicole. I hug Mark. I hug Rylee. I hug Luke and I say,
See ya later, man!
I told my co-workers “one of my closest friends died.”
I usually tell people my best friend died.
Sometimes I explain that really, he was my brother.
When I spoke at the memorial, the list of speakers called me his chosen family.
I just don’t know.
We didn’t see each other often, towards the end. I don’t think he ever knew about my depression. I only learned about his because his mom told my mom, who told me. If I think too hard about this, it becomes a spiral. It becomes: “See? You are unworthy.”
But here is the core: this is the phantom ache of a missing limb.
It’s okay, he’d say. Just try again.
And I’d tell the truth.
I’d say, I love you
I love you
I love you
Originally from Philadelphia, TAYLOR FELD is now a theatre and creative writing student at Northwestern University. She spends most of her time lost in thought, and occasionally she tries to translate those thoughts into art. “Sad Stuff” is her first published work.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh, “Shoes,” oil on canvas, 1888, purchase, the Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1992, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.