The inner life of Ascher

Last month, grateful beyond measure that my little feline companion Anise was regaining her weight and personality and health, I posted about the little rituals and behaviors that give what I think are insights into her thoughts and intentions. But like any caretaker in a two-sibling household, I don’t want to appear to favor one cat over the other–although I’m not convinced Ascher would notice if I did. Ascher is a fourteen-pound beast of a cat who doesn’t care about social norms and usually isn’t interested in making new friends. She has never been sick a day in her life–which is for the best, because she is a difficult patient and the vet has asked me to give her a mild sedative before bringing her in for checkups. Her personality is so different from her sister’s that they sometimes seem like different breeds rather than littermates, but although she doesn’t manifest behaviors that follow the same ritual logic as Anise’s poodle song, Ascher is very communicative and has her own way of making her apparently rich inner life visible to me, if only in glimpses.

Ascher is an extremely vocal cat, and I talk to her like a person in part because she will nearly always answer me. I have sometimes said that Ascher has two volumes: flirting and yelling. Flirting is a soft, low trilling or burbling sound she makes to cajole or encourage. Sometimes she murmurs approvingly while you brush her, when you’re plating cat food, or when she wants to make nice with a visiting friend. The rest of the time, she yells–a raspy, unlovely meow that is best transcribed as “RAH!” Yelling is not situational or transactional like flirting: with me, an entity for whom she sees no need for social niceties, Ascher yells at the same volume for food or attention or gratitude. When she still slept in my bed–something she hasn’t done since I moved to a new apartment–and I began to stir awake, she would yell good morning as she reclined comfortably next to my heart.

Obviously, flirting vs. yelling is an oversimplication. Ascher also has a plaintive, high-pitched mew that she mews specifically when she is sad about something that is in my power to change, and confused why I haven’t fixed it yet. (Examples: why are we going to the vet, why have I not paid her enough attention after returning from a trip). She has a rolling, guttural song that is similar to Anise’s poodle song but specifically about hunting; we don’t hear that often, since most vermin fears to tread in a two-cat household, but the other day I went to investigate her singing and found a smashed house centipede at the foot of the stairs. Ascher hisses conversationally: most of my friends’ first impression of Ascher is a fussy little hiss emitted from the shadows when I lift the bedskirt to demonstrate that I do have a second cat. Ascher hisses at her sister when Anise gets on her nerves and at the couch when she accidentally gets a claw stuck in it. It’s not serious and neither Anise nor the couch nor I pay much attention to it.
If Anise is a lawful good cat–a cat who is aware of rules and follows them to the letter if not the spirit–Ascher is a true neutral who has no concept of right and wrong, only her own sovereign being. Ascher doesn’t care that she’s not allowed on the tables or counters; it’s just that she prefers to be under them. If she doesn’t try to impose herself at mealtimes, it’s because she dislikes the sounds of loud laughter and forks scraping on plates. She is averse to most things that would normally get a curious cat into trouble, actually: heights, the outdoors, other animals except her sister and other humans except for a few favorites.
This may sound as if her world is small, but it is full. She appears to possess an imagination, whatever that may mean to a cat. Ascher loves to play with toys and is skillful at making them come to life; I’ve seen her throw a fake mouse over her shoulder and startle away as though it surprised her, then whirl and give it a good kick so she could chase after it. She’s not picky about playthings: she has stolen pens, memory sticks, and safety pins to kick and bite. If she’s not sure whether to play with a plum from a fruit bowl, a pair of earrings I forgot to put away, or a piece of toast on the edge of my gentleman friend’s plate, she will extend a curious, sensitive paw and gently pat the object as if her claw tips and toe pads can sense like human fingertips. But I like to give her firm, bitable toys sewn in shapes that will make me laugh when she parades around with her kills: a pretzel, a little ninja with a bell inside, a catnip-stuffed fishbone that makes her look like the cartoon Heathcliff when she carries it. (The fishbone has become more of a security blanket than a toy; she sometimes sings with it like Anise does to her poodle, but it just ends up wherever Ascher plans to nap.) Ascher gets ideas: she’ll suddenly pause in her grooming, leap up, retrieve an abandoned plaything from under the couch or a crinkly plastic wrapper from the recycle bin, and return to repose with her prize. When she sleeps, she either dozes with one eye open or sleeps so deeply that she murmurs, flutters, and even groans as she dreams.
Beyond her ability to turn nearly anything into a source of amusement, Ascher shows a surprising capacity for change. She has always been a skittish cat, and perhaps always will be; she doesn’t like to be picked up and she gets nervous if you approach her too quickly or loom too high above her. But there are so many little fears she has overcome! She used to freeze in terror when I picked her up to clip her claws, but one day she started kicking a little, and then she actually stole my nail scissors after I set her down and tried to hide them. (I still clip her claws, obviously–she’d Velcro herself to the furniture otherwise–but I admire her resistance.) One day several years ago, she decided to start sitting on laps sometimes. She is very bad at it and can’t quite figure out how to lay down comfortably, and it’s quite painful to have four paws pressed into you with her full weight as she puzzles it out, but it’s flattering all the same. Just a couple of years ago, she decided it was interesting and convenient rather than upsetting when humans lay on the floor, so now she joins my yoga practice and steals pats from my outstretched arms. Just this year she has decided to attend parties. She used hide under the bed for hours if there were more than three known humans in the house; now she allows complete strangers to pet her while she takes up an entire couch cushion.
And the thing about Ascher is that if she feels safe she will fling her full body weight against you and push her velvety head into your hand.
Even more than Anise, who is proficient in human communication, Ascher has always made me wonder how indoor cats perceive their small worlds. Ascher shows no interest in going outside, ever; she is not even afraid of loud street noises, because they are Not In Here. It takes her time to get used to having more space to roam as I have moved into progressively largely apartments. When I lived in second and third floor apartments, I wondered if this cat, who will climb no higher than the back of the couch, understood what she saw through the window. And when she yells at me for attention or trills encouragingly, I wonder if she loves. I’d like to think so. Loving my animal companions is so much a part of my personal comfort and happiness that naturally I’d like to imagine it is part of theirs. But Ascher’s mind is as unknowable as it is walnut-sized, and I can only content myself that she throws herself so zealously into sleeping, playing, and headbutting her preferred humans in our shared life.
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Your Horoscope in the Marioverse

Reader, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just say it: until last weekend, I had never played any of the games in Nintendo’s best-selling, wildly popular, familiar-even-to-laypersons series Mario Kart. I just didn’t know what I was missing until I went to visit some friends who live in the suburbs with their adorable children, one of whom is old enough to enjoy the bright, whimsical racing game but young enough not to care about winning.

I care a little more about winning and managed to finish 2nd once, but the surprising topography of the third and fourth rounds threw me off… literally. “Thanks, Lakitu,” I sighed on one occasion, as the bespectacled turtle and his hovercloud lifted me back onto the track. “Or whatever your name is.”
“I think that is his name,” a friend replied. “But I’m not sure how you remembered that.”

I was embarrassed to admit that I had not summoned the name Lakitu from the depths of decades-old memories of playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System. I remembered Lakitu for the same reason I remember anything: research and writing. In 2011, I researched and wrote this bit of fluff that has never been posted anywhere but Facebook until today. But I enjoyed revisiting the Marioverse–I especially liked racing in the Thwomp Palace, as I feel a kinship with the unsubtle Thwomps–so please enjoy this homage to two of my childhood pastimes, video games and astrology.


The Bob-omb
March 20 – April 20
You are strong-willed and spontaneous, but hot-headed – when angry, you’re quick to blow up!  But under the right circumstances you can be a good friend, and have been known to help others bust through obstacles.

Thwomp
April 20 – May 21
Like a bull in a china shop, you are not known for your subtlety.  You’ll keep stomping the same path whether or not it helps you squash your target.  On the other hand, your stubbornness and strength makes you extremely hard to kill.

The Brothers
May 21 – June 21
Duality is the best-known attribute of your sign.  To others, it can seem like you’ve got two different personalities: half leader and half sidekick; half outgoing superstar and half support team.  But you know that’s what it takes to get a job done, whether that means protecting the homeland or doing home repairs.

The Koopa
June 21 – July 23
You are very invested in homelife – so much so that you carry yours on your back!  Sometimes you need to hide your feelings or retreat into your shell, and the people in your life should let you: then you’re happy to give a friend a leg up, or help open doors.

The King Koopa
July 23 – August 23
Far more outgoing and go-getting than your co-species sign, you’re a natural born leader and determined to stay that way.  You may have a bit of a reputation for being an asshole, but you can too play games with others – tennis, anyone? Go-karts?
But you do play to win.

The Princess
August 23 – September 23
You’re a smart cookie, curious and analytical. You can be a good teammate, but you aren’t always given the chance.  You can come off as aloof: to the people who try to get close to you, it seems like you’re always in another castle.

The Toadstool
September 23 – October 23
In your case, low and slow wins the race.  You’re no high jumper, nor are you inclined to fame and flashiness.  But your strength and stability help you to ensure that justice is done.

Lakitu
October 23 – November 22
You are secretive, preferring to hide your true self.  To others, you seem argumentative and prickly… maybe even Spiny?  But haters gonna hate: they’re on the ground, and you’re floating safely up above them.

The Bullet
November 22 – December 22
Like other fire signs, you can have an explosive personality; what distinguishes you is your single-minded focus.  When you’ve got your sights set on a target, you pursue it with intensity and impatience.

The Dinosaur
December 22 – January 20
You’re not one to get in a fight, but you are a practical and intuitive ally for your friends that do.  In fact, your tendency to take on other people’s problems may lead some to see you as a beast of burden. . . but you are charismatic and competent enough to be the star of your own show.

The Cute Cactus
January 20 – February 19
On the surface, you’re unassuming, easygoing, even adorable.  You’re usually not in a rush, and not aggressive.  But like most cacti, you’re fiercely protective; if anyone wants to get through you, they’ll have to take you down piece by piece.

The Cheep-Cheep
February 19 – March 20
Like most water creatures, you’re neither gregarious or aggressive; normally, you’re willing to go with the flow.  But you’re tougher than you look, and can swim right out of lava if you need to.

The house with a will of its own

In August, I moved to a new apartment. My old place was pleasant enough and roomy enough, with an open undivided space for the kitchen and sitting room; living right on Broad Street made for easy transportation and entertaining views of street shenanigans from my third-floor window. I didn’t want to lose its comforts, but I longed for an outdoor space to grow plants and read in the sun. I hoped to have a separate room for guests to sleep, to partition the spaces where I sleep and cook and play, and to welcome my aging relatives with fewer steps to climb.

The place that answered these needs, as it turns out, is a rather odd apartment. It is one section of a large house on the corner of a wide road (by South Philly standards) and a small narrow street; perhaps the building was once a storefront or a rambling family home. Now it is divided into four residences, although I cannot visualize how the four fit together. It’s not the usual one-unit-per-floor layout; my own unit is like a slice cut out of a layer cake, a stack of two floors and a finished basement. The layer cake analogy isn’t quite right either; as the unit seems to be pieced together out of odd shapes and surprising dimensions. For example, when I measured the windows for curtains, I found that no two windows have precisely the same height and width, and some sit further back on their tiled sills. It’s as though they were not intended to go together.

Having recently discovered the sinister pleasures of Shirley Jackson, I’ve been reading The Haunting of Hill House. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also been ready to jump out of my skin when things go bump in the night. One stormy night this month, the wind knocked over one of the plastic tubs that transported chrysanthemums to my patio planters. At least, I choose to believe that it was a flowerpot, tumbled about by wind, which made a pattern of three knocks outside my bedroom as I lay shivering under my quilt. I glanced at my unbothered cat, who was sleeping soundly next to my chest, and decided not to investigate further.

***

“Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around?… Every angle”—and [Doctor Montague] gestured toward the doorway—”every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind.”

In college, I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a book about finding your own rhythm amidst the oppressive thrum of a big city. By the end of the book, the main characters “have arranged their furnishings in a way that might not remind anybody of the rooms in Modern Homemaker but it suits the habits of the body, the way a person walks from one room to another without bumping into anything, and what he wants to do when he sits down.” The image captivated me, as I consider myself talented at arranging small spaces to suit my habits. As a freshman, I persuaded my roommate to depart from the standard dorm room arrangement—twin beds, desks, and dressers in symmetrical formation—and position our furniture at perpendicular angles, which opened up a welcoming space for our new friends and floormates to sit. In my first apartment in Philadelphia, a small overheated square unit, I arranged my few belongings to form four discrete sections for my four primary occupations: cooking, sleeping, studying, unwinding with Netflix DVDs and Morrowind.

I can’t exercise such discretion in my new apartment, where there are few configurations that will accommodate bulky furniture like my bed, my 6×6 foot bookcase (which I ended up donating), or the enormous dresser that also served as my TV stand and bedside table in my old studio. The rooms are not laid out on a grid: my bedroom and the guest room each have six walls of varying widths and angles. Radiators and support beams jut out irregularly from the uneven walls; several full- and half-walls are covered in tile, precluding any wall art or hanging shelves or electrical outlets. The walls that can be penetrated aren’t quite at right angles: the floor slopes, or the ceiling, or both.

Ideally, I would arrange a clearer path from the stair to the second-floor patio; ideally, I would position the dining table near an outlet so that I could work on my laptop there. Instead, the furniture remains more or less where it was placed by the movers, and I pilot myself around it with hardly any thought.

***

“Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”
They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.
“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off center.”

There is a step up from the kitchen to the sitting room; I’ve marked it with pale green duct tape, but it still catches the unwary who don’t realize they have to step down. On the staircase to the second floor, the top and bottom steps are a little taller than the others. The staircase into the basement is a spiral. I’ve gotten accustomed to moving up and down them; I don’t always remember to warn guests to watch their step.

***

“Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole. Theodora cannot see the tower from her bedroom window because the tower actually stands at the corner of the house. From Theodora’s bedroom window it is completely invisible, although from here it seems to be directly outside her room…. It is”—and his voice was saddened—”a masterpiece of architectural misdirection.”

When I visited my mom in September, I drew a floor plan from memory to help us both understand where I might have room for the additional furniture she wished to bestow on me. As I sketched out the lines, I realized with relief that my basement is not directly underneath the first floor of my unit. When I returned home, I walked up and down the spiral stair a few times, turning my head like a dancer to mark the location of the sitting room window and the tiled wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I no longer freeze and turn the television volume down when, as I settle in my underground den, I hear sidewalk conversations and doors opening as clearly as if they are in my own home. What a relief to know it is just the neighbors coming and going!

There is a door in my basement, on the wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I’ve never opened it; I was told my front door key would fit the lock, but it doesn’t. One of the movers joked that he wouldn’t live in an apartment with a mysterious knobless door in the basement. I believe that, as the realtor says, there is only a water heater behind the door. I keep the extra seating for guests in front of it.

I live in the outermost unit, so I am still not sure what, if anything, is underneath my first floor.

Luke came, hesitated in the cold spot, and then moved quickly to get out of it, and Eleanor, following, felt with incredulity the piercing cold that struck her between one step and the next; it was like passing through a wall of ice, she thought, and asked the doctor, “What is it?”
The doctor was patting his hands together with delight…. “The heart of the house.”

My new apartment stayed cool throughout the humidity-drenched heat of August and September. Now that the temperatures have dipped into the thirties and forties, I find that the unit holds warmth just as well, even in the basement. The chilly exceptions are the mudroom—right by the front door and thankfully isolated from the rest of the unit by a second door to the kitchen—and, inexplicably, the trapezoid closet in my bedroom, although the bedroom itself is quite cozy.

***

“What happens when you go back to a real house?” Eleanor asked. “I mean—a—well—a real house?”
“It must be like coming off shipboard,” Luke said.”

In my second apartment in Philadelphia, all the electrical outlets and light switches were installed upside-down: the switches said NO instead of ON. In my last apartment, a bird appeared on my pillow one morning after I’d spent the weekend with all the windows and doors closed against a snowstorm. In every apartment I’ve lived in after the tiny studio, the hot and cold taps are reversed, so I instinctively feel for the temperature of water from a tap no matter what sink I’m using.

“It must certainly affect people in some way,” the doctor said. “We have grown to trust blindly in our senses of balance and reason, and I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable of patterns against all evidence that it was leaning sideways.”

In The Haunting of Hill House, the erratic lines and obscure patterns of the haunted mansion suggest malice, pathways for an antagonistic force to threaten its visitors. It’s delightfully spooky until it becomes violent and dangerous.

But suppose you don’t fight wildly against irregularity? Suppose you, like the doctor’s wife, embrace the unfamiliar? She may be intended to be a comic figure, but of all the inhabitants of Hill House, her brisk familiarity with the unknown made the troubled house almost… welcoming.

“The library?” [said Mrs Montague.] “I think it might do. Books are frequently very good carriers, you know. Materializations are often best produced in rooms where there are books. I cannot think of any time when materialization was in any way hampered by the presence of books. I suppose the library has been dusted?”

[All block quotes are from the Penguin Classics edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.]

Anise and the inner life of our animal companions

The Saturday before last, when I returned to my apartment after a morning hike, I saw that my cat’s beloved stuffed poodle had been placed prominently on their cardboard scratchpad. I smiled: there is a sweetness to witnessing the evidence of my pets’ unseen movements while I’m away. Then I realized with a start that I had not seen this particular toy move in nearly a month. Since the beginning of October, the poodle had been languishing under the bed–where I placed it myself, hoping to comfort Anise while she was sick.

To explain why the wandering poodle is such a big deal, I will need to explain more about Anise. One of a pair of sisters I adopted shortly after moving to Philadelphia thirteen years ago, Anise has little of the archetypal aloofness ascribed to her species. She cares very much what her human companions think of her. When I have friends over, she presents herself as soon as the situation passes a security check known only to herself (my guess would be “fewer than ten people, most of whom are seated”) and dutifully walks from guest to guest, lightly rubbing a few legs on her rounds. Despite her age and cobby build, she is capable of leaping across substantial distances–and she seems to time these jumps so that they happen in the sightline of my gentleman friend, who always makes a show of being impressed. She once paraded back and forth in front of my bathroom door while a plumber repaired the taps, prompting him to croon “There’s that pretty cat! There’s the pretty cat with the short legs!” on her third or fourth pass. Once, when I had a neighbor and a friend over to watch a movie, she became smitten with the friend and curled up next to him on the couch. When my neighbor (who takes care of the cats when I’m away) pretended to take offense, Anise got up and repositioned herself next to her hip, accepting pats from the hand that sometimes feeds her–but she continued to gaze back at her new crush with enormous saucer eyes. Anise loves and wants to be loved; she understands manners and wants you to think well of her.

She’s *technically* not on the table, so.

Aside from the occasional use of silly nicknames and made-up songs, I mostly talk to Anise like a person. The reason for this is that she gives the appearance of listening like a person. “I would prefer that you didn’t do that,” I’ll say to her as she grooms my arm, and she’ll look up with her eyes round and glistening, and she’ll go back to cleaning her fur for a few beats until she comes back to my arm again. “Please think about what you’re about to do,” I’ll say to her as she balances on the arm of my couch, so she fussily settles herself into the shape of breadloaf and waits until my gentleman and I finish our dinner. When we set our empty plates aside, she trots merrily across our laps and wedges herself between us with the satisfaction of the righteous.

Even without meowing–this is an aesthetic choice, she can meow but prefers not to–Anise is fairly proficient at communicating her own wishes and preferences. Most of her expressions are extremely legible, from the pointed stares to soulful gazes. The exception to this expressive clarity is her poodle ritual. The poodle is a plush toy about twice the size of her head; when she carries it, she has to lift her head high so that it doesn’t drag on the ground. As she carries it from one room to another, my quiet cat yodels around her mouthful of stuffing. The sound reminds me of a mother cat calling her kittens, but she doesn’t otherwise coddle the poodle; it is dropped unceremoniously as soon as she gets where she is going. It isn’t a toy, either–it never gets chased or kicked around like one of the fake mice favored by her sister. (Ascher doesn’t touch the poodle, as it happens.) Infrequently, the poodle makes a symbolic appearance: facedown in an empty food dish, dropped into my luggage before a trip, tucked under the blanket when I wake up from a bad dream. But most of the time, Anise simply carries the poodle from one room into another, usually from an empty room into the room where I’m sleeping or watching TV, usually around bedtime, always calling her haunting muffled cry.

She’s been doing this for more than a decade, but I never caught it on film until recently–our new spiral stair slows down the procession enough for me to get my phone ready.

I’ve never been able to figure out what the poodle means to her. I’m not sure what it means for something to have meaning to a cat. But more than any of her other pleasant social behaviors, it is the poodle ritual that makes Anise seem more like a person than a creature to me. There is a kernel of her feline mind that is utterly inexplicable and unknowable, although it has manifested in a consistent behavioral pattern several times a week for more than a decade. And because it doesn’t influence or derail the daily activities of our comfortable household, I have never unraveled it. Perhaps much of my life looks the same way, to her.

Some of my friends asked me how I knew that Anise was sick, since it’s common for cats to hide their illness. Anise did not alter most of her little routines. She still wanted to sleep close to my heart, but it took her longer to make her way to bed after I turned out the lights. She still wanted to eat breakfast and dinner, but picked at her food and struggled to keep it down. She has always liked to be close, but she clung to me and her sister, burying her face against whoever was nearest. The rest of the time, she slept under the bed. I placed the poodle underneath, and a bowl of water just beside it. The water needed to be replaced daily, sometimes twice a day. The poodle didn’t move.

She had pancreatitis, which in cats is fairly treatable if you catch it soon enough, but it often indicates another issue. In our case, the other issue turned out to be inflammatory bowel disease, which also has a promising prognosis. It is now almost six weeks since I first took her to the vet, and almost two weeks since she started her steroid treatment (which she doesn’t care for, and she’ll run me a merry chase if I’m not sneaky enough). She wants to eat everything–especially whatever I am eating–and has taken to lingering in windowsills where she can get a good look at my plate. She curls up in her place by my heart as I fall asleep; she finds her way back before I’m fully awake, but in the dreamy window between my alarms I hear her chattering at the birds outside my window. And she marches the poodle up and down our spiral stair on a schedule known only to herself, bringing it wherever she feels it is needed most.

I don’t know what to title this

[Content warning: suicide]

I have had a blog post draft that I have been avoiding since last fall. I remember opening and closing it a few times back then, trying to put into words how I felt after losing a friend in mid-October. It is not the first or only time in recent memory that I have grieved a lost friend, but it was the first time someone close to me took their own life. I wanted to write about my friendship with this man, the ways in which I miss him, things I wish I could share with him. I wanted to write an open letter to all of my loved ones, to plead a case for you all to live and stay in my life. Nothing I put into words seemed sufficient. Eventually, I gave up. Whenever I opened my drafts to add text to one of my running tallies of the books I’ve been reading, there the abandoned draft remained, a quiet monument to the fruitlessness of this effort.

Today all of my social media feeds are mourning Anthony Bourdain. I can close those tabs, but not the murmurs that drift over our cubicle walls as my colleagues talk about his life and work. So today I thought, maybe it’s time to revisit those thoughts I couldn’t finish in October. Maybe I can add something to this cultural moment we’re having. So I opened the draft called “I don’t know what to title this,” last edited October 30, 2017 at 11 a.m.

It was empty.

A blank space. What’s a better metaphor to describe loss?

But just so you know–you, a reader, a friend, a person who exists in the world and has touched lives whether you acknowledge it or not–grief feels nothing like an empty space. If you, my reader, have imagined that the world might not be moved or wounded by your absence, let me assure you that missing someone is painfully heavy and crowded with feelings.

Grief can manifest physically. In the first few weeks after I learned about my friend’s death, I wanted to walk. I walked long distances, I trudged to Center City and back, usually carrying on rambling conversations on the phone or with friends I convinced to walk with me. Often on these walks, my guts would seize up and send me running for the nearest coffee shop. I bought a lot of apology coffees in those early weeks. I didn’t like to eat.

Every afternoon like clockwork for the first couple of months, my heart would start pounding, my throat would close, and I would struggle to breathe. It felt like a panic attack, but became as familiar as a heartbeat, so instead of panicking I would make myself tea and wait for the hot liquid to release the tightness in my chest. I relied on work to keep me focused and calm, but my mind wandered, my brain clouded like it does when my hypothyroidism isn’t adequately medicated. I often found my cheeks wet without realizing I was crying.

Then there is the emotional chaos of grief. Sadness, sure. Also guilt, obviously: even when you know objectively that you could not have prevented a death, a quiet insistent voice will keep asking: what if you could, though? Horror: at the suffering my friend must have endured, at the suffering his family and friends still endure, at the fragility and fruitless brevity of our lives, including mine. Regret. Nausea. Anger.

In the months before my friend took his life, I saw him almost every week. I should be careful here; I think it’s common for those of us grieving a suicide to inflate our importance in the life of the deceased, to cope with our personal feelings of loss and horror by magnifying the points of contact in our lives. But these are the facts: for years I spent time with my friend every few months or so, usually for theater or music or parties, the good stuff, the fun stuff. After he attempted suicide and spent some time in a clinic last summer, I spent time with him about once a week. He lived nearby, we both enjoyed cooking and television adaptations of classic literature, so once a week we’d meet at his place or mine and have dinner and watch costume dramas. Sometimes we talked about the steps he was taking toward recovery; I believed him to be in recovery, and perhaps I chose not to see evidence to the contrary. Mostly, though, we talked about books and television and my cats, one of whom would lay belly-up next to him on the couch and snore mightily while he petted her. We talked about him adopting a cat of his own.

Two weeks before he took his life, I said goodnight to him on my stoop and told him it would be two weeks before I could schedule another dinner. I would be out of town for a wedding for a few days, and when I returned, my workplace would be opening a new exhibition and I had obligations every weeknight leading up to it. I told him I looked forward to seeing him again after the opening so that we could finish watching the BBC adaptation of War & Peace and start on something new.

I don’t need to spell it out for you. I never saw him again. We will not be starting anything new. And I am furious and sad and remorseful all over again whenever I think about it, which is often.

Smarter people than myself have written more meaningful words than I ever could about the lies depression tells you, the contradictory loops of illogic with which it argues that you don’t matter and that you are exceptional and isolated in this not-mattering, other people matter but you don’t, other people think you matter but they are wrong. I would like to fight your depression about this but I am scared that it would pull the loops tighter, like an anaconda or an abusive partner.

So consider this entirely separate premise that is unrelated to your personal worth as a human being. A life lost to depression or addiction is an inherently violent death. A violent death does not leave a blank space. It unleashes a force, like a violent storm or an explosion. It is dangerous and unpredictable. It will cause pain and trauma. The person who unleashes this force doesn’t control it and has no way to predict or control who will be hurt by it or how much. There will be collateral damage.

And if you have any doubts about that at all, see me, tearful again, unable to focus on my work again, sitting under a tree outside of my office and typing into my phone about a man I’ve never met and a friend I will never meet again.

Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

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