This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
I decided this would be a three-part series because I wrote the first draft all at once and it was really long. But every time I looked at the doc to refine and publish the last section, I had to turn away. Now I’m far enough removed from the situation that I can reflect and share—and I need to before I do anything else. (So thanks, to all of you to whom I owe emails and essays and articles and edits, for understanding.)
I last left you in Ljubljaja, Slovenia, while on my way to the coworking space, I’d received the news that two of my friends, Rob Gross and Marci Barclay, had been killed.
I pulled my sunglasses down over my eyes, as if it would prevent the transmission of my emotional disturbance to the cheery people sitting around me at the café, tossed some euros on the table and left. I rode a community bike to the coworking space feeling completely numb, like my consciousness was somewhere far away and my body was on autopilot, pulling up just in time to watch Heather* snag the last available bike parking stall. She was oblivious that I was behind her, but in my mind all I could think was “she would.” I released my grip on the bike and it toppled to the sidewalk as I stood there, optionless. I didn’t know what the fee was if someone picked it up and sold it for parts, and in the moment I didn’t care. All I could think about was calling my best friend.
Finally I wheeled it over to the coworking space, set it on the wall downstairs, and approached the first person I saw. Lying on a couch near the door was a Remote Year “employee” who no one had ever seen do anything resembling work.
“Are you leaving soon?” I asked urgently, thinking he may have been perched by the door waiting to go do something
“No,” he said dismissively, as if I’d asked if he wanted lemon in his water.
“There weren’t any bike spots left so I left it downstairs. Can you move it for me? I need to make a phone call right now.”
He looked taken aback that I, essentially his client, had asked him to do something. I told him my friends were dead. I think he thought I was joking or something so I took my sunglasses off, and when he saw how puffy my eyes were he scrambled to his feet and sputtered some condolences. I thanked him and went into the phone room, threw all my stuff in a beanbag tucked into the corner, and called Savannah.
She was the first friend I made in Chesaning, the little farm town in middle-of-nowhere Michigan where my mother grew up. I was picking up sticks in the yard so they wouldn’t get caught in my grandpa’s lawnmower, and her basketball rolled across the street. I tossed it back and she asked me if I wanted to go Roller Blading, and then we were best friends forever. Ten years later, we moved to NYC together. I met Marci two summers ago when the two came to pick me up from the airport. Marci had become Savannah’s best friend in Chesaning ever since she moved back from NYC. As soon as I met her, I understood why. They were both too big for that town, but at least they had each other there.
I moved to Chesaning from Gainesville, Florida when I was 16, my senior year of high school. It was a shitty situation and I was an angry teenager. A lot of people were assholes to me, the new girl. Rob Gross never was. Savannah and I would ride around the corn fields with him and Nick Lee listening to Deftones and escaping our small town lives. I treasured the moments of freedom in that time of endless angst. When I came back to visit, now a big city girl, Rob was just as kind and open-minded as he’d always been.
The last memory I’ll ever have of us all together was when we all went canoeing down the Shiawasee river. It was the perfect Michigan summer day. We put a case of beer and a fifth of Fireball in the canoes and set sail, super classy Michigan style. At that time I’d just spent a year going around the world, and no synthetic tourist attraction could ever replace the bootstrapped charm of our antics that day. We got drunk and laughed our asses off and everyone fell out of the canoes at some point. When we got back to land, we rolled in the grass and looked at the clouds waiting to get picked up. Rob passed out in a chair and some friends tried to see how many things they could stack on him without waking him up.
I don’t know what level of professionality my future holds, but if I can’t enjoy some country cabrewing from time to time, I’ll know it’s time to reevaluate. Marci and Rob supported what I’m trying to do in the world, and they brought me back down to earth and reminded me to appreciate the simple things in life.
After two missed calls, Savannah woke up and answered. I forgot it was only 8am in Michigan. Groggily, she greeted me and said she knew the random Skype number calling her repeatedly would be me. She sounded catatonic, like she was all cried out from the previous night. She was somewhere far away from the reality that her best friend in town had died in a car accident—again. When we first met as kids, she was recovering from the loss of her best friend at the time, Erica Burtch. All the years I’ve known her, she’s kept a framed picture of Erica in her room.
The thought of Savannah having to live with having lost yet another close friend, on top of them being gone… it was too much.
She told me she ran into Marci at the bank the afternoon of that fateful day and Marci had invited her to go cruising around. Savannah said she felt something was off, and told her “not today.”
By 4:30 pm, Marci and Rob were dead. They’d swerved over into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with an SUV. They were killed instantly. The girl Savannah used to babysit when we were kids, also named Savannah, was also in the car and was in critical condition in the hospital, having been helped out of the shattered rear window by a nurse who just happened to have witnessed the accident before the car ignited. The driver of the SUV, also named Savannah, and her eight-year-old girl were injured as well.
I sobbed; I didn’t care if anyone heard me. I sobbed for Marci and Rob, and for the narrowly-evaded future that my Savannah had nearly succumbed to.
She told me there were pictures up on Mlive, but she hadn’t brought herself to look at them yet. I wish I hadn’t. The accident had been photographed from 20 different angles. Marci’s Grand Prix looked completely compacted from the tip of the bumper to the back of the front seats. My brain was flooded with the images of what must have happened to the bodies of my friends, once carefree and bursting with life, crunched out of existence between strips of metal.
In this age of click bait, the old simile takes on a new meaning: “Like a car crash, you can’t look away.” I stared at those damn pictures for days, wallowing in the horror. I won’t link it here, you can search them yourself if you want to know what’s now burned into my mind forever. But if you do, think about what value there is, if any, in having this content hosted by a local news site. You can never un-see things.
I told Savannah she had to get out of that town.
There’s a culture there of drinking and driving like nowhere else I’ve ever seen in the world. “Road drinking,” they call it, the prime social activity for the cool kids. There are no cabs there, no public transportation, no startup entrepreneurs to build an app even attempting to fix the problem. It’s especially fun for those under 21 who can’t drink in bars—they spend all night out driving around with a case in the trunk and pulling over in cornfields to pee. I did it too when I was in high school. Everyone acted like it was as normal and safe as going to the movies. With all cornfields there, the irrigation necessitates that all the roads are all lined with ditches, the equivalent of driving on a rail-less bridge. With all those factors combined, it’s no wonder so many people die in car accidents in that region. The law enforcement doesn’t help—they just throw kids in jail and give them DUIs, even though they’re just living according to what they know. The culture has to change, but with all the poverty of the auto industry collapse, cultural programs are the last place resources will be appropriated in mid-Michigan. The change has to come from within, but when you’re just driving home from the bar on the back roads like you have every other weekend of your life, what’s one more weekend—especially when coping with tragedy.
Once off the phone, I went to the balcony to chain-smoke. Ira*, that magnificent creature (memory refresher: one of the Slovenian owners of the coworking space), enveloped me in a giant hug. She looked at me with big eyes and, thinking about it now, it was the first time in a while I’d experienced something that I didn’t know was missing from my normal everyday interactions with the small talk and fake plastic smiles of the Remote Year organizers and most participants: Empathy. I realized there wasn’t anyone in the program I actually wanted to talk with about what had happened, and only two people I was willing to talk with. But Ira saw me. She saw what was going on in my head and she refused to let me sit there and suffer.
“Anything I could say right now would be stupid,” she concluded. “Do you want a beer?” I laughed through my tears and accepted her act of generosity.
Jenny*, my New Yorker friend I’d spent the most time with up until then, kindly sat with me until I felt bad for her having to be around me, and said I was ok and let her get back to her work. Brad* was being a vampire back at the prison dorms, hiding from the daylight as usual. Aman* escaped with me to smoke for a bit, but I didn’t want to bum him or anyone else out. I didn’t know who to need.
I was supposed to teach a writing course in the coworking space that evening and I couldn’t think straight. I felt like everyone was pretending to not watch me, but I was secretly their show for the day, their small-town gossip. A few tried to console me and offered an ear if I wanted to talk, but being in that environment just made it so much worse. I left to get water and ran into Ira again.
“Hey” she said, pulling me aside, “you know you don’t have to do this class tonight. I can send an email out and nobody will think anything, they’ll understand.”
“I don’t know I haven’t decided yet, maybe I can…”
“Come on, don’t do the American thing. You don’t have to power through your pain. Just talk a walk in the forest, go behind the train tracks and follow the path up to the church. Give yourself a break.” She told me she lost someone too, and that she knew what it felt like. That was empathy. I hugged her, grateful that there was actually one person here, halfway around the world from everyone else, who could make me feel better without making me feel worse.
I did wind up doing the American thing though. I figured if the point of the class was to teach people to write, I could at least give a short preface and sit them down with an assignment if I needed to duck out. As it happened, my love of writing, and of sharing writing with other people, managed to distract me from the events of the day, and I made it through the class with only a few space-outs.
Afterward, I went to the jazz lounge next door and a few of my pupils came and bought me whiskey. The cool Australian chick I’d been wanting to get to know since the first week told me I was a legend for carrying on as planned, that she wouldn’t have been able to. She stayed with me while I got wasted and we listened to a Slovenian bluegrass band and watched little kids dance their hearts out. She didn’t pry or pretend to know me, she just was with me, and that helped.
When we got back to the prison dorm, it was thunder-storming, and I couldn’t wait to collapse into Brad. But when I went up to his dorm, I heard voices and realized he was with someone, his “drunken mistake.” I walked over and interrupted their conversation. I asked if he’d checked his messages, and he hadn’t. She made well-intended but painful small talk with me while he brought himself up to speed. I thought surely he would drop everything to comfort me in my state, but he just got quiet. He let me leave them as they were to go cry into the rain alone, and he left for France the next day.
I wrote this to myself in text edit the next day and found it again a few weeks later:
I am closing the tabs. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to change what’s happened. Looking at the accident pictures won’t help. Looking at their facebook pages won’t make me closer to the friends I wish I could comfort in person right now. All I can do is continue living my own fragile life for as long as I have it.
I’ll always remember the clouds that day and the way they touched my life.
After all that, I decided I had to get out of town for a little while. I went to Piran with Jenny, and then to the Netherlands and Paris by myself. Once removed from Remote Year, I realized what a weird little microcosm of forced fun and pseudo-friendship it was. It only got weirder when I got back.