The first time your heart shatters, you become one woman or another.
The first can only ever love the broken after that. She sees damage as her canvas, and she spends the rest of her life trying to make it beautiful. Cobbling together the lost and fragmented, soothing their sadness and their grief. She creates a mosaic from their stories and their sorrow, mends the pieces into something whole again. Because if she can love something back together, it means nothing, no one is too far gone for saving.
The other starts to sees damage as inevitable. So she strikes first, destroys anything that comes too close. This kind of woman will sabotage her own happiness, snap it clean in two, rather than let someone or some thing surprise her again. Her heart inured, she will be the one to lay siege from now on. For her, it is obvious people were never meant to stay whole. And to survive this world, we must learn to live with what we have left.
Someone organizes a candlelight vigil at the park. News of the intended gathering is shared on social media, and on the night, more than 3,000 people make their way south, down to the fields near the pier. Mostly New Yorkers, but some women come from other cities, from their own dark places, called forth to memorialize one of their ilk, one who didn’t, couldn’t make it. The crowd is punctuated by these survivors, their pain red-tipped, fierce, as the faithful from many denominations hold forth, one grasp at comfort after another offered into the night. Candles quiver, wave, and when the talking stops, someone steps forward and softy sings Amazing Grace into the silent, head-bowed congregation.
From a distance, 3,000 candles held high is a beautiful thing to observe. A glow of stars drawn down into people’s hands. Faces are soft, warm, as people lean one lit candle into the wick of another, connecting each new flame until the whole field flickers. Until the crowd appears to breathe light, a collective inhale-exhale of grief and prayer.
There is no name for the girl they mourn here, but she is known to every woman present, clasped around their lifted hands, heavy on their hearts. She is their fears, and their lucky escapes, and their anger, and their wariness. She is their vigilance and their yesterdays, the shadow version of themselves on all those nights they have spent looking over their shoulders, or twining keys through their fingers. A man speaks to the crowd, entreats his fellow men to do better, and people clap, cheer, but it is the silence of the women that binds up the candlelight, sends it skyward, a flare in search of every sister who never made it home. So that when the politics and passion are spent, it is the quiet rage of women that lingers, can be seen glittering from above. Long after all the little fires have been snuffed out, and the people moved on.
Elliott does not attend my vigil. She sits in her studio a few city blocks from the park. She has lit her own candle here, one lone flame weaving, pulsing in the dark. Cross-legged on the bed, she stares at this candle and feels nothing. Grief, she is learning, can be as quiet as a whisper when it wants to be. When it all roils inside her, when it spills out like a swollen river breaching its banks, or when the waters still and she floats upon the surface, numbed – it is all the same feeling in the end. One of utter helplessness. Knowing that so little is in your control, knowing that you cannot claw your way back to the ignorance of safety. Sometimes she rages against this loss. Tonight she acquiesces. She is alone in a lonely city, and – this part Elliott is ashamed to admit – lodged in her stomach, nearly as deep as her sorrow for an unnamed dead girl, is the realization that she herself might just as easily lay unclaimed one day. Because no one will think to miss that she is gone.
Later, at the beach house she and her friends have rented for the weekend, Elliott takes a pillow and blanket and quietly pads out to the balcony. It is 3am and everyone else has passed out, couples curled into each other, or positioned back to back. She is, as usual the only single person here. Not that she thinks of herself as single. There needs to be some other word to describe the state she has found herself in.
That would do it, she thinks, folding herself down onto a damp, wicker sofa. Someone has removed the spongy seat cushions, Elliott can see them stacked near the balcony railings, but she does not have the energy to drag them over. It has started to rain, and Elliott is glad for the discomfort, for the wet on her face and the unyielding sofa base, pressing into her hip. Back in her room, the world had started to spin. Now, she can see the black of the ocean, hear the inky water slapping against the sand. The sound feels as if it is coming from inside her, it is as if she is the one cresting and falling, and it takes a moment for her to realise that she is crying, out here on this balcony, alone with the rain and the waves and the starless sky. Soon she is crying as hard as the weather, all the accumulations rising up out of her. This is not where she intended to be.
Life, she understands in this moment, has stopped happening to her. She has stood in the middle of too many summers and winters, too many dance floors and other people’s parties, and simply woken up the next day older than before. For so long, nothing has happened. She has been on pause, while he went about making his life. Making the tiniest of spaces for her to fit into, asking her to make herself small so that he could keep her right there.
She doesn’t want to be here anymore.
The plan does not fully take shape this early morning, waves and rain and tears saturating everything around her. Elliott won’t even really know, days later, as she books her one-way ticket, as she scrapes together her savings, just what she’s doing, or why. She only knows that she can’t stay here anymore. That she needs, desperately, for some thing to happen to her.
In this way, our worlds are spinning closer every second.
Very few people are all bad. Hardly anybody at all really. Maybe an irredeemable handful who were born with their wires muddled, missing. But the rest of us are works in progress. Reacting to our environments, growing or shrinking according to whatever light gets shined on us. It’s no excuse. Cruelty and ignorance cannot always be forgiven. But I guess, if we want to, we can understand it. We can look at it up close, we can examine all the ways there are to hurt someone. And we can decide what we will not do.
Perhaps the rest is all chance. You really can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All those things they say when they want to blame someone for the bad things done to them. But not in the way of it being your fault, let’s be clear. A chance encounter, by its definition, cannot be your fault. And here’s the thing. What if you do change your behavior to avoid those chance encounters. What if you alter how you live in this world because there are those who would do to you what you would never do to someone else? It doesn’t make anyone safer, in the end. It really doesn’t.
Because let’s be clear about one more thing. If you change your behavior, and he does not, then you are safe.
She is supposed to be his safe haven, the place he can go to when he is exhausted. Didn’t he tell her once that she was the shore, or had she imagined that after he played her a song with such words? Has she afforded him a depth of feeling and meaning that he has never really possessed?
What would it be like if she could see him going about his day just now. The care he gives to others, the attention he bestows on anyone not her. Perhaps, just a little, he hates her. Despises how she has led him down a path he cannot return from. Cannot make up from. He forgets all this in her arms, of course, or when he is alone in another clean, wide-bed hotel room and he has had one too many wines to fall asleep. In these moment she is all he can think of. His dark-eyed lover, the one whose body he has traversed and drowned in and drunk from, all these years. Sometimes the ache for her is no different from thirst or hunger. A primal need her skin and scent satisfies.
Other times, like now, when she sends her SOS from across the ocean, he wishes she would leave him be, thinks of life before her, and after her, too, if he could just say the words he needs to. Why doesn’t she understand? Why does she keep coming back for more? She cannot lose him, he was never hers to begin with, he never offered himself the way she offered herself to him. This is not his fault. What is he supposed to do? Leave his wife and children for a woman he barely knows, barely even likes, if he’s honest?
If he’s honest.
Thanks to her, he feels as if he has never been honest a single day of his life.
This, this was the day your life changed. Slowly, then all in a rush. You used to think it was the day before you met him. You used to think about the lack of hunger, the lack of yearning, the something missing-ness of your life. You got so used to recognizing him, the back of him, in any room, in any anecdote or situation that you forgot who you were the day before. Let me tell you. If I could sit down with you on that last day, when you did not know him, did not think of him in some way.
You were healing, piecing yourself back together. And it suited him to keep you broken.
Here’s what happens when they know who you are. It changes. Everything changes. They begin to dig into your life. Because ‘Dead Girl’ needs a bigger story to keep it interesting. The fact of her loss could never be enough. So they pick through my past, sift through my bones, the reporters and editors who don’t get this kind of treat nearly enough, the shock and tragedy of pretty, dead, white girls.
I have made some things easy for these storytellers. No mother (suicide!), no father (where is he?), and there is a predictable small-town history to snack on. Enough people who went to school with me, or knew me when, to keep the theories coming. But most revelations come as a disappointment, no matter the digging. Good student. No record of trouble. Scant evidence of running around with boys. Not a single scandal of my own, until-
And here, Mr. Jackson sits in his studio, waiting for the knock. Charcoal fingers twisting, a package of photographs in a locked box under his bed. Knowing he can’t throw the package away, considering burial or burning, but never quite able to bring himself to unlock that box, open it up. Afraid to look at me the way he used to. To see me alive and vital, and to remember the way I used to look back at him. He knows these pictures are a ticking bomb, a catalogue of his errors, and he knows, inevitably, the knock will come.
Still, when they show up at his door in their blue suits, with their notebooks and guns tucked into belts, he is unprepared.
The world has always looked different with him in it. When she saw him walking up the stairs, when she looked up from the text he’d just sent – I got lost. Bloody Melbourne alleyways! But I think I’m at the right place. Up on the roof, yeah? – and their eyes met, it was that same sudden, silver glow. Clouds moving away from the sun, and every particle of light directed at her.
She forgot, for a second, how to breathe.
(By the time she’s finished her third wine she’s taken to tilting her glass at him whenever she makes a point or declaration, flirting over her nervousness, drinking it away)
Did I think there was a place you could land, and everything around you would retreat. Where nothing and no-one else would matter, no outside world impacts or time-changes, because you were exactly where you were meant to be. Finally, and irrevocably.
Did I think there was such a place, and such a time, and it would all stand still for me, because I was happy in that place, in that time?
How else to explain my surprise when it all came to an end? How else to make sense of my utter confusion to find the earth shifting beneath me once again, spinning me away just as I began to get my balance. When that was what I’d always known to expect, in my life before.
In my life before him.
We try to make sense of things because we’ll go crazy without the story; our most important moments in life can’t be things that just happen. Later, I see what he was doing, where he was leading me. Later, I am not surprised that he made me wait, prepared me. He needed to know he was safe.