End of the Road: A Mostly True Story
Let's face it, I changed things and our memories are unreliable at best. Even more so in the face of challenge and heartache.
The feelings are all true.
2004. Winter. But, Florida winter, which meant that you could wear flip flops and a light sweater. It was dry outside, the earth had begun to crack open. It hadn’t rained in months and there were fire warnings floating on the radio waves. The warnings seemed ridiculous, it's winter. How could anything catch fire when it was cold enough to wear real shoes?
My boyfriend, Brian, had been the king of highschool whose life had taken a stumble post graduation. He'd been kicked out of college up north and had come home to Florida to lick his wounds. Still high on the fumes from high school, I dated him in a long distance relationship during my sophmore year of college. We talked on the phone a lot. Brian drove a delivery truck around Jacksonville while I walked in between classes at Florida State in Tallahassee. I would crunch through the dry grass, tossing my hair and waving to friends. Flip phone and the most popular guy from high school. A triumph.
Brian would make the three hour drive to Tallahassee frequently. It was always a big deal. When he would show up with his critically low self-esteem, I swallowed my intelligence to earn his bright blue eyed smile and laugh at his political jokes. My own observations were met with a quiet chuckle and a nod.
That weekend, the fire alerts continued to pour in and notices begging students not to throw ciggarette butts on the grass were posted in the dorms. I waited with baited breath as my boyfriend drove through the warnings on Friday afternoon. He arrived with his chest puffed out and I showered him with adoration for his long drive down a highway that the news folks claimed was on the verge of ignition.
My friend Addison called Friday night. She was living at home with her family while she plotted her next move and we planned our glorious ascent into adulthood at least once a week by phone.
Hello, Addison choked. Her voice was thick. Matthew. Matthew. Matthew couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t find his inhaler. He was at dinner, might have had an asthma attack? We don’t know, we just don’t know. His throat closed...he was without oxygen...Static. My own breath caught in my throat.
What do you do? What can you do when your best friend calls and tells you that her brother, a precocious boy two years our junior had stopped breathing? Breathing. Matthew. Stopped. Goofy smile, bright green eyes, skate boarder surf boy, grown up enough to have kissed me in the dark but young enough to dye his dark hair an awful peroxide blonde. Stopped. He's in intensive care. I'll call you later. Silence.
Flip phone snapped shut.
Slow pan to Brian. Standing there in the parking lot, shrugging. Hands dangling by his side. Bad improv joke. Weak smile. I’m sure he will be fine. Let’s go see a movie. Don’t think about it. No need to drive home, I’m sure he will be fine. Addison would have asked you to come home if she needed you. Look at me! It will be fine.
The weekend was an underwater ballet. Synchronized swimming through dinner. My roommate was from our high school too. Florida State was a three hour drive from home. Just far enough to discourage too much parental visitation. We came from a small school, were all close...close to Addison, close to Matthew. Hung out in parking lots on Fridays with Matthew. Listened to music in the car and snuck candy into movies with Matthew. Covert handholding, first kiss with Matthew...oh, god, my best friend's kid brother, how embarrassing.
My roommate and I held whispered meetings in the hallway, conversations and fears Brian refused to hear. Addison won’t answer the phone, what do we do? Nothing. Wait? We would hear if it was bad? Right? What could we do anyway? Wait.
Pause the mounting panic for groping and awkward kissing with Brian in a twin sized extra-long bed on stilts...Maybe we should drive home? No, shhh…it will be fine. Let’s have a good time. Run your fingers through my hair.
As the weekend wore on, the phone stayed quiet while Brian's dazzling blue eyes began to dull. His breath was stale. Jokes fell on dead air. Suddenly he was revealed as a poor imitation of Jim Carrey. Is his hair thinning? Hasn’t he already made that joke? I stared at my silent phone over his shoulder. No news is good news, right?
The phone finally sprang to life on Sunday morning, screaming a three note electric song.
Addison sighed into the phone. He’s gone. He had an allergic reaction to the chinese food. His throat closed and no oxygen to his brain and...Matthew is dead.
Oh. Oh, my god. Oh.
The world crumbled. Brian decided to go home.
Brian’s car died in front of my dorm. A tragedy! Brian got a jump from a friend. A miracle! Brian grinned, kissed me, waved and drove away.
My knees buckled and I cried alone in the parking lot, the gravel digging into my skin, chest caving in on itself. I went inside to make the phone calls. Addison asked me to call our mutual friends. Facebook didn't exist and she couldn't bear to say it outloud again. I broke the the news one by one well into the evening.
A day later, Brian called - "Um. So, you weren't very excited to see me this weekend. I didn't feel wanted. You weren't a good girlfriend. I felt ignored."
The Florida grass and I burst into flames.
I hung up on him. Hang ups are not satisfying with a flip phone. And then I did what I should have done the moment Addison called.
I flew out of my dorm and drove through the scorched North Florida pine trees, a straight shot on I-10. Squinted through the black smoke. Sped towards Addison. Foot heavy on the gas, cursing myself for ignoring my heart, for listening to a stupid boy. I yelled all the things I wish I'd said, it's always so easy to know what to say after, after finally seeing Brian for a selfish peter pan, after Matthew stopped breathing.
Warnings came fast on the radio as they began to close the highways. The smoke was too thick to see, too think to think. It burnt my lungs and the inside of my nose at a rest stop. Bright orange flames were visible through the trees as I flew down the highway. The whole world felt like a terrible post apocalyptic movie.
Finally home, the ocean breeze blew the smoke inland. I pulled into the parking lot where the memorial was to be held. In a skate park, sun beginning to set. Cicadas softly humming. Stepping out of the car, Addison turned and walked to me. We held each other and wept.
One hundred worthless phrases came to mind, but I couldn't say any of them. I'm so sorry. He's in a better place. Now Matthew is an angel. Your guardian angel! We don't know God's plan. Time heals all wounds. We keep him in our hearts.
I stayed quiet. No words were worthy, nothing made sense. Who the hell dies from an allergic reaction to chinese food? At seventeen? We aren't old enough to die. We've barely begun. We stand here in a senseless world, clinging to each other and it doesn't feel like enough.
We stood in the center of the parking lot and the sun sunk in the sky, the brilliant orange and pink light fell from our faces and was replaced with a cool breeze and soft early evening blue light.
And I whispered, Brian and I broke up. Addison froze. I braced myself. Damnit. I am the worst. I should have told her that Jesus loved her. She held me at arms length, puffy faced and bewildered, tears hanging on her eyelashes.
"Of course you did. That guy is an asshole."
We took each others hands and held on tight.