This essay originally appeared in Yemasse Issue 19.2
Bethany Is Dead
You can’t touch death. You can’t hold it in your arms. You can’t stroke it. It’s not a tree or a fork or a puppy. It’s like zero, which seems like a number, but isn’t really anything at all. It’s the air inside a canyon, only not quite, because at least you can look at that hole and see a hole. With death, there’s nothing to look at, unless you see absence everywhere, in the dark hallway, in your unmade bed, in the space in front of the kitchen sink, in the cavern of an empty mailbox.
Death is an action, an event. But once it occurs, it transforms itself into concept. Death is not love or fear or joy or sadness, but it is closer to those things than to a tree or fork or puppy. I sometimes think death is longing. I try to understand what death is, so I can grasp the words: Bethany is dead.
Bethany is dead. What does it mean? It means absence. She’s not around. I cannot call her on the phone. I can’t send her a letter or email. I cannot watch her from across a room, across a field. We will never be face to face again. I will not cup her face in my palms. We won’t talk about life and our futures in a yard, in a park, in a kitchen, living room, or bedroom. We won’t leave a table of boys to go to the bathroom together. Where there was Bethany, there is now nothing.
I guess this is why people are so big on closure, on funerals, on mementos, on having a piece of the dead. Bethany once told me particles of everything are everywhere. That smelling a fart means there are fart particles in your nose. That we breathe in bits of Einstein.
I think maybe I breathe in bits of Bethany. She’s in a stick of incense, wafting up sandalwood and cinnamon. She’s in the piercing scent of ozone right before a November rain. She’s in the musk of an old box of photos and papers, that scent of lined notebook paper, graphite, and dust—so old, so familiar.
I have a note she passed me in junior high or high school. It’s folded into a rectangle, with a little triangle you pull to open the intricate package. It’s written in runes.
I don’t remember what the symbols mean. One Google search, and I’d have that alphabet again. I’d be able to read what’s left to me, this one moment when she sat in class, thought of me, and wrote a note only we could read.
I have not looked up runes. Nor have I opened the note and spread it out. I haven’t even touched it with my fingertips. It sits in an old cookie tin with a mini lint roller, a large safety pin, my mother’s heart-lined wedding band that was cut from her finger, a pen and pencil, a black hair band, and a Christmas ornament snowman with my name on it. I don’t remember putting the note in the tin. It must have come out of that 40 lb. box of papers and diaries and pictures and miscellany from my childhood. Each time the box resurfaced, I wished I’d thrown it in a dumpster. I went through it months ago when I was about to move, trying to discard anything I could, swearing I’d burn the old diaries this time, put the pictures in the trash. Instead, everything went into plastic bins.
Except the note.
Sometimes people complain they can’t remember what the dead looked like. I have photos of Bethany, but I don’t look at them. I remember her just fine. I remember her perfect square nose, her crooked front teeth, the smirk of her lips, her long wavy hair, the curl that sometimes fell in the middle of her forehead, her brown eyes, like honey poured over amber, the length and thickness of her eyelashes, her sunburst eyebrows, the way her fingernails were always thin like paper, her feet which looked exactly like mine, exactly, only paler. I remember the shape of her breasts, her hips. I can call up every detail of her, from the way her hair came out of her scalp to the size and angle of her collarbones.
I know the exact shape of her absence.
I remember exactly how she put her hair in rollers, pulling her long hair up and wrapping it around hot barrels. She’d let down waves, hold up her bangs with a comb and spray. She applied her makeup sparingly, preferring browns, ochers, and mauves. She used concealer as foundation because the coverage was better on teenage zits. I remember the ease and carelessness with which she shrugged in and out of clothes, the draped jackets she preferred, all the mauve and rust of her wardrobe.
I cannot remember what she smelled like.
It’s been fourteen years since she died. Fourteen. When I try to think about the fact that she’s dead, and I try to understand exactly what it means, I feel like she’s somewhere just out of reach. Right now, she’s standing in my back yard, just beyond the blinds of my bedroom window. She’s standing there silently, or doing a jig, waiting for me to figure it out.
I know that’s not true. She is not there. She is dead. She’s dead. She is zero now. She is the absence of what could be there if something was there, if she wasn’t nothing.
Right after she died, I tried to write down what had happened, what was happening, but none of it worked. My words were frantic scribblings, shards of memories and emotions vomited and bled onto the page.
That first year, at Thanksgiving, I sat in my room eating slice after slice of pie. My mom always buys too many pies for Thanksgiving, so I ate apple after boysenberry after pumpkin. I kept eating pie until I cried, until I thought I’d puke, slice after slice after slice, even cherry, which I hate. I put the pie in my mouth and swallowed. I thought that was the only honest thing I could say about her death.
I think about Bethany in a similar way to how I think about being thirty-two. Thirty-two is an action of sorts—it’s a thing you become. I can reach out and touch myself, but I can’t touch thirty-two, can’t look at it except for when I look in the mirror and see the ways my body has changed shape over time, the dullness of my skin, the red blood vessels in the whites of my eyes. I don’t feel all that different from when I was eighteen or twenty-six, except that now, I’ve quit fighting the fact that I am alive. I know more about living and dying than I used to, though I am essentially the same person in a slightly different body, aware that I am in my thirties, and that means something, though I can’t figure out what.
I can’t make I am thirty-two mean anything the way I can’t make Bethany is dead mean anything.
I spent the first ten years after Bethany died talking about her, telling people about it, as an explanation maybe, as the root of so many things about me, my sadness, the way I might draw on my arms, write Bethany Bethany Bethany. Why each November, I slowly turn inward and drop my leaves.
I finally stopped telling anyone anything. I used to want so badly for someone to understand, to really empathize. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.
How many people even know someone who was murdered? Not many. In fact, when I was still willing to talk about Bethany, I never talked to anyone who’d had someone they were close to die, aside from grandparents. I certainly never knew anyone who had someone they were close to brutally murdered. And, well, you know, good.
I sometimes ask myself what it does to someone to have their best friend brutally murdered when they are eighteen years old. I pose the question just like that: what does it do to someone? I ask as a hypothetical, just somebody, anybody, what happens to them if at the age of eighteen, the person they’re closest to in the whole world is brutally, violently, in a drawn-out, torturous fashion, murdered by a jealous ex?
Robert Robbins is not good at murdering people. Apparently, it can be much harder to kill someone than you might think from seeing depictions on television and in movies. Bethany was quite difficult to kill, requiring over eight different attempted methods with various weapons on assorted regions of the body before he settled on duct-taping her nose and mouth shut and fleeing the scene.
I cannot stand the sight of duct tape.
Some people think it’s easy to write about anything, no bravery required, so long as you’re trying to make Art, not just expose your wounds. I wanted to believe that. I wanted to believe no bravery was required to talk about Bethany now.
I know I said I used to talk about it, but I don’t think I ever really talked about it. She did, that someone this hypothetically happened to. She could recite it all rote. She knew everything that happened, and she would occasionally tell people. Not me. I tried to write about it, but then I stopped. I refused. I tried to quit thinking about it at all.
I hate even saying it happened to me because it happened to Bethany. Bethany’s the one who’s dead, not me. She’s the one who never saw her 21st birthday. She’s the one who never had the two children she told me about, had named. Now I don’t remember what the names were going to be. Irish names. I know they were Irish.
I’m Irish, but I never knew while Bethany was alive. She loved Irish music, Irish dance, Irish folklore. She was so proud to be Irish, and I found it bizarre. I always felt so outside of her Irishness, but I was Irish the whole time.
What does it do to someone to have their best friend brutally murdered when they are only eighteen years old? I would be somebody else if Bethany was still alive. Who? I don’t know.
Sometimes the living try to live for the dead. I don’t really want to live for her. I wouldn’t know how. She was science. I am writing. But now, the more successful I become, the more I think about her, and the more I have some small, strange feeling that I’m making her proud. It doesn’t make much sense because I know she’s dead, and I don’t believe in an afterlife except for the part where all your molecules become unglued and go back into the world and become molecules in other things—in trees, forks, and puppies—in slices of celebratory pie.
I don’t have to try to live for her because there are pieces of her left inside me. I always hated science: memorizing names of bones, chemical processes, and weather patterns. None of it seemed to have anything to do with me, with actual life. But Bethany kept drawing me back. I would see her reading a Stephen Hawking book. She would talk about black holes, about particles, about physics, and I would crack open my mind just a little to the possibilities.
Now I devour science, watch BBC specials on everything from the moon to the origins of our species to black holes to the possibility of parallel universes. (Bethany would have loved parallel universes and the possibility that our universe is merely a hologram.)
I could never capture all the shapes and contours of Bethany and our relationship and her death and the aftermath. It would take a book. It would take a series of books. I do not want to write that book. I don’t want to ask anybody to read that book. Ten pages or less, I tell myself. Ten pages or less to try to understand something that is fundamentally incomprehensible.
It’s so simple, but I can’t understand it. I can’t grasp this basic concept of how it is that Bethany was alive and Bethany meant everything to me and I meant everything to Bethany and then one day, poof, gone, forever.
People like to say it fades with time, and sure, yeah, I don’t sit around for hours sobbing until I’m dehydrated, but I’ve never stopped being haunted. I can’t think about her without getting the sense that she is somewhere close by, just out of reach. Now, she’s right outside my other bedroom window, but if I turn my head to look, she’ll vanish.
Maybe part of the problem is I don’t want to understand. I don’t want to say, yeah, Bethany is dead, gone forever, and truly comprehend the meaning of those words, take them inside my mind, my heart, and know she’s never coming back. I think maybe I’m just not capable of that sort of knowledge. Maybe that’s why I go blank. Why sometimes, for a second, I seem to grasp the words and my chest lunges, and my eyes begin to tear, but then halfway through, the words stop making sense. My eyes dry up. I blow my nose and am left thinking about that someone who might have to face a death, a murder.
I don’t think Bethany will really be dead until I’m dead. Then there will be no one left to remember. Only then will she stop appearing outside my window, behind me in a room, in my dreams where she’s been living in a house outside of town the whole time, where we’re never really older, never thirty-two, where her skin is still clear and white with that silly curl falling across her forehead, where she turns and smirks and asks me why I’m crying.