I remember the funeral better than the wedding. If it weren’t for common sense, I couldn’t tell you which came first. Maybe it’s from years of miscategorizing memories like a pile of undated photographs. Maybe it’s just the narrow window of what I paid attention to, or really could pay attention to. It’s possible that weddings test my mind in a certain way, as her wedding’s just as murky as my own wedding.
The one I recall best is probably Aunt Eli’s wedding, her wearing the blue kimono, origami swans on tables, and little kids playing with bubbles—me breaking a lawn chair and Mom threatening to take me home if I didn’t stop roughhousing and embarrassing her. Maybe Mom’s right, that I cling too close to the negative events of my life, not enough to the positive. I swear I don’t try to.
There’s a photo of me at the funeral, wearing a yellow dress, standing by some gravestones, wondering if I should look happy or sad. Was it Aunt Katie who took that photo? My cousin Emily was wandering in the background, so that would make sense. Or maybe that was my sister Mari? Why was it some random gravestones instead of Robin’s? In that case, Katie took it. She’s spontaneous like that.
The photo at Robin’s wedding was much less spontaneous. I was instructed to stand beside my fellow flower girls, Robin crouching down behind us, beaming. She was glad us girls were there on her big day, though little me was disgruntled with the world’s most frumpy, red thing they called a dress. I hated dresses, will probably never stop hating dresses, and on top of that, the material was itchy. Maybe I missed a lot of the wedding because of that. Uncle was impossibly happy, and Robin’s dress complemented her long golden hair, but these thoughts are so vague, I could be thinking of pictures instead of the wedding.
Did I ever mention to them how glad I was they were married, or was I lost in my everyday world? Did I involve myself in the moment when I had the chance? I wonder about this a lot. For many more days than just this.
I knew not to fuss about my dress at the funeral. At least it wasn’t chafing. I picked at the skirt in the car, only because it was a dress and for no other particular reason. It was in the car that my mom made her firm views on suicide clear, though I doubt she knew I was listening. (To be fair to her, I didn’t know I was listening either.) The topic startled me in a way I didn’t understand then. Why was she talking about suicide and Robin at the same time? Robin’s doctor prescribed her a bad dose of medicine. What did that have to do with suicide? Yet Mom went on, about the selfishness, the hurt to everyone around us, the total waste of such potential in life. “And so young,” she said.
The dots were lined up for me in plain view. Maybe I didn’t connect them because I didn’t want to. I was only able to deal with her passing at all by keeping thoughts at a surface level. I was accustomed to adults wandering in and out of my life, even braced myself for the eventual “they’re moving away” or “we’re not friends with them anymore” or “it’s complicated.” It was only when I considered that she was no longer breathing, that she could be anywhere from Grandpa’s Heaven to nowhere at all, that I found it hard to breathe, myself. Robin, who’d taught me how to draw stars, played fighter games with me on her computer, danced to “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and sang “Roxanne” with me in the back of Grandma’s Volkswagen. It was okay for her to be out of my life—she just couldn’t be gone.
The night of her death, Uncle had come to our house for comfort. He’d sat at the kitchen table, head in his hands, Mom doing her best by sitting beside him. But my little sister, Mari, didn’t seem so intent on comforting the man. She kept drawing pictures of Robin and her doing things together, painfully fun and sweet things, and showing Uncle those pictures. I tried to signal her with a glare, but it wasn’t until the third picture and my Uncle’s third wail that I started yelling at her. I don’t know what I said, (I doubt I had the vocabulary to convey my fury) but I was louder than I thought myself capable. I made such a ruckus, Dad had to drag me out of the kitchen, into the hall, and give me his Very Stern Dad Voice.
“She’s being mean,” I told him, “She’s making everyone cry again! You shouldn’t let her do that!”
“Ellie . . . ” he groaned, and I could tell then I was missing something. Again. “This is what people do when somebody dies. They talk about the person and the nice things they remember.”
“But they’re crying!”
“I know,” he said, “but they want to. It helps them feel better.”
“Well, it doesn’t make me feel better!”
Dad grimaced. With his voice calm and level, he told me to go to my room and grieve my own way. I went off, thinking he was disappointed in my inability to understand. I never thought that he just might not know what else to do.
I really didn’t understand grieving until I visited Aunt Eli not long before the funeral. My aunt lived in Sacramento then, and while I visited, we went on the first of what would become many aimless walks, talking to each other about life. The subject of Robin came up, and I discovered that Robin was actually Eli’s best friend long before Robin and Uncle fell in love. She explained a lot of things I’d never understood before then, like that bipolar had meant Robin was very happy or very sad while growing up. And she told me all sorts of stories and adventures they went on together, with Robin saving the day by seemingly random and inconsequential actions. My favorite was of Robin going well out of her way to buy the “useless” emergency kit when the two went on a road trip. It was silly, at least to Eli, that they’d even think of preparing for being stranded, when they didn’t even plan to stray far from civilization and well-used streets. Yet on the day Robin bought the kit, they took a wrong turn, and their car died in the middle of nowhere, in the snow. And oh, yeah, cell phones weren’t a thing. I could picture it clearly in my mind, Robin tugging that gold hair of hers from her face as she brandished the kit from under their seat and declaring, “Good thing I brought this along!”
Instead of feeling loss, I felt that I was finding out more about my aunt. And despite the subject, Eli seemed happy to divulge, so I didn’t stop her.
“Everything she did,” Eli said, “everything that happened around her, I think it all happened for a good reason. Even when she was doing something weird, it turned out for the better in the end. So . . . ” She paused a while then. “So I wonder now if there’s a reason why this happened.”
Encouraged by the stories, I said, “Maybe there is. From all the cool stuff she did . . . Aunt Robin was like a goddess!”
And that made Eli laugh and cry, more than I’d like to admit.
I thought about those stories a lot at the funeral and about what Eli said. And since I didn’t connect my mother’s dots, I kept wondering what good could come from such a horrible accident. I saw even the furthest reaches of my extended family—even those who barely knew Robin—in tears within the pews. And Uncle, he was more broken than I even knew. Soon, he wouldn’t be the first person I thought of at the name Uncle, let alone someone I thought of fondly. Distance would eventually change him to “Uncle John,” a guy I barely know or see.
Still, all through the funeral, I tried to consider that her profound influence over the world had failed this instance, that for once something had gone wrong and just wrong . . . and I couldn’t. I decided that if my grandpa’s stories of God’s plan had any truth to them, then all of this would have a good effect on us and the world like it always did. It was just that, this time around, the good came at too high a price.
As naïve as this solace was, I had no inkling then of how this good could possibly pan out. Or that it would have a direct effect on—of all people—me.
I’ve been told I look cute in my wedding photos. I’m sure I look happy in them too. But I was actually happiest that day walking down the sidewalk. I walked a mile wearing a long, leather coat over my dress, despite the obligatory heat Mexico provided that muggy morning. I was sweating, and I didn’t care because I knew I looked awesome in that coat, and it made the dress almost bearable. This dress was handmade just for me by a close friend of my mother-in-law-to-be, Francisca, and she went well out of her way in the instructions to make sure the dress was just the right size, just the right shade of white, had just the right amount of flowers embroidered on the skirt. It was so dainty, not half as elegant as Robin’s, or as bold as Eli’s. And, well, it was a dress. I couldn’t tell anyone I hated it, not even Felipe, the man I was marrying, and I couldn’t express my disappointment when they took my coat off for pictures. My hair was as short as a boy’s, so I couldn’t afford any more leverage to be myself, especially that day. Every fit he’d thrown when I’d gone to maintain this hair had demonstrated that, and only my nineteen years of age and American heritage excused this rebellion with the locals.
It was a cheap, group wedding that married over a dozen couples at once, one advertised for in flyers, like some kind of fire sale. No one I loved was there to see or support me. All that mattered was that it was functional, that it got this guy into the U.S., this guy that, frankly, I’d known much better when I was fourteen. Back then, my wacky, homeschool family decided to move to Mexico for a year, becoming neighbors with my great-uncle Pierre, known in the small town of San Juan del Estado (roughly 2,000 people) as the only white man for miles. At the time, Felipe had already proven a great deal of loyalty while working for Pierre at an Internet café, and was practically his right-hand man. Felipe and his family bonded well with mine long before we started dating, and once we had, my family seemed excited for me in a way they’d never been before. Oooh, a boy likes Ellie. Can you believe it? Look at that!
Then, of course, we returned to America, and Felipe was desperate to follow us, yet my parents couldn’t find a way. Sponsorship? No, we’d have to be related. Citizenship? No, that cost more money than we all had combined. Work? Ha, ha, cute idea. My mother’s voice was depressing enough when she had to tell the eighteen-year-old boy that his only way in was across the border. And to my horror, she agreed to help any way she could if he ultimately decided to do it. I begged him to wait for me to get out of high school, feeling like I was the only one who knew how dangerous it was, but Felipe said he just couldn’t wait that long. So in the midst of my sophomore year, my mother drove down to San Diego to pick him up off the side of the road, finding him alone, shirtless, and in tears. He told me of that journey so many times, of how his group had been robbed at gunpoint (even taking his shirt) and how skinheads had shot at them, and he’d had to leave a wounded man behind—and that was just the first half of his trek.
He was never the same after that. But he was never the same because of me. How do you turn away from someone who’s been traumatized because of you? But of course, he hadn’t been able to live up to his potential as an undocumented, which my parents couldn’t allow to continue. To not have him as a son was a tragedy, yet they could compromise with him as their son-in-law. So when I saw how expensive a school like UCLA would be and felt that my dream to be a novelist wouldn’t exactly cover the costs, it made sense to have my dad drive us down to Tijuana and let me fly the rest of the way to San Juan, my new home for however long it would take to tie the knot.
This was the day that would fix everything. We’d be able to go back home. Where he’d have better opportunities for his future. Where he wouldn’t get away with the broken promises that started once we lived together. Where he would stop cursing at me for my lack of Spanish. Where he couldn’t brush off my crush on the cashier with, “You’re not really gay, Elena, you just want to be gay.” And maybe he’d stop using that stupid pet name too. After this, life would be better. He would be better. Everything would be.
It had to be.
I ducked into the bathroom three or four times as we waited for everyone to assemble, checking to make sure I wasn’t about to menstruate as the abdominal pain suggested. Part of me was hoping something like that would go wrong, wrong enough that it would stop. The sweltering, paperless bathroom stall was more comforting than what waited outside. The wedding itself didn’t matter. I kept telling myself over and over, “It doesn’t matter, it’s going to be okay. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.”
Everything he’d done and everything I wanted weren’t matching up. I wanted to forge my own path through school, work, anything, yet this was contradictory to the actions leading me to this stall. I didn’t feel I had the strength to stand on my own, and even then I didn’t want to be alone the rest of my life. Though the dots were laid out in plain sight, I refused to connect them. I didn’t have the strength to admit this was wrong. I couldn’t bear to admit I didn’t love him anymore.
Mom was proud of me, of this. The kid too dumb to understand basic human interaction, like how to behave at a wedding, the one with “suspiciously” selective hearing and no sense of attention control, the one who couldn’t remember what day it was or even tell left from right—Mom was proud of me. And despite that, I wanted to run out to a taxi and to the airport and drop pesos in a phone booth and leave a message saying, I couldn’t, I tried, but I couldn’t, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just need to come back and forget that this happened. But the image of me standing in the San Francisco airport, alone because they were too bothered with disappointment to come get me—no, leaving came at too high a price.
That’s what I take with me out of the stall. That’s what keeps me holding his hand as I say “Siii,” half a beat off the rest of the girls because I don’t know what the pastor’s even saying.
The thin metal tracks of the light rail start to whistle before I can even see the train. I’m standing on the yellow plastic of the platform that makes me think of Legos, telling myself everything’s going to be okay, I’m okay. I can still find someone in Midtown to interview, finish the article due tonight, still salvage this internship, still salvage this life I gave up my mother for. “I can do this, I can do this, it’s going to be okay,” but inside my head, my voice is different. My mom was right to call me a monster and cast me out, just like I thought she would. I was right to think I couldn’t stand on my own, make my own way. My future holds nothing but welfare and cats, and just the act of standing here, trying, is selfish. I can’t even utilize a full week to get one interview. I’m a horrible person and even more horrible at trying to be one.
The pressure builds into the top of my head until it caves in, and I find myself outside of the world around me, just like when I was a kid. This place is dark, twisted, and feels endless—like I was never anywhere else before and will never be anywhere else again. That extra step forward onto the light rail track is the only way out. And it might even be the best way. To this day, there’s debate on whether Robin’s overdose was intentional or not, and with my inabilities, maybe this way would leave the same debate open. If I can’t live a decent life for my family . . .
The train’s on its way. I have the exact amount of time I need to make either decision. In the dark, my future’s set in stone, much like my past. I’m a disappointment. A failed business investment. A broken piece of shit. My own goals have gotten me nowhere but into a crap internship with a news blog I don’t even like, an area of writing I don’t even like. And with how well I’m doing, my hopes of getting hired are slim to none. I’ve wasted their time, the staff’s time, the time my aunt’s given me in their spare room, the time my grandmother’s given me on her couch, just as I wasted every damn second of time I spent growing up writing fantasy stories and dating a boy that would grow up a different man. The only saving grace I have is that I can still shove on a dress and look happy for the camera, if I’m not too stubborn to do so. But no, now even that’s not enough. If I pretend this was a phase and go crawling back to Mexico, it’ll only be an example for others to follow. How many people, even mild acquaintances, told me I appeared to be living happily ever after? How many would hurt themselves striving for the lie I’d created, say they went through “rough patches” like me? I have enough people looking up to me, with my five siblings alone, people rooting for me and believing in me enough to offer a couch—I can’t lie to them anymore. Even Felipe still deserves someone that actually loves him, which I’ve failed to do. That was the only chance life gave me, and I fucked it up.
Either my family suffers me living, or they suffer me dying. Both acts feel selfish and wrong now, and I can’t tell which is the higher price.
I think about all the things given to me, all the things spent on my worthless life: cereal bowls full of dimes, the mountain of cash on my computer desk, all the things my parents, siblings, friends could have done without me there to drain their resources. Mari could have gone to choir again, and Jette could have taken that theater class, without me there to burden them with my broken brain and misplaced emotions, emotions I don’t even understand. I don’t even know if I’m a gay woman or a straight woman or a bisexual man or even human anymore. I don’t get to tell people I think I find them attractive because I can’t take it back if it turns out I’m wrong. I can’t take it back, but I can keep it from continuing. I can stop pretending that I’ll ever manage on my own, that I can ever contribute to the world. I just need the right step at the right time.
I think about the pews full of heartbroken people, the virtual loss of my uncle. Robin wasn’t much older than I am, was she? They’re going to say I was so young. Even if I’m right, and this is still what’s best for them in the long run, it’s still going to sting. Goddammit, my youngest brother’s three years old. I’m not Aunt Robin. I’m no goddess. But what if my death does hurt them, like it hurt Uncle John, Aunt Eli, everyone? What the hell could I even do then? Can I even do this without screwing it up, without surviving and costing more in medical bills? Why can’t someone just fix what’s wrong with me? Why do I have to stand here, alone?
My feet lock to the Lego platform as the light rail train rolls by. It’s not that I don’t want to step. It’s that I’m at a stalemate. I mechanically march up the train steps and into a seat, reeking of sweat, as my mind surfaces from the dark. Suddenly, I’m thinking like a self-preserving human again, reeling in amazement at what I was considering, then realize this is going to happen again and again, until I make the choice I can’t take back. It doesn’t matter if I think I’m right if I’m wrong, if I try to solve the problem and only make things worse. I’ve learned that much from my mistakes.
I can’t carry on like this. I don’t trust myself to. I need help, and I need it now.
I cry a lot on the train. I consider waiting another day for getting help, making that last jab at finding an interview instead, but this isn’t something I can shrug off and forget to do. That’ll just give strength to the dark, another chance to take me out. I get off in Midtown, walk to an isolated corner and whip out my phone, searching through my contacts, I need to get help. Each name I read is just a voice screaming in outrage. One is accusing me of looking for attention. Then it’s being selfish. Then being stupid. God, Ellie, I picture them saying, do you need to do this now? I search through a third time, reconsidering, but this is too big a burden to put on someone who’d want to help me.
I want Robin’s number in my phone. I want to call her and spill out unintelligible blathering. I want her to blaze a trail to come and get me where I stand, and to tell me I’m going to be okay. Don’t move a muscle, you’re not in trouble, it’s all right. I understand, she’d say. I understand.
But I don’t have Robin. I just have some old photographs. Her memory was what stabilized me, what held me fast to the Lego floor, but it’s not enough and never could be, not when she could be here.
As I hold the phone and think of what’s happened, of the solace I found at her funeral, I’m flooded with the thought I don’t want: maybe, maybe this is it. Would I have stayed put if I hadn’t thought of her death, of how it hurt others, of the life she could have lived? Would I want to call her now if she hadn’t died? If this is it, if this is just another episode of Goddess Robin to the Rescue, my life and sanity couldn’t possibly be worth Robin’s life. The price is too fucking high, and I’m insulted at myself.
But if it is, and I know there’s a chance that it is, then I can’t let it go to waste. I have to salvage something from this mess of a life—any way I can. Because if this is why my aunt took her life, then she is worth all that I can give. Even if it doesn’t amount to enough, it can still amount to something. Amounting to nothing and throwing my life away now would be the true insult to her memory.
I still have no one to call. So I call 911.