On January 24, 2009, my college classmate Julian was killed in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan. He was twenty-five years old, and his was the first combat death in Afghanistan during the Obama presidency. His death was also the first I learned of from a Facebook wall.
Jan 23, 2009
Julian commented on his own photo. 12:15pm: miss you too brother. I'll be home before you know it.
Jan 23, 2009
X wrote at 11:42pm: JB baby any word on your care package? I'm glad you are safe. Just bought a book about the Tankers in the USMC during WW2. It appears the Japanese feared Marine tanks more than anything else. Home soon bro. :-)
Jan 24, 2009
X wrote at 6:36am: hello old friend, i miss you buddy and am so glad i stumbled upon your profile and have added you. I hope to catch up and talk soon. i also really hope you are well…cheers
January 24, 2009
X wrote at 8:34pm: It is with great sadness that I share that Julian was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. Our hearts our broken ... I will post again when we know funeral details. Please contact my husband if needed.
After that, there were hundreds of comments from friends and family, an outpouring of grief and gratitude. To Julian, many wrote things they'd probably never had the chance to say in person: "Thanks for saving my life in middle school," someone wrote. "I'll never forget that dance we choreographed," wrote another. I watched new posts flood in with a morbid fascination, but I never left my own. I had a memory of Julian, too, but I thought that if I wrote it down I would have to admit that I believed Julian could still hear us.
The message I never posted was this:
The last time I saw Julian was at school, when he acted in Bury the Dead by Irwin Shaw. The play is set "two years into the war that is to begin tomorrow night." It is about six dead soldiers who refuse to let themselves be buried, who rise from their graves to declare the futility of war.
I thought of Julian again last summer, when my ex-boyfriend died in a motorcycle accident. Jason was twenty-three. He didn't have a Facebook wall we could write on, but the few people closest to him all changed their profile pictures to photos of themselves with him: at prom, on the front porch, in front of a city skyline. It was another modern mourning ritual I wouldn't participate in, but this time I couldn't. Even though Jason and I had lived together for almost a year, and had known each other for another three, there weren't any photos of us together. Not a single one.
I emailed my friend Liz to say it isn't fair. Without any photos of us, I would never know what we looked like as a couple. It was if we'd never existed. Liz replied:
The no pics thing is sad, but I think it speaks to your closeness with him. That's the way it goes with the people who are the closest or most comfy together. You never have pictures together b/c you see each other all the time. It's like somebody having pictures of Niagara Falls but none of their hometown. Niagara is a one-time attraction. Home is home.
I flipped through the few dozen photos that I did have: Jason holding horseshoe crabs at the New Mexico state fair, me in an arabesque at a rest stop on the way to Santa Fe, the pale dunes of White Sands National Park at dusk. After we broke up, we each moved to different states and went months without speaking, but then I would call or text, usually late at night, to ask: Did he remember the time when we hopped the fence to go swimming in our underwear? Did he remember when we stayed up all night to see the hot air balloons launch at dawn?
"Of course I remember," he'd say.
I hadn't needed photographs because I always had him, to validate my memories, to reassure me that they weren't fiction. And now he was gone.
One of the reasons we moved to New Mexico in 2007 was for its state nickname: the Land of Enchantment. "You can write a book, and I'll work," Jason told me, which was the most enchanting thing I'd ever heard, and so we rented a truck and packed up everything we owned. I was twenty-two. He was nineteen. We left on a Sunday afternoon and drove straight through, from Chicago to Amarillo, because he wanted to spend the night in Texas and I wanted to give him what he wanted. For nineteen hours, he drove the truck and I navigated from a printed map. Neither of us slept. There was supposed to be a meteor shower that night, but industrial light pollution in southern Illinois obscured the horizon, and then a thunderstorm shook the sky in St. Louis. Maybe missing the peak of the Perseids was the opposite of an auspicious sign, but we drove on.
By dawn, we were in Oklahoma. As if to beckon Texas to us, Jason started playing "La Grange" off his ZZ Top Greatest Hits CD on repeat. Every time the song ended, it was my job to hit "back" and "play," and suffer through another bass line intro.
"I keep seeing these huge birds," he said.
He laughed and shook them from his head. Took his fake Ray-Bans off and put them on again. Hit the steering wheel in time to Billy Gibbons's laughter: Uh huh huh huh huh.
Jason was mercurial, bipolar. On and off anti-depressants, anti-psychotics. He bragged to me about the wilderness camps for troubled kids he'd been sent to for his anger management problems, how he'd played "We Will Rock You" against the wall with his head for hours, how he'd made his psychiatrists cry. He was also intensely charismatic. Strangers stopped us in public to ask what movie they recognized him from.
While signing the lease on our new apartment, the women in the rental office asked what had brought us to New Mexico. I said I wanted to write a book and he said he wanted "to find el chupacabra"; somehow his answer seemed more realistic to them than mine. So Jason and the landlord shook on a deal: if he found el chupacabra, and brought her the head, we could live there rent-free.
We lived in Albuquerque for six months. I wrote every day, at a desk that overlooked the mountains. At night, I waited tables at a diner that I could walk to from our apartment, on the other side of the highway.
Jason called me darling without the G because he'd grown up in the south. He promised one day he would marry me. He could pick me up off the couch and carry me to bed like a child. Over money and sex and love and loyalty, we fought almost daily. When we fought, I cried and he told me I was crazy, crazier than anyone he'd ever been locked up with. Our worst fight ended with him throwing me against the refrigerator and not believing how badly I was hurt until he lifted my shirt to see the bruises. The next time, he only punched a hole through the bathroom door. Towards the end he would say, "We came here so you could write a book, and you haven't even finished it. You haven't kept up your part of the bargain." I wrote under the gun. I told people back home that I was writing so much because the landscape inspired me, but now I think I wrote in order to trick my brain into imagining that I was where I was not.
Jason didn't live to see the book published, but he did read it, two months before he died. He stayed up all night to finish it. He told me he was so proud of me.
I dedicated it to him.
The night before Jason's funeral, I told his family the story of the night he proposed. We were at a house party over a holiday weekend, and the cops busted it. Most of the kids were underage, including Jason. After a couple hours of lectures and threats, the police told everybody that they had a choice: either they could spend the night in jail, or they could call their parents to come pick them up. We tried to get out of it by explaining that we lived together, and I was of age. They didn't give a shit. So Jason got down on one knee and proposed to me in this stranger's living room. I said yes and he took off the ring he always wore and put it on my finger. The cop let me take him home as his guardian.
The story made everyone laugh: they could picture the scene. For a brief second, I'd brought him back to life.
Then we passed around a Ziploc bag of the things found on his body after the accident. A wallet, a flashlight. The same ring from that night, which someone had actually made out of a motorcycle part years before. The only time I ever saw him take it off was when he proposed. I thought they should have buried him in it, and I didn't know a polite way to say so. The detail undid me. Ditto the next day when his brother told us that yes, of course he'd been wearing his helmet, but it was smashed in when they found him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
After the funeral—where I'd sat near the casket, in the area reserved for close family—I came home to New York, to grieve in a vacuum. No one here knew him. They only knew my mixed stories. I didn't know how much I was allowed to mourn for someone who hadn't always been good to me. I went back to work immediately.
Friends all said I was handling things extremely well.
I wasn't handling anything.
I was unable to express pain, and then furious at anyone who didn't immediately recognize how much pain I was in. I could not even predict what to avoid, what would hurt me. Late at night, stricken with insomnia, I'd go online to look at pictures and memories of Jason on Facebook, clicking through anonymously, never commenting, always lurking. I was jealous of one of his friends, who kept receiving "signs" of Jason at her bartending job—an obscure song played at his funeral came on the radio; she received a dollar bill for a tip with the name JASON written on it in Sharpie ink.
The only thing I could count as a sign was a single dream I had: I'm standing at the bottom of a stairwell in a dark, musty basement. Someone opens the door at the top of the stairs and light pours in. It's Jason. He's standing at the top. He's come here to yell at me for letting them bury him. He was never really dead; it was all a mistake, and I'm to blame. I get the sense that he's at the top of the stairs and I'm at the bottom because he wants to trade places with me. I woke up sweating, afraid to move, to give up my place.
I wanted a sign that would trump all other signs. Something more permanent, more tangible than a Facebook post or a dream. And so, for the first time in my life, I thought about getting a tattoo. I picked out a Georgia O'Keeffe watercolor of the sun burning as it sets. It reminded me of the bold daylight in New Mexico, and the moody blue nights when I could see all the stars.
"Don't get a tattoo right now," my mom said. "Not when you're so emotional." One of my mom's rules is "Don't make any big decisions when you're in a bad mood." Another is: "Don't cry in front of a mirror, you'll only cry harder." It's an empathic reaction. My mom is a clinical psychologist, so all her advice comes with extra cred.
She suggested I buy a print of the painting I liked and put it on the wall.
My boyfriend Brian agreed with her. He said I should really think about it. "Jews aren't supposed to get tattoos anyway," he added.
The Jewish prohibition against tattoos comes from Leviticus 19:28: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord."
I most definitely wanted to gash my flesh for the dead. I wanted to be marked. And when strangers saw what was on my skin, I'd be able to explain, This is what I lost. This is what I have to live the rest of my life without.
Maybe I became a writer because I'm always looking for a new audience to tell the same stories to.
Or maybe I didn't really want a tattoo. Maybe what I wanted was for someone who loved me to look me in the eye and say, "This must be the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you. I don't know how you're handling it."
And then I could say, "I don't know how to handle it," and we could come to some kind of understanding.
My boyfriend's grandfather has the indelible mark of a serial number on his arm from Auschwitz. On our second date, Brian told me that when he was in high school, he wanted the same number tattooed on his arm— as a reminder of what could happen. His mother was horrified. She forbade it.
Last night, Jason's mom sent me a picture on Facebook of her daughter's hand. She was wearing three rings. One of them was Jason's. I didn't recognize it, because there was a sparkly band stacked on top of it. When I woke this morning, there was another message. It said: "Did you notice the ring?"
Then I noticed it. The sign of what I lost.
While I was considering my tattoo, I asked my friend Cathrin if she'd ever thought of getting one, and she had it all thought out: it would be a German word on the inside of her right forearm.
"What is it in German?"
"Sehnsucht." She wrote it for me on a napkin. "This first part, sehn, is longing. But the second part, sucht, comes from addiction."
In essence, we wanted the same tattoo, but mine was an image, and hers was a word.
In the end, I decided to ink this page instead.
In the spring after Jason died, walking near Prospect Park in Brooklyn with Brian, I stopped at a street corner and looked up. The street was named for my classmate Julian. On Facebook, I found his father, who has lived three blocks away from me all this time. I told him that when I saw the signpost, I took it as a sign. He invited me over for tea and told me how Julian comes to him in dreams.
On Facebook and in dreams, we are all performing variations on the same theme. It's longing at its most elemental. It's I miss you. It's Come back to me.
Late at night in Albuquerque, I used to lie in bed while Jason was in the living room with the TV on. I could fall asleep by reassuring myself he would be there when I woke up.
Sometimes I still think he's just in the next room.
Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan and a collection of poetry, Dispatch from the Future. She lives in Brooklyn, where she teaches poetry in the public schools, and is at work on a memoir called Land of Enchantment, about death and the Internet.
[Image by Jim Cooke]