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Pico the Immortal | 2017 | the Presence of Predators


The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.  

-Colum McCann

A Fork Stuck in the Road

She deserved better

Today, I shsould be officiating Melissa's wedding to Rob. It was overcast all morning, not too cold. After lunch, the sun streams through the breaks in clouds, dappling this still green grass though thinning branches. It could pass for spring instead of autumn, aside from the crunching of leaves underfoot. She would have loved it.

Had Melissa not died eight month ago, we might have shared this day.

I forget where the wedding was to be, though I imagined it outdoors, before a garden. It was going to be Harry Potter themed, according to the saddest unboxing video even, which Rob made of all the accoutrements that should have surrounded their wedding: a Sorting Hat to tell guests where we would sit, a sign reading "I love you like Snape loves Lily." There may be a universe where this happened as she imagined, where this was the happiest day of her life, where she felt the bliss akin to what I did when I married.

Instead, Rob got a tattoo on the whole of his inner forearm reading "After all this time? Always."

She was meant to meet Rob sooner, but Stevehen, initially intent to fix them up, decided that he liked Melissa better, both than Rob would and then Stevehen did his own girlfriend. (To be fair, Melissa slept with Stevehen a few times before he committed to dumping his girlfriend, but she usually acted amorally when sex was on the table - sometimes literally. It wasn't her problem that some woman was heartbroken.)

Stevehen called Rob "Depressio," which does not speak kindly of the situation or his objectivity in making this match. Had Stevehen not fallen for Melissa, it is impossible to know how this would have played out. This tiny fork in the road created a different world for all concerned. Maybe Rob would have dated her sooner and she could have eased into being loved the most healthily she ever was. More likely, she would have ripped Rob's heart out because she wasn't ready to be loved well, because she had so many more wild oats to sow at everyone's expense, because she had only ever been abused or been the other woman, so that was the script she was going to play out again to make someone prove they loved her.

I try to follow the lines back to find the one that could have been changed to rescue her from herself. Not meeting Rob sooner meant that she had a psychotic episode over Stevehen, then nearly stalked a couple she saw after because she wanted the husband more and baldly hoped he would leave his wife for her, spiraling downward into further mental illness. Maybe another minute change could have created a world where Melissa not only survived but thrived. Had she not had sex for the first time while numb on cocaine with a guy who called her disgusting, one who was and remained dating Melissa's friend, one who kept sleeping with her because it was easy, could she have had a better template for what affection was? Had someone treated the cause of her constant addictions rather than the symptoms, would she have been moderate enough that she never returned to the arms of heroin or found them in the first place?

Melissa did not make her life easy - or her comingled illnesses and vices wouldn't let her. In another life, she continued being promoted at her group home or she finished college and became a therapist (she had the mind for it, just not the scholastic inclination) or she opened up to a therapist one of the times she was institutionalized instead of using her intellect to create a wall or she simply refrained from heavy drugs after nearly overdosing on cocaine over a decade ago. There were ample exits she might have taken and didn't.

She made enemies by the handful when she was younger, coming to detest people for offending her or mirroring something in her that she hated. To her dying day, she carried with her an animosity toward a former friend from tenth grade because the friend had attempted suicide, which Melissa saw as a ploy for attention. One, her constant companion for years, made the mistake of sleeping with Melissa and "getting clingy," though I only heard Melissa's side of the story. Liking Melissa too much when she wasn't ready was grounds for banishment on the grounds of revoltingly bad taste. Another made the mistake, I think, of falling into a serious romantic relationship and thereby cutting back on time spent solely with Melissa. She could not forgive anyone she wasn't positive she needed, but she wanted them to chase her and apologize to return to her good graces, something few even realized she could want while she called them assholes and whores. Most of the people whose name she sneered at, whom she still insulted fifteen years after she had last seen them, surely did not notice her lack. To her, they were nemeses. To them, she was someone they used to know, if she wasn't simply a stranger. Once she died, I wanted to find these women and let them know what had happened, so I could sense that she still mattered a little to them. None of them showed up to her funeral or, to my knowledge, expressed mourning. That's their prerogative.

As she told it, the most offensive thing I ever said to her was that she couldn't save people with her vagina. I meant it as an observation, not an insult, after years of my mistaking affection with damaged women for rescue. I didn't think she really intended to save anyone this way - she had sex with enough people she wouldn't have wanted alive minutes after the act completed - but she must have. I meant it as though she had a pornographic superpower, but she meant "save" in the other sense, as though abased sex would keep them with her. When they left, when they renewed the relationships they degraded by cheating with her, when they grew distant as she pulled closer, she knew she hadn't been able to save them for herself.

I miss her. Not constantly, not like Rob must when he rereads and rewatches all the media they shared. She ceased to be a part of my every day. Her sickness made her cancel dozens of plans over the last few years. She couldn't even face my wedding. I haven't wept over her for months, though I've cried when thinking too long about her, but I miss her as a premise, as the source of formative memories. She was a crucial aspect of my adolescence. I was honored to be asked to officiate her wedding, though I worried immediately that it wouldn't happen. Maybe she would postpone it to infinity or would hurt Rob enough that he would call it off. Maybe she would just leave him, though I didn't estimate it would be so final.

I wanted her to have an amazing day. Maybe this would be enough that she would count it as a turning point, an off-road on a path that would end in her extinction. I can't hope it would have been enough to save her. I don't know there was any saving her, just postponing long enough that the threat might pass, if it could. No matter how she spat at the exaggerated slights of former classmates, Melissa's greatest enemy was Melissa. There was no getting away from that. Because I loved her, because she was my best friend for so long and so importantly, I wanted her to have something life-changing, for her to want and get serenity. She needed to catch a break finally because life had handed her few.

This is all too friendly, as though I am not furious that she didn't get better than an urn buried in Hopewell, as though I honor her by eliding her almost present tense. Melissa was using scams to try to make money on top of her government benefits, begging from strangers on the internet to replace an engagement ring Rob found in the bottom of her purse after her death, which he thought of as an accident. I don't see it as an innocent slip of the mind and hand. I knew her in her teens, when she boasted to selling middle schoolers baking powder "cocaine" so she could buy the genuine article for herself. When she was in the midst of her cocaine addiction, she spent thousands of dollars a week and, once clean of it, claimed to have no idea how she had obtained the money. I knew better than to ask for too many details. She beamed, saying she had never turned to prostitution to support her habit, but that she had been close enough often enough that she considered crossing that boundary. I know her relationship with dealers became temporarily overfriendly at their behest, which seems only fractionally removed, but I respect her distinction here because she no longer can.

These videos hurt worse because she had seemed lucid between them, more her wicked, wry self than she had been in years. These pitiable aberrations were Melissa losing her battle against herself. They were Melissa neglecting the concept of our friendship enough to see me as a mark, as though I couldn't see through what she was doing. And I wasn't brave enough to give her what she needed instead of what she thought she wanted.

She had cut me out of her life at least twice, maybe three times, for sins as small as disagreeing with her self-harm and as major as letting her father know I had called 911 on her suicide attempt. The latter lasted maybe six months, but I waited. She was overt then, saying that she couldn't talk to me and I shouldn't contact her. I took that for acknowledgement that she would only be furious a finite time.

Heroin had a walk-on role in our first falling out. Melissa tried to set me up with one of her friend whom I liked based on a few phone calls. We met, kissed a little while hanging out at Melissa's. When I went home, imagining future dates, Melissa informed me that she had promptly made out with this same girl almost before I was out the door. She didn't think this was such a big deal as this friend, whose name I have long since forgotten, fooled around with people when she was on heroin. No one else took fondling this girl seriously - she was on smack, after all - so Melissa couldn't understand why I would. I felt betrayed, by Melissa far more than this girl, who was just a failed romantic avenue and not my best friend. We didn't talk for half a year and, during this time, I marked Melissa as an enemy. That her friends would drive by my house, honking horns and hurling expletives, did not turn enmity to amity. She apologized eventually, suggesting she had a friend that I would really like who was in no way mixed up with a drug any harder than pot. I never even met this friend, but it wasn't the point. We had both missed the other and didn't want to stay apart. I would take this peace offering even as a token never meant to be acted upon.

Indirectly begging money from me was not her first infraction against our friendship. She once tried to pressure me at a hotel party enough that I ran out into the parking lot and called my parents to pick me up at one in the morning rather than letting her drive me the five miles home. It wasn't the first time she made sexual overtures, because she was lonely/horny and I was around, but it was the first time I felt wounded by her because she would not take "no" for an answer. She cared more about getting something from me than she cared about me. She would have taken advantage if I didn't stop her when her appetite supplanted her restraint. After that, I didn't want to have anything to do with her, but I did see her after a few weeks of radio silence (she called and I refused to answer) and was too meek to call her on what she had tried. Years later, she threw this in my face - that I would try flings with girls I didn't know well but would not let her into my pants - and I pretended it didn't bother me.

It is impossible for me to say where her addictions and illnesses ended and she began. Since getting into treatment myself, I have discovered how much of what I took for personality was in actuality overdeveloped coping mechanisms. In writing a letter recently, I referred that the adventurous spontaneity of Melissa's teens and early twenties was the symptom of what would one day claim her. She never managed to come off substances long enough to discover who she was underneath. I doubt she saw a reason to try. There was a darkness in her whose edges hallucinogens, uppers, and prescription pills obscured. She told me, and I believe, that she would take so many sleeping pills a night that it would kill a normal person. Without them, she couldn't sleep, though likely because she took so many stimulants prior. She objectively had a tolerance for drugs that should not have been survivable, but she needed more and more to attempt normality.

When she dropped one substance, such as when she went to rehab for cocaine, others lined up to fill the vacancy. She did meth for a summer because her cocaine buddy was away and she promised she wouldn't do it without him. She lost tens of pounds, cleaned everything around her, and had a fresh energy for which she was praised. She never stopped chain smoking, going as far as to having her mother sign her out of rehab because the doctors wanted to detox her from nicotine as well. She huffed nitrous oxide, swallowed mushrooms, drank when she could. She once smoked crack because someone lied to her about what it was. There was not a drug she wouldn't try, when she was younger if not the recent past.

She said once that, having tried heroin, she could never touch it again because it felt so good that she knew it could kill her. After her death, I approached a man whom she said she hated despite being one of his best friends in high school. He admitted that he had to stop dealing to her because she was way too into heroin. He didn't want to be the one who killed her. I believe this is why she cut him out of her life, but it was not the reason Melissa gave for the feud.

When Melissa wanted to be, she could be the sort of brutally honest it was hard not to appreciate. But, whenever someone offended her, the stories she told of why rang false and unsatisfying. She couldn't tell the truth about endings and trusted I wouldn't earn her ire by seeking the other side - and I did not because I understood these rules. When the breakup with Stevehen happened - I don't know who left whom but they claimed mutuality - both sides stated me the other abused them. Stevehen referenced being threatened with a knife. Melissa downplayed this, but claimed he laid hands on her. In a fair fight, Melissa would have flattened Stevehen, who I do not believe had it in him to attack, only defend himself. When she gave the poly couple an ultimatum and they called her on it, I did not hear the honest story from her. But I knew she wasn't telling me truth, so could I really call it a lie? What she said to me was the story she wanted to hear, where she was victorious and they were stupidly unreasonable. When she prostrated herself stalking her lovers, screaming threats and slurs because they would not take her back, it was clear what the real ending had to be.

I wanted her to have a new beginning, a turning point. Despite making her initial relationship with Rob as rocky as she could, she settled into loving him. She boldly confessed a dozen sins in the initial years and I told her to knock it off before she lost him, which surprised her. I was loyal enough to her that I wouldn't out her to Rob for what she was doing, but that didn't mean I would approve of her taking advantage of him to hurt herself. Maybe those words got through to her, maybe she found a chemical cocktail that pacified those urges for a while, maybe the Inner Melissa slapped some sense into Outer Melissa once she realized what she might lose. More than Rob himself, more than a relationship, she could lose a chance at someone loving her despite herself.

I can't diagnose her, though I medical professionals did in spades. At times, she was borderline, though she eventually blamed this on the birth control she had been taking. She had manic depression, but she would almost have to considering what often flowed through her veins. She had to be self-medicating something at the core. No one can take that quantity of drugs for decades without an underlying cause. After that first pound of cocaine, it stops being fun and becomes an occupation.

There is no getting Melissa back. It is only through writing and editing these memories that I can feel closer to her. Now that she is beyond the veil of caring, I can be honest about her and assure you that she was amazing to know, that I wouldn't trade the first dozen years of our friendship for anything, not even for not feeling her decline come bit by bit. I wonder if it isn't a taste of what the loved ones of the senile feel as this vibrant, complex person they've loved erodes.

I can't claim, even at her darkest, that I didn't recognize Melissa. At her best, this desperation and weakness lurked within her, but she kept it in the corner, shading giving her definition. It was the glint in her eye when she talked about the guy who used and abused her, and whom she would never tell to leave her alone because negative attention was still attention. It was the call deep into the night to tell me she had exploded or gone to rehab. She was often the coolest person I knew because that attitude daring the world to fuck with her, even as an overdeveloped defense mechanism, was captivating. Time spent with her always felt like an adventure, even when all she did was shoplift lip balm from the grocery store where she worked, get some Taco Bell, then poke about the X-rated movie section of the video store. She would snatch her friends out of school in the middle of the day and drive to Woodstock for no other reason than to be in Woodstock. In retrospect, it sounds like the almost wholesome transgressions of suburban kids who have known no real hardship.

I consider the Melissas she never had the chance to be, the ones sacrificed to addictions. The Photographer. The Drug Counselor. The Political Activist. The Wife. When she died, we lost all of them, all her potential. Some were unlikely - she waited too long or burned too many - but they still could have been. There was a chance that her rock bottom could have served as a foundation on which to build.

That I am aware, no one in her life ever died of an overdose. In high school, one friend died from suicide, another from falling off the trunk of a car going five miles an hour. For the former, even at her most depressed, I didn't think she would kill herself. She had seen what it was to survive that. Maybe if she had seen the guilt and recrimination of an overdose, she wouldn't have subjected us to it. She felt impervious. Literally exploding, regularly ingesting otherwise lethal doses of narcotics and stimulants (sometimes together), having had many dozens of hookups with complete strangers hours away without an STD or violence, walking away from cocaine withdrawal all gave her good anecdotal evidence of her evident immortality.

She should have been married today, flashing a sparkling ring her friends like brass knuckles, making dirty and political jokes at the reception. We should all be telling her how we have never seen her look more luminous. Her sisters, who she assured me hated her for reasons that had nothing to do with the money she borrowed, would have done her makeup and hair. I would be giving some speech designed to make her tell me to stop talking because there was no embarrassing her, the one I paraphrased in the parking lot of her funeral. Rob would be so moony he would look like he needed to pee, because he always loved her more than she let herself love him. Then they would have had a Disney honeymoon or gone to Atlantic City. They would post the cheesiest pictures to social media, but it wouldn't be ironic.

In my perfect world, she gets back from that honeymoon and takes marriage as her impetus to be better. Not perfect because Melissa was never made for perfect, but this solidified relationship, this legal bond, would help steady her. She would spend more time outside her apartment until I saw her monthly, if not more. She would get a job working with the mentally ill or those in recovery because she was always the most fulfilled working with groups she understood from the inside. Into her forties, Melissa would grow stronger, her mind honed and clarified by conquering all that held her back and intoxicated her.

I will never stop missing my friend, but she was held hostage so long that she came to identify more with her captor than the world outside. I didn't want to lose her utterly, and so I tiptoed around her. Calling her on her shit would not have resulted in her having some epiphany of dumping opiates in the trash. It would only have meant that she would hate me and contrive a more vicious story of what I had done to her. If she said it first, if she called herself the name she was sure was about to fall off your tongue, then it wasn't weakness anymore. But she couldn't own up to what happened to her because that was too much, too great a work and she didn't often think she was stronger than it.

I will always wonder what set her on this path. I don't think the Pizzutis sent her to therapy when she became fall down drunk on stolen liquor when she was a child, but I know this is not the action of an eight-year-old to whom nothing terrible happened. In our decades of friendship, she admitted to most present tense abuses, both the ones she perpetrated and those committed against her, but there was a hard wall at fifteen before which she didn't venture.

The saving grace is that she would have told me what happened to her, if she understood it herself. She blamed growing up with two beautiful sisters and feeling her parents favored them over their square-framed, round-faced daughter. Maybe they did, but I met her in her teen rebellion phase when most everyone thinks their parents are idiotic fascists. I am not taking their side over my dearly departed. Even to her last few months, even as her curated life on social media showed someone getting a handle on her life, she was at political and social odds with them; she never lost the idea that they did not like her and she rewarded this by giving them the least amount of things to like.

I tell myself that she was aware in life how much I loved and valued her, but I do not think I was demonstrative of this in what turned out to be her last years. I resented how my friend had changed. She went from having effortlessly earned a job without a degree that paid more than I have ever seen to trying to cheat government benefits and scam people on the internet. When I was twenty, I envied her openly. When I was thirty, I pitied and begrudged her for disappearing from the world.

Seeking out what went wrong with Melissa cannot be to preserve or prolong my own life. She took her first steps toward this ending before I met her and it is likely a miracle she made it this long. I was never close to falling to what took Melissa. I don't fear an overdose. I worry for my mental health on occasion, but I have safeguards and respond well to minor chemical and psychological intercession. Melissa's fate is not my destiny.

With all of this said, I don't feel our friendship was unfinished. The best part of it occurred in that brilliant dawning of early adolescence and as we found our footing as supposed adults. It feels callous to say and I wonder if I am not merely justifying because I will get no friendship from her ghost. For all the avenues that she passed before her exit, the fraction grew finer that she would ever return to her full vitality. I won't say "that she would be the Melissa I remember," since I am not the Thomm I remember from then. I grew older and my priorities shifted from midnight Mexican food and smoky rooms - however they stayed with conspiracy theories, starry nights on ponds, ghost hunting, and hilariously bad movies. I became an adult and a teacher, both groups Teen Melissa actively decried.

It is simple to love the dead. They have perpetrated on us the greatest pain they ever will and escape our response by becoming insensate dust. Their deaths shake us from our comfort and force us to reframe, but we quickly embed them in the amber of past tense. Even if there appeared some massive revelation, Melissa would not be answerable because death doesn't grant two-way communication. She can no longer be a part of my life but in memories and reflection. Hating her doesn't impact her eternity. She is wherever she is going, perhaps where we all go. My memory of her can hurt, what she did can hurt, but that is not her any longer.

Loving her is easier for me because her story is complete, even though I've read only parts of some chapters. Its author has abandoned us to speculation. Despite dissatisfaction with the ending, it is no cliffhanger, no mystery. We have to love what we have on its own, not as we wish this story could have gone. That wish cannot be granted but in imagination.

From a force of nature, albeit a chaotic one, she reduced in potency and effect. Her story ends too predictably, like a screenwriter's attempt to kill off a secondary character as Oscar bait. "She did drugs and was an unruly until the shock of twin disasters brought on by her using. Beginning her twenties in fortunate loftiness and confidence, drugs took from her all she valued, reducing her to someone she despised when she was younger. In her thirties, she tamed and sought reformation, but it wasn't enough. She relapsed and died. Don't do drugs, kids." It's far too pat. Melissa would be furious at being reduced to an After School Special.

In the end, she loved me as much as she could, because she needed to love her friends, even when their number halved every five years until we could all comfortably sit in a sedan. Daydreaming with me about her wedding, about the day she was free of all that had penned her in, helped her believe.

Though I have used her this way when she was alive, Melissa isn't a cautionary tale. She isn't a two-dimensional victim of a tragic flaw. She was a complex woman with a lot of give the world and she devoted her better years to trying. She made some mark improving the world. I am not the one to decide if that outweighs the bad, though most of the hurt she ever caused was to herself. She slept with other women's faithless boyfriends, who would have proven their perfidy soon enough without her. She harassed and degraded anyone who drew a line in the sand, even driving one from the state to escape her. She dealt drugs, real and imagined, and brought people deeper into that world so that they might serve as her conduits and comrades. No question that caused harm, but to my knowledge it was largely confined to what turned out to be the middle part of her life and I don't know how many scars that experimentation caused. That wrong must have resolved itself by now. I don't know that anyone bore her much of a grudge when she died (aside from the virulent white supremacists she provoked on Twitter, who don't matter here as they never will in life), though I confess to not knowing her life nearly well enough to make any final pronouncements.

There are a few people her ghost should have haunted for revenge - the doctors who prescribed her pills she didn't need in quantities that would have euthanized farm animals, whoever dealt her fatal dose of heroin, the therapists that let her go on without real treatment - but she does not appear to be able or inclined. I do not think that she would haunt her friends because we didn't do enough. We couldn't have stopped her if she didn't want to be stopped. I tell myself this whenever I think of Melissa because I have yet to quit myself of the guilt that something I did would have kept her alive, at least that night. There would have been other nights. It wouldn't have occurred to me to do anything more than I did, cowardly treating her with kid gloves and corresponding with her online as though nothing had changed between us in twenty years.

This is a poor wedding present as I form my anger and sadness into confession because concealing the Melissa I knew is the only way I can kill her now. The dead are no longer owed our discretion, though their survivors might be. She couldn't have approved of this honesty in public, though she would devilishly cop to some of it in private. Rob is my only concern here and I believe nothing I have said here would strike him as slanderous. He knew his fiancée better than anyone in her last few years and he loved her for her past and present.

Soon in Xenology: Untrustworthy adults. Apocalypse.

last watched: American Horror Story: Roanoke
reading: Meddling Kids
listening: Ani DiFranco

Pico the Immortal | 2017 | the Presence of Predators

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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