Gabby is genuinely surprised, squinting at me from the crown of pillows holding her up. I muse at the way flecks of her frizzy auburn hair cling to her still slimming chin, clumps of her curls hugging her thin neck under the black Fuck Cancer beanie someone must’ve ordered for her online. I shake my head no, laughing.
“Wow. Well then, when you get the call, have one for me.” I assume she means the whiskey, but it can easily be the orgasm. I look to my fiancé Ray—whose thick lips are opening and closing in fish-mouth silence—and laugh. He nods his head, promising her that he will make it happen.
I trust he will, watching as he straightens his back and locks thick fingers in a contemplative fold, his elbows resting slightly on the arms of the metal chair. Like a father. The thought scurries through my mind. He looks like someone’s daddy. But the thought is quickly creased by the drag of his face.
He’s too young to look that tired but I know that he is—tired. And too young. He’s familiar with this sort of place—a hospice. I’ve never been inside of one but when we entered the lobby, he stepped up to the front desk with a practiced lean and asked the nurse for Gabby. Now, as all three of us sit in this room cradled by the subtle medical machinery hum that filled the space between our goodbye and the thirty minutes we were given with her today, and by the afternoon light soaking through the blinds, I can feel something like a premonition.
Gabby leans forward in the bed and seems to prepare herself to say something important. Her back slightly hunched, I catch a shimmer of the wild woman I knew from before and ready myself for a dare. “Tell me,” she pauses before looking from me to Ray then back to me, “Tell me how it ends.”
There is no way to predict what will eventually happen. The pattern will only become apparent when I flip through old Facebook photo albums or sift through Twitter for old posts years later. There is no way to tell Gabby that I will spend the next decade digging into my own past in search of a solution for the present. So, I tell her little lies instead. Lies that I do not yet know are lies—but that I am also not certain are the truth.
“We get married. We have a little girl. And two boys. I become a famous poet. He becomes a soldier. We die old and happy and rich.”
They are half-truths. Inaccurate predictions that will manifest in their own corkscrew ways. But she doesn’t know that. And neither do I.
I have always longed for autumn. A time of exit or entrance. For me—a time of loosening. My body comes alive with little warning in the days before. My fingers start to ache, tapping out rhythms on grocery cart handles, dashboards or coffee tables. The skin on the heels of my feet grows thick—itches for dirt. The season turns and my mouth is dry for an empty cabin. A road that leads to anywhere without resistance. A place in the wild.
When I get the call that she has died—three days later—I am already in a bar, one hand holding the phone up to my ear, the other holding onto the rubber body of a dart. I run my thumb up and down its ridged surface, unsure of what to do with the thing as I listen to a man audibly unhinge on the phone.
I roll the weapon in my palm, feeling it grow warm. My aim has been bad all night, but I am sure that I can hit something now. In this moment—this new moment that has never happened to me before—I am looking for words that I don’t have and marveling at how drastically the world has changed. And I want to give the man some semblance of solidarity but the phone is no longer in my hand—a small glass of whiskey is. Ray reassures the man on the phone that I am taken care of and I wonder if I am.
Death, in its introduction of the year 2010, pulls at a loose thread in me and I notice that some part of me is coming undone as I slowly lower the glass down to tap the wooden table before bringing it back up to my lips—to hit the ghost.
Four months after Gabby’s death, I sat outside of Ray’s apartment, drinking off-brand Cabernet, straight from the bottle. When it came time to leave, I stood up, swallowed the last of it, turned, and threw the bottle at his door. It didn’t break into all of the little pieces I had expected, just rolled off the balcony and into the grass. Angry, but fearful someone would call the cops, I picked up the bottle and headed over to his car. I needed to go to campus and explain why I had missed classes the last week or so, but first, I wanted to touch his car. I touched it. I needed to feel it. Went over to the hood of it, climbed onto it, and laid back, remembering the last time he and I had laid there together. I cried. I cried and thought about what I would say to my professors whenever I finally made it to campus.
“Sorry I missed class. My fiancé died while I was out of town.” No, too many questions would come after that. “Fuck you. Fuck this class. Life sucks.” That sounded better. Quick. Concise. To the point. “Sorry I missed your crappy class. My fiancé’s encephalitis killed him and because we were arguing, he laid on the floor of his bathroom for three days before somebody found him and then his parent’s cremated him without even letting me see his body. Can I, like, get a fucking pass?” Yeah. That was right. I was pissed. And sad. Why should I keep all of that to myself, I thought, looking for my keys. If I was going to be fucking miserable, everyone else was going to be just as fucking miserable.
A month before, after one of our biggest arguments, another one about my decision to wait a few more years before getting married, he’d broken up with me, believing I must be sleeping with someone else. At the time, I wasn’t. But I took his accusation to the bank, reminding him of his little AIM chat girlfriend from Las Vegas who, I would later confirm, he’d cheated on me with. The whole truth was we wanted to be together but we wanted different things out of our lives. I wanted a career. He wanted a family. Both of us angry, we cheated on each other, more than once, but always found ourselves lying in his bed, back in each other’s arms and watching Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married for the 50th time.
Our last argument started one such night, after making love and picking up our friend, we went to Taco Bell. Still somewhat angry, he took one of their sauce packets, the one with “Will You Marry Me” on the front of it, ripped it open, and threw it at me, ruining my shirt. So, we yelled in the Taco Bell, then went to the parking lot and yelled some more. Kissed some. Agreed we needed some time to cool down. He took our friend home. And I got in my car and drove off, pretty sure I would see him on Monday.
The last text message I received from him wasn’t an apology. It wasn’t more bullshit. It was a question. Did you make it to class?
Gabby and I are smoking cigarettes outside the venue, wasting time before the next poet goes up to read. She is going on and on about how the stomach cancer has helped her lose over twenty pounds and now she looks fabulous. I laugh with her and together we ignore how hard she coughs after every puff.
What do you talk about—with a woman who has a deadline? We’ve talked treatment plans, crappy hospital food and good goodbye sex. Now what?
“My parents think I should just find a job already,” I blurt out to her. She nods and inhales. “But I’ve been thinking about grad school. I’ve already applied, I’m just waiting to hear back.” She nods again, watching the smoke tumble out of her lips and scoot closer to Downtown Austin’s growing skyline. She pulls another long drag on her cigarette before pointing the butt end at me.
“Do it,” her red hair glowing brighter with the burning tip makes me think it’s caught fire for a moment. “Go. Be. A poet.” And I never thought I needed her permission, but that’s what it feels like. I nod my head obediently and wait until she puts the cigarette out and rushes back inside to perform, before I start to cry.
Months later, after she’s died, someone posts a video of her from that night. It’s her last performance before the chemo becomes too much for her to move around or talk. In the video, she’s on stage reading a poem about what it means to suddenly be dying. To not know exactly when the end is coming—but to know that it will be soon. I was too busy crying in the parking lot and missed most of it. So I am surprised when I first hear my name. Start crying again when I hear, “Don’t you dare waste your fucking time.”
It’s so strange, the words that stay with you when you lose someone you thought you’d spend the rest of your life loving. He was the first big one. My first awkward always-and-forever. But the only words that I can still conjure clearly are the ones from his proposal—and that text. After three years, our last few moments together were spent arguing about not getting married. And as much as I hate that, I don’t regret what I’ve learned from the experience.
It’s one that has changed who I am, fundamentally. I am not passive in the least, but I do my best not to argue with friends and family—if I can help it—because there is just no telling. All of my goodbyes are for forever, just in case. I don’t invest myself in romantic relationships with people who want things I don’t—kids, a 9-5 job, and a simple life. I am someone for whom those things are the biggest deal breakers. And I am a sexually liberated person, so my next partner(s) will have to be too. And now, I always make it to class.
While the definition of class continues to evolve, the concept remains the same. Did I graduate? Did I take the risk and go to grad school? Did I submit to that big publication? Did I apply for that huge fellowship? Did I publish that book? Did I go see that island? Did I learn how to dance the salsa? Did I ever make it to Australia? Did I show up for myself today? Did I show up for someone else today? Did I make all of my biggest dreams come true? The text, which is simple, was the sum of our relationship. He loved me enough that no matter where we were emotionally, he wanted to make sure I was doing what I set out to do. He had faith in me—so much more than I had in myself back then. And I’m grateful he did. If there was anything I could say to him now it would be: Yes. I made it. I’m here now. Be home soon.
A year and half after both Gabby and my fiancé have died, I’m sitting on a Greyhound, headed to Albuquerque for my first solo out of state show, before traveling to twenty-three cities in three months, reading poetry and performing in all the big-name venues. The Green Mill in Chicago. Busboys and Poets in DC. The Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. The journey across the country changes me, yet again, proving itself to be a preview of the next decade during which I will publish that book, visit that island, learn the salsa, have that baby, apply to that big fellowship—show up. I meet the couple who will later adopt my biological child, the poets who will introduce me to my mentor Patricia Smith, and the person who will wake my heart back up to the idea of deeply invested friendship, and romance. I find personal liberation. I discover that I will always need to test the boundaries and limitations put on me by others, and my own small thinking. The road opens and the world gets bigger. Everything becomes possible.
On the one-year anniversary of Ray’s death, I head to the bar where I learned about Gabby’s death. The bartender yells something to the drunk guys walking by me and I throw my head back to take in the whiskey like honey, straight down the throat. Heat runs through my cheeks, hurries into my chest and I try to shake the lightning out of my mouth. I immediately understand how Gabby could have preferred this sort of initiation. The burn quickens throughout my body and I am acutely more aware of the fluorescent bulbs swinging over me in my corner of the bar. The slight static pitch of the songs slipping through the old speakers. The musty flush of air coming through the door frame of the women’s restroom.
There are now a dozen or so tiny orbs of whiskey glistening on the table and I feel myself grab it to hold me steady as I eye the drinks. I turn and order one water as well. That night, I know, I will drink one of every whiskey from every bar in town. I will suspend myself over the streets, throw my laughter through the cool air and undo the ties holding me together. I will be allowed to fall apart. Finally.
I have always longed for summer, the uninterrupted swelter of a day well-lived. To feel the landscape of my body flooded with sun and perspiration. To feel myself engulfed in the heat of the moment, my muscle stretched and arching in memory of a pleasure-filled exhaustion. To feel every inch of myself reclaimed by myself, to know my secrets like I know the single pulse of a heartbeat climaxing in the body. In the scope of all that we know as time, we live for only a moment, if we live at all. We swing from second to second, searing flashes in a dark and deep universe. I have longed for summer—for my turn to burn.
I stack my hours with poems, trap songs, crappy horror movies, panel discussions, dope art, documentaries, orgasms, tarot cards, bad jokes, carbs, and millions of meetings about social justice legislation now. When the kid I placed for adoption decides to call me, I drop everything. When a new opportunity hits my Twitter timeline, I email myself the link. When a sign on the side of the road says Turn Here for Fun, I pull off and see whatever there is to see. Time is a social construct, sure, but I’m acutely aware of it. I’m aware of how little of it there is and aware of how important it is that I make the most of it. I sometimes fight sleep, afraid I’ll miss something important if I doze off. To me, every single day feels both somehow impossible AND especially full of potential. And every win feels like a precious gift from the ancestors. I stare for hours into the night sky, counting the stars, and feeling the aliveness of the lawn moving around me. I do what scares me. I take more chances. I live like the end is inevitable. Because it is.
I don’t waste my time—I treasure it. I honor it. I make it count. I fight to stay present, because in the end, the present is all we ever have. Who could ask for more?