Fat chickens packed into factory farms, maggots wriggling like a thick white carpet, buffalo fumbling toward the edge of a cliff: all spacious situations compared to the New York City subway at 6:00 p.m. The doors slid apart, but I was stuck; my fellow commuters barely moved, and I bleated out apologies as I smashed against bodies, squeezing onto the platform right as the doors thudded closed again. I took a few steps and peered through the windows at the people still inside, crammed like stuffed animals at the bottom of a claw vending machine.
I was so tired. A feeling I had a lot these days. A part of me wanted to go straight home, heat up something frozen, and maybe watch old, stupid reruns, but I’d been the one to suggest these plans. In a rare flare of nostalgia, I’d fired off the message, forgetting in the moment that I’d once sworn to myself that I’d never open up Pandora’s box. It was almost as if boredom had made me reckless.
I pushed through the throng of commuters at the foot of the subway stairs. Outside, rain made its way through fabric and onto my ass, my knees, my feet. The feeling I’d been wrestling with all day grew, the panicky dread that swells before a first date. What if this reunion mucked up my last good memories from that single, singular year? When I reached the restaurant, an inoffensive bistro in boring Midtown West, a man snapped his umbrella closed in my face and for some reason I apologized to him, knee-jerk.
Inside, I was just pulling out a chair at our table when Sarah entered. She spotted me and waved, and I thought she looked exactly the same. She didn’t, of course, and neither did I, a fact I only realized much later that night when I was clicking through old photos, tears rolling down my cheeks. At twenty-three we had that alienoid bone structure, big eyes and sunken cheeks caving into dewy little chins. Now, ten years later, we’re old-young and round-faced and just human again.
Then we hugged, and maybe there was some chemical trigger, a smell or invisible pheromone, but the hug felt exactly like it did a decade ago. We relaxed and smiled at each other and thought maybe this would be fun.
“Lindsay, it’s so good to see you,” she said, dropping into her chair. “You look great.”
“So do you!” I chirped. “I can’t believe it’s been ten years.”
“I know, it’s crazy.” Sarah nodded, eyebrows up. “How have you been?”
“Really good! You know, keeping on. I was so happy to hear you moved back to New York.” Once, for an article, I’d read a linguistics study on conversation patterns: In any duo, the lower-power person imitates the speech style of the alpha. I wondered who was following whom here.
“Yeah, I’m glad you reached out. When we found out my husband was getting transferred here, I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know that I know anyone in the city anymore.’ ”
“Your husband,” I said. “I can’t wait to meet him.” I’d looked him up on Facebook: He was annoyingly handsome. At least when friends paired up with unattractive people, I could blot at the jealousy with smugness.
“He’s great.” Sarah smiled and snapped open her menu, looking down. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“No, no one special!” I said brightly. “So how is it being back in New York?”
She scrunched up her features, preparing some middle-of-the-road answer, when the waiter appeared to rattle off the specials. Sarah ordered a vodka martini, and after a moment’s hesitation, I asked for my usual seltzer with lime. I didn’t often miss drinking, but I knew I’d feel a pulse of envy when her conical glass arrived.
“Oh my gosh, is it okay if I drink?” she asked after the waiter disappeared.
“Of course! I’m totally fine. Otherwise I would have suggested meeting for tea.” She giggled and shrugged, and we both went back to reading our menus.
Christ, was this really Sarah? The same literary, witty, hard-partying friend I’d counted among my clique during that first wild year in New York? I’d messaged her the very day she announced on Facebook that she was moving back from St. Louis, forgetting in my sentimentality that things had ended pretty icily. And then I’d felt embarrassed, until a few weeks ago when she’d replied, apologetic, to set a date.
“It’s good to be back here, but weird,” she said finally. “So much has changed. It almost feels like coming to a new city. But what about you, you still love it?”
“I do,” I replied. “I mean, I’m really lucky to still have a job in magazines, and I’ve been living in the same place in Fort Greene for . . . five years now?” I took a deep sip and bubbles flooded my tongue.
“That’s great,” Sarah said. “That’s definitely a neighborhood I want to check out.” She pushed her black hair behind her ears and a few silver streaks twinkled like tinsel.
“Well, if there’s any way I can be helpful as you guys look around, just let me know,” I said.
“Thanks, Lindsay. It’s tough because I want to find a place ASAP, but I also don’t want to end up somewhere terrible. Right now we’re living with Nate’s parents in Trenton.” She gave me a knowing look.
“You’re in Jersey?! Wow.”
“Right? I’m one of those people we totally hated back in the day.” We both chuckled.
“Do you keep in touch with anyone from back then?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I mean, just online, like with you. For a while, Alex and I would call or have a little email exchange around the anniversary. You know, raise a glass.” She sipped her drink. “Kevin doesn’t really update anything, so I’m pretty out-of-date on him. I think he and Alex keep in touch, so I get reports every once in a while. Last I heard, he and his husband owned a little music store in Nashville and he was, like, giving drum lessons.”
“Wait, Kevin’s married?”
She laughed. “You didn’t know that? Apparently he met this great guy, like, two seconds after he moved away. A pianist, I think.”
Of course--like everyone who moves away from New York. I smoothed a napkin on my lap. A husband: Kevin was still twenty-four in my mind, jumpy and juvenile. “When did he move again?”
“As soon as he’d finished his community service. That winter after . . . afterward.”
Her face darkened, but then the waiter reappeared and we politely placed our orders, Sarah nodding eagerly when he offered to bring another round. She asked me more about my work, and I learned a bit about the executive recruiting she’d been doing in St. Louis and how now the tables had turned and she had to get herself hired and the bar was set high when every headhunter is so good at the game, and my god, the irony. We giggled at the appropriate times. Twice she made a cute hand gesture, her little fists up near her chest like sock puppets, and she was Sarah Kwan again, Sarah Kwan with the cool raspberry lipstick and an impossible crop top and a yard of thick glossy hair.
She didn’t mention Edie until we were finishing dessert, picking at a shared flourless chocolate cake. “It’s crazy to think about how much has happened in ten years,” she announced. “I was so glad to hear you wanted to get together. I thought about reaching out a few times over the years, but I just wasn’t sure after . . . I mean, after how everything went down after Edie.”
“That’s exactly how I felt, to be honest,” I said. “I know I just sort of . . . went MIA afterward. I mean, I guess we were all just grieving in our own way. We were so young. None of us were equipped to deal with it.” She nodded and looked away, and I realized she wanted me to go on. “I always thought you had it worse than anyone, Sarah. Worse than everyone. I mean, you found her. God, I haven’t thought about this in so long.”
I’d done my crying and then I’d let Edie go, tucking the whole ordeal away so that it couldn’t taint what came before. Now I recalled a nugget I’d learned from fact-checking a feature on an innocent man, condemned by poorly recalled witness testimony: When you pull up a memory, you’re actually recalling the last time you remembered it--not the event itself. One day, one by one, we’d all stopped refreshing the memory. So I was surprised by how quickly the night came back to me now that I’d called it up. Now that Sarah was sitting across from me and talking about August 21, 2009, in dark, tenebrous terms.
It had been a Friday. A band had been rattling the windows in an apartment two floors up from Edie’s place, and a bunch of us were standing around at the concert, drunk or pretending to be. The guitars and bass were so loud, I could feel the vibrations in my collarbone. I remember registering with a flapping concern that I was too drunk, then scurrying out to the street, where a random girl had helped me hail a taxi home. Edie hadn’t been at the concert with us; Edie had been home alone, two floors down, crafting a brief suicide note and then pulling out the gun. Her time of death, we later learned, was while we were watching the band, their meandering chords cloaking the single gunshot. The rest I knew from my friends’ accounts, repeated so many times that I could see it: midnight, pitch black, Sarah hobbles into the apartment and flicks on the overhead lights, trying not to make too much noise in case Edie’s already asleep. Her screams had rattled the whole building, shrill and sharp and with that beelike whine hovering descant just above her cries.
“I know, it was awful.” She listed forward and I suddenly realized Sarah was drunk.
“You moved back home, right?” I’d always wondered if her parents had checked her into some kind of psych ward. I’d pulled away after a few weeks but continued to watch the amputated friend group from the relative safety of social media; Sarah had gone off the grid completely, deactivating her accounts and only reemerging a few years later with a new, smiling Facebook profile and friend requests all around.
“Yeah, my parents were pretty worried about me. I mean, I was acting like a lunatic, going all conspiracy theorist.”
“What do you mean?”
A sheepish laugh. “You remember. I guess I just didn’t want to believe my best friend could do that. She trusted me more than anyone, and I didn’t like feeling like I’d failed her.”
I sat up straighter. Her best friend? Who was she kidding?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“You don’t remember?” she continued. “I was running around insisting that Edie hadn’t actually killed herself, that it must have been an accident or foul play or something. I know, it’s ridiculous.”
“Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that.” Sarah’s flair for melodrama resurfaced in my memory like something emerging from the mist.
“It was just strange how different she seemed right before . . . at the end,” she went on. “I mean, I lived with her, and we barely said more than two sentences to each other those last few weeks.”
“Even less for me--we weren’t speaking,” I cut in. “And we were always super close.”
Sarah ignored the one‑up. “I was really caught up in that . . . that narrative. It wasn’t healthy.”
“I’m sorry, that must have been really tough for you, and I . . .” I zipped my thumb out, the universal sign for having gotten out of Dodge.
“Yeah, I understand. I feel like it’s all I was talking about back then, but maybe that’s just ’cause it was, like, consuming my mind.”
“What made you think it wasn’t a suicide?” I asked, a little too derisively.
“Oh my god, it was all stupid little things, in retrospect. There was the fact that I found her in her underwear--she was always so perfectly put-together, so that seemed weird.”
Right, but it was circumstantial. When we’d talked it out in those first shaken weeks, it had also seemed plausible that she wouldn’t have wanted to ruin any of the beautiful pieces in her closet; Edie had treated them like precious artifacts.
“And the gun stuff didn’t make sense to me: She was left-handed, but the gun was in her right hand, and the wound was on the right side of her face. Until a forensic expert explained to me that if she used two hands, she could’ve wound up slightly off-center and just, like, crumpled to either side.”
Jesus. She’d talked to a forensic expert? I watched as she slurped the last of her fourth martini.
“But I learned enough about criminology to figure out that there are a few loose ends in any investigation. Because that’s how life is.”
“. . . Unraveling,” I supplied.
She smiled. “But yeah, my parents found me an awesome therapist, and she helped me face the facts. I guess we all turned out okay.”
“We did. And you shouldn’t feel bad about dealing with it however you needed to deal with it. We were all so immature and maybe didn’t know how to . . . ask for help.”
“You mean like Edie.”
I’d been thinking of myself, but sure, Edie, too. What with the debt and the depression and the suicide note on her laptop. The gun pressed against her temple.
“That was some heavy shit,” I said.
She poked at her cocktail napkin. “It’s still hard for me to believe sometimes. Like, we were at the top of our game. We were having the time of our lives.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “Everyone glorifies their twenties, I guess, but for me that period was . . . It meant a lot.” I swallowed hard. “And then it ended. It’s nuts. Literally, we were dancing around to some stupid band just a few floors up while Edie was . . .”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “Well, you weren’t.”
“You weren’t at the concert.”
I cocked my head. “Wait, what? Of course I was.”
“You weren’t. You went home. I remember because I was mad that none of my girlfriends came with me. Can you believe that? I was mad at Edie while she was, like, committing suicide. Seriously, that took me a few thousand dollars of therapy to work through.”
I scoffed. “Christ, Sarah, of course I was there. I pregamed with you guys on the roof, and we took a bunch of shots, and then we went to the show. I went home near the end of the set.”