While The Poetics Project was on hiatus for a while, the blog has now been renewed. To celebrate this renewal, we’ve revived our popular blog series called Story Shots. Story Shots a place where our writers all write a short creative non-fiction piece around the same concept and we share the stories with our readers. We have three short creative non-fiction pieces here for our readers today around the theme of renewal.
When your best friend dies at 26, you find what little strength you actually have. You thought you understood death by this point, that you knew how to best cope. You knew your grieving process and you knew how long each stage took. Too logical. Death is not logical.
I remember vaguely my phone ringing at 5:00 in the morning and hitting the dismiss button. I was in a dream with my best friend Jessie. We were at Disneyland and Paris and all her favorite and want-to-visit destinations at once. I ran to keep up with her, but she always seemed out of reach. The sky was a mixture of pink and reds. Strangely beautiful, and unsettling.
My alarm went off for work and I jumped on Facebook; my typical morning read. I thought to myself “what if Jessie is gone” when I spotted a belated birthday wish on her wall. My heart threatened to stop beating and I shrugged it off as another weird and morbid thought. I then realized her mother had called me, that she was the dismissed call. My heart threatened me again. I called her, convincing myself that everything was fine.
“Nicci?! Where you with Jessie yesterday?”
“No? I know she went to Disneyland with Richard, but I don’t…” At this point, I sensed the panic in her voice and was pushing the sheets off me to locate my dirty sweats in the hamper. I got caught in the sheets.
“Well did you know that she was in a car accident and died!?”
I had freed my legs in time to sit up straight, “What?”
“What….” my throat started producing croaks.
“Nicci? Nicci, call your mom. I don’t want you to be alone.”
“O…okay.” I live in the back house of my parents’, so I got up and stumbled like a zombie to their door. They leave it unlocked. My mother was up before I collapsed against her dresser.
“What happened? What happened?!” I mixture of fear, anger, and distress.
“Jessie…Jessie’s…she’s gone. She’s dead.” My father was rounding the bed when he turned to stabilize himself and let out one sob. He covered his eyes. My mother shouted and held me as the floor threatened to consume me. My lungs kept pushing air out and wouldn’t let me breathe. And then, I stopped. “Mom, I don’t know where Richard is.”
Time started jumping here, as time does, and somehow we were in the kitchen taking on different tasks. My mother called Jessie’s mother because that is what mothers do. Crash was trying to use his old contacts to figure out what had happened, what the police believed happened, where Jessie’s body was. I called Jessie’s friends. I became mechanical: “There was an accident at 3:00 this morning. Richard is in the ICU. Jessie didn’t make it.” It got more robotic with each person I told. My newly wed husband was currently at his fire academy taking tests. We would pick him up later. People started showing up to the house, including some faces I really didn’t want to see. People kept bringing me food, but I didn’t have a stomach anymore; I left it behind in my pacing. I was sure the house would be flooded by bodies and tears. “How are you Nicci?” “How you holding up Nicci?” “You are being so strong.” Was I? I felt like every muscle in my body was shriveling up. Rigor mortis. I was the living dead, aimless and searching.
It was finally time to collect my husband and let him know that my best friend was gone and his was struggling to stay. We met all the fire captains and other officials. I couldn’t remember their names, my brain was corroding. I was ushered into a private room. My husband came in concerned, but trying to stay professional in front of his superiors. He wasn’t sure how to balance them in this moment. “Everyone in the immediate family is fine,” I stated.
“Okay…?” It was drawn out.
“There was an accident at three this morning. Richard was driving and Jessie was asleep. Jessie didn’t make it. Richard is currently critical.”
“Wait. What do you mean?” He wanted more. I wasn’t sure what else to say, everyone else accepted what I gave them earlier. As I tried to explain it more, I began crying again. He held me and comforted me, still confused. Still filled with questions. Before I knew it, we were back in the car on our way home. That was when my voice stopped working. I had no use for it anymore. I had told everyone I needed to.
We got home and more people were swelling my house. There were now platters of food and hugs. I felt as if I was being buried alive. How selfish am I? These people came to help me and I needed to get away. I sat on my couch next to a friend who looked at me and cried. Seeing me pained her. It was as if I was missing a limb, the deep sympathy on her face. “I need to use the restroom.” I went up front to my parent’s bathroom for privacy. I really did have to go; my bowels were ready to evacuate. As soon as the door was sealed though, the floor grabbed me. I wailed and screamed and became a banshee, a tormented ghost, and unwelcome guest in my own body. I sank lower and lower, trying to cling to the toilet so I didn’t sink all the way down through the floor, the house, the earth. Before, I was a faucet on low. A shower barely turned on. The pipes rattled inside me and I burst. All I felt was an overwhelming sense of emotion. Not one emotion, but all. Every emotion possible and it physically hurt. My body shook violently.
Jessie was more than my best friend: she was my sister. As an only child, I had adopted her. I was the older sister by two months and I took the role seriously. I guided her. I looked out for her. I protected her. And I failed. Somehow, I still failed. But in that burst of emotion, there was love. Jessie once old me that she wrote and essay about me in her psychology course. She said that, out of all the friends she had, I was the one she believed would reach “self-actualization.” I still have no idea what that means, but I knew it was the biggest compliment she ever paid me. In that moment of lowest lows, I remembered that. I found my strength as the older sister and got up. I looked at my reflection. I was so sallow. Standing there, I felt how much I loved my sister and wanted to make her proud. I was going to make her proud. I was going to reach whatever it was she thought I would reach. It was going to be hard with my body constantly fighting me, threatening to break, but I was going to hang onto that love and let it drive me forward. I couldn’t “logic” myself out of this one. I had to feel it.
A year and some change later, I still don’t fully know what she meant or what she thought I would do. But I am watching her favorite movies and shows, listening to bands she enjoyed, and trying to understand psychology more. I am experiencing her in a different way. It still hurts, mind you. Writing this was incredibly hard and my hands cramped up. But I refuse to let myself stagnate. Through her memory, I am renewed.
– Nicole Embrey
“I’m going to the E.R. If I don’t come back, I died.”
I stand outside of my sister’s door. She wakes up. It’s 3:12 a.m. “What the fuck?”
I repeat myself. “I’m going to the E.R. I’m in pain.”
“Want me to come with you?”
We haven’t talked in about three months. She takes 5 minutes in the bathroom.
“I hurried. I didn’t even put makeup on.”
She can’t drive so she gets in the passenger’s seat. I buckle in and groan. The pain is striking again.
“Do you want me to call an ambulance instead?”
“No. The E.R. is up the street and that’s expensive. It’ll pass.” The stabbing pain subsides and the dull terrible ache that’s filling my upper abdomen remains.
“Did you lock the front door?” She asks.
“Yeah.” I half moan, half answer.
We’re at a stop light and the stabbing pain starts again. I cry out. The light changes so I keep going.
“Is that it?” She points to the hospital.
“Yeah, but it’s in the back.”
I try to find a parking space but it’s oddly full for the middle of the night. I park, poorly, and we get out of the car and walk to the entrance.
We wait in line behind a father and his two children. They’re speaking Spanish and I’m too out of it to internally translate what is said; I just close my eyes while the stabbing starts again.
“Hello,” the man at the front desk catches my attention. I don’t know where the family went; I don’t see them in the waiting room.
“I have to throw up – I’m sorry” is all I can manage to say. He hands me a blue paper fold-out cup.
“Can I still go to the bathroom and do it?” I really don’t want to throw up in the middle of the E.R. waiting room.
My sister waits in the line in the lobby while I rush to the bathroom. It’s painful. I haven’t eaten since 3 p.m. – over twelve hours ago. I don’t know what there is to throw up. It’s not tasty. It’s rather yellow. It certainly doesn’t feel like anything I’d put in my body.
There’s no trash can in the bathroom. I walk out with the blue paper cup now filled with my yellow-brown vomit.
“Can I – where can I?” I awkwardly hold up the cup.
“Let’s check you in first,” he replies.
The pain strikes again. He asks me to describe it.
“It starts here,” I point just under my ribs to the center of my abdomen.
“Does it radiate left or right?”
“Right, but not a lot.”
“Does it go to your back?”
“No, I don’t feel it there.”
“Okay, let’s get you checked in.” He finally takes my puke cup and throws it away.
He opens the door, takes me to the nurse’s station, and takes my temperature. I’m slightly below normal. They check my eyes and my ears. They check my blood pressure and I’m low. They skip weighing me and take me to the back. I’m in room 23 with a hospital bed and monitors. They tell me to lie in the bed. My sister follows and sits in a chair on the side of the room.
“Room 23 needs blood taken and an IV hooked up,” the check-in nurse tells the nurse working the room.
I sit there for what seems like hours, in pain, but it was only 20 minutes. My sister tries to make small talk.
“Work’s been going well. Well, actually, there’s been drama again. So this new girl…”
I listen as much as I can. The distraction is actually good. I still moan out with pain when it becomes too intense, but I try to ask questions.
“Oh so did she…? Yes, so like why would she think that’s…?”
I sometimes have to pause the conversation to get up and vomit in the sink. The pain and nausea aren’t stopping. My sister looks away when I say I have to get up and use the sink in the room.
We continue like this until yet another nurse walks in.
“We just need a little bit more in the way of information,” he states. “Who is your emergency contact?”
“Me,” my sister says. “We’re the only family we have down here still.”
“What’s your phone number?”
She hesitates. She doesn’t have one. She can’t afford her phone bill and our parents stopped paying for her phone months ago.
I start to give my Google Voice number and stop because the pain is too much – I moan. The front desk guy gives up and the nurse finally comes in.
“Okay. So we need to get a few blood samples and put you on an IV drip.”
I nod my head. “My veins are hard to get blood from,” I warn. “The last time I gave blood they had to take it from my hand.”
The nurse looks at my arm. “I can see a few nice looking veins right there.”
“They’re small – they get poked through easily” I continue to give caution.
The nurse cleans my arm and taps it to feel the vein. He takes a large needle and sticks me – and misses. He moves the needle around to try and find my vein – to have blood squirt into the tube. He continues to miss.
“Oh, oh ouch. That one hurt,” I say as he pushed further in.
“I think I went through your vein. I’m going to call another nurse.”
A lump of blood starts to form under the skin of my arm, just behind where the nurse poked through my vein.
“Damn it, that’s going to bruise badly.”
My sister looks. “I think I’m going to pass out. I hate needles and blood.” She turns her chair towards the corner.
A new nurse comes in and takes blood from my other arm and then puts a small needle in my hand for the IV. The IV is cold – I start to shiver.
“I can cover you with the blanket” my sister offers.
Another nurse walks in to make sure my vitals are hooked up. She gives me a shot of something into my IV tube.
“For the nausea,” she explains.
We can now hear my slow and soft heartbeat on one of the many monitors in the room after the latest nurse leaves.
The pain starts subsiding.
“Hey, there’s a T.V. remote.” My sister clicks something on. “Oh, I love this show. It’s about wedding dresses. The brides are the worst.”
“Ugh,” I say, and not for the pain.
She flips through every channel the hospital has on T.V.
“It’s the dress show again. That’s all that’s on. You can’t expect much from T.V. at 6:30 a.m.”
We’ve been in the hospital for almost three hours. I’m tired. I was up all night and now that the sun had risen, my pain was gone and my body wanted to rest.
Finally, the doctor came in.
“Hi there Amanda. So, from what you’ve described, we’re pretty sure you have gallstones. We ran some blood tests to make sure none of your internal organs were damaged while you were passing them. You’re going to have to have your gallbladder removed so you should schedule surgery right away; we can’t do it now, but if you experience extreme pain and vomiting again and also turn yellow or your eyes turn yellow (this is called jaundice), rush to the hospital right away because that means one of the stones has gone to your liver and is damaging you internally. You’re going to have to modify your diet and make sure you eat regular balanced meals with healthy fats and minimal saturated fats.”
I had recently gone full vegan and had eaten my first fatty meal in a long time that day – I had tried the infamous vegan Beyond Burger, loaded with something like 25 grams of fat (5 grams of saturated fat) to make it juicy and meat-like in addition to the fat from the vegan cheese, vegan mayo, and vegan butter that rested on the toasted bun. I hadn’t eaten anything before or after, feeling that the fatty vegan burger would be enough to sustain me for the day.
Having never experienced gallstones before, I had no idea what that fatty vegan burger would do to my insides in conjunction with not eating for the rest of the day.
I am released from the hospital and my sister is hungry.
“I can drive you through something – I don’t feel like eating yet.”
We drive around. Nothing looks great to her. We see the new Sprouts market that had opened by the old laundromat we used to go to.
“I bet they’re open.” It’s now 8:30 a.m.
We go inside and she grabs her favorite – the premade chicken alfredo. I eyeball the lightly salted pistachios but decide against them. I don’t want food – I want sleep.
“Oh, I left my wallet at home.”
“I got this,” I say.
“Thank you. Next pay check, can we come back to Sprouts? They have a lot of good deals right now.” She’s flipping through the ads for the month.
Whatever we had been fighting over was gone between us – things are as they were, once again. We are sisters.
– Amanda Riggle
In the movies I watched growing up, I was always fascinated by the bedrooms. How they were decorated, yes, with their trophies and participation ribbons, wood furniture and flannel. The old photos on the walls. Mostly, I thought about how the grown protagonists had a bedroom to come back to in their parents’ (count two) home.
I would never have that. Back then, that fact seemed sort of tragic. When you’re seventeen, you are the protagonist of your own story—the movie you project, starring you, in your mind—and so this tragedy became a part of mine. I’d throw around facts to anyone who’d listen just to see their reaction. “My father’s been married and divorced five times,” I’d say, not really sure if the math was correct but thinking that it sounded right. “I moved over fifteen times before the end of high school.” Again, I didn’t do the math, but the sound of it—there was something I liked about it.
My story was definitely a drama, I had apparently decided.
When you move that many times, there’s not much to ground you. Everything has changed and keeps changing and will keep changing. You accept this, stoically perhaps. It’s called survival, you realize at some point. You stop hanging photos on the walls. You stop unwrapping the fragile knickknacks and heirlooms you’ve carted from home to home with you. You forget, at some point, to unpack whole boxes. What’s the point? They’ll only have to be packed up again in a year’s time. Maybe two, if you’re lucky.
I had stuffed the past into boxes. My mother kept them with her as long as she could. Now, twenty-six and ready to collect, I’ve stumbled upon boxes I can only vaguely recall having packed and taped, labeling “Melanie’s Memories,” “Melanie’s Bedroom Stuff,” “Melanie’s Dolls” (the rats had gotten to a few of those). A baseball falls from a box, rolling out onto the concrete. I pick it up. “Get Better Soon,” in my father’s writing, all the names of the boys on my brother’s baseball team years earlier, the summer surgeons cut into my back and straightened my crooked spine. The boys had won the game for me. My mother’s footsteps descend the staircase. She’s covered in dust and sweat, her skin dark—sun kissed and freckled. She is really too old to be doing this, I think, but she’s stubborn and that could be its own kind of strength.
I’m not the only one. I know that now. An entire generation watched the bubble burst, the dreams and ambitions and desires of our parents a flash in the pan.
“I can’t stop,” my mother says. “You know that. I have to keep going.” She’s talking about the trailer parked in front of the garage, the one her and her fiancé have been strategically packing for days now. Arguments erupting about what goes first, what has to stay. She’s talking about the move, how she needs to get out now, finally. She’s talking about the sweat and the dust and her aching joints and how momentum is something you can’t stop once you’re lucky enough to build it. I nod, press my forehead to hers, and say goodbye. My mind still on the baseball and the half-eaten dolls and how time catches up to you but it’s still never enough. How you can’t stop.
My family has scattered now. They still are scattering. They have left for Tennessee and Arizona and Georgia. They say California is its own world, or at least, that it’s trying to be. “The People’s Republic of California,” my Aunt tells my sister, the only one of my siblings still left in the state. “When are you leaving?” What they really mean is that they’re not entirely sure the choice is theirs, that they’re not being pushed out by forces beyond their control, by other men’s desires beyond their understanding.
We don’t have a home to come back to. A bedroom full of memories and dust bunnies. Pencil lines on the door jamb marking how much we’ve grown like the rings of a tree. We only have each other. There’s a sadness, it comes at first and later in waves, at realizing the world wasn’t built for you. That it doesn’t care. But there’s also acceptance. There’s the reminder that home is wherever your family is, scattered or by your side. There’s a renewed faith in people, even as it’s torn apart.
– Melanie Nichole Figueroa