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My name is Bridget Edelstein. I am eighteen years old and I have never felt more alone in my entire life.
This isn't the fault of the people in my world, who've tried their hardest to make me believe things will be "normal" sometime in the future. There's Ellie, my best girlfriend, who has appointed herself director of my well-being (i.e., brings me back issues of People, cartons of Camel Lights, and countless pints of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk). There's my stepfather, Fitzi, who spent the summer dragging me to Blue Rocks ball games, pumping me full of fried foods at O'Friel's, and slipping me sizable wads of cash to help subsidize the tiny studio apartment I moved into a few weeks after my high school graduation. Even my mother, who didn't bother to come to the funeral, routinely sends me touchy-feely self-help books with titles like You're Gone, But I'm Still Here that her manicurist "highly recommends."
But there's only so long you can endure the practiced pity looks, the soft "How are you?" tone of voice, before you want to run screaming into a closet with a lock on the inside. How am I? I'm ready to explode, but too exhausted to actually do it.
I've tried to maintain a veneer of normalcy. I get up, I go to work, I go to bed. I'll shoot some pool with Fitzi or go to the movies with Ellie, and I'll have a good time, maybe even laugh a little. But there's always a trigger--I'll hear a snippet of one of our songs on the radio or the squeal of a hard brake at a stoplight and my insides float out until I'm sort of hovering over the scene. Watching myself instead of being myself. Ellie thinks it's guilt, that I'm okay until I start havingtoo much fun and then I suddenly remember I'm supposed to be morbidly depressed, so I make myself go cold. But it's not like that. I don't feel bad when I laugh. I think it's them. The others. I'll laugh and I'll feel them tense up, as if they're bracing themselves for what's to follow. It makes me self-conscious, and that's why I stop.
"You need time," my therapist routinely tells me at our weekly sessions that Fitzi's been funding since last August.
But it's been nearly seven months since Benji died and I still dream of him nightly. Sometimes they are good dreams, smelling of salt water, like the hot summer afternoons spent down on the beach, where Benji would school me in East Coast sea nettles as we walked along the seaweed-strewn shore. Other times they play more like newsreels of events I've simply forgotten.
I am already beginning to forget.
Time--that was Benji's parting gift to me. Just before he boarded the plane for California, he pressed a small spice jar of thyme into my palm. In my ear he whispered, "If I could save time in a bottle," and I thought it was a joke until I turned and saw his face, devoid of all humor. His eyes caught mine then, held them captive in the kind of silent conversation you can have only with someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Then a disembodied voice called for rows eighteen and up, and the moment was lost. Benji clapped his hands and said, "Well, Bridge, that's me," and after a perfunctory, decidedly unromantic peck on my cheek, he disappeared into the plane, never once looking back.
It happened last February, the day before Valentine's Day, around six a.m. From what we can piece together, Benji was driving home from a volunteer gig at a preserved beach just north of Arcata, where he had spent the night rescuing sea turtle eggs, or doing something equally noble. An eighteen-wheeler slammed into the side of his Buick. The force of the collision sent his car across two lanes, over a flimsy guardrail, and down a steep ravine. Police said it was a freak accident, that the driver had had a heart attack--no trace of drugs or alcohol in his blood. Doctors said Benji didn't suffer, that the fall snapped his neck and he was dead long before the car hit the ground. As if these things are supposed to bring us comfort.
He's still dead, after all.
The viewing turned into a mini high school reunion. They all came out to say goodbye to Benji: the marching band, the soccer team, the drama brats--kids who'd gone to college three states away managed to make it home for the social event of the season. Even Mr. Hirsch, the crusty geometry teacher who never seemed to like any of his pupils--except Benji, of course--even he put in an appearance.
Over the objections of Benji's father, Mr. Gilbert, who for some unknown reason has never liked me, Benji's mother asked me to join them in the receiving line. Face after face passed before me. Half of them I couldn't put a name to. But people hugged me, cried to me, tried to console me with empty words and false promises--Benji is in a better place now. This was meant to be.
I didn't cry then, not to those people, blind sheep who believed Benji was watching over us from some mythical kingdom. I knew better. I knew that all that was left was his corpse, today resting in a satin-lined coffin, tomorrow being fed to an incinerator and then dumped into a big brass urn. People marveled at my strength, admired the brave front I put forth--for their sake, they assumed. I let them believe this, mostly because I was too tired to explain what I was really feeling.
Anna, Benji's fourteen-year-old sister, clutched my hand tightly enough to cut off the circulation. She couldn't stop sobbing, choking on the sadness that spread like cancer throughout the congregation of Benji's family and friends. I wished I could be like her, but instead, I waited until I was left alone with him, until I could expose my personal grief privately.
I was one of the last to look at Benji's body. I had never seen a dead person before. My mom's dad had died when I was still a baby; my father's father was Jewish and we had followed the tradition of a closed-casket funeral. So there was no way I could've been prepared for this lifeless Benji, a wax dummy of a body with too-dark skin and too-neat hair.
His eyes were closed, and all I could think was that I wanted to see those eyes one last time. Gingerly, I reached forward, put my thumb on his left eyelid. The flesh had a rubbery feel and the lid wouldn't move. I leaned closer, tugging at the eye. That's when I realized it had been sealed shut. A great big claw clutched at my lungs, stole my breath. But I stayed with him, carefully slipped a lock of my hair into the webbing between his thumb and pointer finger. Then I kissed him, flat on the mouth. His lips didn't just look like wax. They were wax. Reconstructed lips for a poorly reconstructed face.
"Bridget," Mr. Gilbert called to me from across the room. "It's time to go." His voice, a blackboard scratch across so much silence, gave me goose bumps. I turned toward him slowly, not knowing how much he had seen. He didn't say anything else, just looked at me, his thin mouth puckered, his wide-arching eyebrows pulled tightly into the bridge of his nose.
"Coming," I said. He nodded, then just stood there. Waiting. I slid past him into the lobby, where Mrs. Gilbert's marshmallow arms welcomed me. I clung to her, hoping the pain would disappear in the thick folds of her flesh.
There's a large fireproof lockbox at the bottom of my closet, filled with letters and photographs and journals and ticket stubs--documentation spanning our entire relationship. Proof that there was once a life with Benji, as opposed to the loneliness I have now. And yet I can't completely shake the feeling that none of it was real, or maybe that it wasn't real enough. I remember the important moments with complete clarity--it's the little things that are slipping away. Peanut, for example--what was Peanut? Once upon a time it was a nickname for someone, or something. Now it's just a word. I can't count the number of nights I've been unable to fall asleep, trying to open the right file in my memory. I've become obsessed. Which classmate's car did we christen Peanut? Whose homecoming date?
Eventually I'll fall asleep, and I'll forget for a few days that I've lost the significance of Peanut. But then I'll remember something else that's been lost, and the cycle will start all over again.
I know that in the grand scheme of things, Peanut plays a minuscule part. I guess before, it wouldn't have mattered much. Before, when there were an infinite number of opportunities to create Peanut replacements. But there will be no new nicknames now, no new inside jokes, no new memories--no new anything. So in a way, Peanut is all I have left.