For years, I wasn't sure if Thomas was ever going to get over the loss of Dorothy. Of course, it hit all of us pretty hard, and it made sense that Thomas got the worst of it. But I didn't want to admit, even to myself, that I was afraid for my best friend. Everyone processes grief in his own way, and it's not up to me to understand it. But I had always wished there was something I could do.
Thomas and I had been friends since middle school at Hosford, gravitating together as the two quiet kids who rode bikes along the howling loneliness of the lower Southeast train yards every day, even in the rain, and carried sketchbooks everywhere, trading doodles in class the way the popular kids passed notes. We'd kept close even when our paths after Cleveland High took him to PNCA for photography, and me to PSU to start on an architecture degree that I flaked out on to pursue my own unprofitable painting and drawing.
Dorothy was one of my college housemates; she was my study partner, my fellow party hound, my occasional art model, and my best drinking buddy, keeping me company when a heavy course load and late darkroom hours kept Thomas too busy to hit the Virginia Cafe with us. She never gave me a hard time for preferring the pursuit of the perfect light on the river to the relentless struggle for money for car payments, but she was also never swayed by my artistic pretensions, simply seeing me for what I was, the way she did with everyone. Thomas was like that, too. They had clicked from the moment they met at her birthday party, and though my two best friends were careful not to exclude me, I could tell right away that I was probably going to need a new housemate, sooner or later. That was all right; that was how life worked, and I was happy for them.
I remember moving her into his place, only weeks before the accident. I listened to her gushing about how great it was going to be as soon as she had her stuff set up in his kitchen, and the parties she was planning to take advantage of her new home. Thomas had bought a great house, a tall, crooked old Victorian on Brigadoon-like Southeast Alder Court, a quiet little stretch of two blocks that seemed to exist only to get people lost. He and I had refinished the house over the course of a sweaty, back-breaking year. I proudly showed Dorothy the perfect seams of the hardwood floor that I had put in by myself, the sunny pale-yellow paint job on the built-in shelves, and the tiny flowers barely visible, white on white, along the kitchen cabinets. Dorothy stroked them with her damp fingertip and grinned at me, clinking the rim of her beer bottle against mine, but then turned to Thomas and grabbed him in a girlish hug. They sparkled when they were together. I stood aside and tore off some of the paint-stiffened masking tape I'd missed.
"Thanks for helping us move, Eddie," Dorothy said. "You're a good friend."
That night, sitting in the breakfast nook, under the floodlight of a full September moon, we'd killed off most of a case of beer. At least half of it went into Dorothy. She was damn proud of her ability to drink me under the table and still maintain a figure like a sylph from a fairy tale or a perfume ad campaign. Thomas mostly hung back, watching us get trashed, occasionally taking Polaroids of Dorothy as she grinned, pulled her T-shirt up and pressed herself against the cupboards, the gas stove, the smooth polished ridges of the wood floor.
"I love this place," she kept whispering. "I don't ever want to leave you." She was making out with the house itself, glancing over her shoulder to make sure we, and the camera, were watching.
Mere weeks later, Thomas and I and all of Dorothy's family and friends were dressed in black at the Lone Fir Cemetery, so close to Alder Court that I imagined I could throw a stone from the hill crest where her body was laid to rest, and smash in one of the windows of the breakfast nook.
"I can't believe," Thomas said to me, his eyes arid, heat-wave-blurry deserts of pain, "that she won't be there when I get home, or beside me when I wake up. I always let her sleep in."
He laid one of the pictures from that night on the fresh grave, on top of all the wreaths and bouquets of sober white lilies and roses. I wanted to hug him, but it wouldn't have been appropriate, to be in the space where she should be. I asked if he wanted to come to the VC with me and have a drink in her honor, but he shook his head and walked away in the center of a knot of family members. I went alone, then, and had a drink for each of them—a vodka and tonic with lemon for him, and a pint of Widmer IPA for her. I didn't need anything for myself.
Two weeks after the funeral, I went back to the site with Thomas, unable to bear the thought that the funeral flowers would have all wilted and dried up. I brought some fresh yellow daisies from the grocery store. Daisies were her favorite. "She hates dead flowers," Thomas said, his voice as coiled as a mattress spring. It looked like he hadn't cried at all since he'd gotten the phone call about the accident, his eyes so hard that it seemed impossible that he could ever cry again. "She hates graveyards. She hates all this death and dying stuff."
I picked up the dead flowers and put them in a paper sack, and laid the daisies against the concrete marker. The sod covering had not yet begun to merge into the grass. "Well, she's gone now," I said. "She doesn't hate anything anymore."
He laid another Polaroid on top of the daisies and said nothing. The Lone Fir was on my bike route home from work, so I returned there pretty often, bringing new flowers if I had the pocket change. Every time, in the midst of the dry stems of my last tribute, there was a new Polaroid of Dorothy.
I recognized most of them from Thomas' big box of snapshots of her; I had introduced them, after all, and I had spent a lot of time with them, hanging out with some fresh pints from BridgePort at home, wandering through art galleries at First Thursday, or closing down the VC or the Matador or the Space Room. Sometimes I was afraid to let them go at the end of the night, but always shook off my concern; Dorothy was a better driver drunk than I was sober. The accident wasn't her fault, even though her blood-alcohol level was way beyond legality; most of the time it was. Some sleep-deprived numbskull from Scappoose in a big ol' truck had taken a turn the wrong way down a one-way street, and Dorothy had signaled and turned correctly into a head-on collision. It made me furious to realize that the other driver had survived with just a touch of whiplash and some bruises from his seatbelt. I wanted to say that to Dorothy, knowing she'd appreciate my righteous anger, but I'm not much for talking to memorials, even ones with pictures.
After a year, the stack of photos on the grave had grown inches thick, warped and glued together from their emulsions melting in the rain. I had been going less often, and seeing Thomas hardly at all. He just didn't seem like the same person, and had no interest in going out or having people over. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen him smile. To be honest, I didn't really want to see him—not without her, not with that void next to him where she should be, the lack of her written on his face.
There was a brand-new photo there this time, too, as fresh as though it had been put there that day. I didn't recognize this picture at all—Dorothy in her favorite T-shirt and her hair in a ponytail, sitting in the breakfast nook, at night, with a full moon beaming in the window, an uncapped beer sitting in front of her, her soft eyes gazing into the camera. The photo underneath had the same setting, but a different bottle, a slightly different angle.
When I returned a month later, there was another new one, this time with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon before her, moonstruck droplets glittering on its surface. She still wore the same T-shirt, her hair gathered back casually from her strong-boned face, a hint of a dimple appearing in her cheek, pre-smile. It was a great picture, his fingers probably covering the flash, her face lit by the blue-white of the moon on one side, and the golden glow of a candle from the other. She looked absolutely beautiful—not all glamour-shot perfect, but shining with the beauty of a familiar, friendly, beloved face. Rather than pick up the photo, I bent down to look closely at it, my fingers hesitating millimeters away from the edges of the Polaroid. I couldn't touch it; something held me back.
Instead, I called Thomas from where I stood at the gravesite. His voice sounded fine on the phone, glad to hear from me, and we chatted for a while about the Mariners, politics, and his ailing but feisty mother. Then I asked, "How are you doing? You know, about Dorothy."
"Fine," he replied. "It's fine."
I was a kid once, too, and I know exactly the lying neutral tone of voice he was using. "Really?"
"Really, Eddie. Look, I gotta go, I've got a real-estate gig I've got to work on. Pearl Blocks construction...great big money, y'know? But hey, pal, thanks for calling."
"Look, you wanna get together for a beer—"
"Maybe; maybe next week, I'm pretty busy this week. I'll call you."
"Right, OK. Take it easy. Love you, man."
"You too, buddy."
He didn't call me, nor had I really expected him to. In another three weeks, there was a new photo on Dorothy's grave. This time she was reaching for the beer, her fingers outstretched, her mouth curved into a full smile, the full moon behind her draped in clouds. I put a magenta rose on top of the photo and pulled my jacket tightly against my arms, sliding my icy hands into my pockets. The wind had picked up, scattering yellow and red leaves across the graves, tiny twigs and grasses and dry, crisp flower petals tangled up and shivering in the thick cobwebs between the headstones. It was getting late, and the cemetery stretched out silent in the heavy shadows. I rode out of there faster than I should have, pumping hard on the pedals, trying to get warm.
On the night of the next full moon, I bought a six-pack of BridgePort IPA and drank two of them, then put the others into a backpack, hopped on my bike and pedaled over to the house on Alder Court. It was cloudy, and the moon was just a white smudge on the horizon. I was just barely tipsy, and the chilly night felt good as I biked, whistling through my sleeves. For a moment I felt like a kid again, with life reduced to the simplicity of riding, balancing, the clink of bottles in my bag. It was wonderful until I remembered what I was riding for, and then I got cold again.
Almost all the lights were out at Thomas', but for a lamp on in the upstairs bedroom. I could hear music playing in the kitchen—Radiohead's OK Computer, Dorothy and Thomas' favorite after I had forced them to sit down and listen to it, loud. I locked my bike in the back yard and walked along the side of the house, where the breakfast nook jutted out like a white, three-sided shoulder, the windows illuminated from inside by a warm golden glow. I stood on tiptoes to look inside, wondering if Thomas was trying to cook dinner by candlelight. The moon broke through the clouds behind me, flooding the night with a luminescent silver tide.
Dorothy sat at the table, as in the Polaroids in her favorite T-shirt and her hair in an afterthought of a ponytail, smiling, her hands clasped in her lap. Across from her, Thomas stood, loading a cartridge of film into his camera. He opened the refrigerator, lighting the side of her face; she looked as solid as the shelves, as tangible as the table. He got a bottle out, and set it in front of her. Even through the smudgy windows I could see him shaking.
I lost my balance on the slick grass and took a tumble, hitting the side of my head against the ground, the bottles in the backpack thudding against my spine. I lay there groaning, not moving, hoping that I would wake up in my clothes on the floor at home, throat dry from drunk snoring. The front door opened, and Thomas came out and blinked at me, extending his hand to help me up.
We sat on the porch in the dark, out of sight of the moon's staring eye. I opened my backpack and offered him a beer, but he shook his head. He didn't look at me.
"Did you see her?" he asked dully.
"It looks like her, but that can't be real. She's dead, Tom."
"Did you see her?" he insisted.
"It's impossible, T.! I was at the morgue with you, remember? You saw her face! She went through the windshield—!"
I opened the beer myself, took a gulp, and shuddered. I really wished that he would drink with me. "Is she still in there?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "She'll be there all night. She just wants a beer. She can't have it, of course."
"So you take her picture? What, are you going to send it to the newspapers? How could you prove that?"
"I'm just...I was proving it to myself. Now I have to take 'em, and I have to put 'em down. Eddie...." He gestured at my face. "You don't understand, I can tell."
"No, I don't understand. Dude, you've got to stop this. You can't keep her here. Whatever is going on, maybe it's you, maybe it's the house...whatever it is, you can't keep bringing her back like this; it's not natural."
"I'm not doing this, Eddie! It's her! You know I'm not crazy. You know what you saw."
"Tom, seriously. You've got to let go."
"Don't you think I've tried?" he snapped. "Don't you think I want to move on? I'm not living here, either. This isn't living. This is huddling in a bomb shelter and being afraid to leave when the people in there with you have already started dying. I'm trying to get through this. I don't have any pictures of her in the house anymore; they're all over there." He squinted over his shoulder, over to the west, where the hill of the Lone Fir rose in the darkness, full of silence, stone and dead flowers. "I can't shake her. It's almost kind of comfortable. It's almost kind of nice to have her around."
I grabbed him by the arm. "You've gotta stop taking the pictures of her. Stop putting them on her grave. Maybe you're keeping her from...resting."
"No, Eddie, that's where you're wrong." When he turned to me, he wore a smile that made me regret ever wanting to see one. "I put the photos on the grave to keep her there."
He lit a cigarette and drew on it till I heard it crackle; Thomas, who didn't smoke.
"She's lonely, Eddie."
I was the only one not surprised to hear about the house fire. "Fell asleep smoking" was the official report. Cut and dried. Nobody imagined that I could have it in me—Eddie, the good friend; Eddie, the dropout; Eddie, the third wheel.
Don't feel sorry for me. My life's all right. I've moved on. At least now I know they're together the way they're supposed to be.
Everyone processes grief in his own way.