May 2007

Lynn Steger


Lynn Steger This marks an author's first online publication Lynn Steger is twenty-three and currently living and teaching English in South Florida.

What Was

The memory is heightened at the moment of impact. The senses are stronger, more adept, more aware, in that instance of abrupt and irrevocable change.

It was a missed call. A missed call that I watched ring and then allowed to go to voice mail. It was an unknown number, no name flashing up across the face of my cell phone. No name and therefore no way of knowing how to react. So I let it ring through. Ring out. Didn't want to bother with the unknown in that moment. But then curiosity had me check the message immediately.

A part of me got slightly excited. Thinking it might be her, high on the prospect of hearing her voice. Knowing it couldn't possibly. We hadn't spoken in almost three months. But then that could have been a reason for her blocking her call. Although she certainly knew me well enough to know I didn't respond to the unknown. Not often, and certainly never on the first try.

I had just settled in on a tempestuous New York afternoon. Curled up with my book, a warm chocolate chip cookie and a coffee in the corner of my favorite West 8th Street coffee shop. Having slept in that morning. Having taken my time, gone running, showering, checking emails, silly banal everyday things. A day like any other day, like every other that had come before. The forever impenetrable wall of before and after erected by the fact of the ordinary before and the anything but that follows.

The voice mail was vague. This is for, and then they said my name, like they were reading it from something, like they didn't quite know how it was pronounced, even though my name is so normal, so easy so common so clear. A girl like any other girl, like every other girl they had called before. We were told to contact you in regards to, and then they said her name, and it seemed, in her case at least, they had found a source from whom to have learned the proper pronunciation. Please call us at, and then the number, so at least I knew it was local, at least I knew I could be with her soon. Regardless of the time they said, so it was seeming to be somewhat of an important matter.

I couldn't call back from where I was. I was jolted. I was concerned and curious and worried and scared, but I still took the time to pack up my things, take the last bite of cookie and bring my book and my coffee out the door.

I didn't call until I was well past Saint Mark's. I headed East towards the river and then North up Avenue B. Something bad had happened, but I headed towards her house as if there was still time for saving. Still something there to be saved. I dialed the number and then decided not to call. Saved the number in my phone. Saved it as liz2. I waited until I was outside her building to call back.

When someone picked up (two and one third rings, like the person was right there but had other more pressing matters to be concerned with) it took me a moment to remember what this call was concerning, who it was regarding. I said my name. I had received a call in regards to her name. There was an official hold, an official moment of quietly subdued adult rock, easy listening for the over thirties. Lots of piano with too much pedal and throaty high notes that run into one another.

And then they told me. Over the phone, over the blocks of separation, the miles of care that separated their reaction from my own. Passed on they said. (Passed on to where you mother fucker, I thought) Very technically, appears to have taken her own life sometime late last night or early this morning. Exact time to be determined exact cause or effect or reason still as yet to be made clear. Never to be made clear.

And then directions, official motions to go through, official responses and instructions to be given. And me still in front of her apartment. Not crying, not thinking or feeling, standing there, with the men on the stoop across the street gawking at my posturing, my pacing, my fidgeting, my own specific physical incarnations of the uncertain not quite yet arrived beginnings of grief. The address of the body. The phone contact numbers, the endless procedures, rituals of death come to life.

Then me beginning to walk. I can see myself. I stepped outside myself. A concept which I would previously have questioned, have judged, would never have said out loud. But which makes sense then, in reference to that moment, as I stormed down the street. What I felt was bigger than this minute being that went trudging down 12th street. With the long emphatic strides, the slight beginnings of tremors in the hands, the absurdly large bag slung across my back, the phone still clutched to my ear. I watched my sadness grow and overtake me and then go beyond me, outside of me, surround engulf and inundate me.

The immediate response is that they are wrong. That they just don't understand. That maybe she faked it, maybe she, this, was just her way of getting my attention. And it's that thought that finally brings it all crashing down, brings all of me shattering into millions of inconsolable pieces. Because maybe she did do it to get my attention, to get everyone's attention, but now there's nothing to do with what we have come to give.

The too late feelings. The my fault feelings. The what if feelings. The whys the whys the hows the whens the insatiable, overwhelming, rapacious, voracious desire for knowledge when it's so clearly not possible, never to be achieved. The what could have beens the what would have beens the what should have beens the what was.

The last time I saw her she was laughing as I walked away. It was cold inside JFK and she had her scarf still wrapped around her neck, though she'd taken off her coat to reveal a long sleeved black scoop neck t-shirt underneath. She was wearing flip-flops, which I'd shaken my head at. Granted it was still fall mostly, but right on the cusp of winter. And there was a definite chill in the air. And airplanes are always so cold. But she'd brushed me off. Her feet needed air. It would be a long flight and people would be more receptive to her putting her feet up if they didn't smell from having been all sweaty and confined in shoes and socks just minutes before.

She was in one of those moods that made it impossible to recall how or why it was she was ever anything other than an absolute thrill to be around. She had her hand in the fold of her scarf pulling it down carelessly against her chest, leaning her head back loosely. Her hair had gotten just long enough over the past few weeks so as to start to move freely atop her head. It had been thrown all askew by the wind as we'd walked and it was tousled and boyish as she stood there, watching me go.

For a long time after, I fixated on that moment as when I could have made it all different somehow. But then there were so many phone calls after that, and letters and emails, so many changes in mood and moments when I could have called or gone to her apartment and didn't. That moment soon enough became one of the purest of my memories of her. One of the least fraught with the what should have been storylines screaming between my ears.

I remember looking back selfishly, just because I wanted a little more of her before she was gone.

And I'd blown her a kiss. And she'd laughed. Mostly at me, for being ridiculous again. But we did things like that with each other. We made allowances with one another. Things we always found awful and obscene around others.

Quick answer, rational answer, stock answer. Its not my fault. Its her fault. It's the fault of everyone who ever did her wrong. The people she loved who betrayed her. The people she trusted who betrayed her. Unfortunately for all of us, that list was only one. That list was only me. But she pulled the proverbial trigger. She did the deed. It was her choice and her cowardice. And I will tell myself that everyday. I will repeat that quietly, scream it loudly, but it'll always ring just a little bit false. It wasn't my fault. But then if fault is a mistake, a weakness, a small almost imperceptible fracture in the continuity of a rock formation, then maybe it's more than just my fault. Everyone's and no one's, the world that betrayed her and the her that didn't have the courage to stick around to see if....if maybe betrayal....if maybe the betrayer could be forgiven, could make it all all right.

What was were parents I'd never met who'd known to notify me. Parents who had given out my name and somehow found my number and said I was the one who could take care of things until they arrived. Parents who thought I was competent, had somehow discerned as much when I so obviously was not.

Sterility and smells. Weird odd haunting unforgettable smells of those moments when she's viewed, identity confirmed, upon my request. To look at her to see for myself, to make certain. Thank you for coming, they say. As if I had any choice. Right this way they say. They are mechanical, careful with their words and their movements. I walk alone with a man down a hallway. Salmon colored walls and bright white tiled floors. Floors that are slippery when wet. The motioning, the showing of credentials, the muttering among colleagues. All very official and sterile. Sterile has never had a clear moment to go with its definition until this one.

And then the deafening silence. Days of the deafening silence the promise of the coming weeks, months and years of the deafening silence. Places where her voice would have been, spaces where her life would have been. The cacophonous screaming of an absence that's everywhere. The spaces and the places and the nothingness that remains.

The days that followed; people came and went quickly and interchangeably. Her parents came and struck me hard with their normalcy, the predictability of their grief and their quiet tears, their quick competence in getting everything in order, taking control and making arrangements and doing what had to be done. Their clinging to one another, their silently questioning looks in my direction. John stopped by, but was sent away. My parents called and were told to stay home, to stay away, to let me be. Attempts at comfort were quickly replaced by attempts to keep a safe distance.

A blur is a state I have always wished to be capable of achieving. A state in which you float through the days and weeks that follow a certain event where nothing really stands out as tangible, where there is no discerning between the real and the imagined, where feelings are numbed, dulled, by the intensity which has preceded them. I have never been so lucky. Everything is always already a bit more heightened, a bit more painful and pronounced. A bit more certain to leave a mark.

Her face is clearest when I remember her sorrow, the way she looked at me on the days when she wouldn't get out of bed. The times when she called me crying, or I would show up at her apartment after days of unreturned phone calls and find her curled up under mounds of comforters, surrounded by Salinger and Dostoevsky and Woolf. "Funk" she would say, like everybody was crippled at the very thought of encountering the outside world from time to time, like it was all natural and normal to cry for days on end. She wouldn't shower for days. She wouldn't eat and she wouldn't answer the door unless she knew it was me. One of the conditions of my being permitted to at least check up on her during these periods was the tacit understanding that I would not encourage any change in mood. That would come on its own time and be a welcome surprise. Expected and inevitable but something that happened to her more than something she actively worked towards and chose to accomplish.

I can see her then. There was purity to those times. Those nights we spent quietly, the necessity of not acknowledging each other for anything more than simple presence, asking nothing and conceding everything.

She had hazel eyes that turned bright green underneath her tears. It all fed into the illusion. The brown was a cover, the dark façade she presented to the rest of the world, but as she opened up, filtered out all the excess, the purity of her sorrow became clear, so translucent that it shown through her every time she looked at you.

Perhaps the most striking thing about death is how quickly and adeptly life engulfs it. Even in the most daunting of circumstances, life swoops in and reasserts itself somehow, even further fortified by the challenge of its having briefly been negated.

And so I go back. I go to classes and listen to professors, I have books to read, papers to write, a dissertation to begin formulating. I have oral exams to take and a class to plan to start teaching in the fall. I go back to work after a few weeks. I have a small stash of money saved and my stipend from school and I think perhaps it would be better to concentrate my efforts solely on my studies for a while, but ultimately the idea of being always on the go is the most appealing. ??

I throw myself into school and work. I read beyond what is expected, right on through what is recommended. I spend hours in obscure parts of the library devouring criticisms and long forgotten philosophical essays. I am ravenous in class. I take copious, often illegible notes. I ask questions often. I contribute enthusiastically to class discussions and then as soon as the hour is up, I gather my things quietly and leave quickly avoiding the eyes of my classmates. I pick up any shifts I can. I work through every weekend night and the Tuesdays and Thursdays I do not have class.

The time I spend not in the library or at work or in my apartment is spent getting to know the city more deeply and efficiently than I ever have before. I walk everywhere. Even though my apartment is almost exactly a hundred blocks from campus, on the other side of town, I very seldom take the train.

But then there is too much to do. I have been working all day, I have been up since early and need to be back at school again the next day, and it's late and I'm tired and hungry for the quiet and comfort of my apartment. And then I do take the train.

I am on the 1 local train heading downtown from 110th street. I usually get off at 96th and change to the express train but I am feeling a bit too jumpy. I am feeling the need to stay in one place for a while. And as the doors close on 96th I stay put, and then keep staying. I stay right on past 42nd street, though that is where I am to get off and make another connection, change trains. I keep seated on the same train rocking back and forth, heading farther and farther from where it is I am supposed to be going. I am coming back from something or where of no consequence. Having had a full day. Having gotten up at a normal hour, gone running, showered, coffeed, etc. etc., gone through the normal person checklist of the day, but still ending up somehow, now, around 11 pm, rocking back and forth on the subway, where no one really pays attention because it's crowded and busy and everyone's a little bit crazy. Because there are plenty of reasons for people to rock back and forth that have nothing at all to do with the recent suicide of the only person she ever felt close to. Because self-indulgence is frowned upon in Manhattan, in anywhere that isn't the mind of the self who is presently being indulged.

Looking around and somehow wanting someone to notice, someone to look to acknowledge, something. To not have everyone be so oblivious at every turn. Wanting so badly to scream, to involve expletives, to stand on the seat and tell everyone what happened and have it matter to them as much as it does to me. I want to stand up on the seat and raise my arms above my head violently. I want to scream excuse me ladies and gentlemen like one of the homeless people who goes from car to car telling their sad sad tales and getting people's pocket change in return. I want to get up and tell them I don't want their money. I want more than their money. I want them to know what they've lost. I want them to know what she looked like curled up next to me, eyes still wet from tears, hair still wet from her shower, but smiling and really willing herself to make a go at things this time. I want them to know the way she smelled after not showering for days, sort of musty and ripe, somehow more human more real more alive than any of them. I want to tell them it's my fault. I want them to stone me, to chastise me, to look and listen and have it hit them hard and I want their reaction to involve my eventual castigation and excommunication.

And of course this is absurd. Of course this is impossible. But that doesn't make it any less screamingly present in my mind as I rock back and forth on the downtown bound 1 train right past 42nd street.

A few months later and its summer and I decide to go home for a while. I have not been home for more than a week at a time since high school. I seem only to refer to it as home for lack of any other better word to describe the place I grew up and return to from time to time. The place where the people that call themselves my parents live. I find the concept of the trip daunting but somehow the closer the end of the semester comes, the more excited I become at the prospect. I am not particularly close with my family but I cannot think of anywhere else to go or anything else to do with my time.

I sublet my apartment to a friend of a friend's little brother who is an undergraduate in the Midwest and has some nondescript business type internship in the city for the summer. I should be earning money, or taking classes, or working somewhere at something, but besides studying and wandering, I can't seem to bring myself to do much more than reread the same handful of books I keep by my bed and watch those cop shows of which Lizzy always spoke so highly.

I fly home within a week of my last class and my parents are at the airport together, none of us quite sure of how to greet one another. They are older than I remember, quieter now that all of their children have gone. They seem to be in a constant state of relief and scattered confusion in having somehow managed to survive the raising and supporting and letting go of four children. It seems there should be more to show for it than a large empty house and shelves and shelves of framed photographs. Theirs are lives defined by the needs of others, by giving in and giving up. And now it seems, with nothing left to give to, these shadows of their formerly incessantly active selves are left to mourn the loss of their usefulness.

On the drive home we discuss the improvements they are making to the house. They have decided, though my mother seems less excited at the prospect and in fact makes several references to a bedroom set she seems to have given up in the deal, to surround the pool behind the house with rocks. I recognize that I am to react to this decision with interest and excitement but find myself a bit short of both. The whole process should only take a matter of months and in the end, they will have a bunch of imported rocks piled about three feet off the ground surrounding a pool I don't remember either of them having ever dipped so much as a toe in. From what I can discern we will be referring to the rocks as a grotto and if everything goes off as planned--which knowing my father, it will--they may even get a waterfall out of the deal.

My room is still the same as it's always been, a bit too much so. I have clean sheets an endless supply of food and my little brother's old jeep to use. I spend most days driving for hours, out at the beach, walking or running or reading, listening to the same Arthur Rubinstein CD over and over and over.

My father comes into my room every morning on his way to work. What are you up to he says what will you do with your day. He wakes me up and then asks me to make something of my day. And every morning, for a moment, this makes me want to destroy him. Not in any life threatening way, just do away with all his silly expectations in some irrevocable way, just make him see expecting is bad, make him understand wanting from me is not something he should ever under any circumstances attempt. But then I wake up enough to realize he's just trying to be a father somehow. I learn to swallow the initial impulse to push him away and humor him with talk of catching up on work for next semester, finishing up my proposal for my dissertation, going into the restaurant I worked at in high school to see if I could pick up some shifts.

After a week of being home, after a week of quiet dinners focusing mainly on the activities and trivialities of my siblings' various lives, I try to speak to my mother. I vaguely remember us having something to say to each other once and I am hoping to salvage it. They know about her in the haziest of ways. They know a friend of mine died recently and they see I am quieter than usual. They have a nebulous idea of the circumstances, bits and pieces they have no doubt presumed to put together in their own covert way of finding out about their children's lives. They know it affected me in some strange way that has resulted in me asking to stay with them for a while. They know, me being the kind to never pursue staying with them for any longer than what is considered appropriate or even a bit less than appropriate, that I am going through something that they are not quite certain how to deal with.

I want to speak with my mother about it but when I go to her as she stands making herself a drink after work, I find I have absolutely nothing to say. I find knowing she would try to listen and in the same instance knowing she would not be able to, is at once enough to satiate me and simply sad for me to realize so completely.

It turns out this all goes unnoticed regardless. I ask her how she is and it turns out she is experiencing a tragedy of her own which seems to have escaped my notice. Turns out, there is a great sadness sweeping through her life. Because she and my father, whose relationship is contentious and fraught, though understandably so after so many years and so much fodder, so much vestigial resentment and mistakes to be fraught with, are fighting again and she is certain this is the last of their fights. She is certain she will finally make it all better by just making it all go away.

She is in no way dependent on him. Not in the moment she tells me this. Not as she cries over something he did. She has never practically been dependent upon him. She has always made more money than him. She has always been more physically fit, more emotionally hard, more commanding a presence. She has always been perfectly tangibly capable of existing on her own. Except of course for the fact that she never would. She cries and she talks and she mumbles and she cries and she repeats herself again and again. And even as she tells me the sad sad tale that may very well ruin her life, she manages to wipe the ring her glass has made on the counter and locate a coaster. She manages to unload the dishwasher as she talks to me, cries to me, pours her heart out while making sure each glass and dish and utensil is in its proper place. Like crying is just part of the deal. Domesticity has a little bit of sadness built in but that doesn't mean you stop the order of everything.

I stand completely unable to react. My mother is sad and I hate this. My mother is crying and concerned and feels hurt and abandoned by the one person in her life who is contracted by law to bring her comfort. And I have absolutely nothing to say to console her. I begin to help unload the dishwasher. I follow her lead realizing I have long since forgotten the places of things. And then, once we have finished I hold her. She is smaller than me now. In both height and weight I tower over her and could lift her onto my lap were we that kind of family. As it is I am a bit uncomfortable embracing her. Both my parents have always been free with displays of affection over the years but they have learned to be less so with me. I cannot recall ever initiating contact with either of them until this moment.

She holds onto me hard like she always has. She grasps my back with a sad sort of force. At once asserting her self as still alive and capable and further emphasizing her smallness by coming in so close. She quivers a little still crying as I hold her and I can feel her tiny breasts against my ribs. She could be a small child were it not for the absurd expensive loveliness of the thin black silk blouse under which I feel the slight trembling hardness of her back. She holds onto me in a way that makes me fleetingly suddenly frighteningly think that she may never let go. And then, that maybe this could be the best resolution for both of us. She, still beautifully dressed, grey wool pants, black silk blouse, tiny and lovely and sad. Me, still smelling of beach, old torn faded maroon t-shirt and white cotton shorts. Both of us barefoot. In the kitchen, with all the dishes put away and everything in its place, grasping on to things we have long since lost hold of.




Lynn Steger: Fiction
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 35The Cortland Review