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A Lot of Good It Does Being in the Underworld

Corinna Vallianatos

Says an unsavory character in The Stranger, which I’m rereading to see how it strikes me now. By underworld, he means a group of petty criminals, but I think the sentiment applies to the place, too. It’s not damnation that sends you there. It’s the instinct for return.

When I heard that my friend was dead, I thought back to our exchange of texts the week before. We had planned to meet at a fish restaurant for lunch and her death seemed impossible with this plan unrealized. I believed in plans, in the adhesive property of the calendar, and while I could fathom a last-minute rescheduling—I deferred many social engagements—I could not fathom utter obviation, a voiding of the future as if it were a thing that could simply be stamped out. My friend lived on a mountain, and I lived in a valley. The restaurant was located roughly halfway between our houses. We had met there before. It had a scuffed black-and-white tile floor and milk-glass ceiling lamps, and the waiters wore broadcloth shirts and long black aprons. Despite its gesturing toward authenticity it could not shake its mantle of corporate arrangement, and we took solace in its anonymity. There, my friend ordered iced tea and broiled grouper while I ordered a dripping Kaiser roll sandwich. Lemon seeds in little puddles of water at the bases of our glasses.

That was five years ago at least. I’d told myself I’d contact her again when I had news to announce, an awful way of thinking about friendship, as if it existed only out in the open rather than in the underground life of shared sympathies. Eventually I did have some modest news, and I sent out a group email and she replied and that’s how we fell back in touch.

After we arranged our lunch date we kept texting. We had both read Louise Glück’s new collection of poems, her twelfth or thirteenth, and we discussed a particular poem, a particular line of that poem, You must ask yourself if you deceive yourself, which I’d read as You must ask yourself if you deserve yourself, and my friend had read as You must ask yourself if you desert yourself. How funny, how strange! we agreed, and then I said I thought my misreading got to the nature of womanhood itself, and my friend said her misreading was about the human desire for oblivion. To be a woman is more specific than to be a human, I responded. My friend did not reply, and that was the last I heard from her.

She was magnetic in the way of a being whose balance on earth is unsteady but the way she flaps across the axis, her arms out at her sides and bracelets rattling, utterly transfixing.

What feeling would you least want to elicit in others? I once asked her. Pity, my friend replied.

She never did. Admiration, concern, puzzlement, gratitude. Her students loved her very much.

We taught at the same university and then we didn’t any longer—that’s the simplest explanation for why we stopped seeing each other—but I admit it had become confusing to be with her, I sensed her hold on reality was slipping. She was always complimenting me, flattering me, making too much of small things. It was embarrassing and had, in fact, the opposite effect of what she intended, for I began to suspect myself of such demonstrable fragility that she thought I needed shoring up. I wonder now if she wasn’t simply trying to deflect attention from herself, from the substance of her days. Eventually she would relay some event or drama, but the hyperbole continued, warping the proportions of what she said, pulling like an undertow against the stability of her story, a discernible chronology, a series of recognizable acts. I knew my friend thought what she was saying was true, and knew too that in some crucial way it was not. So when she told me about the time she abandoned her car at the side of a mountain road, and no one knew where she was, and the pills she had in her possession, I did not seize upon it. Instead, I exclaimed almost in awe at her confession, as if a monstrous feathered thing had brushed past me. That is to say, I understood her confession, but I pushed that understanding deep inside of me, just as I buried so many other unpleasant revelations.

Now, a month after her death, I stand in front of the building where my office is, among the careful, colorful shrubbery. Two young women walk past me wearing high-waisted jeans and indomitable expressions, a kick-assery somewhat undercut by their ardent clutching of their phones, and I think of my friend and how much pain we had ahead of us at that age, and how we didn’t know it, and wonder what we’d have done differently had we known. Every young woman is captive to a painful future that she must not, cannot, see clearly, for if she did she would only try futilely to avoid it. It is futile even if her future is also filled with joy, as ours were. For the future doesn’t end with joy—there is always a moment after, even if the joy is stronger than what comes next.

I stop reading for the classes I’m teaching and read poetry instead. Novels seem bloated and unnecessary, their tissue and ligaments, characters saying things. Whereas a poem is the declaration itself.

It’s simple. It speaks. There is no need for continuity.

My friend slips from my mind for a day or two at a time and then returns from another angle, and I see her standing next to the elevator in the building where we taught, a different building on a different, duller campus, smiling, blinking behind her glasses, all blurry blue eyeliner and tall leather boots. The boots were catastrophically expensive, my friend told me. She stashed a flask in one of them. This was discovered later.

During this time, my friend emailed a manuscript to me, a memoir she’d written about the year she spent in Nova Scotia when she was twenty-two. I had difficulty understanding her poetry, which was highly referential and elaborate, each line so baroque something essential was obscured. Her memoir, however, was different. It was lucid, revelatory, filled with longing like a stream, a living, running thing. I encouraged her to publish it, but she never did. I suspect she was protecting her husband, for men are sensitive about old loves, or maybe she had other reasons, or maybe she did try to publish it and wasn’t able to, but I don’t think so.

Some words carry so much awareness inside them I can’t read them at night, I can only read them during the day. For their awareness makes me aware. That’s how I felt reading my friend’s manuscript. That she was finally telling the truth, and the truth requires a response.

I decide to try to get the manuscript published posthumously. I look for it but I can’t find it, and I realize it may be on an old laptop, a laptop that won’t turn on but that I haven’t recycled because of my fear it may still hold something important, an importance all the more significant because I can’t get to the important thing, so I email her friend in another state to ask if she has a copy of it. My friend’s friend takes a long time to reply, and when she does she says she doesn’t have a copy of it, and that our friend never showed it to her or even mentioned it. It’s as if she thinks I’m inventing the manuscript’s existence, and I wonder if she’s aggrieved that our friend shared something with me that she did not with her. That might’ve contributed to the slowness of her response, though she would if asked say that she was grieving, overwhelmed, overworked.

I email the editor of the press that published my friend’s first book to see if she might have the manuscript. She does not. She says I should absolutely submit it if I find it, they open for submissions for three-and-a-half hours on January 4.

I don’t know what people do all day long. This is the well of mystery I draw from.

I think about it a lot. The rhythms, rationales, ways of being of other people. My husband tells me not to try to understand, but I do. I can’t help myself. The incredible mystery and loneliness of being someone else.

I wish I could’ve seen my friend age. Seen her as an old lady.

When I heard about her death I also heard that she was not married anymore.

Years ago, we got very drunk with our husbands and another couple. My husband and I had arranged for our son to stay with my parents for the night, and my friend’s sons were staying with her parents, and the other couple did not yet have children, though they too would have a son. I was wearing a dress—I rarely do—and I saw my friend’s husband notice me for the first time, saw that I had risen to float above the vision he usually had of me to present something, a certain carefree manner, a casting off of my usual woes, that stood naked with possibility. We had a drink, and went out to dinner and had a few more, and returned to our house and continued drinking. At some point we jumped into the pool wearing our clothes. I yanked my arms out of my dress. The pool was turbulent with bodies, and I was pushed into the deep end where I lost my bearings and went under. When I came back up, my dress slung around my neck, my friend was on the deck, weaving toward the house with a private decisiveness.

The others were toweling off. Inside, I found my friend passed out on the kitchen floor.

The other couple shared a glass of water and drove off. We tried to stop them, didn’t we?

The last time I saw my friend was on the Fourth of July. When you have children you feel you must do things, so we took them to a celebration at a park while our husbands remained at home, drinking beer and grilling salmon.

Old people stood around under a tent making pancakes. This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with her. She stood out among all the wandering, fervid, sun-scorched people. Tall and graceful, necklaces slippery with sweat.

Our children slid down a large, inflated waterslide with a couple of hoses running rivulets down the middle. Some friends came over, and I introduced her. I was proud to be in the company of someone so beautiful.

The slide required tickets but no one was collecting them so we let the children go again and again, their skin screeching against the plastic, swim trunks sagging, feet muddy from the two scoops of puddles that had formed at the bottom of the slide. Their joy was so exorbitant it became ours in a way. Finally we left and walked home past the large houses, down the wide street where the parade would soon travel, where low lawn chairs lined the grassy sidewalk strip and you had only embrace what we could not—cheap hope—to the street of smaller houses where my husband and I lived.


About the author

Corinna Vallianatos's third book, Origin Stories, is forthcoming from Graywolf. She teaches at Claremont McKenna College, and lives in California and Virginia.

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