L     O     S     S 

 

You see it like a dream: the man falls down on the slick pavement. You almost expect a splash but there is none, only the pounding of the sky. He turns from a human into a huddled mass, a hardly decipherable lump in the dark, wet night. Streetlights glance off the shining road, looking like a watercolor painting abandoned by an expressionist suddenly struck by another idea. Did the artist intend to paint this man? This man, standing? This man, mouth opened in a silent scream? This man, taking long unsteady gaits on shaking legs? This man, falling to the ground? And not getting up again. He doesn’t get up again.

You see it like a dream: the man crumpled on the ground. It is only moments after that you realize a car could hit him, destroy him, make sure of what you don’t yet know. You freeze and remember who and what you are: twenty-three, black, a girl, alone. You imagine yourself stopping the car, getting out, running to his side in the rain. You think of how small and thin you are, how weak. You imagine the man opening his eyes and grabbing you by the arm and then you stop imagining because you don’t know what happens next. People are so deceptive; it could be so foolish to help—what would your mother say?

Keep driving. And so you do. But before you press the gas you see a hooded figure through the rain. It runs from the sidewalk toward the huddled mass that may or may not be a dead man. You see the figure raise its arms, stopping the onslaught of cars coming toward him. You’re relieved. You watch the figure doing what you could not, and you want to close your eyes, but you’re supposed to be driving. You move the car forward, glance in your mirror and see the man, still not moving, and the figure, another man, leaning down, and you’re thankful there was someone else there—thankful it wasn’t up to you—because what would you have done?

Once you get home you call 911 and the woman says they’ve already gotten a call, and they’re already on the way. She hangs up. You sigh. What if the other man had not been on the sidewalk? What if you were the only one who saw the man falling? What if you drove on, and let the cars come? You think of the last time it rained this hard. You remember yourself, head aching and eyes streaming, curled in a ball on your bed wondering where it all went wrong and how you could ever move forward. You stop remembering. You see the man collapse, again and again. What would your mother have said? Keep driving. What did you mother say? You did the right thing. What did you say? What if no one else had been there? And your mother says, Thank God someone was. And you thank God someone was. And for a moment you hate yourself. You hate that you are a small black girl afraid of what could have happened if you helped.

You see it like a dream as you drive the road that leads home, and you try to see the man in the street in your rearview, there and gone in seconds, disappearing into the rain-washed scene. And you keep going because you have to, and the further you move away the more you realize you’ll never know whether or not you saw someone die.

1.

 

This is my favorite memory of you.

Urth

Your mother is driving down the 101 or the 10 or the 405. I am seventeen, you are eighteen and we are heading into L.A. All the streets merge into one as we speed down the howling freeway and the sun follows us as if it’s tethered to the car, dancing above us like a blinding balloon. Spring is blazing into summer and outside the air is rising in waves. We are wearing sundresses, but you look prettier in yours, and each man we pass will say so in his way. Your mother pulls into a parking garage and we rise to the top, breaking through the dank, shadowed levels into the striking sunshine. We park and your mother reminds us to keep our purses close to our bodies.

The fashion district breathes claustrophobic. We’ve woven in and out of shops where sparkling jewelry hung on hooks and the store clerks watched you because you were with me. I bought a topaz clip for my hair; you bought nothing. Your mother waited outside.  We turn a corner into an alley where vendors flourish on either side. They call to us in Spanish, beckoning us inside their shops where glittering dresses stand draped over mannequins and heels encrusted with faux diamonds gleam in the windows. Inside one of the boutiques your mother haggles with the woman in rapid Spanish, wearing down the price of two clutch purses that would match our prom dresses. Inside another, we try on straw sunhats and giggle at each other. A man tells your mother you are beautiful. He doesn’t look at me; he knows I am not hers.

Back on the freeway, the sun has dipped in the sky, slanting the car’s shadow. In twenty minutes, we’re in Pasadena. The air is cooler, but only just, and we climb the steps out of the parking garage onto Paseo Colorado. We shop for shoes, but we don’t find anything. Your mother asks if we’re hungry. Back in the car, you call to order a pizza. In fifteen minutes we’ll be back at the house and we can eat, she tells us. She asks if we’re sad high school is ending and we say yes and no and she asks if there’s anyone we’re worried we won’t see again and we say yes, but not each other—we aren’t worried about each other. Your mother glances at me in the rear-view mirror, her eyebrows raised. She says you’re terrible at staying in touch. I’m taken aback, but I tell her I’m not worried and she tells me I should be; that I’ll see. She doesn’t laugh and I shake my head and I look at you and you’re laughing but you don’t say anything.

2.

 

This is my favorite memory of you.

I’m sitting on your bed when there’s a knock at your door. Your mother doesn’t know I’m over, and it’s been awhile since she’s seen me. She walks in, already speaking to you, and she stops when she sees me. She doesn’t smile right away, even though I do, and her eyes rake my head. She doesn’t look at me the same since I cut my hair. It’s been nearly a year but she still tells me she’s not used to it. She smiles as she says it, eyes boring into my curls, but I can hear something else: why would you do it? Your hair was so pretty. It was so long. She doesn’t say these things, but I hear them, can almost see them racing across her mind. Am I being paranoid? You stand aside with your eyes down until she addresses you, finally remembering whatever it was she came in to say in the first place.  Before she leaves us, she says again she can’t believe I cut it. She says it's so different. She asks if I like it like this. I say that I do, and she looks at me kindly, but like she doesn’t understand. I look at you and laugh, trying to break the tension. You respond by telling me it’s nice, that it suits me, that you really like it. You smile. But I can’t help feeling like you don’t quite look either.

3.

 

This is my favorite memory of you.

Daniel

Three days after I turned twenty-two, you picked me up outside of my house. Phone in hand, you were checking the roads, to see which route was the fastest to L.A. I thanked you again and again, and you said it was no problem, and I said I couldn’t believe you were doing this for me, and you just smiled. We were on the freeway before ten and the traffic was light. You drove on the winding road that wrapped around the hills—next exit, Forest Lawn, next exit, Griffith Park, next exit—I tell you I haven’t been to the Observatory since elementary school, that I hardly remember what it’s like, and you say that you’ve gone often with your boyfriend, and I don’t say anything.

We get into L.A. just before 11, and we make our way to the Dolby Theatre. The streets are congested and the sun is shining; it’s warm for early November, and everyone is walking around in shorts and t shirts and sundresses. The GPS tells us to make a left, and then another left, until we find our way into the back end of a parking garage. A tour bus rumbles past and there are crowds of people on foot. Inside the garage, we find a space and leave the car at the same time a number of photographers exit their own vehicles. We wonder if they’re headed to the same place we are. I’m anxious, and you understand—you don’t call attention to it—you just let it pass, and as we ride the escalators up one floor, two, three, I can feel the anxiety growing but in a good way. We break out into the sunshine and walk around the corner where the event is still being set up. Somehow, we make it up to the front, right against the railing that barricades the crowd from the Walk of Fame Ceremony where my favorite actor, my crush since the age of eight, is receiving his star. I keep telling you I can’t believe it, and you just smile and tell me happy birthday, and the air is frenzied and then he walks out. You stand behind me the entire time and tell me later it’s because you wanted to catch me in case I fainted from excitement. We laugh at that, partly because we know there was a good chance it might’ve happened.

After the ceremony, we drive through the crowded streets to the Grove. The cool GPS voice tells us which turns to make until we approach The Grove Drive. We park by the Farmer’s Market and walk through the mall to see there’s a movie premiere going on—something we haven’t even heard of, but it’s no less exciting. It’s well into the afternoon as we walk through the cobbled streets of the Grove, past the clothing stores and back into the Farmer’s Market where we stop for a coffee. I hug you tightly and thank you again. You don’t hug me back, but you’re smiling and you wave my thankyous away—of course, you say. On the way home the sun sets slowly behind us—pink sky, glowing gold, beginnings of blue. It still looked like summer. 

 

The man holding the plastic bag raises his arms over his head and waves them slowly back and forth, back and forth. His face is hidden under his hood, and the rain falls around him and the lump at his feet. Cars, oncoming, stop, their red taillights glaring through the rain. The man with the plastic bag looped around his fingers kneels down and touches the lump; it doesn’t respond. He touches it again, pushing it gently, then forcefully—hey man, hey man, get up. you okay? You okay, man? Hey…hey. The man with the plastic bag looks south; the police station is just down the way, on the next block, but the cars are coming and honking and drivers are yelling and hanging out of windows trying to see what’s going on.

Someone must have called. Someone must have called because the police come, sirens blaring out of the station parking lot and make a right, then stop. The lump is still on the ground, unmoving, and the man with the plastic bag stands up and raising his arms again, back and forth, back and forth, and officers come to meet him. Another officer reroutes traffic. Go around, go around, and disgruntled drivers back up and turn the other way, slowly, watching and grumbling. Others rubberneck, unsure of what’s going on, eyes wide and mouths open. If their windows were open they’d catch the rain. The dark street is wet and there’s a lump on the ground, and a man standing with a plastic bag in his hands, or maybe he’s already gone. He disappears from the scene. He doesn’t know the old man, doesn’t know what to do. If there’s food in the plastic bag, it’s getting cold; if there are goods in there, they’re getting wet. He can’t hang around. The ambulance is parked on the curb, and EMTs are lifting the lump onto a stretcher. It’s lucky there’s a hospital down the street, not even five minutes away. They lift him, and his slick parka glistens beneath the streetlamps and the headlights as the line of cars make their left-hand turns. Still unconscious, rolling with the stretcher as it’s wheeled over the asphalt, the man is lifted into the back of the ambulance and the sirens whine as it pulls away from the curb and speeds up the street. It makes a right at the light, and then a left, and then another right into the medical center parking lot, where the double doors are thrown wide just in time to receive him.   

Maybe the doctors were right there. Maybe they ran alongside his gurney like they do on TV and rushed him into the operating room. Maybe a doctor has his hands against the man’s chest and is pushing and pushing, one hand over the other against his ribcage, pushing and pushing. The heart monitor is not beeping, but they have reason to believe he isn’t dead and so the first doctor keeps going and then another brings out the defibrillator, and between calls of “CLEAR!” the tiny beep of life sounds and grows louder and maybe the man stirs—a twitch of the finger or the mouth and the doctor leans back, hands still on the man’s newly heaving chest. The man can’t say where he’s been or what he’s seen, he only breathes, eyes fluttering. The doctors step back and watch him, exchanging glances as he sucks air into his grizzled mouth, chin and neck covered in matted gray hair. A powerful smell is coming off of him. Wet and musty. Rain water mixed with sweat and urine. The breath of one who hasn’t eaten, stale and pungent, and dirty hair festering with the layer of dirt and grime that covers his skin. The doctors don’t mind—they have seen and smelled worse—they still exchange glances. Waiting. The man’s eyes close, but he is still breathing—sleeping mainly. Maybe dying and coming back to life takes a lot out of you; maybe resurrection is like being born.

Not a week later the man sits under the wintry sky wearing the same coat and the same hat sitting on the same street. He’s muttering to himself, eyes roving back and forth up and down. Beneath his shirt there is a bruise where the doctor was pushing on his chest. Beneath his pant leg there is a scar where he cut himself on the street. Beneath his hat his hair grows wiry and tangled, matted with downtown’s dirt. Cars rattle by but he doesn’t see or hear them—he doesn’t even stir. He just sits, arms wrapped around himself, muttering quietly, eyes darting. His chest hurts and he can’t remember why. His legs sting but he can’t tell you what happened. His hips are sore from falling in the street, but he doesn’t remember that either.

He looks up at the sky where he does remember a light and some pressure, and some part of him thinks it was an angel. He looks up at the sky, muttering. It looks like rain. 

4.

 

This is my favorite memory of you.

Drive

We took a picture in the Paseo Colorado courtyard during the summer show. Your arms are wrapped around me; you’re wearing my sweater because you forgot yours in your car. I asked you to drive last minute because I was nervous, and you did, and I felt safer. It’s raining. It’s June. We planned to get ice cream from the shop on Green Street, but we went down Colorado instead to the café across from the Laemmle because it was cold. We consider seeing a movie after we’ve eaten—maybe the one with the actor we like. But it gets colder and wetter and we head home instead.

 

The man holding the plastic bag raises his arms over his head and moves them slowly back and forth, back and forth. His face is hidden under his hood, and the rain falls around him and the lump at his feet. Cars, oncoming, stop, their red taillights glaring through the rain. The man with the plastic bag looped around his fingers kneels down and touches the lump; it doesn’t respond. He touches it again, pushing it gently, then forcefully—hey man, hey man, get up. you okay? You okay, man? Hey…hey. The man with the plastic bag looks south; the police station is just down the way, on the next block, but the cars are coming and honking and drivers are yelling and hanging out of windows trying to see what’s going on. He can’t just leave, and so he stands there, arms still raised.

Sirens warble through the watery air, making the man holding the plastic bag feel like he’s underwater. He keeps his hands up, making himself taller and larger to ensure he’s seen. At his feet the lump still doesn’t move, and he’s afraid to look at it now. He isn’t sure, but a creeping feeling in his stomach tells him if he looks, there will be something he doesn’t want to see—something he won’t be able to handle. The police cars stop around him, lights flashing around the scene, and he lowers his arms. Men and women slide out of the cars, rushing forward. They’re asking questions he can’t answer, others are flapping their arms at the cars waiting and honking, unaware of the man lying in the street. Go around, go around… one of the cops calls, and the drivers in the cars begin cottoning on, making their left hand turns and craning their necks as they pass by, trying to understand what’s going on. Soon a barricade is set up around the man, blocking off the street, and the stream of traffic automatically makes the left turn; the people don’t even look anymore. The sirens of the ambulance can be heard, a little far off and then coming closer; the hospital is just down the street, not even five minutes away. More sirens on the horizon. The man with the plastic bag has slipped away, leaving the lump behind because he knows something the hospital will find out later, if the lump ends up at the hospital at all.

EMTs kneel down in the wet street and take the lump, the man’s, arm. They lift his damp sleeve up, exposing his wrist, and one of them places his fingers to the skin, waiting. He pulls his hand away and then pushes it down the front of the man’s filthy shirt to touch his chest; he waits. Again, he pulls his hand away and looks around, frowning. His colleague leans in as he speaks to him, nearly shouting over the din of the rain falling around them. The other EMT can just barely hear him, but the message is clear: …can’t find…pulse…

Someone asks if they should take him to the hospital to be sure, and someone else answers, and they lift him onto a stretcher and roll him into the back of the ambulance. Maybe they turned the sirens on, just in case. Maybe they didn’t. At the hospital, the old man, rank and grimy, smelling of urine and stale breath, dirt mixed with rain water smeared across his dark skin, lies on a table. The doctor standing over him imagines the long vertical incision from sternum to belly, opening him and laying him bare like a frog or cat or the fetal pigs from school. The thought probably doesn’t make him sick or sad; it’s just a thought. But then maybe it does. Maybe death never gets easier, no matter how often you’ve seen it.

The old man is moved to the hospital morgue where he lies still against a hard metal table, tag on his toe: N/A, N/A, N/A—Unknown. Outside a doctor makes a call to social services—they should try to learn who he was, if he had any family, if anyone actually cares that he fell down and died last night. Maybe the doctor has seen this before, over and over—again and again. Maybe these bodies stayed the designated amount of days, and then were transferred to the next holding place, world still spinning unaware that it’s been relieved of the weight of their soul.

Inside the morgue, the light automatically shuts off—there’s been no movement for more than five minutes and they can’t waste any power. Outside the door, the hospital whirs, alive with electricity. Inside the morgue, the old man’s body sits, settles, decays—each cell, each molecule, fighting to get away.

The old man’s clothes, wet with rain, stinking of dirt and urine and sweat, will probably be burned. His body, placed in a box in the ground, in an unmarked grave. He won’t be able to look at the sky through the thin wooden ceiling. He won’t see the clouds or feel the wind. He won’t know it looks like rain.

5.

       

This is my favorite memory of you.

Park

We went to this park once in high school to have a picnic with our friends. We were the first ones there—we set up the blanket and the store-bought sandwiches. Your mother had driven us to and from the local Albertson’s to get the food because neither of us could drive yet, and then she had dropped us off, leaving us in a shady spot not too far from the playground and the swimming pool where they give lessons in the summer. You’d get a ride home from your boyfriend, and he’d take me home too since I was close by. This time it’s just the two of us sitting in your parked car drinking Starbucks, late July. The summer swimming class is just starting and there’s a man shouting obscenities at another man, and we wonder if they’re going to fight. They don’t. I tell you about my growing inferiority complex, about how I feel passed over, and you tell me not to because I’m beautiful and it’s too bad if he can’t see it. It’s not just about him, but I don’t say that. I tell you that I think he can—it’s just that it’s not enough.

“I know there’s nothing wrong with me,” I say, but I think the opposite. “But this isn’t new. Most men don’t like brown girls—it’s just…even if everything else is good, it’s not enough, because I don’t look like… I don't think I look like...what they want.”

You stay quiet and I don’t blame you. It just isn’t your experience. But I ask if you’ve ever felt this way, and you tell me you’ve never thought about it—about them—about white people. You don’t feel alienated when you’re around them—you don’t feel othered—you don’t even notice. You tell me your boyfriend feels similar, though—you tell me he also feels uncomfortable around them, especially when he’s in a crowd. You don’t think about it, but he does, so you can understand what I’m feeling. I don’t say anything, because your boyfriend once told me I wasn’t pretty, told me black girls weren’t attractive (does it matter that he added ‘to me’?). And you know this. You’ve heard the story. But you don’t know that that was the first moment I realized I was brown. Not brown, but brown. That brown was a bad thing. And what could I do? I don’t say any of this to you—it’s not your fault. And it could hurt you. But I feel a wall between us, because when you met me I didn’t think so much about being brown, and now that I do there’s a piece about me you don’t understand. You are not white, but you are pale like ivory, and everyone says you’re beautiful, and you are. You know what it’s like to be chosen, wanted. I say it’s probably good you don’t think about it or notice, because it takes a lot of energy, and breeds a lot of hurt and bitterness, and it leaves you feeling awful inside. You don’t say anything. We watch a family sit down in the grass—two children in bathing suits. Swim class is over. It’s almost five o'clock. I ask you if you’re hungry, and you are, so you drive us over to the pizza place on Citrus, and we talk about other things.

6.

  

This is my favorite memory of you.

You parked in front of my house. Mid-September, LA heatwave, windows down. The sun was already setting, and the sky was pearlescent blue, the color that turns all the trees to shadows and birds to phantoms. You have to go home soon, you say, but neither of us move. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, and the day’s gone by too fast.

My mother pulls into the driveway, home from work; she smiles at us as, surprised and pleased to see you. She gets out and makes her way over. You get out of the car, hesitant, and go hug her and she says how happy she is to see you—how long it’s been. She glances at me. She’s remembering our frequent conversations about how you’d disappear, how it seemed like you never had time, how I’d wait until you had time again, because you always came back around again. You were around again. I sit in the passenger seat and watch you hug my mother and I smile and she tells me hello before heading into the house. She tells us to take our time, and so we sit a little longer.

After you’ve left, I sit with my mother in the house. She says you look sad, that you’ve looked sad each of the few times she’s seen you lately. I say I think you are. She says she worries about you. I say that I do too. She asks if I’m feeling better. I say that I am. She says she knows how much I’ve missed you. I say I know.

7.

 

This is my worst memory of you.

Rain

It was raining. I’d been waiting for it all morning, a little annoyed because we were going to a friend’s show. My friend, not yours, but you were coming. We were going to get dinner, exchange Christmas presents. The rain didn’t change anything for me, not really. It was inconvenient at most, but that was all. I was waiting for the rain all morning, but you’d been out in it, driving around out past Pasadena, past LA where the storm had already started. Back home the wind was high, kicking the trees around, loosing twigs and thin branches, sending them careening through the gray sky, but no rain yet. I was at home, waiting to hear from you, waiting to know what to do. We were going to see each other; your Christmas present sat on my floor against my bookshelf, the biggest bag in the pile. We’d been planning it, this, today—finally spending time. We’d seen each other a few days before. You later asked if that wasn’t enough for me. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t been so long. Maybe I wouldn’t have tried so hard to make it happen if I didn’t feel so much distance. Maybe if we hadn’t already planned it.  Maybe if so many previous plans hadn’t fallen through, always falling through. Maybe if there hadn’t been so many days and nights when you were busy. Maybe if understanding didn’t also mean it was okay—I understood you were busy, always busy, but it didn’t make me feel any better. It didn’t make me miss you any less. Maybe I was selfish.

My mother asked what time I was going to see you. I said I didn’t know yet know. You said you didn’t know. We waited. We waited. You said the rain was bad. You said the rain was so bad; that we shouldn’t go far. I suggested staying close to home as the rain, finally arrived, pounded against my window. I suggested staying in. Pizza. A movie. Anything. You were only minutes away from me; I could meet you at your house. I could bring movies. We could just talk. You said you didn’t think it was a good idea. I asked what wasn’t a good idea. You said all of it, none of it. I suddenly wanted to get back in bed, go to sleep. You said you’d let me know for sure later. I said okay.

My mother asked me to come with her to run errands, so I went. You weren’t home yet, or maybe you were. I didn’t know. I hadn’t heard from you. I bundled up but the rain had calmed down to a drizzle. It was windy, still, but we didn’t need our umbrellas. While I waited for my mother, I sent you another message. What were we doing. How were you feeling. What was the plan. When you responded, all you said was that you’d drop off my gift. The rain, the rain, the rain. You didn’t want to be out in it. Frustrated, I pointed out that you had been out in it just the week before, with your boyfriend. We’d been planning to see each other today for ages. I missed you. You said you’d just stop by quickly, drop off my present. You were tired. You were short; I could feel tension growing, so I told you never mind. I told you never mind, that we could do it later when the weather was better, when you were less busy. I was thinking we’d have more time; I just wanted more time. I told my mother it wasn’t happening. She said she was sorry. I shrugged, put my phone away.

An hour later it started. The levee inside of you—the one so often sensed but never seen, the one so often felt, pulsing just beneath the surface—broke.

You said I was pushy. That I didn’t understand. That I was unfair. Passive aggressive. You said I had to make things so hard, so hard. You said I expected too much from you—demanded too much. You said, you said, you said. Was it a coincidence the rain started up again, pounding the roof, the windows, the walls? There was so much water—in my eyes, in the sky, washing over me as you spilled every drop that the levee had ever held. I tried to explain, and explain, and explain, and I should’ve stopped. But I didn’t stop. Because I wanted you to hear me. I wanted you to understand. But you didn’t hear me. Maybe you couldn’t hear anything.

After midnight, phone no longer lighting up with your words, your spilled water, I lay against my pillow, tears falling into my hair. I wondered if you were crying too. Maybe. Maybe not. I held my phone against my chest, warm. I felt my heart hammering against my ribs, felt like I had just finished running. I tried not to think of the last things you said or what you meant, or how I felt them. I thought about intention, and how mine didn’t seem to matter to you, and how yours was all that mattered to me. I thought about how it wasn’t enough.

The next morning it was dry, cold. Every part of me ached. It looked like rain.

 

~ A F T E R W O R D ~