The rain hit the roof like tiny silver buttons, spilling into ripples all across the yard. We raised our heads and our eyes molded into the crater of a sky, the threads of water shooting straight into us as we tried to count the clouds. We were no longer in some paved backyard in small-town suburbia, we were no longer kids with school in the morning, we were no longer newspaper-reading, traffic-light-obeying, pulse-dropping mindless members of humanity; we were ghosts of ourselves, tied to the earth, dead flesh brought to life.
When the pricks of warm gravel on our feet began to burn and the wetness had soaked into everything save for our brains, Emma and I held hands as we walked slowly back to her house. Everything else was a haze, but those moments walking back, knowing you were feeling the rain on our shoulders one last time before being told to strip and clean up and go downstairs, those moments could have been sewn into our skin.
Under her bed Emma had shown me a hidden cigar box. The inside still smelled of tobacco leaves and pinewood and there were hundreds of love notes inside written to her, all stacked on top of each other like raked autumn leaves. These had begun accumulating for years, even before her breasts had filled the eyes of boys. Those notes written in pencil had been smudged with the moisture of her fingertips pressed against them a thousand times, and the pained words that remained were a spinning carousal of regret, and desire so strong it made you dizzy to read. Some were even from girls. Because no matter where Emma went, people were always falling in love with her.
Every time I went to her house, I’d ask to see the box and we’d go through them together like good jokes at a campfire. Sometimes she’d remember one still clinging to the bottom of her backpack, and we’d put it in together, like it was for both of us. But really it was just for her.
She was thirteen when she had sex for the first time. She asked for my pocketknife, the one my cousin won for me at the fair, and carefully scratched a single line into the top of the box. Then she recounted it in breathless excitement. It happened in the back of a church with a Jewish boy named Nate. Incredible, she said. Magical. I tried to imagine what it would be like for me. For her it didn’t seem like such a scary awkward thing. But then again, she was Emma.
We sat together in Chemistry and the class was easy so that all we did was talk about sex and boys. She would be the one talking mostly about the sex, save for some of my embarrassing questions. She had only done it once, but she seemed to know everything. The thought of it churned and bubbled in my brain like the iodine mixtures we leaned over in class.
I would also ask a lot about what she thought of me and Ryan. She had dated Ryan before, so the thought of him was a big joke to her, but she could plainly see my heart dangling on the spider webs of her words, so she’d only smile and say, Why not? You guys are cute.
Emma had sex for the second time in May, around the time when Ryan and I started going out; as much as you could “go out” with someone in middle school, until he stopped sitting with me at lunch and punctually professed how we weren’t a good fit. I skipped the rest of the day and sat on the shit-smelling floor of the girl’s bathroom, choking tears into scattered squares of toilet paper. Emma stood by the door, dutifully, making sure that nobody would stumble in on me. I cried until it felt like my head was filled with fly paper. I cried until my breath came out like ripped ribbons, all tied up in each other, spilling and spilling out of my mouth like some deranged trick at a circus.
When I was done Emma took my head in her coffee-colored hands and told me over and over, you’re beautiful, you’re so beautiful, you’re so beautiful even when you cry.
She asked for my pocketknife and when I gave it to her, I watched numbly as she cut open a small part of her palm. She told me to do the same and when I did, she said that when the body bleeds it sends endorphins to your brain, and it makes you feel better. Then as hard as she could, she held our palms together, so the blood dripped together onto the tile like candle wax.
It felt like we were frozen in that dead silent moment together for days, as my fingers pressed against hers, my knuckles turning bone white, so many days that by the end I felt aged, older, closer to my grave. She finally pried our hands apart, now sticky with redness, and said, now we’re sisters. Now we’ll always be together.
That wasn’t the last time she asked for my pocket knife. She used it again to make another tally mark on her box, and then another, and then another. In the last month of school she asked for it seven times in class. Each time I’d slip it to her under the desk, she’d hide it in her palm and ask the teacher for a pass to the bathroom. She’d be gone for such a long time but then she’d come back and say thanks.
Anything you need.
That summer I spent every night at her house. We read Edgar Allen Poe to each other outside, reawakening those moments as kids where you could be made to believe anything. In the morning, when her mom went to work as a guidance counselor for summer schools in PG county, Emma would make me breakfast with eggs and peppers and toast. We’d go to the pool all day to scan for hot guys and then pretend we had boyfriends that were better than them. Emma was beautiful in her bathing suit, her toffee-colored skin smoothed by the dimming sun, even with the scars fading away into burnt colors.
At night she would pretend to sleep talk. I could tell she was faking. But I liked it. It was Emma’s way of telling me secrets.
By the time summer ended, Emma had started going out with Cole. He kissed her as she hung from the monkey bars.
Emma would be going to Albert Einstein High School, while I would go to Walter Johnson. Cole was going to Blair. It didn’t register that we would be apart. I guess I understood, but it felt like waking up from a bad dream and then freshly thinking that the horrible events that had just played out didn’t matter anymore, because they weren’t real anyway. Not in this world. Cole and I promised we’d see her every weekend anyways.
I watched the first week of school go by like broken film. My words were drowned out in the static of two thousand people who didn’t know me. I sat against the lockers at lunch with kids I didn’t care about. And after school everyday I’d call Emma and she’d tell me about all the guys already falling in love with her, much to the aggravation of Cole.
Emma’s days sounded like flurries of new people and exciting things that didn’t include me. She made it onto the cheerleader team. I tried to make the first game where she cheered, but it was too far away and I couldn’t get a ride.
When I finally started seeing this guy at school, the first person I had actually connected with in this overcrowded wasteland, I tried to call her to tell her all about it. She never picked up.
She called back a couple days later to say she had quit the cheerleader team. She never said why. I promised that I would try to make it to her neighborhood next weekend. But when I called to make plans, she never picked up. I spent that weekend with my new boyfriend instead. We went to my house and watched a movie on the couch, my body limp in his. It was fun only because for the first time, I felt like Emma.
But she stopped calling. When I called, she’d rarely pick up, and if she did she’d only say that she needed to get back to sleep.
Cole would call me, confused and voice hardened. He hadn’t seen her in weeks.
Until, nothing. A void.
When I called her parents they’d hang up on me as soon as they saw my number. I thought maybe she was sick, maybe she just got tired of me, maybe they’ve grounded her. But something hooked into my mind and rang sirens in my head that could be heard from space; if she died, her parents would have invited us to the funeral, right? We would hear something. We would know.
We knew nothing. I talked to Cole, night after night, his quiet tears stacking in his voice. Neither of us told our parents. They didn’t like Emma.
I learned to go through my day without thinking about it. Everything became mechanical. The guy I was seeing distracted me from the burning worries with love notes of my own. At first when we kissed and I felt his hands on me, I would instinctively remember everything Emma had said about sex being magical and incredible, but would quickly try to forget. Snow started floating down and he’d say I look beautiful with it sprinkled in my hair. But Emma was still caged in the back of my head, wherever I went. I half-expected to see her, spinning circles in the snow, knocking at my front door, as if she were to say, hey, I’ve been waiting for you. Rain eventually washed the snow away but still I felt her blood faintly pulsing under my skin, mixed with mine. Cole started to see other girls.
It wasn’t until I had been with this guy three months before I heard her voice again.
The voice was slurring, rotting. There was no hype, no bubbles, no drive. She was obviously drugged.
Emma explained that she had been committed to an institution after attempting suicide for the second time. Her only explanation was that she had started taking medication for depression, but the dosage had been changed around so much that she couldn’t adjust. She explained the process of dying. She had even written a will before she did it, leaving everything to me and Cole. Then her brother found her lying on the floor and called the hospital.
I couldn’t think of anything to ask besides, Are you okay? Are you okay?
She only laughed, but it was just a shadow of a laugh, a burn on toast. Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?
I saw Emma only one time between then and when she did it for a third time, this time strung out on coke. We decided to meet in Silverspring, so we could maybe get something to eat and walk around.
The air was sweet with approaching rain and the pavement shivered beneath rubber tires. People were everywhere, eating ice cream, laughing, fighting. My mom dropped me off on the sidewalk and promptly took off, as if she were scared to even look at Emma.
When I saw her she was across the street, her arms flew up in the familiar jean jacket and she cried my name. I called hers too and all at once no time had passed since that day we held our bleeding hands together on the floor of the girl’s bathroom. All of a sudden I was still there, watching, embracing every second, soaking in her skin but at the same time waiting for it to be over.
We went to get sandwiches together, but neither of us could eat. She told me everything about the institution as if it were only just a movie she had watched. Talking with the excitement that dripped from her voice as if she were still in eighth grade and describing sex to me.
Unexpectedly freeing, she said. It didn’t matter what I did, because I was already in the worst place they could put me.
Her toffee-colored hands fluttered as she talked about the people she’d met, and of course the sex she had with them. I asked if she ever thought about Cole.
She replied, everyday – but I already know he never wants to see me again.
I talked to her about the guy I was seeing and she said she was happy for me. She didn’t squeeze my hand or kiss my head or hold me with joy, no moons dangled in her eyes. She just said she was happy for me. I wanted to find the Emma that read to me in the night, and held me as I cried, and loved me when I was unloved and I wanted to tell her instead that I had a boyfriend now, and he can kiss me when I hang from the monkey bars, and we can have sex in the back of a church, and I can show you all the notes he writes me and I can tell you all about it now, I can share everything meaningful you’ve ever shared with me when I had nothing to offer you in return, but all I did was sip my water as Emma sat there and talked about committing suicide.