I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not? Dull is dull is dull is my life.
These are the first words I read as I opened the book Mathilda Savitch, a novel my mother lent me in her campaign to draw me away from my beloved nonfiction into the world of novels. I flipped a few more pages in and read:
There is so little imagination in the world. A person like me is basically alone. If I want to live in the same world as other people I have to make a special effort.
I befriended this narrator immediately—not necessarily because I agreed with her, but because I believed her.
It reminded me of this interview in which Stephen Elliott explains that there are two types of writers: writers that fell in love with literature and therefore wanted to be writers, and writers that had something in them at a young age that had to come out; screamers. I’m a screamer that likes to read other peoples screams. And Victor Lodato perfected the scream that he gave to Mathilda Savitch.
Mathilda Savitch is a funny and dark and moving work about an irreverent girl coping with her sister’s death. She is heartbroken and devastated and she needs her mother, but her mother is heartbroken and devastated and unavailable.
Mathilda Savitch helped me find a way to write about a suicide that I’ve never been able to write—or even think—properly about.
In my room I look in the mirror. It’s amazing how it’s the same face every time. The clock ticks, everything is normal but there’s a feeling of suspense in my stomach. What will happen, who will you become? Sometimes I wish time would speed up so I could have the face of my future now.
I thought like that too when I was her age, twelve or thirteen, and I think like that now. What will I look like when I’m 29? 53? Will I get married? What will I cook, what will I read, how will I feel, will I eat meat, who will I sleep next to, what kind of mascara will I use?
For my own amusement, I used to survey people at bars in New York. I typed up inappropriate questions and handed them out. One of the reoccurring questions was, “What stops you from killing yourself?” The common answer was “curiosity.”
Maybe that’s what bonded me so much with Mathilda. People we loved killed themselves, and we had to accept the fact that we didn’t want to.
The book begins a few days prior to the one-year anniversary of Mathilda’s older sisters death. Helene was a 16-year-old manic-depressive, a redhead who wore seaweed green earrings.
I have a sister who died. Did I tell you this already? I did but you don’t remember, you didn’t understand the code. She died a year ago, but in my mind sometimes it’s five minutes. The thing is, Helene died from a train. That’s the problem. She didn’t jump, a man pushed her. We don’t know who this man was and the police say, at this point, we probably never will. What kind of person pushes another person in front of a train? Does it hold meaning for the pusher? The explanation of most people is madman.
But a madman didn’t push Helene. Helene jumped into the tracks. Mathilda knows this, but chooses to lie to herself and also to the reader for almost half of the book. Mathilda sees a therapist she calls “the tree” because he looks like one.
Nobody pushed her, the tree said. Suicide, he said as if he were talking to a retarded person, as if I didn’t know what the stupid word means.
In her recent interview with the Guardian, Karen Green—widow of David Foster Wallace—says: “When the person you love kills himself time stops, it just stops at that moment. Life becomes another code, a language that you don’t understand.”
Next Thursday it will be the day Helene died all over again. I marked it on my calendar like this: H.S.S.H… Ma and Da haven’t said anything about the big day. I want H.S.S.H. to be a day we all remember. If Ma and Da think I’m going to ignore it then they’ve got another thing coming.
I met the first man that would make a lasting mark on me on the same afternoon I moved to New York City. It was down pouring. His name was “Ryder” and he was manic and intense and kind, and he instantly became my friend and lover who would show me the ropes of New York. I was incredibly impressionable and I idolized him. When he fell asleep at night I’d walk around his room running my fingers over his books, reading his notebooks and smoking his cloves. I must have been aware that I was in an artist’s bedroom; a mentally ill person’s bedroom. I was enchanted and I was in love and I was afraid. I was 20 and he was 26. Just a bit over one year later, on his twenty-seventh birthday, he hung himself.
It’s a peculiar drive, grief is. I remember poring though his copy of Junky that he let me have. (“Keep it, keep it, I have two!”) It was one of the first moves I made after he died. I was looking for something—anything! A ticket stub, an underline, a coffee stain. I found nothing. It was four years in May that he’s been dead. I’ve never read the book.
Death is a joke, almost. You can’t honestly believe it. I remember the day Helene bought the Bhagavad-Gita. She had it with her at the dinner table and she read all of us a passage. I was able to find it because it’s one she underlined. When Arjuna saw many of his friends and relatives in the opposing army, he became overwhelmed, confused, and filled with compassion. The scraggly pencil line is so pale it makes you want to cry.
Mother’s Day was a few days after Ryder’s death. I was sitting on my fire escape in Williamsburg and called my mom. She was upstate. I couldn’t speak. “Maybe you should come home tonight,” she said. I went straight to Grand Central. When I got off the train two hours later, my mother was waiting for in the muggy night with open arms. My mother listened to me talk while she drove me home. My mother was on my heels behind me as I trudged up the stairs to her bed. My mother held me in the night while I shook and cried. My mother was next to me in the morning.
But Mathilda’s mother is too broken to be there for Mathilda right now.
Sometimes I think I should go to her, I should climb into bed with her. But the thing is, after Helene died I cried for months and months but Ma was deaf. After Helene died I was basically alone. Da was there but that’s not the issue. Da is Da, Da isn’t my mother. A person’s mother is a whole different story. A person’s mother is supposedly a big part of a person’s life. You should see her eyes sometimes. Plus, she’s not even a mother anymore. She’s just a planet with a face. Da, at least has hands. And is Ma drunk again is the other question but whose asking. Shut up and mind your business, I think. She’s a free man in Paris. Which is a song Ma used to sing when there were songs in the house. Ancient history.
I hadn’t a clue of what to do with myself the first summer he was gone. I had a job, an apartment and I had vodka and people that loved me and I would never kill myself. I didn’t have the suicide chip. So I jumped in the East River. Sober. I bleached my hair and cut my dresses short. I repeatedly listened to “Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams. I printed out his 32 MySpace messages to me and glued them in my brother’s first edition copy of HOWL by Allen Ginsberg. I took shots and got sloppy and sobbed in bars until my best friend was walking me home with her arm around my shoulder while I clutched onto her for dear life. I collapsed on the couch after orgasms and yelled his name in a desperate voice I did not recognize. It was so stupidly sunny all the time and my lover was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. When I read through my journals from that summer, I am clearly full of rage and bewilderment. I was angry with him for dying in the summer.
It happened on a Wednesday, which is such an ordinary day. It happened in the middle of the afternoon. It’s funny, it didn’t even rain the day of the funeral. Nothing was right about it. I’m telling you, I’ve seen funerals on movies and T.V. and Helene’s was a total sham. If it rains on H.S.S.H. I’ll be happy. Well, not happy, exactly. But I’ll have the feeling that someone’s been listening. Rain is the least they could give me.
What do we expect—for people to die on Fridays at four a.m. in the dead of winter? What would make us accept deaths more easily? Nothing. We will find things to be wrong about any day or any season or any hour that any kind of love dies. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, spring, summer, winter, fall, one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four.
The thing is, Helene was supposed to live forever. That’s just the kind of person she is. You always felt she had some secret power that was going to make her immortal. I wish I could describe to you the color of her hair but there’s nothing to compare it to. People say the hair was like pennies, but it was better than that.
She could have been talking about Ryder. He too had the secret power and hair like pennies, but it was from a bottle. The first time I slept with him I held it out of his face with my hands, ruminating in my mind how I was sleeping with the eccentric lover that I was always supposed to sleep with. You know, that kind of lover. The kind that wants to sit on the floor and smoke pot and show you their baby pictures all night. The kind of person that tries on your roommate’s green fur coat and kisses you on the fire escape and then goes into the bathroom to do heroin and comes out and asks you to braid his hair. The kind that can turn on you at any moment. The kind that makes every following relationship look pale.
When a person is beautiful you never think they are really suffering, even when they are. Sometimes I wonder if secretly I’m an idiot. As for Helene’s sadness I know all about it. She really had two sides to her. Most people only saw the sunny side. The dark side pretty much stayed in the house. She had this place she went to sometimes inside of herself, and it wasn’t all windows, like her dream house. It was all mirrors.
Mathilda is determined to break into her sister’s email address. She sits at the computer for hours, guessing the password.
The word was California. Which is the one place H. said she was going to live when she was older. When I typed it into the computer there was a pause and then I heard the music that plays when you open your mail. I don’t know that I can describe to you the feeling. It was like a gift from god. My first thought was to send an email to one of Helene’s old boyfriends. My heart pretty much stopped when the idea hit me. It’s brilliant when you think about it.
Mathilda has balls. It takes her a while, but she sends an empty email to Louis, who is Helene’s most recent and most intense lover. Mathilda knows this because she searched all around Helene’s room and found printed out emails from him, hidden in zipped up stuffed animals.
Louis doesn’t know Helene is dead. Mathilda emails back and forth with him, pretending to be Helene, and agrees to take the train to his house.
Mathilda is on the train platform to go see Helene’s (ex) lover:
Through the glass doors I can see people waiting on the platform. I don’t see a girl in a blue coat, with red hair. Not that I expect to. I’m just saying I don’t.
Right. Exactly. When someone you love dies, you never stop looking for him or her. That’s what The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion gets at. Where they are is a mystery. Life turns into thinking about where someone isn’t.
I’m Helene’s sister, I say.
He takes a step back.
Where is she?
Where do you think she is? I ask him. Please please have the right answer is the thought in my head.
I don’t know, he says. I have no fucking idea.
Louis is pissed. He thinks this is some kind of sick joke. The truth is, he is in his early thirties and Helene was 16. Mathilda puts two and two together and finds out that he and Helene had conceived. Mathilda decides not to tell Louis she’s dead. She tells Louis that Helene got an abortion and fell in love with the boy next door.
I wonder if that was mean, telling him she’s in love with someone else. I don’t want her to die again. At least, for Louis, she won’t be dead. He won’t have to think of her in a box in the ground and not even know what shoes she’s wearing down there. It will be his job to keep her in one piece. And he’ll do a better job than me because he won’t feel sick every time he sees a train.
A chapter later they are sitting side by side on Louis’s bed.
“You look like her.”
“I don’t look anything like her.” I don’t know why it comes out angry.
“I would know you were her sister,” he says.
It’s probably the saddest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
Sometimes you need someone to tell you something. I got off the Amtrak this past fall and told my mom I thought I was in love. “How many times have I gotten off of this train and told you that?” I asked.
“Ryder,” she said. “He was your first big love. You were crazed.”
I was surprised by her words. They took a minute to settle. I’d started to doubt myself, my memory. But someone else remembered. I fucking thought so, I thought in my head.
On the train home from Louis’s, Mathilda says:
“The idea of a lover holds a lot of hope for me.”
Isn’t this the universal mantra? That’s how I felt when I was 12 or 13, too. That’s how I feel now.
“Why don’t you? Why don’t you just do it?” In my head I could hear myself saying the words again. But tell me, how was I supposed to know she wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to kill herself? How could something like that be true? But there are weak people in the world and there are strong people and if there’s just one rule it’s that you protect things that are weaker than you whether it’s animals or whether it’s humans. It doesn’t matter if you’re jealous of them or wish they’d love you more. It’s my big failure. If you want you can write a big F on my shirt.
Ryder sent me a text message the night he died: “All alone on my bday. How cliché.” The old emails from him leading up to it: “Been painting a lot… I miss the hell out of u my darling… I’m so miserable these days… yet I can barely find the inspiration to write a suicide note… it’s horrible.”
I have a dozen Word documents on my computer with variations of the label, “Ryder.” I couldn’t do it. I wanted to find the perfect sentence, the perfect emotion, and the perfect description of him. But suicide is an elusive thing. Death is an elusive thing. People are elusive things. There is no sentence. And if this is the only way I can write about him—by weaving him in and out of the words of Mathilda Savitch—then c’est la vie. The heartache, if it ever went away, has surfaced from writing this. But this time I’m not killing it. I’m letting it lead a life of it’s own.
Mathilda, of course, can explain how I feel better than I can:
The best stories are like that. They’re like spaceships. They take you somewhere far away and you think, oh, what a weird place. But then you think, wait, maybe I’ve been here before. Maybe I was even born here.