A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Remorse.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
memory that flows backwards is sorrow for everything that is over. the has been done same old same old everyone has a story. lack of better words. to give up talking about it. the future self isn’t going to show up. the frustration of being stuck in just one body. the plot of your life doesn’t make sense anymore. the desire to be struck by disaster. recognizing the opportune moment after the fact fading rapidly from your awareness. recurring negative thought bothered by the death of possibility.
maddeningly unknowable. the midpoint of your life. wishing to work through it. the skeleton of your psyche. the unnoticed excellence a malnourished soul. a series of jolting epiphanies from a moment that seemed innocuous. memory compressed into a handful of images endless buffering. borrowing anecdotes of cliché wisdom. never knowing what other people think of you. naming an experience in order to contain it. tomorrow arriving ahead of schedule. being invasively looked in the eye. exhaustion from expectation the hypothetical cage. a powerless scarecrow. accumulate emotional toxins.
CONCERNED CITIZEN wants to remove the aftermath of the architecture of remorse, i.e., to remove the tendency to tend towards a fire-up-all-the-engines reaction when someone deliberately hits CONCERNED CITIZEN with unexpected strategic silence. Nothing makes the CONCERNED CITIZEN feel so irritated so quickly as to be talking with an erstwhile friend, joking about mashed potatoes, and then—suddenly—they’re gone, and you have no idea why, but you’ve clearly done something that warrants feeling remorse—or maybe you haven’t. That’s the maddening point. You can guess, probably even guess with some degree of accuracy, because you’re pretty sure you’ve gotten okay at this “human” thing, but, all of a sudden: remorse, which means one ought to re-morse remorse, remove those particular ashen fishes from the swarming school of self and plant them squarely in a globe of “new” morse code that swirls and blinks like one of those Daft Punk robots wandering around and around and around a fishbowl in his house, wondering what it’s like to be a fish filled with glowing things at sea or, indeed, as Jeff Magnum might say, anything at all.
You are six, and you wear your emotions like a jacket. You can be sympathetic for fairies that get cold in the winter, sad for shoes that don’t have mates, or stunned by coins your uncle “pulls” from your ear. Your biggest fear in life is a house fire that could destroy your beloved stuffed animals.
So now, as your big brother taunts you, a rage of all rages boils deep within you; an anger that tickles your toes and moves up to your legs and nose until suddenly you are immobilized.
Use your words, your mom often tells you, and you can hear her voice warning you now in your head. But you know that all the mean playground words in your vocabulary could never justify this fury, this wrath.
You fumble for something, anything, around you. Your hand settles on a Nintendo 64 controller on the ground. It’s blue, circa 1997, and chunky as a brick. You don’t pause to think; you just wind your arm up like a baseball pitcher and hope the path to justice will be quick and smooth.
It is. The controller flies through the air, spinning once, twice, the cord following behind like an airborne snake. Your brother’s eyes widen as the blue blur arches toward him; for a moment it seems to freeze there in time. But—*SMACK*—it pounds directly into his forehead.
You stand with your fists at your side as a wail fills the living room. It’s your brother.
Now you feel a different emotion tugging at you. You know it should be regret. You know you will soon have to utter the five-letter word that begins with “S” as your mother watches. But for now, it’s not. You’re six years old, and you’re feeling satisfied.
Lloyd was my LTR, my BF, my BFF. Then my mother called his father a “piss-ant.” This was in the ’60s, long before the A-word was used in impolite society, so piss-ant was a substitute. We all went to the same church! I’d never heard this crude term; it sounded irredeemable. How mortifying was that? I wailed for three days, lost seven pounds, and developed a dark-eyed, haunted aura. The good news was the weight loss which made my hot-pink velvet mini-dress fit like Annette Funicello’s. I slipped it on, slipped out the window and met Lloyd down the street. We sneaked off to someone’s basement rock party where we kissed on shag carpets under dim swag lights.
On the walk home, I mentioned how sorry I felt that my mother had insulted his father and he said, What are you talking about? I said, Didn’t your mother tell you? He’d only known that there had been some argument. When I repeated the word “piss-ant” he looked shocked, as if he’d just been denied admittance to divinity school because of me. He canceled our upcoming Junior Prom date and that was it for us, forever. I felt a version of remorse . . . for expressing remorse.
A boy from band, Doug, an oboe player, became my mercy date for prom. I didn’t dig Doug who was nice, but plain. He’d waited too long to ask a girl he liked (a low-level percussionist). I was a serendipitous catch, for sure . . . first-chair flute, math club vice-president, honor roll. He arrived, suave, in an all-white tux. Doug was my consolation prize, but I didn’t feel consoled. Lloyd’s mother came by, weepy, to take my photo, which probably confounded my new date.
I’d applied a ton of cosmetics on blotchy skin and accentuated my eyes in thick black mascara. When we slow-danced past Lloyd, I saw him sucking face with a bleached blonde. I choked back most of the tears, but some escaped down my cheek. I wanted to make Lloyd jealous so I nestled tight into my date’s shoulder. Doug knew what I was doing. When the lights came up I saw, with horror . . . pink-brown-black on the front of his jacket. My makeup job destroyed his coat; it was irredeemable. He never knew it but, years later, I was really sorry.
Chris wanted to make out with me. I knew this because he handed me a yellow Post-it note, on which he’d written: “Will you make out with me? As friends?”
We were freshmen in college, spending another Saturday night cooped up in someone’s dorm room. I stared hard into the neon square in my hand. He wanted me to write back.
I wrote something like: “No thanks, I don’t see you that way.”
As friends or something more, I wasn’t tempted by the offer. Chris was what then I’d call a Bro; he always wore a backwards baseball cap, only listened to the Dave Matthews Band, and rocked a goatee.
When he finally left the room, I turned to my girlfriends and burst. They gaggled in response:
“A Post-it? Gross, was he going through my desk?”
“So he didn’t even have the balls to ask you in person?”
“Never mind in person, who asks something like that? It’s just . . . creepy.”
A rippling line of nods.
And from then on, we referred to him “Creepy Chris” behind his back.
The night I found out Chris died, I lay in bed and racked my brain for a legacy, some thin thread to connect myself so I could feel like an empathetic human being. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for the rest of our time in college. All I could think about was the Post-it, which led me to dwell upon the growing list of men who have somehow scorned me; by leading me on, beating around the bush, or sometimes just flat-out lying. I can only imagine all the time and tears saved if they wrote out exactly what they wanted. As little as I knew him, Creepy Chris may be the most honest male I have encountered in my life. He let me know exactly what he wanted, without romance and without shame.
He definitely didn’t have a cancer diagnosis as a freshman, but he had severe Crohn’s disease and a feeble immune system. He was sick all of the time. Maybe if I knew I could die in the next few years, I wouldn’t want to get into a committed relationship either. I would want to kiss whoever the hell was sitting next to me too, as friends. I would have forgotten the value of a good lie.
I’m sorry. I really am. I had no idea, you see, that you had such strong views on the subject. Or that you were so allergic.
It was just a joke, you see, I didn’t mean it. I thought you would find it funny. All the guys were laughing about it; beforehand, I mean. No one laughed afterwards. Apart from Brian, but I told him not to. Nobody likes Brian anyway. Because I didn’t know, you see. Who could? I mean, is it even something you can be allergic to? Is it really a thing? But, of course, it must be very hard to live with it. I understand that. Now. It’s just that you never mentioned it, so I didn’t know. And I didn’t realize that it would make you come out like, well, like that. On your face too. I mean, there’s no getting away from that; it’s everywhere. That’s tough. Not that you really notice, obviously. From over here I can’t really even see it. I promise. Especially with the bandages on, they cover it really well. They make it look quite—how should I put it?—topographical, you know? Like a map of the Lake District or something. It’s really impressive.
Does it always make you so violent? That was surprising. You were amazingly accurate, considering you couldn’t see. Don’t worry, Kevin is going to be okay. He said he had always wanted a scar; just not there, I guess. Was that judo? Or karate? Hidden talents, eh? Anything else I should know about? Anything?
And how is your leg? Does it itch? That was quite a turn of pace. In the dark, with no shoes on. And a couple of feet to the left and you would have missed that tree completely. You would have been fine. Very wet, but otherwise okay. The paramedic was very nice though, wasn’t she? And that doctor. They took a few photos but I’m pretty sure that it was legitimate. They’re almost certainly, definitely not on the Internet by now.
You have a really nicely-shaped head, by the way. That’s a positive isn’t it? I wouldn’t have known that if you still had all your hair. I think it’s nice that we’re still finding out new things about each other. Like, I had no idea that you were so allergic.
About which, I am, of course, very sorry.
From the seventh floor, I see the tips of trees that grow in the garden behind the building. Leaves begin to lighten yellow on the tips. I’ve put patio chair cushions out on the fire escape and opened the windows as far as they’ll go and climb out to have my coffee. Make use of those iron bars. Whether I deserve it or not, I’ll take it. Sometimes I can’t separate memories from dreams, dreams from gossip, gossip from superstitions. Scraps and fractures, I try to piece time together, in order. Circles, spheres, punctures. Once he said, “I forgive you. Always, I forgive you.” Would he now? I climb back inside, go to the table that faces the wall and try again. Get it down on paper. That’s what I’m told. Make sense of it. We were young. He used to joke and that’s the part I can’t stand now. He used to joke that whatever we did would be something we’d be telling people years after, about that girl he loved, about that boy I loved and how we’d met in Korea during that crazy time, and we were part of it, the great change. And that change has happened. Korea is a better, more democratic place now. Back in 1985, it wasn’t. And here I am saying to people: Yes, back then, there was this boy I loved. He was sweet and he loved me. And everything I said and everything I did seemed exactly right.
I have two hours before I leave for work. It’s not work to say much about. He would have expected something else from me. We walked by bookstore windows and he said, “Someday I’ll see your book.” And I said, “That will never happen.” I wish I hadn’t said that. Can you say things and make them come true? When I said it, I couldn’t imagine it would matter. How careless we could be.
“If ‛Ignorance Is Bliss’ I’d rather be stupid!!”
I once spray painted those words across the concrete interior wall of my college dormitory room. I had already burned through three or four college majors in search of something truly inspiring. I’d begun to consider that I might be happier if my favorite people weren’t all dead authors. And there had been Billy and Joe.
Billy and I grew up on the same street. The last time we spoke, I accused him of becoming a druggie. I had fallen for the “pot is a gateway drug” theory and worried about all the joints we had shared. Only after he was in a coma, from a car accident in which he had been in the back seat, did I hear from his best friend how much my accusations had wounded him and that they were false.
Joe was the best friend of my high school sweetheart. We sat next to each other in Chemistry our senior year. Only after his suicide, a year later, did I discover the notes we’d passed neatly pressed inside his yearbook between the pages which I had signed AND that he had never let one other soul write in that book.
So, yeah, I thought I knew a few things about guilt, grief and remorse.
Then I became a mother.
My falling-asleep insomnia disappeared immediately. With motherhood came the ability to hit the pillow and be unconscious almost simultaneously.
There was always something over which to obsess.
Will I be able to keep her safe?
Can I effectively model health and happiness?
What can I do better?
I once imagined throwing myself a party when they were all eighteen. The theme would be: “Whew! I did it! Nothing catastrophic on my watch!”
And now, here I am with three brilliant, awe-inspiring, compassionate ADULT daughters. But, I never did feel like throwing that party.
Magically, no matter where in the world they may be, I still fall asleep when my head hits the pillow. Sadly, there is not a night that I don’t lay awake, at some point in the wee hours, after having risen to pee, wondering what I could have done better. Goddess bless you, my angels, I tried.
—Suzy Anand Garfinkle
I didn’t go to his funeral. Not the one everyone wanted me to go to. Mom cried about it. I didn’t tell her why I didn’t go. It was between me and him. I wasn’t going to stand there in my ill-fitting suit and my red checked tie that mom got me some Christmas years back and watch Dad getting lowered into the grass. The ground is so hard. Northern Ohio is cold in January. Bitter, like my family was when I said I wasn’t coming. Mom, my brothers, my sister—I didn’t tell any of them. So, on that Sunday afternoon, when the minister said his words and the choral group sang their songs, and there were tears and laughter and more tears, I got into my Dad’s Cleveland Browns jersey and went to the game. Why didn’t I ever go to a game with him? I found the whole thing so stupid for so many years. It’s just a game, Dad. Just thugs on the grass. The ground so hard as they smash themselves into oblivion. No, Dad. I won’t go to a Cleveland Browns game with you. It’s a waste of time. And it’s cold, Dad. Bitter, like he probably was every time I said no. He’d go with Marcus or Finn but never with me. And then thing is, Dad, it’s the 4th quarter and the Browns are up 24–19 and holding the Colts at bay. The game is fun. I’m laughing at this whole scene. Laughing, not because it’s stupid, but because you didn’t think it was. You thought this game on this field was something like life, distilled. Elemental. And it is elemental, like death, like grief. (They just won, Dad. They just won. You can’t hear me but maybe you can hear the crowd screaming like mad, screaming cold and beautiful.)
It was my first trip to Europe. I was not young but not old. We landed at Tegel airport in Berlin and the thing I noticed when we got off the plane is there were fewer people. There was less mass to the crowded terminal. You would have noticed, too. Because we fed people. That was our job when we knew each other. We catered parties and talked about the guests and the hosts sometimes. I’m not sure if you ever visited another country or not, in your life. I wouldn’t know who to ask now. We took the train to Schoenhauser Alle. It was the day after Christmas and there were few Germans on the train. We slept in a ground floor apartment with big windows. In the morning I walked down the street and found an Internet café and the email said you had died on the 23rd of December. I hadn’t known you were sick again. I never thought to ask. I remembered the last day we worked together before I left, in the late summer. Driving back in the van that night you said your back hurt and then I hadn’t given it a second thought. The memorial was that day, said the email. When I had driven to Boston to catch the flight you were in the morgue. There was nowhere else you could have been. Between death and the service. Red hair on a table. It couldn’t have been far from where I was driving to the airport. We never got along. Deborah. Deb-BOR-rah. That’s the way you pronounced it. Oil and water, someone called us once. I couldn’t understand you, and what I thought was incredible, unforgivable bluntness. I was tired a lot. Up all night. Short with the other chefs. You annoyed me constantly, managing the events. And most other people also. You were proud of your job. Too proud, we thought. The raises you got. Four of them, apparently, over the years. I thought none of that was for me, that it didn’t matter at all. But you never held a grudge, and I could never figure that out. Every day things seemed to start over. With no bad feeling. You gave me clues then, in your way, suggesting books for me to read. Sometimes we sat together in the van and read our books. Often early evening at rush hour, in the winter, darkness. Other people headed home to their families. I think now you were trying harder than I thought.
My eighth-grade English class assignment was to write new lyrics to a well-known song. I was so proud of what I wrote that I volunteered to read my assignment to the class. The song: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” My new title for it: “Livin’ on Welfare.”
Yep, I had composed a song about people on public assistance. With lines like “Take my mush [you know, because people on welfare eat mush] and we can share,” I believed my wordsmithing showcased Weird Al–level cleverness.
Again, I read the whole thing out loud.
Soon thereafter, I found out that a girl in my English class was on welfare. In my sheltered middle class upbringing, it never occurred to me that someone I knew might be on public assistance. And as part of a family that spews sarcastic barbs religiously, I had yet to grasp that I had inherited an uber-obnoxious sense of humor.
Upon realizing that “Livin’ on Welfare” was highly insensitive, I felt terrible. Yet I couldn’t apologize to my classmate, who I’ll call Sharon, because I’d heard she didn’t want people knowing about her situation. I also wouldn’t have known what to say.
It’s a memory that still makes me want to crawl into a hole. Even though it was twenty-five years ago. Even though I have worked with and advocated for low-income and underserved populations since then. And even though I long ago learned that my family’s version of humor—making fun of people under the guise of “all in good fun”—often made us a bunch of meanies. In spite of all this, I still cringe over the thought of those lyrics I wrote.
For Sharon’s part, she was fittingly unpleasant to me in future classes we shared. But as luck would have it, after high school, we ended up with mutual friends and we attended the same parties during college breaks. We actually became friendly, much to my relief. It was a huge moment when she told me how different I was than she previously thought.
I was monumentally different than the eighth grader who wrote that song. In fact, that incident kicked off a journey throughout my adolescence of becoming less sheltered and, well, less of a sardonic twit.
The fact that a 1980s hair band played a significant role in making me a better person? That’s just my cross to bear.
In the kitchen, Paul poured himself another glass of warm tap water and listened to the sound of his neighbor beating his dog. The dog—a Dalmatian named Rocket—was prone to digging holes underneath the fence and escaping. Several times, Paul had come home to find his neighbor’s boys standing barefoot outside in the yard calling for the dog but Rocket always came back after a week or two. Why he did Paul couldn’t figure, but when he said this out loud, his wife, Jeanette, responded, “The devil you know.”
Paul picked up his phone but didn’t dial. If he were beating his kids, he thought. This was something he’d been anticipating for months but it hadn’t happened. The boys roamed freely throughout the neighborhood, though their mother rarely appeared outside. The youngest child, a seven-year-old, had been caught by the mailman taking a shit in Mrs. Everett’s side yard but no one could bring themselves to say a word for fear of what might happen at home.
The sound of the beating intensified. He could hear the dog whimpering and started to dial nine, then one, and stopped. Was this what you called the police for? Could he make the call anonymously, or would someone take down his name and address and make an official record that led from the mess next door right back to his kitchen and this very moment?
He put the phone down, rinsed the glass he was using and dried it, then walked back to the bedroom where Jeanette lay in bed.
“Is it over?” she whispered when he slipped under the blanket.
“I think it’s winding down,” he said.
She turned on her side to face him across the pillow.
“What would you do,” she asked, “if it were me?”
Paul thought she must be half-asleep, that he’d woken her from a dream.
“If it were you, I’d save you,” he said. “I’d kill him if it came to that.”
Jeanette sighed and lay on her back.
“No, no, no,” she said. “If I were doing it.”
“You could never do anything like that,” Paul said. “I know you.”
They didn’t speak again, and eventually her breaths grew longer and deeper. He lay awake and listened but the neighbor’s house was silent. Everything around him was still.
“I’d turn you in,” he said. “I’d have to.”
But she was already asleep.
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.