Claire Bidwell Smith responds to Stephen Elliott’s Letter In The Mail



I was thinking about your letter for a while last night.

The spring my mother died, when I was eighteen, I dropped out of college for a while and moved back home to Atlanta to live with my dad. Atlanta felt weird though, quiet and cold and dead. All my high school friends were off living their freshman year of college, like I was supposed to be, and so most nights I just sat around the living room with my dad. We watched HBO and smoked cigarettes in the house and he always poured an extra tumbler for me of whatever he was having, usually scotch or gin. 

After a couple of weeks of this I started hanging out with this group of guys who had just moved out of a halfway house and into their own place. There were six or seven of them and I knew them peripherally through an ex-boyfriend. That boyfriend was in New York now and besides, he’d shown up only once that spring and completely neglected to address the fact that my beautiful mother had died. The very one he’d spent a year and a half admiring and even sometimes helping back to bed after she threw up from chemo when I wasn’t strong enough to do it myself. So I felt okay about appropriating his friends. 

Like I said, they’d just moved out of a halfway house and were living in their own house, this completely benign-looking suburban place with shutters and a front stoop and a basketball hoop in the driveway. Some family had lived their once, kids had probably learned to ride tricycles on the sidewalk out front, and now it was full of these 19-year old boys who slept until noon and still dreamed about using heroin, or whatever it was they’d been hooked on. 

That house was the first place I felt safe after my mother died. It was the first place where I felt comfortable being the girl I had suddenly become in her absence. Those guys understood something about me that I didn’t even understand yet. They never questioned why I was there and they never tried to make me feel better about what was wrong with my life. They just let me be, and it was exactly what I needed.

After a while I began to feel like the Wendy to their Lost Boys. I’d show up after noon, toting cookies or lunch, and a notebook filled with my morose poetry. The door was always unlocked, one or two of the guys lurking around the kitchen or the living room, all the blinds pulled tight against the harsh Southern sun, ashtrays full, a David Lynch movie playing on mute on the television. Almost all the guys worked at Starbucks — it was the first year of it, when it still held this brief coolness — so there was always a French press brewing on the kitchen counter, somebody keeping a careful eye on the digital timer.

My favorite of the guys was named Daniel. He was a little older, in his early twenties, and his bedroom was actually the dining room, a long rectangular room with draperies and moldings that were incongruent to the posters he’d tacked on the wall. Daniel was wildly brilliant and also, I now know, manic-depressive. I’d spend the afternoon sitting on the floor by his bed, reading my awful mother-loss poems to him while he chain-smoked and ran his hands through his hair manically and talked about how fucked up and beautiful my words were. After that I’d let him disappear into some weird statistics book while I wandered back to the rest of the house, to the rest of the guys. 

Although I liked them all, for different reasons, the one I had a crush on, Parker, was this tall, ghostly punk rock kid. He was vegan and straight edge, and even though I knew nothing about those things, I couldn’t help being drawn to his strangely pale skin, his spiky hair and haunted eyes. One night we got in my car at two in the morning and drove all the way across the state line to Tennessee, just for something to do. We parked near the aquarium and stood on top of park benches and blew plumes of smoke up into the night sky. I knew nothing would ever happen between us, but I liked knowing that he was there, alongside me.

After a few months I started to drift back to my old friends. I went to Europe for a while too, trekking around and giving myself over to whatever presented itself. I’d return now and then to the house where those guys lived, and it was still comforting, but never like it was in those first weeks after my mother’s death. The guys had begun to get restless; they didn’t need each other as much anymore either. And I had a new boyfriend, one who would suck me into a black hole of alcohol and darkness for the next five years. I could already tell he wouldn’t like me hanging around with a bunch of ex-addicts. 

I don’t remember the last time I went to the house, probably in the summer of that year. But I will never forget the feel of the doorknob, cool and solid in my palm, the darkness of the rooms, and the way I could instantly breath deeper than I’d been able to all day. Sometimes at night I still return to that house in my head, just to feel safe again, if even for a moment.




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Claire Bidwell Smith is the author of The Rules of Inheritance (Penguin, 2012) and the forthcoming After This (Penguin 2015). She is a therapist specializing in grief and lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →