It was a Friday night. I was that age, in my mid-thirties, when the world is still something that you drape over your shoulders, something you can still flick like a cigarette across a city street. My friend, Jung, was receiving a cake at her meeting that night to celebrate a year of abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
Friday night had always been a night of promise. It was a night when, in my twenties, I imagined that something was about to happen. Somebody was about to arrive. Friday was like a doorway, a corridor to some other place where life finally happened. The anticipation of it was probably the most enjoyable part.
That Friday night when I went to see my friend Jung at her meeting, it felt like anything could happen. Outside was the brown, burnt smell of the desert that had baked all day in the sun. The sun was twisting down its dial. Life was just a little ways ahead, as I rode down the freeways, where headlights illuminated the dirty Los Angeles air.
When I arrived at the meeting, Jung was clutching her face; the woman next to her twisted a tissue in her hand. The men looked down at their old shoes, their wrinkled faces expressionless. “I knew Rick well,” one woman shared in a somber voice that had years of cigarette smoke in it, even though she had quit almost two decades earlier.
“Rick?” I whispered to Jung. Her friend, Lorraine, nodded her head with dramatic flair, as if she thought someone might be watching. Like all good-looking L.A. women, Lorraine had cultivated the habit of assembling and arranging her expressions and gestures for an imagined audience, as if every microscopic movement were being filmed, zoomed in on, broadcast across the city.
The sofas slumped beneath us, in brown and olive-green lumps. It was a café where we’d all gone to meetings for at least four or five years.
“Rick,” I thought and felt something float out of me. I didn’t know Rick well, but he always talked to me in my early days when I was struggling.
Nobody knew how he’d died, but there were hints of ideas, suppositions floating around the room. “He relapsed,” one said. “He stopped coming to meetings.” “He had problems with depression.” Before the group closed the meeting, they stood silently in prayer for him.
When Jung, Lorraine, and I walked outside, the street felt different. The Silverlake neighborhood in Los Angeles was usually tinged yellow by the streetlights like a jaundiced patient. The buildings were rundown and whatever light came from them was like the leftover glow of an all-night party. Tonight, those same lights were electrified, lit up along the grid.
Jung’s friend, Lorraine, swung her hair around and, once we arrived at the small-but-crowded Italian restaurant across from the meeting, said things like, “Oh, these are the exact tablecloths they have in my favorite restaurant in Rome.” Jung seemed not to be listening. Like me, she was thinking of Rick. “Rick was so young. Fifty-two. Rick dying—it make you think about life,” Jung said. Jung and I both looked around the restaurant, looked at each other. She, with her full, fleshy face and I with my angular one, were so different and yet, in that moment, of the same mind. Perhaps we both felt what people often feel after someone dies—an impulse to take life and do something with it, take those wildly bucking minutes and keep them from running out the door.
“Do you think he kill himself?” Jung asked. “Who knows?” Lorraine said, swinging her hair again in one fast motion. “You just don’t know about people,” she continued, her words like a group of audition-hungry actresses elbowing each other, knocking each other down.
I thought about Rick, holed up at the end, bottles piled and strewn around him, the curtains down, the phone off. This was the same Rick who’d seemed overwhelmed by the life he had found in recovery. When he spoke, he almost always choked up in that way people do when they have too many words and don’t know what to do with them. He was one of those who had gone so far down in his addiction that every day stretched out like a miracle in front of him. I envied people like Rick during my early years of recovery, which mostly felt like one long, drawn-out moment, stretched drearily over four or five years. I thought about Rick’s last days. Maybe it was too much for him—feeling all that. Maybe the dead old life seemed easier than one so wildly alive and widely awake.
Jung locked her arm in mine as we left, walked past the watery yellow lights of Silver Lake. “You my good friend,” she said, a sad, downward tilt in her voice. “We see each other more. We have to.” “Yeah, I know,” I said, thinking that we would. We would see each other more. I would do more writing. I would find a way to find life or keep life, to not let it go so fast, to keep track of it instead of letting it run amok. I could feel, and wondered if Jung could too, the spirit of Rick spinning around somewhere out there, as we remained among the living. “We see each other soon,” Jung said again, as she walked away. I don’t think we actually saw each other for another four or five months. She was busy. I was busy. Still, it really only took a couple of days for that sacred and strange feeling one has after someone dies to all but disappear.
The following New Year's, I and millions of other people watched the ball coming down on television. We counted down the numbers to our fresh start, a new coat to slip into. As with every New Year’s, everyone was sure that something was about to happen and they would need to put their hands around it, harness it fast.
I thought I’d grabbed hold of life once before after a car accident I had while zonked out on pills. I heard the other car smack into mine and felt it spin me around. The airbag broke against my face, puffing out smoke. Crowds gathered. My car sat pinned against a rusted-out, abandoned gate. When the ghostly figures spoke to me and I answered, I realized that I was not dead. Later that evening, I sat with my boyfriend in the L.A. coffee shop and spoke in holy, hushed tones about life. He quoted lines from songs and poems he’d written, thrusting his voice against one lyric in particular about an ex-girlfriend. Still, even with him there, the moment looked sacred. I watched the people sitting, laughing, talking, illuminated by the light from the synthetic fire-pit.
The week the Pope came to visit, five years after Rick died, everyone felt that same need to seize life, to take it and shake it, keep it from wriggling away. I was in my early forties and, while finally mostly happy, I sometimes fielded complaints from my inner child about my hour-long commutes, my small apartment, my neighbors, about too many papers to grade, too much traffic outside my window. Then, there was this pope, a seventy-eight-year-old going for hours, days, meeting with prisoners, impoverished children. Like many who watched and listened, I wasn't much of a Catholic but was nonetheless transfixed. On his second day, the news reported that he had sciatica. Still, he rolled down the streets in his modest little car, past thousands. Still, he kissed the hundreds of babies his secret service handed to him. Still, he held masses and always maintained a message of love. Next to him, I was a spiritual string bean. Mass after mass, millions of people collected in city after city, attending sermons about love and family for three days straight.
There was that same feeling that life was waiting to be lived. We couldn’t just hang out and kick it around like a ball. There were parades and cavalcades. There were grand, parading words, embroidered, silken robes, calls to heal the sorrow in our war-torn world. There was the pope’s visit to a Philadelphia prison, where he clasped the inmates’ hands, even embraced one in a wheelchair.
In some ways, the pope’s departure left a feeling of relief, as the news returned to politics and crime; I had felt the same relief a week or so after Rick’s death, when I could go back to feeling life as an ordinary thing. An old coat you could always put on.
The day after the pope left, I walked out into the courtyard of my apartment complex and spoke with my neighbor, a woman I usually found annoying. She spoke sentences as long as anything. I thought about the Pope speaking words of kindness to murderers and rapists, and I smiled beneficently at her. I imagined the soul in her, clean like an unstained sheet stretched beneath her skin. I imagined her as me and me as her. I listened to the freeway running behind us, up and down the coast of California. And thought about the people on it, searching for something that once found was perhaps too terrifying to touch, too alive to hold onto.