There is nothing to be done. The text message arrives. It is read. “Dan was killed last night.” I am driving. Then I am crying, once again thirteen-years-old and distraught over a boy I once loved.
I loved him in that way that a needy child loves an imaginary friend, he was a space filler, an invented, but prized and highly necessary persona to distract me from my sadness. That love did not carry over into the present tense; we hadn’t spoken in years. The person that he had become was foreign to me: burly, tattooed, truck-driving white dude, who loved Country Thunder and thin, white girls who look like strippers. I’ve got my share of tattoos, but I’m a queer woman of color and I wouldn’t be caught anywhere near country anything. Sometimes I like to give a good lap dance in private, but of course, that’s different… All we had was a decade or so of memories between us. Most of them were bad.
He used to harass me, when we were teenagers, saying mean things to me in the hall just to get a laugh out of his buddies. Once, he told a rather vocal and aggressive group of boys that he had fucked me behind a trash can. I couldn’t ride the bus to school after that. By the time graduation year rolled around, I hated him. Years later, when I assumed I had matured and gotten over that shit, I accepted his friend request on Facebook, ridiculed his posts and preposterous pictures for a few months, and then, apparently, I deleted him.
Finding out that he had been killed was like an earthquake in Montana, just about the last thing I’d ever expected. The permanence of death is something that is still new to me. In my adult life, he is the first person I know to have died. He was also the first person I had ever slept with. And I kept repeating that fact to myself and my friends for several weeks after his death. “He was my first…” “He was the first person I ever slept with…” “Dan, my first, is dead…” As if that was the encapsulation of our relationship together. And perhaps it was. He took something from me, and I had never forgiven him for it. And then the fucker was dead.
Letting go of grievances, imagined or real, is one of the most difficult things to do. How do you forgive a dead person? Forgiving people who are alive is hard enough.
It’s been a process for sure. It began with a surprising amount of grief and sadness. I’d be going along in my day and just burst into tears, as if I were mourning someone that had been a major part of my everyday life. I would stand underneath the shower and just stare. Stare at the see-through curtain and repeat, “Dan is dead.” It was such a weird feeling, that hollow space I sank into after his death. And then just like that, things changed.
I started to remember all the mean things he did to me. I started to feel guilty that I no longer stood in my shower bawling, but instead, stood there calling him names, recounting the hours he forced me to hide in his closet or under his bed and the times he cheated on me, and the secrets that I held so dear that he so readily revealed. I talked about him in therapy, thought of poems I could pen, I talked our shit to death. And I started to hate him all over again. Instead of feeling like I would be incapable of understanding his death, I suddenly felt incapable of honoring his life. I wanted to spit on his grave, yell at his memory, piss on the corner where he was killed. And I felt like the most horrible of scum because of it. How could I be so hateful to someone who’d just lost their life?
There came a point when I realized that I had to feel those things. I had to feel them after he’d died because I’d never felt them when he was alive. I never talked about the things he did. In my naive youth, I was never able to process his actions or my feelings. As an adult, I never wanted to. And then suddenly, I had no choice. I was laid bare before myself with no other path but to face up to the fact that yes, he had done me horribly wrong, and yes, he was now dead. And there was no moving forward without wading through the muck of both of those realities.
I’m not crying at random moments anymore; it feels like I’ve since stopped drowning in the shit and found a paddle boat to make my way through. I passed near where he was killed recently, and felt sadness, but no anger. I see his memorial picture sometimes, and I pause for a second and move on. I’m almost positive I’ll call him another son of a bitch or two before my life is done, but from where he’s sitting, I’m sure he’ll more than understand.