Drowning in a sea. A sea of stupid questions. What if? But what if? My baby was gone, that I knew. I could feel my heart drop into the void of oblivion and I knew… the fetus had not survived, had never had a chance. Like father, like fetus. But I was drowning, ever was I drowning. My life, with all its desperate emptiness was fading away like fear in a pool light. But the pool of light that could melt all a girl’s fear wasn’t coming for me, not really. Rather, it was leaving me, like so many before it. A veil of desolate darkness embraced me, closing in like sleep. And so I wondered to myself, knowing I would soon find out but never really know the answer, “does death really feel like falling asleep?”
In truth I didn’t care. But what do I know about the truth? What does anyone really know about anything? You see, I choose to believe that, at the end of the day, the Grand Spirit delivers us all somewhere else. Somewhere where we are all grasped by the infinite and impartial hand of equality. At the end of the day, we are all nothing. There is only a place with nondescript souls wandering through it and the Grand Spirit a governing hand. And that place is the home of many things, including peace.
So, at long last, I was headed to peace. Because I was drowning.
About my drowning. If your poor soul has become somehow invested in me and my tragic story, then you’ll want to know more about my drowning. I was in the middle of karma. It had finally come for me, deciding to pull me under and level the mountains and valleys I had built myself; it was time to get even. Now, I don’t want to tell you why exactly it was so ironic that I would meet the Grand Spirit through drowning. But I will try to tell you how I ended up there. But where to start? I will start with a who then.
Her name was Lindsey and, no, I did not murder her. Lindsey murdered her. Despite my best efforts to keep her alive, she died; there was not a single thing in the world that could have prevented her suicide. Supposedly. I won’t tell you Lindsey’s story but I will tell you how her story ended up kicking off mine. You see, I was the poor unfortunate soul who wound up finding the body in its blood-drenched glory.
When she finally left us, she did it with a bang no one would ever forget and I was the first one in that room, trying to save a dead girl. I found her and lost myself. So, six years later, I was standing in a church. The wrong church.
Florence, Italy. December 2016.
All appeared to be well when I got there. But all was not well, as I would soon learn. Brenna, my cousin, had found the quaint little spot and become immediately enamoured. But she was always more religious than I was. At this moment in time, the small chapel was empty apart from the two of us and a nun praying in the corner. Rain poured down, incessantly berating the wise and serene men on the stained glass windows. It matched my mood. Also matching my mood were the lights. The few that hung from the high ceilings were weak and shaky, doing little to alleviate the darkness seeping in from outside. But I swear the walls of that church kept out whatever I was running from. My aching heart found solace from its troubles there. Until that one day.
The man who walked in first wore a dark coat over dark pants; his appearance didn’t set off any red flags, but I did notice one thing right off the bat. He was scowling at the image of the Virgin Mary that accompanied the crucifix in the front of the church. He didn’t look at me, Brenna, or the nun; he went straight down the aisle and climbed to the altar where another man had emerged to meet him. This one did set of a red flag: he carried a gun, half concealed. The two men talked while us three women prayed; then a strange smell swelled up and filled my nostrils. It reminded me vaguely of growing up in Louisiana. And then it hit me, figuratively and literally: water. Water was rising up through the floor from the basement of the church, bringing with it that strange scent. The one that reminded me of floods. Brenna and I had seen Titanic the night before. We were out of there as soon as the water drenched our knees. But as soon as our backs were turned to the men, the gun went off. I whirled around. There on the floor, the man in the dark coat was painting a bloody masterpiece with immaculate-no-more tiles as his pristine if cold canvas. Brenna and I both took off running as fast as we could, but there lay the trouble. She ran out the door as if / because her life depended on it. I booked it to the front of the church, ripping my jacket off to put pressure on the wound. I dropped to my knees and pushed the jacket right up against his ripped flesh and held it tightly. My eyes darted frantically around, praying someone else would appear and help me help him. But I didn’t see another person. I cast my eyes to the ground, hoping a phone had been dropped in the excitement of a murder in progress. No. But I did see a shadow where it didn’t belong. And lo and behold, partially hidden under the cloth that bathed the altar in its holy whiteness like a sheet of snow lay the smoking gun, discarded. I made a grab for it and looked to the side door. Another shadow where it didn’t belong told me the shooter had lingered, so I rose to my feet and walked over to the door.
The rest is a blur, but let me give one the piece of information I am sure of as anti climatically as is reasonable: I shot him.
I would later say it was in self-defense, but I can’t now tell you I know that to be accurate. I would also later say it was out of vengeance for the poor man who lay dying in that church, but I barely knew the meaning of the word. What is “vengeance”, really? Not something that’s for me. I don’t think it was out of vengeance. But that matters very little in the light of things. Two men are dead and I have to think that, had I acted differently, they both could be alive. Vengeance I don’t know much about but I call guilt mama and she calls me baby. I shot a man. Now you know. Well, even that isn’t quite accurate. When I watched the news later, I learned something about him I would give anything to have known before I pulled the trigger. But I get ahead of myself, don’t I? I’ll try to keep telling my story in order, as I truly lived it.
I told you Lindsey was the catalyst for all this. Well, guess where I went after I left the church. I went back to Brenna’s place, which was where I’d been staying and packed my bags. I also threw the gun in her fireplace. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew I wouldn’t be sticking around long enough to find out the long term effects and, if it killed me, well… I wasn’t sure how I felt about the possibility of death coming for me that afternoon. I didn’t give it any more thought than it demanded from me as I packed my bags and finally was able to push it out of my mind when I got to the airport. I flew home that day; I guess it was because I had nowhere else to go.
Mississippi, USA. December 2016
I was exhausted by the time I was back in my home state. I didn’t care, it seemed like such a small thing compared to what I had witnessed- done- mere hours earlier. I went directly from the airport to Lindsey’s grave. Call it a mistake.
“Hey there, BFF. I did something bad today. I was in Italy. It’s really beautiful there and, you know something, when I woke up this morning I was wondering if I might get my own place and live there indefinitely. Well, I doubt I’ll ever go near that cursed place again. But maybe it’s not cursed. After all, you didn’t die in Italy; you died with me. And those men died with me too.. I guess I was being unfair earlier; Italy isn’t cursed, Jennette is cursed. Cursed with bad decisions that leave people dead.”
“Oh my god, Lindsey, what am I going to do?”
“You want my advice? You could start by talking to live people instead of dead ones.”
I turned to find that the voice belonged to a very attractive man standing right behind me, bearing poinsettias. The Grand Spirit must have had it in for me that day, I swear. Because that day- the one where I began to hate myself- was the day i began to love Tim Abrams. A death sentence, in retrospect. But neither one of us had any idea what the Grand Spirit had planned for our lives.
“I’m Timothy,” he said softly. He saw that I was anxious to stand and extended a hand to help from my knees to my feet. That’s when I knew what kind of man I was dealing with. But he had a lot of surprises for me yet.
“I’m a psychologist, so I overstep all day every day. For that reason, I apologise if I overstepped and I will put the fee on your tab. I hope you don’t mind if I open one; I’d like to talk to you a little more, if that’s alright.” Very alright, actually.
“So, Timothy, what brings you here?” I asked like the genius you’ll soon see that I am. I’m good at sarcasm though, I promise.
“Oh, well, I just wanted to bring my late cousin some flowers.” Poinsettias, to be exact. Lindsey’s favorite thing in the world, to be exact.
“That’s kind of you. But can I ask you something? How is it we’ve never met? I mean, I was Lindsey’s best friend and I could’ve sworn she told me both of her parents were only children. I never saw you at the funeral or any other event for that matter. Why is that?”
“There’s bad blood between her father and mine over the way they cared for my grandfather in the last years of his life. Lindsey and I were pretty close, but we were never allowed to see each other or speak to each other after the year we turned thirteen. I just let my dad tear our family apart and I didn’t put up a fight until after Lindsey died. I’ll never forgive myself for missing her life, her suffering, her death, her funeral, everything. But enough about my pity party. What brings you here?”
“I needed someone I could talk to.”
“Well, like I said, I recommend someone with a pulse, not to bash Lindsey. And I’m a shrink, so you can start with me, if you’d like.”
“Again, kind of you, but I don’t have any money.”
“Well, since you won’t be taking a cab home, why don’t you let me drive you and your plethora of bags? Where’s your place?”
“I don’t have one. I was renting a place downtown but gave it up when I left the country. I have nowhere to go now.
“My place then?”
“Oh, god no. I couldn’t impose on someone I just met,” I was blushing pretty hard at that point and I was pretty flustered when I tried to talk.
“Please. We’re standing by Lindsey’s grave right now. I can feel those big doe eyes of hers impaling me at the thought of leaving her best friend out in the cold. That is who you said you were, right?”
“Right. I’m Jennette,” I told him.
“It’s nice to meet you.” I don’t think he was lying then, but if he wasn’t, he was dead wrong. Anyway, I ended up accepting the ride back to his place, a comfortable apartment uptown. We left my bags in his car “just until I found a place to stay”. I was humiliated to essentially be a homeless woman taking handouts and relying on the kindness of stranger who only cares what happens to her because they’re connected by a dead girl. But that’s life I told myself. And besides, what was I going to do? Sleep on the street? Go crawling back to whichever family member was most willing to forgive my past indiscretions, again because of a dead girl. But that’s what I had told myself, wasn’t it? That I couldn’t be blamed, I was grieving. And just when I thought I was starting to heal, I went way beyond an indiscretion. My mind raced as I stared into the rising sun the next morning. Timothy, at my insistence, was asleep in his bed and I had taken his couch. The light streamed in through his windows. I watched the gold banners sailing and wondered what I had done to deserve my current situation. Wrapped in the blankets but sitting upright, my mind was hazy and slow but awake by the time he got up to make me coffee and get us some breakfast. More handouts. And I learned about him that morning. I learned the following: [in that time I learned the following]
- He could not cook
- He was a slave to the same king I was: Coffee
- He was still a sight for sore eyes in the morning
- He liked morning runs. (I was incredulous!)
- He spoke English, Spanish, and Latin.
- He loved snakes. He said they got a bad rap.
- He didn’t like to travel but did like adventures.
- I wanted to be part of his life until the end of mine. (More on that later.)
After a week I still hadn’t found another place to live and we’d settled into a routine. I met his best friend and started calling him Tim. And, yes if I remember correctly, that first week as roommates was when I kissed him for the first time. We were happy actually. We were just having fun getting to know each other. Until he wanted more than I could give. He asked me what I was referring to when I talked to Lindsey. We’d gone so long with no mention of what I said, what I did, that I had convinced myself he hadn’t heard all of it. But he had. And one morning he wanted to hear context.
“I did something bad. I broke the law. I caused a lot of harm.”
“Whoah. Jennette, listen: you can talk to me, ok? I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you,” he told me, his voice soft but firm.
“Because I was Lindsey’s best friend?”
“Because I care about you. Yes, for Lindsey’s sake and also for mine.” He hesitated. I looked up at him, feeling confused. I didn’t know what to do or how to say what I thought I need him to know. I didn’t say a word.
“I care about you,” he eventually repeated, eyes piercing my soul. “I don’t really know what we have, but I do know I want it to last.”
“So do I. you’re kind of all I’ve got and you’re the only person since Lindsey who’s really cared for me. Besides Brenna.”
“Who exactly is Brenna? Does she have anything to do with that thing you did? You can trust me, Jennette.” He was creeping up to the truth, gently prodding the sleeping guard dog I’d placed over my secret. My heart throbbed and shook, a withered flower with a sob story to tell.
“Tim, I don’t want you to think of me this way, but you deserve to know. I did something really bad. I made a bad choice- actually I made a series of terrible mistakes and people got hurt- badly hurt because of me. And, yeah, Brenna had something to do with it. She was there at the time and she ran away; I haven’t seen her or talked to her since,” I confided. I could feel it now; it was all starting to spill out of me.
“If she abandoned you under those circumstances, she must not have been a real friend to you,” he stated cooly.
“She was more than just a friend. Brenna is my cousin and at the time we were living together. And, again I don’t you to think of me like this because I’m not proud of it, but I abandoned her. I just up and left afterwards,” I whispered, bracing myself for his opinion of me to drop.
“May I ask why?”
“Because I was terrified,” I admitted, as much to myself as to him. I wasn’t running because I was smart; I was just scared. A scared little girl whose prints were on a big smoking gun.
“Of what, Jennette? Talk to me,” he implored. I could see in his sweet eyes that he cared for me, couldn’t see he was in over his head with a girl whose love would drown him, wanted to save me from some unknown enemy. An unknown enemy lingering in my memory.
“Like I said: I made a series of terrible mistakes; all I could about was he consequences I could be facing. From a lot of different places. Worst of all myself. You see, I didn’t want to own up to what I had done, didn’t want to face it, didn’t want to face myself. I was afraid that when I looked into a mirror, I wouldn’t recognize the monster it showed me.” Tears punctuated my words, a slow stream slipping down my cheeks.
“When I look at you, I see a woman who is beautiful inside and out. A woman with a dark past but a woman with a bright future nonetheless.”
“You don’t know what I did.”
“So tell me. What happened?”
I was about to tell him everything, I swear. But something happened. And, I’ve been telling myself ever since, it was not my fault. I wasn’t speaking though; I was trying to gather my thoughts, be logical, figure out how exactly to go about telling him what his “beautiful woman with a bright future” has done in that dark past she was hiding from the world. I was thinking about all of it, organising what I was going to say, but the chance slipped from my shaking fingers in that moment. The peace, the intimacy, the blind trust was gone. Tim’s phone rang.
He told me what I had planned to tell him: “I’m sorry, baby.” He had to go, a psychologist’s work is never, ever done. Thank god for that I suppose. Mere moments later, I stood alone in a home I didn’t deserve to belong in. it was just me, alone with the soft light leaking in through the windows.
That light touched me. It grabbed my hand and walked me to a dark and lonely place.
“Hi Lindsey. It’s me. I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Words hung on air as empty as they were. They seemed so light, wrapping themselves in the abundant nothingness so the could go to work as a protection for me. The words I wanted to say were dangerous and I would lose control of the truth once it started coming out, so I shielded myself with fluff that got me by. I hated doing that to Lindsey. What is wrong with you, Jennette? When did you get so dumb you let yourself become this?
Mississippi, USA. February 13, 2017.
Tim and I were curled up in bed, where we both spent most of our time by now. We were talking, fairly casual but with this connection that a happy couple never drops.
“I love you.”
It came out of nowhere, but it fit surprisingly naturally. But I didn’t fit. I didn’t deserve to.
I didn’t deserve any of this.
“Jennette, say something. Please.”
“I love you too.”
“Then what’s wrong?
“I don’t deserve this; I don’t deserve you.”
“First of all, I don’t care; all I know is I love you. And second, yes, you do deserve this. I may not know who you used to be, but I don’t need to to know who you are now. I’ve said it before and I will say a million times again: you’re beautiful, inside and out. That’s why I love you. And if you love me too, we do deserve what we have and nothing else needs to matter now.”
“I love you, Tim.”
“I love you too, Jennette. Now come over here and we’ll keep ourselves occupied until midnight.”
We kept ourselves occupied until well after midnight actually. That’s when I finally understood the phrase to infinity and beyond. To infinity and beyond, forever more. But the best plans can never come to fruition.
It wasn’t until days later that the euphoria subsided and left me to cope with two things. There were two important people in my life at the time and I felt two emotions: love for one and hate for the other. But how was I letting myself love when I could only hate myself?
Freelancing as a journalist always gave me multiple jobs at once, but only one remains memorable even to this day. The editor-in-chief of the publication had been a friend in another life and knew where I’d been at the time of a certain even he wanted to cover. I had been staying in Florence, Italy. There had been a shooting in a church. A father and his teenaged son left for dead. I threw up as soon as I realized the job I had just accepted. And what was worse, he chose me because he thought I might have personal thoughts, feelings, or experiences to add. Because, little did he know, I was at the exact right place at the exact wrong time. Only I knew that.
But people were trying to figure out more than the should have ever known. In early February, a suspect had been identified and by the middle of the month an arrest had been made. My old friend the editor-in-chief wanted me to cover the trial for double murder that would ensue.
And he wanted me to write from a position on the accused; one that would tell his readers what to believe. I had nightmares every night and was violently ill every morning, but was always feeling better after breakfast. Tim did a pitiful job of hiding his true feelings on this, but a better job of hiding his sudden interest in a few new topics. It broke my heart to see how he looked at me. His murderer of a lover. That was a rough time for the angels in my mind to fight of their demons. But hey, at least while I was with Tim, I had angels left in me.
Until something changed. A man was found guilty of the murders of 45-year-old accountant and his 15-year-old son. I was relieved beyond words, even if I did feel guilty afterwards for taking immense pleasure in the wrongful conviction. But, regardless of how I felt about it, I was breathing again; I felt like a person again. The nightmares ceased, the illness was a distant memory, it was all so beautiful. But Tim was waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen… yet. Bu regardless of what we were going through individually, we were living in peace and we were happier than I had thought possible.
Florence, Italy. January 2018.
Tim was travelling to a conference on mental health without me, so I had time to myself. How ironic that I ended up travelling for my own mental health. I was back in Florence to confront the ghosts of my pasts. I stood in the church, whose bloodstains had been cleaned up by that point. I was hoping that the church would also clean me up… I was still bleeding inside by the time I returned to the pristine walls of the church and the soothing patterns of dancing light climbing over the premises. Did I find any healing, any comfort, any peace of mind that day? If only it was as simple as my prayers. If only.
I believe that there are a few different types of silences, all distinct enough for anyone to tell the difference. I also believe that under next to no circumstances is it reasonable to find yourself unable to identify which type you’re dealing with. But the silence that engulfed me as I stood before the crucifix and the bereaved Virgin Mary was not reasonable circumstances, and I find it crazy hard to describe with any accuracy. Bear with me.
Imagine a pillar with immense, intolerable pressure building up from its central support and branching out like the roots of a gnarled poison tree to choke the functionality out of every other part of the pillar. The result is so hellish it creates an internalized agony for the pillar. On the outside, all is well. Until one day, the cracks that have been festering inside breach the surface of this pillar and deepen. CRASH! The pillar drops dead, shattering. How do you characterize the result? While here is now a brokenness never before imagined in that space, there is also a heavenly relief rising from the ashes of that fire. And that phenomenon is how I think of that silence. Painful but at the same time a blissful relief taking me over. It was like crashing waves when I was drowning. It was scary, but Lord was it sweet to feel the struggle subsiding. The silence was not happy or disturbing, it was both. And for a time it remained unbroken, frozen in time so it could be immortalized in my memory before reality kicked in. Tim was calling. Oddly enough, I felt conflicted when I saw his angelic face lighting up my screen while I stood reflecting in the spot I became a devil. Right smack in the middle of revisiting the end of my old life, the staple of my new life reached out to retrieve me. So fitting, so ironic, so beautiful.
Ultimately, I ignored the call. Even over the phone, I wasn’t ready to face him or to hear his voice. I never was ready for what needed to be done. While I stood at the altar, remembering the man I had failed to save and the man I had shot, the man I loved reached out to pull me back. I nearly got down on my knees and thanked god when I realized that. What I had waiting was a hand, strong and firm but soft and gentle, ready to pull me back from the black hole I felt I deserved to jump into. But maybe, it occurred to me I didn’t deserve to be shot because I had shot a man- no, actually, nothing more than a young boy- who’d shot his own father and left him for dead in that church. Maybe I deserved to move on, maybe that’s what was best. I gazed up at Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints one more time and I walked away. By the time I called Tim back, I had promised myself it was time to forgive, to end the cycle of hurting, and to finally get on with my life.
But how to start over? I still felt like I owed myself some redemption, some making amends. So I asked Tim to extend his leave from work- he’d taken time from his office hours for the conference- and he joined me in Florence. But before his plane landed, I had work to do.
“Hello. It’s been awhile,” I began. Of all the emotions I could detect in myself, I showed none. Brenna, always the mockery of our poker tables, was predictably easier to read than I was. She didn’t mask her emotions, not ever; she’d often told me facades are for buildings, not people. And at this moment? She was surprised to say the least.
“Hi, Jennette,” she whispered, as if she was afraid I wasn’t real or that speaking to me for real would break me, or send me running. But she had me wrong. She ran from trouble, like a brunette Hannah Montana, and I ran to it, a blonde Miley Cyrus. She was Sandy and I was Rizzo.
“How have you been?”
“Since we witnessed that guy get killed? Since you ran to him and then vanished so I thought you were dead? Since I realized you had up and left me without a word? I’ve been worried sick. I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been relieved you got away, I’ve been lots of things,” she told me. This whisper bordered on a hiss and I noticed something. Brenna had changed. Her voice was soft all the time now, her belly was round now, and some other body parts had changed too.
“Lots of things,” I repeated.
“Do you remember the coffee shop guy?” she asked.
“Do I?” I repeated, this time more to joke than to stall so I could process the information flying by. The “coffee shop guy” had caught Brenna’s attention and stolen her heart all in the space of five seconds. She obsessed over him for a few months after that and things got flirty around a week before the shooting. I remembered few details of any man better than the look in his eyes when the coffee shop guy spoke to Brenna. He had every attention of eating her alive.
“Well,” she informed me slowly and tiredly, “We got together. It was the most amatory thing I’ve ever experienced,” she concluded with the sigh of a girl who knows she’s a fool but is still in love with the jerk who’s hurting her so deeply she hates herself for every thought and every heartbeat. Like I said: Sandy.
“Was?” I inquired, raising my brows as if I wasn’t torn up to picture the devastation that must have been Brenna and her cute little apartment as that ‘relationship’ came to its fateful and doubtless ugly conclusion.
“He left me four hours after I told him about our baby,” she admitted with tears blossoming like a summer rose in the sun of July.
“In that case, the baby has nothing to do with him; it’s just yours now,” I told her growing frustrated just to imagine the way she’d throw her arms open should he knock on her door again and look for a quick hit.
“No, it’s still his. You see, I have every intention of getting child support for my little one. He gets to walk away from me, but he doesn’t get to ignore the baby he left me with. At least, that’s how I see it.”
“Good for you, Brenna.” She really had changed. I knew she’d always pictured herself becoming a mother with a man she loved, but getting pregnant really forced her to grow up. She was a new woman. I was a proud cousin.
It was that point in time when she invited me in and made me tea. Forever the person to confront trouble head-on, Brenna refused to address the elephant in the room while I would talk about nothing else. Compromise: we decided to catch up. She eventually asked if I’d been seeing anyone, so I took the opportunity to tell her about Tim and how I’d asked him to spend some time in Florence with me. As I’d hoped, she invited us to stay with her. I’ve been told I have a gift for making people take me in whenever I want them to. I realized when she made me go get bags out of my rental car that I had missed her more than I could’ve realized.