The morning my friend passed away—not a euphemism here, for passing is just what she did, through her protracted process, a slow shifting from life to whatever it is that is not life—some engineers launched a rocket at the Cape.
I’d flown down from New York at 4 AM, but I arrived too close to the end for me to cut in, so I stayed at my parents’ house, waiting for the call.
That night, in someone’s backyard, my other friends and I, we stood there, conscious of our collective remaining behind. It was one of those suburban Florida backyards, one in a long, identical row, the ground half dirt/half Saint Augustine grass, primly fenced off from the neighbors. Some of us were drinking vodka, yes. I didn’t partake in the cigarettes because I’d quit, and I figured my friend—since she died of cancer, and here it feels better to say died—wouldn’t want me to smoke. It is not logical to do things for the dead, but we do them anyway, because what we’re doing is actually for ourselves, obviously.
That part of town sits in an airport flight path; when I think of it, I think of watching the bellies of low-flying aircraft, their landing gear reaching out like talons.
One of my friends looked up at the sky.
“She had the best seat in the house for the rocket launch,” this living friend said, her finger stuck toward the sky; some wet-eyed laughter all around the group. A nice thought, but I could not agree. The truth is that I didn’t think it was the truth.
Years ago, when I was 24, I worked at Newark airport with a middle-aged colleague who—unbeknownst to him, absorbed as he was in our rigmarole, in our planes, in the pallid mounting of his days—taught me a lot about pain. The context is gone, but one day he asked me, “Have you lost a friend yet?”
Yet. Yet. What a tag it was—yet. There are words that sound like their meaning. Crash. Bang. This felt like that. Yet: something brutal, inevitable.
I remembered his words, standing in that backyard, looking up at the roving dots, what I imagined were satellites, slung around and around and around our orbit by gravity. The memory played as if released by a needle sliding into a record’s wax groove. “Hit it,” I could hear my friend say, snapping her fingers. This part was imaginary, of course.
The next day I flew back to New York. Every time I leave Florida, I feel like it’s spitting me out, like I’m some kind of flayed pit, hurtling.
This was three years ago. I still hear her ringing laughter, clear as ever, perhaps even clearer than before she left—and here it feels most apt to say she left. I feel her shrugging, somewhere, maybe in my own shoulders, when, from time to time, I smoke a cigarette.