Five days before I left for residency, my friend died.
We knew they were sick. But we didn’t know they were going to die. Only a week before they died, I sat online with them and talked about the different proposals we’d give our partners when we were ready and healthy and rich. We talked about our old freshman roommates back when we met in the weird, siphoned-off dormitory that we deemed “Fortress of Solitude.” We’d forgotten the names of people who used to make our lives hell. We only recalled snippets of that former life; a poster of all the Pink Floyd albums on girls’ backs (you know the one), the old Atari that was like a holy shrine to any college dorm, the awkward movie nights I put on in my gigantic apartment down the hall, and the girl who lived between us who lit up everyone’s world and then, upon graduation, disappeared into the hinterlands of another time zone and patch of dreams.
“She was nice,” they said.
“I miss her,” I said.
But now they’re that missing person.
I didn’t want to get on the plane. Alex and I had made a tent in the living room, one of my friend’s knitted animals standing sentinel. It was safe in there. But early in the morning — so early the sun wasn’t up — Alex kicked me out of the tent, shoved the overstuffed checked bag my way, and pushed me out the door.
My life changed overnight about five years ago. In May of 2010, I had a job, was enrolled in a prestigious undergraduate school, and my Steampunk play had gone up in a small performance space in Lincoln Park, Chicago, to great reviews. I split my time between my own apartment a block away from the lake, and my boyfriend’s neighborhood near Obama’s place of residence. My boyfriend was a doctoral candidate at UChicago, and he too agreed that life outside of the city was plebian and people who didn’t go after their dreams were only a couple of steps above amoebas on the Darwin charts. That’s another thing; he really liked Darwin.
By the end of June, I packed everything I owned into a rental truck, squished into the back compartment, and unwillingly drove four hundred miles back to my hometown as my parents’ captive. I moved into my old childhood bedroom in the Flyover Zone, my scripts packed away and my boyfriend breaking up with me over a sharp, trite phone call. But I was indeed still in school; I’d graduated and immediately fallen into graduate school. I took up an internship that had twelve-hour workdays. I had no vehicle, coming from Chicago, so I was completely at the will of my father’s driving patterns.
Because of this, I jumped to be hired at my first big kid job. I jumped at the first apartment I could rent. I nabbed a car as soon as I could afford one. And I never stopped running away from that summer.
The problem is, I never made it back to Chicago. Five years later, I am engaged. I have a fulfilling job. Hell, I’ve got a Roth! But I went from twenty-two to forty-two overnight. Writing was between the twelve-hour workdays. It was between oil changes, romantic anniversaries, apartment hunting, graduate degrees, and shopping at department stores for grown-up clothes.
In conversations I had with anyone who wasn’t Alex or my parents (and these were few), we talked about work and Alex. We talked about the weather and gas prices and the quality of Target products. We talked about weddings and babies being born and whether or not Such-n-Such should be considered fat or confident in her body structure. And honestly, I was done. Under it all, I was absolutely finished. At the age of twenty-six, I felt like there was nothing left to surprise me.
No one should feel this way at twenty-six.
I applied for MFA programs, and I took the one that would allow me to not only keep my job, but also explore the sort of writing I wished to explore. And I gotta say, Maine is pretty exotic for a prairie gal. The ocean, the mist, the Stephen King. The pictures on the brochure showed a girl writing something on rocks near the Atlantic. I wanted to be that girl.
My adventure began with this:
The second thing that welcomed me was the absolute silence of Maine. Maybe people from Maine are used to this, but I am a Chicagoan trapped in a Midwestern town, and both are loud with traffic, L trains, bus exhaust, airplanes, and loud thumping music from the tricked-out minivan in the lane over. Maine, however, was absolutely mute.
Wide-eyed, I left the terminal, and a girl from the program welcomed me with open arms at the baggage claim.
This girl was a year ahead of me in the program. She never met me, but she gave me a big hug and offered up a ride to campus. For some reason, after shuffling my poor body from my work desk to my bed and then back to my work desk, I’d forgotten that there were people out there in the real world to talk to. And worse, I forgot to talk to people.
I don’t think I said much that whole first day.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” the girl asked at dinner. Another girl next to her, a cohort member who had written a beautiful piece I’d fallen in love with, nodded in agreement.
“I …” I had completely forgotten how to talk. How is that possible? How can the chick who was always planning little get-togethers and parties and had an unhealthy Facebook message addiction have forgotten how to talk?
“Just … give me a couple days,” I said honestly.
I sat in my single dorm room, staring at the ceiling. I heard people hanging out in the hallway. I remembered my now-gone friend walking through the halls of the Fortress of Solitude.
“I don’t talk much,” they offered after a long pause of silence, one of those first nights we hung out.
“It’s alright,” I said. “I talk enough for both of us. You wanna go to Target with me tomorrow?”
“Huh,” I now sniffed, and I turned over in my bed. “I bet you’d think this was ironic.”
I didn’t call Alex that night.
My twelve-hour work days prepared me for the seven a.m. breakfast. Seven was sleeping in, as far as I knew. I was the one of the few alert at the ungodly hour. I knew that truckloads of pop and vitamins were the only ways to function before ten o’ clock.
So this might be why so many people jumped when I screamed on the bus that morning.
“WE’RE ON A PENINSULA!”
It was true. We were on a peninsula.
My flyover small city streets full of the same Krispy Kremes and Kum and Go’s suddenly dissipated into a truth I’d forgotten: The whole world is diverse and not made of compact misery and oil-stained streets.
In some places of the world, there are peninsulas.
The cool air off the Atlantic hit my face as I stepped off the bus. I tried to think of a better way to say that, but all of the sentences that come to me just come off as cliché. “It was amazing as I stepped off the bus,” “I could only smile as I stepped off the bus,” “My world changed when I stepped off the bus.” The cool air seemed to be the best way to show you, but honestly, there’s no way to describe that pure feeling of happiness that you get when you can see that things are going to be okay.
That was what the Stone House was for me.
Residencies are held in this House on the peninsula. All around, the Atlantic surrounded this patch of green where people made classrooms in the fields and took their lunches on the rocks.
During our first workshop, a group of kayakers marched on by through the tall grass. And I never wanted to go home.
And the people. So many kind people. My cohort and I bonded immediately, thanks to the program putting all the first years together into one group. They all were so talented, so giving. And all of a sudden, I found my voice again and I could actually speak and not only speak, but communicate my thoughts.
I was home.
The residencies are split into ten days of lectures, workshops, and presentations. The lectures ranged from medicine’s relationship to poetry to graphic novels. Although I’m a Popular Fiction candidate, I was able to take cross-genre lectures, which was usually helpful. Poetry started leaking into the language of CNF, and the CNF lectures boosted the lecture on Cormac McCarthy. Seeing that all of the genres are offshoots of a whole is helpful when cherry-picking what you need for your own project.
The first half of residency ended in a talent show. The girl with the beautiful piece from the first day joined me in a Casio-version of “Let it Go.” Because of course we did.
“So they got the funeral they always wanted,” I said as we sped through Bailey’s Island. The car went silent. It had been a great trip so far. I had a day off to do whatever I wanted, and my old college friend currently lived twenty miles from campus in a cabin, writing music and being famous and awesome.
She’d picked me up to show me Bailey’s Island. It had been a beautiful day, full of fog and mist. We stood at the edge of the world, just like the movies. At World’s End, I thought, as I stood on the beach and looked out into the vast nothingness of a cloud skimming the ocean.
But now there was only silence over the folk music. The tall pine trees smeared outside as we drove faster down the road.
“What?” my friend said from the driver’s seat.
And then I realized she hadn’t heard yet. The heaviness deafened Maine. Their funeral had been Saturday. I couldn’t be there because I was here. Everyone understood, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. But I would’ve liked to have been there. I would’ve been there if I wasn’t already here.
Here was great. But there was sad. I could pretend it hadn’t happened, but others couldn’t, and even me pretending didn’t make it any less real. I was still alive, standing on the edge of the world and feeling the cold mist crawl through my hair. But my lost friend could not. Pain rose out of the car ride.
I then had to explain that “They got the funeral they wanted” was the piss-poor way of telling her that our mutual friend had passed on.
I don’t remember much about all three of us hanging out. I don’t remember this friend and that friend ever having a real affinity for each other. But I do remember the both of them at my first book signing. I know they both came to my Root Beer Float party. I know they both were at the premiere of my Steampunk play.
The next time I go to Chicago, they won’t be there.
We stopped the car at the edge of the island. We ate at a lobster house. I saw the instructions on how to crack a lobster open.
Little Known Fact, the placemat read, Lobsters don’t scream when you cook them. It’s just the air whistling through their shells.
Oh, well in that case.
I opted for the lobster roll so I didn’t have to see the body. Or dismantle it on my own.
A fishing boat rocked in the foggy waves outside as the sun fell. Not that you could see the sun, but the clouds shifted from a white gray to a blue, dull twilight. How odd, to eat food that was just alive outside. How weird, to have such mass death in such a beautiful place.
It was all a part of a larger picture, I supposed.
The second half of residency started up again. More amazing people, more amazing lectures, and now my cohort drew together and became a real bonded group. We met with our mentors, and I was so lucky that my mentor was excited about my project. We came up with days that we were going to exchange pages, and what exact goals we had for the semester.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about your thesis,” we heard more than once.
I have absolutely no idea what my thesis will be.
Graduation came and went. Kind people I never really got to know passed by the stage and then were gone. We made plans for future semesters. And then we caught our planes.
It’s been two months since residency. I’ve turned in two packets. I’ve gotten back to my twelve-hour workdays. I’ve snuck writing in there on the margins of the day. But it’s different now. I’m not forty-two anymore.
I bought a lobster pen at the airport and I put it on my desk. I write almost every day with vigor that wasn’t there before. I communicate via social media with my classmates and my professors. And when this town gets to be too much, I know that there’s the world’s end sitting there, thousands of miles away, waiting for me to come back.
It’ll want to know what my thesis is.
My friend has been gone for two months. I don’t get to go back to see them. And I don’t really know how exactly to tie that all together at the end of this essay. I guess that’s why we explore, travel, eat lobster, and stand on peninsulas, to try to make sense. But sometimes we’re still trying to figure everything out. Maybe we don’t ever figure anything out. All I know is that life is not supposed to end at twenty-six. So I went looking for a great perhaps.
I found it. And the great perhaps’ entrance and exit is marked with a sign.