"What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?"
—Erich Segal, Love Story
The first time we talked was in the rooftop
cafeteria at Cal State Northridge.
Misplaced poets, we sat amidst a crop
of clean-cut freshmen while, round the college,
smog-smudged San Fernando Valley beckoned,
panoramic and bland. I’d just returned
from my debauched year up north—sad, drunken
sex at the baths, in dark parks. You still yearned
for St. David’s, your stint as a foreign
exchange student. In Wales, something fearless
woke you up: you drank, wrote, fucked. Now, stuck in
the suburbs, we talked poets, punk rock. This
was the late seventies, disco’s zenith.
We both wanted to look like Patti Smith.
We both wanted to look like Patti Smith
on her Horses album: disheveled, pale,
thin, intense. You were scanning Meredith’s
“Modern Love” for British Lit. I thought stale
anyone before Sexton. You laughed, threw
back your head. I puffed a Marlboro Light.
In truth, you were too hearty, and I too
uptight, to do punk. I praised, as twilight
dimmed the gray valley, a poem you’d read
at the student reading: a pitcher cracks,
foreshadows a car crash. The skyline bled
behind you. I’d also read that night—racked
with stage fright, trembling uncontrollably.
You seemed at ease, more confident than me.
You seemed at ease, more confident than me,
more independent. Lived on Amigo
Avenue with a roommate, a moody
science major; and your alter ego,
a tomcat named Baby Tubbs. Still at home,
I had no wheels. You drove a battered white
hatchback full of newspapers, beer cans, comb,
brush, books—half wastebasket, half purse. One night
early on, we split a fifth of scotch, spread
your tarot cards on the living room floor.
You predicted long life for me, then said
of yourself: “I might make twenty-five.” Your
roommate walked by, shot a look. Later, I
passed out beneath Lord Byron’s watchful eye.
Passed out beneath Lord Byron’s watchful eye—
the poster tacked above your secondhand
couch—I dreamt I was falling down the side
of a mountain, a scarecrow, twisted and
limp, limbs ripped, bouncing from rock to rock. On
every wall an idol: Toulouse-Lautrec
cancan in kitchen, young Chatterton’s wan
figure over your desk. Shuffling the deck,
you asked the same question, drew the same black
card: Death. Together we consulted all
your oracles: Ouija board, zodiac,
I Ching, palm, a fickle Magic 8 Ball.
Hoping for more time, you inquired, believed
like a convict praying for a reprieve.
Like a convict praying for a reprieve,
you were more alive than the complacent
suburbanites I despised. Drunk and peeved
at the world, I started an argument
that ended with you hurling a full Coors
at me as I fumed down your stairs. Four weeks
passed before we spoke, a rift I endured
by writing a poem about the freak-
ish night a black cloud followed us—we lit
candles, toasted oblivion. Battle
scarred, we entered the undergraduate
poetry contest at Northridge. Daniel
Halpern guest judged...or was it May Swenson?
After your death, I’d be happy you won.
What can you say about a twenty-five-
year-old girl who died? That as a child she
loved horses. And dogs. And cats. That Monty
Python made her laugh. That she was alive
to the disruptions of her time. That she
liked Byron, Rod Stewart, Mozart, Waugh, Poe,
Keats, the Cars. That she lived on Amigo
and was my friend. That she once threw her keys
in anger; once threw a New Yorker, shout-
ing “I hate John Ashbery!” And that she
once, after a speed- and scotch-fueled orgy—
Some Girls blasting, her last boyfriend passed out
beside us—straddled, rode me like a horse.
Rachel, can I say this: your cunt felt coarse.
After your death, I’d be happy you won
the contest—at least you had that. “Don’t turn
on me,” you pleaded. Losing wasn’t fun,
but I couldn’t begrudge you your prize. Burned
out from an abortion, a vicious bite—
a German shepherd lunged at your nose, slit
its tip—and a violent unrequit-
ed affair with your “Don J,” a closet
case obsessed with Kerouac, you spoke of
making a change. By then it was summer:
Blondie on the car radio, Fourth of
July, craving fireworks. I remember
headlights; reaching for the steering wheel, you.
Next thing I knew, I woke in ICU.
Next thing I knew, I woke in ICU:
machines beeping around me, doctors and
nurses hovering in an eerie blue
light. Tube down my throat, I scrawled, with bruised hand,
your name, question mark. My sister was steered
in, wept to tell you were dead. The night they
moved me to a private room, you appeared,
pulsating white presence, in the hallway
outside my door. “I’m all right,” you said, “You
don’t have to worry about me.” I’d lie
there in traction for six weeks, almost two
decades ago, a ghost that fell from my
own scarecrow dream, numb to that deadly drop.
The first time we talked was on a rooftop.