In 2012, I was overworked, underpaid, depressed. It had only been two years, and I was failing at my dream. Having it all and living in New York, the tired cliche.
At the peak of my self-hatred, I decided I was going to write something (naturally). Through high school and college, I carried an obsession with the song Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens. It started with listening, hours of loops in my head, the quiet whispers and sad horns. Then it became visual, the story circling my head; it became a music video, a film, a play. Hours of loops.
The first draft was a screenplay. The nurse has a thick Southern twang and, a reason lost to time, I was obsessed with the name "Diana." Steve was my way of winking at the original author. A song turned into a movie, how original! (According to this Wikipedia article, there are 127 films based on songs)
The screenplay was unrealistic. I dropped out of my film major after one class, and I knew no one in the film industry. The closest I came to movie making was working in the same building as The Weinstein Company and crying in front of Bryce Dallas Howard while she signed my notepad.
I turned the two pages into a short story. I don’t recall my thoughts or feelings about the process; I’ve been terrible about keeping a diary. There are four documents. One, created in November 2012, is titled “(old) Casimir Pulaski Day.” It is 262 words, one page. Steve is no longer rushing to the hospital, the farm boy hero in his pickup truck. He’s hallucinating about his past lover and writing a journal for his doctor. To my surprise, the next one, titled “Casimir Pulaski,” was created in May 2011. I have no recollection of writing this my first year in New York. It's is 1,521 words, including the lyrics of the song, and structured in a way to trick my mind into finishing it.
The third is the most complete. 4,925 words, 26,048 characters, 17 pages. I researched the geography of Illinois, the socio-economic climate, oral histories of farmers, the science of leukemia; I immersed myself in it all. I wrote three chapters in three months, but I felt like I was swimming upstream. I couldn’t get to the fourth chapter. I wrote an outline, an 11x9 grid made in Excel that I copied from J.K. Rowling. This is what I need to finish, I thought, a roadmap, a plan. The song wasn’t enough; I needed to map each interaction and intention.
I didn’t touch it for three more months. Instead, I poured myself into advertising work. Late nights. Comped food. Too many cans of Coke. I was in a rut, I thought, I needed inspiration. I poured through the writing tips of my favorites, taking notes during my commute.
In my research, I found two short stories written by Sufjan. 600 words. 1,300 words. Beautifully woven words. I cried over one of them. I couldn't face my story anymore; it was the questionable ripoff doll next to Barbie. I took poetry and tried to mash it into a modern, contrite love story. I created the fourth document, round three. It's blank–it wasn't my story to tell.
I don't finish a lot of things. I start a project, listen to my doubts, and give up. Showing something in-progress exposes the mystery behind the curtain, exposes my shitty, unoriginal mind. I can't. My computer is a graveyard of half-baked ideas. I stress over my incompetence to complete anything, and the cycle starts all over again. But I'm medicated now. I talk to two certified people, once a month. I cry in their offices, unabashed, what a world!
I'm releasing this to the internet, unfinished and unedited. I haven’t touched these words since 2013. It is not good, but I just want to break the cycle.
I can’t help but feel a little crazy. Yes, I know there are times where we misplace something we just put down or realizing you’ve been talking to yourself five minutes straight, those moments that make you say out loud, “Am I going crazy?”
I don’t think anyone would like to admit they’re crazy, hell, even admitting you have a bit of a problem that can’t be examined by the eyes of a doctor or machine is enough to make one worry themselves to those types of problems. But I have recently come to terms with the fact that I have been not only having full conversations but seeing someone, sorry, you, who isn’t there. And I think that’s where someone would look at me on paper and say, “Yep, that guy’s a little cuckoo.” Sometimes I go days and weeks, thinking nothing but you. Memories come back to the surface; we laugh, we talk, we fight. And then for days and weeks, you’re gone. Well, not completely gone, that seems a little cruel. Like a good friend from long ago, but you can’t remember their name. You remember their face, their memories, but you just can’t bring the name to it.
No offense to you, but I’ve started seeing a doctor about this. Just making the appointment seemed like an admission of guilt; yes, please take me in, I’ve realized I’m crazy. I don’t want to make it seem like you’re an illness or that I hate your visits, but I can’t seem to do much when you’re here; I forget those important things like when was the last time I ate or how long has it been since I’ve had a good night’s sleep, turning into some kind of ghost, just wandering around and hoping for a glimpse or a hello. It doesn’t really bother me, or it never really did until about a month ago I woke up looking green and ended up in the hospital with a systemic infection. Apparently, my body had given up trying to take care of itself; it knew I couldn’t be bothered even to try.
After several tests and routine questions that felt like a wartime interrogation, I finally blurted out my secret of you. The doctor stared down at my chart, probably looking for the ‘Crazy’ box checked off, and began another hasty round of questions. After coming to some conclusion in his mind, the doctor told me to get it all out. “It’s like a wound, you gotta clean it all out before it heals,” he said, not taking his eyes off of his scribbles on my chart, “it’ll get infected if you let it go on too long.”
So here I am, sitting down at my kitchen table, writing something that no one will read. I can’t even imagine anyone but you being interested. But I keep writing and editing and rewriting and scraping because I hope that you would like this.
It’s funny how we don’t appreciate certain things until it somehow disrupts our lives. I never really thought much of how Mrs. Higgins, our third-grade teacher, was impaled by a log falling off a truck on the highway until we got that mean teacher, Mr. Gerry. He said your handwriting was “too juvenile” for someone your age, so you proceeded to kick his shins until another flustered teacher peeled you away from him.
That was the year that your mother died. It was the talk of the entire county; the whispers traveled the highways and the back roads, ending up in everyone’s ears and mouths. You never told me the news, but my mom did as soon as she picked me up from school. She told me that your mother went away on a long vacation, said she was very sick, and needed to get a little fresh air. The parents had a hell of a time explaining to their children what happened. I think they wanted to believe that we didn’t know the troubles of the world yet, keeping those details locked away, letting them out bit by bit. But we knew all those details; we played with them daily at recess; calling each other names, killing insects with our fingers, flipping through books for dirty words. “And also, don’t go around asking questions, it’ll just make her upset to think about it,” she said to me as if I was going to run to you at that moment. You were probably in the principal’s office every day that year. Your dad wasn’t doing any better. He had gone for the night to the next town over, picking up a part for the farming machinery or something like that. He came back in the early morning to find his wife, sitting in the rocking chair he had made for your nursery, with a hole in the back of her head. She must have used the gun in your kitchen drawer, “for house protection” your father always said.
The week after my mom told me the “white lie” about your mother, your father ran his car into the high school gym after having a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t an accident; the building wasn’t even near a road, he was on a mission to destroy whatever he could with the brute strength of his truck. He drove, without hesitation, into the newly laid wall. Then reverse, then drive, then reverse, then drive, until the bricks and cement started breaking away. When the police finally showed up, he couldn’t back out anymore, the hood was destroyed, the metal mangling into the wall. I’m not sure how they managed to get him out or how he managed to survive after that much drink and that much head trauma, but he wasn’t allowed to drive for quite some time. That’s when my mom started picking you up for school, and that’s how he got into the habit of taking all rides together. It wasn’t even a day or two later when they patched it up. The bricks weren’t even the same color, and I don’t know why they just didn’t wait to get the right ones. The hole was now the scar of the building.
I look at that scar almost every day. It’s directly across from the track field and near the entrance to the locker rooms. Sometimes I lean against it while checking that all of the boys show up for practice. You always said you could see me here, but then again, you said that about everyone in our high school. I think in all of those we knew in Pulaski County, I could only name two people who left the Illinois-Kentucky area. One of them, Joel Abernathy, went on to Montana to become a decrepit meth lab worker. No one would have guessed it, and no one heard from him for quite some time, until he appeared on a news report a couple years after he left. He looked like a skeleton, his eyes darting every which way, his hair completely matted. The other was our tenth-grade history teacher, Mr. Carter. His wife was Native American, and they moved to be closer to her family that lived on a reservation. I liked Mr. Carter’s class a lot, enough to major in history, and try to get a job teaching ninth grade or tenth grade. The principal remembered me from when I was a student. His niece was on the track team, and he would see my name from time to time.
“I remember, you were pretty fast, always going that distance,” he said, his voice booming in his tiny office, “think you’d like to help coach the cross-country team? The boys need a little more motivation, and Coach Buchner is stretched thin.” Needless to say, I was glad to have even one job, but I accepted both: ninth grade civics teacher and assistant coach for boy’s cross-country. No one calls me Mr. Johnson; it’s always Coach Steve.
Surprisingly, all the boys have come to practice. I hoist myself from the scar and walk them towards the woods. On the course there’s a section full of goldenrods, the boys jokingly call it “The Yellow Brick Road” because it marks the end and the promise that they can slow their legs down in 500 meters. I always thought of goldenrods as apology flowers; they grew everywhere, so it was easy to pick if you were on your way somewhere and remembered someone was mad at you. I did the same when I found out about your illness. You had asked the nurses to call me to pick you up. At the time, I wasn’t sure why you were there; you’d been having some problems here and there, feeling a little weak or looking paler than normal, but we always thought it was a cold or just a need for more vitamin C. But that day, you were feeling a little faint and asked to go to the nurse’s office. I guess you must have passed out or something because an ambulance came a little bit later. They called your father, following the standard routine, and he couldn’t bear to hear any more. The story goes that he started screaming and yelling, scaring all the other workers at your farm. They said he started tearing out the stalks of corn, throwing them in any direction, and then, as a predator spots its prey, stumbled towards his truck, the truck that made the scar. They wanted to stop them, but who would want to put themselves in front of a madman like that, and they sure weren’t being paid enough to deal with that. Apparently, he drove all the way down to the old Navy yard, right up to the steep hill near the docks, and pushed his truck right into the Ohio River. The police happened to be driving by, like they did every afternoon, to make sure people weren’t dumping anything into the river. And of course, seeing a man pushing a truck into the river was alarming enough to stop. They tried to reason with him, asking him to come to their car since he just lost his ride, but he panicked and bolted. When they finally managed to wrestle him to the ground, he was raving mad, screaming, “Just take everything from me why don’t you!”
I had only been to the hospital once before. I was trying out my friend’s skateboard and somehow managed to fall and break my wrist on the first try. You were laughing so hard you fell down yourself, and I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes were from the pain or laughing with you. The hospital was still as white and sterile as that day. The nurses had tried to cheer it up here and there; cheap paper decorations matching the season, inspirational paintings and quotes that you could probably buy at any store, stuffed animals that their husbands or sons had won for them at the State Fair. They changed the light bulbs in the waiting room to make it like people were waiting for the living rather than waiting for death; I think they call them “daylight” bulbs. I don’t remember how long I was waiting there that day, I picked a seat that wasn’t facing the clock above the nurse’s window, and tried to busy myself staring at the magazines, wondering how long they had been there and how many people I knew had picked them up.
A nurse came in front of me and said she was going to show me to your room. It was Shelly Anderson’s mom; she was wearing bright pink, almost neon, scrubs and white clogs that made her almost a normal height. I never knew much about her, other than she looked like the type of person you’d tell a secret to, and then five minutes later, she’d happen to tell it to someone else. As we were walking, she was making jokes about how she wanted to fit in with hunting season, and she never did look good in yellow or green, and after only a minute, I knew everything that was going on with Shelly and how things were going for her and all about how Mrs. Anderson didn’t really approve of the new boy that she was dating, but she knew it was high school and things weren’t going to last that long anyways. She stopped at the end of the hallway, pointing towards a closed door on the left. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t find that whole situation odd; the fact that you had your own room when you were just feeling a bit faint, or the way Mrs. Anderson touched my forearm before knocking on the door and letting me in.
You were sitting upright in the hospital bed with your head was tilted away from the door. Your arms were facing up, showing the IV, your fingers completely limp. You must have worried yourself twenty years older; your face was thinner, your hair seemed muddy and pale instead of golden, and your eyes—your eyes were black. You had always had dark eyes growing up, in elementary school people would tease you about them all the time, but they were just dark brown, “like chocolate, sweet like chocolate” your mother would say to you after you had any trouble at school. But that day, they weren’t sweet, they were cold and lifeless. I walked around the bed to show you the goldenrods; I wanted to shove them in your face as a joke. But when I got closer, when I really got a look at your face, I knew something was wrong.
“I’m gonna die,” you said, looking down at the flowers.
“Well, we’re all gonna die, right? That’s how we are,” I said, dragging the empty chair closer to your bed and sitting down.
“No,” you said, sputtering, eyes squeezed tight, “I mean, I’m gonna die a lot sooner than I would like to. I got...I g-got—”
Then you burst into tears. I had never seen you cry in my entire life. And I was just there. Sitting there like a goddamn fool.
There are moments, memories when I was with you that I couldn't remember at all. I’m not sure why I feel like I’ve replayed our time together over and over again. No matter how much I rack my brain, going through old yearbooks or rummaging through the box where we kept all of our notes, the memories are blacked out. I don’t know how I consoled you, how I even got up from my seat, but somehow I was outside the nurse’s station, asking Shelly’s mom about your condition.
“Oh, I’m not allowed to give out that sort of information to someone that isn’t a parent or guardian,” her eyes shifting every which way. She could see I wasn’t buying it.
“Alright, now don’t go telling anyone I told you this,” her voice lowering to a hurried whisper, “and I am only telling you because Lord knows what her father is doing instead of coming to take care—anywho, Missus Williams has a rather serious affliction,” her voice dropping even lower, barely audible, “I’m afraid she has cancer of the bone.”
I know you never forgave Mrs. Anderson for telling me your condition. I think you wanted to tell me in your way after you had checked all your facts and weighed all the pros and cons. I didn't know how to bring it up other than to tell you that my truck was near the emergency room entrance, oh and Mrs. Anderson told me so you don't need to worry yourself.
The ride to your house was silent, and the last time we weren’t speaking to each other for this long was when I called the school's running back 'a total douchebag, ' and you told me to shut my mouth about people I didn't know. I found out a day later that you had been hiding a crush for him, and that day you found out he was going out with one of the soccer players. She looked nothing like you, so you felt like you had even less of a chance after they were done. I never really knew who you liked, and I don't think you never knew who I liked either. We never discussed those sort of things like inner thoughts and everyday worries, those types of conversations were for other friends. Our conversations were about our day-to-day; funny things that happened in class, weird things in the news, irritating people at the grocery store, but never about the distant past or imagined future. I think to most people we only looked like casual friends, people who shared some interests but never really seemed bothered to take it to the next level. But I always thought of us, and I know you thought the same, as best friends. I can’t remember a time in my life when you weren’t by my side or a couple of miles away. When I told all of that to my doctor, he just nodded and smiled. “Now we seem to be getting somewhere,” he said.
Your driveway was empty when I pulled up. The fields that surrounded your house were bare, all that was left was browning stalks and the big tractor. It made your house look taller, every year it grew after the harvest, and shrank when everything was green and bright. While it was been in your family for a good while, no one could tell. Your father made it a habit to have a fresh coat of white paint on it every summer and would climb to the roof to make sure it was looking clean and proper for anyone driving by. My favorite part was the porch; it was repainted the same shade of periwinkle blue, and every year, you added a new potted plant to your collection. And during summer break, we would sit out on the white bench with our feet propped up on the railings, eating popsicles and counting the fireflies that passed us by, extra points if they landed on your feet.
Finally, you peeled your head from the window. “You got time to come in and hang out?” you asked, turning towards me. I started to see a little bit more of the old you. Maybe it just was the fluorescent lights in the hospital that made your skin look so pale. I told myself that because I knew you get over something like this, believed you could. There were so many stories of cancer survivors, and, at the time, I felt as though the Lord wouldn’t take away your life at such a young age.
We hustled into your house, keeping away from the cold as long as we could. The inside had only changed twice: before your mom passed and after your mom passed. The biggest difference was the picture frames. After her passing, the only pictures to be found in any part of the house was of you, of course, there were other people in them, but not one of them was missing you. But the wood floors still creaked in all the same places, the couch and armchairs were still their deep shade of blue, the walls still had the same striped wallpaper that looked like in was from the 50s.
We would hang out in the living room, stretching out and letting our feet dangle over the arms of the sofa as we flipped through the channels to avoid our homework. It was the same that day, except we were avoiding your illness. Before I could reach for the remote to have the TV fill up the silence, you bolted up and ran towards the bathroom. You were retching into the toilet by the time I got to the door. It wasn’t the first time I had seen you that way. In the third grade, we decided to see if who could chug cartons of milk the fastest. Of course, that led to us puking all over the schoolyard, and you screaming at me about how stupid my ideas were when I distinctly remember you challenging me to the contest. I walked up to pull your hair out of your face, but you hit my hand away.
“Just leave me alone please,” you said, before turning back to the toilet to wretch.
“But Di, I can’t, you’re not feeling—”
“Just get out of here!” you screamed.
I tripped on the welcome mat as I hurried out of your door. For the second time in your presence, I was feeling like a goddamn fool.
I don’t think the news hit me until I came home. My mom was asking how my day was and wondering why I was home later than usual when I blurted the news. Her eyes began to tear up and she ran into the kitchen, picking up the phone and calling everyone she could think of to confirm the news. I just couldn’t stand to hear her gabbing on with this person and that, so I trudged up to my bedroom and almost hurled myself onto the bed. I didn’t even bother to take off any of my clothes; even my shoes were still on. I just stared and stared at the ceiling all night, thinking of everything that happened that day, and somehow it was the next morning.
My head kept filling with questions that I knew I couldn’t answer, and finally, decided to get up. Today was your day to drive us to school, but after finding out news like that, and then knowing it’s probably been spread throughout the entire county, would you really want to go to school? I decided to walk to walk to your house and just walk back if you weren’t feeling up to it. Walking was a bit impractical in these parts, miles and miles of road and fields separated one house from the next, but it was the only way I could stop thinking and focus on something else. Passed the Jefferson’s mailbox, about a mile to go, passed that abandoned car, half a mile to go, and so on until I finally reached your house.
The sun was just edging over the horizon, and by this time, I knew you would be too. You told me you didn’t mind getting up that early, as long as you could stand under the shower for a good fifteen minutes. The first window on the left on the west side of the house, I only know that because whenever we were in your room, we could see the sunset perfectly framed in the window next to your bed. I realize now that I never bothered to ask you if you had picked that room on purpose.
You didn’t mind me coming to your window, in fact, you preferred it when your father was home. “He just gives you weird looks, then asks me weird questions, I’m getting sick of it,” you told me when after I came to your front door one evening to pick you up for Bible Study. As I got closer, I could see you were reading some kind of journal. I knew it wasn’t a book because it was handwritten, and it wasn’t yours because the handwriting was swirling, the ends of each letter looped around the page, making it look like a painting. You were on a page titled, “March 3rd, The Birth of Diana.”
I couldn’t knock on the window like I usually did, I felt like I was interrupting some sort of private conversation between you and a relation. I sunk to the ground, looking at the dew on the dead grass. In another week, the dew would be frozen, and the grass will turn white.
The word had completely spread around the school. Even people you had only talked to once or twice were huddling their heads together, whispering
“That’s Diana Williams. You see her? The tall chick with the blonde hair.”
“I heard she has some kind of incurable disease; you think it’s contagious or something?”
“Yer an idiot, cancer ain’t contagious.”
“Her daddy is the one who drove his truck straight into the river. You hear about that?”
“Didn’t he make that big ol’ hole in the gym wall?”
“Why you think he put his truck in the river? He hiding something? Drugs?”
“Mr. Williams ain’t hidin’ no drugs, he tryin’ to repent.”
“Yeah, he repenting for dealin’ drugs!”
And on and on it went. The whispers came into every classroom you stepped foot in, every hall you walked through, every person you passed. We were normally part of those whispers, catching each other in the hallway to catch up on any new detail. But today, you and I were silent. I didn’t even see you after history class, even though I walked the path that you would have taken. I managed to run into you at lunch when I saw you on one of the computers in the library.
“Sorry,” you whispered, “about yesterday, y’know, it’s just been….a little too much at once.” You were rubbing your hands over your eyebrows, then through your hair.
“I can’t say I really know, but I’m gonna say it anyways, I know.”
You smiled, and my spirits were starting to soar.
“This’ll probably be my last week at school. Well, going to school. I’m going to start taking my classes online so I can go to all my, uh, treatments.”
Nevermind, my spirits were back in the bottom of my stomach. I wanted to think everything that happened yesterday was just a weird dream that was too close to reality.
“I-I think your treatments will go fine. I mean, I’ve read a little bit about it here and there, and like, at least they’re going ahead with treatments. That’s at least one good thing, right?”
You smiled again, “Steve,” you laughed, “sometimes you’re too positive. But I guess I need that right now, so thanks.”
We were smiling, laughing, the first time in the past couple of says that we were truly happy.
It started snowing when I sat down to write today. There were only a couple of snowflakes when my alarm clock went off, by the time I settled down to writing and some bacon, the ground was completely covered, the rest of the sky was a gray haze. After my last trip to the hospital and the doctor's advice, I made it a point to write before heading out to the school.
After you had withdrawn from school, you were bouncing in and around the hospitals of Little Egypt for treatments here and tests there. I would drive by after to school to see if you were there, and on very lucky occasions, you were. Your hair started thinning after the first rounds of chemotherapy, and after that, you just got so sick of it coming out in clumps, you asked me to help you shave it, right before winter break. In your bathroom, we made a makeshift barber shop, as you shaved off the parts you could see in the mirror, and I helped you touch up the parts you had missed. I thought you would be so bothered by the idea of shaving your head, you had long hair for as long as I can remember, but with winter coming and the amount of hats you had lying around your house, you didn’t seem to care. “I would gladly shave my hair forever than to never get another needle to my arm again.”
I didn’t get another chance to see you until after the new year. You were away for the Church’s Christmas Pageant, but you were on everybody’s mind. The pastor said a special prayer service just for you, and afterward, the congregation, as a whole, looked around to see if there were any of your relations around to ask about your condition. But even I didn’t know until I saw your truck as I was passing by your house after school, I almost took down your mailbox trying to make a sharp turn into your driveway.
You were watching TV, waiting for your dad to get back from grocery shopping. Your clothes seemed a lot baggier on you; even the hat seemed to be overtaking your eyes. You told me to come on in and watch the rest of the news with you, and I tried to get out any and all news from you.
“What else could be new?” you said, “every day it’s the same thing, just sometimes a different doctor and different weather.”
“But things must be looking up, right?”
“I don’t even know.”
You sank into an armchair and adjusted your hat. It was the first time I had gotten a good look at you. Your cheekbones were poking out, stretching the skin, making your face look completely different. And that’s when I rose up from the couch, crossed the room, and did the very stupid thing of kissing you.
I didn’t see you again until next Tuesday at Bible Study. After my stupid act, I stared at you dumbstruck and dumbfounded; I backed away slowly with my hands raised as if I committed a crime.