Last night I made a list of every drug Katie and I were able to procure in high school. I then made a list of every drug we consumed in excess dosage intentionally while somehow still managing to wake up the next morning and make it to class in time. Regardless of our poor decision-making, we always handled our priorities well. Even when she took the Halcion (a sedative prescribed to treat insomnia) she stole from her grandparents’ bathroom that had an expiration date of March 1987 (it was 2006 when she discovered it). I passed on participating and even though she threw up three times after taking it (twice in the hallways, once in the boys’ bathroom), she swore it was the best experience she’d ever had. She said that about every drug and it made me wonder if she was even capable of ever being truly happy sober. I didn’t need any of it really, and although it helped pass the time, I was content just being around her. It was a privilege, really, to watch the corners of her lips curve upward and with every experience, every trip, every conscious risk, she shone a different color, a hue of brightness that to this day, sticks like paint to the walls of my otherwise lacking memory.
At fifteen, we smoked weed we bought for too much money on the trampoline in her backyard while her parents were asleep. Giggling and bouncing, we would toss arms over each other’s bare shoulders and bring one another down together repeatedly. One night in particular, when our jumping ceased, she paused for a few soft moments and then wondered aloud if life was just going to go downhill from here on. I said I don’t know and then paused myself. I thought for a brief moment and then replied confidently that I thought it would only get better. She asked if I really thought so and I said yes even though I didn’t know for sure and she said alright then, I believe it and smiled that smile that made my heart feel as if palms were pressing magnets against it. It was a smile she wore often, in which the bottoms of her teeth peeked out from underneath lips. That night we stayed outside until the sun came up in tones of purple and red and yellow, and her, the softest shade of pink I had ever bore witness to.
Did you know that it takes a mile for a train going 80 miles per hour to come to a complete stop? She asked me once. Freight or metro? I replied. I don’t know, she said. Hmm. That’s interesting. She was random in a way that was gratifying. There was often some underlying purpose in her thinking out loud, it seemed, and even when there wasn’t, you would learn something that most people would probably only learn from a fact on the lid of a snapple bottle.
I loved her that way in which some things are so beautiful that you have no choice but to love them with every ounce of your being. From the first time we met at the rise of freshman year, I had already memorized the way her strawberry blonde mane traced the lateral curve of her chest, wrapping ever so slightly underneath it. Her hands, lanky and pale, extended like trees from the small of her wrists. Lashes expanded from her eyelids the way branches might crawl out towards an open sky. She had a charm that could knock God himself into a state of submission. But beyond anything else, a laugh like liquid- one that could fill a room with just the echo of it. I’ve never been too bare a face to be unable to elicit admiration, but next to her I was nearly translucent. I didn’t mind. I would’ve taken the place of every lightless bulb if it meant being near her sun, the sweet gold that dripped from her every movement with me by her side, mouth open, hoping to catch even the slightest bit of it on my tongue.
I’d listen to her talk about the men she was pursuing. At 16, it was a 25-year-old construction worker from Texas named John who lived above the dog kennel on the outskirts of town and taught us both how to parallel park. And then later it was Asher, the manager of a local Pizza Hut and a self-proclaimed potato chip connoisseur. Her dating habits were cyclical though, and after a few weeks she’d return to her routine of disinterest and continue on with her search for the next. After each date she went on, she’d lay her slim figure across my lap and ask me to run fingers through her scalp. I treated the job as though I’d been asked to carry the last surviving Pollack on a tight rope across Lake Michigan, the edges of my nails tracing carefully for fear of faltering even the slightest bit. Most of the guys were similar, lacking enviable careers and confidence. But then there was Jason, the first to have what seemed to be a desirable future. A senior business student at the University of Illinois, he was the first to keep Katie’s attention for longer than a two weeks. What I immediately sensed as an air of arrogance, somehow managed to transform Katie’s usual unimpressed attitude into a full-fledged fascination. At the sight of his name glowing on the screen of her phone, her cheeks grew into a deep wine, ready and eager to pour out into his hands.
When they had sex for the first time, she came to my house after to tell me every detail and I swear I saw colors impossible to even imagine emanating from her vulnerable pores. She was the smoothest shade of crimson and cherry combined that I had ever seen. I was jealous. But the envy I maintained deep inside of me was not a jealousy of her, but of he who had the ability to fill her with so much pigment. Eventually his attempts to see her grew fewer and his sweetness morphed bitter. When she confronted him about the possibility of his cheating, his fist etched a patch of black and blue into the side of her temple. I nursed the wound as she defended it as an act of passion. It happened, twice more, once when she questioned his commitment, and again when she threatened to leave. But when he was the one to break contact and move out of state, I watched the usual teal of her eyes dim to mimic the dull of the Chicago River during the wintertime. I said, you’ll get over him and she cursed me for even assuming it was possible. Still, she had me run fingers through her hair and lay quiet next to her in her bed every night until she fell finally asleep, heartbrokenly blue.
Katie was never one to spell out her dejection, but detecting it wasn’t necessarily a challenge. When she was happy, or at the least, content, every hue of her spirit reflected through the pale of her flesh. She rarely talked about that which upset her, and if she did, it was a sentence or two about the topic and not much else. Through the lending of her body to the hands of careless men, she grew more and more despondent. I didn’t ask why she did this but wondered to myself how someone so impeccable could waste so much time with those so undeserving. Without prompt, she told me, If there’s one feeling that never gets old, it’s the feeling of being wanted. I could’ve told her then and there that there was nothing I wanted more in this world than her, that I would make it my life’s work to bring it to her knowledge every day if I were granted the right. But instead I nodded my head silently in agreement as she mellowed out into a dusted gray.
In our 17th year, her smile had begun to wane into a constant expression of exhaustion. She didn’t care much to get high anymore, and because my willingness to do so was never really more than an extension of hers, we ceased the hobby that had become a regular habit. She no longer had the desire to harass my neighbor for the pills in his parents’ medicine cabinet, and we stopped buying molly from the guy who lived behind 7-Eleven. It was unusual, certainly, that after almost three years of consistently searching for adventure in substance, the impulse terminated almost all at once. When she began failing assignments, I figured it was none other than a conscious attempt to do poorly. This was someone who, in the midst of an acid trip, could perfectly knock out an AP calculus final in under an hour. For her to achieve failure, it meant putting forth the effort that most people needed just to make a passing grade. But the below average results continued, and she carried on apathetically, donning a shade of purple I hadn’t yet seen in her before.
I was shocked when one Monday morning at the completion of our junior year, she informed me that at end of the summer, her family would be moving across the country to Washington. I watched the uncertainty tremble its way out of her lips, hiding my own ambivalence harshly between my teeth. With the reality of the situation stinging, I pushed through the feeling to promise her some sort of hope. She sighed, but nodded, closed mouth and eyes, unconvincingly. I said, everything will be okay, I know it. She said, I wish I saw things the way you did. I thought about what could happen if she really did see me in the same lens as I saw her, how we might expand beyond the friendship I so valued but also secretly wished was something greater. But I knew it would be useless anyway. After all, she was leaving and the possibility of her ever loving me romantically was beyond unlikely, and so I assured her that things would get better, attempting to also reassure myself in a way. But the light looked like it’d been plucked from her eye sockets. Any remaining spark seemed to have been replaced by her now fully dilated pupils. Her eyelashes still curled, but sparingly and weaker than ever, as if they were leaves in Autumn prematurely anticipating their descent. She’d ask me to shift fingernails through her hair and I’d watch the thinness of its strands retire exhausted from her scalp. Even when the glow started to dim, there was always an ever-present lightness in her being, but that too had started to fade and its departure didn’t seem like it would come to a halt anytime soon. I was concerned, but all I had really was a heavy perception of color and the knowledge that within a few months, we’d be apart.
The first of August was the brightest Saturday I had ever seen. Through Katie’s bedroom window, the heat looked tangible and raw, ready to plaster itself onto the bodies of everyone willing to leave the house that day. It is still to this day, the brightest I have ever seen. I heard the sound of the early morning metro arriving nearby. The color drained from the room. Katie wasn’t next to me.
She had walked the few blocks from her house to the metro crossing, directly onto the tracks at approximately 8:09 am, when the most popular commute was en route towards Ogilivie station at the heart of the city, while I was left sleeping next to the imprint of her body in the mattress, unknowing, soon to discover, to be changed indefinitely.