Jaime Bender had skipped third lunch to occupy the vacant unlocked junior high library and play with matches stolen from his parent’s kitchen sink drawer. The drawer held other niceties like unsharpened rusty exacto blades and a generous amount of dry uncapped superadhesives.
Jamie had succeeded in doing away with himself while hiding in the reading room. In attempting to extinguish his pant leg he managed to catch the breen 68-year-old shag carpet on fire. The ensuing conflagration consumed him in minutes, melted the sprinkler system in the space and moved on to the abundant shelves for more quick fuel before being contained and extinguished. This only after administering a hearty singe to Mrs. Montyues' adjacent mathematics classroom.
Jamie was eleven and so far as intelligent as any pre-pubescent cage of ripening dysfunction. Survival of the fittest got the best of him that day, giving him up for statistics. We had good memories of Jamie, who despite being a minor agent of destruction was namely the best foosball player on Union Street. Had he possessed any further talent surely foosball would have gotten him through college on a gambling scholarship and adored by fraternity-going young males the campus over.
I was three years older than Jaime then. At the funeral a week and a day after shuffling out the back door of Mr. Hodge’s Physics II lab, RachelAnne James to the rear of me whining about how the January air was going to freeze the freshly applied gel in her bangs (and thinking after a second hair gel is supposed to freeze up anyway) while pushing my arms through the sleeves of my black wooly dinner jacket- then meeting the huge crowd of students, each in a yet unmingled class set, distracted by the barely visible though black-as-death puffy clouds of smoke from the center ventilation system in the roof. After all that and school being cancelled for the rest of the week to make repairs, we anticipated what mourning was going to look like.
We found ourselves mourning Jamie because we had to. It's what you did. The whole thing just felt like a disjointed block party. We paused for prayer. We processed around Jamies’ brass urn. We marveled at all the flowers that kept rolling in amidst the service; huge bouquets of lilies and carnations and organza with babies breath and red red red roses. Roses that defined red anew and gave pink a reason to be ashamed of itself. I mingled with those I knew and pretended to be happy to meet people to whom I was introduced.
Jamie’s parents just looked used up. Like they could both use a nap – a three-day long nap. Watching them I was starting to feel melted, it was hot in here, and as desperately ordinary as the table I stood beside; all antique lamp and antique box of Kleenex. Then she walked past me and stopped at my side without anything. Just stopped – didn’t look up – didn’t speak. I glanced at her and kept my hands in my pockets like this was all supposed to happen. She picked up her hand and tugged on my sleeve. Though I felt calm watching her my heart advanced. We were in some chess game and she was a rook reminding me that I was in check.
This was Jenene Bender. "Weird Jenene." Jamie’s sister in the grade below me. She materialized, a soft phantom at 5' 1”. What could I do but follow her like a mesmerized cobra ascending into the weaving dance that accompanies the captivating Indian clarinet pipe song this girl sang without a word. Her hand found mine and we migrated through the pixilated moving targets of people in this very strange arcade shooting range of sorrow.
The street was cut-up shadowy dark like a parking lot. We were the only ones on it. I should have given her my coat – the way she was doubled over in that chocolate turtleneck sweater made my shoulders ache – but I was too warm to notice. Comfort tends to make one apathetic. She walked fast and I got warmer by keeping up. We ducked into a suspect lacuna between row houses and she produced a marijuana cigarette and a silver lighter the size of my pinky with a star stamped into it. Another antique that caught an even flint of light in our current wave of crisp darkness. Even the smoke made her compact face radiate. When she finally did look up at me and into my eyes on the inhale I couldn’t see her pupils but on that exhale I could feel them dilate. Another chapter in the book of life that belongs to me now written and consecrated, for everyone measures a bit of time by when and where they first encountered a controlled substance.
Her hand with the joint attached came out of the dark and halted inches from my chin.
“Just, enjoy this with me. I think it's the only thing that'll help me cry.” Her first sentence directed at me and already the relationship was one sided and manipulative. I took it from her – jutting my hand out from the jacket sleeve applying thumb and index beside hers on the soft crinkling paper.
She breathed out a cloud and gulped in the frosted air like she was desperate to choke and drown. I inhaled shallowly, pretending to do it deeply – even tilted my head back to try to reaffirm this, but when I came forward and coughed she giggled, which relieved me. The fool could now relax. She was suddenly the last person I wanted to fake it around.
It was hard to understand just what Jenene understood in the way that she understood it. When she started in about Jamie she had so much to say but couldn’t get it out. Every time she had gone to explain a feeling or perception in her own way, someone had tried to contradict her, or just didn’t agree, and didn’t let her finish her thought. She felt this way generally and had developed a bitter set of tendencies from it. She stopped listening, stopped talking, stopped wanting to explain. She did say she hoped this wake could help her parents out because they didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves.
Jenene and Jaime weren’t neglected necessarily, they were just two latchkey kids in a poor suburban wild getting by on bread and water. Some days finding lunch money on the floor of the bus. Jenene was crazy for a sexual outlet. Jamie was a hidden madman. He had some social skills and managed to have friends, but what burned inside him was an undeniable insidious death wish. When Jenene’s class was first evacuated, she knew she couldn’t tell anyone that it was her brother because then they would have just figured the whole thing was planned and wouldn’t have listened, and that made her miserable. With helpless fear painted on her face she processed amidst indignant classmates out into the cold. When everyone was distracted by the smoke, she darted into the side of the building. She tried to figure out why she was seized with the knowledge that it was in fact Jamie. Why didn’t she stop him when she saw him take the matches? Maybe in some sadistic moment she imagined the alleviation of responsibility toward her brother when she fathomed an accident which might prove fatal. Like a bomb in an abandoned bookbag, she slumped down behind the school’s long brick walled gymnasium and exploded in a fury of tears.
But she wasn’t crying now. The frosted air took up the smoke and her exhale and gave them both ethereal, temporary bodies. In between the houses kitchen lamps and television glow came across and made surreal patterns on both of us. Made the bracelets on her wrist throw a prism onto my jacket canvas. I took the cigarette from her again, feeling woozy on the 3rd pass.
I think about her voice and how it has given me all this new information. This girl who’s only told one story to me, yet who I anticipate will tell me many more. She will leave this place only to me and memory. Where we stood together there will remain shadows and thin lights and cold air.
Under the sudden circumstances I felt compelled to follow hope for her. She’s charmed me, of course, the fucked-up jewel I can salvage from the rough. Learn how to polish to the kind of luster I don’t understand but want to share with her. For no other reason than to be a receptacle for her passion I was there- glad to be chosen. I offered to walk her home that night, but she declined.
We go back to school and it’s not a new place. We think it will be because it's somehow supposed to be. The library was brand new- a lesser amount of books on a larger amount of shelving. There is a reading room dedicated to Jamie, but I haven’t seen it. I hear it doesn’t have any carpet. Jenene and I confer on these things and more like we’ve been friends hanging out at her locker after fourth period for the whole year long. I put my arm around her and she lets me as we cross the courtyard to the second building. She lets me walk her home then, after that first day back with the looks and the knowing and the renewed need to feel safe. She makes a sandwich for me like she did for Jamie most days after school. Turkey and provolone and lettuce on toast with honey and butter. Turns out her parents keep more food in the house now. She says “I know this is selfish, but it has to be done. I haven’t done much of it.” She proceeds to break down with the kind of tears that spring from living in relief of yourself.
Back into living with nobody to care for- a friend, a reason, a motivation lost. That's an intimidating void to fill for anyone, but I didn’t indulge her. I let her cry and I kissed her forehead goodbye as she moved past me to sleep it off. I closed the back door on the way out knowing she’s the kind of girl who wakes up; she’ll rise with renewed purpose and determination and I’ll see her tomorrow.
It'll be her turn to walk me home some day next week, when not estranged from herself. She'll be laughing at my dumb jokes, dressed in bright colors and drinking root beer while we play some foosball. We'll both be remembering, in this life we are all still learning to assemble, that she is not alone.