We’re watching a musical while they expel Annabelle from school. The theater is set in a small room that looks more like a woodshed than a stage. There’s a small circle of chairs with an aisle cutting it in quarters and a big, open space in the middle. The lights are soft and yellow, reflecting against my winter stained skin. The opening notes start to play but they don’t dim the lights like I’m expecting. They leave everything on. It’s bright and warm and feels like I’m in someone’s living room instead of the middle of a production.
At this point, I’m eighteen but she’s still only sixteen. I imagine her sitting in health services at this point, waiting for us to come visit her. Once you’re expelled you’re not allowed to live in the dorms. Health services is connected to the biggest residential building on campus and the nurses’ rooms are built the same way the dorms upstairs are. At this point, she’s probably waiting for us to come say goodbye. We’re at boarding school and have to be back in our dorms by 10:00 pm. We only have two hours until it’s too late. She leaves the next morning and while we say we’ll stop by and visit her then too we know that we won’t have more than a few minutes.
The play opens with the whole company, made up of only seven people, slowly coming in through the back doors. They’re wearing winter gear and as they shed layers of scarves and coats, a chorus of “ooohs!” and “aahs!” emerges from their mouths. The scene is intimate and altogether unsettling. I’ve heard the play is depressing but I’m still not all that sure what to expect.
Annabelle wasn’t expelled because she did something wrong. She was expelled because her roommate told her hall counselor that she’d lined up blueberries and pills on her desk. Blueberry, blue pill, blueberry, green pill, blueberry, fat white pill, blueberry, pink pill. They ran in rows across the desk, coupled with post-it notes that said things like Too Fat and Stupid and Useless. No one knew if she would actually take the pills, but we were too afraid to give her the time for us to find out.
Oddly enough the play’s tone switches during a song about Passover. People warned me to bring tissues before I saw it but I wasn’t expecting them to throw it all at us at once. At one point the play is built upon people joking about sex and pretentious artists and suddenly it flips completely – now we’re talking about everything I try to avoid.
At times it feels like this play almost feels like it’s forcing people to cry. They throw in songs from a dying mother to her daughter, loved ones dying of AIDS, and out of the blue 9/11. Halfway through the show what they’re singing is barely audible over the audience’s sobs. People are heaving, shoulders shaking, crying harder than I’ve ever seen anyone cry in a theater. I’m thinking about how the play’s almost over, thinking about how I’ll face Annabelle after this.
They start to put their coats back on. Actors wrap their puffy hair in scarves. Beanies slowly fall back around skulls. They continue singing as they walk out the door of the theater back into the cold. The final actors leave, the building’s door closing behind them. We all sit in silence for a while, a few people still shaking or sobbing.
I look over to my two other friends who came to the play with me. None of us cried. None of us moved a single muscle. Our faces, I’m sure, were stoic ever since the Passover song. So many emotions were thrown at us so fast but still, all we could think about was Annabelle.
We wrap ourselves in winter coats and scarves the same way the actors did just moments before. “Thank you for coming to Elegies: A Song Cycle,” the ushers call as we leave. Walking through the snow the breeze licks at my cheeks and I step on a few leftover pine branches. It’s dark outside and we only have half an hour until sign-in. When we get inside health services a wave of warm, yellow heat washes over us. I walk up to the counter and tell the nurse we’re there to see Annabelle.
“Only two at a time,” she says, barely looking up. I turn to face them but they seem to have already agreed I’ll go first. I make my way down the hallway, all of a sudden very aware of how much this building looks like a hospital. I knock a couple times on the metal door. It’s the shade of white that looks almost stained, like someone tried to find the perfect white but accidentally spilled a bit of dirt in the mix.
Annabelle walks up to the door. The makeup she put on the day before has collected under her eyelids and her hair looks like she hasn’t brushed it in days. She’s in a sweatshirt five times her size and her leggings sag at the ankles. She looks up at me with the face that she always makes when she knows she messed up. It’s a sort of half smile half pout, pursing her lips and knitting her brows.
“They’re waiting outside. Two at a time,” I say.
“I know. It’s a pain in the ass,” she says, walking over to the bed.
She has light blonde roots growing from the base of her head. She dyes her hair jet brown but when the roots grow back they look like baby chicks or peach fuzz. Freckles stain her face and little specks of mascara dot her eyelids from where her lashes tickled them days before.
I try to close the door but she shakes her head.“Gotta keep it open. They won’t let me close it.”
We both sit down on the bed and it squeaks against our weight. It feels more like a cot than an actual bed, metal railings and overly starched white sheets. There’s a bedside tray with something that looks like it tried to be dinner on it. Some opened bags of snacks still filled with their contents are spilled around the surface and an untouched plate of food rests alongside them. The only thing that looks touched is water and gum. The room is about half the size of a dorm room and there’s another partially made bed on the other side. She catches me looking at it.
“A hall counselor’s supposed to be in here with me at all times. They had to sleep there last night,” she says, cringing a little at the memory. She reaches up to itch her elbow and it pulls the edge of her sleeve up. She’s always wearing long sleeves, no matter how hot it is. She gave herself tattoos all over her skin when she was trying to stop self-harming but now she’s just left with scars and spiders and roman numerals.
Our conversation starts off simple. She talks about who came to visit her, who didn’t. She’s angry the boy with the blonde hair and bug eyes didn’t come to say goodbye but the one that did, the one that kissed her, makes up for it. I watch her as she talks. The way her mouth curves up into a point and her smile lines stretch back into her jaw. She’s reaching out to hold my hands at all the exciting parts of the story, squeezing them when she gets too excited.
Boarding school doesn’t provide for much entertainment. On most days we sit by the lake and listen to new music someone showed her. She’s a songwriter and music has always meant something more to her than most people. Sometimes we end up taking the bus downtown. Here, we’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves. Filling up on apple pie and lattes from local coffee shops. But some days she just hovers above the rocks on the bay, so close to the edge I’m afraid she’s going to jump on top of one of them and slice her lungs open.
On the day her pregnancy test comes back negative we’re in a CVS bathroom and to celebrate she stuffs her cheeks with marshmallows. In this scene, I’m seventeen, but she’s still fifteen – just a few weeks away from her birthday and the anniversary of her first suicide attempt. On her birthday her mom mailed her a cake but she’d decided to be vegan so she went up to people on the street and offered a birthday cake to anyone who came her way.
“I didn’t think he would come, but I was still angry,” she says. I snap back to the scene. Health services. Hospital tray. Uneaten food. Open metal door. Cots. Dried mascara. Sweatshirts.
It’s 9:50. I’ve been in here longer than I planned. I was going to swap out after ten minutes to let my other friends come in to visit but before I can even remember how to stand they come pouring into the room. I can hear someone, probably a nurse, yelling at them in the background but they don’t seem to care.
They collapse onto the cot where we’ve been sitting. I’d held it together until this point but when they come in and wrap their arms around all of us suddenly we’re all crying – sobbing uncontrollably like one odd, kinetic animation.
I have the soundtrack of the play going around in my head while we cry. And I am there in flowers I am there in snow. I don’t know why this thing happened, but this much is clear. Any time you cry, any time you sing for anything – I’ll be there each morning. I’ll be there each fall. I don’t why this thing happened, but this much is clear. Be aware, I am there.
The song’s supposed to be about a dying mother singing to her daughters but as it loops around in my head all of a sudden it’s about Annabelle instead. At boarding school, friendships quickly transform into family and after almost two years of Annabelle, I know her as both a daughter and a sister, not a friend. I’ve been the one to watch over her for these past years and I’m terrified of what she’ll let slip when I’m not there to watch. Her mom is a drunk and her dad is a doctor that spends too much time at work. She says she only feels safe when she’s at school with us. Even during breaks, she calls me whenever she’s upset. She’s been my person since we first became friends. I’ve talked her out of suicide attempts, bandaged her wrists when she had a bad night, and held her hand when she couldn’t stop shaking more times than I can count.
She was different than anyone I’d met before. She was a year below me but the only person I’d met who was just as sick as I was. And unlike me, she wasn’t afraid to talk about it. Suicide attempts mixed with cocktails of eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety, and depression. We traded stories like game cards and after a month knew more about each other than anyone else.
I’d made friends like this before – girls who were just as scary as I was. People who swapped scars like Halloween candy and lived for the idea that they were too fucked up to fix. But my friendships with them never turned out well. They became competitions. Destructive games where we’d try to beat each other at this weird, sparkling torture trade. Who’s sicker today? Who’s really the craziest?
She wasn’t like this. We weren’t trying to win anything. Stuck in the middle of nowhere in negative thirty degrees, we were clinging onto each other for life. In those woods we weren’t these carbon copied ideas of mental illness – we were both knew we were sick, and we were both struggling. But that didn’t matter. We were little girls who liked boys (and sometimes girls) and wanted peanut butter and Snickers bars. Our illnesses were on the back burner until they couldn’t be avoided anymore.
While we’re all still wrapped up together she looks up at me and quietly says, “This is the first time I’ve seen you cry.”
When she leaves the next morning and I have to walk away from health services and into the chemistry class I used to have with her. The snow is still harsh and crunches against my brown boots while I walk to class. I’m trying not to cry anymore for fear of my tears freezing against my cheeks. The pine trees are shaking in the wind and little piles of snow dump off the leaves and onto the ground surrounding me. I can’t think about anything but her. Where she is, if she’s on the plane yet, if the plane has taken off, if she’s still safe. This is when I realize she might be the first person I love to die.
That night she calls me while I’m sitting in the on-campus cafe. I’m with a few friends drinking tea and trying to forget what’s happening for a little when my phone buzzes against the metal table. I jump off the stool and go outside, figuring it’ll be a short enough phone call to stand the cold. She’s probably just calling to say she landed safely.
“I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my legs at all and I’m at the airport and my dad left to get the car and I’m sitting in the middle of the sidewalk and there are people walking all around me,” She’s talking so fast I can barely keep up with what she’s saying. “They think I’m crazy, oh my God they think I’m insane. I’m insane! I can’t feel my legs I can’t move I can’t stand. I can’t do this. Everyone thinks I’m crazy! I can’t move what is happening to me I’m so scared I’m so scared I’m so scared.”
She’s heaving over the phone, her breath going so fast and so sharp I’m not sure how she’s even getting her words out. “I can’t see! I can’t see anything! Everything is black!” She starts to scream. “Everything is black help me I can’t see!”
I try to talk her down, but it feels impossible. Usually, I can reach out and hold her hands or wrap her in my arms until she stops shaking but now she’s on the phone two thousand miles away and I’ve never felt this helpless in my life. I feel the beginning of my own panic attack coming on while counting off breaths for her to take. I try to ignore my own lack of air.
The wind is lashing against my cheeks as I try to find a spot where a dorm blocks a bit of the burn. My teeth are chattering as I try to remind her that she’ll be okay, that this isn’t the end of her life, that we’ll still love her even when she’s not here, that she’s going to live through this.
It’s been at least an hour. She’s still on the floor of the airport. I can hear car horns and airport announcements in the background of our conversation. “Why isn’t my dad back? What if he got into a car accident! Oh my God, he’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead!”
I’m at a total loss. I don’t know what to do or what to say that will actually help her. A couple of people walk by me but don’t say anything, just glance over in my direction and keep walking.
I watch the way the light from the lamp above me tickles the snowfall as I continue to count out breaths for her. Eventually, her dad gets there and she has to hang up.
The songs from the play are still stuck in my head. I remember how you smiled. You were trying not to smile. Then you smile and the earth stopped turning. All the images are filed. All the images keep flicking. Why are all of us are slow at picking up our cues? Nothing left to win. Nothing more to lose.
The line goes dead but I keep the phone against my ear, expecting something more to happen. Maybe hear her say she’ll be okay. Maybe hear her say she won’t. A light dusting of snow begins to coat my fingertips. It feels like razor blades against my fingers. Eventually, I put the phone down, shove my bright red hands in my pockets, and walk back to the café.