The graffiti outline looks similar to the black and white optical illusion street missionaries hold up to your face when you walk along Venice Beach. Stare at it long enough and you’ll see the face of Jesus. Only this stenciled image is the color of Henna, contrasted with the mucky, stucco white of a wall outside Jerry’s Pizza, where Patrick’s combat boots used to crush cockroaches in the basement as we waited for the Kern County fire marshal to break up whatever local punk show we’d wandered into that Friday night. This outline is not the face I remember, the one with the goofy grin that referred to me as “Kinky Karen” long before such a nickname became fitting, the one topped with a buzzed crop of red bristles, which lit up in the lunchtime sun like birthday candles. This face, flat and hollow, created by absence, is furrow-browed and framed by unkempt auburn strands.
It is not just here.
It is on dumpsters, and street curbs where similarly-disturbed youth now practice their kick-flips, their greased axles blacking out all we have left of him.
Megan wasn’t always crazy. She always looked a little crazy, a waist-long mane of fire framing her tiny freckled face, dwarfing her elfish frame. But she didn’t always call me in the middle of the night saying things like “I want to kill someone” with such terrifying sincerity.
I met Megan my junior year in high school, when she was a sophomore and we both wrote for our school’s newspaper. She was a quirky little thing with an appetite only for words, plain hot dogs and Coca-Cola. She had a wit beyond her fifteen years and a crazy cackle when she was genuinely amused, a cackle silenced the morning she pulled up to her dad’s house to find a police officer walking down the front porch with a shotgun in his hands.
On that particular morning, she ran up the stairs to Patrick’s room, crossing police tape to sit in her brother’s blood, surrounded by only his things: the Spanish textbook he and I shared five years prior, the military green jacket he wasn’t wearing because it was May in Bakersfield, the wad of dollar bills he’d been saving to restore a 1940 Ford pickup he’d already named “Precious,” a worn out copy of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and a photo of him crouched beside his younger brother, Kevin, atop a dilapidated roof, their chocolate lab Missy lying happily between them.
“I’m sitting right where he did it,” she told me when I picked up the phone.
I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year, hadn’t seen Patrick in nearly two—since our high school graduation. Still, she called me first.
“I needed to know, to feel the place where he last sat. I needed to know if I could feel what he felt at the moment he pulled that trigger. It’s still warm, but I can’t feel him, Karen. I wanted to feel him here.”
I tried to ignore the craze in her voice, tried to picture her younger, and happier, belting out “Free Falling” on her way both to and from school, her windows down, a Big Gulp in hand.
Instinctively, I knew it was Patrick, but I asked anyway.
“Megan, what happened?”
I whispered it, hoping my attempts at concern sounded genuine, knowing I had to somehow comfort her, to make her trust I had known Patrick as well as she needed to believe I had.
“He killed himself, Karen. Patrick.”
And I cried with her, partly because I could see his face both happy and sad, but mostly because I could see Megan, sitting cross-legged on the phone with me, her free hand tracing the outline where his own seated body had blocked the splatter from hitting the floor.
I was three hours away, in my university bubble, blocks from the sand.
In the obituary, their mother wrote, “Patrick suffered from depression, and we’re grateful he is no longer in pain but has found peace.” Even the Irish Catholic priest who spoke at the graveside service seemed remarkably sensitive to the circumstances surrounding Patrick’s intentional departure from this world.
“Depression is a sickness,” he had argued, “and as such, we must not see Patrick’s suicide as a choice for which the cost is hell.”
Four years later, I wore my birthday dress—an overpriced black and white paisley number with billowy sleeves—to both a wedding and a funeral.
Elliott, Patrick’s best friend and Megan’s stand-in older brother, had been found by his grandmother, his face recognizable only to her, the woman who raised him, his body too decomposed from lying in the trunk of a car for two days in the 106 degree Bakersfield August heat to be identified by anyone else. I hadn’t seen him since watching him cry over Patrick’s closed casket my sophomore year of college.
Text message: Elliott Roe was found dead today. Sorry to tell you this way.
I got the text as I was sifting through literary journal submissions, laughing with fellow graduate students about arrogant cover letters and our disappointing sex lives.
Despite only calling Elliott my boyfriend for one day in the seventh grade, I stepped outside to call Megan, again feigning that I had known him better in an attempt to relieve the weight of her anguish. As she explained the details, the police reports, the speculations of both murder and overdose, I picked a hardened berry from one of the many trees on campus, and wrote my name on the concrete with the very last of its juices.
“Who knows?” I heard a lady at the memorial service whisper from the pew behind me. “Maybe he called out to the Lord in his final moments.”
She said these things to console whatever family member beside her felt burdened by the realization that Elliott, an avid atheist, was doomed to eternal damnation.
“Let us see Elliott as a reminder,” his childhood pastor warned, “that there is only one road to the Kingdom of Heaven, a road Elliott chose not to take. Such a shame that such a brilliant artist and writer was too tempted by the drugs that presumably took his life to see the potential he had to bring people to God.”
The service ended with a dove release and a CD recording of “Fly Home to Jesus.”
After Elliott’s funeral, Megan and I went out to lunch at Luigi’s, the same restaurant Patrick liked to go to following the opening of dove season every year. The walls are covered with Bakersfield High School football team photos from the 30’s to the present, failed local actors’ signed head shots, letters of pasta praise from former politicians. Death surrounds us. Still, I awkwardly slurp my minestrone soup and struggle for casual conversation as Megan sits beside an untouched plate of plain noodles, her fingers twitching for another cigarette. Her eyes are blank and aged as she goes on and on about the book she’s currently reading, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, a satirical critique of pop culture featuring a cult escapee who commits suicide by hijacking a plane, leaving his final words on a black box, the words that make up the book’s entirety. Patrick didn’t leave a note.
The last time I saw her happy was on my eighteenth birthday. She called me, faking a cry and claiming her boyfriend had broken up with her. Easily baited, I rushed over to comfort my friend, “Lil Rojo” I called her. When I arrived, she surprised me with my closest friends and a checkered cake—an homage to my obsession with a symbol gracing the album jackets of a dying genre. Afterward, we went out for Mexican food where she ordered her usual one plain taco, before heading to a showing of Lilo and Stitch. It was a simpler time when all we needed was an adorably-animated alien to make us laugh. Ohana means family.
Myspace Message: I’m sleeping with Christine’s brother. He’s so hot.
“I had to break up with her,” my friend’s brother Ryan admitted after only dating her a few months. “She’s crazy. I couldn’t even have sex with her without seeing her brother’s face.”
He meant it literally. Shortly after his death, Megan had the silhouette of Patrick’s face—an image that had been spray-painted all around Bakersfield in his memory—tattooed on the whole of her back, between a traditional shamrock and cartoon leprechaun she’d previously had inked on the backsides of her jutting hip bones. Her freckles became his, his face again intact.
“He should be here and 25,” she wrote in a blog entry on her Myspace page. “People avoid me because they all stopped grieving years ago and they’re afraid to admit how crazy I am. I never sleep.”
She deleted the post before most of those people were probably able to read it, but not before I was able to respond, thankful for the opportunity to admit that I had been avoiding her, that I had been afraid to answer her calls, that I was aware of the darkness I’d hear in her voice, a darkness I was incapable of lifting, a darkness that scared me.
“I love you,” was all she wrote back.
Three months shy of the first anniversary of Patrick’s death, he came to me in a dream. It was as intensely vivid as a memory. I dreamed that I was dating Kurt Cobain when he first started doing heroin. We weren’t exactly dating, but it was one of those unspoken things where both people know they love each other. Nothing ever really gets said. I remember distinctly that it was Kurt Cobain, only he looked like Patrick, burnt skin peeling in the crease of his nose. As we sat on a filthy street curb much like those that still exhibit the fading image of Patrick’s face, it was as if I knew his fate, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. And when I asked him what it felt like, he said, “It’s like being born,” and once again, there was a silent understanding between us. I envisioned him, a star hockey player as he was in life, skating on a lake of fire.
I have never spoken to Megan about that dream, or the release of mystified anger I experienced from it. Perhaps I feel guilty that she has yet to be gifted with such a release, that there is no understanding in our silence. It is impossible to know what Patrick’s last thoughts were, or what exactly happened the night Elliott’s overdosed body was stuffed into the trunk of his car and left where his grandmother would find him. It’s impossible to understand exactly why Megan’s dad has been able to go on living after finding his faceless son on the floor of his bedroom, and why Megan, who only sat there, has not been able to do the same. It is even impossible to understand why our only meaningful exchanges have been reduced to text messages and blog comments, a communicative wall we’ve built between us.
In ancient Celtic culture, graves were surrounded by fences.