My teenage years are dogeared with the decisions I think I should have died for. Getting on the back of Charlie Schwartz’s motorcycle and riding the freeway, looping through exits so fast it was like he was trying to turn his back tire into a match against the asphalt, begging the earth to set us ablaze rather than deliver us safely like moths to the fluorescent light of the 7-11 next to the middle school. Or every time, bored, I put a cigarette into my mouth and nothing happened. Not a cough, just moldering self respect between sickly smelling fingers.
Ashley was the kind of girl who dyed her hair weekly and decorated her binder displays with offensively altered Lisa Frank stickers. I’d always skirted her after an episode in the fourth grade when she told me she wanted to be a stripper; after asking our teacher what that was, I was sent to detention where Ashley convinced me to learn how to cast wiccan spells on the school nurse who stopped letting her go home early. When we both entered high school, though, I found she was the only other person I ever saw sneaking out of spirit rallies so we developed one of those bonds out of necessity that keep you alive.
She stuffed my bra with her little sister’s toe socks and we’d wait freezing in spaghetti straps at gas stations for truck drivers on long hauls to deliriously buy us menthols. We’d wait in the adjacent diner as they always instructed us, running off with the cigarettes before they could make us eat nearly-recalled burgers with them, before they could ask us sleep-deprived questions like how we got so pretty and whether we had boyfriends yet. One slipped in a comment about how he was glad his own daughter wasn’t hot like we were before we could run in matching strides across the highway shrieking and holding each other’s clammy hands. Wrapped in baggy flannels we’d crouch in the Monsanto cornfield and smoke our first cigarettes down to the nubs between bouts of silently chewing ever-longer strips of bubble tape.
Aspiring to look older I’d blow the smoke out the side of my mouth and watch it disappear against the ears of corn and unmoving white sky. “How would you like to die?” I asked Ashley.
She pondered a minute without considering once what she was holding between her black polished fingertips. “Drowning. Quick and violent. It’s also a good story because, like, who even drowns?” She yanked her lace-topped socks above the ankles of her doc martens.
“My cousin in California knows a girl who died in a riptide,” I told her, drawing a repeating pattern of waves in the undoubtedly pesticide-rife soil.
“When the ocean changes direction and sucks you out to sea.”
“So how would you die?” she probed, kicking the sole of my boot with hers. We
were always racing toward death the two of us. Wanting to look older, older. We didn’t stop to think that on the other side of older is dead.
When Charlie Schwartz died, maybe on purpose but no one was sure, people stopped talking about him really fast. Never mind his high grades in math or his remarkable SAT score, his numerous college acceptances or his fame for putting on concerts at the retirement home: the boy rode a motorcycle and had a few stick-and- poke tattoos so he must have had it coming. One thing was true and it was that our boredom was not so consuming that we could be bothered to keep Charlie alive with our attention.
“I’d die on the back of a motorcycle,” I’d said back in the corn field, wanting to impress Ashley, even though the only possible answer was warm in my bed with a cold nose from the open window. And then what? Parts of me would just disperse like menthol smoke into a low, white sky. When we talked about death we talked about being noticed. About the funeral. About omniscience and finally hearing what everybody had to say about us. What we weren’t ready to confront was the idea they might not be saying anything at all. And that they’d say even less once we were gone.