I AM SITTING in the kitchen with my arms on the fake slate countertop looking out at the trees and the grass. It’s August and the rest of my family was supposed to have packed up the pop-up camper and been long gone by ten. Kathy and I have given them what we believe is plenty of leeway and wandered back to my house at precisely five after ten. But my mother is still here in the kitchen packing a cooler. The LSD we dropped the night before seems to have rendered us a bit too literal about time and everything else.
Kathy is exploring the garden, inspecting anthills and pulling leaves off the weeping willow. Her hair falls like blonde water over her face. She wears a gray-blue T-shirt and her silver scarab captures the early morning sun and it looks as if she has a glimmering heart beating visibly as she moves. I can see the earth moving beneath her feet and how she is surfing the world on a surfboard made of my lawn.
An open window with a closed screen, a stretch of lawn, the part that never dies and always grows longest and fastest stretches between us. She stands at the edge of the vegetable garden, her feet disappearing into the places the lawn mower couldn’t go. These days the garden isn’t as ambitious as it was that first year here, back when we came here to rural suburbia when I was in seventh grade. But there are still cucumbers twining and broccoli crowning all of its small heads; scallions as soft as straws of green. The apple tree still too young to bear fruit stands behind her and through the magic of perspective she looks as if she is taller than it. Behind that beyond the cluster of pines a tangle of wild currants and tiger lilies war against the perimeters of order.
My mother and I have hardly exchanged a civil word since May, when I came back from my freshman year of college. I wear peasant blouses without bras and smoke cigarettes and consider myself no longer part of this family. My disdain for the bourgeois ways of my parents and siblings bleeds out into everything I do. But on acid I am more forgiving. So I talk to my mother about asparagus and how feathery it is. I talk about the truth in Erma Bombeck’s thing about the greenest grass and the septic tank. I don’t know what else I talk about, but she smiles at me perhaps for the first time since I got back and says, “This is good. Why can’t you always be like this?”
Kathy and I haven’t slept at all. We’ve been up all night in her mother’s station wagon in the park listening to Pink Floyd and Bach cassettes. I recounted my mosquito bites. For some reason it was important that the count be accurate. One hundred and twenty-six. Hours that seemed like decades ago, she had stopped on the bridge, our first pause since at five-thirty, when Kathy suggested that we head straight towards the sunrise. The sun seemed as real a destination as any. Nobody walked anywhere in our town, so the 7-Eleven could have been 93 billion miles away as well. The only ripples in the morning were us and the paperboy hunched over the handlebars with his canvas sack pressing at him.
The creekbed lay far below the bridge. The banks seemed suffocatingly smooth. Dawn clutched at the refractions and forced them back up at us like small blinking eyes, glittering inconstant water eyes.
I pressed myself to the wooden slats, buried my bare legs and arms into the railing, still cold from the night. I was aware of her beside me and I wanted to touch her. She reminded me of the deer we had trapped hours before in our headlights, frozen. She with her woodcuts of Babi Yar gruesome and beautiful plastered all over what had once been her girlish room. She who seemed so much more an artist than I could ever be. Since I first met her on the first day of school at my new school in ninth grade she had always been more complicated and more gifted than me.
“What would happen if I jumped?” I asked. Inside I rejoiced. She understands, Kathy understands my invitation, swinging gently and wildly in the trapeze of morning air. She knows what I am thinking.
She turned to me with a small smile, the sun pulling gold out of her hair. She laughed at me, in a way that might have been cruelly deflating or simply logic—logic from the girl who wanted to hike to the sun.
“It’s not that far, you’d probably only get your clothes wet and maybe get a couple of bruises to match your mosquito bites.” She paused. “Maybe you’d break your arm.”
My mother fills a Thermos with hot water for tea and wipes down the counters and I watch through glazed pupils, the mosquito bites rising up on my arms and legs, my hair unbrushed, and with the LSD-induced supersensitivity every pore of me aches for the experience of the world. I want to breathe it all in, some kind of joyous communion where I am part of nature and nature is me. I stare at my mother as if I have never seen her before, unable to comprehend the fact that this woman has just expressed a desire for me to live my life high.
I almost explain patiently to her how this wouldn’t be practical. That I’d get nothing done. I’d be too busy feeling the world’s pulse to do much else. And that it would hurt too much to go through the world this way almost without skin, open to it all. “While it is wonderful to feel the good things thoroughly,” I might have told her, the precision of the drug making me lucid and unbound by the particularity of the conversation at hand rather than its implications in the past and for the future, “you can’t turn it off when bad things come your way.”
The bridge then—it’s not at all the same now—was wooden and made a hollow rattling sound every time a car crossed it. If you were on it at such moments, you felt as if it were a fragile thing, rickety and not suited to protecting you from the creek below.
In the years since then, I have never stopped on it. I have driven over it only out of necessity. Pittsford is a town where you can’t get anywhere without crossing either creeks or the canal. But when you drive it now, it’s not the same. It’s made of metal and it’s solid and unmoved by anything. Even the creek seems different. It’s gotten deeper or straighter or more well groomed, somehow both more substantial and less natural than it was. Perhaps the runoff from thousands more houses, the depleted woods, the pressure of people have made it so.
Kathy dropped out of college the spring after we tripped. She had cut herself and the counselors wanted her home. She had lost too much weight, but she was gaining it back, she told me. Her letters veered between cloyingly cheery—“It was so much fun to go to the mall with my mother. I love to dress up”—to terrifying. Her self-portrait in an art class had been a mask of mirrors. She was well enough, she told me.
That May, we spoke every day. She kept saying she wanted to come to Providence for the summer. I told her there weren’t many jobs. I had gotten one through Brown but I didn’t know what there would be for her to do. And I was afraid of her intensity. I wasn’t sure I wanted her with me anymore.
In June, she sent me a birthday present even though she knew well that my birthday was in March, just as I knew hers was in September. In July, I woke up screaming. My roommate ran in to find me sobbing. In the dream, I had killed myself. I had gotten a gun and shot myself but as I died I separated from my body and watched myself die. Stood there just watching as if that body on the ground wasn’t me. The record on the turntable, The White Album, went round and round. “Don’t Let Me Down,” over and over. All that summer I listened to that and nothing else.
It was a Saturday morning almost exactly a year after we tripped when my father called and told me that Kathy was dead. She’d shot herself. Took the rifle out to the place under that very bridge on a morning just like the other morning. She walked to the edge of the creek close to that bridge, sat there on a rock, and put her father’s gun in her mouth. The paperboy heard the noise and found her.
I can still remember that last summer and how we drove that morning every inch of the road, every leaf and every sound vibrating against us. I have a daughter older than we were then. My life has gone on and Kathy’s stopped right there. The suicide note was addressed to me, although I was never allowed to see it. Her death came to me with guilt attached despite her diagnosis. It came with the terrible sense that I had gone on and left her behind. I never lived in that town again after that. And I never imagined that I could kill myself after that. For a long time I thought of her as braver and truer than me. And then for a long time I was angry at being left behind. I spent years trying to reenact her last moments under the bridge. Superimposing one summer morning onto another summer morning.