What do we know of death?

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I.

The last time I saw Clare was four years ago. We ran into each other at a used bookstore in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. At first, unknowingly, I had admired her from behind. She was squat down, steadying herself against a shelf, her long blonde hair catching in the sun and the thin line of a thong subtlety exposed, riding up over her pants. I took her to be yet another beautiful person reading and browsing books, a combination I had witnessed in that city, in just a couple of days, an excitingly inordinate amount of times. It was only later I heard her voice somewhere else in the store and realized who she was.

I didn’t know her that well but we’d gone to the same college years apart. She lived with her boyfriend Nathan who she was in Buenos Aires with, next to close friends of mine in Brooklyn. I knew they played music together, managed a junk shop, were somehow involved with Black Label—the gang of people who held bloody jousting matches on 10-foot high bicycles on empty lots in Queens. 

I’d seen Clare perform in her metal band a handful of times. She wore thick black, football-player eye makeup and more than once, in between head banging and whirling and thrashing, her incongruously sweet face would go flat, dead, and she’d crash to the floor, continuing to sing on her back, knees bent under her, arching her lower body into a wheel. She was a former dancer— a kinetic, intense performer. In those moments, I would forget any previous contact with her; because it was the context I saw her in most, I must have thought (disregarding the concept of performance), that was basically her.

For this, and for other reasons, Clare and Nathan intimidated me, so much that I almost avoided them. I was a loner, skeptical about coupling—its slush affection, the way it made people withdraw into one another or spend their time out in public arguing about things no one else would care about, the clammy obsession that seemed to descend. Together though, they’d always emanated strength and possession, something more preternatural than prosaic. Their connection appeared to be a fortification, a pact, a way of loving I both aspired to and imagined impossible for myself and thus, was a bit afraid of.

When I finally did say hello, they were kind and enthusiastic. We made plans for the following night and Clare drew a funny map of the entryway to the apartment where they were staying—I don’t remember now why it should have been that confusing— so I could find their door. She drew the plant that I’d see when I walked into the front hall, a ‘pretty plant como estoy.’ Unsolicited, they also wrote down directions to a metal club called the Asbury, where to buy sunglasses, where to shop for clothes on the 15 Avenida and gave me the number of their closest friend there, Gustavo, who they’d been recording music with.

We must have been giddy with the coincidence—of all the bookstores in a city of bookstores. They were on vacation and I was in Argentina with an undergrad class on Borges; I’d been ditching a group outing and wandering aimlessly. I always hoped to run into people while traveling, expected it in some ways, but this seemed more advantageous, more coincidental then the few other times it had happened for me—so much farther from home, traveling with people I didn’t really know or connect with, and meeting not in any landmark, just a little store off on a small side street.

The next night, for dinner we made tacos with stewed zucchini and hard, bright green avocados. Their friend Gustavo, the musician they’d told me about, came over and we sat on the floor, drinking red wine, speaking in the type of half language that occurs when no one is truly fluent in the other person’s. Gustavo was trying to explain to us why, even though we wanted to, it was too late at night to go see bands play.

Buenos Aires had strict laws about music venues, and had closed many of them since a fire started inside a club on New Year’s a few years before, killing hundreds of people. Instead we listened to some of the music they’d been recording and played the radio, languidly dancing around.  I don’t remember much else of the evening except walking home to the hostel after, I thought again how lucky I’d been to run into Nathan and Clare, and stupid that I had made them into unapproachable figures.

The rest of the days in Argentina were gloomy and warm because it was late summer. Our class took a ferry to Uruguay across the River Plata, its water a muddy copper color, and at my urging, hired taxis to drive us for a joy ride through the flat grass plains of the pampas. We had long lunches, went to flea markets and museums, rode a wooden subway car that had been running on the same track since the turn of the century. We didn’t actually talk about Borges’ writing but would nod in recognition whenever we passed sites relevant to him—a monument or a former place of residence, a street he had named in a story. 

Another of our activities was a visit to ESMA, the home of a former prison camp for supposed political dissidents in Argentina’s Dirty War.  All of the students, including myself, had stayed up partying the night before and our professor was angry we weren’t more responsive on the tour. Maybe he could smell the alcohol still on our breath or see we were obviously hung-over. But it’s also hard to know how we were supposed to react visiting a site of such torture and death. The tour was dirge like: were we supposed to be peppy?

We ranged the ages of most of the people that had been killed there, and not very long ago, though I doubt we were too conscious of this at the time, walking through a series of empty spaces, some caved with dirt floors and others completely inconspicuous, sterile and bright, little conference rooms with 1950’s faded blue linoleum and windows out onto the street below.  The disappeared were mostly students and various degrees of politically engaged people, murdered in a prison within the city, just miles away from their homes.

After our visit to ESMA, Buenos Aires took on a different tone to me, the romance turned ominous. I felt paranoid a lot of the time, though I know I wasn’t in any real danger. It was only the more intimate knowledge of the murder of so many people resonating within me, spooking me; once their disappearance had been established, my natural response was to look for them.

II.

Four years later, these things still have little to do with each other except that they go together in my mind. This trip, when I visited ESMA, was also the last time I saw, or will ever see Clare, who died this March at age 35, from cancer.

The deaths of the disappeared were initiated by a military regime—a tangible offender. Clare, who by anyone’s account was a vividly strong and incredibly physical person, got sick very fast and did not respond well to treatment. The engineered deaths of tens of thousands in a completely different context aren’t at all comparable and yet both instances seem to step out of an order of justice—a justice that in one case, I expect, and that in the other, I should not expect.

Fundamental truths: Just because someone has done nothing wrong doesn’t mean they won’t get punished; just because someone is young and seems healthy doesn’t mean they won’t get sick. One instance I could protest and try to fight or rectify, reorder, the other I can only except yet both sound arbitrary.

Because the death of someone young, not at their own hands, for whatever reason, always feels cruel and in any case, haunted by what would have been. Perhaps all death is haunted when behind it is the shadow of the life of the person who has lived.  Or rather, the life and rays of its trajectory remain, while the living person disappears out from under it. More and more, in every instance, I’ve come to think of death like this. Not an end but a disappearance. 

III.

I remember a couple years ago when my friend’s father died. After an entire day of consoling, and crying alongside of him, there was a small part of me that could no longer only offer, “I’m sorry.” Late at night, in another round of mourning, I found myself about to say, and who knows what happens after death, as if to propose some possibility other than the obvious. I stopped myself, feeling it was creepy or misleading, a desperate gesture from someone used to taking the ‘bright side.’ I said nothing, only tried to continue to comfort him, thinking, the pain of this isn’t something that can be argued away.

In the moment of loss, no, but after? — I wondered.

Now the question occurs to me again. All the gaps I no longer know how to think of: the continuing presence in a state of absence such as someone’s work, the traces of their touch, the reverberations of their actions— all the different registers of their identity and person that remain after they don’t: a debt that is not absolved, a velocity that isn’t erased. Nothing ever just disappears.

I fixate on the line, taken from a story by the writer Sam D’Allesandro. His story of the same title describes the chance meeting of two men, their love and one of their deaths. It’s short and impressionistic. The narrator says he is consciously leaving out the middle part (“I guess the middle is what drops out of a lot of our memories. The end points often define what we remember of what happens between them. So I’m skipping most of the middle part”).

Instead, he holds up the most ambiguous moments of any relationship, the beginning and the end, except there can be no real end as the title suggests. When death comes suddenly in the story (D’Allesandro himself died from AIDS when he was only 31), it doesn’t so much as define the middle, which has been left out, or provide closure; it becomes instead, an unclear infinity, in part because grief is “not something you can just wait out as it disappears. Nothing ever just disappears.”

The death in the story may be the logical end to the relationship but it does not end the story itself, which fades but refuses to culminate. In the last paragraph, the narrator says he is only buying frozen food from the grocery store, he now puts everything in the freezer (a space of indeterminate duration), including the film his lover was working with for a future project: “It looks really clean with just the yellow and black boxes against the white.”

I know there are finite endings: extinctions, the last word spoken of an unrecorded language, pages burned, hard drives crashed, information gone forever.           

Is it only disbelief then? A struggle to grasp that everything within the mind of one person, that plenary vastness, could dissipate the instant they are no longer there to think it? The line you anticipate but never fully experience until it arrives, that separates health from illness, death from life?

I’m left with the question, a certain premonition. And it feels more substantial than the dust suddenly exposed swirling in air and illuminated in a splinter of sun, more than a yearning for resurrection or enduring matters of speech. What is the ethos of a life? “Once each, only once,” Rilke writes in the Duino Elegies: Once and no more. And us too, once/ Never again. But to have been once, even if only once, to have been on earth just once—that is irrevocable.” Possibly, it’s only in that irrevocability, that we can begin to explain the consequence of disappearance.  

  1. David

    Intriguing meditation on beauty and death, lasting friendship and irredeemable politics.

  2. Bruna Mori

    This beautiful assertion, Kate: “‘to have been on earth just once—that is irrevocable.’ Possibly, it’s only in that irrevocability, that we can begin to explain the consequence of disappearance.”

 

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