I Was Here, Page 2Gayle Forman
She gestures toward the living room, where Joe is sitting on the couch, staring into space, ignoring Samson who is begging at his feet for the expected dinner. In the fading twilight, I look at Joe. Meg took after him, with his dark, Mexican looks. He seems like he’s aged a thousand years in the past month.
“Cody,” he says. One word. And it’s enough to make me cry.
“Sue wants to talk to you; we both do.”
My heart starts to hammer, because I wonder if they’re finally going to ask me if I knew anything. I had to answer some cursory questions from the police when all this went down, but they had more to do with how Meg might have procured the poison, and I had no idea about any of that except that if Meg wanted something, she usually found a way to get it.
After Meg died, I went and looked up all the suicide signs online. Meg didn’t give me any of her prized possessions. She didn’t talk about killing herself. I mean, she used to say things like, “If Ms. Dobson gives us another pop quiz, I am going to shoot myself,” but does that count?
Sue sits down next to Joe on the worn couch. They look at each other for half a second, but then it’s like that hurts too much. They turn to me. Like I’m Switzerland.
“Cascades’s term ends next month,” they tell me.
I nod. University of the Cascades is the prestigious private college where Meg got a scholarship. The plan had been for both of us to move to Seattle after high school graduation. We’d been talking about this since eighth grade. Both of us at the University of Washington, sharing a dorm room for the first two years, then living off campus for the duration. But then Meg had gotten this amazing full ride at Cascades, a way better package that what the UW offered. As for me, I’d gotten into the UW but without scholarships of any kind. Tricia had made it pretty clear she couldn’t help me. “I finally got myself out of debt.” So in the end, I turned down the UW and decided to stay in town. My plan was to do two years at community college, then transfer to Seattle to be near Meg.
Joe and Sue sit there quietly. I watch Sue pick at her nails. The cuticles are a complete mess. Finally, she looks up. “The school has been very kind; they’ve offered to pack up her room and ship everything to us, but I can’t bear a stranger’s hands touching her things.”
“What about her roommates?” Cascades is tiny and hardly has any dorms. Meg lives—lived—off campus in a house shared with some other students.
“Apparently, they’ve just locked up her room and left it like that. Her rent’s paid through the end of the term, but now we should empty it out and bring everything . . .” Her voice catches.
“Home,” Joe finishes for her.
It takes me a second to realize what they want, what they’re asking me. And at first I’m relieved because it means I don’t have to fess up that I didn’t know what Meg was contemplating. That the one time in her life she might’ve needed me, I failed her. But then, the weight of what they’re asking skids and crashes in my stomach. Which isn’t to say I won’t do it. I will. Of course I will.
“You want me to pack up her things?” I say.
They nod. I nod back. It’s the least I can do.
“After your classes end, of course,” Sue says.
Officially, my classes end next month. Unofficially, they did the day I got Meg’s email. I’ve got Fs now. Or incompletes. The distinction hardly seems to matter.
“And if you can get the time off work.” This from Joe.
He says it respectfully, as if I have an important job. I clean houses. The people I work for, like everyone in this town, know about Meg, and they’ve all been very nice, telling me to take all the time I need. But empty hours to contemplate Meg aren’t what I need.
“I can go whenever,” I say. “Tomorrow if you want.”
“She didn’t have very much. You can take the car,” Joe says. Joe and Sue have one car, and it’s like a NASA expedition how they plot out their days so Sue can drop Joe off at work and get Scottie to school and get herself to work and then scoop them all back up again at the end of the day. On weekends, it’s more of the same, doing the grocery shopping and all the errands there’s no time for during the week. I don’t have a car. Occasionally, very occasionally, Tricia lets me use hers.
“Why don’t I take the bus? She doesn’t have that much. Didn’t.”
Joe and Sue look relieved. “We’ll pay for your bus tickets. You can ship any extra boxes UPS,” Joe says.
“And you don’t have to bring everything back.” Sue pauses. “Just the important things.”
I nod. They look so grateful that I have to look away. The trip is nothing: a three-day errand. A day to get there, a day to pack, a day to get home. It’s the kind of thing Meg would’ve offered to do without having to be asked first.
Every so often, I’ll read some hopeful article about how Tacoma is gentrifying so much that it’s rivaling Seattle. But when my bus pulls in to the deserted downtown, it all feels kind of desperate, like it’s trying too hard and failing. Sort of like some of Tricia’s friends from the bar, fifty-year-old women who wear miniskirts and platforms and makeup but aren’t fooling anyone. Mutton disguised as lamb is how the guys in our town describe them.
When Meg left, I promised I’d come visit once a month, but I wound up coming only one time, last October. I’d bought a ticket to Tacoma, but when the bus pulled into Seattle, Meg was waiting at the station. She’d had this idea we’d spend the day roaming Capitol Hill, have dinner at some hole-in-the-wall dumpling place in Chinatown, and go out to see a band play in Belltown—all the things we’d talked about doing when we moved here together. She was so hyped about the plan; I couldn’t quite tell if the day was her idea of a sales pitch, or a consolation prize.
Either way, it was a bust. The weather was rainy and cold, whereas back home it had been clear and cold. Another reason not to move to Seattle, I told myself. And none of the places we visited—the vintage clothing shops and comic book stores and coffeehouses—seemed as cool as I’d thought they would be. At least that’s what I told Meg.
“Sorry,” she said. Not sarcastically, but sincerely, as though Seattle’s shortcomings were her fault.
It was a lie, though. Seattle was great. Even with the rotten weather, I’d have loved living here. But I’m sure I’d have loved living in New York or Tahiti or a million other places I’d never get to.
We were meant to go see a band play that night, some people Meg knew, but I begged off, claiming I was tired. We went back to her house in Tacoma. I was supposed to stay most of the next day, but I told her I had a sore throat, and caught an early bus home.
Meg invited me to come again, but I always had reasons why I couldn’t: my schedule was busy, bus fare wasn’t cheap. Both of which were true, even if they weren’t the truth.
x x x
It takes two buses to get from downtown to Cascades’ tiny, leafy waterfront campus. Joe had instructed me to go to the administration building to get some papers and a key. Even though Meg had lived off campus, the university runs all student housing. When I explain who I am, they immediately know why I’m here, because I get that look. I hate that look, and I’ve come to know it well: practiced empathy.
“We’re so sorry for your loss,” the lady says. She is fat and wearing the drapey kind of clothes that only make her bigger. “We’ve been holding weekly support groups for those impacted by Megan’s death. If you’d care to join us for one, there’s another gathering coming up.”
Megan? Nobody but her grandparents called her that.
She hands me some literature, a color copy with a big smiling picture of Meg that I don’t recognize. On top it says Lifeline with hearts dotting the i’s. “It’s Monday afternoon.”
“’Fraid I’ll be gone by then.”
“Oh, shame.” She pauses. “They’ve been very cathartic for the campus community. People are quite shocked.”
Shocked is not the word for it. Shocked is when I finally got Tricia to tell me who my father was, only to find out that up until I was nine, he’d been living not twenty miles away from us. What happened with Meg is something altogether different; it’s like waking up one morning and finding out you live on Mars now.
“I’m only here for a night,” I tell her.
“Oh, shame,” she says again.
She hands me a set of keys and gives me directions to the house and tells me to call if I need anything and I’m out the door before she hands me a card. Or worse, gives me a hug.
At Meg’s old house, no one answers when I knock, so I let myself in. Inside it smells of beer and pizza and bongwater, and something else, the ammonia scent of a dirty cat box. There’s the sound of jam bands, Phish or Widespread Panic, the kind of bad hippie music, I muse, that would make Meg want to shoot herself. Then I catch myself and remember that she did, in effect, shoot herself.
“Who are you?” A tall and ridiculously pretty girl stands before me. She’s wearing a tie-dyed peace sign T-shirt, and she is sneering.
“I’m Cody. Reynolds. I’m here for Meg. For her stuff.”
She stiffens. As if Meg, the mention of her, the existence of her, has completely harshed her mellow. I already hate this girl. And when she introduces herself as Tree, I wish Meg were around so we could give each other that imperceptible look we’d developed over the years to register our mutual disdain. Tree?
“Are you one of her roommates?” I ask. When she first arrived, Meg sent me long emails about her classes, her professors, her work-study job, and, in some cases, these hilarious character portraits of each roommate, actual charcoal drawings she scanned for me. It was the kind of thing that normally I’d have adored, reveling in her haughtiness, because that’s how it had always been: Meg and Me Versus the World. Back home, they referred to us as the Pod. But reading the emails, I had the sense that she was purposefully playing up her roommates’ faults to make me feel better, which only made me feel worse. In any case, I didn’t recall a Tree.
“I’m friends with Rich,” bitchy hippie Tree replies to me. Ahh, Stoner Richard, as Meg called him. I met him last time I was here.
“I’ll get on with it,” I say.
“You do that,” Tree replies. Such open hostility is a shock after a month of people tippy-toeing around me.
Outside Meg’s door, I half expect one of those shrines that have popped up in town; whenever I see one, I want to yank the heads off the flowers or throw the candles.
But that’s not what I find. There’s an album cover pasted on the door: Poison Idea’s Feel the Darkness. The image is of a guy holding a revolver to his head. This is her roommates’ idea of a memorial?
Breathing hard, I unlock the door and turn the knob. Inside, it’s not what I expect either. Meg was notoriously messy, her bedroom at home full of teetering stacks of books and CDs, drawings, half-completed DIY projects: a lamp she was trying to rewire, a Super 8 film she was trying to edit. Sue said that her roommates had just locked the door and left it as was, but it looks like someone has been in here. The bed is made. And much of her stuff is already neatly folded. There are unassembled boxes under the bed.
It will take two hours to do this at most. Had I known, I would’ve taken the Garcias’ car and done it as a day-trip.
Sue and Joe had offered me money for a motel, but I didn’t accept it. I know how little they have, how every spare cent went toward Meg’s education, which, even with a full scholarship, still had all kinds of hidden costs. And her death has been a whole other expense. I said I would sleep here. But now that I’m in her room, I can’t help thinking of the last time—the only time—I slept here.
Meg and I have shared beds, cots, sleeping bags, without a problem since we were little. But the night of my visit, I’d lain in bed awake next to a soundly sleeping Meg. She was snoring slightly and I kept kicking her, like it was her snoring that was keeping me awake. When we got up Sunday morning, something mean and hard had taken root in my belly, and I felt myself itching for a fight. But the last thing I’d wanted to do was fight with Meg. She hadn’t done anything. She was my best friend. So I’d left early. And not because of any sore throat.
I go back downstairs. The music has changed from Phish to something a little more rocking, The Black Keys, I think. Which is better, if a strange turn. There’s a group of people sitting on a purple velour couch, divvying up a pizza and a twelve-pack. Tree is with them, so I walk on by, ignoring them, ignoring the smell of pizza that makes my stomach gurgle because I haven’t eaten anything except for a Little Debbie snack cake on the bus.
Outside, it’s misting. I walk a ways until I get to a stretch of diners. I sit down at one and order a coffee, and when the waitress gives me a dirty look, I get an anytime $2.99 breakfast and figure that this earns me the right to camp here for the night.
After a few hours and four or five refills, she mostly leaves me be. I take out my book, wishing I’d brought some page- turnery thriller. But Mrs. Banks, the town librarian, has me on a Central European author kick these days. She goes through phases like that with me. Has done ever since I was twelve and she spotted me reading a Jackie Collins novel at Tricia’s bar where I sometimes had to hang out when Tricia worked. Mrs. Banks asked what else I liked to read, and I rattled off a few titles, mostly paperbacks Tricia had brought home from the break room. “You’re quite a reader,” Mrs. Banks said, and then she invited me to come to the library the following week. When I did, she got me signed up for a card and loaned me copies of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. “When you finish, tell me if you like them, and I’ll get you something else.”
I read them in three days. I’d liked Jane Eyre best, even though I hated Mr. Rochester and wished he’d died in the fire. Mrs. Banks had smiled at that, then handed me Persuasion and Wuthering Heights. I tore through those in a few days. From that point on, I would go into the library at least once a week to see what books she had for me. It seemed amazing that our tiny branch had such an endless stock of books, and it was years later that I’d learned that Mrs. Banks was special-ordering books through interlibrary loan that she thought I’d like.
But tonight the contemplative Milan Kundera she gave me is making my eyelids heavy. Every time they flutter closed, that waitress, as if possessing radar, comes by to refill my coffee even though I haven’t touched it since the last refill.
I hold out until about five in the morning and then pay my bill and leave a big tip because I’m not sure if the waitress was being rude by not letting me sleep or if she was keeping me from getting kicked out. I wander around the campus until the library opens at seven, and then I find a quiet corner and fall asleep for a few hours.
When I make my way back to Meg’s house, a guy and a girl are drinking coffee on the porch.
“Hey,” the guy says. “Cody, right?”
“Richard,” he says.
“Right. We met before,” I say. He doesn’t seem to remember. He was probably too stoned.
“I’m Alice,” the girl says. I remember Meg mentioning a new roommate moving in for the winter term, taking the place of some other girl who transferred out after one semester.
“Where’d you go?” he asks.
“I stayed in a motel,” I lie.
“Not the Starline!” Alice asks in alarm.
“What?” It takes me a second to realize that the Starline is the motel. Meg’s motel. “No, some other dive.”
“Would you like some coffee?” Alice asks.
All the coffee I drank last night has turned acidic in my stomach, and though I’m hazy and exhausted, I can’t fathom drinking any
more. I shake my head.
“Wanna smoke a bowl?” Stoner Richard asks.
“Richard,” Alice swats at him. “She has to pack up all that stuff. I don’t think she wants to be stoned.”
“I’d think she’d wanna be stoned,” Stoner Richard replies.
“I’m good,” I say. But the sun is fighting its way out of the thin haze of cloud and it’s making everything so bright that I feel dizzy.
“Sit down. Eat something,” Alice says. “I’m practicing making bread, and I have a new loaf.”
“It’s slightly less bricklike than usual,” Richard promises.
“It’s good.” Alice pauses. “If you slather it with lots of butter and honey.”
I don’t want the bread. I didn’t want to get to know these people before, and I certainly don’t want to now. But Alice is gone and back with the bread before I know it. The bread is kind of dense and chewy, but she’s right; with butter and honey, it’s decent.
I finish it up and brush the crumbs from my lap. “Well, I’d better get to it.” I start toward the door. “Though someone already did the heavy lifting. Do you know who packed up her stuff like that?”
Stoner Richard and Alice look at each other. “That’s how she left the room,” Alice says. “She packed it up herself.”
“Girl was on top of shit till the bitter end,” Richard adds. He looks at me and grimaces. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It saves me work,” I say. And my voice sounds so nonchalant, like this is such a load off my plate.
x x x
It takes about three hours to pack the rest of her stuff. I pull out holey T-shirts and underwear because why do they need that? I throw away her stacks of music magazines, piled in a corner. I’m not sure what to do about her bed sheets because they still smell like her, and I have no idea if her scent will do to Sue what it’s doing to me, which is making me remember Meg in such a real visceral way—sleepovers and dance parties and those talks we would have until three in the morning that would make us feel lousy the next day because we’d slept like hell but also feel good because the talks were like blood transfusions, moments of realness and hope that were pinpricks of light in the dark fabric of small-town life.