UNEXPLAINED

Fiction by Ronna Wineberg

Just before I learned about Tim, I was sitting on a yoga mat on the bedroom floor. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. Cold winter air seeped in around the window’s edges. The apartment was quiet. My mother-in-law was taking a nap.

Vivian had moved in four months before and was enduring chemotherapy three times a week. When she finished her treatments, we’d decided she would move into Assisted Living near us, in New York City. My husband had assured his mother that she would be well again. But she was gloomy and weak; her cough sounded like scratching on sandpaper. She was dying, I knew.

It was December 27th, four days before New Year’s and what always seemed like a fresh start. I’d taken the morning off from my social work practice. I saw patients for therapy. I’d rescheduled today’s appointments weeks ago. As I stretched on the mat, I took stock of my life. The summer before, Brian had told me he was no longer sure about us and might want to leave the marriage. I’d always been afraid of that. My parents divorced when I was young, a bitter split; I’d vowed not to duplicate their lives.

When he said this, I panicked. I told him I might hurt myself. It would be on your conscience, I screamed.

“Calm down,” he said quietly. “Don’t be so melodramatic. The point is, I’m not sure, Janice.” Brian was an architect, a little dreamy. His curly red hair was graying. His eyes were pale green; wrinkles gathered like pleats beneath them. “Maybe this is just a midlife crisis,” he said. “I don’t know. But the kids are grown up now. I’m being honest about how I feel. About my confusion.” He’d smiled apologetically. “I feel better having said it.”

“Maybe you feel better,” I’d said. “But I don’t. Maybe I don’t want to be married to you, either.” This wasn’t true, but I said it to hurt him. We had been growing apart. We both had demanding jobs, and poured ourselves into work. We argued more than we used to. And I knew I’d been too involved with the children when they were growing up.

“Let’s work on things,” he said. “We need to try.”

We hadn’t come to any decision. His mother had become ill shortly after that. During the last year, I’d been in touch with a high school boyfriend. Flirtatious emails and phone calls. One meeting. I’d held on to the possibility of him, perhaps as a protective and defensive maneuver.

That morning I stretched on the yoga mat, about to go check on Vivian, when the telephone’s shrill ring startled me.

“I have awful news.” Brian’s voice was strained.

“What, honey?” I stood by the night table. “You sound terrible.”

“It’s Tim.” Brian paused. “He committed suicide.”

I sank to the floor, as if my body had a will of its own. “No. It can’t be true.”

“It’s true,” he whispered. “Sarah called.”

I suddenly, foolishly hoped that Tim might have tried suicide; after all, people do try and fail. He was twenty-three, our nephew, Brian’s sister’s son. He had been unhappy, worried about his future. “Is he dead?” I asked.

“Of course he’s dead,” Brian snapped. “I told you he killed himself. I’ve got to help Sarah. Then I’ll come home and tell my mother. Can you tell the children? I don’t think we should wait.”

*

I sat on the bedroom floor, gulping deep breaths. The longer you lived, the more you saw. But not this. Sometimes I’d envied our children, Nick and Erica. Their youth. Unending possibility. They were both in college. Now I didn’t want the future any more. I longed for the safe contours of the past.

I peeked into Vivian’s room. She was still asleep. I telephoned Brian. What did Tim do? I asked. When? Was he alone? I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know nothing.

“He jumped out the window of his apartment. Last night. The middle of the night.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Tim lived a few blocks from our apartment in Greenwich Village. He liked to stop by to visit us. He was casual but intense. Quiet and brilliant. Angry. More troubled than I’d paid attention to. He had been hospitalized for a week last summer. He was depressed, Sarah told us. An old football injury to his shoulder continued to be painful, too. He didn’t want visitors then. But he was on an antidepressant now, she’d told me last month. He was happier. She didn’t want to go into specifics, and I didn’t want to pry.

Just yesterday afternoon, when I came home from work, Tim was sitting in our living room with his grandmother, Vivian curled in an armchair like a child. Her pink fleece robe hung shapelessly over her thin body, her gray curls pressed against her scalp. Tim looked happy and handsome, as if everything that troubled him had been resolved. He wore new eyeglasses. The silver wire-rim frames set off his shiny brown eyes and long dark lashes. His sweater looked new, too, white with black stripes. His wavy light brown hair was cut short. His bulky leather briefcase lay on the floor, bulging with papers and books. He looked energized and vital.

“It’s a nice surprise to see you. Do you want to stay for dinner?” I asked and peeled off my scarf and coat.

He said he was going out to dinner and a movie with a friend.

I didn’t want to talk more. I’d had a long day, seen a few difficult patients, and had a headache. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I told him. I hurried to the bedroom and sprawled on the bed. Then, on a whim, I telephoned Nick’s cell phone. He and Erica were home from college on winter break, having coffee at a café nearby. “Tim is here,” I said. “Why don’t you two come home and say hi? He’s not staying long.”

“Sure,” Nick said.

Just as Tim was leaving, they rushed in.

“I thought you were out of town,” Erica said to him.

“I got back last week,” Tim said. “You told me you were going to call. When did you get home?”

“A week ago.” She bit her lip. “I got busy. I thought you were still away.” I could tell she felt guilty that she hadn’t called.

“No problem.” Tim rarely smiled. This time was no exception. “No problem at all.”

*

When I was Tim’s age, I was passionate about painting. But I couldn’t take my work as far as I hoped or capture enough emotion in my portraits. It was a difficult time; I had dropped out of college and gone home to Cincinnati. My mother spoke in clichés, and I was impatient with her. Life will go on, she told me soothingly, don’t worry so much. I couldn’t imagine a future. I struggled with the art, worked in a grocery, and finally went back to school, settled for becoming a social worker, and eventually met Brian. I had few regrets. My work with patients was creative. I knew how to articulate feelings, to trust my intuition about patients and myself. I knew that suicide was a desperate act, a hostile one. I could quote professional literature on the subject. But I was unprepared for the weakness in my legs now, the rush of tears in my eyes. Sorrow ambushed me.

Had Tim been hostile? Angry, lashing out, trying to hurt someone? His mother, his father, his girlfriend? Who? He’d hurt so many people. Or was he just desperate, trying to ease his own pain?

What if this had been Nick or Erica? I shivered and my heart beat wildly. Would I have been able to go on?

William Styron, borrowing from the nomenclature of war, had written that the truly depressed were like the walking wounded.

And the survivors of a suicide? We were the walking wounded, too, and the war was the world around us.

*

If I’d told Brian I wanted a divorce, I would have begun with this: I have something difficult to tell you. Bad news. I would have tried to prepare him for the words to come.

Looking at Nick and Erica as we sat in the den, I willed myself to be calm, to prepare them. “I have something to tell you,” I began. “Something difficult.” The room smelled sour. My mouth tasted stale. I wanted to protect them.

They stared at me.

“It’s about Tim.”

When I told them, Erica burst into tears. Nick paled and folded his lanky arms across his chest.

“It was clearly a mental illness,” I said, at a loss for words. “He was very unhappy. We didn’t know how unhappy he was.”

“Everyone knows he was unhappy,” Erica cried. “I can’t believe it.”

I wrapped my arms around her. “Oh, honey.”

“Does Grandma know?” Nick asked.

“Not yet. Dad will tell her.”

“Can you wear sneakers to a funeral?” Erica whispered. “Tim would have done that.”

“Jesus,” Nick said.

“It doesn’t matter.” I hugged them both.

Yes, maybe sneakers, I thought. As if you were in training for grief.

*

That night, Brian slept beside me, breathing with his mouth open. The room was chilly. I burrowed beneath the quilt and rested my hand on his arm. His face was relaxed in sleep. Tenderness for him rose in me. This afternoon, as he told his mother about Tim, we sat at the kitchen table. The moment Brian stepped into the apartment, I could see that Vivian already sensed something was terribly wrong.

“You’re home early,” she said, squinting.

Though I tried to remember Brian’s words, I couldn’t. I remembered only that he looked like a young boy who couldn’t find comfort. And Vivian’s face. Her small features sagged. Her head slumped forward, as if she had been slapped. She whispered, “I was afraid of this. He told me he would die young. He should have been in a hospital. Why wasn’t he?” she demanded. “Why was he home alone?”

No one answered. She hugged herself, as if fastening on a coat.

*

The three windows in our living room opened to the street. Bright winter sunlight flooded in. Tim had been dead for one day. I could see him sitting in this room. I could see him as a baby. I peered out the window and imagined: Tim is standing outside, puffing on his pipe, his clothes pungent with tobacco. He is dressed in a navy wool blazer with gold buttons, the one he wore whenever he met with a professor.

When Nick and Erica first went away to college, Tim began to slip into our lives. He transferred to a university in the city. He stopped by for dinner or to visit. I was careful to give him space, not to call too much. He seemed to need that. Or perhaps I needed that from him. Then he took the year off before starting graduate school. “To make decisions about my future,” he said then. “I don’t want to be just some dumb cog in the academic wheel.”

“I want to go back to Fargo, Aunt Janice,” he’d told me a few years ago. He had driven across the country the summer before. “You can live a good life there. The plains are beautiful. I’ll go from there to Bismarck, Winnipeg, Denver, Salt Lake City,” he said dreamily. “I’ll see the West. Who knows where it will lead?”

I knew what he meant. Brian and I had visited Fargo years ago. It was an unpretentious place, unashamed of itself, not a center of culture or industry, not a great city. It was a place a person could call home. I knew the river that meandered through the landscape there, appearing and disappearing like a secret. I remembered the wide streets and old buildings, the college kids who congregated in groups, like birds clustering before taking flight. Brian and I had walked hand in hand. Our life together seemed whole and right then, the way it should be.

Tim had never returned to Fargo or places west. He wanted to bring his girlfriend there, too, but they broke up. He drifted from outrage about the environment to outrage about poverty, to a passion for literature and philosophy. He grew a beard, sat in his apartment or the library, reading for hours, days.

“I want to show you my apartment, Aunt Janice,” he’d told me a few times last fall. “I’ve really fixed it up.”

“I’d love to see it. We’ll make a date,” I always said.

But I had never arranged a visit. I was distracted, worried about my marriage, about Vivian’s health. I was worried about my patients and my own children. Tim was young. He was managing, I thought. I would visit his apartment soon, I told myself, when my life was better under control. He had all the time in the world.

*

Sarah told me that Tim’s apartment had become a crime scene. The words spilled out, as if she had to say them or else they would burst within her, like a damaged appendix, filling her with poison. She tilted her head toward me. She smelled of lilac soap and was slender and pretty with a gentle, upturned nose, like Brian’s, and blonde hair that fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was pale without makeup. She was a fund-raiser for a nonprofit, passionate about her work. Efficient. Organized. Smart. Warm. She had boundless energy. Now the energy had seeped out, a punctured balloon.

She recited the details numbly. No one could enter Tim’s apartment now, she said. The police had found him on the ground in the courtyard. She had to file papers in court before they would let her or Tim’s brothers in. She didn’t know if Tim left a note. The police didn’t find one. “But a note could be hidden somewhere,” she said hopefully. She paused and whispered, “I will miss him every day of my life. I’ll get old, and he’ll always be twenty-three.”

I held her hand. “I know.”

“We worried about this. Why wasn’t I there?”

I nodded sadly. I didn’t know how to help her.

This was what I learned: Sarah had telephoned her ex-husband to tell him about Tim’s death. Theirs was an old story, a bitter divorce when Tim was a teenager. Andrew remarried and lived in Florida. He and Tim had had an argument last spring. They hadn’t spoken since. They were completely estranged, Sarah said.

I was a detective now, piecing together facts, as if understanding could bring freedom from feeling. Brian and I had known Tim worried about his future and felt a little depressed, but we hadn’t known about the rift with his father.

Sarah and I sat close on the couch in her apartment. Her blue eyes were open wide. The night Tim jumped, she told me, he telephoned friends. “He called me, too,” Sarah said. “He couldn’t sleep. ‘Can you bring me a sleeping pill?’ he asked. I said no. I worried he relied on them too much.”

We both took a deep breath, and she went on. She offered to come to his apartment that night, she said. He said no. Then sleep at my apartment, she told him. I’m too old to stay at my mother’s house. Then call me in the morning, she said. When they hung up, she telephoned back. I’m coming over. Don’t, he told her. But she got up from bed, dressed, left, and flagged a taxi, went to Tim’s apartment. She sat in the taxi outside the building, debating. She didn’t go in to see him. Finally, she asked the driver to take her home. She would talk to Tim in the morning. I’m too old to be calling my mother, he’d said.

*

You make a decision in a second. Sarah had decided to talk to Tim in the morning. He decided to end his life. A decision was a momentary impulse. I told myself this.

In the harsh light of Tim’s action, my life looked solid and safe. I saw what happened to Sarah after her divorce, and what happened to other divorced friends of mine and some of my women patients. They became thin and withdrawn. Then they began to date. Married men. Single men. Older men. Younger. Poor. Wealthy. Smart men. Average. Everyone had baggage from the past, a problem. Tim’s brothers were older than he was, in college in California then. Tim had wandered from Andrew’s, to Sarah’s, and back again.

When did dissatisfaction in a marriage cause an extreme decision, a divorce? Was divorce a form of suicide, I wondered, or resurrection?

*

My own life fell away. What day was it? What year? What lifetime? I couldn’t imagine what this felt like for Sarah or Tim’s brothers. I didn’t know how to help them or my own family. I couldn’t concentrate. “What does that mean to you?” I asked a patient, but my thoughts flashed to Tim. He had been dead three days. Tomorrow was the funeral.

After the patient left, I telephoned a colleague and my other patients. I arranged two weeks off.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade: I had mouthed this cliché so many times that I was ashamed. How could I have been so out of touch with the havoc feelings created inside people, inside Tim?

*

Friends telephoned. One confided, “I never told you, but my first husband’s brother committed suicide.” Another: “My best friend in high school took his own life.” Suddenly everyone knew a suicide, the great secret never talked about.

People arrived at Sarah’s apartment, bringing platters of cakes and food. Tim’s brothers were there. Friends and family congregated.

Another friend told me she’d lost her niece years ago to suicide. Still another said, “There are so many.” She mentioned a name. A boy we knew when we lived in Boston years ago. The rage and horror that never went away.

“We lost him,” Vivian whispered hoarsely into the telephone. “It was an accident.” Hushed shame filled her voice. Lost. As if you could misplace a life, like a set of keys.

Later, at home, I opened the dictionary. Words were my hobby. I liked to know their meaning, usage, origin.

Loss. The fact or process of losing something or someone…the feeling of grief after losing a valued person or thing. A person or thing that is badly missed when lost. Origin OE los ‘destruction’…

Destruction. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I tried to imagine Tim as he jumped. Stop thinking about it, Brian said. You talk about the same things over and over. It’s bad for our relationship. I told him: That you won’t talk is bad for the relationship. He shrugged.

Who could I talk to? Brian was short-tempered and nursing his private sorrows. “If I had realized he was so depressed,” he lamented, “I would have spent time with him.”

I couldn’t talk to Sarah or Vivian or Nick or Erica. “Anyone could see he had problems,” mumbled Nick. I wanted to be comforting to them. I wasn’t ready to speak to friends. I had been kidnapped, stranded in a foreign land, unable to capture its shocking strangeness.

Tim lived on the fifth floor. I’d read that you have to jump from at least the sixth floor to kill yourself on impact.

*

In the New York Times, I noticed a headline: Ten Stories Up, Resident Had Desperate Talk With A Man Who Fell. For a moment, I wondered: Is the article about Tim? No. Ten Stories Up.

It was the morning of the funeral. I whisked the newspaper into the bathroom.

A man jumped, or fell, from the tenth floor of a building last night. He survived. The article reported this: a neighbor saw the man standing on top of the air-conditioning unit, outside the window, bending, as if he might jump. “I can’t go on anymore,” cried the man.

“Give me your hand,” implored the neighbor. “Think of your mother. It’s almost New Year’s Eve. Don’t do it.”

I jammed the paper into the trash. I didn’t want Nick and Erica to read about the man who had tumbled down ten stories and yet was still alive.

*

Winter’s dampness hung in the air. A fine drizzle began to fall, like veils of mist. If Brian and I had split up, I would not have been on the way to this funeral. Or would I? Yes. Of course, I would. How strong were the bonds of affection to the family of one’s spouse?

He drove us to the cemetery. Erica and Nick sat in the back. Jake Trenton, Tim’s closest friend, had come with us. He sat wedged between them. Vivian was going to the cemetery with Sarah.

On the way to the 59th Street Bridge, we passed a large billboard: Depression Is A Chemical Problem, Not A Flaw In Character. I didn’t point it out.

“Tim tried it before,” Jake said as we drove onto the bridge.

“He did?” I turned around and looked at him. He resembled Tim. Jake had an intense, intelligent expression, a slender face. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and was in graduate school, in English literature, what Tim had planned to do.

“Yes,” Jake replied in a monotone. “Last summer. Tim took out the screen from his window. He told me about it. He stood on the fire escape. But he couldn’t go through with it.”

“We didn’t know,” I said with surprise.

“This was right before he went to the hospital,” Jake said.

Brian was silent. The children said nothing either.

“He wrote a note then,” Jake went on, as if he must tell this story, as if we needed to hear it. “Really, it was a will. He kept it in a drawer in his desk. He said he might leave it in his favorite book, Anna Karenina. I stayed with him in his apartment for a few weeks. I didn’t want him to be alone.”

Sarah had never told us about a contemplated suicide. Maybe she was protecting Tim’s privacy. If we knew, could we have helped him? Memories rushed through me. Jake stayed with Tim for weeks at a time last year. I’d thought: They’re good friends. Or… Last month, we’d eaten at a restaurant, where Tim sat sweating, moisture flooding his forehead, as if he were struggling to—what? Was he uncomfortable, anxious? On drugs? Unhappy? I didn’t ask. No one asked. I’d meant to call to talk to him about it, but never did.

“He was trying to kick painkillers,” Jake continued. “He was so ashamed. His friends tried to help him. But some of them were a bad influence.” He paused. “He was still in love with Renee. Tim told me in the summer, ‘If I can’t see her, I don’t want to live.’”

Jake stared out the window, announcing this information to the air. His hands were folded tightly on his lap, knuckles white. A day’s growth of beard covered his face. His eyes were bloodshot.

“I see,” I said and repeated his information. “Tim was addicted. He was in love with Renee. What drug?”

“OxyContin. He took it all the time. He didn’t want to.”

The East River flowed beneath us like a rocky sea. We inched across the 59th Street Bridge in the traffic. Erica told me once that Tim had vomited at our apartment when I wasn’t home. She said he had the flu. He was already disappearing from life then. There were secrets and silences in this family that I would never understand.

“He tried another time,” Jake continued. “With alcohol and pills. I called his mom to tell her to check on him. Later, I confronted him. I told him he took too many pills. It was the one time he got pissed off at me.”

“He must have had his suppliers.” I stated the obvious.

Nick rolled his eyes.

“Sure,” Jake said. “He went to a couple of doctors. First, for his shoulder. Then for his knee. It’s easy. They give out this shit like candy.” He laughed. “You doctor-shop. Go to one, get a prescription, go to another. Or use the Internet.  Everybody does it.” He sucked in a breath. “It helps to talk about this. Otherwise, what happened goes round in your mind. At least that’s what happens to me.”

Jake and I were detectives together. Could understanding bring relief?

“He wanted to live in the west,” Jake said wistfully. “To start over. But things didn’t happen the way he wanted. Things never happen the way you think they should.”

*

There were silences and secrets in this family. I was guilty of this, too. My secret desire to leave Brian that bubbled up on occasion. My fear of this. Ambivalence. I promised myself not to meet my high school boyfriend again. I would expunge him from my mind. He was a dalliance. Had Tim dallied with death? I wanted to tell Brian: just be more present. Pay more attention. But it was not his nature. He loved to design buildings and could work on a sketch for hours, days, all night. I admired that about him. I hated that about him.

*

The rabbi was a petite, middle-aged woman with short dark hair, and wore a black coat and black pants. She stood by the open grave. She looked like an elf, and spoke in a soft voice, as if speaking more loudly would break a spell.

“The rabbis taught that there are people among us who are anus kasha-ul. Afflicted,” she was saying. The cemetery was flat, without trees. Wind pushed against our faces. There was no protection here.

“Like King Saul,” she said. “It is explained in First Samuel that King Saul suffered depression and took his own life at Mount Gilboa when he was experiencing emotional distress. There is no doubt Tim was anus, afflicted. There is no doubt you all did everything you could to try to help him.”

She glanced at the faces around her, her body swaying, her words like chanting. “No one here could predict or prevent what Tim did.”

Her words were as ephemeral as the wind. I stood next to Brian and eyed the crowd, maybe fifty people. The ex-girlfriend, Renee, tall and slender, was here. Her face looked as malleable and used up as stretched clay. Tim’s friends gathered like lost, confused sheep. The ill grandmother. The brothers. Aunts, uncles, cousins, professors. Tim’s father and his new wife. Sarah and her boyfriend.

Tim’s father stared at the grave as if he had witnessed a freak and gruesome accident. Sarah and his new wife stood on either side of him. Then they flung their arms around him and began to sob. Sarah embraced Andrew as if she was still his wife. The other woman hugged him as if she was an irrefutable part of the constellation, as if the three of them had raised Tim, as if they all were bound by blood. Andrew draped his arms around them. He seemed unable to offer comfort.

The sobs of the two women rose like sirens, muting the rabbi’s words. Wails of grief burst from a place of complete darkness.

I peered at the ground, ashamed; we were trespassing on this moment of intimacy. Brian stepped closer to me. The air was raw. Erica and Nick blinked back tears.

“Dust to dust,” pronounced the rabbi, as the cemetery workers lowered the plain pine coffin into the ground.

Brian and I put our arms around each other, and huddled close to Nick and Erica. The four of us were linked in a way I did not think possible, I realized—knotted and so entangled that no earthly laws or whims of affection could break us apart.

*

Three weeks later, I visited Tim’s apartment to help Sarah pack his possessions. His brothers and friends joined us. Nick and Erica were there, too. Vivian was at her chemotherapy treatment, with a caregiver.

The apartment was beautiful. A large studio with shining oak floors. Five bookshelves lined one wall, shelves of light wood, floor to ceiling, neatly filled with books. There were some first editions. Modern Library. Loeb Classical Library. Books in perfect condition. Tim’s father gave him money at one time; Tim used what money he had to buy books, Sarah explained.

Too many people crowded in the small space. I retreated to a corner. Why hadn’t I visited here when he was alive? Why didn’t Sarah come into the apartment to see him that night?

I studied the room. I knew the apartment now. I knew the window. Two tall windows rose between a dictionary stand and the bed. It was a double bed, a mattress on the floor, covered by a soft red blanket. Tim’s eyeglasses still sat on the windowsill, as if he would return for them any minute. His father had given the oak dictionary stand when he and Tim were getting along. A thick volume of the Oxford English Dictionary sat opened on top.

On a shelf, I noticed a small bent book, Darkness Visible, by William Styron. He wrote of the walking wounded. The book was out of place and rested alone on the shelf. I thumbed through pages until I found this:

By far the great majority of the people who go through even the severest depression survive it, and live ever afterward at least as happily as their counterparts. Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds.

 I placed the book back on the shelf. Perhaps Tim hadn’t read that far. I wandered to the window. I imagined: You make a decision. You would have to stand on a chair to reach the window’s ledge. Be purposeful. Pull open the window. Climb out. No, crawl out. There would be only space to crouch. Then you would scramble onto the black metal fire escape. It would be dark. The middle of the night. The world looks fuzzy; your thoughts are fuzzy. You tell yourself that you have no future. Maybe you’re full of painkillers and woozy from drugs, from unhappiness. Even if you look down, you can’t see what is below. You would either purposefully jump or slip.

I pressed my head against the glass and glanced into the courtyard, but the cold, hard surface of the window startled me.

*

We did not find a note, not in the oak desk or in the leather-bound Anna Karenina or in other books. There were too many books to look through. Perhaps a note was hidden in one. Perhaps someday we would find it. The books would be divided among Tim’s friends, his brothers, and cousins. I took a volume of Chekhov, Later Short Stories, my keepsake. Inside was Tim’s nameplate, his name printed neatly in black ink, the m with a curlicue on the end. I realized I didn’t even know what his handwriting looked like.

When we finished packing boxes, we walked home in silence. Nick and Erica retreated to their rooms. I went to the den, and at my desk, I opened the dictionary again. I thumbed through the pages, knowing the definitions were not specific enough or complete. But I wanted to find the right word. My professional knowledge meant nothing. If I could find the word, I imagined I could bear Tim’s death. Bear every loss to come. I thumbed past S to T until I discovered what I was looking for: Tragedy.

Tragedy. an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress… Origin ME: from OFr. tragedie, via L. from Gk tragoidia appar. from tragos ‘goat’ (the reason remains unexplained) + ōidē ‘song, ode’.

I shut my eyes. There was no note. The reason remains unexplained. A slip from the fire escape. You stand in the dark, considering. But you’re groggy from drugs and lack of sleep. From a broken heart. You can’t imagine a future. You stand at the edge, lose your footing. Or you leap on impulse, the feeling overcomes you, it is just a moment: end it all, finally be free. You tumble down, down. Every sensation is amplified, as if you’re falling in an echo chamber: fear, doubt, horror, even regret. Or relief. But what if you change your mind?

*

One last time, two weeks later, I visited Tim’s apartment. I took the afternoon off work. My concentration had slowly returned. Sarah and I packed clothes, hiking boots, Oxford cloth shirts, dishes.

“I feel like he’s going to walk in any moment,” she said. She didn’t seem to want a reply.

We worked in silence. I brushed my hands across the navy blazer with the gold buttons, the soft wool. Pants, gloves, a bent ticket stub from King Lear at Lincoln Center. Tim’s pipe sat on his desk. I opened a mailing tube and pulled out his college diploma. Sarah stretched tape over boxes. Her movements were quick; her efficiency had taken over. Some boxes would go to her sons or to Tim’s friends, she said, making labels. Some would go to her apartment. Some to Tim’s father. She was back at work, she told me. What else could she do? Finally, the movers began to empty the space. When I left, I eyed the bare room and took one last look at the window.

A few months later, Brian and I made a decision. We have a life together, he said. We love each other, after all. We do, I agreed. When he told me this, I imagined he was thinking of Tim and the tenuousness of life. I didn’t ask. For an instant, hesitation flickered in Brian’s eyes. There was no hesitation in mine. He embraced me, and we kissed. I pressed my arms around him, relieved. The moment passed, as all moments do. The reason remains unexplained.


Ronna Wineberg is the author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, a collection of stories; On Bittersweet Place, a novel, winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition; and a debut collection, Second Language, winner of the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition. Her stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Confrontation, Michigan Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. Ronna has been awarded a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a scholarship in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the senior fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and a founding editor of the journal. Her website is: http://www.ronnawineberg.com