by Dorothy Al-Ghosien
“No, I’m not wrong! I’m not going to apologize!” I heard the drunken slur in my voice, and I heard my brother Jacob’s sigh, his usual I-know-there’s-nothing-I-can-do-to-change-your-mind sigh, an incredibly irritating and frustrating sigh because it usually means he’s right. I was lucid enough to know that, but buzzed enough to blow a big, fat raspberry at that knowledge. I stared at Jacob defiantly, daring him to try to reason with me.
Jacob shook his head and surrendered, “I’ll drive Melanie home.” Then as he turned away, he threw over his shoulder, “…since you’re too drunk and ornery to take your friend you brought home!” I wanted to say something clever, something really clever and biting back, but “Huh!” was all the eloquence I could muster at the moment. Jacob turned and walked back toward me, “Give me your keys. I don’t want your smart ass driving on the road. I’ll drive you home after I drop Melanie off.” He put his face right up to mine and gave me his I-mean-it glare. Even drunk and in a pissy mood, I knew not to argue with that. So I just stuck my tongue out at him. He smirked and left to take Melanie home for me. Melanie didn’t even say “Bye,” but I didn’t blame her.
I sat back down at the dinner table and wondered how the night had gone so badly. Work had been a horror lately, and this day was just more of it—too many stressed employees drowning in an over-promised, overdue, over-budget project, and I was just a helpless speck caught in that whirlpool to Hell. Thankfully the project was nearly done! Even management no longer cared how crippled and hobbled together it turned out, as long as it could be stamped “Done,” and soon. I knew I had been drinking and, probably not unrelated, arguing with everyone a lot more lately. My burnt-out brain felt like it had two working brain cells left, and neither of them was in a good mood.
Earlier, Jacob, in his usual big brother caretaker fashion and knowing how bad off I’d been lately, invited me over for dinner. I told him I was already meeting Melanie for dinner, and he said to bring her too. Being with Jacob is calming—he has a quiet way that soothes my psyche. He and Mom are both like that; Dad and I are, well, not. Our family averages to a nice, even keel, but through the averaging of extremes. Still, it works for us…usually. I knew Melanie’d be game, so I happily agreed to dinner at Jacob’s.
It should have been soothing, but I drank too much and then got in a stupid argument with Melanie over where we’d stayed in Florida for Spring Break almost ten years ago. I don’t even remember how it came up! I think I’m right, but I also know Melanie might be right. It was stupid of me to argue so aggressively with her—I love my dear friend, and I also know she’s forgiven me for stuff like this before during our long friendship. My pride just steps in sometimes and shoves all reason aside, sadly something my pride has a little too much practice doing, especially lately. I hate when I have to be right almost as much as everyone else does. Tomorrow’s another apology and humble pie day, dammit.
I dejectedly got up and stumbled to the couch where I had left my purse earlier. Melanie lived pretty close by, so Jacob would be back soon to drive me home. With the strain of the evening and the weight of my stupidity bearing down on me, I leaned back and closed my eyes for a second, or an hour as it turned out.
My cellphone’s ringing. That thought pierced through my drunken slumber four times before I thought to do something about it. I groggily croaked, “Hello?”
“Is this Stephanie Walker?” some lady asked.
“Yeah. Who’s asking?” I sleep mumbled.
“Ms. Walker, this is Nurse Griffen at Overton Hospital. A Mr. Jacob Walker has been admitted, and he’s listed you as his family contact. Could you come in and assist with Mr. Walker’s paperwork?”
Paperwork. Death certificate paperwork, as it turned out. Another driver saw Jacob swerve to miss a deer and fawn standing in the road just around a corner. Jacob’s car skidded hard into a tree, killing Melanie instantly. Jacob died at 11 PM, after having slipped into a coma before I could get to the hospital by cab. Two gut-wrenching, wailing heartbreaks. I’ve never felt so hollow as when we buried those two good souls. I was incredulous and thankful Mom and Dad and Melanie’s mom didn’t blame me—maybe they could see I blamed myself enough for all of us. Tears were like heartbeats, just another part of getting through time. I didn’t distinguish day from night—I just numbly zombied where life pointed.
Mom and Dad stayed with me for a month afterwards, but then they had to get back to their jobs and their house and their thanks-to-me lessened lives. Mom’s usual calming voodoo was understandably overwhelmed by her own grief—Dad and I were on our own to cope with our sorrow without our usual support. Mom and I cried together on the phone almost every night.
I carried the guilt and horror of Jacob’s and Melanie’s last night with me as an indicting albatross hanging around my neck, choking me with its weight and condemnation. I cursed my own breath—why was I still living and breathing? A stupid, drunken argument I had to win resulted in the death of two of my loved ones—I just wanted to tell them and the world that I didn’t mean it, that I took everything back. I ached to go back in time and kick myself in the rear, “Do you hear how stupid you’re being? Apologize for being an ass and tell them how much you love them!” I put pictures of Jacob and Melanie on my dining table and begged their forgiveness every day. Days went by, but I didn’t know how to move on.
In August, nearly four months after that awful night, things hadn’t improved for me. I had learned to force the tears to wait until I was alone at night because I was sick of everyone telling me to get help. I was still a zombie, now just a functioning zombie. Mom and Dad were doing better day-by-day, slowly but surely. Jacob’s old college buddy Matt called me; he’d just gotten back from overseas, found out about Jacob’s death through friends, and was coming to town to pay his respects. Yay, another person my pride had hurt. My apparently endless supply of sorrow and guilt fueled my growing self-hatred to new levels. Now I had to meet another person I had to lie-smile for, crap!
But Matt turned out to be my savior. I instantly saw why he and Jacob had been such good friends—they both had the same calming effect on people. Matt saw through my pretense, saw my suffering in all its ugliness, saw my guilt-racked soul being self-tortured to shreds, and it was as if he channeled Jacob’s insights and calming voodoo to heal me. Matt ended up staying with me, as a friend, for three months. He helped me see that neither Jacob nor Melanie would want me to blame myself for their deaths. Accidents are just that, accidents. I didn’t send them to their deaths, not knowingly, not intentionally.
My heart still aches badly from the loss of my loved ones, but I’ve learned to live again, without self-hatred. I’ll always have a scar carved deep into my soul from that night, but my soul continues to heal. I still talk with Matt; sometimes I catch myself thanking Jacob’s spirit for sending Matt to me. I’m constantly amazed at the good people like Jacob and Matt can do, Melanie too; I try to be inspired by their goodness. I’ve moved Jacob’s and Melanie’s pictures to the fireplace mantel, and now when I look at them, it’s to tell them I love them. One major life change is I’ve become especially diligent about leaving people on good terms, especially those I’m attached to, of course, but even the most impersonal partings—as I learned so heartbreakingly that horrid night, you never know when you won’t have the chance again.