Here’s what The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall and Looking for Alaska by John Green get right about death: no matter your unique level of rational understanding or personal intellect, there is always a strange quality that accompanies death and that quality is the odd sensation of trying to find the people who’ve gone. There is an irrational looking, an inexplicable longing, an illogical searching a person in grief subconsciously agrees to. Oftentimes we can’t even voice it. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. After all, it’s irrational, inexplicable, and illogical. But we’re doing it.
My eyes wordlessly search the highway before me, waiting to settle on a shiny red Subaru. Consciously, I’m not even doing it. But I am. I promise you, I am.
I sort through every face in any place he’s even 1% likely to be: a supermarket (he bought groceries once, didn’t he?), a bank (he was always making deposits), outside the little bar where he copped my number.
It’s no reflection of my brain. I’m not stupid. I know exactly what happened — I was there — and I know exactly where he is. He’s been broken down by fire into tiny black bits and he’s sitting in a little pile in an urn not pretty enough to hold such beautiful remnants in a dining room set bought off Craigslist. And it’s a very pretty urn.
But the conscious, obvious level on which I have a sure-footed understanding of how cancer claimed his body slowly and then all at once isn’t enough to make the looking stop.
I’m still trying to find him.
There is another odd quality that accompanies grief: a waiting. I’m simultaneously searching and waiting. I’m waiting for him to come back, for the day I wake up and he’s on the other side of the bed, keeping it warm. Or maybe I’ll wake up and he’ll already be in the shower, getting ready for work. Maybe he’s in the closet, organizing his jerseys. Maybe if I’m patient, he’ll resurface and we can continue where we left off.
Because we were in the middle of something.
And I’m still waiting to get back to where we were, so we can continue that middle and fasten it into a beautiful life.
That’s why you’ll drive. That’s why you’ll drive what feels like endless miles, until you’re out of gas. You’ll drive until you hit beach, with no more road ahead of you to traverse. You’ll drive until your forehead hits the steering wheel and suddenly you’re crying so hard breathing seems improbable and you’ll wonder if this is even remotely what it felt like to be conscious of your own death happening, like he was.
You’ll slam your hands against the steering wheel like it is personally responsible for your pain. You will think about forgetting about the parking break, so that you can quietly escape, that you’ll slowly edge toward the water and it will take mercy on you because you’ve endured more pain than should be allowed and it will envelope you, swiftly and silently.
No one will tell you why you’ve been driving so much. Except me.
It’s not because it’s calming. It’s not because it’s therapeutic. It’s not because you’re grieving. It’s because we’re searching and we can’t admit it. We’re looking for him, somewhere: in the sea, in the irregularity on the concrete sidewalk, in the sky. We’re trying to find someone who can’t be found.
When I think of falling in love with him, I think of myself, alone in the shower. It feels like I showered more often than usual during those first few days. I was perpetually showering, iPhone blasting. I’m singing Tracy Chapman to the beige tiles. I’m feeling more tingly than breakable. Isn’t that crazy? That my memories of falling in love with him don’t even star him. That shower, that’s where we fell in love I think, separately. Because it’s where I did my thinking. It’s where I overanalyzed, after the fact, and came to the conclusion that this person rendered me child-like: a teenager smitten with the thought of someone for the first time.
It’s where I made plans to move into his apartment and marry him. It’s where I constantly pictured his face, that head tilt. That smile hovering over me. When I was with him, I was too present; I lived in it and I couldn’t find words for what was happening to me. But when I was in the shower, it looked, sounded, and felt like love.
“I told myself I am going to try not to snap at everything,” his mother said. “We are all hurting but hurting other people we love is not going to change what happened.”
I think she knew what I wanted to say in response. We could both feel it.
How do we change what happened then? How do we bring him back?
I didn’t pose the question though; I already knew the answer.
And I didn’t want to hear it because I didn’t want it to be real.
Stephanie Osmanski is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Stony Brook Southampton and working on her memoir. Her words have appeared on Seventeen, Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Darling Magazine, Femestella, and more. Her fiction has been featured in Montage and her nonfiction in Cold Creek Review. She lives in New York with her pomsky, Koda. Follow her on Instagram at Instagram.com/StephOsmanski and on Twitter at Twitter.com/StephOsmanski.