Reread the archives, always.
Image Credit: Gab Bonghi
Last summer I walked my dogs with poop bags in one hand and pepper spray in the other. I avoided checking the mail. I stopped visiting your grave. I forwarded all your brother’s new messages to my therapist. Every email, every text from every new phone number, unread. Please tell me he’s wrong. Please tell me I’m safe. She found many errors, but nothing threatening. Her words, not mine.
But then I couldn’t help myself. I opened them and saw promises of marriage, money, kids, of loving me even if I’d gained 10 pounds since he last saw me, in 2008, the year you disappeared forever. These felt like threats to me.
[Mon, Aug 3, 2020 at 11:32 AM]
I’m in a much better place than I was ten years ago. I’m in perfect health. I work from home. I spend a ridiculous amount of time in bed, not because I’m depressed, but because I have that luxury and I love it. And that was my fantasy. Just living in bed with you.
I saved them all in a folder on my desktop to prove that this part really happened.
When it comes to the story of me + you, I’m not always the most reliable narrator. I have love stories, stories of deceit, heartbreak, failure. Stories that began in 2003, when I knew more about you than I knew about myself. Before you died we all thought you’d become as famous as Oasis. Oasis fame was the goal. The way out. You’d spent all of your adolescence on a guitar or singing. You’d put out your first full-length album when you were twelve. Your talent was objective. By the time I met you it was the attitude you were sharpening like a blade. You acted just like Liam, too cool to be vulnerable, so quick with the wit. Your brother was Noel; older, jealous. I’m embarrassed to say you played guitar and I sang “Wonderwall” in a bar off of Route 29 and 100—you just 21, me with my fake I.D. I remember how you always tucked your feet under the foot ring of the barstool when you played, like you’d tuck your palms into those big sleeves. Like you didn’t want anyone to see that you were human.
Like a journalist, I lived through our time together knowing that one day I’d write about it. Unlike a journalist, I could never file it away. Separate myself. Focus on the facts.
Here’s a story that goes all the way back to 1999: The first time I saw you. You were only 14 and I was only 12 and you were on the talent show stage, same way, feet hooked in the stool. I think I saw you as an angel, all these bright lights pointed at you. There he is, there he is. It would be four more years until we’d actually meet and then we’d only have five more to ruin each other’s lives and fill them up again. A small amount of time for so much material. I could write the story of the one who got away, I could write a Notebook-level tear-jerker of grief and love-no-matter-what, or trauma porn fraught with addiction. How can I write a love story that’s not cliché when the fact is we sang “Wonderwall” together to your acoustic guitar?
The Oasis brothers are old now, no longer the epitome of cool. Now they just argue on Twitter. A lot of the things we idolized have gone that way. Vice magazine, heroin, the photographer Larry Clark, who kicked off the whole beautiful ugly thing. Chloë Sevigny cool, diaristic storytelling. Methamphetamines and handguns. Needles. Fleshy tits and balls. Without Larry Clark there probably wouldn’t even be a Vice magazine, a Kids movie, an American Apparel opioid dream aesthetic. Now, he’s in his late 70’s, still beating the same naked, vulnerable, drug-wrecked horse. His work was once pioneering, shocking, breathtakingly dangerous. Now it’s trite. I’ve seen better photos from the iPhone 12.
Hours after your funeral your brother’s arm was around me, but it wasn’t like that. All of us kids went to get wasted in your honor. Your brother and I were the saddest, so we got the most wasted, sitting away from everyone else silent and staring off into the middle distance.
Your brother and I are still the saddest. But that’s all we are, all we were, all we’ll ever be.
Last summer was the first without my best friend, who died the same way you did. It was like before I could grieve him, I had to grieve you. I was dreaming about how in love we were, masturbating to the memory of all that ragged teenagedness, the clenching and unclenching. I wrote your mother a letter to tell her I still thought of you. I’d watched my best friend’s mom crumble like bricks and thought she should know. I texted your brother for her address, to make sure it was still the same. A quiet voice inside told me not to, but it was a sunny day, a quick text I typed out one-handed. This is not how he would go on to tell the story.
[Fri, Aug 7, 2020 at 10:44 PM]
There are really only two possibilities. One, you’re feeling insecure and you wanted someone to validate that you were desirable and you knew I’d come through. You just way underestimated how I’d react when you blew me off. Or, two: you’re so bitter that you wanted to settle some kind of score. This one I think is more probable, and that’s not a good thing.
I guess I did want something—an apology, closure. Let me tell you something about your brother, which won’t come as a shock. After you died, he took the space I needed to grieve you and turned it into something else, something his. Like I was property. There was the breathy 2 A.M. voicemail I got in college, after coming home from the bar, steadying myself on the Formica kitchen table, the one that just said: “I love you.” Click. There was the time in 2010 when he’d proposed to the girl you cheated on me with—blonde, a high school dropout, my friend who was even more fucked up than the both of you. I thought that would end it, but there were Facebook messages after they broke up. Long-winded notes about my great ass, which turned to rage when I told him it was creepy. I never should’ve texted him but God, how could I have predicted this? Every few years your brother comes back to haunt me, but last summer it became louder and bigger and more than I could handle.
In his mind, my text was proof that we were in love. (“Don’t try to minimize our history to make me look stupid. I was there too, ya know.”) He proposed to me in an email, said he could never have kids with anyone else, someone who didn’t also know you and the family disease of addiction. Sent me $1,500 cash in a bank envelope with a bicycle on it that said We Are Going Places. He told me there was more where that came from.
We tell ourselves the stories we can live with: fiction, nonfiction, drama, fantasy. Last summer, your brother wrote me stories about all the money you stole from your parents, how he’d only ever smoked weed before you introduced him to heroin. (I’m glad you have fond memories of him, he wrote. Nostalgia is an illusion.) This is what he needs to remember, but what I need is different. I get lost in the memories I have of us so that I can almost hear your voice call me darlin’ without the g. I can almost smell your Axe body spray, the shower smell that always followed you around. I know it’s not healthy, but it gets me high. If what he has to do is smear you, resent you, I wish he’d keep me out of it. Now when I think about you I have to think about him. And there’s nothing I hate more.
Sometimes I wonder if my stories are too old and worn out. If they matter to anyone but me.
Here’s another one: The actor Brad Renfro died just like you—in 2008, at 25, from an accidental heroin overdose in a California apartment. He was found by his girlfriend. You were found by your roommate, a guy you’d gone on a cross-country rehab trip with, then you two left early. I don’t remember his name but I’ll always remember his voice so high-pitched it didn’t match what he was saying—that he found you lying in the apartment hallway, that there was foam caught in your mouth. That he was putting the phone up to your ear, and that maybe if I spoke to you, you’d wake up. I don’t remember what I said. I love you?
Before he died, Brad Renfro starred in Larry Clark’s movie, Bully. Based on a true story. A murder story. Before shooting Bully, Larry opened the door to Renfro’s Tennessee home, where he stood looking bloated, bloody, shooting cocaine around the clock as his grandma did chores in the other room. Larry stayed for the bender. He watched, he captured. Then, he hired a guard to follow him around on set and stop it all.
The photos he took hung in a New York City gallery years after Renfro died. He hung them in the shape of America and called it “Knoxville (Homage to Brad Renfro),” but all it was was a bunch of photos of someone dying, shooting drugs into his arm at different angles, grabbing his grandma’s chest, smoking cigarettes. Larry Clark then splattered the photos with his own blood, pulled from a syringe. He thought this was groundbreaking work, but this was 2016, the early years of fentanyl. Heroin was dead, even Larry Clark couldn’t keep it alive. One review wrote, “few exhibitions in recent memory proved as shallow or depressing.” Larry stayed home with hand pain.
I think about Larry, confined to telling the same story for the rest of his long life. His subjects die off, but he’s still here. Still looking for the same young boys that once defined him in Tulsa, 1971.
And then, using his own blood.
After you died your brother still hung around all your friends. He needed us, we needed him. We needed you. He bought me tall leather boots for Christmas, a few weeks after your funeral. I still have photos of me in those boots, in American Apparel bodycon dresses and black tights with deliberate rips. I study my smile, the way I held my cigarette, crossed my legs, searching for a clue. What did he see that made him think I was his?
Last summer I dreamt that I went to your house. But it wasn’t your house, it was a treehouse. A trailer in a tree. You lived with him and the place was too small for the both of you and a girl. To visit you, I had to visit him. He was who he is today—a 40-year-old man, and you were perfectly preserved in 2004. But I could see you were sick. I dodged him in the living room, went to your bedroom. You were crumpled in a ball with one skinny arm reaching out to the nightstand, your fingers grasping weakly at a sandwich bag full of tumbleweed pot, halved and powdered pills. He was in the door frame, watching over us. I curled up on the bed and held you. I let you continue to reach for your bag, bring it close so you could sniff it up, swallow it. Nothing changed. You were still sick. In fact, you were dying. So I just watched, just let you keep destroying, because it must hurt so much. The walls were toast brown and wood-paneled, the windows newspapered up. Your bed was a mattress on the floor with navy blue sheets all tangled. Why is it always the mattress on the floor? All of the furniture perfectly matched the walls, like it came in a set. There was not much of it, just a nightstand, a dresser with a mirror, streaked and void of purpose what with you crawling out of your skin on the floor. As he hovered in the doorway I thought I saw something in his face turn, that he finally understood that I’ve only ever loved you.
Last summer I went to the police station with fifteen pages of evidence. Emails. Texts. An unopened USPS envelope, insured with tracking. In it, as promised, was $1,500 cash. I opened it at the teller’s little window, in front of the red-headed police officer as he yelled his lunch order to a coworker.
“What do I do with all of this?” I asked.
“We really can’t do anything unless he shows up. You can keep the cash or you can send it back.”
My story wasn’t good enough for a restraining order. It needed action, confrontation, a climax. So I bought pepper spray and started checking parked cars and alleyways. I kept my head on a swivel and my curtains shut so the next month felt like years of looking and hiding and looking and hiding. I watched a man I swear I recognized idle in an expensive car under my balcony and because this was my story, I knew it was him. I stood back where he couldn’t see me, my phone in hand, grateful for my third-floor apartment and the door with the key fob. Was it for dramatic effect, or did I really believe it when I screamed at you to “Make him stop!”, to come back to life so he’d leave me alone?
Soon, a woman about my age slammed her screen door and hurried across the street. When she hopped into the back of the car, they were gone.
[Mon, Sep 7, 2020 at 10:26 PM]
Subject: I’m bipolar — I was off my meds.
I think the subject line says it all. I’m not into you.
Stories change. Sometimes, it takes years. Decades. In your brother’s final message I heard a hint of you. Blame, bravado, arrogance. And rage, that crocodile snap, that sharpened blade when it was aimed at me. I hadn’t remembered you could sound this way.
It was the tone you used when I accused you of having track marks under your sweatshirt and you’d refused to pull up your sleeves. Now I remember the dashboard light of your Bronco, staring at the digitized 88.5 on the stereo, blurring because there I am, about to cry. And you’re yelling, telling me I’m wrong.
When I got clean and you told me I was never really addicted. You have no idea what it feels like. So you sniffed a little heroin. You don’t understand. I’m an addict. I will go through withdrawal. But hey, cool keychain.
When I saw you kiss her and you looked at me like, what? I remember now. Getting off my shift at Texas Roadhouse, I see my friend’s baby blue Toyota Camry and think she must be off her shift at Applebee’s across the street. I go to her, puffing my cigarette. But she’s in the car with someone else, two blondes making out in the front seat. When the someone else turns to open the passenger door it’s you, and you’re both so high, coming to pick up her check like there’s nothing wrong. Like I didn’t just see the thing that most breaks my heart. “You want to come in with us?” one of you asks me. And no I don’t want to, but I still do.
These were not the stories I liked to remember. I’d forgotten them all until now.
Nikki Volpicelli has zero literary awards but did win “Best Personality” in 8th-grade. (Actually, it was a tie.) Her writing has been featured in Nylon, Glamour, Capsule98, XRAY lit, and Vice. She lives in Philadelphia with her two chihuahuas, Gene and Bones, and her human, Eric.