The 10th anniversary of Amy’s death begins the same way as every anniversary before it: with me dragging myself out of bed, half an hour behind schedule, frowning at the ashen sky which seems just one thunderclap away from drenching the earth in rain.
I make my way slowly to the kitchen, nudging Pippa & George with my toes as they skuttle ahead, guiding me towards the pantry where I store their food. I coo something incoherent about their upcoming kibble breakfast and quietly remind myself to send Mr. Yang a private Facebook message later in the day.
December 18th, 2011 was the worst day of my life. That morning, I was settling into my day at Pace Chemicals, the company where I had started working just a few days earlier. Pace’s headquarters was a squat, concrete building that looked like it had last been upgraded in the seventies. When Gabby called, I was standing in the glass-paneled cafeteria holding a cup of coffee, just steps from the door which led outside. As I picked up, I felt a sudden, inexplicable urge to bolt through the door and start sprinting, directionless. But it was cold out, so instead I lingered in the vestibule.
“Yuelian?” Gabby’s voice was shaking.
“Hi Gabby,” I responded urgently. “It’s me. What’s wrong?”
It was clear that she was calling with bad news. I didn’t know Gabby well, and our only connection was Amy. The first possibility that crossed my mind was that Amy had overdosed on something, possibly OxyContin, and was in the hospital. I started skimming my brain for excuses to explain why I would need some days off less than a week after starting a new job. It would be inconvenient timing, I thought, but worth it to go up to Long Island and be by Amy’s side when she –
“Amy died last night,” Gabby blurted out, her voice disintegrating. “She – she was walking home from the art museum in Brooklyn when she got hit by – run over by – by a garbage truck. I’m – so sorry.”
Thus began the 10-year, wandering nightmare that has eventually led me here, to this spot in my yellow linoleum-tiled kitchen, watching my tabbies gobble noisily out of their little tin bowls.
December 21st, 2011 was the second worst day of my life. I sat in a wooden church pew during Amy’s wake and watched rows of weeping friends and relatives move through catholic rituals which were foreign to me. I tried to picture Amy in my head, watching all of it with her head cocked to one side, equally as confused as I was. I had never known Amy to be religious, and until her wake I had not realized that her parents were so much the opposite.
When it was time for me to say goodbye, I bowed my head and made my way shakily towards the wall of people guarding her open casket – her mother, her father, and various family friends whom I had never met, all of them contorted and sobbing awfully. I looked at Amy and did not recognize her. I had never seen the outfit she was wearing before. Her face looked too bloated and pale to be hers.
I stuffed a handwritten letter into the pocket of the gray animal-patterned cardigan that her mother – I assumed it was her mother – had chosen for her. I hoped it was okay, what I had written in the letter. And as it mentioned the drug use which had decorated our friendship in recent years, I especially hoped her parents wouldn’t read it. Especially not her mom. “My mom knows everything,” Amy had joked to me before. “You can’t hide things from Korean moms.”
I wrestle the kibble bowls away from George and Pippa as they finish licking them clean of crumbs. “Yum yum, hmmm? Did you enjoy your breakfast, Piiiii-ppa?” I sing as if she’s an infant and turn towards the sink to rinse them out.
And suddenly, out of the corner of my eye: there she is, sitting at my kitchen table. First a blurry blob, then gradually coming into focus. Her hair is straight and black and frames her oval face. She is wearing a simple gray t-shirt with a pocket at her breast, the same one she is always wearing when she appears in my dreams.
“A-Amy?” my voice cracks. “Is that you?”
She is still coming into focus, her arms and legs somewhat cartoony and still blurred. But her facial features are sharp, and suddenly her eyes grow very big; her chest puffs up in excitement. “WHOA!” she exclaims. “No fucking way - hey buddy!”
I rush towards her. “Can I touch you? Can I hug you?” I beg, reaching for her still-half-in-focus shoulders.
Before she answers I’ve wrapped her into my arms and am squeezing her with every square inch of my body. She feels real. I rest my head on her shoulder, which now also appears fully as flesh and bone. My face is mushy with tears.
“H-how… did you get here?” I stammer. “Are you back for good? Will you stay?”
There’s a pause. “I – I can’t – breathe, b-buddy,” Amy gasps. “You go-gotta – loosen – your grip!”
I let her go in a burst of laughter. “Sorry!”
Amy laughs too, then shakes her head slowly. I grab a kitchen stool and sit directly in front of her, studying her face. She looks just the way she did when I last saw her – Long Island, October of 2011.
“Naw,” she says, still shaking her head. “Not back for good. I – I was taking a nap and when I woke up, this angel dude was hovering over me and pointing at this wormhole-looking thing. I looked down into the wormhole and saw you, my parents, Peter and Gabby – and the angel dude goes, ‘It’s been ten earth years, so it’s your turn to visit the ones who still think about you. But only for a little while. I’ll send a signal when you have to come back.’ And then he shoved me down into the hole, which really hurt –” she winces slightly and rubs her shoulder – “and – well, here I am, friend! I guess you’re the lucky one I get to visit first.” My heart swells as she winks and grins at me.
Suddenly I don’t know what to say. My mind draws a complete blank. There are so many things I’ve told her in my head when I thought I would never see her again, but now that she’s in front of me – nothing.
We sit in silence for a few minutes. I get up, fill a glass of water from the tap, and place it carefully in front of her.
After another moment, I start overflowing – again – with tears. “I’ve missed you so much,” I whimper. “I’ve never been so alone. I mean, things did eventually get better, of course. I- I’m mostly okay now. But I’ve just – really, really missed you.” I try to crack a smile, but only half of my face cooperates, the other half stays quivering in a tearful frown.
Amy’s death led to the unraveling of many things I had taken for granted. Like my marriage, for starters, which had already been on the rocks before Amy died. But more importantly, I lost myself. A year after Amy’s death, I was hospitalized twice for back-to-back episodes of psychosis.
“I’m sorry buddy.” Amy looks defeated. “I never meant to abandon you…”
Another moment of silence. Then, I finally muster up the courage to ask: “Hey. Did it – did it hurt? When you died?”
Amy starts to chuckle, slowly at first, then crescendoing to a hearty, belly-shaking laugh. She tilts her head back and closes her eyes briefly. “Oh man,” she finally says, hiccupping stray chuckles. “I’m sorry. It’s probably not funny to you at all –” she pauses to look at me, then grabs the glass of water in front of her and takes a hurried sip. “But… oh man, pain doesn’t begin to describe what I felt.” She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes again. “I guess – it did hurt, at first, when I was pinned under the truck but still alive. I could feel it crushing me, my bones breaking and my insides getting squeezed. That first moment before I started to die, before my body let go of everything, was – yes, that hurt. But I don’t think it lasted very long.”
Amy opens her eyes and studies my face, checking to see if I can stomach what she is telling me. I’m not sure if I can, but I try to hold it together.
“The next part though – the actual dying – I mean, losing my grip on reality and being human and all of this – stuff,” she gestures around the room with her hands – “it wasn’t painful anymore, at least not the ‘Ow, my broken foot’ kind. It was more like feeling everything at once – pins and needles in every molecule while being pulled and stretched in a bajillion directions. One second you’re as tiny as an ant; the next, you’re an exploding star. Because you are –” she starts to laugh again, slowly. “I mean, right now you might think I look the same as I did before, but I’m pretty sure that angel dude made some funky magic happen when he pushed me through the wormhole. But in that other place, I don’t have a body.”
“Oh,” I say. “So you’re not – you anymore – in the afterlife?” I suddenly blush, feeling self-conscious and ashamed, as if I should have known this. “Is that the right word for it, by the way? Afterlife? Or are you in… heaven?”
“Ni puta idea!” giggles Amy. Her clumsy pronunciation of a Spanish phrase she had loved transports me back to Madrid, where we first met between cañas during student happy hour at a fading, dimly lit tapas bar near the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. After we got back from Madrid, Amy crafted a neon sign with bright pink and blue letters against a black backdrop and hung it up in her apartment. She liked to point to it when she didn’t know the answer to something and exclaim in her signature way, ‘Ni puta idea’! No fucking clue!
“Man, I’m sorry to laugh so much, it’s just that I forgot how absurd humans are. Not just you; how absurd I was too! People have words for everything, not to mention synonyms and double entendres, and all these different ways of measuring things like time. But somehow, we misunderstand each other anyway, right? Days, hours, minutes, seconds. Years! Afterlife! I didn’t even know it had been ten years until my dude woke me up today. What is a year even? How many years is in an afterlife?”
I feel a dull, throbbing headache starting to form. “Sorry,” I mumble. “I – I think I need to lie down. This is all a bit too weird right now.”
“Aw, buddy,” Amy says softly, her voice reducing to a gentle murmur. “I’m really sorry about all of this. Do you want me to leave?”
“No, no. Please stay. Can we just – can I put my head on your lap?”
“Of course,” says Amy.
I shuffle over to the other side of the kitchen table and lay myself carefully down on the bench where she’s sitting. She seems so small and fragile – just as I remembered her. I stack my legs on top of each other, bending them slightly at the knee, and place my head in Amy’s jeans-clad lap. Her legs quiver slightly as she breathes, like a living person’s.
I remember the first conversation I had with Amy at that tapas bar in Madrid: seeing a tattoo inscribed in Latin on her forearm, I had asked what it meant.
“Live forever, sister,” she replied.
“Oh, cool! You’re the first person I’ve met who’s in a sorority,” I exclaimed, intrigued.
“I’m not in a sorority though,” Amy said quietly. “It’s for my little sister who died a few years ago.”
I lift my head now to inspect Amy’s forearm again. There it is, in small black cursive: vive in aeternum soror. “Live forever, sister,” I mumble quietly. I lay my head back in Amy’s lap and close my eyes to stop the tears from blurring my vision. “Have you reunited with Marie?”
Amy is silent at first. “No,” she eventually says. “I think I saw her once. Or I had this feeling it might have been her. But I wasn’t sure, and we were moving fast in opposite directions, so…” her voice trails off. I don’t understand, but I don’t want to press.
I didn’t know many details about Amy’s sister Marie, aside from the residue of guilt her own death left behind in Amy’s life. She was four years younger than Amy; they weren’t particularly close growing up, but they’d gotten along. She had been hit by a telecom truck when she was fourteen, two years before Amy and I met in Madrid and seven years before Amy’s own death at the age of twenty-five. Unlike Amy, she survived the accident long enough to wake up briefly from a coma.
“Daddy? Am I in heaven?” she had asked her father when she woke up. He explained that she had been in a serious accident but was still alive and needed to rest.
Not long after that, she passed away.
After the initial shock of Amy’s death came the dawning of another, blunter truth: that there’s no law of the universe – no God – which will prevent a couple from losing both of their children to getting run over by a truck, on separate occasions, only years apart. Faced with the depth of what had occurred not just to Amy but to her parents, my world felt simultaneously meaningless and limitless. Amy’s parents turned to their religious faith for comfort. I, on the other hand, lost my footing.
During my second hospitalization for psychosis, I tried to explain to a young intern how this realization had impacted my worldview. I remember sitting cross-legged, my eyes wide open and unblinking, keeping my body as still as possible – as if external stillness might project inner peace – and watching the intern fidget uncomfortably while I talked.
“I mean, what are you supposed to learn from a tragedy like that?” I asked. “Do Amy’s parents just permanently wonder, ‘did we forget to teach our daughters to look both ways before crossing the road?’ If that isn’t hell, then what is?”
The intern flinched.
“The lesson I’ve taken away is that nothing matters. All this time and energy people spend on avoiding risks and pondering the consequences of their actions, none of that matters because tomorrow you could get run over by a garbage truck or killed by an exploding Xerox machine or whatever, even if you never broke any rules, even if you always looked both ways before crossing the street. So why not just say fuck it and take huge risks all of the time?”
George and Pippa, never ones to miss out on an opportunity to cuddle, have leapt onto the kitchen bench and are settling themselves comfortably next to me, onto Amy’s lap.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Amy exclaims. “Where are orange Julius and gray Mochi? These aren’t your cats!”
“Ah. Tom and I split up not long after you died –” it feels strange to be saying this so matter-of-factly. “He kept Jules and Mochi. These little guys,” I pause to scratch each of them between their ears, “are George and Pippa.” As if on cue, George squeaks out a small greeting.
We stay like that for a few more minutes, my head on Amy’s lap, George and Pippa snuggling in the cracks between us.
Amy’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “Hey, buddy,” she says, nudging my arm gently. “Why were you so alone?”
“Hmm?” I mumble.
“You said earlier that you had never been so alone. I get that you were sad about me, but – didn’t you get any support from your friends or family? Or Tom?”
Her question hits me in the gut, and I can feel the tears starting to well up again. “Not really,” I say quietly. “I don’t think anyone understood how I felt about you. At the beginning I tried to talk to Gabby, but she…” my voice trails off. “I think I overwhelmed her with the way I kept reaching out.”
I didn’t do a good job of holding myself back in those first weeks after Amy died. I bombarded Gabby with e-mails and text messages. I felt out of control, as if every memory I wanted to hold onto – digital photos, text message exchanges – were slipping so quickly through my fingers that I could barely register that they were gone. Within hours of learning about Amy’s death, I noticed that her Facebook page had been taken down. When I pleaded with Gabby to put it back up, just for a few hours, she responded that Amy would not have wanted people memorializing her and posting comments on her page after she was dead. Gabby was probably right – in the months before her death, Amy had struggled with her usage of Facebook, indecisively deleting and un-deleting her own account multiple times. But all I wanted was a few hours to download the photos which Amy had posted of the two of us, meager fragments to remind me what I had lost. It drove me crazy that I couldn’t have that.
At the end of Amy’s wake, her parents played a slideshow of photos of her through the years, surrounded by her closest friends and family. As I watched those photos being flashed up one by one, I waited expectantly for at least one image of the two of us to show up. But it never materialized. Close to the end of the slideshow, I recognized one picture that I had taken of Amy with her arms around Bunny (her sloppy, endearing Bichon Frise) during one of her birthday celebrations, a picnic at the beach. Still, there were no photos of me with her. Amy’s parents knew that she and I were close, but aside from brief stints in Madrid and New York City I had always lived far away, at least several hours by car. In those frantic days after Amy’s death, they had reached out to Gabby and her other roommates for memories, but they didn’t select – or simply didn’t have – any photos of the two of us. In my fragile state, I began to wonder if I had only imagined the importance of our friendship, if maybe the absence of photos of us in her slideshow proved that I had never meant as much to Amy as she had meant to me.
“I message your dad on Facebook all the time,” I murmur, my eyes still closed. “At least twice every year, on the anniversaries of your birthday and your death. Is that weird?”
“Aww buddy,” says Amy. Then: “wait, do you message him in English or Korean?”
I giggle. “In English… is that bad? Should I message him in Korean? Only I’m not sure if I trust Google Translate…”
Amy thinks for a minute. “Naw,” she says. “If he’s been able to manage so far, I’m sure it’s fine!”
Some months after Amy’s death I met with a tarot card reader who told me that she could still see Amy all around me. She wanted to pass along an important message from her but struggled to find the right words to convey it. As we closed our reading, she insisted that she would contact me later, when the right words came.
A few days later a simple text finally arrived: “Don’t get discouraged.” I breathed a sigh of relief and cherished its simplicity; I had been worried that she was going to send me something intensely spiritual or uplifting, which had never been Amy’s style. But “don’t get discouraged” seemed to fit, and I’ve repeated it to myself often since then.
“I wish you could stay,” I open my eyes and look up at the silhouette of Amy’s face. Is it just me or are the lines beginning to blur? How much time has elapsed since she got here?
“Me too, buddy,” Amy almost whispers.
Amy’s parents were rarely at home when I visited her in Long Island – it was mostly just the two of us spending the weekend together with Bunny in their modest, rancher-style house. In the last months of her life, when Amy was on-and-off depressed and self-medicating, we would snort OCs, smoke cigarettes on her porch (Parliaments for her and Marlboro 27s for me) and go for long drives with a joint along the winding roads of Syosset. Amy had multiple drive itineraries and playlists in her repertoire; often, they involved parking in a tall grove of trees and staring out into some cloud-filled meadow, just as a dreamy tune reached its peak. Later in the day we’d make our way back home and I would ogle Amy’s cooking skills as she prepared dinner. She was painstakingly neurotic in the kitchen and loved to plan decadent meals. Afterwards we streamed shows from her MacBook onto her TV: Home Movies, Party Down, Arrested Development, South Park, Archer, Louie. She loved to laugh. I enjoyed the shows too but would often fall asleep in the middle of a program, dizzy and tired. Amy was the opposite; the OCs kept her awake and itching late into the night.
Sometimes, I would wake up and see her huddled over her sketchbook. Her most recent obsession, just before she died, was drawing animals eating other animals. Her creatures were cartoony, playful yet macabre, and detailed. She paid special attention to lines.
“Do you think you’ll be back? In another ten years?”
Amy places her hand on my upper arm. It feels both reassuring and faltering – she has already started to fade.
“Ni puta idea,” she says softly. “I don’t know if we’re in parallel universes or the same one but invisible to each other or what. I didn’t even know it was possible to come back until now. So I’d really like to promise that I’ll be back again, but I just don’t know man…” her voice trails off.
In our last e-mail exchanges, Amy and I had fantasized about going on a volcano safari in Iceland, complete with northern lights and stargazing at the “salty skies” at night. Amy elucidated her 5-point life plan, whose last bullet was simply: “Be happy”.
I look up at her again. The lines framing Amy’s face, shoulders and torso have all begun to blur. The expression on Amy’s face says that she notices what is happening as well.
“Uh oh,” she murmurs. “I guess it’s time for me to go see my parents…”
“Oh, Amy!” I sigh, my eyes welling up for the last time. “I’m losing you again…”
My mind starts to race. There are so many words I want to say, in case I never get another chance. I want to ask if she is happy now, in that other place which could be an afterlife or could be heaven. I want to thank her for coming back. I want to tell her that I love her and cherish all the memories we shared, and how nice it was to hug and touch her again, if only just this once – even if never again.
But instead, I close my eyes and rest my head back on her diminishing lap, my body trembling with joy, sadness, and gratitude. I stay there, frozen into the moment, until it has gone.