S., this gorgeous, freaky girl from Longview I used to know, so pretty that she always had pockets full of drugs from various dirt bags (and some genuinely nice guys) who wanted to fuck her and thought it might help, liked to share them with me. She and I would get high and drive around dark East Texas roads listening to The Smiths, singing our hearts out. She might be the only person ever to have heard me sing at full voice. She had the best music collection, and despite her funereal wardrobe, was radiantly sunny and full of joy. She loved drugs and dancing and music and makeup and intrigues and wild theorizing, and one night when I was twenty, she died on my living room floor from a heroin overdose.
I had gone to bed early. She was visiting. I didn't know about the heroin. Her other friends said that it wasn't a habit, and her naked body showed no injection sites, save the one. I remember looking at her torso, after the paramedics called it. I was in shock and its all blurry now, but I knew immediately and clearly that the body meant something different than I thought it did.
I was a teenaged Goth Girl during peak AIDS crisis, writing poems about smoking and reading pulp horror novels. I thought about sex a lot, but death, I admit, stayed near fully repressed. I didn't indulge in fantasies of glamorous suicide like people I knew, or actual suicide, like some others. Church left its mark. Jesus died for sins still uncommitted in my case, so it was death, not sex that got shelved—“TBD.” People died at regular intervals, as they do, but I think it didn't touch me. The taboo took.
When, ten years from his own death, Phillip Larkin wrote in “Aubade” that “Death is no different whined at than withstood,” he was not only stoically alliterative, but also right. Nothing helps. Religion, he dismissed as “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade” and philosophy, “specious stuff.” Maybe he felt poetry helped, since “Aubade” is the most unflinching poem about death I can think of. “Work has to be done,” he says at the end, and that’s the best he has to offer us. In his case, work was writing poems and being a librarian and confirmed bachelor. He must have been a smooth talker, because he still had lots of affairs despite a face like a boiled egg in glasses. No kids, though. After living through World War II in one of the most heavily bombed places in Europe, he probably saw enough suffering and death to regard it with equanimity. Terrible as it was, unlike sex, you could count on it.
Every Halloween, I set the table for the dead like Mom taught me, with pictures of beloved dogs, grandparents, and friends, along with candy, fruit, and booze, in case they come over. Maybe this is cool now, if the décor section of Freddie’s is any indication, but when I was a kid, it was weird. Morbid. Even so, I taught my own kids how to do it, too. Do we do it to make friends with death? Is all that cheerful kitsch an attempt to create and connect in the face of our terrible temporary bodies? Or is it plain ole magical thinking? I grew up in a peaceful time, so in that way I’m still a child, believing life and afterlife continue forever, no end stop.
“Maybe the Goth Girl intuits this in her fishnet-encased bones. Making death sexy, or sex deathy, is her way of managing the twin pillars of reality.”
S.’s perfect corpse, no bruises, no nothing, looked empty, as if she had slipped out of herself for a smoke. At her services, they said Jesus held her in his arms, that she smiled at us from heaven. She would have laughed if she heard it, but I found it pleasant. I felt blank, not exactly sad, but like a hole had been torn in the sky, and all you could do was stare and wonder. I got pregnant within the year, my baby born on S.’s birthday.
When sex showed up in earth’s primal ocean, it helped our animal ancestors make new kinds of things and hurry evolution along. Death came with it, a natural consequence. Because our oldest relatives reproduced asexually by cloning, they were, in a sense, eternal. Death was the price paid for evolution towards individuation—towards people. Maybe the Goth Girl intuits this in her fishnet-encased bones. Making death sexy, or sex deathy, is her way of managing the twin pillars of reality, the consequences of which may be more real to her once she reaches reproducing age.
When I got pregnant, I developed phobias I hadn’t had before—fear of flying, of cancer, of my own history poisoning me. The unthought thing started to seep out; the taboo unstuck. I have reproduced, and now I will die. And then, if I’m very lucky, my kids will reproduce, and then they will die. The sex part of my education is complete, the death part only beginning. I read “Aubade” like a ghost story, a way to give myself the willies. I know the second half of my life will contain more grief than the first, maybe so much that I will welcome its end, but that feels too big to either whine at or withstand. Will I ever not like it? Honestly, I can’t imagine.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the fall 2016 issue she wrote about Rae Armantrout and the evaluation of women.