Last Call in the ‘Land of What If’

After the man I was falling in love with committed suicide, I spent a year dating a ghost.

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An unfortunate side effect of being a 20-something female is that you are constantly asked, “Are you seeing anyone?” For a long time, the answer was yes, I am seeing a ghost.

Sure, I’d been on a slew of dates since your suicide. But you haunted them all with a giant scoreboard in tow, carefully noting every way each prospective suitor didn’t measure up. I often wondered if this ghost factor is something to joke about, and if so, when. After a second drink on a first date? During the third date interlude, once the socks are off but before you swap your latest STD test results? Or is it more of a post-coital confession, mumbled into his chest while he snores?

Rather than find out, I quit the dating scene. Instead, I spent my evenings in the “Land of What If,” rereading our old Facebook messages and Gchats. Click. I forwarded you a Groupon for the newly opened Brooklyn Boulders; we’d go on Saturday, so you can show off your climbing prowess. Click. “Include Greg in this invitation?” Gmail prompted me. Yes. Click. When I think about the imaginary world I’d created for us, it all seems so dramatic and tragically romantic. So much so that it sounds a lot like something I would watch on Netflix, especially if accents were involved.

We first met at our Teach for America induction. It was so hot in that school cafeteria that I kept standing up between PowerPoint presentations for fear that the plastic seat and the one butt cheek it actually held might soon fuse into one. Your face was like all the others, unfamiliar, but your wide-set eyes were different. They were frank, affable and approachable. Our friendship progressed slowly — a result of our mutual introversion and workaholism. We got closer in the spring, and stayed in touch while you were out of town doing a summer internship. Our conversations always managed to cover the most serious and absurd things. Without a breath we would veer between how we would fix the broken pension system to the rise of the bowtie to why NOVA made you cry last night to video blogs of “animals being dicks.”

But I heard you had quit teaching through the grapevine. Abandoning your kids wasn’t like you. Rumors abounded. I tried every which way to reach you, but I got radio silence for almost a year. When you finally did respond in late February, you apologized for your reticence and attributed it to a “bitter concoction of shame and regret.” You seemed better. You had gotten help. You were working at a Washington think tank. I told you I wanted to visit you that spring. I never did purchase that flight.

Two months later you were dead. A mutual friend phoned to tell me to expect a call from your sister. Yes, I would attend the remembrance in September, I told her. Of course, I would speak. I lived in denial for months. At the memorial, I felt so isolated from your world there that I could barely speak to any of your friends or family. I didn’t know what to say or how to ask the questions I wanted answers to.

Afterwards I couldn’t stop listening to Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” It goes: “Just slip out the back, Jack/ Make a new plan, Stan/ Don’t need to be coy, Roy/ Just get yourself free.” I even added some lyrics of my own, among them: “Just pop some pills, Phil” and “Simply slit your wrists, Chris.” There must surely be 50 ways to take your own life but I don’t actually know which one you chose. I never asked, mostly because how to politely ask your mother how you offed yourself wasn’t covered in my Emily Post etiquette book.

As your suicide anniversary — and the first anniversary of our co-habitation in the Land of What If — approached, I struggled to figure out how to commemorate it. You were outdoorsy, so a funeral pyre won in the end. I didn’t have anything you owned to use as fuel, so I tore some old newspaper up and began to scribble like there was five minutes left in the final and the blue book was still empty.

“What if I managed to catch you between girlfriends?” read one. “What if you had leaned in 12 degrees more that night?” read another. And then: “What if I had told you how I felt? What if you had confided in me? What if I had refused to accept your silence as a response to all my messages? What if I had come to Washington? What if you had gotten help sooner?” I imagined a different outcome for us as my unblinking eyes watched the paper curl in the flames.

I eventually drowned the embers in your favorite shitty beer, Bud Light, and promptly resented you for the other five cans I now had to find a way to dispose of without wasting them. It was last call in the “Land of What If,” for drinks and for us. Our story was over and this is how it ended: You chose death and I chose life. But a part of my life ended that night, too — my life in the “Land of What If.” The one that had lately devolved into the “Land of Delusions.” The problem was that my delusions were now deep enough to drown in, and if I was to choose life then I’d need to swim straight for shore.

Cori MacDonald is a civil servant by sunrise and saucy social critic by sunset. She currently teaches in the Boston Public Schools.

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