Illustration by Shino Arihara Story by Joe Donnelley
This story first ran in W.i.g. Magazine in 1999.
I’m playing this song very loudly over and over again and smoking Camels like they give life and banging on the keyboard while the clock runs down and hoping to get it right like the songwriter got it right. Because sometimes all that matters is to put your finger on the pain and press hard against the source. When you’re back in your old neighborhood, the cigarettes taste so good. But you’re so misunderstood. You’re so misunderstood… I’d like to thank you all for nothing. I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all…
The song is taking me back to my old neighborhood, Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where the cigarettes sure did taste good. Not just because they were stolen on junior high playgrounds with Nan, but she definitely added some flavor. I know not everyone has had the fortune of having a Nan in his life, but I did, so I’m going to tell you about it, because this is what matters today.
Nan was 25 when I was 13. At least that’s how it seemed to me then, and it’s why I have little trouble conjuring up images of her now, almost 20 years after we ‘went together.’ In truth, she was only a year older than me, but to an unsure, 13-year-old with nothing cooler going on than a hand-painted Blue Oyster Cult denim jacket, she seemed to hold the key to the universe. She even dug the jacket.
Why does Nan matter? For the same reason she’s always mattered, but one I hadn’t thought of in a long time: Because she liked me. She was the first to like me in that way when it was really important for someone kind and understanding to like someone whose knees were too pointy and whose limbs outran his motor skills and whose hair was too long and disheveled for his face and whose years of Catholic schools had already nearly beaten him into fearful submission. I’m sure God put Jewish girls on Earth to save Irish Catholic boys from themselves.
I’m thinking of how much Nan mattered to me because today, almost 20 years after we went together, I learned she was murdered. ‘Brutally slain’ is the way the newspapers described it. A day of training in Chicago for a new job, a trip to a gym, a stop at a grocery store for some wine and cheese, and in the morning, the hotel maid finds her with a stocking around her neck and a phone cord around her ankles. I don’t know how it got to that point. I don’t know who else she left behind. I don’t know much and I don’t care.
When I first heard the news, through a mutual friend, all I could say was, ‘God, that’s weird.’ I sat there for a minute, trying to make it register. I had this dumb thought that the law of averages finally caught up. You know, at 20,000-plus per year, if you live in America, sooner or later someone you’re close to, or were, is going to get murdered. After all, it had been a long time.
Then, about midway through the day, her face came floating by like it was plastered on billboard after billboard on the road back to Mount Lebanon. Black hair, ivory skin, round, red lips. I started remembering. I remembered the first kiss on the wall outside the skating rink in our town park. I remembered the way my body was shaking all over as I finally leaned in with all the mind over matter I could muster and kissed those lips and found her soft tongue, unflinching and forgiving. I stayed there until my breath was gone and I nearly fell off the wall.
Nan was my girlfriend for maybe a year. Maybe more. I know she has had, as I have, many more meaningful relationships since, but her death made me realize the things she gave to me. Things like the string of saliva that hangs from teenage kisses and sweaty palms and a reason for my dad to tell me about the birds and the bees and the breasts of Mother when I needed them badly and the mystery of her tight jeans and my first erection beyond my hands under a pillow and my own hand-carved pipe and stumbling around football games and someone to nurse me on the floor of her living room and hugs in the hallway and notes in the locker and the mind that ventured beyond the edge of the flat earth and the white face framed by the black hair and the intoxicating smell of the stars after curfew and one palpitating foot in front of the other and just enough courage to every once in a while say ‘fuck you, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ because we were in what we called ‘love’ and we were as misunderstood as any explorers setting sail for rumored places. These things are important.
Nan was what stupid kids called ‘fast’ because she had a body at a young age and she wasn’t as afraid as the rest of us. But fast was what I needed, because I’m so damn slow. Nan was everything for at least a year back then. In uncountable small ways she’s probably as responsible for who I am now as are my own mother and father.
This probably isn’t the eulogy her family and close friends would hope for, and I’m surely not the one they would appoint to eulogize her. I’d be lying if I said I missed her or even though about her much in a long time. I know she gave even more to others than to me in the past 20 years. I’m sorry for them. But she was my first kiss, for Christ’s sake. This is how her life resonates.
I learn from the papers that she could skip rope like crazy and had become something of a vegetarian. I smile at how that’s not unlike myself, and think that growing up only makes us all more alike’smaller and simpler. But in my mind, she’s the same now as she was then. All knowing, all giving, all mystery.
I try to think of a thousand possibilities that were unfolding for Nan in a vain effort to blot out the one thing that did happen. Who killed her and why? I don’t know. I don’t care. All the clues and statistics in the world won’t come up with a good answer.
What matters is that when the hotel room door opened, God bless her, Nan either wasn’t aware of or had forgotten about the reality beyond our old neighborhood, where the cigarettes tasted so good. She was the girl on the playground with the conspiring eyes who believed the world was round and never-ending and that an opened door doesn’t have anything to do with a violent end. She was as she should have been. The world was not.
And as I sit here with trembling hands and an emptying pack of smokes, I’d like to thank Nan for everything. And I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all.