Good Night, Claire

I wore red to his funeral.

It wasn't that I wanted to stand out. God, no -- I wanted to be invisible. His relatives' eyes stroked me like greasy fingers. They blamed me, I know they did. But I couldn't wear black. We wore black all the time. Black would have been no kind of mourning. Maybe making everyone look at me was a kind of sackcloth and ashes. I bought a red dress for the funeral, a pretty dress, a prom dress maybe. I put my hair up and wore perfume, as if he cared.

They had the casket open in a mustard-retro room with brown carpet. He looked wrong, in a suit. They'd bought a suit, just for him to be dead in. At least they hadn't cut his hair off. Only his hair looked right. I looked at him for a long time, feeling like I should kiss him, knowing I'd miss it all my life if I didn't. Thinking of myself old, saying, I looked at my dead lover in his coffin and I wanted to kiss him but I was afraid his lips would be rubbery. His face looked like a doll's, fake, not like him at all. I knew embalmers put things under the eyelids to make the eyes look normal; I knew that under his eyelids his many-colored eyes were ruined. There were light brown roots to his black hair. They could have at least fixed the dye, I thought, and put my hand in the hair.

The hair felt too right, too normal, and the heel of my hand touched his cool, dry cheek, and I went away from the casket without kissing him or crying. I wanted to cry but I just couldn't. I sat on a bad chair and counted to myself. Slowly, to ten, over and over, until they came to say the service. Then I left. I knew that hearing sugar words about lambs and mercy I would lose it somehow.

It was a long way home, raining off and on. Red satin stuck to my legs so hard I thought it would rip, and my legs itched. I was glad. If I had been comfortable the guilt would have been too much.

It wasn't my fault, not directly. I knew that. But I could have prevented it. If I'd said something, when he'd talked about the literature of altered states, when he'd said that thing of Rimbaud's about the systematic derangement of all the senses. I could have somehow told him off, even if I ended up sounding like a PTA mom. I could have gone with him to Stiffy's house, I could have screamed, crystal meth, you're fucking kidding, I thought you meant pot, I thought you meant acid, I thought you meant pale absinthe in tiny glasses in your imagination. I could have killed Stiffy. Maybe I would kill Stiffy anyway. It might make me feel better.

A heart attack at twenty-three. What did they tell his parents?

I got home and didn't let anything remind me of him. I put the dress on a hanger and put it in the closet in the bedroom. His jeans were still wadded on the floor. I was sleeping in the living room now.

I couldn't think of anything to do but sleep, and I didn't think sleep would happen. I was trying hard not to think. The rain came down again outside. I went into the sunroom to look at it filling in the little square holes in the screen. To look at the windows I had to look across his keyboard. I put my hands on it, the black nylon cover just like he'd put it there before it happened. I stepped on a CD and picked it up. There were CDs everywhere. He'd been wild that day. He'd been trying to get two samples to line up just right, and it sounded good to me but he said it was crippled, it sucked, and he kicked the CD rack. Then he put the cover on the keyboard and called Stiffy.

I could have taken the phone away. I could have jumped on his back. I could have made love to him. Even if he went and had a heart attack and died on Stiffy's rotten carpet right after, I could have at least done that.

I opened the door because I was going to take a walk, and then I noticed I was standing there in nylons and a bra. I put on a black dress. It was a dress he bought me, very over the top and gothic, which would look stupid in the rain, which was what I guess I wanted. The door was still open and somebody's cat got in so I didn't close it.

I walked for a long time. In the door of the Safeway there was an old man sitting stinking drunk who said A smile wouldn't kill you honey. I wanted to hit him. Then at a bus stop were two guys who said Hey Morticia, who died? I wanted to hit them too. But I didn't, I just kept walking and getting rained on. After a while I thought I should have answered. I should have said Today I saw my boyfriend full of embalming fluid with plastic things under his eyelids. Then they would feel bad and never bother people for looking sad anymore. But the idea of other people even just walking around existing made me feel on the edge of someplace I didn't want to be, so I started counting again. At least it was raining.

When I came home my legs were so tired I didn't know if I could go up the steps to the apartment, but still I didn't want to go in, I didn't want to lie there alone. I leaned against the bricks and closed my eyes. I wanted to explode, I wanted to fall down in a heap and lie there. I wished it was winter so I could lie down and freeze. I didn't want to ever get over him, I didn't want to have to understand what it meant that he was dead. He was underground in the dark now. His perfect hands, his perfect ear, going slimy instead of finishing his second album. All that gorgeous intricate music lost. I wanted to be where the music was. I was shaking.

Suddenly I knew I'd been cold, because the cold went and I was warm. My calf muscles stopped jumping and my shoulders relaxed. I felt tired, tired enough to drop and so relaxed I knew I could sleep. I didn't have to think. It was all right to sleep. Going up the stairs I felt light and far away.

Inside my apartment Stiffy was sitting on the couch. He looked confused and angry. His being here was sort of funny. Didn't he know I wanted to kill him?

"Well, that was fucking quick," he said.

I didn't say anything. I went to the closet. I was looking for the hammer.

"What was he, a goldfish? You flush the one and go get another?"

"You're not making any sense, Stiffy. Why did they give you bail? You belong in a dark hole forever." But I said this very calmly. I remembered that the hammer was in the drawer in the kitchenette so I went there.

Stiffy came and put his head through the pass-through. "Don't talk so innocent, Claire. I didn't know you were such a cold bitch. I come over here with my guts in a knot all ready to talk sorry and let you beat the shit out of me if you want to 'cause I deserve it, and then there you are and you've got a brand new fresh fuck to make you feel better. You're fucking sick!"

I found the hammer but I forgot what I was going to do with it. "What?"

"I saw you. I was looking out the window, I saw you on the sidewalk with that boy draped all over you. Anybody I know? All I saw was hair. Don't tell me it was your brother or some shit, not the way he was right up in your face."

I remembered what I wanted to do with the hammer. I showed it to him. "Nobody has touched me in three days and the last person was a cop. A cop giving me a cup of coffee. Three days ago. So your brain has turned into oatmeal like you deserve. I'm telling you this because I don't want you telling him any lies when you see him." I came out of the kitchen with the hammer.

"Jesus!" Stiffy backed up, looking kind of damp and round-eyed, and then he ran away.

I went into the hall, but I was too tired to chase him. I went back in and this time I locked the door. I lay down on the couch and went to sleep.

I woke up sweaty and limp like a wet washcloth, and I had to go to the bathroom. It was completely dark. Our legs were stuck together and I felt his bony ankle when I pulled my legs away. I went to the bathroom in the dark, and I was going back to bed when I understood. I had been sleeping in the bed, and not by myself.

I turned on the light in the bedroom. The bed was all thrown around, different from how it was thrown around before. Where I'd been sleeping was sweaty. I knelt down in it and put my hands on the other pillow. It was damp. I put my face in it and breathed in the smell of him. Smoke and shampoo and amber oil, and the one natural person-smell I knew better than anything. The smell and remembering unsticking my sweaty legs from his just a minute ago made me start shaking. I never tried to tell myself some stranger snuck in and got in bed with me. I knew his smell and I knew just how our legs always got tangled together.

I got up and walked around, turning on lights. I wasn't afraid, but I was shaking really hard. When I looked into the sunroom I saw his face in the dark windows. My heart jumped before I realized it was myself I was seeing. My hair was too much like his, and it made me look like him. I turned on that light too, and then I went in the bathroom and found the clipper from when I used to have a mohawk. I shaved my head.

Then I went back to sleep in the bed. I dreamed someone was rubbing the fuzz on my head, like petting a puppy.

When I woke up I took a shower, and the phone was ringing while I was in the shower. Then when I was buttoning my jeans the buzzer rang. I looked out the window, because if it was Stiffy again I wanted the hammer. But it was just Jenny and Chris. I buzzed them in and when I did I felt sick for a second. I wanted really hard for that to mean I was pregnant but I knew it was just because I forgot to eat.

Chris said, "We just came over to see if you were OK."

"OK like not capping yourself," Jen said. "We know you're not OK like feeling good. You didn't say anything at the funeral so we knew you'd be in bad shape."

"Were you there?" I said. "I didn't see you."

"I noticed," said Jen.

"Did you eat, Claire?" said Chris, and she went to look in the fridge. Jen went over to the sunroom and took the cover off the keyboard. She turned on the effects rack.

"Don't," I said.

She apologized and turned it off.

"Let's go out," I said. "Take me out somewhere."

They had to remind me to put my boots on. It was too bright outside. I didn't say much, but I ate what they put in front of me. It didn't taste like anything.

When they dropped me home I realized they hadn't said anything about my head being shaved. Rubbing my head, I stood in the middle of the apartment and turned around and around. It was getting dark already. I felt like there was something important I had to do. The keys of the keyboard showed bright in the blue of the dark room. Little red and green lights shone. I'd thought Jen had turned it off, but the stuff was still on. Not just the effects rack but the keyboard and the DAT machine too. I sat down in the swivel chair and put the headphones on. I rewound the DAT that was in the machine and then I played it.

I expected the music to make me cry. I hadn't cried at all yet, and I felt it hanging over me, getting bigger and bigger. But as soon as the first drums came into my ear, it was like I forgot he was dead. It was like I was listening, not to wallow in remembering, but to judge the music. I was making mental notes to myself, like, that cello patch is mixed too far forward, this drum beat is too simple. I listened like that through all eight songs. Then I switched on the computer.

Waiting for it to boot, I began to remember that this was wrong, that I shouldn't be messing with his stuff. But again that warm weight came down on my shoulders, making me tired, and my hand moved on the mouse. I cut sections and added notes. I sampled from CDs and spliced the sounds. I rearranged the whole first song and recorded it on a fresh DAT. Only then did I realize that I didn't actually know how to work this equipment. But that didn't keep me from playing the song I'd somehow remixed, with my eyes closed, imagining how it would sound at speaker-burning decibels, fuzzed and smeared by the absorption of bodies on a dance floor. My reverence for his genius didn't keep me from judging this remix far superior.

Then I was so tired I went to bed even though it was only ten. When I was almost asleep, I rolled over and put my arm out, and my arm was lying across his chest. My hand was on his farther arm, and I could even feel the raised edge of the tattoo that wasn't quite healed. I opened my eyes a little, and saw him smile in the dark before he put his hand across my eyes. I think that was when I decided that reality didn't matter, and if he was still here I wasn't going to ruin it by thinking too much. It was weirdly easy not to think.

The days were dreamy and bright after that. People came over sometimes, to make sure I was alive and not going crazy. I was very quiet but otherwise mostly normal. When nobody was there I drew abstract pictures with crayons and listened to classical radio. I was content and stupid like an old cat. In the evenings I worked on remixing the album. At night he was with me. Sometimes he let me look at him, but not for very long. His eyes were wrong, and he didn't like me to see them.

I don't think I ate very much, because my jeans were falling down and my bra was loose. One day I opened the fridge and saw that the milk was curdled in the jug and everything had fuzz on it. I realized I didn't have any money. I wondered if I still had a job. I would have to call and explain why I hadn't been in. Their number was on the caller ID five times. I sat down on the couch and thought about it, and the next thing I knew it was dark. I didn't remember turning the lights on, but there they were, and all the recording equipment was on too.

The door buzzed. The gentle pressure on my shoulders came, that I knew was his warm hands touching me, and I buzzed the door open without looking who it was.

Stiffy came in. He looked jumpy and stupid. He looked like he didn't want to be there. "All right, I'm here," he said. "Now where the fuck is he?"

I didn't seem able to answer. I turned my back on him and went to the keyboard.

"Where is he? Man, how could you let me think I killed a guy? My trial's tomorrow, you know that?" He put his hand on my shoulder too hard. "Where's your fucking boyfriend? Fucker calls me on the phone just like everything was normal, and he's like, Stiffy come over, there's something I wanna show you." Since I didn't say anything, he pulled on me, and the swivel chair turned me around. "And you were in on it! Fucker went to his own funeral, didn't he? That was him hanging on you that one day when I thought --"

"Yes," I said. My voice sounded funny, like my normal voice had been mixed with someone else's. I knew whose, too. I smiled, and then I let him say his piece.

"Sit down, Stiffy," he said through me. "Give a listen."

Stiffy went white and sat down.

My hands moved the mouse, cueing up the scatter of square blips on the screen. While it started, my hands pressed buttons, loading patches, switching effects. Then my hands jumped onto the keyboard and started playing.

It was the finest thing he'd ever composed. There was no way it came from me. It was him all over, it was his mathematical heart, his scalpel mind cutting those notes and braiding them together. A sweet fugue running forwards and backwards at once, swallowing itself and expanding into everywhere. It was the ninth song. The tape was running.

Perfect the first time; it wouldn't need to be mixed at all.

When it was done I turned around, and Stiffy was sitting there sweating and shaking. He looked yellow. "The fuck, man," he said in a distracted way.

He used my mouth again, and said, "I know you're sorry."

"Yeah," said Stiffy.

"I'd let it go, but there's Claire to think about. Look what it's done to her." Hearing myself talk about myself like that made me want to laugh a little, but I couldn't. I put my hand on my belly and felt how skinny I was, saw how my elbows stuck out. "They're going to convict, you know. They've got you on possession and manslaughter."

"I know," Stiffy said, and he was shaking.

"I need you to do something for me."

"OK. Anything you want."

"I want this album to make Claire rich. I want you make me famous."

"But --"

"You can do it. You'd better do it."

At this Stiffy jumped up. "Knock it off, Claire, you're scaring the shit out of me."

I got up and grabbed Stiffy by the front of his sweaty t-shirt. I lifted him up to look at me. I knew I only came up to Stiffy's chin, but now I was looking down at him and picking him up, and Stiffy was making a face like a frog, like he was strangling. "Fucking do it, Stiffy. You owe me."

I smelled that Stiffy had pissed his pants. I dropped him. He scrambled away like a bug. I went and closed the door.

When I came back to the sunroom he was standing there in front of the keyboard. His eyes were holes still, but his face looked right and alive. He was wearing that bad suit, but still he was beautiful.

"I wish I could see you," he said.

I ran and put my arms around him. He felt thin and cold. I knew he was done now, he was leaving. "I want to come with you!"

He lifted my face with his hands and made me look at the holes he had for eyes. They weren't pits, they were real holes. I could see stars through them. "It's okay, Claire," he said. "It's more okay than I can explain."

"Stay," I commanded. He smiled, and the stars shifted. He took his hands away.

I smelled the new-dry-cleaned smell of the suit, and through it the smell of him. All I could see were the stars shining where his eyes had been, stars unimaginably huge and distant, stars thinking vast, secret, burning thoughts. There was a meaning in them that filled me and covered me and swallowed me whole.

When I woke up my stomach was so cramped up with hunger that I had to walk bent over. There was nothing in the house still good but saltines; I ate a whole box of saltines sitting on the kitchen floor. Then I stuck my head under the cold tap and drank until I sloshed. After that I started to notice how I smelled, and I took a shower. It wasn't until I was dressed and lacing up my boots that it came to me that I was all real again. I was all the way awake. I couldn't just draw and listen and mix now, because the album was finished.

I went into the sunroom and switched on the DAT machine and hit play.

Halfway through the first song I finally started to cry. I bawled until my face was covered with tears and snot and spit, and my head hurt and my eyes felt hot. My head was bursting open and all the awfulness of death was draining out.

The crying drowned the first few songs, but after a while it stopped. Then I was empty and light, being filled up with music. The last song made me go completely silent. At the end of it there was a sample I didn't remember putting in.

It was a loop of his voice, saying: Good night, Claire. It repeated into faintness. Good night, Claire. Good night, Claire. Good night.