At a couple hours past noon, I rang the bell of the bungalow just off the corner of San Pablo and Twenty-ninth, and Nicole opened the door. She was smoking, always smoking. The usual rolled red bandana pushed back her cropped hair. She looked up at me from half-lidded eyes, pulled me down for a hug with her free arm, planted a wet kiss on my cheek. She was efficient. Half-lit. In shock.
I wasn’t supposed to be back there in Oakland. I’d left the Bay Area five days before, headed for northern Minnesota to install solar energy panels with a man I’d met in Tennessee during the previous summer. It was another hastily planned adventure, another quick fix to avoid settling. On the day after I arrived in Minnesota, Nicole called to tell me the news, and then I sat beside one of those 10,000 lakes and sobbed and shook and played mental tricks where time reverses, where what’s done is undone.
Inside the bungalow, I greeted a half dozen other people—smiles and tears and more hugs. Most everyone would be arriving the next day.
Nicole escorted me into the kitchen and my abs clenched, a fleshy attempt at armor, at repelling what wanted in. Of course it was no use. I saw what I didn’t want to see right there on the table: an urn with a belled-out bottom, sheathed in an intricate weave of wicker. Darcy. Or what was left of her, sitting on the same kitchen table where, for the last month, I’d watched her perform her morning ritual of dipping buttered toast into a Tupperware square of cinnamon and sugar. I tried to fit my old friend—bleached hair, pouty lips, women’s power tattoo on right bicep—into her new form. Her flesh-and-blood body was not unlike the shape of the urn. I felt tears well up, took Nicole’s proffered beer, and retreated to the living room where my exhaled cigarette smoke joined the hovering cloud.
Twenty-four years old. Darcy overdosed on heroin about twelve hours after I left the West Coast—at approximately midnight, the coroner said. Nicole’s girlfriend, Cadence, found her just before Nicole was due back from her night shift at a home for abused kids. Nicole pulled her car up to the curb outside the bungalow, saw all the throbbing lights of police cars and an ambulance, just another day in Oakland really, unless it’s your front yard. What, what, what? she called out. Then the black body bag emerged from the front door into the golds of a spectacular fall morning. The black body bag, a hole in the fabric of reality, on a gurney that jolted like static as it rolled along the uneven concrete plates of the walkway. Nicole collapsed, shrieking.
On the day I returned, Nicole dealt only with practicalities. She consoled, arranged where friends would stay, and planned the beachside memorial we’d conduct in two days.
Darcy was—sometimes I still want to say is—that 1950s kind of gorgeous. Shapely. Voluptuous. Adherents of today’s reigning beauty standards might say fat. If Darcy was stationary, maybe you wouldn’t notice her or only remember glimpsing obviously bleached hair with a forest of strawberry-brown roots. But, except for when the heroin lulled her body into an eerie slumber, Darcy was motion itself. She swayed as she walked, spoke with her hands, punctuated by opening her blue eyes even wider. Even her thoughts seemed kinetic as she tilted her head this way and that while deliberating.
When Cadence left the room, Nicole leaned over to me. “You know Darcy will always be the love of my life,” she said. I didn’t doubt her even though she was only twenty-three years old and had officially been girlfriends with Darcy for only just under two years. After they claimed to have broken up, no matter how much they moved during the subsequent couple of years, from neighborhood to neighborhood and then across the country, they still orbited each other. They fought and laughed and even still hooked up every once in a great while. I’m still astounded at how they were living together in that Oakland house, along with Cadence, a medical marijuana clinician, and a kind, seventy-year-old Communist dyke who mostly kept to herself. And then, during Darcy’s last month, there was me, too, sleeping on the living room couch.
I’d come to the Bay Area for the same reasons everybody did: escapades for sure, a new life possibly. I arrived by way of New York City with a couple hundred dollars, and whether I’d stay for a week, a year, or longer, would depend entirely on how events unfolded. I was twenty-seven years old and living off swiped sandwiches, salads, and pastries, courtesy of Cadence: when she wasn’t strumming guitar and crooning in crowded bars, she managed a Starbucks. For the little money I needed, I scrolled through the stream of moving gigs on Craigslist. Or I mooched. Or I waited on street corners with Mexican immigrants for men in pickup trucks to drive us to construction sites where we hoisted sledgehammers or pickaxes or wheelbarrows. For fun, I traipsed the Bay, hung out with a rotating cast of characters—dealers and dykes, artists and activists—who came through the house, and had sex with guys—one on his houseboat, another in a monastery, and a bunch more in Buena Vista Park. The day after I arrived, I went with Nicole to the western edge of the continent for the first time. We foolishly climbed crumbly cliffs and then stared out toward that misty cerulean on the horizon where the Pacific reached the sky. Beneath us, seals flopped and waves smashed uplifted earth.
My life out there transitioned from one moment to the next with the lucidity of a dream. The free marijuana I smoked every day—I thanked the clinician profusely—only added to the effect. So did the collapse of the World Trade Center, several weeks into my journey. I’d been a bike messenger in New York and dropped off packages on so many of the now evaporated floors. I hated getting calls there, used to hum “The Imperial March” from the Star Wars films as I pedaled closer and those towers loomed higher and even higher. I imagined myself in the same bind as the Millennium Falcon’s crew, trapped in a tractor beam, no escape possible. Those towers weren’t just emblems of an economic system I despised—they were damned inconvenient too, what with the line to get a new photo ID for every visit, then the two separate elevator banks to almost any floor. But after the planes hit, when I thought about those towers, I envisioned all the secretaries and security guards I’d been so impatient with and hoped for the best. I’d lived and perceived one way, and then, quite suddenly, another.
An additional handful of people arrived at the bungalow. In ones and twos, they entered the kitchen to look at the urn. By four p.m., we’d all washed up on the sofa and adjacent floor space in the living room. Around me sat parts of my past, people who straddled both Darcy’s life and mine, most of them from Pittsburgh, where I’d met her four years earlier. A woman who attended college with Darcy and fought against logging corporations with me talked about the front-porch anarchist scene around her new home in Lawrence, Kansas. I overheard the half of the crowd I didn’t know as they retraced the parts of their pasts that overlapped. There was the lean guy with the slouch and the cowboy hat who had been hooking up with Darcy. There were the tattooed dykes from the Mission District where she’d once lived. There was the lithe Asian woman who’d worked as a peacekeeper in multiple war zones and banged heroin with Darcy.
When any of us mentioned Darcy, we typically spoke of the funny stories, like the one about how she claimed she had a soundtrack playing in her head during her daily routines. Whether it was burlesque, hip-hop, or Ani DiFranco’s jangly folk rock, if the rhythm got really infectious, Darcy would bop along, sometimes even beat box softly. And then all of a sudden, she’d snap out of it, see all these people staring at her, the white girl without the headphones who moved to music only she heard. Then maybe she’d clear her throat or drop all facial expression, and make like nothing had happened, like she was just any other person in the crowd on, say, the platform of the BART. I loved Darcy’s veneer of cool. But even better was the quirkiness lurking beneath. She could transform daily encounters into insights, jokes, or even parties. Every moment was cinematic, she showed me, if I could just look at it right. Of course any movie requires a dark side, and too often, that’s what gulped Darcy whole. Then came inconsolable cry fests and shrill arguments, along with lifeless days. But Darcy had always emerged again with a “tah-dah” and another self-mocking anecdote that dismissed the shadows.
Nicole, all five foot three inches of her, stood erect in the center of the room.
“Listen up,” she said. She told us Darcy’s family wanted the ashes, and her sister was coming today, staying for the memorial, and then taking them back to Pennsylvania. “Darcy’s remains,” she said, “will have to sit in that house she spent her whole life trying to escape. But you know what? Fuck her family. They didn’t care about her when she was alive, why should they start now?” Nicole staggered a little. She looked past everyone, even through the wall. “So,” she said, “we’re keeping half.” She hoisted up a purple velvet box. It looked like a magician’s prop, and not just because it seemed to come out of nowhere.
When a friend asked her if this proposed heist could really go undetected, Nicole said she doubted Darcy’s family would know exactly how many ashes make a body. “There’s a lot,” she said. “I never thought it’d weigh so much.” She turned her bugged-out eyes to me. “Tim. I need you to do it.”
“Do—wait. Uh-uh, no goddamn way, I can’t.”
“Come on,” Nicole said. “I got her cremated, I’m arranging the funeral.” I had to admit, she’d done so much already. Dealing with the logistics of Darcy’s death meant that one of Nicole’s first tasks was to thumb through the Yellow Pages for a crematorium. She found an ad: “Cremation Special! $999.99!” I know that everything, especially the rites around something as inevitable as death, has to be commodified in a capitalist society, but still, this listed price bothered me. It seemed less dignified than an even grand—more like you were buying a used car instead of an eternal home. Since Nicole had to put up the money, she wasn’t so much offended as relieved to find an offer considerably less than all the others.
That solved, Nicole then had to call Darcy’s mother and ask that the body be released to her. Darcy’s mother said no at first, then said only if Nicole—wage slave Nicole—paid not only for the cremation but also plane tickets so she and one of her daughters could fly out to the memorial service. When Nicole said she couldn’t afford that, Darcy’s mother said she’d let the state do the cremation and get the ashes just the same. Nicole had already considered this maneuver in an attempt to save money and told Darcy’s mother what she’d subsequently learned: it would cost an even grand to get the body released from the coroner’s office and that price would only go up, likely well past the additional $999.99 if the coroner also had to do cremation and storage. Only then did Darcy’s mother finally agree to sign over her daughter’s body, sans the plane tickets. Maybe all this negotiating and planning actually helped to create an emotional buffer around Nicole as much as the pills and drink did. But to me, the behavior of Darcy’s mother was just one more example of why I could never forgive that family.
After Nicole had made her request of me, everybody else in the room looked at the throw carpet or the bottoms of their drinks, anywhere but the epicenter where she stood with the purple box clutched to her chest. No other volunteers, just as Nicole had probably suspected.
“I need to think about it,” I said.
“Her sister’s coming in an hour,” Nicole said.
People eased back into their conversations, more subdued than earlier, and I walked out into the backyard to pace and smoke. I’d never even seen the ashes of a cremated person before, much less sifted through them to steal a body. Body snatching, I thought. Misdemeanor or felony? Crime of passion under these circumstances or just crime? As I paced, I wondered what Darcy would have done in this situation. Whatever it was, I knew that afterward, she’d reenact the entire episode for a select audience of friends.
Darcy told stories that’d split your face wide open. Often, they involved her family, like the one about her mom and the hamster that I first heard back in Pittsburgh. When Darcy was eleven years old, her hamster had bitten her, so her mom decided to kill him. Darcy clung to her mom, begging please, please, don’t do it. But her mom brushed her off, placed the hamster in a bag, and dunked him in a washing machine filled with water. At this point in Darcy’s rendition of the story, she’d imitate her mom’s stony face and right hand pressing the bag underwater. Simultaneously, Darcy would nonchalantly move the extended fore- and middle fingers of her left hand back and forth from her mouth to suggest chain-smoking. Your eyes would pop open and you’d laugh your ass off. When Darcy’s Mom finally pulled the hamster out, he wasn’t dead. Darcy would imitate his little cough-cough puffs as he struggled to suck life back into his body, and you’d laugh your ass off again. Then Darcy would describe how her pissed-off but determined mom started the car and put the bag with the hamster up to the muffler. Again, little Darcy begging, and again, the same stony face and chain-smoking, and again, the hamster didn’t die. Little cough-cough puffs. Her mom—same expression, new cigarette—told Darcy she could keep the damn hamster. But the hamster wasn’t the same. He just sat in a corner of the cage until, a few days later, he died.
Darcy’s storytelling was such a full-scale Broadway production that you’d still be laughing when it was done, and maybe you’d manage to say, “That was so fucked up,” but it wouldn’t be till later—maybe five minutes, maybe the next day—when the full tragedy of her best tales hung heavier than San Francisco fog.
Her family was about as bad as it gets. From what I heard, while her mother chose to look away, her stepfather sexually molested her, her siblings, and other kids in the neighborhood. A decade later, Darcy’s mother severed ties with her after Darcy confessed in college that she liked girls as much as boys—which meant she wasn’t allowed to graduate or receive her transcripts until she paid off an impossible $80,000 debt. I suppose Darcy always had, at best, a long shot. Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself now. A perpetual soundtrack that boosted her day with irresistible beats would help. So would reenacting all those episodes from her life. I think she’d also benefited from assisting others who struggled with some of the same traumas she’d been able and unable to surmount. When I first met Darcy, she worked at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, a nationally recognized crisis center for victims of sexual violence.
I remember those years in Pittsburgh with Darcy and Nicole as being very fast. Exploits—including drugs—have played a role in many of my adult friendships, and those two were no exception. With them and a small crew in a coffee shop, I first tried ecstasy. Then came all those raves, the dawn perpetually creeping up on us like a ghoul from a black-and-white horror film. The next day was over even as it started, but what of it? Back then the future was our limitless resource, our manifest destiny.
All that reveling and occasional nihilism couldn’t morph us from shiny party kids to kin. Our intimacy came by way of picnics and antics and discussions where we found connections between racism and ecological devastation. It came by way of confessed worries and bored evenings where nothing much happened again and again. Maybe relationships are simply another habit, one so stealthy that you only realize how hooked you are when you can finish the stories the person beside you has begun.
I walked back into the living room, sat down, and began drinking my third beer. And then: a knock on the front door. Every half-tipped drink froze, every drag on a cigarette, every consoling embrace, every mouth in the middle of a syllable, all of it, frozen. There was only one more person we were expecting that day and she had arrived. Early.
“Shit, Darcy’s sister!” Nicole said. “Tim, downstairs, now!” She slammed her cigarette into the ashtray and the cherry popped out, still smoldering, and landed on the floor. She called out to her girlfriend: “Get the door, slow her down.”
Nicole grabbed the velvet box, and I ran into the kitchen and scooped up the urn. It had a heft to it—more than five pounds, less than ten. We dashed down to the basement. There was no internal debate for me, no crossroads to choose from. I suppose I’d known, as soon as Nicole asked, that despite my protests, I’d be separating Darcy in half. There was no saying no to Nicole and besides, I knew she trusted me like few other people. Since we’d met, I’d pulled off numerous political stunts despite death threats and cop squads. I’m sure Nicole thought I’d treat this task like one of those actions.
Nicole and I placed the urn and the box on top of the dryer beside folded towels and a full laundry basket. Darcy’s clothes, I thought, waiting to be washed one last time.
Nicole lifted the lid off the urn, and, for a moment, it was almost like a genie’s lamp, as if some force had just been freed. We peeked inside. I didn’t know what to expect, but certainly it wasn’t a clear, thick plastic bag packed with what looked like $100,000 of gray cocaine. Whatever Nicole felt, she wasn’t showing it. I knew this much: she and Darcy had memorized the birthmarks, the curves, the secret desires of each other’s bodies. Then Nicole backed away from the washing machine and the contents of the bag, and who can blame her for that?
“There’s a Ziploc baggie in the box,” she said. “Pour our half into it, okay?” At the foot of the stairs, she turned around. “Thanks, for real. And hurry. Please.”
Deep breath, I thought. I undid the tie, parted open the plastic. I felt my lips squeezing together, trying to disappear into my mouth.
In grade school, I first heard that all objects, even the seemingly impenetrable desk I sat at, are comprised of bouncing molecules. As I lifted the plastic bag from the urn, tilted it, and began to pour the ashes into the open Ziploc inside the box, I thought I could feel all those molecules that make up my body careening, smashing into each other. Cold sweat droplets dove from under my arms. Ashes landed in clumps. A cloud emerged, enveloped the area around me, then got in my eyes, down my—chalky, yuck—throat. Suddenly, I sneezed. Oh, you stupid fuck, I thought. You stupid, stupid—particles rioted in the air. A gray film covered the towels, the laundry in the basket, my sleeves.
When everything settled, I looked closer at the ash in the Ziploc and saw dull-white pebbles. Couldn’t they have turned it up, I wondered, just a little fucking hotter? Hip, sternum, pelvis: Darcy’s larger bones must’ve been the last part of her to burn. I wished my brain had an off switch so I could stop the one thousand ricocheting whys and what-ifs that were kicking me into a full-fledged panic. I didn’t want to see everything. I was okay with appearances, with the surface. I’d settle for the cool without the quirky. It seemed like what lurked beneath would probably always be so fathomless that anything other than the smallest exposures to it would open the door to a permanent madness.
A week before Darcy died, we’d hung out in her room. She wore track pants and a tank top. She was always pale, but now, when I think of this night, I envision her skin as a shade shy of translucent, as barely concealing muscle fiber and cardiovascular mechanics. Darcy cooked up a ball of heroin, cinched her bicep tight with a rubber cord until a vein surfaced like a top-secret submarine, and then plunged a needle into it. I smoked the clinician’s marijuana and watched. While I’d been around heroin users before, I’d never actually seen them use. Prior to my arrival in California, I never would’ve guessed I’d watch a friend bang heroin or that I’d be more curious than I’d ever care to admit later. I think I believed Darcy was above all this junkie business, that this was one more adventure, one more extreme experience in the series of extreme experiences most of my friends had. Darcy was just creating another story we’d talk about years later—and by then, she’d have developed the exaggerated gestures and dark punchlines to make it a real crowd pleaser.
She would kick heroin, we agreed that night, and then come to New York where I’d probably end up again. Fifteen, twenty minutes later, the animation—both the worry and the humor—left her face. She lay down in bed, I lay down beside her, and we talked softly, dazed and giggling until she slipped, like a feather landing, into slumber. I looked at the peaceful face of the girl beside me. Then I sat up and stared out the window at the sex workers strutting into and emerging from idling cars. They were an endless source of fascination for me, especially the woman who wore slinky pants that looked like they were made from a crushed disco ball. Just like I’d done almost every day I was in California, as I lay beside Darcy, I thought about how monumental it had felt to stand, for the first time, on the western lip of the continent while the ocean crashed into the wall of rock beneath me, biting it down, piece by piece, into waters that stretched out forever.
The next morning, as Darcy dipped her toast into the square Tupperware container filled with cinnamon and sugar, she said to me, “Why didn’t you wake me? I did too much last night.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “I didn’t know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Maybe she hadn’t been falling asleep. I tried to imagine what it would be like to fade from this world into whatever is next and still wake up for breakfast. Then I chastised myself. I’d spent the night fairly contented as my friend had almost slipped away.
I didn’t have much time to worry. Her breakfast prepared, Darcy started clowning. She turned the corners of her lips down to better personify her heart as a snobby French waiter who couldn’t be bothered, but finally did get around to saying, “Oui, oui, Mademoiselle, I’ll be there momentarily.” And, of course, I laughed.
I poured the ashes again, slower than before, and then raised the original bag and the Ziploc. About fifty-fifty.
I sank the bag back into the urn. This was the part of Darcy who would sit through our memorial service and then return to the Pennsylvania town where she’d grown up. I put the Ziploc into the velvet box and slipped it under a layer of clothing in the laundry basket. Ours. To scatter off the Berkeley Marina, Darcy’s favorite haunt.
On the way back up the basement stairs, I thought about Darcy’s family. She’d never visited them. Her mom had called, what, once or twice a year, and then only to talk about the coming rapture. Besides, even though Darcy’s mom and sister had promised to pay for half the cremation, we suspected they’d never come through. If Darcy couldn’t trust them, how could we? We’re her chosen family anyway, I concluded, convinced more than ever that what I’d done was right.
I placed the urn back on the kitchen table. Several people were in Darcy’s bedroom. When I rounded the corner, a woman with Darcy’s hair texture—though longer and less blonde—had a pillow clutched to her chest, her face buried in it.
“It smells just like her,” she said. Sobs convulsed her body. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect this depth of emotion. Darcy’s sister was more slender than Darcy, her floral print dress flattering and simple. When she looked up, I focused on her face. Her lower lip trembled. Her angled cheekbones and pale skin and starstruck eyes were just like Darcy’s. Because she was three years older, I could see a future version of how my friend might have looked, the lightly etched lines from the corners of her eyes speaking of survival, maybe even wisdom.
Despite my anger at Darcy’s family, I exonerated her sister immediately. I’d never know why Darcy had rarely spoken to her, but surely, whatever allegiances her sister had made with their mom, whatever shit she’d slung in Darcy’s direction, she was more victim than perpetrator. She’d had to survive those same parents, one way or another.
She asked where Darcy had died.
Nicole pointed to the floor. “She sat there with her back against the bed frame. She had an unopened Diet Coke beside her. That made the coroner rule out suicide.”
Darcy’s sister crawled along the floor, tears cascading, eyes unseeing. I got down there with her, put my arms around her, around all the things I’ll probably never understand. She clutched me and shook. Her tears saturated the front of my shirt.
I didn’t know how many minutes had passed before Darcy’s sister raised her head from my chest, and I unwrapped my arms from around her. From then on, we separated, never to connect so intimately again. Still, maybe we were like those bouncing molecules in that, however briefly, we’d formed something solid.
“When you’re ready,” Nicole said, “the ashes are in the kitchen.”
I didn’t want to deceive Darcy’s sister, but I couldn’t trust her either. She was closer to her mother than she’d ever be to us. Even back then I understood, at least somewhat, that new beginnings are a myth, that the past is always present.
The next day, Darcy’s sister didn’t come to the house. Nicole had asked me to do the eulogy, and I spent the afternoon preparing. As I wrote, I cried multiple times—into my own hands, onto other people’s shoulders. I vowed I wouldn’t do it in front of everyone at the service on the following day.
We gathered on Baker Beach. There were folding chairs in rows on the sand, a generator that provided amplified sound, and approximately fifty people dressed with varying takes on formality. Darcy had been painting for years, so we’d propped her art against two tables, creating a sort of stage, the microphone stand just to the left. One piece loomed over seven feet tall, its abstract imagery consisting of small flourishes in Easter egg colors on a background as textured and dark as stormy skies. Darcy had painted words along its edges, as she’d done with much of her work. Before the service began, I tried to decipher her tight cursive script and, like all the previous times, mostly failed.
Front and center on our makeshift stage, between scrunched-up tapestries and Darcy’s paintings, sat the urn.
I still love how we’d gathered that day, intent on creating our own ritual. In fact, I’ve never experienced a more beautiful farewell, even if, after speaking to the crowd, I poured half a forty of malt liquor on the sand. I’d read too many books about gypsies or maybe watched too many hip-hop videos. I thought everybody would translate my gesture as noble, a way to pay respects and acknowledge the hand of death. Later, I hoped I didn’t offend the recovering addicts in attendance.
I focused the eulogy on how Darcy was a natural storyteller. I said it was one of her strategies to make sense of the world, to help the rest of us make sense of it. And if we couldn’t make sense of it, then Darcy would help us to laugh at it. I talked about how she’d told me a story from when she worked at the rape crisis center in Pittsburgh. One day, during a training, all the staff was watching a video. In it, a woman named Paulina Wong confessed to cutting and burning her body, and to pursuing dangerous sexual situations. At one point during the screening, Darcy’s friend passed a note to her. It read, “What went Wong?” The joke was inappropriate on many levels, but Darcy snorted as she tried to keep her laughter bottled. Then she decided it was best to leave the room. On her way out, she glanced back at her friend. I looked up from my notes to the crowd and said that, at this point in Darcy’s rendition of the tale, she’d emulate her friend, who’d sat there with upturned hands and a perplexed face, as if asking again, “What went Wong?” Darcy burst out laughing before she could escape into the hallway.
I said Darcy had done more with her stories than make us laugh. Throughout the eulogy, tears welled up and blurred my vision, but right then, a few spilled over. I jabbed them away with my shirt cuff and got silent for a moment. I wouldn’t break down. For the last year of her life, I said, Darcy had been working at the Burt Center, a home for kids who came from abusive families. The kids were ranked one to twelve, with twelve being the most sexually charged, violent, and withdrawn. Darcy’s kids were all twelves. A few weeks earlier, she’d come home from work with a bruised cheekbone—she’d been slugged again. Despite their violent outbursts, directed at anybody nearby, the kids Darcy worked with loved her. They especially loved the part of the day when she would tell them fantastical stories about “N-Dog the Nightshift Worker,” who flew through the cosmos on a magical kite.
I said those kids had gone along with N-Dog for the ride on that kite too, lifted, however briefly, into worlds where possibility replaced pain. They’d crowded around Darcy, captivated by the same exaggerated expressions and plot twists that we’d dug. And maybe Darcy needed the stories as much as they did: the longer she told them, the longer it’d be till either she or the kids had to touch down on earth again.
What I didn’t say at the memorial service is that the staff of the Burt Center, including Nicole (a.k.a. N-Dog the Nightshift Worker), had to explain to the kids, without saying how, that Darcy had died. That was when a twelve-year-old girl who’d been raped by her father for the first four years of her life, who’d often been either catatonic or volatile, who’d responded to Darcy more than anyone else, thrashed so powerfully that five adults struggled to restrain her. What I didn’t say at the memorial service is that, inadvertently, maybe the final story Darcy had told those kids is that some things get broken and can’t be repaired.
I ended my remarks by saying, “Darcy’s story ended far too soon. But we’ll keep telling it, and she won’t be forgotten.” That was when I poured the forty on the sand. And sobbed.
Cadence strummed her amplified guitar, accompanied by the crash of waves. Then a line of people shared their memories and reflections at the microphone, but I couldn’t focus and missed out on much of what was said. Besides, from where I stood behind the folding chairs, the surf drowned out all but the loudest speakers. Darcy’s sister sat on the periphery, dabbing her eyes and blowing her nose with tissue after tissue. When the service ended, she took the ashes and left.
The next day, she came back to the house to claim, as the law dictates since Darcy didn’t have a will, whatever possessions of Darcy’s she or her mother wanted. Over the phone, she consulted with her mother and then asked us where the diamond ring was. None of us had ever seen, let alone heard of it before. She dug through Darcy’s bedroom, under the bed, through dressers and a closet, never finding the ring, but she emerged with an antique camera, a gift from their father. Then she “discovered” Darcy’s journal. Actually, after Xeroxing that journal and hiding four others, Nicole had planted it in a lower dresser drawer. Sometime during the excavation, Darcy’s sister promised again that her family would pay half the cremation costs. When she left the bungalow, she didn’t say goodbye to me, and I’ve never seen her since. Was she shy or overwhelmed? Or did she blame us as much as we blamed her, or rather her family, for Darcy’s death?
Later that day, I went with eight other friends of Darcy’s to the Berkeley Marina. Nicole carried the velvet box as we walked the half-mile to the end of the pier. Charcoal-colored water surrounded us. Nicole lifted the Ziploc bag, poured some of the ashes into the bay, and then passed the bag to me, and I poured some more and handed the remainder to the next person. The ashes floated down and swirled in the water, with increasingly wider and thinner arcs, like clouds escaping the confines of atmosphere. At approximately the same time, another portion of Darcy’s ashes, accompanied by her sister, were arcing through the sky at six hundred miles an hour. It seemed certain that what was once Darcy would continue to scatter, farther and farther apart. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: would all those pieces ever coalesce again?
The truth is, I didn’t steal Darcy’s remains from just her family. I also stole them from my friends. I wasn’t ready to let go, to let those milky eddies in the bay be the end. So, the night before we went to the Berkeley Marina, I emptied out the cinnamon and sugar from Darcy’s Tupperware container. I didn’t wash it or anything, and a film of granules remained, along with a comforting smell. I took the container downstairs to the basement and dug into the laundry basket for the velvet box. I poured approximately one cup of ashes into the Tupperware. During the next month, I dusted two locations in Pittsburgh: the Allegheny River and the North Side stoop where we’d spent so much time together. I hung on to the rest and, during the following year, confessed what I’d done to the relevant friends and divvied up much of the remaining ashes between them. They seemed happy to have the gift after their initial shock.
As the years have passed by, sometimes I think that Darcy’s sister would be justified if she blamed us for Darcy’s death: we, her chosen family, watched her deteriorate. We were young, but really, Darcy had a steady habit. A week before her overdose, she pissed rusty-colored liquid. At least once, despite all my naiveté, I’d wondered if she’d craved heroin more than friendship or sex or even life itself. How many more dire signs did I—or any of us—need before we’d radically intervene?
To replace the birth family she’d left behind, Darcy had required a greater stability than we could offer. We were bouncing too fast between cities and lovers and identities. After she died, I drifted further and further apart from the people who were so important to me back then. Sometimes I can’t help but second-guess how solid we ever really were. That’s when I think Darcy’s ashes shouldn’t be sitting on my bookshelf. They should finally be freed from at least one of her families, should be dancing across the earth, the air, and the water.