It’s January 1, 2016, and I’m waking up overheated, at the crack of dawn, to turn down the thermostat and electric blanket I had cranked up to scalding a few hours earlier.
Even in California, it’s icy in the small hours of late December (31 degrees, to be exact), but you want to be outside with your friends, drinking and toasting when the countdown hits zero. Coming home, frozen to the bone, I may have gone a bit overboard on the thaw.
Waking up, bathed in sweat in the first moments of the new year, I shivered with an eerie sense of deja vu…
About five years ago, some friends of mine had crashed out in my sweltering apartment after the night’s festivities. It was a complicated time for me–my marriage had just broken up and I was swinging back and forth between making sense of the fallout and reveling in my newfound freedom.
It was the first time I truly had a space of my own, having gone from my parents’ house to a series of college roommates and finally into the Army, where I married a man I had known for only two months.
It seems so wildly reckless in retrospect, but being in the military has a way of making you compulsively live in the moment. Perhaps it comes from the knowledge that stepping on a land mine or being whisked away from everyone you know is no longer out of the question.
At any rate, we made a go of it for seven years until everything quickly fell apart. There was a loud argument, then I moved out to stay with friends after he didn’t come home all night, and finally I threw everything he owned out the front door of our one-bedroom apartment after discovering that he had cleaned out our joint bank account and was selling my things on craigslist in an attempt to buy a scooter and baseball tickets.
It was an ugly final scene: him dragging everything he owned behind him in a white plastic garbage bag as he told me I’d regret not having him around and me telling him I’d have ten of him by next week… and also a fine lesson in the merits of longer courtship periods.
Left alone, I panicked in the sudden emptiness, confusion over the rapid disintegration of a supposedly permanent bond, and the practical fears of wondering how I would survive with four dollars in my wallet and a student job.
Eventually making it though the rough periods, even emerging with more faith in my inner resources, I came to appreciate that while I didn’t have much, at least what I had was mine. For the first time in my life, I only had to answer to myself.
This was my apartment now.
I remember that realization suddenly hitting me one night after I woke up naked, flopped belly-side down on the couch with my cat curled in the small my back and cheese falling out of my hand. Monk reruns were playing on TV as it hit me…YES.
I can walk around naked whenever I feel like it. I can fall asleep in front of the TV eating cheese. I can do whatever the hell I want because this space is MINE.
New Year’s Eve came shortly after that, a girl’s night out. My girlfriends and I put on our best smokey eyes, black nylons and heels and went out together to eat tapas in downtown Sacramento.
We ate buttery, garlic-soaked tidbits and threw back mojitos as flamenco guitar filled the spaces around us. We laughed and joked and talked and sipped champagne as the new year rolled in.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my cousin and good friend Kyra went back to my apartment to revel in our giddy freedom for a while longer. We had hit that middle-of-the-night stage of famished partying, so I handed them beers and went to survey my fridge’s slim pickings. Pulling out tortillas and cheese (staples in most California kitchens), I started frying up quesadillas doused with salsa and sour cream and handing them to my friends, who wolfed them down in uninhibited drunkenness.
We talked and laughed until half-comotose, then piled into my bed like scattered rag dolls. Shivering, I cranked up the thermostat as my cat jumped into the sweaty heap. I awoke to find Kyra missing and my thermostat at 95 degrees (I clearly had smacked the lever to the right without paying attention).
We all met for brunch, during which Kyra told the story of her departure. Around six in the morning, she had woken up to a hot mess of blasting heater and trapped exhalations, thinking “I need some fresh air, need to get home.”
Grabbing her bra and heels in her left hand, she left my apartment expecting to find her car right outside. Then she remembered parking several blocks away and began trudging down the street. She caught the scowl of a woman cleaning out her gutters and scowled back.
Locking eyes with the judgmental homeowner across from her, Kyra suddenly realized how she must appear: smeared black eyeliner, rumpled party dress, carrying her bra and shoes in one hand and her keys in another…
“It looked like the biggest WALK OF SHAME ever, and I had to just keep walking for blocks,” Kyra laughed.
My cousin and I giggled over our Eggs Benedicts as we pictured ourselves in Kyra’s position, happy that she had given the woman a good scowl back. It was none of her business and who wakes up to clean their gutters and scowl at passing revelers at six in the morning on New Year’s Day, at any rate?
Remembering that night from years ago made me smile in the first moments of 2016, then wipe some tears a moment later. Kyra is dead now. She died last year.
She was young and healthy, going about her life with her new husband when one day she felt an odd tingling in her fingers. Within several weeks, her hands had become numb enough that she had problems using them and she began to see doctors to find out what was happening to her.
After a couple of months, she had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an extremely rare condition that can be, but isn’t usually, fatal. After six months, the condition would be considered chronic by our health care system.
One night, shortly before the six-month limit, Kyra was lying in a hospital bed, posting on Facebook about how much she hated the beeping noise made by the machines in her room. That night, she had a sudden heart attack and died.
I can see her, almost feel her next to me again for a brief moment as I picture her escaping into the cool air of a fresh dawn with her shoes in hand, hear her giggling between sips of coffee as she recounted the tale of the uptight early bird making sure her house was perfectly neat.
No one could have known, back then, how little time she had left.
And I catch the brief lingering memories, one by one… the scent of garlic and butter, the icy sweetness of champagne, the feel of a warm fuzzy cat purring against your skin as you slip into dreams.
And I think about how these moments will be what remains as we carry on through the unknowable paths of tomorrow.
I miss you, my friend.
I won’t forget you.