by Matt Terl and A. Allyn Harker

I lost touch with Cara Henderson twenty years before she found her infant son dead in his crib, so that tragedy is probably not my fault. Probably. But the nineties were a weird time, so you never know.

*********

Something like fifteen years after I last saw Cara, about five years before the worst morning of her life, my wife peed on a stick and suddenly we were getting ready to have a kid.

They warn you about a lot of things in the you’re-having-a-baby classes. They warn you about the way your life is going to change and they warn you how different it will be seeing your wife as someone’s mother and they warn you about the importance of having a car seat before you even go to the hospital to deliver.

But they don’t warn you about how much you’re going to worry about that kid dying.

Sometimes it seems like everything can kill babies. Putting them to sleep on their fronts, or sometimes putting them to sleep on their backs. Falls. Germs. Disease. Eggs. Genetic defects. Honey. Shellfish. Raw things. Cured meats. Bookshelves. Peanuts. Toys.

Sometimes, just plain nothing can kill a kid.

*********

Cara and I were friends in the close-yet-distant way that’s really only possible in school.

“Close,” because we spent a lot of time together and a lot of that time was spent drunk and/or stoned and/or talking about really deep stuff and/or pointing out each other’s faults with a peculiar intimacy.

“Yet distant,” because Cara wasn’t actually my friend. I knew her through my roommate, but she wasn’t really his friend either. She was HIS freshman year girlfriend’s friend from high school. Cara and I didn’t totally click at first, and even as we got to know each other better we often bickered and squabbled and snapped at each other.

But it was freshman year and freshman year works like this: your roommate, assuming you don’t absolutely loathe them, is the closest thing you have to a friend in a sea of 12,000 terrified eighteen-year-olds. Of course I hung out with my roommate.  Couples who meet as college freshmen hang out all the time because for the first time in their lives, dating someone means having the ability to be with them around the clock –a powerful novelty. And the right high school friend can be an even more invaluable asset to a college freshman than a decent roommate. So Cara was always around.

I imagine things are different for college kids now. Facebook and email and Twitter and Snapchat have changed everything else so I imagine they’ve changed the freshman dynamic, too. Friends from home are easier to keep in touch with. It’s harder to miss out on things with your new group when social media instantly tells you where to be. But in the mid-nineties this was enough to build a tenuous friendship on.

*********

After the birthing classes were an awkward memory, after the crib-building was complete, after the showers and prep and pointless planning, my son was born. My level of worry, high to begin with, rocketed to dizzying heights.

He was delivered via C-section out of necessity, not choice, and was pulled out of the womb covered in shit. Meconium, they call it, but shit is shit. The doctors assured us that this was perfectly normal, something that happened fairly often, and they passed him off to a nurse to clean him up.

The worrying, a dull background hum during the pregnancy, escalated in earnest as soon as the doctors extracted him.

I sat next to my wife’s head, where I had been through the operation, a large mylar screen blocking the view of the doctors fumbling to replace everything in her torso. I worried that the doctors were lying to me and that my son was already sick, poisoned by his own shit. That he was dying silently in the heat lamp/bassinet where they were cleaning him and drying him across the room, unnamed. But the nurse looked perfectly cheerful when she waved me over, so I went, eyes firmly on the cheap grey-and-white checkerboard tiles and away from the group of people up past their wrists in my wife’s abdomen.

“He’s doing great,” the nurse said. “Apgar was exactly where we want it to be.” Then she handed me a pair of shears, the kind athletes use to cut the tape off their cleats, and asked me if I wanted to trim the umbilical cord. The actual cutting had already been done, but they had left it long, she explained, to give the father—me, I realized—the opportunity to perform a cut as well.

“He won’t feel it,” she said, so I did it. It took more force than I expected. I had to put some weight into it, like cutting through a thick insulated cable, and as soon as it was done I envisioned the wound getting infected.

The nurse made sure I wasn’t going to faint, then cleaned and dressed the umbilical stump—me, watching, sure that I had done it wrong and screwed him up for life—and then she swaddled him and asked if I wanted to hold him for a minute before they put him back under the lamps.

I took him from her and held him close to me, terrified that I was going to drop him on the hard tiles of the operating room, terrified that I was squeezing him too tight because I was terrified.

*********

Cara’s son would be born about half a decade later, although I didn’t know that at the time and wouldn’t have cared if I had. Four months after that, she’d find him immobile in his crib, not breathing.

*********

I say Cara and I weren’t close friends, but that’s hindsight bias: we weren’t friends because I’m still friends with my friends from college, and I lost touch with Cara. Q.E.D.

In fact, that’s not really fair at all. The disappearance of something doesn’t retroactively negate its existence.

I remember sitting with her one night through sunrise, smoking DuMaurier cigarettes someone had brought back from Canada, The Verve’s Urban Hymns on infinite repeat in the CD player. It was at that point when the evening’s over but going to bed alone is admitting defeat, the usual time we wound up alone together. My roommate and his girlfriend had packed it in for the night, heading to her room down the hall and leaving Cara and me alone in my dorm room.

The only light that was on was a cheap, balanced-arm desk lamp I’d brought from home, the kind that would become immortalized as the Pixar logo. I’d drilled a bunch of holes in the flowerpot-shaped lamp cap, so the cigarette smoke turned the 40-watt bulb into a constant, slow-motion starburst.

Richard Ashcroft was singing about how this talk of getting older is gettin’ him down, my love, and the Canadian anti-smoking warning labels were taking up half the package of cigarettes, huge black block text screaming on a white background about oral cancer, and we were probably pretty drunk—something else we had in common, a fondness for gin and tonic—and suddenly the intimacy of the moment was a little much.

Cara smoked cigarettes like a Russian, I remember, two fingers on the top and thumb on the bottom, lips pursed in a moue. She paused, letting smoke drift idly from her mouth. It was probably sexy, but all I could think about was that stupid Canadian oral cancer warning.

We wound up spending the night on the couch, leaned up against each other not like lovers but more like two sticks propped together by a kid trying to figure out how to make a teepee.

*********

My son came home, and my wife rested and recovered from being stitched back together. Or, that’s what she was supposed to do in that don’t-do-anything six-week window. Instead, she drove to Home Depot and bought a tree. Nothing fancy or unique, just a small sugar maple. Saplings are never large, but this one was especially scrawny, with a trunk about the thickness of a broomstick, three skinny branches sticking off of it, its roots wrapped a plastic umbilical sac of dirt.

We didn’t bury the placenta under it or christen it with breast milk, nothing like that. But she dug the hole for it herself – slowly and carefully so as not to reopen the still-tender Caesarian scar, removed the plastic from the root ball, dropped it in the hole, patted some soil over it, and dedicated it to our kid.

I immediately became convinced that the tree was dying.

Its three branches sprouted maybe forty total leaves, hardly enough to soak up sunlight and photosynthesize. In high winds, it bent nearly parallel to the ground; the flexibility of saplings sounds great in Japanese proverbs, but in actuality looks like a tree that’s about to snap in half.

The tree was directly outside the window next to the couch I slumped in to watch TV, so during commercial breaks in a midsummer baseball game I would stare out the window at it, certain that at any moment the green leaves would silently detach and float to the ground, leaving a skinny brown skeleton behind.

*********

Cara and I had our majors in the English department, but since I was in creative writing and she was in literary criticism, we mainly connected on bands and food. We were both spending a ridiculous sum of money on imported British music magazines before we met—in those last days before the internet obliterated distance, paying ten bucks for one magazine to read about Blur feuding with Oasis seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision. But once we realized how much time we were spending together, I’d buy Melody Maker and she’d buy NME and we’d swap once we were done.

Eventually, this parsimony extended past the magazines to the actual music. When Q Magazine or NME started hyping some random trend, only one of us would buy a copy of the seminal album; since most of the albums—and bands, and genres—turned out to be terrible, this was almost always a smart decision.

Our food tastes weren’t quite as evenly matched, but we could agree on a few things. One was Indian food, which she liked more than I did. Another was diner coffee with pie, preferably bad cherry pie. But the biggest one was sushi, which we both loved. Even that late in the 20th century, plenty of people were still put off by the idea of eating raw fish, and most of the other freshmen we knew seemed to eat nothing but chicken wings and ludicrously topped pizzas. That was the start of one more connection between us, something more tangible than her high school friend having sex with my roommate. But it was only the start of that connection, because the first time we hit the nearby Chinese/Japanese/Korean buffet, I watched in horror and a little awe as she skewered a piece of tuna nigiri with a fork. As we left, I told her that we weren’t coming back until she could use chopsticks.

I showed her the way the dude at my local Chinese takeout had taught me when I was a kid, by rubber-banding the chopsticks together with the wrapper rolled up in the middle as a fulcrum, but what works for a kid isn’t so great for a college freshman. Cara felt understandably patronized by this whole approach, and solved the problem by calling me an asshole, getting stoned, and spending an entire evening only lifting things with chopsticks.

She learned because she decided to learn, but she always jokingly credited me with teaching her and I was needy enough to be flattered by it.

*********

I thought maybe the neuroses and endless worrying about my kid might diminish a bit as he got older—once we were out of the primary SIDS danger zone at four months, or surely after the one year mark—but it still didn’t go away. Instead it just changed: SIDS to choking to falling to simply stumbling into the teeth of the world somehow.

I would watch him walk down the stairs, waiting for him to slip and fall and tumble and snap his fragile neck when his oversized head slammed into the chair molding. In fact, in some ways, the older he got, the worse it got. Once he was regularly out of arm’s reach, it sometimes seemed that every moment could be underscored with tinkly piano music and dropped into a faded almost-sepia tone.
Any horrible scenario that could’ve occurred, I had already lived through it in my head. I had raged and fought, tried and failed to save him, cried and mourned, felt the space of his absence like a tongue probing the aching, infected hole where a tooth used to be.

Somehow, the only thing that could’ve surprised me was what actually occurred: he was okay. There were moments, of course—those times that you only realize after the fact could’ve gone another, terrible way—but they all turned out generally fine.

He fell off a table once, because he was being dumb, and he slammed his face in a door because I was being lazy, but on the whole he continued to exist. His fragile-looking limbs thickened up. His head came into proportion with his body. Moreso, anyway. He got better at walking. Going down stairs stopped being a constant give-and-take with gravity.

In short, he grew up a little. This, finally, was what I had been waiting for. It took years longer than I expected, but finally I could watch him stir a pot of macaroni and cheese without seeing ten thousand excruciating outcomes, the best of them ending with his soft skin covered in shiny burn scars.

Coincidentally, it was right around this time that Cara had her baby.

*********

Another late night at the diner, Cara and I alone together again at the tail-end of another evening out, the last vestiges of a group that had scattered. Cara rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and looked at me.

“You again,” she said, taking a sip of coffee.

“Us again,” I said. “And, more importantly, pie.”

The waitress walked up with two plates, set a slice of cherry pie in front of me, viscous cherry liquid oozing from the edges onto the chipped white plate. She looked at Cara.

“Sorry, hon,” she said. “We sold out of the pecan and I didn’t know. I brought you a slice of pumpkin instead.” She set a plate down, burnt-sienna colored pie filling jiggling slightly and emitting an overwhelming smell of nutmeg. “It’s on me.”

“Thanks,” Cara said, trying a smile. The waitress smiled back the tired smile of someone with four hours left on a stone-dead overnight shift and shuffled back toward the counter. Cara poked at the pie.

“Why didn’t you send it back?” I said. I had learned Cara’s feelings on pumpkin pie (and pumpkin bread, and pumpkin butter) pretty early that fall.

“I dunno,” she said. “It was nice of her to bring it. I didn’t want to be a bitch.”

“Take mine,” I said, shoving her my plate and dragging hers back toward me. We both loved the cherry pie, which was gelatinous and greasy-crusted and still amazing, but she still looked disappointed as she took a bite and chewed and swallowed.

“You ever think that eating cooked cherries is like swallowing little alien fetuses?” she said.

I laughed, and we ate our pie, and outside it started to snow, and we made it through another night of freshman year without anything horrible happening.

*********

Social media has transformed the way we see tragedies. Definitely Facebook, because that’s where you’re likely to see the people you know in real life as they try to be clever, but the same thing happens no matter what your microblogging platform of choice is.

Tragedy used to happen in a vacuum. You might see someone one day and find out the next day that they’d lost a loved one overnight, but there was still that empty space—that moment when they were alone with no one watching, the solitude that let the terrible thing happen in secret

One minute you’re tweeting about how you had to bribe a dude to come to the Batman movie with you, and the next you’re the victim of some idiot who thinks he’s the Joker, shot in the head for absolutely no good reason.

There’s no emptiness anymore. No buffer. No silence. Everyone likes to joke about how social media is about sharing trying-too-hard witticisms and pictures of elegantly-plated meals as if that’s a bad thing, but … I mean, an awful lot of life is food and terrible jokes. Seeing that, from everyone, every day … that’s what makes the significant moments that much more significant.

It’s context. Texture. The fabric of daily life, making the filigrees and adornments—the weddings and births, deaths and divorces—stand out as something special.

Without remembering that quotidian shit happens, we forget that special things are special.

What I’m saying, obviously, is that Facebook was where I found out that Cara’s kid had been born. And, equally obviously, four months later it was where I found out that he had died.

*********

Once my roommate broke up with his girlfriend, late freshman year, Cara and I immediately started to disentangle ourselves. I somehow wound up with most of the British music magazines, and I gave up a couple of CDs that maybe I would’ve liked to keep, and before too long she was just someone else I occasionally saw smoking cigarettes outside the English building, two fingers on top, thumb underneath. Which, I guess, is why I now say we weren’t friends. We may have spent hours together. We may have gone out to meals, I may have failed to teach her to use chopsticks, we may have seen multiple sunrises through the starburst of cigarette smoke around that lamp, but ultimately what it boiled down to was this: when there was no longer any excuse for us to hang out, we lost touch.

The end.

But there were no hard feelings. No anger, no jealousy, no nothing. It was like being a kid whose family moved after first grade: it wasn’t your fault you lost touch with the best friend who shared your crayon box and never used up all the black. What could you do? The bigger forces in your life had decided that wasn’t who your friends were going to be.

So, years and years down the line, when Cara popped up in the “People You May Know” on Facebook, I clicked “Add Friend” without even really thinking twice. And, based on the speed of her reply, she clicked “Accept Request” every bit as thoughtlessly.

And just like that we were back in touch, in that lazy, not-actually-in-touch 21st century way.

*********

Cara had never been exactly pretty. In college, her nose was slightly too pointed for the cut of her bangs, giving her a slightly ferrety look; she had a razor-sharp jaw that made her look stubborn all the time; her incisors looked dangerously sharp. But she had style to burn and was palpably smart, so in those days, in actual human interaction, it all balanced out.

Seeing her on Facebook, older, was a little different. The still-present bangs seemed overly mannered. The tattoos were new, but not entirely unexpected, and disappointing because of that.

And her updates were so much more dour and humorless than I would’ve anticipated. Basically, the only person I saw in her updates was the one that I had snapped and sparred with. Whatever connection we’d built in those late nights and during the interminable dinners when my roommate and his girlfriend were trying on the role of fashionable married couple … that wasn’t coming through at all.

She seemed to hate the world, to hate people who were happy about things, and to generally take pleasure in humorlessly bitching about it all. The main reason I didn’t mute her updates was to enjoy that special kind of modern schadenfreude that comes from watching someone be worse at being an adult than you are.

And then her kid was born, and everything changed.

She never had a boyfriend when I knew her in college, never talked about an ex back home, never even expressed much interest in anyone. It was the mid- to late-nineties, and Sardonic Asexual Girl was a pretty familiar stock character. Cara never wore an army surplus jacket or combat boots, but she ticked the rest of the boxes pretty clearly.

Then there’s nearly two decades I don’t know much about.

When we became friends on Facebook, I never saw a picture of a boyfriend or girlfriend or, well, any friends, really. She would post some heavily filtered nature shots, some pictures of paintings—whether hers or ones that she liked, I was never clear—and that was about it. No pets. No family.

Artsy stuff and misanthropic status updates … and then, suddenly, pictures of new baby gear with vaguely optimistic, forward-looking captions.

A polka-dotted Graco swing, like the one my son used to use, the one that I would picture collapsing on him, pinning him and crushing him. Caption: “Won’t fit me, but maybe someone will use it soon.”

The vaguely deco-looking Boon high chair I had wanted for our son but hadn’t wound up spending the money on. Caption: “More useful than a barstool, these days.”

And so on.

And, then, eventually, pictures of a very small, slightly reddish newborn wearing one of those knit hats and a hospital swaddle blanket. Caption: “Welcome to the world, Logan. I hope it’s nice to you.”

*********

Family life, and parenting in particular, is yet another strange thing about social media, another area where connectivity removes buffers and ambiguities and lets us all see things that were previously not part of the public discourse. People getting frustrated with their kids, scared — so scared — for their kids, admitting that they have no goddamn idea what they’re doing with their kids and that they just hope to not screw it up.

And so many of the people who talked about wanting to someday be moms when we were in high school or (more rarely) college seemed to be the most clueless of all. Like the messy, terrifying actuality of having a kid had crashed into their Clair Huxtable fantasies and left them flailing.

Cara wasn’t like that with Logan. Despite the lack of pictures of any potential bio-dad, it was obvious from the jump that Logan was a wanted kid. Not only from the high-end baby gear, but from the obvious change in the tone of Cara’s timeline. She managed to approach motherhood—single motherhood, as far as I could tell—with such a perfect balance of obvious affection and detached bemusement that I suddenly found myself remembering the more positive sides of our long-ago relationship.

Mostly, she seemed more stable as a mother than I had ever felt as a dad. Her interactions with Logan, at least as she described them online, seemed calm, even when they involved typical infant things like fevers, spit-up, nebulizers, vomit, and, of course, the ever-present crushing fear of something horrible.

It could all have been a lie, of course, putting a brave online face on a miserable existence, but it never felt that way. Part of it was that she had been so open about her scorn and misery in the time before she had a kid, but part of it was an ineffable sense of honesty that came through in the brief updates and, especially, the pictures.

Logan was obviously a happy kid, a baby who smiled even when he was red-faced and miserable. And the pregnancy seemed to do something to Cara’s features that helped as well; her jawline looked softer, and even her nose was rounder and less pointed.

It would have been … I hate the word “touching,” because it frankly sounds patronizing as hell, and that’s not how I mean it, but it’s the only word that seems to fit. It was touching to see these kinds of updates from anyone; from Cara it was all the more impressive.

*********

First I worried about my son. Then I worried about that stupid tree — which never died, for what it’s worth, but also never seemed to get any bigger. And then I found myself deeply concerned for fictional characters and the people who might mourn them.

During those days when Cara I were hanging out, I would write stories for my fiction workshops that were filled with the casually glib violence that defined a strain of 1990s pop culture—Tarantino-esque, I had hoped that people would’ve called them, although no one ever actually did. I never did anything with my writing; I grew up and got a real job, but whenever I’d have a couple of drinks and decide to start a novel, I always found myself playing songs in that same key. And then, suddenly, I couldn’t carry that tune anymore. Every character, no matter how disposable, was suddenly someone’s kid. Every character had once been a pudgy-faced baby, beaming toothlessly and idiotically at peekaboo. Every character’s life was precious to someone, somewhere in or just out of the story, and maybe if I didn’t bereave those unseen loved ones then the universe would treat me with similar kindness.

My son is five now, and this still hasn’t gone away. It’s been awhile since I’ve tried to write about someone’s dead child, is what I’m saying. Which is probably why I keep putting it off here.

*********

There’s no warning on social media that someone’s going to become a tragedy. On a Friday evening, Cara posted a picture of Logan wearing a stupid bear hat, round ears flopping on top of his head and a black nose sitting squarely between the gray smudges of his baby eyebrows. The look on his face said, “Man, I am super happy to be wearing this stupid looking hat.” The caption said, “Ready for tomorrow’s hike.”

Then nothing on Saturday, which I didn’t notice; who notices the absence of one person’s updates in a stream of Facebook posts?

Late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, I wound up on the couch, the scrawny tree waving in the evening breeze outside the window. I was idly scrolling through Facebook while planning to be writing or reading or doing something useful. And there, in the middle of the stream of pictures taken by people doing things they’d probably regret later—luminescent shotglasses on a bar with a Brooklyn location tag; an extreme close-up of a seahorse pendant on a man’s hairy chest; a cryptic sentence fragment about a cab driver in Baltimore—I saw a post on Cara’s wall from a mutual college acquaintance:

“Cara our hearts are broken as I know yours is as well”

It was the kind of thing that you don’t see on Facebook a lot, nakedly emotional without a hint of glibness.

Then, a minute or two later – after an unrelated heavily filtered picture of crowds streaming out of a concert or something – another post, this time from my freshman year roommate’s freshman year girlfriend:

“There are no words I can offer, but know you are in my prayers right now.”

I knew then.

It’s impossible to spend so long terrified of something and not immediately recognize it when it finally does happen, even if it’s to someone else. I knew.

But I clicked her profile and viewed her whole timeline anyway, because I couldn’t not.

There were 35 messages already, all similar in tone to the ones I’d already seen. The oldest had been posted eight minutes earlier. No one specified what had happened. No one mentioned Logan.

I scrolled down to see if there had been some kind of update that I’d missed, but there was nothing. Scrolling downward through her profile, the posts jumped straight from a message that screamed of emptiness and tragedy (“the angels in heaven have gained but we have all lost, you most of all”) to that picture of Logan in the bear hat.

He looked fine. Happy. Ready to be shoved into some kind of hiking Bjorn and carried through the woods.

I scrolled back up. Still people—almost a hundred of them, now—trying hard to say something helpful when there was really nothing at all that anyone could say.

Back down. The picture of Logan in his bear hat hadn’t gone away. But all I could see was that there was nothing between that and all those grim messages of love and sorrow.

Outside the window, the sparse leaves on that little tree whipped in the breeze, fluttering so quickly they were almost vibrating.

I could’ve reached out to someone to find the details, I suppose—I’m sure my freshman year roommate’s freshman-year girlfriend would’ve brought me up to speed, if no one else—but the thought of asking made me feel like an emotional vulture feeding on other people’s loss. This seemed like the sort of thing where if you deserved to be trusted with it, someone would tell you.

So I found out when her sister posted the news. Her details were sketchy, but she confirmed what had been obvious since that first post: Logan was dead. It had happened in his sleep and Cara had found him—that’s really all that was in that first update.

So many of the people commenting said that they had no idea what Cara was feeling, that they couldn’t imagine the horror, that the loss was too big to comprehend. But I was pretty sure I did comprehend. I had been thinking about this for nearly five years, remember—the textures of what it would be like to lose a child—so I was imagining the horror very clearly indeed.

Just thinking about it made me nauseous, short of breath, clumsy. I lost my grip on the iPad I was reading, and it bounced off the ottoman that served as a coffee table and landed on the floor, miraculously uncracked.

It was then, between when the iPad fell and when I picked it up (it was displaying, yet again, the picture of that adorable kid in that dumb bear hat) that I remembered the only time I had heard Cara make even a joking reference to having kids someday.

*********

It’s a story that stuck with me not because it was dramatic, or ominous, or portentous, or anything even remotely like that. It became a well-worn anecdote because of what happens at the end, a weird coincidence that made for a mildly amusing story. It’s certainly not a story that starts with us talking about kids or anything like them. We were barely talking at all. What we were doing was, as usual, slouching on the couch listening to music.

It was late, after midnight, and the CD—the second Tricky album, because this was when the British music press was trying to convince us to like grim, sample-heavy trip-hop—was on its second or third go-through, gravelly whispering and reverb-drenched female vocals and spare beats. We were either drunk or high or both, and I was totally wrapped around the axle of my thoughts. I don’t think either of us had spoken for more than twenty minutes when Cara abruptly dropped her cigarette into an empty beer can and said, “I really want some sushi.”

There were two nearby sushi places—the nice one and the one we usually went to—and neither one was open past 9:30.

“Nothing’s open,” I said. “We could walk over to Angelo’s and get coffee and pie.”

She shook her head and set her jaw. “I don’t want coffee or pie. I want sushi.”

I shrugged, repeated, “Nothing’s open.”

“Like White,” she said. Like White — as in “…On Rice”—was a rare thing: a place that seemed futuristic at the time and would also turn out to be a precise harbinger of the actual future. It was (as the name elliptically implied) a bar/club/sushi-bar combo, decorated (as the name directly stated) in gleaming, Kubrick-esque white; all neo-futurist deco curves and sans serif fonts and beautiful waitresses carrying luridly-colored mixed drinks. It was expensive and it was downtown, nowhere nearby, and it was absolutely not our scene, but it was the place we all went when we wanted to feel like people in a movie, and it was the place we went when we wanted sushi at odd hours.

“I can’t drive,” I said. Even back then, supposedly too young and dumb to understand my own mortality, I wasn’t getting behind the wheel in my current state. On the off chance that Cara was any better off, I asked, “You?”

“Jesus, no,” she said, head back on the couch cushions, eyes closed. “I’m having enough trouble keeping this couch from swerving off the road. But I can’t describe how much I want some sushi.”

“Me too,” I said, “but it’s not happening.”

She opened her eyes and turned her head to me without lifting it up, locked in like she was going to say something significant.

Instead she said, “Seriously, I would give up my first-born for some sushi.”

I laughed, because it was funny at the time. “You’re planning to have kids?” I said, half-joking.

“I want sushi enough right now, that I’d have kids just so I could give one of them up to get a ride to Like White.”

“Seems reasonable,” I said.

She still hadn’t lifted her head up; when she put a cigarette in her mouth to light it, it stuck straight up toward the ceiling like the smokestacks just off the highway in New Jersey, an image that stuck with me and occasionally resurfaced long after we’d lost touch. It took some maneuvering with the lighter, but she got the cigarette lit and smoked quietly for a minute. “Still no car,” she said. “Maybe you have to pony up a kid also.”

“We could have a kid together,” I said clumsily, “really maximize the value.”

She rolled her eyes and gave a half-smile that showed one of her pointed incisors. “You are such an idiot,” she said.

“Sure, why not,” I said, staring at the smoke coming out of her half-smile. “I’ll toss in a kid also.” She snorted and then we sat in half-expectant silence for a minute.

“Still no ride,” I said, and she barely had time to give a mock pout when the door slammed open, framing her friend and my roommate.

“Sex makes me hungry,” her friend said. Her relationship with my roommate seemed to consist largely of having sex and then talking with uncomfortable frankness about that sex. Then, without even coming into the room, she said, somehow inevitably, “Let’s drive downtown and hit Like White. I could eat an entire sushi boat by myself.”

I don’t know if I ever saw Cara laugh harder. Back then, the universe’s seeming acceptance of a deal to trade your kid for a couple of pieces of fish and rice was just another reason to laugh, and an anecdote to retell too often over beers.

*********

I tried to write to Cara shortly after her sister posted that first update, but all the words I could come up with sounded stupid. The posts on her wall were emoting so very hard, but they all sounded to me like hollow and useless platitudes, no matter how well-intentioned.

She vanished from Facebook for nearly a year, and my mind filled in the details: gone to a relative’s house to be away from reminders of Logan; our of her head—like we used to be in college, only with a depressing “take as needed” prescription in her own name; sitting listlessly on a balcony somewhere, maybe contemplating jumping, maybe just thinking about never moving again.

When she came back online, she put on brave face. She wrote openly about what had happened a couple of times, and took to re-posting photos and videos from her five months with Logan.

The last video of him had been taken three days before she would find him immobile in his crib, already lifeless. In it, Cara tries to talk to the camera while Logan—presumably hungry—tries to latch onto her nose and nurse. It’s been a long time since I had an infant in the house, but I vividly remember the feel of a toothless mouth gumming fruitlessly away at various body parts. It feels bizarre, and a little unsettling, and it tickles a bit, and the natural reaction is to laugh, which Cara does. And that’s where the video ends, with Logan sucking on her nose and her laughing with open, unguarded joy. The status on her re-posting of the video was “For five months he made me happier than anything on earth ever has or ever will.”

Scrolling back down to all those pointless, useless words of comfort for someone I hadn’t spoken to in years, who had suffered a loss I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with, I expected all my terrors and fears to come back with reinforcements. To resume seeing imminent death for my son in the edge of every glass table or unclosed window.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I felt oddly inured. When I couldn’t sleep that night and spent a few hours staring at the ceiling and hating myself, I found myself wondering if I felt like Cara had been the unlucky one, as if life is all just a macrocosm of Shirley Jackson’s lottery and one innocent kid’s death is enough to leave the rest of us shamed but safe for another year. I am not proud of that particular interpretation, and in the daytime I like to assume that it’s not actually true.

It seems bizarre for me to talk about Cara’s loss at all, because it wasn’t my tragedy to mourn, and a brief friendship twenty years gone doesn’t make it any more mine. Discussing it in terms of my life is idiotic, and selfish, and probably borderline sociopathic.

I haven’t written to her. I never came up with anything to say that wasn’t stupid.

*********

One part of that evening that never made it into any of my subsequent anecdotal retellings:

When we stumbled outside, heading to my roommate’s girlfriend’s car to go to Like White, it was snowing huge heavy wet flakes. Our other halves ran ahead to start the car and let it run so they could clear the windshield

I grabbed her hand, partially to steady her and partially for warmth. Her fingers were freezing, and I turned to her, dipped my head, and clumsily kissed her lips; it was sloppy and cold and she was immediately jogging away, still holding onto my hand.

Over her shoulder she called, “You really are such an idiot, you know that?”

*********

Cara re-posted Logan’s final video a couple of nights ago. I haven’t seen much activity from her since.

Earlier tonight, my son and I brought in some sushi for dinner, a regular occurrence when his mother works late. I think he likes the idea of it more than he actually likes it—it’s something he eats with his parents, and I think it make him feel very grown-up to be casually eating things his friends don’t eat.

He leans toward the sweeter things—eel, and anything else that they’ll paint with the dark, sticky eel sauce—but also likes to dare himself to eat a different piece of raw fish every time we do this. Tonight it was the tuna from my sushi dinner combo #7.

When my wife was pregnant with him, one of my earliest dad-to-be tasks was researching what things she shouldn’t be eating anymore. And one of the first things to go—along with deli meat for listeria risk and underdone eggs for salmonella—was a whole swath of sushi, because of levels of mercury that could basically ravage the fetus’s developing nervous system. And one of the main offenders on that list was tuna. On my advice, she stopped eating it to keep him safe and she never really started again.

But now here he was, struggling with his chopsticks—rubberbanded together around a fulcrum made from a rolled piece of paper—working to pick up a blood-red piece of tuna draped over medicinally white rice. He still has his mother’s red hair—we all thought that would darken as he got older, but if anything it’s brighter and even more pronounced—hanging slightly shaggy and long, and he shook it clear of his flat, thoughtful eyes as he tried to get to the tuna.

Usually he nibbles carefully around the edges, any recklessness checked by biological impulses telling him to be careful with unfamiliar food, but for some reason he didn’t do that. Instead he forced the entire piece of tuna and rice into his mouth, chewed a couple of times, tried to swallow, and immediately gagged

I leaned over to yank it out of his mouth—the sort of disgusting thing you could never imagine doing until you have kids and it becomes automatic by the time they’re six months old—but he had already coughed it out on his own. He stared at it for a second, a mass that looked like raw ground beef, and then burst into tears.

He never choked on it. He never stopped breathing. He was never at any risk. Objectively, it was nothing—another everyday disaster for a five year old. He rallied immediately once the shock of gagging and embarrassment at spitting out food had passed. I tried to give him a popsicle but he shook his head, told me that he wasn’t some kind of baby.

As soon as he got control of himself, he immediately ate the rest of the eel I had gotten him, and a couple pieces of California roll, which he ate (as he always does) by unrolling them and eating the ingredients one at a time. He was fine.

But I wasn’t. Sitting there, helplessly watching tears stream down his face onto that lump of half-chewed fish, I realized with absolute certainty that he’s doomed. No matter what I do—and no matter what I did in the past—there’s nothing I can do to keep him as a little kid, or even, really, to keep him safe. The only thing worse than seeing them grow older is not.

My son finished eating the rice off the seaweed from his unrolled California roll and excused himself from the table. I just sat there for a few minutes, staring at his empty seat and the napkin he had thrown over the half-chewed fish. Then, instead of straightening up and getting rid of the takeout containers, I found myself grabbing his rubber-banded chopsticks and heading down the hallway, past my son sitting on the couch watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon on-demand, out the front door and into the yard.

I took the chopsticks, squeezed them into an upside-down V, and jammed them into the ground at the base of the tree. They stuck there like crooked smokestacks off the highway, pointing up at the fragile leaves on the withered tree, and into the emptiness of the night beyond.

 

Matt Terl

Matt Terl lives in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

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