Season of Grief
We had been throwing back Modelos and doing lines for the better part of two hours when Mackenzie told us she was pregnant. She was twenty-one years old. I was looking for the razor blade, which had fallen down my shirt.
“God, you really are so terrible at doing drugs,” said Will. Their laughter reverberated around the apartment.
“What do you mean you’re pregnant?” I said. “We’re doing cocaine. We’re—we’re drinking beer.” I held up my Modelo can.
“I haven’t done any tonight,” said Mackenzie. “And I haven’t been drinking.”
“How are you pregnant?” I asked. “I mean—what are you going to do?”
“Get an abortion,” Will said. “Obviously.”
“I mean, of course,” I said. “How far along are you?”
“Like, seven, eight weeks?” she said. I picked the razor blade out from between my breasts. I put it back on the mirror and handed it carefully to Will.
“I don’t know,” Mackenzie said. “I think I would be a good mom.”
“Of course, you’ll be a good mom,” Blue said. “But that doesn’t mean you should have a kid right now. Get the abortion.” We all nodded in agreement. Will leaned over the mirror, their blond-tipped dreads sweeping a curtain across their face.
“I don’t know,” Mack said again. She leaned back on the couch, sinking into the cushions. It was the apartment Will shared with their wife, who was currently who-knew-where. Will’s wife was a dominatrix and kept odd hours. “I just don’t know,” said Mack. We kept passing the mirror around and changed the subject.
Michael died in early January. My boyfriend B and I walked over to the bar around six. We were still tired from New Year’s celebrations, and we had just moved into our new apartment, unpacking boxes and hauling tables and bookshelves up the stairs. We found out Michael had killed himself from another friend of mine, Jonathan, who was a regular at the bar where Michael bartended. With Jonathan, we entered the darkened, closed bar to drink tequila shots with our assorted friends. Gilles, one of the owners of the bar, stood stoic behind the concrete face of the bar, pouring shot after shot. He was the only one of us not in tears.
A blur of alcohol and terror. People cycling in and out, phone calls made furtively in the backyard as we tried to remember in a fever of grief who to call, who to tell, who needed to be informed of the bad news. I saw people cry who I never expected to—all of my male friends, my cocaine dealer, all of the bartenders who had served and befriended me over years. More than Michael’s life was lost that day; our feelings of safety, of order in the world, of comfort, all of it was turned upside down and dismantled, until there was nothing left but pain and confusion and, most of all, guilt.
Some parts of that night are etched into my memory: Devon’s face as she cried, a bruised, ruined thing, so clear that nothing would ever be right again. Jonathan yelling FUCK in the walk-in fridge, but still audible from all the way upstairs. Me holding a twelve-weeks pregnant Mackenzie as she sobbed into my shoulder. Apollo’s confused, sobbing form as he wandered from person to person, looking for someone to give him answers to questions that were not answerable. Zach’s eerie quiet as he came back from speaking to the police and paramedics at Michael’s apartment—he arrived later, with Devon; they were the ones who found the body. Will’s march up the stairs with their wife, Sophie, as they had received a late-night phone call. We made eye contact, embraced, no words. There were no words.
B and I left early as my grief turned me slow and stupid. I woke up many times that night, as if remembering where I had left something lost. Michael’s dead. And then it was morning, and the bar was closed, and we piled into Ubers or walked from other bars, where we had been drinking since early in the afternoon, to go to Marco’s, where we drank ourselves half to death and told stories, grateful just to be together, to be alive, to have survived it. If this—this half-life—was surviving.
I first met Mackenize on her twenty-first birthday, or close to it—she had been hired as a barback the week before, and informed me of her age (I was twenty-five at the time) while chugging a beer. Early in our relationship, she pushed me into the small bar bathroom to pee together and share drugs. Another time, she rooted through my purse for a baggie of cocaine while I talked on the phone to my then-boyfriend, B. She was a little grungy—loose clothes, dirty shoes from working behind the bar, tousled hair, but she was beautiful in her way, and I was absolutely enamored with her. I never liked her boyfriend either, perhaps because he took her away from me. When he was around, she became tight-lipped, annoyed, older than her twenty-one years. She scolded him, became frustrated. He was in his thirties, but still acted like a child, and she turned into the mature one. I hated their dynamic, and even though I had no problems with him specifically, I disliked him for taking her attention away from me.
We were close—always embracing, kissing on the side of the head, the mouth—until the day when she announced, point blank, that she didn’t like girls. “I’ve done that, and I’m not into it,” she said. She was just starting to date her boyfriend, and I had been perhaps a little too eager, a little too obsessed. I took the message, and backed off, disgruntled, heart aching. My own partner was in another state. I liked the attention, and I knew she did too. But was that all it was? As I watched her sink further into her new relationship, I felt resentment, jealousy even, for my lost infatuation. I missed her. I often listened for the sound of her laugh, gruff and barking, from the other end of the bar.
“He was so loved,” I told Michael’s father, at his memorial, two weeks after his death. “We all loved him so much.”
“He loved it here,” his father said. “He loved all of you. He talked about you all the time.” His father was strangely jovial as he swallowed glass after glass of bad white wine; we all were drinking, it was free flowing. The new bartender who was doing as best as she could, would soon quit, saying she had found a better job. She was the second of two new hires who couldn’t hack it at our bar; the first had said that the vibes were off, which was understandable, considering we were all blind with grief. Every one of us was tossing back drink after drink, and cocaine was being passed around palm to palm in a series of continuous, ultra-friendly handshakes.
Michael’s father had brought all of his son’s t-shirts to the bar as a way to commemorate him—he was a huge shirt collector and had lots of funny shirts with sayings on them; most of us were able to take a shirt to remember him by. As we pawed through the piles, I watched his father and brother in the hazy light. Both happy to be there, surrounded by Michael’s loved ones. Later, Devon would tell me that she still sent Michael Instagram messages. At home that night, I threw up all the wine, my throat clenching, my head throbbing. I couldn’t remember what was said, what stories were told. I avoided learning specific details about his death.
“Only the living suffer,” B told me the next morning, as I sat in the living room with a pounding headache. “The dead don’t suffer. He’s free now. You’re the one who’s in pain, not him.”
“I’m figuring it out,” said Mackenzie, as I quietly asked her: did you figure out what you’re doing about the thing, yet? It was February. I did the math—she was almost three months along now, and nearing the point of no return, even in a liberal state like New York. I didn’t know what “figuring it out” meant. I nodded, sipping my drink, as she moved behind the bar, which had, by then, reopened. An altar of candles and flowers had mysteriously appeared outside, and Blue periodically fed it whiskey shots, in homage to Michael, who had bartended at the bar for almost three years. Sometimes, I walked in and expected to see him there, behind the bar. But he was never there.
Mack’s pregnancy became something of an open secret. We all knew, all of us regulars, the tight-knit community of bar goers who all hung out there almost every night and spent a lot of time together, sometimes even outside of the bar. Michael, for example, was not just my bartender—I had been to his apartment, met his parents, brother, and uncle, and even attended a concert for a band that one of his friends had played in. “You’re figuring it out?” I pressed.
“Yeah. I’ve got it under control.”
Mack carried a Cambro of limes downstairs to be juiced. Later, she came up with an armful of liquor bottles, and I felt terrible that she was carrying so much. With my cushy work-from-home job, which I often did at the bar in the afternoon, using the bar’s Wi-Fi and drinking a beer or two, I felt bad that my life was so comparatively easy. But since she had decided to keep the baby—which was what she was doing, apparently—she had a new calmness around her. A serenity. She seemed confident that everything was going to work out. I wasn’t sure how that was going to work—she was a twenty-one-year-old bartender with questionable health insurance and a boyfriend with anger issues, but if she had faith, then I would, too.
B told me repeatedly to get over it. “When don’t you miss him?” he challenged, when, almost six months later, I expressed that late nights at the bar made me miss Michael the most. Remembering Michael even now: how do I explain who he was, what he meant to us? Singing “Mambo No. 5” on karaoke night as we all cringed, wordlessly bringing Devon Starbucks on her early afternoon shifts, animating a burger to have legs and walk on his iPad on a particularly slow night. He was thoughtful without making you feel indebted to him, caring without being overbearing, while still being funny. He could spit retorts faster than you could, smoke a cigarette faster than you could, diffuse a problem at the bar faster than anyone else. He was all about speed—and eventually, perhaps, that caught up with him. He was running from something, I don’t know what.
I walked into the bar on Wednesday after Michael’s death with B and my friend Mars—less than two weeks after, on a karaoke night—and saw no one I recognized. Jonathan had gone to Florida to visit his mom, citing exhaustion with the whole situation, and the rest of my friends had scattered. I saw Stephanie, a good friend of mine and also a bartender, and ran to her. “What the fuck are all these people doing here?” I said. “Who are these new people behind the bar?”
“Okay, hold on a second,” she said, recoiling. “I need you to calm the fuck down and stop coming at me like this. I have to deal with Michael’s death too,” Steph said. “I’m grieving too. If you want me to introduce you to the new people, I will do that, but you cannot put your grief on me.”
“I’m sorry. I just freaked out,” I said. I put my hands up in surrender.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I just need you to chill out.”
I tried to calm down. I introduced myself to the two new people, and both were friendly. I wasn’t ready for all the change. It felt like everything was moving too quickly—I knew the bar had to hire people, because no one had been willing to work in the immediate aftermath of Michael’s death, especially Mackenzie, who had been passed over for the bar manager job that had become vacant. But I wasn’t ready to make new friends. I didn’t know when I would be ready to make new friends again, if you could lose them so easily. If they could just disappear like dust motes fading into the light.
“I’m just over it,” said Mackenzie, sitting on the stool that was kept behind the bar. She was seven months pregnant and showing significantly. At six months, she finally told her boss, my good friend Emily, that she was expecting, which had set in motion its own set of problems. “I just don’t wanna work,” she said.
“Well, you are very pregnant,” I pointed out.
She laughed. I watched her. Where was the girl I had loved, the body I had folded into mine? I wanted to protect her from the very difficult thing she was about to do, as if I could possibly take away some of the frustrations that she was about to face. That was the reason I didn’t want her to have the baby. I wanted her life to be easy. I wanted to make her life easy.
Slowly, as I watched her, with her new, shorter, darker haircut—more mature—I began to let go. To release judgment. To let her live her own life, although I would help out in any way I could. I couldn’t stop Michael from dying, and I couldn’t stop Mackenzie from having her baby. You can’t stop the people you love from doing what they will do. You can only hold on tight and be there for them as they make their own mistakes, or triumphs—life is a mixture of both, and whatever love and support and care we can give to each other, hope that it’s enough.
Mackenzie’s baby shower: McCarren Park in Williamsburg, thirty or so crust punks grilling burgers in a dusty corner of the grilling area, everyone drinking beer they left in a kiddie pool full of ice, with fruit cut up on a tray and shots of weed-infused vodka being passed around. Mackenzie, eight-months pregnant, radiant in a white dress. Earlier in the week, she confessed to me, “I didn’t feel like a pregnant woman, and then suddenly—I felt like a pregnant woman.” I laugh at this, but also marveled at how pregnant she looks, all of a sudden.
“I want to have a home birth,” she says. “And I don’t want any drugs.”
“You’re insane. I would want all the drugs in the world.”
“It’s better for the baby. Otherwise, you don’t know when to push.”
I think back to the day she told me she was pregnant. How far we have come, from a dark day in the dead of winter, snorting cocaine off a mirror in Will’s apartment to a sunny afternoon in spring in the park, celebrating the arrival of her daughter?
I buy her a huge box of diapers from her registry and have them delivered to her apartment. “It’s such a natural process,” she tells me, when I express my reluctance to have children of my own. “You don’t really realize it until you’re pregnant, but this is what the body is made to do.”
“Not my body,” I say, laughing. “No, thank you. But I’m sure you’re going to do great.”
At the shower, I tell her when to expect the diapers, congratulate her, and tell her how great she looks. She really is glowing. “After the year we’ve had, with all the bad shit, we need some joy.”
“Yeah,” she says, and I knew she was thinking about the same thing I was. “We need some good things to happen.”
“And look at you! They’re happening!”
I can’t remember a moment when I felt happier to know her. I want more moments like this. After a season of grief, I want more—if I could wish for it for all of us, after so much pain, I would wish for infinite joy.
A few months after Michael’s death, I get the tattoo—the words “invisible friend,” in script, on the left side of my neck. It is from a song that we both enjoyed, “Whirring,” by The Joy Formidable. I like to think he’s always with me, my invisible friend. I carry him with me, always. He keeps me accountable, tells me when I’m being an asshole, and reminds me to hold my space when I get too small. He reminds me to live life big, and never apologize for who I am, exactly as he did.
Joanna Acevedo is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School.
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