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phoneOff to college, living away from home for the first time, I was unformed, my cell walls entirely permeable. I was innocent of the world and ecstatic to be released from the fierce, unsympathetic guardianship of my parents.

It was the six of us — three sets of roommates, the four girls, the two boys — not always together but always pulled back into the chemistry of the six.

Jose was not so much blond as fair — pale skin, pale hair, clean shaven in the places where pale whiskers grew in reluctant dustings on his face. His eyes were luminous blue-gray behind round lenses set in nearly colorless frames. His voice was deep and soft and we would all lean in to hear what he was saying. He serenaded us with his guitar and awakened us to the rhythms of poetry.

We were all friends, all, perhaps, a bit in love with each other, all tentatively learning the Braille of our bodies and hearts. We tried on philosophies like new clothes, experimented with the taste of political rhetoric and shared the agonizing secrets of our childhoods.

Jose and I talked for hours in the empty dining hall, whispered in the library, trekked along the cliffs and followed the meandering line of foam where the waves lapped the sand. Each step, each word, carried us deeper into the landscape of trust. I bemoaned my innocence, he beguiled me with experience — titillating stories of conquest and desire.

We sat in the lifeguard tower and watched the moon set and he took my face between his warm hands and kissed me as tenderly as I have ever been kissed. He said, ‘You’re the person I really wanted to be with tonight,’ and I realized those were the words I had been listening for my entire life.

And yet, we weren’t two. We were six — friends with classes and dates and discoveries apart from one another, our partings as gentle as our connections.

After two years, I left for Berkeley and our friendships continued on paper, Jose’s letters full of poetry, cynicism, humor and hope. We all graduated, and by some numerical misfortune, Jose was drafted, and then, somehow, after an interval of bitterly funny letters, undrafted — something to do with his knees. And then a letter from one of the six: Jose was dead. The words a razor slash that forever sliced my life into Before and After.

Among the remaining five, we knew only this: that Jose had acted with intent. That he was not deterred by the requisite waiting period. That he waited, and he collected the gun he had purchased, and he turned it on himself.

I went back and searched his letters for clues. There were none. No dire warnings or pleadings, no strange new slant to his handwriting, no subtly couched goodbyes.

Jose had shown me that what happened between men and women could be shaped by tenderness and friendship. Now he introduced me to the colorless panorama of grief.

I could not share the pain of this loss with my parents; I had no vocabulary for the death of a friend. It was too acute and intimate for any nostrums of sympathy, so it sat, a sharp stone in my gut, unmentioned.

Two weeks after Jose died, hollowed by loss, I went for a planned visit home. Over dinner one evening, my mother said brightly, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you. Your friend Jose called a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to give him your phone number without asking you. He called back one other time. I think I wrote down his number. Do you want it?’

© j.i. kleinberg

A Bowl of Words…fragment

“What would you do?” Laura asked Paul.
“Do? You mean if I wanted to kill myself?”
“I don’t know, Dr. Kevorkian, is this a multiple-choice question?”
“Yes, of course it is. But seriously, haven’t you ever thought about it? I mean not actually thinking that you would do it, but, you know, just thinking about it?”
“Yeah, I guess. But mostly when it’s in the news — Vince Foster or Kurt Cobain.” Paul was quiet for a moment, then said, “When I was a teenager I was pretty pissed off for a while and used to think that I would kill myself and really show my parents what small-minded tyrants they had been. It was always a gun — just a neat hole in the temple — and my father would barge into my room screaming at me for some petty infraction of the rules and there I’d be, on the bed, cold and dead. And he’d collapse and never be the same, and my mother would come in and cradle my lifeless body in her arms and finally have to be pried away. You know, teenage angst. It didn’t come to me in so many words, but even then I could see the difference between wanting to be dead and wanting revenge. I didn’t want to be dead; what I wanted was to put on this drama and watch it unfold and really bask in it and then jump up and say, ‘Just kidding!’ I wanted to hurt them.”
“What changed?” Laura asked.
“When I went to help my uncle rebuild after the tornado. Spent a couple of months swinging a hammer and after that I was different, and my parents seemed different too, though it’s hard to say who really changed. Took my mind off revenge, anyway…”

more fragments from A Bowl of Words

A Bowl of Words ~ 3

…The roll call of Laura’s lost lives and loves was short but dear: her uncle Lenny, her unrequited college love, Paddy, and a lover from her 30s who had been dead nearly ten years before she learned of it. Guns, she thought. Each of them had chosen their weapon of death, hoping no doubt to make it swift and decisive. She thought of the friends, the lovers, the children young and grown, whose lives would be forever altered by having come upon this gory scene of destruction. The loss of the person compounded by the violence splashed permanently on the retina.

Washing her face, she thought of stories she had heard of families in which high windows had proved an irresistible lure. Defenestration. A handsome word for such an end. She thought of the tumbling bodies in their final flight on September 11. No, she corrected, not suicide, but a tragic hope for life, that, just this once, the arms would feather out to wings and bear them away from the fire, set them gently back onto the welcoming earth below…

A Bowl of Words ~ 2

Laura had known she would draw this one sooner or later. It wasn’t an order. It was a theme. For more than two years, her days had explored a word at a time, each word a pair of tinted glasses that colored every thought and action of her day. She had, in that time, ranged through her vocabulary and her thesaurus, poking the dark corners of her knowledge, her beliefs, her doubts and prejudices. Spotted, the slip of paper would say. Muslim. History. Fertilizer. Chrome. Each word, even the most benign, forced her to stretch, to learn, to imagine. The words had taken on a nearly mystical role, seeming to emerge not from the random hundreds in the bowl, but from the raveled threads of a silken cord that was connected inevitably to the events of today, and yesterday, and tomorrow.

Laura would savor the word, like a hard candy or a small salty stone in her mouth, all day long. She had found that her words often surprised her by jumping out of newspaper stories or drifting on the airwaves from NPR broadcasts. That once the word was in her mind, it was everywhere.

So today I’m to do suicide, she mused…