In Providence

In Providence: The Drop

I sometimes wonder if I survived the drop.

It’s a drop that never happened, but could have–

Maybe it did.

Years ago, I was standing on a rooftop in downtown Providence on a date that was going poorly, and the guy suggested we go out onto the roof, which seemed like a romantic strategy for salvaging the evening.

We walked out onto the roof through a window, which was a relief since he was basically squatting in an abandoned apartment on Washington Street, and as we were walking around, I heard him say, “Watch out.”

I looked down and there was a huge space in the middle of the roof that went two stories down.

When I looked back up at him, I had the strange sensation that I had already taken the step.  That I had gotten lucky and that I was falling–all at the same time.

From that point on, every time something bad would happen–and a lot of bad stuff has happened since then–I would think to myself…

Maybe I took that step after all.

Maybe all this is because of the drop.

Last week, a 20-year-old woman and I were sitting in her dorm room on the East Side.  She was introduced to me through a friend on social media, and she asked if we could talk about something that had happened to her at the end of last year.

The only time we could both agree on was later in the evening, and that’s how I found myself seated at her desk while she sat on her bed across from me, listening to her tell me about the night she dropped.

She’d gone to a birthday party at a friend’s house.  Just a few people there. No strangers. Not even any drinking aside from a glass of wine the host was nursing.  Little red and white streamers throughout the living room and a red velvet cake covered with candles.

“My friend wanted all the candles,” she tells me, holding onto a faded orange stuffed giraffe. “I remember they set off the smoke detector.  We all laughed.”

The party went on late into the night.  All she drank was water, because she’d decided to go into summer with a healthier lifestyle.  She remembers feeling fine when she left the party. Nobody even suggested she stay because of how late it was, because she was fine.

Because fine is sober, right?

Fine is you can walk a straight line and your words aren’t slurred and you’re only going outside to wait for your Lyft.

“You can see the windows into my friend’s apartment from the street,” she said. “And it was late, but it was really nice out, so there were still people walking around and out and I felt–Yeah, I felt fine.”

Then the Lyft doesn’t show up.

“It just disappeared off my phone.  That’s what I remember. I know I got one, but then–it just wasn’t there, and, um, it was really nice out, and I only live a few blocks from my friend, and so–it was really stupid of me, but I think–Oh, I’m just going to walk home.

She starts to walk home and right away, she gets the feeling that somebody is following her.

“I’ve taken self-defense classes.  I’m very aware of my–um–my surroundings?  I was holding my keys between my hands in that way where if somebody comes up to you, you just–I know what to do is what I’m saying.  Not that it always protects you, but I wasn’t just, like, stumbling through the streets unprepared. And so maybe I was just freaking myself out because it was late, but I swear I heard somebody behind me, and I kept turning around, and nobody was there, but as soon as I kept walking, I felt it.”

Her first instinct is to get someone on the phone, assuming–as most of us probably would–that somebody isn’t going to attack you if they hear you talking to someone.

“And I know this is where it all starts to sound like a horror story,” she says, “But I look at my phone, and it’s just dead.  Not like–my battery was charged. I was charging it in the kitchen of my friend’s house, and the battery was fully charged when I left.  I checked it again when I saw that the Lyft had cancelled. But now I’m looking at my phone, and it’s just–nothing’s happening. That really freaks me out, and, um, I just start running.  I’m not even going to lie to you–I just run. I ran all the way home.”

At least, that’s what she thinks happened.

“I remember breaking into a run, and just–wind.  I remember the wind got really bad all of a sudden.  It wasn’t windy. It was a really calm night. Then it was just–it got in my ears.  Maybe because I was running, but it felt–I felt like I was pushing against it. The next thing I remember is waking up in bed the next morning.  My phone is in bed with me. It’s charged. I hadn’t plugged it in, but all of a sudden, it’s working just fine. I’m not wearing what I wore to the party.  I’m–I’ve got on, like, a t-shirt and these jeans–and why would I put on jeans when I came home?”

There are more questions.

She’s got multiple windows open on her laptop and she knows only her email was up when she left that night.  Her room is usually neat, and when she wakes up, it’s been practically ransacked. The windows are closed, but her curtains are parted, and she never leaves them that way.  A mug from her high school that she only brought with her to school for sentimental reasons is next to her bed and it’s overflowing with coffee.

When did she make coffee?

And why?

I told her that even though I’m not a journalist, I had to talk to her friends to verify some of this.  That I couldn’t just write about it if it turned out that she had been drinking or that she was acting erratically that night or if she had a habit of making stuff up.  I didn’t feel comfortable accusing her of any of this, but the story was wild.

Then again, so is remembering a fall that never happened.

So is everything these days.

The surreal has never been more believable.

She gave me a list of people at the party, and I contacted each one.  All of them said the same thing.

No, she hadn’t been drinking or taking drugs.

She was there almost the entire time and was behaving normally.

Almost all of them have confirmed that she had been charging her phone in the kitchen.

They told me they’ve known her for awhile and she’s never been known to make up stories or lie about anything at all.

The woman whose birthday it was told me that she called her the next day to make sure she got home okay, and that’s when she heard the story I was listening to sitting in that dorm room.

All the details lined up.

Her story has stayed the same every time she’s told it, including to another group of friends at another party at the beginning of the school year.

But it was what she said happened after that night that always strikes people the hardest.

It’s the epilogue that made one of her friends think of me after listening to me talk about the drop at an open mic night.

It was how we both talked about the feeling of dodging a bullet only to feel the shot over time that made someone think to connect us.

We’re sitting a foot away from each other, and she tells me that she tried to brush that night aside.  It seemed like the logical thing to do.

She wasn’t hurt.

She hadn’t been followed.

Nothing had been taken from her room.

“I thought maybe I had a breakdown,” she said. “Like, a mental break or something.  I did some research. Nothing else could explain it. Why all that happened. I even went to a doctor, because I was so worried that something had happened to me–that I’d been drugged or something–I just didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  But everything checked out, and so–I thought, I just have to forget this. It was just a crazy night. People would laugh when I told them about it. It seemed funny to people.”

Then her brother got into a serious car accident on his way to visit his girlfriend in New Hampshire.

Her mother suffered a stroke.

Two days later, her best friend from childhood committed suicide.

Then two more friends from her high school died.

Her cousin developed a mysterious illness that couldn’t be diagnosed, and still isn’t to this day.

There’s more, but she asked me not to go too far into it, so I won’t.

This was all in the span of a few months.

“I know it sounds really egocentric of me,” she says. “But to have that night, and then, all this–everything–it just feels like it can’t be a coincidence.  What if what I felt that night was everything that was about to happen? Because throughout all of this, I’ve been okay. I mean, I’m not okay, because, like, my mom and my brother and–But what if this is all just a continuation of whatever it was that night that I felt walking behind me?”

She’s digging her fingernails into the giraffe, and I can see how upset she is, so I tell her about my night on the roof, and the boy telling me to watch my step, and the drop.

And how after that night, nothing ever felt right again.

There have been good things.  Enjoyable things. Moments of joy.

But the bad stuff weighs heavy, and it feels oppressive in a way that almost defies reality.

“I talk to people about the walk home and what came after and they tell me that’s just life.  That’s just getting older. Death and people getting hurt–it piles up as you get older. That’s just how it is.  But why would it start all of the sudden and why so much of it all at once so that now I feel like I’m drowning in it?  It can’t go on like this, but it does. It just doesn’t stop. Something else happens every day. And if it’s not in my life–if it’s not personal to me–it’s the world.  What’s happening out there. There’s no break from it. People keep telling me it’s bad luck. But doesn’t that feel–It just feels insulting. Bad luck? I’m okay. Nothing’s happening to me.  But all around me. It’s all around me. What kind of bad luck is that?”

Maybe there’s a place where I dropped, but the world is a little bit better.

“I don’t remember putting my key in the lock.”

That’s not as dark as it sounds.  I don’t mean it in terms of–The world would be better off without me.  I mean it as–Maybe that was what needed to happen in order for other stuff not to happen.  Isn’t that just how the Universe works? The Butterfly Effect? Cause and effect? Parallel realities?

Somewhere I’m not here, but someone else is.

A loved one.

A celebrity.

A stranger.

“Maybe I didn’t make it back here that night–and this is all something else.”

But what else would it be?

I tell her about the drop and everything that came after it.

I tell her about the phone calls where your hearing drops out and the images on the television and emails you wake up to and the ways you find out about people who aren’t here anymore and visits to hospitals and waking up from a nightmare that feels more like the truth than anything you’ve lived up to now.

We’re sitting in a small room lit only by a lamp on the desk.  She’s on the bed. I’m at the desk. The curtains cover the windows.  The coffee mug is nowhere in sight. But everything is neat. Everything is where it should be.

I ask her how she feels.

How she feels now.

“Scared and not scared,” she says. “Scared because I don’t know what’s coming next, and…and not scared because…I’m not sure it matters.”

I try to remember whether or not I stepped onto the space that wasn’t there.  The landing that didn’t exist. The spot where my foot would go first and then the rest of me.

Can you have two sets of memories?

One for what makes sense and one for what lines up with the way your life is now.

Are memories meant to be directions for how we wound up where we are?

A young woman sits on a bed hugging a giraffe, and the light from the lamp on her desk stays on all night and into the next day.

She tells me that’s how she likes it.

She tells me that she’ll never turn it off.