The dead are always under construction.
What does it mean when I say Alice
and I mean , and , and ?
The body-count in my MFA manuscript was too high—the solution? Combine. Call all the women Alice. It solved a lot of textual problems, letting them be one, my three ex-girlfriends who died or lived so similarly. It was easier for the reader. It was easier for me. Am I erasing them or protecting them, when I combine their lives?
In some ways was a repetition of and , as I was a repetition of for .
To put it another way, we hadn’t learned from our mistakes.
We were just starting to see the pattern.
“The first few years of my life were original, then I kept replaying the same scenes with new actors,” I said, trying to explain myself, to make some kind of amends.
“We all do that to some extent,” replied. “Addiction is repetition.”
We met in college. In rehab in our late teens. In a club on 8th St with rainbow streamers dripping from the ceiling.
overdosed. , probably intentionally. is missing, nobody who I know knows where. I keep hoping will resurrect, but I doubt it.
But that’s not the whole story. They each had families, histories, dreams that had nothing to do with one another. Nothing to do with me.
“Where do you get off telling these stories?” might ask me.
“I get off just fine,” I might reply. We bantered like that. We never took things too seriously.
“Stop being evasive,” would say.
I know partial truths. ’s dad loved her. I don’t think that would have changed if she’d told him she was gay, but she was afraid. He was older, traditional, Italian, and she’d lost her mother already. Her dad wanted her to wear her mom’s wedding dress when she got married. She couldn’t risk pushing the one remaining parent away.
I liked being her secret. I still do, though it’s stranger without her. There’s a part of her I know that no one else does.
had a child she said was her niece. Her sister told me the truth after died. Her ‘niece’ wasn’t so much younger than me. I guess that’s probably why she lied. Both of us had lied about our ages when we met. We both knew that, though not to what extent.
Revisions began long before Alice was born.
had a pet salamander with plump pink skin that always made me feel like he was naked in a way unlike typical animal-naked. For some reason that made me feel vulnerable. I didn’t like to have sex in the same room as the salamander. thought that was funny and would move his cage to different parts of the apartment to catch me off guard. Maybe he was a gecko? Maybe he is a screen-memory, an image developed from my fear of intimacy, which has no relation to my lizard-anxiety. I had gained weight and was afraid to get naked. Most lizards don’t scare me.
had a pair of Siamese cats to get back to, if she could only convince her parents to let her come home. All she wanted was to go back home, unlike who never wanted to live anywhere more than a year and kept a blue duffle bag with a passport and black tees and jeans in the front passenger seat of her Corolla. Part of me wanted to take me with her when she went. Part of me wanted to go.
could have sung soprano for the MET Opera, or gone back to being a concert pianist. Who knows what she would have done with more time. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, to craft fictions where she takes a bow and the crowd throws roses, and I tell the patron in the seat next to me, “I used to date her!” Or I’m backstage and she kisses me after the lights dim.
was born in Bay Shore and sprayed sea salt into her blonde curls to texturize them when she missed her old neighborhood. I use the same hairspray when I miss her.
could be a real asshole, I’m told, when she didn’t get her way, which resulted in expulsions from private schools and a series of debate championship trophies that I imagine her mom still keeps dust-free in her childhood bedroom in New Jersey. She might have been a good lawyer. It was impossible to win an argument against her, whether or not she believed what she was saying.
“Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” I asked .
“Being right makes me happy.”
Right or wrong, I collapsed and
and even though they each had whole lives apart from me. If they were here to write their stories, would I even be in them?
“If I were alive, would we still be together?” asked me once in a dream. We both knew the answer. In dreamland we just smiled back at each other and laughed.
Alice can’t hold all that, though she tries. If the Latin root for fiction, fingere, means to form, as in sculpt or shape, then all poetry is fiction. It’s a construction even if it’s true.
Alice is pure form, an empty container I’ve poured other people’s stories and my memories into. Most of those stories really happened, but to whom? To what extent can you process the truth, before it’s a lie?
“Don’t push it,” would say. She would be pissed if she knew how I’ve written her. We never agreed on our story.
“But we’re all fictions anyway,” used to say. was comfortable not knowing. I loved her for that.
would be flattered. “Just be sure to depict me as thin,” she used to joke. She wasn’t really joking. We ate mostly avocados and tortilla chips the summer we lived together, then she stopped eating even that. She hated to be full, was starting to carve out an absence before she left.
was always a wildcard. “Only liars have this much anxiety about telling the truth,” she once told me. I don’t remember what I was trying to explain, what lie I was trying to rewrite.
What do we owe the people who can’t talk back? Alice talks back a lot in my poems. But can I guess what , , or would really say? I play fill-in-the-blanks over and over again.
Mostly I think it’s me talking back.
“At least this way you get the last word.”
“Fuck you, Alice.”
There’s another problem with repetition:
and were happening at the same time, which I guess is not actually repetition, but simultaneity.
Were happening is not an honest phrase, though perhaps the past-progressive is the only appropriate tense to describe grief, the past reaching forward, developing. I’m not sure I’d describe this as grief anymore. No. More processing. It’s an ongoing conversation I have with them, with the parts of me that speak in their voices. There are very few sharp edges left, only blanks I can live with, easily, and glide over. In the decade since they’ve died, their images are still surfacing.
“You’re being evasive again,” would say.
I’m not being honest when I say Alice was my ex-girlfriend, which is the quick explanation I usually give when someone asks about the series of poems titled after her. In reality, and I were friends who were fucking in secret, which I fear sounds less credible, like a less legitimate grief. Polyamory wasn’t something we were talking about back when we were happening. I’m not sure that’s what I’d call it even now. Friends is most accurate, the fucking was secondary. But let’s be honest, I usually love my friends more committedly than I do my partners.
and I were together but unlabeled, undefined. Our long-standing on-again-off-again ride had been done for a year when I found out what happened. I only found out she had died because I wanted to be on-again.
and knew about each other, but they never met.
is another story altogether, a story with a similar ending: a funeral I didn’t go to, a grave I have yet to visit. If had lived longer, I don’t know if would still identify as a woman. I’d found estrogen blockers and T in the search history on our shared laptop, and after we stopped seeing each other went by a more gender-neutral name, but evaded the question when I asked years ago. So perhaps ex-girlfriend is a multilayered wrong. I wish I’d gotten to see who would have become. I think would like who I’ve become.
“I’m better at failing than you,” used to tell me, “it makes life easier.”
It’s easier to say, my ex OD’d, than to say that two people I loved intimately died and another is missing. The one who is missing pulled a Lazarus once. Facebook RIP messages told me she was dead, I erupted in tears in supermarkets and post-office lines for weeks, I smashed a GPS unit and cracked my laptop screen. Then she called me, months later. Resurrection. She’d been in a long-term treatment facility upstate for nearly two years. One person made a mistake, posted it, then all of us after, and when she had access to social media again, she got to read through and see just how loved she was.
We met once after that, at an Irish bar in Westchester where she ordered a bacon cheeseburger she actually ate and seemed to enjoy. When we hugged goodbye, she held me solidly. Then she went dark again. New Facebook RIPs. She hasn’t resurfaced in over five years, but who knows? My reality is that she’s gone. I want to be wrong.
These are just facts, but they seem unreal to me laid out like that, skewed. I can’t reproduce the truth of who these people were. Facts open into a lot of blank spaces, into questions I don’t like being asked, because I never got to ask them. How do you answer the unknown truthfully?
“Most poems are failed attempts at resurrections,” my mentor (also a composite character) repeats to me.
I’ve written and revised, restitched pieces of our lives again and again. There is no version where I don’t love them. There is no version where I love them well enough that they come back. Why keep trying? More accurately, why can’t I not try?
If every time we unearth a memory it erodes, how much do I truly remember of , and , and ? Is there any authentic material left? They’ve been dead now longer than I knew them.
I miss them, but not every day. Most days their absence doesn’t sting.
I get angry at the stupidest things. That will never pay taxes. That had borrowed my asymmetrical floral skirt and now I’ll never get it back. I can’t remember the pattern, but I remember the way it draped over my body softly and fluttered out like wings when I walked. It looked better on her.
I’m mad that I’ll never really know why did it.
“You should have picked up the phone when I called.”
That last time we would have spoken, I hit decline. I was trying to end a pattern. Mission accomplished.
“You’ll just have to live with it.”
Sometimes in my excavations I come across something that doesn’t belong.
In a dream, will be blonde or will flash me someone else’s smile. I try to remember the way held her pencil, why it sort of annoyed me because it was strange, her fingers out of order, but my mind won’t outline her fingers or move my own into position.
The wait-time between recall and image gets longer and longer. I’m afraid one day, the Polaroid won’t develop, or it will capture and freeze the wrong image. One day, will be playing piano, though she hated classical music, preferred techno?
“You should have picked up the phone.”
I honestly can’t tell if I like techno, the pulsing, repetitive beat and electronicized song voice vibrating the air. I don’t know if really liked it either. Maybe she just thought it was funny that I couldn’t write with that sound blaring over our speakers. Some nights we did molly and those notes filled the blank air with velvet we folded over ourselves like joy.
“You’re being evasive again.”
’s right. ’s always right. Here’s the thing. I don’t blame myself for . But I still feel guilty.
“Guilt is a useless emotion,” my mentor says.
However much I dress up and process the past, the fact is, I hit decline. I don’t get to know what she would have said, what blanks she would have filled in.
Would it have mattered?—if I’d picked up the phone? What would it have changed?
There would be different questions. There’s no knowing.
Maybe the mistake is trying to craft a narrative that makes sense.
“We keep splitting open, until we hold all these people, and then it becomes about finding your own voice in the crowd,” my mentor told me when died. She was writing a poem about how, when she was weary and couldn’t make an important decision, she’d begun to ask her dead friends for help.
I still talk to my Alices. I ask them questions.
tries to convince me to do the next brave thing, to return the difficult phone call or begin the new poem.
says “fuck it,” and lets me know when it’s time to give up.
is always a wildcard. I can’t predict what words will come.
They’re gone. But we argue. Who knows where I end and they begin?
I wish I really believed in heaven, an afterlife, ghosts, something along those lines. But I don’t remember if anything came before this, and I don’t expect to remember this life when it’s done. But I do believe them, sometimes, when they answer back while I’m in the shower, or driving, when I’m trying to introspect.
We contain multitudes.
I don’t really care if it’s illusion or projection.
If you type fiction into Google, Lewis Carroll’s Alice is the first image that appears. She’s a form forged from real people too.
I conflated , collapsed , altered , people whose identities I’ve reduced to produce someone new, someone I can live with. Alice.
“Be real with me,” used to say. Meaning, be honest. I wish it meant, be as you are, all that contradictory quagmire you are, and I’ll be as I am too, alongside you.
None of us really got to that point before it was too late, that imagined space where we’re fully ourselves. We were still forming. Early in our relationships. Early in our 20s. I was still putting on lip gloss before we went to bed. was still going by she and told me she was happy. ’s father was taking her to have her mother’s wedding dress taken-in. was planning her escape. So many layers of truth. Which one’s real?
Am I being real now?
Depending when you look, from what angle, the image is different, developing. The moment it captures is gone.
Alice sits at a black and white checkered table, writing a story I’m too far away to read.
Jamie L. Smith is a PhD student at the University of Utah. She received her MFA in creative writing from CUNY Hunter in 2020. Her work appears or is forthcoming in publications including the Bellevue Literary Review, Pigeon Pages, the San Antonio Review, Salt Front, Not-Very-Quiet, and Tusculum Review, as well as recent anthologies by Indie Blu(e) and Allegory Ridge.
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