My name is John Lee and today would’ve been my 19th birthday.
I would’ve woken up to my mother’s gongee and fell asleep stuffed with chocolate cake. Max and Dan and I would’ve stumbled through the student lobby so crossfaded that Mr. Fusco would’ve looked like Sami Perlowitz. While we waited for a substitute teacher to load a Beckett short film, someone would’ve spotted my name on the school channel and passively wished me a happy birthday. Today Erin would’ve tossed me a handy between periods as a last minute birthday gift, my environmental science teacher would’ve rolled his eyes as I used it as an excuse for once again not doing the assignment, and I would’ve been so preoccupied with my future that I’d waste an extra moments just trying to detect the perfect wish before executing the fires on the candles.
But instead I am a name on rock above a empty grave. I am lingering residue of flesh on train tracks somewhere down the Island, scattered skin cells and stained blood a few miles from the pass that runs through Robbins Lane. I am a memory, something my classmates tagged in RIP facebook statuses, regardless if they had even met me before my passing. I am the reason a mother who’d never heard of me before cries when her daughter says she’s going out. I am a comment in my principal’s graduation speech, something my class survived, a symbol of how fucking strong they all are, how they pulled together, made our school a place that is “not defined by tragedy, but our ability to survive it.”
Today my sister pulls a letter of admission from a state school out of our mailbox and debates if she open it. Is it a crime to open the deceased’s mail? What would be the point of a college wanting me there? She can’t even have me here. Why read a question that will never get a response?
Today the uptight yearbook editor struggles to find a photo of me where I don’t look intoxicated so she can glorify someone with my name and face, but not me in a back page. She fails, whispering in the back of her mind that I was asking for it, that John Lee lived too recklessly. After the blank pages are saturated with mementos and “have a great summer”s my friends will flip to it and think John Lee really lived. But the rest of Syosset, New York, the ones without yearbooks to inscribe meaningless nostalgia into will remember that John Lee died.
Today the captain of the speech team is shaking his head, remarking to a debater how my passing was a missed opportunity to have a dialogue about drugs. But I am not a conversation, a platform for reform, an anecdote to humanize an argument. I am not your dead baby story, a pair of tweezers to tug at some heart strings. I am John Lee and today my mother lit nineteen candles and watched the night wind decapitate their flames, muttering old Korean prayers and fantasizing that my spirit has made a final wish. I am the unanswered phone call from my father made back in Seoul, the musical message he left on our machine, because you don’t tell people their children are dead over the phone. A brutal reality needs a delicate delivery. Today I am a secret, one that will only be told when he gets back from his long term job he took to pay for an education I will never get.
Today three more rumors passed through the streets. They say that the boys and I were playing a game of dare, and when they told me to get on the train tracks I did. As the metal beast carved through the wooden lines, they obeyed each other’s cries to run but I was tangled in a mess of ignorant drunkenness too heavy to let my feet fly. They say that I was so fucked up that I wanted to die. That I couldn’t feel my mind or body anymore that I wandered onto the tracks searching for a romantic suicide. They say I just fell.
I listen to assumptions drizzling from ear to ear, hoping that maybe one of them are right. I watch them say I am the only one who knows the truth, and I laugh because my guess is as good as anyone’s. I was too high to remember. It’s funny how in death you walk towards the light, but as I died I was blacking out, retreating in a dark area of my mind.
I don’t think I wanted to die.
I don’t feel honored when hundreds of crying classmates cradle candles beside the place where street met train, I don’t feel connected to the orange lights. I don’t feel close to anyone. I’m here but I’m thousands of miles away, like a former lover turned stranger. They’re speaking to me and I’m responding, asking for forgiveness in my mother’s bedroom, cracking a final joke with the guys, wondering if now that all the girls I hit on are drenched in tears would be more likely to get me laid. But all there is is the silence, the piercing silence that my voice can’t seem to chase away. It’s like we’re both calling at the same time, desperate to reconnect. No words come through.
Today I played hooky for what definitely wasn’t, but felt like, the first time. I walked through my favorite deli, watching them spread butter across bagels I couldn’t taste. At the elementary school park, I sat on swings that refused to sway. I felt Max breathe out the remains of yet another joint in his basement but couldn’t get high. At Cold Spring Harbor I let my bare feet collide with the crashing waves and jagged rocks yet it was undeniably dry. My skin endured an unquenchable thirst. Skipping class had lost its luster now that I wasn’t obligated to come. I went back to Syosset High School, wandered through its halls. I envied my classmates in jazz band and forensics and science olympiad and all the other extracurricular activities I never bothered to join. At the library I rustled through books I always thought I was too good to read, my stomach growling each time my eyes smashed into a conclusion because I will never have an ending. I’m over, done. John Lee has no resolution.
I laid in bed with my weeping mother and hyperventilating sister, stroking their arms up and back, something I had been too cool to do since I was kid. The only thing I want more than to apologize is the chance to be forgiven. But they love me too much to ever accept that I did it wrong. I’m not sorry for dying, but I’m a dick for abandoning them. I was supposed to be the man, their hero, but at the end of the day, all I needed was rescuing.
I spent my nineteenth birthday in my house, knowing that it would never again be my home.