Live Through This

Empty With You Gone

I found an unlikely friend, and then I lost her.

***

Even after I had come around to Jamie’s virtues, I still felt conflicted about her unapologetic excessiveness. I wasn’t sure if I disapproved or was just jealous about how much she seemed not to care. She ate and drank the same way she danced: with abandon. Her body always made me think of the words “perfectly spherical”—she was petite and rotund, all belly and bosom with incongruously skinny limbs. She was insecure about her weight and talked about it a lot, even as we were sampling pizza and gelato all over town, eating as if we were trying to cram all of Italy into our mouths at once. Bologna, with its nickname la grassa (the fat one), is probably the worst place in the world to try to diet. It’s not famous for its museums or churches, but for its trattorie, which serve tiny handmade tortellini in broth, silky lasagna, tart Lambrusco on tap. It’s the capital of handmade pastas (the aforementioned tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle al ragù) and famous for its meats (mortadella, culatello, bresaola, speck, prosciutto from Parma). Our program organized cooking classes that were basically excuses to get drunk on wine and full on the food we had just folded by hand.

We all ate like pigs, but Jamie always seemed to go farther, get drunker, and eat more than anyone, even though she suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic condition that made it hard to digest food and lowered her immunity against bacteria and viruses. The Crohn’s wasn’t something that she liked to dwell on, but it wasn’t something she kept secret, either. She’d flippantly allude to her high school hospital stays and the drugs she was supposed to take, but she never made her incurable illness sound that burdensome. Even when she was suffering, she would minimize the seriousness of it. Once, as I was descending the narrow stairs from our program’s office, I came around a corner to find Jamie leaning against the cool plaster. Her face was as white as the wall, her eyes squeezed tight, her mouth in an awful grimace, and she was clutching her stomach.

“Are you OK?” I asked. “Did you eat something bad?”

“This just happens sometimes,” she gasped. “I’m all right, I just need to breathe.” Without the force field of laughter, I could see that she was soft and scared. I had known her only a few months at that point, not long enough to know her well—not even long enough to really know if you love someone. But I worried about her. As I got to know her, I got to see her vulnerabilities and her habit of making light of her pain, both physical and emotional. She shrugged off her Crohn’s like it was salsa verde, or an obnoxious professor, or the sporcaccioni (dirty old men) who hissed at us from the shadows of Via San Vitale. I guess I didn’t realize then how sensitive she really was, or how quickly her body would give her up.

Jamie wanted to be loved, in all the ways. She gave her cell phone number to the dudes from the club and they would call her right away, minutes after we’d left. We’d already be eating drunk pizza and she’d giggle mischievously between bites while they begged her to come back. Sometimes she would. In the light of day, she would laugh off her own licentiousness, but then I’d see the way she’d droop when her oblivious program crush talked about the hotness of Italian women while asking to borrow $5.

Some things are harder to laugh off, some things easier. She was always locking herself out of the dorm. She left her bags and belts and jangly jewelry all over town, as if everything pretty in life could be easily replaced. She bought herself a watch from a fancy Italian boutique and promptly lost it. So she bought the same one a second time. She lost that one, too.

I don’t think it’s just the 11 years of hindsight that allows me to see a leitmotif of loss running through that time. Sitting in the kitchen of her dorm suite on a rainy evening toward the end of the semester, Jamie sang me a song she had written, titled “To Bologna.” Will you be a little more empty with me gone? / Will you be a little less full without me? / I’ll think of you sometimes / When I catch myself quiet. The first time I heard her sing those lyrics, I felt closer to Jamie than ever before. Even though she laughed and I brooded, we both felt the same swirling anxiety about who we were in the world, worried about the time we were wasting, what and who we were missing, and who would miss us when we had left all this behind. Everything seemed so goddamn ephemeral, as fleeting as the fancy watches Jamie couldn’t keep on her arm.

When summer finally arrived in Bologna, it was easier to forget that we were coming close to the end. After class, we sat in the piazza and drank fizzy pink cocktails while eavesdropping on the old men arguing about politics. We tried on flamboyant hats: hot-weather chapeaus with plumes and gauzes, and dared each other to purchase the ones with the most Technicolor feathers. We explored the university’s secret courtyards and hidden libraries, which seemed suddenly illuminated by the summer sun. We ate gelato in the park until our stomachs ached and our fingers were disgustingly sticky.

***

In June, after our official semester abroad was over, I said goodbye to Jamie and Bologna. In the antiseptic lobby of our dorm, Jamie threw her arms around my neck and I squeezed her body to mine, the height difference between us placing her head right at my chest. “I’ll see you in the fall,” I said to the air above her head. I stared down at the pale pink part in her fine, sandy-colored hair. I was going to travel more, and she was heading back to the States to spend the summer at home in Connecticut. We both giggled at the idea of hanging out on the grassy hill of our college campus after our absurd Italian adventures. I grabbed my bags and waved to her without knowing it was for the last time.

A few weeks after she got home, before I’d even returned from Europe, Jamie’s parents checked her into the hospital, because she was having trouble breathing. I didn’t think much of my unanswered emails, but in July, a friend forwarded me a disconcerting message from Jamie’s mom, explaining that a virulent strain of mononucleosis was wreaking havoc on Jamie’s immune system, that her condition was not improving, and she might not return to college in the fall. I kept hoping that everyone was overreacting. But before the doctors knew what was happening, her mono mutated into lymphoma. Her family tried chemotherapy, but the treatments sapped the life from Jamie’s embattled body.

By the first week of September, she was dead. At her memorial in Connecticut, Jamie’s mom told us that when she had gone through the things that had come home with her from Italy, she had found a bunch of watchcases, their plush insides free of precious booty. She wondered why her daughter had thought to cart the empty boxes back across the Atlantic. She asked us: What was it Jamie had tried to save?

***

Right before we left Bologna, Jamie announced her intention to get a tattoo. She told us she was considering getting her initials, J.A.H., inked onto her wrist.

“Jah!?” We teased her. “You mean, like Rastafarian for ‘God’?” So instead, she got a solitary cursive J.

“Why?” I asked her, when she returned from the tattoo parlor. We were in the dorm, heading outside to study in the sunlight. I didn’t have any tattoos myself, and I was always curious what drove people to mark their flesh with something so indelible. “I want to remember Italy,” she said. “I want to remember this time.” In the next few weeks, I’d often catch her staring at her wrist, bending her hand back until it was perpendicular to her forearm, so that the ink stood out against the blue veins of her white skin. I didn’t understand it then, but now I believe that she was admiring the permanence of the thing, the memory becoming one with her body. She couldn’t have known that only one would last. ♦

Page

1 2

28 Comments

  • Sophie ❤ June 6th, 2013 3:18 PM

    All I can say is… oh, my, gosh.

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • chiara_ June 6th, 2013 3:19 PM

    This is so beautifully written, I have no words to express how much I loved this.
    Intense memories seen through a veil of melancholic nostalgia. This was both fierce and delicate. Brava.
    I live near Florence, so Bologna isn’t that far. I am glad you have built such great memories in the State I live in.
    I am so happy your friend had the chance of living so intensely before the illness took over.
    Sono ricordi speciali che porterai sempre nel cuore.

  • Emma S. June 6th, 2013 3:42 PM

    Lovely, Rose. xoxoxo

  • MaddieMae June 6th, 2013 3:51 PM

    This is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read <3 I love that you were able to dwell and write for so long about the good times you had together (and the food, which sounded delicious!); I just lost a friend of mine in March.

  • Flower June 6th, 2013 3:53 PM

    the beginning part is kind of is kind of ironic after the whole horse meat scandal in the uk
    but shfhfuhgdjshdfgfj so beauifully written <3

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Elizabete June 6th, 2013 3:55 PM

    Beautifully written indeed, kind of bittersweet.

    I can not imagine how devastating losing a friend is, I have also noticed there have been quite a few articles about loss of close people here on rookie, uh…

  • vanessaishere June 6th, 2013 4:48 PM

    This article is excellent!! My rite of passage occurred when I was walking home from school in the 8th grade, and a couple of white dudes in a red pick-up truck screamed the n-word out of the window at me. I couldn’t believe it, I froze up and tried to deny what had just happened. Even thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. Racism is ugly, and it’s really nice to have an article like this that I (and other PoC) can relate to. :)

  • Josefina June 6th, 2013 5:22 PM

    You write prolifically. I’m sorry for your loss. I wish I could say more, but I was really moved by your story and the way you took notice of what was going on, how you knew Jamie beyond her appearance. x

  • elliecp June 6th, 2013 5:41 PM

    This is both truly beautiful and completely heartbreaking. such a difficult thing to go through, let alone write so well about x

  • Emmie June 6th, 2013 5:48 PM

    If I’d known, I wouldn’t have read this in public. I wish I could sob a little in my room right now! This is absolutely beautiful. The way you describe Jamie really reminds me of one of my friends, so it feels a little closer than usual.
    I’m so sad you lost your friend.

  • KatGirl June 6th, 2013 6:01 PM

    This is amazing, and just what it feels like to lose someone. Bologna!!!! Che bello! <3

  • KatGirl June 6th, 2013 6:03 PM

    I have actually had a similar experience…. and in Italy, too.

  • abby111039 June 6th, 2013 6:05 PM

    How beautiful. I cannot truthfully say I’ve experienced the pain of losing a friend like this, but reading your memories brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Jasmine June 6th, 2013 6:13 PM

    wow, so beautifully written. thank you for sharing x

  • Kourtney June 6th, 2013 6:44 PM

    This was so beautifully written. I felt I was there with you and Jamie during the good times. I felt the nostalgia from the impending summer and the affection between you two. I’m sorry for your loss. I just appreciate you sharing, because it was lovely.

    Rest in peace, Jamie.

  • Elyse June 6th, 2013 10:13 PM

    this is amazingly written…. Jamie was my best friend in High School and I spent hours with her in the hospital during her final two months – I gave one of the eulogies at her memorial… thank you for writing this, sharing it with Judy, Fred and Kari – thank you for portraying her so perfectly.

    }j{ “what would i want with small dreams”

  • eliza dolittle June 7th, 2013 7:52 AM

    my grandmother died from alzheimer’s last night, and i cried a lot while reading this but it was also really cathartic. maybe, when i’m reading, i’ll write something like it. thank you for your beautiful writing <3

    • Rose June 7th, 2013 1:37 PM

      I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Sending you and your family big hugs. xo

  • ladyamirno June 7th, 2013 9:46 AM

    This story is beautiful, and I love the way you wrote it.
    It especially resonated with me because I went on a school trip a few weeks ago to Florence, and had an experience there very similar to yours, and the friend I was with was very similar to Jaime, and also has Chrone’s disease, and I am exactly like your narrator. My friend went to the hospital yestetday to get sugery, I really hope she will be fine.

  • EastOfParis June 7th, 2013 11:03 AM

    I really enjoyed this. I have Crohn’s and sometimes it’s the coolest thing to read about someone else experiencing it, especially in an incredible person like Jamie. Thanks for sharing.

  • witheringslytherin June 7th, 2013 9:45 PM

    this is absolutely beautiful

  • Kal June 7th, 2013 10:28 PM

    This piece is so beautiful and completely tearing. The relationship you have with a person when you meet them in a circumstance like your semester abroad is so different from just a normal relationship and you illustrated that vulnerability so perfectly. I love this so much.

    zymurgyprocess.com

  • spudzine June 8th, 2013 8:06 PM

    This was so sad and beautiful. The writing was also fab. The writing reminded me of the writing of John Green, but this was very and obviously unique in its own right. This was truly beautiful. I can’t believe a short story could be so beautifully written. It was short and sweet and poetic. Thank you for contributing this writing to the public.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Epitaph June 9th, 2013 12:09 PM

    This prose is stunningly lyrical, iridescent, descriptive, and lucid. There are countless flavorful adjectives I could use to describe it. It has the feel of The Great Gatsby told from a woman’s perspective. Writers are repeatedly told by teachers to show and not tell and you did exactly that. You transported me on a personal journey that was enthralling and utterly captivating. The story itself is tragic and deeply melancholy, but the craftswomanship is impeccable and marvelous. Please make a novel about your experiences. I would be totally done for proofreading it! – boblegof21@yahoo.com

  • Taylor WM June 10th, 2013 3:48 PM

    This piece has left me very still… not exactly sombre, but just, more thoughtful. It is beautifully written, and I am sorry for the loss of somebody who seemed like such a wonderful person.

  • Nikilodeon July 1st, 2013 8:31 AM

    thank you for sharing your story, rose. i’m tearing up as i write this because jamie reminds me very much of my best friend. recently, something happened between us and i have lost her, too. but it ended badly and i don’t know what to do. i am happy that she is healthy and okay, but i feel sad because i miss her so much. your article was painful to read but also enlightening, because it made me realize that i should just accept and cherish the friendship that we had rather than mourn over what we have lost.

    thank you.

  • TheBlueGardens August 26th, 2013 11:20 AM

    Oh my…so beautiful.

  • Lydia Jane October 3rd, 2013 10:30 PM

    Wow, this is so freaking beautiful. I feel like I’m going to cry now.