It’s a strange thing that feels ridiculous to consider anywhere more public than my own mind, but I think my dead best friend is trying to talk to me in my dreams. I hope it’s true, but how could there be a way of knowing, of finding conclusive proof of whether it’s just my subconscious working out some feelings with my unconscious brain or whether it is real? What is real when you are talking about a ghost?
My friend JJ* died four Augusts ago. I do not know what day, and I have never asked, though I know my friend Dave called to tell me around the 28th (I ignored it because I was on tour, driving). I had not talked to JJ in a while. It had been a year, maybe two, since I had gotten a message from her. I had not seen her since 2008. But even still, I would say I have never been closer to another person, family or friend. I do not think anyone knew me, or understood me, the way she did. I found out at her funeral that she had said the same things about me, when some women from the sober living house where she’d worked as a drug counselor started telling me stories they had heard from her about our friendship and our band from a decade before.
I did not call Dave back—his message was vague—and I did not know the news for another week, until a friend who knew both JJ and me called to ask if I was OK, how was I taking the news. It was the worst “What news?” type of news possible. Apparently, JJ OD’d. Some speculated it was suicide, but even when she was strung out, she was the ultimate bon vivant—suicide did not seem to be her style. I did not ask anything about it. No one offered anything. Nothing changed the fact that she was dead.
I had never been certain that JJ would live a long life, but so many friends who had gone in and out of sobriety and recovery from their drug addictions had beat the odds. So many of the people who JJ helped get sober had stayed sober and lived, so I figured she would too. She was out of my life because it had become too much for me to be with her, to maintain a relationship as she went deeper and deeper towards the bottom; when she would surface, clean, she seemed to have lost her true north, and would be tangled up in strange dramas and bad men. Her relapses back into heroin were taking her to further depths every time. The last time I saw her was in Chicago, and she was behind me, for a second, in traffic. The windows on her car were busted out, and her face looked furious, distorted. I had heard she was maybe living in a sketchy motel out by the airport, trying to get a bed at a detox, trying to get back to L.A. She was into some bad shit. I could not bear to know more, but then there she was. I sobbed hysterically in my car, screamed and pounded, and collapsed into a heap. I was inconsolable.
Later, I would hear from sober friends that they’d seen JJ at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in L.A. and that she was getting her life together again, but then she would disappear. I always figured the time would come when we would be right again. Because amid the grief and sadness that had passed between us, the huge screaming fights about her drug use—still, we were bound together, it was fate. For years, we had introduced each other as “my wife” because “best friend” was too quaint a description for our bond. I felt mad about her dying. What a dumb thing to do.
Last summer, I was in Los Angeles working on a story, and realized I was a mile from JJ’s mom’s house. I called her to pay a visit. Her mother is an ageless Bulgarian beauty, an actress in the old Hollywood tradition (some of her first parts were in Ed Wood films). Her house is filled with art and fancy curtains. She is JJ’s twin in almost every regard, down to the emotive hands and wide-eyed exuberance. She served me tea in delicate teacups; it was like having JJ back for a moment. I almost couldn’t look her in the eye. She took my hand from across the table, and we just cried. “I miss her so much.” “Me, too.” Neither of us had ever really talked about it. About her. About the wide maws in our lives that could only be filled by JJ. My grief felt small against hers, which seemed like it could never find a limit.
Her mother had so many questions for me, but one of the first and the most serious ones, which she asked like I could offer definitive confirmation, was: “Do you think JJ is in heaven playing drums?” I had to consider it. One thing I knew was that if that was where she was, then that’s what she was doing. JJ’s mother’s concern was whether JJ’s spirit had found rest. Because she had seen her—JJ had sat there, a few feet away in the side yard, where her mother had planted a memorial garden. It was a tiny Western-tropical grotto filled with statuary, with a sun-faded laminate picture of JJ, some sweet-faced ancient headshot, hanging at the top. The apparition of JJ had stayed for half an hour, her mother told me. JJ had also come to her in a lucid nap-dream, and when she woke up she was anguished that she was gone again. She wanted to know whether JJ was settled in the afterlife, that she had not been undone by the traumatic manner of her death.
“What do you mean?” I asked as tenderly as possible. As a mother myself, the last thing I ever want to ask another mother to do is to recount to me the facts of her child’s terrible death, but I was confused. But the answer I got was confusing. And it changed every resigned feeling I’d had about JJ’s death.
According to her mother, JJ had, a day or two before she died, moved into a junkie den, where she planned to stay for just a few days before entering a detox facility. She wanted to clean up and return to the sober living house where’d been working. Her mother had called JJ to get the exact address, but JJ was driving and insisted she would call her back. At some point the same day, JJ was hit by a car, as a pedestrian, but rather than go to a hospital, she went into the house where she was staying and got high to blunt the pain. She realized something was very wrong, that she was in trouble, and started calling people to help her, but she was too loaded to tell anyone where she was. Her mom still has the answering machine messages of JJ crying, pleading for her help. After calling every hospital and person she knew in town for days, her mom got a call from the county coroner.
I suddenly understood her concern for JJ’s spirit.
I suddenly wanted to know everything.
She died trying to live.
In my dream, I was visiting Jabberjaw, a club our band had played in, a place that was central to our lives in L.A. Back then it was dank, as punk clubs were. In the dream it was all white, fixed up, spartan. Drums were in the corner, and I recognized the setup. Through a curtained-off room on the side, old friends from that scene, people who had been lost to suicide and drugs, passed by, saying nothing, and last came JJ. She looked at me, and then followed the others out the door. That moment between us plays in my mind as clear as if it were waking life, or clearer. I woke up thinking I had to write her mom, I know for sure. Because I saw her. Because if she was anywhere but here with us, that is where she would be, what she would be doing. She is in that heavenly Jabberjaw, giving drum lessons to kids. She wants us to know.
I woke up so excited. I had not dreamed about her in years, since she was alive, even. I saw her. I saw JJ in my dream, I told my husband. Real JJ. I did not want to explain. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to be left alone, giddy with the prospect. I wanted nothing to disturb that tenuous dream-world tether between us. Talking was too clunky, concrete. It sounded dumb. Because of course it did; because of course I would want it to be real.
A few weeks later I had a dream where someone was spelling, very deliberately, over and over, names with the initials JJ. In the dream, I had a strangely lucid and active dialogue with myself to remember this, to take this into awake-life with me, like some little shell I scuttled off the ocean floor. This time, I thought—or, to be more precise, I felt—it was her knocking on the door to say, Yes, yes, I am here, I am around, I am not gone completely, I am here within you.
I have not written to her mother. I have failed, until this very writing, to even get that dream down. To make sense of the new information about her death, new information that would not allow me to imagine that she had just sort of withered away in the sad inevitability of heroin. It made me wonder what her life could have become. It made me fantasize about her having been on the precipice of what she could have reclaimed in sobriety, including our friendship—though she could more easily have embarked on another few years of being strung out.
I think about her death with less resignation and much more sadness now, but I claim these dreams as spiritual interactions rather than just my brain trying to salve my broken heart. These dreams are a tiny sign that our connection has not been severed—that there is still a we. ♦
* JJ, whose first name was Jessica, has a sister, Jennifer, who also goes by JJ and who lives in Los Angeles.