Kai sits on the stool next to me, her wide lips red, the fine lines around her eyes showing that she hasn’t slept really well for a few days. We drink and smoke, because that is what we do at Murphy’s, and that alone marks this as memory. Bob-the-bartender, who flirts with me whenever he is safely behind the bar, keeps the Harps coming. The Friday night crowd swells behind us, but we are regulars, so these damn stools are ours. Live music starts, but there’s nothing special about the duo. No angelic voices, and too much crap-Irish-bar favorites. Seriously, when did “Puff the Magic Dragon” become Irish? Kai’s eyes dance and we talk about everyone we see, she talks about Jarbo, I talk about divorce, she laughs at something I say, and I love the smokey rasp the bar gives to our voices. I am 28-years-old; she is somewhat older. I do not know exactly because we never talk about the past in any concrete way. Kai and I exist in the now, this moment, no worries except if Jarbo will show and if Bob will ever come past that wall of oak and brass.
We see the two young soldiers pushing through the crowd toward us. Pale heads, fresh crewcuts, unlined faces, and nervous eyes. Babes in Murphy’s on a Friday night. Lord help them. They try so hard to be older than they are, but to us they are children, and we both feel motherly toward them. We get Bob to bring them drinks: I purr something at him and he doesn’t ask for IDs. They start to think they are making headway, and Kai asks the blonder one, just how old are you? He stammers, and I ask the darker one, just how old are we? He balks, and we laugh gently, and launch them toward younger women here and there. Watching them ford the crowd, we think for a moment this is unusual, something that we should remember and write about, a scene for a novel, or a play. Definitely not poetry, we laugh.
Jarbo arrives very late. He stumbles into Kai, and says something unmemorable. The old night clouds with too much smoke and my throat aches from shouting over the other voices. I watch Kai tend to the scrawny man and wonder for the thousandth time what exactly binds her to him. Bob-the-bartender slips away without me noticing. Final call, and another Friday night at Murphy’s ends.
The scene never made it into any novel. Kai finished her MFA; I did not. Jarbo died in the late 1990’s never having divorced his phantom wife, as far as I can tell. I did finally look up his art – a sculpture of Don Quixote, a bas-relief in a church, a bust in the Smithsonian – and perhaps I now see that there was something to him that made that drunken, decrepit person into an artist Kai could adore. I moved away; Kai eventually settled down south. I found her years later on facebook, and we made a few comments on posts here and there, but she never spent much time on facebook. So I did not notice that she stopped posting. I tagged her in something last year, but did not look to see if she noticed. Our relationship lived in that long ago “now” so completely that we never adjusted to being friends moving forward through the years.
Kai’s sister posted a picture last week that said “Missing Kai.” It slipped through the algorithm to my feed, and I thought, has she moved again? No. Or yes, completely. Kai died almost three years ago, close to my birthday. How can you process knowing that someone so vibrant ceased and you never felt her passing? In a very real way, Kai still sits on a worn barstool, her lovely face wreathed in smoke, and we are laughing; nothing in the past tense works with my memories of her. But equally clear, I have no one like her in my life now, no absolutely present companion. I have lost the ability to create the perfect world of one moment, and instead live a diminished, sensible life of past-present-future.
Kai’s facebook page remains open, as if she has just stepped away for a bit, and will return shortly. Facebook displays a decidedly warped sense of humor where the dead are never truly gone. I can tell when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize just by counting the videos on her feed. Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee are there as well, speaking words of wisdom about the craft of writing. And then I find an old video of Modern English singing “I Melt With You” and I am suddenly young and dancing with Kai. Finally I scroll past enough posts to reach Adrienne Rich mourning the dead. “Be kinder to yourself.” I stop reading Kai’s entries.
This is now the world in which Kai is dead. It is a novel that I don’t know how to write, but it is a novel that I write all the same.
For the Dead
by Adrienne Rich
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer
The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself
I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped
or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight