Trigger warning: suicide Stevie Dreger was the first friend I ever lost. He was also the last person in the world I would have expected to kill himself. But regardless of any previous premonitions […]
Trigger warning: suicide
Stevie Dreger was the first friend I ever lost. He was also the last person in the world I would have expected to kill himself. But regardless of any previous premonitions anyone held to him, on that beautiful August day he still walked himself and his beat-up red chucks onto the bridge that connects Shelburne and Buckland and returned himself to the earth. Stevie used to tell me that he didn’t belong to anyone. He told me that one day 16 years ago, the various elements of the earth came together to form one imperfect being: himself. He never explained why; he just knew.
Stevie left notes before he died. He left notes to everyone in his life that he loved, or rather, everyone in his life that would want an explanation. He left notes for everyone he knew would be unsatisfied with simplicity. The simple fact that he was done with living. Not because he was depressed or angry at what the world had or had not handed to him, but because he had done everything he had wanted to do. For years after the fact, I was angry at him for that, but I knew the real reason I was mad at him. The most selfless person I had ever known had gone and done the most selfish thing anyone can do: deprive you of their presence. If the dead can be selfish, maybe they are more alive than we think they are. My anger made him real; more than a pile of dust secure in an ugly vase.
For me, Stevie left a checklist. A wrinkled piece of a legal pad, with five items listed on it. I spent night after night trying to decipher what it meant until I came to a conclusion. They were the five things Stevie wanted to do with his life. By each item was a check mark, written in thick black ink.
There were bystanders on the bridge the day Stevie died. A couple in a blue sedan pulled over as he swung a leg over the railing of the bridge. They said later that as he saw them sprinting in his direction he flashed his crooked smile and waved as he dove into the water, releasing a breath.
Along with the notes, Stevie left a very detailed description of exactly what his funeral would look like. He wrote that under no circumstances whatsoever was anyone to wear black. He also described how he would like his coffin to be brought down the aisle, with a rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” playing in the background. We used to listen to “Purple Rain” on repeat after school sometimes. We would be in Stevie’s room, surrounded by posters of Bowie and Mick Jagger, reading or procrastinating on our homework. After a while of listening to it over and over again, Stevie declared it his favorite song of all time. He had determined that no matter how many times he listened to it, his ears were never bored.
And so there I sat, in my mid-length yellow frock and white sandals, in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception Church, watching the pallbearers in their sky blue suits carry half of my heart in a box down the aisle, tears soaking my handkerchief. I half expected him to open the casket, jump out, and have a laugh.
Stevie was a Catholic, and a devoted one. He didn’t believe in the religious aspect of it, the “God crap” as he so eloquently put it, but still, every Sunday there he was, his blonde curls pushed back, his tie loose on his neck, staring ever so intensely at the priest as he gave his sermon. I asked him once why he went if he didn’t believe any of it. We were lying in a field of dandelions, lying in the opposite directions of each other so our faces were side by side. He didn’t respond to the question at first. Instead, he picked a dandelion, uprooted it from the earth, and pushed my hair behind my ear. He wrapped the stem of the flower around the back of my ear so the pretty part would stick out from my hair. He turned his head and grinned as he told me he went because he loved to observe. Watching hundreds of people give up their time to worship something that he didn’t even believe existed was fascinating to him. He liked all of the old ladies sitting in the pews who always turned around to shake his hand. He liked that they always asked how he was doing, how his mother was and if he had a girlfriend.
I remember after the memorial service my family piled into our beat up white station wagon and drove over to the Dregers. Their brownstone stood at the end of Aster Street, three down from ours. The house looked like it had lost color; the already dull brown bricks looked sadder somehow. I remember their entire living room was crowded, not with family or loved ones, but with lillies. I remember the smell and how it smacked me in the face when I entered the foyer. I had to squeeze onto the couch between Stevie’s little sister and an assortment of colored lilies, each with their own crinkly plastic wrapping and obnoxious ribbon. They were ugly. Plain and ugly. And Stevie was none of those things.
A few months after Stevie died, I went to visit him at the Delphinium St. Cemetery. His headstone had just been finished, a pile of fresh soil surrounded it. Engraved on the stone was his full name: Steven George Dreger, beloved son, brother, and friend. Words that did not hold a candle to all that he was. It was December, and in classic New England fashion, snow piled up everywhere. Stevie’s mother had made sure that his headstone was untouched by anything that could damage it; I had heard from Ms. Richards down the street that his mother had visited the cemetery every evening since the day of his funeral. I brushed the freshly fallen snow off the top of the stone and sat. The snow soaked through my corduroys but I didn’t care.
Surrounding his stone were the putrid lilies that had been at his funeral. I turned my head to avoid the smell. Blended with the lillies was baby’s breath, a somewhat mediocre flower. The arrangement was less than beautiful, so I unwrapped the plastic and rearranged the flowers in a more suitable manner. Still, the bouquet was not perfect. I tried again. And again. At last, I gave up and left the flowers in a pile, the plastic wrapping crinkling in the wind. I stomped out of the cemetery in a fury, unsatisfied with the flowers, unsatisfied with their state of ugliness. Disgruntled, I stormed over to the florist, Mr. Beau, to demand that he make something better. Although Mr. Beau had nothing to do with my dislike of lilies and their putridity, off I went.
Freshman year of high school, Stevie and I went out for a while – only for about a month or so, and it didn’t work out the way we thought it would. Stevie’s stubbornness to reveal anything about his emotions led to our eventual breakup. Or maybe it had been my lack of, well, desire to be in a relationship with anyone. The true cause of our romantic downfall was never found, because two weeks later, his father was in the ICU for a heart attack. Every hole we had stabbed in the very fabric of our relationship was patched. I had been sitting in the lobby of the ICU, Stevie asleep on my shoulder, for three hours before the doctor came out to give us the news. His father was stable, or as stable as can be after a heart attack. Stevie collapsed on the floor in sobs of relief. That was the first time I ever saw him cry.
Mr. Beau called me on New Year’s Eve. I was watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 1985 regardless of how much pain it caused me; Stevie used to love to watch the ball drop. Mr. Beau had called to offer me a job at the flower shop after I had given him a lecture on the importance of flower fragrance. He figured that he would rather have a motivated employee than a disgruntled customer. I started work there in the New Year, after winter break. The store was always humid because we had to keep the flowers warm in the winter. Nobody wants a dead flower.
After Stevie’s father’s heart attack, our relationship went almost back to normal. We still hung out after school every day, had dinner at each other’s houses and whatnot, but I don’t think Stevie ever looked at me the same way. Sometimes I would catch him staring in my direction, his head tilted to the side, his blonde curls falling across his face. “What?” I would say. “Is there something on my face?”. He would look at me in a way words cannot describe and shake his head.
By March, the flower shop had doubled its profits. Mr. Beau was so satisfied with my work that he gave me a 20% pay raise. I could anticipate the needs of every single person that entered the shop just with one look. A young woman in her mid-twenties with freshly manicured nails: a bride in need of a bulk order of roses. A small boy with a collared shirt and blue jeans, hair parted to the side: flowers for his grandmother. A middle aged fat man with a receding hairline: a late present for an anniversary forgotten. I would obsess over the orders, picturing the event in my head and letting my hands do the rest of the work. I watched each of the people walk out of the store, taking in the bouquet I had presented them with, feeling like I had done good work. But I also felt unfulfilled, like there was something missing. Like those people walked out with a bit of me. The bouquets were good, but not good enough – for me, or maybe for Stevie.
I started working overtime in the shop when school ended in May. I had the summer off before college, no internships or extra work that had to be done. I found myself on the stool for hours at a time, forming bouquets for nobody in particular. Customers were rare in the summer, as most people were off at the Cape for the season. While Mr. Beau was on vacation, I moved the lily stand to the back of the store. I couldn’t bear the smell. The days stretched into nights as I put together a million combinations of flowers together. I hadn’t brought any of my flowers to Stevie, it never seemed right.
The obsession grew into something bigger as the summer drew on. I placed orders for more varieties of flowers we could buy for the shop, more combinations that were beautiful, but not Stevie’s beautiful. It reached a point at which I was using so many flowers and wasting them on unsellable bouquets, that Mr. Beau had no choice but to fire me. I was completely devastated, I couldn’t sleep for days, images of multicolored daisies and violets floated in front of me. I felt incomplete.
The day before Stevie died, he called me. He wanted to know if I liked Italian Wedding Soup. I told him I had never tried it before, so three minutes later, there he was, outside my door holding a container of his mother’s homemade Italian Wedding Soup. I poured myself a serving and sat down with him in the breakfast nook. The sun reflecting off of his golden locks was almost blinding. He squinted his eyes intensely as I took a sip. It was delicious. I smiled at him and told him that it was the best soup I had ever had the pleasure of tasting. He nodded in satisfaction and told me that this was the last piece of information that he would ever need to know about me. I never understood the gravity of those words until he was gone.
Stevie never got his perfect bouquet. It was never going to be right. Everything beautiful about Stevie had died with him. But I forgave myself for what I had done. Maybe if I had been a little uglier, or if my hair had been shorter, or if my nose scrunched up at an odd angle when I was thinking, maybe then he wouldn’t have fallen in love with me and maybe then I wouldn’t have been the last task on his list. Because stuffed in the back drawer of my bedroom on Aster Street are the words that completed the short but vivacious life of Stevie Dreger. Stevie used to say that he didn’t belong to anyone, and maybe he didn’t, but as sure as the blue of the sky and the swiftness of the wind moving through the trees, I belonged to him.