If his parents hadn’t put that godawful quote in his obituary, I probably never would’ve thought twice about Marley. But as it happened, I heard my father sobbing quietly into his morning paper one day and carefully approached him to offer comfort. I thought we’d gone through the worst by then, he no longer drank himself to sleep every night as he’d done for months when mother passed away. He no longer forgot how many plates it took to set the table. He even ventured a smile from time to time, and asked about my schoolwork with increasing frequency. Neither of us was truly over it, of course, but it felt like the wounds had begun closing. Until that morning.
I approached him from the back and saw what he was looking at. It was a picture of a teenage boy, who seemed to be around my age, maybe a bit older, and looked vaguely familiar. There was only one high school in my town, and though it was a big one, I’d probably passed him by in the hallways sometime. The photo itself though would not have made my father cry, even if seeing someone die as young is always tragic. It was what was written underneath.
„Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!“
My mother adored Keats, which probably contributed to her always egging me on to become a writer. It can’t be argued that it wasn’t something I enjoyed doing, but to this day I’m not sure if it was because I myself loved it, or because of the pleasure it brought her. The line his parents picked was the same one we’d engraved on her tombstone.
When he saw me, my father only shook his head, lowered the paper and poured me a cup of tea. I sipped quietly, and patted his hand. My dad was never one for words. After a while, I retired to my room and, in a surge of morbid curiosity, looked up the boy’s name on our high school’s social network. That was how I met Marley.
The first few pages were filled with R.I.P.’s from his friends and a disturbing amount of flower, heart and sad emoticons. I scrolled past them. In the meantime, I opened the town’s news portal and read about the way he died. Apparently, he’d been fooling around with a couple of friends on the pier when he fell into the ocean, and drowned. His body was recovered the next day. I suppose I’d have heard about it sooner, had it not been for our winter break and had I actually had any friends in my school to begin with. Unlike Marley, from what I could gather by the many posts of condolences on his page, I was never popular.
The free weeks went by in a haze of reading his blog and scoured the Internet for bits of information. There was a lot you could find out about a person that way. He’d been a cheerful young man, obsessed with the theater, and dreamed of becoming an actor. He wrote uncharacteristically long and thoughtful notes for someone so young, but none of his jock friends seemed to tease him about it. He was popular with girls. He liked Belgian chocolate, Coldplay and Burberry. Every year, he went skiing with his parents but that time he’d stayed behind because of a sprained ankle. He was an only child. Even when he criticized something or other, it was always in a constructive and helpful way – he never insulted. He could be so funny that I’d actually „laugh out loud“ at some of the stuff he put up, forgetting about my reasons for reading it in the first place.
He was stunningly beautiful.
John Keats was his favorite poet.
Sometimes I fell asleep beside the computer and in the few minutes it took for sanity to kick in, I would stare at the screen smiling and words would form an answer to some comment or funny picture Marley had posted. But somewhere in the moment between the knowing grin and the feel of the keyboard beneath my fingers, an intrusion always occurred – a voice called out in the street, a tree branch scratched the window, father came in to inform me that breakfast was laid out on the table – and I’d be sucked back into reality. I could not comment on any post, I realized –there would be no reply.
I fantasized about his death every day. I replayed this imagined sequence in my head at least a hundred times. In it, the pier is a crowded scene right out of a Bosch painting – naked girls holding all sorts of strange fruit in their hands, muscular boys shuffling in between. There is music, and heaps of loud laughter. In the middle of the ruckus sits Marley, his white shirt elegantly unbuttoned (even though it’s January), golden curls more luminous than the hair of any of the women. He sits there, picture perfect, until a shadowy figure swoops by as fast as light (or maybe the dark?) and I see him falling into the water in slow motion. His hand is stretched toward me, the muscles of his neck flex as he is calling out. Nobody hears, nobody but me, but I am in my own world – in my room probably, doing something utterly stupid like trying to write a mediocre story when what I should really be doing is saving Marley. Grabbing his hand and pulling him into my body, safe amidst all the evil noise, safe from the dark and the water.
After reading that last paragraph of the last note, I sat in silence for a long time staring at the screen, but my eyes could not perceive it for what it was. At some point, the letters got jumbled up and there were no more words in front of me. I knew there wouldn’t be a word or a thought that Marley expressed even again, that I could hear, or read, or see. There would be no new blog posts, or pictures, or status changes and funny quotes. This was it, all that was left now. I wondered how many others there were, in the infinite spaces and corners of the world wide web – the signals and bonds that connect us all – how many ghosts had left their mark on these seemingly unimportant modern age tablets, and how many others, quite like me, there were: reading their words, waiting for updates, marveling at their already finished lives. But if they existed, even in that infinitesimally small particle of the Universe, were they really gone? If I remembered my mother, if I became a writer as she’d always hoped – if her hopes still influenced me, how could I say she was dead? Those were perhaps questions too difficult for a boy of fifteen, the boy I was then, to answer. And even though I’m older now, I still haven’t found answers which would be to my satisfaction.
When a person dies and you’re still dealing with it, you always experience that feeling of waiting, of just-about-to’s and any-second-now’s. It’s almost as if there’s something you’d forgotten to do, and you’re only biding your time till you remember. That’s how it was with my mother, and though it took a long time, eventually it passed. It’s how it still is with Marley. Perhaps it’s because I never knew him, but when I go out for a walk through the midnight streets in search of a pack of cigarettes, or when I pass by the pier in early mornings, I sometimes expect to run into that strange boy with curly golden hair, although he’d be much older now. I’d tell him – „Hey, I’ve dreamed about you for almost five years now. It’s a long time to keep a person waiting.“ I rationally know this will never happen, but there’s a part of me that still wishes, is hopeful, unconcerned with the fact the boy I’d gotten to know during a few snow-drifted weeks when I was a teenager, is long dead and buried. That I found out about his existence a little too late, and will never get to meet him, not for real.
There is another question that passes through my mind every night before I go to sleep. I wonder what he would have written, had he known that was to be the last thing he would share with the world. Perhaps this is also due to my mother’s sudden death, and my regret at not being able to tell her goodbye. Some of my therapists suggested this explanation, but they were wrong in so many other ways it’s hard to give them the benefit of a doubt anymore. The answers I conjure up are different each day, because in reality, I did not know Marley, and even those who did would probably be at a loss. Then I think of myself, and in finding my own truth, I think I find a little bit of Marley’s as well. Ultimately, give or take a few odd sentences, I have a feeling we’d all say the same. I love you all. I’m sorry. Please, make it last a while longer. I don’t want to go. It was beautiful. Goodbye.
The idea of this story is quite old, but for some reason or other I never got around to writing it down. Listening to Antony & The Johnsons today reminded me of it and I thought I’d give it a go. It was actually supposed to be a lot longer (and may still be), but since I can never discipline myself in order to stick to fiction and story-development for too long, I figured I’d use this as a first draft, if I ever want to expand on the idea.. it’s more pensive rambling than storytelling at this point anyway. 🙂
(The title is all Antony Hegarty’s genius, it fits in perfectly so I had to “borrow” it – have a listen if you like. )