There is always more than one version of a story, and whether it involves two people or has a cast of thousands, there will be that many ways to tell the tale. You put the foam on Jerry Seinfeld’s latte? It’s Barrista To The Stars. You hand out water at the end of a race? My Marathon Memories. Sold Sara Jessica Parker a pair of shoes? Me, Chu, You Chu. You know what I mean. It isn’t (only) egotism, or even egoism. We do it naturally because we all live within our own stories. We only know how it was from our points of view. The meaning it has for us it may not have for another.
Here is a story from within my life, and though it’s only my point of view, each time I tell it I find another meaning, which, I guess, is why it stays alive and I keep telling it.
I had not heard from my old friend, Catherine, for a long while. I was the last one to be in contact (we wrote letters the old fashioned way) and I had been pissed that she had not responded. So I resisted writing again, as if it were a ping pong match and the ball was on her side of the net. But after five months, I began to worry.
When my e-mails came back, I phoned. And when her answering machine answered in someone else’s voice, I knew something was wrong. But “something wrong” was as far as I was willing to let my imagination go.
I tried to reach her relatives, called the manager of the building she lived in (who knew something but wouldn’t say). Finally, someone from the same town told me what I already knew: Catherine was dead. Her death had been reported in the local newspaper. In fact, for five months, all the while I had been thinking that she was alive in Massachusetts, too busy to keep in touch, she had been dead. A mutual friend of ours claimed she had sensed that Catherine was not in this world; I had only thought she was not in my life.
We were part of a small writer’s group in New York in the seventies and eighties, who met and wrote and cooked for one another in various apartments in the city. Catherine was the star of the group, quickly recognized as a bright new talent, quickly published, winning prizes. She wasn’t much of a critic of other people’s writing; she was too appreciative and far too kind. She smoked like a chimney and if I suggested she might cut down, or god forbid stop, she’d take a big drag on her current cig and say on the outpuff, in her thick and well-preserved brogue, “Everybody’s got to die of somethin’, Bette Ann.”
Then Catherine’s life got derailed when someone she loved committed suicide. She went away to recover, to a small cottage she owned in Donegal. But she did not recover, though she eventually came back, to New York City for a while, and then to Massachusetts, where she had family. She did not write any more stories, though many people tried to coax her back to it. But she did write letters. We had begun to correspond when she was in Ireland, and we continued writing after she settled in Massachusetts. I had saved all her letters, and on the day I heard that she died, I took them out and read them, and as I did, she was reconstituted in memory, alive again. Her first letter, written from Donegal, scolded me for having refused to adopt her cats when she left New York. What if God turned out to be a great cat, she said. Then I’d be sorry, wouldn’t I? Her letters were full of mischievous humor and vitality, so although she didn’t author the stories and novels she was meant to write, her imagination didn’t stop. She still saw with her pen: Donegal and Massachusetts, around town or at marches, against War and for Choice, or just about folks being folks at the farmers’ market. She saw with wit and clarity and even, sometimes, a subdued joy.
I’ve told this story as an elegy to Catherine; as a remonstrance to myself for not reaching out when I didn’t hear from her (Life Too Short, blah blah blah); as the eerie feeling my friend had of someone being gone from the earth and whether I had had it, too and resisted; how her letters brought her back to life for me. But now it is autumn, around the time it all happened, and as I think about it again, I wonder how it was for Catherine. What was Catherine’s story?
It turned out that Catherine had been dead for a whole week before she was found, which was why it made the local papers. That was a story she might have enjoyed telling. She might have said to me,”Now what d’ye think happened? Didn’t anyone hear a noise? Did I fall with a thud, d’ye think? How many people d’ya suppose walked by my apartment? You think someone heard me calling out and was in too much of a hurry to stop? D’ye think I had enough time to know I was dyin’? Did I pray at the end after all, or say something else? Was there something about it that made me laugh, some last irony that I might have been more susceptible to, being an ironist at heart?”
According to Catherine, everyone has to die of something, and hers was a royal death –quick, painless, in the midst of doing something good – smoking a last cigarette, she would suggest –and then, as her eyes dimmed, she saw the light and heard the big Meow at the end of the tunnel.