Nathan Feuerberg – THE COLLECTION

I’ve been collecting ballerina obituaries since my 13th birthday. My scrapbook bulges at the seams with hundreds of black and white articles (most of them suicides). Sometimes I kneel in the middle of my afghan rug and flip through their deaths. The best is when their lovers find them hanging from a chandelier, and they toss a second rope up so they can die next to them. So romantic. I wish someone cared about me enough to tie a rope around their neck I suppose I’d have to kill myself before they’d do it. But for me to commit suicide something bad would have to take place and nothing bad ever happens to me. Well, nothing bad enough to want to do the deed.

My childhood was so happy it’s boring to talk about. The worst event of those young years was getting stung by a wasp. I had a friend who was in a car accident, another whose parents got divorced, and a third whose dad made the whole family convert to Mormonism. Nothing that tragic ever happened to me. Now, in my twenties, I’ve practically given up on something interesting shaking up my world, although I do wish for it. When we’re choreographing our dance routines, I push myself. I jump higher than I need to, pivot faster than I should, all the while hoping that fate will take control and break my ankle. It never does.

All I want is to have a story to tell at cocktail parties. Not some mundane disaster like a goldfish dying. Something perfect. Something beautiful. Like Dolores Delicato’s suicide on September 17, 1998. Her husband found her in front of their estate, drowned in a shallow fountain. There were no weights or rope to hold her down. She’d stayed under water completely still and waited for the end.

Now that’s the type of tidbit I could tell at parties. If I had something precious like that on the tip of my tongue I’d be ready when someone sauntered across the room and said, “hello.” I wouldn’t feel my throat close up when I tried to speak. I’d already know my story was lovely. The other day is a perfect example of my predicament. My neighbor, Jamie, invited me to the movies, and while we were waiting in line I racked my brain for something to say. He’d just finished telling me about a photo-journalism trip where he’d photographed all these dying Beirut kids in hospital beds. I knew I had to talk about something exciting, but the highlight of my week had been purchasing the No. 704b.’s on my feet.

“I’ve never been to a hospital,” I said, looking away as soon as the words fell out of my mouth.

He waited a moment, probably thinking I’d say more. Way to dazzle him, I thought. Quick tell him something else. I pressed my back against the glassed-in movie poster and the first thing that popped into my head was an article I’d collected a couple of months back: Melinda Taetzsch, February 14, 2010. Only fifteen and she’d run a razor down her arms after a foot injury.

“Actually, that’s not true,” I said, twisting my finger in a curl. “There was one time when I tried to slice my wrists. They had to rush me to emergency.” He put his hand on the small of my back and rubbed his palm in a circle. I leaned my shoulder against his and stayed there until I could feel his heartbeat.

The next day he called. I didn’t answer. In a couple of months summer would invade New York and what would I tell him when I pranced down the street in a sundress and there were no scars on my wrists. But I did wonder. If we’d gotten together, and one day, months from now, I’d run a warm bath, and cut open an artery, would he have done the same? Just thinking about it made a current run down my arms. I set the Sunday paper on the rug and flipped to the back. The obituary told the story of another suicide. Giselle Bates, April 3, 2010. This one had stabbed herself in the heart after losing the lead in Romeo and Juliet because of a broken leg. I cut along the black line, readying her for the collection, when I realized, “I know her.”

Giselle. She’d taken up ballet at the age of nine, which was relatively late. (My parents started me at three.) We danced in the same class for five years before her parents moved her to who-knows-where. I hadn’t seen her again until three months ago. She was coming out of the animal shelter with a kitten under her arm and I practically rammed into her. “How great it is to see you,” she said, instantly recognizing me. With her free arm she pulled me close. Her hair smelled like lavender. For a second I breathed deep as it brushed against my nose.

Then she went on and on, telling me how she’d moved back to the city over a year ago, and she still didn’t know anyone, and how we really should get together sometime. I said, “Super,” and typed her number into my phone even though I had no intention of calling. We hugged again and then she shoved the cat in her coat and waltzed up to the N train. Over the next few weeks she phoned and left messages. I’d always come up with some excuse why I couldn’t call her back.

Sitting there on my carpet with the scissors in hand and the newspaper spread in front of me, I imagined Giselle sprawled out on the floor of some falling down apartment with a knife sticking out her chest and a cat licking her face. The obituary didn’t give that much detail, but my imagination filled in the blanks. I tossed the scissors aside, and laid back on the rug. Why did all the good stuff happen to other girls? I’d have to go down there in a mournfully fashionable dress to make sure I looked better than her dead body. Peeking over my shoulder, I noted a Valentina hanging in my closet that I thought would do the trick.

I won’t describe the service. Talk about yawn. I might have fallen asleep if it hadn’t been so cold in there. Afterward, we filed into Giselle’s one-bedroom apartment for the wake. Her mother bustled back and forth from the cupboard-size kitchen to the 10×10 living room with trays of smoked salmon and toothpicks of satay chicken. On her third round of hors d’oeuvres she recognized me, dropped the tray on an end table, and gave me a big hug. Her arms were like these two elephant trunks. They wrapped around me and squeezed. Even though I thought I might pass out I set my chin on her shoulder and sighed.

“It’s been so long. You were just a little girl last time I saw you.” She led me into the bedroom and told me to take a seat on the bed. As I did a cat shot out from under the comforter and darted into the closet. “I know you girls started this together,” she said, taking a scrapbook off the nightstand and setting it on the bed next to me. “I think Giselle would have wanted you to have it.”

I knew the book well. It matched my scrapbook at home. However, Giselle’s book wasn’t a collection of corpses. It held Polaroids and clippings from recitals. Pasted in the center of the first page was a photo of me and her standing in front of the studio mirror in our pink tutus. I flipped to the next page, and then the next, touching the hearts and stars I’d helped draw. Half-way through the scrapbook I found a clipping from last Christmas, announcing the Nutcracker. My name was highlighted in bright yellow.

Giselle had been watching me from afar, gluing my achievements in the book and drawing smiley faces next to them. The acid in my stomach swished from side to side. I ran to the bathroom and hovered over the toilet, coughing and dry heaving until a tear slid off my nose and smacked into the water. What’s this? You’re crying? I shook my head as if the momentum would cool the hotness pressing on the back of my eyes.

Snot ran out my nose. My eyes started spraying like some kind of sprinkler system. I slumped down next to the toilet paper dispenser and wiped the wet places with the back of my hand. What’s wrong with you? I thought. This isn’t tragic. It’s Giselle dying, in a bad dress. There’s nothing perfect or beautiful about it. But I knew what it was. I’d wished for it and now I’d finally gotten my story. It wasn’t one I would ever want to bring up at parties or on first dates. It was too horrible. I’d left her alone in that apartment. I’d let her die.

A soft tapping sound came from the other side of the door. I looked up to find Giselle’s cat pushing open the barrier with his head. He wandered over to my lap. I stroked his neck and played with his little ears. He seemed comfortable sitting in the lap of a bawling girl. He must have done it a hundred times before. I tucked my arms around him, and listened to him purr.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Nathan Feuerberg writes short stories, novels, and plays. He received a BA from The American University of Rome, an MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh, and an MFA from The University of New Orleans. His fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals such as Rio Grande Review,SOL Literary Magazine, and 34th Parallel.  His work can also be read in the 2012 anthology, Sol English Writing in Mexico and the soon to be released anthology, St. Louis: Missouri Ghost Stories.  His screenplay, “Wish Bringer,” won the Cine Story 4th Annual Script Sessions Screen Writing Award. His plays have been performed in England, France, and Italy. Currently, he resides in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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