1. What killed him has been excised from the obituary. It exists in the blank space along the margins. Because it is easier to say died than overdosed. We are spared the details. The omission is an accusation.
2. An overdose depends on the person and how and what they swallowed, injected, inhaled. An overdose depends on how the high functions, if or when the high crosses over.
3. My roommate in graduate school was conventionally handsome, his teeth unmarred, his metabolism permanently altered. He worked late on campus, and on his way back to the apartment often picked up a two-liter of Coke and medium pepperoni pizza from Domino’s. Empty pizza boxes and bottles littered the hallway in the morning. At bars, classmates commented, you must be so lucky, he’s the best one. He and I playfully punched each other in the arms like siblings, lounged around the apartment in boxers and oversized shirts like the bachelor pad it was.
While we watched sitcom marathons on the weekends, his girlfriend, who had stayed behind in Arizona, called and called. Eventually her calls turned into prolonged visits. After, she abandoned her size zero snowsuit, puffy jackets, and knit sweaters in his closet. When he offered the clothes to me during one of their breakups, I laughed, thinking they were made for children.
4. The last time I saw the boy who is now an obituary we played Wii bowling and drank Red Bulls with chilled Jägermeister and then lagers in a bar that overlooked the Codorus Creek. Between games he dipped out to the patio to smoke, then chewed wads of gum, trying to ward off the stench of stale cigarettes.
5. My roommate could smoke a pack or more a day if he tried, devour packets of Nicorette gum during quitting spells. When I was drunk or sad enough, I smoked with him on our postage stamp balcony.
6. If the boy who is now an obituary made it to the bus stop on time, he broke the rules and sat beside me or batted away thrown crumpled paper or kicked shins, shedding his own quick violence.
7. I have a predilection for the not having, the rules, the fear.
8. After my roommate temporarily lost his driver’s license due to unpaid tickets and lapsed car registration, he rented a place downtown within walking distance to the university. During my visits we ordered delivery and binged seasons of The Biggest Loser. I wish I could gain some weight, he commented between bites of his fried chicken sandwich stuffed with fries and doused in sriracha mayo. We laughed at the impossible, damaging tasks the competitors were asked to face.
9. He exists in two articles online from the local newspaper: one documenting the popularity of Pokémon Go and the other the obituary. They are published fifteen days apart. In the feature article he is photographed sitting in the grass at Cousler Park staring at his phone. He is wearing a Steven Universe baseball cap, a torn white tank, dark mid-thigh shorts.
For years I misremembered this scene at Kiwanis Lake Park, which lies within the western arm of the city. That park features an artificial lake, where bodies of the drowned or murdered are recovered every few years. Or a jogger encounters a body covered with leaves among the trees that crowd the hill.
10. He was the nervous boy on the school bus, on the edge of the bed. He was a self-destruct button, a behavioral problem, an anger that needed to be managed.
11. Addiction can be diagnosed as a problem needing to be solved. When the body and mind are pronounced medically sound, they are within clear boundaries, assumed not to be a threat.
12. I have perfect numbers, am rule-following, the one begging her friends not to get in trouble. I should have noticed the walls shuddering closer, the ground dissolving into quicksand. They opened their mouths to call for help and suffocated.
13. Suffocation is one way to die during an overdose.
14. I worry about who survived this branding, the cigarette burns dotting their arms and legs.
15. I do not look up the statistics because they are numbers that can be so easily added up. I do not want the cause of death to be simple addition/addiction, cause/effect.
16. I used to love solving grammar exercises. I got so good at it my friends passed me their assigned grammar problems to solve. First, I tell them, you identify the parts of the sentence, then reduce to the subject and the verb, like finding the common denominator between fractions.
Here is how to reduce an obituary:
J died. He was. J enjoyed. J is survived. He was.
17. This is how a life adds up, the sentence baring its basest grammar. Diagram, skeleton, scaffold.
18. [What is the point of counting and erasing words that are what now still exists of him.]
19. My former roommate’s girlfriend-now-wife recently gave birth to their daughter. In a picture he posts online, where the boy who is now an obituary exists as frozen accounts, the swaddled newborn is squinting to ward off the camera light, her fingers curling into her palms, fisted and furious. They are all alive and well. They are all so beautiful they could be pasted on a billboard as an example for recovery.
20. There was a time when I begged the boy who is now an obituary to kiss me and he did and then he cried. He cited his reasons. He had tacked mall photobooth photos of himself and his mother, before she returned to Germany, to his bedroom walls. He said that he was a wreck. I said no, you’re not like that. Then I said nothing.
21. Who is deserving of punishment, who is truant, who is a bad child, a troubled child? Perfection is an illusion, I wanted to say to him.
22. I liked playing grammar games. Who is the proper noun, who is a throwaway phrase inessential to the sentence? Another modifier, another modifier.
23. On the Not One More website, where his grandparents had requested donations be sent, there is a photograph of a white hand holding a stick and a heart drawn in the sand. Lost spirit, grieving heart. On the donation tab, the founder of the nonprofit has written in white font on a red background: I wanted to write to you all and let you know how Not One More is spending the donations. Some have questions and I have no problem with that.
24. Keep them awake. Shout. Check their breathing. Use your knuckles. Assume that they are not too far gone, that you might have Narcan, that the ambulance arrives.
25. I look up the boy who is now an obituary in my contacts, where I have saved him. His eroding digital memory: Twitter frozen in 2013 with the bio line Life is good, Instagram halted, photos scattered among back-up drives.
26. This language fails to resurrect him. He is a poltergeist that lives in the wires.
ALYSE BENSEL is the author of Rare Wondrous Things: A Poetic Biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, 2020), and three chapbooks. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Southern Indiana Review, and West Branch. She serves as Poetry Editor for Cherry Tree and teaches at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.