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January 25, 2023

Broken Record

Wyatt Bonikowski

The last time I saw Michelle was three days after her death. She was in my kitchen, washing the pile of dishes I’d left in the sink overnight. “You don’t have to do those,” I said, before realizing who I was talking to. She said nothing, only turned her head to look at me.

I know what you’re thinking: ghoulish eyes, bloodless skin, a worm crawling from, what’s the phrase, “her open maw.” You’ve read these kinds of stories, used them to scare your friends at sleepovers. But no, Michelle looked just the same. This wasn’t a visitation but a fault in time, a skip in a record. Her hands moved through the running water—that’s what struck me. The water flowed over her hands like she was meant to be there, in my kitchen, washing dishes.

The thing about Michelle, she had the deepest brown eyes, like wells of feeling. I was always afraid of getting too close.

The second-to-last time I saw Michelle was three weeks before her death. She had called out of the blue to ask if I wanted to get a drink. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll drop everything. I’m not busy. I don’t have a life.” But we met anyway, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand the occasion. She was distracted, laughed too much. She looked tired, and I told her.

“You always know exactly what to say,” she said, “to make a girl feel special.”

“Look,” I said, “why don’t you come back to my place for dinner. I want to do something nice for you.”

And it was nice. We hadn’t laughed like that since we were college roommates who had just discovered they were going to be best friends, friends for life. But after a couple bottles of wine, things began to fray at the edges. Her every gesture reminded me of a slight she had once made against me. I couldn’t help myself. I accused her of abandoning me. As soon as it left my mouth, I remembered I’d said the same words the last time we’d met, two years before. The rest of the night was me feeling bad and her making light of it. “I’ll wash the dishes,” she said, “to make up for being such a terrible friend.”

I don’t think she knew she was going to die. Wouldn’t she have said something? “If you think that was abandonment, just wait a few weeks.” The funeral was difficult. None of her friends spoke to me beyond a nod or a brief hello. Her parents remembered me; I had lived with them in Michelle’s childhood bedroom the summer after graduation when my own parents wouldn’t let me come back home. Michelle promised her parents that what we were doing in there all day was scouring the internet for jobs, when in reality we were smoking pot and watching reruns of old TV shows with happy families.

Miraculously, though, we did get jobs, and we grew into adults. We grew apart. What else is there to say?

Her eyes were still the same deep brown. She looked kind of sad and confused about the whole thing.

“Michelle,” I said, “you really don’t have to do it.”

But by then she was gone.