I met Orla when I joined my high school’s theatre troupe. She was a tech, which meant she wore all black and pulled curtains when they needed to be pulled and knew all about light. In The Wizard of Oz, I played a munchkin alongside transplanted kindergartners because they didn’t know where else to put someone with a voice like me. I was a shrieker. I had to change during intermission to play one of the evil flying monkeys. In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I played a nameless secretary. My big line was: Can I take a message? As if I were genuinely doubting my ability to receive a message and remember it, which didn’t require much acting. Orla always complimented my performances. When I was really nervous on stage, I knew that the warmth of the lights was her—that she was the one pointing them at me, blinding me from the audience, blessing me.
Orla’s dad owned an ice cream shop right next to the beach that didn’t require customers to wear shirts or shoes, because he personally hated wearing both, and considered this to be a free country. Health inspectors did not like this.
People visited the ice cream shop not only because the ice cream was good, but because her dad kept an alligator on a leash that walked around the store like a lethargic mall security guard. Her name was Big Sweetie. Orla’s dad projected his politics onto Big Sweetie. He would post on the ice cream shop’s official social media page with captions like:
“Big Sweetie believes in the Second Amendment!”
“Big Sweetie hates the Left!”
“Big Sweetie doesn’t read Fake News!”
When we were scared or bored or anxious, which was often, given our environment and general manner of approaching life, Orla and I tried to count how many animals could fit inside any room we were in together. Her bedroom was thirty-six and a half goats stacked on top of each other. My bedroom was twenty herons. I said Orla, you’re this song! She said I was a certain song too, and this attempt at knowing each other felt like some sort of natural disaster that hadn’t been named yet, one that could only touch us, and we felt special because of it.
I took a World Religions class at my local community college and learned that some people believe that all sentient beings are drops of water—and when we die, we return to the sea of consciousness to become one with everything that’s ever existed. That means that when I die I will be in the same sea as Orla, all of her ancestors, all of my ancestors, Big Sweetie, all of Big Sweetie’s ancestors, the people in the background of every photo we’ve ever taken or been in, someone named garlicman2098 in an online chatroom, people who burned witches, witches, nudists, those affected by the dancing plague of 1518, 2017’s People’s Sexiest Man Alive Blake Shelton, and everything else that has ever felt a feeling. Thinking about this possibility made me feel unwell and exposed, like a child getting caught in a lie and then having to tell the truth.
I found myself working for a nondescript company, living in an abandoned building in New Jersey that used to be a department store then a mental hospital then nothing, overlooking Fort Nonsense. Fort Nonsense is a fort that was never used in the Revolutionary War (the rumor is that Washington ordered his men to build it because there was nothing else to do and he needed them to keep busy), and people come here to accept the frailty of life, of plans, of the futures we imagined for ourselves. It is also a suitable place for parkour.
I spent most of my days there identifying ephemera, staring into the woods, making lists, finding miraculous little happenings in camouflaged places. It was a loneliness I grew fond of quicker than even the transcendentalists claimed to. Not that it’s a competition.
I rarely got mail, except for one notable letter from Orla:
Dad’s gone. He couldn’t breathe anymore. What does the universe do with someone like him, do you think? I let Big Sweetie loose. She made a noise that I only heard her make when she was a baby—it was like a laser gun sound. It touched what I can only assume is the part of me that lives forever.