from Volume7 Issue2
The Loss From Things Taken
I spent all summer looking for my swimsuit and bra, and it wasn’t until the day that I had to turn the heat back on in the house that I finally accepted what I had thought all along: My brother-in-law took them and he wasn’t giving them back.
At first the explanation was rooted in the macabre humor that had taken root in the family. If something was weird or unexplained or made someone uncomfortable, Hans took the fall for it. During the past year, it seemed like the only logical explanation in 300-some days that, for the most part, were jarringly illogical.
But I knew better. I knew that Hans took them to remind me of him, to remind me of that moment at my wedding to his brother when he stood next to me after the grand march. When cheeks were ruddy from the cheap Michelob and I could smell the cigarette smoke on his rental tux. When he knew he could get a rise out of me by saying, “You know, you can see right down the front of your wedding dress,” with a smirk. “I hope you enjoy the view,” I had shot back, wanting the wedding reception to be over. My dress was hot and the sleeves were digging into the tops of my shoulders. I was cranky, tired of being the center of attention, and his comment was fresh and cool when I was swimming in a sticky sea of bridal compliments, many of which were obligatory and not based in how I personally looked at all. He grinned, knowing that he meant no offense and seeing that I took none at his words.
Twelve years later, I can still hear him say it as if he was standing next to me. His words echoed in my ears this summer as I dug through the drawers, cleaned out the closet and even checked my daughter’s dress up clothes for my swimsuit and bra. It became a lesson in futility for me, a frustration that always ended with his echoing words.
He took the two items of clothing I coveted most, too. The swimsuit was a beautiful purple, well made, a steal from a resort store that was going out of business. I bought it for a tenth of what it had been selling for before they plastered their windows with big freezer-paper signs. I looked good in the suit. I could pretend I was a size eight again and get away with it if you quickly glanced at me or saw me from a distance.
The same was true of the bra. I found it in a pile at Victoria’s Secret, amidst the thongs and the other undergarments that fell away when you untied their ribbons. It was functional and plain; an old maid among the strumpets. It too fit perfectly and I bought it for a fraction of what it had originally sold for on the rack.
I wore both of them once before he took them from me.
I don’t know what others thought of the tricks he played, but I began to believe he put a lot of thought in what he did. In my case, he didn’t take something that was priceless or irreplaceable, something that would require a mourning period before I passed into acceptance that I’d lost it forever. In my case, he took things whose disappearance would eat away at me on a daily basis. Things that would drive me crazy because, really, how do you lose things in your own house?
He was playing subtle tricks on others, too. Apparently he had a lot of time on his hands, because each trick was different. His sister’s motion-detector Dancing Santa went off for weeks before Christmas when she was the only one in the house. He was a gifted mechanic, and mechanical things became willing accomplices in his jokes. His brother swore that he was watching him through the eyes of a white owl out in the yard. He messed around with his parents’ garage door opener and the straps that lowered his casket into the ground on the day he was buried. His son’s high school dedicated a wrestling meet in his honor and the light above the mat wouldn’t work no matter how much they jiggled the cord and banged on the fixture.
In some ways, he became the family’s own Kokopelli during the past year. He left his body, burned and unrecognizable on top of the worst car crash in the state’s history, but took that trickster part of his being with him. He didn’t turn into a ghost. That would be too easy, too predictable. His soul still is too subtle for that.
It has been hard for me to relate what I feel about him, particularly to the family. His brother, my husband, has long since felt that I was a little cracked when it comes to think that aren’t right in front of our eyes. I think the things I sometimes say scare him. I sound like a fruitcake when I bring these things up to people who don’t me very well.
A few days before Hans died, one of the strongest feelings came upon me that I’d ever had. Something bad was going to happen. To us. Yet it would be on TV. I told my husband, made him listen to me despite his rolling eyeballs. And because I did that, three days later, he left work when his sister called and said, “Hans didn’t come home today.” When he met me at home, we both knew. We knew before anyone else in the family.
Which is probably why we both ended up at the accident scene with my father-in-law and one of my husband’s other brothers. We all stood silently on the slope by the freeway, watching the emergency workers gingerly taking apart the craggily lump of metal in the middle of the road.
“He’s here,” I said to my husband. “I can feel him.”
My husband looked at me. “We pretended to be with one of the towing companies and we were on the road until they realized we weren’t,” he said in return. “We touched the car.”
I looked for Hans in the groups of people silently standing on the other side of the road. That’s how sure I was that he was there, standing in an old pair of shorts, a wrinkled T-shirt, dissecting the accident with the other victims just as we were on this side. Figuring out what went wrong and where all that damn fog came from. Wanting one last cold beer. Worrying about who will break the news to his wife. And later watching his dad do a really good job of keeping his composure in front of the television cameras.
Though my husband and his brother stayed until the very end when he was the last one pulled from the wreckage, I went back to his house where everyone stood around alternating between stony silence and outright weeping. We were all in shock, all dealing with it the best we could, but that didn’t explain what I was feeling. I had to leave.
I was picking up his nervous energy. I was feeling a rush of emotions, most of them strangely jubilant. And amidst them all: I’m okay I’m okay, I’m okay, tell them. I’m okay. I’m really okay –you have to tell them. Tell them. Tell them. Like a Times Square message board, he repetitively ran through my thoughts that day and for many days thereafter, punting away my own thoughts like they were red playground balls.
I didn’t, I couldn’t. I went home and did our laundry. I answered the phone and listened to his cousin – closer than a brother – ask me with a hollow voice if it was true. I busied myself with the mundane until his words began to fade, though they have stayed with me for nearly a year. When I have tried to work, tried to tap into my own creativity, his tattoo has rendered my fingers virtually worthless on my keyboard. What he didn’t tell me was how to do what he was asking of me. The day he died, I couldn’t march into his living room and tell his wife and my mother-in-law that he was okay. That he didn’t suffer, that he was gone before the heat and the flames licked the paint off his car. That he was catapulted out of his body and landed on the wet grass in the median strip where he leaned back on his arms and watched until he recognized his brothers walking up to the accident site. He joined them as they tried to find his car, actually pointing it out to them. He explained what happened, but they didn’t hear him. He left them in frustration, and that is the moment in which he realized he had died.
I know all of this, but I don’t know how I know it. I can’t prove it to you, but I don’t need to. That’s not the important part.
I’m okay, I’m okay. Tell them. Bring it up. Tell them. I’m okay.
I couldn’t bring it up when one of his siblings told me that the people in the accident weren’t used to country driving and if everyone had kept going through the thick fog without slowing down, they’d all have been fine. I couldn’t bring it up a few months later when I heard one of his sons talking, his father’s timbre and speech pattern alive in his words. I wanted to shout it every time I drove over the exact spot in the road where he died, but the words got caught in my throat.
When you’re a writer, you have to be perceptive. You have to hone the ability to feel nuances, to see what hasn’t quite been brought to the surface or what is being pushed down from view. You look for the fissures and peek inside to see what other people don’t, can’t or won’t. I’ve wondered if he saw this in me during those confusing hours after his death or if he just blindly became the words, hoping that someone would hear them and get the message through.
While I haven’t forgotten his request, I’ve had to do it on my time. I’ve had to use living, human discretion. He knew I was a writer, that I could probably put his message into written words before I could verbalize it. That I could return the life to the words he so wanted me to give his family.
I’ve tried to tell them, to cloak the message in a “Hey, by the way…” but I could never finish the sentence. At a recent family wedding, I finally told my sister-in-law that I thought Hans had stolen my swimsuit and bra. Brenda laughed her beautiful laugh, a sound that belied the sadness she blinked away during the ceremony. It felt good to talk about him as if he was just sitting a few feet away with a plastic glass of Asti Spumante. It felt good to be one step closer to accomplishing what he was still asking of me.
I don’t know what the dead do with their time. I don’t know what their definition of “okay” really is. There’s no way I can know. There have been times during the past year when I’ve really wanted to open myself up, to crack my own consciousness right open and ask Hans to fill up my mind with his own thoughts, to borrow my own eyes until he gets tired of looking around and leaves me a note somewhere in my head telling me what “okay” means. I’ve hoped to dream about him where he’s waiting and ready to fill in the blanks for me. But I never dream about him, which is unusual for someone whose subconscious wears them out on a nightly basis.
Of course, that won’t happen. None of it will happen. I may have a foot in a different dimension, but my body is solidly on earth and I am bound by its covenants, both physical and spiritual. I have a better chance of having St. John the Baptist deliver my mail and my salvation today around noon than I have to really understand what his words mean or why I am the one to translate them to the living he has left behind.
But what is happening is that as I type, his words are becoming softer and bittersweet. They are excusing themselves for taking up my time and becoming quiet and small in my memory. I am at peace with him, and he is letting go of me. Perhaps now I will dream about him, get my own complete voice back … and find where he has hid my things.
David “Hans” Arendt was one of 10 victims of Wisconsin’s deadliest car crash, which occurred on Oct. 11, 2002.
Afterword: From Laurie Arendt's email response to an acceptance email and thank you for submitting the essay to Porcupine:
"Oh my God, this is so exciting! .. It took me about an hour to write that entire essay, and though I came back to it twice afterward and tweaked here and there, it basically wrote itself. That in itself is an amazing experience because I have sat down with easy articles over the past year and struggled for a day to write 400 words because I haven't been able to concentrate. I wrote it for Porcupine and nobody else.
There was a lot lost on that day, but also a lot gained. Even when I was at the accident site, there was something that really took your breath away about that blasted fog. Something really and truly supernatural. I felt so insignificant that whole day.
And the weirdest thing of all: The day after I dropped the essay in the mail, I found my bra in a pile of blankets in the basement (our family room is down there). There was no reason in the world for it to be there. I said to my husband, "Well, I should be stumbling upon my swimming suit any day now" and he said, "You think Hans is done with it?"
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel like I am finally honoring his memory. "
Laurie Arendt, Grafton, Wisconsin, is an award-winning freelance writer and editor whose writing appears in a variety of publications. She is also the founder of the Ozaukee County Veterans Book Project, a non-for-profit oral history program that records and publishes the memories of local veterans. The project's second volume is due out in 2004. Writing this essay was an extremely cathartic experience for her; she hopes it will bring some comfort to her family as well as anyone else who has ever suddenly lost a loved one or friend.