Emmy is a magnet for the sad, mad, depressed, desolate and desperate of this world. Acquaintances and strangers seek her out, describing torments they have perpetrated or endured, explaining why they want to die.
They say she’s a good listener. Duh! That’s because Emmy is an empath. As such, Emmy feels their pain before they speak: Not knowing the particulars — she can’t read minds — she aches as they ache, sharing their desires (which are not hers) to scream, sob, stab (watching that gleaming steel slit skin, thinking This feels like slicing steak) or crawl on shattered glass or jump off cliffs.
Does this happen to you? Do folks confide in you against your will? Maybe you’re an empath, too.
For Emmy, this phenomenon began when she was very small.
“I’m gross,” one dignified, well-educated relative told Emmy not once but often, as other people might say oops or hey.
“Whatever I touch turns to shit,” the lady said.
The lady taught Emmy to love museums, save money, and be polite. Hooray! She also taught Emmy to be afraid of many things, including microbes, people, calories and cars.
Emmy acquired these fears by being told articulately by this lady never to let people cough on her or kiss her.
She also acquired these fears by by feeling, as befits an empath, from the first days of her life the choking terror this fine lady felt while driving (one flick of the wrist, you understand, would wrap this two-ton death machine around a tree), eating (choco-frosting turns your trousers into your worst enemies) and shaking hands.
“I wish,” this lady often said, “that I was dead.” Using a tone others might use when reading recipes aloud, she told Emmy that whenever she went to funerals, she wished she could switch places with the corpses.
At day camp, swimming pools and school, people whom Emmy did not want to know wanted to know her.
Her second-grade classmate, Rikki, had no friends and always spent recess eating sand from the sandbox, using spoons.
One day Rikki walked up to Emmy. They had never talked before.
“You,” Rikki said, pointing, “are my best friend.”
Then, whirling, Rikki ran away. The next day, Mrs. Monson told the class that Rikki would never return.
“She’s moved away,” said Mrs. Monson in a choking tone.
Year by year, Emmy felt with ever more certainty the way air condenses around self-destructive people, growing so heavy that she can almost hear it thud.
Her college friend Aurora often threw shoes at her dorm-room wall while screaming I! Will! Kill! Myself! and it was Emmy, always Emmy, who sat on Aurora’s bed inhaling heavy air, saying Don’t do it, please don’t do it, you are smart and incredibly beautiful while absorbing Aurora’s sorrow the way sponges absorb spills. Finally Aurora would stop throwing shoes, instead brushing her hair which matched her eyes which (along with her ass) were why guys wanted her then ditched her, which (along with clinical depression) made Aurora want to die. Emmy, Aurora always said, you’ve saved my life. But sometimes it took hours to reach this point, hours spent inhaling heavy air while feeling like a sponge not applied to a spill but to the sea.
When Emmy suffered her own suicidal moments, as of course she has, did any empath hasten to her side, soaking up spongelike her compulsive yearning to be hit by cars? Perhaps.
Meanwhile, the dignified, well-educated lady — who lived far away — called Emmy frequently. Before the phone rang, Emmy felt the air condense.
“How are you?” Emmy asked.
“Wanting to diiiie” was the reply.
“Things can’t be that bad,” Emmy said.
The lady liked to echo Emmy in a clown voice.
“How can I help you?” Emmy asked.
Emmy loved her.
Nonetheless, Emmy avoided her, as you might avoid falling into holes.
The lady did not die quite as she’d wished but in a clinic, in a room whose TV showed America’s Funniest Home Videos.
One of the best friends Emmy ever had was Kayla-from-the-island.
Shy, talented Kayla wrote novels that editors rejected. She lived with her boyfriend, Jared, who commanded her to wear full makeup constantly, even while sleeping. Jacob said that, were he president, he would order all ugly people to be shot by firing squads.
In air so heavy that they strained to raise their coffee cups, Kayla told Emmy about meeting Hopi astronauts, who were hallucinations, and of setting fire to rejection letters, which were real. Her manuscripts were brilliant. Someone should have published them. Emmy spoke rapidly to Kayla, as if giving Kayla (who loved words) as many words as possible would soothe her, the way handfuls of conditioner smooth hair.
Kayla left Jacob, bought 26 jackets and quit seven jobs. Like Emmy, she feared many things but dating married men was not among the things she feared.
Kayla wagered with her other friend, a dog groomer named Pearl: Which of them would snuff herself first (snuff was the word they used) and whose way would be cleaner?
To Emmy, Kayla spoke endearingly of death, and Emmy always said: “No no no no, this world has glories for the gifted ones, including you, plus you bring glories to this world. Surely you understand there is no coming back?”
“Yes,” Kayla said, sounding like the valedictorian she was. “Of course.”
One morning, they discussed yams and the exact meaning of the word “boyfriend.” That evening, Kayla died. The officer who found her said she looked serene.
She had already sent Emmy this bracelet as a Christmas gift:
These are only a few of Emmy’s suicidal friends and relatives. Emmy is wracked with guilt over Kayla and the others she couldn’t save, to whom she pleaded: Don’t. Because forever is forever. Picture whatever you love. Now picture never seeing, doing and/or having it again. Reach out. Get help. Actual help.
Emmy still talks to Kayla sometimes. Not out loud, of course. Small things: basically, hi.
This essay had been written and its art mostly drawn when, one day last month, a relative of mine committed suicide. I wondered for a long time whether or not to post the essay and finally decided to. We did not know each other well, but goodbye, RB.