BY JANET FRISHBERG
What you can do when your best friend from childhood is in a coma—her brown, used-to-be-red hair in a resigned French braid next to her neck, or sometimes a wavy mess, or sometimes you've gone to the hospital and curled it for her, the way you once did for school dances, and clasped your eyes closed and imagined zipping up the back of her dress, the way she used to dance, like a flamingo you said about how she lifted one foot compulsively—is not much.
You can ride the bus. Listen to Counting Crows and pray for rain so the weather could match your insides for once in this drought of a winter. Watch the electric birds on their strings, buzzing in stagnant circles around Chinatown.
You can throw down a hand towel when your shift at the café ends. When you've made all the salami sandwiches for the day, slicing your hand open by accident on the crunchy baguette—you didn't even know this was possible, to bleed from bread. And feel the way this work is left at work, the way your brain’s your own but your paycheck barely covers rent. And every month, the most predictable thing in your life, your mom deposits 675 dollars in your bank account and never says a word about it.
You can drink your way through gin and tonics with your newer friend Lizzy in a dive bar in the Lower Haight, until you spot two men, clearly tourists. You can play the animal game with them: Lizzy will be a giraffe and you a baby raptor. Until they want to leave with you and you and Lizzy have to unvelcro yourselves and giggle backwards down the street, wondering how short the distance is between laughing and crying when you're riding a night made of gin.
When your best friend is in a coma you can sit on the toilet in the mornings hoping to poop, waiting waiting, head in your hands, wondering if it's your sad blocking your bowels.
You can keep trying to learn patience: it's been 27-days, it's been there's-no-chance-time, it's been maybe-there's-a-chance, it's been this-is-what-hope-feels-like, it's been this-is-where-you-lose-your-faith. You lose it in the beeping of machines, which will break, be buried in a landfill, and rediscovered one day 836 years from now. The diggers won't even have any idea: these were the pieces of plastic that kept her alive, or what we once called alive when we forgot what it really meant.
When your best friend is in a coma you can drive out to the suburban hospital after visiting hours; five weeks later, they know you're the closest thing to a husband she might have. After all, you two are not religious and only 23, sharing a February birthday, yours the 15th and hers the 21st. You can close the door of the room and scream wake up wake up wake up wake up. The way when she used to visit, you’d turn over your plump happy body towards her in the mornings, and wake her up by sticking your naked finger in her nose or ear, until she made that crying sound and stuffed her head under the pillow. The way you showered and then dripped wet hair into her open hand. Her tiny palm which you now squeeze, saying do you feel this do you feel this do you feel this; the way you too have lost feeling with her. The way you always told yourself you'd die if she died.
But she hasn't died and neither have you. Your hunger each morning when you awake proves this like a punch in the stomach: you are too cowardly to even die with her.
No one asks about childhood best friends. No one asks who doesn't already know, and almost no one knows because you don't want to try to explain to them what a person is.
When your best friend has died from a coma, (that's not strictly what happened but it doesn't matter, the facts, this you are learning: the story is sometimes inconsequential,) you will be still making salami and cornichon sandwiches with sharp bread, at a cafe on the quiet corner of two important streets.
Your workplace will be filled with sunlight and people on computers, except for two in an out-loud conversation. They are older. The woman has a shaved head, a purple scarf around her middle-aged neck, the neck of your future. Her hand lies resigned on top of a hardcover book.
You bring over her sandwich just as she says to the man across the table, "Basically, what she writes is that hating someone is like shitting in your hand and then eating it."
She looks up at you.
"Thank you," she says, holding out her hands for the plate.
You surrender it and nod. You walk through the kitchen to the back alley where there's a wooden rocking chair and a footrest. They're for moments like this, moments when you can put your feet up and close your eyes and teleport, and once again you're barely 22, standing on a beach in Mendocino outside a cave. Your best friend has her hand on the algaed edge, stroking it like an animal while you write the boringest things in the sand with a stick, things like hello, and your initials: ARH. She spoke of monkeys and beach bungalows while you drove fast up the coast, invincible when that was still a thing, and no one could have told either of you about the end of this story. It would’ve been simply unbelievable. And you know what 22-you does next, you lean your head on her shoulder, pushing hard until she collapses under the pressure and the two of you laugh. She says, "This is my friend!" You open your eyes to a truck beeping its way backwards into the alley. Organic vegetables need to be delivered. She was always smaller than you.
When the "anger stage" (your mother’s words) comes you can buy a gun like an American and five days later drive down the ugly freeway to San Jose to pick it up. In your room that night, your gun will feel more alive in your hands than your friend was just two weeks ago when she was still a living being in a hospital bed, and her flaccid fingers were wrapped with yours.
You can place the gun in your glove compartment and drive it to an empty field across the bridge, near the nature preserve where you hiked as children, her hair in braids that you were jealous of even then, before beauty really mattered. You can shoot your gun at only dead wood because you don't want anything else to die, not animals, not plants, not anything ever again.
It rains. Finally. Three heavy days of downpour that flood the streets. You walk through it at night to that layer cake of sound you always loved falling asleep to: cars running over water running over pavement. You let it fall onto your hair like a cold shower, run down your face like the way maybe your grief should look.
When your best friend has been dead from a coma for almost two months, you can take from her house the things her mother couldn't keep and wouldn't give away to strangers: a quilt made out of t-shirts from her childhood you spread over your maroon comforter (this way you can sleep under the weight of her existence), a ring shaped like a leaf (she adorned herself with metal in the image of life itself), and the family parrot Clyde (he was not supposed to outlive her), who still speaks in her little girl voice: good moining, good moining, good moining. Clyde now sits in his cage in the corner of your beige-boring living room, proclaiming to the world each day, cheerfully, the way you wish you could: hello it's good to see you. Hello are you there? See you later, see you tonight, I love you, I love you, good moining, I love you.