remember this one argument I had with an old girlfriend named Lyla Barrett. It was about a particularly overused trope I found untenable in modern literature. I asserted that too many authors contextualize the societal disassociation of their protagonists through some life-altering, cataclysmic event, like the death of a child or a terminal illness – usually some horrible type of cancer.
“It’s hardly ever one grand catastrophe which isolates a man from the world,” I ranted, indignant. “True alienation is a gradual process, a series of small tragedies which compound, like an off-handed remark from a stranger which sticks in your guts for weeks until your soul becomes gangrenous. It’s having to drop off your rent check at the end of every month…the beginnings of a receding hairline. It’s not being able to find anything good to watch on the television when you’re alone and desperate, and at the end of the day, it’s the cold realization of your own insignificance.”
“What you’ve described aren’t tragedies, they’re ‘what not,’” she countered. “It’s all a bunch of crap most people brush off. It’s just stuff, meaningless stuff that you’ve built up in your head as an excuse for giving up. A substantial person doesn’t give up, a substantial person fights. You’ve never had to deal with a real tragedy, you’ve never had a knock at your door on a random Wednesday evening notifying you that someone you loved was dead, and thank God for that, you’d collapse like a house of cards.”
I couldn’t argue with her there. You see, Lyla’s older sister Lorraine was killed in a hit and run, a couple of weeks shy of her high school graduation. She and her two friends, Garilynn and Charly, had skipped out of class some time during the afternoon to visit the Galleria downtown; it had been too nice out to be stuck inside the stuffy confines of Hamilton Preparatory Academy – or as the students called it Preparation H – for even a second more. The trip hadn’t been Lorraine’s idea, her best bud Garilynn had been the main instigator, still, after four years of straight-A diligence she’d felt entitled to the break. Normally, she would have driven them there – the other two had yet to receive their licenses – but as fate would have it, her car had been in the shop that week for a transmission job, obliging them to go by foot. It wasn’t that far of a trek, after all, they were three healthy young girls with shopping on their mind, and it was such a beautiful day. If only it’d been raining, Lyla would sometimes say, most often after a couple of shots of Wild Turkey, they wouldn’t have gone to the mall if it had been raining. They were all decent kids, from solid homes. They’d worked hard and expected good things from their lives. On their walk back home, still sipping on Orange Julius fresh from the food court, they’d probably been exuberant, buzzing with independence, exchanging full throated shrieks over the boys they liked, their favorite songs on the radio, and the electric promise of teenage sex. It was early evening when it occurred, a glorious periwinkle twilight. It all happened so fast, Garilynn would later sob to Lyla, months after the accident, it was like it came out of nowhere! The sad truth is, nothing comes from nowhere, and in this particular case, the brown station wagon had been coming down Lake Drive when it barreled around the corner onto Stewart Place and right into Lorraine, who had been standing in the shallows of the street just off the curb. She died on impact. When the police arrived, Charly reported that she’d seen the car pause up the road before lurching forward with a squeal of its tires. Neither of them got a license plate; the wagon disappeared around another corner and was never seen again. It was almost as if it had vanished into thin air. The girls hadn’t meant for it to happen, like Lyla’d said, it was a real tragedy. What followed in the aftermath was equally tragic – the utter, irrevocable destruction of a family. Her father, unable to cope with the loss, left home, leaving behind his wife and youngest daughter to handle it on their own. Eventually, Lyla managed to pick up the pieces and move on, but despite her bravery, I could always see the pain lying right below the surface.
“I said it’s hardly ever one grand catastrophe. There are always exceptions.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “I hope one day, you come to realize how good you have it.”
“We were discussing books,” I remember telling her helplessly. “We were only discussing books.”