23 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Anastasia WitbolsFeugen

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a clever, spirited girl. In school she joined the National Junior Honor Society, Latin club, and academic competitions of all sorts. A couple of months before her untimely death, she started classes at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The world had been her oyster.

A different version of the truth is less palatable.

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a temperamental depressive for at least a year. In her diary and in e-mails to close friends, she romanticized death, expressed emotional volatility somewhat greater than typical teenage impulsivity, and fixated on a fickle boyfriend. For weeks before her seemingly inevitable death, she spiraled into a textbook example of suicidal behaviors, isolating herself, dropping out of college, and talking openly (and often) about killing herself. She didn't stand a chance in this indifferent world.

The dead have it easy — their reputations are projections of might-have-been, forever idealized, unburdened by their foibles or survivors' beliefs that anything but the best had been in store for the beloved deceased. The culture fetishizes potential. While those who die young remain for all time in grace, the living must forge our legacies through successes and failures — the actual.

Which is fine. Whitewashing who Anastasia WitbolsFeugen was wouldn't be terrible, just an anodyne comfort, except that another life hangs in the balance between her pristine reputation — Anastasia, the young light extinguished too soon — and the ugly alternative — Anastasia, the doomed soul. Mine is no longer young but had (and still has) potential at least equal to hers. By not allowing her to be seen from less-flattering angles, her eulogizers obscure the truth that contradicts the righteousness of my imprisonment.

Anastasia was my friend. We hung out in coffeehouses, discussing our naive ideals and cackling at life's absurdities. We went to movies together. We lent each other books that we each considered essential reading. We commiserated about shittiness and shared the happiness that kept us going. When she died, it was like no grief I'd yet known. I struggled to cope, to keep myself together in the aftermath. Even in that confused state, I clearly saw that the Anastasia portrayed by the funeral sentiments was a caricature, largely unrecognizable to many of us at the service. Frankly, she was no one special. The Anastasia we knew was complex, flawed, and passionate to a fault — a person we all thought eminently worth being friends with.

After two decades lived in the shadow of her death, having matured and made discoveries against which ordinary relationships are immune, I'm now less sure of my friendship with her. Personal documents seized during the authorities' homicide investigation showed me yet another facet of Anastasia. She lied about people behind their backs. She engineered squabbles between friends, probably for drama's sake. She had terrible self-esteem and vied for attention at every opportunity. Her flaws go on and on. She was, after all, only human.

Teenage relations, those gossipy, mercurial, emotionally heightened filters that distort one's world like the wildest Instagram effect — they don't even begin to explain why the night we parted ways struck me as both perfectly typical and utterly unexpected. Knowing what I now do is similarly befuddling. Was her death planned? If so, by whom — her or Justin, or by both, mutually? Either she wanted him, her flaky, intermittent love, to put her out of her misery, or she intended to do the deed herself with him looking on. Or, just as they decided one day to pack and move to New Orleans by the weekend, the two of them might've intended, with no plan whatsoever, to wing it, take a gun to a cemetery, one after the other welcoming oblivion.

So much for the pretty notion that there are no secrets between friends.

Ten years back, I wrote in this post about Anastasia's death, "the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun." Pretty words for the gruesome results of teenage self-centeredness. I can't muster this kind of poetry for it anymore. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died, but I'm the one who's rotting.

13 October, 2017

Quit Smoking... or Your Prison Job

I saw word of the lawsuit's results before the memo about them was posted to the wing's bulletin board. I was relieved.
Subject: Notice of Tobacco Ban

As part of a settlement agreement in an offender lawsuit, the Department of Corrections has agreed to implement a policy banning the sale, possession and use of all tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping devices inside correctional buildings and on the grounds inside the correctional perimeter. The only exceptions to this ban will be for authorized religious purposes. The effective date of this ban will be April 1, 2018.
No more sudden windpipe closings, then, as I happen to walk through someone's noxious cloud en route to breakfast. No more fretting, before a cell move, over how I'll breathe if my new cellmate's a smoker. No more annoyance at being touched by stinky hands when a guard pulls his cigarette out of his mouth just long enough to call me over for a random pat-search.

Of course, there are rumbles of discontent. I've heard prisoners discussing how they'll stash their tobacco to forestall the inevitable (see my 2010 post about illicit tobacco use if you need this explained). More of the grumbling is being done by staff members, however. And I guess that I get a part of their argument: they're just working a job here and don't deserve to be penalized. But at the same time, there are tons of things that people can't do on the job, which no one complains about because, for instance, no one wants to hear some coworker's seven-hour acid jazz playlist blaring from speakers around his neck. At least acid-jazz guy's particular brand of workplace pollution won't give you a disease.

My cellmate, Doyle, told me about a guard posted at his work site, a man I've seen around here forever, who's been bragging about his "perfect solution" to this tobacco ban. The guy's made countless attempts at quitting smoking over the years; it's never worked longer than a week. Now that the DOC's taking his smoke breaks away (meaning they're leaving him no excuse to fuck off 80% of the workday), he's just going to retire. It isn't a joke, he's really planning to throw in the towel. In a bizarre way, I admire his level of commitment.

Working for the Department of Corrections, at least as a guard, has got to be an intensely boring job. Maybe at other prisons, in states where gang activity and rampant violence factor more heavily, there is little down time — but here? One sees staff, in front of the housing units and outside of the central services building, wreathed in clouds of smoke and vapor more often than one doesn't. What happens when this tiny pleasurable distraction from their tedium is taken? Will they give up and vamoose to some alternative place of employ, or will they stay, tough it out, and vent their nicotine withdrawal irritation inappropriately? I'm betting on the latter.

10 October, 2017

Ghost Story

There was a girl with beautifully sculpted eyebrows who worked at the neighborhood donut shop. It wasn't love because I didn't really know anything about her: she lived alone in a sad Missouri town, sold knives door-to-door on weekends, and drove a 1986 Dodge Omni. That's practically nothing.

Certain days, I walked to the shop right as she was closing up. While she talked, I held the thirty-gallon trash bag for her to dump that day's donuts in. The pieces of her life that she shared were sweeter to me than all of that wasted icing — like that her favorite thing on rainy nights was to climb atop her trailer home and lie so the falling water in her face felt like being propelled skyward, to the clouds.

One night she invited me to her place. I was fifteen and had no car. We clattered along rural roads in incomprehensible darkness until turning up her long gravel drive, then there it was: her boxy hideaway in the weedy field. Inside were stacks of Dickinson and Plath, a saggy couch, some records, and a tidy kitchenette where she made us herbal tea and smiled at my earnest attention. I silently hoped for rain.

She gave me a blanket but my rest on the couch was fitful. After what felt like hours she called from the bedroom, a soft voice, somehow pained. I went, unsure, and held her. This was all that she wanted. “You’re safe,” she murmured. It didn't occur to me, the number of meanings this could have.

In the insect-riddled morning she took me back. A lingering hug, after which she shrank into herself and disappeared from my life as quietly as she entered it.