Walking down Constitution Ave in Washington DC when I was seven, I noticed a woman climbing onto the ledge outside her window. She wore a nightgown and with her slight frame she looked like an angel, or fairy. For a brief moment, the palms of her hands met in front of her heart before spreading into wings as she fell forward into space. She looked light and free as her nightgown fluttered around her as her soft body fell quietly through the air and bounced the way limp dolls do when they fall, a small hiccup and then stillness. I waited for her to get up but she took too long so I knew she was dead. What a waste. How stupid of her to jump without knowing how to land. Why hadn’t her family warned her? As I walked away the image of her soaring ever so briefly lingered in my mind and I hoped she’d liked that part as much as I had watching because everything after that was bad luck.
Ten years old. The first buds were starting to blossom on the trees. Megan and Mary, M&M, were twins living up the hill from me, and eleventh-graders at my same school. Identical twins, a bit chunky and buxom but with two golden hearts, and warm smiles even on the rainiest of days. I don’t think they ever complained, just a wink with a shrug and onward, never letting the world getting the best of them. I loved them. Then, on a gorgeous spring night their baby-blue convertible wrapped itself around the trunk of an old oak tree killing the twins instantly.
The news spilled across pages two and three of the city paper. The pictures of the two looked like police mug shots and the front end of the Thunderbird was an accordion. Paragraph after paragraph made unkind remarks about the girls, troubled teens, rowdy, undisciplined, and too many beers for proper girls on a night out on the town. I wondered how their parents could allow such slander until I saw them quoted in direct. Even they didn’t spare a fond memory or a loving word: what was wrong with them? At least, I finally understood the secret sadness in their eyes and disappointment hidden in the folds of their effervescence. Wrong world. Wrong parents. Wrong life. M&M never cared about the big house and upper crust neighborhood or the fancy schools and holidays in St. Moritz. They rejected the stuffy white-elite, cracker box universe others quickly sold their lives for. The loved the Thunderbird because it was a convertible, the top came down, there was no separation from the sun and wind and starlit skies, in a box but not locked in by the box. Rebels only because they loved life. If only they’d interviewed the cafeteria cooks, they would have set the record straight and said the girls always made them feel special.
The autopsy showed alcohol levels were high. I wondered what had tipped the scales that night; was it being marginalized for their largeness or their unbridled truth? Was it their indifference to prestige or had someone touched them without their consent? Why on such a beautiful night? Had the night sky distracted them or had they chosen to pull a Thelma and Louise and soar past the gated community that housed them? There were no skid marks. Had they been driven by the angst of knowing they’d never measured up, or did they simply want the noise to stop?
I made a pilgrimage to the place where M&M had met their death. Tucked inside a gash in the tree trunk I found a tiny piece of chrome that I clenched in my hand as I hugged the dented oak tree and implored M&M to talk to me. Minutes passed before I heard Mary’s voice tell me not to worry, they were much happier where they were.
“Keep on smiling,” Mary said, “and forget the rest of it.”
I wasn’t so sure I could. “Did you want to die?” I asked.
“No one wants to die,” she answered, “but it happens.”
The absence of attention to human life scared me. It was the first time I realized I could disappear, or die, and no one would care so I spent weeks going everywhere I knew they’d been, looking for traces, asking questions, listening to the silences wishing they’d show up but it was always only me; I’d have to figure it out alone.