by Shannon Frost Greenstein
One day, in late May of 2000, Brittany Cassidy told us all about the dead body she found the night before.
Graduation looming, a pandemic of Senioritis, all of us convinced we knew the exact path our futures would take thanks to the ivory towers toward which we were headed, we were lounging in the afternoon sun streaming through the skylights of the library. Ostensibly, we were studying for AP tests.
Brittany sat in the center of a misshapen circle of our classmates, teenagers sensing distress in the air, gravitating toward it, sharks with blood in the water. You know how kids are.
That morning, she looked every bit the Mean Girl she typically looked, as I still see her now in 2020, now in adulthood, now with hindsight bias, but there were also circles under her eyes. I remember the circles.
Brittany was a singer, she always got leads in the musicals and solos in the choir concerts, she knew how to project her voice; but the day she told us about the dead body, it sounded as if her voice was disseminating into the ether before it reached our eardrums, the quiet more a result of shock than respect for the austerity of the library.
We were 18; the rest of our lives before us.
“I was driving home from Leslie’s,” I remember Brittany saying. “We were studying for AP U.S. History. It was, like, midnight.”
AP exams didn’t really matter, we were seniors, we were already enrolled in fall courses at our respective future colleges, so no one was really studying when Brittany told us she saw the motorcycle first.
“It was on its side, off the road,” she mentioned, recalling one moment in an evening the likes of which I have yet to experience, and hope never to experience, now in 2020, now in adulthood, now with hindsight bias.
No one knew yet that some of us would be sexually assaulted in college. No one knew whose childhood trauma, latent, something no one could have imagined, would trigger mental illness in young adulthood. No one knew if anyone would die by suicide, but all of this would happen within that tiny microcosm of the class of 2000.
That day, in the library, we all learned that Brittany had been the first to come across the site of a fatal motorcycle accident; alone, a lone casualty, a loner.
“They said he must have skidded off the road and hit a tree.”
She found the body on her way home, and Brittany’s voice now sounded louder as she described calling the police, but it was a two-dimensional voice — flat, desensitized. It was the voice of someone who has seen death, and, in my mind, it marked Brittany forever.
Now in 2020, now in adulthood, now with hindsight bias, I see that mark on her psyche still, when she appears on my Facebook feed, when I see on Twitter that she is engaged, the photos of her and her nephew on Instagram, and I wonder if she still sees it, too.
Brittany was the first one on the scene, and what would you do if you were a baby, practically, driving home far too late, encountering someone, someone who could be anyone, something which ceased being anything before your very eyes?
Brittany said she poked the body with a stick.
The response is immediate, and nearly universal; nearly. We were naive, so few of us had any experience with death, who can understand the abstract concept of death, anyway, so nearly everyone laughed; nearly.
I remember, that’s when Brittany finally got upset. That’s when, I think, she first realized the difference, how the person she was in the milliseconds before finding the body was not the same as the girl in the library the next day.
“Well, I didn’t know what to do!” she said, somewhat angrily, sensing opinions, sensing judgment, trying to defend the actions she took in the dead of night in sight of the dead when it was dead quiet and everyone else was asleep. When she didn’t know what else to do. When she wasn’t a Mean Girl, and she wasn’t a high school senior, but just a human being, encountering mortality made incarnate, with no one’s energy beside her to help process the horror.
“I didn’t even know if he was dead at first!” she cried.
I don’t remember what happened next, unfortunately. Now in 2020, now in adulthood, now with hindsight bias, I mostly remember the circles under her eyes.
But I also remember not laughing.
I had no experience with death, either. But I understood, even then, that life is a gift, and that a pall hangs over us all.
Now, in 2020, now, in adulthood, now, with hindsight bias, it turns out I’m the one who ended up sexually assaulted, and I’m the one whose latent childhood trauma led to mental illness, and I’m the one who would attempt suicide. But it was Brittany who was marked by death that day on that deserted road, a sigil on her forehead, a corpse illuminated by moonlight lying in repose on a generic manicured lawn, and I saw, that afternoon in the library, that she had changed because of it.
I didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny. Death never is.
We graduated, and moved away, some of us returning, some of us making the pilgrimage to the nearest city, some of us departing for lands unknown. I doubt anyone thinks much about that day in the library anymore, except for Brittany. I’m guessing it’s something she thinks about quite often.
Or am I still the only one that sees the pall?*
* “How strange that (death and the stillness of death) that is certain and common to all, exercises almost no influence on men.” (Nietzsche, 1882)