What happens when death cuts love short?
At 23 years old, I was an English language arts teacher at a struggling inner city high school, a sloppy drunk in the few waking hours when I wasn’t writing grad school essays or grading student papers, and single for the first time since the eighth grade.
From a senior year at college spent gorging on bacon, egg, and cheese croissants and Old English forties, I was ten pounds heavier than I preferred to be and super insecure about it. I’d had a fling kind of a thing with a co-worker but hadn’t been asked on a date since the break-up with my college beau a year earlier. I didn’t really have the time or energy to socialize beyond the teachers’ local haunt down the street from our school at the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border in Brooklyn anyway, and besides, the guys my age still hadn’t grown out of the group bar hopping dates that turned into hook-ups that sometimes led to ‘going out.’
My teaching coworker and new bff, Miss Bestie, and her beau, Mister Bestie, encouraged me to hang out with their friend, The Bicyclist. Coincidentally, Mister Bestie, The Bicyclist, and I had been undergrads together in college, although I didn’t know them personally back then.
Mister Bestie and The Bicyclist lived together in a super hip(ster) Lower East Side apartment with concrete floors and a gigantic open living space perfect for binge-drinking parties complete with a black chalkboard wall where guests practiced writing pot induced poetry and drawing the inevitable penis pictures.
The Bicyclist was my chance to get into the dating game, I thought. Miss Bestie described his sense of humor and energy. Because The Bicyclist and Mister Bestie were best friends, we could go on double dates—so fun! I had butterflies over him before we had even hung out a few times, chaperoned by Miss and Mister Bestie.
After several weeks of flirtation, The Bicyclist invited me to a party at their LES flat. I felt like an obsessive compulsive walrus* picking dangling threads and fabric balls from my pilling H&M attire beside the skeletal bobble-heads decked out in trust-funded wardrobes.
His friends wore homeless bohemian chic while I just looked homeless.
Worse, I recognized many of the faces from my undergraduate classes but when The Bicyclist (re)introduced me to these boho bobble-heads and their hipster boyfriends, they just sort of grimaced and turned back to their Flip Cup games.
I was the epitome of uncool at this party and I decided I’d been fooling myself in thinking The Bicyclist saw me as anything more than a potential booty call.
After a few hours and way too many vodka shots, I tired of wandering the room, wondering what it meant that The Bicyclist kept catching my eye and winking, so I slipped into the elevator that opened into the living room and left.
The Bicyclist chased me down the street and begged, “Please, stay. You can be on my beer pong team.”
The winter wind whipped through the Manhattan high-rise wind tunnel. In flip-flops and coatless, The Bicyclist shivered.
Aw, what the hell?
He smiled and I swooned.
Aren’t hook-ups the way twenty-somethings find love?, slurred my inner voice. Besides, I was really good at beer pong.
Holding hands, we walked away from the base of the Williamsburg Bridge where, a week later, our romance would come to a terrible and sudden end.
Back at the apartment, the party was winding down. A few stragglers made noise about cleaning up, finishing fallen soldiers—half drunk beer cans, some containing floating cigarette butts—as they stumbled around dragging trash bags.
The Bicyclist held court on the couch, telling stories that I wish I could remember, before leading me to his bedroom. He cleared the pile of dirty clothes from the bed with one swoop. I was so smitten that I stayed the night.
In the morning, Miss Bestie texted to meet her in the bathroom. We both wore our boys t-shirts and shushed each other’s giggles while we freshened up, brushing our teeth with our fingers and using the toilet paper scraps to wipe away mascara raccoon eyes.
Miss Bestie and I planned a double date for the next weekend at the Brooklyn Museum First Saturday dance party. We discussed the details while we lunched in the Humanities Department office. I chose my outfit five days in advance and neurotically checked my phone for texts from The Bicyclist.
The following Friday, The Bicyclist finally texted fourteen times**, trying to cajole me into joining a bar crawl with him and his buddies, and then attempted to invite himself over to my apartment. I resisted. We had the dancing date the next day, I reasoned.
Mostly, I didn’t want to seem too easy.
The Bicyclist and his friends continued the bar crawl without me. A block from the LES apartment, the boys rushed across four lanes at the bottom of the Williamsburg Bridge and stopped on the median, all except for The Bicyclist. He stumbled into the path of a barreling SUV. He was struck and fell into a coma.
The rising sun illuminated the city’s glass and concrete teeth that bit a jagged edge into the sky. By dawn, the city had consumed another soul.
Back then every death had a tremendous impact on me, and The Bicyclist’s hit hard.
For weeks after The Bicyclist’s death, I was borderline catatonic. My lesson plans were worthless—I couldn’t concentrate long enough to do much more than print out crossword puzzles, word searches, and generic writing prompts—but when I returned to school after taking a long weekend, my dreaded freshman classes practically taught themselves. An often-disruptive ringleader asked me, in a gentle voice, for the pile of busy work. He handed out the papers and then kept order as the students completed their assignments. My students worked in whispers until the bell sounded.
Another class asked me to organize a read aloud in our usual “hippy circle,” an exercise that typically elicited a chorus of groans. The students reminded each other of our rule, “No personal attacks,” during the literary discussion.
Striped by orange afternoon light filtered through the shades, I leaned into my elbows and cried alone on my desktop. I was so touched by my students’ magnificent support.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve to mourn The Bicyclist, after all, we’d only spent a month flirting and one sweet night together. More than I ever I wanted to know: who was I to him? A lover? A hookup? A potential soul mate? But I’d never find out and it felt unfair.
At his memorial, I wept for his brother, parents, family, friends, and all the rest who spoke of a charming and athletic young man who had taken a year between high school and college to bike across the country, and I wept for myself because I hadn’t known even these basic details about his life.
I was disconcerted by the jealousy that choked me when his ex-girlfriend accompanied herself on guitar while she sang a song she’d composed for him. They’d obviously had a passionate love and the tribute made me want to win his love more than ever.
The friends that I’d met at his apartment mostly ignored my presence. Selfishly, I wanted some kind of acknowledgement for the few intimate hours that The Bicyclist and I had spent together.
I also wondered if The Bicyclist’s parents had his phone and whether they asked: who was this girl that he’d texted fourteen times before he died? Why didn’t she accept his invitations?
Maybe he wouldn’t have died if I’d let him come over, or maybe I was just one of many girls he’d encouraged to join him on the bar crawl. What did I really know of his life?
Later in the week, when my dead-eyed demeanor and lackluster lessons didn’t show signs of improvement, a freshman girl with a temper, a mouth like a sailor, and an unfortunate limp, approached me after class. Maria*** was used to teasing and often returned the cajoling with a string of profanities or even punches. (Once, she’d punched me in the head while I held her back from a fight with a 6’1’’ Jamaican student.)
“Ms. Sczudlo, you’ll be alright?” she asked, her hand resting on my shoulder.
“Yes, Maria. I’m going to be alright.”
“Good, because I know we bad sometimes but we need you. You got to be strong. You understand?”
She faced me, searched my eyes. I nodded. She pulled me into hug and kissed me on the cheek.
Our heads snapped toward the open door when disembodied voices exchanged harsh words in the hallway.
She raised an eyebrow. “You see? What will we do if you ain’t strong?”
She turned and made her way out the door, her right foot dragging behind her, and barked instructions to the boys that echoed across the empty hallways.
*My body dysmorphic disorder is a topic for another post.
**For months after his death, I saved The Bicyclist’s final texts to me. When I got a new phone, a close friend transcribed the messages onto my computer and I still have them saved.
***I changed this student’s name for obvious reasons.