A LETTER TO THE THORN IN MY SIDE

I shoot regularly for Women of Letters, a brilliant monthly event run by the powerhouse dream team of Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy, where five women of note get up and read a letter they’ve written in response to a given theme. It’s always a gorgeous event, full of laughter and tears and all the terrific human things that we don’t get enough of.

Last year, I made a flippant remark to Michaela about how I had a new life goal of becoming the sort of remarkable woman who read at WoL, and she lit up like a poker machine and asked whether I’d write a letter that year, and I got terribly flustered and worried that it sounded like I’d been fishing for compliments when actually I was just overwhelmed at getting to meet amazing ladies every month. And I presumed that the whole request was just a nice thing that she’d said, but then come November last year, I found myself standing in front of hundreds of people reading my response to ‘A letter to the thorn in my side’, and this is what I wrote, and I hope it’s the right thing. It’s silly and neurotic and sad, and honest, I think. And it’s the story I knew I’d tell from the second Michaela asked me to read. There was only ever this one.

*

‘Dear people who don’t text back,

Look, I know there are more important things to be upset about in the world. But I do have a particularly complex relationship with this issue.

You see, most people, when they send a text and are left staring at their blank phone screen, have what I can only imagine are reasonable reactions to the situation. ‘The person might be busy,’ they think. ‘Or at work. Maybe their phone is off. Maybe they just don’t want to talk to me right now. Or at all. Maybe they hate me. Maybe they’ve always hated me. Maybe when my message flashed up onto their screen, they rolled their eyes and showed everyone nearby and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s them again. Can’t they take a hint?’

But when someone doesn’t reply to a text message from me, I presume that they’re dead.

Client hasn’t responded to a pitch? Dead.
Friend hasn’t approved dinner plans? Dead.
Person I find attractive hasn’t got back to me? They hate me. And they’re dead.

I do not know where this came from. I had a very happy childhood.

But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had this weird thing about goodbyes. I have to make sure that the last thing I say to someone is the right thing. I was the kid who stared her parents in the eye and said ‘I love you’ a bit too intensely whenever I went to sleep or left the house or otherwise had to leave their presence for more than three minutes. They probably found this quite sweet and emotionally open of me. I don’t think they knew that I was constantly imagining being at their funeral, and someone asking what the last words I said to them were, and me saying, ‘In the fridge.’ Or ‘It is not my turn to clean up the dog poo.’

And once I got a mobile phone, this niggling paranoia found a whole new outlet.

The day I found out the topic for today, I had swapped cars with my mother so I could help a friend move house. What I hadn’t told her was that earlier that week, my car had a little brain fart and forgot that the transmission existed for about thirty seconds.

So when I texted her to ask about when I could drop the car back, and she didn’t reply, I knew, unequivocally, that not only was she dead, it was also my fault. My car had clearly had a transmission failure and she’d crashed, and the car had exploded, and I was going to have to tell everyone that she had died in my car, because of me.

As it turns out, she was fine. She’s here. This is the first she’s hearing about the transmission thing, by the way. Sorry mum.

The irony of the situation is that I’m actually very bad at replying to text messages. This hypocrisy never used to bother me. But anxiety is always looking for new territory to colonise, so at some point, I realised that I’d gotten to the point where I feel like, if I leave people hanging waiting for a response, somehow this will actually cause them to expire.

This paranoia does makes marginally more sense. A few years ago, a man I liked texted me at 2 am saying ‘Are you awake?’ I didn’t get it until the next morning, and I had a brief thrilling moment of wondering whether it had been a booty call. As it turns out, he’d been lying on his floor, crippled with pain, but didn’t want to bother me by calling to ask if I could come and drive him to the emergency department. He ended up having pancreatitis, and the doctors at the hospital cheerily informed him that there was a very real possibility that he could have died. Strangely, this information did not improve my issues.

Another time, I was flying to Adelaide. Another of my completely normal death obsessions centres around the fact that I’m convinced that I’ll die in a plane crash. My housemate had very sweetly indulged my theatrics and had made me promise to call him when I landed. And I forgot. I was woken up from a nap later that day by a phone call from him, and I answered the phone with a groggy but very enthusiastic, ‘Hey, I’m not dead!’ And there was a pause at the end of the line, and a deep breath, and he said, ‘Sarah, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Stuart’s killed himself.’

Stuart was a close friend from university. He was the single most loved human being I’ve ever known. The night before, he’d been posting a series of weird status updates on Facebook. I remember thinking that he must have been drunk. The last status he posted just said, ‘AARGHH.’ And I left the only comment on it, at about 2 am. I said, ‘Are you okay, love?’ And he didn’t reply. He was busy, I suppose. And then, he just…wasn’t.

He got a lot of text messages over the next couple of months. For his 20th birthday, for Christmas, for New Year’s. When people dreamed about him, or remembered something funny he’d done, or were stabbed with those unexpected spears of grief that come when you’re least expecting them. And he didn’t reply to any of them. Which I think is pretty rude.

I found the whole practice of messaging him after he’d died a bit strange. I always thought that I’d never done it, but I checked, and did I sent him one, on Christmas Day, 2010. It just said, ‘Merry Christmas, beautiful boy.’ Going back through those messages was a strange experience. I’d never realised at the time how many of the messages I sent him said, ‘Are you okay?’ He didn’t reply to a lot of those, either.

I called him the other day, for the first time in five years. The call rang out and went to one of those robot voicemail ladies that tells you to leave a message and I hung up.

And then, about twenty seconds later, he called back. And I stared at my phone screen, saying ‘Stuart Round’, with the photo that I’d taken of him in my kitchen, laughing so hard, surrounded by bubbles.

And so I answered.
I said, ‘Hello.’
And a voice said, ‘Hello.’
I said, ‘Who have I called?’
And he said, ‘David.’
And I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I must have the wrong number.’

After Stuart died, a lot of my friends who were in a bad mental place before ended up in a really bad mental place after. Text messages with the living became particularly fraught.

It turned out that sometimes a message saying ‘Hey’, meant, ‘Hey’, and sometimes it meant, ‘Hey, I’ve taken all of my meds and I need to you to come here and call an ambulance before I lose consciousness.’
Sometimes, when I asked, ‘Are you okay?’ and they said, ‘Yeah,’ sometimes that meant, ‘Yeah’, and sometimes it meant, ‘I self harmed really badly but I didn’t want to bother you.’
Sometimes, ‘I’m okay’ meant, ‘I’m okay’, and sometimes it meant, ‘I really don’t want to be alive any more.’
Sometimes, ‘I miss Stuart’ also meant, ‘I’m jealous that he got in got first.’

I didn’t sleep a lot, that year. I sent a lot of text messages. But, through a combination of love, emotional blackmail and flat-out bullying, I also got a lot of replies. And in the five years since, those replies have slowly, slowly stopped being a source of terror. Now, ‘Hey’ mostly just means, ‘Hey.’ I’ve stopped calling people over and over until they pick up when I don’t get a message back within half an hour. I’ve shelved the eulogy I started writing for one of my close friends, and I hope I won’t need it for a really, really long time.

Now, my thing where I think people are dead when they don’t get back to me has started being funny again. And I really hope it stays that way.

Dear people who don’t text back,

Sorry this has been such a long message,

Please reply.

Love always, Sarah.’

Day 29

S x

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