She was dead because of a typo.
I was teaching a hagwon in Korea and she was from Tanzania, where she’d gone to medical school and only needed another year of rotations to graduate, but she was living with extended family in Saudi Arabia, four months and still awaiting citizenship and now she was in the hospital for some reason or another. I only got some of the story through her Indian friend, Meghana, who had stiff, awkward English, not many contractions, and she was suspicious because she had never heard of me—no one had. But when my fiancé woke up in what she described as The Ritz with straps on the beds, she gave her friend my email and a message for me, “Have a nice break.” This was during the Lunar New Year, a big deal in Korea, and the hagwon gave us a four-day vacation, with the weekend. And so a few days later, a few days of telling Meghana Priya’s facts to prove I was legit, like how she loved playing with the gardener’s dog at her international school which was a big no-no, did you know Muslims aren’t supposed to touch dogs and pigs? They’re dirty. She also kept kittens under her porch but three days later she got a whooping and they got tossed out—anyway, my sleep schedule was hectic. I was either catatonic with worry—I don’t know what catatonic’s actually like, but it’s as close as I’ve ever come—drooling and starving or I was napping because I never felt okay sleeping more than an hour because I had to check my email and I just wasn’t expending any energy, I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t need sleep.
I woke up from a nap and Priya was dead. I got that email. “Priya is dead” It was just like that. Meghana sent a follow-up, something about how her sister said no one’s allowed to visit so she’s getting her phone back and with my groggy head, frantic emotional state, and the dangling participles, that follow-up was gibberish. I called my mom. It was like 3 AM back in Illinois and so of course she didn’t pick up so I sent Meghana an email, “thank you fro tellingme,” just like that when my mom called. But it was a new phone, and I never used it, not really, not in Korea, who’d call? And answering it was weird because you slid your finger to the left to hang up and the right to answer or maybe it was the other way around and—now, this issue wasn’t mentioned in any of the reviews, not even the one-star rants—but the touch screen wasn’t responsive when wet. Anyway, I called back and Mom picked up finally and said “Sorry, honey, did I wake you?” because time zone math was hard at any hour. “I thought you had called so I was calling back. This thing’s just always chirping about old alerts and—”
I was real quiet though so she didn’t hear. I was being quiet because I had to explain everything first, how I was engaged and to a Muslim girl, to a girl I’d met online two years ago but we’d only been engaged four months and—
But I was all snot around my nose and mouth and it gurgled as I wailed. I had to repeat myself. I screamed it a lot. So she could hear.
“She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!”
“Honey, what? Who is?”
“I’ve been engaged for four months and—she’s dead!”
Every parent wants to hear their honey found love and got ready to stop traveling so they could settle and marry, hopefully near enough to the parents so Christmas visits wouldn’t take a toll on budget or butt, but not like this, not when it’s all sobs and snot bubbles and they can’t understand it. Oh! The sounds I made, like before graduation with that tipped cow. Its sounds. I made its sounds, his or hers, I think hers, I think there were udders. The wails and blubbering and how I moved the receiver away when all that could come out were goddams and fuckings because dear old Mom had never heard me say those except when I was with friends in my room for LAN parties—this was back in high school—and our teenage foul mouths got too excited for discretion, but now, in my agony, I moved the receiver away and even yelled quietly, if not for my mom then for the old lady living next door—I think the landlady—who might not know the words, she hardly knew hello, but she’d know the tone. The other wall’s neighbor was another teacher, in Tokyo this vacation.
“And I called the UN Women and UNHCR and Amnesty International and…”
When I went quiet, suffocating on snot that I wiped on a pink blanket, washed only a few days ago and drying on the rack till my last nap, my mom asked, “Are you still there?” I was. “You can take the day off.” This must’ve been Friday morning and her time zone math hadn’t processed yet, mine just did, and, oh god, it was 3 AM after a work day and tomorrow was another at 7, and here I was screaming, “She’s dead!” at her when she should be sleeping. “Is there anyone there you can be with?”
“We’ve got this vacation for the new year. They’re all gone.”
After I was dehydrated and had gone for my post-sleep piss, still on the phone with my mother but I had aimed for the bowl, missing the water so she wouldn’t hear and—god forbid—get uncomfortable, I asked about our family dog. I got this story about Lady and the squirrels in our willow tree and then she asked if I’d be okay and she told me to go to a doctor for something to tide me over and that Dad would start finding deals on plane tickets first thing in the morning, and oh yeah, what was your credit card number again?
So I went back to my email; if I was this distraught, Meghana must be too. She had sent another email. “they’re sending her family home I think it is good to be alone now. I am feeling a lot of relief like a big weight lifted off,” just like that and I couldn’t process it. In the last day or two getting to know this Indian girl from Tanzania, there were all these unfathomable cultural mindsets, how she supported forced arranged marriage, how marriage to an American was ludicrous, how a normal life where she could go outside and work and see the sun occasionally was a dream and that was making her sad, the hope was, because it couldn’t possibly be the beatings and being made to feel worthless making her sad; it was the hope. But to hear this was a relief—“how is this a relief she’s dead,” like that, but I wanted to send “She’s dead! Dead! SHE’S DEAD! How is that a relief to anyone but her?” That.
I nearly broke my mug against the window hoping for both shatterings but I worried too much about the neighbor lady and about the kids who hung out in the alley below to smoke. And I was weak. The tears and snot drained me.
“Who told you?” Meghana sent.
“You. You sent a message that said ‘Priya is dead!’ Like that.”
“Noooooooo! She is not* dead! Oh goodness I’m a screw up today. She didnot want me to tell you, I think. not more than have a good break but I never stop talking. And her family is so secretive, always like a secret society, and I get the feeling they were covering up things so I thought maybe you knew more. But I’m sorry. I missed one word and changed it completely. I’m really really sorry!”
So I called back my mom and while waiting for her to answer, I replied to Meghana “You could have said ALIVE!” It’d been about 15 minutes since my last phone call so she was probably just sleeping again when I told her the good news. “Please don’t say anything else,” I begged.
“You’ll both have to come to terms with this now.”
“I love you.”
It wasn’t long before Priya had her phone and she couldn’t talk because the doctors and nurses would hear and her parents or uncle were probably paying them to report back and to put on the charts that this was just an infection, but she could email. “Hey you…how is your break? x" and that had me crying for a second time that night, first from sorrow, now joy. We always argued which were hugs and which were kisses. That was a kiss but Xs look like arms crossing for a hug.
What do you say to a person? “I don’t do well when we don’t talk, but I’m amazing now. How are you doing? I mean, really?”
“I’m peachy. That always makes me laugh. Peaches are terrible. Do you like peaches? I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. Just busy and stuff. Lots of stuff to get done and my internet was limited and so I asked Meghana to tell you I’d be busy because you’re such a worrier,” she sent that.
“Peaches suck. And Priya, you can always talk to me. I’ll always understand. Like how I agree peaches suck. Nectarines too. They’re peaches in need of Rogaine. We’ll get you to date-quality or strawberry. What’s your favorite fruit? I’ll get you feeling close to that.” I was feeling well enough to flip on the lights and my eyes no longer ached from staring at a bright screen in otherwise darkness.
“I have lots of favorite fruit. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten her to talk to you.”
“Do you like strawberries? I like them dipped in sugar especially when they’re sour.”
“How am I doing? Maybe I’m wondering why and how the fuck I’m still breathing now it’s commotion and blame.”
“I don’t blame you. I would never.”
“I don't really care if you blame me or not. I don't care if anyone blames me or not. I don't care what anyone thinks or is thinking. I really diidn't want to be alive when this shit was happening. But somehow, all the shit’s in my system but I'm exactly where I was a few days ago. Only now there's people breathing down my throat and I've screwed up my chance at this. I'm just fucked really. I did it right and it's almost like this fucked up universe can't even let me go because I'm supposed to still suffer more. I can't even fucking do that without my family interfering.”
“I love you,” I sent.