“She closed her eyes. The world stopped existing. It stopped turning, people stopped breathing, and Allen barely felt like he was there. He didn’t feel himself sobbing and screaming and kicking and begging and running as far, far away as possible from her body.”
Allen walked in unknowingly. He was grinning, feeling particularly happy for no reason at all. But he stopped when he saw Betty, who was lying on a bed, looking pale and her wrists bloody. He ran to her side.
“What is it? What happened? Are you okay? Wait, don’t answer that, you should save your strength. I should get a nurse-”
“Al-Allen,” she gasped, clearly struggling to speak.
She was definitely in pain. How much, Allen didn’t know. He grasped her hand.
“I’m right here. It’s okay, you’re going to be okay — ”
“You — ” she paused as she coughed and struggled to breathe, “You love me, Allen.”
“Of course I do, but I don’t understand what that has to do with what’s wrong with you.”
“It… it hurt. But now –” she paused and coughed, ”I’m not… not hurting anymore.”
“But you’re dying! I don’t understand, Betty!”
“I’m sorry. There’s noth — ” she took a moment and tried to take deep breath, “nothing left. Nothing left in me.”
Allen choked on the oncoming rush of tears.
“Betty… please… hold on for me. Please, just save your energy. Don’t talk, I’ll find a nurse or something. Just please, you can’t let it have you. You know you can stop it. You know you can fight back. Why are you letting it win?”
“I c-can’t fight anymore. I’ve run out of fight.”
In that moment, Allen seemed to forget Betty was dying, and one question simply burned in his mind as he started to sob.
“Don’t-don’t you love me?” he stuttered, his voice shaking.
Betty took his hand and put it on her face, and he felt her tears roll down her face underneath his fingers.
“That’s… that’s exactly it.” She paused to take a few shaking, rattling breaths. “I held on for you. But I can’t hold on anymore. All my fight I put into loving you.”
“It’s not that hard to love.”
Betty smiled a tragic smile and kissed his hand.
“It’s not hard to love, but it is that hard to live.”
She closed her eyes. The world stopped existing. It stopped turning, people stopped breathing, and Allen barely felt like he was there. He didn’t feel himself sobbing and screaming and kicking and begging and running as far, far away as possible from her body.
He didn’t feel himself run into series of nurses and doctors as they realized what had happened and came rushing into the room to see Betty’s body. He ran past them, kicking and screaming and sobbing and struggling to breathe, barely seeing where he was going as his eyes blurred painfully with tears. He left the hospital and found a bar nearby. He didn’t feel himself drink until he had passed out.
He didn’t feel himself begin to slip away from the brink of reality. He didn’t feel after the moment that Betty’s heart stopped beating, her lungs stopped breathing, her eyes stopped blinking, her mouth stopped kissing, her feet stop running, her hands stopped holding his, that she stopped loving.
Not stopped loving — love lasts after death.
The moment he couldn’t love her anymore because when they say love ends after death, they mean that wherever the dead person is, they can still love the person that’s alive.
But how can you love someone who doesn’t exist anymore?
Betty had just set a new record too. It had been almost six months since she had cut herself.
She was so close to being better, but that was the point, wasn’t it?
You’re so close to the end, when all of a sudden —
Allen drank himself to oblivion.
The beer bottle and the razor had become his and Betty’s demons. Before they thought they were a refuge that they could always go back to. They always knew they would be there and knew if they did go to them, everything would be okay. Allen knew when he was drunk, nothing else mattered. Betty knew that if she cut, she’d be dead and nothing else would matter.
But after being together, instead of wanting to go to the beer bottle and the razor, they hated them. They were so happy together. They hated the idea of their illness torturing them. They hated that death and mental destruction. They had started seeing the bottle and the razor as demons that taunted them. Now, the beer bottle was glued to Allen’s hand again. He didn’t care. All he did was drink. He didn’t eat, he didn’t sleep, he didn’t talk to other people, he just sat in a corner and drank.
His world had become the bottom of the bottle, trapped inside its interior. He tried to get out, but he couldn’t climb up the bottle. He was trapped.
Trapped in endless loops of drinking and being reminded of tiny details that made him think of Betty.
Drawings on the bottle label would make him think about when she made him read that book on Impressionists, or when the cool liquid touched his lips, he thought about how it felt when she kissed him.
The rest of the world didn’t touch him. Nothing touched him but these minor, small things about Betty.
“Would Betty want you to drink?”
That was the first sentence someone said to him after Betty died that he actually took in.
“What?” he replied softly.
His sister, Kira, who had been the one talking to him at the moment, and the one who had raised this notion that somewhat made Allen re-enter reality, was practically stunned that her brother had responded to her. She cleared her throat and repeated the question.
“Would Betty want you to start drinking again? I mean, if you were the one who –” she struggled to not say the d-word, “passed away, would you want her to start cutting again after?”
For a brief moment, Allen thought about reacting negatively towards his sister for asking such a painful question so soon after Betty had died. But Allen knew she just said that because she was desperate and needed him to stop drinking, so she was trying every tactic she could until she could find one that worked to convince Allen he had to stop drinking. (Even though Allen knew he wasn’t going to, at least not anytime soon.) So he put that thought aside and thought back. He knew the right answer. The right answer was of course not. He wanted Betty to be happy. He wanted her to live a full life and one day move out of the hospital, find someone else, and live the rest of her life happily.
But Allen knew what answer was inside his head, which is that if he was the one who died and Betty was grieving him, he would want her to start cutting again. Because he knew without Betty, he couldn’t win this battle against the bottles. He couldn’t overcome it. And he wished he had been the same thing to her, her support in the battle against the razor. But she had left him, and he knew the truth: she didn’t really love him after all.
So even though it was a truly awful, awful thing to want, he knew the answer was yes, because it would mean that Betty really had loved him after all.
But did that mean he didn’t really love her? Did he only love her because he thought she loved him?
If the answer was yes, then he wouldn’t be drinking.
So he did love her, he loved her so much, he hated himself. He loved her so much, he hated her.
So that’s why he drank.
Love was dangerous. Love was even more dangerous than the stupid bottles. Love was even more harmful to himself than drinking.
If he hadn’t fallen in love, then he wouldn’t be falling down this hole.
If he hadn’t fallen in love, then he would have kept drinking and be dead already. And that was what he wanted.
He didn’t care it was selfish, he’d been fighting for long enough. Betty died selfishly, not caring about how Allen would be left after. So why couldn’t Allen do the same?
Maybe he was braver than her. Or maybe being with her had taught him to be braver than her, to be less selfish than her. Maybe her death was a lesson to him to keep fighting, to not let the bottles win. Was that why she gave in?
Did she know that the two of them was only a temporary fix, and that if she was gone, it would motivate him to be better than her?
Did she actually care about him that much? Or was it the very small part of Allen’s mind that did know his sisters loved him and would miss him if he died, so he was trying to convince himself to keep living?
Allen knew that was stupid. His sisters didn’t love him. They didn’t need him. Kira and Tasha were happy. Kira was engaged to her girlfriend, who she simply adored, and Tasha was about to graduate medical school. They didn’t need him. It was egotistical to think they needed him.
Maybe he needed them. Maybe he had been trying to fool himself that they needed him, but in reality, he needed them more than he thought. Had he been leaning on Betty to try to forget about his sisters, knowing it was only a matter of time before they forgot about him, because they didn’t need him? Did he ever really love Betty?
What did love mean?
What did death mean?
What did anything mean?
Why did Allen exist?
What was he supposed to do?
What was next? Questioning everything he’d ever known? Trying to find someone to blame? Trying to understand his feelings about the people around him? Trying to figure out a way to die? Trying to pick himself up again and recover? Try to stay sober?
This was the dark hole he’d been falling down, drowning in these thoughts and simultaneously drowning in alcohol. His sisters stopped letting him go out and stopped giving him money. So he couldn’t buy drinks anymore because they were worried about him, but he wasn’t the only sick person in that hospital.
The other patients around him understood what he was going through, and while they subconsciously knew helping him get alcohol wasn’t healthy, they gave him money and caused distractions and diversions, so the nurses wouldn’t see him sneak out of the hospital anyway. He knew it wasn’t fair to exploit their kindness, but he needed those drinks. Without them, he felt like all he could taste was blood in his mouth. Maybe he bit his tongue, or the inside of the cheek.
He barely felt anything anyway when he had enough drinks. He felt as if he was floating away from earth, escaping consciousness. Simply gliding amongst air. He was weightless, breathless, nothing. That was what Allen wished he was. He wished he was nothing. He didn’t wish he was dead. He wished he was nothing. Because he decided he didn’t want to die anymore, because it would mean he’d have to see her again. How can you face someone after you’ve given them everything and you find out they didn’t love you at all?
“Do you really think she didn’t love you?”
Tasha was sitting on the end of Allen’s hospital bed. Allen had drank too much and passed out. He had been very close to death, but they managed to save him. So despite his need for drinks, Allen vowed to drink less, as if he didn’t, he’d die, and he never wanted to see her again. He was actually glad that she died. That she had given in.
At least he’d learned the truth: she never loved him at all. If she had, she wouldn’t have given in, wouldn’t have let them win. He hadn’t given in. He’d lived, for her. He had really loved her, but he hated himself for loving her once. He had wasted love on her. He knew now that he truly did love his sisters, and he should have spent time loving them instead of her. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t intrigued by what his sister was thinking when she said that.
“Of course she didn’t. If she did love me, then she would have fought harder.”
“Allen, I know it sucks, but sometimes some things are stronger than love. That doesn’t make her love for you or your relationship invalid.”
“Says love. Depression might have been stronger than love in the case of Betty, but it doesn’t have to be in yours. Your illness will only really affect you if you let it. If you fight it, it goes away. You have the power to end it.”
Allen looked down at his hands, which he was used to being sticky or wet from drunkenly spilling beer on them. He noticed they were scarred. On his right hand, there were thin, angry red-pink lines. On his left hand, there were deep, large bumpy gashes. He avoided his sister’s eyes as he asked the next question.
“D-did I-um c-cut-”
Tasha nodded slowly. Allen squeezed his eyes shut.
“Tasha, do you and Kira really care about me?”
Tasha smiled a small smile.
“Like I said, in Betty’s case, that time, depression really was stronger, but it doesn’t have to be for every case. Sometimes love does win. And no matter where you are, Kira and my love for you will always be stronger.”
For the first time since Betty died, Allen touched someone. He leaned over and hugged Tasha. He did more than that. He let someone in for the first time since Betty died. He let himself cry into Tasha’s shoulder. She hugged him and rubbed his back, and when he started muttering thousands of apologies, she said she understood.
Allen ate. He ate and slept and took showers. He didn’t drink anything but water, and once every two weeks, he actually went jogging. He wasn’t always sure what motivated him.
Whether it was his sisters’ showing his love for him or Betty’s death, Allen desperate constant need for alcohol was replaced with a desire to live healthily. He didn’t laugh or smile or feel happy, but he did live.
Or did he?
That was a question he kept asking himself. Was he really living if he wasn’t happy?
And then that made him think about Betty. Was she really living if she wasn’t happy? Is that why she gave in?
But she was with Allen. And she said she loved him. Didn’t loving him make her happy?
Is it possible to love and not live?
Is it possible to love and not be happy?
Or is what really makes life living loving?
Kira and Allen had been jogging and were now stopping on a park bench to drink water.
“You’re four months sober today.”
Allen looked up from the ground.
“It feels like time hasn’t passed since — ” he stopped.
Kira placed her hand on his shoulder.
“I want to ask you something, but you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“What did you love about Betty?”
Allen looked up and closed his eyes.
“She reminded me why I wanted to live. She reminded me why I should get help, why I should try to stop drinking. She made me realize that life was worth living.”
“How?” Kira asked softly.
Allen smiled a small smile, which stunned Kira. He hadn’t smiled in months.
“She was just so beautiful. Most people’s ideas of beauty are landscapes, or stars in the sky. But seeing her smile or laugh or think just made me feel so lucky to have her. I just loved how passionate she was about everything. I loved how when she read a book or watched a TV show or movie, she cared so deeply about the story if she really loved it. I loved how she was just so passionate about stories and art, and how happy they made her. Seeing her happy made me happy. I loved every now and then, a freckle would pop up on her cheek, and I loved kissing them. I loved sitting on a couch and us both reading and being absorbed in a book, yet our legs and hands were completely tangled up with each other. I just loved each and every one of those things so much that it overpowered my need to drink. My love for all these things was just stronger than the pull for the bottle. And without it…”
Kira took Allen’s hand. Allen hadn’t noticed, but he had started to cry. Kira put her head on Allen’s shoulder, and Allen cried silently.
“A-and I g-guess…”
“I always felt broken, and she didn’t exactly make me feel like I was fixed, but it was just that we were both broken. And I guess when we were together, we felt less like we were broken, and we were just cracked.”
“I want you to come to my graduation.”
Tasha’s words surprised him.
“Are you sure?”
“You’re six months sober now, Allen. You’ve been stable and secure, and I think you’d be able to handle it. And you’re my little brother. I want you to be there.”
Allen smiled softly, the second time he’d smiled in months.
“Of course, Nat. I’ll be there.”
Tasha smiled widely when hearing her brother call her the nickname he hadn’t used in three years, not since he’d started drinking. It almost made her hope that, eventually, things could go back to the way they were before Allen’s twenty-first birthday. Before he’d been institutionalized. Before Betty died. Before their lives had changed.
Allen clapped the loudest as Tasha accepted her diploma. You could tell he was the proudest of her of all the family members there cheering for their graduating loved ones. He hugged her the hardest, took the most pictures, and went to talk about her the most to Tasha’s friends. Tasha and Kira had been slightly nervous he’d start drinking, but he only had water. He was even offered alcoholic drinks, but he always politely refused. The three of them even went to a party with Tasha’s friends, and Kira even saw Allen smile, big smiles that took up his entire face.
When the doctor told Allen it had been a year, he was honestly shocked. It hadn’t felt like a year. It hadn’t felt like time passed at all. He had stopped drinking, but he usually felt dizzy and disoriented most of the time. He sometimes lost memories. Everything felt blurry and mushy unless he was with his sisters. Otherwise, he barely took anything in. So the news that he had been sober for a year was honestly huge. He felt he should be proud of himself, but the only thing that seemed to matter to him was that meant it been over a year since Betty died.
And he wasn’t mad at her anymore.
He missed her, actually. It didn’t make him want to drink, but he did miss kissing her cheek every morning when she woke up. He did miss how her hair always smelled like lemons. He missed looking at her when she was reading, and how into a story she got, wrapped up in words. He missed making her laugh. He missed cuddling her and her falling asleep in his arms, her glasses falling down her nose. He missed seeing her. He missed happiness.
What did happiness feel like before Betty?
His immediate thought was drinking, but he had learned since she died, that happiness wasn’t drinking. It was an addiction that he took over him. So he thought harder, tried to remember life before drinking, before the institution, before Betty.
Happiness was Christmas morning with his sisters, his parents, and their puppy, Carl. Happiness was movie night with his friends, betting on which would be the worst Star Wars movie the eighth time re-watching. Happiness was 2 am phone conversations with his cousins. Happiness was vegan pizza, and the light from the lamppost as he came home after a long day of school and hugs and puppy licks. Happiness was being a normal teenage boy.
But he’d lost all of that the day he’d asked for a beer and then didn’t stop.
His sister looked up from her book. The two of them were sitting opposite from each other in armchairs, reading.
“D-do you think if I visited Betty’s grave, it would help me move on?”
Tasha thought for a moment.
“I think you’ll find out if you try.”
“If-If I move on from Betty and accept her — “ he pressed his lips together and pushed forward, “what happened and move back home again?”
Tasha smiled sympathetically.
“Never mind. I know Mom and Dad don’t want to see me anymore.”
“I-It’s not that. It’s they’re just not sure if you do.”
Allen picked at his jeans.
“I’ve always wanted to see them. It’s just that the Allen with a bottle in his hand didn’t.”
HERE LIES ELIZABETH FRANK
1993 – 2016
A BELOVED DAUGHTER, SISTER, AND FRIEND
“You forgot girlfriend,” Allen whispered.
He sat down on the grass, facing the gravestone.
“I love you. I don’t know how long that will last. I don’t know if I’ll love like this again. I wish I could say that that’s okay, but the truth is that it hurts. It kills me.” Allen smiled sadly.
“The thing I hate the most is not hearing your laugh when I make stupid jokes, or you teasing me when I nerd out about Harry Potter. I hate the fact that it always feels like a room is empty without you there. I hate that I feel incomplete. I’m not sure if this is just grief, but if it is, then I definitely know I’ll be okay. Because death is permanent, but grief isn’t.” Allen wiped away the tears that had started falling silently. “I hated you for giving in. I hated that you let depression be stronger than love. I hated that I survived. I hated being forced to go on, to keep suffering. I hated that you left me to suffer. I guess the reason that I don’t hate you anymore is that I realized your depression didn’t define you. I realized that giving in didn’t define you either. And the hatred was just pain I tried to rename. I wanted it to be something else, because if I acknowledged what it really was, which was grief from losing you, it would only hurt more.”
Allen was sobbing now. He hadn’t sobbed this hard since the moment Betty died.
“Depression, grief, addiction- they’ve been hurting us for years. But as my sister told me, the illness only hurts you if you let it. It doesn’t if you fight it. And I’m not blaming you for giving in, or letting the illness hurt you. I’ve been so in love with you for so long, I almost forgot how bad our suffering was. And I can’t blame you for the depression being stronger than what we had. That wasn’t your fault. I know that now.”
Allen struggled to breathe; he was sobbing so hard he couldn’t see.
“I’m not apologizing. Because I was allowed to be angry. Maybe not at you, but I was allowed to be mad. I shouldn’t have gone to the bottle, but something I’ve learned is I can’t be mad at myself for drinking. I can’t blame myself for having a mental illness. I can’t blame myself for drinking, because I tried, and I worked hard. I can’t blame myself. I can’t hate myself.” Allen took a deep breath. “I can’t blame you.” He cried some more before continuing. “I can’t let depression touch me and make me question you or us. I have to fight it, like I fought the bottles. I’ll try to fight it, for you. For us. For who we were.” Allen cried until he had nothing left in him. “I love you. And the last thing I learned is that love does last after death, even for the person that lost. Because if I didn’t still love you, then I wouldn’t keep trying. I would have let the bottles win.”
Allen put down the suitcases he’d been holding.
“Mom,” he whispered.
“Kira said you weren’t home.”
“A little lie for your own good,” Kira said as she walked in. “I’m going to put these suitcases in Allen’s room.”
She went upstairs, leaving Allen alone with his mother.
“H-how you’ve been?” his mother asked.
“Sober,” Allen said. “I’ve been sober eighteen months.”
“Th-that’s fantastic, honey.”
“I really never did mean those awful things I said. I-I was drunk. I love you and Dad, and I missed you.”
Allen’s mother started to tear up.
“We love you too, and we’re so sorry we didn’t see you,” she said as she walked over to her son, who had started crying, and hugged him.
“C-can I have some water?”