A novel by EJ Spode.
Chapter 11: Helena and Steady Eddy
My love for Penny has always been more or less unequivocal, which is not to say that there aren’t moments when I think: What is wrong with this woman? This became particularly salient in her reactions with other people. Cases in point were Penny’s whole thing with our local “it girl” Helena, and more critically, her interactions with our friend Steady Eddy.
Helena – so named by her parents because she was born in Helena Montana – was a ridiculously beautiful blonde woman who was a few years ahead of us in High School. Penny never even overlapped with her in school, but she knew Helena by reputation, and she later had to compete with Helena for the cultural heart of Sioux Falls.
Helena was first and foremost the person that initiated the big wave of Lincoln high students going off to fancy schools like Cornell. But for Helena it wasn’t enough to go to an Ivy League school – after high school, she was off to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. But two years later, when everyone else was busy going to fancy schools or, at least, trying to, Helena inexplicably came home. What was that about?
Helena insisted that she just wanted to come home to her boyfriend, Manny. That struck me as unlikely. I mean, sure, she and Manny got back together for a bit when she returned from Paris, but it didn’t last long. And without a doubt Manny might have been better off if she had never returned because after she dumped him he fell apart and eventually became a raging freak in the bars, picking fights for no particular reason other than to beat on someone’s head. Everyone in town started calling him “Man-rage.” He never really got over Helen, and losing her chewed him up from the inside out.
For that matter, no one who dated her and got dumped by her completely got over her. But the way I saw it, at least they were lucky enough to tap her before she left them broken and crying like little bitches on the side of the road. I’ll be honest; I made a run at Helena too, and it was sort of like she never even noticed I was trying.
My buddy Athena had zero time for Helena, in part because Helena was another one of Funmaker’s favorite girls; he was always doing pro bono legal work for her and doing other little favors for her. Athena hated that. She wanted to be Funmaker’s only favorite. And Athena had her own story about what happened in Paris. According to her, Helena had some sort of nervous breakdown there. Athena didn’t seem to have a whole lot of evidence for that, but she stuck to the story regardless. Had Helena cracked up? Probably none of us will ever know.
I played the question through my head several times because Helena had been a bit of a hero to me when she left Sioux Falls. She not only got out of Sioux Falls, but also was living the life of the intellect in an uber-fancy school like the Sorbonne in Paris of all places. When Helena came back, I felt like my own dreams and goals had been destabilized. Had she failed? Would I fail? Would we all fail? Were we all just a bunch of fucking hicks pretending to be smart kids?
I’m not prone to self-doubt, but like everyone, I have my moments when I fall into it. The return of Helena threw me into possibly the worst case of self-doubt I ever had. The self-doubt led to me doing lots of shit talking about Helena. “Yeah she probably cracked up.” “She wasn’t that smart.” “I was never that impressed by her.” But you know, that sort of talk is just an oblique way of saying “that won’t happen to me; I’m different from her.”
The thing with Helen was that she had such an irresistible personality that all of the shit talking eventually dissolved, and we went back to treating her like a queen. And whatever the actual reason that Helena came home, she came back dripping with continental cache’. She also had big ideas about food and how everyone in Sioux Falls should start cooking with local produce and how the community should develop its own style of slow cuisine. She established a weekly farmers market and food court and called it “The Weekly Drop” – using a name that had connotations not lost on druggies like Climax and me.
Every Sunday Helena would be there in the middle of the Drop – a knee-weakeningly beautiful blonde fairy princess holding court. Everyone had to go and bask in her awesomeness. And it drove Penny absolutely out of her mind.
The thing with Helena was that she was beautiful in a way that Penny could never approximate. Penny had the statuesque beauty thing down, but Helena was approachable and full of energy. When she held court at the Drop she seemingly danced between groups of friends, bringing good vibes to all of them while sporting some kicky little French skirt that showed off her legs and her body and her bouncy infectious personality. It was ridiculous for Penny to think of herself as Helena’s competitor because, as beautiful as she was, Penny did not match up well against Helena.
On the surface, Penny and Helena were good friends and were sisters in solidarity with each other – they more or less had to be. But underneath the surface Helena was patronizing to Penny and Penny hated that. Penny became obsessed with building something bigger and more important than Helena had.
Things got hairy at one point during a period when Penny and I were not together. Penny dated some dude for a minute – probably a week – and it went nowhere. When Helena started dating the same dude a month later Penny freaked out. She not only unfriended Helena in all known social media, but she insisted that everyone else do so as well – even me, for fuck’s sake! And the messed up thing was the hypocrisy of it all; Penny would have a dated a friend’s ex in a heartbeat – for that matter she wouldn’t even bother waiting for them to be exes. If there was someone Penny wanted (for whatever purpose) she was going in for the kill, whether the target was single, in a relationship, or even in a relationship with one of Penny’s best friends. I decided that the whole incident was just an excuse for Penny to try and drive a wedge between Helena and the rest of us. It didn’t work.
Penny ultimately realized that she needed to coexist with Helena and at least publically support her Weekly Drop project. Somewhat hilariously Helena didn’t need to return the favor. Penny was just and also-ran to her – a smashed bug on the windshield of Helena’s life. I don’t think Helena came to a single one of Penny’s events, or if she did, it was just to file an appearance and then jet out.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand why Penny didn’t like Helena. My question is, why did she care about Helena? Why the obsession? Why the gamesmanship? The fact that she couldn’t let go of it suggested to me that there was something dark going on deep inside Penny.
All the AM jail cell reflections on Penny and Helena made me feel sleepy. I dozed off again.
I woke up for good around 9:00 AM, still full of negative energy from the earlier Leonardo DiCaprio dream. I couldn’t help but think more about he previous summer in Europe. The disaster with Penny in Hvar Croatia was not even the worst thing about it. The worst part began when I got home from Europe and two weeks later received a call from Steady Eddy. It brought Penny and me back together for a short period, but not under the circumstances I would have hoped for. To the contrary, Steady’s call heralded a living nightmare.
Steady Eddy had been a kind of mentor to me. He had been two years ahead of me in High School, but when he went away to college at South Dakota State in Brookings he came back on breaks, and we hung out pretty religiously. When he graduated from college, he went off to a top shelf grad school – The University of Chicago – where he studied philosophy. I was seriously impressed that someone from Sioux Falls could live their dream and study philosophy at a prestigious school, and it made me think I could maybe get into a quality grad school and study literature.
The dominant fact about Steady was that he was reliably unflappable. He never got wound up. He never got angry. He never got too excited. He was constantly chill, even without the help of drugs. His nickname was well earned.
But talking to Steady was also the coolest thing. He was peerless at explaining complicated stuff, and if you ever had a question about your philosophy class (or, really anything) he was able to break it down and make sense of it for you. And I think the reason he could do that was that he had no hang-ups about what people would think of him. He didn’t care if you thought he was smart or not, and so when he explained stuff, he explained it in simple terms, not terms that would make you think he must be smart.
Steady’s girlfriend Kat was in Penny’s year at Lincoln, and we introduced her to Steady when he came home on breaks from college. Penny loved cooking dinners for those two, and she referred to the group of us as “family,” and eventually we all ended up in college together at Brookings. Kat stayed on there after Penny quit, and graduated on schedule in 2013, at which point she moved back to Sioux Falls and pieced together a soul-sucking living as a temporary office worker.
And here was the thing. Kat was bipolar, and while she could be mad fun at times, she crashed big time as well. And when she crashed it was up to Steady to take care of her – much like I took care of Penny when she was down. And Steady was so amazingly good with her; he was always level and he had a calming effect on her when she was manic and a soothing effect when she was depressive.
I was totally impressed by the way that Steady took care of her, and to some extent I used him as my role model in dealing with Penny. Just be stable. Be the rock. Don’t push for anything. Be present. Be strong.
Dealing with Kat was much more problematic than dealing with Penny, though. She had attempted suicide several times in the past and as a consequence when she dipped into her suicidal despair it was beyond frightening. It was never out of the realm of possibility that she would kill herself.
Penny’s reaction to all this was somewhat bizarre. She seemed to resent the attention that Kat got when depressed and I had this vague sense that Penny was exaggerating her own depression as a consequence. There was no doubt that Penny’s threats of suicide became more and more frequent even as they became less and less genuine. But the genius of a suicide threat is that people really can’t blow you off. They have to take it seriously even if there is only a one in a thousand chance that you might follow through. Because, after all, no one wants to be the person that didn’t respond when there was the cry for help.
It is weird how many times you play the possible suicide of your chronically depressed lover through your head. How will you explain it to everyone? – The police, the family, the friends. And I’ll admit I was selfish in this respect; I had played Penny’s potential suicide through my head many times but hadn’t done the same visualization for the case of Steady and Kat. Which is sort of why the phone call upended my life.
One day in late August Steady came home and found Kat dead. She had gone the whole nine yards. The heavy dose of aspirin to thin her blood. Warm bath water. Veins slit lengthwise.
It was horrific for Steady to come home to that. You enter your apartment, and you find your girlfriend clothed, in a bathtub of bloody water with her vein slit lengthwise. What do you do? Do you pull her from the tub? Do you try to resuscitate her? Do you call someone? Imagine all the different ways your mind is racing in that minute. It was too much even for Steady.
He pulled her out of the tub, but she was already bled out. She was gone. Holding her in his arms on the bathroom floor, he dug his phone out of his pocket and called 911. But who do you call next? Do you call the family? Is it too soon to do that? And you decide no, I’ll wait for the police. But then, while you are waiting it dawns on you: The love of your life is gone. Forever.
How do you wrap your mind around all of that? What are you supposed to think? What are you supposed to feel? Are you supposed to feel anything at all? Is it ok to be numb? Is it ok to be dead to all of it?
And then the police show up with their stupid Sodak detectives and their stupid questions, and of course they hinted that maybe this wasn’t a suicide, and they wondered about that blood all over and why had he pulled her out of the tub after all and where did she get the razor that she used and on and on with the suspicious questions like “had you been fighting?” etc. And then it was on to the neighbors who told the police how volatile Kat was and how she was often screaming and how her boyfriend seemed awfully quiet and in hindsight that was very suspicious don’t you agree?
And then the next thing was calling the family members. Steady got their phone numbers from Kat’s phone and started by calling her mom and dad first. Can you even imagine that?
How do you formulate that news? Do you just come right out with it? “I’m sorry but Kat has killed herself.” And what do you do when her mom cannot process the information and keeps asking “What?” And then her father takes the phone but you still hear the mother in the background screaming. Yeah, think about that.
As horrific as that was for him, it was just the beginning.
First, there was the incredible sense of loss that Steady and the rest of us felt. In this the suicide was like any unexpected death. You have to come to grips with the fact that your dearest friend is just never going to be there anymore. Ever.
And then you have to deal with going through all of their personal effects and reliving your life together in that way. And maybe you go home and find more of their stuff in your house. And they are gone but their stuff haunts you.
Suicide isn’t like other death in that with other forms of death there is usually somewhere else to focus the blame – that drunk driver or that bad doctor or whoever designed that bad intersection. With suicide everyone is potentially to blame if you are eager to play the blame game. And if you don’t want the blame to fall on you then you need to stand up and point at someone else and make sure that person gets all the blame.
For whatever reason that’s what happened to Steady. Everyone wanted to blame someone, and of course he was the natural one to blame because he spent the most time with her.
I guess I wasn’t terribly surprised when the blame started coming in from Kat’s family, because they were an evangelical “Christian” family that had always been suspicious of Steady’s intellectual ways and his “vain philosophy.” They also didn’t like the fact that Kat and Steady frequently lived in sin. And they liked Kat and Steady’s friends even less than Steady – those Bohemians from the big city of Sioux Falls, those weirdoes with their peculiar hairstyles and their slacker jobs and their oh so odd ways of speaking.
It was uncomfortable for all of us at the “viewing” or wake or whatever you want to call it (but they called it a viewing). Steady probably should have sat with us, but he sat with the family and they gave him the cold shoulder the whole time. But of course they still had plenty of time to give us dirty looks – we the delegation from Sodom and Gomorrah. It was impossibly awkward and brutally painful.
I’ve been to wakes and viewings before and usually the way it works is that there are moments of intense sorrow but also moments of joy when you remember the person and the little things they said and did and you celebrate their life. Well, that celebration never happened – there were no moments of celebration, there was only despair. Unrelenting, irredeemable despair.
Had Kat considered any of that when she decided to kill herself? The week of hell we would have to go through with her family? Or for that matter the weeks of hell that her family would go through trying to stuff their anger and blame towards Steady and his heathen friends? Had she thought through any of it? Or was that the plan – throw us all together in a room as a kind of cosmic joke.
Evangelical Christians are bad news bears with the whole viewing business too. There was Kat in her coffin, dressed as she never would dress herself life, made up as she would never make herself up in real life, and sporting a dowdy braided hairstyle that would have killed her had she still been alive. Had Kat thought that part through? The way her family was going to dress her when she died? – the way she would be dressed for all eternity in that stupid coffin? – the way she will be dressed in a thousand years when anthropologists dig up her grave and speculate about the strange fashion and early 21st-century young women, not realizing that it was in fact their fundamentalist families that degraded their bodies like that?
I get that when someone kills themselves they do it because they are living with unspeakable pain, but on the other hand it is hard for me to fathom that that pain is anything like the pain that tears through people’s lives when they experience the aftermath of that suicide.
Albert Camus once said that the first question of philosophy was “why not suicide.” Well, he may just as well have said “the first question of philosophy is why not tear through your family and friends with a chainsaw and maim them and leave them psychologically broken for the rest of their miserable lives?”
I’m sure this doesn’t sound very politically correct to you, but I don’t fucking care. You weren’t there.
I should add that Penny’s behavior through all of this was bizarre, but for the most part I chalked it up to there being no non-bizarre way of handling this. I mean what is the correct way to cope with it all? But still, Penny carried on like she was the principal victim in the whole thing. She first idealized her friendship with Kat, and then, although she never said it, she seemed to think she was hurt far worse than Steady or Kat’s parents or anyone else. And the worst thing was when Penny started getting icy towards Steady — like she was harboring thoughts that it was his fault.
She said things to me like “you will take care of me, right? You won’t let me get that far gone, right? You will be there for me right?” And I reassured her of course, and I held her, and I told her I would always be there for her – even though we had just had a catastrophic breakup in Hvar only weeks earlier.
But the thing is that even while I was holding Penny and promising to take care of her, she was making me sick. She had turned the crisis into something about her – her needs, her insecurities, and ultimately her hold on me.
For the next week, before I went back to school Penny and I spent a lot of time together. It was a classic moment where tragedy brings two people back together. But beneath that was the breakup and all the shit that had yet to be resolved. We were just two people that hated each other, clinging to each other on a raft at sea.
What ultimately blew my mind was the last day we were all together with Steady – the day before I went back to school. We all hugged goodbye at the door, and I still remember looking at Steady and seeing how sad and lost he seemed. A kind of deep sorrow was written all over his face. And as Penny said goodbye to him she said – and I will never forget this – she said: “Be well Steady, I forgive you.”
I was too stunned to say anything. Who says that to someone? When we were outside in my car I asked Penny because I had trouble believing she had in fact said it.
“Did you just tell Steady you forgave him?”
“Yes, I do forgive him.”
I just had no idea where to go with that. What does one say to that? It was disgusting. I knew better than to challenge Penny though, so I just said the most innocuous thing I could say in that moment: “Cool.”
Because of that and because of the whole breakup trauma thing I had real problems connecting with Penny in the three months that followed, and sitting in my jail cell I began to wonder if it wasn’t part of the reason I had been keeping my distance from Penny since I got back to town.
I needed to find a way to power past all of that though. Penny was the love of my life and we were like-minded and she was beautiful and she made everything around her beautiful and…I loved her. No one is perfect. The question is, can we be a rock for someone even when we know all their flaws? I was determined to get right with Penny before my break was over. I vowed that there would be no more fucking around.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Image: Jana Astanov.
Chapter 1: Giants in the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Chapter 7: Penny
Chapter 8: San Pedro
Chapter 9: Triggered
Chapter 10: Letters and Dreams
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 8th, 2017.