An Open Letter to the Dead
For the purposes of this open letter, the addressee will be known as Rhonda.
Of all the letters I have written for the Open Letter Continuum, only yours is literally impossible to deliver, as far as I know. You have been dead for about fifteen years.
It was around this time of year that I heard about your death. In fact, I had come home from college for Thanksgiving. The accident that killed you was on the front page of the local paper, and the paper was in a dispenser in front of the grocery store the family was going into. We were about to shop for Thanksgiving. The headline caught my eye, and when I read your name as one of the fatalities, I went a bit numb. Without a doubt my festive mood was gone. There was a bit of a cloud over the rest of my time at home for the holiday.
I will not profane your memory by pretending, for the sake of this post, that we were intimate friends. We were not. But we were classmates in high school, you being two years behind me, I think. You and I were both among the selected group to go on a special field trip one year. I don’t know how or why either of us got selected, but you made me laugh a few times while we were there. For those reasons alone, you deserved my thoughts.
Yet there was a bit more, and what is probably the main reason I think of you still. The main reason I write this now.
You danced with me at the prom.
Being an underclassmen on the organizing committee, you were in attendance. I was out of sorts that night for any number of reasons. In a fit of out-of-character complaining for me, I mentioned in front of you, (as opposed to mentioning to you) and the rest of the committee at the door how pissed I was that every time I wanted a chance to dance with someone, they ended up with someone else. I don’t know why I was going off about it. Doesn’t sound totally like me, looking back. But I did what I did.
And you did what you did. You got up from behind the welcome table, told me to stop complaining, and dragged me out onto the dance floor and danced with me.
For a moment you were even kind of leading. I was taken totally off guard, you see. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting out of that moment. Perhaps some sympathy from someone. Being yanked out onto the dance floor of the prom was not one of those expected things.
Your dress was mostly black on top and mostly white on the bottom, as I recall. Your hairstyle was part up and part down. I’m not good at describing such things.
I felt both appreciative and awkward at the same time. I muttered a “thank you” of some sort I think. Seemed like the only proper thing to do. You waved it off, and said something to the effect of how I had to be faster, or louder or something if I wanted to dance with other people, I don’t remember the exact words. I remember you were inches taller than me, though. I myself have never had any problem dancing with or dating taller women, but when they come out of nowhere and grab me, it has a comic tinge of admonition to it.
The song was Angel Eyes by Jeff Healey. The line “what you’re doing with a clown like me is surely one of life’s little mysteries” seemed an exquisite caption on the moment to me. What a wonderful story it would have made if you and I had fallen in love at that moment. We didn’t. Hell, it took me half the song just to catch any kind of rhythm. It was like I stumbled into somebody else’s fantasy moment by mistake.
That being said, I liked how you sang along with the song while we danced. This clumsy moment between two people who hardly knew each other, brought about because I was bitching and you took a perverted sort of mercy on me was not otherwise magic. But the way you seemed to be in the moment, becoming a part of the song made it worth it to me. I may have even been incidental to your dance with the song itself. If so, I’m okay with that. There is a certain beauty looking back on it. There was even a certain beauty about it then.
When the song ended I thanked you again. I’d never been part of an ambush slow-dance before, but that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t remember what you said at that point. You were polite about it, whatever it was. And you walked back to the table. Though I had no way of knowing it then, an integral moment in the fabric of memories of my teenage years, and by extension my entire life, had just ended. That awkward slow dance that came out of nowhere, that otherwise might have been a comic footnote in years to come would soon become a crystal in my mind that remained solid no matter how many times the surrounding soil of thought and feeling has been turned over by the plowing and harvesting of time.
The moment I read about your death, however, I knew.
The report said police believed you were probably driving too fast around the corner of that street when your car flipped over. A new car. I drove on the very curve where you had your accident before. Various times throughout the years in fact. I still do. And when I do, no matter what else is on my mind, I see images of your in your prom dress in my mind.
That’s nothing compared to the song, though. When that came on the radio, it was sometimes like you were there again, and I didn’t want to think about it all. I was never overcome or devastated, but I did not want to think about it. For years, as soon as I heard that recognizable instrumentation at the start of that song I switched to another station. Not that it did much good; the image was still there just from hearing the first few seconds. And wouldn’t you know it? For some reason, that song seemed to come on the radio every single night for about two years after you died.
Finally, after years of that behavior, I sat down and decided it was time to make that a song again. Enough of it being a trigger, so to speak. I sat in my room with earphones, and made myself listen to Jeff Healey sing Angel Eyes about fifteen times in a row. Your spirit never went away, but it was, by the twelfth go around or so, in its proper place. An honored memory of a time you, in a somewhat audacious and not 100% comfortable way, tried to snap me out of whatever I was in. You will forever be linked to that song in my mind, but now I can also simply listen to it and think of you, without playing things over in my mind. I don’t have to change the station. I can even let myself enjoy the memory of you singing along to it.
Who knows? I said this was the only open letter so far that couldn’t possibly reach its subject. But perhaps in whatever form you take, and wherever you are now, you can read this. If you can, thanks for the dance. Hopefully there are less awkward dance partners for you where you are now.
sincerely, Ty Unglebower
This post is part of the Open Letter Continuum.