She lived a full life, our friend’s mother said, to which Erik responded by looking down and swiftly escaping to the bathroom, rubbing his red eyes and knocking into the Kaffee’s plush velvet chairs as he went. She was living her dream, she continued, coming all the way here to Vienna to study German literature, making friends from all around the world, going to the symphony every week, and I nodded along to these empty statements because it felt like the polite response to her bereaved mother, even as my fingers tapped impatiently on the wood table peppered with our cigarette ash. Svante inclined his head too, actually appeared to affirm the clichés, though I knew he was as atheist as the next Swede and didn’t care to fold our friend’s death into her mother’s faith that everything happens for a reason, that the Lord giveth and taketh away. I still can’t believe it, Svante said, contemplating the restaurant’s chandeliers, though outwardly he was so level in the wake of the news that he became the group’s cool-headed organizer, calling upon anyone who knew our friend to join our nightly procession from one Viennese bar to another, where we found small release in bottles and cigarettes and the fact that her death was as unfathomable to us together as it was to each of us on our own. I can’t stand to hear her eulogized like that already, I confessed to Erik once her mother and sister had returned to their hotel room, and anyway we aren’t the only two who still refer to her in the present tense, I even heard the others slip once or twice. The past six months, I went on, she insisted that she didn’t want to waste time anymore, that she had wasted too much already. Besides, no life that ends at 25 is full, and hers definitely wasn’t, with all she has left to do, to still become.
At first we knew only that our friend had missed work. She didn’t show to pick up little Max from school, which was unlike her. In the three years that she worked as Max’s au pair, our friend had never been so much as ten minutes late without a valid excuse and excessive apologies, so Max’s mother posted online: Please call us so we know you’re okay. I saw the post from my desk in Paris, just as my boyfriend called me into the kitchen for dinner, and wordlessly I drifted to the table and sat, eyes streaming. Living already felt tenuous after what had happened in our neighborhood that November; we’d missed the attacks by mere blocks, we were lucky to leave Le petit Cambodge that afternoon when that night fifteen people didn’t. But sitting at the table then and staring down at my cerulean plate, I knew that our friend would fail to pick up Max only if something grave had happened. With the same certainty I felt that unseasonably warm November night, when multiple attacks unfolded around us and 500 meters from the Bataclan we turned left instead of right, I felt disaster unfold, and I knew that this time we hadn’t been spared.
Did you see—, I asked Erik through the phone, and he said yes, yes, I was in Malmö for a composer festival this weekend, so stupid, but I am on my way just now—she’s not answering her phone but I’m coming back to look for her, and of course I’ll let you know if I hear anything. Sorry I’m so distracted, I said to the other teachers at the high school the next morning, checking my phone for news from Erik, my best friend is missing—she lives in Vienna, no one has seen her. Unfazed by disaster after what had happened in Paris, one colleague said, hopefully she’s fallen in love and run off with someone, a scenario that to me felt already impossible, since whatever kept her from picking up Max had already occurred, maybe was occurring still. But I wished that, so long as the facts were unknown to me, they could change if I retrojected happy endings onto them. I knew she was too dutiful to leave Max hanging, so in keeping with her example I didn’t leave my students, taught my classes as normal until, towards the end of the day, with still no news, I left school in a panic, striding past closed-gated communities along the Avenue Georges Mandel and asking Colin through the phone, Where is she, what happened to her? Twenty-four hours later, we knew she was dead.
When they told Erik, he called his mother first, and she said nothing, just screamed. When he called me I was in bed, and passing the phone to my boyfriend I asked Erik to repeat the words that I could not. Next Erik called our friend’s mother, then her sister, then her father in Colorado, who was calm when he asked, Are you sure? Are you positive? And then Felix called Erik and spent the night with him, since Erik had been advised not to be alone. When I called our friend’s sister from my cheap French cellphone she said, She loved you so much—in the past tense—and my words squeaked and deflated into useless things, like the punctured balloons rolling around the loft floor. Erik couldn’t reach Ajla, but when she finally checked her messages the next night she dialed me, pleading, Are you sure? Please tell me it isn’t true. I didn’t tell her that I had let the day disappear from my bed in our Paris loft, playing an Arvo Pärt link our friend had sent me months earlier on loop while my boyfriend brought me the bread he’d baked and patted my hair more gently than usual. By then the flame in the candle I’d lit was on the cusp of going out, and I was at that point already too numb to mirror the pitch of Ajla’s incredulity or to reassure her. I’m flying to Vienna tomorrow, I said, I’ll see you then. I remembered that our friend had described Ajla as difficult at times, but still I felt a splintery shame for not trying harder to comfort her. Yet where had Ajla been when after Erik’s call I rose from my bed without noticing my legs and shut myself in the loft bathroom, where an upset burst out of me in guttural gasps and moans. Thankfully our roommate asked me to articulate nothing, just made me tea and sat quietly with me by the open window as our cat looked on, upright, since, as my boyfriend claimed, cats just know. It can’t be true, Ajla said again, she can’t, she can’t be dead.
Once in Vienna, Jakob told me and Erik that he’d run into our friend two nights before she died. She was here alone, in the same bar we’d crammed ourselves into, with smoke hovering low, the night crowd and their winter coats tucked into every corner, and although she had final exams to study for, she sat with Jakob for a beer. Our friend was generous with everyone, as Leonie said, she was her only real friend in Vienna, even though she’d lived here more than half her life—she let Leonie stay in the Wiedner Hauptstrasse apartment when she couldn’t make rent. She was so good with Max, said his mother over dinner, she loved him so much. I knew our friend was concerned that he wasn’t picking up English as she’d expected, children usually being little sponges who soak up what they’re exposed to; she’d told me Max hadn’t yet soaked up his father’s impatience with him for being behind in school, and our friend wanted to shield Max from his father’s disappointment. On the side of their house in their lush suburb, I finally met the boy she’d so often written me about and couldn’t stop worrying over. I watched Erik help Max dig out the rocks that she had buried there with him, the ones they called dinosaur bones, and Max paused. Looking up at me from his play and pushing up his thick, round frames, he said, My friend is dead, bist du sad ? and I sputtered, ja, sehr sad.
At Wunder-Bar, running my fingers along the sides of my glass, wiping away condensation as thick as the February fog in the alley, I overheard Svante tell Ajla (making sure that Erik was out of earshot) that he feared he was at fault for encouraging her to take up activism at that moment. As thousands of asylum-seekers were arriving on European shores, our friend had been spending afternoons at the refugee center, which she’d told me mostly came down to babysitting children with whom she didn’t share a language, pretending to be a monster and chasing them, squealing, around piles of donated plastic. But she and Svante weren’t the only ones trying to make good on European hospitality, I thought, as I downed my third pint. Erik spent his Christmas working in a camp on Lesbos, and my expat friends in Paris were mobilizing to find safe, dry places where asylum-seekers, chasing rumors of a higher quality of life in the northern nations, might sleep on their way to the camp in Calais, which in the papers was looking increasingly dismal. When our roommate offered our loft to three Sudanese men for a night and they learned that my boyfriend and I were American, they laughed, incredulous that we’d leave our homeland of opportunity for France, where few refugees sought to settle. And on Christmas morning Colin and I had taken chocolates to a refugee center in Berlin, a gift at once not enough and too much, since Christmas probably wasn’t one of their holidays. Over his Käse Toast, Hjörtur said that our friend had been tutoring the newly arrived in German, too, and Ajla, who hadn’t eaten in days, said, Yes, yes there was Mansour, from Afghanistan I think. Whenever our friend talked about him, Ajla had a bad feeling; it felt like he had more interest in her than he did in their lessons. But Mansour was there with Erik when it was happening, Felix interrupted, frantic and running around town searching for her, just the same as Erik, the day the firefighters finally broke down her door and found her, face down on her bed, her laptop, cell phone, and passport gone.
Even though Erik said he’d been avoiding the newspapers, I’d read all the coverage online as though it were my job to study what the media made of it, but also because, as our friend’s mother had said, the investigation was still underway and no information would be released until it was complete. So I got used to hitting Translate at the top of Austrian articles and keeping their contents from Erik, not that it mattered. Others had told him it was all being sensationalized, that theories were floated that she had suffocated accidentally during a sex game with one of the men she had over that last night. Isn’t that so fucking typical, Svante cut in, just textbook misogyny, to which I added that I could almost hear her laughing, like, I can hear her voice in my head saying what a stupid waste of time this is, this ad-hoc media fuss and speculation, when there are more important issues to cover, like how ruinous undocumented life is for the psyche. She would never engage in such a game, said her sister, as though offended by the accusation that our friend might enjoy rough handling, but how the hell would her sister know what she was into, Ajla’s husband remarked when her sister left the table. True enough, I said with a laugh, trying to stifle the sickness rising in my belly, but looking out the window I was almost sure she would have told me, as I thought she told me everything. Alja, although she claimed she couldn’t keep up with the articles, pointed out their fixation on the fact that none of our friend’s sockets had bulbs in them, and that her candles were burned low, her mattress on the floor, as if she were decadently destitute. But we all know that’s how our friend liked it; we all knew she preferred fire to tungsten. She was always a bit ascetic like that, Hjörtur said, wistful, except when it came to clothing and jewelry, the most valuable of which, according to her mother, had gone missing too.
Erik had taken to calling the whole thing stupid and dumb, an American affectation he’d learned from our friend, since he couldn’t bring himself to say anything more descriptive. In his restlessness he’d taken up cigarettes and drinking himself to sleep at night, moving around the city by day to simulate some level of functioning, though he always took care to avoid her apartment and the streets leading up to it. I wish I could talk to her, I said the one time we came too close to her place, my words drawn out as if she’d said them, she’s the only person I can talk to when I feel this fucking awful. I kept scrutinizing my mannerisms when I finally met the Vienna friends she’d always hoped I’d meet, noticing how I played up our likeness to show how close we’d been—I was the best friend, they knew, and they greeted me as if they’d always known me through her words. Through her words I knew them too, and in my brief moments alone I searched their names in our online correspondence as if it were an encyclopedia of the worlds we shared. Hjörtur, who had dated our friend during her first year in Vienna, kept bringing up the song he’d written about her that I knew Erik could not bear to hear, and Svante, who couldn’t stop thinking about the media coverage, was addressing the journalists in a letter he would only write in his head. And still Ajla had not slept a full night. Erik and I haunted the Vietnamese restaurant and plush cafés where we’d been with our friend only weeks before, not leaving each other’s side so long as I was in town. We shared his bed and joined the grieving group often but, as I told my boyfriend, sometimes it feels better to be just us two—sometimes the group makes us all feel like imposters in our grief, and I’m not ready to give speeches about what she meant to me the way Ajla is doing. At least when it’s just Erik and me, no one is asking us to weigh a lover’s loss against a best friend’s to determine which is the heavier to carry.
I visited her only a few weeks ago, I said to Hjörtur, who’d only seen her first place in Vienna, back when she was watching Max full-time and he’d run ahead of her while crossing the street. Her new apartment, I went on, was on the second floor of a lemon-yellow building with pale ceiling moldings that she told me made her go berserk. (In a good way? I’d asked, in a very good way, she’d answered.) I think she saw foreign languages as new homes to live in, I said, realizing that in the group only I knew her from her native context, I think we both wanted to use language as a way of becoming what we were not yet. When we met, I said, in a French lit class in Boulder, she sat to my right and I used to size her up, glancing sideways at the uniform loops and slants in her notes. Although her French was not as fine-tuned as mine, she always seemed on the verge of saying something esoteric and more interesting than I could think of, so knowing that she would either be my rival or my best friend, I asked her, a piano major, whether she would be giving a recital that spring. She said, Not till fall, but do you want to grab a coffee? I met a girl, I told my then-boyfriend after the coffee date that had lasted hours, intentionally making it sound like the beginning of a love story because that is how it felt then—daily we wrote each other long messages and drank at happy hours until French poured out our mouths like sparkling water. It still felt that way when I visited her in Vienna, going from café to park to flohmarkt, talking and staring up at that ceiling she loved until we fell asleep. I’m gaining courage, she’d written afterward, to tell you and Erik how I need you both, oh how much I need you: What my sorry ego has long kept me from saying.
Erik thought none of the people she’d had over that last night could have meant our friend harm, including Pascal. Erik had been calling him for days, listening to the line ring until eventually it cut straight to voicemail. I never met him, Ajla said, letting her long hair fall darkly in her face, but I always had a bad feeling about her letting a strange man stay with her. Erik, wanting to believe that those fleeing violence were not themselves capable of it, cut off Ajla’s budding reproach to say that it couldn’t have been Pascal, who left Gambia for Libya and, when he saw civilians wielding automatic weapons, Libya for Italy. And Erik had seen Pascal often, Leonie reminded us, even before Pascal began crashing at our friend’s place. He said Pascal was always sweet and smiley, just as he’d been when he met our friend over a beer and he told her he spoke seven languages, that our friend was the first white person to talk to him in Vienna, after which she wrote me that being friendly was only a matter of muscle control. I didn’t know what she meant, but after another glass, I chimed in, soothed by this docile portrait of Pascal we were collectively painting, that he told her he’d be a happy man if she met his mother. Our friend was touched by his mother-missing—she was often frustrated with her own mother, but had suddenly flown back to Colorado the previous summer to patch things up, as she’d said, with her family, as if she didn’t have time to be on less than good terms with them anymore.
But Pascal’s English, which at first was conversational, had started to deteriorate, or else communication between them had become strained, their interactions linguistically draining, as she’d written me. The last time I saw her, I said, for Christmas in Berlin, she told me Pascal had taken to cleaning the bathroom and kitchen constantly, almost just as soon as he had used one or the other, and that our friend thought he must feel guilty to benefit from her hospitality in exchange for nothing. It’s so unfair, she’d written me a month before, Pascal is in Rome and will be delivered by the police tomorrow with a one-way ticket to the city of his choice. He called her from the airport, and she said, yes come, of course I’ll hide you here, so that along with her philology schoolwork our friend had immigration and asylum applications to look into. Once the investigation was underway, Erik held off on telling the police about Pascal because he knew that would make him a suspect, and I refused to blame Pascal because he would be the perfect target, politically speaking, for the increasingly xenophobic Austrian media to narrow in on. Obviously he’d have no choice but to flee, I said to Erik, but I haven’t told anyone about him, about his status or origin—I don’t know if it matters, or how to include that detail in a way that isn’t suggestive or generalizing; I know that she would just hate the way the media’s instrumentalizing it, her death, like some cautionary tale against open borders and sexual promiscuity. That’s true, Erik said, it would be easy to frame him, and what’s more, this case fits their agenda all too perfectly, and the platform Trump is running on for that matter, that you have to be careful who you open your home to. But once the evidence against Pascal grew too heavy to dispute, we stopped using his name.
When I last saw her in Berlin, I confessed to Leonie over tea, she was angry with me, and remained so the four weeks between then and the night I sat down for dinner in Paris and everything changed. But we were used to fighting, I said, and even though the daily streams of our years-long correspondence had dried up slightly, still we were in touch, still we were sharing copy-and-pasted links detailing hostility toward immigrants in Hungary and Poland and France since the attacks, as well as the songs by the only artists that pumped us up regardless, Dej Loaf from me and Silvana Imam from her. Writing poured out of her, I said to Leonie, and I often felt like I had disappointed her by not answering her messages adequately or at all. Well, no one could quite meet her on her terms, I specified, remembering that around Christmas our friend had written everyone she knew in Vienna in search of another refuge for the man she’d taken in, who was, she wrote, without papers and without choice but to hide. Wish us luck, I had written to her before we flew out of Charles de Gaulle, my boyfriend having already overstayed his three-month visa, concerned that France might turn its scrutiny on him at the gate, what with the state of emergency having been declared and the airport’s halls newly patrolled by soldiers armed with the same weapons the attackers had turned on civilians. Hah, at least he has a passport, our friend retorted, annoyed by my concern, and she was right: my boyfriend with his blue passport and eyes was waved through, security only stopping to interrogate those clutching documents in green.
Which is part of why Chris thought our friend was already running low on patience in Berlin. While the rest of us drank in Kreuzberg and made stupid jokes, she snuck off to call the man she had taken in, and Chris didn’t think she was telling us the half of what she was dealing with. I imagined the half she wasn’t telling Chris was how angry she was with him for thinking he could visit without ever responding to her emails, just as she was annoyed at Colin for making light of everything while a man denied asylum hid in her apartment. She wouldn’t let herself join our chorus of laughter, which I think we all ultimately understood before our rushed train-station goodbyes. But, as I admitted to Erik, I think she was wrong for being so hard on us. As her train pulled out and our friend looked back through the glass, slightly smiling without waving, I wished that she hadn’t colored the end of the visit with her stress, and that the bliss we’d felt staring up at her ceiling hadn’t disappeared as quickly as she did in that train. But I can’t think about that right now, I broke off, tearing my teabag to shreds and avoiding Leonie’s eye. It feels so small relative to the whole, I said, grasping for the first time that despite my refusal to accept that her life had been full, death was forcing me to see its arc as having been completed.
It’s very bizarre, Felix wrote me a few days later, how close one can feel to a person that one has only seen twice—this group of people that has repeatedly gotten together, we seem to create a strength among ourselves, a bond after so little contact, like we’ve already always known each other. What feels most unforgivable, I answered, missing the group, is precisely the fact that things do carry on, whether or not you want them to—this blind, forgetful forward stumbling. I don’t know what can come after this, Ajla said, slumping in her chair, nothing that used to matter to me can matter anymore. She’d been spending nights on the couch since it happened, away from her husband, and claimed she couldn’t stand the thought of carrying on her trivial fashion career after this. But she loved your designs, I interjected, reaching for her hand as Erik ducked outside for another cigarette, she really admired you for them. Despite the confident gesture, inwardly I felt useless, my next steps floundering. I couldn’t imagine extending my visa to stay in Europe, which once seemed so welcoming, and I suspected the group would disperse as quickly as it had assembled, that ultimately there is no community in grief, and that even if our versions of who our friend was converged, idealized, for her funeral, each of us would go on alone, living with our own distinct still image of her, carrying above all the grief of her ultimate unknowability. Erik on the other hand couldn’t see more than a day or week ahead, even though nothing could ever be the same for him, since what he wanted most from our friend was time. Only when I stretched out next to him in bed the night before the ceremony did he say, exhausted and drunk, I really, really, really wish this didn’t happen.
Do we know what happened? I heard someone ask inside Rupertskirche, and stoic Svante, who would be introducing the music we’d chosen, confirmed what we’d heard from investigators. From the back of the church I saw Max, sitting almost still between his parents, and since I’d brought nothing appropriate to wear to a funeral, Ajla dressed me in a black jacket and silk of her own design. I can’t find Erik, his mother cried as people filed in, throwing on her coat and running for the door, and though I understood how much more she had to worry about him now that he was chain-smoking and drinking himself numb every night, I knew if he wanted to harm himself he wouldn’t have chosen that moment, not before the ceremony the two of us organized. When he was found smoking by the vine-covered stone walls upon which the Roman church was perched and preparing himself to face everyone who’d known our friend here, and I turned with relief to look at the elegant white flowers on the alter, it hit me that this stupid arrangement was all we could conjure in place of her, and the more I thought about how these petals paled in comparison to her dimples or stray platinum hairs on neck nape or long self-assured step or tilting greeting head or silver-ringed fingers running along piano keys or mischievous hand squeezing mine or rapid blinking green eyes or melodious laugh or mouth’s protruding lips as intently she listened hand gripping beer bottle, the more immeasurable her loss.
After the reception, we threw all the flowers into the Danube. I swear it wasn't the pat symbolism that broke me as much as the sight of those delicate white bouquets bobbing silent down the canal in a receding line, leaving the water dark, again becoming still.