The Bell Jar

When Sharon became my dishwashing partner at our co-ed fraternity, her boyfriend Rick didn’t like it. But we had decided Rick broke too many plates and so we put him in charge of mowing the lawn instead. Watching Sharon work, I knew right away that she was the real dish breaker and Rick had just taken the blame for her. Banging the heavy casserole dish against the sink on the way for me to dry, Sharon confessed she was glad her boyfriend wasn’t around even if it was just for a couple of hours. Rick wouldn’t leave her by herself, sometimes even checking on her if she spent too long in the bathroom.

Though Rick and Sharon were classmates going back to childhood, they hadn’t become an item until college. The first time Rick talked to me about his girlfriend he told me they were good pals until high school when suddenly the over-achiever in her went wild. “What’s wrong with being an over achiever?” I asked, guessing Sharon had become too popular in high school and had dumped Rick as a friend for a while. He read my mind. “Nothing wrong with it if you don’t start drinking, doing drugs and sleeping only three hours a night,” he said. “What does that tell you?”

“I don’t know. What?” I said, not catching on.

The first time Sharon cut her wrists with a razor blade, she was still in high school. The suicide attempt made her busy parents finally catch on to what Rick had felt about her at the onset: their valedictorian, cheerleader, prom queen daughter was seriously ill.

It was hard to imagine the vivacious Sharon wanting to kill herself. She was always the life of the party at our co-ed keg Fridays. A sexy daredevil radiating humor and tease, on a full academic scholarship heading for fame as a poet or a novelist. She never acted like she was that faithful to Rick, at least after a few beers. And she had banged a few plastic beer cups together with almost every male in the co-ed fraternity. Of course there was that serious talk Sharon had had with Rick about needing more space, so it wasn’t a total surprise for Rick. What made matters easier was that Friday nights Rick worked a graveyard shift to pay his tuition. I’m guessing in a conflicting way he didn’t mind someone keeping Sharon company.

Me? Well almost. Once before I knew about her condition I made it to her room. But she seemed to have a mood change for the darker and started joking about death and all the easiest ways to go. I took her fantasies about poisonous snakes and bare breasts as just Hollywood style foreplay. The venom of the Egyptian cobra has a peaceful death she believed, having watched Cleopatra as a kid. Still in party humor, I told her about seeing Jane Fonda’s sci-fi flick, Barbarella, as an adolescent in Iran. There was this machine that killed you with a long barrage of intense orgasms in rapid succession. Barbarella over heated the machine. “Joosh avord,” I told her, knowing from experience that foreign words help matters along with American girls.

“Is that how you say ‘orgasm’ in your language?” she asked.

“That would work too,” I surmised. “For the lack of better words”

“No need to be embarrassed. English words aren’t any better, ‘climax,’ ‘peak.’ Makes it sound like an effort.”

“What’s wrong with ‘come,” I said eagerly.

“No way!”

“Why not? I like the ‘mm’ at the end.”

She grimaced thoughtfully and twisted her fingers into a knot puzzle. “Uh, ‘come’ is willed. Know what I mean?”

“It doesn’t happen by itself, like it or not. ”

“Yea, ‘barf’ would be good, except it’s already taken.”

“So what word do you recommend for ‘orgasm’, Miss fancy American poet?”

She sighed. “Hmmm, too bad you science types aren’t into French idioms.”

“Die?” I said.

Suddenly, she beamed as though a sun had burst through the clouds of her mood. “Come here,” she said. Pulling me into her embrace she softly caressed my hair until the lullaby of her radio music put me to sleep. Every time I woke up from my beer slumber that night, I saw she was sitting up in bed scribbling in her diary.

“What are you doing?” I would mumble

“Shhh. Go back to sleep.”

Years after Sharon’s suicide, Rick explained to me that she must have been “on” that night. She had periods of being intensely alive followed by ashen moods when she felt buried under a heavy mudslide of futureless despair. “I will live in thy heart; die in thy lap; and be buried in thy eyes.” Shakespeare has said. The pun about dying still seems clever, being the old English slang for orgasm. But ‘buried’ has not been a romantic metaphor for me since I found out how Sharon’s illness made her feel. Not eternal sleep without dreams as Socrates could imagine death, but a vastly more cruel eternity: wakefulness without dreams, without hope.

The night we washed dishes together Sharon was wearing one of her tank tops. She no longer seemed to mind my seeing the scars on her wrists. Perhaps because weeks ago I had confided in her that my mother used to suffer the same mood swings from mania to depression. It had been an uncomfortable moment for us, and after that the unspoken deal was that Sharon wouldn’t bring up my mom if I would not stare at her scars and try to figure out in my mind which ones were just screams for help and which ones had cut deep into her veins. Sometimes my eyes would follow her arm up to her tank top shoulder strap and from there I would dare climb her neck to her face to find her blue eyes staring into my thoughts. How could she bungle it so many times? I never asked.

That night, though, Sharon seemed upbeat about life. She even flicked some dish soap foam at my nose and I flicked some back at her. When the giggles were over, she sobered up a little and asked me if I missed my mother. She had broken our silent agreement, but her parents had gone away to France on a month-long vacation and there had been no phone calls or letters from them. I felt sorry for her.

“Aren’t they supposed to be back tomorrow night?” I asked, realizing too late that their returning the next day was what she was feeling the saddest about. Now they could no longer call or write to tell her they are thinking of her and that they miss her.

“They sure are,” She said cheerfully, not a trace of sadness in her tone.

To fix things I said, “My father’s letters were always real short when he went on long trips. Are we OK? Do we have enough money? That’s it! But he always brought home somethings to let us know he thought about us every day while he was away. It’s an old custom with us going back to a time when sending a letter took as long as the journey itself.”

“What did he used to bring your mother?” Sharon asked right away, almost breaking another dish against the sink.

“Perfume and stuff.”

“That was nice of him,” she smiled. This time I caught the sadness in her. She recovered quickly. “France is famous for its perfumes,” she said. “But you probably know that.”

By the time we were done with our chore and all the dishes and pans were sitting clean and dry in the cupboards and under the counters, I had told her a lot more about my family. She even found out that my mom had ended her own life by lighting a charcoal grill in the bathroom with the door closed. When the hospital couldn’t revive her, the doctor said it was better that way because she would have been a vegetable if she had lived.

After that Sharon stopped asking questions.

Early the next morning, a knock woke me up. It was Rick at the door suspiciously peeking inside my room at the bed. But instead of relief there was panic in his eyes when he saw Sharon wasn’t there. And suddenly there was panic in my eyes. “She wasn’t with you?” I asked, my voice hollow with worry. We both ran out knocking on every door in the building. Soon everyone was out looking for her. No need, her car was gone.

This wasn’t our first mass panic. Sometimes Sharon took off for the beach without telling anyone. It drove Rick mad, but she had always come back after dark, though she had never left in the middle of the night before. By about eight o’clock in the evening we figured maybe she had gone straight to her parents’ house after the beach because they were due back from France that evening.

Rick rang their number. Everyone stuck by anxiously. The phone picked up. It was a male voice. Sharon’s dad.

“Hello Mr Gleason, this is Rick. Is Sharon there by any chance?” Then he whispered to us that they just got in. Sharon’s car is outside. Probably sleeping in her room upstairs. Her mom is checking.

Suddenly Rick, blinked in surprise.

“Hello! Hello! They hung up!” he said fearfully.

After the funeral we all went to Mr. And Mrs. Gleason’s house. Sharon was an only child, and it seemed her parents regarded her friends as her siblings, letting us share their grief as part of the family. After coffee and cake, her mother gathered everyone around and said tearfully that she had a memento for each of us from Sharon. Her parents had gift-wrapped some of Sharon’s small belongings for her surrogate siblings to take back with them. One of the girls got the bottle of perfume Sharon’s parents had just brought from their trip.

As I walked up to receive my package, Sharon’s mom told me in her Christian way how grateful she was to God that Sharon had always had so many good and loving friends.

Not this one, I thought guiltily. How would she feel if she knew it was me who told Sharon how to kill herself?


Image: Study for Fair Rosamund, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1861

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