Winner, New Ohio Review Nonfiction Contest
selected by Roxane Gay
By Kelsey Ronan
When I was twenty-four, my boyfriend Bryan died, and after the initial cocoon of shock unspooled and I moved back into my mom’s house on Flint’s west side that summer, I had trouble sleeping. Eventually I’d figure out a formula (hot bath; melatonin supplement; crossword puzzles until the numbers blurred), but that summer I stayed up for days at a time. My mom didn’t have WiFi, but one of our neighbors had an unsecured network and from the front porch I could keep enough of a connection to stream YouTube videos. Nights, I swaddled myself in an afghan and sat with my laptop, smoking Newports because Bryan had smoked them and I liked the way the smell was still there on my fingertips when I went back to bed.
That summer marked the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, and I searched for his music videos and all the prime-time interviews. My favorite was Living with Michael Jackson, the 2003 ABC special where Martin Bashir interviews MJ as he rides a mini–Batmobile around Neverland and beatboxes “Billie Jean” under portraits of himself as a naked Bouguereau angel. In one of the scenes I liked best, Jackson and Bashir sit in the Neverland theater, watching footage of a tiny, afroed Michael twirling in fringe and polyester. A gaunt, satin-pajamaed King of Pop, so many reinventions and rhinoplasties away from Motown, shovels in popcorn like he’s witnessing someone else’s tortured childhood.
Sometimes, seeing little Michael belt out “trying to live without your love is one long sleepless night” made my eyes well. Bryan was gone, and all the pop songs confirmed what I knew: I’d had true love and I’d never experience it again. Flint around me was desolate and burned-out, Bryan’s absence everywhere. “Every street you walked down I leave tear stains on the ground,” MJ sang.
But other nights, I lost myself in the catchy songs and the spectacle of someone else’s bizarre life. Each night marked another day between Bryan’s death and the life I would resume living as soon as I could sleep again. I could place years and miles between Flint and me. I could be someone else.
When Bryan and I were kids, General Motors closed their plants and 80,000 people left Flint. Our parents weren’t shop rats, and so they stayed: my father was a roofer, my mother a bus driver; Bryan’s family owned a steakhouse outside town. We both lived on the west side, a mile of Coney Islands, pawn shops, and Asian grocers between us. We met on the bus in middle school. My back- pack was covered in band patches, and Bryan, acne-plagued and sullen, said all the other bands I was repping sucked, but the Beatles were cool. I was sensitive and bookwormy and took profound solace in the taste I was cultivating. What a dick, I thought.
By the time I was sixteen, Bryan’s pubescent snark had evolved into gentle wit and indifferent cool. Beat-up Chuck Taylors and Black Flag T-shirts. Sharp-jawed and ropey, with thick eyebrows and long-lashed blue eyes. His hair Cobain–long and in need of combing by a doting girl. His maturity was more world-weary than precocious. He skipped school to watch daytime talk shows with his mother, sick with kidney problems, or to read the newspaper and sip black coffee at Atlas Coney Island, where his dad used to cook and where the waitresses all fussed over him.
Bryan’s mother died of an aneurysm shortly after graduation; she called 911 with a headache, and was gone before Bryan could get from the steakhouse to the hospital. That afternoon I sat beside him on his front stoop, watching his cousins hopscotch on the sidewalk, the sun glinting on their jelly sandals. When I left that night, I hugged him for the first time. I felt his body stiffen in surprise, then one arm opened to fold me in a half-hug. A few nights later, after the funeral, a group of friends piled into Bryan’s room to watch movies, and shoulder to shoulder in the overly air-conditioned dark, he gripped my hand through a Tarantino marathon.
I had my first kiss in his room that summer, the red neon of the Chinese buffet across the street flaring against the orange and blue birds on his kitschy wallpaper.
If Bryan was falling asleep while we listened to the Pixies in his room, or sick to his stomach, I thought it was grief. If he didn’t have money for the French movie I wanted to see at the Flint Institute of Arts, or if he was evasive when I tried to make plans, it didn’t strike me as strange in a town where everyone I knew was broke. I don’t know when I realized that his erratic moods and stom- achaches and days in bed were symptomatic of heroin use.
At twenty he was pulled over for speeding and the officer found a syringe with traces of OxyContin in his backseat. They let him go. He began the cycle of getting clean and relapsing, each new place a hopeful start and weeks or months later an abrupt exit: rehab, a friend’s place in Ann Arbor, relatives in Grand Rapids, rehab again. There were phone calls and sporadic letters until I lost track of him.
In college I tried to forge a life for myself in Flint. I wrote for local magazines, sitting in on city council meetings and interviewing urban farmers and commu- nity organizers and, once, a woman who ran a support group for the families of murdered children. I wrote terrible poems about decaying buildings and the smell of bus exhaust on Corunna Road, and led writing workshops for kids at a homeless shelter.
Though involved, I was restless. The hippie kids growing kale on vacant lots and the downtown crowd who performed Richard III in the back room of the Good Beans Cafe seemed so firm in their convictions, their zeal. I was always torn between wanting to be part of their imagined renaissance and wanting to leave.
Sometimes I imagined that I’d stop by Bryan’s house and he’d be there. We’d drive around Flint in his old Calais that smelled like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and listen to Martha and the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder on the oldies station. We’d pass all the empty factory lots, trees of heaven angling up from the concrete, the busted windows of houses where no one lived, and it would make more sense to me if his bitten fingernails were against the steering wheel, his voice singing along to the radio.
There’s a theory that Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy decided to start Motown on a snowy drive to a record pressing plant in Flint, where they picked up the singles they’d written and produced for both Jackie Wilson and the Miracles. I said this to Todd, an OkCupid date, as we walked past the Chuck Berry statue on St. Louis’s Delmar Loop. The water crisis was a few years away, and Flint was still a comfortable punchline: a feature of Internet ruin-porn lis- ticles, resurfacing in the occasional Michael Moore documentary. In the five years since Bryan had died, four since I’d moved out of Flint, I’d developed a defensive pride. I’d gone from avoiding the subject of Flint altogether to offer- ing up any trivia that might confound blighted expectations.
As Flint took a different shape in my mind, the venom went out of my grief. I could think of Bryan without feeling angry or overwhelmed. I could miss him without the certainty I’d be alone forever.
Edging closer to thirty and so far from Flint, I told myself that maybe I wouldn’t be able to fall utterly and un- questioningly in love again, but that I’d find someone compassionate and smart, who’d respect what I’d endured, and that this would suffice.
When I offered Todd my Motown anecdote—Berry Gordy’s Cadillac, the heaps of Michigan snow, the record plant—he said, “So you’re saying that’s how bad Flint is—they started a company just to avoid having to go there.”
But in my mind Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were tooling that Cadillac through a Flint gleaming with “Generous Motors” splendor, with a quarter of a million people and muscle cars and downtown streets lined with chic department stores. Todd’s dig was just a lazy anachronism.
But say he wasn’t wrong. The creation myth of Motown always explains how industry informed the aesthetic. Take a steady beat like a rivet line, a tambourine from a Black Bottom gospel choir. Have the songwriters churn out five songs a day about the euphoria of love and the profound, eternal despair of its ending. Have Quality Control sort through for the A-sides while the new models are fitted for suits and beehives. Crank out a single, send the band on tour, repeat. Maybe Berry Gordy started Motown to get the hell out of Flint, but maybe it was also the kind of art that could only have risen only from that landscape.
I was beginning my last year of college when my grandfather passed away, and Bryan sent a message through the funeral home. Just wanted to say I’m sorry for your loss. I hadn’t heard from him in four years. I found him on Facebook and he showed up on my front porch six months clean, freshly shorn and spectacled, wearing a Salvation Army cardigan. Handsome as hell. He grinned when I pushed open the door, and when he left after an hour or two of jittery catching up and fleeting eye contact, he asked if he could hug me. “See, Kelsey,” he whispered in my hair. “Both arms.” This was a reference to my teenage self’s complaining about his lazy, one-armed embraces. I hugged him back, the breath knocked out of me. Bryan was home, and I had the whole of him.
The next time he came over, he suggested we walk to Atlas Coney Island for a late coffee. As we neared Sarginson Park, it began to rain—first a light rain that made us quicken our steps, then a harder rain, sudden and thrilling and cold. Our arms bumped as we skirted puddles gathering in the pits of the sidewalk. We made it to the park fence, and in the streetlight Bryan turned to me, glasses fogged, and asked, “Wanna race?”
He took off, skinny legs flying. He cut through front yards, around hedges. I kept to the sidewalks, laughing at his audacity. When he finally stopped, gripping his knees, I trotted the quarter-block between us.
“I won,” he panted. When I pointed out I’d beaten him in endurance and good sportsmanship, he wheezed, “Yeah, but I won.”
Bryan didn’t recognize any of the waitresses, but the rest of Atlas was unchanged. The wood paneling, the stacks of Wheeler Dealer by the door, faded prints of generic still lifes and cherubs, the ripped-up vinyl upholstery our wet clothes squelched against. We shared French fries and drank coffee, and it felt like a baptism in grease and caffeine and rain. I was in love—a quick, unquestioning swoon—and Flint felt suddenly, peculiarly beautiful.
Through the Coney Island window we watched headlights pass through the silver rain-slick dark, and when the rain subsided we walked home.
Back in my apartment, Bryan pulled off his sodden shirt and hung it over the bathroom door while I drew a bath. I watched him lower himself into the tub, smiled at his white fishbelly. I got in after him.
I ran the soap down the knots of his spine, along the shelf of his collarbone. When we kissed, he whispered, “I missed you” in a way that would reverberate through me for years.
In a month we were living together. I taught creative writing at a homeless shelter and Bryan took the bus to the supermarket where he ran the bakery, The New Yorker rolled up in his hand, his headphones on. He came home singing the supermarket playlists: Al Green, Aretha, Stevie. I’d laugh as his cigarette-graveled voice rose and cracked, flipping eggs on the stove, lighting a cigarette on the balcony, settling into bed while I pressed my head against his broad shoulders and sought out his hands, his long fingers, nails bitten to a ragged nothing.
With Bryan, I imagined a shared life in Flint: a house we’d fix up near the sprawling vacant lots of the old Chevrolet complex, the kind of writer and teacher I’d become, the names we’d give our babies and if they’d have his flat feet and double-jointed thumbs and dimples.
It was harder, though, for Bryan to settle into Flint. There were parts of the city he couldn’t go through without becoming anxious. I knew the pawn shop parking lot where he’d shot up for the first time, and the abandoned house where he bought heroin from a dealer squatting inside with two lawn chairs and the detritus of aluminum foil and spoons. Bryan spoke openly and articulately about all of it, could describe the way it felt plunging down into overdose blackness in a bathroom in Ann Arbor, the prison-muscled men he roomed with at a state-run rehab facility in Grand Rapids where he sold instant coffee and porn by the page.
At times the stories made me feel the way he felt turning down certain streets, conversation veering in directions I couldn’t bear to follow. I wanted to go on living in our apartment stuffed with books and music and simply will him to continue being healthy and happy. I’d wait for him outside the church on Saginaw Street where he went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, watching the other addicts wandering back out with their Styrofoam cups, and I burned with determined optimism, trusting love would sustain him, the way it does in songs.
After Bryan died, more than a year passed before I kissed someone. It was spring and I was leaving for grad school later that summer. I was ready to pack up my grief and leave it in my mother’s basement. I had friends over for cherry wine and Oberon on my mom’s front porch, and at three in the morning, after everyone else left and a shared blanket eased my head against his shoulder, he kissed me.
After the shock of Bryan’s death dulled, I’d imagined what it would be like to kiss someone again. I could never conjure any fantasy. I had wanted only to go on kissing Bryan, had felt wholly certain of that, and suddenly that had been denied me.
This is the dilemma. If you subscribe to the philosophies of popular songs and absolute romance, you have to grapple with absolute loss. Which is to say, if you really are all I need to get by, if indeed I never loved a man the way that I love you, and then that you is suddenly gone, then what, as the song goes, becomes of the broken-hearted? What if, like Flint without General Motors or Marvin Gaye without Tammi Terrell, you simply had not conceived of this existence? What if you are twenty-four, numbed by shock and grief, and left to wonder whether all the songs are true: if I love you and nobody else and I have the rest of my life to endure the ache of your absence.
When I finally kissed someone else, beneath that blanket with the streetlamps glowing and the rare car sighing past, I was sleepy and drunk and there was a euphoric buzz in my head. The pain of it didn’t settle in until I began dating this new guy, when the romantic anxieties and emotional turns hit harder than usual. After a year of numbness and the persistent belief that maybe enduring that numbness was the best I could hope for, I’d come home after our dates, shut myself in my room, and cry—not because I was overcome with despair or joy, but because I was exhausted by feeling anything. After that relationship ended, it took me four years, until I was in St. Louis, homesick and alone, to try dating again.
After all those years, I had drinks in an empty Dogtown bar with Nick, handsome and recently divorced. Nick had offered himself as a potential love interest and St. Louis tour guide, texting recommendations and trivia. His fascination with his hometown brought out mine. The waitress put the Beatles on the juke-box and the championship finals of the National Spelling Bee played on the soundless television, with four-eyed and solemn children asking for sentences. Nick told me that George Harrison’s sister had lived outside St. Louis, and her passing off a record to a St. Louis DJ was the Beatles’ modest introduction to America. I told him Keith Moon had driven a Cadillac into a swimming pool at a Flint Holiday Inn, earning The Who a lifelong ban from the chain.
Outside I bummed Nick’s Marlboros and he remembered how as a kid he’d climbed on the concrete turtles whose hulks were rising from Forest Park across the street. He was the only guy to whom I’d confessed Bryan’s death; in a message he mentioned his divorce, and I wrote back that my ex had died. A gesture, I thought, of solidarity. Neither of us asked for details, but we left the subject with our own versions of “that must have been hard.” Now, beside me, Nick stabbed his cigarette at the air and said that maybe divorce is worse. At least I knew Bryan died loving me, but what if I had to deal with the fact that he was still in the world, preferring to go on living without me?
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this theory. There’s a competitive element to suffering, a need to make misery quantifiable, like those “worst places to live in America” lists on the Internet, or my St. Louis dates who insisted Flint was probably a very similar place. I was never sure if it was a way to deflect having to feel sorry for me, or a means of holding on to a morbid badge of pride. My heart is heavier than yours. The ruins I live among are more tragic than your ruins.
But, I said to Nick, at least you get the solidarity of your friends and family telling you that you’re better off. At least your friends don’t reinforce to you constantly how much you were loved, how special she was. Divorce is sad. Death is romantic.
“That’s interesting,” he said. We studied the silhouettes of those concrete turtles, mutually unconvinced.
Back at the table, waiting for the bill, Nick held my gaze intently and said, “You’re very attractive.” Somehow, buzzed and sleepy and thinking about Bryan, I heard intrepid instead of attractive, and it was a compliment I felt I deserved. I laughed and said, “I’m so glad you’ve noticed.”
The month before Bryan died, the mayor of Flint announced the layoffs of sixty police and firefighters. Mayor Walling insisted there was simply no money in the budget to continue paying them. That night, a spree of arsons began that would end up destroying over five hundred vacant structures within six months. Sometimes a dozen homes were torched in a night, the sirens wailing past our apartment. Fire trucks were called in from across the county, but response times slowed, and most of the houses burned down to their foundations. A 911 call could take hours to respond to, and it fed an expanding sense of hopelessness and anarchy, of a city lacking any resources.
In April a friend and I came home from a Sunday matinee to find Bryan motionless on the sofa, vomit in two yellow streams from his nostrils. His arm, hanging off the sofa, was marbled gray and pale blue.
Of the 911 call, I only remember repeating, “Please hurry”—a typical refrain for emergency calls, but it felt like a plea to Flint itself, a larger force I was powerless against.
I don’t know how long it took for the paramedics to arrive. My friend pushed me into the next room and repeated CPR. “Come back to me,” he repeated, and counted out the rhythm of his pumps.
I turned my head when the paramedics pushed Bryan through the door. I was shaking so hard that when the paramedic crouched down to talk to me, I reflexively extended my hand to steady myself against him. He pulled back, holding up a latex-gloved hand, Bryan already dead, a biohazard.
At the hospital I sat for hours in the waiting room, as if the nurse would return and say Bryan had come back. Because he had before. His heart jump- started, resuming its beat.
A deep ache set into my joints that didn’t go away for weeks, until it subsided into something like sensory deprivation. I didn’t want anything. I couldn’t conceive of wanting anything. I stayed up for days and smeared horseradish on toast because it was all I could taste.
I went for long walks around Flint. Skirting another chalked hopscotch grid, past the fuck yous graffitied on houses with kicked-in doors and NO COPPER signs, houses burnt down to their shells, I listened to music, buried in my head- phones. Over and over I played songs about being left heartbroken and aching with regret, with weepy string sections and backup singers affirming the tragedy of love. Diana cooing, “Oh please don’t leave me” while the Supremes sigh in harmony. The Four Tops wailing how the lonely nights echo your name. The Jackson Five’s “Who’s Loving You,” with little MJ howling, “All I can do since you been gone is cry.”
In the months before I moved out of Flint, Bryan’s father and I would meet up at one of the west side Coney Islands. In eight years, Scott had lost his wife and his business and his son, and now he lived outside of Flint, remarried, with a new career. Across formica tables and endless coffee refills, he shifted from the man I thought would be my father-in-law to a reluctant mentor in grief.
Sometimes we talked effusively about Bryan, remembering funny things he’d said—like the time at seventeen he’d quit his job at Kroger and told me, “I’ve read too much about Cesar Chavez to put up with this.” The mayoral election season when he fantasized about running under the campaign slogan Can I Get You a Sandwich? where, man of the people, he would hand out bologna sandwiches from the bus. Sometimes Scott and I talked about the rehab stints and overdoses of those four years Bryan and I were out of touch, and Scott would cry silently behind his glasses, taking sips of coffee to steady himself. I had memories of a grown-up Bryan I’d known more intimately than him, and he could tell me about the Bryan who was too finicky to walk across a muddy parking lot in an after-kindergarten trip for milkshakes; Bryan saying his prayers; Bryan talking about his dream job working at the 7-Eleven, where he could stay up all night reading comic books.
Other times we didn’t mention him, making nervous conversation, anticipating which of us would be the first to say his name. A cheesy disco song or a Motown hit would come through the Coney Island speakers and I’d smile and say Bryan used to sing it sometimes, a supermarket ear worm he brought home. “Did he?” Scott would say, beaming.
Every song I knew told me there was true love and there was heartbreak and little in-between, but Scott told me I’d fall in love again. It would be different, he said. It might hurt, even. But I would be surprised at how different things would be someday; how far away Bryan and grief would seem. That eventually it would even feel good to think about Bryan and talk about him. Even this encouragement sounded impossible.
When I decided to leave Flint, Scott was one of the first people I told. Grief was something I wanted to pack up and leave at my mother’s house, like the chipped-up dish set from the apartment I shared with Bryan, the clutter of books and records, and the bag the police had handed back with the clothes he had died in. A note I’d written was tucked inside his wallet, and though I’d never unfold it, it was important to me that it was there, an I love you in my hand.
Scott was excited for me, asking questions about where I’d be living, what I’d be doing. He’d miss me, he said, but I deserved this.
In that Coney Island booth, creamer clotting in the coffee in front of me, I started to cry.
“I still can’t imagine living without Bryan,” I confessed.
Scott said, “You’re living without Bryan every day. You’re living without him right now.”
My first date with Henry was terrible. He watched me step out of my old Saturn Ion and appraised me from hair to heels. Over drinks, he droned on about his collection of Dylan vinyl. But the next night he sent me a thoughtful text telling me he’d gone to the library to hunt down a movie I’d mentioned at dinner, and, a few months into online dating, I wondered if these were the sort of allowances you made: an awkward gesture, aggressive salesmanship.
I met him at a hipster bar on Cherokee Street. In the front window was a poster of an angelic young MJ, afro-haloed and doe-eyed, advertising a Motown night. Nina Simone was singing “Sinnerman” just loud enough that we had to lean across the table, shouting at each other. Henry had been watching conspiracy theory documentaries on Netflix, and he explained between sips of an Old Fashioned that Hitler was living a clandestine vegetarian life in South America. I said it reminded me of Coast to Coast, the AM radio show my ex used to listen to. Struck by a memory long buried and made louder and more courageous by liquor and shouting, I described the ritual: Bryan in bed, slipping his earbuds in so he could listen to truckers call in to tell about their UFO and Bigfoot sightings without disturbing me. When I woke hours later I angled over him to shut off the portable Sony on the floor, and he’d explain the paranormal to me over coffee. I couldn’t tell what Henry made of it, quietly listening, his mouth inscrutably cocked, but conjuring Bryan there in the bar—not his absence but a sweet, funny part of him only I could remember—felt thrilling.
Henry and I alternated between our booth and the sidewalk, where the music and the people spilled out of the bars and restaurants and the discount furniture store windows lit an unused orange sofa, scattered empty chairs. I hung onto Henry’s arm, talking too much, giddy.
We were kissing outside my car when a man yelled, “Look at y’all! Look at these lovebirds!” Over Henry’s shoulder I saw a man across the street, rail-thin and loosely striding toward us.
We kept kissing until the man was right beside us and swung his head so close he could have kissed us, too. Henry roped his arm protectively around my shoulder.
“I seen y’all kissing,” the man grinned. “I like seeing people in love.”
Henry squeezed me and the word ricocheted around my head. Love. Not tormented or impossible but glowing with possibility.
“I used to have a girl,” the guy told us. “She died, though. Got hit by a car.
A couple blocks down.”
I tensed to hear if Henry would offer the usual platitudes, or if he would say anything at all. The man went on telling us it had been hard.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Henry shook his head. I said nothing.
I wondered how you could feel free enough to tell this to strangers. And if I would eventually love Henry, or anyone, what was I required to divulge, and how soon? Had I been cagey, back in the bar, recalling those truckers calling in their UFO sightings at four A.M. and neglecting to mention the boy I’d listened to the radio with was dead? Was it disingenuous of me to nod sympathetically, silently, to the man telling his story when I’d suffered similarly?
Then the man said, “Yeah. Today’s her birthday. Can I get a couple dollars?”
My body sagged with relief. It was just a story—a spectacle he’d performed for us. There was nothing I had to explain yet if I didn’t want to. I was hundreds of miles from Flint, and in the flare of Cherokee Street’s streetlamps and bar neon, I looked like anyone else on a date.
“Sorry, man,” Henry said.
The stranger wished us well and carried on down the street, alone.
Henry wrapped me up in his arms, but the evening was over. I drove myself back across St. Louis, passing the factories and railroad tracks that, some nights, reminded me of Flint. I scanned the radio for something I knew the words to and thought about Bryan, savoring the memory: how he’d snuggle into me when I pulled the earbuds away, my emptied hands finding his hair or the familiar angle of his shoulder blades. How beautifully ordinary it was—a few hours still alone in the dark together before we had to start the day.
No, I wasn’t in love, not yet, not with Henry. But that night love was a place I could begin imagining: a quiet room, a shoulder under my cheek. Alone in the Saturn, driving across this new city, it seemed so little to ask for—so small that it had to be possible.
Kelsey Ronan, who was born and raised in Flint, MI, has been published in Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Utne Reader, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Blood and Water,” was listed as “notable” in Best American Essays 2017, and she has been writer-in-residence of the Hub City Writers Project. She lives in Detroit.