Death and Daydreams
by Jane Liddle
In Elena Ferrante’s third novel in her Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the narrator, Elanu, states that she wishes her longtime best friend Lila would die. “I felt that I would never free myself from that inferiority, and that seemed to me intolerable. I wish—and I couldn’t keep the wish at bay . . . that she really was ill and would die.” It’s an unflattering revelation, one that I unfortunately share.
My daydreams are usually more of the self-pitying variety. It would be me doing the dying, much to the anguish to those around me. Elanu had these daydreams, too: “I felt very unhappy. I wished something terrible would happen to me, an event that, punishing me for my mistaken actions and my wicked thoughts, would as a result punish Lila, too.” Both my wish and Elanu’s was borne out of a friendship with someone more difficult and more brilliant than ourselves.
Elanu and Lila are both smart; Elanu has an above average intelligence and admirable diligence, and Lila is a genius. They become friends when they are children and grow close when they are preteens and attend the same school. During this time, Elanu would be alternately in awe and jealous of Lila’s intelligence. When Lila leaves school, Elanu is sad to be away from her friend but also happy to be able to claim the top student spot again. This dual feeling on Elanu’s part continues throughout their friendship, through marriages and affairs and the publication of Elanu’s first book.
By Ferrante’s third novel in the series, Elanu and Lila are in their early twenties, and their lives have diverged. When Elanu visits her hometown, around which Lila has remained, she wants to show off for Lila and also get approval, but instead is sucked back into Lila’s dramas and love affairs. This is when she daydreams about the death of Lila, that the heart murmur that Lila is diagnosed with is more serious than it turns out to be. By daydreaming Lila’s death, Elanu doesn’t have to be a sidekick anymore, she can be the planet around which others would orbit instead, a role she has worked hard to be.
But of course she does not want Lila to actually die.
There are many aspects of Elanu and Lila’s friendship that remind me of my friendship with a friend I’ll call Michelle. I met Michelle when I was in high school in the mid-nineties through riot grrrl zines. We started a mail order zine distribution called the Way Sassy and went to punk shows in Boston. Years later, when people asked how we met, this is what we’d talk about, with a dreamy fondness reminiscent of recalling a romance. During the beginning of our friendship much of our conversation was about what we would create and the music we loved. These conversations took place over the phone, on bedroom floors, and through notes and letters created with care, many of which I still have. All my ex-boyfriends’ letters have long since been thrown away.
Soon after we met, Michelle started dating an ex-boyfriend of mine. I acted like it didn’t bother me, though of course it had. I had liked that boyfriend a lot and he was part of a group of boys I had struggled to be fully accepted by. And like Lila heading her husband’s shop or being introduced to revolutionaries, Michelle immersed herself in that group seamlessly and without effort.
Michelle could do almost anything with ease, or at least it seemed to me. Learn guitar, make friends, wear clothes with style, understand Derrida. She graduated high school early, met cool people in the music scene, got a job at a record store in New York City. She produced a portfolio in a weekend to submit to Cooper Union and she was accepted. I remember gossiping about her to someone she had gone to school with (a moment I look back on and cringe), and that person describing Michelle as someone who walked around as though she were already famous. Even as a teenager, she seemed fully realized in an identity, like a punk rock Dita von Teese.
Michelle was ambitious and she wanted to be known. But she was so talented that she could get the things she wanted before she was necessarily ready for them. I remember her getting up on stage to play guitar and sing a song she wrote and getting stage fright and running off. When she was not yet sixteen she tried heroin because the boyfriend was trying it. This led to plenty of drama and heartache and a small addiction that ended with a confession to her mother, after the older friends she was doing drugs with were being sent to rehab or picked up by the police. During that time I remember mostly being scared and feeling helpless, as if I was failing her because I didn’t know how to help her. And I was angry, too, a part of me coldly wondering how much was for attention. I daydreamed about saving her, about her having to be grateful and appreciative.
And Michelle did get better.
She moved to New York City and flourished. She made art, friends, scenes. She grew distant from me, which hurt after all that we had been through. And when we did communicate it was fraught. She had decided to befriend another ex-boyfriend of mine, one who she knew had always been cruel to me, and she’d tell me all of what they were doing and would do together. And like Lila’s behavior in the Neapolitan novels, it was an unspoken, confusing power play between us. Ferrante writes, “For example, I couldn’t confess to her that a dark part of me feared that she was casting an evil spell on me from afar, that that part still hoped that she was really sick and would die. For example, she couldn’t tell me the real reasons that motivated the rough, often offensive, tone in which she treated me.”
Michelle was always interested in art and music, but when I started studying writing, she said she wanted to write, too. We used to share our ambitions and create with each other, but by this time we weren’t collaborating. I didn’t want her to write, because I knew she’d be better at it, but I couldn’t admit it. I wondered how much of her desire to write was genuine and how much was a manipulation. “Certainly Lila reinforced her role as a mirror of my inabilities.”
It was around this time that I daydreamed about her dying. Michelle was not someone I trusted. She’d come up in conversations with others, always in a pleasant or awesome light, and my resentment grew. This was compounded by the fact I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile with my own life. I wasn’t with the right guy. I wasn’t writing. My hair was falling out. I had finally managed to move to New York City, too, but felt that I had come too late to be part of whatever I imagined I’d be a part of. I wished her dead so she wouldn’t remind me of my inadequacies, of how someone who wasn’t good to me was happy and successful. Ferrante writes, “The childish conviction that she had always been destined for extraordinary things was magnified. . . . I was also angry that she had set out on that road without consulting me, as if she hadn’t considered me up to it. . . . And I was unhappy. I lay in bed, discontent with my situation. . . . ” By the time I had moved to New York City we weren’t really friends anymore, but I still felt haunted by the specter of her brilliance.
And when a few years after she graduated and Michelle’s art success seemed all but guaranteed, she started using heroin again.
Michelle became a serious addict and struggled for years. She moved to California, she moved back to Massachusetts, all to try to quit. She moved back to New York City and across the street from me. We reconnected; she’d come over with beers. Then she lived with me for a month. I was reminded of all the things I loved about her, her humor and honesty and feminism and perspective, underlined by a sweetness that made her such a wonderful best friend to begin with. We spent a lot of time reminiscing, but also talking about what we wanted to create (me, a novel, her, paintings and a shop) and how we wanted to live (me, with a man, her, with a baby). Her competiveness was replaced with support. My resentment was replaced with affection and, again, with worry. She burned my pots, borrowed my clothes, and nodded off mid conversation. It broke my heart all over again.
Michelle found a place in Bed-Stuy and we continued our friendship. One year a mutual friend and I took her out for her birthday. The next year it was just me taking her out, during which she told me she met a guy online, she was engaged. She met him on a drug message board and she was going to Oklahoma to meet him. She thanked me for dinner, saying it was one of the best birthdays she ever had.
I never heard from her again.
I did know from various social media and the message board that I’d sometimes stalk that she was living in Oklahoma, that she was trying to quit and was unsuccessful, that she was writing. I didn’t daydream about her dying anymore, at all, but I was hurt that she disappeared from my life again, even though I knew it was partly because she was unwell. My initial efforts to reach out were left unanswered, and then I stopped reaching out. My life took its own upswing. “I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.” Even still, I thought about her all the time, and I missed her.
Four years after I last spoke to her Michelle did die, in a fire with her boyfriend that last I heard was being investigated as a homicide. It is unnerving to say the least to have spent time resenting, competing, daydreaming about death on someone whom I loved, and then have it happen. And what I would give now to have her surpass me in every way, to see her writing and making art out in the world and be proud as I am proud when any of my other friends have success. It’s a trick to have a daydream fulfilled, like the wrong god answered a prayer, or the right god grossly misunderstood. And now, sometimes, I daydream about solving her murder, of being her hero, like I did when she first started using, like I was never able to be no matter how hard I tried, not at seventeen and not at thirty. The wrong daydream came true.
Jane Liddle grew up in Newburgh, New York, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her short-story collection Murder will be published by 421 Atlanta in 2016. She is currently working on a novel and a book about daydreams. You can find her on Twitter @janeriddle or at liddlejane.tumblr.com.