R. Barkley :: Joanna Eden Carmel ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My family moved from NC to TX when I was 1 year old and back to NC when I was 10. Most of my life has been spent within Research Triangle Park’s sphere of influence, but I do sometimes get out beyond that whenever I get some walking-around money. Every once in a while I think I’ll move but I find reasons to stay.

Joanna Eden Carmel

I read articles calling cognitive offload the bane of modernity because it makes memory easier to manipulate. But then I think about centuries of human communities. Cognitive offloading allowed us to collectively remember more than any of us could remember as individuals. When someone dies, it is more than the loss of that person. All the threads connecting them to the web of community are severed, and all the memories they collected for the community die with them.

You died, and a part of my life died with you. 


I am 25 and applying to graduate school in yet another futile attempt to finally move away from my hometown. I ask you to help me out and you say you’d be happy to.

The letter you wrote describes all the times in high school I stood up for you, one of the only out queer students at our school in 2003 when kids still said “gay” to mean “bad” and lesbians at slumber parties were treated like predators. I have no memory of doing this. I only remember that I didn’t abandon you. But I must have done this because you wrote with such forceful sincerity. 

I’ll never be able to ask you about this. 

God, I hope I’m still this person. 


“Joanna overdosed. She took a lot of beta blockers. She has a breathing tube.” 

You are on a ventilator somewhere in Massachusetts. I am reading my phone in North Carolina.  

I didn’t know you had left notes until a month after they took you off the ventilator and you quietly expired. One for your partner, one for your parents.

We were texting two days before about me getting waxed ahead of a vacation.

There was nothing I could do. Nevertheless, I scroll through our texts, looking for hints, trying to pinpoint the moments where I failed you. 

You were always self-possessed and if you wanted to do something, you always did it on your terms. 


I am 22 and hate driving. I am complaining to you about how much I hate everyone else on the highway. My mom made driving a nightmare because she would yell at me in a panic about anything I did, so I put off getting my license until the year before. Getting behind the wheel makes me an anxious mess. You tell me, “Maybe they just have explosive diarrhea. I pretend that everyone has diarrhea and then I don’t worry about who’s on my bumper.” 

I do this every time I get on the highway. It saved me from countless road rage incidents. 


We are talking about suggestions for your memorial. Your mom wants to do something outside. Otherwise, the irony of a memorial for a nurse turning into a COVID spreader event would be too much. One suggestion is Honeysuckle Teahouse. I love that place.

Your partner reminds me that you looked at it for a wedding venue. You hated it. The place has no air conditioning, it’s out in the country, and they provide next to nothing to make an event possible. 

Now I want more than anything to hold it there. I imagine calling you. “Joanna, guess where we’re doing your memorial.” 

I can hear you laughing. “You fuckers! I can’t believe you did that to me!”

I wish I could see your face. 


I am 17 and standing by the pickup circle at our high school. I’m assistant director for one of the student one-act plays and I’m waiting with the director for our parents. We’re talking and she says, “I don’t understand people who say suicide is what weak people do. I’ve had friends who commit suicide, and they were some of the strongest people I knew.” She said it with love and reverence for the friends she lost. 

Years later, you and I talked about this moment in passing like all the other things we talked about.

You were one of the strongest people I knew. You were someone I admired. 

I think about that conversation these days. 


When did you decide? I thought it might have been a moment where your bipolar took over, but the notes and the overdose give me pause. You had a DNR. My therapist says, “Beta-blockers are a pretty gentle way to go.” How long had you been waiting? What made you decide it was time to go? 

Was it working as a nurse in Boston during the pandemic and seeing so much death? Was it the abject failure of our healthcare system breaking? Was it the way our own society had failed people our age? Was it an agony that had gone too long?  I will never know.

Zadie Smith writes of suffering, and she is correct. Your suffering was absolute and incomparable to anyone else’s.


I am 17. Or was it 15? I am at your house. We are looking through an issue of Playboy that your mom said you could have. I can’t decide how I feel but I keep looking through the pictures. Sometimes, it is like staring at the sun. 

You seem nonplussed. Both of us are a little let down after hearing so much hype around Playboy magazines, expecting real pornography rather than naked pictures of cute girls. You confidently tell me you can tell the difference between girl-on-girl porn made for straight men and porn made for gay women. You show me what you think is hot. I disagree, but I’m just so happy that I have someone I can talk about girls with. 

The main group of friends I spend time with have an unspoken rule: “Don’t bring that gay shit here.” But with you, I can be queer. I can talk about sex, boys and girls, disgusting body functions, anything.

We talk about anything and everything. 


We were Jewish but in the “wrong” way. My mother married a Gentile and a rabbi told her, “A mixed marriage is an unhappy marriage.” The rabbi didn’t care that my parents had already been together for ten years at that point. Your father married a Gentile and his family told you, “Our granddaughter isn’t Jewish.” They didn’t care that you looked just like them. 

We would commiserate over this shared alienation, trying to fit into Jewish spaces and being ridiculed because we didn’t know Hebrew or Yiddish and we never liked Hanukkah. 

We still want to be part of it. Our parents tell us, “You are Jewish enough. This belongs to you.” 


We were supposed to be old together. 


I’m 27 and I’m planning my wedding. My friendship with the maid of honor and two members of the bridal party blew up in my face; funny enough, all of them are Christians and two of the three are Catholics. They never seemed comfortable with my queerness. They didn’t seem comfortable with me marrying someone who liked my queerness. 

Everything is falling apart. I am certain that I am a colossal asshole, and no one will come to my wedding. 

I forgot that I asked you for anything. Like Helios in his dragon-drawn chariot descending from the Heavens, you arrive with the party favors: honey jars, bookmarks, pencils, notepads, all in pastel organza bags, all colored coral and cornflower, all decorated with dinosaurs and flowers the way I wanted and complete with a little toy egg people could soak in water to get a spongy dinosaur. I gave you no direction; you simply decided this was what people would like. 

People did come. Even my coworkers came because they heard about the party favors. They threw me a properly wild bachelorette party, inviting our queer coworkers regardless of gender. You were in Boston, but I still wish I could have reshaped time and space for you. 

At the rehearsal dinner, you loudly say, “Gosh, I’m so glad you’re marrying Franklin after all of those awful placeholders.”

It’s one of my favorite things you ever said. 

I wish I could remember your toast. 


You were supposed to meet our first kid. 


I am 14. The sun is filtering through the big windows of gloriously empty school hallways. There’s a pep rally. I dodged it. I wander the halls and I see Andy, a young queer I remembered from summer camp who I thought was the most fun of everyone there. He introduces me to you. 

For those few hours wandering around the empty halls while everyone else was crammed into the gym, we were free. No homophobia or Bush-era patriotism or punishment for being teenagers. We were allowed to exist. 

I cannot imagine the life I might have had if we had never met, and now I must face life without you.


You are fossilized. Text chains, birthday cards, posts on Twitter, gifts, pictures–these things are the bones mineralized into rock while the soft tissue, the real you, has decayed and disappeared. They will never capture all of you. They are only impressions, and there is no science or art that can reconstruct the whole you. 


The memorial for you was nice. Your mom’s friends brought so much weed. I cried so much but it felt good. You would have had a good time. 

They said you tested positive for COVID, your third bout, the day you overdosed. The wedding I was helping you plan was never going to happen. 

I wish you had felt like you could tell me these things.

I didn’t want to find out this way. 


I’m taking Zoloft now. It was the only way to get through this past year.

Everyone else I know who lost someone as close as we were, they quit their jobs and got to relax. Here I am, taking Zoloft because I can’t afford to quit my job, so I need something that will glue me together long enough to push through the office tedium. 

My mom at Christmas said she keeps wanting to ask after you, and then she remembers. 

I keep getting asked if I’m angry at you for leaving. I know I should be. But all my anger is about the timing. You left at the worst time. 

I still dream about you. 

I keep thinking about texting you. 

I miss the future we won’t have. 

I don’t know how to stop loving you and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. 


We bought a house. We finally have a house of our own.

I already picked out the cherry blossom trees I’m planting in the backyard. 

Maybe you came back as one of them. 

You can live in my garden like the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning. 

I’ll look for you when the flowers bloom.