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Grief Is for People



All burglaries are alike, but every burglary is uninsured in its own way. On June 27, 2019, at 5:15 p.m., I leave my apartment for one hour and come home to find all my jewelry missing. This is the front entrance of the story, the facts of the case. Container first, emotion second. As if by offering up an order of events, the significance of those events will fill itself in automatically. But that story ends before it begins, without ever really being told. The thief enters the story through my bedroom window. He scurries up the corroded metal steps of my fire escape. He lifts the screen, then the glass, crouching to make himself small. Into the stillness of my bedroom come his dirty boots, sinking into the white comforter. To be fair, he has no choice but to step on the comforter. The bed is flush with the window because it takes up half the room.

Once inside, the thief takes a total of five minutes and forty-one pieces of jewelry. Amid the otherwise unremarkable loot are my grandmother’s amber amulet, the size of an apricot, as well as her green cocktail ring, a dome with tiers of tourmaline (think kryptonite, think dish soap).

But let us pause here, before you get too turned around.

My grandmother was an awful person. I’ve never met anyone who misses her. She was abusive and creative about it. If she was irritated at one of her children, she would instruct the other two to give the offending child the silent treatment. When my mother was a kid, she would be sent to her room with the understanding that my grandmother would be up at any minute with a belt. Sometimes she showed. Sometimes she didn’t. Sometimes she’d dig her nails into my mother’s arm until the skin broke, an act of violence exacerbated by the bafflement that followed: Darling, whatever have you done to yourself? By the time this woman and I overlapped in sentience and height, she was cordial enough. Hinged enough. Still, the longest conversation I had with her was on the day of my college graduation. She swanned into town, chucked a pearl bracelet across a restaurant table, and offered to pay for graduate school. She rescinded the offer after I mailed my applications. I don’t know why. The bracelet I got to keep.

Well, for a while, anyway.

My efforts to repurpose her objects, to give them the soul they never had, have been slower than their financial appreciation. The necklace originally belonged to my great-grandmother, and apparently she was no picnic either. I have long suspected these objects of not wanting to be on me, the green ring sensing an unfamiliar pulse pass through it. My mother, the least favored child, was relegated to the footnotes of the will, so these items are my sole inheritance. But I have thought of them as cursed. I’ve never worn them on planes. And now a stranger is in my home, packing up the remnants of a cruel woman and carting them off. Unfortunately, they are worth quite a bit of money; even I do not know how much. I’ve never had them appraised, which would’ve been necessary to get them insured. Maybe because appraisal always seemed too adult, like hiring a lawyer or buying a Waterpik. Maybe because I have felt about these things the way I felt about my grandmother, that it was not my job to look after them but their job to look after me.

The thief also steals my other grandmother’s silver engagement band, a charm bracelet built for smaller wrists, and a cow-shaped pin I found on the street in Madison, Wisconsin. All I have been left and all I would leave are being dumped into a stranger’s backpack.

It’s indulgent to tell the story like this, in the present tense. As if I can still stop it. As if there’s an ankle to be grabbed. There’s no ankle. I can’t stop what’s already happened. But this is the only way I can explain the events of June 27, 2019, or the days that follow it. Thirty days, down to the hour, that will be bookended by personal loss. Thirty days, down to the hour, that I cannot know will be a precursor to a year of global loss. Eventually, I will look back on the burglary and see it for what it is, a dark gift of delineation. I know when my first bomb went off. Not everyone gets to know.

And no one is obliged to learn something from loss. This is a horrible thing we do to the newly stricken, encouraging them to remember the good times while they’re still in the fetal position. Like feeding steak to a baby. I have read the grief literature and the grief philosophy and, God help me, listened to the grief podcasts, and the most practical thing I have learned is the power of the present tense. The past is quicksand and the future is unknowable, but in the present, you get to float. Nothing is missing, nothing is hypothetical.

In truth, I am writing these words on the evening of August 27, 2019. It’s a Tuesday. The Amazon is on fire.

It’s been two months since the burglary.

It’s been one month since the violent death of my dearest friend.

This occurred on the evening of July 27, 2019.

I will be editing these sentences much later, after several dozen 27ths have passed, when the gap between the past and the present is more of a chasm. By then, I will be able to better control how I think of these absences. I will be able to proceed with a conversation without flinching when someone mentions the wrong movie or the wrong song. But right now, I am in denial that my friend is gone. I am, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in denial that the jewelry is gone.

Human beings are the only animals that experience denial. All creatures will try to survive under attack, will burrow when under siege or limp through the forest. But they recognize trouble when it hits. Not one fish in the history of fish, having gotten its fins chewed off, needs another fish’s perspective: I don’t know, Tom, that looks pretty bad. Denial is humankind’s specialty, our handy aversion. We are so allergic to our own mortality; we’ll do anything to make it not so. Denial is also the weirdest stage of grief because it so closely mimics stupidity. But it can’t be helped. I can’t be helped. I am holding these losses as an aunt might, as if they are familiar but not quite mine. As if they are books I will be allowed to return to some centralized sadness library.

* * *

In the days immediately following the burglary, I am a tragic figure among my friends but in a fun way. Something real has happened to me. But not to my body. I am not raped or maimed or consigned to a fatal disease. I’ll live. Plus, I come bearing a mystery, one that surely can be solved, right here, right now, over this shared appetizer. Amateur detectives, each friend is more convinced than the last that she will be the one to solve my case. The burglary is a brainteaser, a proposition shot up from a pistol. We had a book like this in our house growing up, a pop-philosophy bestseller called The Book of Questions. The only question I remember verbatim is this one:

You and someone you love deeply are placed in separate rooms, each with a button next to you. You each know that you both will be killed unless one of you presses your button in the next 60 minutes. You also know that the first to hit the button will save the other, but immediately die. What would you do?

Even if you give an answer that will absolutely result in divorce, the wording prevents you from being too cocky about murder. What would you do? Not what do you do. In this same way, people are drawn to the thought experiment of the burglary more than the burglary itself. Some point out that I have been the victim of a retro crime. Yes, I’m aware that the 1970s came back to kick me in the face. Out of kindness or curiosity, they demand a tour of the story. But they aren’t having fun on the tour. They adopt the expressions of nurses, exchanging furtive glances about the drip. Fine then, tell me what to do. They advise me to do nothing, to write nothing, only to get some sleep and install an alarm system. They mean well. But what they do not understand is that if I do not capture what I have lost, it will be like losing it twice.

At first, I insist there is no trauma. As a New Yorker, my threshold for a scarring experience involves being knocked unconscious and shoved into a barrel. I wasn’t even home for this. But the trauma humps my leg like a dog. I pick at memory scabs, recalling the sound of the amber amulet sputtering along its chain. On the subway, I stare at other people’s jewelry, necklaces on fleshy display stands. I run my thumb over the base of my pinkie as if, if I push hard enough, a ring will pop out.

Am I too attached to these objects? Is this an ignoble level of attachment for a grown woman to have?

One hour. One lousy hour.

I’d gone to get a hand X-ray nearby, thus leaving behind the silver rings I wore every day for twenty years. And what is there to be said about this? Luck is a dirty word when you’re out of it. There is no sign of forced entry when I return, though this is not something I generally scan for upon entering my apartment. But then I spot several of the ceramic drawers where I keep my jewelry, smashed on the bedroom floor. My first thought is: Earthquake? The cat has aged out of mayhem. Then I notice the rest of the drawers, turned over on the bed, and follow the trail to the open window. Most traumatic events present their size and shape fairly quickly. But some unfurl slowly, like a fist loosening its grip. When I call 911, my voice is urgent but searching. It’s the voice of someone who has run onto a train as the doors are shutting. Is this the express? Have I gotten on the express? It has never before occurred to me that 911 operators must hear an eerie amount of calm, of people seeking confirmation that they should be calling at all. The operator is in the midst of sharing a joke with her colleague when she picks up. She can’t quite pull it together in time. She says: “Nine-ha-ha-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

* * *

My friend Russell, who is dead now, enters the story before it begins. In a way, the thief is stealing from him too. He was here first. The smashed ceramic drawers belong to a 1920s Dutch spice cabinet we bought together, along the grassy aisles of a flea market in Connecticut. This was fifteen years ago, back when I still worked in book publishing, back when Russell was still my boss, a moniker I kept using long after he stopped being allowed to tell me what to do. He wasn’t so fond of it when it applied. You know, he’d say, wounded, I introduce you to people as my friend. The fact that one of us could fire the other was immaterial. Our job titles, Executive Director of Publicity and Associate Director of Publicity, were meaningless strings of code.

The price of weekend visits to the house he shared with his partner was a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call to drive to the edge of a field and drink instant coffee from foam cups. His partner and I would groggily plod along as Russell zipped between blankets pinned down by cheap trinkets: cracked colanders, down-on-their-luck bunnies, cloudy prohibition bottles, pillows crocheted with “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.”

A flea market is the perfect intersection of frugality and taste, and no one knew that better than Russell. No bazaar has seen a haggler like him—the impish smile of a child, the timeless charm of a movie star, the competitive edge of a Spartan. See that open face, like a doll’s, those gray-blue eyes, that thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, seemingly scalped from the roof of an English country house. It feels ludicrous to go on here, to launch into a description of this person I loved so much. A rare instance in which less information would make life easier. The narrowing of traits is a necessary betrayal of the dead, but one must tread carefully in situations like these. Once, I was asked to blurb the memoir of a woman whose mother had died, but the more the book told me to think of her as the best of all mothers, the less I could follow instructions. I felt for the author, for the fact that this precious relationship was in the hands of someone unmoved by the details. But this is what comes of writing not “I miss this person,” but “Miss this person as I do.” It’s too much laundering of empathy.

So, for now, in place of further description of Russell, I will ask only that you turn your attention to the time Martha Stewart Living offered to photograph his collection of mid-century earthenware water jugs. He refused. He feared he’d never know the joy of fleecing an unsuspecting vendor again.

“Just look at what they did to milk glass.”

Russell spotted the spice cabinet first. He dragged me by my sleeve to come see it, suggesting I could store jewelry inside. But in a land of five-dollar items, the cabinet cost more than a hundred dollars. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t get the seller to budge, so I bought some Girl Scout patches instead, featuring girls doing wholesome things. Like splitting logs. Russell insisted that if the cabinet was still there on our way out, I had to get it. He would drive it into the city himself.

“Told you,” he said, helping the seller wrap it up. “It was waiting for you.”

This is not your typical spice cabinet. It’s a massive item, three feet wide with a solid wooden frame into which slide fourteen white drawers, painted with green trim. It was manufactured in Holland, so the drawers are labeled in Dutch. Small ones are for peper and saffraan, large ones are for suiker and thee. In the center is a ceramic door with a pewter knob. The door is labeled eieren. I’d say I don’t know on what planet eggs qualify as a spice, but I do know: the Netherlands. Behind the egg door are two thin wooden shelves with six holes each. They are ideal for dangling necklaces.

When the thief opens the egg door, he grabs the shelves as one might grab a bowling ball. Or as if one were an unusually aggressive beekeeper. He yanks them so roughly from their tracks, a gold chain gets caught and snaps in two.

While I wait for the police to come, I call Russell to confess what happened. He is my favorite person, the one who somehow sees me both as I want to be seen and as I actually am, the one whose belief in me over the years has been the most earned (he is not my parent), the most pure (he is not my boyfriend), and the most forgiving (he is my friend). There are, of course, days when he is not my favorite person, days when I would pay him to be a little less like himself. But my instinct to tell him everything and immediately, to empty my pockets of stories for him, has always been strong. It’s an odd sensation, to be an adult and look up to another adult. Not just to hold him in high regard, but to adopt his tastes and feel a sense of flattery when he adopts yours. The reason I was hesitant to demonstrate my poor haggling skills in front of Russell was because I wanted there to be no division between us. I wanted us to be the same, always.

Calling him really does feel like a confession, like I should’ve protected what I had while I still had it. It’s harder to tell Russell about the burglary than it will be to tell my own mother, a direct descendant of the bracelet-tossing child tormentor. My mother will be distracted by the matter of my personal safety. But Russell understands objects as spiritual avatars, more loyal than most, more tolerable than any. Which is why his reaction surprises me.

He adores tales of my wicked and miserly grandmother, of her Joan Crawford joie de vivre, and is saddened that their physical prompts have been taken away, but he is unmoored by the missing egg shelves. He dwells on their removal, as if this action is from the wrong heist movie. When I remind him of the actual jewelry that was taken—of the chain that snapped in two, of the rings he’s mindlessly turned over in his palm during talks on his porch—he steers the conversation back to the shelves. It’s just so unnecessary. Their absence from the cabinet has not added insult to injury; their absence is the injury. It will be a long time before I realize this is because Russell cannot stomach the sadness of the larger violation. He cannot stomach sadness period.

* * *

Two cops arrive. These are the responding officers. I lean on my doorframe as they clonk up the stairs, asking me how I am. I tell them “not awesome” and invite them in with a sweep of my arm.

“All right,” says the first cop, “give us the tour.”

I walk them into the bedroom, where, as a group, we come to the conclusion that there’s a window in here. Then we file back into the main room, where the second cop informs me that my laptop is on the table. Three more cops show up, including one with a fingerprint kit. She has an air of competence about her. When she requests permission to dust, I wonder under what circumstances I would not want that.

“It makes a mess,” she explains. “You seem like a neat person.”

Normally, I would accept this as a compliment but I have already begun searching for clues as to how I could have brought this on. I have already begun wondering how much the external assessment of me as a person in the world, one who has enough material goods to require a cabinet, might have factored into this crime. This notion, that this is not a crime of convenience but one of calculation, is dangerous. I can sense it licking its lips in the corner. I get a lot of packages. That the packages contain books or galleys of books is not something I can explain to a criminal mastermind retroactively. I live in the West Village, in a mediocre building surrounded by extravagant fortresses. I can’t pay rent in this neighborhood and have nothing, though I can have nothing because I pay rent here. It’s a conundrum. But perhaps no factor is so outlandish as the fact that, four years ago, I published a whole novel about stolen jewelry.

Our hero breaks into a French château to steal a necklace. He does this by scaling a wall and climbing through a bedroom window.

Did the novel do this? Rather, are there enough copies of the novel in circulation to do this? This line of concern is born from an unholy mixture of ego and paranoia. I wouldn’t entertain it were it not for one minor detail: All my jewelry is missing.

As the cops ask me questions, staticky voices coming from their hips, my thoughts enter the seventh circle of sexism. Clearly this happened because I am a woman, trapped in a perfect storm of profession and age. I hail from a generation that beefed up résumés and deployed adverbs. We had to make ourselves appealing before the dawn of social media, when there was no daily pastiche of the self and therefore less space for self-deprecation. If you got anyone’s attention, you combed your hair and put your pants on. You made it count. As adults, women such as myself are caught in the messaging middle, after those who dressed up for planes, before those who dressed down for dates. Perhaps I have not done such a bang-up job as I thought, straddling the line between the Show-Off generation and the Whatever one.

Still, the idea that I have been punished for the dubiously impactful enterprise that is book promotion makes me want to punch a hole through the wall. I think of the older book critic who once crossed a party to chastise me for posting photos of myself on Instagram. Self-appointed custodian of that platform’s purity, the book critic decided: “Pictures should be of what you see, not of what the world sees when it sees you.”

“Do you have any enemies?” asks one of the cops, corralling my attention.

“Sorry, what?”


Copyright © 2024 by Sloane Crosley

Grief Is for People
by by Sloane Crosley

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: MCD
  • ISBN-10: 0374609845
  • ISBN-13: 9780374609849