Nonfiction by MJ Engel


            The constant wild soundtrack of home was a symphony of trains screeching metallic screams, bells ringing on the hour, pots and pans clanging, infant giggles, and dog howls. I awoke each morning with the sizzle of the wok and fell asleep each night while listening to the lullaby of the rustling maple trees. It was the routine I had had for sixteen years. It was home.

            The calendar said it was November and the microwave blinked 2:00 AM. Then the sirens wailed as if they had been waiting for their solo for a lifetime.

            Everyone heard it. To be in town was to hear the sirens. And everyone stood still. No one went to investigate. No one even moved to lock the doors. This has never happened, thought those who were awake. And everyone was awake.

            We all rose the next morning hoping in vain that the soundtrack would reset itself. While the train still screeched and the bells still rang, a dissonant chord rang out. No one mentioned it because no one had to—we all had heard it.

            9:23 AM.

            “You there?” M asked.

            “Yeah. I’m here.” I replied.

            “Has someone already told you?”

            “Told me what?”

            “Did you hear those sirens last night?” she murmured.

            “Who didn’t?”

            “It was J.”

            “What do you mean it was J?”

            “Do I really need to say it?”

            “Say what?”

            “She’s gone.”


                  MAN: Earlier this morning, our community was shaken by a tragedy involving two teenage girls.

                  WOMAN: Yes, the story is very sad indeed. Two girls, one car, and alcohol. A perfect recipe for a terrible disaster.

                  MAN: Lab tests have not yet confirmed alcohol presence in this accident, but if I had to guess, I’d say it must have been a factor.

                  WOMAN: Kids these days just have nothing else to do. And as we can see here, that boredom can turn into tragedy.

                  MAN: This is a lesson, kids. Don’t drink and drive.

                  WOMAN: So young. So much potential. So sad.

            They had to force me to go to the funeral. M tried calling again, and when I refused to answer, she drove up in her mom’s minivan. All the seats were already taken, and five people were stowed in the trunk. The girls shifted uncomfortably, adjusting their unusually high collars and fidgeting with their skirts. The clothes’ wrinkles betrayed the fact they had just been recovered from the depths of their mothers’ closets that morning. The boys attempted to hold the girls, but the stiffness of their suits braced their arms to their sides. No one had ever had to dress for an event like this before.

            “I haven’t seen you in so long!” M leaned over the steering wheel and swooped in, planting two sloppy kisses on both of my cheeks. She looked like she had just painted her face with make up, done so precisely that it stopped all tears from falling in fear of cracking the mask.

“So sad this is why we’re together again. Here, I saved you this seat next to me.” She couldn’t look at me.

            “Yeah,” was all I could muster.

            I sank in my seat as the car lurched backwards, stopped, and then lurched again. M was the only one of us who could drive, and she had just passed her driver’s test two weeks earlier—on her third try.


SOMEWHERE—Two teenage girls passed away early Friday morning in an automobile accident. Lab tests have returned and the results are negative for alcohol at the scene. The back left tail light of the car was broken, leading a police officer to pursue the car. Once the officer turned on his sirens, a chase ensued, ending in the fatal crash. Both families of the girls declined to comment.

            Then we passed the spot. The entire scene was awash in purples and blues, J’s favorite colors. As I took in the site, I wanted to bury my head into the car seat and scream the day away, but something about it pulled me back. I was addicted. Its gravity pulled me closer. Her giggle was ever-present in the millions of pictures fluttering in the wind. Bouquets of royal purple flowers adorned the light pole that was covered in short scrawls of love. The corner overflowed with petals of flowers bought from Pick ‘n Save and flowers hurriedly plucked from the garden across the street. A violet balloon hovered nearby, inviting all those who passed by to visit the monument and leave their mark on the light pole.              




I love you.

How did this happen?

I’ll never forget that time

We sat on those swings

And swung towards the heavens.

Can I swing towards you now?                                                       

J. You tried on so many names.

Remember when you decided on that one?

I was the only one who called you that.

You said it made you feel mature.

Like putting on red lipstick.

Who is allowed to mourn?

Am I allowed to hold this sadness?

Do I deserve to grieve?

I long for the moment

 when reality becomes


So precise.

So deeply


I am still in shock and

I don’t know what to say.

I don’t think I’ll ever know

what to say.

But here I am

Saying, anyway.

I still remember that time

you saw me on the bus

and decided it was time for us to be friends.

You came over, so nervous,

because I was older, you said,

and therefore scary.

 Wanna know a secret, J?

 I was scared of you.

You, with your backpack with all those pins.

You loved those pins. You said they

 meant something.

They spoke to you.

They told you who you are.

Who you could be.

If I could have anything in the world,

anything, anything at all,

I would wish for the snow to fall harder than ever,

snowflakes dancing and

twirling like angels, and

you and I diving, running, skipping, holding hands,

living like this was the last day.

What happens when time forces me,

seduces me,

encourages me

to forget?

What happens when your memory

comes roaring back

and splinters me?

What happens when I can’t discern

which memories are constructed

and which hold a true rendering

 of our life as it was lived?

What happens when I prefer the construction

over the reality?

            No one had taken time to remove all the glass and shards of mirror scattered around the grass or wipe away the stains of red. No one wanted to confront what it meant. 

            “I shouldn’t have come this way,” M mumbled as she continued to jerk her way through the neighborhood.

            As we neared the temple, the road grew so dense with cars it seemed like we were traveling in a pack of burning metal and a cloud of exhaust. All the headlights were on, channeling the intense beam into the car in front of it as if to ask, to beg, to confront: why? Why? Why?

Ring. Ring. Riiiiiiiiing.


Hey. Long time no talk.

Yeah seriously! How have you been?? How’s high school?                                                                                                  



Where’ve you been?

Oh, you know, school—                                                

 No, what I mean is where have you been?

I’m confused.                                                                

I stole something.



I’m sorry.                                                                                    

No you’re not.

Love you too.                              


You said you would still be here for me.

I’m here.

Are you?

You can always just say no.

Fine, I’ll say it: no. Bye.

            I slipped between the crowds and secured a seat close to the front. Faces I knew from another time, friends who were friends with a different me reached out. The “MJ!”s and the “You’re back!”s and the “Can you believe it?”s slurred together into one unintelligible mush that clogged my ears. Old teachers and even older friends tried and lost the game of small talk. Their questions of “How’s school?” and “How long are you home for?” fell flat, their meanings hollow. I was not here to talk to them. I was here for J.


MAN: We have just received news that the police have finally finished investigating the recent fatal car crash.

WOMAN: Yes. It appears that alcohol was not a factor in this crash, but instead, a broken taillight. The driver was too young for a driver’s license, so she sped away once a police officer turned on his sirens.

MAN: The car chase ended when the girl crashed into a light pole that fell on the car, killing the passenger instantly. The driver was rushed to a hospital and passed away five hours later.

WOMAN: I hear they’ve put up a new light pole.

MAN: Yes. Officials have said that they are putting their best efforts forth to remove the—the accident.

            And there she was. Except, it wasn’t her at all. The two men in black delicately placed a larger than life portrait on stage. Queen J had arrived. She stared down at us from above; both from the stage and from the heavens, her half smile as glorious as ever. But, something was off. Her hair was too straight, too brown, too dull, her eye shadow the palette from two years ago that she swore she would never wear again. She had lost those earrings during that last snow day we spent together carving snow angels into our world. J would have hated that picture.

            Next to her was the other girl in the car, a stranger to me. I bowed my head and gave her my silence but could not muster more. This silence, so perfunctory, supposedly so imbued with empathy and compassion amounted to little more than a gesture of recognition that her life had only entered mine by ending. It tasted sour.

-------------Text Message---------

August 20, 2011

J (10:03 PM): Where are you?

Me: No response.

J (12:47 AM): Fine. See you never.

Me: No response.


Settling into our seats, M tried to comfort me once again and snaked her skinny arm around my shoulders and held me, her fingers limp.

            “You okay?” she whispered.

            “Yeah,” I grunted.

            “Good,” she sighed, relieved that her work here was done. She untwisted her arm and held both of her hands in her lap, intertwining her fingers into a tight fist. I watched as her white palm darkened into a deep purple.

            “Hey, you okay?” I whispered back.

            She paused. Her fist stayed clenched. She glanced at me and looked back down faster than a breath, but not fast enough for me to miss the face of someone trying to hold her indeterminate pain. Her clenched her fists tighter.

            “I’m doing just great.” she grinned. Her smile looked as if it had been carved on and polished with a promiscuous red, betraying her the moment it flickered on her face. The creeping hollowness unmasked me. I was threadbare at the edges, and all it would take is one gentle tug to unspool my entirety. I understood the urge to skim through the day with the protection of performance, but I could not endure watching M. I needed her to be there with me, in the fray.

            We sat together, held by the history that binds us.

I was running. Running faster than I ever had before.

Knock, knock, knockknockknockknock.

“I’m here! I’m here!”

They rush down the stairs, arms already ready to embrace me. The TV is blaring. “Teenage girls” “Car crash” “Tragedy” scroll across the bottom of the screen, continuously, on repeat, forever.

My tears drizzle and then pour onto her sweatshirt. We’ve been friends since kindergarten and she usually smells like her dog’s cuddle and her mom’s bizarre potpourri—in a word, home. Today she smells like a sleepless night.

We sit in her living room, not saying a word, our breathing and our sitting bringing some kind of comfort. Something.

“Wait, look,” she says as she pulls out her laptop. “Can you believe these bitches?”

She scrolls down the page that is filled with posts from girls whose names I used to know but had long since forgotten. I watch J grow up as we scroll further and further down the page, pictures of her from the beginning to the end, her smile littering the screen. It made me sick. Photos that had clearly been scavenged from the depths of the archives resurfaced with: “RIP J, YOU MADE FRENCH CLASS FUN” and “YOU ALWAYS SMILED AT ME IN THE HALLWAY.”

These people didn’t know J. These people didn’t feel the same pain as me.

THIS IS MY PAIN, I wanted to scream.

But I couldn’t.

These posts—these were fictional memories.

My incessant toll of hollow yet sharp yet numb pangs—this was real.

Maybe we hadn’t spoken in a year. Two years.

Maybe distance and time and space wedged us apart.

Maybe I never answered her text, and maybe I thought that was for the better.

But this—this—this, me, her, us—

Her, gone. Me, here. This—

This was real.


            Then the Rabbi came and then he went, J’s mother, supported by J’s older brother, hobbled to the stage and then quickly sat back down, and there the Rabbi was again asking if anyone else had something to say, and then there I was, no longer searching J’s eyes but now facing a sea of tear-soaked, red-rimmed gazes all directed towards me.

            “I…” I stopped. What the hell are you doing?

            The gazes grew intense. A beat. Then two.


            A rustle of skirts. A clearing of the throat. Ahem. Young girl. What are you doing there?

            Sir, I have no clue.

            “I love J.” Thank God you said something. “I can’t imagine having a snow day without her.” Good, a whole sentence! “I can’t imagine sitting on the bus without her.” J, I miss you so much. “I can’t imagine this world without her.” Wrap it up! “I should never have left.” OK, you’ve said enough get off the stage. “We all need her.” These are the words I wish I could say.

            My thuds down the three steps reverberated in the space usually reserved for applause. But of course, there wasn’t any. This place was reserved for silence.

            Until—bam—a SIREN. The red and blue lights illuminated the hall as the wail floated in, bounced around, and stormed into our consciousness one more time. But this time was different. No one even flinched.


MJ Engel is a native of Milwaukee, WI and a recent graduate of Columbia University. Since high school, she has pursued creative nonfiction as a method of processing and is excited to have her writing debuted on The Grief Diaries. She will be abroad for the next year as a Fulbright scholar conducting research in Kunming, China. 

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