What Rules by Jennifer Alessi

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jennifer alessi at grand canyon

Suzanne might say that I had it backwards—that she didn’t break the rules so much as they broke her. In her native Virginia Beach, a sailor’s town, girls (she’d argue) were supposed to be pretty, and she wasn’t. Even in her mid-forties Suzanne would call herself ugly. She’d bemoan her looks and point to them as the root of her lifetime despair. Whenever I questioned that connection, Suzanne would wail, “You’re pretty. You can’t understand.” But peering at pictures from her twenties, I see a wiry badass wedged between two giant burnt-sienna stones in an Arizona rock climb, her thick sun-auburned hair pulled into an assured ponytail, her long pale face facing the camera. Her tongue peeps out to swipe her upper lip, a kid pleased with her efforts.

Okay, so you’re ugly, I wanted to hurl back countless times. I never believed it, but there was no convincing her otherwise.

Rather than slink from the limelight, Suzanne dared the world to look at her. Nearly a quarter century later, I can see her stomping through Manhattan’s Upper West Side in Army-grade combat boots, her black long-john bottoms ripped up the inseam. I see her studded black jacket and outrageous tops—forest green tropical pattern, orange and hot pink tie-dye hanging to her knees. And her hair: she’d dye it black or Rapunzel blonde. She went through a phase where she’d wear a gray curled wig and granny glasses. Look at me, Suzanne seemed to demand. And when a passerby did with disdain, she’d bristle. I never understood the paradox that made her flash like neon Technicolor barreling down Broadway, and the hurt she felt beneath the bravado.

While an undergrad at Columbia, Suzanne lived off campus, renting one of two bedrooms in an apartment that became synonymous with its street, Tiemann Place. Though the lease wasn’t hers, she and her husband (a hippie who took her last name) gave keys to all of their friends. These friends appeared like vampires on the fourth-floor fire escape if they’d forgotten theirs, and with one rap on the grimy window Suzanne let them in. She’d order pizzas on her credit card and also use her credit card to pay for the six-packs of beer at the local bodega. Her account balance multiplied exponentially. But she’d save an undrunk half pot of coffee, overlaid with a discreet sheath of Saran wrap, in the fridge for morning.

Suzanne was an English major, though essay writing tortured her. I remember her passed out facedown on the living room floor, an empty bottle of vodka by one foot, a hunk of bread by the other. Surrounding her outstretched arms, pages and pages of crossed-out type. “Pitiful!” she’d deem her efforts. An essay was never good enough. It was never worthy enough of the work on which it was based. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet satire, The Master and Margarita, was Suzanne’s favorite. Her essay on this book earned her one of her many A-pluses.

Sometimes she was too paralyzed to submit anything. Fearing she’d damage her 4.0 GPA, she’d withdraw. It took her seven years—on a combination of part-time jobs, scholarships, loans, and her parents’ dwindling money and patience—to graduate. And in her post-diploma summer, what did she become? A bike messenger, inhaling bus exhaust and whizzing through the Manhattan streets at seven bucks an hour. That summer I’d see Suzanne everywhere—by the MET, by the Chinatown knock-off stalls—Upper West and Lower East, her chin jutting out, black spandex shorts and sun-pinked limbs. The traffic thrust forward. She had barely time for a wave. And now I have time to consider her endurance, biking up and down that island, and our interconnectedness, crossing filaments so often in that web of a city.

Several months later, Suzanne moved to Tempe, Arizona, on a whim. Or at least that’s how she’d explained it to me—a US map spread across the wall in Tiemann Place, a blindfold and darts. Only at her funeral reception would I learn that her (now-ex) husband’s mother lives there.

Sick of English, bruised by it, she enrolled in ASU to study neuroscience. For tuition and a stipend, she worked in the lab feeding cocaine to rats. But Suzanne loved rats. She loved every pulsing being on this earth. To her boss’s annoyance, she became the rats’ white-coated advocate. She named them and took a few home. Bleary-eyed, pumped up on caffeine energy drinks, on unpaid overtime, she’d guard the several dozens of them at the lab, to the neglect of her health as well as her marriage. Her husband hardly saw her. He’d filed for divorce and moved out days before she realized he was gone.

Suzanne was a scientist, and yet it took her half a year to see a doctor when her stomach filled with bloat. When finally detected, the ovarian cancer had reached stage four. For old times’ sake, she visited me in New York. I was determined to treat her to a compassionate, memorable time. But riding the subway to Coney Island, Suzanne was a spectacle in draping pajama-like clothes and mannish sandals, her head shaved clean, her skull as bare as a Hare Krishna’s because the wig itched, a nose ring in the shape of a palm tree protruding from one nostril. She spoke in a shout (the chemo, she claimed, had damaged her hearing). In earshot of kids, Suzanne loudly lamented, “They removed my uterus! Whoever thought they’d miss having a period? Think I’ll ever get laid again?!” I count it among my top regrets that my jaw had clenched and I tried to shush her. Surely stage-four cancer and an eighteen-year friendship trumped decorum.

On our last trip together, driving from Los Angeles to Washington State to visit a friend, Suzanne rued her life choices. If she’d been more focused before the chemo, she could have earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Her academic promise would have been kept. She mourned her failed marriage and that she’d never become a mother. And the root of her failings? She was an ugly girl in a sailor town.

But, I’d argue back now, we’d decided at nineteen to shuck the rules. What use is it to grope for them in middle age? They’re out of our reach, and they would have brought their own breed of despair. But maybe she was only remorseful in bursts. Maybe what ruled in Suzanne was frustratingly contradictory at times, but always spirited and always heartfelt. And what, I’d ask her, could be more beautiful?

jennifer alessiJennifer Alessi holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska. Her work has appeared in PANK, Parnassus, on Nerve.com and elsewhere.



IMAGE CREDIT: Grand Canyon photo, in which the author and Suzanne (behind the kite) are pictured, was provided by Jennifer Alessi.

  3 comments for “What Rules by Jennifer Alessi

  1. There was a lot about your friend Suzanne that I identified with in this piece–but the line that struck me the most was this: “Surely stage-four cancer and an eighteen-year friendship trumped decorum.” You’ve summed up what we should really all be focused on in that one line, on so many different levels. Thanks for making me think about it too.

  2. This reminds me of the friendship between Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy that Patchett recounted in “Truth and Beauty.” It matters not how the world sees us, but how we see ourselves and, from that, we create our reality. Thank you for sharing this beautifully rendered story. You were a good friend.

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