I’m sitting outside a seafood restaurant in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I bounce my knee impatiently. We’ve been waiting to get a table for over an hour, and I’m starving. The carefree atmosphere of mindless chatter contrasts with an eerily cool breeze blowing in from the Atlantic ocean. My phone starts screaming at me, and I’m getting irritated. The Workaholics theme song plays for the third time drowning out the grumbling coming from my stomach. Now, I’m just pissed. But it’s my best friend since diapers calling, so I answer. After a few rings, I pick up. She tries to form sentences, but her dry sobs are impossible to understand.
Moments later I realize what she’s trying to say: Thomas Lee is dead.
Summer camp was a rite of passage, a tangible memory of firsts. My formative years of adolescence were spent on a lake at Camp Bratton Green, my best friend since diapers by my side. At the age of 12, standing in line for a life jacket, I experienced my first moment of physical self-awareness. I stood, exposed, in a polka dot one-piece from Gap, uncomfortably conscious of my chest or… lack thereof. I was confused. Why did my stomach go farther than my “boobs” when other girls, including my best friend next to me, had flat tummies and real breasts, not ones stuffed with Kleenex? Three years later changing into pajamas at a sleepover, I came face to face with that same feeling—it had evolved into an ugly voice, restrictive and desperate. I didn’t win. The voice did. Every time I hear that voice, I feel an urge to listen, ignoring my rational self.
Phone in hand, I get up from the bench outside the restaurant and walk towards the dimly lit parking lot. I laugh uncomfortably. “This isn’t funny,” I tell her. “Why would you joke about that?” The line goes silent and she continues with a clearer voice: “They found his body 30 minutes ago. He drowned.”
The Camp Bratton Green lake lies quietly still, hiding behind a buildup of fungi and bacteria in a naïve attempt to escape the repercussions of climate change. You think we would have learned by now: why the heat index four months out of the year is 102 degrees; why the rain came in the fall and didn’t leave; why summer ends in October and winter begins in November. People don’t like to admit fault but even more, they don’t like to change. We mindlessly burn fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gases) as if everyday human activity isn’t enhancing the greenhouse effect. We fund fast fashion without stopping to consider the impact of microfibers. We continue to puff on cancer sticks knowing the damage it brings. We ignore basic facts staring us in the face – WARNING: MAY CAUSE CANCER.
At the age of 15, laying on the dock next to the boy I loved—not Thomas, but another boy who’s goofy personality was uncannily similar—I smoked my first cigarette. The term smoking might be a stretch because I never quite figured out how to inhale. It sat in my mouth, smoke pouring out through prolonged drags, like those beautiful women in the movies, the ones with breasts. In that moment, as the dark smell of burning tobacco surrounded us, he found my hand, and I felt whole. Later I discovered that he kissed my friend—the one who’d been there for me through diapers and twelve-year-old insecurity— an hour before he told me I was beautiful.
The first time I realized that we can never undo our actions was when my best friend called me to tell me that Thomas… My heart was beating fast, his wasn’t beating at all. People die and they don’t come back.
Thomas Lee jumped off an old railroad bridge over the Tombigbee River with a group of other boys. When he hit the water, his lungs collapsed. He was choking on the water—when I inhaled that first cigarette my lungs filled with smoke, I was choking too— They didn’t find his body until an hour later. His friends were convinced he was messing with them.
The truth is growing up in rural Mississippi there isn’t shit to do. So we jump off bridges, we smoke cigarettes next to beautiful boys who we know may prefer our best friends, we watch each other die.
You can’t hold a single person or group of persons accountable. You can’t point fingers to reduce the blame.
Global temperatures are rising, and we have to accept it. They will continue to do so from human-induced warming.
I catch my reflection in the lake’s murky water. It’s clouded but at the same time brutally clear. My features are different from the insecure twelve-year-old hiding behind a towel. The braces worn by the hopelessly romantic fifteen-year-old are replaced with straight teeth, and someone more grown stares back at me. I want to believe I’ve changed. I want to believe the choices I’ve made have taught me something. We are in a state of planetary disaster. We have to end bad habits before causing further irreversible damage
I watch as people make stupid decisions, I want to stop them. I’m making the same mistakes, someone stop me.
I never attended the funeral. The group of boys was there, my best friend since diapers was probably standing in the front wearing a tight black dress, mourning the loss of him.
But not me. I was away at boarding school sitting through an AP Bio lecture on climate change. I have my own way of handling death, you could say it’s far from traditional and maybe even a little unhealthy. Mourning for me means accepting what’s happened. I refuse to shed a few tears because my emotions won’t change the past. I can’t mourn, but I can selfishly postpone an inescapable sadness through reckless actions.
The first time I came home from school after his death, I went to the bridge. I took my mom’s car keys and drove to the loading dock off the Tombigbee river. I walked the dirt path up to the gate ignoring the sign right in front of me that read: NO JUMPING. I crawled through the man-made hole in the cheap chain linked fence and sat alone on the rotting wood, imagining his toothy smile and the constellation of freckles that covered his face like stars. I stripped off my clothing, made my way to the middle of the bridge where I knew the water was deepest, and jumped.
Sarah Jane Hay is a senior at Indian Springs High School in Birmingham, Alabama. In her writing, SJ explores the importance of place— whether it’s her boarding school home in Alabama, the home where she grew up in Mississippi (where she’s originally from) or the homes she finds along the way (like when she traveled this past summer in Spain— specifically the homes she made in art museums). She is a vegan, but don’t hate her for it. She is currently working on an essay about the language of love. A Collection of Firsts is her first published work. She will be attending Loyola New Orleans in the Fall.
Photograph by Abigail Shepherd.