DJ had often been told that her formal name, Dejanae, was like a song. "Dee-jah-naaaaaaeeee," her younger sister's voice would melodically claw up the stairs in the small home they had grown up in Princeton. And DJ, every time, would roll her eyes but still smile. Life ten years later was basically the same, but now instead of a house with her parents and her sister she lived in an apartment in southern New Jersey with her best friend Caroline, both seniors in college and pre-med students. DJ was very painfully reminded of the perils of studying the noble arts of medicine when the shelf above her bed, the one that held all of her biggest textbooks like a flat, outstretched arm of an oak version of Atlas, collapsed and hit her right in the face.
She stumbled across the hallway into the bathroom, swearing loudly and let loose one final F bomb when she looked in the mirror and saw the large, red smudge that was still growing to encompass a chunk of the lower half of her face. "Dangit, did this really have to happen today?" The fact that it was June didn't really matter, neither the fact that it was a Saturday, but what did make this particular moment a bad time to have a possibly broken nose was the fact that tonight she had a date with the infamous James Clark: a god among men, all that jazz. DJ was determined to get laid tonight (and maybe eventually get married and have lots of little James's and DJs), and she was pretty sure that having a swollen nose that forced her to bear resemblance to a certain Yuletide icon would hurt her chances of getting on Mr. Clark's good side (or even just a side).
"De-jah-naaaaeeee!" For a moment DJ thought she felt time flowing backwards around her, and she almost threw up. She gripped the sink with one hand while the other flashed out to grab a tissue to craft a makeshift nose tampon--a phrase even now she could never take seriously. "Why on Earth are you making so much noise?" It wasn't Rosie, it was Caroline, and it wasn't ten years ago, it was now. "I'm trying to watch Super Nanny!"
DJ, finished sticking wads of rolled up cotton up her nose (was it cotton? What are tissues made of? she wondered) and was pretty sure that the rest of her dignity had been washed down the sink and turned the water pink, slowly plodded into the living room and glared at the back of Caroline's head, all those black curls and those ridiculous hot pink highlights. "Why? Haven't you told both Brett and I dozens of times that you're never having kids?"
There was an odd exhaling sound, and then a gentle pop. Caroline was chewing bubble gum. "Well, yeah, but sometimes I use her techniques on you when you're being irrational, which, let's face it--" Caroline dropped off abruptly when she finally turned her head, and her big blue eyes got their first fill of DJ's face.
Exactly three seconds passed before she broke into uproarious laughter. "Oh sweet Lanta, DJ, your nose!"
"I hate you." DJ, sullen and with a new mean line to her mouth still stained slightly cherry underneath two tissues twisted into makeshift nose tampons, plopped down on the couch next to her roommate. Caroline reached up and tousled her already messy blonde hair and DJ scowled, swatting her arm away. "Cut it out!"
"Oh you know I'm just teasing..." Caroline stuck her tongue out in response to DJ's glare. "Wait, what are you doing?" DJ picked up her phone and began dialing.
"Calling James. I'm not going out with him with my face looking like this."
"But you were going to go out with him when your face was how it normally looks!"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Look," Caroline snatched DJ's phone from her hand, and tossed it out onto the sky blue rug in front of the couch. They used to have a coffee table but Caroline's ex, Gerald, had chain-sawed it in half after he caught his then-girlfriend in bed with his twin brother. Caroline's excuse? She couldn't tell them apart. "don't cancel your date with your future husband--"
"Sh, don't interrupt me, just because your nose is all fucked up. With the right makeup and that hookerlicious dress you found at Ross last week, he won't even notice."
DJ rolled her eyes, getting to her feet. "I'm going back to my room..." Her eyes rolled around the living room. "Hey, where's Napoleon?" Napoleon was the stray cat that Caroline and she had taken in last year sleeping next to a dumpster behind a McDonald's. Once they got past the mange and the fact that his skeleton showed so poignantly through his skin, they couldn't just let him stay there to die.
"Oh, he got hit my a car this morning."
Caroline stared after DJ, looking slightly dumbfounded. "He got hit. By a car. An Impala." A few beats of silence past as DJ processed this new information. The sound it made in her mind was similar to that of maracas filled with dimes being pitched down a sewer pipe. "Driver was cute. Looked like James Dean."
"Alright. Well, so much for that venture..." Her voice trailed off and Caroline didn't pick it back up to fix it back into place, so without another word DJ disappeared back down the hallway from whence she came. Melancholy fell about her shoulders like chains of nickel, but she shifted comfortably under so familiar a load.
As she clicked the door to her bedroom behind her and flopped down on her bed (carefully, to avoid the mess of lumber on her pillows that used to be a bookshelf), a free hand shot out to grab for a small remote resting between the folds of her quilt. Soon, the sounds of Debussy's Claire de Luna filled the room. DJ sighed. Her face was sore.
Claire de Lune was good meditation music. Usually that was more a curse than a blessing. DJ Murdoc laid still and tried to feel Earth moving through space, but gave up after a few seconds passed. She thought about how she'd wanted her life to be fifteen years ago--wild, adventurous, magical. She once made the mistake of telling this to her father, the solemn Seth Murdoc, who coolly made the observation that his elder daughter read too much. DJ stopped confiding in Seth shortly after that.
Even if she lived in New Jersey, one of the quirkiest places of the U.S., there was still so much about her existence that was just so--mundane. Mundane was a good word, she decided. When she died she sometimes wondered if she would have to watch a life review or something she thought Caroline had talked about a few months ago when she was going through her occult phase, and if she did, would she taste cardboard between her teeth?
She unwilling conceded that real life (Who had decided to call it that, anyway?) wasn't like a book; it wasn't like a movie with a peppy pop tune worked into the soundtrack for good measure. It was boring. It was colorful, at times unpredictable, but the rest of the time, she could've died the days passed so tediously, dragging their heels as they went.
And there was her conflict. Continue on with her life, as she always had, or--she smiled grimly into her mattress--continue on with her life, as she always had? She was no Frank Darabont, not in any literal or metaphorical sense. She turned over on her back, groaning as she went. You had to be a god to create the stuff of the charmed lives that were lead in black ink, and as far as she knew wasn't about to be hauled off to Golgatha Hill with some big planks of wood resting heavy on her shoulders. What's worse... she thought, propping herself up on her elbows, is that I know for a fact that everyone, at one time or another, feels this way.
DJ's gaze rolled to a worn map she had tacked to her wall with clear pushpins. They weren't enough to keep the edges from curling in slightly. Where once white had been was now only that classic shade of aged yellow. It used to be her mothers, back in the 70's or some decade a while ago when she was a geography teacher for a middle school whose name she couldn't immediately remember.
"What are we doing here?"
DJ jumped slightly when Caroline abruptly opened the door to her room. The whites of her eyes held a concerned glaze. The two students stared at each other. "... Were you just talking to yourself?" Caroline asked, one eyebrow lowering.
"Uhm, yes?" It sounded more like a question, but didn't it always?
"Oh, well, that's cool." Caroline's arm dropped off the door handle as her eyes fell to the floor. She scuffed at the carpet with her slippers. "I uh, went and got Napoleon sort of off the road. I thought we could go have a funeral for him in the spare lot across the street."
"Won't the neighborhood kids get mad if we bury a cat in their outfield? One of them threw a rock at me while I was taking a walk once." DJ stripped out of her PJ bottoms and pulled on a pair of old jean shorts. Caroline smirked and brought out a small can of mace.
"I got us covered." This relatively short statement was accompanied by Caroline's lips stretched into a not-so-relatively-short-slight-maniacal grin.
"Caroline Nicole!" Caroline shrugged, feigning innocent while slipping the mace back into her back pocket. DJ shuddered. "God, you know what, forget it, I don't care. Let's get this over with."
Caroline clucked her tongue. "Watch your tone, miss, this is a funeral we're attending!"
* * *
DJ's attire might have gotten her dirty looks from the staff of a human-oriented funeral home, but as it turns out, when you're burying pets in the far left outfield of an makeshift baseball square, it doesn't really matter what you wear. An Aerosmith t-shirt and white track shoes were good enough. DJ rubbed her still-sore nose; her nostrils were still red-rimmed, last she checked, but at least she could do without the tissues shoved up them by now. They made her lips itch.
Since it was Saturday, naturally, there was a game going on. Even though they stayed as far outfield as they could (and being outfield in a big city in general is a little difficult to manage) DJ and Caroline dodged foul balls and hurled insults that were not fit for eleven-year-old mouths. Caroline kept a shoebox carefully tucked under her arm, every corner and opening meticulously covered with silver duct tape. DJ had a shovel over her shoulder and more than once used it in a threatening gesture when one of the players came too close. However, once DJ started digging up a little plot snug against the back wall of an old brick building (and the first home-run of the game shattered through a window into one of the aforementioned neighboring brick buildings), the players quickly disappeared down alleyways, behind dumpsters and back into front yards where they were supposed to have stayed to begin with.
Caroline carefully lowered the box down into the shallow grave and even hummed a slightly off-key version of "Amazing Grace" as DJ covered it, and finally gave the new mound a few pats of finality after the shoebox was completely covered with soil. For a few beats, neither of them said anything. DJ leaned on her shovel, staring past strands
of blonde in order to look at the brown. "... Dude, say something." Caroline began, and DJ was surprised at how emotional her voice sounded.
"Uhm, okay... well... Napoleon was a good cat, uh..."
"Oh what a brave soul!" Caroline wailed, "How noble, how true! Thou was such a cat, good Napoleon!"
"Caroline, shut up, you're gonna get the cops called on us." DJ picked her shovel up and rested it across her shoulders, letting her wrists dangle over the handle. She continued to stare at the new grave. "... Honestly, his life was pretty pointless."
"Dejanae Murdoc!" Caroline gasped, every New Age ism suddenly boiling up through her spine to make her eyes light up like Christmas trees. "No life is pointless! None! You took eastern religions with me two semesters ago, you should remember that!" With that Caroline dramatically threw herself up against the ruddy-red stone, covering her face with her hands. "I don't know you anymore!"
"Stop being so pedantic." DJ carefully stepped onto the grave and pressed down, leaving a footprint of the underside of her Chuck Taylor. After a few seconds, Caroline brought her hands down and followed suite silently: her larger imprint next to DJ's smaller one. "If no life is pointless, then what's the meaning? Riddle me that."
"You want to know the truth?"
"Caroline, I swear to God, if you quote A Few Good Men I'm going to rape you with this shovel." Three crows landed a few feet away from the funeral and began scratching up the pitcher's mound, probably looking for bugs. Caroline, to DJ's surprise, instead of going into sulk mode, smiled.
"How about instead of telling you, I show you?" Caroline's grin made her increasingly nervous. DJ wore her skepticism like face-paint.
"Show me? All right, whatever, go for it."
"Okay, first... I need you to inhale." DJ sucked in a breath through her teeth. It carried the lingering smells of summer: gasoline, flowers, sweat. A hint of barbecue from somewhere not that far away. "Yay, awesome, good job! Now... exhale." DJ did as Caroline told her to do, and then glanced to her expectantly. Caroline made a jittery, excited motion with her hands as if she'd just done a magic trick.
"Caroline, I just breathed. That's it. Stop looking like you just thought of something Nobel Peace Prize worthy."
"Hey, if Obama can win one..." DJ promptly pivoted on her heels and began walking back towards the sidewalk. "DJ, wait!" She didn't turn her head and instead focused on the crosswalk some yards ahead. Some jokesters had painted white chalk outlines in a conga line across the asphalt. It made her soul smile. Oh Death, where is thy sting? she wondered.
Caroline finally caught up with her and put a hand on her shoulder, bringing her to a reluctant stop. "Look, I didn't mean to insult your new best friend, but breathing, y'know, just existing, that is the point of life. Do you get me?"
DJ, irritated, drove the head of the shovel down into the cement below and enjoyed the harsh clang that ensued. "You're telling me that we're just here to live? That's it? That's all we have to do?"
"Well, you forgot the part about being happy, that too."
DJ threw her hands in the air, letting the shovel fall to the ground. "That can't be it! That's too deceptively simple!" Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but DJ cut her off, "And don't tell me it's because God's simple at the center because He's not! Have you even picked up a copy of the Old Testament since you were born? Or flipped through it?" DJ took a menacing step closer to her roommate, glaring into her eyes. I hope my stare feels like a thousand bright, steely throwing stars, DJ hoped, but felt instant guilt afterwards, which she felt soften the hard lines around her mouth. "What makes breathing so special as to give it the status of Supreme Meaning of Life?"
Predictably, Caroline didn't answer. She stayed with her face frozen in mute horror, eyes huge and round, and of course, mouth shut. DJ scoffed, shaking her head and she picked up the shovel. "That's what I thought," she mumbled.
But as she hoisted the shovel back over her shoulders like a cross, Caroline spoke. "Well, for one, Napoleon can't do it anymore--and if I were him, I'd be pretty depressed and junk about that." That made DJ stop in her tracks. She felt her eyebrows rise against her will. Caroline started to get eager again, seeing that she found a foothold. "I mean, just living... it's so massive an experience, Deej. It's meant to be thoroughly enjoyed, see? Happiness, I guess, then, would be the real meaning of life. But since being able to breathe makes me happy I thought I would use that as an example. Obviously, that was a bad idea." Caroline sighed shortly, and walked around DJ, who had somehow grown magical invisible roots to the sidewalk beneath her soles. She had her eyes trapped on a little weed sprouting out from between two of the square slabs of grey.
It's struggling so hard, she mused. It's struggling so hard just to breathe. She consciously took a deep breath in and a deeper breath out, not caring that Caroline was getting further and further way. She'd catch up soon. Hopefully in more ways than one, DJ conceded, finally turning and jogging a ways to catch up to her unbiological sister. "Have I mentioned lately that you're awesome?" Caroline giggled.
"Well, I thank you, but I already knew that since I know how to spell. See, without me, it's just aweso!" For a second DJ was ready to verbally belittle Caroline all to pieces , but instead, she started laughing and couldn't stop. Caroline feigned offense. "What? What is this nonsense? I teach you a valuable life lesson and you laugh at me? You're worse than a retarded hooker! I don't even know why I hang out with you! I should just move to Canada, hang out with a polar bear..." Caroline went on, listing all the good reasons she had for moving to Canada--or rather just far away from DJ, who looked up in time to see three black crows look like sprinkles against a blue icing sky.