A 50-Step Guide To Your First Unimaginable Tragedy

A year ago, my roommate — a friend and ex-boyfriend I'd known for 12 years — died in his sleep. I made it through that day one awful, essential step at a time.

1. You wake up to your roommate Kevin standing in your doorway, asking if you’d gotten the same text from Chris’s mom. It’s around 10 a.m. on the Monday after the 4th of July. You’re depressed that you haven’t gotten laid in almost a full year — and haven’t had a date in even longer. You’ve been giving serious thought to leaving the city. You are 32 and feeling unhireable and undateable and really great about yourself. You sometimes wear the same sweatpants for a full week. Your roommate is still standing in the doorway staring.

2. You mumble some sort of response to Kevin and check your phone. Chris’s mom sent you a text saying she was worried about him. You’ve known her as long as you’ve known Chris — for 12 years. When you and Chris dated, you went to his high school graduation with her and his stepfather. For nearly a full year, he’d been your third roommate. He’d been ready to move out of New Jersey at the same time you and Kevin were ready to leave Astoria for Brooklyn.

3. Chris always keeps his door closed. You love him but hate living with him — and he feels the same way. You’ve known each other for so long, you thought you’d be able to handle how weird and private he is — but, well, you can’t. Kevin knocks on his door and yells his name as you’re throwing on those sweatpants. You take the five footsteps from your doorway to Chris’s and push his door open.

4. You know immediately. You’ve seen two other not-in-a-coffin dead bodies before — both were on highways in car accidents. Both looked like movie scenes because you were in your car. This is different: His room is hot and smells bad, the air is gross and thick.

5. Kevin starts yelling for Chris to wake up. You call 911. The 911 people talk to you like you’re an idiot. “How do you know he’s dead? You have to try CPR.”

6. You tell Kevin they’re telling you to perform CPR. You grab Chris’s foot and it’s cold and hard. It’s the worst thing you’ve ever touched. His toes are completely curled. There’s dried vomit everywhere. You feel yourself watching this all unfold as if you’re watching from the ceiling.

7. “He’s dead. He’s cold and hard,” you say to the person on the other side of the phone. Your stomach is doing flips. Your roommate, your close friend, your ex-boyfriend is lying on a bed, dead, in front of you as your other roommate screams for him to wake up. The 911 guy tells you the police will be there shortly. You grab Kevin and tell him that you both need to get out of the apartment.

8. You hide your weed. It feels like such a stupid thing, but you don’t want to deal with being arrested the day your friend died.

9. You and Kevin wait outside for the police. You both probably look insane sitting in the archway of the entrance to your building. You’ve never seen Kevin look like this and you hope you never do again. His eyes are puffy and red — you feel lightheaded and keep hoping the police will get there. Everyone who passes by stares at you. You wish you were one of the people staring. You see your super.

10. “Chris is…um…dead…and…um…we’re waiting for the, uh, police,” you tell your super. Saying those words makes you feel sick. Your super clearly doesn’t know what to say. You remember Chris saying he thought the super was really handsome.

11. The police arrive and Kevin can’t talk to them. The one officer, before you are even inside the building, asks, “Well, was he on drugs?” You respond by glaring at him. Another officer says, “Can you wait ‘til we’re inside the apartment! Just keep going.” You walk them upstairs, hoping this is all a really mean practical joke. You think about how cliché it is to think that.

12. They go in to try and resuscitate — you know it’s pointless. You felt his foot. You keep thinking of his cold, hard foot and his vomit-covered face. You feel sick but know you need to keep it together. They come out of Chris’s room and tell you he’s gone. You say “thank you” in response to everything everyone says to you because what the fuck else are you supposed to say?

13. Every. single. god. damned. officer asks you if Chris was a drug addict. Your voice gets shakier and shakier every time you have to explain to them that he wasn’t but that he was a diabetic with a pump and you feel like that had something to do with it. You try to remind yourself that they didn’t know Chris. They say you can’t contact anyone because it’s an official crime scene — not until a detective gets there and rules it not a crime scene…or something. You’re having a hard time paying attention. You brain is hazy and you keep looking over at Kevin, who is bright red and looks so sad that it hurts.

14. The detective gets there and she’s wearing a purple dress and a leather jacket. She looks like that one lady from Brooklyn Nine-Nine but you don’t watch that show enough to know the character’s name. She’s nicer than most of the other people that have asked you if Chris was on drugs — but she still asks you. It’s nearly 1 p.m. You feel like you’re trapped in the apartment. You want to disappear.

15. A co-worker of Chris’s shows up. You have no idea who she is. She sees you and Kevin sitting in the stairwell and asks, “Is Chris…OK?” She is the second person you have to tell. You think about how many more people you will have to tell.

16. You text some of your closest friends and tell them. You ask them to tell everyone else because you can’t deal with telling everyone but you still want everyone to know. You don’t want people who love Chris finding out through Facebook or something — and you know your close friends will handle telling everyone else who needs to know.

17. The detective rules it not a crime scene or something. She asks you to notify Chris’s mother. This is the first time you cry. Your body shakes and you cry and you’ve never felt so pathetic. You beg the detective not to make you call. How can you? How could you tell this woman that her youngest child has died? You’re not built for this. You sit down and sob. Your hands shake as you pull out your phone. “Just make sure she’s in a safe place before you tell her,” the detective tells you. Your brain is spinning and you can’t even remember his mother’s name — Chris’s co-worker has to remind you her name is Ellen.

18. You barely say words when you call Chris’s mother. She’s at work — she’s a nurse. You are embarrassed at how well you’re not doing. “It’s…it’s Chris…he,” you start sobbing again. She knows. She starts sobbing. “What am I going to do without him?” she asks. People are a lot less coherent during these events than movies would lead you to believe. But she knows, without you having to say the words, so you put the detective on the phone so that she can tell Chris’s mom all the legal stuff you couldn’t, using words you don’t quite understand when strung together.

19. The detective leaves — she tells you the coroner is very busy but should be there within two hours. You think of that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode when her mom dies. You think of everyone who said how unrealistic it was that the EMTs would leave Buffy with her mother’s body — and think of how that’s exactly what’s happening. Although, they didn’t make a random cop wait with Buffy like they are doing with you and Kevin. The cop they leave behind is so big he can barely fit in your tiny kitchen.

20. Kevin’s father and brother arrive and are waiting for you both at the diner down the street. They live over two hours away and still arrived before the fucking coroner. Kevin goes to the diner to meet them. You notice how gray the sky is.

21. You’re sitting there, shaking, with Chris’s co-worker when an older lady comes down the steps. She comes over to you and grabs your shoulder. “Papi, I lost my son last year — I know this must be so hard for you,” she says. She reminds you of your grandma, Panchy. Her Spanglish is comforting. “You will make it through this,” she says. You look up at her and ask if you can hug her. She says, “Of course.” You hug her so hard and sob in her arms. It’s the first time all day you’ve felt any sort of comfort. She tells you she lives upstairs and to let her know if you need anything.

22. You go outside to call Chris’s ex-boyfriend, who had also been texting you earlier. He was worried — they were the on-again, off-again type. You once told Chris, “I want you to either marry him or stop getting back with him” because you’re an over-opinionated garbage person. His ex had lost his mother a year earlier. You are shaking. If you don’t do it, who else will? Chris’s mom? You call him and are crying. He starts to cry this awful high-pitched cry that makes you feel like the worst human alive. You wish you didn’t have to make either of those calls.

23. You call your mother while sitting there. She doesn’t answer. You don’t leave a voicemail asking her to call you back.

24. You put your head in your hands and sob so hard you feel like you might throw up. You’re having trouble breathing. You kind of hope you drop dead right there so that you can stop feeling like this.

25. You call your dad at work. Your dad is the nicest, most well-meaning guy — but he’s not equipped to deal with this sort of thing. You sob into the phone and try to tell him everything that happened in between your sobs. He asks if you want him to come get you — he asks if you’ve called your mother yet. You tell him you’re gonna try her again. He has no clue what to tell you — but he says he’s sorry a lot.

26. You can’t even cry. You dry-heave, sitting on your stoop.

27. The woman who lives upstairs walks by again. “You need water? You want to come stay upstairs with me? If you boys need anything — I have a couch you can stay on. I can cook for you.” You thank her but say you just need to be alone right now.

28. You call your mother and this time she answers. She’s been through death before — she lost her father when you were 3 and every one of her uncles and aunts has passed away. She cries on the phone with you and asks what she can do. You tell her Kevin’s father is there waiting.

29. Chris’s co-worker leaves at some point — you don’t really remember when. She gives you her contact info and offers you and Kevin a place to stay.

30. You and Kevin wait in the apartment with a police officer for what seems like an unbearable amount of time. Barely anyone says anything. At least they’ve stopped asking you if he was a drug addict.

31. You wait. You are waiting.

32. You and Kevin leave to get sandwiches at Subway because you haven’t eaten all day. You both take maybe three bites of the sandwiches that Kevin paid for. They taste like nothing.

33. The examiner comes. She’s very sweet. She’s not the coroner — she does not take the body. But she does examine it and the entire apartment starts smelling like shit because dead bodies release their bowels and the body has probably just been moved, you guess. You go back out into the hallway with Kevin. The examiner tells you it was most likely Chris’s diabetes. She tells you he probably passed away two days ago and that this is normal — some roommates keep their bedroom doors shut and aren’t discovered for a full week. She says it was clear he died in his sleep. You don’t care if she’s lying or not — you need to accept this. You accept this. You think about how you were out getting drunk on the 4th of July while Chris lay dead in his bed.

34. Chris’s insulin pump starts beeping like crazy — no one bothers to turn it off.

35. You remember how loudly Chris was snoring when you left for that 4th of July party two days ago. You wonder if you’d woken him if things would be completely different and he’d still be here. Your stomach makes noises.

36. You wait more. The beeping never stops. The wind occasionally blows Chris’s door open. You are terrified you’ll have to look at the body again.

37. You think about his toes and how curled up they were.

38. His mother calls you to tell you she’s nearby. His mother fucking arrives from two hours away in New Jersey before the coroner does. Kevin went back out to see his dad. You and the officer make awkward eye-contact — neither of you want Chris’s mother to see the body.

39. You go down to greet Chris’s mom and his stepfather at the front door. They have two other random family members with them. One is a teenage girl. You feel embarrassed to be sobbing in front of a teenager.

40. You enter the apartment and the officer talks to them for a bit.

41. “Is he still here?” Chris’s mom asks. You begin to tell her not to go in because you think that no mother should see her child like that — but, of course, she goes in. You listen to her scream-cry over his body until you think you might vomit. You go out into the hallway, where the teenage girl is crying. You sit on the ground and sob next to each other.

42. Chris’s family leaves within an hour. You’re once again alone in the apartment with the body and a police officer. You have sweat through everything you’re wearing. Kevin comes back in and his face is still bright red.

43. The coroner finally fucking arrives. It’s 7 p.m. You realize you’ve now been stuck in the apartment with your ex-boyfriend’s dead body for over eight hours.

44. The officer tells you both you can wait on the upstairs staircase and he’ll let you know when the body is removed.

45. You sit on the steps on the floor above your apartment with Kevin. You both sob. You feel hungover from crying so much. You’re dehydrated, you have a pounding headache, and your stomach won’t stop making noises. You realize you’ve spent nearly the entire day thinking in clichés. You think about how you’re not Joan Didion — you bet she’d never think about death with such a dramatic, cliché mindset. But, to be fair, you don’t love The Year of Magical Thinking the way your other, more literary friends do.

46. The older woman comes out of her apartment and walks halfway down the steps to you both and asks, “Are they taking him?” You nod yes. She says she’s going to say goodbye to him and asks if you want to come with. “No…no…I’ve seen enough of the body today,” you tell her.

47. “I’ll say a prayer for him and for you, OK?” You cry and thank her. You’re an atheist but really appreciate the gesture. You hold Kevin’s hand on the steps as you both cry harder than you thought possible.

48. You hear the sounds of a stretcher hitting the sides of the walls. They’re having trouble getting it out because your hallways are so narrow.

49. The police have you sign some papers. You have no clue what you’re signing — you just want to get out of that apartment as soon as you can. You and Kevin quickly throw things in two bags in silence and leave the apartment. His father and brother are outside waiting.

50. On the drive back to New Jersey, Kevin falls asleep and you stare out the window. You’re afraid if you fall asleep you’ll have a dream about Chris.

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