Reen­act­ing

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Amy butcher

In one of the only mem­o­ries I have now of be­ing alone with Kevin, we’re stand­ing in the up­stairs hall­way of the Civil War Reen­ac­tors’ Theme House at Get­tys­burg Col­lege, and we’re whis­per­ing, laugh­ing, ri­fling through open clos­ets. “Look at this,” I say, in­cred­u­lous, press­ing a vin­tage hoop­skirt to my waist. Kevin wears a gen­eral’s hat, like a top hat some­one flat­tened. He ad­justs the fit against his fore­head and raises an empty cop­per cup. “I sure am thirsty,” he says, squint­ing into an imag­i­nary sun that is just a cor­ner of the bed­room. “I sure am hun­gry,” he says, rub­bing his belly, and I laugh. This morn­ing—in this house—is the first time I’ve seen Kevin since his med­i­cal leave of ab­sence to re­solve sui­ci­dal ideation. That was the of­fi­cial term. But what hap­pened, when put sim­ply, is Kevin filled a tub with wa­ter. He took the ra­dios, stereos, and speak­ers from the bed­rooms of his room­mates, edged them along the rim, and pre­pared to en­ter. There was a can­dle burn­ing on the bath­room coun­ter­top, and that’s what Evan said was worse—that when he found our mu­tual friend hunched over the tub’s smooth rim, the light it­self was mov­ing, as if wa­ter. “It looked wet along his body,” Evan said. “I thought I was too late.” I was not in Get­tys­burg that se­mes­ter. I was study­ing in a Mediter­ranean town so small and quaint it looked like a clus­ter of tiny seashells from the van­tage point of a nearby moun­tain. I drank wine, ate pucks of soft-ripened cheese, jumped from a rocky cliff that jut­ted out above blue-green wa­ter while men in can­vas hats pulled their lines from the dark­est depths. But in Get­tys­burg, Penn­syl­va­nia, in that dimly lit, eerie bath­room, Evan con­vinced his col­lege room­mate to wrap him­self in a cran­berry towel. He pulled the cords from the nearby socket and then sat be­side him against the tub. They waited like that for twenty min­utes, he said, un­til health of­fi­cials fi­nally ar­rived. “What did you two talk about?” I asked once, be­cause to me, those min­utes seemed im­pos­si­ble—spa­ces re­served for sit­u­a­tions I thought I’d never have to han­dle. “For the most part, we were silent,” Evan said. “We didn’t talk about what hap­pened, if that’s what you want to know.”

Kevin spent the five days that fol­lowed in the Read­ing Hos­pi­tal, three hours east, talk­ing to doc­tors and watch­ing day­time tele­vi­sion in a pair of sweat­pants his mother mailed him. Then he re­turned to our col­lege cam­pus. By spring, he was stand­ing be­side me in the reen­ac­tors’ theme house—where I’d been as­signed for the se­mes­ter—and to­gether, we raised imag­i­nary weapons as we peered off into the dis­tance. “I’ve got the en­emy in my sights,” I said, and Kevin made a fir­ing sound. Out­side, the world was quiet and brightly lit. It had snowed the night be­fore, and the yard looked now like a Christ­mas card—like some­thing some­one ar­ranged care­fully as if to make my mem­ory a lit­tle brighter. Au­tumn was long be­hind us, so we weren’t talk­ing about what hap­pened. We weren’t talk­ing about what he’d done. We were talk­ing in­stead about the war: the thou­sands of men who gave their lives on the bat­tle­fields all around us. Forty-six thou­sand died in the span of three short days, more than any other con­flict on U.S. soil in Amer­i­can his­tory, and wasn’t it fan­tas­tic, we of­ten re­marked, how we at­tended col­lege on that pe­riph­ery? “This town has so much his­tory,” Kevin said, “and no one even cares.” That house, in par­tic­u­lar—and the stu­dents who in­hab­ited it—had a role so in­ter­twined with his­tory it was hard to even imag­ine. To me, it was sim­ply beau­ti­ful: a hun­dred-year-old white Vic­to­rian with slop­ing shut­ters and a bean-red door. But it had also once been an inn, lodg­ing sol­diers and trav­el­ers just af­ter the Civil War was won. Now it was stu­dent hous­ing: three floors of hard­wood lit by large, spa­cious win­dows, the rooms padded with bunk beds, small desks, and tall, wide ar­moires. It was a point of pride for Get­tys­burg Col­lege, men­tioned in brochures and on their web­site and, later, spot­lighted by the New York Times, not be­cause of the his­tory within those walls, but be­cause of the stu­dents who lived be­tween them: men and women who woke early to reen­act the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg on Satur­day morn­ings, dress­ing in vin­tage cloth­ing, pack­ing pock­etknives and hand­ker­chiefs. The women cooked beans in skil­lets while the men lay flat in fields. They had their bat­tle move­ments mem­o­rized—each and ev­ery play—and spent their morn­ings wait­ing. They knew ex­actly when to die. And when at three they won that bat­tle, they car­a­vanned home to­gether, park­ing their van in our shared drive. I did not want to be there, liv­ing in­side their house, but ev­ery other build­ing—theme houses and res­i­den­tial halls alike—were full and there was noth­ing else. There was no other va­cancy but in their home.

And be­cause our his­tory was what mat­tered—or so it read on ev­ery brochure, e-mail and flyer—as long as stu­dents were present to reen­act, Get­tys­burg Col­lege pre­served a place for them to live. In­side, stu­dents could hang hoop­skirts in shared clos­ets and store their mus­kets un­der beds. No one stole their can­teens; no one filled them with vodka ton­ics. They were not in­un­dated with jokes about their ruck­sacks or the pur­pose of their wine­skins. In the house’s only kitchen, they cooked nine­teenth-cen­tury meals. They dried meat along the rooftop, hung their clothes on a line to dry. Sun­days, they baked corn­bread and broad­cast fife mu­sic from ipod speak­ers. I moved in and then grew dis­tant, and when they gath­ered for weekly din­ners—salted meats and red-skin pota­toes—and knocked gen­tly on my door, I only ever turned their of­fers down. “I’ve got a lot of work,” I said, be­cause it seemed best to re­main an out­sider: a strange and dis­tant for­eigner to their world and who they were. It wasn’t that I hated the reen­ac­tors in­di­vid­u­ally, but col­lec­tively, as a whole: their con­ver­sa­tions and their wardrobes and the smells that fol­lowed them home. Like camp­fire, and meat, and smoke. Like kerosene and lighter fluid. Their faces, char­coal-bruised and sweaty, and how they tied their hair back in mousy braids. They even re­fused to use de­odor­ant, cit­ing a need for “au­then­tic odors.” It was sim­ple, at twenty-one, to think I had ev­ery­thing fig­ured out. Emily was still alive, and Kevin, of course, had not yet killed her. The reen­ac­tors were my main con­cern, and I was bet­ter, I be­lieved, for rec­og­niz­ing the fu­til­ity in what they did. No mat­ter how of­ten they reen­acted—no mat­ter how fiercely they wanted change—their out­come was pre­de­ter­mined; they could never es­cape their fate. Those who died would al­ways die, and those granted life would have to live it, and al­ways in the shadow—and the mem­ory—of what had been lost.

For all of my re­sis­tance to their house and who they were, what’s strangest to me now is that in this mem­ory, I am grate­ful. I’m not up­set but, frankly, pleased to be liv­ing in­side their home. It’s the first Satur­day back on cam­pus since my re­turn to the United States and Kevin’s dis­charge from the Read­ing Hos­pi­tal, and the reen­ac­tors are reen­act­ing, fight­ing a war we can­not see, so I tell Kevin to come over to peek through dresser draw­ers and pri­vate clos­ets. “I bet they have the weird­est trin­kets,” I say, “an­tique viewfind­ers and vin­tage hats.”

Kevin is a his­tory ma­jor, and this is pre­cisely why my new place­ment is so con­ve­nient— it’s ex­actly what he needs, I think, to dis­tract him from all that hap­pened. I am twenty-one and have no ex­pe­ri­ence ad­dress­ing is­sues of men­tal ill­ness or sui­ci­dal ideation; it seems be­yond me to even try. So in­stead, I at­tempt dis­trac­tion, say­ing, “We’ll have full rein of the en­tire house.” “You can even be the Union,” I joke. “I’ll go un­abashedly Con­fed­er­ate.” Kevin and I have been friends for years, but still there seems a limit on the type of con­ver­sa­tions we can share. Men­tal ill­ness is dif­fi­cult, heavy, and we’ve only ever talked about movies, mu­sic, the books we’re read­ing and whether we think they’re any good. And of course, we talk about the Civil War—the very thing that brought us to­gether dur­ing the first week of our fresh­men year. Kevin and I were just two of seven hun­dred stu­dents then, bum­bling aim­lessly through nar­row streets, and he pointed up to his­toric build­ings I found only ugly, gray, and crum­bling. “There are bul­let holes in those walls,” he said, or, “Jen­nie Wade died in­side that house.” She was the only civil­ian killed in Get­tys­burg, he ex­plained, struck dead when a stray bul­let pierced her left shoul­der and then shot straight through her heart. It came to rest within her corset—“the de­tail many find most com­pelling”—as she was knead­ing a ball of dough. This was 8:30 in the morn­ing. “Can you imag­ine?” he asked me, and I did my best to try: I saw her stand­ing in a pleated apron, the bul­let splin­ter­ing a pane of glass the way ice cracks be­neath your feet. It was then Kevin told me he’d been ob­sessed with the Civil War since child­hood, since “be­fore I could talk, prob­a­bly,” he said, and that’s why he chose to en­roll at Get­tys­burg. He wanted to be a part of some­thing big. He said, “I want to be liv­ing in a place that mat­ters.” “I just came be­cause they ac­cepted me,” I said. “And it’s pretty, and fa­mil­iar, and close.” It was Kevin’s sense of duty I liked most: how he felt the things he did could mat­ter or carry a weight all their own. At eigh­teen, Kevin showed a sense and ma­tu­rity I wanted for my­self, and some days, af­ter class, I’d fol­low him as if on in­stinct up a fail­ing fire es­cape, past flower-lined of­fice win­dows and crum­bling brick, un­til we reached the black tar rooftop, where he kept lawn chairs be­side the chim­ney. He seemed so se­cure in where we were—its place in his­tory and how it shaped us—and so I didn’t think, when I’m be­ing hon­est, that he was ca­pa­ble of such a big mis­take.

He stood tall along that rooftop, the town—his whole life—ahead of him. And so of course I did not pre­dict that the worst was still to come, or that if given the right sce­nario—if an in­vis­i­ble ill­ness con­tin­ued to progress—a mind could be­come in­op­er­a­ble, synapses fir­ing un­til they broke, and then re­ally any­thing could hap­pen. That Kevin will be proof of who, ex­actly, it could hap­pen to.

I first learned of Kevin’s in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion through an e-mail from Evan that ar­rived in my small French bed­room at eleven thirty at night, and later, I’d blame ev­ery­thing on this dis­tance: how I was not present when it hap­pened. The news was noth­ing more than a few clipped sen­tences be­side a small, red iconic flag, triv­ial in shape, some­thing I could eas­ily delete, and did. Kevin’s not well, Evan wrote. He left cam­pus to re­ceive treat­ment. But I was three thou­sand miles away. The best I could of­fer Kevin was a Hall­mark card in a for­eign lan­guage, a phrase he wouldn’t even un­der­stand. Je suis dé­solé, or some photo of purple flow­ers. It would cross the coun­try and then an ocean to ar­rive in the States piti­fully late. Okay, I wrote back. Let me know as things progress. It seemed strange to me that Kevin was suf­fer­ing so in­tensely, so in­vis­i­bly, so qui­etly, with­out any of us know­ing, but what seemed strangest most of all was what I’d pur­chased for him that evening in the Christ­mas mar­ket in the ro­tonde. I’d spent my night pur­chas­ing choco­lates and packs of note­cards, boxes of al­mond-shaped can­dies called calis­sons, but for my clos­est friends in Get­tys­burg, I’d bought small bars of home­made soap—clunky blocks shaped smooth and round by the hands of per­fect strangers. They were scented with herbs and peels of fruit, and they were cheap and Euro­pean. They seemed an easy gift to buy. Just a small, sim­ple French trin­ket, some­thing my friends would tease me about, but like. But it seemed strange and co­in­ci­den­tal how of all the things to buy, I’d cho­sen the gift of a bath ac­ces­sory. And if I gave that gift to Kevin, I won­dered, would it re­mind him of what he did? Would it re­mind him of that de­sire? Would he know they told me, too? And in that mo­ment when Evan found him—when he saw Kevin’s body stretch­ing out­ward across the tub—was there a sec­ond where he lin­gered? Un­sure how to tell our friend he shouldn’t do it? That life would soon get bet­ter? That all he needed was to wait and see? And af­ter ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened, I won­der now if he’d still say it.

It was the dis­tance, I tell my­self when I need to. That’s re­ally what’s to blame.

But in truth, I never asked how Kevin was do­ing for fear it was an in­ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tion. Even when I re­turned to cam­pus—when I fi­nally fin­ished set­ting up my room—i avoided Kevin for days. When at last I in­vited him over, he must have known how strange I felt; he stood hold­ing a ther­mos of cof­fee, and his gaze was on his shoes. “I got us blue­berry bagels,” he said. “I know you like them best.” Miles away, the reen­ac­tors lay still in snowy grass, so I propped open their heavy door, ges­tur­ing for Kevin to come in­side. “Please,” I said. “Join me,” and I bowed as he passed me by. They had this com­ing, is what I thought—these grown men who spent their morn­ings in bar­ren fields, chil­dren who played make-be­lieve. They were strange, and awk­ward, and oafish, their faces pocked with acne scars, and they smelled like some­thing sour: like dough ris­ing in a bowl. I hated who they were and how I’d been placed right there be­side them, so what else could I do but make fun of the way they lived? I didn’t feel bad pulling apart their dressers, or push­ing their hang­ers from side to side. In the room just off the par­lor, I held up a lacy bon­net, a sweat stain per­me­at­ing its in­ner rim. “Look,” I said to Kevin, pulling it down over my ears. “Be sure to put that back,” he said. “I bet this stuff’s ex­pen­sive.” In the kitchen, I made us cof­fee while Kevin walked slowly down their hall­way, run­ning his fin­gers first over door frames and then each small, bronze rec­tan­gu­lar sign. I could hear over the run­ning wa­ter—“this one charged Sem­i­nary Ridge,” he said; “this one fought at Devil’s Den”— and I leaned out into the hall­way, call­ing back to him. “Each room is ded­i­cated to a key Civil War player,” I said. “You can read which by their plac­ard out­side each door.” And while the house fea­tured the Bu­ford Room and the Hooker Room and the Meade Room and more, I had been gifted the Abra­ham Lin­coln bed­room, eas­ily the nicest in the house. It was gi­gan­tic, with a boxy cor­ner for a desk and two padded bay win­dows. Morn­ing light poured through twin oak trees and shined liq­uid across the floor­boards, and it was tucked qui­etly in the back, with a sep­a­rate en­trance and pri­vate, spa­cious bath­room. “This is so in­cred­i­ble,” Kevin said. “I wanted to live here but never did.” “So pre­tend you do for now,” I said, lead­ing him up their stair­case. He walked be­side me, solemn, quiet, but when we reached Gen­eral Lee’s Head­quar­ters—a cramped, one-per­son al­cove with a slanted ceil­ing and

small, round win­dow—he looked at me ex­pec­tantly, un­sure how ex­actly to pro­ceed. I walked over and turned the knob. From the win­dow, we could see all of Get­tys­burg: the build­ings and streets and shops, and be­yond, the ob­ser­va­tion tow­ers and all those fields. They were white and soft and shin­ing, glit­ter­ing like glass be­neath the sun. “This is great,” he said ex­cit­edly, and I felt sud­denly proud to stand be­side him. He’s not wish­ing for his death, I thought, but the vi­vac­ity of his fu­ture. “The Con­fed­er­ates moved that way,” he said, drag­ging his fin­ger through the clean, clear air. “They moved in dense for­ma­tion un­til they reached the rocks of Devil’s Den.” He said it and I tried to pic­ture them, take in­ter­est the way he did. I pic­tured men and then whole armies, sol­diers hid­den amongst the rocks. I saw clus­ters of young, tan men, clutch­ing ri­fles, their fore­heads hot. I saw them crouch­ing low, their bod­ies hid­ing among the brush, while women waited in clap­board houses, their chil­dren cling­ing to night­gown hems.

The bay­o­net I re­mem­ber plainly. It was a replica, likely plas­tic, and leaned against the far­thest cor­ner, propped up neatly against the wall. When Kevin held it in his hands, his face turned with raw ex­u­ber­ance. “Cool,” he said softly, as if any loud­ness would make it fade. Then he laughed and soon lunged for­ward, pre­tend­ing to stab me in the chest. “You’ve got me,” I said, fall­ing, and when I rose, we ate our bagels. We ex­plored that house for another hour, and then Kevin left and I for­got: about his hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, his de­pres­sion, any re­spon­si­bil­ity I had to him as his friend. I let the days turn into weeks and those weeks turn into months. An en­tire year went by, and we cooked din­ners and went to movies, hung out with friends and drank cheap beer, but never—in all that time—did I ask Kevin how he’d felt, or how it was that he felt now. I kept his bar of soap in a drawer in­side my desk. When the fol­low­ing fall he be­gan to date Emily Sil­ver­stein, I was hap­pi­est for him. She brought him out of him­self, he said. She talked about things that truly mat­tered. “It’s like I com­pletely open up,” he said. “I can tell her any­thing.” I knew pre­cisely what he meant, but again there was that discomfort. Men­tal ill­ness seemed too taboo, too in­ti­mate a con­ver­sa­tion to share be­tween two friends; it seemed some se­cret, pri­vate bur­den, one I—and many oth­ers—thought he could carry on his own.

“That’s good,” I told him, sim­ply, and then I changed the sub­ject to the weather. Kevin and Emily dated off and on for seven months, and then—four weeks be­fore grad­u­a­tion—kevin stabbed her in quick suc­ces­sion twenty-seven times in the neck and up­per torso. It was what doc­tors would later call a “psy­chotic break” or a “dis­as­so­ci­ate episode” in­duced by months of se­vere de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal ideation. He went into a “psy­chotic dis­so­ci­a­tion,” they wrote af­ter hours of ex­ten­sive eval­u­a­tions, and was “not aware of his en­vi­ron­ment.” He sat with her body for twenty to forty min­utes, then phoned the lo­cal po­lice, say­ing he was sorry, he was so sorry, and he was scared, and would they come? “I don’t know what hap­pened,” he said, “but I’ll be wait­ing for you out front.” For the eigh­teen months that fol­lowed, Kevin awaited trial just five miles away from our quiet col­lege, where the view from his only win­dow was of moun­tains we used to hike. I vis­ited only once, driv­ing the three hours af­ter my sum­mer job fold­ing jeans at the lo­cal mall, and in the many months that fol­lowed, I oc­ca­sion­ally ran his name through a search en­gine, glossed the ar­ti­cles for some­thing new, but for the long­est time, there was noth­ing. When fi­nally a plea deal was ac­cepted— sen­tenc­ing Kevin to twenty-seven to fifty years in a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison in lieu of a pub­lic trial—i thought I’d feel a sense of clo­sure. His fu­ture was a jail cell, a small clock ra­dio and a ster­ile basin, but he killed a young woman, and what a self­ish thing to do. It was only af­ter Kevin’s sen­tenc­ing and re­lo­ca­tion—af­ter his case, doc­u­ments be­came pub­lic record—that I drove five states east to Get­tys­burg’s his­toric court­house. And it was then, and only then, that I learned what had re­ally hap­pened. That he was try­ing to take his own life. That Emily had tried to stop him. “She was ex­hausted and run down,” her friends stated to po­lice. “She was the only one talk­ing to Kevin,” or per­haps the only one he felt would truly lis­ten, “but she couldn’t take it any more.” They should take a break, Emily sug­gested, un­til the sit­u­a­tion im­proved. This is when he went into the kitchen to find a knife, a psy­chi­a­trist noted dur­ing an eval­u­a­tion. He states he was not an­gry at Emily and did not have homi­ci­dal urges to­ward her. He said he had only a wish to die. Emily be­gan plead­ing—“kevin, please, Kevin, stop”—and when he raised the blade to his thin, white skin, she lunged for­ward in an at­tempt to grab it.

This is where Kevin’s mem­ory be­comes fuzzy, the psy­chi­a­trist wrote. Kevin re­ported push­ing her back and some­how he wound up on top of her and be­gan stab­bing her in the neck. It hap­pened in­stantly, and af­ter he came to, Kevin tried des­per­ately to re­vive her: first ty­ing fab­ric around her wounds in an at­tempt to al­le­vi­ate the loss of blood, then fi­nally car­ry­ing her to the tub, think­ing at least he could con­tain it. He sat be­side her for twenty min­utes, cry­ing, be­fore fi­nally phon­ing the Get­tys­burg po­lice, and when asked why he didn’t take his own life—if that was re­ally what he meant to do—he told po­lice, very sim­ply, “I didn’t mean to hurt her.” He said, “It was my life I wanted to take.” It’s not a mem­ory, but I can pic­ture it: I see my friend sit­ting at a ta­ble on the night of his ar­rest, his hands folded across his lap, grown men stand­ing all around him. His wrists are bound in hand­cuffs; his eyes are red and raw. It isn’t dif­fi­cult to envi­sion, and there is pa­per­work to back it up: ev­i­dence, and crime scene notes, and not one but three men­tal health eval­u­a­tions that all at­test to what he claims: that he wanted to end his own life, that the pain seemed all at once un­bear­able. It is my pro­fes­sional opin­ion, one reads, that Mr. Scha­ef­fer demon­strated signs of im­paired func­tion­ing prior to and at the time of the of­fense, and there­fore lacked the ca­pac­ity to com­pre­hend the wrong­ful­ness of his ac­tions and con­form his be­hav­iors to the re­quire­ments of the law. Kevin was un­clear as to what he was do­ing or why he was do­ing it, reads another, but I be­lieve he had no thought of ever killing Emily. And fi­nally, there is this: This is truly a tragic case.

I re­play that sun­lit, win­ter mem­ory now, and I’m al­ways look­ing for some­thing new: a de­tail I never no­ticed, a way to make the end­ing change. It’s al­most as if I can will it into ex­is­tence—as if, if I want it bad enough, I have the power to rewrite ev­ery­thing: to turn to Kevin in that up­stairs bed­room and say, “I am some­one you can talk to,” say, “I am here for you.” “I’ve never done that,” I might have said, “but I un­der­stand how some­one could.” How, some­times, life feels hard. How maybe it’s only nor­mal not to want it. “This is some­thing we can talk about,” or, “We don’t have to keep this quiet.” In­stead, I said noth­ing and now I won­der. For the many mo­ments that have es­caped me, I still re­call that morn­ing with ex­ac­ti­tude: the snow, the smell of cof­fee, my friend stand­ing, youth­ful, in­side that hall. And

in a let­ter that would ar­rive many months from that peace­ful morn­ing, Kevin would write to in­quire why we all brushed his sui­cide at­tempt un­der the rug. It’s not like you’re to blame, of course, he wrote, but I sort of felt like a leper— all those months, I couldn’t un­der­stand why you all acted like noth­ing had hap­pened. But each time, I’m only reen­act­ing, at­tempt­ing re­vi­sion, and al­ways fail­ing. I hold up a fray­ing hoop­skirt, pull the vin­tage fab­ric over my jeans. “Look,” I say to Kevin, spin­ning, pre­tend­ing I’m a bal­le­rina. “A Civil War bal­le­rina,” I say, and I hold the fab­ric to my hips and move.

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