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Suicide Seat

“Everything’s white! We’re dead!” Sophia shrieked with glee and I realized then that she wanted to kill somebody. She had already made some sub-par suicide attempts, but this time our bodies would accessorise her death, making it an epic tragedy. She would be the star and we would be the supporting actors.  After all, it was her car. But we were not dead. We had crashed into a snow bank.

We got out of the car feeling as disoriented as if we had landed on the moon and we were not even drunk, yet. There were five of us and we were on our way to a frat party. Sophia wanted to get me laid or killed. I was the only virgin in the group and I had to be sacrificed one way or another. She had even warned me, “You’re getting laid, tonight, no questions asked” as if she would do it herself if she had to.

Sophia did not like me; she had to tolerate me because I was friends with Ingrid, her girl crush. I was afflicted with paralysing shyness, the kid whose senior quote reads Still waters run deep because no one knows what to say about her. I am nothing would be a more definitive statement since at least, it is unequivocal. Sophia resented my presence, there. She resented my very existence. I had managed to slip into their clique under her radar because Ingrid thought I had ‘potential’.

“Fuck!” Sophia yelled, laughing. “Help me for shit’s sake!”  She had a psychotic’s overwrought smile, but her elfin face gave it charm.

All we could think to do was dig away as much snow as we could with our hands, then get back in the car while Sophia hit the gas pedal with all her might. She grunted and strained as if she was in labour; tears ran down her face and her porcelain skin turned acid red. When the car finally moved, everyone screamed with relief and she turned the radio on full blast.

The frat house was a dumpy split-level. Inside, it was nearly pitch black like a haunted ride in a theme park, but absolutely mobbed. I nearly tripped over  bodies on the floor, people who’d either passed out or were necking. I could not really see and I was being dragged along in an eddy of other kids while Ingrid held my hand. Some guy was hitting on her and she teased him.

“You’re really all right.   Better than all right.  You’re choice,” she told him.

He was one of those short meaty guys who compensates for his height by overbuilding his body. Ingrid was a tall, sexy blonde and this guy had attached himself to her like a blind man who’d found a friendly arm.

“You are killing me, babe!”  He told her.  “What do you say we go upstairs?”

“I just want to get my friend here settled first,” she said over the clamour.

“Leave her alone.  She’s a good-looking chick; she’ll get picked up in a minute.”

“You going to be OK?” Ingrid asked me. We had reached a table stocked with booze and she handed me a bottle of Bartles & Jaymes to get me started.

“Sure,” I told her and drank the wine cooler to bolster myself.

She and the guy left. I usually drank until my lips felt numb, then stopped. This was my first time at a frat party, but it did not seem that different from the ones in high school. A song I loved, It’s My Life, was playing on the stereo. I closed my eyes, feeling unreasonably happy as if for that instant, I was adorned in my ideal self like a wedding dress. The song soared, really elevating the cheesy buzz of Bartles and Jaymes.

I felt someone staring at me.  A super attractive guy stood in front of me, grinning.

“You look way out there.”  He said.

He was maybe a foot taller than I was, rangy and fair-haired with slanted, knowing blue eyes.

I inanely giggled.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Rapunzel,” I told him, then burst out laughing.

“Rapunzel?  That is different. Except I always pictured her as a blonde.”

“My name’s not Rapunzel,” I admitted and made a face. “It’s Julie.”

“Julie’s a nice name.”

I had never liked it and my mother confessed calling me that had been a mistake. She had named me after Julie Christie who was the great romantic beauty of her day, but had become more or less a has-been.

“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Romeo?”

I was pathologically timid, but the Bartles and Jaymes was working on me like a magic potion in a fairy tale.

He smiled. “Glenn.”

“You look like a Glenn,” I told him. “I can’t explain why, but you do.”

“How old are you?” he asked and drunk as I was, I did remember to lie and tell him I was eighteen.

When he asked where I went to school, I told him Seton Hall the way we’d all planned beforehand.

“What’s your major?” he asked.


He lifted his eyebrows as if impressed, then swooped down and kissed me.    We went at it as if fused together, and he was a lot gentler and defter than other guys I’d been with, maybe because he was older.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he whispered. That was where the beds were and why they kept bringing girls up there.  I was still determined to save myself for someone I was in love with, someone I imagined I would meet in college and marry, not a guy I picked up at a beer blast.

“I don’t want to,” I told him.

“I’m not going to do anything to you, you don’t want me to,” he promised.   He almost made what he had in mind sound like a physical exam.

“Why can’t we just stay here?” I felt like I was pleading, but he was already carrying me upstairs when another guy came rushing down.

“They’re high school kids, fucking teeny boppers!” this other guy yelled, glaring at me. “Who the hell let them in?”

“What?” Glenn let go of me as if he’d just learned I was rabid.

“One of them puked and shit all over my mattress!”

I knew it was Sophia. She had done that before. Most likely, she was allergic to alcohol because she always had severe reactions. Even after she had purged herself in the way he described, she would just drink some more. She was shameless which I realise now is a sociopathic trait. She couldn’t feel remorse so she never regretted anything.

“She shit on your mattress?”  Glenn looked horrified. “That is the most fucking disgusting thing I ever heard.”

“Get out of here, you little skanks before I kill you with my bare hands!”  This other guy was dangerously irate and my friends and I went squealing into the night like scurrying mice whose lair had been uncovered.

Sophia was already behind the wheel of her Nova, now sober, since evacuating all the booze from her system and she slapped me across the face.

“You didn’t get laid, did you?  We came here to get you laid, but it didn’t happen and we nearly all got murdered!”

“What the hell is the matter with you, Sophia?”  Audrey yelled at her from the back seat. Audrey had been named after Audrey Hepburn, but she was plusher and softer. “Leave her alone!”

“What is she even doing here?” Sophia demanded. “How did she get in my car?  She doesn’t belong here!”

I could not fathom why Sophia hated me so much. It was so visceral I could only surmise we had been enemies in another life. It was as if her clique was her home and I was a room that had been added without her approval. That is why she wanted me demolished.

She started the car with a vengeance and drove at maybe eighty miles an hour though the other girls, Ingrid, Audrey and Grace begged her to slow down.  The radio was blaring How Soon is Now which sounded like a dirge on Judgment Day and she was going so fast we seemed to plunge off the boundaries of the earth as if the world was flat, after all. The whole car lifted off the ground and sailed through space, with glass breaking all around us, then we crashed and I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I felt too weak to even move, but I heard the other girls moaning like animals in a slaughterhouse. The smell of blood was close and rife. Medics put me on a stretcher, then in an ambulance next to Audrey and Ingrid. Audrey was unconscious, but Ingrid was sobbing tremulously as if having a seizure. She had broken her arm and I had suffered a fractured skull. I felt no pain, just profoundly fatigued and thought that if I closed my eyes, I might sink into death.

Audrey did die later in the hospital because of internal bleeding.

Sophia and Grace were unscathed. Grace was shaken up, but as people marvelled afterwards, Sophia ‘walked away without a scratch.’  She literally got out of the totalled car and walked away like an alien from another planet.

I spent a month in the hospital, and then came home to recover. I stayed in bed all day, overcome with mute depression and cried incessantly when I was not asleep. The trauma was so great it had pushed me back into infancy.

My mother kept saying, “It’s a miracle you’re alive. You were sitting in the suicide seat.”  The passenger seat was called ‘the suicide seat’ in her day,

because it was the most dangerous seat in the car, the one from which the rider was most likely to be thrown through the windshield in a collision.

That made me realise why Sophia insisted I sit next to her though she hated the sight of me.

When I returned to school, the teachers and other kids were gently solicitous.   When they asked me questions and I said I did not want to talk about it, they understood. Those who had attended Audrey’s funeral told me it was the saddest day imaginable and I felt lucky not to have been there.  It was worth a fractured skull to miss it.  There was an unspoken subtext as if the accident was really a crime.  Since I had sustained near-fatal injuries, I was a victim, but Grace and even Ingrid were considered accomplices.

Sophia was not in school, anymore.  There was talk that she had had a nervous breakdown and was in an institution run by nuns. I did not care enough to ask Ingrid if it was true, I rarely talked to her, anymore. She and Grace were anathema to me and I loathed Sophia. It is sadly the norm at that age to see others as commodities, but her ice-cold ruthlessness rankled me. She had wanted to kill me with no more feeling than tossing shoes she did not like. Instead, she had killed Audrey.

When you are old, a disaster like that will finish you, but when you are young, the worst day of your life gets buried fast, only the frailest stirrings and echoes linger. There were decades I forgot Sophia ever existed until I saw her on television, being interviewed on a local morning show by a winsome anchor named Wendy. Sophia was poised, honed, and blonde now, a refined version of herself, but her glittery, devouring smile was exactly the same. Credulous people might think that smile reflected a joyful appetite for life, when it was really cannibalistic.

“Now, when did you realize you were psychic?” Wendy asked her.

At first, I thought I heard her say ‘psychotic’ except her tone was too pleasant.

“It crystallized when I was in college,” Sophia said. She still had that formidably clacky voice as if daring you to challenge anything she said, but her diction was

a lot more polished; she’d lost her Jersey accent. “Even as a child, I knew I was different. These feelings would come up that were so powerful they literally made me sick. I suffered from asthma a lot because all this residual emotion was taking my breath and it was just too much to process. Of course, I did not know I was an empath and that if someone was sad or upset, I could sense that and even know the cause. Then when I was in college, it reached a whole other level where I was even channelling the thoughts and feelings of people who’d passed away.”

Wendy looked appropriately fascinated.

“Like right now,” Sophia said, “I see an older woman right above your head who’s telling me she’s your grandmother. Your father’s mother. You were extremely close.”

Wendy shrugged. “I never knew my father’s mother. She died before I was born.”

“Exactly. That’s why this bond is so strong. Close relatives who pass away before we are born become our guides in life like guardian angels. You were named for her, weren’t you?”

Wendy looked surprised. “My middle name. Jeannette.”

“She’s rocking a baby in her arms,” Sophia said. “Are you expecting or did you just have a child?”

“We – we’re trying,” Wendy confessed on the air.

“Well, it’s going to happen,” Sophia said, brusquely upbeat. “That’s what your grandmother wants me to tell you. She was a very strong-willed woman. I mean this lady is no shrinking violet. She was yelling ‘Tell her! Tell her!’ in my ear-“

Wendy became a little overwhelmed, fanning herself with her right hand while announcing a commercial break.

When she returned, she asked Sophia if she felt ‘morally okay’ with charging people money for access to her ‘gift’ and Sophia got visibly miffed.

“Look. I invest enormous time and energy in my work,” she said, impatiently.  “It’s absolutely draining, emotionally, physically, and mentally. Doctors charge for their efforts the same as artists or plumbers or anyone else and I feel absolutely no different than they do.”

The hostess meekly nodded. “Sophia, I’ve been totally blown away, here. I mean, I’m a wreck,” she laughed helplessly, “For those interested, Sophia Hagen charges two hundred dollars an hour for a private reading, but you can get tickets to one of her public events for seventy-five dollars. You can find out all the details on her website-”

I googled her name. Her site featured an airbrushed portrait that made her look like a movie star.

Sophia Hagen – Famous best-selling author, medium, psychic, and spiritual mentor.

Sophia invites you to join her Inner Circle:

‘Making contact with loved ones who’ve passed is only the beginning to a new spiritual lifestyle that is hidden from most people. Let me lead you to a realm where angels and guides will teach you why you’re here, what exactly your purpose is, and present you with a design for living that will aid you in surpassing your greatest expectations. Let me help you claim your joy. Dream your wildest dreams and the Divine Source will take care of the rest.’

She lived in California now, but was appearing in Atlantic City in a week, at an event that was described as a ‘public reading’ involving ‘messages from the other side.’

There were reams of articles about her online, many unflattering, denouncing her as a fraud, a con, and even a lunatic. Still, she had an array of celebrity clients and she had even been the subject of a drama series on Lifetime.

Out of pure ennui, I booked a ticket online. I was living alone and prone to a lot of brooding, then. My daughter, Amanda, was spending the summer with my

ex-husband in Florida and I’d just broken up with a man. I taught history at a local high school, but the new term did not start for another month.

I rarely if ever thought about the accident, but since seeing Sophia, I could not think about anything else. I even managed to retrieve a picture of Audrey online and it was a shock to see how young she had been. I was astonished that I had never considered her family’s grief, but youth’s great luxury is unabashed self-absorption. And at that time, my parents had adamantly insisted I was not to dwell on what happened at all, to put it behind me and get on with the wonderful future that lay ahead like acres and acres of fecund land.

Sophia’s appearance was at the Sheraton Atlantic City hotel, a two-hour drive from my house. The event started at seven that night and it was packed when I got there though the amphitheatre was smaller than I had imagined. I had envisioned a stadium judging from the price of the tickets and the glitzy hotel, but this was more like a school auditorium. The audience were mostly women.  Some men were present, but seemed like escorts, strictly there for moral support.

There was a buzzing tension that dissipated when Sophia made her appearance onstage.  She had the commercial look of a chic matron on a soap opera with varnished hair, makeup and nails and she was bathed in a soft pink light. Everyone applauded and some even stood up like fans or groupies. Maybe they were paid-up members of the ‘inner circle’ advertised on her website.

“For those of you who’ve never seen me before, I’m going to tell you right now, spirits will only speak to you if they know you’re ready to hear them. Many people think they want to contact loved ones who have passed when they do not want that at all. Do you understand?  I’m just telling you this so you won’t be disappointed.” She spoke in a disarming rush of words, completely self-possessed. “I can tell you the spirits are as anxious as you are.  They have been yelling out names at me all afternoon – either theirs or yours.  I’m hearing Joan, Robert, Danielle, Jimmy, Nicolas, Charles, Ben, Jesse, Michelle, Katherine.”

There were oohs of recognition from the audience and the girl sitting next to me looked as alert as a pointer on the scent of a bird.

“I also want you to know that if I seem flustered or distracted at times, it’s because handling the spirits is like trying to cope with a roomful of toddlers who all want my attention. Some of them do not even talk, they just gesture.  Like right now, I’m seeing a man do this…“ she threw her head back and put an imaginary bottle to her lips as if drinking.  “Excuse the indelicate way I’m going to put this, but do any of you have a loved one who passed who was alcoholic?”

Some people in the audience laughed, but others got to their feet or raised their hands. One obese woman in a flannel shirt and jeans waved desperately.   Sophia singled her out like a teacher calling on an anxious student.

“Was this man your husband? “ Sophia asked.

“My brother-“

“Right.  A young man, but older than you are.”

“Yes. “

“I’m seeing the initial J- “

I was startled, thinking Sophia might be referring to me and even felt myself flush.

“Was his name, Joe, Jim, Jack, Jeff -“

The woman shook her head, helplessly.

“I keep seeing J,” Sophia insisted.  “Now, think hard – a man with the initial J.”

That seemed to cancel me out.

“This is very important,” Sophia said, again.

The woman’s large, doughy face scrunched in concentration, and a girl next to her, maybe her daughter, whispered in her ear.

“I had a cousin named John,” she said, “but he died fifteen years ago.

“Yes!”  Sophia said triumphantly.  “He and your brother are extremely close, now. He is your brother’s guide on the other side. Your brother had a heart attack, right?  I am feeling a sensation right here-“

She put her hand to her chest.

“He was diabetic.”

“Well, that affected his heart,” Sophia said and the woman nodded.

“These diseases are all linked together,” Sophia was glib as if any inaccuracies were minor, petty details. “Your brother wants you to know that he’s sorry for any pain he ever caused. Especially to your parents. He wants you to know he loves you very, very much-“

The woman was blubbering.

“There are other things he has to tell you, but I’d prefer to let you know in private, after the show.” It seemed that Sophia was inviting her to join the ‘inner circle’. She flashed her manically radiant smile.

“Now, has anyone lost a loved one to cancer? I feel it in my stomach,” she lightly touched her abdomen, “Colon cancer or pancreatic cancer?”

Again, more hands were raised. It went on like this all night.  Considering what she charged, she struck me as a pretty shoddy psychic, but she dazzled the crowd. She had glamour coupled with a confidence that stemmed from disdain for these people. She could read their faces like Rorschach tests then convince them she knew the truth of their lives better than they did. If one of them disputed what she said, she curtly told her subject to ‘own it’ or ‘explore it’ or ‘I only repeat what I’m being told.”

“Has anyone here lost a child?” she asked at one point and the climate of the room became heavy.

Some raised their hands like diffident volunteers who did not want to be called on. She selected a small woman in the front row who had her back to me.

“Your child doesn’t seem to want to tell me what happened,” Sophia softly admitted.

The woman’s voice was barely audible. “She was in a car accident.”

“Now, I know why she didn’t tell me. She was texting,” Sophia said. “She’s showing me that with her fingers. She is afraid you would be angry if you knew“

The woman was silent.

“She loved the ocean, didn’t she?” Sophia said. “That’s where I see her, now. At the beach.”

I felt unbridled disgust. It was New Jersey; everyone loved the ocean. If you were raised here, being near the shore was a primal urge.

People were openly weeping. The room was fetidly humid with tears and I was getting a headache. There was no air conditioning, probably on purpose, and it was so stifling, it began to feel as close as it did in the car that night.

I stood up to go and Sophia eyed me, from the stage. She was still talking to her subject, but she shot me a glare for walking out on her. I do not think she knew who I was. She probably did not remember Audrey either or any of her other victims, living or dead.

Outside, the ocean air was cool and porous. Before going to my car, I took my sandals off and walked on the beach. It occurred to me how the people you regret ever meeting are the ones who cost the most to know. I waded in the water and the waves felt like gel.

                                         ROBIN VIGFUSSON                                      

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