You can find this, and other memories of Jill, on The Southeast Review‘s memorial site for Jill, here.
My Friend, Jill Caputo
I remember Jill asking me once, in a moment of insecurity, if I thought she was a good writer. I said, yes, without a doubt. She asked again, stressing honesty. She wanted to really believe me when I said it. Though I remember her so much for being tough—ballsy, even—there was a fragility to her that surfaced quickly and quietly. I recognized that need to know; I barely had enough courage to voice my own.
She was so persistent that day that I ran out of things to say.
“Jill, do you think I’m a good writer?” I asked. I was trying to make a point about belief—if I believed her, she should believe me—expecting her to answer immediately, yes, of course.
She replied, exasperated in the moment, “I haven’t really read enough of your work!”
Honest to a fault, that was Jill. But it was something to lighten the mood, and we both laughed. As a writer, I am selfish; we all are. I try to keep it secret. It has taken me too long to write this, the document open and saving on my computer for months. The truth—the trouble—is that I miss my friend. I want to hear her voice on the phone. I have sat down to write this many times and each time it becomes selfish. It is me writing about grief, about how I feel in her absence. The story quickly becomes about my sadness, my loss. I want to write, instead, about giggling.
Spending time with Jill meant lots of giggling. Lonely my first year of graduate school, meeting Jill was a godsend. We talked about what it was like to be in the writing program (who do you think is the cutest? she asked) and celebrity gossip and my weakness for Jude Law movies. We talked about who was published, and how it broke our selfish hearts to watch our colleagues succeed. We agreed that Robert Olen Butler was astounding in his brilliance, and once at a party she got fluttery when Mark Winegardner lifted her up the porch steps, Jill and the wheelchair effortlessly in three stairs.
Jill was fashionably dressed, always. She loved Betsey Johnson and sparkly eye shadows and had a pile of shoes she didn’t wear. She was funny—very—even though she didn’t always mean to be. That’s just what happens when someone is true and honest and completely frank, like Jill. She laughed a lot, and sometimes quite inappropriately, which was always my favorite thing about her.
Spending time with Jill meant understanding that there were too many places in town that presented impassable obstacles for Jill’s wheels. Small things, like a couple of stairs. And so with our friend Mariann we went to movies at the Miracle 5 often. Though there was a special space for a wheelchair at the end of one row, Jill preferred to sit in a theatre seat instead. We’d wheel her empty chair to the back of the theater and she’d settle in with her giant soda and M&Ms, for two hours watching the film the same as everyone else.
On the phone the other day, Mariann told me that she could hear Jill’s voice sometimes, responding to something she’d said, or laughing at a joke. It has been months, but even now it is hard. I think of all the clichés of death. It’s not fair. She was wonderful. She had so much life ahead of her, so many words to write.
The worst part about this is that I only learned of Jill’s death in December. I was 3,000 miles away and more than three months late. I hate to write that sentence because it reveals the truth, that I had let so much time go by without calling, that I had thought I haven’t heard from Jill lately and not picked up the phone, that I had been a terrible friend in those last months of our friendship. I will think of myself this way forever. There is no repair for it, no way back to the last conversation we would have had. In the weeks where I did not know, the months, my ignorant bliss was thinking she would call soon, and I would be happy to hear from her. I want to go back to this.
I think about the first and last times I saw her.
The first time: sitting in Bob Butler’s screenwriting class waiting for it to start, a whirring in the hallway, the sound of wheels on carpet moving fast, and a voice calling, Would you hold that door? and then Jill, in her purple wheelchair, her purse and soda and pencil case, zooming to a stop at the front of the room. In class she asked the questions that everyone else wanted to but didn’t, and some questions that seemingly appeared out of thin air. Sometimes she asked questions she hadn’t quite figured how to ask before starting to ask them, stringing along words in an endless thread, confusing the one being questioned and also herself, finally laughing and saying oh, nevermind.
The question was her favorite social tool. She loved to ask couples when they were getting married. Loved to ask, “Do you love her?” and then smile in excitement at the answer. Only days after my wedding she began to ask, “When are you going to have babies?” Once, when our friend Tom Cooper volunteered to help lift her up the steps to my apartment building, she declined, and asked, innocently, “Where’d you get that shirt, Tom? American Eagle?”
The last time I saw her: smiling and fashionable at dinner downtown, a light sweater thrown over her shoulders, helping me celebrate the successful defense of my thesis. It was dark and so I walked her halfway home, past the line of fraternity houses on College Avenue, stupidly thinking there might be frat boys causing trouble, stupidly thinking that I would be able to defend us both. Of course, Jill never needed protecting in that way. She was a firecracker, a little voice with big impact. But she could get hurt, too. Like any of us, the occasional surprise of an insensitive comment threw her off balance. She was embarrassed by the fact that she had, once or twice, cried in class. I think that I said to her it doesn’t matter, everyone understands, but I should have said what I really felt, which was, to me, her tears were admirable. In MFA programs we’re told we have to be tough to handle rejection. But writing is hard; I feel it all the time. If Jill felt like crying, she cried. She was never going to give up—that’s the danger, not the tears—and didn’t consider the idea of not writing. She felt what she felt, then recovered. I want to learn from that. I want to feel what I feel.
I have a silly memory of her that pops into my head more frequently than she probably would have liked; the time at a restaurant she suspected she was being skimped shrimp on her pasta dish and got in a lengthy discussion with the waiter about how many shrimp were in a pound. Something about the way she said “three shrimp?!” makes me smile, and always has. Now she would say, That’s what you remember about me, Cassie? Shrimp?!
Mariann says that she sometimes pretends Jill is on vacation. I pretend we are still suspended, out of touch. She will call any day. I will get to hear her voice, I will get to hear her giggle.
I’m afraid I’m not doing it right. Not the grieving, but this—here—the writing. She might not have agreed with everything I’ve said. She’d say there’s too much Jude Law, too many unimportant stories. I’m afraid I’ve made her too giggly. Again, she’d say, Shrimp?! But I can’t forget the memory, her incredulous look.
Is this friendship after death? Remembering such inane details, even the smallest things, the little holes that cannot be filled again. A friend who sends back a plate of food, who has a pile of shoes to donate to Goodwill, hardly worn. A friend who laughs about the name the company has given to the color of her wheelchair: Razzledazzle.
Because there was more to her than that. Obviously so much more. She could write lines about the body that would make me jealous I hadn’t written them myself. She somehow knew to call just when I was getting discouraged with my work, knew when I needed someone’s voice to say, keep going. And once, you can never give up.
I have forgotten to include the things that made her real—the depth of her feelings, how she sometimes fell asleep in class, her frustrations with those in the program who didn’t take her seriously, her desire to be published, to kiss a boy. And I may have forgotten more, too, that I don’t even know to include. Or I may have altered things to fit. I may have tried too hard.
These last few years our friendship existed over phone calls, emails, sending chapters or entire novels, being the you can do it for the other, being the I love your work for the other. Hers is an absence I feel keenly. I don’t think I can fit anyone else into that spot.
I worry I am not finding all the right words for her now. She would have done it better for me. She wrote with less fear than I; she did not always endear her reader to her subject. She was much more perceptive of her characters and their faults. Jill’s narrators were fierce, furious. She revealed their selfishness without hesitation. She let them behave badly, and they did: the main character of her novel had an affinity for ramming people with her wheelchair (which Jill had also done to me once in the hallway of the Williams Building.) She began one story with a bridesmaid bothered by a “rogue pubic hair” under her satin dress. Would she hate me for remembering that line above all others? There is another line I remember, touching and delicate, where her main character holds a business card for a wheelchair-accessible cab company: Felix Gutterson, the card says. “Premier Wheelchair Taxi Service.” And underneath it, to the right, is an imprint of a handicapped icon. I run my fingers over it, feel the indentation, slightly raised and special, almost like Braille.
This year one of her stories will be published in the Bellevue Literary Review. A story titled, “Winston Speaks,” awarded an honorable mention by Andre Dubus III for the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. It will be Jill’s first published story. A small asterisk on their website reads, Sadly, we discovered that Jill Caputo passed away in August 2010.
I’ve asked Mariann, did she know? I want to believe in that moment, the email informing her of the win, the surge of pride, the glee of accomplishment. Mariann says we could ask her sister, who is now in possession of Jill’s hard drive, her emails, the entirety of her words and those anyone else had written to her. I’ve held back from doing so, knowing there is a high probability she wasn’t notified in time. The flat face of evidence: she never mentioned it to Mariann, she never called me with the news. I’d rather believe the version where she knew, just like I’d rather believe in the idea she died on impact, that there were no moments of fear, and no moments of pain. Some pieces of the puzzle you can’t pursue.
I’ve moved six times in the last 13 years; I make friends slowly, I find myself often lonely. The friends I have made are now scattered around this country, away from me. After Jill’s death I feel the impulse to gather them up—however I am able—in my arms like children and whisper to the tops of their heads, Are you okay? Are you happy?
If I finish writing this, I’ll stop having the document titled “Jill” open on my screen. If I finish writing this there will be an end to the page. A good friend. A firecracker. Someone who cared. I can’t write everything about her. I’ll have to admit defeat.
I have led myself into a trap, thinking of what the well-meaning call “the important things in life.” Jill would have underlined this and written in the margin be more specific. Good writers don’t let one another get away with cliché.
Jill told me once that when she was younger she could sit cross-legged in her chair. I have a distinct image of that—a curly-headed, giggly girl, bony-knees and big smile. And another image, of her leading a panel at AWP in Atlanta, confident and professional, when the night before we had snacked on chicken strips in the hotel restaurant and she confessed, I’m nervous.
Jill was dear to me; I miss her. My friend, my colleague of words.