My dead friend Hilde was a pathological liar. I have two dead friends who haunt me, both of whom died within the past four years, and both of whom coincidentally lied so easily that intimacy with them was almost like what you feel with a deeply intense novel you love and can’t look away from but that requires a constant suspension of disbelief. Hilde died first, though I admit her death was all but forgotten soon afterward in my firestorm of grief for my second dead friend. Only lately have I been thinking about Hilde again, slowly, in fits and starts of memory, trying to untangle the knot of my complicity. My complicity makes it sound like I had more centrality than I really did, and yet there’s truth there too.
Pathological liars often go by several names, and true to form, “Hilde” is just an alias. Since before I even met her, in our junior year of high school, she had been giving the name Hildegard Swineherd to strange guys who hit on her; the less attractive the boy or man, the more likely he was to be told, “Call me Hilde.” Hilde was no head-turner herself or anything (nor, for that matter, was I, or our other best friend, Alicia)—she was a petite, pretty-in-a-plain-way girl with the kind of preternaturally pale skin that made it fortunate that it was the late ’80s and goth was popular in Chicago. No matter how much eyeliner she put on or what color she dyed her hair or how thrift-store her clothing was, no matter even that she lived under an “L” track with her single mother in a ramshackle, crumbly kind of house that seemed uneven, Hilde always looked somehow cleaner than the rest of us, her WASPy skin and blue eyes neatly transferable to the suburbs. Collectively, she, Alicia, and I had the reckless combination, common in young girls, of arrogance and insecurity, and sometimes it made us cruel. One of our favorite pastimes was to have “Pig of the Night” contests where we competed over which of us could chat up the most repulsive guy at the bar—I think ostensibly the winner got free drinks, but we rarely paid for our drinks anyway (do any underage girls pay for drinks?) and mainly we did this as a blood sport. Hilde always won Pig of the Night. She had a stronger stomach for creepy people than I did. The men I brought back were usually of a Richie Cunningham nerdy variety—the sort of guy my friends would think was dorky but that I secretly kind of liked. Hilde could sniff out a train wreck of a man a mile away. She was a magnetic force for desperation and misanthropy in equal measures.
From the first, she told strange lies that seemed to have no purpose. Once, she gave us to understand that the FBI had come to her house during dinner and confiscated her family’s Fiestaware because it was radioactive. When I relayed this to my parents, they nearly died of simultaneous coronaries laughing. They couldn’t believe I had been taken in by such a tale. But I was 16; what did I know of the FBI or radioactive dishware? Hilde told us that her father was decadently affluent, some vaguely royal blood—a count in his recent lineage, maybe?—and Spanish. She had a Spanish last name, though her mother was garden-variety white trash, and I don’t know if it makes sense to say that we believed her even though we knew she was lying. Her lies were so without consequence that they seemed like small favors doled out to her friends, told for our benefit, and there was no cause to refuse them. No matter when you ran into her, Hilde had an anecdote to tell about how she had just five minutes ago mortified herself in front of people; she was like an oral version of The Larry David Show. Alicia and I suspected she was a lesbian, although (like most high school lesbians, I suppose) she slept with guys. In fact, it was her complete nonchalance about sex that made us think she might be gay: she was not sufficiently overwrought about her hook-ups, she didn’t make us drive by the houses of her crushes late at night when we were all drunk to see if a bedroom light was on or a car was parked outside. Hilde and I often shared guys, though I don’t mean at the same time (well, we had one foursome, with a guy who had a penis so gargantuan that Alicia and I had to call her in to see it). She even lost her virginity to a guy who had been hitting on me—he always hit on me, although I was always his second choice, after our more beautiful friend Julie rejected him—and then hit on Hilde after my rejection. When I told him, this man named Billy who was only 22 or 23 but who had his own apartment—one room lined with mattresses and called “The Pit” where everyone fooled around—that I wasn’t going to make out with him, he said, “If you don’t, I’m going to go fuck your friend over there,” and pointed at Hilde. I laughed at him and said, “Knock yourself out.” It never occurred to me that Hilde would go for it, and when, moments later, she was heading with Billy to his bedroom, I tried to block the doorway with my half-anorexic, floppily drunk body to talk her out of it and berate Billy for being a parasitic asshole. Hilde, though, didn’t want to be talked out of it, and I still had no intentions of making out with Billy, so in the end I had to get out of the doorway.
Things happened. One afternoon, Hilde blew Alicia’s boyfriend for no apparent reason. Well, Alicia’s boyfriend was—it is now clear—not exactly her boyfriend, but rather a slightly older guy she was obsessed with who sometimes dated her when he couldn’t score somebody he liked more, or when Dave, his better-looking best friend, was too busy to go out and pick up women together. And yet even if taken for what he was, clearly Alicia was not delighted to learn his cock had been in her best friend’s mouth. There were small cracks in the foundation but none of the elaborate wars common among high school girls—we were the sort of friends who ultimately chose one another over transient guys, and we graduated still close and spent a summer tooling around to thrift stores and going to beach parties and dancing on platforms in clubs before scattering to different colleges. Sometime during our freshman year at college, Hilde stopped writing, calling, visiting. Like the FBI showing up at her door, she had an implausible tale as to why, claiming that her friendship with Alicia and me had caused her to “gain weight” because we always went to Wag’s to eat after drinking late at night. She claimed she needed to stay away from us because we had gotten her fat. The claim was so patently preposterous that at first it was almost like one of her old jokes. But she stayed away. As though Alicia and I, who did not live in the same state anymore, would show up at Urbana-Champaign and take her hostage to Wag’s. Just like that, she disappeared, and though people disappeared rapidly during that period of life—though we were losing people like change through a hole in our pockets, really—Hilde was the one we truly missed and talked about for years.
Of course, you know the punch line to that story already, right? You’ve had a friend like this too, one who inexplicably disappears at age 18 or 19. Or maybe you were that friend. Of course it turned out that, in reality, Hilde had become an anorexic drug addict during her first year of college. She was too ashamed to be around her old friends, and so she made up a story, as she always did, but we wouldn’t know that until later, so we let her fall out of our pockets. We lived hours away in an era before texting and Facebook and email and even cell phones: what choice did we really have?
I didn’t see Hilde again until my 10-year high school reunion. I had gone hoping to see her, and there she was. Instead of goth attire, the 28-year-old Hilde was dressed like a church lady, with a conservative floral dress and her naturally blond hair in a bun. She wore no makeup and her voice had gotten softer. She told me that she had dropped out of college to tend to her sick grandfather, whom she was sure I remembered (I did not, but okay), and that she had been desperately lonely and had caregiver fatigue and had ended up married to a Czech Jehovah’s Witness. She now lived in the former Czech Republic and was only in town for the reunion. She also told me that the reason she had held such a blasé attitude toward sex back then was that she had been so desperately in love with our best guy friend, Tom, that she had no room in her heart for any other men but kept trying to numb her pain with sex. When she found out that Tom—still like a brother to me—had come out of the closet maybe six months after she’d blown us off for going to Wag’s and was now engaged to a man, she seemed a cross between relieved and devastated, reeling as though she’d been struck. I talked with her all night, ignoring everyone else at the reunion. We exchanged addresses, and I wrote her immediately.
You know already, of course, that I never heard back.
About a year later, I ran into Alicia’s ex-boyfriend, and he told me he’d seen Hilde maybe a month after that reunion, dressed in punk rock attire at a fast food restaurant in Chicago. It had all been a lie, apparently. I imagined her shopping for her church lady dress, practicing her soft voice on some new friends. I imagined her procuring some convincing-looking Czech address. Was the story about loving Tom a lie, too? Strangely, Alicia and I were not affronted at having been taken in by Hilde. You might even say we enjoyed it. What a lunatic she was! We felt a keen satisfaction in the bizarre nature of it all—this freaky closure to what had been an unfinished story. Who orchestrates such an elaborate scheme just to pretend to be a Jehovah’s Witness at her high school reunion? It was priceless. Vintage Hilde.
But closure isn’t any more fixed than anything else. Twelve years later, when Hilde and I reunited for the last time, she would pish-posh that version of events. She had divorced her Czech husband shortly after the reunion, she said, and had come home to live with her mother, that was all. It hadn’t been a month later that Alicia’s ex had seen her; it was several months at least. Maybe she was telling the truth. We were 40 now. I was married with three children, and Hilde was on her second divorce, this one from a Moroccan man with whom she claimed to have lived overseas too, though he, like she, had a complex history of addiction and their relationship had been a hot mess. She had to use a fake name on Facebook because he was stalking her—or no, wait, maybe I’m getting the story wrong now. Maybe it was that she had to close her account on Facebook because some other man was stalking her, later. Maybe the Moroccan husband was only an addict, not a stalker. She had almost died several times during their marriage, and she described Moroccan hospitals to me in intricate detail I would later use in a novel. She also began relaying to me years of horror stories about her old devirginizer, Billy—a statutory rapist by my adult definition—whom she claimed to have continued to see clandestinely beyond high school and throughout college. She told tales of emotional abuse and threats and depicted herself as a woman who held herself without worth and kept going back for more out of loneliness, desperation, fear, and that strange brand of pity that sometimes afflicts women for the men who terrorize them. I’d had friends throughout college and into my 20s who still knew Billy, yet I had never heard Hilde’s name; no one had ever seen her. Of course that proved nothing since their affair had allegedly been a secret. With Hilde it was hard to be sure what was real, but clearly she had suffered—perhaps at Billy’s hands, or perhaps “Billy” was just a name I recognized, through whom she could make her pain translatable into a language I would understand.
We exchanged a series of emails that I can only describe as “passionate,” though they were not about sex or desire. Rather, they were deeply confessional, long and rambling, full of regrets and self-analysis on both ends, full of declarations of how glad we were to be back in touch, and plans to meet up soon. At times I reminded myself that I couldn’t necessarily believe anything she said, and yet—as had always been the case—I also believed everything she said. She was a walking embodiment of the distinction many writers make between “facts” and “emotional truths.” I had no idea if she had ever been to Morocco or married a Jehovah’s Witness or if the FBI had come to her door. I had no idea if she had nursed her dying grandfather. But I did believe fully that she had been an addict, and that it had ravaged her health, which was now painfully fragile. She suffered from the inability to recall words, from abdominal troubles so severe that she could tolerate almost no foods, from seizures brought on by medications she needed for her brain (or was it that she needed medication for seizures, and the medication worsened her brain problems?), and heart troubles from anorexia and cocaine. Were all of these conditions completely physical in nature, or were some merely psychological? I have no idea, but it didn’t matter to me then, nor does it now. When we met in person, Hilde looked 60 years old and ill. It was nothing a church lady dress or different hairstyle could achieve through theater. Her speech and even facial expressions were impacted in ways so profound that it hurt to be near her, she struggled so to act normally. She lived in a mildewy basement and was underemployed—because I may have forgotten to say that Hilde was brilliant, in all Advanced Placement classes at our selective high school and once so sharp and fast we all jumped hurdles to keep up with her wit—doing part-time clerical work where they were tolerant of how often she called in sick.
I like to think of myself as a nurturing person. The truth is, though, that the new Hilde was so high-maintenance she made me feel like I was living on adrenaline shots. I had three kids under the age of 10 and ailing elderly parents who lived downstairs. My second book was coming out and I taught at two universities and held two editorships. I had a large circle of friends, both locally, like Alicia and Tom, and all over the country in my literary tribe; I had a marriage that had to somehow accommodate all of these other demands. Meanwhile, Hilde had very little. In stark opposition to our 10-year reunion, she didn’t want to tell me strange stories and then disappear. She wanted to get together all the time. She wanted to babysit my children, even though she was clearly so debilitated and seizure-ridden that there was no way on earth she could have handled being left in charge of them. She wrote me volumes of letters unburdening her soul, her stories almost certainly a hybrid of fiction and reality, in which neighbor men came through her window for an unannounced afternoon of wild sex, when in fact she was so frail it seemed the wind could crack her. She was fascinating but completely exhausting.
Around this time, another high school friend with whom I had remained close in all the elapsed time fell into a clinical depression after a terminated pregnancy and breakup, and she desperately needed me. In truth, her high maintenance made Hilde’s look mild, but with all of my other obligations, I felt an impetus to choose which of them I could allow to suck my blood. And so, after having led Hilde on more terribly than I probably ever have a man, after having allowed her to believe we were close—intimate again—I found myself plagued by a wild desire to retreat. I made up excuses not to see her. I forgot to answer emails. My other depressed friend was often at my house, weeping at my kitchen table, taking my benzos, drinking my Jameson, making my children uneasy, but she really had often babysat these children; she had helped me throw countless parties at this house and spread food on and taken it away from this kitchen table; she had been at my wedding and visited me in every country and state I’d ever lived in, and like family, she had a right. I forgot Hilde. I wished her well, of course, but I simply stopped thinking of her. It was more than I could do.
The last time I saw Hilde, I was with my other depressed friend at Kopi, my favorite café in Chicago. My friend was weepy and shaky but had managed a whole day out, and suddenly, there was Hilde. Hilde was at the café with her regular lover, a man about whom she had told me. He was a great deal older and possessive and she did not love him, but he often helped her with money and he wanted to marry her, so it was hard to extricate herself. My friend and I went to Hilde’s table and chatted, and as it had been when I’d last seen her, she had difficulty with word recall and her face suffered from strange tics and she said she had been so sick she’d been unable to go to work. She was thin enough that hospitalization would not have seemed unreasonable. When we left Kopi, to my depressed friend’s credit, she said, “Holy shit, I thought I had problems,” and in fact, that was near the end of her depression, though probably the two things were not related. Shortly after that, the Paxil would kick in, and she would go on Match.com and meet the man who would become her fiancé, and she would become happier and more vibrant than I had ever seen her. Two years after that, she would be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and be dead within four months. Of course we knew nothing of that then, only that leaving Kopi we were both profoundly grateful not to be Hilde.
I did not learn about Hilde’s death for about six months after it occurred. Alicia saw it on Facebook because Hilde’s sister had access to Hilde’s old page, which Hilde had shut down when she was being stalked, and the sister had reactivated it. I immediately emailed another friend of Hilde’s, one who had never run away gasping for breath, and found out that Hilde’s health had continued to decline, and she had been put on even stronger medications that numbed her brain further and gave her more abdominal distress. Her apartment had become so overrun with mold that she was sick from it, but even though her older lover begged her to move in with him, she would not. Maybe she had learned that desperation only gave way to more desperation: from Billy, from the Czech husband, from the second marriage in Morocco… maybe not one of those things was simply a twisted fairy tale. Or if they were, she had learned from something else, something more unspeakable that made those stories seem palatable stand-ins. In the days leading up to her death, she had become more and more despondent about her new pills, about her moldy basement quarters, but especially about how alone she was. “I have no one,” she kept telling her lover, according to this mutual friend. It wasn’t true, of course. She had the lover and didn’t want him. She had the friend who told me this story. She had family who lived in town. What she meant was, of course, what most people mean when they say such a thing, which is, I don’t have anybody I want to have. Was I someone Hilde wanted to have? It’s impossible to say, really. She had abandoned our friendship so many times that even if I had not blown her off, there is no saying whether she’d have stuck around. I also know enough people who have struggled with suicidal depression to understand that sometimes even your own children or the love of your life cannot “save” you from despair that comes down like a blackout curtain. My role in Hilde’s life could never have been crucial enough to change the equation of her struggles. I could not cure her illnesses; I could not buy her a house. I know all this—of course I know.
One day, she rented a car and drove to some small town. If the town held any significance in her life, it is not known to me, and wasn’t to the friend who told me about it. The weather was horrible, predictably so; she died in late January, just as it is as I’m typing this, four years later, while a blizzard rages outside. On the way back to Chicago (though are the dying ever on their “way back” from anywhere?) she drove her car across the dividing lines of the highway into an oncoming truck and was killed instantly. The other driver survived, but it’s probably safe to guess I’m not the only one thinking of this incident on snowy nights.
Suicide is always a mystery. But was Hilde’s death even a suicide? She had habitual seizures. It’s impossible to say. Like every other “fact” of her life, all that is left is the emotional truth: she felt alone, with little reason to live. Her car went across a line and she was not alive anymore, but the correlation between the emotional truth and the actions of her death are unclear. She was a recovering addict—why, if she wanted to die, would she endanger another life instead of just checking out with pills? But such questions are always foolish. Why does a father shoot himself in the head and leave his children to find him instead of renting a car in some obscure town and driving into the truck of a stranger? There is never an answer to these kinds of whys.
Alicia and I talked for a while about visiting the grave, but we never went. Neither Hilde nor we believed graves to be the location of anything sentient. Then, for another while, we talked about Hilde’s death as though it might be another elaborate hoax, like the reunion. We laughed with gallows humor that in a month or two, Alicia’s ex, whom we still see at the dry cleaning business he owns and who is now bald and looks like a replica of his father from when we were in high school, would run into Hilde in her black punk garb at another fast food restaurant, and she would give an embarrassed laugh and try to sneak out the back before he could catch her not being dead. But that was four years ago, and so many of my friends have died since then that I no longer have the power to suspend that kind of disbelief even in jest—I no longer construct lived life with the arc of a novel, but instead have come to understand it more as an end of the world we keep falling off, over and over again, like some kamikaze treadmill, until one day the drop just doesn’t loop back around. When my depressed friend I chose over Hilde got sick with cancer, I took her to chemo most weeks. I listened to her cry for four or five hours a day and let her sleep on my couch in the afternoon when her boyfriend was working because she couldn’t stand to be alone. I sat with her at restaurants and nail salons and during blood transfusions and I called her every day while on my family vacation, and she died anyway. Who am I to think I could have somehow been powerful enough to keep Hilde alive?
And which is worse: that I could have been, or that there is no chance?
“Hilde” originally appeared in a different form as a Rumpus “Letter in the Mail.”