by Alanna Okun)
There is a certain quiet urgency to reading the writing of someone who has died. Each word weighs a little more because it’s tinged with finality, the knowledge that once you reach the end of the poem or the close of the book, there can’t ever be any more. This is especially true when that someone was 22 years old, and had just finished college, and was one of the most present, incisive, and hopeful writers you’d ever met.
There’s a good chance you’ve read Marina Keegan’s last essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” When she died in a car accident two years ago, five days after graduating from Yale, the piece — which had appeared in a special commencement edition of the school paper— was clicked more than 1.4 million times and picked up by news outlets across the world. At least 100 of those 1.4 million clicks were mine. I know by heart the way it begins: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I would say that’s what I want in life.” It ends: “We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.” And now, because of the tireless loving work of her friends and family and teachers and colleagues, and because really she was just so good, there is a book of Marina’s work. Also called The Opposite of Loneliness, it comprises her short stories and her nonfiction, and when you read it, I swear it is impossible to square the crackling liveliness of her words with the fact that she isn’t here anymore.
We met for the first time twice. Once was in February of our junior year of college, when we both won a writing contest. The prize was that our work would be read on the radio, and the reading (performed by people more famous than us) was held on a slushy day at the Metropolitan Museum. The theater was maybe a quarter full, mostly with the handful of us Young Writers and our parents, so when Marina came in with her long hair and clanking bracelets, she was impossible to miss. She talked loudly with the people she knew and the ones she didn’t, and when it came time to meet David Rakoff, the wonderful writer who was the contest judge and the reason I think we had all entered, she was the first to break our huddle and shake his hand. He died the next year, of cancer, two and a half months after Marina.
I thought she was too much. Too noisy, too brash, too everything I secretly wanted to be but instead wrote off with words like “noisy” and “brash.” And then at the beginning of summer we met again and her too-muchness turned out to be exactly the right amount.
I was living in New York, subletting a room in a basement apartment while I interned at a magazine. On my first day of that internship Marina was the one who happened to pass the glass doors of the office and let me in — she had begun her own stint the week before. I can’t remember if she had a feather woven into her hair that day or if it came later in the summer, dangling precariously close to her gluten-free soy sauce as we ate roll after roll of sushi in the cafeteria, but I do remember the kind, open look of recognition on her face.
She liked coincidences (there was another intern who it turned out had dated my high school boyfriend for years after I did, a topic Marina never got tired of revisiting), and I think she also liked having a buddy, someone to text when she was annoyed or excited by something at work, to talk about love with and discuss what the hell we were going to do once we left school the next year. Even in the hushed magazine offices, her bracelets jangled.
I liked having a buddy too. I’d known in some shapeless way that I wanted to be a writer, to live in this world that she and I were visiting for the summer, and Marina was the one who made it seem real. She believed wholeheartedly that we could, even should, lead creative lives and make the things we cared about, that there was great value in writing and performing and feeling out loud and not being afraid to screw it all up and start over. She was just so intensely, irrevocably, unapologetically herself that being in her orbit made me better at being me. I texted her the autumn of our senior year about an article she’d written (it’s in the book, called “Even Artichokes Have Doubts”), on picking and settling for career paths after graduation. She responded, “We’ll obviously be living the same lives forever so I’ll see you at our next job.”
You cannot read her book, whether you knew her or not, and not trip over the sharp, poignant moments scattered everywhere. Marina was intensely fascinated with death, and with what we leave behind. She wrote about her own imagined end almost casually: There are “when I’m on my deathbed”s and “before I die”s everywhere you turn, framing her observations about everything from what her legacy might be to forsaking bagels due to Celiac disease. I knew this going into the book, remembered it from reading her writing both before and after. I expected these lines to stab.
They didn’t, though, not in the way I expected. From the first page I knew that reading them just as markers of tragic irony would be to give Marina’s death more weight than her life — which is something that she, and her objectively excellent work, never would have stood for. Instead, these moments of recognition throbbed with a full, sweet kind of sadness. Wow, I would think when I read them, here was this writer who knew exactly how lightly and how heavily to treat things, who knew how to clutch the immediate pain-joy-sorrow of a moment and also place it in the context of an unfathomable universe. Death mattered to Marina because life mattered to her; she wrote about overly jokey exterminators, beached whales, consulting firms, weed, and finding where she fit in the world with the same shrewdness, the same kindness, the same sense that it all counted.
In her short story “Cold Pastoral,” which was first published here, the main character’s not-quite boyfriend dies suddenly. There is this line: “I think the one thing I really wanted in that moment was to text Brian and crawl into his bed; complain about Brian and the vigil and his death.” I had read this story so many times, returned to it last year again and again when another friend, also 22, passed away, but this time it felt like she was inside my head. Right then I wanted so badly for Marina to write about Marina, to describe in her direct yet wondering way what happened and make sense of it yet allow us to feel its depth.
That’s the gift and the pain of her book. How incredible, how lucky, that we get to read her words, that people who never knew her or her work can find it for themselves, that she was in some way given the chance to speak to the world the way she wanted; how fucking devastating that there won’t be more. For all the essays and stories of hers I’d read before, there were many others in the book that I’d never seen. Each new sentence, unfamiliar yet unmistakable, felt like a gulp of water in a desert. I wanted to keep drinking, to fill up on their newness, but I also didn’t want them to run out.
I received my copy of The Opposite of Loneliness at work. I’d only requested it a day or two before, so it didn’t occur to me that the package on my desk, underneath a wrapped box that turned out to be full of color-changing pens, could contain something created by my two-years-gone friend. My breath caught when I saw the cover, even though I’d looked at that picture — Marina steady-eyed in her yellow coat — hundreds of times since her death. It had illustrated every article about her and was there whenever I clicked back to her writing during long nights when I couldn’t sleep. I am not sentimental when it comes to print books, don’t go in much for the taste-feel-smell sanctity of pages, yet something about being able to hold this object in my hands was important. I’ve seen her plays in New York theaters and watched her spoken poetry on YouTube — lovely, funny things that lodge themselves beneath my throat when I remember or revisit them; those, though, end. The book, even once I’d read the final page, feels forever. It quietly but firmly asserts itself from my bedside table. I can bend back its pages. Drop it in the bath. Give it to my sister.
In what is my favorite and also the last piece in the book, “Song for the Special,” Marina wrote about how she sometimes worried she would never do or be anything: “I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems so silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents. I want gigantic permanents!” It is such a clenching passage, impossible to read without tasting the unfairness and the sadness and the loss of her. By writing it, though, Marina essentially smashed her own prophecy; even the comments on the original article, which first appeared in the Yale Daily News, speak to how deeply her work has affected people who never had the chance to know her.
“As long as your friends and your words survive,” one comment reads, “so will you.”
And so these are Marina Keegan’s words, from her poem “Bygones”:
“The snow comes,
And the sun rises,
And the vacuum starts,
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”
A few months after she died, I embroidered them onto a scrap of fabric, because I wanted to be able to touch them. To see her words where she couldn’t be. Her book lives next to it now, always nearby, always within reach.
The Opposite of Loneliness is available April 8, 2014, from Scribner.