Behind The Screen

By Talicia Montoya

September 14, 2014

The morning came as it always had, silent and unimpressive, sunshine slanting in through

the missing panel of the blinds over my window. Crumpled up tissues littered the floor around

the plastic bag hanging on my closet door that stood as a trash bag, and the empty tissue box sat

on my desk, not one foot away from my bed where I had retreated after getting the news late the

night before.

Knuckles tapped three times against my bedroom door, and Brett, my roommate, asked,

“Are you still coming to Pride with us?”

Voice still groggy with sleep, I said, “Sure, I’ll go.” I hoped I didn’t sound as miserable

as I felt. Speaking, I felt the dried tear tracks still on my cheeks, cracking like a thin film over my

skin.

Even though I would have preferred to be alone, it was probably better to go out than

mope in an empty apartment for the rest of the weekend.

After gathering the plethora of tissues I had left lying on the floor, I pulled on a pair of

shorts, slipped into a black, grey, and purple shirt (the colors of the asexual flag), and draped a

rainbow purse over my shoulder. I should try being happy with my friends for Boulder Pride, at

least for a few hours.

No one knew what happened. I kept it to myself under the pretense they wouldn’t have to

know because they didn’t know Carrie.

 

Late May, 2014

Reclined on the couch and by the light of a dim lamp, which was supposed to have three

brightness settings but only had one that worked, I propped my laptop on my stomach. The

internal fan whirred, and the heat from it burned pleasantly through the fabric of my pajama top.

While I waited for reverend-jonas- nightingale to make the announcement that she had opened up

a new game of Cards Against Humanity (CAH), I scrolled mindlessly through Tumblr while

8tracks played a playlist based off the character Nevada Ramirez from Trouble in the Heights.

We sometimes prefer to call what we do “collaborative online writing” when we talk

about it with our “real life” friends because the term “roleplay” all too often has a sexual

connotation. It isn’t sexual in the slightest sense for us as writers, even when the stories

sometimes get to the more steamy parts of our characters’ lives.

There were four of us who started the routine of getting online and logging into an in-

character game of CAH in mid-May. In character, because each of us had our different

characters we wrote as during such games. Reverend-jonas- nightingale played Reverend Jonas

Nightingale, dr-abel- gideon played Dr. Abel Gideon, mark-set- go played Seton Chambers, and I

played Mar Sangre (saferintheshadows). Later, more people joined us—the-cute- waitress (as

Carolyn Long), administratxr (as Dr. Frederick Chilton), rxyalewithcheese (as Vincent Vega),

and dearlydeadinsidedexter (as Dexter Morgan).

Although, in the beginning, we didn’t know each other beyond our respective urls and

character names, we grew closer. It was inevitable when we wound up messaging each other and

playing CAH for a few hours almost every night from May to September. Eventually we

exchanged names, phone numbers, and, in two cases, addresses to send each other packages

during the holidays. Now, I consider nearly all of them to be close friends although we’ve never

met in person—I’m closer with some of them than friends I had in high school.

 

Early June, 2014

Our silverware drawer was, and still is, a hodgepodge of measuring cups, forks, spoons,

whisks, and knives. Neither Brett nor I ever bothered to go out and purchase a plastic insert to

sort our eating utensils. We should have because reaching into the drawer without looking runs

the risk of cutting your hand on any of the several steak knives or the single chef’s knife we use

to cut potatoes.

Sitting hunched over on the couch in our living room, I ran the tip of my finger over and

over across the Band-Aid wrapped around the pinky on my other hand. Brett had gone to his

parents’ place for the weekend, leaving me alone in a mostly dark apartment with only the sound

of our fan and the quiet tinkling of notes from the Silence of the Lambs soundtrack for company.

I wouldn’t allow myself to get up from my seat because my mind was still fixed on the

largest knife in the drawer—the one that was so sharp I hadn’t realized I slit open my skin until I

saw the smear of crimson on my palm.

During my last years of high school and bleeding into my first year of college, I had

struggled with self-harm. Even though I had gone through therapy and threw away my razor

blades, the craving, the inexplicable desire to cut always seemed to resurface, triggered by the

smallest of occurrences—a stray mark of red pen on my hand, a raised welt from scratching a

persistent itch on my thigh, the catch of sunlight across faded and nearly invisible scars like the

rungs of a ladder on my inner forearm.

Not knowing what else to do, I made a somewhat private post to Tumblr, meaning only

those who clicked “Read More” could view it in its entirety on my blog. In the post, I explained

what had happened and asked for anyone, who was willing to do so, to distract me. Less than

five minutes later, a message showed up in my inbox

mark-set- go: If you need someone to talk to, I’m here.

I dragged the back of my hand across my eyes to clear my vision and took a deep breath before

typing out my reply.

saferintheshadows: If I start talking I’m going to wind up telling you my life

story.

mark-set- go: That’s what I’m here for.

Relaying the details of what had happened since my sophomore year of high school to the

present moment took my mind off the gleaming knife in the drawer, and eventually I trusted

myself enough to get up and get a drink of water without making a beeline for it.

saferintheshadows: Thanks for letting me vent.

mark-set- go: Anytime, dear.

I didn’t believe talking to her about it would help; I’d never tried talking to someone before

when I’ve been triggered, other than trying to distract myself and get my mind off it. With other

people, I was always too concerned about how they’d react, how their facial expression would

change, how they’d look at me differently and I’d feel the need to convince them I was actually

okay. With her, I didn’t have to worry about avoiding eye contact in shame and embarrassment.

With her, there were only her words.

* * *

The next day, I woke relatively early, courtesy of the crows cawing outside my window.

Logging online I made a post saying “With how many crows are around here, you’d think there’s

a corpse lying around nearby.”

Mark-set- go added to it and said, “Or a murder.”

It took me a minute to understand exactly what she meant, and when I realized it, I tipped

back my head and laughed out loud. A group of crows is called a murder. She never could resist

making a pun when the opportunity presented itself.

 

June 30, 2014

I had just settled down on the couch in our living room and placed the still too hot mug of

tea on the glass, fingerprint-marked coffee table, when I saw mark-set- go had made a post

reading:

Hey guys. I don’t know if anyone will be interested, but I thought I’d keep you up

to date on goings on in the [real] world, as they may have an effect on my [role

play] life.

A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors

have been great to me, and everyone has been very supportive, but it’s not looking

too hot at the moment. While there is still a chance that everything could be okay,

it’s been implied that I should probably start checking things off my bucket list. 

I think I’ve made my peace with that. Obviously, it would be fantastic if

everything came up roses and I lived for another 80 years, but it’s okay if that

doesn’t happen. I’m serious when I say that it’s all good…Also, I just wanted to

say thank you for being such a vibrant community and for embracing me- you’ve

been awesome. I really have been happy here, and I plan to continue as long as I

can.

Anyway, that’s about it. Sorry for being so depressing! Really, everything is

okay, I’m fine with it, it’s all good, all that jazz. Please don’t try to tiptoe around

me in the near future- just keep treating me and [writing] with me like you have!

My first instinct was to act as though I had never seen it. It was easier, emotionally, to say

nothing about it and maintain my distance. The conversation regarding my self-harm was the

closest I had allowed myself to my online friends.

Shutting my laptop, I stood and paced the living room a few times, glancing at my

reflection in the darkened windows as I did. My jaw tightened, teeth clenching, and I raked a

hand through my hair a few times before I finally sat down again and typed in the password to

unlock my computer. We never did get around to playing CAH that night.

 

October, 2014

He messaged me under her url, introduced himself as “Matt (Carrie’s brother),” and

asked if he and I could chat for a bit because he needed someone to talk to and wanted to talk to

someone who knew his sister.

I stared at the message for a long time before finally agreeing. Even though Carrie and I

talked almost every night for several months, so few of our conversations were out-of-

character—we never shared much of our personal lives with each other, save her cancer and my

self-harm. I felt wholly unqualified to talk with her brother and reminisce about her. But still, I

agreed.

The conversation began with what little reminiscing I could do with the few out of

character conversations I had with his sister. Most of it kept turning to how she’d bring details

from her personal life into our rp’s, like how her character was multilingual, including Latin, and

how her character judged mine for eating ice cream with a fork. It was Carrie’s and Matt’s uncle

who used to do it all the time, and they’d always mess with him, calling it a crime against nature.

Then the conversation shifted away from remembering Carrie toward what was

happening now that she was gone. Matt confided in me how his mom had left the family, and his

father did little more than keep to himself. Although Matt was applying for colleges, he was also

overwhelmed by taking care of his fourteen-year- old sister, even having to teach her what a

period was and having to buy tampons for her. He told me he was only seventeen and had no

idea what to do.

Matt: Sometimes I wish it was me instead of Carrie who had died. She’d know

what to do.

Tally: Don’t say that. She wouldn’t have wanted you to say that.

Matt: She was the smart one. She knew seven different languages. She probably

could have cured cancer.

Matt: I feel like I’m drowning.

Tally: I know what that’s like, but sometimes all you can do is tread water and

keep going.

Matt: Yeah, I guess.

A prolonged pause grew in the conversation, and I stared at my blinking cursor.

Tally: I’m sorry. I wish I could do more to help.

Matt: No, it’s okay. I just needed to tell someone.

Tally: Yeah it’s not good to hold things in like that.

Matt: I feel a little better now, thanks for talking with me. I should go make

dinner now.

We bade each other a good night and logged off. Closing my laptop, I swung my legs over the

edge of the couch and sat up to crack my back. The uncomfortably familiar thick feeling rose in

the back of my throat, and I clenched my teeth against it, but it was too late.

A shallow gasp escaped me, and I leaned forward to rest my head in my hands. It wasn’t

right for Matt to be going through what he was. It wasn’t fair that his sister had to die. It wasn’t

fair that there was nothing I could do for him but sit on the other side of a screen and lend a

proverbial sympathetic ear. It wasn’t fair.

 

Early July, 2014

Cross-legged on the floor in the stacks at Norlin, I turned my gaze to the ceiling as my

eyes burned with the effort not to sob, or at least with the effort to be silent about it so no one

would know. It didn’t help trying to tell myself she was going to be okay; the realist in me didn’t

want to cling to false hope.

With cancer, we mourn twice. The first is the death of any future they might have had;

the second is their actual passing.

It was the first time I let myself cry since finding out she had a tumor.

After I had composed myself enough to stop the tears, I stood and crept to the bathroom

to splash cold water on my face so I could finish my shift at work. No one knew I’d been crying

for someone I never met in person.

 

September 12, 2014

The last post she ever made was a photo of several pocket watches hanging together by

their chains, and underneath she wrote:

I think a lot about time these days.

 

July 26, 2014

I messaged her in regard to a post she made asking us for advice on whether she should

forgo chemo to keep what health and comfort she still had even though going through treatment

would extend the 9-12 months the doctors gave her to live because insurance wouldn’t cover all

the costs and one of her siblings would be starting college soon.

saferintheshadows: Hello, love, I don’t think it’s selfish of you to consider

forgoing chemo.

mark-set- go: Thanks! I’ve been struggling on whether I should go that route or

not.

saferintheshadows: I only wish you didn’t have to struggle with such a decision in

the first place.

mark-set- go: Ah, well. It’s just the hand I’ve been dealt. I’ve made peace with it.

I didn’t know how to respond. I let the message sit in my inbox, awed by how well she was

dealing with such an awful situation. With the exception of a few out-of-character posts in regard

to her cancer, we all had done exactly as she asked, and acted as though nothing had changed

because the easiest way to deal with her having cancer was not trying not to think about it. I say

“acted” because we all had her deadline hanging in the backs of our minds with each interaction

of our characters. She had written her character into a situation similar to hers, only with her

character, he had cancer, was cured, and the cancer returned. It seemed to be her way of coping.

 

September 14, 2014, 1:52 a.m.

Brett and I had just gotten back from a party at our friend’s house on The Hill. He went to

bed and I went to log online to talk a little with my friends before going to sleep too. At the top

of my dashboard was the newest post from mark-set- go:

Requiescat in Pace (Important)

Everybody, this is the [writer’s] brother writing on my sister’s account. Early this

morning, in her sleep, my sister passed away of a large, sudden bleed into her

brain, brought on by the tumor that found its way there a few months ago.

This is, as you might suspect, a difficult time for the family and everyone close

to her, but we’re taking some consolation in the fact that she was happy until her

final moments, smiling, laughing, and joking even when she couldn’t stay awake

more than an hour at a time. 

I told her I’d say goodbye to everyone here for her, and so here is her

goodbye. You, as a community, were incredibly important to her, and you made

her so happy. From me, and everyone that loved and loves her, thank you for that.

Reading it, I didn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe. The content smile leftover from the party faded,

and the corners of my mouth tugged down on their own accord. I stared at the post, rereading it a

few times, hoping it would somehow change and not say what it did. I thought for sure she

would have had until Halloween, maybe even Thanksgiving, before passing; I had forgotten her

telling us the doctors said she had less time than they originally thought.

And now she was gone. No more playing Cards Against Humanity late into the night and

typing an excited greeting in all caps when she joined in. No more making puns back and forth

and cracking each other up with the progression of their absurdity. No more writing with her

character, the one my character had grown to love.

Instead of attempting to role play, I shut off my laptop, slunk to my room, and moved the

tissue box close to my bed when I laid down, already pulling out several to use before my head

even hit the pillow.

* * *

In first couple weeks following September 14, I went home to tissues littering the floor

and woke with tear tracks staining on my cheeks. I struggled to focus on my schoolwork, often

forgoing entire assignments because I couldn’t bring myself to see the point in them, couldn’t

muster the energy or motivation to complete them. Although I knew I shouldn’t spend too much

time alone in the apartment, I couldn’t hang out with my friends without having to force my

smiles and conversations. The school year hardly improved from there.

 

September 17, 2014

Matt made another post of a note he found in his sister’s computer case, posted it without

editing or further comment. It was a thank you letter to everyone Carrie had written with online

in the brief time we all shared. Soon after the post, he sent me a private message saying his sister

had also written more personal letters for the select few people she’d been closer to online, and I

was one of them.

mark-set- go: I understand if you’re not up to reading it right now, but if you want

I can send it to you right now.

saferintheshadows: No, it’s all good. You can send it right now if you want.

In only a couple minutes, a new message sat in my inbox:

Hi darling. I wanted to write a few words to you and a couple other people, to let

you know on a more personal basis how important you’ve been to me. Mar has

been one of my favorite characters to rp with- she is incredible. So much fun. But

as cool as she is, you’re a million times better. I’m so thankful for all the times

you’ve been there for me, and I only wish I could have returned the favor more.

Ah well, such is life. As long as you know how important you’ve been to me,

because seriously- you don’t even know. Thank you so much, darling.

If this is goodbye, then goodbye! I hope you don’t take it too hard- I’ve had so

much fun, and been so happy in the last few months. I love you, and thanks again. 

All the best, love.

Carrie (the mun)

Reading the message, I bit my lip, but still tears blurred the words on screen and trickled down

my face. I wasn’t the only one who had received one of these more personal messages

either—both Kay (reverend-jonas- nightingale) and Tawn (dr-abel- gideon) had each gotten

one—and we supported each other via “hearting” each other’s posts regarding these messages

and how they made us feel. Tawn described it as “bittersweet” and said it made her “smile and

weep.”

* * *

I can’t visit Carrie’s blog, I can’t listen to her favorite music album, Hadestown by Anaïs

Mitchell, without getting a lump in my throat even though listening to it was a way for me to feel

closer to her. I can hardly think of her without the pang of a palpitation in my chest-- the physical

manifestation of longing, of missing her.

And I couldn’t talk about it with any of my “real life” friends; I only ever told my high

school friend, Tia, what had happened because I couldn’t spend another weekend at the

apartment alone while Brett went to his parents’ place again. I couldn’t trust myself when left to

my own devices; I was scared of what I might do. In visiting Tia, I couldn’t make my false

laughter to sound genuine, couldn’t make my forced smile reach my eyes, couldn’t maintain the

image that everything was fine.

 

Early November 2015

Sitting on Emma’s bed with my knees pulled close to my chest, I kept my gaze fixed on

the window, watching students go to and come back from their classes. I should have been in

class, but I hardly felt well enough to attend. True, I still felt physically sick after Halloween’s

festivities, but mentally I just couldn’t handle the stress of all the homework piling up for the

week and midterms and socializing with people when all I wanted to do was go home and sleep.

“Feeling any better?” Emma, a friend from my psychology classes, asked—she had

hopped up to sit beside me on her bed.

I only shook my head.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Already I had told my online friends I was going on hiatus because I just wasn’t feeling

up for much of anything, to which Tawn messaged me to “remember to take care of myself

first.” But with Emma, I hesitated, afraid I might have been slipping back into how bad I’d been

the previous semester. I didn’t want her to worry about me, didn’t want to see her face change if

I told her I wasn’t okay because I knew once I told her I wasn’t okay, there was no way to take

back my words, no way to just shut down and distance myself.

“If you don’t want to, that’s okay,” she said.

 

Spring semester 2015

My appetite disappeared completely—I went from eating three decent-sized meals a day

down to two, and eventually down to one small bowl of rice a day. My weight dropped, none of

my clothes fit right anymore.

During the nights I stayed up well past three in the morning because I either couldn’t

sleep or still had schoolwork to finish because I couldn’t focus earlier in the night. I found I

spent most of my evenings sitting at my desk, staring at the wall just beyond my laptop. One

night, it took me eight hours to complete a three page writing assignment. I had been

dissociating, according to the therapist I started seeing after a particularly bad weekend.

* * *

Brett had gone home to his parents again, leaving me alone in our empty apartment. By

then, I was regularly sleeping in until one or two in the afternoon every weekend, and when I

woke, I had nothing to do, no one to see.

Dragging my blanket to our barren living room, I curled up on the couch and watched the

clouds crawl across the sky. I don’t know when it had started, but I found myself wiping tears

from my cheeks and sniffling back a runny nose.

Passively suicidal (as my therapist called it), I thought about how much I wished I would

be hit by a car or run over by a bus or struck with some fatal disease or fall down the stairs and

break my neck. These thoughts ran over and over in my head, as I lay on the couch clutching my

blanket tightly in my hands.

Then when I realized I was longing for some cancer to give me an expiration date on life,

I thought of Carrie, Carrie who had cancer, Carrie whose brain tumor had drastically shortened

her life, Carrie whose family was torn apart after her passing. It was wrong to want what she had,

and though I knew this, I couldn’t shake the fixation.

Standing, I shuffled into the bathroom and had broken down my razor until I had only the

blade. I knew from experience this would distract me, would make me feel better, if only for a

little while. Seeing the blood bubble up red over the pale skin on my wrist gave me something

physical to focus on. It gave me a temporary escape from the thoughts in my head, and I kept

returning to it throughout the semester, tally marks of tiny white scars circled my inner wrist like

the beginnings of a bracelet.

* * *

I often found myself going back to her message, scrolling all the way to the bottom of my

inbox.

I’m so thankful for all the times you’ve been there for me.

Songs from the “Lonely Autumns” playlist drifted out from the speakers of my laptop.

I only wish I could have returned the favor more.

It was me who should have returned the favor more. I often tried distancing myself from her

cancer, from her brain tumor, from her looming deadline.

As long as you know how important you’ve been to me.

The notes and lyrics of the songs played in time with the blinking of the white string lights hung

up around my room.

I hope you don’t take it too hard.

I never had to face losing someone I’d been so close with before—only ever distant great-

grandparents defined solely by their Christmas cards—I couldn’t not take losing Carrie too hard.

* * *

Recognizing I had been suicidal, albeit only passively, had scared me, and I felt too

ashamed of my relapse to confide in any of my friends, online or in-person, so I decided I had to

go back into therapy.

Carrie never came up in therapy, though; my relationship with her and the circumstances

under which we met felt too complicated to try explaining. I doubted my therapist would

understand how an online friendship could be as powerful as one in person especially

considering I hadn’t known Carrie’s real name until after she had passed away.

Don’t take it too hard.

Seeing my therapist every two weeks helped—I wound up throwing away the razor

blades I’d hoarded in a jewelry box on my desk, and my self-destructive thoughts and habits

subsided entirely. Eventually, halfway through June 2015, I felt well enough to cease my

appointments with him.

 

September 2015

On the one year anniversary of Carrie’s passing, I made a post saying “It’s been nearly

one year and I still miss Carrie just as much as before.” The three of us who were closest to

her—me, Kay, and Tawn—had always shown silent support for each other whenever we

expressed sadness regarding the loss of her, but with this post Kay responded:

If you ever want to talk, I’m here.