Every night Marnie’s father sequestered himself in a room and delivered a meticulous progress report into an outgoing voice mail so people could call in and find out her daily status. He took copious notes on exactly what the doctors said regarding infectious diseases, inner-cranial pressure and brain-stem functions, and relayed that into the tape recorder. At the end of each day, mom and dad and whoever else was visiting piled into a tiny room equipped with a desk, a speaker phone and one chair, and listened to hours of phone messages left by people who wished them well. I sat on the floor and stared at my feet and listened as each call generated strong reactions around the room. Mr. Puusemp, one of the tougher 50-year-old men I’d ever met, someone who could easily tear the arms off most guys half his age, was by far the most emotional. When he wasn’t weeping profusely, struggling to catch his breath, he’d tell stories or ask me what I thought of the spur-of-the-moment ski-helmet design he drew on a cocktail napkin. He was a supersuccessful entrepreneur obsessed with solving problems. He’d sit me down in the hospital cafeteria and ask me how I could come up with the perfect artwork that would enchant the world and make me rich. You have to start with what people need most right now, he’d say, and I’d stumble through the conversation saying incoherent things about organic process and intuition. I was kind of in awe of Mr. Puusemp, but his interest in who I was, how I was making a living (construction, pounding nails), made me nervous. It was like talking to a senator. He really did seem lit up from the inside. More than once he pulled a little rubber mouse out of his pocket and playfully terrorized an unsuspecting nurse. If she didn’t respond favorably to the mouse gag, he didn’t want her handling his daughter. His sense of humor was relentless, the only thing that kept us from sinking. I accidentally slammed a car door on his thumb. Without a shriek, he calmly asked me to open the door.
At the end of one long day and night, all Marnie’s pals from L.A. crowded into the hospital hotel room like at a slumber party and smoked pot and drank Jack Daniel’s. The hotel didn’t even allow cigarettes. At some point the phone rang and it was Mr. Puusemp, in his room on another floor. He’d gotten word of our misbehavior and asked us to stop. He used the expression tout de suite.
I returned home and started keeping a journal for Marnie. I yacked on endlessly about what went on every day. I got it in my head that I should do everything that Marnie thought was cool, so I dyed my hair blue, bought trail-running shoes, ran in Elysian Park, pumped iron, did zillions of sit-ups and push-ups, played tennis, swam laps at the Y, ate Indian food, and pizza, went to more parties than I could stomach, drank champagne, read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, made piles of drawings and fucked every cute girl willing to take her clothes off. I taped a tiny snapshot of Marnie to the tip of my skis; bought a helmet; skied three or four days a week. After seven hours of skiing on St. Patrick’s Day I got a call from Mr. Puusemp. I was staying at a friend’s cabin in Mammoth. We’d been in constant phone contact. He told me that Marnie had died the previous night. I was standing in the hallway, staring at a ceramic Santa Claus. I was wearing these clownish snowboard pants Marnie had bought me for my birthday. She’d been in a coma 10 weeks. Her doctors hadn’t been sure what kind of shape she’d be in if she was ever able to think or walk or talk, if she did come out of the coma. On her most productive day of physical therapy, Mr. Puusemp said, she willed herself away. He said that it was just like her to do that, to take control of the situation — if she couldn’t be physically active she didn’t want to live.
A week later my blue-haired brain delivered a eulogy in the largest church in Pennsylvania to a zillion people who adored Marnie as much as I did. I told a story about the time she took me on my first backpacking trip through the Sierras. I was a complete novice and didn’t know squat. I’d never slept outside before. After a 10-mile hike through a high alpine canyon we stopped at a lake. She wanted to swim naked. She asked me if I’d mind, her swimming naked. I said, no, that it would be all right. I’d guard the lake, make sure no one saw. She stripped, I could feel her naked over my shoulder, giggling. Out of stupidity or some psycho brotherly respect I didn’t turn my head. I closed my eyes and pictured my sexy naked friend, standing on a flat rock. Then I heard a big splash.Benjamin Weissman is the author of Dear Dead Person (Serpent’s Tail). He lives in Echo Park. "Marnie" is adapted from a longer story in a forthcoming book entitledHeadless.