Julia Meinwald
​Image by Anastasia Gudantova from Unsplash                                                                  
Julia Meinwald is a writer of fiction and musical theatre, and a frequent gracious loser at a wide variety of boardgames. Her story "It’s Proud of Itself" was published in Brief Wilderness in the fall of 2022. As a musical composer, her work has been heard in productions across the US and in Canada. (www.juliameinwald.com).
How Does It Feel

On Saturday mornings, Meghan and I had breakfast together while we worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle. We were trying to eat less meat, so what was once a bacon and pancakes tradition morphed into just weirder and weirder pancakes. Sunflower seeds and saffron. Bananas and nutritional yeast.

“Und, vat did you dream?” I asked her as she flipped a pancake. We had a bit where we analyzed each other’s dreams as Freud.
“In my dream,” she said, “Amy was visiting us here in Chicago, and we did the ice cream challenge.” The Treman’s Challenge was famous in Sacramento, where Meghan and Amy grew up, and involved downing five pounds of ice cream.

“Was I there to help?” I asked her as myself, not Freud.

“No, you were spared the dairy overload,” Meghan said, kissing me as she handed me my plate of pancakes. “I present: paprika and almonds.”

We ate our pancakes and did the crossword, and without being asked, I massaged the spot between Meghan’s shoulder blades that always gets tense. I can find it without her telling me where she’s sore. Meghan sometimes teased that I was a “professional girlfriend”--I knew everything about her.


That night, I met Meghan at the Art Institute, where she worked, so we could walk home together. I’d finished early at the law office where I answered phones, a comfortingly repetitive job I’d had for three years that supposedly left me time and creative bandwidth to paint. On the way to meet her, I’d stopped at the fancy sweet shop whose cozy pink lighting spilled like magic into the street and bought an absurdly expensive box of macarons. When I got to the Kemeys lion, Meghan was already there, chatting with her loud work-friend Mara. I offered them both a macaron from my mittened hand, annoyed that there wasn’t a socially acceptable way to not waste five dollars of macaron on Mara. Mara stuffed the whole thing in her mouth, which made Meghan laugh. When Meghan bit into hers, she wrinkled her nose.

“What flavor is this?”

“It’s rosemary,” I proclaimed, as if I’d personally invented herbs.

“Blech. Trade?”

I knew she wasn’t mad, but I still felt embarrassed. “You don’t like rosemary? Why don’t I know that?”

“Yeah, I dunno,” she laughed. “What’s yours? Orange?”

“Mine’s cherry,” Mara answered a question no one asked.

“It’s passion fruit,” I said. “ I feel like I’ve seen you eat rosemary. Like, we’ve eaten food with rosemary in it together.”

“I’m not allergic to it or anything. I just don’t like it.”

“I feel dumb. I didn’t mean to get you a gross macaron.”

“You’re such a loon. This one’s delicious.” She put her hands on both sides of my face, which I loved. When we kissed, I felt little 
snowflakes landing on my head like powdered sugar.


I was washing dinner dishes when Meghan got the phone call. It was hard to eavesdrop over the sound of the water, but there wasn’t much to overhear in the few minutes she had the phone to her ear. She repeated “mm hmm” and “okay,” a lot. Then she came into the kitchen and hovered next to me at the sink.

“That was Amy’s mom,” she said.

“Is everything okay?”

“I guess Amy... Amy… died.”

I turned off the water and pulled her to me, my wet hands on her back. She wasn’t crying, so I didn’t know how to take the weight off of her.

“What happened?”

“It was some kind of overdose. There’s a funeral service this weekend. I think I’m going to fly out tomorrow, if I can.”

I wasn’t sure how the rest of the evening was supposed to go. I knew I wasn’t supposed to run to my closet and change into black clothing, but I wasn’t sure if there was another symbolic act of mourning I should perform. As I finished the dishes, I thought about Amy. I’d only met her once, on a depressing trip to Boston early in Meghan and my relationship. Meghan was so excited for me to meet her oldest friend, but the second the two of them got together, Meghan seemed to disappear into the brash, rainbow-haired woman who’d known her since childhood. I couldn’t follow the impenetrable string of private jokes they volleyed back and forth, so I zoned out. It’s not that I disliked Amy, as much as I couldn’t recognize who Meghan became in her company. She seemed younger, less considerate. She never asked me if I liked Amy, but proudly informed me after the trip that Amy said I was “cute.”

Meghan was at her computer, researching flights. I tried to imagine what she was feeling. I searched her face, illuminated by the laptop’s glow, but it just looked like skin.


I couldn’t afford the impromptu unpaid vacation days, but I wasn’t going to let Meghan go to the funeral alone. The last-minute trip energy felt discordant with the reason for our traveling. I felt a rush of adrenaline stuffing three days’ worth of outfits into my old duffel, deciding at the last minute that packing perfume was too festive for a funeral. Meghan’s black wheelie suitcase was already sitting neatly at the foot of the bed. I hadn’t watched her pack, but I was confident I could recite its contents. On the way out the door I blew a kiss to the apartment, something we usually did before leaving on a trip, then wondered if it was disrespectful given the circumstances.

Our flight was delayed twice. After our second hour in the waiting area, I started getting a vertiginous feeling that the psychedelic airport carpet was going to eat me, but Meghan whipped out a book of logic puzzles and suggested we race to see who could solve three “difficult level” ones faster. Meghan was the perfect companion on any trip, leaning full force into positive developments and unflappable in the face of negative ones. En route to a funeral, however, Meghan’s consistency of character spooked me. Without any external sign of distress, I didn’t know how to help her. I pictured Meghan at a bar on a date five years from now, saying, I guess it was right around the time my friend Amy died that Ruthie and I started falling apart. She wasn’t there for me in the way I needed.

On the flight, Meghan slept, or at least closed her eyes. My Girl was one of the in-flight movie options, and I watched it, paying careful attention to the emotional beats Anna Chlumsky went through after the fateful bee sting. If I could be as supportive as Jamie Lee Curtis, the movie implied, this tragedy would bring Meghan and I closer together. I wondered if I should encourage her to write a poem about Amy.

“I really do think it was an overdose,” Meghan said, out of nowhere, a few minutes into our drive from the airport to her parents’ place.

“Right, that’s what you said.”

“I mean, it seems like people, like her parents even, are thinking it might have been on purpose, but I really don’t think Amy would have done that.”

“If it had been on purpose, do you think she would have left a note or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you ever try heroin?”

“I did try it with her, winter break of sophomore year,” she said, maybe confrontationally, maybe not. I was so surprised; it took all my energy to arrange my features into a non-judgmental shape. It wasn’t impossible that I’d try heroin, but I hadn’t realized that Meghan and I were on opposite sides of this experiential line.

“I’m picturing you fully in Trainspotting mode,” I said, trying to joke away the scary distanced feeling her admission evoked in me.

“Oh my God, no. We just sprinkled some in a joint.”

“Amy would shoot up, though, right?”

“It’s weird. When we were together, or on the phone, or whatever, she presented this really together, strong, version of herself. Like, I knew she was using, but we never talked about it. She made it seem like it was just this thing she did sometimes, for fun, not a problem. You probably think I’m the most naive person in the world for believing that.”

“I think you see the best in people.” Then, after a moment, “Did it make you feel closer to her? When you tried heroin together, I mean.”

“I guess, in a way.” I pictured Amy and Meghan on some drug-induced astral plane, laughing down at us straight-edge people.

“I want to see what you’re like on heroin.”

“I think I’m pretty much the same.”

“So, you don’t buy the idea that being under the influence reveals your true colors?” I knew Meghan to be an extremely adorable drunk. 
Drinking made her more effusive, freer with compliments, and prone to booping friends and strangers alike on the nose. I liked the idea that this ultra-warm Meghan was waiting beneath the slightly more reserved one I saw daily.

“No. Do you believe that?”

“I dunno. I sort of do. I don’t think I would have kissed you for the first time sober.”

“Okay, so maybe drugs lower your inhibitions. But I don’t think they reveal some deeper essence of you or anything. You already knew you wanted to kiss me. I’m cute and irresistible.” Meghan made her mirror face, and I couldn’t help but smile.


On our first night in Sacramento, Meghan and I slept in sleeping bags in her parents’ furnished basement, two attendees at the world’s saddest sleepover. While she was brushing her teeth the next morning, I stepped outside to make a call in private. The funeral was at 2 p.m., so for Operation Comfort Meghan to work I’d need to get things set up no later than noon.

Luckily, Meghan was in the shower when the delivery from Treman’s arrived. I hauled the bags to the kitchen, where I rifled around the cabinets looking for the right receptacle for so much ice cream. I decided on a large, fake crystal punch bowl. In addition to the ice cream, I had whipped cream, fudge, caramel sauce, and rainbow sprinkles. I served it all at once, a towering, magnificent mess of sugar. I pictured myself lifting a spoon to Meghan’s mouth – some combination of mother and lover nourishing her back to happiness.

Meghan walked into the kitchen wrapped in a towel, holding a black lace dress. I gestured towards the ice cream. “Surprise!”

“What is this?” she asked. I pushed the punch bowl towards her.

“You and Amy never got to do the Treman’s Challenge like you talked about. So, I thought you and I could do it.” I pulled out a seat for her at the kitchen counter and draped a paper towel napkin across her lap with a flourish.

“Would mademoiselle like a glass of 1997 Coca-Cola to accompany her meal?”

Meghan started crying. At first, I thought she was touched by what a thoughtful girlfriend I was, but then I realized this was bad crying.

“Did I do something wrong?” I asked.

“I’m sorry,” she hiccupped. “This is….you were trying to do something nice for Amy.” This was close enough to true that I didn’t correct her. She sat there and cried, and I watched, wanting to comfort her but afraid of making things worse. Eventually, her parents came in to tell us we needed to leave for the service soon, and Meghan headed upstairs to change clothes. To their credit, they didn’t ask me a single question as I poured five pounds of ice cream down their sink, the water running hotter than my shame.


At the funeral, I sat next to Meghan on a pew near the back of the church, handing her tissues from my overstuffed black purse, watching the used ones pile up on her lap. It was a bizarre role reversal, her frazzled and verklempt, and me prepared and comforting. The moment I knew I loved Meghan, a key part of our origin story, was built on the opposite dynamic. She’d picked up a crumpled piece of paper in my car that I’d blown my nose into. It wasn’t totally obvious that the crusted substance on the paper was snot, but I couldn’t think of a better explanation. “I never remember to carry tissues,” I’d said lamely. She’d taken a travel pack of tissues from her bag and put them in my glove compartment, saying “For next time.” Meghan, seeing my gross snotty self and still smiling at me, flirting even, was the biggest aphrodisiac I’d ever experienced. Since then, I’d told her everything; the scarier the admission, the more thrilling her acceptance.

That night after the service, we went through a box of stuff from Meghan’s childhood bedroom, since converted into her mom’s office. We found some ratty stuffed animals, a sandwich bag of ancient weed, a porcelain box containing a handful of baby teeth, and Meghan’s high school yearbook. After going back and forth with a series of tooth-related dares neither of us would complete, Meghan picked up the yearbook.

“I forgot about this. Amy signed, like, every page.” I peered over her shoulder, not quite able to decipher the purple Sharpie scrawled over pictures of kids sporting football uniforms or holding clarinets.

“Show me all the pictures of you,” I said.

“Give me a second. I want to read this.”

I counted a minute in seconds, holding my phone in my lap but not actually doing anything with it. I put my head on Meghan’s shoulder to get a better view of Amy’s endless message, but she bristled and nudged me off.

“I think I’m going to take a shower,” she said, grabbing her towel and the yearbook and bringing both into the bathroom. The door shut and locked with a resentful little click. It’s not like I was going to try to follow her in there. I listened to the water run, and pictured Meghan surrounded by steam, reading Amy’s sentences over and over. The more time that went by, the more I wondered if she was trying to punish me for ordering too much ice cream, or for not helping her enough, or for not being Amy. Eventually I fell asleep, and dreamed I shrunk down to Magic School Bus size and entered Meghan’s body. I swam down her throat, then shimmered up and down her spine, eventually arriving at her mind. There were thousands of doors. I opened one, and behind it was a huge, glorious pile of orange cardamom pancakes. The next door I tried was stuck, or locked. The more I pulled, the more it resisted me. The next door I tried was locked, too. I went back to the pancake room, and suddenly I couldn’t get in there, either. I woke up the next morning still in my funeral clothes; Meghan was already packed and upstairs.


The night we got back to Chicago, Meghan spent almost two hours on the phone. I didn’t actually want to give her privacy, but she had gone into our bedroom and closed the door, making me feel like a spy in our own house. I went on a long, cold walk up and down Clark Street. Approaching our place, my fingertips numb, I could see Meghan’s silhouette in the window. She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, body completely still, listening intently.

“Who were you talking to?” I asked her when she finally hung up.

“That was Mara. Did you know that her brother died?” Of course, I hadn’t known that. “Only three years ago. I know losing a brother and losing a friend isn’t the same, but she gets what I’m going through, you know?”

I called the law office the next morning and said I couldn’t come in again. Instead, I flipped through my copy of Belzhar and re-read Say Goodnight, Gracie cover to cover, my legs cramping on our too-small couch. Meghan texted that she and Mara were going to have dinner together after work. I opened a beer and took it into the shower with me because that seemed like a benignly intense thing to do. After, protected by my coziest green sweater, I sat at my laptop and Googled bereavement message boards. I read stories about how different strangers died. I learned a lot about activism against drunk driving.

I hated feeling like I was biding my time waiting for Meghan to get back. I pictured her and Mara in some cute, quiet cafe, Mara’s hand resting protectively over Meghan’s. Meghan was probably telling Mara stories about Amy. Stories that I didn’t know. I decided to make night pancakes, stirring in blue food coloring and shredded coconut, but it just felt like I was trying to show off for my girlfriend who wasn’t there. When she finally got back, I asked her about dinner.

“It was good,” she said.

“What did you guys talk about?”

“I don’t know,” said Meghan. “Work, I guess. Amy stuff.”

“What Amy stuff did you talk about?”

“I don’t remember, like, everything we said.”

I knew she wasn’t trying to be mean, but it felt like Meghan was trying to protect the memory of Amy from me. Like she thought I wouldn’t understand. Megan went to bed early that night, and when I got into bed her eyes were shut and she was breathing slowly. Looking at her face at rest like that, I thought, this could be a stranger.


I called out of work again the next day, still unable to rile up a sense of worry over my manager’s annoyance. In the shower, I used Meghan’s fine-hair shampoo, disastrous for my curly mane, then I dressed in Meghan’s clothes–her comfiest navy sweatshirt and one of her dozen pairs of little white ankle socks. I started feeling restless by 11 a.m. and began Googling bereavement groups in the area.

I prepared a back story, but when I arrived, no one asked me for my grieving credentials. I picked a seat in front, wanting to be close to the action. The last person to share looked to be mid-twenties, like Meghan. She had red hair like Meghan, too, though she was dressed in corporate clothes, like maybe she was on her lunch break between denying small-business loans. She’d lost a friend, too.

After the meeting, I caught the red-haired girl before she could leave.

“I wanted to ask you,” I began, “....how long ago did your friend die?”

“Two months ago,” she answered, seeming startled.

“And you still don’t feel, like, back to normal?”

The girl eyed me warily. “No, I don’t.”

“Would you say that you look at other relationships in your life differently now?”

“I don’t know. Actually, I’m rushing to—”

“Wait,” I said, grabbing her arm but not hard. “I’m trying to understand. How can someone help you?”

A flicker of might-cry flashed across her face, then disappeared. “They can’t,” she said, then shook her arm free.


Meghan and I weren’t avoiding the subject of Amy, but I kept feeling like there was a conversation we should be having. We weren’t fighting, exactly. I missed the sheen of her attention, though; her focus was not on our life together. Meghan must have had so many days when she hadn’t thought of Amy at all, but now the absence of Amy was omnipresent.

Meghan came home that night and found me sitting on the couch, staring at the same Netflix preview screen that had been looping for thirty minutes.

“What are you doing?” she asked me.

“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’m deciding what to watch.”

She sat next to me on the couch. “Mara got me something sweet.” She pulled a notebook with a blue fabric cover from her bag. “It’s marketed as a dream journal, but I’m going to use it to write down memories I have of Amy, and maybe things I wish I’d said to her.” I hated that I didn’t think of getting her a notebook. I was ashamed that Mara, a casual friend of Meghan’s, was able to help her in a way that I couldn’t.

“Is something up?” Meghan asked. “You’ve been weird all week.”

You’ve been weird all week.” She just looked at me. “I guess I feel like I have no idea what you’re going through, and you won’t let me in.”

Meghan stifled a micro-reaction. With gravel in her voice, she replied, “I’m sorry if I’m not shepherding you through my grieving process gracefully enough.”

“You talk to Mara about this stuff. Why don’t you want to talk to me?”

“I’m not trying to ice you out.”

“Okay, so tell me what you’re thinking right now.”

“Honestly? Right now, I’m feeling annoyed that we’re having this conversation.”

“I’m tired of thinking about Amy. I want you to start thinking about me again.”

I knew if Meghan forgave me for that, her forgiveness would cover all of my lesser ugliness, too. Meghan’s superpower was her ability to accept people. Sweet Meghan, my chosen person, accepted me in all my unlikeable glory. In our two years together, I had never made a confession that wasn’t met with a hug, sometimes laughter, always warmth. This time, Meghan didn't hug me. She stayed where she was, a few inches away on the couch. She didn’t look angry, just really sad.

That night I went to bed early. My ears were perked, concentrating on Meghan’s movements throughout the house, trying to figure out if the sound of the window opening was angry, or frustrated, or if she just needed fresh air. Eventually, after straining to hear her fill a glass with water and pad from kitchen to couch, I lost the thread of her evening and drifted off.

I dreamed that I was at a party at Mara’s house. Meghan was there with a translucent ghost-Amy, and they were holding hands. I fed Mara a macaron, and then I grabbed a huge dream knife and started stabbing her. All the blood seeped out of her until she was translucent too, and I took her hand. I walked us over to Meghan and Amy and said, “I get it. I feel the same way as you.” I felt happy. Then a huge stack of pancakes materialized in front of us. We let go of our ghost friends and took each other’s hands. We dove into the pancakes and powdered sugar poofed around us like snow.

When I woke up, Meghan was looking at me.

“Und, vat did you dream?” she asked. I was the one who should apologize, but it was her who offered the olive branch. I opened my mouth to describe my dream, but for a split second, I saw myself as a monster, covered in Mara’s blood, someone even Meghan could never love. For the first time, the prospect of confession didn’t feel cathartic; it felt like the end of something—but not telling her felt like the end of something, too.

“I don’t remember,” I lied. “I’m sorry I don’t have a good dream story to tell you.”

“Sometimes the mystery is nicer than the story,” she said.

I didn’t agree, but I pulled her close to me. With her skin against mine and both our eyes closed, I could almost imagine we were feeling the same thing.

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