In Tim Burton’s film “Corpse Bride,” my favorite movie when I was sixteen, a young man accidentally proposes marriage to a dead woman. After a ceremony in a moonlit winter woods, he leaves his drab Victorian village and enters the land of the dead. In the end, he almost prefers what he finds to the lot of the living.
It was the land of the dead that I wanted to inhabit when I was sixteen. While the film’s living characters move through a world that is muted and hostile, the dead are vibrant. They wear bright clothes over pearly bones. The corpse bride herself is beautiful.
The same year I watched “Corpse Bride” again and again, my mother died from a rare autoimmune disease. During her illness I retreated, and I took my classmate Elizabeth with me, whose father was circling the drain in his own way. Since we couldn’t look directly at our lives, Elizabeth and I looked only at each other. We lived in our heads, in a world where decay became romantic. We painted our eyes black and worshipped bands like My Chemical Romance, who appeared in photo shoots dressed beautifully for a funeral.
I knew, even when I was sixteen, that my mother was not really going some place bright. I didn’t know where she was going. I still don’t. In real life, I have to contend with her absence on adult terms. I pass milestones, grow years and years older, without her. But “Charade” suspends time so that Elizabeth and I are forever in our teenage bedrooms, where candles throw shadows on black curtains. The land of the dead is a real place with music and bright lights and a lively saloon, and it exists just a few stories below the surface of the earth we walk.
We didn’t stay forever. The refuge of our shared world allowed us to eventually look for joy in the land of the living. Since I’ve written “Charade,” Elizabeth in the flesh has superseded the fate of her character self, and both of our lives have become rich in ways we couldn’t have imagined from the cold halls of our high school. I’m glad this essay has preserved a portrait of the friendship that became a method of carrying on. Though we don’t live there anymore, it’s comforting to know that, in some dimension, those dark bedrooms still exist.
Kendra Atleework’s essay “Charade” won the AWP Intro Journals Award. Her nonfiction also appears in The Pinch Journal and The Morning News. Currently she is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, where she is writing a book of creative nonfiction about California landscape, climate, and culture.