On November 13th, 2011 I met Emily Salzfass at the Writing Salon in Berkeley, in the first session of a class called “Starting Your Novel.” She had a dark, angled bob and wore oversized, white-rimmed sunglasses. She talked fast and had big energy. When she smiled, it was with her whole face.
On Monday January 21st, 2013 I received what would be the last email I’d ever receive from Emily. It was a birthday invite, written in the same ecstatic and insistent voice that I had come to know, and signed in the way she signed many messages, “ME” – and as always, I could just hear her when I read it. I could picture her tight-toothed grin, looking as if she held back an avalanche of excitement.
At around 9:45pm on Wednesday January 23rd, I saw on Facebook that she had passed away. And all I could think was that someone was playing a very cruel joke with her Facebook account. Nothing serious could happen on Facebook. Facebook is the place where you put up pictures of food you’re eating, or tell everyone about a movie you saw, not the place where you find out that someone you love is dead.
When the Writing Salon class was over, Emily wanted to keep workshopping, and I still remember the “oh hell no, you are not retreating back into your safe little hidey hole” intensity she had about it. That was the way she was about writing – she treated it like a universal imperative. I’ve been reading on her Facebook page, seeing all the people that were touched by her in the exact same way – tugged along by her – and it wasn’t just writing, she had boundless enthusiasm for connecting and sharing in general. Emily would have been perfectly fine with an ungainly group of twenty or more people showing up at her house once a week, fighting to get their point of view heard, but ultimately we ended up with a group of six that met every Sunday.
Over time I found myself getting to those Sunday sessions a little early as a habit, so we could hang out on her balcony and smoke cigarettes while we caught up on gossip or she told me about whoever she was interested in at the moment. She’d ask me some “as a guy, what does it mean when X guy does Y thing?” questions. She didn’t really need me to answer, but I liked that she wanted to ask me, because I liked how it felt to be her friend.
Truth be told, the workshopping that we did at Emily’s apartment wasn’t very good. None of us really knew what we were doing, two of the participants were a constant topic of “should they stay or should they go?” conversations for the other four, and I don’t even think Emily took the critique sessions very seriously. I think she would have been just as happy with everyone showing up once a week, chatting about TV shows, and then sitting there quietly writing next to each other. It was the coming-together that she wanted, the shared experience.
She loved stories and she was damn good at writing them. She was the kind of person who has plot in their DNA. She had a tattoo of a television on her arm and loved everything from Sports Night to Babylon 5. She read so much and so widely that when I tried to think of a book to buy her for the holidays, I just assumed she’d already read whatever I would think to give her.
And she had almost no ego about her writing. I learned by accident that she had published stories, optioned a screenplay, and worked on the show Farscape while she lived in LA. She was so open and generous that I’m sure anyone who knew her felt on completely even footing with her.
During the time we had this Sunday group, I came to meet some other writers that were interested in an informal group, and of course I wanted Emily to be a part of it. She was charming in a way that made it a foregone conclusion that she would mesh with another group. Soon enough, the new and improved group was meeting every other Thursday night, and it wasn’t long before Emily had beamed her way into those people’s hearts as well.
I had a lot of wild thoughts when I first heard Emily had passed away, and one of them was that the remaining members of the writing group should team up to finish her book. That was one way I thought we could honor her memory. But it wasn’t long after that thought that I wondered whether I was sure I knew what Emily felt about that book – what drove her to write it, what truth she needed to have told.
For one, she had already decided to put it on the shelf – we were going to start workshopping a screenplay that she had been working on for a while. I read the synopsis and thought it sounded terrific, which was no surprise.
Would finishing her book have mattered to her in the way that I wanted it to? I didn’t even know if we were the right people to do it.
More than anything it got me thinking about the fact that, although she was important to me, and I had spent a lot of time with her, I didn’t know her as well as I wish I had.
In Emily’s obituary, her family cited her lifelong struggle with bi-polar disorder. I knew that Emily took medication; she was open about that. But there was something so capable about her. She was organized and proficient, she seemed to know what she wanted out of life, and she was diligent about pursuing it. In the entire time I knew her I never saw her down, withdrawn, or unreasonable. I don’t doubt that she struggled, but I believed that she was coping.
There were times when I saw her hands shake, and she had recently been suffering from a protracted bout of insomnia. She started having heart palpitations and was going to go on a heart monitor. I was worried, but she kept a positive attitude about it, at least outwardly. She was compelling enough that I didn’t believe anything like this could happen. Her doctor said she was going to be ‘fine.’
Emily had a tiny dog named Zeus that was beyond adorable. My wife and I had a couple of doggy dates with Emily, Zeus, and our little creeps. We probably made plans a dozen times that one of us cancelled. No big deal; we’ll connect next time, I would think. I’ll see her at the writing group.
I thought we’d have the time, that I’d know her for years, that she’d be a lifelong friend. I keep thinking of the countless opportunities I had to be there for her, to get to know her better.
I’ve become such a guarded person over the years, trying to let things naturally come together the way they will. I’ve tried to have “normal” boundaries with people, but any time you’re making an effort to be normal, it seems kind of likely that you’re going to overcorrect in some way. In light of Emily, it feels like I’ve become fearful, emotionally risk-averse. Emily wasn’t afraid at all.
There are all these mundane ways that she’s still around. In my Gmail inbox there’s that birthday email, and I can still see her name in the G-Chat box on the lefthand side. I’d really love to send her a little message, “hey, what’s up?” Nothing heavy. I have a handful of chapters with her feedback that I’ll eventually look through when revising. Photos on my phone.
It feels so awful to imagine hitting “archive” on that message in my inbox, as though a mouse-click has the power to completely remove a person from my life, or at least from my everyday consciousness. But of course that will happen eventually. I’ll be looking at email and I’ll just click that box and click that button. Gone.
And then one day I’ll be revising and I’ll open a document with her notes, seeing the way she infused everything she touched with her vitality, “GIANT TWO-HANDED HIGH FIVES,” as it says somewhere in there, and I’ll want to hold her to that, but I won’t be able to.
She wasn’t supposed to disappear, she was supposed to burn brightly for a long time. No one that lives that loudly should leave suddenly and without a sound.
The universe made a mistake and I’d like to speak to the people in charge. You blew it. You don’t get to have her back yet. Fix it – right now.
It’s a little colder down here without her.
(photo by Ali Rappaport)