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In a Moment

The following excerpt from Meredith Westgate’s novel What You Knew Before finds Audrey in the moment after learning her friend Sophie has committed suicide. By that time, Sophie has been dead for three days.


In a Moment


Audrey pressed her palm to the glass wall where instead of a backyard, her bungalow overlooked a backdrop—a steep incline no one would ever set foot on, covered by roots and rocks and rubble that fell around her home stilted into the hillside. She liked to stand in the space where the kitchen ran into the living room, her legs goose-bumping under a silk kimono, as she drank a warming tonic and stared at the other precariously perched patios scaling Beachwood Canyon. At night, the twinkling lights reminded her of Amalfi, where she had spent a summer in high school, studying Italian and occasionally tutoring kids to enhance her college application story. In the early morning light, however, the landscape resembled a jungle, the dewy moisture sometimes making the glass fog, as Audrey watched a new day rising.

This morning her eyes stared straight down, wondering how long that fall would be. Even safely behind the bannister of the balcony and with cool glass against her palm, the thought made her dizzy. But it would take only seconds, maybe three, to find out.

Sophie’s gone.

Audrey realized now that she was still clutching her cell phone against her chest as the statement echoed in her head. She could imagine Sophie’s shame for having made her mother say the words, Mrs. Marden’s sweet southern voice almost incapable of uttering them aloud. What Audrey could not imagine was her friend standing on a ledge and choosing to jump.

They took her to the hospital, but with the—she was already gone. Said she died immediately. No pain. At Griffith Observatory, of all places. Audrey, did you know she was…

Audrey wondered if three seconds was enough time for regret. But the longer she stared out the window, the more her eyes felt inside out, and she could no longer see what she was looking at any more than she could process the words that repeated in her head like white noise.

Did you know?

Audrey did not remember answering; she could not remember how the call with Sophie’s mother had ended at all. Perhaps Audrey had shaken her head, silence and a quivering swallow all that she could muster. Perhaps she had said that it couldn’t be, she didn’t believe it. Perhaps she had cried. Now she simply let time pass, unable to move from the position she occupied before she had been told. As if she had the option of proceeding unchanged, as if Audrey could somehow preserve that world where Sophie was still alive, where Sophie had already lived an extra three full days after she was dead.

Audrey reached for the ceramic mug that sat on the dining table. She did not remember putting it down. It was her usual morning elixir—hemp milk, goji, tocos, ashwagandha, mucuna pruriens, coconut butter, and black tea. Still warm. She took a sip and pressed the mug so close to her chest that the smooth glaze, fired to appear as though perpetually frozen mid-drip, burned the thin skin over her sternum. When she swallowed, the tart liquid slipped down her throat until she lost track of it somewhere just below her heart. When she looked back up and out the window, she saw only a blur of tears.

She leaned in until her forehead touched the glass. Why hadn’t she answered her phone in Joshua Tree? What if Sophie had been calling for help? Calling to talk because she needed her. Audrey could not stop reliving the once arbitrary moment in her memory, the tap of a finger—“Ignore”—and the way she had placed her phone so callously back in her pocket. Had she rolled her eyes? Perhaps. The glass was now cloudy from her breath, though she felt entirely emptied of it. No matter how deeply she breathed, her lungs seemed to reject the air.

Audrey tried to focus on the cars lining Sunset Boulevard through the trees in the distance; anything to stop the moment from repeating in her head, as if she could change it now. The wooden home directly below hers in the hillside was still asleep, not a single light on inside. Its patio had fallen in where tree roots insisted on rising, and landscaping equipment lay sprawled throughout the yard that had grown up around it, as though swallowing the machinery back from where it had come. The disarray of this yard had often been a comfort to Audrey; its unkemptness reminded her of the impermanence—the irrelevance—of humanity, how nature persisted even among the fairytale homes with their built-in barbecues and ivy-covered trellises. Today, however, it just looked like decay.

Did you know?

When Audrey’s phone rang next it came like fog lights through the LA smog. Lucien had called the night before, when Audrey had been experimenting with new recipes for the shop. In an effort to make use of the almond pulp left over from making nut milks and also to cater to her gluten-free customers, she had been experimenting with baking the pulp into carob chip cookies, muffins, and magic bars. So far the mouth feel was not up to par, but she had become so consumed in the testing that she had completely forgotten to return his call.

Now Lucien’s goofy mug shot on her screen made Audrey’s throat tighten. She thought of the words she would soon have to say. How few could she use? Three, she guessed, but that would be impossible. The more she thought about the exact phrasing—I heard from Sophie’s parents—and about the right way to arrange them—they told me that, she—the more Audrey realized that presenting it to Lucien would somehow make Sophie’s death real for her as well. The warming tonic rose up in her throat.

Until Sophie’s mother called, Audrey had woken up feeling pleased with herself. That was the worst part. No, how could she say that? The mind’s persistent selfishness astounded her. But she had, that morning, woken up feeling unusually on track. In the past few weeks, Audrey had been viewing herself as a secondary character to Lucien, so consumed had he become in the plight of his grandmother and punishing himself over his mother’s loss. This stranger who had first seemed so charmingly lost had made his way into Audrey’s life and now took what he needed from her without offering much in return. What had initially appeared clumsy and immature, endearing even, now struck her as selfish. Destructive. And so it had been liberating to find herself engrossed with something other than him.

Now, of course, the fact that her mind wandered back to their relationship only deepened Audrey’s guilt, feeding this idea that something inside her was not right. She had lost a friend, and here she was, back in her own head. She poured the rest of the tonic into the sink and sat on a dining chair so she could rest her elbows on the table, lower her head, and cry into the empty space between them. Tears landed then merged, huddling close atop the glossy wood.

All of the tonics, crystals, elixirs, energizing body sprays, and superfood glow bars were a veiled attempt to strive for something Audrey found entirely elusive—happiness. It was not that she sold perfection; in fact, that might have been easier. What Audrey sold, what she propagated, was the idea that she held the pathway to contentment and gratitude, the most elusive and aggressive word of her generation. With the right lifestyle, there was no excuse not to feel immense gratitude and satisfaction in the day, every day. There was no excuse not to exude a peaceful balance so abundant that it would be visible in the freshness of your face, the glow of your skin, the tousled shine of your hair. And any inability to reach such a state of grateful nirvana left you with no one but yourself to blame.

Audrey knew she was, in fact, blessed. Her father was a studio head and she had been born with good bone structure and a fast metabolism, which for a good portion of the population north of Sunset and west of Robertson Boulevard was all one could really ask for. She had never been denied anything she knew to ask for—the season’s It bag starting in middle school, summers abroad, weekends in Mexico and Hawaii, even the most prestigious internships in New York and Paris, despite having nothing more on her resume than a name. Her parents divorced when she was young, but that had merely meant two of everything. Two Christmases, two Aussies — the dogs, and the tennis instructors — two bedrooms with signed posters of every Hollywood heartthrob from Tiger Beat, signed To Audrey, with love <3. And yet, while her classmates seethed with jealousy when those stars showed up at (both) birthday parties to serenade her, when Audrey looked at the posters later, she saw a sleazy desperation seeping out of them. She watched it slowly cover everything she owned, until a persistent emptiness opened up inside her. This sense of inauthenticity soon changed her satisfaction attached to those things, and eventually to certain friendships.

By the time Audrey had met Sophie, she was a different person. She liked to think that she had fully outgrown such superficial attachments, but perhaps that same inauthenticity had just morphed into something else instead. Something even more on trend. Audrey hated herself now for propagating this falsely contented “glowy” persona that was best for business, and that she had been hoping all these years, with enough practice and investment, might just stick.

It was bullshit. For all her gratitude—Epsom salts and essential oils, waking up in the morning able to move and breathe, and the financial security she had been born into Audrey still had never felt the kind of contentment she sought or sold. There was always something more; she was never calm enough; never contented enough; never detoxed enough. At this point she could not remember what it was she was trying to detox from, but she knew this couldn’t be it. And in the moments where she might have been happy, Audrey would interrupt herself with more questions and doubt. Now when she thought of Sophie, who had been there to witness this complete invention of her new identity, never once questioning it, in every scene Audrey saw herself faking it.

She combed her brain for memories of Sophie expressing any pain, or hopelessness, but she found none. Perhaps Sophie would have confided in her more if Audrey had not so carefully curated this facade of balance that she laid over her entire world, covering those within it. Smothering them. Perhaps if Audrey had only answered the phone days ago—well, she could not even finish the thought.

Audrey had been so jealous of Sophie when they first met, after Sophie had moved from Asheville for a spot in the Los Angeles Ballet. She had immediately recognized the innocence and natural beauty that would make Sophie stand out in this city that thrived on the new and naive. Over time, Audrey watched as that innocence produced a shell that guarded the private, soft parts that Sophie held onto. Audrey always respected that about her, but now as she stared out the window and deeply missed her friend, she wished that Sophie had just grown up.

How long had it been since Sophie had been over? Since they had picked up sushi and watched a movie wearing sheet masks? Even that had eventually seemed pointless; a lot of effort for something they could each easily do alone, especially for Sophie with her crazy rehearsal schedule. And if she was honest, Audrey always felt a bit awkward admitting to having any free time, knowing that Sophie worked constantly to supplement her sparse dance paychecks, replacing their nights out by working at all the places they might have once gone to together. She had even been a bit jealous of Sophie’s earnest need for money that maintained the social aspect of their former lives, only without her.

There it was again—Lucien’s face lighting up her phone. What could he need from her now? Her practiced optimism? Another green juice pun? If the equilibrium of their relationship needed an ultimatum, the retraction of her steady lightness to test its substance, then this was the time. Though Audrey cringed again at the thought of Sophie’s death serving any purpose.

Text message from Lucien: I need you. Give a call. x