My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In heaven, Susie Salmon can have whatever she wishes for - except what she most ...(more)
When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw. That in everyone's heaven there were soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin. That all the buildings were like suburban northeast high schools built in the 1960s. Large, squat buildings spread out on dismally landscaped sandy lots, with overhangs and open spaces to make them feel modern. My favorite part was how the colored blocks were turquoise and orange, just like the blocks in Fairfax High. Sometimes, on Earth, I had made my father drive me by Fairfax High so I could imagine myself there.
Following the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades of middle school, high school would have been a fresh start. When I got to Fairfax High I would insist on being called Suzanne. I would wear my hair feathered or up in a bun. I would have a body that the boys wanted and the girls envied, but I'd be so nice on top of it all that they would feel too guilty to do anything but worship me. I liked to think of myself--having reached a sort of queenly status--as protecting misfit kids in the cafeteria. When someone taunted Clive Saunders for walking like a girl, I would deliver swift vengeance with my foot to the taunter's less-protected parts. When the boys teased Phoebe Hart for her sizable breasts, I would give a speech on why boob jokes weren't funny. I had to forget that I too had made lists in the margins of my notebook when Phoebe walked by: Winnebagos, Hoo-has, Johnny Yellows. At the end of my reveries, I sat in the back of the car as my father drove. I was beyond reproach. I would overtake high school in a matter of days, not years, or, inexplicably, earn an Oscar for Best Actress during my junior year.
These were my dreams on Earth.
After a few days in heaven, I realized that the javelin-throwers and the shot-putters and the boys who played basketball on the cracked blacktop were all in their own version of heaven. Theirs just fit with mine--didn't duplicate it precisely, but had a lot of the same things going on inside.
I met Holly, who became my roommate, on the third day. She was sitting on the swing set. (I didn't question that a high school had swing sets: that's what made it heaven. And no flat-benched swings--only bucket seats made out of hard black rubber that cradled you and that you could bounce in a bit before swinging.) Holly sat reading a book in a weird alphabet that I associated with the pork-fried rice my father brought home from Hop Fat Kitchen, a place Buckley loved the name of, loved so much he yelled "Hop Fat!" at the top of his lungs. Now I know Vietnamese, and I know that Vietnamese is not what Herman Jade, who owned Hop Fat, was, and that Herman Jade was not Herman Jade's real name but one he adopted when he came to the U.S. from China. Holly taught me all this.
"Hi," I said. "My name is Susie."
Later she would tell me she picked her name from a movie, Breakfast at Tiffany's. But that day it rolled right off her tongue.
"I'm Holly," she said. Because she wanted no trace of an accent in her heaven, she had none.
I stared at her black hair. It was shiny like the promises in magazines. "How long have you been here?" I asked.
I sat down on the swing next to her and twisted my body around and around to tie up the chains. Then I let go and spun until I stopped.
"Do you like it here?" she asked.
So it began.
We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams. There were no teachers in the school. We never had to go inside except for art class for me and jazz band for Holly. The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.
And our heavens expanded as our relationship grew. We wanted many of the same things.
Franny, my intake counselor, became our guide. Franny was old enough to be our mother--mid-forties--and it took Holly and me a while to figure out that this had been something we wanted: our mothers.
In Franny's heaven, she served and was rewarded by results and gratitude. On Earth she had been a social worker for the homeless and destitute. She worked out of a church named Saint Mary's that served meals to women and children only, and she did everything there from manning the phones to swatting the roaches--karate-chop style. She was shot in the face by a man looking for his wife.
Franny walked over to Holly and me on the fifth day. She handed us two Dixie Cups of lime Kool-Aid and we drank. "I'm here to help," she said.
I looked into her small blue eyes surrounded by laugh lines and told her the truth. "We're bored."
Holly was busy trying to reach her tongue out far enough to see if it had turned green.
"What do you want?" Franny asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"All you have to do is desire it, and if you desire it enough and understand why--really know--it will come."
It seemed so simple and it was. That's how Holly and I got our duplex.
I hated our split-level on Earth. I hated my parents' furniture, and how our house looked out onto another house and another house and another--an echo of sameness riding up over the hill. Our duplex looked out onto a park, and in the distance, just close enough to know we weren't alone, but not too close, we could see the lights of other houses.
Eventually I began to desire more. What I found strange was how much I desired to know what I had not known on Earth. I wanted to be allowed to grow up.
"People grow up by living," I said to Franny. "I want to live."
"That's out," she said.
"Can we at least watch the living?" asked Holly.
"You already do," she said.
"I think she means whole lives," I said, "from beginning to end, to see how they did it. To know the secrets. Then we can pretend better."
"You won't experience it," Franny clarified.
"Thank you, Brain Central," I said, but our heavens began to grow.
There was the high school still, all the Fairfax architecture, but now there were roads leading out.
"Walk the paths," Franny said, "and you'll find what you need."
So that's when Holly and I set out. Our heaven had an ice cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever said, "It's seasonal"; it had a newspaper where our pictures appeared a lot and made us look important; it had real men in it and beautiful women too, because Holly and I were devoted to fashion magazines. Sometimes Holly seemed like she wasn't paying attention, and other times she was gone when I went looking for her. That was when she went to a part of heaven we didn't share. I missed her then, but it was an odd sort of missing because by then I knew the meaning of forever.
I could not have what I wanted most: Mr. Harvey dead and me living. Heaven wasn't perfect. But I came to believe that if I watched closely, and desired, I might change the lives of those I loved on Earth.