Queer grief is a blueprint. We got this shit wired tight. Maybe we’ve become too good at losing? ― Amber Dawn, “Queer Infinity”
Before Axi got sick, she was a fire-haired Leo goddess organizing sex workers and singing in radical musicals. When her legs turned purple, the doctors at the low-income clinic took one look at her and pronounced that she had infected flea bites. Never mind that my girlfriend-at-the-time and I shared a bedroom with her and we didn’t have flea bites; Axi was a poor, wild and free woman, so she must be infested with vermin and sent on her way without so much as a blood test.
By the time she went to the ER, struggling to breathe, she learned that the marks were burst capillaries. A quick search on Google reveals that people with cancer do not have enough platelets to seal broken blood vessels, so they appear on the skin in a purplish maze. But because none of the low-income clinics and doctors Axi had gone to for help had made that connection, the cancer had been allowed to run riot down the hallways of her body for over a year. Her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had spread into her lungs.
One of the last times I spoke with Axi, before she slipped into a coma and died, I said that for her, I was going to try and do some of the things that she didn’t do or wouldn’t get to do anymore. Specifically, I told her I would dance for her, and her face lit up. We loved dancing together in our living room (our specialty was dancing to “My Neck, My Back” while unzipping our hoodies to the beat, in unison), especially when it was cold and we couldn’t afford heat.
Alone, I felt awkward and gawky and like I didn’t know what I was doing; together, we danced like we were on fire. We danced as prescription, as documentation, as communion, as prayer. I wasn’t sure how I could possibly access that magic alone, but it was too late: I had already promised.
The last last time I spoke with her, when she was slipping in and out of consciousness and every word was a great effort barely audible over the oxygen mask, she made eye contact with everyone gathered around her bed — most of us strangers to each other, but some of us connected in that vague way that queers and punks and weirdos are — and said, “Take care of each other.” And then her voice took a stern tone, despite its weakness: “No. Isolationist. Bullshit.”
It was 2005; I was 22. From then on, she would always be 25. She was dead and I was devastated.
Several months after she died, I visited my family. My brother showed me this computer game he’d just bought called The Sims. It was a life simulation game ― a virtual dollhouse ― where you created characters, dressed them, decorated their houses and then guided them through their complicated little lives, even sending them to the bathroom when they needed to go. Everyone in my family went to bed and I stayed up until 5 a.m., enmeshed in Sims drama. It made the writer part of my brain glow but I didn’t have to actually do any of the writing, which is perhaps one of the best feelings in the world.
But sitting at a computer controlling the lives of little fake people while my life languished unattended was the very definition of isolationist bullshit. I imagined Axi shaking her head in disgust at me, how I’d gotten more time than she did and I was going to waste it playing a computer game. I made a solemn vow to myself: “I can only play the Sims when my own life has gotten so incredibly boring that I will literally not be neglecting any real people to play it.”
That pledge lasted until 2016.
By 2016, when I finally decided it was time, the Pulse shooting had just happened. A terrible man was running for president and saying terrible things and a lot of the country seemed to think it was just fine. I was in my third year of working increasingly traumatic social work jobs and struggling with C-PTSD symptoms. I was living in the Bay Area and most of my friends had moved on or were working all the time to survive. It had been a long time since Axi died, but I still wasn’t over it. Jonathan and Paul and Mateo and Theresa and Laurie were dead now, too. All of them besides Laurie were queer and dead before 40. I spent a lot of time drinking alone in my apartment.
If I spent my spare time creating a tiny world where everyone was queer and lived in little houses and got along, if I spent my spare time creating a tiny world where my dead friends and beloved fictional characters and exes with whom I’d lost touch all mingled, if I sometimes lived there mentally instead of the horrific real world, was that really so terrible?
“If I spent my spare time creating a tiny world where my dead friends and beloved fictional characters and exes with whom I’d lost touch all mingled, if I sometimes lived there mentally instead of the horrific real world, was that really so terrible?”
Axi was one of the first Sims I made. I made her before I even made myself. As I struggled in the Create-A-Sim section of the game, I had to confront the fact that I had kind of forgotten what she looked like. She died before camera phones were really a thing. I had maybe 10 35mm pictures of her, and that was it. I dug them out and squinted at the glossy squares and tried to remember the shape of her eyes, her nose. Did she do anything with her eyebrows?
The resulting Sim looked nothing like her. I made her a chubby Leo and made her wear wacky outfits, and that was going to have to be enough. I made some more Sims: fictional characters I’d written, fictional characters other people had written, exes, and a little version of myself (called Oceanic Clipwhale because it felt too jinxy to use my real name somehow).
One day, while I was playing, while Axi and I were hanging out in this other dimension, I realized something: I’d felt like I couldn’t bear to live in a world without her. And without even consciously intending to, I’d created one where she was still around. It felt so good; this thing I thought I’d never have. When Axi aged up to being an elder in the game — when her red hair turned gray and the Sim version of her started to develop back pains and dress in unflattering clothes — I cried. What would she have been like ― what would the world have been like ― if we’d had her for that long?
In real life, I protested and marched and chanted and donated. At my job, I yelled at landlords, called Adult Protective Services, visited hospitals and did wellness checks. It all felt so fucking pointless. The terrible man got elected, people began losing their rights, my clients died or were harmed or just stayed traumatized and high. As the world fell to shit around me, my Sims stargazed and painted pictures and wrote novels and WooHooed (a Sims euphemism for having sex). A lot of them didn’t have jobs. They lived off the profits from their vegetables or paintings or novels (or because I cheated and gave them free money), which left them plenty of time to have affairs and dance along with the radio and gossip with each other.
In The Sims 2, when it’s your time to die, the Grim Reaper comes for you and points their staff toward you. If you’ve had a good life, some girls come out of nowhere, put a wreath of flowers around your neck and lead you away dancing, as everyone else in the room sobs.
* * *
In 2018, E died. The circumstances of her death are not for this story, but her death completely devastated and splintered my chosen family. That same year, I started grad school and moved to an isolated rural area. My elderly laptop finally broke right before Black Friday, so I bought a new one. This also meant that I could finally play Sims 4 (as opposed to Sims 2, which I’d been playing on a mid-2000’s desktop computer this whole time).
I made Theresa, and then I made Axi, and then I made E, and then I made myself. In real life, Theresa and Axi hated each other. In real life, E thought The Sims were so stupid. “Wow, a video game where I can do my laundry? Sounds fuuuunnn!” But who cares about real life? None of them were in it anymore. They were all gone and I needed them back.
E and I had had a complicated friendship. We loved each other and were frustrated by each other. Her death caused so many immediate problems that I felt like I hadn’t been able to mourn her. I had to support, do, organize. I was too busy — and frankly, too angry — to cry all that much.
I couldn’t cry until, six months after the real E died, E’s Sim asked my Sim to build a “snowpal” — the game’s adorable gender-neutral version of a snowman — and they randomly gave the snowpal a mohawk and a scowl, which was totally something we would have done.
I started sobbing in a way I hadn’t let myself at her memorial service or at any other more appropriate venue. We’d never build a snowpal, and not just because we lived in the part of California where it doesn’t snow. On the screen, the Sim versions of us grew cold, wandered into their beds, and fell into a peaceful sleep.
In the world beyond the thin membrane of my smudged laptop screen, E is still walking around. I bump into her at the flea market or the karaoke bar. She flirts with everyone and talks to everyone, just like the real E did. Sometimes she’ll text me just to say hi. She eats too much food and gets dazed, just like the real E did. Her biggest dissimilarity to E is that she gets to grow old.
When Sims die, their ghosts still hang out in bars. Their bodies are translucent. If you were friends before they died, you can talk to them. You can even ask them what it’s like to be dead. The ghosts can call you, and text you, but you can’t call them. You don’t have any control over when they show up. Eventually, their spirit loses its connection to the world. They don’t haunt the house where they died anymore. You don’t see them at the bar. They never text to congratulate you on a new friendship or job. You click on their gravestone and nothing happens. They’re just gone.
What is it like being dead, E?
In real life, she comes to visit me in my dreams. They come farther and farther apart now, but it does feel like a real visit, not just my brain making something up to comfort me. We just chat about nothing, gossip like we used to and hug a lot. She doesn’t tell me what it’s like to be dead. Maybe there isn’t really anything to tell.
Oshy Crapwell, my Sims 4 alter ego, lives in the desert with her best friend, Axi. In real life, Axi and I used to talk about how we wanted to run away to the desert, take the Greyhound from Philly to Tucson, but we never got the money together, never found the time. In fake life, we live in a tiny, cluttered house surrounded by cacti where we write our books, flirt with people, flirt with each other but never consummate, play music. No cancer, no cops, no presidents, no religion, no war, no homelessness, no trauma. No separation. We dance wildly and only stop to sleep. Neither one of us is dead yet. When we die, it will be from old age.
Ocean Capewell is the author of the queer punkhouse novel “The Most Beautiful Rot” and the zines High On Burning Photographs and It’s Not The End Of The World!: Building A Life With Limp Wrists. Her writing has appeared in MRR and Autostraddle. She holds a BA in creative writing from SUNY Purchase. Ocean lives in Humboldt County, California, where she studies social work, reads tarot cards and plays wiffle ball.