On Losing Maggie Estep

Like many, I knew of Maggie before I met her, which made her that rare person whose presence preceded her actual company. I moved toward her in increments: I read her work, I saw her perform. We shared a publisher; she blurbed my first novel, and when we finally met it was at my brother’s yoga studio where she was—quite coincidentally—a student. It turned out we liked each other instantly, and enormously, and that was before we discovered we were born on the same day which, for reasons that are invented, tend to make same-birthday people feel linked in an other-worldly way (I’m looking at you Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Spike Lee and Ovid—March 20th, all). She was sexy and ballsy and funny and smart and most of all brave and I wanted very much to be like her. The blurb she wrote for my book I envied, and wished had come from my own brain. On the inside cover of her novel, she wrote to others “Enjoy the madness” which, of course, I starting writing too, because copying is what girls tended to do with Maggie.

She and I (and also Nelly Reifler) were often put together for readings because we were all small, we assumed, but it was a great match-up. The three of us were well-suited for the stage, and it turned out, for friendship.  Maggie had a kind of magic that made those around her feel they had a kind of magic too, and it was pure luck that the 8 weeks I spent at Yaddo in the mid 2000’s was when she was there. We got to know each other well. It’s where I got my nickname Frankie and where, for reasons I don’t recall, I gave Maggie her nickname—Oscar. It’s been 7 or 8 years since I’ve said her actual name. She was Oscar, I was Frankie, we were born on the cusp, and if memory serves, she also didn’t know how to drive.

Not long after Yaddo, she invited me to a reading she was giving and I went. I remember Steve Buscemi was there, but I can’t remember the bar. It was long and narrow with wooden tables and Christmas lights strung by the foot of the stage. After she read, she announced that the next day she was moving upstate. This, I thought, was the bravest thing in the world. She didn’t even know how to drive! She was a city person! She would be all by herself! She’d never have to go to Yaddo again and then I’d REALLY never see her! I didn’t like it, but I envied her ability to sweep her doubts and worries into a dusty patch small enough for her to simply step over.

Five months ago we went to Seattle together to read in the Bumbershoot Festival. She was in a van being driven from the airport to the hotel and I was on the street, waiting for her. The van honked and I heard “FRANKIE!” from the back window. “OSCAR!” I yelled and danced right there, on the sidewalk, knowing she was behind those tinted windows. I loved the way she talked, like she’d trademarked her own accent. She flicked her r’s like mini-batons and swallowed her u’s, and when she laughed you actually heard the joy pumping out with each triggered ha-ha-ha.  There was clarity in her enunciation and reason inside her laughter.

We had a car and driver (Jason) and he drove us to the festival and along the way Maggie asked him questions, steering the conversation in one direction: are you suitable husband material and will you marry Amanda? It was clear though, to me and to Jason (who fronts a band called The Rorschach Test and is a father and arborist, and also an occasional driver) that it was Maggie he wanted, and in the spirit of compromise I proposed he marry us both. We’d move upstate with Maggie, but live in separate houses because Oscar and I needed our space, but just to be clear Jason would have to come whenever we called and do forestry things and also make us dinner. He seemed amenable to our terms. The truth is, gender and sexual preference didn’t actually matter around Maggie, invariably people always found themselves crushed out on her, not only because she was sexy but because she made you feel how you actually want to feel: cool, funny, original, worthy, awesome, smart and dazzling, and only someone who embodies those things can help someone else feel just that way.

Jason dropped us off on the side of the road, away from the festival and we felt like cargo. A few blocks later we found the entrance and wound our way through the festival worried that our event would be canceled because two people showed up. There was a VIP area and we made our way there, and would return later for free haircuts, thousands of tries in the photo booth, and to “steal” the free food so we’d have breakfast the next morning.  Off we went to find that our two-person audience was a massive line, which totally confused us, but secretly made us proud. It wasn’t until we were on stage and Maggie was reading her Zombie story that we realized the audience mistook our appearance as part of the “Marijuana Chronicles anthology ” for something that was not reading. Lessons on how literary folks smoke? Who knows, but it was weird and odd. Afterwards, we signed books and two sweet, stoned boys came up to us and asked us if we would smoke with them. We declined but asked if we could take their photo. They were just so stoned and we thought it was hilarious. Also, one would not stop hiccuping. They agreed and then gave us their information about their grow house in Utah.

We walked around the festival and saw a little bit of Deerhunter and talked more about boys and books and what we were working on and how we were working on it, and our complicated friendships and specific suffering, our dogs and of course, how old we felt. “You’re not 80,” I said. “I’m 50!” She told me. “FIFTY!  I can’t believe how fucking old I am.”  She felt old. I feel old. We all feel old, but people will say, as I’m sure they’re already saying, that she was the most alive person they’d ever met, and it’s true—she was. She was fully present in so many ways. Her laughter followed an entire life-cycle, each sound was full-throated and complete, and she seemed surprised and delighted to find herself laughing, as though experiencing her delight for the first time. She spoke from her diaphragm, and she was larger than her own body. She said what she wanted, when she wanted, how she wanted, and you knew when she liked you because you felt her attention like an action. Maggie was action, even when she was totally still. Like now.  Even now I feel her. I will always feel her, because being around her left you marked by the experience of her, one that didn’t drop away, one that summoned a desire to be more like her, to try and embody her magic. We went back to the hotel and hugged each other hard and long, vowing to do more things together for longer. We talked on the phone and emailed a bunch, neither of us knowing we’d never see each other, ever again.

March 20th is 5 weeks away, and I’ll have to get older without her. One day, I might even pass her in age. But no matter what happens to me, or anyone, I think even Maggie would agree, that for someone who always felt old, she was far too young to die, and we were far too young to lose her.


3 responses

  1. Matt Sharpe Avatar
    Matt Sharpe

    Beautiful, Amanda, thank you.

  2. This is so wonderful and heartbreaking, Amanda. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know you were so close. I wish I’d known her now. And I’m glad I know you. Thank you,

  3. peggy bellar Avatar
    peggy bellar

    Thanks for sharing this. I just met Maggie when we took our real estate class together in Albany. We discovered that we are both yoga teachers and I (like anyone who crossed her path), fell hard for her. I was off the grid in Ecuador (Maggie had called me the beautiful traitor for leaving all the snow) and only found out the terrible news when I returned a day ago. Heart-breaking. I certainly had hoped to get to know her a lot better. It helps to read this beautiful tribute

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