The Loop Trail
The first night of Mark’s wake Joanna drove her mother’s car to Flinch and Bruns. All the Catholics in Lynbrook had their wakes there, even if they were no longer practicing. Joanna’s mother was wearing a black skirt and beige top with a black wool coat. Around her neck she had wound a red silk scarf. Joanna wore a nubby pink shawl. It had looked perfectly great in Los Angeles, homemade in the best casually sweet way. Here on Long Island it looked idiotic. She should have borrowed her mother’s old black coat.
Joanna parked the car, and she and her mother approached the funeral parlor, where a bunch of guys were standing on the low flat steps. Joanna thought she recognized some of the faces from Facebook: Mark’s old friends, Therese’s old friends, her own old friends. For a moment the wake took on the vibe of her tenth high school reunion, the only reunion she had attended, twelve years ago now. She had gone with Therese, who had not been married to Mark at that point, and their other girlfriends, all of them still single, and had remained in a corner the entire time, drinking red wine, smoking cigarettes, and flirting with a clump of boys who had teased her daily in junior high. She broke away from this knot only when Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” came on, and she and Therese ran out to the dance floor, Therese yelling, “I don’t care anymore!” They were both drunk.
Joanna’s mother shouldered her way through the guys on the steps without waiting for them to move. “Hi,” said Joanna, following her mother, gaze flitting over noses and mouths, eyes and chins. No one particular name was popping up. Dave, Steve, Mike, Tony, Adam, Vinnie. No one born circa 1968 had been named Everett or Chandler or Austin or Ellis or Beckett, at least not on Long Island. Her brother, Jude, had been called Judy until eleventh grade, when his muscles finally caught up with his height.
Joanna wondered how long she would have to spend inside at the wake before she could join the men on the steps. One of the guys out here was sure to have a flask. The fact that she saw no carefully made-up female classmates could only mean one thing: the girls were in a huddle around Therese.
The clutch of anxiety she had felt in her stomach the minute she stepped onto the plane in Los Angeles had not loosened. Therese had said the wake was open casket. Not said, but written on her wall via Facebook. Joanna had been too chicken to actually call Therese and talk to her. Instead she wrote on Therese’s wall that she was coming to the funeral. Now she was afraid to see Mark dead; on Facebook he was still so alive in photos and posts. It was unsettling to imagine her promiscuous high school friend in this new role of widow.
Joanna followed her mother through double doors thick with white paint. Two funeral directors walked around in their charcoal suits, chatting mildly with everyone. Though no one knew these men outside the context of the funeral home, they were immediately and uniformly treated as intimates.
Joanna’s mother didn’t need any help; she understood the intricacies of wake protocol. Right now she was tilting her head, very slightly, toward the front of the room where the casket was, where Therese was surrounded by the girls (now women) from high school. As Joanna followed her mother to the front, she knew she should already be standing closest to Therese; in high school she had been Therese’s best friend. These other women had been seriously peripheral. As they approached Therese and the casket, Joanna attempted mental contact with Mark. Remember rolling joints on somebody’s kitchen table? You were so jovial! Remember kissing once when we were all stoned and Therese was in the bathroom, back when everybody was attracted to everybody else? Joanna worried that wherever Mark was, he was lonely. That was what the wake seemed to be proving. Mark was stuck at the front of the room where people only went for a moment, knelt down, struggled through or faked a prayer, and then walked away to find someone who could have an actual conversation.
“Excuse me, girls.” Joanna’s mother employed the prickly voice she had used regularly when Joanna and Jude were young. She retained it now, almost exclusively, for requests of assistance in understaffed department stores. There was a murmur of miffed surprise from the women, but they grudgingly stepped aside.
Joanna opened her arms and Therese fell into them. Therese was one of very few women Joanna had ever met who wore Fracas. The tuberose and jasmine appealed to Joanna; she tried to wear it once, but the scent felt out of character, a too glamorous costume.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Joanna’s mother, placing her hand on Therese’s back.
“It’s okay, Mrs. A,” said Therese. “It’s okay.”
“I know Mark is in heaven.”
Joanna didn’t know how her mother could make such an uncomplicated and opinionated statement about the afterlife.
Therese pulled herself out of Joanna’s arms. “Thanks, Mrs. A. I appreciate that.” She looked and sounded worn out in the exact way she had looked and sounded when they were in high school and hung out in the city at night and then raced to Penn Station with the hopes of getting the 2:15 a.m. train back to Lynbrook. They were finished with boys, dance clubs, and drugs, and wanted to go home. They usually just missed the train and sat in Penn Station eating stale popcorn, waiting for the 4:45. Therese fantasized audibly about the fluffy pillows on her bed while Joanna smoked cigarettes. Penn Station wasn’t cleaned up back in 1985. It smelled terrible.
“How are you, Therese?” In the face of death, Joanna felt that everything she said sounded tepid and lame.
“Not good,” Therese said darkly. “I feel strange.” The girls around Therese began to drift away. Joanna knew that a couple of them had also fooled around with Mark before he and Therese had gotten together. More than fooled around.
A priest was at the opposite end of the room, talking to Mark’s parents. He looked East Indian. Joanna remembered this from the tail-end of her church-going days. Fewer of the priests had come from Brooklyn. She found herself thinking about her father’s wake and her grandmother’s before that. Her grandmother had died of lung cancer. Jude and several uncles had spent most of the wake smoking, more weary than defiant, in the designated lounge.
The crowd at Mark’s wake was surging. The guys on the steps had come inside, including a little pack of men from the financial district, where Mark had worked. You could tell by their suits, which actually fit. Joanna wondered which of them had lost their jobs, which were becoming extra rich as a result of the current financial crisis, which had contributed, in any way, to Mark’s stroke.
“I don’t feel well.” Therese was swaying.
“Are you going to faint?” Joanna’s mother grabbed one of Therese’s elbows. Joanna grabbed the other.
“Maybe I’m hungry? I haven’t eaten.”
“Come on.” Joanna pulled Therese past Mark’s casket. “We need to go out for a little while,” she murmured to one of the funeral directors. He was balding, but his shoulders looked huge, like he regularly lifted weights. “Can you help us?”
“The widow is starving,” said Joanna’s mother, hooking her thumb at Therese.
“Follow me,” he said, turning to a door that he had to unlock.
So they did.
At the diner Therese ordered a hamburger “with a very small pile of fries.”
“Onion rings and a Coke,” requested Joanna’s mother.
“I’ll have a tuna sandwich on rye with lettuce.” Joanna finished reading the impressive list of cocktails at the back of the menu; diners in Los Angeles did not serve booze. “And a Tom Collins.”
“In that case,” said her mother, “change my Coke to a Seven and Seven.”
The waiter, a dapper man permanently impatient from years of serving stoned kids with the munchies, looked at Therese.
“Red wine,” she said. “Just whatever.”
Joanna’s mother pulled a piece of bread from the basket the waiter had deposited on the table, buttered it, and handed it to Therese.
“Eat that,” she said. “And drink your water. And then the wine won’t be overwhelming.”
Therese nodded and did as she was told. Joanna wished there had been a way to leave her mother at the wake, but there had been zero opportunity to palm her off on Therese’s or Mark’s parents, her contemporaries. If her mother weren’t here she could really talk to Therese. On Facebook there were several pictures of Mark and Therese with the dark-haired toddler they had adopted from Russia. In these photos Mark and Therese looked like new parents: their large smiles could not hide underlying expressions of shock. The little boy looked both confused and happy.
Therese was chewing her bread with her eyes closed, one hand around her glass of wine, as if the glass were an anchor. In the harsh light of the diner her mother’s red lipstick and scarf were garishly orange; Therese’s hair, which looked like it had been professionally blown out, was mashed down completely on one side. Joanna tried not to catch her own image flashing in the mirrors that lined the walls. Maybe tonight she would burn the pink shawl in her father’s old backyard Weber after her mother went to sleep.
Even though they all looked terrible, Joanna felt a tremendous empathy for everyone in the diner. This always happened to her when she came home. She was never homesick in California, but when she came back to New York, everyone seemed so unself-consciously alive with their big noses and leather jackets, their shellacked nails and grating voices. She was even half in love with the funeral director who, once he understood the situation, had walked them briskly to his car and began driving so quickly that none of them had latched their seat belts. His urgency, combined with their lack of restraint, felt sexy. So did the fact that right now he was waiting outside for them with the car. “Take your time,” he had told them. “I’ll be here.”
Joanna sipped her drink; the last time she’d had a Tom Collins was at Therese’s wedding a few years ago. At the beginning of the reception, she had repeatedly shared pictures of her husband and kids, but by the end she found herself sitting too close to one of Mark’s cute Irish cousins, murmuring jokes, listening to his stories about the bar he owned in Queens, enjoying the feeling of his leg pressed against hers under the table, clicking into a deliciously flirtatious groove until she remembered she was married and reluctantly excused herself to the bathroom.
The waiter held their food in dishes lined up on his arm.
“I ordered the wrong thing.” Therese was shaking her head at the hamburger.
“No,” said Joanna’s mother. “It’s perfect. Eat it.”
“I wasn’t always kind to Mark.” Therese picked up the bottle of ketchup and began pouring some onto her plate. Joanna was surprised at how red it was and how quickly it came out.
“You were both very stressed.” Joanna’s mother matter-of-factly dipped a giant onion ring into Joanna’s ketchup. “You were worried about the adoption.”
“This was after the adoption. This was on the day he died.” Therese lifted her hamburger and took a bite. She chewed and cried at the same time.
Joanna’s mother lifted another onion ring and then set it back down on her plate. She took a long sip of her Seven and Seven, sighed, and looked at Joanna.
This is where my out-of-town skills come in? Joanna wanted to ask her mother. You get to do the food and I get to probe about the unkindness? She let her pink shawl fall to the floor. The only good thing was that Therese was methodically eating her hamburger, alternating each bite with sips of water and wine.
“We’re all imperfect,” Joanna began. She couldn’t help but think of the priest at the funeral home; he must get this all the time. “We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t done.” As usual she felt irritated by, as well as protective of, her mother. She took a bite of sandwich and waited for her mother or Therese to say more, but they were busy dipping the last few fries into the ketchup. The onion rings were growing limp on their plate. “Do you have a picture of Alexei?”
Therese pulled a photo from her purse. Joanna’s mother plucked it out of her hand.
“Remarkable, isn’t it? He looks just like Mark.”
Joanna looked at the photo. Like Mark, Alexei had dark hair, but there the resemblance ended. “He’s gorgeous.”
“Yes.” Therese smiled sadly. “What a crazy thing to have to tell a child. I’m already exhausted by the explanation. You’re adopted and you don’t know your adopted father because he’s dead.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Joanna’s mother.
“Why not?” Joanna was sick of her mother’s easy answers.
“That boy is going to tire you out much more than a story ever could. That’s what children do. They kill you little by little.” Joanna’s mother popped the very last fry into her mouth and wiped her hands on her napkin.
Therese looked startled.
Joanna didn’t concur out loud, though in fact, when she was away from her own needy young children, she did feel more alive.
“I’m going to use the restroom,” said Joanna’s mother. “Then I’ll pay the check.”
Joanna and Therese watched Joanna’s mother walk through the swinging doors to the bathrooms.
“Your mom’s the same,” said Therese. “I’m glad she’s gone for a minute so I can tell you about me being a total cunt.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Don’t tell me what to say or not to say, Joanna. Your husband isn’t dead. You weren’t the one sucking the electrician’s cock in the bedroom while your husband was snorting coke in the basement.”
“I thought things were better since you got Alexei—I thought Mark’s stroke—” Joanna pretended not to notice that she was shocked by Therese’s choice of words.
“Don’t be inane, Joanna! I was spending a lot of time on the computer, meeting people.” Therese leaned closer and Joanna could smell the Fracas. “I knew Mark was desperately lonely.”
Joanna grabbed an extra napkin to offer Therese before realizing that Therese had no intention of crying. She wished they had better props, like cigarettes, a better set in a less health-conscious era, a public plaza where smoke rose into a cloudless sky. Or even that they were communicating via e-mail; there would be time to compose something wise. The confused pain on Therese’s face made Joanna think of Jude. One late night in the kitchen when they were teenagers, drunk but drinking coffee before they went to sleep, Jude wore a similar expression. They were standing next to the sink. She could see their reflections in the window. He slid his hand inside her halter. At the time she had been both repulsed and gratified by his desire. Over the years she had incubated that moment and several others like it, but nothing had grown from remembering. She wished for something healing to say to Therese, some words of comfort, but all she could think of was, “How can I help?”
“You can’t help me, Joanna. No one can. I just had to tell someone.”
“Girls!” Joanna’s mother was waving at them from the counter where she was waiting in line to pay the bill. She was also pointing at the bowl of mints near the cash register.
“Come on,” said Therese. “Let’s go. I’m supposed to be at my husband’s wake.”
Joanna stood with Therese on the steps of the diner, breathing cold air while they waited for her mother to leave a tip on the table. The funeral director was leaning against his car, texting. Joanna felt her crush evaporate. She put her arm around Therese. Therese put her head on Joanna’s shoulder. For a moment Therese’s head felt heavier than one woman’s head should weigh, and then it felt normal.
Pain reverberated up Joanna’s legs. The blacktop path around the duck pond was covered with a thin layer of frost. Just a few years before the pond had been filthy, but now, due to work made possible by a grant for habitat restoration, it attracted swans along with geese, cormorants, and a variety of ducks. The fountain in the middle of the pond was actually a pump for improved aeration. Joanna wanted to hold her mother’s arm but was afraid her mother would shake her off; she had been a famously clingy child. When her grandmother had come for coffee after weekday mass, she shooed “the barnacle” out of the kitchen. Leaving for college had been difficult. Joanna cried each time she heard her mother’s voice over the phone. Her mother told her to come home if she was unhappy. Joanna knew she wasn’t that unhappy. Only when she heard her mother’s voice did her old attachment outweigh the pleasures of her new freedom.
She never moved back to New York. During her twenties and thirties she held onto the belief that her mother was the one incapable of letting go. She believed this invisible tether thwarted her and wondered if, when her mother died, it would be her turn to thrive. Now that she was in her forties it was becoming clear to Joanna that her mother a) wasn’t holding her back in any significant way and b) wasn’t going to die anytime soon. Her mother still exuded an intense vitality.
Crocuses bloomed beneath bare trees. At the far end of the pond, two enormous swans were building a nest. The pain in Joanna’s feet was unpredictable. Her arches had recently fallen. It didn’t seem to matter what shoes she wore or what she had done the previous day. Sometimes her feet hurt and sometimes they didn’t.
“Look,” said her mother. “A flicker. No, two.” They stopped for a moment and watched the birds fly up off the frozen grass into the trees.
“That’s flickers.” Her mother resumed her quick pace. She was seventy, and rather than curling up on the couch and watching more television than was good for her, her mother walked in this park every day. In the spring she and her friends did tai chi under the trees next to the pond. In the summer they swam slow laps in the pool. “Shall we cross the street and keep walking?”
When there was a break in the traffic, they ran across the street to the section of park that stretched to the Southern State Parkway. Here, instead of a manicured pond, a stream swirled through sandy riverbeds. This part of the park always reminded Joanna of the giant dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, the one with the Native American man standing on the beach with a spear, his wife and children sitting on the sand, fixing nets. A mallard and her ducklings disappeared inside the tunnel that went under the street Joanna and her mother had just crossed.
“What are you going to wear tonight? I have my gray dress. Do you think that’s all right?” A coquettish undertone rippled beneath her mother’s question.
“You’re coming again tonight?” Joanna knew she was glowering.
“Why shouldn’t I go? I’ve known Therese since she was a kid. She used to date your brother, remember? Now she lives in my neighborhood. She called to tell me about Mark. She invited me to the wake. She didn’t say you can come one night but not the next.” Her mother had stopped walking and was speaking behind her binoculars. “We’re friends.”
Oh, really? Joanna was tempted to say. How much do you really know about your pal Therese? And when’s the last time you saw Jude? Joanna hadn’t seen him in years. She could find every kid from her high school graduating class online, but her own brother was determined to remain hidden. It appeared that his survival entailed cutting her off.
“There are black-crowned night herons nesting in this tree.” Joanna’s mother handed over the binoculars. “Your father and I discovered them a few years ago.”
Joanna felt the icy asphalt through the thin soles of her sneakers. For a moment she couldn’t remember whether the sun was going down or coming up. Flying across the country made her disoriented.
“That’s one of the parents. They’ve probably laid their eggs. Usually one of them is sitting on the nest. Your father and I watched them build it the first year they arrived.” Her mother resumed her brisk stride then stopped again and held up a hand for the binoculars. She wanted to examine two small birds hopping from bush to bush.
“How do you think Therese is doing?” Joanna asked. She knew the question sounded fishy. Why not just say, “Let’s talk about Therese so we don’t have to talk about us.” Her mother was still trying to identify the sparrows or chickadees or whatever they were. Joanna wondered if maybe her therapist (whom she was no longer seeing: too expensive, too Freudian) had been right. Maybe she was still attributing magical powers, like mind reading, to her mother. Maybe it was time to grow up. Joanna always got the feeling that the therapist didn’t like her. Whenever she’d complained about her insurance not covering the therapy, the therapist called therapy “a lifestyle choice” and stared at Joanna’s admittedly expensive boots. Joanna never got up the nerve to tell the therapist that the many hours of joy the boots had given her was far greater than the joy that resulted from two fifty-minute therapy sessions, though the cost was approximately the same.
“How do I think Therese is doing?” Her mother was walking again. The path they were on was a loop that would bring them back to the stream where the mallards disappeared. It was probably a mile long. “Therese will never be the same again, ever. Her husband just died.”
Since childhood Joanna had been interpreting her mother’s real messages from the words she didn’t say. The current translation went like this: Her mother was a widow too. Joanna had no idea how this felt. This very minute in California her healthy husband was probably riding his bike up a mountain. Wasn’t her mother also implying that Joanna’s experience of her father’s death must first be filtered through her mother’s loss of her husband?
It was this kind of confusing train of thought that had led Joanna to therapy in the first place. Her therapist often seemed more intrigued by stories about Jude and about her father than about her mother, but there just wasn’t that much to say about either of them, at least in the present tense. Jude refused to have a relationship with her after she moved to California. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe he felt abandoned. Maybe he was ashamed about their past. Or maybe he was jealous that she got away and he didn’t. Her father was simpler. He had been kind but aloof, then ill, then dead. One way to look at it was this: Her father and brother only existed in the past. Her mother existed in the past and in the present and at this moment Joanna had the urge to rattle her.
“Therese told me the truth about her and Mark.”
“Therese was fucking someone else! Mark had a drug problem!” Joanna was sweating. She felt as enraged at her mother as she did at sixteen, when she believed all the sad facts of the world to be her mother’s fault.
“Why are you always so shocked about everything?”
It was a good question. Joanna did not attempt a reply. “It’s getting dark,” she said instead. Old-fashioned streetlights were coming on along the path, but the nostalgic yellow light they emitted made it more difficult to see than if there had been no light at all.
“Are you afraid?”
“Of course I’m not afraid.” Joanna was scanning the woods for a big stick. There might be a man darting through the bushes. Whenever it was dark, she habitually thought of a dangerous man. Once again she felt protective of her mother, but irritated too; her mother was the one always getting them into these precarious situations.
Up ahead was an old building where the bathrooms were located. There were also seesaws and swings and a thing to climb on made of interlocking metal pipes. Joanna and Jude had played here when they were kids. This wasn’t a new brightly colored safety-oriented playground with a rubberized surface to fall on. The slide was literally thirty feet high. There was a metal merry-go-round. These were never installed in the refurbished playgrounds where she took her own children. It was strange how often she forgot she even had children when she was with her mother.
She had to pee, but it was still winter; the bathrooms were undoubtedly locked. If there was a man in the bushes he was now waiting for them to get to the most remote point in the loop trail so he could jump out from behind the building and attack them. A man could easily be hiding inside one of those painted concrete tunnels it had been so much fun to jump on and slide off with Jude.
“Do you miss Dad?” If her father had been with them, Joanna knew she wouldn’t be afraid.
“Yes,” said her mother. “No.”
“You do or you don’t?”
“Your father was a hard man to live with.”
“Joanna.” Her mother stopped walking. “I felt very alone.”
“What about me and Jude?”
“Don’t be obtuse. Tell me if you don’t want to hear it. You asked, but maybe you don’t want to know.”
“I want to know.” Joanna wasn’t sure this was true.
“There were times I was so frustrated that I used to wonder whether it might be better to live alone.” Her mother’s voice was sad. In the distance hummed the faint sound of traffic on the Southern State Parkway. Joanna strained to hear the rustle of leaves that would indicate from which direction the deranged man would spring. Instead she heard two short hoots followed by one long one. The sound came closer. It was two sounds, coming from opposite directions. Even she could ID that sound. Owls, calling back and forth. Her mother’s expression changed; her eyes opened wide with delight.
“Well, do you know this?” Joanna felt the urge to destroy her mother’s easy pleasure. “Do you know that several times growing up Jude begged me to kiss him and I did? Do you know that he asked me to sleep with him?”
“No,” said her mother. “I knew you were close, but I didn’t know about that.” Her response came too quickly, as if she had been waiting years to say it.
In the lamplight Joanna watched their separate exhalations mingle into one swirl of mist. Her mother’s skin looked as though it was made out of a soft, clothlike paper. “You didn’t know or you didn’t want to know?”
Her mother continued to look out at the trees. There was nothing to see now because the woods were dark, but the owls were still audible. Joanna could hear their wings as they settled onto branches.
“Go ahead and press me,” said her mother. “Squeeze me like a grape. I said I didn’t know and I didn’t know! Did I want to know? Would you want to know something like that? Sometimes I tried not to pay too much attention to you two.”
“That’s a really great parenting strategy. I’ll have to try it.” Joanna knew she sounded viciously self-righteous.
Her mother laughed and started walking again. “What would I have done if I knew? Tell you not to kiss each other? Your kids aren’t teenagers yet. Wait and see how easy it is to tell them what not to do.” Joanna’s mother was walking so quickly it looked like she might walk right out into the road that separated the two parts of the park. Joanna took her mother’s elbow and waited for a break in traffic. She felt ashamed, relieved, still angry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t help you,” said her mother. “I’m sorry you’ve been troubled. Hurt. I’m sorry.” They crossed the street together. The path was much better lit on this side of the park. Her mother lifted the binoculars from around her neck. “Ugh,” she said. “These are getting heavy.”
Joanna held the binoculars, now useless in the dark.
“Do you know,” said her mother, walking again, “that I’ve come to believe that there are worse things in the world than inappropriate sex?”
Joanna knew the word “inappropriate” was a kind of blanket parents pulled from the closet out of helplessness; she used it on her own children. Her mother had apologized, but it didn’t feel like enough.
What do you want? The voice asking this question didn’t belong to her mother. Her mother was marching along, criticized, brittle, actively silent. They walked back past the pond toward the car. The swans were out there near their nest. They looked like large smudges of light. The rest of the geese and ducks were invisible. It didn’t matter where the voice came from. Joanna could answer it. She didn’t want to berate her mother. She wanted her brother to be more than a memory. She wanted to see Jude.
On the second night of the wake, reunion and bafflement were morphing into grief. Several women from high school were holding onto one another. Crying teenagers filled an entire row of seats. The East Indian priest sat facing a man whose head was clasped in his hands. Mark’s and Therese’s parents stood near Mark’s coffin, receiving condolences. Joanna’s mother touched the arm of Therese’s mother and embraced her. Mark’s mother’s hairdo involved teasing. Light gleamed through it.
“God bless you,” said Joanna’s mother. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Tears filled her eyes. She put her arms around Mark’s mother and then his dad, a tall, ancient, furrowed Mark. His chin was on his chest, his eyes closed. He opened his eyes. They were all looking at Joanna. It seemed silly to repeat exactly what her mother had said, as if she were her mother’s Mini-Me.
“I’m so sorry about Mark.” They would accept whatever imperfect effort she made; here she was still primarily a daughter. She felt acutely sad for her mother. Her mother had already lost her mate. The still-alive fathers were so tall. The mothers were shrinking. The mass of people at the wake felt as though it was pressing in, suffocating her. Or maybe she just wanted to walk around and find someone she could talk to. The funeral parlor was comprised of a copious number of small adjoining rooms. She had the sudden irrational feeling that if she wandered around long enough she could find just the right room where her father would be sitting alone, perusing the sports page.
Joanna proceeded to the hugs. Each of the parents wore a different cologne.
“You’re a good friend,” said Therese’s father. The rims of his eyes were red and wet; it hurt to look at them. “Do you still like California more than New York?”
“Really, Paul. It’s not the time.” Gigantic gold earrings hung from Therese’s mother’s powdery lobes.
Joanna wanted to say, the loss of Mark’s life leaves an enormous blank space we’ll never fill, or, the one I’m really sorry for is Therese; except maybe Therese isn’t that sad, maybe in fact she’s been set free. She also quashed the urge to tell them that Mark had been an extraordinary kisser.
“California is very beautiful.” Mark’s mother’s once-dark hair was now completely white, but her accusatory tone was the same. Each line on her face appeared etched by anger, hurt, or disappointment. “Last fall we went to Big Sur.”
Joanna imagined Mark’s mother sitting in an old beatnik coffee house, wearing a velour tracksuit and clean white sneakers.
It was extremely disorienting to see Therese step into the room from a door located next to Mark’s coffin. She was pulling her son by the hand and marching past the coffin as if it were only a piece of furniture.
“Mom, will you watch Alexei?” Alexei pushed his stiff black shoes into the carpet.
Mark’s father opened his eyes again. “Give the boy to me.”
The presence of a child seemed to soothe all the grandparents. Alexei popped his thumb into his mouth, resigned.
Therese took Joanna’s hand and pulled. Joanna walked guiltily past Mark. She still hadn’t paused, knelt down, prayed.
“Check out this room.” Therese sat down on an old-fashioned settee. The room had no window. There was one end table, and on it a square box of tissues. “My own little room. I’m a widow now. A widow in a little room.”
“Is it dumb to ask how you’re doing?”
“All I can report is that I’ve decided not to kill myself. Can you imagine? The poor kid gets ripped from his culture only to have his spoiled fucked-up American parents commit double suicide. What would happen to Alexei? You saw them all out there. Our parents are old now.”
Joanna sat down next to Therese. The settee was as hard and uncomfortable as it looked. This is what the wake was for, wasn’t it, to show them that now everything was going to be different. Death wasn’t some static event. It was pushing them out of their previous places. The funeral directors pretended to comfort, but really they were field guides shepherding everyone through the disorienting transition.
“Don’t look so panicky, Joanna.” A tiny grin flitted across Therese’s face. “I said I’m not going to commit suicide. I just want to ask you if you’ll take Alexei if something happens to me later on, down the road. Something like breast cancer. I’m not planning to overdose or burn down the house. Can I name you in my will? Your kids are sweet. Your husband isn’t crazy. You know my sister is too much of a mess—she’s not even here—and Mark is an only child.”
“Of course we’ll take Alexei.” Joanna imagined the small-boned boy riding a tricycle on the sidewalk in front of her house while her own muscular son and daughter looped figure eights on their bikes in the street.
“Thank you,” said Therese. “I have to get back.” She stood up. So did Joanna. The room was tiny. They were like too-big dolls in a too-small house.
“You know,” said Therese. “When we finally got Alexei and brought him home, Mark was so freaking happy. He was literally crying himself to sleep with happiness every night. I was the one who didn’t really know if I could do it. I was pretty sure I couldn’t be a good mother. I wasn’t particularly good at being a wife.” Therese smiled wryly. Joanna took her bony hand. “I’ve told you everything else, so I’ll tell you this now too. I forced the electrician to leave even though he begged to stay and help. When the paramedics arrived it wasn’t any use; at some point they stopped trying to revive Mark and piled him onto a stretcher. Something opened up in me. I swear my heart ruptured. The paramedics didn’t want to leave me alone, but I told them I couldn’t go with them; my son was sleeping. When the ambulance drove away I ran into Alexei’s room. I was sure that I would be punished. My husband was dead and so was my son. Alexei was in his toddler bed. He wasn’t asleep. He had his thumb in his mouth, his fingers curled around the satin trim of the blanket. He was looking out the window at this big fat robin sitting on the branch of this tree. It was so close to the window I could see every mark on its breast. It looked like it was looking at Alexei. The two of them looked stunned, entranced.” Therese removed her hand from Joanna’s and flipped her hair over her shoulders in a gesture from high school. The scent of her perfume filled the room.
In addition to feeling homesick when she was in New York, Joanna also often felt claustrophobic. This tiny room wasn’t helping. She felt like a character in a Greek myth who couldn’t find her way out of the underworld. Her hand was on the doorknob.
“One more thing,” said Therese. She looked suddenly excited and alive, and Joanna knew that whatever she was about to say was about a man she wanted to fuck. “Jude sent me a text. He’s going to be here tomorrow. He’s coming to the funeral.”
The morning of the funeral mass was cold and damp. The inside of the church felt cloudy, as if filled with old dust, old incense, old prayers not strong enough to break through the roof, slowly disintegrating in the rafters. Mark’s casket had been placed near the altar. Once again it was open. A kneeler was in front of it, but no one was kneeling there. Everyone was keeping a safe distance in the pews. Mark’s father was holding Alexei, who appeared to be asleep on his grandfather’s shoulder. Therese was sequestered between her parents and Mark’s.
Joanna recognized many people in the church from the wake. It felt a little like the morning after a wedding reception, the breakfast where people either pretended they hadn’t been drunk on the dance floor the night before, or relished telling the story of their antics. Only this was much quieter, more reserved. People smiled sadly at one another. Joanna didn’t think she saw Jude. She’d seen a recent photo of him at her mother’s house and had been startled by how large and thick he had become. It made her wonder what he would see when he saw her. Lines in her face? Gray in her hair? It was hard to believe that they were the same lithe people who had kissed on schoolyard jungle gyms in the moonlight.
Joanna’s mother led the way down the center aisle of the church, genuflected, and slid into a pew. Joanna did not follow her, but instead continued walking until she was directly in front of the altar. She stood staring at Christ on his cross. Lenny Kravitz, Mick Jagger, and the lead singer from the Black Crowes (she never remembered his name) all reminded her of this full-lipped narrow-hipped mostly naked Jesus hanging in the church of her childhood. She had received first communion here, been confirmed, and gotten married, all in exactly this spot. Then she’d tired of the Catholic version of the famous story: the Son suffering for the sins of the world; God the father with the power to forgive; Mary, the mother, confined to her alcove, allowed neither God-like status nor sex; the Holy Spirit wafting in like something out of Ghostbusters, completing the familial triangle. And look around, she used to argue in her head, the world is still full of sin and suffering. She began to enter churches as any tourist might, admiring the statues, patronizing the faithful. Catholicism was a language she had willed herself to forget. Only now she was wondering if some of what she had learned, albeit flawed, might not be useful.
She turned to Mark’s casket and knelt. Mark wore an impassive expression, one he had never used in real life. Joanna folded her hands into a giant fist. Okay, she directed at Mark. We both know Therese. She’s thrilling and fun. She’s daring and crazy. That’s what we love about her, right? Mark’s lack of response felt purposeful, passive-aggressive, detached. His skin was the wrong color, as if he were made of the same creamy substance as the flowers near his head. Joanna continued to talk to him as if he could hear every word. You knew what you were getting into and you went into it anyway. She wanted to shove Mark’s shoulder, wake him up, beg him to quit horsing around, to come out, come out, wherever he was. At least her father had been old when he died, though this wasn’t exactly a comfort. Jude wasn’t dead, but wasn’t the effect basically the same? No. With a death there was a body, inert but real. She touched Mark’s cold neck. She wouldn’t realize she was crying until later, when she noticed her stomach no longer hurt.
People had begun rustling in the pews. She lifted her head and looked behind her. Everyone in the church was standing; all she could see was the backs of everyone’s heads. Priests and altar boys were entering the church, processing down the center aisle. Joanna stood and walked quickly down the side aisle to her mother’s pew. Her mother was that woman in every church, the one seeking strength. A man in a charcoal suit stood closer to her mother than a stranger would stand. His gaze met Joanna’s. Jude. For a moment she was back in the dark woods. She began to step over kneelers and climb past people at the end of the pew, working her way down the narrow space, trying not to trip or step on a foot. She knew that Jude wouldn’t offer his hand and that they wouldn’t hug. He would smell like cigarettes, and she would stand next to him.