Across the desolate wasteland I drag myself by my bony digits, each caked in layers of sand mixed with blood hardened into some almost concrete substance. Hardly a body, I am barely alive. More like a feeble creature composed of mere skin and bones; some animate, three-dimensional stick figure vacuum-packed in a form-fitting, dilapidated epidermis baked to a light brown beneath the relentless rays of the desert sun. So far have I traveled up and down these dunes across this dusty tundra, so long past any reasonable estimated point of expiration. Why? Simple: because in this dramatic metaphor for my path through life I am at the same time immortal. I am subject to dying, but never death; the pathway of suffering without the release of reaching the final destination. I am bound to dying, verb; eternally shunned by death, noun.
Then comes the oasis. You turn to look at me like that again — nay, into me. Its like the cool drink of water I never thought my chapped and broken lips would moisten themselves with again; the refreshing, smooth experience my scorched throat had long ago lost any hope of being massaged by. Loaded looks exchanged; silent conversations. Swift sips with every brief moment of eye contact you allow me. It at once revitalizes me and kills me. I like you too much. Care for you at too deep a depth. How has this strong connection between us not died by now? How can you bear me? How can this fire you light inside me not only cease to be snuffed out, but grow, refine itself, mature, strengthen? This is unprecedented. Its the kind of painful passion I have the courage to express now in my sudden descent into a liberating madness, but not the opportunity; reverse of the situation so long ago, when I had the open window but remained perpetually wary of leaping through it.
Its so childish of me to despise your husband so much. To say the cruel things I say about him in my head, but as far as I can see and feel there’s no passion between you two, no real link, but maybe its just some infantile jealousy that blinds me. I can be such a spiteful monster. Such a judgmental prick.
Some girls you see, you find yourself overlooking imperfections as if to make them fit some preexisting mould in your head without knowing the source of that structure. Looking at you, my dear, takes no effort at all; my eyes merely need to open wide and take you in. I need not overlook anything. From inside those eyes, to those eyes themselves, to the body to which they belong, I know you are She against whom I judge the rest against. I want to swallow you. I need to violate you sensuously.
Your husband just beside you. Your children at your knees. Relatives surrounding you and your mother, mere ashes, resting within an urn on the table at some distance behind you.
My parents light up when you walk to them, and they hug you. They had been afraid that they wouldn’t recognize you, but I told them not to worry. You looked the same. No one could mistake those vivid, ocean eyes as belonging to anyone else. All the while I stand to the side, smiling like a loon, the weight of social customs wasting no time bearing down on me. Yes, this is rather unacceptable, I tell myself, as this is a memorial service for your mother. I try to fight it, I know this is about a time of mourning, I know its an inappropriate mood for me to be in, but I’m just so happy to see you that I cannot help myself. I am entranced. I want to reverse time. Or erase what its done. I want to keep you. I want to take you away. I want a moment with you alone. Anywhere, and right now. Anywhere but here. The weight of rules embraced by the cultural herd continues to rain down upon me, my ego an insufficient umbrella. Yes, considering the circumstances, I am an inconsiderate prick.
Outside, when I ditched my parents for a smoke, I saw you coming out of the car, your hair dyed a dark, reddish-brown. It looks so you. So alluring. You’re dressed dark and beautiful. I walked over, shook hands with your husband, hugged you lightly — curse his presence; I desired to drown there — and shook hands with a girl you introduced as your sister from California. Like most California girls I’ve met in my life — all California girls, come to think of it — she was good-looking and had an insatiable look in her eyes. If you hadn’t been there, my jaw would have dropped to the floor, embraced by a dirty crater of its own making; next to you, however, she shrunk to pathetic insignificance, like a once-bright star drowned out by the radiance of the bellowing sun.
And she was there, too, that raw and wonderful character. Your cousin, the woman I hold up so high in my heart and mind because it seems to me that she is the only caretaker in your life you got dropped into the hands of that ever had the heart to truly take you in with both hands and care for you as her own. I can never hope to express how grateful I am for the fact that she exists. In my eyes, your parents perpetually abandoned you, as so many relatives did; she welcomed you with open arms. Surrounded by so many so dreadfully emotionally distant from you, she is the one who held you close, and I think you feel that, too. I don’t think she has any idea how deeply I respect her.
Just as its about to begin, just as we’re about to follow the so-called religious authorities into that room like a line of cattle led to the slaughter, in the door comes your cousin, Dante, long hair tied back, mustache grown now to the form of handlebars. The man through whom I was graced with meeting you.
We are all led inside. My parents and I sit in the third and last row to be occupied; my mother lets me go in first. For what seems like forever the priest goes on with his ritual, his rite, his voice sounding like a nasally robot, like Dan Akroyd when he played the role of a Conehead in his Saturday Night Live skit. My body, throughout the entire service, was like a clenched fist, flooded with tension. My leg kept bouncing, and my mother kept putting her hand on my knee to stop it, but no matter how many times I consciously ceased I would unconsciously and automatically find it bouncing up and down again.
My stomach started acting up, gurgling as it often does, and I could not silence it. With the first whine from my stomach, my mother’s head quickly jolts towards me. I don’t look at her, because then I’d loose it. Burst this tension in a convulsion of guffawing. My face began to redden, I felt the impulse to laugh at myself, had to clench my teeth, breathe deep, look to the side. Do not burst out laughing at a funeral.
And then the priest began his robotic Conehead voice again, and I felt the laughter bubbling to the surface, aching to break free. No, I begged myself, Do not do this. If anyone has been watching you and your parents whispering, if anyone has caught a glimpse of your face or body language, you no doubt already appear as some insensitive shit. Keep your heresy silent out of respect for her.
Soon the preacher said something that struck me wrong, gravely wrong, and my mood changed; at a level, I was almost thankful. The droning voice went on, the singing went on, the stories, like those of Lazarus. Suddenly everyone stood and my parents and I thought we heard the priest say that if you are of the Catholic religion and want to come up to pray, you may do so now. All my life I felt like a fish out of water, but never so naturally, obviously excommunicated as now, I was certain. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt a history here, but I knew now more than ever that this place was not my place, that I had no place it in, that I never did, did not, and never could belong. My mother turns to me and whispers almost inaudibly, as an obvious joke, “You want to go up there?”
My response was immediate an impulsive; I turned my head to her abruptly, shot her a look of disgust and said, “Fuck no!”
I had dropped the F-bomb in front of my mother and in a church, neither of which really bothered me, but I feared might have bothered you, or those close to you, all of whom were around me and might have heard me and taken it as a sign of disrespect for you, and for the dead. I looked away, wincing, wincing ever more intensely within. Had anyone heard me? I hoped not.
Someone then tugged at my leg. My parents were sitting down. Everyone else was standing, but my parents were sitting down. I questioned her in a whisper, and she said that they weren’t going up there, so we should sit down. so I sat down. Just the three of us, as all of the others were standing. We waited for almost all of them to go up and pray as we stayed behind, all of us committed heretics, but no one ever did go up as far as I could see. Eventually, all of them sat down again, and my parents and I exchanged confused glances. I felt like a naive anthropologist who was unintentionally insulting due to his lack of familiarity with tribal customs. Again, I hoped that no one had noticed. I was increasingly worried about my F-bomb and if anyone had heard it.
Finally, the priest indicates the end of the service, and we all rise in preparation for departing out the slow cattle march down the hall. I can see you, as I could the entire service, and there is conversation between you and those around you. I watch as you turn your head to the door and say quite distinctly, “Motherfucker!” I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable with you than I did right then. Happy as I was for that, I was concerned and curious as to what was going on. Your husband ran down the side isle and out the doors and the rest departed in a slow march.
There had been these people sitting to the left of us the entire time, and I knew that they had been watching my parents and I, and they now stood to the side, facing all of us as we made our measured exit. I hoped they were members of the church and not your family, as from their perspective, I am sure they saw everything. After we were out of that room, I began to feel a little better, a little less claustrophobic. I wanted to fucking run for the hills. My parents were pushing to leave. My mother was especially hungry, and judged from my stomach gurgling during the service that I was as well. And I was rather hungry, to be honest, but I wanted to be around you as much as possible, but I had come with them and was not prepared to drive my car from their house to Mentor, where I was bound to get lost.
I distanced from them and gravitated towards the circle that had formed around you. Apparently some aunt of yours who had not spoken to your mother in years had arrived at the funeral unexpectedly, sat in the back and acted like she was so much better than everyone and then left abruptly, hence the “motherfucker!” from you and your husband’s swift scuttle down the isle. You asked if I were coming, and I said I couldn’t, and hugged you goodbye, shook your husbands hand, shook the hand of your sexy-eyed sister, then the hand of Dante, and couldn’t find anyone else. My parents really wanted to leave, so I followed them out the door. Left you behind.
Why couldn’t you stay here in Ohio, leave Iowa behind? It was an insane question, I know, but I miss being around you so much. I feel like shit for being so happy and excited at a funeral, but I got to see you, and I can’t smother that selfish glee in me, no matter how hard I tried to fit in for just a moment, no matter how offensive I attempted not to be in consideration of the circumstances. A mother to whom you were never close had died. A father who was never really there for you now expected you to be there for him in his time of guilt and mourning. My heart ached for you. It always does.
As we approached the car, I tried desperately to suck down my cigarette, as my parents were entering the car, more than ready to go. A big-bellied man came down the steps. He had a beard and I think I remembered him, however faintly, from years ago. From the one time I had met your parents when they came to pick you up from my parents house during high school. I was sure it was your father. His eyes met mine. I confirmed who he was, and shook his hand as he approached me. It felt awkward saying it, but I knew I had to say something, and I didn’t know what else to say. I felt so fucking alien.
I said to him, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
And then he burst like a dam. Bled to me like a sieve. She had the tumor since she was young, it was decades old, he told me, and the doctors said that even if she had been given MRIs all along there was nothing they could have done. It was inoperable. But he was supposed to go first, not her. He guessed it was meant to be, that it was what god wanted, and I bit my tongue.
Nothing is meant to be. Things just happen, I wanted to tell him. The guilt in the man was clear and unbearable. He should have taken his wife to the hospital, yes; his daughter should not have had to call an ambulance from states away. And it was unfair nonetheless that he had to sit by his wife’s bedside and watch her die, yes. But these things happen. Life is no fairy tale. There is no God or Devil. No Good and Evil. And what you call Good so rarely triumphs, so don’t go down with the vessel of false hope expecting a happily ever after.
Its not your fault, it is merely the ways of this impersonal universe. Nothing is meant to happen; things just happen, and then you’re left to manufacture your own meaning in the wake. You always want what you don’t have; this is natural. You rarely appreciate what you have, and you never really know what you had until its gone.
Again, life is no fairy tale, I want to tell him. At best, what you have at the end is a Shakespearean tragedy.
But I don’t say anything. I just let him talk, let him spill to me. I listen to his voice, his face, his body language, his eyes. His story. In the end, he shakes my hand and thanks me for coming before turning around and exiting with tears in his eyes. I watch him go for a moment before turning towards the truck’s door.
I get one more look at you before my parents back up and drive me away.
I hope to hell you’re all right.