The New York Times chastises me in a headline: “You are making your biscuits wrong.”
Seriously? There’s not enough I’m dealing with, what with everyone’s feelings about the compost bucket and the college-savings situation and the typo in my reading-series poster at work that has an event falling on the equivocal “Tursday”—I have to be scolded by a recipe?
And in the body of a different Times story: “A frittata ought not be considered a vehicle for random bits of leftovers.” Oh, ought it not? Not even last night’s home fries? Fuck you.
I have this written down as a note to myself, these two lines from the food section of the paper, and when my fourteen-year-old daughter Birdy asks me about them, I laugh and say, “They’re so judgmental. It makes me angry!”
And she says gently, confused, “Like a metaphor?”
And I say, truthfully, “I really don’t know.”
In our town library’s online system, when you click the box to push back your book’s due date, a panicky little warning screen pops up: “Are you sure you wish to renew the selected item(s)?” Um, thank you for the abundance of caution, but yes. I am. On the off-chance that the continued borrowing of a book suddenly fills me with sorrow and regret, I will go ahead and return it early. Where’s that screen when you really need it, though?
“Are you sure you wish to have a third beer(s)?”
“Are you sure you wish to pick a fight with your husband because he sighed irritably while lighting the dinner-table candle(s)?”
“Are you sure you wish to pop your pimple(s) with a dirty safety pin?”
Over an enchilada casserole, our seventeen-year-old Ben says, “Remember when we watched that one pregnant pig watch that other pig who was already in labor? How the pig in labor was just, like, shuddering and screaming, and the pregnant pig was just so tragically bug-eyed and afraid? So, yeah. It’s like that. ” He is describing junior year of high school.
Birdy is suddenly furious about a song from Doctor Doolittle. “I’m sorry, but everyone can talk to the animals. That’s really just not that special.” A little later, she says, more curious than peeved, “Everyone’s always so sad when their goldfish dies, but it’s not like anyone’s actually happy they’re alive in the first place.”
In the basement, I spray the terrible armpits of my dirty laundry with stain-remover. It foams on contact with sweat, and all of my shirts bloom into a yeasty froth like there’s anxiety embedded in the fabric, bubbling up to the surface. The spray claims to be “oxygen-based.” What does that mean? It’s made of air?
I remember once when I was pregnant and Michael was using something toxic-smelling to strip furniture inside the house. “What even is ‘denatured alcohol’?” I’d asked, and he’d said, cheerful, “I think it’s just alcohol with the nature taken out!” This was not, in fact true, hence the urgent FUMES! MAYHEM! warning I subsequently read out loud from the can.
Ben muses sleepily, a propos nothing, “Being a sunscreen vendor at a nude beach. Now that’s a busy job!”
My dermatologist, who is not famous for seeming human, gestures at my body to his nurse, who’s taking notes. “Moderate sun damage on the upper chest,” he says to her, and then to me, “That’s from not wearing sunscreen.”
“Ugh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
And he says, “Oh, don’t be. I don’t care.”
I laugh. “I don’t think not caring is what you want to project. I mean, I’m sure you care.”
And he says, unsmiling, “I really actually don’t.” I raise my eyebrows and wink at the nurse, and she laughs.
In my dream, I’m on the toilet, toilet paper wound anticipatorily around my fist, when I suddenly notice the spectacular sunset, the sky graduating from navy to flame. “Check out the view,” I say, embarrassed, to the crowd of people that’s approaching. As it turns out, I’m taking a dump on an exposed mountaintop.
I go to the dentist with a toothache and he makes me bite on the bitey stick to determine definitively which tooth needs a root canal. It is very Little Shop of Horrors. Bite, bite, bite, PAIN—like a Jack-in-the-box, but one that jumps out and smashes an electrocuting mallet into your jaw. “Can we just, kind of, guess at it?” I say, and the dentist says, “Bite down hard.”
“Oh my god!” the queer Birdy says, waving a catalogue at me. “Finally! There’s a butch American Girl doll!” Then, a minute later, peering at it deflatedly, “False alarm. I think it’s supposed to be an actual boy.”
Someone emails to see if I want to go Bollywood dancing with a big group of women. I really do! I squint and squint at the names of the other people included in the invitation, at the name of the person who sent the email. I wrack my brain. I Google the name of the proposed venue. “I’m sorry,” I write. “I don’t think we know each other. And also, I think you live in Oregon!”
“Wrong person,” she writes back.
Ben, eating grapes, observes, “Eating grapes is just a crazy exercise in relativity. At first you’re picking out the big firm ones. You’d never eat those wrinkly, soft ones! Then you eat the soft ones, but you’d never eat the squashed ones! And then you eat the squashed ones but just not the one squashed one that’s fully moldy. Your past perfect-grape-eating self would never believe how low you’ve sunk.”
Ben asks which two animals I’d pick to accompany me if I were the sole human survivor of a zombie apocalypse. When I say, “A horse, I guess, and a cat,” he laughs and shakes his head pityingly. “I don’t think you’re very familiar with zombie apocalypses.”
I say, “Okay,” after my gynecologist asks how I am, and she frowns, stands up, wraps her arms around me.
“Just okay?” A minute later she says, from beneath my left breast, “Hello! Who’s this little dangly little friend?” It’s a skin tag. “Lose or keep?” she asks, then snips it off when I answer.
“I hadn’t realized this appointment was going to be the best part of my day,” I say truthfully.
The kids explain to me what a Skittles party is: prescription pills mixed up in a bowl, and you dip in, swallow whatever. “We should have a homeopathic Skittles party!” Ben says. “Probiotics, fish oil, Rescue Remedy. Everyone can just placebo themselves into a frenzy.”
“Pew!” we cry, then lean in to inhale more deeply when the cats yawn their stinking yawns.
While I’m putting dinner on the table, my family offers an impromptu but detailed critique of the leftover noodle kugel I’m serving. They’re very cheerful and enthusiastic about it. Michael doesn’t like the cottage cheese! Birdy, much to her own surprise, turns out to dislike pineapple in this context, even though she usually loves it! Ben’s just not a real fan of the eggytexture! They wait politely for me to finish serving them before they eat. I am wearing an actual apron. “Bon appetit, motherfuckers,” I say, and they laugh, dig in.
In my dream, my dead friend Ali is alive after all and calls me from hospice. “You haven’t visited me in ages!” she says, and I say, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry. I thought you were actually… uh. … not receiving visitors.” Her husband dreams that he’s sneaking a cigarette in the backyard and she is suddenly standing in the doorway. “Oh!” he says, hiding the cigarette behind his back. “I didn’t expect to see you!”
“Can we just dream that she’s alive and it’s good?” I ask him, and he says, “I don’t think so.”
Ben, who shares my car, has put gas in the tank. It’s like a valentine. When I see the needle point to “full,” I burst into grateful tears. “You filled my tank!” I cry, when I see him, and he smiles and says simply, “I did.”
CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the recently published kids’ books One Mixed-Up Night (a middle-grade novel) and Stitch Camp (a teen craft book she co-wrote with her friend Nicole), as well as the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.
This is just one thing that happens: a software developer writes me a nasty, condescending email in which he says he’s sorry only that I understand nothing about technology.
Years ago I had purchased a lifetime subscription to an app of his, and my querying email about downloading it onto my new computer (“Would you please tell me how to …?”) has been met with his suggestion that I will need to purchase an upgrade for my new operating system; the old version of the app doesn’t work any more. “Hmm,” I have written. “Do you think that’s what I understood ‘lifetime’ to mean?” And he has replied that yes, it should be. He has explained that I do, indeed, retain my right to use the old, unusable system for the rest of my life, so I still have exactly what I paid for.
I’m shaking. That’s how mad I am. “He never would have written me like that if I’d been a man,” I say to my husband Michael, who nods slowly in a way that makes me want to kill him.
When I tell a friend this story over lunch, she says, “I’m sorry, no. What if the post office were suddenly, like, ‘Oh, a forever stamp? No, no. That’s from before. You can still use it, but your mail won’t go anywhere.’”
“You’re saving my life,” I say, and she laughs and pats my arm.
Something is wrong with me, only I don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. In the middle of the day or night, rage fizzes up inside my ribcage. It burns and unspools, as berserk and sulfuric as those black-snake fireworks from childhood: one tiny pellet, with seemingly infinite potential to create dark matter—dark matter that’s kind of like a magic serpent and kind of like a giant ash turd. This is how it is for me right now.
Or how it is sometimes because also I smile a lot. I make an applesauce cake with brown sugar icing, because I know the kids will say, “Yay! Yum!” when they get home from school—and they do. I write a beloved editor a note to remind her how grateful I am for our years of working together, and she responds, “Oh god, me too!” I walk in the woods with my fourteen-year-old daughter, and we alternate between admiring the electric green fuzz of springtime and speaking intently about the complexity of gender, which she is turning in her mind like a Rubik’s cube. We whisper in our pussycat’s ear and laugh when he pushes our faces away with his bored paw. I read fantastic novels in bed like the world is ending and there are just these fantastic novels to read before it does. When I finally click off my headlamp, I experience the luxury of wrapping myself around my husband’s warm, dreaming bulk. I’m friendly and funny. I’m easy to work with.
Only, also, I’m not, even though I always was before. But now I’m biting my angry tongue. I’m sitting on my angry hands so I won’t wrap them around somebody’s infuriating neck. There is acne bubbling up from underneath my lined and angry red face. “I pretty much just hate men,” I say, smiling, and some of my friends laugh, some tighten their foreheads in puzzlement. Sometimes, in the night, my mind is like a butterfly net, lunging after injuries so I can pin them into my aggrieved display case.
Part of it is hormones, I know. I wish they were visible, like when the radiologist injects you before a scan, and you can see the dye pumping fluorescently through your veins. Sometimes I actually feel as though I’ve been injected with something—not dye, though, as much as testosterone. Amphetamines. I worry that I’m going to land on the other side of menopause, blinking in the sudden sunlight, wondering where all my friends and family and work went.
But then it makes me so mad even to write that, because part of it is not hormones. Part of it is the fact that so many men are assholes. I am just so sick of it.
Something I’ve written gets passed from an editor I’ve worked happily with for ages to her brand-new boss, who suggests that my stuff is a little too “voicey.” “Your voice is good, it’s great!” he’s assured me, in the note accompanying his almost grotesquely word-for-word edit of my piece. “But it’s a little much, you know?” Cue the black-snake firework. Yes, the pellet is already there, sure, but it’s these jerks who put a match to it, who trigger its furious unfurling.
The wagons circle on Facebook, where I complain about the editor. “We love your vagina!” I write, by way of analogy. “I mean, it’s great, it’s beautiful. But could you do something about the way it looks and smells?” I get amen from the women. Some of the men mansplain to make me laugh, which I do. And one man writes, in earnest, “Tell me about it! In my profession, you get mansplained, womansplained, childsplained, everybodysplained.”
“That gives me kind of an All Lives Get Splained feeling,” I write, irritated by his willful erasing of power from this problem, and he doesn’t write back. I’m torn between anger and regret—Ugh, my temper!—but then the regret only makes me angrier. Why should I feel bad? I write funny, mean emails to the editor and then, without sending any of them, quit my long-standing gig there.
A friend of a friend dies—a woman my age with an arrestingly beautiful and vibrant presence—and I stalk her mourners online in a strange way. “She was the kindest person I have ever known,” somebody writes, everybody writes, and I wonder if she was ever angry or horrible. I hope she was; I hope she wasn’t. A man she knew for a matter of months writes a long explanation of who she really was, inside. I hate him, hate everybody. I wish I were the kindest person anyone had ever known. I worry that Michael wishes I were more wifely: pretty and perfumed, willing and gentle. I’m furious just imagining this. But also sorry.
I watch a Youtube video about a large dog trying to sneak past the sleeping housecat on his tippy-toes because he’s afraid of her. There is something comically familiar about this scenario.
“We don’t have any cold cuts for school lunch,” the seventeen-year-old says, peering into the refrigerator.
“Oh, your highness, a thousand pardons!” I cry from the kitchen couch, where I am sitting beneath the cat, and my gentle, sweet-hearted son raises his eyebrows.
“Just that I’m putting them on the shopping list,” he explains, and I sigh, say, “Sounds good. I’ll get some ham.”
My daughter’s young, butch guitar teacher stays after their lesson to kvetch with me about men and politics. I’m frying onions at the stove, wearing an actual apron, and I brandish my spatula, say, “Fuck them all,” and, bless her, she laughs. Courtesy and wrath crash together in me like cymbals. I’m a fucking etiquette columnist, for god’s sake! But while I do believe in goodness, in compassion, I don’t believe in smiling while men spray their hot and aggressive horribleness into your face. My daughter manages to inhabit kindness and fierceness without splitting apart at the seams. She is my role model.
A friend recommends a particular garlic press on Facebook: “I have bought probably half a dozen presses in my life, this is the only one that didn’t make me angry.” I laugh, and am relieved that other women are angry too, about whatever. There’s a nasty woman joke in here somewhere, but I can’t bear to put Trump in this essay. He is its missing center.
My parents visited once when we lived in Santa Cruz, and Michael and I took them to a fancy seafood restaurant at the wharf. We sat at an open window over the sea, eating crab claws and lobster bisque, the sky the unbelievable blue of a child’s painting, while a seagull stood in the window the whole entire time, choking on a starfish, hopping around on one foot, intermittently gagging and barfing, three of the starfish’s five legs jutting from its mouth. “This is lovely,” my lovely English mother said unironically, and I think I laughed. Absolute perfection with a gagging seagull in the middle of it is pretty much my entire life.
Here’s a confession: my interaction with the software developer escalates, and I end up letting him know that I’m a journalist. He writes back a blisteringly angry email, calling me out on threatening him obliquely, and I apologize. “Life’s too short for this,” I write. “Forgive me. I was angry. I shouldn’t have written that. But I don’t think you are communicating honestly with your customers, and I hope you do.” He never writes back, and I am seething and, now, also humiliated. I know you’re supposed to forgive people, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness. But it is so hard.
My boss walks into our office while I am looking at a Fuck the Patriarchy needlepoint pattern on Etsy. I already have a framed cross-stitch on my wall that says The way to have a friend is to be one, and I believe deeply in both of these sentiments. “I’m turning back into an angry feminist,” I say, and he says, “I wasn’t aware you’d stopped!” He’s a poet and I have been his secretary for fifteen years.
“When you’re done complaining, make me some damn coffee!” he says, but he is kidding. He fills the pot, makes the coffee. He’s as fierce and gentle as my daughter, as anybody I know.
I don’t always feel just one way. I’m not always sure. And maybe that’s what it is to be a grown-up—living in the middle place, where you can’t decide quickly about everything. A misanthrope, in love with the world.
CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, as well as the food and parenting blog Ben and Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. Her first middle-grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night, will be published by Random House in fall of 2017. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.
I was never into Barbies. Instead, I was a sucker for chubby-cheeked, troll-eyed Cabbage Patch Kids. I named my first one Cindy, and my second one Linda. When the “official” birth certificate arrived in the mail addressed to Linda Renstrom (the names of the person—and the doll—have been changed), my mom unleashed holy fury in the kitchen, ranting about the mailman’s audacity to deliver Linda’s mail to our house. That’s when I learned about my dad’s ex-wife.
Despite the court’s decree that she reassume her maiden name after the divorce, Linda kept my dad’s last name for professional reasons, even after she remarried a few years later. I’ve always wondered what her second husband thought about that. It wasn’t a big deal that my dad had an ex-wife (my mom also had an ex-husband), especially given that one of the reasons they split was because she didn’t want kids. Linda introduced herself to me at a fundraiser when I was about ten and over the years I bumped into her here and there. She was friendly and I admit it—I liked her.
In 2006, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Linda visited him once while he was ill and jokingly asked if he would finally consider retirement. Dad said he’d keep working until my younger sister was through college, continuing to build his retirement fund for his kids and his grandkids. In retrospect, this friendly visit seems ominous. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can’t read minds, and probably don’t want to.
A few months later, Linda came to my dad’s memorial service and sat right behind the rest of us, offering words of condolence and pats on the back. She struck up an unlikely, but uniquely comforting friendship with my mom. Linda was the only other person who had loved my dad the way my mom did and made my mom feel less alone as she adjusted to the reality of life without Dad.
Meanwhile, my mom also struggled with the logistical aspects of my dad’s death—namely, his retirement account. The account representatives were strangely cagey with her, and eventually told her that while she was the owner of his account, she wasn’t the beneficiary—a distinction that still baffles me. My mom grew increasingly distressed, and Linda acted as a sounding board, disgusted and empathetic.
Just before the New Year, almost four months after Dad’s death, Linda called to tell Mom the “good news”—she was the account beneficiary and would consider sharing.
I didn’t think we had room for this kind of fiery rage, but there it was, tangling with the sadness, twin tornadoes upending everything we thought we knew. When depression came down heavy and smothering, anger functioned like a combustion engine. My brother and I pulled ourselves from naps or afternoons spent on the couch hiding inside of television shows in order to chop wood in the backyard, splitting the remains of a diseased tree my parents had taken down months earlier. Working with the ax made my shoulder blades ache in a way that offered some small distraction from the other, bigger pain, and vented some of my anger. Chopping wood was the only way I felt I could shape things.
For my mom, it wasn’t so simple. On top of managing grief and the ensuing legal battle, she also stung from Linda’s betrayal and from the loss of a friend. We learned that Linda had been aware of her beneficiary status for some time and had cozied up to my mom to harvest information and increase her chances of netting the most cash possible. I didn’t think things like this happened in real life; then again, I didn’t think colon cancer killed otherwise healthy sixty-three-year-old dads, either.
None of us understood how Mom’s beneficiary status could be in question. The financial services company had records of his divorce from Linda and his thirty-year marriage to my mom. But there was a problem with paperwork—Dad’s retirement was supposed to go into a trust he and my mom had set up, but this was before the time of the internet, a time when something important could get lost in the mail or a file could drop behind a desk unnoticed. My parents were meticulous in financial matters and frequently updated their wills and advanced directives, especially after Dad got sick. But something had slipped through the cracks. Accounting and paperwork don’t care if a family’s heart has been ripped out. Lawyers don’t observe grieving periods. Linda had bided her time until she had my mom’s trust and a keen understanding of our ability—or, more accurately, our inability—to function. Then she made her move, maneuvering legal complexities to her advantage while we were still sorting through the wreckage.
Of course, Linda wouldn’t have been able pull this off if others hadn’t made mistakes. The most likely explanation is that the financial services company bungled Dad’s account. It’s possible they never sent my dad the necessary documentation in the first place, as we later learned happened to one of his colleagues. It’s also possible that he sent the paperwork back but they improperly filed it or never received it and didn’t follow up. Our lawyer, who agreed this was both unfair and ridiculous, somehow couldn’t uncover or subpoena records that proved beyond a doubt my dad’s intentions with that money.
Dad’s death raised questions about fairness, about whether good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. My dad had colonoscopies at the proscribed intervals, didn’t have any family history of colon cancer, exercised regularly, took good care of himself, and was otherwise healthy and happy. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He was wronged, and so were we.
Linda’s grab for his money was unfairness squared, a double-down on his death. As furious as I was with Linda, I was even angrier that the world didn’t possess a mechanism to stop her. I desperately wanted—and at first expected—someone to look her in the eye and say, This is wrong. You can’t do this. I wanted her to reach a point where she simply couldn’t increase the suffering of the family of a man with whom she had been in love, a man who, among other things, put her through graduate school and let her keep his name. But she never did. Instead, she said that unless we cooperated, she would take everything.
As I cleaned out Dad’s office looking for documents that could help us with our case, I allowed myself a dark thought: What if it wasn’t a mistake? But the only communique I found from Linda was mixed in with thank you notes from students—a photo of a twenty-something Dad on the beach wearing a silly hat and a note that read, “thought you might like to have this.” I looked at the photo and thought about my dad having married this woman. Did he have any idea what she was capable of? It’s hard to imagine he did, though I suppose that could be one of the reasons he divorced her. Or perhaps her morality had evaporated in the decades since their divorce. There’s no comfort in either possibility.
Ultimately, our lawyer advised us against going to court. While fairness was on our side, no one could guarantee what a judge would do. Linda and her lawyer both seemed convinced of a win and were happy to drag us through the expensive and laborious process. For the first time since his death, I hoped Dad wasn’t out there somewhere, in some form, still aware of what was happening with his family.
The choice between settling and going to court paralleled the competing feelings of sadness and anger. Anger was in many ways easier, but it was more toxic, as court would be. As far as I could tell, anger didn’t have stages like grief did—it was a hot burn all the time. On principle, we wanted to fight. But we were so sad and so tired. I kept thinking about what advice Dad would give us if he could. While he would want us to have access to the money he had spent his life earning, he wouldn’t want us to prolong our own suffering by allowing Linda to define our lives any longer. As it was, Dad’s death would define our lives for the foreseeable future.
It was hard not to feel as though we were giving in or paying Linda to go away, and maybe that’s what we did. Even though she received a staggering amount—an amount that suggested she was every bit the intended recipient as Dad’s actual family—we settled.
The desire for vengeance has never entirely dissipated. My brother and I brainstormed various nonviolent schemes, my favorite of which was a plan to get our friends from various parts of the world to send postcards to Linda with horrible images on them: a kitten getting stung by a scorpion, a bloody toenail, a gangrenous limb. Little anonymous deliveries that would put into her life, at least momentarily, some fraction of the unpleasantness she caused us. But we didn’t do it.
About a year after the settlement we ran into Linda at an event. The anger resurfaced, as though we’d been storing it like fat. Utterly unprepared even to see her face, we tried to avoid her, but none of us could forget she was there. We kept our distance until my brother saw Linda talking to his two daughters, who were eight and eleven at the time. They knew Linda from Dad’s memorial service but knew nothing of what had happened since. That Linda had the gall to make friendly chitchat with anyone in our family was simply too much.
My brother walked over just in time to see Linda take a photograph of his girls. “Don’t you dare talk to them!” he hissed, corralling them away.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Linda said.
“Are you kidding me?” my brother said.
“I didn’t take anything I didn’t deserve,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.
And, in a moment that could have come straight from the movies, my brother said, “I’ll show you what you deserve,” and threw his glass of red punch on Linda’s cream-colored blouse.
We all stood there, dumbfounded. My nieces started giggling—they had never seen their father do anything like this. I never had either. We all left in a hurry. Our last image of Linda was with her mouth open, gaping in shock.
That moment has achieved infamy in our family, but as vivid as the image of the punch on Linda’s blouse still is, what I remember most is her silence. Her voice had been so powerful, overruling all of ours, especially my dad’s. Shocking her into silence, even if only temporarily, provided space for us to be heard.
JOELLE RENSTROM‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and her other work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, The Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.
We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.
It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.
Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”
I had no good answer to give her.
Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.
“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.
Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.
It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.
They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”
Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?
“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.
Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”
Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.
None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.
We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.
After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.
Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.
It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.
When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.
A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.
Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.
Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.
Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”
We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.
I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.
“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”
My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.
This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.
August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.
The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.
This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.
“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.
“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”
“You’re not staying?”
“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.
“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”
My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.
My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.
“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”
I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”
I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.
There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.
But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.
By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.
“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.
I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.
My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”
“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.
We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”
I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.
“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.
Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.
On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.
“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”
“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”
At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?
Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.
I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.
SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.