by susan jane
Ken and I sat in the back of the room, in the very last row of chairs. He had one hand on my thigh, and another rested limp in his lap. The din of weeping and wet voices was a constant barrage on the senses, punctuated now and then by an anguished wail.
I felt guilty for simply being alive.
A steady parade of people streamed in, their faces raw and colored from waiting outside in the cold, and I watched them as they got closer to the receiving line, their faces tense, pinched. Trying to think of what they would say to the family and wondering if it would be enough.
I knew this feeling because we had already been through the line. Ken went before me, and I saw how he shook the parents’ hands firmly and looked directly into their eyes. I tried my best to imitate him but I failed, and my traveling gaze broke down just short of the mother’s chin, resting on a makeup-caked blemish there. Wordlessly, I shook her tiny, frail hand quickly and moved on, feeling ashamed.
We waited respectfully for the mourners in front of us to say a brief prayer at the casket and depart before taking our places on the padded kneeler. I felt lightheaded and clutched Ken’s wool overcoat in my fist. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him making the Sign of the Cross and so I did the same.
My heart hammering and my mouth dry, I held my breath and peered inside at the coffin’s occupant. Alex Grantham was my third cousin, but I’d never met him, until now. I studied his face, over-rouged and veiled in cosmetic dust. Alex had the pale complexion and peachy-blonde hair of my mother’s side of the family; his face was an arrangement of delicate, elfin features. I noticed several jagged indentations in his forehead; they had tried to hide them with concealer but somehow succeeded in making them even more garish.
‘He sort of looks like your aunt,’ Ken whispered. ‘Same nose.’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘Are you all set?’
‘Yes. I’m all set.’
We stood up, and the blood seemed to siphon from my head into my feet. The medley of floral-bouquet stench and body heat was nauseating. It was one of those awful moments when you wish you were anywhere else.
Ken found us two seats at the back, and we eased ourselves gently onto the sickly-pink velvet cushions. I rifled through my purse, found a sticky Rolaids in its bowels and popped in into my mouth. The man sitting in front of me reached back and scratched the back of his sweaty neck, then turned around and regarded me.
‘Are you a friend of the family?’ he asked, looking at me, over to Ken, then back at me.
I nodded dumbly, then said, ‘Well’I’m Jane. A distant cousin. Of Alex’s. I didn’t…really know him. This is my boyfriend, Ken.’
He gave Ken a polite nod and then shook his head. ‘Yeah’crazy thing. Sad. I’m Dwayne Deering; I was Alex’s supervisor for the past two summers at the electric plant. I still can’t believe it.’
Ken spoke. ‘It’s a tragedy, all right. I’m sorry to have to first meet him under these circumstances.’
“Alex was a good kid, ” Dwayne said. ‘Worked his butt off. He was well-liked.’ He pounded his chest once for emphasis. ‘It gets you right here. Twenty-three years old. It makes no sense.’
‘No,” I agreed. “It doesn’t.” I tried to think of something else to say, but couldn’t.
‘The thing is,’ he continued, ‘the cops said if he had just been wearing his seat belt, it woulda saved him. He would have lived. Maybe a few broken bones, some scratches, but he woulda make it through.’
There was a hubbub from the front of the room and we all looked. A willowy brunette struggled with a small female child who had climbed from her mother’s arms into the casket. The little girl kicked her white-tighted legs frantically, scraping a knee on one of the coffin’s steel clasps. The shriek that escaped from her lips sent everyone into a renewed sobbing frenzy, as they assumed that the child had been overcome with grief. Most did not notice the small trickle of blood on the child’s knee, which would dry and glue her stockings to her skin.
Dwayne Deering turned his attention back to us and let out a breath. ‘That’s Alex’s fianc’e Mary and their daughter, Kensie. She’s two. It’s gotta be utter confusion for that girl. Kids don’t understand. She sees her dad lying there and…she probably thinks he’s just going to wake up and…take her to the park or something.’
I watched as Mary, sobbing, handed Kensie to another, older, lady. The little girl threw her arms around the woman’s neck and squeezed, crying into her blouse. The woman’s face was a grimace of irritation and pain and she clutched the little girl to her with bejeweled, age-shredded hands.
“I frigging hate wakes,” Ken muttered under his breath.
Dwayne bobbed his head in concurrence. “Yep. Especially ones like this. Something so preventable. It’s a goddamn shame is what it is.” He scratched under his chin. “Didn’t have to happen. A goddamn f’ing shame.”
We stayed several minutes more, then bid farewell to Alex’s former boss. The frigid December wind had never felt so wonderful as Ken and I burst through the glass doors of the funeral parlor and stepped into the land of the living.
That night, I lay vigilant and awake in the dark, my gray matter too restless to suffer the sanctuary of sleep. Ken was there twisted beside me, curled into his usual fetus-style position; his hairy knees drawn up to his chest and his hands crimped up by his jaw. I poked him with my bare toe and he groaned.
“Babe!” I whispered loudly. “Ken!” I wiggled my toenail against his calf.
“I’m sleeping,” came his muffled reply.
“No you’re not.” I slumped down and spooned against his warm frame, loving how solid and sure he felt. “I can’t sleep.”
“I gather that.” He coughed and reached back, pulling my arm over to his chest and intertwining my fingers with his. “It’s late, though. I’ve got to get up early. So do you.”
“I know.” I spoke into his spine, smelling the sweet musk of his skin through the cotton tee he wore. “But I was thinking.”
“Mm,” he said.
“I was thinking about how you don’t wear your seatbelt.”
Ken was quiet, and then he moaned softly. “Jane. I love you, honey, but do we have to have this conversation right now?”
I tenderly nipped a piece of his shoulder in response.
“Ow! Don’t do that.”
“I want you to start wearing it. Your seatbelt.” I spit out the words, and then waited.
My boyfriend sighed at length, and then squeezed my hand. “We’ve already discussed this. Several times.”
“Yes, so what?”
“I hate them. They’re uncomfortable to me. Like a vehicular straightjacket.”
“Well, it’s important to me that you take care of yourself.” I firmed up my tone of voice and tossed in a dash of bitchiness to make sure I was being heard. “You know, if you die in a car accident, and they say later that you would have survived if you were wearing your seatbelt, I will never, ever forgive you.”
Ken chuckled into the bedsheet.
“It’s not funny!”
He rolled over onto his back and tossed one giant, thick leg over both of mine. “Baby. You think that because your cousin supposedly died from not wearing his seatbelt, you’re going to cheat inevitable death by making me wear mine?”
“They do save lives,” I told him, aware of how much I sounded like a public service announcement. “Read the statistics. It’s true.”
“Okay…maybe sometimes, true,” he said. “But no one knows if Alex really would have lived had he worn his belt. It’s just something the cops say. They give their condolences and a little bit of preaching thrown in for good measure.” He pointed a finger at me. “Remember Mike Hannigan.”
I nodded, recalling that morning back in our junior year of high school: a taut moment of silence, huddles of cheerleaders wearing black roses on their sweaters and weeping into lockers and on each other. The story was that our fellow classmate’s seatbelt had jammed on impact, right before his rusty Dodge burst into flames. They said if Mike hadn’t been strapped in, he’d have had a better chance of escaping before burning alive. “I remember. You bring it up every time we talk about this.”
“So…did you ever think that maybe it’s all mapped out for us? Maybe we all have a time to live on this planet and then it just expires. No one knows when. But it’s all been planned.” He turned and looked directly at me; in the dark, his eyes reflected the dull orange light of the streetlights outside. He looked like a demon. “Do you remember what Dr. DeBova said?”
Anna DeBova was my sometime-therapist. I consistently made appointments with her while in a depressed slump, then cancelled them again when I was in better spirits.
“She said to picture yourself floating on the ocean. Right? Like a seagull. They just float and bob on the water, content as all hell to do just that. They don’t fight the waves. They just go with it. Roll with it. People could learn a lesson from those birds.” He tickled my cheek with one finger.
I brushed his hand away and folded my arms across my chest. I turned my glance toward the wall.
Noticing my irritation, Ken said, “Hey hey, Jane. If you want me to wear my seatbelt, if it’s that important to you, I will. Okay?” He put his face close to mine and I could feel his breath.
I thought of my cousin’s powdered, still face in his coffin, and a surge of love and panic rose up in my throat. “Yes, it’s that important to me. I love you. I want you to be around forever and a day.”
He smiled back at me, and tugged on a piece of my hair playfully. There was something in his eyes I didn’t like–a glitter of wisdom that flashed quickly and then was gone, as if I had only imagined it was there.
Within minutes, he was asleep, but I still wasn’t drowsy. I thought about what Dr. DeBova told me, many months ago. She’d made me pretend right there in front of her; she’d told me to imagine I was out at sea, rolling with the water’s surf. I sat on that stiff leather sofa and closed my eyes, but disrupted it all with a mortified giggle.
This time, though, I closed my lids tightly and folded my hands into one another. I tried to relax, letting my shoulders and hips sink into the soft mattress. I pictured myself skimming the water off Cape Cod, on a resplendent, cloudless day. The water was lukewarm and lapped against my skin. The sun toasted my face and its potent warmth seemed to make everything else go away. I was floating, weightless, and at peace.
Then I felt my body being jolted slightly by the water’s undulation. The salt water splashed up into my ears and onto my lips; I tasted it, brackish and wet. Alarmed, I realized that the waves were carrying me. My pulse quickened and another breaker jarred my bones. The wave broke all around, leaving white patches of foam that hissed in my ears as they disintegrated.
I struggled to push myself upright, but a third wave shattered over me, soaking my hair. Salt stung my eyes and brought forth tears. I flailed my arms, sent my fists crashing down onto the water’s surface, and held my breath, bracing myself for the next assault. I reached out for Ken, but he had already turned away from me, and I was on my own.