The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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There is nothing to be said for standing in the snow at a burial, wearing black vinyl pumps from the Salvation Army that were molded to someone else’s more adaptable feet. This is particularly true when it’s the ceremony mourning the woman for whom your lover betrayed you. No need for magazine polls with character-analysis questions such as, “Would you still be angry with your man if he had a torrid affair, but his lover suddenly died?” or “Would you forgive the woman?” Blackness, whether it describes the color of your footwear or the state of your heart, is most obtrusive.
From where I stand, he looks like he belongs here, a migratory bird having found refuge among others that don’t recognize his markings. His head is obediently bowed. The tie I jokingly gave him at Christmas, because all women supposedly give their lovers ties at Christmas, fails to distinguish him from those here who righteously wear ties. I’m reminded suddenly of the many rock stars, reduced to beer and Coke commercials, who share my record shelves with others who knew when to say no. I have never been good at choosing charities.
Take note, Father, for I have sinned, for relentlessly thinking of his warm body while hers lies cold. For looking beyond this day and this tree-lined cemetery and expecting nothing. For feeling just the aching cold and ill-fitting shoes. For wanting to see his face and know the truth.
The preacher’s voice reaches me in broken, affected syllables that somehow form words. “For those who loved Rhonda, this is indeed a most sad occasion. . . .” I look at the worn soles of my shoes, feeling the strongest urge to hurl them at him so that they bounce off his scrubbed, angular face and fabricated words, and land beside her in the shiny coffin decorated with purple tulips. Alongside her pale face, displayed against the dark lining of the casket, they would revel in their own irony, the purposefully used amongst the easily immaculated. The damned amongst the dainty.
Sorry, reverend, but this is not a most sad occasion for some of us, those of us who didn’t have the privilege of loving Rhonda. Furthermore, everyone knows tulips don’t grow in February. But these shoes are for real; these shoes speak of guilt, misappropriations, and too many walks in the rain.
Surrounding me, openly weeping, are those I quickly categorize as either family members or friends. I am neither. I look at the hearty couple beside me, both puffy and red-eyed, with scarves coiled as stiff as the preacher’s collar around their necks: relatives. The woman’s eyes are filled with what will soon be tears; they are as full as my own eyes are empty. I watch for their descent to the ground, where they will triumphantly join the billions of other droplets that, because the conditions were just right, are now snow. None make it, but one does plop down, past the masklike ring the woman’s makeup has created, onto the top of her boot, where it quickly dissolves. I, too, will fade from this assembly, my exit indistinguishable from my entrance.
Glancing up, I see a row of tombstones rising from the ground like oversized dominoes in perfect succession.
Afterward, I suppose, they will all retreat to her parents’ house, gravitate toward the home-cooked food each has brought, toward various photos on the wall, and toward the mother, who will be the most distraught. He will undoubtedly have the chicken and the pasta salad, feel most moved by her high school graduation photo, and take both the mother’s hands in his as he often has with me when I’m depressed, and even when I’m not. There will be no mention of the fact that she died from a series of strokes doctors claim were brought on by years of taking the Pill, as I learned from a hospital nurse. No one, not even he, who refused to let me take the Pill for more than three years because of health risks, will remark how ironic it is that she inadvertently took her own life while trying to prevent another. Even the preacher will overlook her lustful ways and comment instead on more worthy attributes.
Later, he’ll return to the apartment where we’ve lived for two years and explain his depression as a reaction to the “shitty” weather and general state of the world. He won’t eat the soup and bread I’ll have ready, nor will he be interested in my sister’s new job or my own sullen eyes and lifeless movements. He won’t notice anything as he aimlessly strokes the cat and changes the channels on the remote so that programs appear and disappear like premonitions. Maybe he’ll search his shelves for a book to read and find one out of order, Hemingway beside Tolstoy, or Joyce beside Sartre. “Jesus, Ramsey,” I’ll exclaim. I have the words ready, wrapped and packaged as neatly in a bed of pretense as fine china in tissue paper, as her body in the casket. “You didn’t get this upset when you found out your father was cheating on your mother. Or when I had the abortion. Or any time. I mean, what is it? What’s wrong?” Then I’ll stand there, steadfast, looking at him nestled in the armchair I bought at the flea market, and wait for his tears, or his hesitant lies, whichever come first, to emerge in absolute order, like these tombstones.
He won’t know that, just a week ago, I wandered into the restaurant where he moonlights as a weekend bartender and glimpsed a young waitress with hair that curled in precise cylinders all over her head, and hands that flowed from her arms like mist. I’ll remember that, as I stood at the door removing my coat, she glided to the bar to assemble a tray of drinks, and his hand paused just a second too long on hers and his eyes lit up as if he glimpsed salvation itself. He didn’t see me, silhouetted in the dim light like a thief, put my coat back on and go back out. No, he won’t even know that the reason I was there in the first place was to smooth over an argument, to convince him that I could smile and laugh and not be so afraid of the mistakes. He won’t even know.
“Excuse me, miss,” someone whispers from behind me. I turn slightly to face a middle-aged man with protruding ears and thin lips whom I recognize as the owner of the restaurant. “Mr. Thayer.” It is a begrudged statement, not a greeting. He looks surprised, if not a little amused. Snow clings to his eyebrows as delicately as a spider’s web.
“Well, hello. Uh, I, uh, I didn’t realize you knew her.”
“No, not in the Biblical sense.” I feel the snow seep through the cracked seams of my shoes and into my stockings, robbing what little warmth they once provided.
He is embarrassed by my bold sarcasm and speaks barely audibly, bearing the look of a parent upon learning his child has cheated. “I, uh, I didn’t think, you know, you knew her.”
“I didn’t.” The truth is, I knew her long before she ever began working at the restaurant, long before Ramsey held her as tight as memory, long before I bought these shoes, anticipating their need. I recognized her every time I failed in any way. I saw her in every mirror.
“Oh.” There is a pause that stretches as long as the cemetery. His lips are chapped and he rubs them as if to compensate for words. In front of us, people are starting to line up for the walk past the casket. “Well, then it’s a very nice thing you’re doing for Ramsey. And for Rhonda.”
I consider this. Whose guilt do I want upstaged? “Well, I guess.” He looks offended. “Uh, sure. For Ramsey. And Rhonda.” I feel betrayed by my shoes as more snow reaches my toes.
Mr. Thayer nods his head, attempts a smile, and approaches those waiting to pass the body. By now, they have come within a few feet of where I’m standing, and I realize I’m about the only one who hasn’t joined the line. Mr. Thayer takes his place behind another waitress I recognize from the restaurant.
At the front of the line, under the tent covering the burial spot, I see a round, bent woman who must be Rhonda’s mother, her uncontrolled sobs piercing the horrible quietness. She looks nothing like I had anticipated. I search for Ramsey and see him quite near the front, his narrow back and his dark hair penetrating the expanse of whiteness around him. His hands are shoved in his coat pockets. He seems very alone, suddenly very incidental. If he weren’t present and someone produced a photograph of this gathering and asked what was missing from this picture, no one would answer, “Ramsey Larimor.”
I suddenly realize that I must either join the line or leave to prevent myself from being spotted. Several of the mourners are staring at me with a mixture of accusation and disbelief, as if I welcomed this exposure. I see Ramsey waiting, next in line to view the body. The elderly man now at the casket makes a sign of the cross and lays a rose by Rhonda’s chest. He hobbles out of the tent leaning on an ordinary cane that moves in perfect rhythm with the hymn now building in strength. Rhonda’s mother is on the other side of the covering, having already passed the casket. From what I can see, she’s hysterically shaking as a thin man and a younger man and woman encircle her. More of Rhonda’s family. The loss is farther-reaching than I had imagined.
My entire body, from my feet up, is now numb. I can’t tell if I am numb from the cold or simply from my attempt to deny it. I recognize the hymn, but don’t remember its title.
I notice that Ramsey has lost weight and his gray overcoat hangs limp beside his legs. Slowly, as if he had to consciously tell each leg to move, he approaches the casket. I hear someone near me whisper, “That was her boyfriend, I think. Isn’t that sad?” He stops just inches from Rhonda’s face. My eyes begin to blur. Just beyond the tent, a baby cries.
I am moving closer to the tent, weaving unsteadily in my high heels through the tombstones, moving closer to Ramsey.
I must look like a misguided soldier momentarily doubting the enemy. The stares are everywhere now, but I acknowledge them as vaguely as a fleeting pain. I’m within yards of the tent. The tulips look brighter, more vibrant. The preacher is young and has almost a day’s worth of razor stubble. I see now that Rhonda’s mother has a kind face, much kinder than many I know. As the hymn comes to a faltering end, I am breathing very hard, my own gasps competing in the silence with her sobs.
Still, he does not notice me. I find my way behind the hearse where I can see him clearly, his eyes, his strong hands with traces of paint from yesterday’s lesson. He is staring, dazed, at her face. He touches her forehead, then jerks his hand away as if he’d been stung. He is crying unashamedly. His clothes are rumpled. His hair looks dirty. His lips are moving, and I am able to decipher, “Oh God, oh God, oh my God.” He bends to kiss her, solemnly, barely touching her lips at all, and then he is on the other side of the tent. The next in line, a young boy, hurries past the casket as if in doubt of his purpose.
My shoes are buried in the snow, my body slumped against the sleek hearse. Slowly, I straighten my legs and make my way to the back of the line, where I remain the last person. I look over my shoulder at my tracks and see that they fail to follow a straight line. I see Rhonda’s face in the restaurant that night, radiant and knowing.
In front of me, two women are discussing her. I can’t help but listen.
“You know,” begins the older woman, who looks a bit like Ramsey’s mother, “she was only twenty-four.”
“Tragic, really tragic.”
“Yes. And she had a boyfriend, you know. A fine young man from what I’ve heard.”
“An artist, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. And a bartender in the restaurant where she worked. A very hard-working young man, obviously.” She pauses to dab at her face with a tissue. “It’s all so sad.”
“Yes. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.”
The older woman glances back at me and bestows a downcast, apologetic smile. Her eyes dart from my feet up my body, taking in every detail.
I look out across the cemetery and notice, for the first time, that there are cars lining the drive all the way to the street and then back up the other side. I can barely make out mine. A lot of people must have loved Rhonda.
The line is moving quickly. Only about ten people are left to proceed into the tent. A few yards to my right, a tombstone reads, “Now you are in God’s cradle.”
I am now in plain sight of Ramsey, although he has kept his head fixed on the blanketed ground since leaving the casket. My shoes are saturated, but I feel just the blisters, not the cold.
When it is my turn, Ramsey is still staring at the ground. I enter the tent as the preacher turns a page in the Bible and clears his throat to pray. Rhonda looks like a doll, soft and almost smiling. Her hair is still in perfect ringlets. Her wispy hands are delicately folded across her unmoving chest. I realize she looks very much like her mother. I exit the tent just as Ramsey glances up. He does not look surprised, only sad.
As if in flight, I reach the other side of the tent. I stop in front of him, steadily crying, so close that my shoes wet the bottom of his trouser leg. I am burying my head in his scratchy coat, offering words as gifts, while Rhonda’s mother and the preacher are suddenly silent. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Jesus Christ, I’m so sorry.”