As the landing gear drops, my body propels awake. Through the solitude of tightly lodged earplugs I can hear the pulse of my heartbeat quicken, whooshing in waves like the sonogram of a baby’s quarter-sized heart growing rapid and rhythmic in the womb. A percussion section in meditative trance. I lean forward from my middle seat looking past the screaming baby whose cries silence my pain. The baby who doesn’t understand the reasons why, who will never remember this moment, and their innocence I pardon. Across the wing, off in the distance, smokestacks from steel mills burn like jetpack streams in the quickly darkening sky. The lake is clear and calm, its frozen tundra stretching out to greet and hold the horizon line like an old lover. From this distance everything appears to be in harmony, peaceful.
I pull out a compact mirror from my purse and take stock of the traces of Xanax left in my system. My skin looks sallow and worn. I apply crimson lipstick. My hands shake. Lauren will be waiting for me outside baggage claim and we will travel East together along the length of Lake Erie’s edge towards the broken eyes of the storm. We will take the back roads home, past old BBQ joints, boarded up elementary schools and dilapidated homes once occupied by barrel chested industrial pioneers. The porches now sad and sunken in the middle, frowning. Neglected children’s toys litter front lawns, metal bicycle handles peering out from beneath a slowly receding blanket of hardened snow. Houses that hold stories that make us appreciate our own small lives.
I clumsily gather luggage, bags I don’t remember packing in the wake of unexpected blurry phone calls at dawn. I avoid all eye contact and exit the jet bridge into the airport terminal and proceed down the long cement corridor, its floor glittered and specked in tones of gray. Footsteps click and reverberate against the walls, like a horse quickening its pace. Fragrant aromas of trans-fat fill the airport and multiple food kiosks sell oversize carb-laden carnival fare. Cinnamon buns and soft pretzels drip and glisten under swollen heat lamps. I reach the exit and push past the turnstile of revolving glass doors only to be welcomed by the burning brutality that is the winter in the Midwest. A swift left hook punch in the face, always a surprise. Air so cold and dry it makes your knuckles crack at every crease and the fine hair on your tits stand on end. This chill will remain in your bones for your entire life, never allowing you to forget her tenacious grip.
As expected, Lauren is waiting in her car outside. Her curly auburn hair reaches beyond her profile and is shorter than the last time I saw her. Her skin unnaturally tan. She stares ahead unfocused, a cigarette dangling from her left hand out the window. She possesses a beauty that is so powerful, rare, unknowing. Even as a child she was a life-sized doll, her perfect tendrils falling against the dimples in her heart-shaped face. I knock on the salt stained window to get her attention and for a brief moment we have light in our eyes, in the fallacy that we are reunited under happy normal circumstances. She gets out of the car in an excited hurry, dropping her cigarette to the ground, still burning in a crooked line. I drop my suitcase by the trunk. We hug hard. I can feel her frailty and the length of her bones down her spine through her threadbare black sweater. Her hair smells of roses, stale smoke and Aargan oil. She helps me with my bag, and we settle into the warmth of her car. We share cigarettes and light gossip as we always have. Being together feels youthful and we fall into old routines without prompting. We are comforted in each other’s presence. I scan the radio to find songs that are familiar, and our usual banter carries us east.
Even in the balm of February I can smell the lake lurking north. Swampy, furious and churning with zebra mussel carcasses. Dead perch rot on the shore. Silvered skin clinging to skeletal remnants reminding us of their short uneventful life. Reminding myself that if I would have stayed here something in me would have died too. We are going home, not the home where we live now but the home of our past, our youth, our childhood. The place that still holds all of our hopes like a locked jewelry box on my mother’s bureau. Protecting them, keeping them safe. The home engrained within our bones, just like the cold, never leaving us. We are going home to the place we vowed we would never return to and the one we can’t stay away from.
We light up our last cigarettes of the car ride at the Vrooman road exit. An acutely timed ritual since we first began buying packs of Virginia Slims out of vending machines in entryways of diners. Establishments where we would drink bottomless cups of weak tawny coffee and converse in false sophistication about a life less ordinary, outside of Ohio, biding our time. All of those dreams gone to die in those ripped vinyl booths, in our awkward disparate youth. Visions of the future before we put the holes in our brains, small cavities resembling delicately sliced alpine lace Swiss cheese. Delusional yet attainable visions of life before the consumption of things like ecstasy; speedy white Ferraris and smacky pichachus. Who could predict the danger pills with those adorable names could contain? Visions before the cocaine, the meth, the special K, the alcohol, the Darvocet, the Percocet, the marijuana, the heroin. The things that could lift you up until you broke. Each one of us knowing our limits. Most of us survivors of the experimentation periods.
“I had this thought this week,” I began.
“Let’s hear it,” Lauren encourages, turning the dial on the radio’s volume down.
“I was stopped at a red light downtown after work and I saw this homeless guy folding a blanket and I wondered who taught him how to do that — who taught him how to fold a blanket, who taught him how to tie his shoes?”
I fidget uncomfortably in my seat, pulling between my thighs at my clinging dress.
“Who taught him how to use a fork, to survive,” I make a fist and press it vertically against the condensation growing on the passenger window, dotting the top of its imprint with small circles like baby toes. I think of my brother and the painful bloated road trips of our past as children.
“Someone must have loved him once,” I continue. “He was baby once — a son. He had a mother who fed him and someone cared for him — what happens to people — how do they become lost?”
I feel tears beginning to rise and I look to Lauren for an explanation she doesn’t have, no one does.
“Well, his mom or dad might have taught him how to fold a blanket and as he got older maybe his mom and dad stopped caring for or protecting him or teaching him,” she responds optimistically.
“Or he may never have had a family or wanted to be part of that family.” She pauses and looks at me with knowing eyes as her hands slide down the circumference of the steering wheel.
“Or maybe it was drugs, mental illness, sleep deprivation — maybe he’s a sociologist working on a thesis, maybe he likes the edge of living on the streets with no responsibilities OR maybe it’s what all the hipsters are doing?” Lauren proposes, questioning her own answer, unsure of the appropriateness of humor she’s pushing in to the conversation.
She exhales smoke slowly, like a Cheshire cat.
“It just seems so orderly and neat in a world that I could imagine being pretty chaotic.” I respond, my eyes tracing her smoke rings. “I guess I remember when my mom taught me how to fold bath towels and blankets, and every time I fold a towel I think of helping her fold things out of these wicker baskets and that memory does something for me — comforts me and I wonder if homeless people fold blankets and have similar memories. It’s stupid, I’m only seeing things from a privileged and loved perspective.”
“It’s not stupid, but you are like the biggest sentimental asshole I know so I’m not surprised if you get mushy over folding towels,” Lauren responds.
“Too true,” I reply and we giggle like Japanese schoolgirls teasing each other with old secrets.
We continue on like this for the next 20 minutes, philosophizing about the perils and highs of life, dysfunctional relationships — a brief history of the human condition and before we can get to talking about the reasons why we are even together on a Tuesday afternoon, weeks before any holiday or milestone event, we are pulling into the parking lot of Behm funeral home.
Lauren maneuvers her car into the lot. The headlight beams highlight the shadows on the asphalt, slick and wet with melting snow. She finds a spot a safe distance from the entrance and turns the ignition off. Silence befalls us. We don’t look at each other out of fear of crying, breaking. We hold each other’s thoughts and feelings in any situation. That is the risk — the terror and beauty in having a best friend, a soul that can view the world through your thoughts. A treasure, an asset. A child you share custody of.
“I can’t believe we are here again, I can’t believe this happened again, not even a year ago.” I crack my knuckles, angry.
“Me neither” Lauren numbly responds. She flips down her visor and checks her makeup in the mirror, the traces of Adderall in her system.
We open car doors. Our high heels grind the salt that was spread earlier that day. People gather in the warmly lit windows and, momentarily, the funeral home resembles my grandmother’s house on a joyous occasion and I wish it were Thanksgiving. Surely everyone is voluntarily remembering something they are grateful for in there tonight. A few people, men, stand outside the door. They flank the steps and smoke cigarettes in floor-length black wool coats and plaid scarves. We nod and acknowledge each other with regretful eyes. A man in his mid-60’s, recognizable, holds open the door for us and directs us to the guestbook. He offers to take our coats. Lauren shakes hers off as I tie mine tighter, embarrassed by the loudness of my purple sweater. The air inside these walls hangs heavy like dust in an attic in late August. The weight of a thousand ghosts suffocating me. We skip the line for signing the guestbook, finding its strangeness inherent. A classmate far removed from our circle of friends waves from the opposite room.
“She’s a good Irish woman, she never passes up the chance to attend a funeral,” Lauren remarks as she waves back falsely through a forced smile.
We advance towards the main room into the parlor. The wallpaper’s petite floral patterns and tea stained patina complement wingback chairs and knobby mauve carpet. Framed photos of smiling children line the antique bureaus. Their innocence palpable in sepia tones, ripe and pure. Tissue boxes are accessible on every spare surface. A slideshow of digital photos plays in the parlor. Standing in paralyzing fear of entering the main room, Lauren and I watch it loop several times. Photos of Brendan and his two brothers on ski trips, first day of school photos, family sailing outings. A lifetime of memories and no one to share them with now, only Brendan’s to carry. The fractures of his family slowly breaking each rib, his heart.
A picture of Jordan, Brendan, Jamie and I on the ferryboat in Balboa Island slides and fades across the projector. Grinning, grateful, whole. It was when Jordan had just gotten out of rehab in Los Angeles and we had stayed at Jamie’s grandparents’ house in Balboa Island. We had dinner at the Crab Cooker and Jordan and I laughed with small eyes at the phallic nature of the logo on the menu’s front page, kicking each other under the table like cousins. I wanted Jordan to feel the kinship I could offer him. The familial bonds I had with his older brother Brendan, a connection indebted to a long history of friendship. Bonds he could refer to when he wanted to pick up a needle, the bent spoon. I needed him to survive for Brendan. I held a deep-set fear that Brendan’s heart would surely break if he lost another brother, if he lost Jordan. It would, it did. The untethering from the earth that death brings upon those that are left behind, the loneliness — the worst of all human conditions. We did not realize then that Brendan was already very alone, separate and operating outside of the ties that bonded his family through drug use and addiction. The mental illness and mediocracy. Each year another one dropped like cattle in the dustbowl and each year Brendan would stand up bravely to clean up the messes of his tormented family members and replant himself in good soil.
From across the room Brendan’s dad catches my attention, standing by the coffin of his youngest son. His body angular and thin, leaning in like a question mark. He’s gesturing wildly to woman he surely doesn’t know, at least not anymore. His face is concave, his hair large, unkempt and electric like Beetlejuice. A court jester, high on pills and wine. Euphoric and manic. I would have had more compassion for him then if I had known his fate was to follow his two sons to the grave in a few short months, but I only could see him with a judgmental heart in this ingress. I was convinced, everyone was, that he was the cause of the family’s demise. The bad influence, the supplier. The many years, a decade plus of his despotic regime, an unassuming tyrant. The waterfall of responsibility and burden he placed on Brendan and his family through his own diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy, his self-medication, his addictions. I could hear it in miles of late night conversations between Brendan and I — his own future slip sliding away, his youth a murder of crows, his fears consumed in their diseases. The pills, the wine, the heroin. The desperate prayers he would whisper to a God he didn’t believe in asking for the expedition of his father’s death, to release his pain, to free him and his brothers. But only the strong survived, only Brendan in the end was falsely vindicated in the wake of death.
To just the left of the other side of Jordan’s coffin stands my brave friend, the last brother, the survivor, the son, the gentle spirit, Brendan. I adore him for the simplest of reasons — because he is still standing, breathing and alive. A large floral arrangement dwarves him as he is engaged in a forced vacant conversation, one I felt obligated to rescue him from. I always felt responsibility to save him, as if it was ever even in my capacity. His posture soupy and slumped. I wondered what someone with bad social anxiety does in this situation. I drag my feet through wet sand to him, slipping on the mauve carpet covered in well-worn traffic patterns. His black hair slick and shining against the matte of his oversize suit coat. I approach him from behind, and pause before touching his back. He senses my presence and he turns, his eyes lock mine, rheumy and destroyed. We grip on to one another, grasping like scared children onto amulets that keep them safe in the night.
You want to say something perfect but you just whisper over and over how sorry you are and how much you loved Jordan. He tells you how much Jordan loved you and your cooking. You know that you don’t need to say anything at all, you just need to hug him harder. You’ve been here before. You bury your faces in to one another’s necks, tears pooling on each other’s shoulders, wetting the wool of your winter coats. This is what mourning feels like, wet wool coat shoulders.
As your beautiful and brave friend cries into you because he just lost another brother, the second brother, to heroin, you look towards the open casket. Jordan’s large twenty-four-year-old body lifeless and filling the muted satin lining, the fabric puckered, the walnut veneer leaning half open like a French farm house door, a magician’s prop.
You ask yourself again:
“What the fuck happens to people? He was innocent and loved and a baby once and his mom taught him how to fold bath towels and blankets out of wicker baskets and his life was just wasted in vain.”
You learn so quickly that you can either grow forward and greet the challenge of being alive or fade away, too scared to seek truth. Your roots deepen. You contemplate. You dream of the past. You reminisce. You forget. You forgive. You stand in the fire and don’t shrink back. You get drunk and toast those that are departed. You cry and ramble past midnight, early into dawn. You always pick up their phone calls now. You want things that aren’t possible any longer. You understand why they don’t believe in God — you don’t even know if you do anymore. You feel everything swell up all around you and the only way out from under the waves is to swim, to surface, to breathe, to keep living and putting up the good fight. You cling tight to those who you love, you love them harder in ways you never understood before. Your capacity grows larger. There are new wounds, callouses salted and leathered and those will live on within them. You bear witness to their pain. Your friendship now takes on a new life because you are now different people taking on a new life in the absence of someone else’s. You are touched, gripped, by the fear of being alive. You feel new responsibilities in all that power. Something reaches outside of you in beautiful, painful ways. It is now that you realize that his death was not in vain. In his death you feel alive again and you hate yourself for that because it feels so selfish and now who’s living in vain. You cling hard to life, to your brave friend in his bloodshot eyes downcast in his oversized suit coat and his greasy hair and you love him more then you ever knew possible. You are connected with depths unknowable without each other’s blood pulsing through your veins. You look towards your brave friend’s brother, his large youthful frame in that heavy varnished box with cheap spray-painted carnations circling you in every direction and without thought you say:
“I’ve never seen Jordan wear a tie before, it’s hideous — you must have picked it out.”
And your friend, whose heart is shattered in to tiny splinters of broken glass, laughs, and you laugh too and there is a levity that seeks your asylum. He laughs harder, it feels good and you wipe the tears and you kiss his rough cheek and you begin to feel normal, if only for a brief moment in time.