What's a guy to do his first night in a nearly empty house that sounds like an echo chamber while wondering how he's supposed to cook any fucking dinner since his wife took all the pots, even though she said she wouldn't?
I wrote a story.
The day rose a flat gray, gloomy and chilly, like a shroud keeping the light at bay. A few crows darted aimlessly above as I pulled into the church parking lot, their blackness sharp against the sky. Driving down, my stomach had been clenched the whole way. It had been years since I’d seen Gwen’s family. She was the youngest of four children, the baby to two brothers and a sister. The oldest was a military man, twenty years in the Marines, whom I always felt regarded me with slight suspicion, though you wouldn’t know it by his manner. Next was Oscar, a psychiatrist with a friendly bearing and sharp mind. He openly liked me and had always treated me like little brother. Olivia, Gwen’s only sister, was a couple years older, tall and lean with similar features. A bit of the family outsider, she was the one who would wink at me as her father went off on another tirade, as if to say, “don’t mind him. For all his bluster, he’s harmless.”
I wondered how they’d receive me, seeing my face again amid their grief. I dreaded meeting Gwen’s fiancé. And the very idea of a funeral…it had been so long since I’d attended such a sad occasion. Yet, despite all that, there was a glimmer of anticipation, of seeing Gwen. It was confusing and I wasn’t sure from where that feeling sprang. It almost felt like hope.
A crowd of people mixed in front of the church façade. It was gray, like everything else seemed on this day, the colored panels of its front windows failing to brighten. I walked closer, determined not to tarry, and began to mark some familiar faces, friends of Gwen’s, clustered in small groups, talking low. Of the family, I saw Oscar first, hovering over one such cluster, a familiar patient look on his face, arms clasped in front of him. I aimed right toward him, eyes fixed on his, willing him to greet me. He looked up slightly and caught my gaze, stepping around the crowd to spread himself wide, thin lips growing into a grin. I mirrored the look, before folding myself into his strong embrace. “He’s happy to see me!” I thought, and felt calm for the first time that morning.
We exchanged meaningful greetings, asked after each other, verified that it had been too long. He grabbed me by the crook of my elbow and led me a few paces, reaching out for a shape covered in a black shawl. It was Gwen’s mother and when she turned at Oscar’s prompting, she only stared at me. She was a stooped, wrinkled woman from the old country, but she could uplift a room with her still-strong voice, her laughing eyes and a humorously garbled command of English. After a long moment, she seemed to straighten up. Her face opened in surprise and then, impossibly, what seemed like delight. Her eyes sparkled behind folded lids and she took my face in her hands, tenderly, and pulled me close to kiss my cheek. She repeated my name several times, running the sound of it over her tongue, never taking her eyes from mine. Inside, I roiled. My throat caught and my gut churned with emotion. I began to weep then, unconsciously and without shame. I told her how sorry I was, for everything. She patted my cheek lightly and nodded, still looking at me fiercely, absolving me.
She turned to other attendees, leaving me momentarily dazed. I absently wiped the moisture from my face and turned, suddenly embarrassed. I stepped away from the crowd and looked down. I didn’t hear Olivia come up. She slipped a slender arm around my shoulders and came around to face me. She, too, was smiling and we laughed and hugged. “You look fine,” she told me. “Just fine,” and I offered my condolences. She hooked her arm in mine and marched me toward the church. Toward Gwen.
She was standing on the top step, to the left of the double entrance doors. She was dressed in monochrome, matching the weather. A single iris, blooming yellow and white, was pinned to her blouse, a sign of color—-of life. Her hair was shorter, pulled behind her ears and hanging past her shoulders. She seemed tired, lines on the corners of her eyes which tried to project her usual strength, but failed. She held sheets of papers in her hands, which she shifted back and forth nervously. She didn’t see us until we were almost upon her.
She smiled wanly, as if the very act were exhausting. I greeted her quietly, with a hug that was only barely returned and whispered condolences in her ear. She thanked me and began pointing out some people I knew, though I’d still yet to spy the fiancé.
Then she moved quickly away, offering a valid excuse, but leaving me cold. Sensing my distress, Olivia said, “she’s just nervous. She’s delivering the eulogy."
I sat near the back, in a scattered row with strangers. The alter was rung with flowers, some of them scattered on surfaces, others propped in arrangement along with pictures, the largest of which sat on top of the closed casket. The pulpit was off to the side and the Father led us in prayer and a hymn. Oscar and Olivia got up to say a few words, the latter struggling to compose herself, stopping often, her voice catching. And then she introduced Gwen.
She stepped up, her shoulders back, defiant almost, like she would not succumb to the moment. Her words were tranquil and she spoke evenly, though with obvious effort. Soon, she began to lean into the task, nervousness falling away as she seemed to feel her speech, her body rising and falling with her cadence. She had everyone enthralled.
I sat rigidly. Every nerve ending in my body was poised, straining, as if I were leaning against a crumbling wall, trying to keep if from toppling. Then, it happened.
Gwen stopped without warning. She stepped back from the podium and lowered her head. Her shoulders began heaving, great shudders and spasms wracked her body. Her sister started up the stage to help, but Gwen raised a palm to stop her. Back at the pulpit, she looked up, the pain and anguish etched deeply in her face. At that moment, the dam within me burst.
She continued her tribute, haltingly now, brushing a handkerchief across her brow. I had lost the thread, however, as my own tears cascaded down my ruddy cheeks. I gasped for purchase, that faraway breath deep inside my chest seemingly fictitious. My sorrow was audible now, surging, like a toddler unable to stem a tantrum. I felt self-conscious, disapproving eyes upon me. But it wasn’t an act. It was loss. Pure and terrible. My tears washed over me, opening those old wounds, but salving them at the same time. It was exhausting and pulled me inward. The funeral continued around me, but I was no longer present. I had my own loss to mourn.
The grave site was across the street and I followed behind the procession as it walked that direction. I continued to hover, not joining the mourners surrounding the casket, but staying back, leaning against an oak tree. The family was in tatters, all except Oscar, who assumed the role of consoler and rock. They held each other for comfort, tightly, as their husband and father was lowered into the ground. When that final act concluded, they accepted handshakes and hugs, encouragement and compassion, and bore each other away from the site.
Olivia stopped when she saw me against the tree, our faces in similar states of puffiness. “You should come by the house,” she said. “We’re having some family over.”
“I don’t think so, Olivia,” I responded. “But thanks. I’m not sure Gwen’s comfortable with me being here. And I certainly am in no hurry to meet her boyfriend, fiancé, whatever.” She looked at me queerly.
“Fiance?” she said. “They broke up, Eric. Months ago. He was cheating on her.”
Gwen’s parents’ house was the same as I remember, a small squarely built affair not without its charms. All the houses were the same around this part of Redondo, cheap housing built shortly after World War II, all function and no form. People had gathered around back on the smallish patio, taking in the sun which had finally appeared in the early afternoon. Gwen came around the corner before I quite got there.
“Eric!” and she said it with the kind of fervor that reminded me why I once loved her. She fairly skipped into my arms and hugged me tightly. “It’s so good to see you.”
“You too, Gwen,” I said sincerely. “You were wonderful today. Very moving.”
“Oh thank you,” she said, her face a curious mixture of the pleasure at the compliment and the pain of the occasion. “I’m so glad you came. I didn’t mean to be short with you before the service. I was…well, preoccupied.”
“Not at all. I totally understand. It was a beautiful service, Gwen. You did your father justice.” She looked away then, tears coming again. But she was smiling in profile, maybe recalling a good memory. “And I…I just can’t believe you. You just had everybody in the palm of your hand.” She laughed, a quick chortle, and looked back at me.
“Thank you,” she said, putting an appreciative hand on my shoulder. “Can you help me grab some stuff out of my car?”
“Of course,” I said, putting my thumb to her cheek and wiping away a tear. We carried the various Tupperware dishes to the backyard, casseroles and salads. I greeted everyone again and we got caught up on each other. They seemed impressed at where I’d arrived, a sharp contrast to the many sordid tales they'd undoubtedly heard about my behavior when Gwen and I were together. We laughed easily as we recalled their Dad’s opinionated manner, a gruff exterior that masked a caring family man.
Later, Gwen and I sat on the grass talking, shaded by a cherry tree. I didn’t ask about the fiancé, but she finally brought it up, shrugging it off as one of those things, an error in judgment. I offered my solace anyway, truthfully. A few months ago, I may have rejoiced in the end of her relationship, but things have changed since then. I think I wanted her simply to be happy and no longer thought that I was the only one who could be responsible for that. I told her about Monica, about how I thought I was ready to move on to a good life, after spending far too long doubting myself.
“I always knew you had that in you, Eric,” she told me. “I ALWAYS knew. I could just never convince you of it.” I smiled, believing her correct, and pulled her into an embrace.
“Thanks, Gwen,” I said. I left not long after, telling her to call me if she needed anything, anything at all. I felt cleansed. I couldn’t quite explain it. Maybe it was seeing her, seeing that her life was good, her family close, that not even her father’s death could chop her down. Maybe it washed away some of the guilt I felt at our failed relationship. Maybe it was the tears, the first in a long time, proving to me that I can feel again, that my emotional spring had not dried. Maybe it was the simple love I felt from the family, welcoming me after all this time, being genuinely happy to see me, even in their time of loss. Whatever it was, my heart beat strongly, with purpose.