We are at a funeral, because her grandfather died last month. We find her mother in a pew, looking like all sorts of a mess, and her father is on the other side of the room, mumbling to her uncle about football in a way that was meant to not look obvious. Her mother greets me, distant and cool. I am the girlfriend, and she is the daughter, and there is her mother, and we are three women together in a room full of grief.
At the gathering after the service, at her childhood home that her parents still live in, we sit in a corner of the study while people mill about with glasses of wine and tumblers of whiskey. Her father’s desk is neat and organized, and the leather chairs have a deep wooden cigar smell that makes me want to hide my face in them. We are joined by her cousin, ten years older than us, who also lives his life on the outside of acceptance. He is restless in the way that former druggies are, his knee bouncing, jangling the keys in his pocket. His face is worn and tired, and he looks older than he is.
It’s a shame, he says, but I guess that’s life. We live the best we can, and then they put us in a box. He pauses and sips his soda water, the glass sweating underneath his large fingers. I’ll tell you though. I’ve been in that box too many damn times already, and I got lucky enough to climb out of it before I was dropped into the ground.
She looks at her cousin, her face smooth and expressionless. She watches his nose as it twitches in thought. I know she is thinking about the repeated cliches of addicts, and the perpetual cycle of debasement and self critique and upward motivation that stimulates the economy of recovery because we have had those conversations about her cousin before. But she doesn’t say anything to him, only pats his hand, looks back out across the room.
People shove plates of food at her that she piles up on the end table. No one seems to notice the small servings of stuffed mushrooms, shrimp, cheese and olives that she has made a mountain of. I nudge her to eat. She ignores me. Her family ignores me, except for her cousin, and his family ignores him.
She takes leave of me and begins her dance around the rooms of the house, giving polite greetings to ancient family members and long forgotten neighbors. I watch her body move underneath the black dress she is wearing, and wonder when the last time was that I saw her naked. Not naked in mere circumstance, like getting changed or jumping into the shower, but naked with intention, with desire. She has been oscillating between chaste clinginess and repulsion of my touch for weeks. She is a dazzling actress. I even see a few tears when her prim aunt cups her face in a long fingered hand.
She hated her grandfather, but he hated her first. When he died she didn’t cry, but she was angry.
He never got to meet you, she fumed. He would have fucking hated you.
Well, I’m sure you disappointed him enough for one lifetime, I assured her. Being a dyke and all.
We leave before the gathering becomes too sparse, in order to hide our sudden disappearance. She pulls the velvet headband through her hair and throws it on the passenger floor of my car, slams the door after she climbs in. Her body is turned away from me, head against the cool window. I try to hold her hand but it goes limp at my touch.
She gets out at the supermarket to run in and grab cat food. I pick up her phone to change the music, and I see a text from someone: i miss you so much, please come over and… When I open it, there is a picture attached of a woman with breasts that are small enough to hold in one hand but full enough to still enjoy. Her body is all angles and steep slopes, dainty but forceful. It is not the only photo, but it is the first sent today. The text thread goes back six months.
I look up and see her crossing the parking lot. I toss the phone back down. She opens the car door and gets back in, and as she sets the bag of cat food in the backseat, I wonder if it is time for me to finally get out of the box.
Belle Gearhart is an emerging writer with forthcoming work in Bullshit Lit, Flash Frog Lit, and the Longleaf Review. A displaced New Yorker, she lives in Southern California with her partner, child, and many, many cats.