SEPTEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 2900 WORDS
The house is not a house. And yet, I am a guest, a knowledge that rests in my mind with the certainty of a swift pen stroke or a happy smile.
The house is mostly white, two stories tall, roofed in lichen and gray shingles. The path I stand on winds a lazy S across a lawn dotted with daisies, buttercups, and spring crocuses. In the flowerbeds, there are primroses and chrysanthemums, somewhere in the shadows to my left, a few Christmas roses avoid the sunshine. Behind the house, blue sky is too slick for even the faintest hint of clouds.
I am invited. I know this. I walk up to the door.
The noise of the creaking hinges of the front door is old and new. It is familiar. The house is not one I have ever lived in, or is it? If so, I don’t remember, but then, who says the house isn’t remembering me?
I only notice I am walking into the kitchen when I smell the food on the stove. It’s something I haven’t smelled in so long—everything stew, we called it, leftovers really, but brought together in that kind of way that will make the whole taste good.
I move closer to the pot—faint robin’s-egg blue—and lift the lid. It seemed so heavy, ages ago, but at that time, my hands were smaller.
“It’s not quite done. It’s never quite done.”
I turn at the voice, my heart thundering in my chest. “Gran?”
She is. Hair in rollers and wearing a pastel apron with daisies on it, she has her legs crossed under the table and a cup of steaming tea in front of her.
“Yes and no,” she says. “I am only a guest here.” She smiles. “You know the type of party, all the round birthdays, but the high ones? Sixty, seventy. It’s like that. And it’s not like that at all. You are wearing no shoes.”
I look down at myself, and see that she is right. My feet are bare and… spotted. Do one’s feet get wrinkles? It must be a trick of the light, or maybe something that happened when I walked the garden path.
“You think that happens from walking down a garden path?” Gran asks, and she turns to fiddle with the ancient radio I now notice on the shelf on the wall behind her. It is silver and has an antenna. I had not thought of that radio in… decades? Decades.
“Did I say that out loud?” I ask.
Gran shrugs and lifts her cup. There is a rose on it, but the print has faded on one side, like blush on your cheek that needs touching up. “In a way.” She gestures to a door in the kitchen. I don’t remember that door. “The stew will be ready later. When you are ready. Go on. Greet the guests.”
I don’t think I ever refused Gran. Hers was the first body I saw, and I remember thinking, she’s gone, she’s no longer in there. The body didn’t even look real, although it was, of course. But something happened, then. I accepted grief, and accepted that all Gran had been lived on in me—in my memories and stories. What we closed behind the lid and buried under the earth, that had been nothing more than… a house. One she had lived in, a good life.
I cried so much that day. Moving away from a place you have loved forever can be hard.
The next room is no room at all, but a public outdoor pool. No one here is moving. There is movement everywhere though: a rainbow-striped ball being tossed between two boys in bathing shorts, smaller kids running, a woman lying on her belly on a blue beach towel, turning the page of her novel while unseen wind moves the corkscrews of her curled hair.
I pick my way to the spot I just barely remember, feeling the grass under my feet, cut short and somewhat rough for all the towels that tease it day in, day out. The pool on my left is crowded with bathers, diving and jumping, and fat drops of water hang in the air like jewels.
I stop when I feel something hard, a sharp pain, under my left foot. I look down. The body of a dying bee twitches on the ground under my foot. I can see its small black and golden body spasm in death, and I feel bad. How long does it take for a bee to die?
A noise pulls me forward to the spot I’ve been heading toward. Shade from large trees showers the towel island in coins of light. The small girl is wrapped in a penguin towel of all things, and her face pulls into awkward angles of pain.
Her left foot is in Mom’s lap, and I haven’t seen Mom that young in—in very, very long. What had Gran said, sixty, seventy? Has it been that long? Longer? The girl looks barely ten. I recognize her sun hat, and I know without walking any farther that it has a comic panda bear on the front. The girl has long hair, braided along her spine. It is dark against the ice and snow of the penguin landscape.
I barely even remember a time when my hair was that color. I stand there, still at some distance, debating whether I should go on. I know, just know, that if I do and look into the girl’s face, some unseen finger will slip off the pause button, and this all will replay. The boy suspended in the air above the water will jump in with a splash, and the woman with the novel will get to the next page. I will smell sunscreen in the air, and maybe ice cream too.
It’s a happy memory, but in the end, I turn around, avoiding the bee this time, which is still writhing and writhing in its eternal death. I head back to the unisex changing cubicles in their shed-like structure.
I go to the first cubicle, and from it, I walk elsewhere.
I come out on a balcony, overlooking a city at night, bright with illumination and bustling with activity. Leaning over the balustrade with a drink in her hand, I make out the wave of blonde hair that is Jess, the curve of her ass, the arch of her naked feet.
“Hey,” I say.
She turns. “Hey to you.” Her smile is a half-formed thing, like a loaf that has sat in the oven for barely ten minutes.
“Shit,” I say. “Did I just break up with you?”
Jess shrugs. “You kind of did, but that’s okay. It was a good decision actually.”
“But you were so… so…”
“Pissed?” she suggests and lifts the glass to toast me before she takes a sip.
“Yeah.” I look around, annoyed that I didn’t bring a drink of my own, but the best they ever had at the pool was soda.
“Here,” Jess says and holds out the glass to me. It’s a tumbler, and I know she’ll have cognac in there, her favorite.
I look at the glass, then shrug. “Not my kind of drink, but it feels like one of those nights.”
“Doesn’t it just?” she says. She is quiet for a long moment as I look at the amber liquid, then watches me with thoughtful brown eyes as I bring the glass to my lips and drink deeper than I ever have. I cough. She grins. “You know we could have been good together. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
With one last cough, I hand the glass back to her. “How would I know why you’re here?”
She rolls her eyes, but offers me one of her warmer smiles. “Look. I’ll be straight. I was very pissed, because I knew. That we could have been—not perfect. No one fucking is. But decent. Anyway. You moved away, I moved away. You unfriended me, and fuck you for that. Did you ever know I got married, in the end?”
“You did?” She’d never once seemed the marrying type, but Jess nods.
“Christina. And hold on to your panties, but we even have kids.”
She eyes me. “So much of that before you get them toilet trained.”
We share a laugh, and all of a sudden, it feels like this never ended, like this night never happened.
But it did.
“Hey,” she says, long, long minutes after we’ve both fallen silent. “I was happy, in the end. I never hated you—I mean, tonight, I do, but not really after.”
“Okay,” I say, then, “I’m sorry.”
She nods. “You said that, and I did believe it.”
“Yeah… but still.”
Jess nods. “Leaving now?”
I look up instead of down. There are just a few stars up in the sky bright enough to battle with the city’s light and win. I smile at the scarce parade of victors.
“Not quite yet.”
“You always were a stubborn bitch. I sort of like that about you. Another sip?”
She holds out her glass, but I make a face and shake my head.
“I should…” I vaguely motion at the door, and Jess nods.
I walk over, but just before I go through, Jess says, “Thanks for making me like matcha, by the way. I’d think of you, sometimes, when I made it for myself in the mornings.”
“You said it was way too bitter.”
Jess shrugs. “Don’t gloat.” And she blows me a kiss.
I had hoped. It was a party, after all, like a sixtieth or seventieth birthday, and it’s not something the special people in one’s life would want to miss.
But there is just a room. Light beige, chairs to the left and right, almost like the chapel we got married in, but not. It is not an altar up there. I should know. I picked the coffin, something in dark brown, some wood I can’t remember the name of just now.
We had to have the lid closed.
I stand there for a long, long time, wishing, suddenly and painfully, that Jess were here, but that would be so unfair. Who takes their ex to their husband’s funeral?
And the room is empty anyway, although the coffin has a presence. It has a weight and a depth that I feel could shift planets. I remember the first time I was here, sitting in the front row with ringing ears and thinking, as if on a loop, that everything had shifted, changed, come apart at the seams. The world and my place in it, my mind. But especially and above all else, my heart.
I walk up to the coffin, but it is not a normal kind of walk, not one that progresses and processes as these things should. It is like a thousand-thousand walks across a carpet designed to smother noisy shoes, like the journey of a lifetime crammed in every step.
I get there in the end, but I feel out of breath. I have felt out of breath for years, but your seventies will do that to you, just like tears will. I cannot decide which is which. I do not want to. A flash of memory brings me back to a penguin towel and a dark braid, and I wonder whether the bee is still struggling with death.
That poor beast, I think. Why can’t she accept it? All things must end, whether through the careless foot of a girl or the cruel bite of time. Or a bullet. Sometimes, a bullet is all it takes to make them tell you that you cannot have an open casket.
When I get there—and oh, I feel the weight of the journey—my eyes and lungs are on fire, and my hands are trembling. The lines and age spots seem like foreign bodies in an otherwise clear sky, but I cannot dwell on that.
There have been dreams over the years, dreams upon dreams like dead leaves on a wilting pile, of me opening this lid and taking one last look. When I saw Gran’s body, it wasn’t easy, but I knew. She was gone, and it was something I could come to terms with.
I push the lid open. It’s heavy. It takes effort.
In the casket, there are photographs. Or something else? We didn’t have pictures of all of these.
The first I spot is a younger Tim, eyes scanning spines at the public library. I recognize the scarf. He wore that the day I bumped into him, maybe two shelves down. There is another of a date, not the first one, a later one. I had unfriended Jess by that time. In the photograph, Tim’s face is outlined in soft illumination, and he has this smile. He’s listening to a story or other I’m telling him, his hands loosely folded around the stem of a wine glass.
With the warming softness of a summer breeze, a hand settles on my shoulder, and my ragged breathing finally evens out.
“That’s when I knew,” he says, and the photographs swims as my vision goes hazy with tears. “I knew that night, and I never regretted it, especially not at the end.”
His hand vanishes, and when I turn, the room is as empty as it was. I turn around and pick up the photograph. With one hand, I press the image of his smile to my heart, and as I walk toward the exit, I realize this is the memory I wanted, this smile. And his voice.
Oh, how I have missed his voice over the years.
It’s not the exit after all. It’s the kitchen again. Gran turns and fiddles with the radio, then points at the stove. “Check if it’s done.”
But I don’t have to. I can smell it, the warm spices, fresh parsley from the garden, carrots cooked to perfection.
“It’s done,” I say with the certainty of a final breath.
“Well, you know where the plates are, so don’t just stand there. Make me one, too.”
I do. It is awkward, carrying both over to her table without letting go of Tim’s picture, but I manage.
Gran, not caring about whether I’d mind or not, whisks the photo from my fingers just when I put down the plates.
“Oooh! Who’s this then? Don’t you know it’s proper to introduce the man to your family first?”
“I did, but it was after you…”
She picks up her spoon. “Ah. Never mind then.” She spoons a mouthful of the stew into her mouth. “Was he good to you? Did you love him?”
She holds out the photo to me, and I take it back. “He was the best. I think we were made for each other. I don’t know. Sometimes I wondered whether I just thought that because we didn’t have that much time. Maybe if we had, I’d have come to resent him. Or he me.”
Gran, in an almost uncharacteristic way, blows a raspberry. “I didn’t raise a granddaughter anyone could resent.”
I smile at her. “I was so scared I’d be alone, you know. In the end.”
Gran reaches out a hand, places it over my own. I used to wonder at the roughness of her skin, but now, her skin feels like my skin. “We would never let you be alone. No one ever faces this alone, no one.”
It takes a long, long while before I can speak again. “Okay.” And after much, much longer still, “What happens now?”
“We eat,” Gran says.
We do. The taste is not just a taste, it is a memory. I have made this stew a thousand times, but I have never been able to remake it, to make it taste exactly like this, not once. It is childhood and pain, and healing. It’s summer spent outdoors, and snowy winters in the company of snowmen and the blackbirds in the yard. When I am done, I marvel at the pattern at the bottom of the deep plates. I see details through the small stains of stew I thought I’d forgotten years and years ago.
“That was good,” I say.
“It really was,” Gran says.
“And now?” I look at the photo of Tim again. That smile, oh, that smile. I hope he had a photo of me too. I did, of that very night, I hear a whisper on the air.
“I’ll do the dishes. You go on,” Gran says.
I nod and stand and cross the kitchen, but look back, one hand on the doorframe.
“It will be fine, child. Just another door,” Gran says, and before she collects, she fiddles with the radio behind her. Something cheery fills the air, and I smile as I watch her dance toward the sink, a plate in either hand.
I walk back to the front door. It is the right door. I know that with the same certainty as I knew Tim was mine, and mine for as long as… until the end.
“Just another door,” I say and pull it open and walk through.