Summer 2016 - Fiction

 

Eshani Surya

 

The Day Before the Funeral

This week, we keep four kinds of milk in the fridge. Dad drinks half-and-half in his coffee; the kids take glasses of 1% before school; like me, Mom wants non-fat for her cereal; my husband, Tom, needs almond milk, because lactose bothers his stomach. The milk fills up the center of the kitchen island, where the bagels or the loaf of bread usually go. Except there is no room, there is no room in this house for anything.

When I was a child, Dad drank two cups of coffee every morning, so I say, Dad, let me get you some of this Kenyan stuff, it’s quite good.

He looks at me, and Mom looks at me. I’m in the middle of pouring more coffee—into a clean mug, because I don’t think Dad would want me to mix the two roasts—and Dad says, You always make it too strong. Just leave the goddamn thing alone. Let your mother do it.

He tosses a paper napkin when he says it. I could say anything, I could tell him it’s my house and he can’t talk to me like that, or I could say there is no one for me to be second favorite to anymore so he has to accept me now. I stoop to pick up the napkin, and I can’t fathom how he got the paper so dirty when all he had was coffee and a piece of toast. I could say that, I could attack how he eats, the little trickle of spittle and crumbs in the corner of his mouth.

Tom whispers, let it go, their other daughter is gone, they just don’t know how to cope.

We know how, he means to say. We are okay.

*

She was my sister, your aunt, I told my children, just five and seven years old, after I got the call that Louisa had passed. She was to me what you are to each other.

Tom took them away then, sent them to their rooms, because of how their little faces searched mine, trying to understand. They would not understand, and he did not want them to come up with the wrong conclusions. Then he’d held me.

Years before the call, Louisa stood on the doorstep of our old house. I was going to summer camp; it was the first year she was not. As I passed by, she whispered, Don’t forget to show the rest of the girls the path to the boys’ cabin. Sure-fire way to meet new people! I buried my face in her shoulder, smelling the perfume on her neck, not wanting another friend.

When I told Tom this, he just kissed the side of my head.

*

To Do:

1. Call florist to swap out sunflowers for lilies.
2. Confirm music selection with organist. (BE SURE TO MENTION: Mom wants him to play Ave Maria early)
3. Think up funny story about Louisa for eulogy.
4. Buy new pantyhose—black, two pairs.
5. Visit hairdresser.
6. Go to bank, transfer money. (DON’T FORGET: write check for Pastor John)
7. Decide where in house works best for a private cry.
8. Per Internet’s advice, take ten-minute breaks every few hours.
9. Bake blackberry pie for reception—Mom says desserts should tend towards bitter on days like tomorrow.

*

The hairdresser does not pull my hair, and I wish he would, but he caresses the folds of my ears, removing soap, and I like this. Silence. Warmth. His callouses on my neck. The faucet croons alongside the water.

The hairdresser says, How much do you want off?

Two inches, I tell him. And neaten up the layers.

It’s already pretty short, he starts to say, but I interrupt him.

He runs his fingers through my hair, fixing the part. I am leaning in, but his hands are gone, measuring layers, snipping, drawing the cut strands away from my head. He cuts the weight away.

I am glad he does not know about Louisa. He does not know that I am here because everyone I have ever known will be coming to the funeral tomorrow, and I want to look good, right, put-together. I want my mother to cry, because I think she needs to, and she won’t be able to unless she’s so happy and so sad at the same time. I want my father to think that I’ve done the family justice, even if he doesn’t say it.

The hairdresser can’t find the round brush.

Sorry, he says. Give me a second.

Wet hair sticks to my cheeks. I move it, but my fingers tangle, and then they are digging in, looking for scalp. Making circles against my head. I never grow my nails out; they aren’t long enough even to make half-moon impressions in my scalp. But I feel my finger pads with so much strength behind them.

Tom at the breakfast table, saying we are okay—but we are not a we, not in this moment, because I do not believe he feels how when I close my eyes, the darkness seems to vibrate, and I can feel it in my skin.

The hairdresser drops the brush onto the table. It clatters. I stop the circles.

He asks what I’m doing, my hair mussed and rough, and I say, Please, will you untangle it?

He pushes my head down, like he needs to reach my nape, but I think he does not want me to see his face. When he finds the entry point to a knot, the hairs begin to ease away from each other. The rest begins to settle. But if I tongue my lips, I can taste salt. He thinks he is hurting me.

*

I’ve been out for longer than I said the errands would take. Dad calls. Leaning over the edge of the little wooden bridge I’ve been walking on, I tell him I’m not far from home. He asks me to come back. That it’ll get dark soon—though it is 2 PM—and a car might not see me, and then that would be it. Don’t be an idiot about these things, he says.

When I close my eyes, the cell phone still buzzing with the dial tone, I can hear the woods around me. The light rush of water under the bridge, the mosquitos near the back of my head, the high-pitched squirrel trills. I am part of it all, but then I am not. In the dark, through the swelling of grief in my body, I am no longer that kind of wild.

Louisa died of breast cancer. My cells quiver. One could rebel soon.

Steady, I think, again and again, on the path home.

*

The kids’ school bus hasn’t come yet, and it won’t for another half an hour, but I sit on our porch anyway. Inside Dad irons his and Mom’s funeral clothes. I rub my toes into the dirt near the tulips, and wait for the bus, and for Tom, who is coming home early because I asked.

Years ago, my sister sank her fingers into our dog’s coat, in the middle of the front yard. The lawn, fresh and green, had little white flags stuck into its edges. Dad had just called the invisible fence people, and they’d dug up the grass to stick wires into the ground. They’d given us a collar for the dog, and Dad had spent hours walking her up to the border and teaching her that the beeping meant she’d be shocked if she crossed.

I’ve never seen him like this, Louisa said, about our father. She rubbed the dog’s velvet ear between her fingers. He’s so in love with her.

He yells at her, I said. He calls her stupid. A dumb dog.

That’s what Dad learned about love, she said, smiling, and then threw the tennis ball for the dog to fetch.

Through the window I can see my parents hanging up their pressed clothes. Dad gestures at my dress, still on the bed, still wrinkled. Mom shrugs, but he picks it up and smoothes it over the ironing board. In our house, he always ironed, usually on Sundays, while Mom cooked dinners to freeze for the week. I watched the silver plate of the iron running over my filmy teenage blouses. He taught me at seventeen, right before I left for college, and yelled when I burned the edge of one of my favorite shirts. After, he’d given me the iron to take to school. Just like that. When it still throbbed heat. He told me to have it so I’d always look okay. He’d hugged me.

Tom, at the breakfast table this morning. We are okay. Once, I’d complained to Louisa about how much Tom wanted to hold my hand. She’d said, haven’t you ever loved something and hated it at the same time?

Our car pulls into the driveway, the top half of Tom’s face shielded by the visor. When he comes out of the car, I am on my feet, arms outstretched, willing to receive him.

 

 

*

Eshani Surya is an incoming MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her other writing has appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Publishing Trendsetter, Minetta Review, and First Class Lit. She also serves as an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, a journal of flash fiction. Find her online @__eshani.

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.