by Liana DeMasi
I grew up around dying people. The first death I remember was my mother’s. Towards the end, she would wheeze, like her life was crawling in and out with every breath. She would hold my hand as I sat by her deathbed. “You be good, now,” she’d whisper. I think she wanted those to be her last words, so that she’d be remembered as a matriarch, as motherly, as something she was not. “I will,” I would say. I was telling the truth then, but am lying now.
Today, I’m at a funeral home with my closest family and friends, a group of people that someone else determined for me. We’re chain smoking cigarettes, wearing black. Gold chains hang from all of the men’s necks. The women are congregated to mostly one side, and the people who fall somewhere in between are staring at me, hoping I can lead them to the correct corner. But I don’t approach them with anything deeper than what can be found on the surface. Why would I? I don’t know them, and this is a funeral.
I woke up this morning like I do every morning. An Ella Fitzgerald record came on, lightly at first until it grew louder as she explained that they can’t take something away from her, which is about the time that I got up and shut it off. I made a single espresso, put bread in the toaster, and leaned against the counter. My imaginary cat brushed by my leg, a reminder that he was hungry too.
The cat and I were eating breakfast when there was a knock on the door. My cat gave me a perplexed look, as confused by company as I was. But, like a cat would, he quickly forgot his perplexity and continued eating. I like that about cats. They’re not shy about their disinterest in people.
When I was young, no one had a cat. My aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody had a dog. Or was one. My mom would always say, “Oh, you’re such a dog,” to my Uncle Frank. Frank was family by marriage. I do not want to think less of my mother.
I shuffled down the hallway as I heard more knocks. I didn’t shout to them that I was coming because that seemed too obvious. In any case, if I wasn’t coming, they’d figure it out sooner or later, and if they kept knocking that was their problem, not mine.
I swung open the large, metal door, revealing a man that was both tall and short and fat and thin and attractive and ugly and well-dressed and not. “There’s been a death,” he said in a high-pitched, feminine voice. I was not taken aback; I am just telling you how it is.
“Well, who died?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. “May I come in? We have to get ready.” But before I could answer, he was already down the hall, petting my imaginary cat, drinking the rest of my espresso. “I could make you another of those,” I called. “No need,” he said, which I found to be presumptuous. But I suppose I’ve never really considered coffee before. I woke up one morning and the machine was there, so I figured I ought to use it.
My mother used to make me eggs because I couldn’t have cigarettes and coffee for breakfast like the rest of them. She’d wear pearls everyday, always dressed like she had somewhere to go. She didn’t, but I appreciated her readiness, her hope. She listened to jazz music as she cooked me breakfast, gently swaying around, a cigarette daintily burning in her hand. I think my mother wished she was someone else. She’d curse every time she got ashes in my eggs, but she never changed. I don’t think people ever do.
The man in my kitchen began washing the dishes. The cat sat by his feet, its head cocked to the right. My cat looked at me, Who is this? he meowed. But, of course, I haven’t the slightest clue. He knows that. When he is done with the dishes, he beckons me to follow him down the other hall to my bedroom. He pulls out my black suit, socks and shoes to match. He ponders a tie, decides against it. He hands me my comb and sits down in my oversized white chair. He considers my plants, rubs them to confirm they’re fake. He smiles briefly, remembers himself, and stops.
“Such a shame this happened,” he said, robotically, like he was supposed to.
“Unbelievable really, but I guess that’s life,” I replied, robotically, like I was supposed to.
When I was as ready as he decided was necessary, we got in his silver Toyota. He waited for me to buckle up before he drove away. I asked him, again, who died, and he, again, told me I’d see, like a surprise I was clearly not meant to be excited about. When we arrived he handed me a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, squeezed my hand lightly in place of where words might have been, and walked in before me. I was left on the front steps of the funeral home alone, smoking a cigarette and staring at the faces of strangers, family, and friends who were arriving. We all said, Hi, looked soberly at one another before they gazed at the ground and went inside. There isn’t much to say to people at these things.
Everyone in my family smoked. Dad, Uncle Frank, and the rest of them smelled like ash-trays. Uncle Frank had hair the color of oil and would slick it back. I knew what Uncle Frank’s breath smelled like but no one else’s. He always wore dress pants and t-shirts, a cross hanging around his neck. But he didn’t worship God, only cigarettes. That’s the thing with addicts. They have God or they have their vice. They can’t believe in both.
Now, inside, we’re all just staring at each other, occasionally reaching for one another’s arms as we walk by to get to the other people who do not belong to us. I see the man who brought me here, and he nods his head, adjusts his pinky ring, looks away from me. He’s standing alone, too, and I wonder why he doesn’t talk to me to make the time go by faster, but then I wonder maybe that’s what makes time go slower at these things: talking to people you don’t really know.
The women in the corner are chatting, and every once in a while, I hear a laugh. It’s shocking, but we all decide it’s understandable; perhaps they’re honoring the dead with a funny memory. The dead person would want them to be laughing, however presumptuous that may be about the dead person’s affection for humor, or that they were funny themselves. I gaze over at the casket and can’t make out a single feature from this far away. I do not recognize them, but that’s not to come as a surprise. I don’t know anyone here.
I put my third cigarette out and look up. I see a woman approaching me, a familiar smile on her face. I recognize her, but I cannot place her. Suddenly, I get the overwhelming urge to cry. “Hi, you,” she breathes in my ear as she hugs me, her blonde hair pressed against my cheek. “Hi,” I say, choking back tears. “Don’t, don’t,” she says. “If you start now, you’ll never stop.” She pauses, considers me, rubs my arm. “You look good,” she says. “It’s good to see you, unfortunate that it’s under these circumstances.” I suddenly remember that she is also no one, just a person I see at these things, things that signify beginnings and endings. It will be another five years, if we’re lucky, that I have trouble placing her again. She squeezes my arm, looks at me with regret and affection, walks away. I begin smoking another cigarette.
My brother read the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. Maybe if I had I would’ve been able to lie to myself about my mother. “My mother loved hard. She took care of her family, even if that was always mixed with tough love,” he smiled mournfully. “She always wore those pearls, was always dressed to the nines. She’d tell me, ‘Nicky, you better find a woman like your mother.’ Now she can help me look from up above.” He got to tell the truth. Even if it wasn’t mine.
I glance over at the front of the room, where the casket is. Large, extravagant flower arrangements line the area, as though in order to signify condolences, we must kill once more. The lights on either side of the casket are tall, round at the top. They look like they’ve been plucked from a haunted house, dim and covered in cobwebs just this morning, illuminating what we cannot see. I suddenly feel exhausted, like I need to sit down. I stumble to the closest chair, put my hand in my pocket, and feel crumbs, dust. I look down to find what appears to be pill fragments all over my fingertips, yellowish-green and familiar.
My mother favored her left pocket and my brother. He was more like her, and I was more like no one. My father would forget my birthday. “It’s sometime in April,” he’d laugh. My mother would roll her eyes, but she’d never correct him. I was born in September. I do not know who he was thinking of.
I wonder how long I will be here, if I left enough dry food for my imaginary cat. Did these people leave enough sustenance for their respective creatures? Or were they ushered out of their homes even faster than I was this morning? Something smells faintly of coffee, and I feel a craving for an addiction I did not choose. Who will run out for more cigarettes when we do? I want that woman to come back over here and talk to me, but she’s in her respective corner. I decide to stand, straighten my pants and jacket, and meander over to the rest of the floaters in the room. We nod, mumble greetings. “At least it’s a beautiful day,” one of them says. We all agree. “Would be more appropriate with rain, though,” I say. And then we all agree some more.
My mother used to dance for my father, but he wouldn’t notice. I would watch her from the stairs, as she spun around on the old shag rug. She’d peak at him and he’d be glancing at the paper, finicking with the radio, talking business. Then she’d spill her wine on the rug and he’d curse. He never hit her. I spent years admiring him for that.
A hush falls over the room as a man who looks like a priest stands in front of the casket, facing us. I have always been curious about why anyone would devote their life to religion. I barely believe in what I can see. And what if they don’t get a single thing they’re promised? In any case, I guess they are a dying breed. There’s just too much to repent. This is why my plants are fake. One less thing, just in case.
The man thanks us all for being here today to collectively mourn our loss. “I didn’t know them well, but from what I can see from this crowd, they were loved deeply,” he says. “Many of you have told me stories about them, ones that involve selflessness, humor, intellect, and deep kindness. This was a special person, one we will all miss.” I see several people nodding, and I wonder if they were the ones who told him these stories. Where were the rest of the stories? The ones about their negative habits? Maybe they were a nail biter, someone who hogged the covers. What if their kindness was a means to an end? Who measures intellect and humor, and why do we only speak fondly of the dead? I want to ask the person next to me if this description is accurate, but I do not want to appear to be in contempt. I do not know anyone here. What right do I have to their character?
When my mother wasn’t drinking coffee, she was drinking wine. She used to joke that she didn’t need to wear lipstick because Chianti did the job just fine. One night, my father wasn’t home, and my mother and I were in the living room listening to jazz. She wanted me to dance with her, but I wouldn’t, didn’t know how, not like how she wanted. On my fourth, “No,” her face changed. “You’re just like your father,” she sneered. I knew it was an insult.
“Mourning loss is equally selfish and selfless. To cry over death is an act only for the self. The person you mourn benefits in no way from your sadness. But in mourning, there is honoring, and so, we are behaving selflessly,” the man says. He sounds like he’s trying to reassure himself, but he is not crying, and so I think he’s remembering someone else’s funeral entirely. Death does that, reminds us of itself.
The priest-like man is pacing as he speaks, telling us that grief can happen anywhere, at any time. He is blanketing us in statements. I am half-expecting him to tell us all to turn around and go home, mourn from our couches with our imaginary pets. Hang up the ties and put the dress shoes away. “Who are we with other people?” he asks. And I realize we’re not going anywhere.
“In many ways we spend our lives alone, in our own heads, pondering our own solitude, and then, we come to things like these, mourn, grieve, experience loss, and we see that we were not alone after all, that we never are,” he says, pausing briefly to gaze into the casket. I hear someone shoot air out of their nose, an animalistic reaction to concurrence.
Church always felt like a place people went when they wanted to feel less alone. But it’s all wooden pews and germ-covered bibles, just another empty building. We would sit in the same row every Sunday. Uncle Frank would breathe, Amen, onto my neck after the gospel. Once the priest talked about Jesus carrying the cross, and that we all have a cross to bear in life. I wondered if knowing men like Uncle Frank was my cross. Dad would shake hands with the married women in front of us as a sign of peace, and would spend the rest of the mass staring at their asses. I think they must have been lonely, these unsaveable men.
Suddenly, a tall, blonde woman walks into the room. The man continues speaking and no one else seems to notice her. She’s wearing a long skirt and pearls. She’s smoking a cigarette and holding a styrofoam cup of coffee. I feel an overwhelming urge to push her from the room, back out the door we all came in through. But I do not recognize her. Perhaps that is harm enough.
I feel a hand on my arm. It’s the woman from before. “This guy has a way with words, doesn’t he? He married their kids, too, you know.”
“Who’s kids?” I ask.
“The deceased,” she says, perplexed.
Right, I say, of course. The woman with the pearls is approaching me, swaying her hips slightly as though a jazz number is playing on speakers that don’t exist. Her skirt is too bright for the occasion, and her behavior is making me uncomfortable. Does she know where she is? Why we’re all here? I do not want anyone to think that she belongs to me in any way, that I condone this kind of extravagance at a funeral.
She finally reaches me, her hips halting as she does. She pulls on her cigarette, looks at me, blows the smoke over her shoulder.
“I hate these things,” she says.
“Don’t we all?” I say.
She laughs. “No, some people come alive here. Some people leave grateful,” she says as she presses her skirt down against her leg. “I know you, you know.”
I want to tell her no, that she doesn’t, can’t. I don’t know anyone here. But I know I remember her from somewhere, another time. How do we tell people we’ve forgotten them? That it’s not them, but that it’s always just a matter of time.
“I know you too,” I say. “But I can’t remember from where. I’m sorry.”
She pulls on her cigarette. “Don’t be. I’m from a different time in your life.”
“The one you’ve forgotten.”
The man is still in the front of the room. He’s wrapping up his final thoughts, reiterating how lucky we all are to have experienced a part of our lives with this person. I could throw a penny in his words and hear it reverberate off the walls. There’s nothing there.
Shortly after my mother died, my father found another wife. They danced around the room at their wedding like they were 20-something again. They were married 10 years. No one was there when my father died.
The Pearled Woman grabs my arm, leads me to the line that is forming toward the casket. It is time to say our final goodbyes.
“So, what are you going to say?” she asks. She’s pulling on another cigarette, and so I light one too.
“Well, between you and I, I don’t even know who died,” I whisper.
She laughs, loudly, embarrasses me, but no one looks in our direction. “Neither do I, love. I’m just here for the ambiance.”
I scoff, laugh nervously. I do not know what to say. Surely, she is kidding. Surely, she thinks I am.
“Who were you to me?” I finally ask.
“Oh,” she says, taken aback. “Oh, love, I was meant to be everything to you. But I was no one.”
“I’m sorry that I don’t remember,” I say.
She waves my words away. “Don’t be. It’s my own fault. In any case, apologies mean nothing when you can’t change the circumstances.
In any case, I’m sorry, but out of habit, like I’m supposed to.
The man who brought me here is up at the casket next. There are less people in the room now. They’ve likely said their goodbyes and no longer have a reason to be here. It’s awkward to stand around at these things after the purpose has been served. Like being at a party and waving goodbye just to realize you’re both walking in the same direction to the car. The man who brought me here approaches the casket, considers it, puts his hands on the side. But instead of kneeling in front of it, he puts his lit cigarette out next to him, and climbs inside. I gasp, glance around. I look at the Pearled Woman, my mouth agape. She touches my arm, tells me to relax. Don’t cause a scene, she says, patting her bright skirt again.
I grew up around certain people. They had grown up around other people, and so on. My mother’s last words were, “That’s not right.” I wish they were spoken valiantly. She was talking to her hospice nurse about Jell-o. Even in death, we agonize over the trivial. After that, she slipped into a coma and died three days later. That’s all this is, living and dying around certain people.
Back at the casket, the next person in line climbs in. She slides easily, like she’s been prepared, and disappears into the silk and wood. Next in line, is the woman I know from somewhere else. She looks back at me, waves. I swear I can see tears in her eyes, but I couldn’t be sure. She climbs in, disappears. The line is getting shorter with one person vanishing after the next, descending to an unknown place. I reach for the Pearled Woman’s cigarette, realizing I’ve finished mine. She chuckles, obliges. “I told you, I hate these things.”
Three more people climb in, and the Pearled Woman is next. She turns to me. “Goodbye, dear. You be good, now.”
I am panicked. “Don’t! Don’t go. I do not understand what is happening. I am sure I did not leave enough food for my imaginary cat,” I scream.
Uncle Frank used to touch my mother underneath the table at Christmas dinner. One year, he brought a girlfriend, and he spent all night being a dog to her instead. My mother cried to me wordlessly in front of the tree, her body contorted with grief. I consoled her, my head only reaching her breasts. “It’s okay,” I lied, as I rubbed her back. My mother pulled away from me and cupped my face in her hands. She kissed my forehead and smiled at me. The next morning I unwrapped my presents alone.
The Pearled Woman turns to me, smiling fondly and regretfully. I watch her crawl into the casket, her necklace and blonde hair disappearing last. I realize I am crying. And in a matter of seconds, I have forgotten why.
About the Author
Liana DeMasi is a Brooklyn-based, queer writer and filmmaker. Her words can be found in "Ink & Voices" and "Swipe Life." Her short film, "What We Meant at Dinner," was an Official Selection of Lift Off Film Festival and is in consideration of many others. She is the host of Intimate Moments, an open mic in Brooklyn, centered around uplifting artists' voices and work. She thinks community is of utmost importance, even though her work often critiques the lack thereof in current society. www.lianademasi.com.