It is a sticky August afternoon, and flies keep landing on me like I’m a corpse.
“Emily,” my mother chides. “Please. Don’t say ‘corpse’ at a funeral.”
I blink, unaware I had spoken aloud, and then correct her. “This isn’t a funeral.”
She gives me the same look she’s been giving me for days: jaw slightly akimbo, eyebrows knit, eyes boring into me, clearly hoping to develop the ability to read minds.
“The funeral was what took place in the church. This is the post-funeral, the part where we all stand around, eating crudités and avoiding the sympathy casserole. We’ll drink too much and worry about when it’s appropriate to leave and, above all, avoid any mention of the deceased unless it’s to say what a stand-up guy he was.”
“You shouldn’t be drinking anything, young lady.”
My mother sends a warning glance at the plastic cup in my hand, at the diet cola one of Jeremy’s friends spiked with whiskey, but she doesn’t make a move to take it from me.
“He wasn’t, you know,” I continue. “A stand-up guy, that is. He sold drugs.To children. Just pot, but still. To children, Mother.”
“Emily, don’t make a scene. The Baxters have lost their son.”
I find Mrs. Baxter across the yard, standing slightly apart from everyone, her back to them as she exhales cigarette smoke into the peony bushes. She adjusts her dark sunglasses, wipes a slender index finger underneath them. It may have been a tear. It may have been one of the flies.
“I hate that euphemism. They didn’t lose him. He left.”
The whiskey hasn’t had the melting effect I had hoped; my voice catches on the last word. My mother’s expression softens, her features rearranging themselves in pity. She peels a strand of damp hair from my sweaty face, tucks it behind my ear, lets her hand linger there. “Emily, honey –”
I shake her off. “Jeremy would have hated this, you know. To have this party ostensibly be about him – I know what you’re going to say, Mother, you don’t even have to say it. This isn’t a ‘party.’ Fine. To have this gathering ostensibly be about him, and to have the neighborhood hacks making ridiculous comments about the weather – did you hear Mr. Thompson say ‘lovely day for a funeral’ – and of all things, the cheese selection – Barb and Jackie are actually debating the age of the cheddar – instead of remembering him, or looking at his paintings, or even acknowledging the fact that he ate a gun.”
My mother reminds me that people handle grief differently, and begins speaking authoritatively on the subject, even though I am sure she is just regurgitating information she read in Helping Your Teen Understand Death, a copy of which I found underneath the pillow on the couch. I stop listening to her. It’s not death that I don’t understand.
My gaze travels up the Baxters’ trellis, following the path of the slats I broke when I tried to use it as a hydrangea-covered ladder, up to the far-right window on the second floor. The shades are drawn, and I wonder if Jeremy closed them that morning or if his parents closed them afterwards. I cannot remember if they were closed the night before. All I remember is the soft, welcoming dark of his room, the familiar scent of pot and his woodsy cologne, the way he looked at me when I stretched out naked on his sheets. I should have known, I think. I should have known from the aching look in his eyes, the faint glint that I didn’t recognize as tears, the rawness in his voice when he asked me to stay the night. I should have stayed. My mother’s anger would have eventually been forgotten; this will not.
I can still feel his lips on mine when I close my eyes. I wonder if he could taste me when he died, or if all traces of me were displaced by cold, ruthless steel.
A fly lands in my cup, drowns in my drink. I lift the cup to my lips, grind the cellophane wings between my molars. I want to know what death tastes like.
about the author:
K Barber is a compulsive writer and incurable wanderer. Her vices include early 00’s pop-punk music, cinnamon gum, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.