-1The "Holder", "Pillow", "Cuddler", "Rock", and Mark Cohen's Secret
Mark Cohen didn't cry.
Well, not openly, anyway, especially not in front of Maureen, who just cried harder at the sight of a man's eyes teary.
When Angel died, Mark was the "holder", the one that pulled his friends, one by one, into tight embraces as they sobbed the loss of a beautiful soul. He'd blink rapidly, shaking his head, to avoid the misty water from clouding his eyes.
When Collins died, Mark became the "pillow", the one that would sit with whoever needed it for hours, while the other person often fell asleep with their head in his lap or on his shoulder. Fingers in whoever was there at the moment's hair, he'd sit in the loft's ratty old couch, head against the back of the seat, lip between his teeth.
When Mimi died, Mark became the "cuddler", the one who's bed would often be invaded by one or more of his friends during the course of the night. Most often this would be Roger, who claimed he just hated sleeping in an empty bed, but by morning, would be curled up against Mark. Sometimes, it was Maureen, who'd sneak into the loft late at night with Joanne and crawl up and underneath his single blanket like a cat, startling him awake at the feeling of someone's hands running up his back. One time, it was all of them - Maureen, Joanne and Roger alike, who ended up in his bed, a mass of connected souls who were missing key members of their spirits.
When Roger died, Mark became the "rock", often sitting in the dark by himself, Roger's guitar by his side. His life was a revolving door the months after the loss of his best friend, Maureen and Joanne appearing, restocking his refrigerator, bringing him the essentials. A roommate, a mechanic named Carl that was friends with Maureen's brother, came to live with him a few months after, and Mark dutifully moved out of his own room and into Roger's, unable to allow a stranger to occupy the room where his best friend used to live.
Yet, he never cried, and that's what worried Joanne so much.
"Speak!" Said the untouched voicemail that reverberated through the walls of the loft. Mark, perched on a stool by the old metal table in the poor excuse for a kitchen, watched as Carl made himself chocolate milk as the machine clicked.
"Mark, it's your mother. You know I hate to say things like this, but where the FUCK are you? I haven't heard from you in months, Mark. MONTHS. If I'm correct, over six. I know you're alive, but where ARE you?" Her voice, strained with worry, cracked, "This isn't fair, baby. Pick up the phone. The holidays are coming, at least let me know you're alright."
There was a pause, and Mark's head turned and peered at the answering machine, wondering if she was going to continue. She did.
"Roger? Are you there?" The sound of his mother's voice saying Roger's name made Mark recoil and he closed his eyes as she continued, "Roger, make your blockhead of a roommate call his mother back, will you?"
The click reverberated through the cement walls and Mark looked up to see Carl looking back at him with a pained expression. Before the younger man could say anything, Mark shook his head and stood, finally retreating back into his room.
"Mark, just come over for dinner, at least," Joanne begged, two weeks later, as she stared down at the strawberry-haired 28 year old who strangely still looked not a day over 19. Mark waved his hand, gesturing for the woman to get out of his way as he tried to watch the pirated cable that was flickering from behind her on a old television Carl had bought a few weeks before.
"I told you," Mark said softly, taking a bite of the cereal that was in a mug , balancing on his upraised knees. His eyes never drifted from the blocked TV, which he was now straining around her figure to see, "I don't like Thanksgiving, never have. Carl and I will order Chinese food or something."
Joanne stood there for a moment longer, staring down at him with a helpless expression. She desperately wanted him to be there with her and Maureen - he was a vital part of their life. Joanne wasn't blind though. Mark wasn't Mark, not anymore. He'd died when his best friends had, particularly Roger. He was living, but a clear plexiglass wall separated him and them now. Mark was all faux happiness and smiles that didn't reach his eyes, and he thought he was doing a good job at hiding it, but he wasn't, because Joanne saw through it all.
She finally moved from standing in front of the television after Mark waved her out of the way for the millionth time. Collapsing into the couch with a sigh, Joanne rolled her eyes.
From beside her, Mark peered at his friend out of the corner of his eye. Reaching over and placing the mug on the crate that acted as a side table, he stretched over to where Joanne was sitting and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Moments later, Joanne allowed herself to be tugged into his side, and felt his lips touch the top of her head in a friendly embrace.
"I'm alright," He whispered, turning his gaze back to the show he had been watching. Joanne closed her eyes against this, knowing it was a lie, before nodding and snuggling against him, allowing his touch to bring her the comforting it had always given her through tough times.
Standing barefoot in the loft's kitchen a week later, Mark poised his finger over the play button of the answering machine and hit it for the fourth time.
"Speak!" Came the roommate's voices, Roger's hauntingly familiar baritone shivering through Mark's body. He noted they should really change that message.
"Mark," Said his mother, urgently, "Come home for Thanksgiving. Come home tomorrow, Mark. You're scaring me. Please."
Mark stared at the machine once again, lip between his teeth. The message had come in late last night, after he had gone to bed. Looking up at the clock, he saw it was nearly noon.
Making a decision, Mark retreated back into his room, slamming the door behind him.
An hour later, Mark found himself on a train, one of it's many destinations being Scarsdale. He wasn't sure what he was doing, and was quite sure he'd regret his decision later, but it was too late now.
Fumbling with the crank on the camera in his lap, he placed his head on the seat behind him, taking a deep breath.
The taxi pulled up to the nightmare of his past not much later, and as Mark climbed out, handing over the last few dollars he had in his pocket, he realized there was no turning back. Before him stood the place he had vowed never to take a step in again, it's upper middle class capabilities blinding him. It hadn't changed much, well, with the exception of the shudders having been re-painted from a dark blue to maroon, but the actual structure of the house he'd grown up in hadn't changed. The leaves crunched underneath the second-hand boots he had bought only days earlier (they had reminded him of the ones Roger used to wear) as he walked up the walkway, stopping only momentarily to pull his messenger bag to his front to put his camera away. As he reached the front step, he paused, re-wrapping his infamous scarf around his neck and brushing the lint from his over -worn corduroy jacket. Just as he was about to ring the doorbell, the door swung open, and Mark found himself face to face with his mother.
Trying to muster up the best smile he could form on his face, Mark went to say something when the screen door banged open and his mother pulled him in, yanking him into an over-bearingly strong hug that knocked the wind out of him.
"Whoa," He muttered, finally wrapping his arms back around his mother. A few moments later he tried to pull away but she clung to him, and suddenly he heard her sniffle.
Almost reluctantly, Mark felt bad.
Finally stepping back, his mother wiped her eyes, looking up at her son with an expression that reminded Mark of those people who thought they'd just seen a ghost. Her fingers touched his cheeks, her eyes still swimming with tears.
Seeing the worry lines crinkling around her eyes and forehead just made Mark feel worse.
Truth was, he'd seen his mother since he'd moved to the city. Twice, really - once when she helped him move in (in which the 'cluck' of her tongue hitting the roof of her mouth when seeing the poor conditions he'd be living in reverberated through his ears) and the second when she was on her way to see a Broadway musical with his father (the tickets had been a gift from his ever-thoughtful big sister Cindy) in which she first met Roger and frowned when the musician told her his choice of a career was a singer in a rock band. He had tried, so so hard, to get her interested in his life - but she really wasn't. She didn't come to the film screening he'd gotten her and his father tickets to six years ago and she never really took it upon herself to come and visit. She just liked to call, catch up and gossip.
The thing was, it was hard to feel that pang of annoyance he used to get when seeing her or hearing her voice, not since it had been so long. He hadn't spoken to her since Collins' death, and then, it was for only a little while.
He couldn't feel that anger, not right now, not when he needed normalcy.
"Mark," His mother breathed, sending him back into reality. He placed his hands over hers and smiled his fake smile, the one he'd been painting on for Collins, Mimi, Roger, Maureen and Joanne, then Mimi, Roger, Maureen and Joanne, then Roger, Maureen and Joanne, and then finally, in these past months, just Maureen and Joanne.
He pulled his mother back into a hug, breathing deeply the scent of his childhood home into his lungs, "I'm sorry Mom. I'm alright."
After an awkward hour or so of being reintroduced to family he hadn't seen in years, or new family that had married into the Cohens, Mark sat idly at the dinner table, picking at the turkey at his plate. People he used to know, and people he used to wish he had never known chatted up around him, spitting small talk back and forth.
It was all stuff Mark didn't know about.
His niece sat at his right, dark hair pulled into a ponytail as to not get gravy in it, struggling with cutting her meat. After a few moments of watching her fumble, Mark leaned over with a smile.
"Do you need help?" He asked. The little girl, chocolate eyes wide at the man she'd heard about but never met, nodded and handed over her knife and fork. Mark smiled again and began cutting the turkey into bite-size pieces. From across the table, someone cleared their throat, and Mark looked up into the eyes of his niece's father - Cindy's husband, Joe.
"So, Mark," Joe said loudly, stilling conversation around the table. Eyes focused on Mark as he continued to cut the girl's food into pieces. In response, Mark's eyebrows went up.
"How's…" Joe's voice trailed off, collecting his thoughts. In meantime, Mark finished helping his niece and handed her her fork, reaching over instinctively to pull a straying curl of hair out of the path of her mouth.
"Oh right. Roger, that's his name. How's Roger? He's your roommate, right?" Joe finished.
At this, Mark froze, mid-replacing the girl's hair to behind her ear. He swallowed deeply, finally tucking her hair out of her face and then turned around, picking up his fork. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, and he had to put his own on his half-empty plate to avoid the curious stares. After a moment, he took a deep breath and stabbed at the carrots on his plate, collecting a few. Looking up, he nodded slightly.
"Roger?" He wondered, looking at Joe, who still had the faint trace of a smile crossing his face, "Roger, uh… Roger died."
As the words escaped his mouth, realization cascaded over him. Somehow, saying it out loud sounded so much worse then in his head. Stuffing the carrots in his mouth, he chewed rapidly, continuing to ignore the shocked glances that were being shot his way.
"Roger, died," He said again, after swallowing his carrots and taking a sip of the water glass before him. His eyes connected with Joe's and saw that the man's grin had faded.
"When?" Mark's mother's voice came from the end of the table. Mark's eyes drifted to hers and he felt his heart beginning to race.
"Six months ago," He said softly, sitting back in his chair and placing his napkin in his lap. Carefully avoiding her gaze, he began playing with the edges of the paper, shaking his head slightly and rapidly.
"How?" Joe wondered. Mark's mother went to stop him, but Mark spoke, surprising himself.
"AIDS. Roger had AIDS." He practically proclaimed. Suddenly, an overwhelming sensation flooded through his body, and before he knew it, he was sobbing, right there at the dinner table, his family - who really weren't his family - surrounding him with shocked expressions.
"They all died. All of them," He continued, the silent sobs becoming hysterical. This wasn't your typical crying, this was border lining on dangerous, as he began laughing and sobbing all at once, "Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel. All gone."
His hands came to his face and he pulled his knees to his chest. Suddenly, the feeling of arms came around him, and he recognized his mother's scent as she urged him to cry to her. He slipped his arms around her waist and unabashedly sobbed into her neck, allowing himself to be led away from the table and his shocked family and onto the couch of the living room he had grown up in.
"Shh, baby," His mother cooed, her own eyes welling up with tears as her grown son, who never really needed her, not ever, needed her at that moment.
And then, Mark wasn't the rock anymore.
After Roger, Mimi, Collins and Angel had died, Mrs. Cohen became the "comforter", and the only person who could start the healing process - at least for Mark.
And for the first time since the loss of his family, Mark Cohen cried.