Author's Note: So I was in my kitchen the other day and I said to myself, Self, you're already reading two books at the same time, why not write two stories as well? Anyway, I couldn't help myself, so here you go. This is similar in tone to Letters to Gramercy, so if you liked that one, you'll hopefully like this one. There are pictures for it on my homepage, linked in my profile. Also, I'm posting the second chapter right after I post this one; yes I went on a writing bender these last few days.
Nice reviews are better than chocolate, unless maybe you're licking that chocolate off someone.
Reality and Other Inconveniences
One: The Dress
Was I supposed to put it on over my head? Or step into it? A real girl would know how to do this…
I pulled down the zipper, the sound falling in with the faint rustling of fabric being adjusted over arms and legs and a small sniffle from my best friend, usually talkative, but smart enough today to give me my space. I stepped into the dress and tugged it up over my body, struggling to keep it facing the right direction. I shoved my arms into the proper holes and twisted myself into unrealistic positions in a pitiful attempt to do up the zipper myself.
It was a simple black shift, black stockings, black shoes; it made me look half dead. The thought set my heart beating too fast and then it stuttered, like it might stop. I put a hand on my hip and one to my chest as if I could manipulate the organ into a regular pace, but it only made me notice that my breathing was becoming erratic. I leaned over, bracing myself on the bed that took up most of the space in the hot room. Why wasn't the air conditioner on? It was August for goodness sake. I closed my eyes.
I couldn't breathe.
I felt hands on me then, sets of them, soft and cool like always. The heat never seemed to affect my friends. I focused on that, felt one tiny hand on my back, two strong hands on my face, and the weight of the bed sinking as someone sat down. Until I could breathe again. I looked up into bright blue eyes rimmed with red, but still holding fast to mine though I knew it must have been hard. "I can't get the zipper up on my dress," my voice felt sandpapered. I touched my own forehead as her hands let me go; I ran my hand through my lank hair; it needed to be washed. "Fudge…," I muttered.
"I think you mean fuck," the voice of my pixie headed friend mixed with the expletive was so completely wrong that I laughed, I laughed until the tears in my eyes were no longer from sadness. She zipped my dress and told me to stand up straight, but I still looked down when she finished and I turned to face her. And I noticed something…
"That's better…what is it?" She looked around for the answer.
I stuck my high heeled foot out to show her the very noticeable rip in my nylons.
"Good," she said, "it's too hot for those anyway."
I slipped off my shoes and wiggled out of the nylons, leaving them in a pile on the bed; I took one look around the room before leading the way to the car.
I sat with Alice on one side of me, Rose on the other, and if I had another side to sit next to, that place would be Charlie's. Instead, he sat stiffly next to Alice, who had pressed his suit for him, clearly uncomfortable as she was currently gripping both his hand and mine. Rose, not used to such affection, sat with her hands clasped together in her lap; I could see her picking at her thumb nail discreetly. I nudged her softly with my elbow and attempted a smile which failed. She smiled back in a maternal way that belied her anything but maternal physical appearance.
My dress was too short, I decided, staring at the hem. I pulled at it lightly with my free hand, already feeling the sweat on my palm. There was no air on in here either and I could feel the eyes staring at me and there was an ache at the back of my neck, but I couldn't raise my head to release the tension because then I would see her and my world would fall apart all over again. In that moment, the coolness of Alice's hand was the only tether I had to something good and normal and constant.
I forced in a breath as the priest took his place and we all had to stand up. Something about this whole situation was unreal to me, my mother only converted to marry Phil. She wouldn't want this. She'd want something outside and we'd all hold flowers and wear ridiculously bright colors and there'd be laughter and we'd all smile and remember. Not this chorus of stand, sit, and kneel. I started thinking that maybe this wasn't real after all, because it wouldn't be like this. So I held onto that and waited, knowing soon enough I would wake up and this would just be some strange thing to tell my mother about the next time she called. Which would be soon because she called almost every day.
The priest's voice was calm and I wondered if even in my dream, he was used to doing things like this. "And now we're going to hear a few words from Renee's daughter, Isabella." He looked toward me and stepped back, as if I was actually going to step up to the pulpit and give a speech. Maybe this was a nightmare. I looked to my left and I could see Charlie staring back; his heart looked broken. Wake up. I said to myself; this was no longer just a strange story to tell in the morning over coffee. I looked at Alice and shook my head. This isn't really happening; tell me it isn't. Her expression was the same as my father's and I felt my hands start to shake, but it was hot in here, why was I shaking? I felt that same stutter in my heartbeat and this claustrophobic fear as everyone started leaning toward me. I strained for a breath and felt a hand on my shoulder and I wanted to shrug it off, but I was pretty sure it was Charlie. "I can't…," was all I could manage.
Rosalie's voice came from behind me; I think she was talking to Alice, but everything sounded off, like when a radio station starts going out during a long drive. She spoke too quickly for me to understand and then the coolness of her body was gone, replaced by the stifling heat of the church air. Alice stood up too and then was gone and I was sure this had to be some kind of nightmare. I kept my eyes in my lap, afraid of what might happen if I looked up; Charlie's warmth came closer then, but I didn't mind. It was like being near a fireplace on a rainy night in Washington. It helped me catch my breath enough that when I heard them begin speaking; I let it take me back.
The bathroom seemed like a good place to hide in my six year old mind. Out of the three stalls, I picked the largest one and when I heard the door open, I gingerly placed a ballet slippered foot on the toilet seat to hoist myself up. I leaned a hand on the wall for balance and held my breath. Nobody said anything, but I heard the soft sounds of more than one person inside. When I had to breathe, I did so quietly, waiting for whoever was out there to leave. And then I was going to wait in here until class was over and then run outside and wait for my mom to pick me up. And then I was going to quit ballet forever; it was stupid anyway.
I screamed when I saw the girl's heads looking up at me from the floor just inside the stall door. They were laying on their backs in order to peek under the door, big smiles on their faces. "Hi!" The dark haired one said while the blonde giggled. "Whatcha doing?"
My face felt hot and I knew it was probably red too. "Nothing."
"We wanna do nothing too," the blonde girl said. "How long do you think we can hide from the grown-ups?"
I finally looked up and they were standing side by side, taking turns speaking into the microphone; they were being strong so I didn't have to be. They made it more the way my mother would have wanted it. Alice told a story about the day they met her, which was the same day I met them; they said they'd help me persuade her to let me quit ballet. Suffice to say our plan didn't work and I had to endure the rest of the year before she let me stop going, but it wasn't so bad after that. Alice and Rose were mischievous as little girls and together we were incorrigible.
My eyes met Alice's during Rose's turn to speak and she seemed to be saying, look at me, stay with me. I forced myself not to look at the coffin, remember her alive, remember the good times. All those useless things that people say when they don't know what to say floated through my mind. Mostly I didn't want to look because then I would never forget.
I listened to Rose's story about the first time we tried a "round robin", where we attempted to trick our parents into thinking we were sleeping at each other's homes, but in reality we were at a party on a nearby reservation. My mother caught on and dragged us all home, but not before I had my first kiss ever with a boy that had hair past his shoulders. Instead of staying mad, she took a detour and picked up ice cream and the four of us stayed up all night in my living room. She promised to keep our secret unless we lied to her again. We never did and no one else ever knew what happened that night. Until today, I guess. My father squeezed my shoulder and chuckled lightly. I noticed other people laugh as well as my friends kept talking.
This was what she would have wanted.
The heaviness of the Florida humidity and discontent had lifted by the time they stepped down and the services came to a close. I felt Rose's arm rest over my shoulders when we stood to follow the coffin out, Alice held one hand, my father awkwardly held the other from his position in front of me, a last ditch effort to keep me from staring at the long mahogany box. Phil stood in front of him, wilting Gerber daisies in one hand, yellow. I felt like I was being pulled, rather than walking of my own volition. I wasn't ready for this, but does anything ever come when you're actually ready?
Where I would typically hate anyone doting on me, today I let them. Where I would typically shy away from so much physical contact, today I held my arms open to it. Either Alice, Rose, or my father were always close by, when one or the other wasn't retrieving water or food at the small reception at my mother and Phil's little beachside home. Stories were told and people tried to make the best of things, but there was a collective sigh of relief when the first of them started leaving. I had let the day happen around me and the hours of sitting on the little living room loveseat were catching up with me. When the only people left were my friends and Charlie, I slipped off my shoes and finally stood up.
Waving off the refrain of "can I get you anything", I moved into the kitchen where Phil seemed to also be hiding. I liked him and I think we were more alike than different and I was sad seeing him in here without the mobile support group I had around me. I walked over to where he was leaning over the sink, staring out the window, and rested my head on his shoulder. I didn't know what to say, but I knew at this point I'd heard everything that could be said and none of it was ever really quite right. So I just stood there with him and hoped he could tell that I felt it too, that mix of grief and emptiness and disbelief, that knowledge that you'd do anything to have them back. After a few minutes he sighed and said, "yeah, me too."
We cleaned up the kitchen and put away the countless covered dishes people brought unaware that Phil was the better cook in the marriage; over time my mother had given up on her experimental dishes. Though he was much younger, Phil had also grounded my mom in a way no one else had been able to; they were contented together.
I was just sticking some kind of congealed casserole in the fridge when Phil finally spoke up. "The reading of her will is tomorrow morning, you're coming, right?"
I shrugged, "I don't know. I mean, there's nothing -,"
"I know what she left you."
That surprised me; actually all of this new information surprised me. I didn't know Phil was able to convince her to make a will in the first place until I arrived in Florida a few days prior. She had more assets than I'd realized, but something about going to the reading seemed wrong to me. I felt like we were picking over what she'd left behind, snatching up her belongings like vultures. There wasn't anything I wanted that I couldn't just remember. But I still looked at Phil with curiosity, what would she have left me instead of her husband?
"We talked about it before she decided, it was years ago, but I don't think she changed it." He shifted the wet cloth he was holding from one hand to the other while I waited. "She left you a house."