it lies in the center of the room
edge jagged, torn where it once was smooth
a straight line
turn back time
and it used to be a perfect square
half is missing now
the half where you used to be
i can’t find it
i can’t f i n d it
(it is you)
panic beats through my heart
proof that it still works
i was afraid it
wouldn’t work, wouldn’t feel again
after i numbed its ache with drink
if i find it
i can tape it back together
straighten the jagged edge
make the square whole
but then i remember
even if i find it
it won’t turn back time
and when i wake up in the morning
i’ll just have this half in my hand
(the half is regret)
The Three Sisters
“Mother, tell me a story.”
“Which story, my sweet?”
“Tell me… the one of the three sisters!”
A good-natured sigh. “Again?”
“Yes, I like it best.”
“All right then. A long time ago, in a distant land, there was a kingdom on a mountain…”
. . .
The kingdom had three princesses, three sisters who lived their lives together and loved their people very much. Because of this love, the kingdom prospered, growing rich and plentiful as the sisters grew more beautiful and kind. The surrounding kingdoms noticed this and grew jealous.
“Why should that kingdom have the most gold and the fattest livestock and the most abundant crops?” they said to themselves and to each other.
The surrounding kingdoms decided to declare war with the sisters’ kingdom so they could take away what they wanted. They aimed the full strength of their armies at the sisters’ kingdom, and though that kingdom’s army was large and powerful, it was no match for the combined forces of all the surrounding kingdoms.
One day, the sisters looked down at their kingdom and saw that all their people were suffering, for their enemies were stealing their gold, livestock, and crops.
“We must do something!” said the eldest sister.
“Yes, yes, we must!” said the middle sister.
“But what can we do?” asked the youngest sister.
“We can go to the witch and ask her to help us win this war,” said the eldest.
So the three sisters trekked up the mountain to the cave where the kingdom’s only witch lived. Her name was Thesphylia.
When Thesphylia saw the three sisters, she asked, “What brings you here?”
“We seek your magic to help us win the war,” said the eldest sister.
Thesphylia rummaged through her bag before pulling out a glowing red orb. “I have the power of flight. Who wants it?”
“I do,” said the eldest sister. So she swallowed the red orb and attained the power to fly.
“Return this to me by sunset tomorrow,” said Thesphylia.
With the eldest sister’s new power, they were able to attack their enemies from above. This gave them the advantage in several battles, and it seemed like the tide of the war was turning. But then the other armies brought out their archers with their arrows, and they shot the eldest sister out of the sky.
A day after the two sisters buried their eldest sister, they looked out over the kingdom and saw that things were getting worse. Their enemies, having taken what they cared to, were now slaughtering their livestock and burning their crops.
The middle sister said, “We must do something!”
“But what can we do?” asked the youngest sister.
“We can go to the witch and ask her to help us again,” said the middle sister.
So the two sisters trekked up the mountain to the cave where Thesphylia lived.
When Thesphylia saw the two sisters, she asked, “Have you brought me back the power of flight?”
“No,” said the middle sister. “It was lost with our eldest sister when she was shot down by our enemies' arrows.”
“I’m sorry,” said Thesphylia. “What brings you here then?”
“We seek your magic again,” said the middle sister.
Thesphylia rummaged through her bag before pulling out a glowing blue orb. “I have the power to hear others’ thoughts. Who wants it?”
“I do,” said the middle sister. So she swallowed the orb and attained the ability to read people’s minds.
“Return this to me by sunset tomorrow,” said Thesphylia.
With the middle sister’s new power, they were able to learn the battle strategies of their enemies. This let them prepare counterattacks, and it seemed like the tide of the war was turning. But then their enemies caught on, and they gathered all the crazy people from their kingdoms. The sound of their thoughts drove the middle sister mad, and she threw herself into the ocean to escape.
A day after the youngest sister buried the middle sister next to the eldest sister, she looked out over the kingdom and saw that things had worsened still. With no property left to destroy, their enemies were now enslaving the people of her kingdom.
“What can I do?” asked the youngest sister.
She waited for a response, but none came, so she trekked up the mountain to the cave where Thesphylia lived.
When Thesphylia saw the youngest sister, she asked, “Have you brought me back the power to read minds?”
“No,” said the youngest sister. “It was lost with my middle sister when she threw herself into the sea.”
“I’m sorry,” said Thesphylia. “What brings you here then?”
“I seek your magic for a final time,” said the youngest sister.
Thesphylia rummaged through her bag before pulling out a glowing white orb. “This is the last thing in my bag, the power of invisibility. Who wants it?”
The youngest sister hesitated before reaching out to take the orb. She swallowed it and attained the ability to remain unseen by others.
“Return this to me by sunset tomorrow,” said Thesphylia.
The youngest sister went back to her castle, but she did not know how to use her new power to help her people. When the enemy soldiers came for her after enslaving every other person in the kingdom, they could not find her. They left, assuming she had met a similar end as her sisters.
By sunset the next day, the youngest sister was the only one in the entire kingdom. She trekked up the mountain to the cave where Thesphylia lived.
“I have come to return the power of invisibility,” said the youngest sister.
No one responded. Thesphylia was not there.
The youngest sister went back down the mountain and suddenly felt overwhelmingly lonely. She missed her people, she missed the happiness of before, and above all, she missed her sisters.
“What can I do?” asked the youngest sister again. “What would you do?” she asked her sisters.
The youngest sister used her new power of invisibility to sneak into the other kingdoms to free all her people. Their enemies were too busy drinking in celebration of their victory, and they were unprepared for an attack. Soon the youngest sister’s people were headed back to their kingdom, along with the goods that had been stolen from them.
Some things could not go back to the way they were. Thesphylia never returned to her cave, and the kingdom no longer had three sisters.
But one day, after years of rebuilding, the youngest sister looked out over her kingdom and saw that things were good and her people were happy. And perhaps she was happy too.
. . .
“Do you think the youngest sister was happy in the end?” Lia asked.
Her mother stroked her hair, and Lia’s eyelids drooped briefly. “I think she was happy that she could rebuild the kingdom, but sad that she hadn’t done more to save her sisters.”
“Half happy and half sad? That seems confusing.”
“Emotions are often confusing. What are you feeling right now?”
“Sleepy,” Lia mumbled.
Her mother kissed her forehead. “Goodnight, my sweet.” She blew out all the candles save one, and vanished into the darkness, only the glint of her crown still visible.
to the man i called ‘dad’
i used to dream
that one day you would wake up
and you’d know what to do
with a daughter.
that you’d stop seeing me as
a list of achievements to brag about
to your tennis buddies
or a prize to be sold
to the right bidder.
but I don’t dream about that
instead I dream
that one day u will wake up
in an empty house
and u’ll realize that
u can’t run a family like a business
and that children have more feelings
than stocks in a company do.
I don’t know which dream is
more realistic. But I do know
that you’ll be packing your bags
at the end of this month
because mom finally found the
strength to divorce you.
And I won’t miss your yelling
or your bigotry
or your money
a heartbeat. mine. quickening. pounding.
breaths. also mine. gasping. in. out. in. out. in?
a smile. yours. bright. wide. blinding.
you were the catalyst
to my rebirth.
like jonas with the apple.
when the colors of the world were revealed to him.
when i saw you.
i saw the rainbow.
when you took my hand.
i had never felt anything so right.
when you told me to follow.
i did. of course i did.
and you led me out of that tiny room
within a room. where i used to hide
in the darkness. waiting for
someone to rescue me from
my fears and doubts and
so thank you.
for teaching me what
love is. love.
I visited my daughter’s grave yesterday. It was hard. Sometimes, when I stay away for long enough, I can pretend that she’s still in college, too busy to call home. But staying away is hard, too.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents do. It disrupts the natural order. Children aren’t supposed to die from coronavirus, but it happens. I had heard of it happening before Heather got sick, but I didn’t think it would happen to her.
When she started feeling sick, I wasn’t worried. When she was hospitalized, I held out hope for a speedy recovery. When she was gone, I felt nothing but anger. I kept that anger inside for a while, but eventually, it needed an outlet.
Serial killers often select their victims based on some set of criteria. I don’t select my victims though. They select themselves.
I know Heather wouldn’t approve, but she’s no longer here to give her opinion.
She didn’t get sick by doing the dumb stuff other kids have been doing, like going to parties and hanging out with friends. She rarely left the house, and when she did, she always wore a mask and kept away from people.
The week before she started showing symptoms, she went to the grocery store. In the parking lot, she was accosted by a woman without a mask, raving about the coronavirus hoax. Heather got away, came right back home, and took a thorough shower. But it didn’t work. The headaches started a few days later, and then came the fever and the cough, and then…nothing.
So you see, when I grew angry, I knew whom to blame. Not that woman, specifically. I never uncovered her identity, even after weeks of digging. But there were others like her. Setting up the bait was simple.
“TOP SECRET: CORONAVIRUS VACCINES AVAILABLE. China has developed a successful coronavirus vaccine but refuses to share with the rest of the world, especially the USA. My contacts have smuggled in a few hundred samples, but supply is limited. If you are interested in purchasing a vaccine ($100), email me at email@example.com. Do not share this info out or spread the word. Every man for himself.”
I took out a few ads and waited for requests to come in. I got more emails than you would like to think. I was smart about who I ultimately selected for treatment. People who lived alone, who seemed at high-risk for coronavirus, who were ignorant about medical practices.
Did you know a potassium injection can lead to cardiac arrest?
Mrs. Dursman was my first buyer. She was 58 years old, with a pre-existing heart condition and no housemates besides her cats. She also enjoyed trolling mask-wearers online using the pseudonym “Super Karen.”
After a few emails back and forth, we set a time for me to visit her house and administer the vaccine. She would be waiting with a hundred dollars in cash.
The first thing I did after she opened the door for me was confirm that she had not shared my ad with any friends or family.
“No, no friends or family,” she chuckled.
Next, I asked her to delete our correspondence from her emails.
“Chinese hackers,” I said by way of explanation.
She nodded sagely. “Smart thinking.”
Then I sat down with her in the living room and removed a syringe from my medical kit. I also took out an alcohol wipe. She watched as I swabbed the crease in her arm, looking nervous for the first time during my visit.
“Doctor, will my heart issue cause any problems with the vaccine?”
I shook my head. “This is totally safe.” I offered a slight smile, carefully inserting the needle into her arm and pushing down the plunger. “You might feel some discomfort at first, but rest assured, that’s the vaccine doing its work.”
I was holding her hand when she died. Not out of any kindness. I needed to feel her die, needed to feel her clammy grip tighten and then slacken and then cool. Before I went through with it, I had wondered what emotions my first kill would bring.
Horror? Guilt? Satisfaction? Peace?
But I’m not quite sure what I felt as I looked at her body, slumped over on the sofa. I just knew that I couldn’t stop.
After Mrs. Dursman, I started administering the shot to victims in bed. This way, I don’t see their lifeless forms. I see Heather, lying on her hospital cot. I don’t hear their cries of pain or pleas for help. I hear Heather’s rattling cough as her eyes beg me to make it all better. I don’t care to remember their names or their faces. Instead, I remember my daughter, and the strength to continue with this cursed quest fills me again.
. . .
Overseer 7 finished reading and squinted at Worker 12. “You’re sure you translated this correctly?”
Worker 12 bounced their tentacles. “Yes. There were a few words that couldn't be directly translated, but the gist of the message is accurate.”
Overseer 7 emitted a high-pitched whistle. “Humans sure were a violent, stupid bunch, weren’t they? Is it any wonder they destroyed themselves?”
Worker 12 gurgled. “Their loss is our gain. Earth is a near perfect match for our home planet, and we were lucky to find it abandoned.”
“We would have wiped them out either way,” Overseer 7 declared.
Worker 12 paused before speaking. “They were a fascinating species though. I think I would have liked one as a pet.”
“Wild animals should be left to the wilderness,” Overseer 7 said pointedly before slithering away.
Worker 12 went back to working.
Write what you know, they said. Six months ago, I didn’t know much of anything beyond the bitterness of life and the stench of death. Now, I know a little bit more. I know love, lust, ecstasy, and heartbreak.
Her name was Adrienne.
. . .
Six months ago, I found myself in a dusty, cramped office space, standing in front of a heavyset man with a handlebar mustache. His girth reassured me; he was eating well, which meant he could afford to pay well. “Do you have examples of past works?” he asked me.
I winced. “I’ve never been published before, but my father is a well-known author—Pierre Badeaux. Perhaps you’ve read something of his?”
He scoffed. “Are you seeking employment for your father? If you have no experience, I cannot hire you.”
“I trained under him for years. I know how to write,” I insisted.
He pulled at his mustache. “Very well. I happen to be in need of an erotica writer. Write me something, and make it good. I’ll pay you one centime per word. If I like the story, the job is yours, at the same rate.”
“Erotica?” I stammered out.
“Oui, our magazine has a mainly male readership. They like a little bit of spice in their weekly reading. Maybe you can offer a unique perspective, as a woman. With a name like Juliette, I’m sure you can write about love, yes?”
I nodded. For one centime per word, I could write about anything.
. . .
I soon discovered that I could not write about sex. After all, how does one write about something one has never taken part in? No, I’m not ashamed to admit that in March of 1945, I, Juliette Badeaux, was a virgin at 19 years of age.
For the sake of my writing, I set out to remedy my lack of knowledge. This meant reading as much erotica as I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, my mother had run a tight ship before her passing, so despite having four brothers in the house, there was not a scrap of indecent literature to be found.
Instead, I turned to our local bookstore, owned by a white-haired old man who was probably too deaf and blind to be operating the store on his own. This turned out to be an opportunity for me, as I was able to spend long stretches of time flipping through books in the restricted section before he noticed me and shooed me away.
Finally, I was able to piece together a 1983-word short story.
. . .
Monsieur Boulanger twirled one end of his mustache as he read, then set the paper down. “This is not bad, but it is a little...stiff. Mechanical.” My heart sank at his words. I really needed this job. “Now, I’m thinking maybe you could do better if you put more of yourself into your writing. I want to see more emotion, more heat.”
I nodded vigorously. “I can do that, if you give me another chance.”
He chuckled at my apparent eagerness. “I don’t have another writer lined up yet, so I’ll give you one more try. This story is only good enough for half price, but make the next one better, and you’ll receive full payment.” He slid a crisp 10-franc note across his desk.
I opened my mouth to argue—he had promised me one centime per word, after all— but then decided against it. I would make up the difference soon. Clutching the bill tightly between my fingers, I left his office in search of experience.
. . .
The bar was full of patrons, some drowning their sorrows in a tall glass, others looking for the same thing I was. I had purposely come late at night, when inhibitions were loosened and everything had fuzzy edges. I took a seat at the bar and glanced around at my prospects. It wasn’t long before a man sidled up to me. He was older than me, but not yet middle-aged. If I were to guess, there was a decade between us.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked, smiling in a way that he probably thought was charming.
I nodded, and soon a glass of whiskey was placed in front of me. I had just taken my sputtering first sip when his hand was on my thigh.
“What’s your name?”
“Juliette,” I answered, before I could second-guess the wisdom of revealing my true name to a stranger.
He smirked at that. “Are you looking for your Romeo tonight?”
I rewarded his unoriginality with a smile and shrugged.
“Come home with me,” he said in my ear, his mouth close enough for me to smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Let me use the restroom first, and then we’ll go,” I told him.
. . .
I left the bar through the back exit. I shook my head at myself, wondering why I thought this would be a good idea. There had to be another way to get this job without prostituting myself. As I wove through the dark back alleys that would lead home, flashing lights drew my attention. They belonged to the only establishment in the city besides the bar that was still open at this time, Madame Lefleur’s House of Pleasures. Not very subtle. The place had seen quite a lot of action in the wake of the wars. People had decided now was the time to start living.
Before I knew it, the bell on the door was ringing, announcing my arrival. The woman behind the desk recited, “Three francs for thirty minutes, five for an hour,” without looking up. I wondered if this was Madame Lefleur.
Having entered the house, I couldn’t think of a suitable reason for leaving. My silence caused her to look up, her gaze raking over me. “You’re not one of the regulars,” she said, pausing. “We have enough girls already, and you’re too skinny anyway.”
My face reddened as the meaning of her words dawned on me. “I’m not here to work for you.”
“Ah.” Another once-over. “Three francs for thirty minutes, five—”
“Yes, I know,” I said, cutting her off. “What about if I just want to talk with one of the girls? No sex involved.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You pay for the time and the room. I don’t care what you do in there.”
I hesitated before placing my 10-franc note in front of her. “Thirty minutes, please.”
A stack of bills was handed back to me. “Room 4, you have Adrienne.” She went back to whatever she was doing before.
At her clear dismissal, I wandered down the hall, noting the numbers on the doors. The sounds emanating from some of them made my ears burn, and I increased my pace. Room 4 was tucked away at the end of the hall, the separation from the other rooms making me feel slightly better. Now that I was here and had already spent my money, the only thing left to do was knock.
The door opened to reveal a woman in red lingerie with a hand on her hip. “I’m Juliette,” I squeaked out before she pulled me into the room.
“Adrienne,” she said, stepping back to look at me. “You’re new. And young.”
Adrienne was stunning, with tousled waves of chestnut hair, sparkling brown eyes, and a wide smile. Whoever came up with blond hair and blue eyes as the standard for beauty was absolutely wrong. Her clothing hid little of her hourglass figure, and I took in all the smooth skin on display.
She pushed me towards the bed, distracting me from my observations. “What do you like?” she asked.
“I, er, I just want to talk,” I said.
Her posture changed. “You’re paying for a conversation? Not enough friends?”
“No, that’s not it.” I took a deep breath. “I want you to explain sex to me.”
Adrienne burst out laughing. “You would rather spend your time talking about sex than having it?”
“I got a job writing erotica,” I explained, “but I don’t have the right words. I was hoping you could give me details, tell me what it feels like.”
“What it feels like?” She looked thoughtful. “Have you ever felt passion before?”
“I’m passionate about writing,” I told her.
“What about attraction?”
I blushed. “I think so. I think you’re very pretty.”
She smiled. “Have you ever been so attracted to someone that you just wanted to tear their clothes off? To have them? To consume them? I imagine that’s the type of passion your readers want to read about.”
I had never wanted to consume anyone before, but my face heated at the way Adrienne spoke of such things. I shook my head.
She regarded me carefully, then asked, “Have you ever kissed anyone?”
The answer was yes, there was that one time with a boy from church. An unnoteworthy kiss shared chastely behind a tree after he had invited me for a walk in the park. “Not really,” I said.
“Can I…?” She gestured to her lips.
I nodded mutely, and then her hands were on my face, her mouth covering mine. It reminded me of that chaste kiss all over again, but then her lips started to move. Warmth blossomed everywhere, and I tried to catalogue the various sensations I was feeling. When her tongue slipped into my mouth, my mind stuttered to a halt.
A knock came at the door and we broke apart. “We’re decent,” Adrienne called.
Madame Lefleur poked her head in. “Your time is up.”
I nodded, gave Adrienne a bashful smile which she returned brightly, and headed out the door. On my walk home, I relived the kiss over and over in my head. I told myself it was so I wouldn’t forget how it felt when it came time to put it down on paper. I must have been quite flushed when I reached my house; luckily, there was no need to conceal the signs of my earlier indecent behavior. The only other person who still lived there was my father, and since mother’s death, he had remained locked up in his room, absorbed in his writing.
As I lay in bed, staring into the darkness and unable to sleep, I knew I would return to Madame Lefleur’s House of Pleasures.
. . .
I went back the very next night. “Is Adrienne available?” I asked.
Madame Lefleur nodded and took my three francs. “Room 4.”
Adrienne lounged on the bed and I sat cross-legged by her feet. “Am I the first woman you’ve kissed?” I asked her.
She shook her head no. “We get all sorts of clients in here.”
“Oh,” I said, oddly disappointed. “So you’ve also had sex with women then.”
“What’s it like?”
“Different, but not in a bad way. Warmer, softer.” She looked thoughtful. “Although I guess you have no point of comparison.”
Her hand was on my thigh, and I wondered how it could feel so much better than when the man at the bar did the same thing. “I could show you, if you’d like.”
I hesitated before nodding. Her hand withdrew from my leg, and I felt the loss.
“Lay down,” she said. “Let me take care of you.”
I did what she asked, and then her body pressed into mine. She began by placing a kiss on my neck.
. . .
The next day, I visited Monsieur Boulanger with another story. He skimmed over it and then cleared his throat. “Yes, this is better. It’s an interesting angle, the romance between two women. The job is yours.”
I grinned broadly, accepting the bills he slid across the desk. “Thank you! I won’t disappoint.”
He opened his mouth, looking unsure. “Maybe next time you could add in a man. Our readers enjoy a little ménage à trois.”
I nodded. “I can do that.” I left the building twenty francs richer and knowing exactly where I wanted to spend three of them.
. . .
Adrienne became my muse, and the visits with her became a ritual. I saw the money spent there as a good investment for my future work.
“You gave me extra change,” I told Madame Lefleur one evening.
“Adrienne said to give you a discount. Half off.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”
She waved her hand. “It comes out of Adrienne’s paycheck, not mine.”
I nodded, unsure of what to do with this information. But then Madame Lefleur went back to whatever she was always doing, and I had a beautiful woman waiting for me…
. . .
“Can I see your writing?” she asked me one night as we lay together on the bed in a tangle of weary limbs and sweaty skin. We held hands, and my thumb traced the fine bones of her fingers.
“If you’d like,” I said, knowing I couldn’t deny her anything. “Do you like erotica?”
“I’m not sure. I like romance. Do your stories have happy endings?”
“The characters usually end up satisfied,” I hedged.
She smirked at that.
“I’ll bring you some stories next week.”
She smiled and kissed me. “Thank you, love.”
. . .
“You’re a very talented writer,” she told me as she answered the door.
My chest swelled with pride. “Oh? Do you think so?”
She nodded. “Yes, me and the other girls all think so.”
I frowned. “The other girls?”
She nodded again. “We read your stories together.”
“Some of those stories are about you and me!” I objected.
She only laughed. “It’s nothing they haven’t done themselves. Besides,” she continued, “Marianne is the only one of us who can read. And she’s fussy about it, charges us each half a franc per reading.”
“I can read to you,” I offered.
Her eyes sparkled. “I would like that. You have a very nice voice.”
I blushed. “Do you want me to now, or—”
She silenced me with a kiss. “Next time. For now, I am interested in reenacting one of your stories. The one called La Femme Irrésistible.”
. . .
I visited her four times a week. Sometimes we just talked, sometimes we had sex, and a few times, I think we made love. My writing was the best it had ever been. I was happy with the arrangement and willing to ignore the fact that there were others who shared Adrienne’s bed. Then two weeks ago, things changed.
I went up to the counter and dropped my money there, like I always did. Instead of picking up the bill, Madame Lefleur said, “Adrienne isn’t here.”
I was confused. Adrienne hadn’t mentioned taking a break. I hadn’t even been aware that the girls left the house, although they must have had nights when they went out on the town. “When will she be back?”
Madame Lefleur looked at me with pity that I didn’t understand. “She left. She won’t be working here anymore. A rich businessman fell in love with her at first sight and proposed. She went back to Calais with him.”
“Oh.” I was a writer with no words, as my entire world came crashing down around me. Emotions warred within me—shock, betrayal, anger, and so much pain. How could Adrienne leave me? Then I remembered what I had forced myself to forget for the past few months, that she was not mine, and her body was not her own. I suddenly felt sick. Had I just been one more person paying for access to her body, purchasing the right to unwanted touches? I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually, I picked up my money and turned to leave.
“Juliette,” Madame Lefleur said as I reached the door. I paused, wondering how she knew my name. “She wanted me to tell you that being with you wasn’t a job for her.”
. . .
I don’t know if this letter will shock you, disappoint you. I suppose some of it must have been quite strange to read. If anything, I hope that you will be happy for me. I found love like yours and maman’s. I also hope that you will understand what I must do next.
You should know it was your advice that got me to this point. I was only nine years old when you first told me to write what I knew. Now, I’m going to listen to another piece of your advice: to follow my heart. I’ve saved up enough money for a one-way train ticket to Calais. I don’t know what I will find there, but I need to at least look.
I know you’ve been struggling with writer’s block since maman died, but you will need to write to feed yourself. I’ve kept some money for you in the safe, which should be enough to get you by for a few weeks. If you go to the intersection of Soufflot and Toullier, there’ll be a publishing office where you can find work. Ask for Monsieur Boulanger and tell him you’re my father.
I believe I will come back some day, one way or another. Until then, stay well and wish me luck.
I shouldn’t be here. There’s too much emotion, and yet not enough. Sadness, bitterness, anger, and overwhelming regret. I feel no love, no joy, which is what she deserves.
They chose a good picture of her. She’s much older than she was the last time I saw her in person, but her expression is so familiar to me. She has on that crooked half smile, and her eyes are bright with mischief. The photo must have been taken before the chemo started. I wonder how she felt when she started losing her hair. She’d loved her hair; always said it was her best feature, even though it was her eyes by far.
I was surprised when I got the invitation in the mail. We haven’t spoken in thirty years. Did she keep talking about me, even after I disappeared?
Her husband strides toward me now. I’m scared of what he might have to say. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I tell him.
He nods. “And I’m sorry for yours.”
I take in the tightness in his stance, the paleness of his face, the tiredness in his voice. Her cancer battle was rough on him. But the crow’s feet by his eyes tell me that he lived out many happy years with her. Jealousy churns inside me.
I turn away, wanting the conversation to end, but he says my name, and I am forced to look back. “Susy was sad when you stopped coming around.” There’s no accusation in his voice, but guilt swallows me anyway. I don’t want to hear this. “She cried herself to sleep every night for weeks.”
“I did what I thought was best.”
“Best for who?” he asks softly.
“Best for both of us.”
“She forgave you, you know. Actually, she never blamed you in the first place.”
“She thought it was the right choice,” I conclude.
“No, she just could never fault you for anything. You were perfect in her eyes.” The edge to his voice tells me he does not share her opinion of me.
I feel a flare of annoyance at this man passing judgment on my life choices. “It was a different time. If I had loved her the way I wanted to... I couldn’t do that to her. Without me, she could live a happy life. I loved her enough to give that to her.”
He laughs humorlessly at that. “A happy life? She was trapped in a marriage to a man she couldn’t love as anything other than a brother. She loved you so much that she couldn’t live without you. And you abandoned her.”
I say nothing. I don’t have a response.
“Different kinds of love, I guess.”
I shrug, and turn away again. This time, he lets me leave. My hand is on the door when I hear him shout, “Bess!” It makes me stiffen. There’s only one person who ever called me that, and she’s gone.
I turn to face the man whose place I could have taken, if I had tried harder, if I hadn’t been so scared. “She asked me to call you that one last time,” he says, “for her.”
I soak that in for a minute before leaning back against the door and walking out of the church.
My daughter-in-law Estella wraps a scarf around my neck and tugs firmly to knot it. I tolerate the babying. Might as well. “Take care, mamma.” Her words are only slightly muffled by the pristine white mask covering half her face. A shoulder squeeze through blue latex gloves suffices in place of a standard cheek kiss. She is saying goodbye.
It’s more kindness than my own son offers. Perhaps I should have been better to Estella while I had the chance. Luca stands in the corner, his own mask in place. The three of us have matching sets. As I open the door, I pause, giving him one last chance. He takes it.
I turn expectantly, and he’s eight years old again, a boy who needs his mother. Suddenly I can remember every bedtime story, every boo-boo kissed better. I try to pinpoint when the distance between us grew so vast.
“Mamma,” Luca repeats, and he takes a step towards me. For a second, I think he might hug me, wrap his arms tightly around my waist like when he was little, but then I watch him grow up; his eyes harden, his jaw sets. “You are strong, mamma. The doctors will help you get better quickly, and then you will return to us, sì?”
I nod, wondering how much of his own words he believes. I haven’t been the invincible mother of his youth for a while. Would he have gifted me a final embrace if he knew he would not see me alive again? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
This time when I walk through the door, no one stops me. “I love you,” I offer over my shoulder, and I gather the echoes into my heart before the door closes behind me.
I am not going to the hospital. I’ve always hated it, that bustling, chaotic, hotbed of disease. And death. The nobler part of me refuses because it feels wrong to steal a spot from someone younger and more deserving. The selfish part of me refuses out of fear of past ghosts. Both parts agree that we will not be going to the hospital.
I walk for a few blocks. The streets are practically empty, but I see the homeless man I sometimes spare a few coins sitting in his usual spot. With minor protests from my knees, I take a seat against the wall a little ways from him. His eyes widen at me. Maybe he recognizes me? Maybe he’s side-eyeing my Valentino handbag. Either way, the rattling cough I let loose is enough to scare him off.
I pull down my mask and reach into my coat pocket. I’ve filched a pack from Luca’s stash of Davidoffs that Estella doesn’t know about. I hope he forgives me. I know how hard he works to sneak them in the house. I light one and take a satisfactory first drag.
I’m halfway through the next cig when I allow myself to contemplate my situation. At twenty years old, I boldly proclaimed that I would stop fearing death at sixty, that I would have lived enough to let go. Now, at seventy-three, I want to box that arrogant little shit’s ears. Still, I have chosen death over the alternative. I get through five cigs before I push myself up. It’s dark. I must head to my final destination.
My family and my husband’s family have been buried in the same cemetery for generations. This means I have a little plot of land reserved for me between Rafe and my oldest (and favorite) sister, Bianca. I plop down on the black soil, ignoring the complaining of my joints. One hand props up another cigarette, the other traces the words I know from memory etched into Rafe’s gravestone.
Rafael Matteo Giordano
Loving Father, Husband, and Brother
He’s been gone for a while, long enough that I only feel a dull ache in my chest when thinking of him. Not long enough that I’ve forgotten the pain of doctor’s visits and medical treatments and all the other messiness that comes with lung cancer. I suck in a lungful of smoke, and my hacking grows so violent that I have to wait a few minutes before I can take another.
This is how I plan to go out: smoking my way into oblivion. Lung cancer can’t kill me now, the way it took my husband. It’s too slow. I laugh in my mind. My throat fails to make the correct sound.
I lean back and look up at the stars. They are beautiful, and cold. I shiver. I haven’t been stargazing since Luca was a child. It’s harder to breathe lying down, and my inhales now come in shallow gasps. I will slowly drown in this sea of bones. I bring the cigarette to my lips and close my eyes.
I trust the stars are still shining.