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Dr. Tuttle had warned me of “extended nightmares” and “clock-true mind trips,” “paralysis of the imagination,” “perceived space-time anomalies,” “dreams that feel like forays across the multiverse,” and “trips to ulterior dimensions,” et cetera.
And she had said that a small percentage of people taking the kind of medications she prescribed for me reported having hallucinations during their waking hours. “They’re mostly pleasant visions, ethereal spirits, celestial light patterns, angels, friendly ghosts. Sprites. Nymphs. Glitter. Hallucinating is completely harmless. And it happens mostly to Asians. What, may I ask, is your ethnic background?”
“English, French, Swedish, German.”
“You’ll be fine.”
The LIRR wasn’t exactly celestial, but I wondered if I might be lucid dreaming. I looked down at my hands. It was hard to move them. They smelled like cigarettes and perfume. I blew on them, petted the cool white fur of the coat, made fists and punched down at my thighs. I hummed. It all felt real enough.
I took stock of myself. I wasn’t bleeding. I hadn’t pissed myself. I wasn’t wearing any socks. My teeth felt gummy, my mouth tasted like peanuts and cigarettes, though I found no cigarettes in my coat pockets. My debit card and keys were in the back pocket of my jeans. At my feet was a Big Brown Bag from Bloomingdale’s. Inside the bag, a size two Theory black skirt suit and a Calvin Klein matching nude bra and panty set. A small velveteen jewelry box contained an ugly topaz pendant necklace set in fake gold. On the seat beside me was an enormous bouquet of white roses. A square envelope was tucked beneath it, my handwriting on the front: for reva. Beside the flowers, there was a PEOPLE magazine, a half-empty water bottle, and the wrappers from two Snickers bars. I took a sip from the water bottle and discovered it was filled with gin.
Out the window, the sun throbbed pale and yellow on the horizon. Was the sun coming up, or was it setting? Which way was the train headed? I looked at my hands again, at the gray line of dirt under my chewed-up fingernails. When a man in uniform passed, I stopped him. I was too shy to ask the important questions—“What day is it? Where am I going? Is it night or morning?”—so I asked him what the next stop on the train would be instead.
“Bethpage coming up. Yours is the station after.” He plucked my ticket from where it was stuck on the seat back in front of me. “You can sleep for a few more minutes,” he winked.
I couldn’t sleep now. I stared out the window. The sun was definitely rising. The train rumbled, then slowed. Across the platform at Bethpage, a small crowd of long-coated middle-aged people with coffee cups stood waiting for the train coming in the opposite direction. I figured I could get off there and catch that train back into Manhattan. Once the train came to a stop, I stood. The fur coat swept down to the floor. It was heavy fur and tied with a white leather belt around my waist. My bare feet were damp inside my sneakers. I wasn’t wearing a bra, either. My nipples rubbed against the soft fuzz on the inside of my sweatshirt, which felt new and cheap, the kind of sweatshirt you can buy for $5 at Walgreens or Rite Aid. A bell clanged. I had to hurry. But as I gathered up my things, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to shit. I left my bag and the roses on the seat and hurried down the aisle to the toilet. I had to take the coat off and turn it inside out before hanging it up so that only the silky pink lining rested against the grimy wall of the toilet stall. I don’t know what I’d eaten, but it certainly was not the usual animal crackers or salad from the diner. I felt the train start back up as I sat there. I pushed up the large sleeves of the sweatshirt to survey my arms, looking for a stamp or mark or bruise or Band- Aid. I found nothing.
I felt again in the pockets of my coat for my phone, found only a receipt for a bubble tea in Koreatown and a rubber band. I used it to tie back my hair. From what I could make out in the dull, scratched-up mirror, I didn’t look so bad. I slapped my cheeks and dug the sleep out of my eyes. I still looked pretty. I noticed that my hair was shorter. I must have gotten it cut in the blackout. I could look at my bank-card statement to figure out what I’d done on the Infermiterol, I thought, but I didn’t really care, as long I was intact, I wasn’t bleeding. I wasn’t bruised or broken. I knew where I was. I had my credit card and keys. That was all that mattered. I wasn’t ashamed. One Infermiterol had taken days of my life away. It was the perfect drug in that sense.
I splashed my face with water, gargled, rubbed the plaque off my teeth with a paper towel. When I got back to my seat, I took a swig of gin, swished it around in my mouth, and spit it back into the bottle. The train slowed again. I picked up my things, cradling the unwieldy bouquet in my arms like a baby. The roses were pristine and scentless. I touched them to see if they were real. They were.
† † †
Farmingdale was an ugly, flat, gray landscape spiked with telephone poles. In the distance, I could see rows of long, two-story buildings covered in beige aluminum siding, bare trees shaking in the wind, a silo maybe, a dark plume of smoke from some unseen source rising up into the pale wide gray sky. People bundled in coats and scarves and hats shuffled across a small ice-covered plaza toward minivans and cheap sedans whose running engines filled the small parking lot with a fog of exhaust. An enormous white Lincoln Continental pulled up alongside the curb and flashed its headlights.
It was Reva. She lowered the power window of the passenger seat and waved to me. I considered ignoring her and turning back across the tracks to catch the next train back to the city. She honked. I walked out to the road and got into the car. The interior was all burgundy leather and fake wood. It smelled like cigars and cherry air freshener. Reva’s lap was filled with crumpled tissues.
“New coat? Is it real?” she asked, sniffling.
“A Christmas present,” I mumbled. I shoved the shopping bag down between my feet and lay the bouquet across my lap. “To myself.”
“This is my uncle’s car,” Reva said. “I can’t believe you made it. I almost didn’t believe you on the phone last night.”
“You didn’t believe what on the phone?”
“I’m just happy you got here.” She had the radio on classical music.
“The funeral is today,” I said, affirming what I was loath to believe. I really didn’t want to go, but I was stuck now. I turned the music down.
“I just thought you’d be late, or sleep through the day or something. No offense. But here you are!” She patted my knee. “Pretty flowers. My mom would have loved them.”
I slumped back in my seat. “I don’t feel very well, Reva.”
“You look nice,” she said, eying the coat again.
“I brought an outfit to change into,” I said, kicking the shopping bag. “Something black.”
“You can borrow whatever you want,” said Reva. “Makeup, whatever.” She turned and smiled falsely, petted my hand with hers. She looked awful. Her cheeks were swollen, her eyes red, her skin waxy. She’d looked like that when she used to throw up all the time. Senior year, she’d even popped blood vessels in her eyes, so for weeks she’d worn dark glasses around campus. She kept them off at home in our dorm. It was hard to look at her.
She started driving.
“Isn’t the snow so beautiful? It’s peaceful here, right? Away from the city? It really puts things in perspective. You know... life?” Reva looked at me for a reaction, but I gave none. She was going to be annoying, I could tell. She’d expect me to say comforting things, to put an arm around her shoulders while she sobbed at the funeral. I was trapped. The day would be hell. I would suffer. I felt I might not survive. I needed a dark, quiet room, my videos, my bed, my pills. I hadn’t been this far from home in many months. I was frightened.
“Can we stop for coffee?”
“There’s coffee at the house,” Reva said.
I truly hated her in that moment, watching her navigating the icy roads, craning her neck to see over the dash from the sunken seat of the car. Then she gave a litany of everything that she’d been up to—cleaning the house, calling relatives and friends, making arrangements with the funeral home.
“My dad decided to cremate,” she said. “He couldn’t even wait until after the funeral. It seems so cruel. And it’s not even Jewish. He was just trying to save money.” Her cheeks sagged as she frowned. Her eyes filled with tears. It always impressed me how predictable Reva was—she was like a character in a movie. Every emotional gesture was always right on cue. “My mom is in this cheap little wooden box now,” she whined. “It’s only this big.” She took her hands off the wheel to show me the dimensions, voguing. “They wanted us to buy this huge brass urn. They try to take advantage of you every step of the way, I swear. It’s so disgusting. But my dad is so cheap. I told him I’m going to dump her ashes out in the ocean, and he said that was undignified. What? How is the ocean undignified? What’s more dignified than the ocean? The mantel over the fireplace? A cabinet in the kitchen?” She choked a bit on her own indignation, then turned to me softly. “I thought maybe you could come with me, and we could drive down to Massapequa and do it and have lunch some time. Like next weekend, if you have time. Or any day, really. Maybe when it gets warmer. At least when it’s not snowing. What did you do with your mom?” she asked.
“Buried her next to my father,” I said.
“See, we should have buried her. At least you still have your parents somewhere. Like, they haven’t been burned to ashes. At least they’re in the ground—their bones are still there, I mean, in one place. You still have that.”
“Pull over,” I told her. I’d spotted a McDonald’s up ahead. “Let’s go through the drive-through. Let me buy you breakfast.”
“I’m on a diet,” Reva said.
“Let me buy me breakfast then,” I said.
She pulled into the parking lot, got in line.
“Do you visit them? Your parents’ graves?” she asked. Reva mistook my sigh of frustration for an expulsion of buried sadness. She turned to me with a high whining, “Mmm!” frowning in sympathy, and leaned on the horn by accident. It honked like a wounded coyote. She gasped. The person in the car ahead of us gave her the finger. “Oh, God. Sorry!” she yelled, and honked again in apology. She looked at me. “There’s food at home. There’s coffee, everything.”
“All I want is coffee from McDonald’s. That’s all I ask. I came all this way.”
Reva put the car into park. We waited.
“I can’t even tell you how disturbing it was at the crematorium. It’s the last place you want to be when you’re in mourning. They give you all this literature about how they burn the bodies, like I really need to know. And in one of the pamphlets, they describe how they cremate dead babies in these little individual ‘metal pans.’ That’s what they call them—‘metal pans.’ I can’t stop thinking about that. ‘Pans.’ It’s so gross. Like they’re making personal pan pizzas. Isn’t that just awful? Doesn’t that make you sick?”
The car ahead pulled forward. I motioned for Reva to drive up to the intercom.
“Two large coffees, extra sugar, extra cream,” I said and pointed to Reva to repeat the order. She did, and ordered herself an Oreo McFlurry.
“You can sleep over if you want,” Reva said, driving up to the first window. “It’s New Year’s Eve, you know.”
“I have plans in the city.”
Reva knew I was lying. I looked at her, daring her to challenge me, but she just smiled and passed my debit card to the woman in the window.
“I wish I had plans in the city,” Reva said.
We pulled up to the next window, and Reva handed me my coffees. The lids smelled like cheap perfume and burnt hamburger.
“I can call you a cab back to the station after the reception,” Reva went on, her voice high and phony as she spooned her McFlurry into her mouth. “Ken is coming, I think,” she said. “And a few other people from work. Do you want to stay for dinner at least?” Speaking with her mouth full was another thing I couldn’t stand about Reva.
“I need a nap first,” I said. “Then I’ll see how I feel.”
Reva was quiet for a while, cold white puffs of air rising up off her tongue as she licked the long plastic spoon. The heating was way up. I was sweating under the fur. She stuck the McFlurry cup between her knees and continued to drive and eat.
“You can take a nap in my room,” she said. “It should be quiet down there. My relatives are over, but they won’t think you’re being rude or anything. We don’t have to be at the funeral home until two.”
We passed a high school, a library, a strip mall. Why anyone would want to live in a place like that was beyond me. Farmingdale State College, a Costco, five cemeteries in a row, a golf course, block after block of white picket fences with perfectly snow-blown driveways and walkways. It made sense that Reva had come from a place as lame as this. It explained why she slaved away to fit in and make a home for herself in New York City. Her father, she’d told me, was an accountant. Her mother had been a secretary at a Jewish day school. Reva was, like me, an only child.
“This is it,” she said as we pulled into the driveway of a tan-colored brick house. It was ranch-style and small, probably built in the 50s. Just by looking at it from the outside, I could tell that it had wall-to-wall carpeting, humid, sticky air, low ceilings. I imagined cabinets full of crap, flies flurrying around a wooden bowl of brown bananas, an old refrigerator covered in magnets pinning down expired coupons for toilet paper and dish soap, a pantry packed with cheap store-brand foods. It looked like the opposite of my parents’ house upstate. Their house was an eerily spare Tudor Colonial, very austere, very brown. The furniture was all dark, heavy wood, which the housekeeper polished religiously with lemon-scented Pledge. Brown leather sofa, brown leather armchair. The floors were varnished and shiny. There were stained-glass windows in the living room and a few large waxy plants in the foyer. Otherwise it was colorless inside. Monochromatic drapes and carpets. There was very little to catch your eye—cleared countertops, everything blank and dim. My mother was not the type to use alphabet magnets on the fridge to hold up my kindergarten finger paintings or first attempts at writing out words. She kept the walls of the house mostly clear. It was as though anything visually interesting was too much aggravation on my mother’s eyes. Maybe that’s why she ran out of the Guggenheim that one time she came to visit me in the city. Only the master bedroom, my mother’s room, had any clutter in it—glass bottles of perfume and ashtrays, unused exercise equipment, piles of pastel and beige-colored clothing. The bed was a king, low to the ground, and whenever I slept in it, I felt very far away from the world, like I was in a spaceship or on the moon. I missed that bed. The stiff blankness of my mother’s eggshell sheets.
I sucked down the rest of coffee number one and put the empty cup in my Big Brown Bag from Bloomingdale’s. Reva parked the car in the driveway next to a rusting burgundy minivan and an old yellow Volvo station wagon.
“Come meet my relatives,” she said. “And then I’ll show you where you can lie down for a bit.” She led me up the shoveled pathway to the house. She was talking again. “Since her passing, I’ve just been so exhausted all the time. I haven’t been sleeping well with all these strange dreams. Creepy. Not really nightmares. Just weird. Totally bizarre.”
“Everybody thinks their dreams are weird, Reva,” I said.
“I’m overwhelmed, I guess. It’s been hard, but also sort of beautiful in this sad and peaceful way. You know what she said before she died? She said, ‘Don’t worry so much trying to be everybody’s favorite. Just go have fun.’ That really hit me, ‘everybody’s favorite.’ Because it’s true. I do feel the pressure to be like that. Do you think I’m like that? I guess I just never felt good enough. This is probably healthy for me, to have to face life now, you know, on my own. My dad and I aren’t really close. I’ll just introduce you to my relatives real quick,” she said, opening the front door.
The interior of the house was as I’d predicted—cushy, lime-green carpeting, yellow glass chandelier, gold-patterned wallpaper, and low stucco ceilings. The heat was blasting, and the air carried a smell of food and coffee and bleach. Reva led me into a sitting room with windows looking out onto the snow-covered front yard. A huge television was on mute, and a row of bald men wearing glasses sat on a long paisley sofa covered in glossy clear plastic. As Reva stomped snow off her boots on the mat, three fat women in black dresses and curlers in their hair came out from the kitchen with trays of donuts and danishes.
“This is my friend, the one I had to go pick up,” she said to the women.
I nodded. I waved. I could feel one of the women eyeing my fur coat, my sneakers. She had Reva’s eyes—honey brown. Reva took a donut off the tray the woman carried.
“Is your friend hungry?” one woman asked.
“Pretty flowers,” said another.
“So you’re the friend we’ve heard so much about,” said the third.
“ Are you hungry?” Reva asked.
I shook my head no, but Reva steered me into the brightly lit kitchen. “There’s so much food. See?” The counters and the table were covered with bowls of pretzels, chips, nuts, a plate of cheeses, crudité, dip, cookies. “We finished all the bagels,” Reva said. Coffee was brewing in a samovar on the counter. Huge pots on the stove steamed. “Chicken, spaghetti, some kind of ratatouille thing,” she said, lifting each of the lids. She was oddly unembarrassed. It seemed like she had dispensed with her usual uppity pretentions. She made no attempt to excuse herself for being “homey,” “folksy,” or whatever the word she would have used to describe living in a home like hers—“unglamorous.” Maybe she had just completely shut down. She opened the refrigerator to show me shelves of round Tupperware containers of steamed vegetables that she’d made in advance, she said, so she’d have something to snack on all day. She hadn’t been to the gym since Christmas. “But whatever. Now is not the time. Want some broccoli?” She popped the top off one of the containers. The smell hit me and nearly made me gag.
“Is this the sitting thing? You sit for ten days?” I asked, handing her the bouquet of flowers.
“Shiva is seven days. But no. My family isn’t religious or anything. They just like to sit around and eat a lot. My aunts and uncles drove in from New Jersey.” Reva put the flowers in the sink, poured herself a cup of coffee, tapped in a speck of Sweet’N Low from a crumpled packet she pulled from her pocket, and stirred mindlessly, staring down at the floor. I chugged the rest of the McDonald’s coffee and refilled it from the samovar. The fluorescent lights glared off the linoleum floor and hurt my eyes.
“I really need to lie down, Reva,” I told her. “I don’t feel well.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “Follow me.” We walked back through the sitting room. “Dad, don’t let anyone go downstairs. My friend needs some privacy.”
One of the bald men waved his hand dismissively and bit into a danish. The crust flaked apart and fell down the front of his brown sweater-vest. He looked to me like a child molester. All those men did. But anyone would, in the right light, I thought—even I did. Even Reva. As her father tried to contain the flakes of pastry on his chest, the women got up and came at him, flicking the crumbs from his sweater onto their plates while he protested. If it weren’t for the specter of death hanging over everything, I would have felt like I was in a John Hughes movie. I tried to picture Anthony Michael Hall making an appearance, maybe as the neighbor’s kid coming to pay his condolences with a pie or a casserole. Or maybe this was a dark comedy, and Whoopi Goldberg would play the undertaker. I would have loved that. Just the thought of Whoopi soothed me. She really was my hero.
Reva led me down a spiral staircase into the basement, where there was a kind of rec room—rough blue carpeting, wood paneling, small windows up by the ceiling, a cluster of half-decent watercolors hanging crookedly above a frowning, wrinkled, mauve vinyl couch.
“Who did those?” I asked.
“Mom did. Aren’t they beautiful? My room’s through here.” Reva opened a door into a narrow, pink-tiled bathroom. The toilet tank was running. “It’s always like that,” she said, jiggling the handle to no effect. Another door led to her bedroom. It was dark and muggy inside. “It gets stuffy down here. No windows,” she whispered. She turned the bedside lamp on. The walls were painted black. The sliding door of the closet was cracked and had been taken off its runner and set to lean against the wall. The closet contained only a black dress and a few sweaters on hangers. Apart from a small chest of drawers, also painted black and topped with a sagging cardboard box, the room had very little in it. Reva turned on the ceiling fan.
“This was your room?” I asked her.
She nodded and pulled back the slippery blue nylon sleeping bag covering the bed, which was just a twin-size box spring and mattress on the floor. Reva’s sheets had flowers and butterflies on them. They were sad, old, pilly sheets.
“I moved down here and painted the room black in high school. To be cool,” Reva said sarcastically.
“It’s very cool,” I said. I put my shopping bag down, finished the coffee.
“When should I wake you up? We should leave here around 1:30. So factor in whatever time you’ll need to get ready.”
“Do you have shoes I can borrow? And tights?”
“I don’t keep much here,” Reva said, opening and shutting her drawers. “You can borrow something of my mom’s, though. You’re an eight in shoes, right?”
“Eight and a half,” I said, getting into the bed.
“There’s probably something up there that will fit you. I’ll just wake you up around one.”
She closed the door. I sat on the bed and turned off the light. Reva was making noise in the bathroom.
“I’m leaving clean towels for you here by the sink,” she said through the door. I wondered if my presence was keeping her from vomiting. I wished I could tell her I wouldn’t mind it if she threw up. I really wouldn’t have. I would have understood. If puking could have brought me any solace, I would have tried it years ago. I waited until I heard her close the outside door of the bathroom and creak up the stairs before I went and looked through her medicine cabinet. There was an old bottle of bubble-gum flavored amoxicillin and a half-empty tube of Monistat anti-itch cream. I drank the amoxicillin. I peed into the running toilet. The underwear I had on was white cotton with an old brown bloodstain. It reminded me that I hadn’t menstruated in months.
I got back under the sleeping bag and listened to Reva’s relatives through the ceiling—footsteps, whining, all that neurotic energy and food getting passed around, jaws grinding, the heartache and opinions and Reva’s pent-up anguish or fury or whatever it was that she was trying to stuff down.
I lay awake for a long time. It was like sitting in a cinema after the lights go down, waiting for the previews to begin. But nothing was happening. I regretted the coffee. I sensed Reva’s misery in the room with me. It was the particular sadness of a young woman who has lost her mother—complex and angry and soft, yet oddly hopeful. I recognized it. But I didn’t feel it inside of me. The sadness was just floating around in the air. It became denser in the graininess of shadows. The obvious truth was that Reva had loved her mother in a way that I hadn’t loved mine. My mother hadn’t been easy to love. I’m sure she was complicated and worthy of further analysis, and she was beautiful, but I didn’t ever really know her. So the sadness in the room felt canned to me. It felt trite. Like the nostalgia for a mother I’d seen on television—someone who cooked and cleaned, kissed me on the forehead and put Band-Aids on my knees, read me books at night, held and rocked me when I cried. My own mother would have rolled her eyes at the thought of doing that. “I’m not your nanny,” she had often said to me. But I never had a nanny. There were babysitters—girls from the college my father’s secretary had found. We always had a housekeeper, Dolores. My mother called her “the maid.” I could make a case for my mother’s rejection of domesticity as some kind of feminist assertion of her right to leisure, but I actually think that she refused to cook and clean because she felt that doing so would cement her failure as a beauty queen.
Oh, my mother. At her most functional, she kept to a strict diet of black coffee and a few prunes for breakfast. For lunch, she’d have Dolores fix her a sandwich. She’d eat just a few bites, and put the leftovers on a bone china plate on the counter—a lesson for me, I took it, in how not to overindulge. In the evenings, she’d drink piss-colored Chardonnay on ice. There were cases of it in the pantry. I’d watched her face bloat and unbloat from day to day according to how much she drank. I liked to imagine her crying in private, mourning her shortcomings as a mother, but I doubt that was why she cried. A delicate puff under the eyes. She used hemorrhoid cream to bring down the swelling. I figured this out after she was dead, when I cleaned out her makeup drawer. Preparation H and Sweet Champagne eye shadow and Ivory Silk foundation, which she wore even just around the house. Fetish Pink lipstick. She hated where we lived, said it was “barbaric” because it was so far from the city. “There’s no culture here,” she said. But if there had been an opera house or a symphony orchestra—that’s what she meant by “culture”—she never would have gone. She thought she was sophisticated—she liked fine clothes, good liquor—but she knew nothing about art. She didn’t read anything but romance novels. There were no freshly cut flowers around the house. She mostly watched TV and smoked in bed all day, as far as I could tell. That was her “culture.” Around Christmas each year, she’d take me to the mall. She’d buy me a single chocolate at the Godiva store, then we’d walk around all the shops and my mother would call things “cheap” and “hick-style” and “a blouse for the devil’s whore.” She kind of came alive at the perfume counter. “This one smells like a hooker’s panties.” Those outings to the mall were the few times we had any fun together.
My father was joyless, too, at home. He was dull and quiet. When I was growing up, we’d pass each other in the hallway in the morning like strangers. He was serious, sterile, a scientist. He seemed much more at ease around his students than with me or my mother. He was from Boston, the son of a surgeon and a French teacher. The most personal thing he’d told me was that his parents had died in a boating accident the year after I was born. And he had a sister in Mexico. She moved there in the early 80s to “be a beatnik,” my father said. “We look nothing alike.”
Pondering all this down in Reva’s black room under her sad, pilly sheets, I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Irritation was what I knew best—a heaviness on my chest, a vibration in my neck like my head was revving up before it would rocket off my body. But that seemed directly tied to my nervous system—a physiological response. Was sadness the same kind of thing? Was joy? Was longing? Was love?
In the time I had to kill there in the dark of Reva’s childhood bedroom, I decided I would test myself to see what was left of my emotions, what kind of shape I was in after so much sleep. My hope was that I’d healed enough over half a year’s hibernation, I’d become immune to painful memories. So I thought back to my father’s death again. I had been very emotional when it happened. I figured any tears I still had left to cry might be about him.
“Your father wants to spend his last days in the house,” my mother had said on the phone. “Don’t ask me why.” He had been dying in the hospital for weeks already, but now he wanted to die at home. I left school and took the train up to see him the very next day, not because I thought it would mean so much to him to have me there, but to prove to my mother that I was a better person than she was: I was willing to be inconvenienced by someone else’s suffering. And I didn’t expect that my father’s suffering would bother me very much. I barely knew him. His illness had been secretive, as though it were part of his work, something that ought not concern me, and nothing I’d ever understand.
I missed a week of classes sitting at home, watching him wither. A huge bed had been installed in the den, along with various pieces of medical equipment that I tried to ignore. One of two nurses was always there, feeling my father’s pulse, swabbing his mouth with a soggy little sponge on a stick, pumping him with painkillers. My mother stayed mostly in her bedroom, alone, coming out every now and then to fill a glass with ice. She’d tiptoe into the den to whisper something to the nurse, hardly saying a word to me, barely looking at my father. I sat on the armchair by his bed pretending to read a course packet on Picasso. I didn’t want to embarrass my father by staring, but it was hard not to. His hands had grown bony and huge. His eyes had sunk into his skull and darkened. His skin had thinned. His arms were like bare tree branches. It was a strange scene. I studied Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. The Death of Casagemas. My father fit right into Picasso’s Blue Period. Man on Morphine. Occasionally he’d jerk and cough, but he had nothing to say to me. “He’s too drugged up to talk,” the nurse said to console me. I put on my headphones and played old tapes on my Walkman as I read. Prince. Bonnie Raitt. Whatever. The silence was maddening otherwise.
Then, on a Sunday morning, my father was suddenly lucid and told me matter-of-factly that he would die in the afternoon. I don’t know if it was the directness and certitude of his statement that rattled me—he was always clinical, always rational, always dry—or that his death was no longer just an idea—it was happening, it was real—or if, during the week I’d spent by his side, we had bonded without my knowledge or consent and, all of a sudden, I loved him. So I lost it. I started crying. “ I’ll be alright,” my father told me. I got down on my knees beside him and buried my face in his stale blue blanket. I wanted him to pet my head. I wanted him to soothe me. He stared up at the ceiling as I begged him not to leave me alone with my mother. I was passionate in my supplication.
“Promise me that you’ll send me a sign,” I pleaded, reaching for his huge, weird hand. He jerked it away. “A big sign, more than once, that you’re still here, that there’s life on the other side. OK? Promise me you’ll come through to me somehow. Give me a sign that I won’t expect to see. Something so I’ll know you’re watching over me. Something huge. OK? Please? Do you promise?”
“Go get my wife,” he said to the nurse.
When my mother came in, he pressed the button on his morphine drip.
“Any last words?” my mother asked.
“I hope this was all worth it,” he replied. For the rest of his life—around four hours—I sat on the chair and cried while my mother got drunk in the kitchen, ducking her head in every now and then to see if he was dead yet.
Finally, he was.
“That’s it, right?” my mother asked.
The nurse took his pulse, then pulled the blanket over his head.
The memory should have rustled up some grief in me. It should have reignited the coals of woe. But it didn’t. Remembering it all now in Reva’s bed, I felt almost nothing. Just a slight irritation at the lumpiness of the mattress, the loud swish of the sleeping bag whenever I turned over. Upstairs, Reva’s relatives had the television on high volume. The suspenseful sound effects from Law & Order echoed down through the floor.
I hadn’t been to a funeral since my mother’s, almost exactly seven years earlier. Hers had been quick and informal in the funeral home chapel. The guests barely filled the first few rows—just me and my father’s sister, a few neighbors, the housekeeper. The names in her address book had been doctors—hers and my father’s. My high school art teacher was there. “Don’t let this take you all the way down, honey,” he said. “You can always call me if you need a grown-up to lean on.” I never called him.
My father’s funeral, on the other hand, had been a real production. There were printed programs, long speeches. People flew in from across the country to pay their respects. The pews in the university chapel were uncushioned, and the bones in my butt rocked against the hard wood. I sat beside my mother in the front row, trying to ignore her sighs and throat clearings. Her frosty lipstick was put on so thick it started melting down her chin. When the president of the university announced that the science department would establish a research fellowship in my father’s name, my mother let out a groan. I reached for her hand and held it. It was bold of me to make such a move, but I thought we might bond now that we had something so huge in common—a dead man whose last name we shared. Her hand was cold and bony, like my father’s had been on his deathbed just days earlier. An obvious foreshadowing to me now, but I didn’t think of that then. Less than a minute later, she let go of my hand to dig around in her purse for her little pillbox. I didn’t know exactly what she was taking that day—an upper, I thought. She kept her coat on in the chapel during the ceremony, fidgeted with her stockings, her hair, glanced back viciously at the crowded pews behind us each time she heard somebody sigh or sniffle or whisper. The hours felt interminable, waiting for everyone to arrive, sitting through the formal proceedings. My mother agreed. “This is like waiting for a train to hell,” she whispered at some point, not to me directly, but up at the chapel ceiling. “I’m exhausted.” Highway to hell. Slow road to hell. Express bus. Taxicab. Rowboat. First-class ticket. Hell was the only destination she ever used in her metaphors.
When it was time for people to go up and say nice things about my father, she glared at the line forming up the central aisle.
“They think they’re special now because they know someone who died.” She rolled her red, quick-roving eyes. “It makes them feel important. Egomaniacs.” Friends, colleagues, co-workers, loyal students spoke emotionally from the rostrum. The people wept. My mother squirmed. I could see our reflections in the gloss of the casket in front of us. We were both just pale, floating, jittery heads.
I couldn’t sleep in Reva’s bed. It was a lost cause.
I decided to take a shower. I got up and undressed and turned the water on with a squelch, watched the bathroom fill with steam. Since I’d started sleeping all the time, my body had gotten very thin. My muscles had turned soft. I still looked good in clothes, but naked I looked fragile, weird. Protruding ribs, wrinkles around my hips, loose skin around my abdomen. My collarbones jutted out. My knees looked huge. I was all sharp corners at that point. Elbows, clavicles, hip points, the knobby vertebrae of my neck. My body was like a wooden sculpture in need of sanding. Reva would have been horrified to see me naked like that. “You look like a skeleton. You look like Kate Moss. No fair,” she would have said.
The one time Reva saw me completely naked had been at the Russian Bathhouse on East Tenth Street. But that was a year and a half earlier, before I’d gone on my “sleep diet,” Reva would go on to call it. She had wanted to “drop weight” before going to a pool party in the Hamptons for the Fourth of July.
“I know it’s just water weight I’m sweating off,” Reva said. “But it’s a good quick fix.”
We went on the one day of the week the baths were open to women only. Most of the girls wore bikinis. Reva wore a one-piece bathing suit and wrapped a towel around her hips every time she stood up. It seemed silly to me. I went nude.
“What are you so uptight about, Reva?” I asked her while we were resting by the ice-water pool. “There aren’t any men around. Nobody’s ogling you.”
“It’s not about the men,” she said. “ Women are so judgmental. They’re always comparing.”
“But why do you care? It’s not a contest.”
“Yes, it is. You just can’t see it because you’ve always been the winner.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. But I knew Reva was right. I was hot shit. People were always telling me I looked like Amber Valletta. Reva was pretty, too, of course. She looked like Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox put together. I didn’t tell her that then. She would have been prettier if she knew how to relax. “Chill,” I said. “It’s not that big a deal. You think people are going to judge you for not looking like a supermodel?”
“That’s usually the first judgment people make in this city.”
“What do you care what people think about you? New Yorkers are assholes.”
“I care, OK? I want to fit in. I want to have a nice life.”
“God, Reva. That’s pathetic.”
Then she got up and disappeared inside the eucalyptus mist in the steam room. It was a mild skirmish, one of hundreds about how arrogant I was for not counting my blessings. Oh, Reva.
The shower stall in her basement bathroom was small, the door clouded, gray glass. There was no soap, only a bottle of Prell. I washed my hair and stayed under the water until it ran cold. When I got out, I could hear the news blaring through the ceiling. The towels Reva had left for me on the sink were pink and sea-foam green and smelled faintly of mildew. I rubbed the fog off the mirror and looked at myself again. My hair splatted against my neck. Maybe I should cut it even shorter, I thought. Maybe I would enjoy that. Boy cut. Gamine. I’d look like Edie Sedgwick. “You’d look like Charlize Theron,” Reva would have said. I wrapped the towel around myself and lay back down on the bed.
There were other things that might make me sad. I thought of Beaches, Steel Magnolias, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., River Phoenix dying on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room, Sophie’s Choice, Ghost, E.T., Boyz n the Hood, AIDS, Anne Frank. Bambi was sad. An American Tail and The Land Before Time were sad. I thought of The Color Purple, when Nettie gets kicked out and has to leave Celie in that house, a slave to her abusive husband. “Nothing but death can keep me from her!” That was sad. That should have done it, but I couldn’t cry. None of that penetrated deep enough to press whatever button controlled my “outpouring of sorrow.”
But I kept trying.
I pictured the day of my father’s funeral—brushing my hair in the mirror in my black dress, picking at my cuticles until they bled, how my vision got blurry with tears walking down the stairs and I almost tripped, the streaks of autumn leaves blearing by as I drove my mother to the university chapel in her Trans Am, the space between us filling with tangled ribbons of pale blue smoke from her Virginia Slim, her saying not to open a window because the wind would mess up her hair.
Still, no sorrow.
“I’m just so sorry,” Peggy said over and over at my father’s funeral. Peggy was the only friend my mother had left by the end—a Reva type, for sure. She lived around the corner from my parents’ house in a lavender Dutch Colonial with a front yard full of wildflowers in the summer, sloppy snowmen and forts built by her two young sons in the winter, tattered Tibetan prayer flags hanging over the front door, lots of wind chimes, a cherry tree. My father had called it “the hippie house.” I sensed that Peggy wasn’t very intelligent, and that my mother didn’t really like her. But Peggy offered my mother a lot of pity. And my mother loved pity.
I stayed home for a week after my father’s funeral. I wanted to do what I thought I was supposed to do—to mourn. I’d seen it happening in movies—covered mirrors and stilled grandfather clocks, listless afternoons silent but for sniffling and the creaks of old floorboards as someone in an apron came out from the kitchen saying, “You should eat something.” And I wanted a mother. I could admit that. I wanted her to hold me while I cried, bring me cups of warm milk and honey, give me comfy slippers, rent me videos and watch them with me, order deliveries of Chinese food and pizza. Of course I didn’t tell her that this was what I wanted. She was usually passed out in her bed with the door locked.
A few times that week, people visited the house, and my mother would do her hair and makeup, spray air freshener, raise the blinds. She got phone calls from Peggy twice a day. “I’m fine, Peggy. No, don’t come over. I’m going to take a bath and a nap. Sunday? Fine, but call first.”
In the afternoons, I took the car out, driving aimlessly or to the mall or the supermarket. My mother left me lists of things to buy, with a note for the guy at the liquor store. “This girl is my daughter, and I permit her to purchase alcohol. Call if you’d like to verify her identity. The number is…” I bought her vodka. I bought her whiskey and mixers. I didn’t think she was in any real danger. She’d been a heavy drinker for years. Maybe I did take some pleasure in aiding her self-destruction by buying her booze, but I didn’t want my mother to die. It wasn’t like that. I remember one afternoon, she came out of her room and walked past me where I lay on the floor, sobbing. She went to the kitchen, wrote a check for the housekeeper, took a bottle of vodka from the freezer, told me to turn down the television, and went back to her room.
That was the worst of it. I was pretty upset. I couldn’t have described with any accuracy how I was “doing.” And nobody called to ask me. Everyone I knew at school hated me because I was so pretty. In hindsight, Reva was a pioneer: She was the only friend who ever really dared to try to know me. We didn’t get to be friends until later that year. For the rest of my week of mourning, my moods trespassed out of the standard categories I’d come to recognize. One moment was silent and gray, Technicolor and garish and absurd the next. I felt like I was on drugs, though I had taken nothing. I didn’t even drink that week until a man from the university, Professor Plushenko, one of my father’s colleagues, came to the house, and my mother attempted to entertain him.
Professor Plushenko had come under the veil of condolence with a store-bought Bundt cake and a bottle of Polish brandy. He was there to convince my mother to give him my father’s papers. I had the feeling he wanted something my father wouldn’t have given to him willingly. I felt a responsibility to watch and make sure the guy didn’t take advantage of my mother’s fragile state. Apparently the man had known my parents for many years.
“You look just like your mother,” he said that night, leering at me. His skin was cardboard colored and matte, his lips weirdly red and gentle. He wore a striped gray suit and smelled of sweet cologne.
“My daughter is barely 19 years old,” my mother scoffed. She wasn’t defending me against his lechery. She was bragging. By then, I was actually 20.
Of course there was no dinner—my mother was incapable of providing that—but there were drinks. I was allowed to drink. After a few, the man sat down on the sofa between us. He spoke of my father’s invaluable contribution to future generations of scientists, how blessed he felt to have worked so closely beside him. “His legacy is in his students, and in his papers. I want to be the one to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. It’s precious material. It must be handled very thoughtfully.”
My mother could barely speak then. She allowed a tear to run down her face, leaving a muddled gray stripe through her makeup. The man put one arm around her shoulder. “Oh, you poor thing. A tragic loss. He was a great man. I know how much he loved you.” I guess my mother was too aggrieved, too drunk, or too medicated to see the man’s other arm snake over from his knee to mine at some point during the conversation. I was drunk, too, and I kept still. When my mother got up to use the bathroom, we were left alone on the sofa, and there was a kiss on my forehead, a finger traced down the side of my neck and over my left nipple. I knew what he was doing. I did not resist. “You poor thing.”
My nipple was still erect when my mother came back in, tripping over the edge of the carpet.
My father had left everything to my mother, including the contents of his study. After she died, I was the one who went in there and packed things up and lugged the boxes to the basement. That colleague of his never saw a single page. What I was bartering for in letting that guy kiss me was still not immediately clear. Maybe my mother’s dignity. Or maybe I just wanted a little affection. Trevor and I had been on the outs for months at the time. I hadn’t called to tell him my father had died. I was saving it to tell him later, so he’d feel terrible.
I called a taxi to take me to the train station the morning after that kiss. I didn’t wake my mother to tell her I was going back to school. I didn’t leave a note. A week went by. She didn’t call. When she “had her accident,” which is how they termed it at the hospital, Peggy was the one to find her.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she said on the phone. “She’s still alive, but the doctors say you should come as soon as you can. I’m so, so sorry.”
My knees didn’t buckle. I didn’t fall to the ground. I was at the sorority house. I could hear girls cooking in the kitchen, chatting about their fat-free diets and how not to “bulk up” at the gym.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I told Peggy. She was whimpering and snorting. I didn’t tell anyone at the sorority house what was happening. I didn’t want to deal with the indignity of it all.
It took me almost an entire day to get up there. I wrote a final paper for a class on Hogarth on the train. Part of me was hoping my mother would be dead by the time I arrived.
“She knows you’re here,” Peggy said in the hospital room. I knew that wasn’t true. My mother was in a coma. She was already gone. Once in a while, her left eye would blink open—clear blue, frozen, blind, a terrifying, empty, soulless eye. I remember noticing in the hospital room that her roots were showing. She’d been vigilant about keeping her hair icy blond as long as I’d known her, but her natural color had grown in, a warmer shade—honey blond, my color. I’d never seen her real hair before.
My mother’s body stayed alive for exactly three days. Even with a tube down her throat, a machine taped to her face to keep her breathing, she was still pretty. She was still prim. “Her organs are shutting down,” the doctor explained. System failure. She felt nothing, he assured me. She was brain dead. She wasn’t thinking or dreaming or experiencing anything, not even her own death. They turned off the machine, and I sat there, waiting, watching the screen blip, then stop. She wasn’t resting. She was not in a state of peace. She was in no state, not being. The peace to be had, I thought, watching them pull the sheet over her head, was mine.
“Oh, sweetheart. I’m so, so sorry.” Peggy sobbed and embraced me. “You poor thing. You poor dear little orphan.”
Unlike my mother, I hated being pitied.
There was nothing new to be gleaned from these memories, of course. I couldn’t revive my mother and punish her. She took herself out before we could ever have a real conversation. I wondered if she’d been jealous of my father, at how well attended his funeral had been. She left a note. I found it at the house the night I came home from the hospital. Peggy drove me. I was stoic. I was numb. The note was on my father’s desk. My mother had used a page from a yellow legal pad to write it. Her penmanship started off as bold, capital letters, but by the end, it petered out into tight, itchy cursive. The letter was totally unoriginal. She felt she wasn’t equipped to handle life, she wrote, that she felt like an alien, a freak, that consciousness was intolerable and that she was scared of going crazy. “Goodbye,” she wrote, then gave a list of people she’d known. I was sixth on the list of 25. I recognized some of the names—long abandoned girlfriends, her doctors, her hairdresser. I kept the letter and never showed it to anybody. Occasionally, over the years, when I’d felt abandoned and scared and heard a voice in my mind say, “I want my mommy,” I took the note out and read it as a reminder of what she’d actually been like and how little she cared about me. It helped. Rejection, I have found, can be the only antidote to delusion.
My mother had been like I turned out to be—an only child with dead parents, so there wasn’t any family left to contend with. My dad’s sister flew back up from Mexico over Christmas and took what she wanted from the house—a few books, the silver. She dressed in colorful serapes and fringed silk shawls, but she had my father’s septic attitude toward life. She wasn’t sad to have lost her brother, it seemed, but was angry at “toxic waste,” she said. “People didn’t get cancer a thousand years ago. It’s because of the chemicals. They’re everywhere—in the air, in the food, in the water we drink.” I guess she helped me insofar as she nodded along when I told her I was relieved my mother was gone but wished my father had held on long enough at least to help me take care of the house, put things in order. I tried to keep it together while she was around.
After she left, I spent days in the house alone, poring over my childhood photo albums, sobbing over piles of my mother’s unopened packages of pantyhose. I cried over my father’s deathbed pajamas, the dog-eared biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Josef Mengele on his bedside table, a green nickel in the pocket of his favorite pants, a belt he’d had to drill holes in to make smaller as he’d grown sicker and thinner in the months leading up to his death.
There was no big drama. Things were quiet.
I imagined what I’d say to my mother if she suddenly reappeared now in Reva’s basement. I imagined her disgust at the cheapness of things, the mustiness of the air. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to ask her. I had no burning urge to proclaim any fury or sadness. “Hello,” was as far as I got in our hypothetical dialogue.
I got up out of bed and fished through one of the cardboard boxes on Reva’s bureau. In her senior yearbook, I found only one photo of her, the standard portrait. Hers stood out in the rows of boring faces. She had big frizzy hair, chubby cheeks, over-plucked eyebrows that zoomed across her forehead like crooked arrows, dark lipstick, thick black eyeliner. Her gaze was slightly off center, vague, unhappy, possessed. She looked like she’d been much more interesting before she left for college—a Goth, a freak, a punk, a reject, a delinquent, an outcast, a fuckup. As long as I’d known her, she’d been a follower, a plebeian, straitlaced and conformist. But it seemed as though she’d had a rich, secretive interior life in high school, with desires beyond the usual drinking and foosball soirees suburban Long Island had to offer. So, I gathered, Reva moved to Manhattan to go to college and decided she’d try to fit in—get skinny, be pretty, talk like all the other skinny, pretty girls. It made sense that she’d want me as her best friend. Maybe her best friend in high school had been one of the weirdos, like her. Maybe she’d had some kind of disability—a gimp arm, Tourette’s, Coke-bottle glasses, alopecia. I imagined the two of them together in that black basement bedroom listening to music: Joy Division. Siouxsie and the Banshees. It made me a little jealous to think of Reva being depressed and dependent on anyone but me. After my mother’s funeral, I went back to school. My sorority sisters didn’t ask if I was OK, if I wanted to talk. They all avoided me. Only a few left notes under my door. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this!” Of course, I was grateful to be spared the humiliation of a patronizing confrontation by a dozen young women who would probably have just shamed me for not “being more open.” They weren’t my friends. Reva and I were in French class together that year. We were conversation partners. She took notes for me while I was away, and when I came back, she wasn’t afraid to ask questions. In class, she diverged from the curriculum to ask, in halting, bad French, how I was doing, what had happened, if I felt sad or angry, if I wanted to get together outside of class to speak in English. I agreed. She wanted to know every detail of the whole ordeal with my parents, hear the deep insights I had gleaned, how I felt, how I’d mourned. I gave her the basic gist. Talking to Reva about misery was insufferable. “Look on the bright side,” was what she wanted everyone to do. But at least she cared.
Senior year, I moved out of the sorority house and into a two-bedroom suite with Reva in an off-campus dorm. Living together solidified our bond. I was the vacant, repressed depressive, and she was the obsessive blabbermouth, always knocking on my door, asking random questions, looking for any excuse to talk. I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling that year, trying to cancel out thoughts about death with thoughts about nothingness. Reva’s frequent interruptions probably kept me from jumping out the window. Knock, knock. “Chat break?” She liked to look through my closet, turning over price tags, checking the sizes of all the clothes I’d bought with the money I’d inherited. Her obsession with the material world pulled me out of whatever existential wormhole I’d wandered into.
I never confronted Reva about the fact that I could hear her vomiting when she came back from the dining hall each night. All she ate at home were sugar-free mini yogurts and baby carrots, which she dressed with yellow mustard. The palms of her hands were orange from all the carrots she ate. Dozens of mini yogurt containers cluttered the recycling bin.
That spring, I went for long walks around the city with earplugs in. I felt better just listening to the echoing sounds of my breathing, the phlegm roiling in my throat when I swallowed, my eyes blinking, the weak ticking of my heart. Gray days spent staring down at sidewalks, skipping classes, shopping for things I’d never wear, paying through the nose for a gay guy to put a tube up my asshole and rub my stomach, tell me how much better I would feel once my colon was clean. Together we watched little flakes of shit flowing through the outgoing tube. His voice was soft but enthusiastic. “You’re doing great, doll,” he’d say. More often than I needed, I’d get face peels and pedicures, massages, waxings, haircuts. That was how I mourned, I guess. I paid strangers to make me feel good. I might as well have hired a prostitute, I thought. That’s kind of what Dr. Tuttle was years later, I thought—a whore to feed me lullabies. If anything was going to make me cry, it was the thought of losing Dr. Tuttle. What if she lost her license? What if she dropped dead? What would I do without her? Then, finally, in Reva’s basement bedroom, I felt a tinge of sadness. I could feel it in my throat, like a chicken bone caught in my windpipe. I loved Dr. Tuttle, I guessed. I got up and drank some water from the tap in the bathroom. I went back to bed.
A few minutes later, Reva was knocking on the door.
“I brought you some quiche,” she said.
“Can I come in?”
Reva now wore a big red fleece robe. She had done her hair and makeup already. I was still in the towel, under the covers. I took the quiche and ate it while Reva sat on the edge of the bed. She prattled on about her mother, that she never appreciated her mother’s artistic talent. It was going to be a long afternoon.
“She could have been great, you know? But in her generation, women were expected to be mothers and stay at home. She gave her life up just for me. Her watercolors are amazing, though. Don’t you think?”
“They’re decent amateur watercolors, yeah,” I said.
“How was the shower?”
“No soap,” I said. “Did you find any shoes I can borrow?”
“You should go up there and look yourself,” said Reva.
“I really don’t want to.”
“Just go up there and pick something. I don’t know what you want.”
“You’re going to make me go back up there?”
“You said you’d bring me some options.”
“I can’t look in her closet. It’s too upsetting. Will you just go look?”
“No. I’m not comfortable doing that, Reva. I can just stay here if you want and miss the funeral, I guess.”
I put down the quiche.
“OK, fine, I’ll go,” Reva sighed. “What do you need?”
“Shoes, stockings, some kind of shirt.”
“What kind of shirt?”
“Black, I guess.”
“OK. But if you don’t like what I bring down, don’t blame me.”
“I’m not going to blame you, Reva. I don’t care.”
“Just don’t blame me,” she repeated.
She got up, leaving little bits of red fuzz on the bed where she’d been sitting. I got out of bed and looked inside the bag from Bloomingdale’s. The suit was made of stiff rayon. The necklace was nothing I’d ever wear. The Infermiterol seemed to ruin my usual good taste in things, although the white fur coat was interesting to me. It had personality. How many foxes had to die, I wondered. And how did they kill them so that their blood didn’t stain their fur? Maybe Ping Xi could have answered that question, I thought. How cold would it have to be to freeze a live white fox? I tore the tags off the bra and panties and put them on. My pubic hair puffed out the panties. It was a good joke—sexy underwear with a huge bush. I wished I had my Polaroid camera to capture the image. The lightheartedness in that wish struck me, and for a moment I felt joyful, and then I felt completely exhausted.
When Reva came back with her arms full of shoes and shirts and an unopened package of flesh-colored nylons from the 80s, I handed her the necklace.
“I got you something,” I said, “to condole you.”
Reva dropped everything on the bed and opened the box. Her eyes filled with tears—just like in a movie—and she embraced me. It was a good hug. Reva had always been good at hugs. I felt like a praying mantis in her arms. The fleece of her robe was soft and smelled like Downy. I tried to pull away, but she held me tighter. When she finally let go, she was crying and smiling. She sniffed and laughed.
“It’s beautiful. Thanks. That’s really sweet. Sorry,” she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. She put the necklace on and pulled the collar of her robe away and studied her neck in the mirror. Her smile turned a little phony. “You know, I don’t think you can use ‘condole’ that way. I think you can ‘condole with’ someone. But you can’t ‘condole’ someone.”
“No, Reva. I’m not condoling you. The necklace is.”
“But that’s not the right word, I think. You can console someone.”
“No, you can’t,” I said. “Anyway, you know what I mean.”
“It’s beautiful,” Reva said again, flatly this time, touching the necklace. She pointed to the mess of black stuff she’d brought down. “This is all I found. I hope it’s OK.”
She took her dress out from the closet and went into the bathroom to change. I put the pantyhose on, picked through the shoes, found a pair that fit. From the tangle of shirts, I pulled out a black turtleneck. I put it on, and put the suit on. “Do you have a brush I can borrow?”
Reva opened the bathroom door and handed me an old hairbrush with a long wooden handle. There was a spot on the back that was all scratched up. When I held it under the light, I could make out teeth marks. I sniffed it but couldn’t detect the smell of vomit, only Reva’s coconut hand cream.
“I’ve never seen you in a suit before,” Reva said stiffly when she came out of the bathroom. The dress she wore was tight with a high center slit. “You look really put together,” she said to me. “Did you get a haircut?”
“Duh,” I said, handing her back the brush.
We put our coats on and went upstairs. The living room was empty, thank God. I filled my McDonald’s cup with coffee again as Reva stood at the fridge, shoving cold steamed broccoli in her mouth. It was snowing again.
“I’m warning you,” Reva said, wiping her hands. “I’m going to cry a lot.”
“It would be weird if you didn’t,” I said.
“I just look so ugly when I cry. And Ken said he’d be there,” she told me for the second time. “I know we should have waited until after New Year’s. Not like it would have made a difference to my mom. She’s already cremated.”
“You told me.”
“I’ll try not to cry too hard,” she said. “Tearing up is OK. But my face just gets so puffy.” She stuck her hand in a box of Kleenex and pulled out a stack. “You know, in a way, I’m glad we didn’t have to get her embalmed. That’s just creepy. She was just a sack of bones, anyway. She probably weighed half of what I weigh now. Well, maybe not half exactly. But she was super skinny. Skinnier than Kate Moss, even.” She stuck the tissues in her coat pocket and turned off the lights.
We went out the kitchen door into the garage. There was a storage freezer in the corner, shelves of tools and flowerpots and ski boots, a few old bikes, stacks of blue plastic storage bins along one wall. “It’s unlocked,” Reva said, motioning to a small silver Toyota. “This was my mom’s car. I started it last night. Hopefully I can start it again now. She hadn’t been driving it, obviously.” Inside, it smelled like menthol rub. There was a polar bear bobblehead on the dash, an issue of the New Yorker and a bottle of hand cream on the passenger seat. Reva started the car, sighed, clicked the garage-door opener clipped to the visor, and started crying.
“See? I warned you,” she said, taking out the wad of tissues. “I’m just going to cry while the car heats up. Just a sec,” she said. She cried on, gently shaking under her puffy jacket.
“There, there,” I said, sucking down the coffee. I was intensely bored of Reva already. This would be the end of our friendship, I felt. Sometime soon, my cruelty would go too far, and now that her mother was dead, Reva’s head would start to clear of its superficial nonsense. She’d probably go back into therapy. She’d realize that we had no good reason to be friends, and that she would never get what she needed from me. She’d send me a long letter explaining her resentments, her mistakes, explaining how she had to let me go in order to move on with her life. I could already imagine her phrasing. “I’ve come to realize that our friendship is no longer serving me”—that was language her therapist would have taught her—“which is not a criticism of you.” But of course it was about me: I was the friend in the friendship she was describing.
As we drove through Farmingdale, I wrote my reply to her would-be “Dear John” letter in my head. “I got your note,” I would begin. “You have confirmed what I’ve known about you since college.” I tried to think of the worst thing I could say about a person. What was the cruelest, most cutting, truest thing? Was it worth saying? Reva was harmless. She wasn’t a bad person. She’d done nothing to hurt me. I was the one sitting there full of disgust, wearing her dead mother’s shoes. “Goodbye.”
† † †
For the rest of the day, through the proceedings at Solomon Schultz Funeral Home, I stayed by Reva’s side but watched her as though from a distance. I started to feel strange—not guilty per se, but somehow responsible for her suffering. I felt as though she were a stranger I had hit with my car, and I was waiting for her to die so she wouldn’t be able to identify me. When she talked, it was like I was watching a movie. “That’s Ken, over there. See his wife?” The camera panned over the rows, narrowed in on a pretty half-Asian woman with freckles, wearing a black beret. “I don’t want him to see me like this. Why did I invite him? I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Don’t worry,” is all I could think to say. “He’s not going to fire you for being sad at a funeral.”
Reva sniffed and nodded, dabbed at her eyes with her tissue. “That’s my mom’s friend from Cleveland,” she said as an obese woman in a black muumuu hoisted herself onto the stage. She sang “On My Own” from Les Misérables, a cappella. It was painful to watch. Reva cried and cried. Tissues stained with mascara like crushed inkblot tests piled up on her lap. A dozen people went up to say nice things about Reva’s mother. A few made jokes, a few broke down shamelessly. Everyone agreed that Reva’s mother had been a good woman, that her death was sad, but that life was mysterious, death more so, and what’s the use in speculating so let’s remember the good times—at least she’d lived at all. She’d been brave, she’d been generous, she’d been a good mother and wife, a good cook and a good gardener. “My wife’s only wish was that we move on quickly and be happy,” Reva’s father said. “Everyone has already said so much about her.” He looked out at the crowd, shrugged, then seemed to get flummoxed, turned red, but instead of bursting into tears, he started coughing into the microphone. Reva covered her ears. Someone brought her father a glass of water and helped him back to his seat.
Then it was Reva’s turn to speak. She checked her makeup in her compact mirror, powdered her nose, dabbed her eyes with more tissues, then went up and stood at the rostrum and read lines off index cards, shuffling them back and forth as she sniffled and cried. Everything she said sounded like she’d read it in a Hallmark card. Halfway through, she stopped and looked down at me as though for approval. I gave her a thumbs-up. “She was a woman of many talents,” Reva said, “and she inspired me to follow my own path.” She went on for a while, mentioned the watercolors, her mother’s faith in God. Then she seemed to space out. “To be honest...” she began. “It’s like, you know...” She smiled and apologized and covered her face with her hands and sat back down next to me.
“Did I look like a complete idiot?” she whispered.
I shook my head no and put an arm around her, as awkwardly as such a thing can be done, and sat there until the funeral was over, this strange young woman in the throes of despair, trembling into my armpit.
† † †
The reception afterward was at Reva’s house. The same middle-aged women were there, the same bald men, only multiplied. Nobody seemed to notice us when we walked in.
“I’m starving,” Reva said and went straight to the kitchen. I trudged back down to the basement and fell into a kind of half sleep.
I thought about whatever subliminal impulse had put me on the train to Farmingdale. Seeing Reva in full-blown Reva mode both delighted and disgusted me. Her repression, her transparent denial, her futile attempts to tap into the pain with me in the car, it all satisfied me somehow. Reva scratched at an itch that, on my own, I couldn’t reach. Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision gave me reason to think Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine. Reva was like the pills I took. They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted—my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.
I woke up briefly to the sound of the faucet running and Reva retching in the bathroom. It was a rhythmic, violent song—throat grunts punctuated with splats and splashes. When she had finished, she flushed three times, turned off the faucet, and went back up the stairs. I lay awake until I thought an appropriate amount of time had passed. I didn’t want Reva to think I’d been listening to her vomit. My blind eye was the one real comfort I felt I could give her.
Eventually I got out of bed, got my things together, and went back upstairs to call a taxi to come take me to the train station. Most of the guests had left. The original bald men stood in the sunroom off the kitchen. The snow was coming down hard by then. The women were collecting the plates and mugs from the coffee table in the living room. I found Reva sitting on the sofa, eating from a bag of frozen peas in front of the muted television.
“Can I use the phone?” I asked.
“I’ll drive you back to the city,” Reva said calmly.
“But Reva, do you think that’s safe?” one of the women asked.
“I’ll drive slow,” Reva said. She got up, left the bag of peas on the coffee table, and took my arm. “Let’s go before my dad tries to stop me,” she said. From the kitchen she grabbed my bouquet of white roses from where they’d gotten stuck between the dirty dishes in the sink. They were still wrapped. “Take a few of those,” she said, pointing the roses at the bottles of wine on the counter. I took three. The women watched. I laid them in the Big Brown Bag on top of my jeans and sweatshirt and dirty sneakers.
“I’ll be right back,” Reva said, and went down the dark hallway.
“You’re Reva’s friend from college?” a woman asked. She spoke to me through the bright doorway to the kitchen as she unloaded the dishwasher. “Good that you have each other. You’ve got friends, you’re all right, no matter what.” Steam filled the air around her. She looked exactly how I’d pictured Reva’s mother. Her hair was brown and short. She wore big fake pearl earrings. Her dress was dark brown with gold flecks, long and tight and stretchy. I could see the cellulite on her legs through the material. The steam from the dishwasher smelled like vomit. I took a step back. “Reva’s mother was my best friend,” she continued. “We talked every day on the phone. I don’t talk to my own children that much. Sometimes friends are better than family, because you can say anything. Nobody gets mad. It’s a different kind of love. I’ll really miss her.” She paused as she looked into a cabinet. “But she’s still here in spirit. I feel it. She’s standing right beside me, saying, ‘Debra, the tall glasses go on the shelf with the wineglasses.’ She’s bossing me around, like always. I just know it. The spirit never dies, and that’s the truth.”
“That’s nice,” I said, yawning. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Reva appeared wearing a huge beaver coat—her mother’s, no doubt—big snow boots, and her gym bag slung over her shoulder.
“Let’s go,” she said roughly. “I’m ready.” We headed for the door to the garage. “Tell Dad I’ll call him tomorrow,” she said to the women in the living room. They started to protest, but Reva kept walking. I followed her out and into her mother’s car again.
† † †
Reva and I didn’t talk much on the ride back into the city. Before we got on the highway, I suggested we stop for coffee, but Reva didn’t respond. She turned the radio up, put the heating on full blast. Her face was tight and serious, but calm. I was surprised by my curiosity to know what she was thinking, but I kept quiet. When we got onto the Long Island Expressway, the radio DJ told listeners to call in to share their New Year’s resolutions.
“ In 2001, I want to embrace every opportunity. I want to say ‘yes’ to every invitation I receive.”
“ Two thousand and one is the year I finally learn to tango.”
“I’m not making any resolutions this year,” Reva said. She turned down the volume on the radio and changed the station. “I can never keep my promises to myself. I’m like my own worst enemy. What about you?”
“I might try to stop smoking. But the medications make it difficult.”
“Uh huh,” she said mindlessly. “And maybe I’ll try to lose five pounds.” I couldn’t tell if she was trying to insult me with sarcasm, or if she was being sincere. I let it go.
The visibility was bad. The windshield wipers screeched, clearing away the wet splats of snow. In Queens, Reva turned up the radio again and began to sing along to the music. Santana. Marc Anthony. Enrique Iglesias. After a while, I began to wonder if she was drunk. Maybe we’d die in a car accident, I thought. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the window and looked out at the dark water of the East River. It wouldn’t be that bad to die, I thought. Traffic slowed.
Reva turned the radio down.
“Can I sleep over at your place?” she asked stiffly. “I don’t want to be needy, but I’m afraid of being alone right now. I don’t feel like myself, and I’m afraid something bad is going to happen.”
“OK,” I said, though I assumed she’d change her mind a few minutes past midnight.
“We can watch a movie,” she said. “Whatever you want. Hey, can you dig my gum out of my purse? I don’t want to take my hands off the wheel.”
Reva’s fake Gucci bag sat between us on the console. I fished around tampons and perfume and hand sanitizer and her makeup kit and rolled up issues of Cosmo and Marie Claire and a hairbrush and a toothbrush and toothpaste and her huge wallet and her cellphone and her datebook and her sunglasses and finally found a single piece of cinnamon Extra in the little side pocket otherwise full of old LIRR ticket receipts. The paper had turned pink and oily.
“Wanna split it?” she asked.
“Gross,” I said. “No.”
Reva put her hand out. I watched her watching the road. Maybe she wasn’t drunk, I thought, just exhausted. I placed the piece of gum in her palm. Reva unwrapped it and stuck it in her mouth and flicked the wrapper over her shoulder and chewed and kept on driving. I stared down into the East River again, black and glittering with the yellow lights of the city. The traffic wasn’t budging. I thought of my apartment. I hadn’t been there in days—not awake, anyway. I imagined the mess I’d discover with Reva when we walked in. I hoped she wouldn’t comment. I didn’t think she would, given the day.
“I always think about earthquakes when I’m on this bridge,” Reva said. “You know, like in San Francisco when that bridge collapsed?”
“This is New York City,” I said. “We don’t get earthquakes.”
“I was watching the World Series when it happened,” Reva said. “With my dad. I totally remember it. Do you remember it?”
“No,” I lied. Of course I remembered it, but I’d thought nothing of it.
“You’re watching a baseball game, and then all of a sudden, boom. And you’re like, thousands of people just died.”
“It wasn’t thousands.”
“A lot, though.”
“Maybe a few hundred, max.”
“A lot of people got crushed on that freeway. And on that bridge,” Reva insisted.
“It’s fine, Reva,” I said. I didn’t want her to cry again.
“And the next day on the news they were interviewing a guy who was on the lower deck of the freeway, and they were like, ‘What will you take with you from this experience?’ And he goes, ‘When I got out of my car, there was a brain jiggling on the ground. A whole brain, jiggling like a Jell-O mold.’”
“People die all the time, Reva.”
“But isn’t that just horrific? A brain jiggling on the ground like Jell-O?”
“Sounds made up.”
“And the newscaster was silent. Speechless. So the guy goes, ‘ You wanted to know. You asked. So I’m telling you. That’s what I saw.’”
“Please, Reva, just stop.”
“Well, I’m not saying that would happen here.”
“That didn’t happen anywhere. Brains don’t pop out of people’s heads and jiggle.”
“I guess there were aftershocks.”
I turned up the volume on the radio and rolled my window down.
“You know what I mean, though? Things could be worse,” Reva shouted.
“Things can always be worse,” I shouted back. I rolled the window back up.
“I’m a very safe driver,” Reva said.
We were quiet for the rest of the ride, the car filling with the smell of cinnamon gum. I already regretted that I’d agreed to let Reva sleep over. Finally, we crossed the bridge and drove up the FDR. The road was slushy. Traffic was very slow. By the time we got to my block, it was half past ten. We got lucky with parking, fitting into a spot right in front of the bodega.
“I just want to pick up a couple things,” I told Reva. She didn’t protest. Inside, the Egyptians were playing cards behind the counter. There was a display of cheap champagne set up on a stack of boxes by the cases of beer and soda. I watched Reva eye the display, then open the freezer and lean in, struggling to excavate something stuck in the ice. I got my two coffees.
“Is she your sister?” the Egyptian asked Reva, nodding in my direction as I sucked down my first coffee. It was extra burnt, and the cream I’d used had soured so that squishy strands of curd got caught on my teeth. I didn’t care.
“No, she’s my friend,” Reva replied with some hostility. “You think we look alike?”
“You could be sisters,” said the Egyptian.
“Thank you,” Reva said dryly.
When we got to my building on East 84th, the doorman put down his newspaper to say, “Happy New Year.”
In the elevator, Reva said, “Those guys at the corner store, do they look at you funny?”
“Don’t be racist.”
Reva held my coffees while I unlocked the door. Inside my apartment, the television was on mute, flashing large bare breasts.
“I’ve got to pee,” said Reva, dropping her gym bag. “I thought you hated porn.”
I sniffed the air for traces of anything uncouth, but smelled nothing. I found a stray Silenor on the kitchen counter and swallowed it.
“Your phone is in a Tupperware container floating in the tub,” Reva yelled from the bathroom.
“I know,” I lied.
We sat down on the sofa, me with my second coffee and my sample bottle of Infermiterol, Reva with her fat-free strawberry frozen yogurt. We watched the rest of the porn movie in complete silence. After a day spent meditating on death, watching people have sex felt good. Procreation, I thought. The circle of life. During the blowjob scene, I got up and peed. During the pussy-eating scene, Reva got up and puked, I thought. Then she found a corkscrew in the kitchen, opened a bottle of the funeral wine, came back to the sofa and sat down. We passed the bottle back and forth and watched ejaculate dribble over the girl’s face. Gobs of it got stuck in her fake eyelashes.
I thought of Trevor and all his drips and splats on my belly and back. When we’d had sex at his place, he’d finish and instantly rush out and back in with a roll of paper towels, hold the little trash can out for me as I wiped myself off. “These sheets.” Trevor never once came inside of me, not even when I was on the pill. His favorite thing was to fuck my mouth while I lay on my back pretending to be asleep, as if I wouldn’t notice his penis slamming into the back of my throat.
The credits rolled. Another porn movie started. Reva found the remote and hit unmute.
I opened the sample bottle of Infermiterol and took one, washing it down with the wine.
I remember listening to the stiff dialogue of the opening—the girl played a physical therapist, the guy played a football player with a pain in his groin. Reva cried for a while. When the fucking started, she lowered the volume and told me about her New Year’s the year before. “I just wasn’t in the mood to go to a couples party, you know? Everybody kissing at midnight? Ken was being a dick but I met him at like three in the morning at the Howard Johnson in Times Square.” I was glad to hear she was drunk now. It took some of the tension out of the room. On-screen, there was a knock on the door. The fucking didn’t stop. I was weaving in and out of sleep by then. Reva kept talking.
“And so then Ken was like… That was the first time… I told my mom… She said to pretend it never happened… Am I nuts?”
“Whoa,” I said, pointing at the TV screen. A black girl had entered the scene in a cheerleader’s uniform. “Do you think that’s his jealous girlfriend?”
“What’s going on in here?” the cheerleader asked, throwing down her pom-poms.
“You know you’re my only single friend?” Reva asked in response. “I wish I had a big sister,” she said. “Someone who could set me up with somebody. Maybe I’ll ask my dad for money to pay a matchmaker.”
“No man is worth paying for,” I told her.
“I’ll think about it,” Reva said.
I was in the fog by then, eyes open just a crack. Through them, I watched the black girl spread the lips of her vagina with long, sharp, pink fingernails. The inside of her glistened. I thought of Whoopi Goldberg. I remember that. I remember Reva setting the empty wine bottle down on the coffee table. And I remember her saying, “Happy New Year,” and kissing my cheek. I felt myself float up and away, higher and higher into the ether until my body was just an anecdote, a symbol, a portrait hanging in another world.
“I love you, Reva,” I heard myself say from so far away. “I’m really sorry about your mom.”
Then I was gone.
Excerpted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s upcoming book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, out next summer from Penguin Press.