Part 1 of 3
When I go to Wilkes-Barre, it is cold and soggy. Grey like steel, soot, or the beginnings of mildew. The roads are craggly, the construction barrels dull even with reflectors. A factory with two imposing smoke stacks demands my respect, until I see the glass panes are shattered or missing, and a lone tree only 7 feet tall grows in defiance on the rooftop.
Down, down, down the hill we go, past houses with only three square feet of crab grass and chain link fences higher than they are wide. Corner bars the size of my living room have neon Bud Light signs lit, the only promise of warmth and forgetfulness. ’This couldn’t have been where he lived,’ I tell myself. ’The ashes here are too damp to birth a phoenix.’
We weave through the cramped quarters in a 2003 black Mercedes, and I try to avoid the eyes of middle-aged men and teenage hooded wanderers. I have traded three hours of my life to make it this far, and I am going to pay the same fare on the return trip back home. The place where he died. The place that gives the illusion of suburbs and space and comfort. The more I see here, the more I am convinced my home is nothing more than plush upholstery attached to the same tired skeleton of a city.
We find a chain restaurant in a startlingly new shopping plaza, and I am relieved. It’s nothing fancy, and I am clearly overdressed. But let them stare, the somber black should tell them all they need to know.
I order a drink. Tequila. There are some days where I wonder if my need to calm myself with the bottle is a problem, but today I do not question it. ’He would have wanted me to have one,’ I tell myself. ’He would have done the same. Or maybe not, maybe I am weaker than he was. So, then, I am weak. I am human. He wouldn’t take it personally.’ When we get our drinks, I toast to him.
I convince myself I will be stoic. I convince myself I have seen this before, I will see it again, and at some point I will be numb. They seem to guess who we are before we even open our mouths, and I am alright. Until my cold hand is held by his aunt’s, and then I realize that I can’t fathom the depths of their loss. I say the things you are supposed to say. Things I only vaguely knew to be true – that he was happy, that he was a good person. After all, I was never in his inner circle. I just sensed it, like standing on a sidewalk in summer and feeling heat radiate from the surface.
His mother bursts into tears when she sees me, maybe because she watched me make the sign of the cross as I knelt beside him. It’s been a long time since I tried to pray. I’m not sure I ever really knew how. Instead I stare at the body, recall what I have read in snippets of articles about embalming and undertaking during studies of Egypt. Draining the blood. Sewing mouths and eyes shut. The makeup they were so careful not to get on the suit jacket. Even his hands have makeup, although not enough to cover the freckle on the inside of his thumb, the last thing I notice as I stand back up. The freckle that makes me lose my composure.
I would have never known it was there, because I only ever saw the outside. But these other people knew his freckles, his laugh, his flaws. I feel my own tears now, and the rest of the hour and a half I spend waiting is nothing but staring at a white tiled floor and a broken-in but spotless brown leather couch. I feel empty, not because I have lost something precious and vital to me, but because I realize for the first time I had the opportunity to, and did not take it. Maybe I could have been one of those friends. A small gesture, a smile, a conversation, and I wouldn’t have seemed so cold and aloof. Or so hollow now.
I measure the rest of the minutes in how many tears I come close to shedding and in waves of confusion. In moments where my own selfishness makes me loathe my emotions, my own brain chemistry. In moments of silently trying to convince myself he would forgive me for being there when I feel have no business to be. I cannot help his family and there is nothing I can say to his friends. I try to hug them, but even then I feel cheap. Just guilty skin and muscle tied to fragile bones. I repeat to myself that I am weak, I am human, and if he was the person I felt him to be, he would understand and pity me. He would know that I am sorry for my own shortcomings, my disguised shyness, and this is my too-late apology for my failure to open a hand.
We finally make our way out, back to the car that really belongs in a rich funeral procession through a weathly downtown. Not these one-way streets through empty shops with posters advertising leases. Winding our way back up the hill in the darkness, past the glowing strip mall, past the corner bars, past the factory silhouette. Up into the moutains, the fog settling in around the white and yellow highway lines. I stay awake, I hold conversations about mundane things, I tell stories.
The hours melt away until I am back to my car in a quiet, pine-bordered commuter lot. I move my things back, I crank the defroster, and I wait for the thin patches of rain that froze in a sheet to the windshield to slide down and away. I am alone, I do not turn on the radio. I sit, the rumble of the engine and the wild white noise of the heater deafening my thoughts. I can only imagine, halfway between the pit of my stomach and my aching heart, a small knot. Right below my sternum, the arc of a joint in my ribcage. In the marble lobby with the brown couch, it was twisting in on itself. But it grew tired in the car ride back, like a toddler that has finally exhausted itself from a tantrum. Now, alone in this loud silence, I reach inside myself and begin to shape it.
The tears come one more time, but I close my eyes and press myself, condensing that thing until I imagine it is solidified into a small grey stone rooted in my chest. The size of a peanut, I pretend. When I open my eyes, the ice is drifting over the glass, and I shift the car in gear. I drive home, navigating slick, shiny roads the tires don’t always hold right. A faint pulse of adrenaline runs through me, and wraps around my grey rock, where it is absorbed and held. I begin to feel better.
I get home, and while it is late, I go through the motions so I can be ready for the next day at work. I leave the greyness inside me alone, and I let it hum me to sleep with wisps of an emotion I can’t place, as faint to my heart as the last tendrils of smoke from a lonely candle is to the eyes.
I know it is here to stay, but I don’t understand what it is. I only know that I have burrowed into the darkest of places, and for all my weakness, I have come back in one piece. So, with the rock nestled deep, I sleep in a dreamless, quiet place, reminiscent of a blank, untouched chalkboard.