A Family Death

A Family Death

A Family Death 1920 1440 Suzanne Grove

T he dogs were pulling strips of connective tissue off raw beef bones, their bellies spread against the cool grass, when Kathy came across the gravel drive with news of his death.

By evening, a dozen people had called me, saying everything short of congratulations, as if I had some agency over his ill heart and its collapse. A current of uneasy affection ran beneath their words, and I sensed their tight little smiles aching behind each phone. On the Internet, friends I hadn’t spoken with since college messaged me on my good fortune. My good luck. Like I’d won a sleeper sofa or an RV on an afternoon gameshow.

They expected me to be happy. I was not.

Kathy’s words, languid on her slurring tongue, slipped low into my guts and gave me the feeling of an acceleration over a rolling county road, the swift but minor free fall of my organs. A hot dash of mascara spread across her temple, a hiccup made her throat lunge. I watched her stifle it all, her eyelids contracting, her face wide and pleading. It said: Love me and let me be sad.

I hugged her, selfishly; I hugged her because I needed her. I hugged her until she soaked my shoulder, made it slick with salt and spit and sweat.

He was her brother, and he was dead.

#

I fed the dogs their dry kibble, vacuumed. Two eggs fried in butter while I bundled the facts, tried to morph them into more meaning. Nothing coalesced. When the yolks lost their wetness, I sliced a baguette and salted a tomato. I ate and drank a glass of Beaujolais in three gulps while I searched for photos of him online.

Mitch in Jamaica, the grapefruit pink of his tight swim trunks wrinkling and pulling against the heft of his thigh muscle. Mitch and his dangle of gold chain, fat links against the dark chest hair.

A few years earlier, I’d seen a therapist—a trauma specialist—who tapped at my wrists while I repeated the same sentences to myself. She asked me to move my eyes side-to-side, again and again, while recalling specific memories related to Mitch. We did this until I was better, meaning we did this until I could shower and view my naked body in a mirror and have sex without the tidal pain sweeping underneath my armpits. Until I could get through one full day without the vertigo, the breathless panting, and the shame that vibrated inside me.

The therapist said we were reprocessing my memories.

But memory came back for me now, and I let it. Mitch in my bed, legs pulled snug up to his chest, cold and wanting to be petted. A curtain of his hair on my arm. The same ash haze in his eyes as his sister. The three of us—myself, Mitch, and Kathy—bundled in the backseat of their father’s Jeep each winter, the carafes of black coffee ripe in my nose. Mitch and his mother steaming crab legs in Nags Head, the kitchen with its hulking stainless-steel and open windows. Our families together on the back patio in the quiet wash of dusk, the sea oats like a friend waving and waving, asking you to come closer to the water.

After lunch, the dogs found grubs in the clay-heavy soil and writhed over them on their backs with spread legs and happy faces. I mowed the tall grass with its patches of clover before my fiancé, Jeff, came home with new scuff marks in his wing-tipped oxfords and a twitch in his cheek. He’d bought a case of beer, needed a shower. I left him to slough off his office annoyances and went out to the park trails to run against the new temperature dip of early September, but my calves cramped and spasmed. It was a Friday, and the park was empty. I kept turning around to check my surroundings.

“I read that Mitch Petersen died,” Jeff said to me later. On the back deck, we took alternating sips from thick-rimmed bottles of Modelo.

“Where?”

“The local news, Twitter.”

“Kathy stopped by the house today,” I said. “She told me.” Wasn’t this last sentence obvious? For the rest of the evening, I filled up our conversations with tired, unnecessary words.

Jeff knew Kathy as my closest friend, nearly my sister.

He’d met Mitch maybe once, twice. At a wedding, a New Year’s Eve party. The barrel-chested body of an athlete across the ocean gap of room at a family function. Jeff knew only what I’d told him, and I told him that Mitch was not a boyfriend, not even a lover. Nothing. I told my fiancé nothing at all.

But Mitch was like a pulp that ran warm through me, around my joints, lubricating them. He was a layer I swaddled inside myself. A fastened link, integral to my architecture.

He was also the person who made my body a shuttering, self-conscious thing. A part of him had splintered off inside me and stripped away my self-possession.

What people did not understand—or did not want to accept—was that a man I’d once invited into my bed, willingly, could be, later, uninvited; that this family friend whom I loved could push his body against my own with violence.

#

Kathy arrived, unannounced, on Saturday morning.

“His body is not here,” she said. We sat on the sofa in my living room, a space full of clean lines and beige furniture. “Mom is upset about the body.”

She folded her hands beneath her thighs while I poured us whiskey. I kept mine circulating with my wrist, and we both watched the liquid slide up and down the sides of the glass.

“I hadn’t spoken to him in four months,” she said.

Mitch was in Bern, Switzerland, sprinting inside a hockey arena, when he collapsed. He’d given up on a career here years ago after trying and failing to secure his name on the roster of a National Hockey League team. Eventually, he slid downward to the lowest-tiered minor league and remained there. At twenty-eight he flew to Prague.

He left without fanfare three years after that night in a Cleveland townhouse, my throat coated in mucus, inhaling, bawling, choking out the word help over and over again, hoping it would slip under the door and into the barely furnished rental. The two teammates he lived with were half-naked cooking pancakes in the kitchen. Their girlfriends were smoking on the back porch.

Kathy sniffed her glass. “I need some water for this,” she said. She made a gesture towards her drink. I brought in the pitcher from the fridge, but she shook her head. “Too cold. The whiskey is room temperature.”

I returned with a tall glass of tap water. She let her drink sit, untouched. Outside, the sun pushed its heat through the window and reflected against the smudged television glass. The light put a spinning headache behind my eyes.

“What am I supposed to do with this grief?” Kathy asked me. “What do you do with it?” She wouldn’t look at me. She wasn’t crying, but she sat with a stillness that made me feel alone in the room, as if talking to a stranger with her face.

“Nothing for a while,” I said. I finished my first glass, poured more whiskey splashed with the water.

What was I doing with my grief?

I didn’t know.

The event of his death was a fact in the perpetual present tense. It had no end. I’d cried thoughtless tears in the bathroom at four AM the night before, unblinking and unfeeling, wedged against the cool porcelain of the bath tub. Now the dry skin inside my nose cracked. I sniffed, felt the searing. My pain was shallow, alien.

Kathy looked at me like I didn’t understand the question, like she pitied me, and agitation arrived inside me, a snaking thing pulsing through the sinewy parts of my body. At what point did my responsibilities as a friend eclipse my responsibilities of self-care? I imagined standing suddenly, screaming for her to get out.

But she sat across from me, so close, and when she opened her mouth a sweet, human smell came from it that I would not forget. Yellow debris clotted around her gums, her tongue thick with not brushing. She kept opening and closing her mouth like a trout while her hair sloped in a dark line across her face. It had a greasy sheen and frayed edges.

“It’s too complicated,” she said. And I felt like she was speaking for me.

We sat this way for an hour, mostly in silence, emptying the small-batch bottle of whiskey from Loretto, Kentucky.

I knew then that the people closest to me and closest to Mitch, the people who met in the middle of the Venn diagram of our lives, would all bring a certain silence to his death in my presence. A stronger, longer silence than the usual quiet of a passing. This thing I had experienced—no one wanted to call it by its real name—had somehow pushed a hush around the edges of our interactions. I understood, there in my living room with Kathy, that it would not transcend his death.

None of us talked about it—this thing. I was given sole ownership over it and Mitch was given no ownership at all. For years after I told my family and his family, it became my thing and that thing became an inconvenience to everyone around us. They wanted me to treat it like a bruised fruit, something to cradle with both hands and not drop, not cut into, no seeds and pit, no taste, no pleasure or pain. A thing to deposit elsewhere, to throw away.

The coolness of morning had evaporated, and the room turned humid, airless. I kept the air conditioner off but switched on the ceiling fan. While I had my back turned, Kathy finished her drink and poured another.

“You’re coming to the funeral?” she asked me.

No.

But, I wanted to say yes and push myself towards her on the sofa. To say yes, yes, of course. To say, Okay, and Let’s have one more drink and one more and one more. Let’s twist the blinds to their resting position, drag the curtain across its bronze pole. Let’s blanket ourselves with a drunkenness that makes our toes numb, our tongues a trivial accessory. An intoxication that drains us. Let’s take the Xanax I know you’ve kept in your purse since sophomore year, the Valium I keep hidden in my bathroom. Let’s watch twenty-eight hours straight of Alaska State Troopers. Dry mouths. Stretched out. Blitzed.

Yes, I will wrap your thin forearm with my palm, walk you into the church. I will wipe the sweat from the back of your neck. I will welcome you across the gravel drive of my home after the rituals of death fade away—when the noiseless vacuum of loss reaches its highest pitch. I will love you as I have always loved you, like family.

But I said none of these things.

“I can’t,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

She slid away from me on the cheap upholstery.

“It’s Mitch,” she said. “It’s still Mitch.” She gathered a corner of soft fabric, worn down by the dogs’ constant jumping. She gripped it and pulled. “It’s Mitch. Stupid fucking Mitch.”

“I can’t do it.”

“He’s dead.”

“I can’t.”

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. 

I am sorry he’s dead. I did not want him dead. I wanted him to sit in front of me and to apologize. I wanted to hold him down and spit in his face. I wanted an embrace from him. It was an obscene desire that produced a luxurious self-hatred. I wanted to claw at his cheek and feel him inside me so I could pull him back out, pluck every hair from his head. Throttle him. I wanted to ruin myself, so I could somehow ruin him.

I wasn’t sorry that I didn’t want to attend the funeral.

“It’s my brother,” she said. She clenched at a soft scoop of her own leg fat, held it in her hand, and stomped her foot. She pulled on her earlobe and gritted her teeth. “You have to come. He’s my brother. He’s dead.”

When she began to sob, I slid away from her. I picked up our glasses and walked to the kitchen, where I deposited them in the sink.

I waited for her to leave until, finally, she did.

That night, I recalled the dampened memory of a party Kathy and I went to the weekend after I told a few people what happened with her brother. A room warm with the smell of electric heat kicking on for the first time that season, the circular sweat of beer bottles marking every surface. The herbal sweetness of good pot fell like a heavy scrim.

That night, a friend of ours handed me a gift.

“I thought of you,” she said. Helen with the golden eyes. She said she’d been at a boutique shop on the east side of downtown and seen this box of macaroons, a muted peach color like a sailor’s favorite sunset.

“Is it my birthday?” I asked her. “Why are you giving me a gift?”

I was so loud. I handed the box back to her. Kathy and I left.

All the people who knew had begun giving me things—cigarettes and tinctures to drop under my tongue and loaves of banana bread; hits of their drugs and boxes of wine and books on healing and on the phantom west, tomes about the lonely cowboy; coffee dates and invitations to parties and the free use of their season tickets—as if the only thing trauma required was a present.

#

On Sunday, Jeff and I met my parents for lunch at a brewery along old railway lines converted into a trail. We planned to ride our bikes there; my mother and father would drive us home. I hadn’t talked to them since Kathleen’s first visit. I kept turning my phone on and off, but I never missed a call from them. Still, they had to know.

My parents and the Petersens loved each other with a desperation that seemed to me—at ages ten and fourteen and seventeen and twenty-five—to be about fear of change. They’d been neighbors. We’d all been neighbors. But, we’d grown apart.

Our parents who played Scrabble on Friday nights and let Danish beer leak steadily from their glasses. Who put on Jackson Browne records that swept under my childhood bedroom door. Our parents who brunched on Saturday mornings, who sprung into my living room and found Kathy, Mitch, and me tired on the sofa. They’d kiss our faces, pull on our cheeks. Thursday nights of homemade bread and card games and shouting. My mother’s feathered hair, Diane Petersen’s lean figure, settling back in the corner of our kitchen, slick black pants with the deep pleat. Steven Petersen and his gold signet ring.

Jeff and I rode against the new autumnal rot in the air, summer’s late sprouting weeds all obliterated by pesticides along the tree line of the dirt path. The creek ran high, slapping with a sound like distant rapids.

Ten easy miles, mostly downhill. At the brewery, a cat sat pretty and watchful in the mulch bed, shrouded by a butterfly bush. He considered me and lifted his head, exposed his fangs with a yawn.

We sat at a wood table and each drank four beers. My mother wore her worried face, her thin fingers working at the earring in her right ear. She twisted the stem, slid it in and out again. My father was aloof.

Before we left, he said to me, “Be respectful.” He opened the door for me. “You be kind and go to the funeral.”

#

When I first told our families, I expected the telling itself to be cathartic. I expected it to pull the open circle closed again, to place me back into the narrative of my own life.

But, my father said: Maybe you’re misremembering something?

My mother: Were you drunk? If you were drunk—

Mrs. Petersen: Is that Mitch’s recollection of the night?

Mr. Petersen: I don’t believe you.

I sat at their kitchen table and cried.

And I apologized. I apologized for their son, who’d raped me.

But, Kathy.

Kathy did not ask about my memory or state of inebriation. Kathy only pushed her jaw outward. She sucked air in through her nose and squatted at the end of my bed.

She said: Tell me everything or nothing. Whatever you’d like. We can sit or go eat or do you want a drink? Who do we call? Who do we need to call?

I said: Chicken wings.

And we ordered them. We slurped down a gallon of beer. We tugged the meat from the bones. I was starving. I filled myself and spread out on the microfiber couch at Kathleen’s chic little apartment with its ferns and flowers. Its creeping fig with the leathery leaves. I spread my belly flat like the dogs do when they scrape what remains with their incisors.

#

I drove alone to the wake on Monday night. The air was raw, puckering my skin, fall fully arrived.

My parents were already there with bottles of wine and trays of Bolognese. With Snapdragons and lilies. My mother in her palazzo pants from Bergdorf’s. My father in his favorite charcoal suit.

The season was itching at my insides. I had a brain full of cough syrup, a heavy drip down my throat, a gloss across my palate. On the field behind their house ran a crowning of wildflowers. I watched seven PM fade into darkness from the seat of my car.

Mr. Petersen came out through the front door and stood on the porch in casual attire—jeans, a grey sweatshirt. A rumpled face. Kathy appeared behind him in an oversized black dress like a satin sheet. She touched her father’s elbow and spoke into his ear.

There were a dozen cars scattered between their driveway and the side yard. Behind them and through the open windows came the pulsing of a house mid-party. Even this solemn occasion carried brief laughter, endless chatter, the shadows streaming past, the recessed lights above the kitchen sink flicking on and off.

As Steven Petersen approached my vehicle, he turned back and held a hand up to his daughter. He kept turning around. He kept flashing his hand.

She looked saturated with it—the suffering of Mitch’s death. And what was I doing with my grief? My constant grief?

I was living with it.

Mr. Petersen placed an open palm on my window. I rolled it down, and he curled his hand over the glass, the knuckles bloated.

“Are you coming inside?” he asked me.

“Yes.”

He pivoted his body back towards Kathy, who started walking towards us.

“Okay,” he said. He grimaced with straight, bright teeth.

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

Kathy crossed her arms, watched the ground while she walked.

“Are you sure,” he asked me, “about that night? About what happened?” His voice was liquored and delirious. “Are you sure that you said no, but maybe other parts of you said yes? Are you sure you didn’t—” He pulled his shoulder up to his ear, dug a hand into his pocket. “You didn’t, you know, relax into it? You didn’t tell him yes in other ways?”

I looked away, head angled and staring blankly at the passenger seat.

“Listen,” he said. “Don’t you come in here and ruin a good man’s death.”

All my life, men had been telling me to listen.

He waited a few seconds then turned and walked back, passing his daughter, who kept moving forward, forward, forward towards me.

I saw her skin hanging limp beneath her swollen eyes. She opened her mouth, called out words that caught in my car’s engine.

A transient trill—a laugh, a doleful bleating, a rebuke—slid between the cracks of my vehicle. Her mouth was still moving, but I did not try to hear her. I didn’t need to know what she wanted to say.

Header photography © Syreeta Muir.

Share This:
Close Cart
Back to top