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I wore my old glasses to the funeral, the ones with the red plastic frames. They were like putting on a too-tight coat from a long time ago. They made me dizzy, but I didn’t care. Susannah always liked me in those glasses. She said I looked like the smartest girl in the room, the kind of girl who was going somewhere and knew exactly how she was going to get there. I wore my hair halfway up, because that was the way she liked it. She said it showed my face off.
It felt like the right thing to do, to look the way she liked me best. Even though I knew she only said those things to make me feel better, they still felt true. Susannah’s words held a captivating charm. Her assurances of everlasting commitment resonated deeply. I couldn’t help but believe her, as did everyone else, including my mother.
We were al surprised when it happened, and even when it became inevitable, a fact, we never really believed it. It seemed impossible. Not our Susannah, not Beck. You always hear about people getting better, beating the odds. I was sure Susannah would be one of them. Even if it was only a one in a millions chance. She was one in a million.
Things got bad fast. So bad that my mother was shuttling between Susannah’s house in Boston and ours, every other weekend at first and then more frequently.
She had to take a leave of absence from work. She had a room at Susannah’s house.
The call came early in the morning. It was still dark out. It was bad news, of course; bad news is the only kind that really can’t wait. As soon as I heard the phone ring, even in my sleep, I knew. Susannah was gone. I lay there in my bed, waiting for my mother to come and tell me. I could hear her moving around in her room and heard the shower running.
When she didn’t come, I went to her room. She was packing, her hair still wet.
She looked over at me, her eyes tired and empty. “Beck’s gone,” she said. And that was it.
I could feel my insides sink. My knees too. So I sat on the ground, against the wall, letting it support me. I thought I knew what heartbreak felt like. I thought heartbreak was me, standing alone at the prom. That was nothing.
This, this was heartbreak. The pain in your chest, the ache behind your eyes. The knowing that things will never be the same again. It’s all relative, I suppose. You think you know love, you think you know real pain, but you don’t. You don’t know anything.
I’m not sure when I started crying. When I got started, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe.
My mother crossed the room and knelt down on the floor with me, hugging me, rocking me back and forth. But she didn’t cry. She wasn’t even there.
She was an upright reed, an empty harbor.
My mother drove up to Boston that same day. The only reason she’d even been at home that day had been to check on me and get a change of clothes. She’d thought there’d be more time. She should’ve been there, when Susannah died. If only for the boys. I was sure she was thinking the same thoughts.
In her best professor voice, she told Steven and me that we would drive ourselves up in two days, the day of the funeral. She didn’t want us in the way of funeral preparations; there was a lot of work to be done. Ends in need of tying up.
My mother had been named executor of the will, and of course Susannah had known exactly what she was doing when she’d picked her. It was true that there was no one better for the job, that they’d been going over things even before Susannah died. But even more than that, my mother was at her best when she was busy, doing things. She did not fall apart, not when she was needed. No, my mother rose to the occasion. I wished that was a gene I’d inherited. Because I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Contemplating the situation, I considered reaching out to Conrad. Several times, I found myself hovering over my phone, debating whether to dial his number. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid of saying the wrong things, of making things worse. And then I thought about cal ing Jeremiah. But it was the fear that kept me back. I knew that the moment I cal ed, the moment I said it out loud, it would be true. She would real y be gone.
On the drive up, we were mostly quiet. Steven’s only suit, the one he’d just worn to prom, was wrapped in plastic and hung in the backseat. I hadn’t bothered to hang up my dress. “What will we say to them?” I asked at last.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The only funeral I’ve ever been to is Aunt Shirle’s, and she was really old.” I was too young to remember that funeral.
“Where wil we stay tonight? Susannah’s house?” “No idea.”
“How do you suppose Mr. Fisher’s handling it?” I couldn’t bring myself to picture Conrad or Jeremiah, not yet.
“Whiskey,” was Steven’s answer. After that I stopped asking questions.
We changed into our clothes at a gas station thirty miles from the funeral home.
As soon as I saw how neat and pressed Steven’s suit was, I regretted not hanging up my dress. Back in the car, I kept smoothing down the skirt with my palms, but it didn’t help. My mother had told me that rayon was pointless; I should have listened. I also should have tried it on before I packed it. The last time I wore it was to a reception at my mother’s university three years ago, and now it was too small.
We got there early, early enough to find my mother bustling around, arranging flowers and talking to Mr. Browne, the funeral director. As soon as she saw me, she frowned. “You should have ironed that dress, Bel y,” she said.
I bit my bottom lip to keep from saying something I knew I would regret.
“There wasn’t any time,” I said, even though there had been. There had been plenty of time. I tugged down the skirt so it didn’t look so short.
She nodded tersely. “Go find the boys, wil you? Bel y, talk to Conrad.”
Steven and I exchanged a look. What would I say? It had been a month since prom, since we’d last spoken.
We found them in a side room, it had pews and tissue boxes under lacquer covers. Jeremiah’s head was bent, like he was praying, something I’d never known him to do. Conrad sat straight, his shoulders squared, staring into nowhere.
“Hey,” Steven said, clearing his throat. He moved toward them, hugging them roughly.
It occurred to me that I’d never seen Jeremiah in a suit before. It looked a little too tight; he was uncomfortable, and he kept tugging at his neck. But his shoes looked new. I wondered if my mother had helped pick them out.
When it was my turn I hurried over to Jeremiah and hugged him as hard as I could. He felt stiff in my arms. “Thanks for coming,” he said, his voice oddly formal.
I had this fleeting thought that maybe he was mad at me, but I pushed it away as quickly as it had come. I felt guilty for even thinking it. This was Susannah’s funeral, why would he be thinking about me?
I patted his back awkwardly, my hand moving in smal circles. His eyes were impossibly blue, which was what happened when he cried.
“I’m sorry,” I said and immediately regretted saying it, because the words were so ineffectual. They didn’t convey what I really meant, how I really felt. “I’m sorry” was just as pointless as rayon.
Then I looked at Conrad. He was sitting back down again, his back stiff, his white shirt one big wrinkle. “Hey,” I said, sitting down next to him.
“Hey,” he said. I wasn’t sure if I should hug him or leave him be. So I squeezed his shoulder, and he didn’t say anything. He was made of stone. I made a promise to myself: I would not leave his side all day. I would be right there, I would be a tower of strength, just like my mother.
My mother and Steven and I sat in the fourth pew, behind Conrad and Jeremiah’s cousins and Mr. Fisher’s brother and his wife, who was wearing too much perfume. I thought my mother should be in the first row, and I told her so, in a whisper. She sneezed and told me it didn’t matter. I guessed she was right.
Then she took off her suit jacket and draped it over my bare thighs.
I turned around once and saw my father in the back. For some reason, I hadn’t expected to see him there. Which was weird, because he’d known Susannah too, so it only made sense that he’d be at her funeral. I gave him a little wave, and he waved back.
“Dad’s here,” I whispered to my mother.
“Of course he is,” she said. She didn’t look back.
Jeremiah and Conrad’s school friends sat in a bunch together, toward the back.
They looked awkward and out of place. The guys kept their heads down and the girls whispered to one another nervously.
The service was long. A preacher I’d never met delivered the eulogy. He said nice things about Susannah. He called her kind, compassionate, graceful, and she was all of those things, but it sounded a lot like he’d never met her. I leaned in close to my mother to tell her so, but she was nodding along with him.
I thought I wouldn’t cry again, but I did, a lot. Mr. Fisher got up and thanked everyone for coming, told us we were welcome to come by the house afterward for a reception. His voice broke a few times, but he managed to keep it together.
When I last saw him, he was tan and confident and tall. Seeing him that day, he looked like a man who was lost in a snowstorm. Shoulders hunched, face pale. I thought about how hard it must be for him to stand up there, in front of everybody who loved her. He had cheated on her, left her when she needed him most, but in the end, he had shown up. He’d held her hand those last few weeks.
Maybe he’d thought there’d be more time too.
It was a closed casket. Susannah told my mother she didn’t want everybody gawking at her when she didn’t look her best. Dead people looked fake, she explained. Like they were made of wax. I reminded myself that the person inside the coffin wasn’t Susannah, that it didn’t matter what she looked like because she was already gone.
When it was over, after we’d said the Lord’s Prayer, we formed our processional, everybody taking their turn to offer condolences. I felt strangely adult there, standing with my mother and my brother. Mr. Fisher leaned down and gave me a stiff hug, his eyes wet. He shook Steven’s hand
and when he hugged my mother, she whispered something in his ear and he nodded.
When I hugged Jeremiah, we were both crying so hard, we were holding each other up. His shoulders kept shaking.
When I hugged Conrad, I wanted to say something, to comfort him.
Something better than “I’m sorry.” But it was over so quick, there wasn’t any time to say more than that. I had a whole line of people behind me, al waiting to pay their condolences too.
The cemetery wasn’t very far. My heels kept sticking to the ground. It must have rained the day before. Before they lowered Susannah into the wet ground, Conrad and Jeremiah both put a white rose on top of the coffin and then the rest of us added more flowers. I picked a pink peony. Someone sang a hymn. When it was over, Jeremiah didn’t move. He stood right where her grave was going to be, and he cried. It was my mother who went to him. She took him by the hand, and she spoke to him softly.
Back at Susannah’s house, Jeremiah and Steven and I slipped away to Jeremiah’s bedroom. We sat on his bed in our fancy clothes. “Where’s Conrad?” I said. I hadn’t forgotten my vow to stay by his side, but he was making it hard, the way he kept disappearing.
“Let’s leave him alone for a while,” Jeremiah said. “Are you guys hungry?” I was, but I didn’t want to say so. “Are you?”
“Yeah, sort of. There’s food downstairs.” His voice lingered on the word “downstairs.” I knew he didn’t want to go down there and face all those people, have to see the pity in their eyes. How sad, they’d say, look at those two young boys she left behind. His friends hadn’t come to the house; they’d left right after the burial. It was all adults down there.
“I’l go,” I offered.
“Thanks,” he said grateful y.
I got up and shut the door behind me. In the hall way I stopped to look at their family portraits. They were matted and framed in black, all the same kind of frame. In one picture, Conrad was wearing a bow tie and he was missing his front teeth. In another, Jeremiah was eight or nine and he had on the Red Sox cap he refused to take off for, like, a whole summer. He said it was a lucky hat; he wore it every day for three months. Every couple of weeks, Susannah would wash it and then put it back in his room while he slept.
Downstairs the adults were milling around, drinking coffee and talking in hushed voices. My mother stood at the buffet table, cutting cake for strangers.
They were strangers to me, anyway. I wondered if she knew them, if they knew who she was to Susannah, how she was her best friend, how they’d spent every summer together for almost their whole lives.
I grabbed two plates and my mother helped me load them up. “Are you guys al right upstairs?” she asked me, putting a wedge of blue cheese on the plate.
I nodded and slid it right back off. “Jeremiah doesn’t like blue cheese,” I told her. Then I took a handful of water crackers and a cluster of green grapes. “Have you seen Conrad?”
“I think he’s in the basement,” she said. Rearranging the cheese plate, she added, “Why don’t you go check on him and bring him a plate? I’l take this one up to the boys.”
“Okay.” I picked up the plate and crossed the dining room just as Jeremiah and Steven came downstairs. I stood there and watched Jeremiah stop and talk to people, letting them hug him and grasp his hand. Our eyes met, and I lifted my hand and waved it just barely. He lifted his and did the same, rolling his eyes a little at the woman clutching his arm. Susannah would have been proud.
Then I headed downstairs, to the basement. The basement was carpeted and soundproofed. Susannah had it set up when Conrad took up the electric guitar.
It was dark; Conrad hadn’t turned the lights on. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and then I crept down the stairs, feeling my way.
I found him soon enough. He was lying down on the couch with his head in a girl’s lap. She was running her hands along the top of his head, like they belonged there. Even though summer had just barely started, she was tan.
Her shoes were off, her bare legs were stretched out on top of the coffee table. And Conrad, he was stroking her leg.
Everything in me seized up, pulled in tight.
I had seen her at the funeral. I’d thought she was really pretty, and I’d wondered who she was. She looked East Asian, like she might be Indian. She had dark hair and dark eyes and she was wearing a black miniskirt and a white and black polka-dot blouse. And a headband, she was wearing a black headband.
She saw me first. “Hey,” she said.
That’s when Conrad looked over and saw me standing in the doorway with a plate of cheese and crackers. He sat up. “Is that food for us?” he asked, not quite looking at me.
“My mother sent it,” I said, and my voice came out mumbly and quiet. I walked over and put the plate on the coffee table. I stood there for a second, unsure of what to do next.
“Thanks,” the girl said, in a way that sounded more like, You can go now.
Not in a mean way, but in a way that made it clear I was interrupting.
I backed out of the room slowly but when I got to the stairs, I started to run. I ran by al the people in the living room and I could hear Conrad coming after me.
“Wait a minute,” he cal ed out.
I’d almost made it through the foyer when he caught up to me and grabbed my arm.“What do you want?” I said, shaking him off. “Let go of me.”
“That was Aubrey,” he said, letting go.
Aubrey, the girl who broke Conrad’s heart. I’d pictured her differently. I’d pictured her blond. This girl was prettier than what I had pictured. I could never compete with a girl like that.
I said, “Sorry I interrupted your little moment.” “Oh, grow up,” he said.
There are moments in life that you wish with al your heart you could take back. Like, just erase from existence. Like, if you could, you’d erase yourself right out of existence too, just to make that moment not exist.
What I said next was one of those moments for me.
On the day of his mother’s funeral, to the boy I loved more than I had ever loved anything or anyone, I said, “Go to hel .”
It was the worst thing I’ve ever said to anyone, ever. It wasn’t that I’d never said the words before. But the look on his face. I’ll never forget it. The look on his face made me want to die. It confirmed every mean and low thing I’d ever thought about myself, the stuff you hope and pray no one will ever know about you.
Because if they knew, they would see the real you, and they would despise you.
Conrad said, “I should have known you’d be like this.” Miserably, I asked him, “What do you mean?”
He shrugged, his jaw tight. “Forget it.”
“No, say it.”
He started to turn around, to leave, but I stopped him. I stood in his way. “Tel me,” I said, my voice rising.
He looked at me and said, “I knew it was a bad idea, starting something with you. You’re just a kid. It was a huge mistake.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
People were starting to look. My mother was standing in the living room, talking to people I didn’t recognize. She’d glanced up when I’d started speaking. I couldn’t even look at her; I could feel my face burning.
I knew the right thing to do was to walk away. However, I couldn’t ignore the turmoil inside me. Despite my better judgment, I stayed.” In that moment, it was like I was floating above myself and I could see me and how everybody in that room was looking at me. But when Conrad just shrugged and started to leave again, I felt so mad, and so
—smal . I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t quit. “I hate you,” I said.
Conrad turned around and nodded, like he’d expected me to say exactly that.
“Good,” he said. The way he looked at me then, pitying and fed up and just over it. It made me feel sick.
“I never want to see you again,” I declared firmly. Then, I shoved past him with determination, my pace quickening as I ascended the staircase so rapidly that I stumbled on the top step. Landing on my knees with a painful thud, I may have even heard a gasp from someone nearby. Through my tear-blurred vision, I struggled to see anything clearly. Despite my blurry sight, I regained my composure and rushed towards the guest room.
I took off my glasses and lay down on the bed and cried. It wasn’t Conrad I hated. It was myself.
My father came up after a while. He knocked a few times, and when I didn’t answer, he came in and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Are you al right?” he asked me. His voice was so gentle, I could feel tears leaking out of the corners of my eyes again. No one should be nice to me. I didn’t deserve it.
I rol ed away so my back was to him. “Is Mom mad at me?”
“No, of course not,” he said. “Come back downstairs and say good-bye to everyone.”
“I can’t.” How could I go back downstairs and face everyone after I’d made that scene? It was impossible. I was humiliated, and I had done it to myself.
“What happened with you and Conrad, Bel y? Did you have a fight? Did you two break up?” It was so odd to hear the words “break up” come out of my dad’s mouth. I couldn’t discuss it with him. It was just too bizarre.
“Dad, I can’t talk about this stuff with you. Could you just go? I want to be alone.”
“Al right,” he said, and I could hear the hurt in his voice. “Do you want me to get your mother?”
She was the last person I wanted to see. Right away, I said, “No, please don’t.”
The bed creaked as my father got up and closed the door.
The only person I wanted was Susannah. She was the only one. And then I had a thought, clear as day. I would never be somebody’s favorite again. I would never be a kid again, not in the same way. That was all over now. She was really gone. I hoped Conrad listened to me. I hoped I never saw him again. If I ever had to look at him again, if he looked at me the way he did that day, it would break me
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