I felt sick. It wasn’t a dirty word. For the last few days I’ve been wearing an oversized orange sweater. It hasn’t been particularly chilly. The oversized sweater was “in” this season. I knew since I’d been passing my time in the shopping mall observing. There, I watched culture happen. I watched people make themselves through their decisions, through their purchases. I observed as they shaped their nature. In groups they moved seamlessly about the roomy architecture—large bags puffed and displayed, cell phones attached like leeches to fingers or faces. In the mall, people looked like they had purpose. They looked informed. I wanted that look.
A friend of mine who worked airport control was able to get me a last minute deal on a flight to Providence. He asked what the ticket was for, and why the rush, I simply reminded him of all the past favors I’d done him—walking his dog, loaning him money, making him soup when he was ill. I did these things and never questioned why he failed to call when he had a girlfriend. My mother had engrained in me that when you give you should not expect to receive; otherwise, it’s ransom. Eventually he backed off. “I’m just concerned,” his text message read. “Just do this,” I wrote back.
Multiple department stores stocked the oversized sweater, cleverly or not referred to as the “Boyfriend Sweater.” It was hard to decide between them. In the end I settled on an orange one with light and dark vertical orange stripes. If I wasn’t mistaken a look-a-like of someone famous recently wore something similar, and for a brief moment a number of notable shops ran out of stock. Vertical stripes were notably more flattering on the body, although that wasn’t my issue. The bulky illusion of horizontal stripes could’ve added just the right amount of feminine curve to my gangly slender figure. That would have been a more desirable outcome but I wasn’t in the mood to reward myself.
The sales clerk looked surprised when I brought the orange sweater up to the cash register.
“What about the other sweaters I brought in?” the sales clerk protested. “I thought we agreed orange isn’t your color . . . ”
I gave her an inadequate semi-smile. An adequate response would have been one that offered some consolation, a gesture that would make my temporary companion see that I hadn’t left her out on purpose. I liked the sales clerk fine, but I really had other pressing relationships to attend to. Truth was I had found the sweater on my own in the far back of the dressing rooms. It was on a rack along with the other disqualified clothing items. It too was hanging crookedly but fared better than the other items, those that had fallen from their hangers and lay crumpled on the floor.
“It has a giant hole under the armpit!” the sales clerk said, pointing at the nickel-sized hole, her flexed finger determined to make me see my error.
“And look here!” she said, exasperatedly, her face spiraling in like a Slurpee swirl. “Underneath this one too!”
I handed the sales clerk my credit card. The sales clerk stuffed the orange sweater in a bag. It had been years since I had last made a mall purchase, but I noticed that the sales clerk hadn’t folded it nicely before bagging it. A formality I had previously understood to be mandatory. I nodded warmly to thank her and put on my sweater, leaving the bag on the counter. With my new earrings, the fork drawing on my hip, and my new orange sweater, I felt ready to go.
I haven’t taken these pieces off since purchasing them. I wore them on my way to the airport. In my youth I never would have behaved that way. I never would have worn the same items of clothing consecutively—what if someone spotted me? But it was the early 1990s then and nobody wanted to be misconstrued. Girls wanted to wear Guess jeans and be seen in a light and sexy way, but nobody wanted to be called a “ho” or to catch chlamydia. Today girls want to dress like their boyfriends, casually and loosely, and they want to pretend their boyfriends find the idea attractive. My male students said they thought it would be sexier if their girlfriends just borrowed their clothes instead, because that implies something. Giggle. I didn’t waste my time asking what.
I made my flight in time. Providence made an imprint—you didn’t forget the details. It was damp. There were hot wieners. The mayor was re-elected from prison, and when he wanted a hot wiener he rode a white horse downtown to get it. Perhaps Providence was significant because I’d won 2nd place in a Whole Food’s Memorable Story competition. If I could write the story over, I’d add a seeing-eye dog, or write about giving birth in the bulk section, especially near those energy nubs that tasted like they sounded. Those stories always win first prize. I wrote sincerely about finding love in the cheese aisle.
The passenger seated next to me constantly fidgeted with his keys. Earlier he flossed his teeth. I’d read an article about how more and more people view airplanes as extensions of their personal space. More and more people are taking off their shoes and socks not only for international flights but also for domestic ones such as this one. I didn’t have a giant opinion on the matter except I did believe for the most part people should mind their own business. This had become harder to do now that people exposed openly, without provocation, their feelings, whether online or on tee-shirts. And from what I’ve read, a vast amount of Americans are currently at work on autobiographies.
For the past several days after the mall closed I would go home and undress myself. I’d prop the full-length mirror I’d received in junior high, cardboard frame intact, against the wall. Because of the way the mirror leaned, some parts of my body were ill proportioned. At times it was frustrating. In the mirror I studied myself with my new earrings on, and with my new red fork “tattoo,” as if I were preparing to paint a self-portrait. If my mother knew I’d drawn a fork on my pelvis she’d have a hundred questions. Even if I told her it was just a drawing, she’d look askance. And if my mother knew about my new earrings she’d say, “They’re not even Sterling!” My mother has a collection of Sterling silver spoons that hung on some sort of Sterling silver spoon contraption. One day those Sterling silver spoons will belong to me. My mother reminded me of what will one day belong to me, especially when the holidays were near—when the two of us sorted through the delicates, when we unraveled and arranged the stowed away plates and serving trays revealing a collection of shiny matching objects. As was custom, we’d deliberately set the table. It was important we do this. This act that we performed around the table was significant because it’s happened before. This act has occurred and will continue to occur, and the existence of it happening was in part connected to my presence, but its existence wasn’t contingent on my presence.
The passenger next to me has been gone for some time. He must be peeing or stretching his legs. I’d read numerous articles about how important it was to do small exercises when you travel in order to keep up your circulation. Most airline magazines had illustrations in the back of them to remind passengers. Those tips have proven useful. I grew antsy when one of my body parts fell asleep. I was dressed as the professional’s advised. My clothing wasn’t constraining, I made sure of it. I should’ve been more diligent about hydration, but there’s nothing like boozing on an airplane and I was taking a break from certain expectations.
The pilot announced our initial decent. The funeral was at 4 o’clock. I hadn’t been personally been invited to his funeral, but I will make it just in time. I might even be a little early. I’ll need to be discreet, my striped orange sweater—not very discreet. “So it goes,” my mother would say, and in recent years the sentiment has grown more fulfilling.
Mourning for me was inert. At first the feeling, a mass of pictures, ideas, memories and words settled inside of my throat like clay lining. The feeling gathered in every crevice, and every valve and inlet filled and hardened. It sat there denser than mud, thick as sea fog mooring ships to the bay. It festered. It burrowed, so deeply I had no words. I saw no way out until I stumbled on his baby fork inside an H.P. Lovecraft novel. I’d used it as a bookmark. It had his initials on it. At the time we’d found the entire notion of a baby receiving a fork, especially a tiny one with initials on it, preposterous. Mimicking baby faces, like we’d imagined British entertainers might, we took turns miming tiny baby foods, with the tiny silver fork, into our teeny tiny baby mouths.
I retrieved the fork. I went to the kitchen. I took a trusty red pen and marked a thin medium-sized oval shape to target; I had one shot, red pens are tough to erase. I took the fork to my skin to measure, to align the tines of the fork to that of my flesh, and drew out the contours of the fork accordingly. The fork shape was just above my pelvis. It angled downward toward my feet. It was drawn this way to insure it wouldn’t trouble anyone. I’d hate for the image to make a person suspicious. I’d hate for someone to think I’d actually hurt myself. When the fork drawing was complete I set about my day. I checked email. I sent my mother a text message about the copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis I’d forgotten to mention I’d borrowed. I wrote to my students giving them an additional research day, “Wow! Thanks!” some wrote back, mostly the bad ones.
The passenger next to me has since returned. He seemed reluctant to do so but the flight attendants made sure he was seated and buckled tight as the plane made its slow decent. “Are you OK?” he kept asking me.
I suspected I looked gloomy, but I hadn’t cried, not one tear since his death. But the passenger, he too looked at me like the sales clerk looked at me as she rumpled up the sweater and tossed it in a bag. He looked at me like the mailman did yesterday, noting as I retrieved my bills, “We could really use the sun to come out, a little vitamin D is good for the spirits!” Like the taxi driver had, “You sure you want the airport?” It’s uncommon to flag down taxis outside of New York City, and even more to hand the cabbie a piece of paper spelling out your destination. Or like the ever-busier flight attendants, who’d been staring at me since boarding, long before reading my scribbled request for whiskey on a napkin, “Whiskey? I’m certain we’ve run out of it.” And when I fiercely scratched out “whiskey” and wrote out “VODKA” they pretended not to understand. I gave them some sort of look because eventually they handed me what I wanted.
I felt light headed. No longer was I much of a drinker. Vodka had such terrible connotations for females. In college I tried to distinguish myself. Instead of taking Jell-O shots and welcoming panty raids with high-pitched jubilance, I drank whatever I wanted and with assuredness avoided diet sodas. I lived off of eating hearty burritos—lots of rice with lots of whatever else was cheapest, mostly cilantro. I drank whiskey with him. He noticed me because, as he said, “you ate food.” Our time was spent fucking, playwriting, and assembling a dish he fittingly called “beans,” made of canned refried beans and hot sauce. Any can of beans and any bottle of hot sauce would do.
The plane landed. Because I hadn’t packed anything other than a Band-Aid and the Lovecraft novel, I didn’t need to wait for baggage claim, something I never liked doing, especially when I smoked. I might have been happier as a smoker, but once you know the truth it’s hard to ignore. And then with the posting of images of sick babies and breathing-starved asthmatic patients on cigarette packs, all the imagination went away. He never smoked. He found it distracting.
Providence was overcast and forty-three degrees. I was snug in my sweater. My earrings held up. I handed the taxi driver the cemetery address. He turned up the radio. I felt shy on the way to the funeral I wasn’t invited to attend but read about on Facebook. On Facebook everyone knew how to grieve. People posted warm messages of hope in the form of flowers or happy-faced emoticons. I deleted my account.
The taxi driver turned his head and asked if I wanted to take a longer route, I nodded. We passed by the Vietnamese restaurant where we’d occasionally meet to catch up. He’d ask about my graduate school studies, I’d ask about his new play, and he’d order a dish I could have a bite of. He could be generous that way. I remembered when my mother uneasily told me that she hadn’t felt “he was the right person.” I asked her why she’d waited to mention her feelings until long after we’d broken up. My mother said she felt it wasn’t her place. She said she knew I’d figure it out on my own. “That’s not the point,” I distinctly remembered telling her.
I saw the pictures. He died surrounded by family and friends, some of them ours, that we made together, and some I’ll never know. There was a photograph with his new wife, I liked her, I could tell from the photo. I too wanted to say goodbye in person. To explicitly tell him I loved him. I never wrote out the words as precisely. Maybe I wrote them exactly, but “I love you” by itself rings deficient. Then again nothing can be known for certain because all communication between us had been done over email and email was without intonation. I knew I’d written, “Can I do anything?” “How can I help?” “I am thinking of you” “I am sending good thoughts.” What a waste of words, though I meant every one of them.
I arrived early to the cemetery. I was alone except for a young boy and his mother laying out roses on a patch of perfectly articulated grass. They were holding hands loosely. And as he would have wanted, I took out my book and picked up where I’d left off. The clouds moved. The sky darkened. A few pages in I wanted to crawl inside my gut and out through my eyes, but these things were not possible. I felt lightheaded. I pulled up my orange sweater to peek at the red fork drawing. It was there. I began to howl, and laugh ferociously, like the feral animal I’d felt myself becoming. I grieved myself into an imperfect circle on the damp grass. The boy and his mother were briskly heading in my direction. Clutching the book in one hand, and his baby fork in the other, I rolled onto my back and looked at the sky. Something I’d done as a little girl. I thought to tell him about the Band-Aid tucked safely in my backpack, but I was too thirsty to get the words out.
The boy and his mother were close. I could smell them. They smelled sweet and kind and like the future. I felt it. About the goldfish—I wanted to add a bit about the goldfish I’d won at a state fair by clownishly throwing the dart at the ceiling, which in turn popped every balloon on its way down. People applauded. I wobbled home with my fuzzy monstrous prize, a gigantic and indistinct stuffed animal made up of every color.
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