Claudia called me this morning to let me know you died. When I asked her when and why and how did she get my number, she rushed me with tears and Gaelic. She hung up before I could get her to calm down and speak English. I’m sure you expected this. I’m sure you knew you would break her as waves of death rolled over you, taking a piece of you each time. Death is like high tide on a coastline. I know this because ten years ago I watched Mom do it. She needed a witness and no one else was there.
After Claudia, I made tea and packed a bong and sat in front of my computer. I Googled “Glasgow,” where you lived, where I’ve never been. Wikipedia showed me the red sandstone tenements, like the one you and Claudia made a home in. I tried to picture myself sitting on the front steps, hugging a thermos. I tried to picture myself having dinner with you and Claudia, listening to her float between English and Gaelic, toasting our skins by a fire. Glasgow is about the same size as my hometown, but somehow grander, more yawning. I Googled “passports,” even though I’m going nowhere soon. I felt European enough, with my French music and my German bong and my English tea and your Scottish blood piping through me. I didn’t want to reach for a phantom, like an amputee fingering for flesh no matter how many times they find air.
I don’t know how I feel about your death. I don’t know why I’m writing a letter to you, today of all days. I could have written you letters. I could have phoned. I am not my mother-I didn’t have to hate you because she did. Now I’ll never know why she did because you’re both gone. Maybe I’m just mourning. Maybe you broke me too.
My day-to-day life revolves around the dead. I said this exact sentence to my sociology professor one year ago. He told me that everyone’s life does, because everything is a memory; even the light we saw reaching through his window. I stopped sleeping with him after that.
What I mean when I say my day-to-day life, I mean my car is my dead mother’s car and my apartment is my dead aunt’s apartment and my favorite dress is my dead mother’s favorite dress and my computer was built by the first man I slept with, who I heard shot himself last summer. I have no idea why. I skipped the funeral. The sociology professor needed “moral support” for his custody hearing. I had no idea why. I was more harm than help, obviously. Now I think he secretly wanted to lose custody. His daughters seemed to hate him. Sad, isn’t it?
When I shook their hands I could see talons in their blue eyes, bloodlust on their flawless teeth. I imagined them turning into a pair of harpies and eating him alive in the courtroom and I started cackling, right there, before he could steer me away. I think you would’ve liked that. Mom said you were feisty, and terrible at being the other woman; so terrible that Grandpa had to leave his first wife just to give you a role you were more suited for.
You took over his home with a brisk elegance, re-decorating and cooking sumptuous, unfamiliar foods. Mom said you had her to distract Grandpa from the very real affairs you were engaged in, oodles of young women in seamless nylons, their bobby pins left tangled in your hair. Little did he know your role was actually his. I always enjoyed that story. I wish I knew more. Mom said you were both cowards. She said it like she was spitting on the devil. I don’t see what’s so evil about fear and selfishness. I know nothing more normal than a calculated lie.
The sunrise was lovely this morning. I never wake up before nine but today was different. While I watched blue-black crest into sheer violet, I knew that I was officially alone. No hazy-faced relatives to reference with friends, on first dates. Spending holidays with a future lover’s family because I have none. This is stronger than orphan, or widow. Is there a word for the sole family member left alive?
I had a few beers with my friend Melanie last night. I told her about these letters. She’s a psychology major, so you can expect what she said. But I can’t go through the stages of grief. She should know that about me. You would have known.
That one time I met you, the Christmas I was sixteen, you took me to your rental car and we smoked hash. Did you remember that? I can still smell your Chanel No. 5 dancing with the woodsy smoke. I can still see the fogged windows shielding us from home. Your long silver hair spilling over the center console. Your accent somehow thicker with no American voices to temper it. I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythm, the way it swished like a flirtatious housewife’s. When you said, “I’m sorry, dear,” I shrugged and coughed smoke in your face. You breathed it in like it was a gift and smiled. “Promise you won’t tell Claudia about this little excursion. She’s no fun sometimes.” I came around to help you out of the car. You gave my hand a few tender pats. “Thank you, Georgie.” Georgie. No one ever called me that, but when you did it filled me with this cozy heat, like leaning in close to a fire.
I asked you what you thought about Mom naming me after George Sand, and your laugh was soggy with pain. “She really loved her,” you said, shaking your head. “You’re much more like me, Georgie.” I opened the front door and waved you in before me. I drank in the fond look in your eyes. “How am I like you?” I asked. You cupped my cheek in your hand, then shuffled back down the hall to sit with your lover and sip wine with my parents and pretend this was just another Christmas. What did you want to say? How am I like you? Maybe I should write a letter to my dead father too. He could have some answers.
That last letter got me to thinking about my father. When I was a little girl I briefly thought you didn’t love me because my father was black. I saw this racist couple on a talk show one day, talking about how they disowned their daughter because she married a black man and had a biracial son. I went to the mirror and tried to see any similarities between myself and the son, thinking maybe he didn’t look white enough. Was I white enough? I asked myself. I pulled my cheeks down to see the whites of my eyes.
I told Mom that night I wanted to straighten my hair so you would love me, and she slapped me. “Don’t ever say that again,” she cried. “Your grandma loves you exactly the way you are. She just lives far away, understand?” I said I did, but I didn’t. Not really.
The next morning she made me blueberry pancakes, my favorite, and hugged me harder than usual before school. “Love you,” she crooned, waving me off at the bus stop. A blonde girl pointed at the pink welt on my cheek. “Did you get in trouble?” she asked, words muffled from sucking her thumb. “Shut up,” I said, and hugged my lunchbox to my chest. My father was already dead by then.
Sorry for the absence. Monday was orientation for my new job-bookseller. The local library laid me off six weeks ago. I’m just thankful I found something in the same arena. I’m just thankful I found something at all. I told myself this on Monday. I told myself this while I smoked a cigarette by the staff exit and tried to pretend I wasn’t crying.
Mom said all the Sand women suffer from ingratitude; she said it’s in our bones, in the way we sit, the way our jaws lunge out of our faces. I wish I knew if you believed that. It’s hard to trust Mom, especially now that she’s gone.
I have lunch in the office with my manager, Gene. He’s young but older than me, thirty-three. His shirts and trousers are always impeccably ironed and he’s had sushi for lunch every day this week. He brings it in a small wooden box with a lemon tree carved in the top.
Today I asked him if he makes his own sushi. He does. His girlfriend is a sous chef and she taught him one snowy afternoon. They made a mess of the kitchen and took a shower together before dinner. They ate his creation with their hands on the hardwood floor. He said it was one of the best days of his life. He offered me a bite of tofu nigiri. It tasted like candied muscle and it was lovely and I smiled and he laughed and that’s when I realized that I have a hopeful life. I looked out the window at the warm rain melting everything away and I couldn’t help it, I just started crying.
I told Gene about you, about Mom. I said nothing about my father. I said nothing of Aunt Viviane. I felt I should keep some things close. Mom would say I keep some things closed, but there is a difference.
He stood and went to his mini-fridge, brought out a different wooden box. This one was scarred with a family of deer. He slid the top back, revealing six squat rainbows drizzled with peanut sauce. “No need to thank me. I woke up way too early this morning. Making extra filled my time.”
I blinked the tears from my eyes and took his gift. We ate quietly, smiling on occasion across his desk. When he stood to re-open the store, my heart thumped clumsily in my throat. I didn’t want lunch to end. I felt at home.
Today I received a package from Claudia. It was sitting on my front steps when I got home from work. My heart dropped when I saw it. I sat down next to it. I stayed there for a few minutes, breathing in a neighbor’s bonfire and watching the wind flatten a paper bag against a condemned oak tree. In days someone will come to end the tree, dutifully, unceremoniously. Some days I wish someone would do the same for me.
Claudia sent me a stack of photos tied with white yarn. They are photos of me and you. I look maybe two or three, smiles glittering on my face in every one. I wish you were alive so I could shake you, so I could rattle you until your false teeth fell chattering into your lap.
Why didn’t I know I’d met you before that Christmas in the car? Why would you keep our only relationship from me? Why didn’t you ever come back? I spent my entire evening cycling through those photos, scanning them onto my hard drive just in case something happens to them, writing a five page letter to Mom and burying it above her grave.
It was raining while I was at the graveyard. Mud swooned around my wrists, seeped into the curled skin of my knees, wedded itself to the hem of my dress. The letter began to faint and break apart as I punched it down. Lightning cracked above me and my god, Joan, I felt feral. I haven’t felt like that since I left the sociology professor. He protested. I broke things. We choked each other. I wanted to break his bones with my bare hands. I wanted him to know what it’s like to fear.
My ex-therapist said that desire is aberrant, potentially dangerous. You should try to control these impulses, not revel in them, he said. I crossed my legs, smiled sweetly, and told him to suck my dick. I think you would’ve liked that. Actually, I’m sure you would.
I called Claudia to thank her for the package this afternoon. She said her door is always open for me, for an overseas visit or something longer. I thanked her and asked her, “So what are you up to?” She laughed like the crack of a whip and said, “Cabernet Sauvignon. How about you?” It must have been early evening in Glasgow. I could hear the rain on her window. I could almost smell the wine, rolling in her glass as she twirled it, sitting somewhere in your home alone.
I wondered if she still has your personal things-your clothes, your jewelry, your hairpins, your perfume. Did she donate the clothes to charity and keep the jewelry? Did she throw away the hairpins and start wearing your perfume? Does she keep it all in a closet, in boxes, kept safe from the everyday? I couldn’t ask her this. It would feel cruel. Instead I asked her, “What was I like when you knew me?”
She didn’t speak for several moments. She finished her wine, sighed a few times, then cleared her throat and said, “You were lovely. Very curious, very lovingâ€¦ I missed you whenâ€¦ they fought with one another. It broke my heart.”
She loved me. She missed me. I didn’t even realize. I’m not the only one left. I was so comforted by this, on today of all days, when the sky is bone white and the weather doesn’t have the decency to do just one thing, rain or snow at once, and everything in me was shouting for clarity. I found it in the same way you did. I found it in her.
It is ten-thirty in the morning. I came home at nine-thirty and took a shower. I sat on the toilet and cried. I made coffee. Now I’m sitting in my bedroom with a picture of Mom. She’s holding me. I look about two months old, so she must have been thirty. Her hair clouds around her like black smoke and her smile is earnest, simple. I know my father took the photo. I know he died the following winter. I know you didn’t like him. I know he was religious, just like Mom. I know I was baptized and you resented it. But it must have been more than that. I like to believe it was more.
I slept with Gene last night. He rented a room and we bought a six pack of Stella on the way. The room was modest, clean. The bed was comfortable. The water pressure was terrible, hence my shower this morning. It all felt strangely routine. We kissed like old lovers. We giggled and chatted while wiggling out of our clothes. He fucked me from behind, like he already knew how I like it. We sat up in bed eating Chinese take-out and drinking the Stella, still naked from laziness, not desire.
He flicked off the light and kissed me quick. “G’night George,” he said, snuggling his face into a pillow. I was up, hugging my knees, staring at the dark. “Gene,” I said. “Yeah?” he murmured, already floating toward sleep. “What about your girlfriend?” I whispered. I was surprised by how timid I sounded, how afraid. “Oh babe,” he groaned. “I’m sorry. I should’ve done it before. I’ll tell her, okay?” I wanted to nod but I couldn’t move. My body felt like a single vibrating nerve. I believed him. I just didn’t want to.
“Okay,” I said, a little too brightly. He kissed the side of my thigh and fell asleep almost instantly. I reached down the side of the bed, blind fingers flexing for my purse, my dress. I scooped up my purse and found a cigarette, a lighter, the ashtray on the bedside table. I smoked with it all in my lap, with Gene snoring by my side, with your violet eyes on my mind, goring me. How could I sleep, knowing how much we are all capable of?
Did you feel like that when you were in bed with Grandpa? With those other women? With Claudia before you fell in love?
“I called her on the drive home this morning. I told her to ready a room for me. I forgot that it was time for her nap in Glasgow. I apologized and she laughed. “He’s not leaving his wife, then?” she asked. Tears painted over the road lines and for once I was thankful to be at a red light. “Something like that. Can I call you tonight?” I could hear her bed springs bend. I could hear that autumn rain. I thought of this photo of Mom and me, thought of her dark mane. “Of course you can. Don’t hesitate. We have to be here for one another, Georgie. We are family.” Georgie. There it was again. That warmth.