There I was. It happened. The worst-case scenario you’d never think of. It happened to me. My world shattered in unimaginable ways. The person I loved most in this world is gone. In a flash. Just a moment is all it took. Gone. Never coming back. Never smiling at me again. Never chuckling at my insipid humor. Never nodding in agreement with my sarcastic, cynical rants. No more lustful smiles. Never seeing the look in his eyes that could reach me wherever I was and let me know I am loved. I have to stop listing all the things I’ll miss.
You never think about what it will be like when they’re gone. You fall in love and you build a life together. You suffer through heartache and rejoice in life’s miracles. You never, ever, think that you will, one day, go on living without the person who completed the other half of your soul. It’s not something I ever thought of it. The day I met Ryan, I knew he was my other half. I have always been fiercely independent. To the dismay of my parents, I made life choices when they felt right, even if logic said my choices were wrong. I sometimes think it scared them that I fell so hopelessly in love with Ryan and how fast I fell for him. And now... now here I am. Mourning him.
Maybe it was all too fast. The candle burned too bright and couldn’t last. Had we loved each other too much? What happened was an accident. A moment in time. Wrong place, right time? Right time, wrong place? Only a moment.
The moment that would forever change my life is always on repeat in my mind. Like historic moments shared throughout the world. Where were you when Kennedy was killed? What were you doing when you heard about the World Trade Center attacks? In my own personal world, I would always know where I was when I heard. I would forever remember the details I drilled out of the messenger who bore the worst news I would ever experience. My life ended in that moment. I wish it had ended, anyway. I don’t know how I am supposed to move on with life. I always thought that when death parted us we would be nearly one hundred years old. That if we parted by death, I wouldn’t be far behind him or him far behind me.
I want everything to end. Essentially it has, but here I am. Still breathing. Living in the physical sense of the word. My heart beats. My lungs process oxygen into my bloodstream. My eyes see. My ears hear. Living. Just barely. My body takes in air, so essentially, I’m breathing. Why does it feel like my chest has permanently caved in? Why do my hands and legs feel numb all the time? Why is my head foggy? All the functions of my body work, yet nothing works. Life goes on. The sun rises and sets. Time passes. Why can’t I follow where he went?
Why do I think this way? Would he want me to think this way? No. I know the answer to that one question. The only thing Ryan would have wanted was for me to be happy. He would have told me to live. Go on with life. Be happy. But he didn’t get that chance. We didn’t get to talk about any of this before it happened. I know—knew—him. I know his mind; he knew mine. “Live. Be happy.” It would have been a very serious face he gave me when he meant what he was saying. I could almost visualize the small half-grin he would give after being so serious. He would wait for that recognition in my face that let him know I took his point to heart, then would come that half-grin. Yes. There it is. If I close my eyes, I can see it. I can see his face.
God, I don’t know what I’ll do if there comes a time when I can’t see that face. When I close my eyes and dig deep, I can see that smile and hear that laugh. He is alive. He is alive and holding me in a warm embrace. What happens to me when I can’t feel his arms around me anymore? I shiver as tears begin rolling down my cheeks.
I sigh. I don’t want to look away from him. If I open my eyes to look at my sister, he’ll fade away.
“Rhae. Honey. Take this.”
Damn. I’m going to have open my eyes. It is real. I’m really sitting in this room. Slowly, I look up at my sister. The long, black, curls of her hair are tickling my nose. Why is she so close?
“Do you need a pill? I can get you a shot of something in this tea. Whatever you want, just tell me.”
I chuckle. It feels wrong but necessary. People stare at me. This is how we always get through tough times. Every funeral or family reunion, we had Percocet, Xanax and/or whiskey or vodka. We were always such a mess when it came to emotional dealings. Of course she would be here for this time in my life. Holding me up and taping me together with pills and liquor. Honestly, it was all I wanted. Numb. I needed to be numb.
“Hey. Thanks. Yes. Put something in my tea, and bring me whatever you have in your purse.” I try to give a smile of gratitude. I’m not sure it comes across that way. It just feels awkward.
She always had a good hookup. Jess worked at the local casinos. Either serving or tending bar. She loves it. She is an amazing server. All the other bartenders and dealers had the hookups on pills. Whatever you needed, they could get it. I’m not sure if they needed it to get through all the crazy hours they worked or to relax at the end of their shifts. I’m pretty sure that doctor they dragged me to see a few days ago gave her a stash of something to keep me even.
She leaves me holding the tea and then goes to get her purse. Relatives stopping her on the way. They look from her to me and back. She shakes her head and keeps moving. Whatever she said to them, makes their expressions change and they stare with such sadness before moving back to their personal discussions. I hate it. Why do they have to show so much pity? Fake bitches. I can smell the fake a mile away. I hate these things. This was no ordinary gathering, though. No. It is a visitation for my dead husband’s funeral. Five years of marriage. Gone.
Someone calls my name, and I turn to see a coworker slowly approaching. I hate her. Rage and panic start to swell in my gut. Why is she here? I need to get out of here. My breathing quickens. She raises her arms to hug me. I don’t know what else to do. I drop the tea cup and run. I push through the crowd, knocking into old people—I have no idea who. I just run. Bursting through the doors at the back of the funeral home, I skid to a stop in the late afternoon sun. I have to cover my eyes. It has been so long since I saw daylight that it hurts. I feel the tears again. They are hot lava running down my face and dripping cold on my chest. Maybe there’s snot mixed in. I can’t tell. I stand there, sucking air into my mouth, to make it stop. I hate crying. I hate how this is making me feel. I want to be numb or dead. Either would suit me fine. I have no idea where I’m going. I just can’t go back in there.
“Rhae, honey! Come here.” Jess is grabbing at me. She hugs me, and I feel my knees buckle. I collapse to the ground and damn if that doesn’t hurt. My knees grind into the concrete. Probably tore my hose. Probably cut my knees. I’m always graceful like that. Why did I wear a dress and hose? I shake my head and chuckle. Poor Jess is on the ground with me. I can be such an ox sometimes.
Jess holds me back from her, “Don’t be sorry. Here, put this in your mouth. Drink this. Swallow.” She orders me, and I respond like a robot or a small child. I don’t ask questions. I just take what she hands me. All the while laughing like I have lost my mind. I collapse in her arms again. This is good. I think I’ll just stay here a while. I try to rest my head against her chest for a few minutes when I hear more some shuffling, doors opening and closing.
“You got her, baby?” My dad comes out looking for us.
“Yeah, Dad. I got her.”
“Take her home. I’ll handle the rest of the visitation. Get her to bed. She can’t take this.”
Did his voice crack? My dad is breaking down, too. God, why couldn’t I be strong through this for him? It hasn’t been that long since Mama passed. I guess about four years. He had been strong through that. I didn’t see him cry. He never lost his composure. He certainly never freaked out and ran away. Even in this moment, he does an amazing job of living since she died. It hasn’t occurred to me, until now, that Dad had been close to Ryan. My poor father had three girls. No sons. His first “son” was Ryan. Dad would call Ryan when he had technology questions, including how to use his cell phone. They spent a lot of time together doing what men do in work sheds. I always thought it was mostly drinking beer and trash talking about the women in our family. We are a hard-headed bunch. Demanding and particular, we could drive people insane, quickly. I laugh just thinking about it.
I hear Jess whisper something to her husband, who I hadn’t realized was standing there. Then he’s gone. That man is stealthy! I would have to remember to ask Jess about it one day. She and Dad finish talking. The desire to curl into a ball and lay on the concrete for a while is all consuming. Everything feels cold despite the heat. July in Mississippi is ridiculous. It’s hot in the shade. It’s hot sitting in a pool of ice. I have seen people stand in the heat long enough to start melting the soles of their shoes. Clichés about cooking eggs on pavement come to mind. Hell, today we could throw down some bacon and get a sizzle.
My thoughts are fuzzy, and I realize that whatever Jess had given to me is starting to take effect. I want to get up and hug my dad for being so strong for me when Mom died and even stronger now that I’m a…what am I? A widow? The opportunity passes while I’m lost in my thoughts. I look around and see dad walking back inside anyway. I haven’t embarrassed him. That feeling doesn’t last long. Definitely that pill working. I have no idea what Jess gave me, but it is lovely. Numbness is slowly creeping through my body. I sigh, hoping to relax long enough to let it.
“Bitch! Get off the damn ground! Your knees are bleeding through your hose. Get the fuck up.”
I snap my eyes open. Who? Dammit, Elizabeth made it. God love her. I start laughing.
“Guess, I am a mess. When did you get here?” She shakes her head and helps me get on my feet.
“In plenty of time to see you bust up out of that sad-as-hell room. Let’s get you home. Let’s get you drunk. I’ll crawl in the bed and cuddle you if you need it.”
“I need it.” Before I know it, my knees are buckling again.
“Oh, bitch! No, you don’t. I can’t hold your ass up. Walk. Move one foot then the other. We’re leaving.” Jess and Liz are laughing together. Sometimes I guess laughing is all you have left. It feels better to be laughing.
At that moment, my brother-in-law pulls up. He comes around the front of the truck to help Jess and Liz. Jess moves out of the way, passing me to Connor. He helps me into his jacked, redneck truck. Connor is such a good guy. He and Ryan were as close as brothers. They had jacked up Ryan’s Jeep Wrangler together last summer. Ryan didn’t know much about cars. Okay, so he knew nothing about cars. Connor taught him everything. It’s the biggest reason I can’t look at Connor right now. If I do, I will see the pain he feels from losing his friend. I lost more but seeing that pain in others isn’t something I can handle.
“Rhae! Help us get your big ass in the truck!” Liz is fussing. I’m wrapped up in my head again and frozen my progress as I focus on not looking at Connor’s face. He has the truck running and the air conditioning going for me. Probably so my ass wouldn’t stick to the vinyl seats. Gross Mississippi heat. I start moving again. My knees hurt like hell. I guess I really did land on them bad when I ran away from the funeral home.
Jess climbs in behind me. Liz and Jess talk for a minute, and then we’re off. I fade in and out of consciousness as we drive. Jess is rubbing my arms and squeezing me every time I make any kind of noise. The ride is smooth except on the highway. Geez, we have potholes that can swallow a Volkswagen. Still, the rhythm of the ride lets me rest in my numb state just a little while longer.
Sometime after we get to Jess’s house, I’m led to a bed and left alone for a few minutes. I crawl to the middle and sit staring blankly at the wall. I’m thankful they didn’t take me back to our house. The thought of being in the bedroom I had shared with my husband isn’t appealing. Although, the more I think about it, I can almost smell our sheets. I can almost hear his snoring. That man could snore. Tornados did less damage to windows than his snoring. Closing my eyes, I’m lost in memories of watching him sleep. I chuckle out loud as Jess and Liz come back through the door.
They exchange a look with each other and then side-eye me. “Okay, what is it? What were you thinking about?” Liz asks. I start to answer but my laughs turn to sobs. They both sit on the bed with me, trying to hold me, stroking my hair and wiping tears from my face. I push them back.
“Stop. Please. Just stop.” I nearly scream at them.
“Right. Here. Drink this.” Jess is pushing more booze.
I take the glass gratefully and gulp down whatever she handed me. It burns my throat, and I have to hold my breath to swallow it all. “More.”
Jess nods and leaves to get me more liquor. When she returns, I decide to sip this glass. She and Liz start to banter back and forth. I really don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation, so I just listen and sip. Liz is older than us by about five or six years. I can’t remember what our actual age difference is. I do remember when we lived across the street from her. She was our babysitter. My mom worked nights, my dad worked all the time, and her mom didn’t work. She was a teenager while we were still in elementary school. I always smile like a goof when I think back to those days.
We were such little dorks. We did everything she said. She was the coolest thing ever. We count her as one of the sisters. My parents had so many more daughters than they knew about. We adopted anyone that stuck around and showed any hint of loyalty. I actually have two real sisters, but I hadn’t lasted at the visitation long enough to see if Marie had shown up. We haven’t spoken in about a year since she got remarried. That situation is also upsetting, and I can’t think about it right now.
I shake my head and laugh. “Bitch!” I look between Jess and Liz. They are looking at me like I have lost my mind. Again. I laugh, “Sorry. I was just thinking about Marie and all that bullshit.”
The girls keep feeding me drinks until I don’t have taste buds left. My throat is scorched from all the liquor. I just drink whatever they hand me.
“You numb yet?” Jess asks.
“Pretty sure I can’t feel my nose, teeth or lips anymore.” My voice sounds foreign and slurry.
Liz laughs. “Great. Now it’s time for ‘deal with this shit’ therapy.”
I groan, “Do I have to? Can’t I just enjoy being numb?”
Jess shoots her a look. “Yes. We have enough chemical support to get you to a happy place. A place in your little mind where you can deal with all the fake, crying, hugging bitches at the funeral tomorrow.” Jess is a mind reader. She knows exactly what I think about people at funerals. Sure, they are friends, family and coworkers, but I despise the way people change and act at funerals.
“Where do we start?”
“Music.” God love Jess. She always knows what I need. She turns on the iPod and I freeze up.
“What the hell, Jess!” Country music is pouring around the room. She and Liz jump up and start spinning each other. I have no idea if this is the schottische or the freaking “Cotton-eyed Joe.” Mississippi’s best rednecks probably couldn’t tell. These two are probably as numb as I am at this point. Somewhere in the back of my mind I hope Connor is downstairs, sober. These sweet idiots don’t need to drive or be near an open flame. Plus, my niece, Jillian, doesn’t need to see any of this. I hope some family member is watching her, but I have no idea where all the kids ended up. This is always my role. I’m the overly responsible adult in this group. I have looked after these two on more than one occasion when porch perchin’ had turned to porch dancin’ or a late-night run to Sonic.
Somehow, I can’t help myself. I start laughing so hard there are tears rolling down my face. Surely, I’m going to run out of tears soon. Just run dry already. Damn it. It’s about that time Jess hits the floor. She can’t spin herself or stand any longer. Connor bursts in to see what’s wrong. Just the look on his face is priceless. He helps Jess off the floor, then sits down by me on the bed and starts laughing at his drunk wife. I hear more than a few “yee haws” and “woo hoos.” For a while, I don’t think about Ryan. I don’t think about my responsibilities. I can’t think about what comes next. I just want to forget for a while.
“For crying out loud! What the hell are you doing to her?” Jess stops mid-spin and starts laughing.
Another one of our adopted sisters, Red, has arrived. Red is really Amber. We have called her Red for forever on account of that hair. She keeps it short. Almost pixie-like. I have known Red since I was thirteen years old. She is my rock when Jess and Liz got into this country shit. I’m such a rock girl. Red is only slightly older than me. She took me under her wing and taught me what great music there was in the 80s. I mean, Red gave me The Smiths, Elvis Costello, The Cure—the good stuff. My parents raised me on the 60s’ greatest hits.
Later Red and I would discover 90s’ alternative rock together. She always got a kick out of Ryan and I, too. She enjoyed that he had introduced me to 70s’ classic rock, and progressive rock from every generation. I never heard Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin before Ryan. Then there was Rush; his absolute favorite band. He was a guitarist and loved every technical aspect of playing progressive rock. He was so good at it too. He had magical fingers. I sigh. Before I can start feeling anything again, I turn my attention to the sisters.
“Country’s greatest, Jess? Really? As if she isn’t going through enough, you torture her with this shit.” Red is displaying faux frustration with her hands on her hips and fighting a smile.
Jess can only laugh. Liz and Jess are three sheets to the wind. They are beyond caring what Red’s saying.
They all continued to trash-talk each other for a long time. I suspect that some of it is forced for my benefit. The longer they can keep me numb and distracted the better, and they know it. Surrounded by their laughter and shitty banter, I lay back on the bed and fall asleep.