The thanks go by like pollen on a breeze, acknowledge only by a few whom, like allergy sufferers, are reflexively responsive. The remainder mull about, secretly wondering when manners will allow them their exodus to less selfless circumstances. Obliging disquiet flits through the room, grazing shoulders in haste as it searches for a candidate to shout “Goose!” at. The most probable nominee is Peter’s Aunt Hildy. With a lacquered surface, all gleaming black from pillbox hat to orthopedic shoes, she seems ready to rain tears and shatter eardrums if the opportunity presents itself. I suspect all she needs do is see me to let loose the floodgate.
I sidle back beyond the white beveled beam of the doorjamb. In a corner Gladys is fighting against rage and her four-year old mewling boy whose only awareness revolves around the procurement of sugar-laden goodies from the tauntingly overburdened table in the dining room. A sigh trembles from my chest as I commiserate with his honest, simple longing. I wish I could fill a plate and put it in his chubby hands.
Instead, I retreat further, turn a corner in to another room, seeking space. Contrary to accepted practice, a house full of people is no refuge for the mourning. Noise seems just to amplify the loss of the one person with whom you found peace; bodies standing stiff as corpses in solidarity reminding you that you stand alone.
Suffocating, stifled, I think “A breath of air,” and wander slyly out back to the kitchen, speculating that the door there may be unguarded. No such luck. Jon stands sentry, or seems to, though his hands are immersed in the flow from the tap and the rush of water should deafen his ears. Still he heeds, senses and pivots on loafered heels toward my hunch-backed cowardice.
His relaxed posture intimidates me, butt up against the counter edge, clammy hands wringing dry against a square of daisy-spotted cotton. A murmur of iron and soap tickles my nose hairs. We’ve never been close, this cousin and I, and now he means to be kind. I offer a short smile, chagrin tattooed on its surface.
“Need a break, huh?”
I nod slowly unwilling to speak, afraid to betray the gurgling lump clogging my airway. My eyesight trails along as he tosses the dishrag to the counter. Every small thing seems to captivate me today. My vision drifts back to find an opposite watchful gaze.
The withered skin on my lips is suddenly a treasure- a welcome distraction to grind between teeth, to chew and rip asunder the translucent flakes from the tender flesh below. I gnaw deliberately so as not to draw blood. More concern I don’t need.
Across the way, Jon shoves his hands in his pockets as though intent to ride out the duration of my silent stay, as though he intends to speak his mind. Desperate to convey that nothing needs to be said, I move toward him, put my hand out to pull open the cabinet nearest his head to retrieve a glass. I feel my muscles, my tendons, my skin tense so close to the warmth of another body whose focus is so deliberately upon me. With a blank mind I regulate my breathing, fill the glass with water and drink.
Jon shifts very little, his brown gaze shadowing my gestures. Out the window a lean Manx cat, the neighborhood scavenger stalks through the overgrown yellow lawn. I imagine I can feel the crunchy wheaten shafts cracking underfoot, scratching my legs. Casually I itch at the area behind my ear.
It’s only moments, a handful of seconds for all of this, but it feels like it drags on. I don’t know what to do to break the onslaught of dawdling time. Behind us at the passage to the dining room, a creak and the nervous clearing of a throat. “Jon. Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting, Sara. Um, Jon, I could use some help with the cooler. Its leaking all over the porch.”
“Marjorie, there are at least half a dozen people out there you could ask to help, so why don’t you go back out there and do that?” I can feel Jon’s head jut significantly in my direction. I look over in time to see Marjorie’s face disappear with an huffy frown.
"You shouldn't speak to her I like that," I remonstrate.
“She’s forever butting in.”
My chin dips to my collarbone and I set the glass in the sink. "That’s what family is for, I guess. You’re standing around here waiting your chance to butt in, aren’t you?”
Jon grins smugly. "The circumstances are a little different. I thought you might want to talk to someone.”
“No, not really,” I answer as frostily as I can.
He propels himself out of his recline, but leans in at my shoulder. The tarry fumes of myriad burned out cigarettes linger on his moist breath. “You can’t shut out everyone.”
“I don’t have to let them all in, either,” I think. Outwardly I glare, daring him with arched brow to continue his sermon. Overawed, or more likely bored, Jon shuffles through the door without another word. I don’t know whether to spit or yell or take up the glass from the sink and throw it at the wall. I clench my jaw and suck in at my teeth.
It’s then that the tears seem most imminent, burning to spill and expose the deep lamentations echoing in the hole of my heart. All day the numb ache has been disguising the seeping memories but the hurt has grown so vast as to burst my chest. Like a novice drunk I hunch over the sink, arms at prayer, shoulders convulsing, ready to spew forth whatever it takes to feel well again.
The counter’s edge bites in to my elbows. As I rock back and forth the burnished steel of the sink sends flashes of ice along my forearms when my skin meets its lip. I try and I try. I grant subconscious permission for the volcano to erupt, but all that comes is a drizzle from my eyes, a miniature river of snot from my flat short nose.
Throwing the glass would have been better, I convince myself. So that’s what I do. With all the ferocity, the bitter useless anger that I can muster I hurl the thing at the wall. There’s a loud bonk, a crash, a splintering sound like shivering bells.
Through the doors they all file in, exclaiming. Peter’s Aunt Hildy goes wild, releasing all the noises and floods that I cannot. Hands and arms fly to her form, to placate, to console. She is inconsolable. Disgusted, I simply shake my head.