It is spring in Michigan. Darkness falls later and later every evening. The calendar reminds me there is an anniversary coming in four days. The anniversary of when X died. I don't remember the year. I could ask. But I can't say his name aloud. Besides, it always feels as if I just heard the news.
The church parking lot is full when my husband and I arrive for the funeral. It looks as if the whole town has shown up. My husband offers to drop me off at the door so I won't have to walk so far. I grab his hand. "Please don't leave me," I whisper.
The annex is jammed with family and friends. Their eyes look red, their faces pale. I give and receive hugs. "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it." These words are repeated again and again. People I've never seen cry are wiping damp eyes with the backs of their hands.
I notice the casket out of the corner of my eye. It's open and people are clustered around it. I know I have to see him for myself or I will never believe he is truly dead. For closure. But I'm not ready yet. To see him. So I am grateful when a school friend approaches for a hug. "He was such a good friend," she says. "I talked to him the day before. . . ." Her voice trails off. She coughs. "Is this your husband?" I say yes and introduce them. We talk about other classmates, whom we've seen lately and whom we haven't seen since graduation.
Once my friend moves on to talk with someone else, I notice the crowd around the casket has drifted away. It is time. It takes great effort to lift my feet to walk toward the casket. I feel my husband beside me, feel and hear the crushing buzz of the crowd around me. But I feel alone. My blood pulses in my ears and throat. I'm holding my breath. My insides are icy and trembling. I feel faint. But I make it to the side of the casket. I peer inside.
I will never forget that hot, hot day the summer before fifth grade. My parents were at the Fireman's Ball, an annual fundraiser for the local fire station. X was in charge of my brother, my sister and me. He wore a red Holton Red Devils T-shirt, our horned school mascot brandishing a pitchfork and leering on the chest. His running shorts were red with white piping, his tube socks white with two red stripes at the tops. He looked every bit the fresh-scrubbed young man everyone believed him to be. But I knew better.
The house had no air-conditioning. The coolest room was the basement. So that's where the four of us were. We played pool in teams. I knew I had to get away from X, knew that soon he would make an excuse for the two of us to be alone, and then it would begin. That's what he always did. I always tried to hide from him, to escape his unwanted attentions. I never succeeded, but I always tried.
He was busy helping my brother set up a shot. So I mumbled that I needed to use the bathroom and headed upstairs. There was a bathroom at the top of the stairs, and another on the next flight up. But I didn't stop at either of those floors. I kept going to the top floor of the house to the bathroom connected to my parents' room. I took care to lock my parents' door.
I brushed my hair. I brushed my teeth. I opened the sliding mirrored door of the medicine chest that held my mother's makeup. I opened the tubes of lipstick, the compacts of pressed powder. I stared and stared at my reflection in the mirror above the sink, trying to see what other people saw in me, what X saw. All I saw was my own face. The too-large brown plastic glasses that always, always slid down my nose. The crooked teeth. The craters formed on my eyebrow and cheeks by kindergarten chicken pox. I saw me in my favorite pink tank top that tied at the shoulders. Flowers embroidered just below the neckline. What did X see that made him want to do the things he did?
Footsteps on the stairs. A knock at the bathroom door. X's voice: "Let me in." I freeze.
He knocks again, but when I don't speak and don't open the door, the footsteps retreat down the stairs. He is going to the kitchen for a toothpick. He will press the toothpick into the lock until it pops free. And then he will close the door behind him and lock it once again.