On the Outside Looking In

 

Breathing in the strange, medicinal air, Jesse came pacing down the hall holding a stack of papers with a small map on them. Her hands were curling them with sweat. Being the younger of Mike’s two siblings, she still towered over me in her flat brown boots and too-short, pink dress, but the flowers on it looked like the ones that smelt like death in the foyer. I felt better about the length of my black one, though, which came almost an inch before my knees and I pulled it down self-consciously. Jesse’s blonde hair frizzed under the lights outside of the visitation room, and she smiled her usual awkward smile, braces making her mouth look bigger than it is. I tried to smile in return, but the thought of smiling in a funeral home stopped me in the middle and it came out a grimace.

She continued with her pacing, from the door of the bathroom to the far end of the hall. I stood stock still by the entrance, hands folded and nodding to people who passed by. Jesse’s spindly limbs moved uncomfortably. She avoided Nicole, her older sister, whose face was flushed and, depending on who she was talking to, eyes teary.

Mike walked down the hall toward me, hands grasped around an unused tissue, shoved into his hands by a worrying Nicole. I looked into his eyes covered by foggy glasses, and they looked back at me, blinking. I couldn’t read anything in his blank expression. I reached out to twist my fingers into his, squeeze, and he let go. I turned back to Jesse, stuffing the part of my hand that was tangled in Mike’s into my pocket and using the other to fix my hair.

We all stood outside the visitation room doors, stuck in this limbo of fear and denial. If we didn’t go in there, they wouldn’t see their grandfather lying in a casket, covered by flowers and pictures of him with his baby blue ‘66 Mustang.

My eyes trailed Jesse as she moved back and forth; closer now, and family members she wasn’t old enough to remember approached her with their grievances. An older woman curled her wrinkly fingers around Jesse’s youthful, 16 year old ones and I stared, zoning out on the linking of rugged, sun-stained wrinkles and chipped nail polish,

“How are you, my dear?” Her voice was calm and concerned, barely composed herself.

“I’ll live.” Jesse smiled wearily to the woman, but then her eyes widened and she turned to look at Mike and I over her shoulder, taking in the irony she just revealed to the woman. Turning back and nodding politely to the lady she didn’t remember, Jesse was released and she walked quickly over to where we were standing.

“Jeez, did you hear me?” She whispered vigorously to us, Mike laughing briefly and I stared at her, a brief, incredulous smile passing over my lips.

She restarted her pacing, this time behind the booth that held the guestbook.  Nicole walked down the hall with her boyfriend, whose name I could never remember. His suit was too big for his short frame and the shoulders stiffly stuck up over where his real ones were. He clung to Nicole, arm never leaving her back, as if to hold her up. He blended into the family seamlessly – never needing to pretend closeness, or play a part in this play of sadness.

Polite words weren’t really needed between us all; we considered ourselves a team against all the other family members — avoid Aunt Carol, she’s a crier. If you were to even look her in the eye, you’ll start crying, too, like Medusa. I stared at her, in the corner with her arms full of her daughter and her face crumpled in despair. It made me uncomfortable, and I couldn’t look away.

We all took turns signing the guestbook, and I wrote my name tiny next to Mike’s, feeling as if I didn’t belong; being a girlfriend of the family was like being on the outside looking in. Then one by one, they all decided to take the plunge and step into the visitation room. I looked back at Jesse, who stopped her pacing and looked after her family disappearing into the room, her faced flushed. Tears welled into her blue eyes, and for a second I pictured the mustang driving through them. Wetness trailed down her face and she looked at the doors, then at me, shaking her head,

“I can’t go in there.” I’ve never been good at comforting someone – I could never quite emit the right frequency for comfort. I nodded though, and told her that it was okay; she didn’t have to go in yet. I told her to pace some more, and she wiped the tears from her face and nodded quickly, and went off to it. The small pages with the maps on them were still in her hands, and I could see that they were for tomorrow’s lunch, after the funeral.

I watched as her boots scraped along the carpet, and I thought of the family I came from. I’m the expert funeral attendee here – and I ached to show I cared. This family had been in my life for a short time now, yet I still stood on the outside, looking in. Three sisters waited for me back home, but they were people I didn’t know further than sharing the same voice, ears. I stood there, just standing and watching her, occasionally giving the best, most encouraging smile I could muster. Jesse was the closest thing I could get myself to, but my jokes to her fell flat and her teenage hormones gave her voice bite some days.

Her face went to its normal paleness once more, and eventually she stopped her pacing and stood next to me,

“I think I’m ready to go in now.” She didn’t seem sure, still, but I couldn’t blame her. I stayed outside with her because I knew the panic she was feeling, and now I’ll have to also face the rest of the people in that room, too. My arms ached when we entered and at the far end of the room, her grandfather lay in a brown, intricate casket. His small glasses perched on the end of his too-big nose – the nose that was known throughout the family. Anyone who has that nose, you could be damn sure they were related somehow.

He was just as cute of an old man as he was the first and only time I met him, at a car show in a Canadian Tire parking lot. Now his skin was pale and dry, eyes closed in what looked like a soft sleep, and I couldn’t get within 10 feet of the mountains of flowers.

Jesse mingled, asking who that woman was, was that man the one who lived on the horse farm? She begged Nicole to introduce her, her love for horses over taking her sadness for her grandfather in that moment, and she forgot the casket in the room. She held the pamphlets for a while, but towards the end of the visitation I noticed them on a side table, lying forgotten.

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