They were back in the trees, and this time, he did not care. He had seen them over the course of five summers and still knew very little about what they were, why they gathered among those leaves, and why he was so fascinated with them. Every spring and summer, they were there. They never went away. They were a certainty. It was a pleasant thought that day.
It was too hot for the suit, he thought, but he knew why he had to wear it. He grabbed at the black tie and loosened it a bit. The jacket was already on the picnic table and he felt a little better without all that dark clothing on his back. And the insects were not going to bother him, not today.
The insects were brown, small as pebbles on a beach and had backs that would split open to reveal very slight wings that gave them the chance to hover around the trees and fly from leaf to leaf. They were in both the front and back yards and he found them interesting. He tried to show them to the family, but no one really cared about them. Some of them, including his mother, never even saw them. The branches in the front were high, but you could still see them among the almond-shaped leaves that gave them very little cover. Those bodies dived, swooped, flit across his vision and stayed close to those hard grey trunks.
And what were they called? He never bothered to check in the school library to see if there were any books about insects that could teach him about something interesting. No teacher wanted to talk about bugs at school. But he was allowed to look through the books. His mother allowed him to go to the city library, but he never bothered to find out more about them. The key she made for him was in his pocket now, tied up with a shoestring and in his front pocket. When they all came home, he could have put it on the hook by the front door, but he decided to keep it. He was not sure why. He just felt that he needed to hold it.
Yes, those bugs… It was very strange to think about them now. He heard more cars moving in and out of the driveway and there were voices moving up the front steps and through the floors of their home. The backyard was a clear space; a very safe space. There were no distractions here, no one to ask if he was okay, no one to tell him how “he was such a good man,” no one to grab him and give him another exhausting hug. He leaned back on the picnic table and felt some of the dry and flaking paint and wood on the back of his dress shirt. His mother was the reason why he kept these clothes on. She told him that he would have to wait before changing into shorts. “How would it look, after the service, if he was running around in his play clothes on with all the others still in the house? How would it look if they saw him like that? What would they think?” Her hands held his cheeks for a moment and her face was damp with old tears. She turned and he quickly and quietly stepped outside, walked along the outdoor path to the back and kept the jacket nearby as the insects flew about quietly. He would only have to obey for the rest of the day.
Those others… Those voices were family, or the people he always called family. They were always at picnics, dinners, house parties, get-togethers when they were all still living in the same set of apartments in the downtown core. It was easier and more polite to just call them relatives. They were “uncles” who picked him up as a child and hugged him until their beards scratched his face were there (there were also the first sour tastes of beer at their hands); “aunts” who baked endless cakes, cooked numerous dishes in foil-wrapped casseroles, had loud greetings for him and anyone else who arrived at their homes; “cousins” who would crowd living rooms watching sports, music videos, cartoons, or playing videogames as they gossiped and laughed too loudly. They were all here after another long day that no one really wanted to talk about, especially when he was in the room. It was all about the priest and the ceremony (didn’t he do such a good job? He did get it right, didn’t he? Such a good speaker and it is always nice to get together at a church). That was his home. That was his family.
And that was a voice he recognized. It was Theresa, an older cousin. She was standing at the gate to the side path.
“Hey.” He stretched and stood up. She was much taller than him – he remembered the sports trophies in her room (basketball and volleyball) – and had gloves on which matched with her dress. It made her look even older, more mature (how many years was that, anyway?)
She walked over and looked him over.
“You want to talk?”
“No. And don’t sit there. The wood’s’ll give you splinters.”
She smiled. “Thanks.” She kept looking at him. Light sparkled on some pattern he hadn’t noticed on her dress. “Everyone’s looking for you.”
“You should say hi.”
“They saw me. The whole church did, remember?” He sat down and she risked the splinters to join him.
“We are all sorry about this. He was a great guy.”
He said nothing.
“And we all miss him.”
He heard a TV changing channels.
Again, the light was reflecting off her dress in a very odd way. She stood up and held out a gloved hand.
“So, come on. Let’s see what there is to eat.”
She really could read him in that moment. They both stood up and he could feel her strength and toughness in that grip. It was a very real embrace.
But there was something else he had to do.
She looked back at him. “What?”
The clouds were growing overhead, but there was still enough to point out his long-time friends.
“I want to show you this.”
He pulled her closer to the tree, noticing her hesitation. Now, he was smiling.
And he felt her pull back.
“No, don’t worry. They don’t bite.”
She froze and stared hard at the small cloud of insects in front of them.
“What are they?”
“I really don’t know. They’re around the tree in the front yard, too, when you look.”
He looked back at her and noticed that her right hand was up. She either wanted to touch them or hit them.
“Every day, they’re here. Maybe I should go to the library and find out…”
“They are so slow.”
Theresa walked closer to the tree. The insects were barely touching the lower branches, but she could reach up and almost touch them. She was going to stretch her arm and let her hand guide her.
“You are sure that they don’t bite?”
“No marks on me yet, and I see them almost every day. Five years and I am still fine.”
She stared hard up into the branches.
“Yeah, in the summer. I guess they really like the heat when it’s on.”
She put her arm down and smiled at him.
“Guess that we shouldn’t bother them.”
He noticed how her eyebrows arched, how her top teeth glittered over her bottom lip. She was older than him and he had never noticed this about her.
“Come on. Let’s go in.”
They did not hold hands. She walked back and he turned to follow her. If he had been holding her hand, he would have missed the dark and heavy insect that had landed on the back of her head. In her dark hair, it looked like a brooch or hair piece, dark and set there on purpose. She stopped at the gate and stared back at him.
“Yeah, yeah, just…”
He ran up to her, noting that the bug was startled by the quick turn of her head and felt compelled to leave and return to the same company of the tree behind them, still clouded with their mix of bodies. He did not need to look back.