I was underneath Someone when I got the call.
I was bored and not at all close to coming, but I continued to emit little noises as he dipped into me, like I were a literal sex machine, dropping moans and murmurs like breadcrumbs to find my way out. And not necessarily because I wanted to see who was calling me at midnight - though it was odd and I was curious - but because I was still slightly drunk and mostly tired and I just wanted to go home.
“Baby,” he breathed, quickening his tempo. I made a show of raking my nails down his back, biting a spot of flesh on his shoulder, as I envisioned my own bed.
A minute later, he was in the bathroom pissing.
Sometime in between the ceremonial flush and half-assed hand washing, I clawed through the dark to find my purse, illuminated again by another failed attempt to reach me. One missed call and one unread message, both from my sister Lauren. The message read, simply, Mom’s gone. Two syllables. I swallowed them like bullets.
Someone came out of the bathroom and found me, wet and crumpled, in a pile of his clothing.
“You okay?” he asked.
“My mom is dead.” I threw on the first things I could find - my heels, a pair of black sweatpants and a Cincinnati Bengals hoodie - and left without a word: the two syllables that broke my world turned into four, and given to a stranger. I had nothing left.
I walked until I couldn’t anymore, until the outermost reaches of night began to soften into dawn. I found a bench, slick with drizzle leftover from a spring storm, and sat down, dialed Lauren. She answered after one ring.
“Where are you?” she said, her voice abnormally small.
“Cleveland?” I said, though I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. Somewhere on the west side, maybe, based on the string of microbreweries and other trappings of gentrification.
She sighed into the phone. “Dad’s a wreck.”
Something acrid rose to my throat.
“When are you coming home?
“Soon.” I hung up and vomited, shivering sharply.
Twelve hours later, I was on a train to Omaha.
I didn’t alert anyone I was coming home until we glided into the terminal. I called my oldest sister Holly instead of Lauren, because she reminded me most of our mother.
An hour later, I was in Holly’s minivan. Her two young children were snug in car seats, reaching toward me with their sticky, juiced fingers, and Holly was as beautiful and tired as ever, the warm shadow of motherhood on her face. She handed me a coffee and asked me about my trip. I wanted only to tell her my train fantasy: that I had read an entire novel and fell in love with someone interesting somewhere between Chicago and Des Moines, but all I could muster was a flat Fine, subtext for I slept most of the way because I was incredibly hungover. I sipped the tinny, bitter liquid from the styrofoam cup - pure grace in this moment - and watched the landscape of my youth roll by: the boys, the barns, the mindless dissipation. It was no small relief that my nephew interrupted this course of thought with a delighted squeal, as it was only a matter of moments until I’d realize I was still that girl.
Just as we entered Lincoln city limits, Holly reached over and squeezed my hand.
“She went quickly,” she said.
I squeezed back, but the words sat like a stone in my belly, anchored by gravity. Holly said our mother had seemed fine, right as rain, the day she died. That morning she had met Holly and Anne, my younger sister, for breakfast, ordering her usual fruit cup and egg whites. She laughed and gossiped and tried to talk them both into donating to the church bake sale. Maybe even Lauren will volunteer!
“She had this light about her. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if she knew she was going.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You can’t know shit like that.”
A week later, on the train back to Cleveland, it dawned on me that it wasn’t Holly’s naïveté that angered me. No, it was the possibility that she was right, and instead of calling me, our mother was hustling for lemon squares and Scotcheroos.
Instead of biting back, Holly got silent. And ten minutes later, we were sitting outside our father’s house. My heart sank to my feet.
“I need a minute,” I said. She nodded and began unstrapping the twins. I kicked at the gravel, an act of regression. I smoked a cigarette and began the business of rehearsing every line in my head: I know it’s been a while since I’ve been home. I’m just really busy. I’m sorry. But you and Mom never came to see me in Ohio. Yes, I have put on some weight. No, I’m not seeing anyone. I’m sorry. I tossed the butt into the wet, cold grass and went inside.
My three brothers-in-law were in the dining room with my father. As I entered and set my bag on the kitchen counter, the four men paused, taking turns greeting me with varying levels of coolness.
My father was the most frigid.
Then, like some weird and unwelcome gift, Lauren blew into the kitchen. She clasped her weight around mine, a show for the boys.
“Jules!” she said. She stepped away, taking me in. “What’s with the getup?”
I looked down at my stolen hoodie and sweatpants. “Oh, this. Right.”
The rest of the evening went like that: someone asking a question or making a comment and me absorbing it like a tampon.
My father and I did not speak until the next morning.
He poured me a cup of coffee and, once he assumed enough time had passed, he gave me the opportunity to practice my lines. Afterward, he just gave a slight shake of the head. Then: “We have a lot to do today.”
My sisters and I piled into his car and, one by one, started crossing things off the list: meet with the minister, write the obituary, sort through photographs and paste them onto thick poster boards. And, oh, make sure the incompetents at the funeral home don’t screw up anything: marching orders from our father.
The next two days were a blur of my mother’s friends with their well-meaning casseroles and perfumed embraces. At night, I’d go to an old haunt downtown and sloppy-kiss the bartenders, former boyfriends, random men - people who didn’t care to know why I was there. At one point, I thought of Someone and wondered: not if he cared that two items of his clothing were missing, but simply if he thought about the woman who took them.
The actual funeral was both quick and slow, my sisters taking turns at the coffin, their bodies vibrating as they stuffed wet tissues in their husbands’ willing palms. I, the middle and hardest daughter, sat next to my father, whose head was bent in prayer for most of it. Part of me wanted to do one of three things: pretend to pray and hope to curry his approval for the briefest of moments; grab his hand (because this is just what people do, apparently); or hiss a snide remark about the way my mother was made up - all peach and plum and hairspray.
But I didn’t do any of these things.
I just wept, volume down so no one could hear me, face crumpled into my breasts this time.
The day before I left Nebraska to go back home, our father urged us to start going through Mom’s belongings.
“Are you sure, Dad? I mean, isn’t it a bit too soon to start erasing her from the house?” Anne’s tiny, poetic voice seemed to reverberate throughout the small space of the kitchen, filling any and all empty corners of our childhood home.
“Just take what you want. I have no use for it. But Jules - you can’t fit into your mother’s clothing.” And with that, he plodded out to the shed, and didn’t come out until it was time for me to make a feeble attempt to sleep before my five A.M. train. And even then, he had nothing to say except that he hoped I would find my way.
Whatever that meant.
Holly took me to the station that morning, along with a box of my old clothing and a few of our mother’s things - some old lipsticks, a few syrupy romance novels, and a journal she kept when she was pregnant with me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, breathing in Holly’s scent: milk and lilacs and love.
“Me too. Let me know when you get home, alright?”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what either of us was sorry for, but whatever it was, we seemed to understand.
As the train approached light, and then more light, I started to root through the box, figuring that there was no better time: there was no escape, so why not use the stretch from Des Moines to Cleveland to face your misery?
Underneath the band t-shirts - Green Day, Nirvana - and a series of too-small jeans was a knit sweater, donning a bejeweled bird. It still smelled of her - Chanel No. 5 - and was probably worn just last week, shortly before she died. One day that week I had called her, for no particular reason, other than it had been several weeks since we had last spoken. She talked about the birds - messengers of Spring, and how she had just purchased a new sweater for birdwatching.
“Your dad,” she'd laughed. “Well, you know how he is. But I think he likes it.”
I buried my face in it: her scent, the fabric, the memory of her voice. I went to the restroom and slipped it on underneath the Bengals hoodie; although snug, I felt like there could be no other way.
Maybe that’s what my father meant.
The next day, I went to the local thrift store and set the box down confidently. And instead of the hoodie, I wore my mother’s sweater.
The clerk took me in. “Your sweater. It’s tacky as hell. We’d love to have it.”
I smiled, smug, and turned on my heel.
Later, my mouth arched in prayer: “I could never outgrow you, Mom.”
Someone draped an arm around me and, for the first time, I felt her.