Janine examined her reflection in the full-length mirror. Nordstrom's was having a holiday sale, so this was the perfect time to buy a dress for the funeral, that is if she was still going. Her friend Ava crunched loudly on cheese crackers as she sat on the bench in the changing room. She nodded her approval. “That’s it right there! That outfit is killer.” It was a poor choice of words and Ava realized it as soon as she said them. “Oops, my bad. It is an ‘exquisite ensemble.’ ” Ava laughed loudly at her own joke, that mimicked Janine’s mother’s uppity nature. “I don’t even know why you’re going to this J. I couldn’t do it.”
Janine shook her head as she turned to check out the back of the simple black dress that fell to her knees. Maybe this one is too revealing, she thought. She absentmindedly answered Ava without turning her head, but watched her in the mirror as she smoothed the satin fabric. “I never said I was going.” Ava wiped her cheese fingers on her jeans and stood. “Yea that’s why we’re here right, in the fancy gown section while you spend half your check on this dress. Your cousin talked you into it I bet.”
That was half true. Ron did try to convince her to come to the funeral. Grandpa Mike had lived to 99 and he had been the kindest older member of their insane family. He never judged Janine and aside from Ron, he was the only family she was allowed to visit. But the others? Her parents, her aunts, and uncles, they were all trash. They’d shunned her, treated her like she never mattered, had proven that they hadn't the first clue about what family was supposed to mean. She had been done with them for years until she got the one call that made her question if she would break her own rule of never seeing them again.
Janine worked as a design assistant for a fashion magazine downtown and had three lights blinking on her phone while they discussed the fall line. There were samples all over her desk while several others worked in a frenzy near her. But the receptionist came through the intercom and urgently said she should pick up line 1.
She hadn’t spoken to her mother in three years but there she was on the other end of the line, sounding angry and sad at the same time. “Hi. So…your, um, grandfather is dead.” Silence. Then her mother hung up before Janine could ask questions. Her heart dropped out of her chest as tears stung her eyes. She immediately called her cousin Ron, and he filled her in.
Grandpa had been healthy one minute, then a bad cold turned into pneumonia and then there was no turning back at his age. “Look,” Ron was saying a few hours later when they’d met up for coffee. “I know you’re done with Aunt Gigi and Uncle Nick, but Grandpa? He was awesome to you with everything. He’d tell you to tell them to fuck off and show your proud ass off at his funeral.” Grandpa Mike would have used those words in that exact way too. Janine hadn’t promised she’d go but then as Ava had mentioned, there she was, picking out a black dress for the funeral she was ‘probably not’ going to attend.
But they both knew she wouldn’t walk out with that dress as much as Janine wanted to purchase it and wear it to piss everyone off. Just then a woman and her daughter walked into the dressing room carrying an armful of clothing. She saw her and Ava and stopped in her tracks, her daughter bumping right into her. Janine plastered a fake pleasant smile on her face, but Ava glared at her, ready to tell her just where she could go. The woman whispered to her daughter and her daughter walked out, looking back confused.
“Oh, so is there a problem here?” Ava asked, her anger level rising before their very eyes. The woman flipped her hair in annoyance and smacked her teeth in disgust and rushed out as if being chased, dropping several dresses on the floor.
Ava turned to Janine and grabbed at her earrings. “Hell nah, I’m about to beat that bitch.” Janine grabbed her arm, “No you’re not, let’s just go before they make us leave against our will. I have no energy for this shit today. I’m not getting the dress anyway.” Ava shook her head. “Come on girl, just show up in the dress, and drive them all nuts, maybe your dad will drop dead too.” Janine rolled her eyes and shook her head as she entered the private room to change back into her jeans and t-shirt. “This funeral isn’t about me, it’s about Grandpa and you know he was kind to me.”
Ava rolled her eyes but then shrugged. “I guess you’re right, he was to me too that time we met. But what a disaster the rest of that family reunion turned out to be. I don't even know why you went.” Janine emerged holding the dress in her arm and draping her purse over the other. “Yea, that was the last chance I gave any of them.”
As they were leaving the dressing room, they saw that woman from earlier approaching with a security guard. She was waving excitedly, pointing at them. Ava took a few steps toward the woman, but Janine grabbed her arm hard whispering harshly into her ear. “No, not today, let it go.” Ava turned her back and stomped toward the escalator. “You know, we have every right to be here, there’s even a sign…” Janine sighed, “I know, and I bet the security guard is putting her right in her place but come on anyway. We already know I won’t find what I need to wear in this section.”
Ava let out a frustrated sigh. “You know you need to be yourself always, even in front of the vultures of your family.”
Ava was right. But Janine knew her mere presence would cause a disturbance and she didn’t want to add to it. But she took one look at the clothing on the ground level and shook her head before she even began her search. A familiar lump rose in her throat, and her heart began to race so hard that she could hear it pumping in her ears. She suddenly felt like she had just fallen into a trap door that led straight into her horrible past.
Janine rushed out with a startled Ava trailing behind her. Once they reached the street, and descended the subway steps she said, “I’ll find something that’ll work in my closet, but I can’t... I just won’t.” Ava linked arms with her. “Damn right you won’t.”
Two days later Janine exited the cab that had taken her to the funeral home. She had just ignored several texts from her boyfriend Paul. He wanted to go with her because he knew how much her grandfather meant to her and he didn’t want her to face her family alone. But Janine refused; she knew she was forced to make that choice, but she just didn’t want to cause any trouble. She hoped that he would understand but he was angry that she was letting her family govern her life yet again.
She looked up at the large doors of Ridgewood Funeral Home and through the glass doors she saw a vague image of her parents, her little sister and some other family. She didn’t want to face any of them, plus she didn’t even want to imagine what her grandfather’s body looked like in that casket. She was a mixture of emotions, with her grief and the accompanying fears.
When she was a teenager, he was the only one that sat with her, listened to her, gave her a much-needed shoulder to cry on. He was amazing and she couldn’t believe that he was just gone. Where would all that love go?
Janine reached forward to open the door because she knew it was now or never. But the familiar feeling was back in her throat again and no matter how much she swallowed it away it kept returning, like the ghost of who she used to be reminding her that she was making a huge mistake. She had even talked about this with her therapist, and he said, “You need to do what is right for you. You can pay your respects in your heart, or at the cemetery when everyone is gone.”
She knew that Dr. Davis was trying to help her, but she also knew he was only saying those things because she had expressed her intense fears of being surrounded by her family and he was just giving her options. But no, she deserved to be here just like anyone else.
She opened the door and silence fell over the lobby of the funeral home. Her father immediately straightened his tie and walked away. Her mother looked at her for a few moments but dutifully followed him. Her little sister Camille waved with a little smile, but she didn’t say anything either. Janine knew Camille was under their control, but it didn’t stop her from sending her little sister the occasional Facebook message and it also didn’t stop Camille from lying about cheerleading practice to have a quick secret coffee visit with Janine every other Thursday.
Janine’s cousin Ron approached her giving her a big bear hug. “I could never do what you’re doing, but I’m so glad you’re here.” Janine was glad to at least have Ron on her side. She took a breath and walked through the crowd into the small room where her grandfather lay. Someone had made poster boards with a collage of photos of the family and a small record player softly played Miles Davis, her grandfather’s favorite musician. She caught sight of the casket from the corner of her eye but couldn’t make herself look directly at it right away. She knew there were beautiful flowers all around including the ones from her and Paul, even though, if her parents had anything to do with it, that particular arrangement would probably be hidden in the corner somewhere.
She looked through all the photos and smiled at her grandfather’s beaming face, long white beard, and big arms as he cradled his young grandchildren. There were many pictures of him through the years, and all the children and grandchildren surrounded him. They looked happy, like the perfect family. But Janine took a closer look at the photos she was in, back when she secretly hated all parts of herself. Did I always look so sad?
Just then, her father appeared next to her. His commanding and disapproving presence made the hairs on her neck stand.
Janine took a steady, slow breath, knowing that her father knew quite well that she never responded to that name. But at that moment she chose to answer. “Hello Dad.”
Her father shifted, visibly uncomfortable to be standing next to her. He gruffly whispered and Janine knew it was because her father didn’t want anyone to even notice he was talking to her. “Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “I should at least thank you for not disgracing my family by showing up in a dress or some skimpy skirt. It’s not a suit but it is sure is better than that nonsense you usually wear.”
Janine suddenly felt dizzy. All she wanted to do was turn and punch him in the face. She wanted to drag her grandfather’s body out of the coffin and breathe life back into him and replace the body with her father’s. She would throw her mother in there too and anyone else who had a negative thing to say about her. The lump in her throat grew as her anger did; her blood boiled despite trying to stay calm. Janine felt like one of those cartoon characters, whose anger mimicked a thermometer, and she was just about to burst red blood anger over the entire funeral and drown them all, hopefully choking to death on her revenge filled blood.
A flash of memories ran through Janine’s mind just then, her as a child, when she was back in the wrong body, trying on her mother’s clothes and getting caught and punished. Or when she knew that she liked boys and the slap on the mouth she received from daring to utter aloud her truth.
She remembered the Bible being tossed at her and being forced to read passages that supposedly denounced homosexuality and listen to her parents skewed interpretations. She remembered their failed attempt at sending her to a horrible conversion camp which led to her eventual escape with her new friend Ava. They both bonded over having no family and learning to love themselves for who God had intended them to be from the very beginning. They became emancipated minors and were roommates for years while they finished school and found jobs.
Janine had been scarred severely with how her parents treated her coming out both times, first as gay, and then as trans. It was the trans revelation that prompted the conversion camp. Janine felt lost and alone and so betrayed. But her grandfather would call her and send her money and be an ear whenever she needed it. He had no control over how his daughter and son-in-law dealt with Janine so he was there for her however he could be.
She wanted to move in with him, but they didn’t allow minors at the retirement community where he lived. But visiting him and having him in her life gave her the fuel to continue moving on. Ron and some of the other cousins were cool; they were of the same age and understood better about accepting people as they are more than all their parents did. Ron was the only one that against his parents’ wishes publicly let everyone know that he was on Janine's side, especially by calling her Janine whenever he spoke of her which enraged the family. But even though Ron and some of the other cousins were on her side, the family didn’t disown them, but her? It was like she didn’t exist and never had. As angry as she was there were those times that it still really hurt.
She took the highroad and walked away from her father. She approached the casket and knelt before it. She said a prayer, placing her hand over her grandfather’s hand. His beard didn’t glisten like it usually did and he looked a little different without his glasses. But he was still the same, even had a little smirk on his face. She would really miss Grandpa Mike. She cried quietly vowing to cherish all their memories but she didn’t stay long.
Janine walked past her parents and the watchful eyes of everyone else. They were to all reconvene at the cemetery within the hour.
But Janine had something to do first.
She called her boyfriend Paul and spoke to him for a couple of minutes and then, before hailing a cab to take her to the cemetery she ran down the street with one destination in mind. As she ran, she let down her hair and peeled away the blazer that was suffocating her and wished she could rip off the slacks as well and stand there naked on the street, purely Janine.
She stopped running and looked up into welcoming doors of Ridgewood Clothing Depot. She walked in, her anger fading, and Janine was determined that from that moment forward she would always be her authentic self no matter what, no matter who stood in her way.
A little over an hour later, the cab pulled up the gravel driveway to the section of the cemetery where her grandfather would be laid to rest. She looked out the window and saw her parents walking hand-in-hand, and the rest of the family surrounding the casket that was about to be lowered. The priest approached ready to speak. She paid the cab driver and emerged, her black suede pumps hitting the gravel with a determined crunch. She tossed back her hair and adjusted her knee length black dress. She touched up her lip gloss and by the minute was feeling like herself again.
A couple of people in her family noticed her approaching and whispered frantically to each other. Just then another cab pulled up and there was her Paul. His dark hair was swept over his eyes and he held a single yellow rose. He handed it to her and took hold of her hand.
“What’s this for?” she asked, his presence and support easing what was left of her fears. He whispered in her ear. “Consider it a reward for bravery.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “Are you ready?” She nodded; she was ready for anything.
Unfortunately, her family would never accept her for who she was, but they also no longer had the power to keep her true identity silent. They sure as hell would not prevent her from saying goodbye to her grandfather either as herself, holding hands with a man who loved her.
Her grandfather may have been the first person who loved her unconditionally for who she was on the inside as well as out, but she learned as she continued to live authentically, that he wouldn’t be the last. She also learned that ultimately the only person’s love and approval that mattered was her own.
Janine vowed to never fall into the toxic black hole of her family and she would never deny anyone her truth but most especially, she would never again deny it to herself.