Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Profiles in String 28: Antepenultimate Chapter

I steered a fine line, and I hope you'll agree I stayed on the right side.


   The Funeral Mass proceeded apace. Few tears were shed; Emma had been old and ill, and though her death was sudden, it had caught almost no one but me by surprise. In short order we were following the casket out of the church and preparing to join the procession to the interment. I wasn’t able to speak to Martin on my way out, but he smiled at me past the press of people as I followed my parents to the car. The motorcade was not very long, and all the way to the cemetery I watched his silver car in the rearview mirror. 
   My dad parked the car behind the hearse and the gathering mourners observed quietly as the casket was carefully unloaded. Again the pallbearers took up their burden. My mother asked me, “Are you coming?”
   “You go ahead,” I told her, watching Martin making his way past the line of cars. “I’m waiting for someone.”
   I leaned back on my hands against the car and he came and leaned against it too, arms folded against his chest, not quite touching me. We stood silently as everyone else began the short, slow journey across the grass to the grave site. I longed to rest my head against him, to feel his arm through the rough cloth of his coat, but instead I said, “The woman standing over there in the red jacket is my mother.”
   He flicked a casual glance at the knot of people assembling at the grave site. “You mean the one trying to look as if she’s not watching us?”
   I almost smiled.
   “Your veil is very becoming,” he said. I wasn’t ready to answer that question today, and I wished he wouldn’t look at me with such a grave and unreadable expression in his gray-green eyes.
   “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you to come back early for the funeral,” I said, awkwardly twisting the conversation away from myself. It was difficult to stand so near him and yet be separated by this careful distance he seemed to be maintaining, so different from his usual light and irrepressible demeanor. I gave him an opening. “I’ll try not to stage a repeat performance of the way I bawled like an idiot last time I saw you.”

   His voice was as soft as a caress. “There’s nothing wrong with crying at a funeral.”  
   “If I start, I won’t be able to stop,” I confessed in a hoarse whisper, turning my head away from him to study the way the edges of the asphalt road crumbled into the new green grass. He straightened up and slid his arm behind my back, and I dared to hope that he would pull me to himself and hold me safe, shutting out all the noise and chaos and numbness of the past week, and pushing aside all memory of the battered body in the casket. Instead, he found my hand I was leaning against, and pulled it out to intertwine his fingers with my own. “We should go,” he said, and tugged me gently away from the car. As we walked over to join the people milling around the grave, I was sure I could feel his thumb lightly tracing minute but electric circles along my palm.
   I endured the burial by clinging to his hand and giving into the urge to lay my head against him. When tears threatened to overwhelm me, I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against his arm and focused on the fact of his presence beside me, warm and solid and real. After Emma was consigned to earth and the priest had prayed the final blessing, the mourners began to drift back to their cars. Peggy had come up and touched my arm, her eyes red with weeping, and followed the rest. I remained by the open grave with Martin, purposefully ignoring the sight of her and my mother in furtive gossipy conference.
   “Do you think I was wrong to keep Emma’s rosary?” I asked Martin, finding my voice after the silence by the grave. “Perhaps I should have let it be buried with her.”
   “Keep it and use it,” he said. “That would please her most.”
   We wandered slowly back toward the car. “There’s a reception of sorts at Emma’s house,” I said. “Are you doing anything after this? Will you come?”
   “My whole day is free,” he answered. “Will you ride over with me?”
   “Yes, but what about Grace? Don’t you need to pick her up this afternoon?”
   “No. Since I wasn’t supposed to get into town until late tonight, Tom and Janice decided to take her with them to Janice’s sister’s house this weekend.”
   In the car it occurred to me that the combination of insular family gathering, and Martin, in town for the first time in two weeks, might not be the most felicitous mixture.   The family atmosphere had been very thick last night at the house, and today gave every promise of being louder and longer. And then there were Uncle Larry and his boys...
   “You don’t drink Bud Light, do you?” I asked anxiously.
   He was indignant. “I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but that’s low even for you, Emma.” 
   “I wasn’t trying to be offensive,” I apologized meekly.
   He glanced at me in surprise. “You are wound about as tight as you can go. Let’s drive around a bit before we go back.”
   I breathed out a sigh of relief. “I’d like that.”
   We took the scenic route home, and as we drove our easy camaraderie started to reestablish itself. He bantered and I snapped, and I felt more alive than I had in the past week, and perhaps even since I’d seen him last. 
   “Let’s just keep driving,” I suggested suddenly. “Let’s go somewhere. Anywhere.”
   “We can’t do that, Emma. Your family will miss you soon.” He turned us in the direction of the house, and soon we were parked in front of Peggy’s house. The entire curb and driveway of Emma’s house was overflowing with cars bearing license plates from several different states. I sat in the car while Martin opened my door, and only reluctantly took his hand when he offered to help me out. 
   “Shall we?” he asked. I hung back.
   “Please, let’s not go in,” I whispered desperately, clutching his hand in both of mine. “It’s quiet out here. We can talk.”
   “You need to go in,” he said, and tried to lift my chin to make me look at him, but I refused to meet his eyes. He took my arm and ushered me along before him toward Emma’s front walk.
   “People are expecting you,” he reasoned with me.
   “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I said grimly as we neared the door.

   My predictions were without error. The house was bursting with relatives and a few old friends, people who’d know each other in the good old days and were reliving them with manic zest. And it wasn’t just the good old days that were revived -- Dad and Uncle Larry has started on the first wary round of an old political argument that threatened to blow up into full-blown feud before the evening was over. The warmth of so many bodies opening so many beer cans in so little space was oppressive. Martin and I were jostled and joshed as we retreated to the big plate glass window at the back of the living room. The basketball crew behind us roared their approval of the game and talked utter trash about the abilities of the competition, and each other.
   “There’s nowhere to go,” I told him bitterly as we looked out at the smokers in the backyard. “Every seat is taken. Even the easy chair in Emma’s room is occupied by vultures picking through her things. The only quiet space in the house is my bedroom, and you don’t seem like you’d approve of that today.”
   “Maybe they’ll leave soon,” he murmured.
   I scoffed resentfully. “This could go on all night, believe me.”
   We stood in widening silence as the house behind us seethed with life. My mother came pushing through the crowd toward us. “Emma, I’ve been trying to find you all afternoon! We’re sorting out the kitchen stuff while everyone’s here, and we all decided you should have first dibs, so come tell us what you want.” She smiled in a non-predatory fashion at Martin. “I’m Emma’s mother, Jennifer Trapnel. So nice to meet you.” 
   He made polite reply, I made brief introductions, and we moved into the kitchen. The scene reminded me of Thanksgiving dinners of yore, except with an added acquisitive edge as the women circled the sets of dishes and glassware. I wanted to retreat to the corner with Martin, but I was dragged into the center of the negotiations. Martin stuck it out as best he could, but finally, during a lull in the proceedings, he came up behind me and spoke in my ear.
   “It looks like you’ll be busy for a while, so I’m going to head home,” he said. “Do you think you’ll be free tonight?”
   “I highly doubt it,” I snapped.
   He rested his hand on the back of my neck and massaged his thumb up and down my spine. “Well, good night, then,” he said quietly, and was gone. 
   His touch lingered all evening, through the sports madness and memories and beer cans and increasingly acrimonious debates. My dad slammed into the kitchen to gather his strength for the next bout with Uncle Larry, and saw me wilting quietly next back near the pantry as the ladies reshelved the china and started to make plans for a late dinner. 
   “How’s it going, hon?” he asked, putting his arm around me.
   “I’m so tired, Dad,” I moaned. “I’m going to bed.”
   “Poor baby, you’ll never get to sleep with all this commotion,” he commiserated. Raising his voice, he called to Mom across the kitchen, “Jennifer, Emma is exhausted.”
   Suddenly everyone was all solicitation. Plans were formed for reassembling in the lobby of the hotel and bringing in food. The sports fans offered to get hot wings for the whole group. Soon the crew was cleaning up and packing up, and I went to sit in my room until I heard them all clattering out the door.
   Mom and Dad were the last to go, and she came in to see me before they left, her face soft with concern. “You just get some sleep, sweetie,” she urged me. “Get up as late as you want in the morning, and don’t mind about us; we’ll probably want to sleep in too. We won’t expect to come over tomorrow until we hear from you.”

   Finally alone in the house, I discovered that the promised rest eluded me. I kicked off my heels and tossed my funeral dress on a chair, slipping into soft pants and a snug camisole. My neck and fingers and face all burned where Martin had touched me, and I prowled restlessly as I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. He had not called, and would not call, but still I carried my phone obsessively. The long-awaited stillness of the house began to grate on me as a stinging reminder of Emma’s absence. After pacing an hour in this desolation of loneliness, I grabbed my keys and pulled on my coat, and in ten minutes I was trying Martin’s door.
   It was locked. I rapped hard, and after a moment the light in the hall was switched on and he opened the door in his t-shirt and jeans. “Emma,” he said, hand on the door, and his voice and expression were a mixture of surprise and, for one fleeting instant, sudden longing.
   I brushed past him into the entryway. “I hardly think it’s fair of you to lock your door when you’re always walking in on me without knocking.”
   “Only when I’m expected,” he said guardedly, closing the door softly and remaining with his back to it. I let my coat fall to the floor and took a step toward him. He tensed slightly, and the Polish eagle on his arm rippled.    
   “I would never have known you had a tattoo if you hadn’t had your shirt off the night we met,” I said, running my hand up his arm to brush the eagle with my fingertips. “Peggy said you weren’t shy about taking off your shirt. When would you have showed it to me?”
   “Emma, what do you want?” he asked, keeping his voice steady with effort, and I felt a desperate thrill to see how hard it was for him not to let his eyes wander down my body.
   “You,” I whispered, cupping his face in my hands. “Oh, Martin, only you.” I pulled his head toward mine and kissed him, hungrily. As I melted into him, I could feel  him responding, meeting and matching my eagerness, his hands thrust in my hair and then sliding roughly from my shoulders to my waist. My lips moved along his jaw and down his neck to...
   “Emma. Emma, stop.” His breathing was ragged and he spoke as much to himself as to me, holding my face away from his. “Calm down. You’ve had a hard day. You need time to think.”
   “No I don’t,” I insisted, pulling him toward me. Once more I caught him with his defenses lowered, and it was a moment before he jerked away.
   “Up until today,” he said, in a voice harsh with desire, “you’ve been the soul of caution, and I could scarcely get you to stand near me. And here tonight you’re suddenly throwing yourself at me hard, way too hard.”
   “You were the one who said you would be delighted if I responded in kind,” I challenged, my breath keeping pace with his. “Have you changed your mind, or can you only fit in flirting on your own schedule?”
   “This is more than flirting, Emma.” He stood back, and this time he let his eyes rest on my body, taking in every curve through my thin clothes. Then he leaned forward against me, and I lifted my face toward his in anticipation. But he lifted a dress shirt from a hook on the wall behind me, and tucked my arms into the sleeves. Settling the shirt on my shoulders, he ran his hands down along the front of my body and starting from the bottom edge of the shirt, he fastened every button up to my chin. Then he kissed me once, gently, and steered me over to sit on the couch.
   I was almost shaking with frustrated passion and embarrassment and rage, but he said nothing, only looked at me as I hunched in a tight ball with my knees drawn up to my chest. Then he sighed and kissed my hair and held me, murmuring, “It’s okay.” The tears that I had been fighting down all week poured out in rising waves of hysteria, and I cried against him for the second time, wailing in grief until I was almost sick with exhaustion. How long I wept I don’t know, but by the end I was dimly aware of him shepherding me upstairs and tucking me into his bed. 
   “Good night, love,” he soothed, brushing my hair off my forehead. Then he stepped out and shut the door behind him, and I slept until morning.


Amber said...

Just right, Mrs. D.

So enjoying reading this!

Suburbanbanshee said...

Oh, man. This is really sad. There's the bit that's just normal life being too much for Emma in her grief, and then there's the genuinely harsh side of family life -- and then there's the way grief can make you lower your defenses and love others more, and the way it can make you desperate and stupid.

But it's unbelievably nice to see Martin being a gentleman instead of the usual contemporary romance novel guy. Also, you kept the story well-paced and interesting despite being sad, which too many authors don't do.

MrsDarwin said...

Still not finished, SB! I think I can bring it in on Sunday, which will be thirty sections. If I'd been able to write every day in November, I could have finished the story by Nov. 30.

I'll write "The End" when I'm done, so everyone will know.

geeklady said...

I especially liked this segment. There is something tremendously isolating about grief, that intimacy helps soothe. And lacking any intimacy in her extended family, this part reads incredibly naturally. It doesn't even seem like a step out of character for her, because it gives the sense that even now she's still being cautious. She's trying to avoid her grief, she's trying to avoid being vunerable to Martin by substituting physical intimacy for the emotional intimacy that she needs. And I get the feeling Martin shares her grief, and in a way Emma's own family doesn't, and knows that this is just one more way Emma's trying to keep him at arms length.