Post Road Magazine #23

The Bare Minimum of Him

Alissa Tsukakoshi

I don't pick up the phone at first. In her message, Hilary's voice is tired to the point of fragility; I call her back. She asks if I've heard about Jeff.

No.

She sighs, and I don't understand at this moment what that sigh means.

Jeff was killed.

I hear myself asking, My Jeff? even though I've never—during or since the three years we dated and lived together—ever referred to Jeff as mine.

Your Jeff.

What do you mean, killed? What do you mean, murdered? How? But where do you get an axe? What do you mean, an axe? No, I haven't seen the news. The same house? He never moved out? Good for him—I mean not good since he's dead—but he really loved that apartment and he didn't think he could afford to live there without me. Which neighbor? Yeah, I think I remember him. The guy sold the TV for crack money? What is this, an anti-drug commercial? Crack Kills? The funeral? I don't think anyone would want me to go.

I realize dumbly that at some point in the conversation I've walked outside. Terror wraps around me. I tell Hilary how I'm exposed in the darkness, standing on a balcony with stairs to a yard that connects to a parking lot that leads to a world where people just bludgeon people to death. We both start giggling and screaming at the same time. Go inside! I'm going, I'm going.

How are you feeling? she asks.

I say, I feel like I can't be bitter about the relationship anymore. You really can't hold a grudge against someone who's dead, let alone brutally murdered, right?

We laugh.

——

I don't sleep.

The news articles online all tell the same story. Jeff was supposed to meet his mother that weekend but didn't show. He missed work on Monday without calling—it wasn't like him. He wasn't there Tuesday, either. His friends flyered the neighborhood with missing person posters and infiltrated social networking sites with pleas for help. The apartment was mostly empty, initially giving the police the impression that Jeff had just taken off. Ludicrous, if you knew Jeff at all. He wasn't capable of such spontaneity.

Interviewed, his friends and co-workers describe Jeff as someone who was a nice guy. Ludicrous, if you knew Jeff at all. Or maybe just ludicrous if you were me.

——

I had met Jeff through Hilary. She was first in five out of six degrees of separation connecting me to him. I found him refreshing—those five degrees were huge. He'd never gone to college and his Boston accent and racial slurs were exotic to my ears raised on Bay Area political correctness.

Despite the fact that my grandparents had been in the Japanese internment camps, Jeff didn't hesitate to voice his opinion: the internment was a great idea. He argued the unnaturalness of gay marriage to my lesbian friend. He was offensive both intentionally and unintentionally, and his mix of ignorance and chutzpah was intriguing. After we moved to the suburbs, I began washing clothes in the bathtub when Jeff refused to drive into town to the Laundromat. I was car-less and for months I scrubbed away, stubborn or perhaps defeated—the feminist in me amused.

Fascinated that a person like him could exist, I stayed. I studied him like a liberal anthropologist, detached and in awe. I wanted to know what it was like to stick with something. I'd moved too often, burnt too many bridges, quit too many jobs to know stability, but I wanted to taste it. From him I would learn how to stick with something even if it meant a warped version of commitment: continuing to stay regardless. Regardless of hating him. Regardless of not being good for each other. Regardless of being miserable.

——

I want to call out of work, but I'm supposed to take the students to some special baseball event, and if I'm not there they won't be able to go. Besides, Jeff dying shouldn't be a big deal. He's been a nobody in my life for years.

My boss, in her bouncy curls that match her cheery personality, unknowingly asks, How are you?

I shrug. I don't know, I say. I just found out my ex-boyfriend got murdered. I tell the story and close with, And you know what the funny part is? The guy took his credit card and bought cigarettes. I mean, who just kills someone and then uses their card to buy cigarettes?

My boss stares at me, curls unbouncing. She says, I think the word you're looking for is "fucked up" not "funny."

Yeah, I say, I guess so.

I don't point out that "fucked up" is two words. I understand that she means this situation is fuckedup. One worded, not two.

——

And if things weren't fuckedup enough already, I get a text message telling me that the wake will be at Mc Donald's on Route 18.

I make so many phone calls, excited to exchange punch lines. I was going to do a drive-by and see how I was feeling, and maybe go in. Guess what? Now I can do a drive-thru. You know what you should order? A number five? No, a Happy Meal. You know what the good thing is? What? At least you don't have to dress up.

Hilary tells me I have to go. How many times in your life are you going to be able to have the chance to go to your axe-murdered exboyfriend's wake at a McDonald's?

She has a point. But despite my usual titillation with twisted situations, sliding in next to Jeff's family in the plastic booths is an experience I don't want to have.

It's the plastic that does it. The color of ketchup and mustard in plastic.

——

I keep going back to a copy of Jeff's missing person poster online. His brown curly hair, his smiling, yet sad, brown eyes. There's an enlarged photo of his tattoo, suggesting it might be key in identifying him should he turn up with amnesia or in pieces. When I first met Jeff the tattoo was just a bracelet of skulls around his wrist; I loved the childish fa├žade of toughness. But Jeff had it touched up—making it ugly—shading in ominous eyes and teeth, adding a Celtic knot. The flyer omits the inside of his wrist, my favorite part that he had added—a wisp of a Gemini sign, so feminine and unexpected on him. Jeff—with his leather jacket, shaving once a week, chasing Jack Daniels with Bud Light—shamelessly sporting a horoscope symbol like a teenage girl.

I also find a copy of Jeff's obituary online. Born here. Worked there. Survived by. Loving mother. Loving father. Loving sister. Loving brother. At the end, there are details for the service. It turns out Mc Donald's is the name of a funeral home, NOT the fast food chain.

Oh, I lament, the disadvantages of modern day communication and abbreviated texting.

——

It's August on the South Shore. Hot and humid. The funeral parlor (A.K.A. Mickey D's), like all funeral homes, looks like a Southern plantation. Leaning against the white columns are blurs of people I think I recognize. The parking lot is completely full. It's extraordinary, really. So many cars. If I died, there wouldn't be that many cars. I've moved around too much, burnt too many bridges, and written off too many people for such a breadth of people to care.

Up until now I haven't been able to feel sad, but just thinking of going in causes me to cry. There's no emotional foundation—no sense of loss—just tears that fall, a panic reaction to something I will not define. I park down the street on the corner by the coffee shop we had planned on going to one day and sob hysterically.

I call the best friend and tell him I can't go in. I just can't. I can't. I can't. He offers to meet me, to walk me inside. It would mean a lot to everyone for you to be here, he says. Jeff would have wanted you to be here. It's hasn't been easy for any of us.

But it's different with me. The relationship was bad, it ended badly. If Jeff had died any other way, I wouldn't have cared at all.

You have to let all of that go now, he says.

I tell him I will see him at the funeral and say goodbye. I don't—but should—say: I can't let go of something I'm not holding on to.

The heat of the car is stifling, and I go to the gas station across the street to buy a drink. The attendant asks, Why are you crying? You're too pretty to be crying. Why are you crying? Don't cry. Life's too short. Life's too short.

I laugh at him until he continues to over-repeat himself, and the situation stops being funny. I tell him someone died, because this is much easier for the lay person to understand than, My ex-boyfriend got axed in the head and I just wasn't at a wake that I thought was at Mc Donald's.

Well, he says, all you can hope for is that they go to heaven.

This irritates me. I want to ask, What happens to the people who don't believe in heaven? What would you have them hope for? And why aren't you willing to share one laugh over the ridiculousness of irony or me or death or the misunderstandings of strangers?

——

I make another drive-by to a yellow house crowded by trees, with branches half hiding a plaque displaying its name. It's a historic house, over two hundred years old. It's a crime scene with caution tape and flowers left behind. There's a gravel driveway that leads to a shed. A shed where a body wrapped in tarp was hidden for the weekend until it could be driven across the state line to be left in a field. There's a separate entrance into the whole second floor of the house to a two bedroom apartment with a fireplace. The ceiling is low, the floorboards dark and wide. They don't cut down trees that big anymore to make floorboards so wide.

In the living room there used to be a piano the tenant had maxed out his credit card to buy. He would compose songs, toying with the same melody over and over while his girlfriend lay on the couch, listening and wondering why he wouldn't just chase the music dream.

The three point turn I make is full of expectations for something to happen suddenly: to close a wound, to reopen a wound, to create a wound. But nothing so poetic happens, and I drive home.

——

The funeral is the next day at a little white church on a green hill— again, so Southern. We are all long sleeved and suited. I stand far away from the hearse. The best friend gestures to me through the crowd.

Someone turns around and says, They want you up there. I close my eyes to pause this world I've entered where people are accepting and wanting me to be part of something I don't deserve. I've been given the place in line after the family and the best friend, and everyone else in Jeff's life more appropriate for my spot follows behind me as we walk down the aisle.

Jeff always complained about work, but his boss gives the eulogy; I'm intrigued.

They don't make guys like Jeff anymore, the boss says.

I nod my head at this. There was something old-fashioned about Jeff. Before my anthropological hypothesis, I'd been drawn to the simple ruggedness of him. A romanticized quality of blue-collared Americana.

A few months prior, Jeff's boss had offered him another position in the company. After ten years working the same machine, maybe he'd want to try something else? Jeff didn't. Apparently he'd turned down other offers over the years—I'd never known this—Jeff liked how all the work in the company funneled down to him, proud to be the sole person to oversee the stamping of the company's name on their product. Jeff's complaining is readjusted in my memory as I listen. I can see now that he did nothing but put down a life that was all he would ever have, because it was exactly what he had. He claimed he wanted more—to go to college, to quit his job—but he'd been content all along, only trying to please me in some way by saying such things as I finished up grad school and he saw my life path so different than his. Jeff would say from time to time that he didn't know what I was doing with someone like him—he knew I would leave him. I had wanted so badly to prove him wrong.

At the end of the service, we are led out of the church by the casket, by Jeff, with tragic organ music pushing us out into the heat and the smell of summer green. Some people take off their suit jackets as if to say, it's all over now. The black cardigan I wear stays on me. Penance perhaps.

——

There's a gathering at a restaurant afterwards. Jeff's mother hugs me when I walk in. I was hoping you'd be here, she says. I saw you at the church and I was going to call if you weren't. I still have your number programmed into my phone. You two had a few good years together.

I nod, embarrassed or perhaps annoyed by her touch of reverence in this care for me. I deleted Jeff's number the day of the breakup.

The family is put together and functioning. I've yet to see any of them cry. Jeff's aunt recognizes me from the time we visited her in Ohio. She had asked someone, Whatever happened to that girl Jeffrey was dating? She was smart, the aunt was told, she moved on. I smile at her story, at the fact that she feels the need to tell me on this day.

The aunt reintroduces me to Jeff's older brother. I'd met him once during the holidays. He's taller than Jeff but with the same sad brown eyes. He asks me about things I wouldn't have expected him to remember, but unlike other family members he is distant. He excuses himself, and I turn to his wife and speak to her about their baby who is no longer a baby.

One of Jeff's friends kisses my cheek and hugs me with a sense of great protection. We reintroduce ourselves; he buys me a drink. Later I see him standing at the bar playing KENO. It's enduring. It's so shameless—this desire to win the lottery regardless. Regardless of your friend dying. Regardless of having just been at the funeral. Regardless of knowing you aren't going to win. I will lean into him and try to make a joke about his failed attempt. He will shrug and mumble something as if he didn't hear me, either completely drunk or a stranger again.

I am one of the last to leave.

The family blocks the outside stairs, one of two ways to the parking lot. I give a smile and nod before beelining it towards the handicap ramp. As I turn the corner Jeff's brother catches my arm, right above my elbow—catches me the way guys do when they want your number but they've been waiting too long, and now that you're leaving the party they're forced to muster up enough courage and they end up just grabbing you. He takes me with a soft, Hey—.

We've rounded the corner where the rest of the family can't see us anymore, and I turn towards him and we hug and we cry. He lets out a sob and I let out a sob and we hold each other tight. He whispers in my ear, Just keep him in your heart. But I don't know what this means, because I don't want to bury Jeff in my heart when he wasn't there to begin with. I understand that his brother thinks that maybe we were happy and in love, and things just didn't work out the way things often don't, and this is why I cry. Because why would I cry over the simple acceptance of strangers? I want to be cared for, to learn how to be warm and kind so I, too, can have the type of people Jeff had in his life. But I know this won't happen for me anytime soon, because I haven't learned how to do regardless without things becoming twisted up somehow.

So I let go of him. And when I drive away, Jeff's brother still hasn't moved. Still hidden on the ramp, he wipes his tears, because unlike me he has people to shelter, to not cause worry to, to not hurt any more than they are already hurting.

——

After the funeral I go home and sit in the corner of my room in a big shard of sunlight, AC blasting to balance the heat. I look up Jeff's favorite band online. He would chain smoke in his truck and force me to listen to Belle and Sebastian with its imitation 1970s cheesy pop sound that I hated.

I play the song that irritated me the most with its asinine title about a frog, and a stupid revelation hits me too many years too late. What once sounded fake and corny is actually catchy in a nostalgic way. And the lyrics, well, apparently it had been just a simple love song all along. But understanding the song is not my stupid revelation. My stupid revelation is that it took Jeff dying for me to finally understand the bare minimum of him.

——

In the weeks that follow I find myself crying at times. No reason. Hilary says it's survivor's guilt.

I think of genocide and terrorist attacks and that type of survivor's guilt. I don't know any other. What other guilt is there? I ask her. What other fucking guilt is there?

Because I don't feel guilty. I don't feel anything at all.

And whenever I find myself crying these days, I play that stupid frog song on repeat for comfort, numbing the numbness and feeling safe in the sound of familiarity, all the memories that I'd been happy to forget about.

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