Although they have trouble burying the bodies because the ground is frozen, I pictured it as a beautiful thing: pale and naked, lined up in the cemetery, waiting. Wintertime must be a nice time to die.
The front door neighbor’s house had been a coming and going of cars ever since the husband had died. I couldn’t remember what he looked like, but his wife had red hair and I always liked that about her. I was forced to go and “pay my respects” to them though I didn’t want to. Though I didn’t want to, my father made me. I think he was thinking that he’d like for everybody to come shake my hand if he died one day, someday.
The neighbor’s son was only twelve years old. We had both gone to Saint-Stephen’s before I’d left for high school. All I knew for sure of him was that he wore glasses and played hockey and that the light in his room was always switched on, and his blinds were never drawn. I liked to keep my lights off just to watch him, sometimes. It was a bad habit I’d developed from being fifteen and bored and alone all the time.
The boy didn’t cry the night my mother told me his father died. I watched for it. I even imagined it a million different ways inside my head, but I never saw it. And slowly, he started to remind me of a cousin I might have had, somewhere else, familiar and unfamiliar, in a house that looked just like mine.
When I shook hands with the boy for the first time, my nipples were hard because it was cold outside and I hadn’t worn a coat to walk across the street. He was staring at them. But I guess he couldn’t help it. I thought he saw that I saw that he was staring because he blushed and lowered his eyes. I smiled. I wanted to tell him that I thought it was cute how he picked tomorrow’s outfit out every night before going to sleep. I wanted to, but my father and my mother who were hovering nearby would have thought this very inappropriate. My older sister would have just laughed probably—she thought I was hilarious. I think she was trying very hard not to smile when the boy and his mother greeted us at the front door and invited us to come inside. She always smiled or laughed when she was nervous. I was the opposite. I always did exactly what I was supposed to do.
So I said to him, his eyes still lowered, in a formal voice that I’d borrowed from my parents, “I’m so sorry. My condolences to you and your family.”
It didn’t mean anything, what I had said. And so I cleared my throat to speak, but the words came out the same. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was apologizing for something entirely different this time.
My nipples softened just as my father and mother exchanged words with the boy’s mother. We promised to bring them muffins in the morning although we never did. My parents forgot. It made me wonder about the boy and if he ate the bottoms or the tops of muffins first. I liked to start with the bottom, to save the top—the best—for last. But I guess that stuff didn’t really matter when your father had just died. I didn’t really know. My father was still alive.
That night, while I tried to sleep, I could hear the low rumbles of cars coming and going from their home. It wasn’t the sound itself that I found so distracting, but what it always left behind: an uncomfortable silence that didn’t know how to settle back down. I writhed and stretched and twisted my body in bed and my sheets seemed to get twisted around my legs. I felt like I could have killed somebody. I was so angry. I was so frustrated—and with the blankets tangled up, rubbing up against my bare skin.
But the room always stayed cool, thank goodness.
I had never known anybody that died, but I thought what you did was cry. Instead, I watched the boy across the street do one normal thing after another, folding clothes, reading books, playing video games. It was as if his father hadn’t just passed away from colon cancer, strapped to bags of his own shit. My sister would have laughed hysterically at the thought. After our neighbor died, I almost couldn’t stand to be near her. And with the way she talked about the boy across the street. She just kept saying how sad it was, poor thing. It was the it, I think, and the thing, that bothered me, or maybe it was just her tone.
I don’t know. I was three years his elder, but after his father died, I started to love the boy across the street.
I would lie in bed—in a bedroom identical to his own—and I would think about him. I would try to imagine what he was feeling at this very moment in time. I closed my eyes. Sometimes, I thought so hard, I had to take my socks off. I felt stifled. And over my thoughts, I could always hear my sister on the phone with whoever, didn’t matter so long as my father hated him, and then she would laugh. On some nights, she would even sneak a boy into the house, and though I didn’t mean to, I always strained to hear what was going on inside her room. Once or twice I even put my ear to her door.
She told me once, after I threatened to tell on her, that I didn’t know anything about life, or anything about boys, or sex, and that if I told, I’d be sorry, because one day I’d want to do exactly what she was doing. I told her I never would, and she said, in that case, I’d die an unhappy, ugly, old death.
I really wished the boy would cry. I didn’t know why.
One evening, I forgot to turn my light off while I was changing. I was distracted. My sister had snuck someone into her room, and I thought I could hear her giggling, but only if I listened very hard. The room was cold, and when I looked down to see the goose bumps on my belly, I realized my window was bare and the boy across the street’s window was bare and he was standing behind it. He looked like a shadow in the warm yellow light and I couldn’t believe it, that I’d forgotten, and I yelped and ran to flip the switch down.
When it was dark again, I ran to the window to watch him. My whole chest was goose bumped. He turned his body and walked towards his dresser, opened it, started to pick his clothes out for tomorrow. I couldn’t be sure of whether or not he had seen me. No boy had ever seen me naked before.
I dreamt that night that my nipples were two giant glass mirrors and everywhere I went people couldn’t help looking at themselves in them. I missed my alarm clock and my school bus, no thanks to my sister who always got a ride to school from a boy. I stayed in bed all day, tangled up in my sheets with the sun blaring through my open blinds. My view of the front door neighbor’s house was in thin long strips. I got up only once, during the afternoon, to pee and to scroll the blinds up to the top where they made a slapping noise that scared me.
We weren’t invited to the funeral, but I knew about it the night before it happened because later that night I watched him, in his boxers, take a black suit out of his closet. It was hard to tell with the distance, but I thought I could see him practicing tying a knot around his neck with a tie. The wake was the next afternoon. The cars lined up along our street like I had pictured all those dead bodies in neat, cold rows in cemetery lanes. Cars like caskets.
I baked in the kitchen all that morning. At one o’clock in the afternoon, I put a plate of homemade muffins on their front porch. They probably tasted like glue. I didn’t know why I did it. My parents should have never promised something and not lived up to it, I think. But also, and still, I wondered about how he’d eat it. If he’d eat it at all. Or whether he lived in one of those homes where food is not allowed to leave the kitchen, and if so, then that might have explained why I never did see him eat the muffin, or anything else in his room. The same rules might still apply, even if your father’s died.
The second time he saw me take my clothes off wasn’t an accident. My hair was tied up in a tight ponytail on the top of my head. I was listening to the radio. I saw him standing there, in his room, and I crossed my arms gently down either side of my sweater and lifted my hands up—the fabric flooded my vision before releasing me. I took a deep breath in. My bra was zebra print. I reached behind and unclipped it. It fell to the floor. And I felt excited—I can’t really explain it—but he was probably so sad, and he had probably never seen two boobs before, and mine were big and nice. This is what a boy at school had told me in the back of math class.
I acted surprised when I saw him watching me. But I knew—I was almost very sure that he was smiling when I turned off the light—a warm, hard smile that made me smile in the darkness of my room.
I had more strange dreams after that. Noisy, flashy dreams, and I woke up without any covers and my sheets were stained with blood.
I still hadn’t seen him cry when one week later he rang the doorbell to my house. I couldn’t believe it. My sister was in the basement watching TV and neither of my parents was home from work yet. He stood in the doorway, without a coat, holding the plate I had brought the muffins on and shivering.
I moved out of the way so he could step inside. There was something very young about him, in the cheeks, but also very old, in the way he kept adjusting his glasses and looking around my house like there was something to be learned. I looked down at the plate, and reached out a hand to take it from him. He was staring at my boobs again, and I smiled. Somehow the plate got caught in mid-air between our hands—maybe we were afraid to touch—and it fell and shattered into pieces.
He finally looked like he was going to cry.
I told him that I would get the broom, that it would be okay. I heard my sister shouting, asking me what the fuck was going on up there. I screamed back that it was nothing.
The boy was crying when I came back holding a broom, but trying not to cry at the same time. I felt so sorry for him. I kept telling him it was okay, but every time I said it, he started to gasp for breath. And I started to understand, at least a little bit, what it’s like to be sad that your father died.
He insisted that he help me clean up. I told him he could take the big pieces and help me throw them away under the kitchen sink which he did when I was finished sweeping. I still felt bad though, and I didn’t want him to go home crying so I asked if he wanted to stay for a bit to watch TV. He said okay then he used both his hands to move his glasses off his nose and then back down against it.
It was still light outside, but I had an image of me naked in my room at night while he watched. I didn’t know why, but the idea didn’t bother me.
We sat down next to each other on the couch. He wasn’t crying anymore.
“My mom has a million of those fancy plates,” I said, which seemed to reassure him. “I’m sorry that your dad died, by the way.”
He lowered his eyes.
“We knew he was going to die for a long time. Before he passed away, we already knew. So, whatever. It’s fine.”
“Yeah. Well. Don’t worry about the plate. She won’t even notice one’s missing.”
We weren’t really watching TV. He’d lowered his eyes so he could look at my boobs again. And it was still only four-thirty, and my mom wouldn’t be home until five-thirty, and my dad until seven, and I’d never seen anybody so sad in my life.
“If you want to,” I said, “you can touch them.”
First in his eyes, then down into his mouth, I made a smile happen.
“You mean your—?” He pointed while he spoke because he couldn’t say the word.
I looked behind me to make sure my sister hadn’t come downstairs then moved back against the couch to give me some space while I lifted my shirt, and lifted a bra cup over my boob. I couldn’t believe it, what I was doing, and when his hand finally touched me, my nipple was hard. His hand was cold. I shivered. I looked back behind me again just to make sure no one was there.
He didn’t look up at my face for a whole five minutes at least. He just played with that one boob, shaking it, running his fingers along it, in zigzag motions, then in circles, while he chuckled to himself. It was like watching a kid at peace, playing. He eventually pinched my nipple, and when he did I squirmed, and he laughed, and I laughed.
“Don’t do that,” I said.
“Can I kiss it, too?”
My heart was beating so fast. I didn’t expect his lips to be so warm when he kissed me there. I shivered, but it was a different kind of shiver.
The next day a woman in a suit stuck a sign on their house’s front lawn. At dinner, my parents couldn’t stop talking about how sad it was, that the boy’s mother couldn’t keep the house, that she had to sell the house, now that her husband was dead. I told them to mind their own business, and they sent me up to my room to think about my rudeness. I think my brashness surprised them.
I changed with my lights on as often as I could in the two months leading up to his move. I did it in a strange fury. I stopped sleeping very well, and I was hot all of the time, kicking my sheets off at three in the morning. I thought that maybe, somehow, my boobs could relieve him of some sadness, and at the same time, I knew it was the stupidest idea in the whole world. I just couldn’t understand why death and sadness had to be a thing. And I had this body that could make him happy. It was all very confusing.
The truck finally came and packed him and his mother away.
That same night, my mom caught me changing with the lights on and my blinds opened wide. I didn’t know why I had done it because the boy was gone. An old habit, I guessed. Red-faced and worried, she had me sit on my bed while she started on a long speech about public decency, and morals, and shame, but I knew she didn’t know what she was talking about.