Spending a week in Chicago wasn’t exactly on my summer list of to-dos’. When my mother called me and asked me to come home, without reason, I initially said I couldn’t make it. But when she called every day after that, for four days in a row, asking the same question, I finally agreed. Partially to make her stop calling but mostly because I was curious as to what she wanted. We didn’t have the best relationship when I was younger. She was so hell bent on vodka and feeling sorry for herself that she missed dance recitals, spelling bees and even graduations. I got used to her not showing up. I got used to her choosing herself over me and eventually, I grew up to be just like her. Selfish.
It was a little awkward when I first arrived, she looked awful, older than she should have. My childhood home felt the same, only mustier, if possible. The familiarity made me uncomfortable. I wanted to turn around and go back to LA, where I’d finally found a sense of belonging.
Almost as soon as I set my bags down she handed me an empty box. “I asked you here to help me sort through the house.” She wasn’t looking at me. My mother has never been one to keep house and I was annoyed that she didn’t ask my brothers, who both lived within a few miles of her, for help. I dropped the box as quickly as she handed it to me and took a few steps closer to my memories. A blue boot box with little pink roses
splashed randomly across the cardboard sat alone on the coffee table to my left. In big italicized handwriting that I knew to be my mothers it said ‘For Isa.’
“Ma, what is this?” I started to lift the top off, but she clicked her tongue at me and said, “That is a collection of things that you are to have when the house sells.”
“I’m sorry, you’re selling the house?” I was confused and down right angry at this notion but it all made sense now.
“I can’t live here by myself forever, dear. It’s on the market but nothing is pending. Don’t look so surprised, Isa. Hence why I asked you to come. You can have that box when I’m ready to give it to you, but I’m not done adding to it.” She turned her back to me and began rummaging through old magazines, throwing most of them in a heap on the floor while stacking others nicely on the table. We did this in every room, with everything she owned. There was no conversation, just the clack of the furnace, that’s been in the basement since I was in high school, turning on every hour or so. I was content in silence. Nowadays I preferred it.
When the week was over we had cleared out most of the house and sent her possessions to my brother’s, the landfill or the donation center down
the street. She insisted on taking me to the airport and I let her, even though her driving made me nervous.
“Will you let me know before you sell?” I saw a sadness in her eyes that I hadn’t noticed earlier. I realized I would miss her. Our time together hadn’t been the bonding experience I secretly hoped for while I was packing to come but we existed together and accomplished something, which was more than I can say for my childhood.
“I promise.” She hesitated. “Now you promise me something,” with all of her long, boney fingers wrapped around my arms she mirrored my face, closer than I would have liked and said, “be open to love when you get back out there. You’re not getting any younger. I pray for your health, your safety, your success and your peace but above all, I pray that you experience the kind of love your father and I shared.” She dropped her arms and sighed, shifting her eyes to the entrance as if to find him there. “You deserve it. So, say yes. The next time somebody asks you to coffee or brunch or the moon, say yes.”
I didn’t know my father. He died when I was three and even after therapy and hypnosis from some posh LA grad that I found on Craigslist a few years ago, I couldn’t recall a single memory of him. My mother would often tell me excerpts from their love story when I was a little girl, while she was
sober enough to string sentences together and I had no choice but to listen, but I seldom believed her romanticized versions. I couldn’t fathom that she was capable of such feelings, given her lack of affection towards us kids growing up. I just wanted this week and this goodbye to be behind me. So, I promised right before I gave her a better hug than I expected and turned to leave. I was half way down the terminal before I looked back. My mother was gone and for the first time all week, I was surprised.
I didn’t notice him until his elbow was bumping mine repeatedly and I had no choice but to look his way. He was fumbling to clasp his seatbelt, even though there were still people looking for their seats and we weren’t even close to take off. I was irritated and pre-maturely nauseous, the way I always get when I fly. I was in no mood to be friendly but when his peridot eyes shot up to meet mine, I forgot where I was for a second.
“Oh, Hello.” His voice was deep like the ocean but not bellowing. I’m sure he noticed that I was scanning his features, taking him in, but I managed a mostly normal “Hello,” almost instantly.
“Los Angeles?” His smile was wide and contagious. Perfectly symmetrical. I nodded. “Home. You?”
“I live here in Chicago. I’m going home for a funeral.” His eyes shifted, and it occurred to me that I felt bad for this stranger. A foreign feeling.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I spoke softly this time, as if he were more fragile than a moment ago. His eyes found mine again and even though he didn’t say it, I could tell he appreciate the sympathy.
“I’m Simon,” he said as he reached his hand over to shake mine. His hands were rough and weathered as if they’d been exposed to the elements every day of his life. His touch was gentle and light, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought I was the fragile one.
“Isa,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you. I hope you won’t mind but I’m not great at flying. I’m going to lay my head back and try to relax.”
He looked surprised but said, “Oh, yes. Of course. See you on the other side.” I was getting too uncomfortable to consider somebody else’s feelings. The Valium I took in the bathroom before security was just starting to kick in.
I could feel him shaking my shoulder before I opened my eyes. He was half whispering, “Isa, wake up sleepy head. We made it.” I slowly came to to see a dim lit, empty cabin.
“Where is everyone?” I looked to the front and back of the plane, but it was just us. I couldn’t tell if I was confused or dreaming.
“Everybody has already made their exit. I told the flight attendant I would wake you. It took me a few minutes. Are you always a heavy sleeper?” “No, not normally. I took something to take the edge off and it must have knocked me out.” He stuck his hand out to help me up and I accepted. His hands felt softer than I remembered but the thought was fleeting. “Thank you for staying and making sure I got up ok.” He already had my carry-on on the floor in front of him, so I removed my neck pillow, grabbed my purse and followed him to the exit. We walked silently up the terminal, which felt like it went on forever. When we reached the gate I glanced up just to say “thanks again” as he handed off my rolling suitcase. Our hands brushed briefly.
“It was my pleasure, Isa. Get home safe.”
I veered left to the parking lot and he veered right to baggage claim. I didn’t look back nor did I think about it. I was tired, groggy and needed my bed for the next 24 hours. Luckily, the normal tourists weren’t clogging up every walk way, so my pace was steady to the exit.
My feet were killing me, and I couldn’t help but sigh in relief when I reached the doors leading outside to the shuttles. I took no more than two steps on the pavement before I looked up to see Simon. He was ten feet from me with a small grey suitcase that could have easily been stored in the
overhead compartment. He wore a grin this time that was newer to me than Simon himself. He looked disheveled. Handsome and menacing.
“How did you get out here so fast? Did you check that little suitcase?” I looked around for some kind of mode of transportation, but my eyes were back on him when he took a step forward.
“I ran.” He said, and I noticed he was flushed with beads of sweat along his hairline.
“You ought to be careful running in an airport.” I don’t know why I said that. “I ran because I wanted to tell you that you look absolutely beautiful when you’re sleeping.” I felt blood rushing to my face. “I am only in town for 24 hours and I know it’s an insane request,” he paused and shifted his eyes from me to the ground and back again, “but I was wondering, if you didn’t have any plans tomorrow, if you would spend the day with me?”
I was both flattered and offended that he would skip the funeral he came for for a girl he’s never met.
“I’m sorry, don’t you have an obligation?” I didn’t mean to sound so unappreciative of his advance, even if it was unmerited and poorly timed. “I do,” another pause, “I was hoping you would come with me.” He saw my eyes grow wider and rushed to say, “It’s a large event and you won’t be
completely out of place. I know it’s a strange first date, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask.”
My mother and the half promise I made her were in the back of my mind. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they grieve or don’t. Feel or refuse. I’m not getting any younger. Freshly offended by my mother’s observation, I reluctantly agreed.
“Alright, I’m free tomorrow. You’re sure I won’t make anybody uncomfortable?”
His face lit up and I could tell he was pleased with himself. “Absolutely not, there will be so many people there. It would be impossible for anybody to be uncomfortable by your presence. Nobody will even know that we just met.” His hand went to his heart when he said this, and I realized then how much I was attracted to him.
After sleeping for 12 hours, three cups of coffee and 2 hours trying on every little black dress I own, I finally settled for a cocktail dress that I’d only worn once before, to a friend’s birthday party at a restaurant I wouldn’t have been able to get in to otherwise. It was a little short but didn’t show the cleavage that my other options did. I threw on some black pumps and sunglasses too large for my round face and left with no makeup on. Dead people can’t judge you. I got to the cathedral quickly; the address Simon
gave me was three blocks west and two blocks south from my studio. I found it nestled between a hipster bar that I purposefully avoided and my favorite pizza spot. I’d passed the giant before but failed to notice its intricacies. I had never been on holy ground like this; my mother didn’t believe in God after she lost my dad. She refused to let me be a part of anything religious or congregational. I didn’t mind. Crowds made me anxious and I had a hard time believing in things I could not see.
Stepping inside was like walking through a time warp. The smell made me believe that everything inside was original. It took me a few deep breathes to get used to it. I thought it curious that I didn’t see anybody outside but when I saw the mostly empty chapel I sighed at myself for being in the wrong place. With my nose in my phone I didn’t notice a woman walking up to me.
“Hello, dear. Are you here for Simon?” She was well over 60 but beautiful in her own right. Her smile was both comforting and devastating. She was mourning.
“I am. He asked me to meet him here.” She cocked her head in response, grabbed my arm and began gently leading me down the aisle. As we approached the casket I felt a sense of discomfort and wished I hadn’t agreed to this.
“He doesn’t look like himself, so don’t be alarmed and prepare yourself. They did their best.” Before I had a chance to be confused we were looking down at a man in his mid-twenties. He looked like he had a few rounds of unsuccessful plastic surgery. Too much makeup sat on his lifeless skin. Something about him was familiar.
“Simon?” Every hair on my body stood to attention.
“It’s such a shame, such a good, wholesome man. How did you say you knew him dear?” Her eyes mirrored her sons.
“I met him on a flight from Chicago yesterday.” It sounded impossible, even as I said it. Her careful smile dropped in to a straight line.
“That’s not possible, darling. Simon passed four days ago. His body was returned to me only yesterday from Chicago. Did you go to Columbia together?” I couldn’t talk to this woman anymore. I stepped out of my pumps, gathered them and ran. “Thank you for coming!” She called to me, but I didn’t turn around.