Matt & zoe, p.11
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       Matt & Zoe, p.11

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  I can hear the sounds of a hymn being played, very faintly. How lovely is thy dwelling place.

  We finally reach the front, and immediately a woman approaches. I’d guess sixty-five, she’s a tiny woman with short cropped gray hair. She wears the somber garb of a priest.

  “Zoe? I’m Anne Davies.”

  Ahhh… I recognize the name immediately. An Episcopalian priest, she’s the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at Mount Holyoke, and was a friend of my parents. We’ve spoken on the phone several times this week as she took care of organizing the memorial.

  “I want to express my condolences again. Your parents were well loved and very respected. And your father’s loss is a severe blow to the college.”

  I’m at a loss for words, but it doesn’t matter because she starts talking again. Details. How long the service will last. When I go up to speak. I haven’t prepared any remarks. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I agreed to speak. Finally, she steps back, and I see it.

  At the front of chapel, where you might normally find the altar or coffins or whatever it is that normally stays at the front of a chapel, there is a table covered in a white cloth, and above that the urn. The Aristocrat Adult Blue Cremation Urn, cost $385, discounted to $350. I know that because I had to make that decision, along with many others. A pall covers the urn.

  I owe Anne Davies… she’d organized most of this—with Nicole’s help—and I hadn’t even thanked her.

  I turn to her and say, “Please forgive me. I haven’t even thanked you for making all this possible. I was lost.”

  Her face softens and she moves closer and puts her hand on my shoulder. “You’ve got a lot to shoulder now, Zoe. I’m happy to help—your parents were friends. And if you need to talk to someone at any point, let me know. Please.”

  “Thank you,” I whisper. I don’t understand why her words make my eyes water.

  Jasmine and I walk to the front of the chapel together while Nicole hangs back. I don’t know what to do, but Jasmine seems to, dropping to her knees on the kneeler that faces the urn. I kneel next to her, the green cushion feeling odd against my knees.

  She has her hands steepled with elbows propped on the rail, and her eyes are closed. She starts to talk, and I almost fall off the kneeler.

  “God,” she says. She speaks the words in a low, urgent tone, spitting them out like machine gun bullets. She knows what she wants to say. “I don’t know you, but Mom said she did. So if you’re there, please watch out for my Mom and Dad and make sure they’re in heaven and happy, and watch out for Zoe. Amen.”

  I’m staggered by her words. I don’t get a chance to say anything, because she gets up and walks to the pew in the front and sits down.

  I don’t feel nearly as equipped to pray as my little sister. I decide to try. I close my eyes. I’m not praying out loud. In my head I try to form some coherent words. But all I can get out is, Mom, please forgive me. Then I’m horrified because tears start spilling out of my eyes. I squeeze them shut, trying to force the tears back. I don’t—I can’t—

  Once I get control of myself, I reach in my purse and take out several tissues, then wipe my eyes and blow my nose. Finally I get up from the kneeler and start walking toward the very empty pew. The one reserved for family.

  Huh.

  Matt is kneeling in the aisle, saying something to Jasmine, who sits next to Nicole in that long empty pew.

  I approach, and when he senses my presence, Matt stands up. “Zoe…”

  I’m already emotionally exhausted and this thing hasn’t even started yet. But I do see Jasmine grab for his hand.

  “Why don’t you sit with us,” I say. “I think Jasmine would appreciate it.”

  He nods. It’s an awkward moment… he’s standing to Jasmine’s side closest to the aisle. I’m on her other side. Nicole is sitting next to Jasmine. It would be weird to have him next to the aisle. He starts to step over, and I do at the same time, and we nearly bump into each other. So he backs away, gesturing with his hand for me to sit. I do, and he walks around and sits on the other side of Nicole.

  The ceremony begins as the music quiets and Anne Davies takes her place at the altar. She calls out the words in a loud clear voice, “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” From there she continues reading from the Book of Common Prayer. It seems strange to me. I know these customs from one or two weddings and funerals I’ve attended in my life, relatives of my father. None of it is familiar. For the next thirty minutes Davies and an assistant continue to offer prayers and ceremony.

  Finally, she says, “And now Zoe Welch, the daughter of Jefferson and Lucinda, will say a few words.”

  With a lump in my throat, I walk to the lectern in the front of the church.

  Tears form in my eyes as I turn around and look out at the … mourners? ... in the chapel. There must be three or four hundred people here, maybe more. I recognize a bare fraction of them. And I feel a mounting anger at the large number of young women in here, young women who weep uncontrollably, demonstrating for everybody how shocked and wounded they are by their professor’s death.

  They didn’t know him. They have no right.

  I don’t understand why it makes me angry. Why does it disturb me? I want to tell them all to shut up, quit their crying and go home.

  I’m lying. I do know why it makes me angry. It’s because, so far, I haven’t been able to cry, except a pitiful few tears.

  So I open my mouth and begin to speak.

  “My name is Zoe Welch.” At the words, the very few people in the audience who were otherwise occupied fall silent. In this cathedral sized building, full with hundreds of strangers and family friends, I can’t hear a sound. No whispers, no coughing, just the steady swoosh swoosh of my own heartbeat in my ears.

  The silence extends. Maddeningly, I can’t seem to come up with any words. I should have prepared. I should have written a speech. Or some notes. Or something. My breath is shallow and rapid. I close my eyes, trying to force myself to calm down. I can see people becoming uncomfortable in the audience. Barbara Mean, the Dean of Students—a fussy woman who my parents occasionally had over for parties—looks like she’s going to have a stroke. The nervousness in the audience increases my own anxiety, a negative feedback loop that could only end in my own utter humiliation.

  Then my eyes drop to the front row.

  Jasmine. She’s sitting there in the front row, holding her teacher’s hand. She looks lost and alone and sad. Just like that, I calm. I know what I have to say.

  I clear my throat and close my eyes for just a moment. I remember my words to Jasmine this morning. Do you believe in God? I do, though that’s as defined as it gets. I go ahead and whisper a silent prayer anyway. Please let me say the right thing to help her heal.

  “Most of you knew Jefferson and Lucinda Welch professionally. You knew my father as a professor—I know he was popular, but that’s about it. He ran the English department here, right?”

  At my question, the room breaks out in quiet chuckles. I continue. “Those of you who were friends or colleagues of my mom knew her as a dedicated horse trainer and teacher, and before that, as the director of the equestrian center at Mount Holyoke. Both of them were well known in the community. Both of them were highly respected. But I don’t know them that way. My sister Jasmine doesn’t know them that way.”

  I meet Jasmine’s eyes, and I say, “What I know is that Mom put every little picture me and Jasmine drew in school up on the wall in our hallway. The silly drawings of cows and unicorns I made as a first grader, and the awful sculptures I made as a high school student—all of them graced our life, because she valued her daughters.”

  I take a deep breath. I’m struggling, because my eyes are watering. “What I know is summer Saturdays spent in the garage with my dad when he tinkered with his Austin-Healy. That car was his hobby, and
I was privileged to be able to spend most of my adolescence working with him.”

  I say, “Mom nursed our draft horse Mono back to health after rescuing him, then gave him to Jasmine to learn to take care of and ride. That giant horse kind of scares me, but he is the bond between Jasmine and my mother. And though people and horses will come and go in our lives, that bond with Mom and Dad will never die, no matter what happens.”

  Jasmine is sobbing now, and I hope I’ve done the right thing here. I keep talking. “When I finished eighth grade, my Dad said, Zoe, I’m proud of you. And it was the proudest moment of my life.” I slam the door on the bitter thought that he didn’t say it when I finished high school and joined the Army. Instead, I take another deep breath and say, “I remember how shocked I was when I was a high school sophomore and I found out my mother was pregnant again. Like any teenager, I was horrified by the idea that my parents did anything that might cause pregnancy.” More laughs from the audience.

  “But then, along comes the biggest gift any of us could have had—Jasmine, my little sister.” Shit. I struggle to keep from breaking down. Instead I say, in words that barely come out in a staggering whisper, “Mom, I don’t know if you can hear me. I promise I’ll take care of your little girl.”

  I can’t talk any more. I break down, sobbing, and next thing I know Ann is leading me away from the podium. She whispers, “Zoe, that was beautiful.” And she’s crying too. I sit down next to Jasmine, and she falls against me, both of us crying now. I was the last speaker, I think. Ann is up there doing whatever it is that priests do… I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the words. Instead, I focus on holding on to Jasmine, because she needs me right now.

  And I’m determined not to fail her.

  Chapter Nine

  4-F (Zoe)

  It’s four days after the funeral. The table is set. Five dinner plates. Candles. I’ve mixed a salad, opened a glass of Cayuga White from the Pioneer Valley Vineyard, and everything would be perfect for dinner except that smoke is pouring out of the oven. When I realize it, I rush over and open it up—bad idea. I catch a face full of smoke directly in the face. I begin to cough and grab for the oven mitts.

  The good news is, as I pull the platter out of the oven—it didn’t catch fire. The meal, a roasted salmon, looks decidedly charred.

  Why the hell can’t I manage to cook a meal?

  I’m so incredibly frustrated. It doesn’t help when Jasmine sticks her head in the room. “Did dinner catch fire again?”

  “No!” I cry out. “It’s fine.” It’s not fine. I have three dinner guests who will be here any minute, and no dinner to serve. Because this won’t fly. I let the platter drop onto the top of the stove with a loud bang and open the window and turn on the ceiling fan.

  The smoke is now circulating around the room instead of staying decently at the ceiling. Fantastic.

  I hear the doorbell ring and I suppress a growl.

  “I’ll get it!” Jasmine shouts. She doesn’t need to shout. I have no intention of getting the door. I don’t care if they ever come in. I stare at the ruined dinner. I didn’t have a backup plan. Where the hell is Nicole? This was her idea. The least she could do is show up on time and help rescue me from my own misery and embarrassment.

  No such luck. Nicole has been in and out of this house since we were five. She wouldn’t bother ringing the bell. That has to be Matt or his friend Tyler.

  I lean close to the pan, trying to look without my eyes tearing up from the smoke. Is it salvageable?

  I turn up my nose. If I was homeless? I still wouldn’t eat this.

  Seconds later, long before I get a chance to sink into the floorboards and disappear, Jasmine comes back with Matt.

  Matt looks around and says, “Having some trouble?”

  I give him a thin smile. “No, no trouble. How are you?” Then I blow the smoke away from the pan.

  I can’t serve this. I pick it up and walk toward the garbage can, then flip it over and let the ruined food spill into the can.

  Matt smiles.

  “So,” I say. “What time is your friend coming? I was planning to order Chinese.”

  “Tyler?” He asks. “He’s checking out the books in the living room.”

  “Oh,” I say. A moment later, Matt’s friend appears.

  He’s taller than Matt and more muscular. Not in a better shape kind of way—more of a bodybuilder type of way. He has a completely fake, sculpted look I’ve learned to associate with a hundred different guys in the Army who had little in common with each other except their consistent need to sexually harass any women who crossed their paths.

  He approaches, holding out a hand. His eyes drop to my chest furtively. “Hey,” he says. “I’m Tyler. We met in Matt’s classroom, right?”

  “Yes,” I say. Does he even remember the circumstances?

  “Hey, Zoe. Matt’s told me a little about you… you were in the Army? Nurse?”

  Asshole. To a significant number of chauvinists, any woman in the Army must either be a nurse, a clerk or a whore.

  “I was Military Police,” I reply. Now watch what happens. With roughly two-thirds of the guys I meet, saying that results in them trying to show they’ve got a bigger dick than I do.

  “Oh yeah?” He says. “I was never in. Though I used to think about it a lot. I coach football, I used to play for UMASS. The Army wouldn’t let me in—4-F. Broken foot.”

  I don’t know what 4-F is. Unless it means full of shit. But I’m used to this conversation. A lot of guys are threatened by women who have been to war. I dealt with a hundred guys like him in the Army. Guys who talked all about the brotherhood of arms but saw no problem with grabbing a fellow soldier’s ass or breasts—if that fellow soldier was female. Guys who exposed themselves. Guys who called you a slut if you touched someone and a cold bitch if you didn’t. Guys who labeled some girls as Sand Queens because of the attention they got in the desert from lonely guys.

  Fuck them. I just turn back to the kitchen and say, “So Chinese or pizza? Which is it?”

  Matt raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, “Is everything okay?” I don’t bother responding.

  Jasmine is the only one who responds. “Can we do Chinese? We had pizza the other night.”

  “Yeah, sweety. We can do that.”

  You can't bullshit a horse (Matt)

  when I arrive at her house a few days after the funeral, Zoe is clearly off balance and confused. Not to mention irritated with Tyler. I don’t blame her. For one thing, Tyler can be a monumental prick—best friend or not. He also seems to be an expert at picking at people’s sore spots. It would have taken an idiot to miss the flash of anger when he asked if she’d been a nurse. I’d bet a million dollars she’s heard that question more than once. Which makes no sense at all in this day and age.

  Tyler seems to sense that too. He backs off a little, just in time to hear the front door open. “Hey!” calls a female voice.

  “Nicole!” Jasmine shouts unnecessarily. Maybe she is as uncomfortable as I am.

  I decide to try to get in-between the shots being fired by Zoe and Tyler. “You said you were stationed in Japan last?”

  Zoe flashes me a look of gratitude. I like that. “Yes… I was in Tokyo for three years at Hardy Barracks.”

  “I didn’t know we still had many troops in Japan.”

  “Tens of thousands,” she says, a faint smile on her face. “And a lot of them go hang out and get into trouble in Tokyo. My job was mostly to deal with those guys.”

  “That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say.

  She shakes her head. “No, not that much. But I loved living in Tokyo.”

  “Tell me about it.”

  Tyler interrupts. “How about we order dinner first?”

  Jesus, he has no manners at all.

  At that point a woman walks into the room. About Zoe’s age, brown hair, brown eyes. Easily as fit as Zoe. She looks at Zoe and says, “I thought you were cooking?”

  Blank
faced, Zoe looks at her and says, “I was.” Then she sniffs. The other woman grins.

  Zoe laughs. “Matt, this is my best friend Nicole.”

  My cue. “This is Tyler.”

  We discuss what we’re getting—chicken and broccoli, Mongolian beef, General Tso’s chicken—then Tyler volunteers to go pick it up. A few minutes later he’s gone, leaving me and Zoe talking with Nicole and Jasmine.

  “So,” I say again. “You were talking about Tokyo?”

  She nods, and says, “First, can I get you a drink? White wine? Or beer? I have Guinness and Sam Adams.”

  “Sam Adams,” I reply. “Thanks.”

  “Wine,” Nicole replies.

  Zoe starts talking as she opens the refrigerator. “Let’s see—what I liked about Tokyo. From where I lived, everything you could ever want was within walking distance. Theaters, music, clubs, restaurants. Everything’s super convenient. Nightlife was fantastic—me and some friends used to go out and grab drinks, you could stay out all night. The flip side to that was so many soldiers stayed out drunk all night, and we had to police them up in the morning.”

  Nicole snorts.

  “Let’s see… fashion. Always interesting and beautiful clothes. I loved the food. I didn’t love taking the train. In fact the first time I rode, I got jammed in between a bunch of guys and was groped. I couldn’t even tell who it was, or move because it was so packed. After that I took women-only trains.”

  “Women-only trains?”

  She nods. “Because of the pervs.”

 
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