SKIN LIKE LIGHTS
I went to the funeral on a Tuesday, which I thought was kind of shitty. A Saturday morning funeral, or even a Sunday afternoon, when everyone wears black to mass because your wake begins at the end of “and also with you,” and the whole congregation attends because they can’t rightly leave without others wondering what keeps them from honoring you, even if they didn’t know your name – those are respectable times for funerals. To slot the last punctuation of your life, the final period, at midmorning, in winter, and not even on a day when people wouldn’t have to take work off to remember you? Like a Gregorian joke.
I woke up drunk that morning, a fuzzy, biley thing, souvenir of the night before. The light streaming through the windows pounded on the backs of my eyeballs like Luther’s hammer, and I felt a series of acid burps plotting escape from my esophagus. The church was empty, the coffin was empty of all but bruises and cloth, that Tuesday morning light was the color of cancer, and my mouth was full of cotton.
It’d been a disease, they said, a disease that ate your flesh and soured your blood and stewed your mind. A disease of rot and bruises. A horror of steadily diminishing familiarity, like a precipice beyond which there was nothing but floundering and flailing and lost words.
It took nine years to do its work.
There was a crucifix on the vaulted wall behind the altar. I could see the Christ-figure’s ribs, and I wondered, not for the first time, who would want an emaciated god.
My fingertips rubbed absently at a run in my lace stockings, and I watched blue polish chip from my nails onto black suede like flakes from a concrete-colored sky. I’d want my god plump and smiling, I thought, like the Buddhas in Chinese restaurants. If your deity can’t keep himself from starving, how can he provide for his supplicants?
The run in my stocking was growing, and every handful of minutes saw the worn fit of the control top give a little more as the hose crept steadily up my butt. They were my only pair; I didn’t wear them anymore. You had known me like this, though. So I wore them.
I didn’t have any ashes to scatter on the mountain that night, mostly because you stipulated that you wanted to be buried. I imagine that’s because you would have loved inconveniencing people one more time, even just the poor sod tasked with digging plots in the snow-hardened Alaskan dirt. You must have laughed, from wherever you are, that shrill, stupid belly laugh I hated so much, at how he swore and cursed the frozen ground.
I don’t know why you opted for an open-casket service. You should have known that I’d be the only one here, if I bothered to come at all. Imagine that I hadn’t: it’d just be you, that disease and all it had made of you, and a preacher that didn’t know you well enough to preside over your wake. It’s me on this hard pew, alone in the sanctuary with your death, and the priest sitting silently behind the casket, neither of us knowing what to say to break the silence your body holds up.
I walked slowly, my sharp-edged, unused shoes clicking against the hardwood like a drumbeat – it is here! the beating of his hideous heart – all the way to the raised lid, where I stared at your skin, at your closed eyes, and tried to see the you I knew in you, under the pasty coroner’s makeup and gross rigidity that held you. The sun fell in rainbow saint-shapes from the stained glass windows, a holy geometry, stories written across your body in stuttering, shifting lines that hurt my eyes. You looked nothing like you, and I was tired, and I closed my eyes for a moment against how empty your casket was of anything of substance. I felt less lonely, less like a funeral, inside the dark of my own eyelids.
There was an aurora written across your skin, trailing over your death like it was the night sky. I could see its edges straining against the lines of the makeup some poor bastard had sponged over your face and neck.
“It really did a number on you, didn’t it?” I asked your stillness, the colored, chipped shell you left me to say goodbye to. You wouldn’t have recognized my voice, I don’t think. Not with the way it echoed in the church against the walls and through the pews. Not as different as it is from the one you knew.
I hadn’t been around to watch your relationship with your illness progress, and perhaps that made the effect more dramatic. The you I saw in my mind’s eye was ten years younger, brighter, energetic, well. We spoke the same language, then; the same words connected us, helped us recognize each other. But our vocabularies shifted, and we didn’t talk anymore. I left. I don’t regret it. But I do.
A new language of bruises and scrapes wrote out the last decade of your life in fading greens and purples, covered inadequately by a coroner who was not a makeup artist. Your body was sanskrit in stains and colored fragments, the tiny colored lines of roads on a map that leads in circles and away from the edges of the unknown.
You reminded me of your grandfather’s Bible. The blue leather one that you kept on the shelf by the bed, the one with yellowing, crooked pages unevenly and inconsistently dog-eared, the one I thought you were going to slam against my face when we argued and you fell back upon the Word to support your thesis. We argued a lot, there at the end. I remembered it like a greatest hits anthology, every bristling, steaming mess of our attempts to have any sort of relationship at all.
Laying there, and shouting from inside my mind, you were pressure fractures and torn edges.
I could see the ice that held up our talks in the year before I moved away, cracking and spider-webbing out beneath us, and the blue shadows of your dead veins at the cuffs of your suit jacket. I imagined that if I took it off your body, I would be able to trace the ridges of your ribs, just like the Christ nailed to the wall above you.
An empty church is full of tiny sounds that aren’t quite silence, and the longer I listened, the louder the ambience became. The distant kick of the furnace roaring to life in the basement. The vague hum of distant traffic. The occasional, increasingly awkward-sounding throat sounds and shifting of the priest in his chair. My own heartbeat, dull against the insides of my wrists.
Nothing from you, who had been so loud. This seemed the greatest loss of all, a more significant injustice than the disease that stole your body and your mind: your silence. You never liked silence. It made you uncomfortable, and you were always eager to fill a pause. You never could just be still, till now.
I left the church a little while later and drove to the long, low trailer where we had once lived side by side. It’s where you still lived, until…until.
It looked like I remembered, but with more of you and less of me. A row of orange bottles with long, typed labels stood across the back of the sink. They had names I couldn’t pronounce.
There was a framed picture of me on the desk by a stack of bills blaring red print from the headers. Dying is expensive, and you were never rich.
In the picture, I had long hair, and a pointed face, and skin that didn’t fit me underneath a blue dress that showed my shoulders. You loved this picture. I hated how much you loved it. After a moment, I slammed the photo to the desk surface hard enough to crack the glass.
There was nothing for me in your trailer, and I didn’t know why I thought there would be. Some part of me wondered if you’d have left me a note, some sign of forgiveness or apology or just an acknowledgement of our shared history. It was just the same shit I remembered, sans me and ten years later.
I didn’t come back when you got sick. I knew, of course; I had only been gone a year, and my transition was still in progress. But it had taken me a long time to listen to the canary in this fucking coal mine. You were toxic, and part of me was glad that you were dying, while the rest of me roiled with guilt for the thought.
There was your grandfather’s Bible, right where it always was, on the shelf and buried in the back of my mind, leather cracked, ribbons askew. The end came quickly, I guess, if it didn’t make its way to the hospital with you. Maybe you died here and the mailman found you when he came to deliver some bills. I realized I didn’t know.
I stood in the middle of that long, tousled room and felt suddenly very small. The decade that separated me from you, from this place, from nights under this tin roof and shouting matches from opposing sides of the table, seemed to shrink and spin until I was the me you knew again, with long hair and a pointed face and skin that didn’t fit.
Very quickly it grew hard to breathe and I shoved my way outside into the dirty snow. The trail was where I’d left it, peeling away from the trailer to the left and up onto the mountain. Without deciding to, I set my feet against it, heels sliding and dipping into the snow.
The walk wasn’t long, but it was cold, and I wasn’t dressed for it. When I got to the top, I was shivering and bitter about more than just the Tuesday funeral. I stared at the sun as it sank beneath the mountaintops and thought about home, and whether it’s people or a place, and how I couldn’t wait to return to mine, far south from here, where others waited for me.
As the stars popped one by one into being above me, bright as headlights with no nearby city to shush them, I glanced down at my feet.
Carved into the rock at the top, the flat one where we sat to watch sunsets and share thermoses of coffee, breathing into our hands against the cold, there was a name. It was my name – the name of the girl with long hair and ill-fitting skin. It had been my name. It was the name you knew of me, the one you refused to let go of. The one I didn’t tell people anymore.
I wondered why you put it there. Was it your grave for me, perhaps, like the one reserved for you outside the church where I left you today? It wouldn’t surprise me if I had been as dead to you when I left as you were now, all bad makeup and rigid suit sleeves. Maybe you needed to lay me to rest.
It was hard to think that you missed me, that you placed those letters here on the bones of the mountain because you wanted me back. Did you carve it when I left, or sometime after? How long did I live in your thoughts? Five years? Eight?
Did you think about me the day you died?
I stared at the rock for a long time, until the aurora awoke to paint colored lines across the velvet sky. The swirling lights, tendrils of green and purple and blue, reminded me of the skin you wore inside your coffin. Effervescent, shifting, hypnotic, but somehow also sharp, razors and ropes against the parts of me that keep you close.
I turned my back on the aurora, but it still lit my way back down the mountain.