The morning of Josie’s funeral was cloudless and knife-sharp, one of those bitter spring days that comes sandwiched between warmer ones and reminds you not to grow accustomed to good things. I was leaning against my car, face to the sun, trying to breathe, when Mark pulled into a spot near mine. I turned and watched as he got out of the car. He wore the scarf Chris and I had gotten him for his last birthday, soft dark blue cashmere, and my heart slammed inside my chest: that beautiful scarf still existed, warm as a blanket, and Josie was gone.
Geese honked overhead. The funeral was in thirty minutes. I shaded my eyes with my hand. The funeral home shared its parking lot with Meehan’s Market, a small upscale grocery store, and Mark and I, wearing our funeral finest, didn’t look so different from the well-dressed shoppers in their everyday expensive clothes, although we, of course, weren’t lugging canvas bags full of fresh bread and oranges and organic baby yogurts and bottles of red wine.
“Stay close to Mommy!” I heard from two different women almost in unison. “Hold Mommy’s hand, Olive,” one added.
Mark stumbled to me like a zombie, silent and dazed. His skin was pasty in the violent light. His face was unusually clean shaven and dotted with a few tiny, fresh specks of blood. His features seemed just slightly, disconcertingly off-kilter. Watching him, I understood that our pain separates us—that something as monumental as sorrow ought to make us porous, but it petrifies us instead. I understood that, and then, like a goldfish, I forgot it.
“Hi?” I said stupidly, as if we were meeting for coffee, or a blind date.
He mumbled something that sounded like my name and steadied himself on the hood of my car. “This was my fault,” he whispered, an agonized croak, and he looked past me, squinting against the glare of the sun bouncing off all the bright cars in the parking lot, the herd of wild minivans.
Josie had died two nights before at 2:00 a.m. on an icy overpass just north of downtown. Her rusty eleven-year-old Toyota skidded off the slick road like a can of soup rolling across a supermarket aisle. It crashed into a guardrail and killed her on impact. There was some alcohol in her blood, we learned, but she hadn’t been over the limit. She had, though, been going much too fast for the slippery conditions.
I got the call at 4:00 a.m. Hannah was at a sleepover. The phone woke me, and in a reptile panic I thought, Hannah. When Mark, on the other end of the line, said, “Josie’s been in an accident,” I’m ashamed to admit that I felt a split second of relief. But then I understood what I was being told, and the relief sizzled into horror.
“How could this be your fault?” I said, grasping Mark’s shoulders. “It’s not!”
A noise came from his throat, a squeaky gasp of breath, a not-quite-human cry: the soft, mad sound of grief. Of course it was his fault. And it was my fault, and possibly Chris’s, and most definitely Josie’s, and some other people’s faults, too: we were all guilty, to varying degrees, the calibrations of which I would scrutinize, often and obsessively, for months to come. And let me tell you, that is one joyless board game. The winner gets a toppling stack of misery and resentment and a free pass to therapy.
“Let’s go,” Mark said, recovering a bit. He put his arm around me, and we limped into Dalton’s Funeral Home together, up the wide wooden steps and into the foyer that was meant to look like a snug, old-fashioned sitting room, with its overstuffed love seats and faded floral wallpaper, as if death had been a more palatable affair seventy years ago, cozy as Mayberry.
Henry Dalton greeted us. He was tall and reedy, with a nimbus of wispy white hair. He spoke quietly to Mark, leaning in close without invading Mark’s space. . . . So sorry for your loss, I heard him say, . . . will want to pay their respects. . . . He managed to seem both rehearsed and completely sincere. That’s quite an undertaking, I imagined saying to Josie. I could almost feel her elbow sharp against my ribs. After a few minutes, he slipped away and disappeared into a side room.
Mark looked around for him, then turned to me and shrugged. “I think the funeral director is a ghost,” he said, and then he cringed. “This is my wife’s funeral,” he said, scolding himself, reminding himself. His dark gray suit was wrinkled and hung loosely off of his body, as if he were a boy pretending to be grown. “What would she make of this?” He cracked his knuckles. “I feel like I could just ask her! I keep hearing her voice. Like, Mark, this is a shit avalanche. Let’s get out of here and go to a movie.” Despair sparked in his eyes. “Literally, Iz. I’m hearing her.”
My throat tightened. “It’s okay,” I said. “Me, too. I’ve been talking to her, too.” I swallowed hard. “And I hear her, too,” I added, although I didn’t.
People began to wander through the front doors, friends, fellow teachers, some of Josie’s students and their parents. You could practically smell their collective apprehension, like a perfume. Eau de Dread. I hovered near Mark, suddenly unsure of my place in the hierarchy of mourning.
Josie was my best friend, Hannah’s honorary aunt. She was the one who would come over with a bag of chocolate-covered almonds when she thought my voice sounded funny on the phone. She was the one who waited for me in the hospital after Helene had her stroke, and for months she kept me company during the rehab appointments. She had sleepovers with Hannah, cookie-decorating parties, and movie nights, so that Chris and I could be alone—our S.O.S. weekends, Chris called them, when we were first acknowledging how dire things were: Sink or Swim. (And sometimes, I thought, but just to myself: Same Old Sex.) I told Josie everything, until I didn’t, and she told me everything, except she didn’t.
People were arriving now in a steady flow. Josie had few relatives, and they were far-flung: a cousin who lived in London, an uncle in Hawaii she barely knew, the casualties of a family rift a decade before she was born. Her parents had died years ago, a fact which had caused her great pain every day of her life and which right now would have given her solace if she’d been here—that her parents would not have had to suffer the anguish of attending their only daughter’s funeral. And that idea muddied my thinking, because if Josie were here, she wouldn’t have been granted that relief. That’s what my brain felt like on the day of my best friend’s funeral and for many weeks after: a confounding map of twisted, barely navigable roads that were long and tangled and led nowhere or doubled back without warning and ended up where they had begun.
Mark grew busy and distracted, accepting hugs and handshakes and responding to murmurs of sympathy. I had my first inkling about the comforts of this ritual: the more you were asked to attend to, the less you had to feel. I wandered away and peered out the front window. The sky was such a fine porcelain blue it looked like it might crack.
I had been worried that I wouldn’t get through the day without cracking, myself. But numbness seemed to be keeping me together. Relief at feeling nothing shuddered through me. There was probably a long, hard-to-pronounce German word for it: the overwhelming feeling of feeling nothing.
I watched as a small silver car pulled into a parking space, and a trio of teachers emerged from it: Andrea Brauer, Andi Friedman, and Kelly Anderson-Jensen. (Fifth-grade science, sixth-grade math, special ed.) They convened in the teachers’ lounge every morning before school and at every lunch hour and at the end of each school day, sitting and sipping their Starbucks half-caff skim lattes or huddled together, tapping away on their phones, or planning their Friday-afternoon drinking sessions at the Leopard Spot, a trendy retro seventies cocktail bar across town where they could enjoy a few well-deserved tequila sunrises away from the prying eyes of local parents. “You’re welcome to come,” Kelly used to say to us, shaking her head no so slightly I’m sure she didn’t even notice she was doing it. “I mean, everyone’s welcome.”
The Andes were ten years younger than Josie and I, smooth haired and hardworking. They assessed us—the dark circles under my eyes, the faint lines on Josie’s forehead, the pair of pants one of us might sometimes wear two or three or, let’s face it, four days in a row. They took disapproving note of our midcareer shortcuts, those self-preservatory downhill coasts that allowed a person to catch her breath in the midst of the drudgery: a joint sick day from which Josie and I would return with suspiciously pretty fingernails; a multiple-choice test administered when an essay would have been a better measure. They evaluated the sad lunches I stashed in the fridge—peanut butter on Ritz Crackers, one time just a large bag of pretzels and an expired jar of Nutella—detritus of my domestic life huddling pathetically next to their California rolls and their Cobb salads and their tiny portions of pad Thai. We tried, at first, joining them for coffee breaks or tagging along on their Friday-night outings. But their indifference with a thin politeness glaze was too much to bear.
“They reject the decade between us,” Josie said over a glass of wine one night in my living room as Hannah pirouetted nearby. “They refuse to admit that they will one day turn forty.”
“And then die!” I added, raising my glass, and we laughed, because that was it.
Pleasant, though: Andrea, Andi, and Kelly were perfectly pleasant colleagues, and we moved as separate entities through the school, and so all of that was fine until they clicked into Principal Coffey’s office in their slim trousers and their confident low heels and helped destroy Josie’s career. So the Andes were to blame for this, too. They were most definitely to blame.
“Mark,” Kelly Anderson-Jensen said, the front door blowing shut behind them.
“Mark,” Andrea and Andi echoed, “Mark,” as if they were setting their sights on a clay pigeon, and he came to greet them. They offered their condolences—which, let it be noted, use the same words as apologies—and hugged Mark, and hugged one another, and first Andrea started crying, and then Kelly, high-pitched little sobs, and before I knew it I was out the door, standing near the building, blinded by fury and trying, once again, to catch my breath. Josie, I thought, you should be here to see this. Josie. You fucking idiot.
That’s when I saw Chris and Hannah and my mother walking across the parking lot. I stepped onto the path in front of the funeral home and called out to them, and Chris and Helene came toward me, Chris supporting my mother with his arm, and Hannah wiped her eyes with her hand and extended her thin arm in a small wave, and there they were, my perfect little family, with their flushed cheeks and their ears and their lips and their bones.
Death smashes a crater into your life, and you’re left alone to sort through the rubble. But here’s something else I figured out in the long months after Josie died: she would always be my wild, grieving, huge-hearted, selfish, confident, insecure, extravagant, beloved best friend. I would define her. You think, during the worst of it, that it’s the other way around, but it’s not.
And here’s something else I learned: you lose some people that way—fast and blinding. But some people inch away from you slowly, in barely discernible steps.
In the end it almost doesn’t matter. They’re just as gone.
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Fox. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.