Sway / by Stillwater Magazine

by Joseph Heiland

 

It was thirteen hours after he died. Gemini’s paws beat the floor just beyond the screen. She scratched at the wood and circled back, pacing up and down the entrance stairs. Her fur was loose, barely clinging to the skin. It fell in clumps when snagged by the sharp edges of the coffee table or the cotton of her polyester bedding. Whenever Sarah smoothed the graying dog’s coat individual strands caught beneath her nails and were flicked away, piling on the floor, patiently awaiting the vacuum’s pull.

The dog had heard the doorbell from her spot below the couch and jolted upright, her ears perking up for a split second before she processed the noise and came racing around the bend. She whined with her snout clenched shut, unable to contain herself from excitement but aware that, for some reason, it wasn’t right to bark or cry.

Those on the couch above her had been talking in whispers that were not brimming with the joy she was used to. They spoke without voice, words passing through teeth but only barely. More than once they had to repeat themselves—muttering something about how he laughed or the way his cheeks rose when he smiled or how they couldn’t believe they were saying all of these things as though they were in the past. Aware that years down the line they would try to say similar things but would find that the more days and months and years came between them and this moment the looser each thread would become in their memories. That eventually someone would say something that wasn’t exactly true but that the others wouldn’t correct and so they would say it over and over in their minds and aloud and that soon even the others would find themselves saying it, believing it to be true. They knew this would happen, perhaps was already happening, and so they spoke in whispers, unsure if releasing the thoughts into the world somehow weakened their resolve to remember. As though the man they had called father and husband were some rock caught in the mud of a riverbed, smoothed more and more by the current until his face sank unto itself and was lost in the stream.

After a moment, Sarah appeared at the top of the steps. Sunlight peered through the curtain behind the couch and bathed the living room in scarlet. Our eyes met. A thin line of tears coursed down her face and bent along her cheeks. She tried to smile but sobbed instead. A shudder passed from her neck to her shoulders and spine, flowing over her like electricity through a conductor and running harmlessly into the ground. I opened the screen and stepped inside, moving toward her with my arms outstretched. She fell into them, her forehead nestling into my shoulder. Her arms tried to wrap around my back but could not. She pressed her knuckles into my chest.

“I just,” she said. She lifted her head to look at me. “He just.”

I kissed her cheek and pulled away, licking my lips of the salt from her tears. “I know,” I said. “I know.” And we stood, unmoving. Gemini sniffed my ankle. Clawed at my toes.

***

Three years had passed. Dense clouds obscured already-dim moonlight. Wind blew towards the lake, pushing us into the center of the road as cars skidded by. We clung to each other, arms linked, our weight held back against the incline. The only light came from scattered street lamps that burned mutedly, a steady stream of snowflakes migrating past.

Sarah crossed her arms, wrapping her fingers around her sides to try and quell the chattering in her ribs. “What did she say the address was, again?”

I unzipped my jacket enough to reach into my breast pocket. I pulled out my phone, pressing the home button with my thumb and breathing hot air onto the screen.

“It died,” I said, rubbing my fingers together. We surveyed the area. Tall, thin houses ran along both sides of the street—colorless, save those few painted by the street lamps. “But it was definitely around here. It has to be one of these.” We continued on, squinting at each mailbox, praying that the right house would reveal itself to us.

Sarah stopped suddenly, tugging at my wrist with one hand, clutching my chin with the other. She raised an eyebrow and lifted onto her toes. We kissed, wind beating our cheeks. I breathed in through my nose and felt the sting of cold air as it passed through my nostrils. “I love you,” she said, breathing out. Our mouths came apart, and she rested her temple against my neck. The heat from our bodies blended together until equilibrium was reached and it no longer mattered where one person’s skin ended and the other’s began.

I closed my eyes, bent on sensing everything there was to sense in that moment. I noted the tender cartilage of my ears and the sound of branches rocking in the wind and the tremendous silence of our kiss amid all of that noise and motion. When the silence passed, she released her grip on my wrist and stepped back. She stood there, smiling up at me, and then turned back toward the road. I followed behind, making sure to place my feet in the prints left by her boots, leaving one set where there should have been two.

The wind swelled. Sarah raised a hand to keep her hat from flying off. She turned and made a face at me. Her eyes were wide, her lips tightly rounded. She chuckled under her breath. “Woo!” she laughed. “Close one.”

“You’re a goof,” I said, shaking my head. We kept walking.

***

Four days after he died.

It was raining, and we were in need of cleansing. We sat on the couch, listening as chatter floated in from the patio. Photo albums were piled on the coffee table. Gemini’s head rested at my feet. Every half hour the phone rang, and every half hour Sarah’s mother sprang from wherever she had been to snatch it up, mumbling into the speaker about life insurance and funeral costs and every other thing she wished her children wouldn’t have to hear.

And every hour someone new rapped their knuckles on the screen door, platters of lasagna and salad and dinner rolls cradled in their arms. Those close to the family did not wait to be let in, simply shifting the platter to their weak arm, fumbling with the handle, and stepping up and into the foyer. Soft eyes awaited them, devoid of tears yet glittering.

Soon it became a burden—all of that food. One refrigerator filled, and then two. And then it had to be turned away. (More so in gesture than speech.) “Thank you so much for thinking of us,” Sarah’s mother would say, smiling. Her head tilted on its axis. “Everyone’s been so helpful. Really, thank you.”

But there was tension in her voice. A way of spacing the words that erected a wall between herself and the dear-family friend at the bottom of the stairs.  Everyone else has been so helpful, that space said, so you don’t have to be.

Speech from the patio aside, all was quiet. So quiet that someone made a joke (more to themselves than to the others) about how it felt like we were in a graveyard. “Oh, well,” they said, embarrassed, shifting in their seat. They let out a forgiving sigh, and then someone put a CD into the stereo system and turned up the volume.

After that, it was easier to be sad. Knowing that we didn’t need to come up with all of the feeling ourselves in order to feel. A certain ease in nodding our heads to piano chords that seemed to resonate from the earth itself. Blanketing the room in harmonies that almost made us forget why it had been so quiet in the first place. We talked for a little while about the future—how senior year of high school was only a few weeks away, and how Sarah and I needed to start thinking about things like college applications and how we would manage long-distance.

Rain continued to fall. Steadily tapping the roof with droplets that gave rhythm to the air. It was raining and piano music was playing and at some point Sarah raised herself up from the couch and said to me, “Let’s go outside,” and I didn’t say Sarah, it’s raining, but just, “Okay,” and we went. Without shoes to cover our feet or jackets to cover our still-raw hearts, we stood on the driveway, holding each other. And Sarah’s tears were washed away by the rain as we danced under the weeping sky.

We ran along the side of the house to the back yard, clutching hands and feeling everything. How the cold, wet grass clung to our heels as we bound up the hill. The cheery whistle of birds hidden in the trees that trilled almost in spite of the rain and wind. The way Sarah’s hand felt in mine as I twirled her around, and how she giggled when I went for the dip but almost dropped her into the mud.

And then we jumped into the pool with our clothes still on and I lifted her into my arms and we kissed but mostly we just swayed. Swayed because the water was cold and we needed to warm up but also because the occasion called for it. Swayed because it felt right at the time and because we had become vessels for something deeper than ourselves that was just then taking form.  

The clouds parted and the pool water danced in the sunlight as raindrops washed the sky. Not in sheets but in lines that fell and were breathed in by the dirt. A rainbow leapt over the clouds, and Sarah looked at it for a long while before turning to face me. “Joey,” she said. “I think he just made it to Heaven.” And she smiled so helplessly that I tried to swallow but choked. I must have made a face because she laughed and then I laughed and then there was no stopping us. We laughed as the water curved around us and knew that we were laughing for her dad but also for ourselves.

A monarch butterfly drew loops in the air and perched on the pool ledge to our right. I planted my feet, anchoring us to the spot. We pressed our cheeks together and watched as the butterfly fluttered its wings to beat off moisture. It flew away and we followed its path to the trees lining her yard until the orange and black were lost amid fallen pine needles. The rain fell harder and we took in as much air as we could possibly hold and submerged our heads beneath the surface of the water, opening our eyes to the sting of chlorine and keeping them open. We looked up at the surface and marveled as rainy needles dyed the turpentine like paint drops splattered on canvas. We came up, gasping but lighter. Our hair and our clothes wet. Our eyes burning as tears worked to flush away the chemicals.

Sarah climbed the ladder and shook out her hair and tugged the soaking shirt from her chest. She scanned the yard for more butterflies but, finding none, looked at me instead. How much I wish she’d seen one—how glad I am she didn’t.

Her mother opened the back door and Gemini raced through the gap to meet us. She barked in the open air and her voice echoed back and forth in that space between the trees and the house. It was high-pitched but full, gladly interrupting the rainfall that pulsed lightly against the roof and the grill we had forgotten to cover and every other solid thing within earshot.

We went inside and wiped our feet clean of grass. Sarah’s mother handed us towels and we ran them through our sopping hair. Gemini came in and shook out her coat. She felt our smiles and danced around the living room, overcome by the urge to play. We watched as she looped around the kitchen and couldn’t help but smile at her relief. When she was finished, the entire house was damp and covered with fur, but no one seemed to care.

Sarah was happy for a little while but soon fell back into sorrow. It wrapped around her neck and cut the circulation from her fingers when she wasn’t careful, always waiting for her head to droop so as to pull it down further still. When she laughed it had no choice but to loosen its grip, and so for weeks I spoke as though laughter was the only air pure enough to breathe in. But it wasn’t always enough, and still isn’t enough. And so I watch her eyes and listen to her voice as words turn into sobs. Hoping that, when all else fails, my silence won’t.