Good mothers don’t lose composure, she thought, even if an asteroid is heading at them, they don’t loosen screen time limits or miss piano lessons.
Their new grandma died in early June, before summer turned up the heat to a toxic high. Nora found her face up in bed, on top of the blanket. Grandma was cold to the touch, her eyes were open, and her nightgown had twisted around her waist. The room was quiet, like every sound stood outside holding its breath. Nora wanted to call Mark, or better yet, wait for him to find the body. Now and then, her memory would slip and slide, and she’d forget that he had moved out six months ago. “This isn’t what I want anymore,” was what he told her. He didn’t ask her what she wanted because, evidently, he found that question irrelevant after twelve years of marriage and a child.
Circle Time for Death
Resting Beach Face
“I’m not crying, Jonah.” Just the sound of his name was like a warm blanket she could wrap around her shoulders. “We are going to have a ceremony for grandma on Saturday. You could invite a couple of your school friends.”
“Can Dad come?”
“We will ask him. But it’s not his weekend.”
“Chewy died with glued feet, but a free heart.” Jonah raised his fork and pointed it toward the ceiling.
Nora wiped the pasta sauce from his chin. Her boy might grow up to be a poet, a famous one, like Frank O’Hara.
It didn’t rain on Saturday, despite the forecast. The clouds were pacing the sky like restless commuters waiting for a delayed train. Jonah walked kicking the soil with the tops of his sneakers. They found their commemorative display and Jonah let her hold his hand. She kissed the top of his head. Grandma came out well. Her four-foot figure was positioned on a backless bench, with legs crossed and hands folded in her lap, and her face turned toward the park entrance. Her smile was welcoming without being overly eager, and the cream color Nora had chosen for her skin looked very natural. Jonah put his other hand on grandma’s head and stroked it a little.
Their guests began to arrive, and Nora thought it was going to be fine, even if Mark came. Trish showed up with Jeremy and apologized for her husband not making it. He was stuck at work, she said, yes on a Saturday. He had been stuck a lot lately, at work, in traffic, at the gym, or inside his garage. Trish said it like he had a condition, like his feet excreted small amounts of glue, fastening him to locations he was trying to leave. Nora noticed the dark circles under her sister’s eyes and said that she understood.
Someone had drawn a picture of the sun with a nipple. And she thought, Mark could end up like this, unless he learns to be less bitter.
The kids started a game of tag, making too much noise. A woman from a neighboring group gave Nora a look, but Jonah was being active and laughing, and Nora didn’t ask the kids to lower their voices. They probably shouldn’t have been shooting at the displays, she thought, but the park was not that crowded, and water does no harm to plastic. No one ever told the rain it was being disrespectful.
Nora knew most of these kids since they were babies, watched their bodies gain mass and their faces learn to lie, little lies growing into bigger lies. When they grow up, she thought, hardly anyone would be able to tell what they want anymore. Jeremy scouted the area, dropped to the ground in full sniper mode, and pointed his water gun at a nearby grandpa. The water hit the figurine right at the crotch. Nora knew her Jonah would never shoot at the balls. And then she thought it wasn’t going to be fine, if Mark comes, or if he doesn’t.
But he decided to come. She recognized his ambiguous walk from afar. This way of swaying side to side, throwing each foot out at an outgoing angle, as if he was about to turn but changed his mind at the last minute, and had to correct his trajectory with each subsequent step. These small details used to make Nora think that Mark was unique, and that uniqueness explained love. But after they separated, these details began to detach, and the person who she knew as Mark was becoming a collection of parts without assembly instructions.
He smiled and said hello to her as if he never had told her that their life together became a house without windows, or doorways, or even a skylight, and he needed to leave. And she wondered how he was planning to escape, dig a tunnel? Now the man coming to pick up Jonah every other weekend, passing her Jonah’s backpack without touching her hand, was Mark, but not Mark.
Jonah ran to his father. Mark lifted his son into the air, wrapped him in a hug, and paused, hiding his nose in Jonah’s hair. Nora recognized the move. When the world stood too close, the smell of Jonah’s hair could push it back about an arm length.
“How are you, champ?” Mark said.
Nora hated when Mark called their son champ. Such an innocuous word, but it had spent years rolling around in her irritation, grew fat, and now subtexts and undertones were pasted to its buttery surface. Two people become too close, and simple language turns into an obstacle course.
“Are we ready to start?” Mark asked her.
He didn’t thank her for planning the ceremony, or helping Jonah with his parting speech, or for all the years she had spent in a car with him, listening to him criticize everyone else’s method of changing lanes, or breaking. It takes a special kind of patience to be someone’s passenger. Then they stopped being a we, before she could tell him that she only pretended to sympathize, and his driving in stop-and-go traffic made her nauseous. Then became now. Now, on a painfully clear night, with whom did he share the moon? When he wasn’t feeling well, who touched his forehead, first with a hand, then with lips, to judge if he felt warm? To whom was he sending videos of baby elephants bathing in mud puddles?
“We’re ready,” she said.
Kids formed a circle around the display, holding hands and giving each other slight pushes. Adults stood back, letting their children fully engage in grieving. Kids walked four circles around their grandma’s display. Each circle represented a life stage: childhood, youth, adulthood, then the age of reflection. They chanted the farewell jingle. Earth to water, water to air, air to memory, memory burns in colors of spring.
Then her Jonah stepped forward, composed and somber. Nora shushed the other kids. Trish squeezed Jeremy’s arm; he squirmed but stayed in place. Jonah unfolded the paper in his hand and began to read without rushing or swallowing his words, like they had practiced.
“Dear Grandma Two. I’m sorry you died. Mom said it was the natural order of things. My first grandma also died, so she is even deader than you.”
Nora was thinking that deader shouldn’t be a word. Aliver wasn’t one. If one could argue there were gradations in the state of being alive, being dead was a binary proposition. Anything no longer alive was equally dead compared to all other, preceding dead things. It was not a sliding scale.
“I asked Mom and Dad to pick you because you seemed nice, and also you were short, like my first grandma. I’m the shortest in my class, even though Ben S. is shorter than me, but he is the new kid, so no one cares about him. But I cared about you and I’m very sorry about the natural order of things. I wish you didn’t have to die, and we could go upstate this summer. There is a lake with these really cool frogs. They are big and fat and glow a little. Dad said if you discover a new star you could name it after someone. I don’t know how to discover new stars, but I know how to discover new frogs. I will name one after you. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which frogs are new and which I’ve already discovered. But Dad said it’s the thought that counts. I will think about you when I go to the lake and count my thoughts. I will try to miss you as much as I missed my first Grandma. Love, Jonah.”
Nora teared up a bit after the speech, even though they had practiced it together. She always knew her Jonah was imaginative and creative, but what intensity and vivid imagery. She shared her observation with Mark, but he nodded without conviction. Kids returned to eating pizza and spraying each other with water guns; adults returned to checking their phones and polite gossip.
Mark said his goodbyes. He hugged Jonah, ruffled his hair, and said: “See you later, champ.” Jonah ran off to play tag with the other kids.
“You cannot keep doing this,” Mark said to her. “You cannot keep filling in the blanks for him. He has to learn to live with them. That’s growing up.” Nora wanted to tell Mark that if he wanted to continue telling her what she could or couldn’t do in this patronizing fashion, he shouldn’t have left her. But she felt exhausted even imagining the fight they would’ve had and said nothing.
On their second, maybe third date, when they still saw each other through the smoke of excitement, Mark had told her that a family was the only place where people could do small things for each other and feel bigger. He said there was only one thing people truly wanted from each other, and it was to know that they mattered.
Jeremy was throwing dirt into the drinking fountain. Nora watched Trish struggle to drag him away. People told each other they mattered, she thought. It was easy enough. What people also wanted was to be spared the words that left tire tracks on their skin. For people who were a family, but aren’t any more, not starting a fight remains about the only thing they could still do for one another.
They read together at bedtime. Jonah picked a book about a remote island off the coast of Nova Scotia that offered a refuge to sea lions. Her son cared about animals. After he fell asleep, she stayed in his bed and listened to him breathe. His breaths landed softly all around, on the blanket, the floor and her skin, and soon the space around her was filled with air that used to be Jonah’s.
Her son’s bed was narrow, but she tried not to move, wondering how long she could stay still. Good mothers keep calm. Should she start looking for a new grandma alone? Or try dating? She had been with Mark since college and had no idea what had happened to men since then. They could’ve evolved. Developed an ability to see infrared light. Or maybe they’ve learned to sprout extra arms on demand, like an octopus, who used one of these arms to mate. She and Jonah had read a book about cephalopods and it said that an octopus had three hearts. That was handy. If she were an octopus, she wouldn’t use all three, she’d keep at least one heart in reserve, not to wear it out. And when she grew old, it would still be perfectly intact, maybe ossified.
Maybe this wasn’t what she wanted anymore: not a new grandma, or Mark, or a new Mark. What if people overpack for old age, not realizing there are restrictions for both the number of bags and their weight? She imagined arriving there with nothing but a carry-on and, for some reason, a parasol umbrella. She could travel to Patagonia. She liked the idea of a place that was called the South but was inauspicious and cold, like the North. There’d be glaciers and penguins, but to them she wouldn’t matter. She’d be windburned and have arthritis. With her, she’d carry a picture of Jonah, maybe a graduation picture or one from his wedding. She’d keep showing it to everyone she’d meet, and they’d smile politely and know that having nothing was a position she had earned, after years of bagged lunches, math worksheets, overcrowded swimming pools, and mended temper tantrums. Would she keep the memories of who she was? Or replace them with the memories of who she was not. Would it matter if her memories were true, if she believed they were hers?
Jonah turned in his sleep, with a whimpering wet sniffle. The room wasn’t cold, but she tucked the blanket under them, then pulled it over her face. She could still see the outline of Jonah’s head on the pillow in the light leaking from the outside.
Marina Petrova’s work has been published in The Blue Nib, The Pinch, Empty Mirror, The Conium Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. She received fellowships from MacDowell and The Mineral School. She lives, works, and tries to keep writing in New York City.