My father’s funeral was on a Monday. I paid the director by check and walked into the funeral home. The caterers were sending everything to the house. The house I would have to sell, now that my father was dead. I hadn’t spoken to my father in four years. Not since he told me that if I wanted to move to New York, be an artist, I was dead to him. Okay, I said. I guess I’m dead to you, then. He still spoke to my brother, Grant, who would be here before the funeral started. Grant was two years younger than me and a doctor in Los Angeles. Obviously my father liked him more than he liked me. My father was ex-military and a hardass. I hadn’t missed him once we stopped talking.
Coming home was like trying on clothes from high school—I was relieved to find out they still fit but also somewhat horrified to think I could still be that person. If I wanted to. If I just changed a few things about my life.
But I wasn’t. I was thirty. And maybe my plaid skirts and Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirts still fit, but I was not the same person.
I supposed I was sad that my father was dead, though. He had driven my mother away. I didn’t know where she was. I didn’t know how to get in contact with her, tell her he was dead. Maybe she was checking obituaries, and she would see. And come. I hoped, vaguely, that this would happen. I knew it wouldn’t. Likely she was in Florida or something, someplace warm, not thinking about us.
The funeral home was depressing. Poorly lit. It smelled of formaldehyde. People would start arriving in half an hour. I had elected for a short service, the shortest possible. My dad hadn’t been particularly well liked. He was a tough man. But he had friends, drinking buddies at the bar, and they would show up. Then they would descend on the house, for the wake, get plastered on Jim Beam and fall asleep on the couches, leaving me to clean up.
I wasn’t looking forward to this day. I guess no one really looks forward to their father’s funeral. But I was particularly apprehensive.
“Sara,” someone said. I turned. It was Grant. He looked older. I hadn’t seen him in person in two years, although we talked on the phone every few weeks, texted more frequently than that. “You look good.”
I was wearing a too-tight black dress, heels. “So do you.”
He looked tired. He was in his last year of residency at the hospital. Neither of us had been able to get away when we had heard Dad had a heart attack—Grant, because he was working; me, because I didn’t want to. “Let’s get this party started, then,” Grant said. “Put the fun back in funeral.”
I smiled, despite myself. Grant could always make me laugh. He was my baby brother. “Who do you think is going to show up?” he said. “Eric?”
My blood ran cold. “I doubt it.”
“He could. We ran the obit in the paper, like Dad wanted. He could have seen it.”
“I highly doubt Eric reads the local paper.”
Still, I had thought about it. From Facebook, I knew Eric had a wife and a two-year-old, that he seemed happy. We had broken up when I had gone away to college, RISD in Rhode Island. We had still seen each other for birthdays and Christmases, up until I moved away for good four years ago, after the big split with my dad. In those four years, Eric had gotten married, had a kid, started building a life for himself. A life without me.
I didn’t know what I would say if he showed up. “Sorry for leaving?” “How dare you move on?” “Are you happy?” Nothing seemed right. Probably I would just stand there, dumbfounded, until he walked away.
“You never know,” Grant said. “It’s a small town.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Someone walked through the doors, and Grant went to greet them. I stood by the photograph of my dad, feeling inadequate. It was a feeling I was used to. More people started coming through the doors, and I exhaled slowly. I just had to get through this day, and then I could pack up the house and leave this town and never, ever come back.
The wake was an absolute disaster. All of my dad’s drinking buddies brought whiskey, and no one touched the plate of bagels the caterers brought, they just kept drinking until they couldn’t see straight, and sprawled out on the couches telling stories about my dad that I really didn’t want to know, disgusting stories, while Grant and I tried to keep straight faces and took turns going outside to smoke cigarettes. Leaving these men alone inside our house invited the fear that they might break something.
About an hour in, it got even worse. Owen showed up.
“Sara. It’s good to see you.”
I was already incredibly drunk. “So,” I said, feeling the meanness creep into my voice. “Your brother was too much of a little bitch to show up, huh?”
“I think he didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to come today,” Owen said. I remembered how much I had always liked Owen, and tried to keep my composure. “Given all that’s happened.”
“Not appropriate,” I said. “Is that his way of saying he doesn’t want to see me?”
“I think that’s his way of saying he doesn’t think it’s a good idea for you two to see each other,” Owen said. “But I can’t read his mind. I don’t know everything he’s thinking.”
Owen was three years behind me and Eric in school. He followed us around everywhere. We taught him how to smoke weed, how to smoke cigarettes, how to hide it when you’re too drunk to stand. He was like my little brother, too. It was hard to see him like this.
“Not a good idea?” I said. “What does he think I’m going to do?”
“You know, he’s married now.”
“I’m not going to attack him,” I said. “I have self control.”
“I can see that,” Owen said.
“Don’t be a fucking asshole.”
I could tell I was swaying in my shoes. Owen looked at me and I could tell he was judging me, wondering where the person he had admired had gone. I wondered what had happened, too. “I don’t want to see him, either,” I said. “I don’t have anything to say to him. But you know, there’s a lot of things that happened that you don’t know about.”
Eric couldn’t have told Owen everything that happened. There was no way. We had sworn to keep it a secret, punishable by death.
“I’m sure there’s a lot about your relationship with my brother I don’t know about,” Owen said. “But that’s between you and him.”
“So tell him that,” I said.
“I just came to pay my respects,” Owen said. “This isn’t about my brother.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I’m going to go now,” Owen said. “I’ll tell my brother you said hello.”
“You do that. Actually, as a matter of fact, don’t.”
I knew I was being vindictive, but I couldn’t help it. I hated Eric for not coming, when I needed him more than ever. So what if he had a wife and a kid now? My father had just died. He should have known that I would need him. He should have put that aside.
I went into the back room and pulled out my phone. I still had his number saved. We had agreed to delete each other’s numbers, but I never had. I thought about dialing it for a long time. Sitting in the dark, I don’t know what happened, but I must have fallen asleep.
I dreamed of looking for something I couldn’t find. When I awoke, it was dark inside the house. Everyone had left. Grant was still awake, cleaning up beer bottles that people had left on side tables and on end tables around the house. “Are you alright?” he said. “You disappeared.”
“I saw you talking to Owen. Did he come to talk to you about Eric?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“Sara,” Grant said quietly. “What did happen between you and Eric? That made you leave, that last time? It wasn’t just things between you and Dad, I know that.”
“I can’t—I can’t talk about it. I promised Eric I would keep it between us.”
It felt like a non-answer, and yet it was the truth. I didn’t want to betray Eric’s confidence, even though I wanted to tell Grant what happened, more than anything. I wanted him to understand. I wanted someone to understand. Even I didn’t fully understand the choice I made, but it’s what I did. I had to live with it.
“Alright,” Grant said. “If that’s what you want.”
I went upstairs to my childhood bedroom, long ago converted to a guest room. I got ready for bed, even though I’d been sleeping for hours. I felt strangely exhausted. It had been a long day. As I was getting into bed, my phone rang, a number I didn’t have saved.
I answered the phone. “Hello?”
“It’s me. Come outside.”
Eric was as tall as I remembered, his long blond hair tied back with a leather thong. His face was orange in the porch light, the hard planes of his cheeks brutal and unforgiving. He looked at me and I could tell he was doing the same thing I was—examining the differences. I had stopped coloring my hair dark a few years ago, and let it go to its natural brown color. I had stopped wearing my glasses, and started wearing contacts. I was dressed for bed, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, my feet bare. He was wearing a work shirt and jeans. He looked severe, as always. I had always admired that about him; his industry, his ability to look like a workman in any scenario. He was blue collar and I respected that. I was something else, and that separated us. In the end, it was what had drawn us apart.
“Your brother said you weren’t coming.”
“I had to.”
“Your father died.”
He took a packet of Marlboros from his shirt pocket and offered me one. We smoked in silence for a few moments. “I’m sorry I didn’t come earlier,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what people would say.”
“You didn’t know what your wife would say.”
“She doesn’t know I’m here.”
He blew smoke out of his nose. “Why didn’t you tell her?” I asked.
“I didn’t know how to explain who you are to me.”
“You can’t just say, ex-girlfriend?”
“You know you’re more than that.” He paused. “You are.”
“I know.” I didn’t know what to say next, so I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to say something.
“I’m sorry about your father,” he said.
“We never got along, anyhow.”
He put his hand over my hand, a gesture that was meant to be comforting but came off as patronizing. He had never had a parent die. Now both of mine were gone. He had sat with me, when my mother had left, when I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or do anything, and I had never thanked him, not once.
“I was just thinking about your mother,” he said, as if he could read my mind. “This isn’t like that.”
“No, it’s not. I never said thank you, for that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Well I’m saying it again.” I searched his face for answers, for reasons why he was so cold and yet so familiar at the same time, and found nothing. He was a stranger to me now. We hadn’t spoken in four years and he had a wife and a child and a whole life without me in it. “Tell me about your baby.”
“My son,” he said slowly. “Yes. His name is Keith.”
“You always wanted to be a father.”
This admission brought an arc of pain so pure into my body that I nearly doubled over. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do that for you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “You had other things you needed to do.”
“And I’m doing them,” I said. “I just had my first show in New York.”
“That’s great, then.”
For another moment, we’re silent. He flicked his cigarette butt away and I did the same. “If it had been a boy,” he said. “I would have named him Jonathan.”
“We never talked about names.”
“I thought about it, though,” he said. “Did you?”
“I tried not to,” I said. And I remembered the drive to the clinic, the way he had broken down and cried and begged me not to do it, the way he had asked me to stay, stay in town and be his wife, and the way I had coldly shut the car door behind me and gone inside, and let them cut his baby out of me, because I didn’t want to, I was afraid to, I couldn’t imagine the rest of my life as a wife and a mother to a man I wasn’t sure I loved, to a man I desperately loved, when I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to make something of myself, I wanted to leave this stupid town and do something. Something else. I wanted to stick it to my father. I wanted to show them all. I couldn’t let him trap me. I couldn’t. “I’m so sorry.”
And then we were both crying, and holding each other, and I knew that he could never tell his wife about this, there are certain things that married couples must keep from each other, just like there were things he and I had kept from each other, and I remembered the last thing I had said to him, which was “I love you like a brother,” which was a lie, a deranged lie, for I loved him so much more than that, I always would, and I felt sick to my stomach. Had I made the wrong choice? We held each other and cried for a long time, grieving the life that never was. The life that he had built for himself in the interim loomed over us.
At a certain point, we separated. We didn’t say anything to each other. He got into his car and drove off. And I went back into the house.
Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart nominated author of the poetry collection The Pathophysiology of Longing (Black Centipede Press, 2020) and the short story collection Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021). Her work has been seen across the web and in print. She reads poetry for Frontier Poetry, fiction for the Masters Review, is Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, and received her M.F.A. in Fiction from New York University in 2021.