It’s triple digit weather in Fresno and I have no central air. If you were alive, I probably would have stayed at your place this weekend. I would have earned brownie points, driving you to breakfast at Jeb’s, maybe taking you antique shopping in Hanford. I would have helped you look for your keys and glasses and phone and back scratcher, and we’d both be annoyed by your inability to keep track of things. I would have talked you down and back into bed in the middle of the night, when you would have woken up because of the steroids. I would have still complained about the weather, even in the air conditioned protection of your house, cause that’s what I do May-September, no matter where I’m at. You would have said, “The weather can’t be gross, only humans can be gross so if you’re gross, you’re gross. Stop blaming the weather.” I would have laughed, but inside I would have known that if you weren’t sick, you’d probably be complaining right along with me. We would have a decent weekend, with the exception of the tense moments throughout all three days where we both would try to push down the nagging feeling that we were somehow paired up with the wrong person in the maternity ward back in September of 1980. And at the end of Sunday, you’d have been thankful I came and I would have been happy to have earned a few days for myself during the following week, while still feeling guilty for not being upfront that my underlying motivation was to avoid the thick, sticky air of my own apartment…And to get my laundry done, let’s be honest.
But you’re not alive. So instead I head to the beach right after work on Friday. I feel you beckoning me there, the way The Ghost of Christmas Past beckons Scrooge- with vast, long fingers of air and universe. I drive to your condo, which is now my condo. Rather, which is now half my condo, or will be once the probate court date finally happens in August. It’s so weird to think I have a beach condo when I don’t even own a home of my own. It’s so weird to think I own half of your favorite place in the world, when I only had the patience to take you there three times while you were alive. Lindsay and I have left everything as is, partly because she also doesn’t own a home and neither of us have the disposable income to redecorate. Also because it’s the one place to go that still feels like you. Your car is sold, your house in Laton is empty. Your grave in Corcoran is stuffed with a bloated, decaying body that didn’t look much like you even before we put it in the earth. I shudder to think what that casket holds now.
But your condo. Sea gulls and sand dollars and fish. Air conditioning where it’s not even needed. Your perfume, lightly embedded in every pillow and blanket. I enter the front door and immediately inhale the scent of you. I wonder how long Lindsay and I will own the place before it begins to smell like a combination of our body chemistries. Or if we’ll sell it before that even happens. If a stranger will buy it and whether they’ll even recognize the smell of the place as the scent of the woman who owned it and loved it until she got brain cancer and died.
I know I was the last one here. At least, I should have been. But I have a sense that someone else has sat on this couch, touched these counters, fingered through your dvd collection since the last time I was in town. There is a flashlight on your desk. Did I put that there? A second bottle of anti-bacterial handsoap in the kitchen. A pink leopard- print robe in the bathroom. It’s the size you were before the cancer. It’s soft and it smells like you, too. But it’s not terrycloth. You had four terrycloth robes at your old place. Two here at the condo. Why did you have this one, too? When did you get it? Does your ghost visit this place, belted up in a pink leopard-print robe, placing flashlights in new and interesting places?
I decide to cook something in the oven. It is full of pots and pans, almost like you used it as a drawer rather than a vehichle for cooking food. I wonder if, near the end, that’s what your brain thought it was. I look at the range top and see a piece of a mug handle broken off in one of the burners, and a second piece in the burner directly behind it. Was this there before? How have I never noticed it?
I frantically search for the cup with a missing handle. Maybe it’s already been thrown away. I finally see it, sitting on the ledge of a shelf with other beach-themed kitchen ware. It’s a white cup, with a cartoon of a beach chair and the word “relax” written across it. I look inside. There are three beer bottle caps and one dime. I wonder if you’re trying to communicate with me through alternate dimensions, like Matthew McConaughey attempts with Jessica Chastain in Interstellar. Then I remember how much I hated that movie. I picture you breaking the mug, not being able to find the pieces of the handle that slid under the burners on the range. Feeling like you were losing your mind cause they should have landed right in front of your face. Eventually forgetting what you were looking for to begin with, placing the cup back on the ledge, where your muscle memory knew it belonged.
I am reminded how I was tasked with cleaning out grandma’s closest when she died. Amid the stacks and stashes of important belongings of a woman with Alzheimer’s- the cough drops and kleenex and scribbled pieces of paper and old photos stuffed in the pockets of her pastel blazers and her polyester slacks- I found one letter she had written to you. It appeared she wrote it years before she passed on, years before genetics took her memory and thoughts. It was simultaneously written like a piece of snail-mail, a diary entry, and a prayer. In it, she said she loved you entirely and never blamed you for anything. I read the entire thing before climbing out of the closet and taking it to you in the living room, where you were trying to cheer up grandpa with other family members. I simply said, “look” and your eyes filled with tears as soon as you read the first line that said “Dear Jackie” in her handwriting. I watched relief wash over your face and down your tight shoulders, even though your face was still wet and you were shaking when you folded it up and put it in your purse. I’ve thought about that letter ever since you died. How come Lindsay and I never found it? I would imagine it being one of your most prized possessions. It wasn’t in your jewelry case, in your purse. Is it possible you didn’t keep it? I can’t believe that for a moment. Did we accidentally throw it away? Did you move it somewhere special, or bury it underneath a rose bush or something? This question haunts me as I desperately try to find my own letter from you. I comb through the condo, finding multiple reminders of your brain-stealing illness- notebooks with the same to do lists repeated on page after page after page, a post-it that simply says “take decadron” lodged in a bowl of Keurig coffee cups, shopping lists scattered throughout your bathroom drawers. But nothing for me. I try to unlock the bench in your living room but there is no key. I peek behind coloring book pages mounted with magnets on your freezer. I pad my way through both closets. But nothing. Nothing that absolves me the way your mother absolved you.
I am more alive than the last time I visited. I didn’t spend the entire weekend on the couch. I didn’t battle a headache from days of crying on end. Instead I went to a few of your favorite stores, worked on my laptop in a coffee shop, looked at the ocean. I praised how much better the weather was here than in Fresno, and I managed to get in a few loads of laundry.
Maybe you were here with me, after all.
– Haley Marie