At my Mom’s wake there were all these people dressed in black holding small glass plates filled with hors devours that I’d never met before. I’m not sure she knew any of them. They lined up in their tuxedos and their funeral dresses and shook the King of California’s hand. The women kissed his cheek. They told him that they were sorry for his loss. His loss.
This whole story is about people dying. That’s the theme. Put it on an index card for your book club. Until nine days ago I’d never really known anyone that died before. I had a cat named Baxter that got feline leukemia and Mom said he had to go to sleep but I didn’t go with her to the vet and I never saw him again. She said I was too young. It’s embarrassing to admit but back then, after Mom took Baxter to the vet, I actually imagined a room full of cats and dogs and hamsters and little brothers and sisters and Mom’s and Dad’s just sleeping forever. I imagined the background noise in the city was all of those sleeping people and pets snoring. Fuck you. I was five. I didn’t understand how it worked and even after I knew it, even after the logical scientific kind of reality sunk in, it still doesn’t quite cover it, does it?
I could feel people staring at me when I wasn’t looking. Thinking that it was my fault. And you know what? I think maybe they were right.
Servers walked by with trays of sushi or cream puffs, shrimp cocktail or stuffed mushrooms. The bars were open. People mingled. They told stories. They laughed. It was like one of their parties with a photo of my Mom in the center next to a big porcelain urn.
I wished for an earthquake or a typhoon. I wanted a massive crack to split underneath the King of California’s estate and swallow all of us, for the earth to turn into teeth and devour us, devour the King and his mournful eyes, devour these cocktail grievers with their wine spritzers, devour the catering staff and devour Prince Eddie and devour me and all of her ashes.
The doctor in the Emergency Room he gave me these pills. “These will make it better,” he told me. “Easier.” But it’s not supposed to be better or easy. I’m an orphan now.
When you know someone that’s died, death suddenly has a time machine and gets to go back to every memory of them you’ve ever had and add on this epilogue. I remember stupid stuff with my Mom or Baxter, playing a board game or falling asleep in the car on the way home from the beach but all those memories now have an addendum; P.S. And then she died. I don’t even get to remember her alive. She dies again every time I remember her.
“How are you holding up?” A woman with straight gray hair and too few wrinkles asked me.
“What?” I said.
“I’m Matilda,” she told me. “I’m – I was – a friend of your mother’s.”
I looked at Matilda’s California botox face. “No,” I told her.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I know. I lost my mother too.”
“When?” I asked her.
“It’s been a long time,” Matilda said. “Twenty years.”
“I’m fifteen,” I told her. “It was my birthday.”
I was in the middle of an eight lane intersection when my mom died and she was in the middle of the sentence. I’ll never forget how surprised she looked. Her eyes opened wide and a moment later a truck hit the front end and we spun. She was dead before we stopped moving. Her neck snapped back and her mouth was open. I waited for her to say something. The paramedics had to cut me out. If she had five more seconds I wonder what she would have said. Stop leaving the peanut butter out on the counter, Betty. What do you think about tacos for dinner? Bye bye, Betty- I’m gonna die now. I’ll miss you. Yeah. Trust me. Not as much as I’ll miss you. The dead never miss us as much as we miss them, right?
“Yes,” Matilda said. “I’m so sorry. It’s terribly tragic.”
“No,” I told her. “You weren’t her friend. She didn’t know you.”
Matilda’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”
“You didn’t know her,” I said. “I never saw you. She never mentioned you. I’m her daughter.” My voice got louder. People turned to see what was happening. During the wake there was like this silent agreement that all of our grieving would be appropriate. There’d be folded hands and folded starched handkerchiefs. I was blowing it for everyone.
“None of you knew her. She didn’t care about any of you,” I told them. They looked back at me, too appalled to speak, maybe compiled their polite reviews of the wake to exchange at future parties. “You’re fake people,” I said. “You’re not her real friends.” I started to cry. “I don’t want you here, she wouldn’t want you here.”
“Elizabeth,” the King of California said as he walked toward me. He put his hand on my shoulder. I shook it off.
“That’s not my name!” I screamed at him. “I’ve told you a million times. It’s Betty. My name is Betty. That’s what she named me.”
“Betty,” he said.
“No!” I screamed. “No!”
“Poor girl,” Matilda said and shook her head sympathetically that way that these fake California people do, the way that’s so completely condescending and smug.
“No!” I screamed right into Matilda’s face. “No,” I repeated. “You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to be here. You don’t get to feel anything for me or for her because you’re not real. None of you are. You’re half people.”
“Betty!” More insistent.
The ground starts to shake. The walls start to sway. Glasses and dishes fall off tables. Shatter. Mom’s picture falls forward, tumbles to the ground and breaks. The urn is shaking. I look at the King of California. I look at all the people. They’re silent and frozen. I run as fast I can to Mom. My arms outstretched.
The ground splits in front of me, a crack speeding ahead of me toward the urn. Everything’s moving so slow. Eddie’s there. Staring at me in his swimming trunks and baby fat, dripping. The crack gets to the urn and I scream but I can’t even hear my own voice.
“I didn’t do this. It’s not my fault.”
The urn splits in half. The pieces explode. The ashes fall.
“BETTY!” It’s not the King of California. It’s Kitty. This isn’t a memory. I’m dreaming.
I open my eyes and hit the breaks. The car screeches to a halt in the middle of the desert. The road is empty. The headlights look out at blank asphalt. My heart is sieging against my chest trying to get out. My hands are wrapped around the steering wheel so tight I don’t think I can let them go.
I look in the rear view. Jaydee and Bonita are passed out, drifted into Xanax bliss. I see Carl’s eyes look back at me from Bonita’s lap. He’s awake and silent.
“Turn here,” Kitty said and motions to a small dirt road I would never have noticed.
I nod and hit the turn signal. I slowly turn onto the road.
Kitty offers me a tissue. I realize my face is wet and there’s mascara and foundation and blush running down in drops to my chin.
“Bonita,” I say.
“It was a dream,” I tell Kitty.
Kitty puts her hand on mine on the steering wheel. She squeezes. “I can talk about dreams. Anytime.”
“I’m okay,” I say.
“You’re tired,” she tells me.
“I’m not,” I say
“Alright,” she says but it’s obvious she’s not convinced.
“Is it much farther?”
Kitty nods. She hands me a water bottle. I open it and drink from it, realizing as it hits my mouth how thirsty I am.
“It’s going to be morning soon,” I realize looking at the clock in the dashboard.
Kitty digs through a bag at her feet. “Snowball or beef jerky,” she asks me, holding up a package of two pink coconut balls and a bag of preserved meat.
“Snowball,” I say.
She opens the package and holds the snowball close to my mouth. I bite it and take the whole thing with a giggle.
“Watch the road.” She says.
“I AM,” I manage to say with a full mouth, pink crumbs spilling out all over my shirt.
“Drink your water,” Kitty says after I’ve managed to choke down about half of it with the rest falling to my lap. I do as she says.
Kitty pokes me to get my attention and I look over. She has the second snowball in her mouth and as her eyes widen she closes her mouth.
“No way,” I tell her and look back and forth from the road to her eating it. She manages to eat the whole thing without any crumbs or messing up her lipstick. She takes the water from me and washes it down. I clap softly for her and she does a small bow in her seat.
“Is this doctor going to be able to help, Carl?” I ask her after a few minutes more on the silent stretch of dirt desert road.
“I think so,” she says.
“We should have taken him to a hospital,” I say.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” she tells me.
“Maybe not for Carl,” I say. “If I hadn’t let Jaydee-” Blink my eyes and I see Jaydee crouched down over Johnny Morningstar, the King of California’s gun in her hand. She kisses Johnny and then she blows him away.
“Don’t,” Kitty interrupts me. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
I look over at her. She looks back, certain and confident but I don’t know how she can be. I feel that tickle in the back of my throat. I feel my lips kind of shaking and tears start to come out again. I hate that I’m such a girl. I hate that I’m always crying.
“It’s not your fault, Betts,” Kitty says. “It’s not.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” But I’m so not convincing. I’m the worst liar in the world.