The day following Michael Jackson’s death, I was constructing my own memorial for him. I played his videos on YouTube and sat in the kitchen at night, with the iPod light at the table’s centre the only source of illumination. I listened to ‘Man in the Mirror’ and ‘Ben’, my favourite, even if it was about a killer rat. I tried not to think about its being about a rat, as it was also the name of an old beau, who had emailed me from Istanbul upon hearing of Jackson’s death. Apparently there was no one in Turkey to talk about it with. ‘When I heard the news of MJackson’s death I thought of you,’ the ex-beau had written, ‘and that sweet, loose-limbed dance you used to do to one of his up-tempo numbers.’
I tried to think positively. ‘Well, at least Whitney Houston didn’t die,’ I said to someone on the phone. Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information, until suddenly it contained too much.
‘Mom, what are you doing?’ asked my fifteen-year-old daughter, Nickie. ‘You look like a crazy lady sitting in the kitchen like this.’
‘I’m just listening to some music.’
‘But like this?’
‘I didn’t want to disturb you.’
‘You are so totally disturbing me,’ she said.
Nickie had lately announced a desire to have her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with.
I pulled out the earbuds. ‘What are you wearing tomorrow?’
‘Whatever. I mean, does it matter?’
‘Uh, no. Not really.’ Nickie sauntered out of the room. Of course it did not matter what young people wore: they were already amazing looking, without really knowing it, which was also part of their beauty. I was going to be Nickie’s date at the wedding of Maria, her former babysitter, and Nickie was going to be mine. The person who needed to be careful what she wore was me.
It was a wedding in the country, a half-hour drive, and we arrived on time, but somehow we seemed the last ones there. Guests milled about semi-purposefully. Maria, an attractive, restless Brazilian, was marrying a local farm boy, for the second time – a second farm boy on a second farm. The previous farm boy she had married, Ian, was present as well. He had been hired to play music, and as the guests floated by with their plastic cups of wine, Ian sat there playing a slow melancholic version of ‘I Want You Back’. Except he didn’t seem to want her back. He was smiling and nodding at everyone and seemed happy to be part of this send-off. He was the entertainment. He wore a T-shirt that read, thank you for having me. This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful. I wondered how it was done. I myself had never done anything remotely similar. ‘Marriage is one long conversation,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he was dead at forty-four, so he had no idea how long it could really get to be.
‘I can’t believe you wore that,’ Nickie whispered to me in her mauve eyelet sundress.
‘I know. It probably was a mistake.’ I was wearing a synthetic leopard-print sheath: I admired camouflage. A leopard’s markings I’d imagined existed because a leopard’s habitat had once been alive with snakes, and blending in was required. Leopards were frightened of snakes and also of chimpanzees, who were in turn frightened of leopards – a stand-off between predator and prey, since there was a confusion as to which was which: this was also a theme in the wilds of my closet. Perhaps I had watched too many nature documentaries.
‘Maybe you could get Ian some lemonade,’ I said to Nickie. I had already grabbed some wine from a passing black plastic tray.
‘Yes, maybe I could,’ she said and loped across the yard. I watched her broad tan back and her confident gait. She was a gorgeous giantess. I was in awe to have such a daughter. Also in fear – as in fearful for my life.
‘It’s good you and Maria have stayed friends,’ I said to Ian. Ian’s father, who had one of those embarrassing father-in-law crushes on his son’s departing wife, was not taking it so well. One could see him misty-eyed, treading the edge of the property with some iced gin, keeping his eye out for Maria, waiting for her to come out of the house, waiting for an opening, when she might be free of others, so he could rush up and embrace her.
‘Yes.’ Ian smiled. Ian sighed. And for a fleeting moment everything felt completely fucked up.
And then everything righted itself again. It felt important spiritually to go to weddings: to give balance to the wakes and memorial services. People shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings there were only funerals. I had seen a soccer mom become a rhododendron with a plaque, next to the soccer field parking lot, as if it had been watching all those matches that had killed her. I had seen a brilliant young student become a creative writing contest, as if it were all that writing that had been the thing to do him in. And I had seen a public defender become a justice fund, as if one paid for fairness with one’s very life. I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfectly upon the surface it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone, been given a new life the way the moon is given it, through some lighting tricks and a face-like font. I had turned a hundred Rolodex cards around to their blank sides. So let a babysitter become a bride again. Let her marry over and over. So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.
Someone very swanky and tall and in muddy high heels in the grass was now standing in front of Ian, holding a microphone, and singing ‘Waters of March’ while Ian accompanied. My mind imitated the song by wandering: A stick. A stone. A wad of cow pie. A teary mom’s eye.
‘There are a bazillion Brazilians here,’ said Nickie, arriving with two lemonades.
‘What did you expect?’ I took one of the lemonades for Ian and put my arm around her.
‘I don’t know. I only ever met her sister. Just once. The upside is at least I’m not the only one wearing a colour.’
We gazed across the long yard of the farmhouse. Maria’s sister and her mother were by the rose bushes, having their pictures taken without the bride.
‘Maria and her sister both look like their mother.’ Her mother and I had met once before, and I now nodded in her direction across the yard. I couldn’t tell if she could see me.
Nickie nodded with a slight smirk. ‘Their father died in a car crash. So yeah, they don’t look like him.’
I swatted her arm. ‘Nickie. Sheesh.’
She was silent for a while. ‘Do you ever think of Dad?’
‘You mean, Dad-eeeeee?’
The weekend her father left – left the house, the town, the country, everything, packing so lightly I believed he would come back – he had said, ‘You can raise Nickie by yourself. You’ll be good at it.’
And I had said, ‘Are you on crack?’
And he had replied, continuing to fold a blue twill jacket, ‘Yes, a little.’
‘Dadder. As in badder,’ Nickie said now. She sometimes claimed to friends that her father had died, and when she was asked how, she would gaze bereavedly off into the distance and say, ‘A really, really serious game of Hangman.’ Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed family dynamic, if they were families at all. Perhaps they were more like cruddy buddy movies, and the dialogue between them was unrecognizable as filial or parental. It was extraterrestrial. With a streak of dog-walkers-meeting-at-the-park. It contained more sibling banter than it should have. Still, I preferred the whole thing to being a lonely old spinster, the fate I once thought I was most genetically destined for, though I’d worked hard, too hard, to defy and avoid it, when perhaps there it lay ahead of me regardless. If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why ‘learn to be alone’ in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand. Aloneness was the air in your tyres, the wind in your hair. You didn’t have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell off the bike: I was drinking my wine too quickly.