Wednesday, September 29, 2004

"You sure you don't wanna try TJ Maxx first?"

"I wanna be with you," Lila says.

It's 2:00, Tuesday the 21st. We lingered in the hallway for a long time after mom passed, but I knew they wanted to take her away, so I kind of herded everyone into the waiting area. Plus, I really needed to hear Lila's voice.

"I'm leaving work now. I'm wanna be with you!"

"Don't, baby."


"You KNOW what's gonna happen if you leave. It's gonna be so obvious that you're leaving to be with me."

"No it won't! I'll tell them I have a family emergency."

"NO, Lila!"

"WHY are you doing this to me? Why won't you let me be there for you?!"

"Baby, I CAN'T do this with you now," I say. "Just come after work, ok? As soon as you get off?"

"But I wanna be there now," she grumbles.

"Baby, I love you. But this is for the best, ok? I promise we'll be inseparable as soon as you get here."

"Even with your family there?"

"YES. I think it's time you met my family," I say.



"Honey, I am sooo sorry about your mom," she says. "Are you ok?"

"I'll live."

"I love you. I can't wait to see you."

"Me too," I say. "Baby?"


"Just make sure you come over as soon as you get off work, ok?"

"I will."

I don't remember the drive to dad's house. I wasn't particularly sad, I know, just kind of numb. It's like when you whack your head on something, and you hear the noise, and for that split second before the pain hits, your mind fills with dread as you anticipate what's coming. I know it's going to hurt me at some point; just wish I knew when.

I've got zero experience dealing with death. One of my grandfathers took off long before I was born, and no one knows what happened to him. The other one died before I was born. One grandmother lives a couple thousand miles away at a nursing home, and I think I was nine the last time I saw her; the other one died when I was five. All of my aunts and uncles are still alive, and of course, my parents WERE both alive until mom passed.

Dad gives me a list of people to call with the news. "My mom died," I say, to dad's boss, and to his bowling friends, and to mom's hairdresser. It sounds strange coming out of my mouth, as if there has been some kind of mistake.

Uncles and cousins line the street with their cars, bearing hot plates and warm wishes. I joke that the family is going to get a lot bigger now, since all the relatives who were scared of mom are going to start coming around. It feels strange to laugh. It seems disrespectful.

Shirley is here; so is Jenny. "I don't understand why you didn't want to be at the hospital," I say to aunt Shirley.

"I don't like death," she says, shaking her head and waving her hand as if to ward off a bad smell. "I don't know if I can go to the wake, either."

We eat. Everyone is tired. My brothers cling silently to their wives as dad plays host, telling mom's story again each time a new 2nd cousin or great uncle arrives.

I can't wait to see Lila.

4:50. My phone rings. It's her.


"I'm leaving," she says. "Where are you?"

"Dad's house." I give her directions.

"Are you ok?" she asks.

"No. I'm glad you're coming," I say.

"I love you."

"Me too."

I walk out to the living room. "Guys, my girlfriend is coming over," I announce.

My brothers' heads, and their wives', whip around to face me. "YOU have a girlfriend?" Greg says. "She must be either rich, or really hot." His wife smacks his arm. "GRE-eg!" she says.

I'm letting them know now because I really hate answering all the same questions that everyone seems to have: How long have you been dating? Where is she from? How did you two meet? Could this be The One? and so on. It's uncomfortable having your relationship on display like that, as if you are the subject of some gossipy press conference.

5:40. Dad walks into the room, smiling. "Look what the cat dragged in," he says.

Lila is standing there. I rush over to meet her. We hug tightly for a long time, and suddenly I realize we are both crying. It's like I was holding in my emotions, and now that she is here, I can let them out.

I introduce Lila to my brothers and their wives. "Wow. You ARE hot," Greg says. Everyone laughs. Lila rolls her eyes. Those kind of jokes don't faze her anymore.

Gradually the guys and the girls separate. At one point, I look across the room, and my two brothers' wives are sitting on either end of the couch, with Lila in the middle. It's a warm scene, these three young women talking animatedly. We are a family, I think, and it makes me feel better.

I am proud to see Lila fitting in that way. The girls obviously like her. They are including her in their conversations, laughing together, crying together. They've been talking for a long time.

Lila gets up to use the bathroom. I walk over to get some peanuts out of the candy dish. My sister-in-law Nancy says, "Steve. Lila is SO sweet. We LOVE her!"

"You guys like her? Really?" I say.

"Oh my god!" My other sister-in-law, Janet, says. "She is so cool. If you screw this up, I WILL hunt you down and kill you!"

"You don't think she's too young for me?"

"Steve. She is smart, she's beautiful, she obviously adores you. What's the big deal?" Janet says.

She pauses. "You're in love, aren't you?" she says. "I have never seen you this way."

"Yeah. I am," I say. It feels good to admit it.

Lila comes back from the bathroom and cuddles up next to me. I just want to go to sleep, and wake up when this is over.

"I love you," she coos in my ear, and I'm covered from head to toe in warm tingles, like a 14-year-old boy who brushes against a girl's tit for the first time.

"I love you too. I'm so glad you're here."

My brothers and dad all approach me individually and tell me how much they like Lila. She is making a really great impression on everyone. Well, almost everyone.

At one point, Jenny and I are unpacking groceries in the kitchen. She's been very quiet all day.

"Is that the girl you were telling me about," she says.

"Yeah, that's her, Lila."

"She seems young. How old is she?"




She rolls her eyes. "Are you dating her, or babysitting her?" she laughs.

"Not funny," I say.

"I'm sorry, Steve. It's just, everything tends to hit me at once lately. It's kind of hard watching you two all huggy and kissy. I know it can't be helped."

"What else is bothering you?" I say.

She starts to tear up. "I didn't help her. I didn't save her. I didn't try hard enough."

"You did AWESOME," I say. "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't even have known about mom's illness. You DID try very hard; you did the best you could. Mom was a grown person. If she didn't WANT help, no one was gonna change that."

"But maybe I-"

"Shhhh." I say. I hug her.

"Look, I really want us to get along. I hope we can put that whole thing behind us."

"I'll try," she says.

Lila and I take off at about 10:30. I am exhausted.

It's hard to let Lila go to work the next morning. "Please let me call in sick," she says, but I tell her we'll keep in touch all day, and then see each other this afternoon.

Dad's house. More relatives. More mom stories. Funeral arrangements. Jerry Springer. Soap operas. Boredom.

6:30. The girls are back, and we are crowded around the kitchen table amid cartons of Chinese food.

"Girls, I have a problem," dad says, looking at Lila and the wives.

"Louise didn't have any dresses in her closet at all. Well, none that we could use for a burial. So we need one."

"We could go to Lord & Taylor," Nancy says.

"Or Macy's," Janet says.

"What about aunt Shirley? Doesn't she have one mom could use?" I say.

"I thought of that," dad says. "But Shirley is a size 2, mom is a size 6. Now, the funeral home has offered to help out with this, but I'd kind of rather buy one-"

"I want her to have my dress," Lila says.

The room goes silent.

"W-what dress?" I ask, but it's just a formality. I know EXACTLY which dress.

"The D & G," she says. Nancy and Janet stare, open-mouthed.

"Steve bought me a Dolce and Gabbana dress from Esther's for my birthday," she says.

"ESTHER'S?" Janet says. "You need, like, a mortgage to buy from that place!"

"And you're gonna give it to Louise?" Nancy says. "That is so sweet!"

"No, if it was a birthday present, I couldn't," dad says.

"I want to. I insist!" Lila says.

"Steve, are you ok with this?" dad says.

"Of course I'm ok with it," I say, kissing Lila's cheek. "Thanks, Lila. I know mom would really appreciate it."

"Thank you," say a few others.

"Just tell me how much I owe you," says dad.

"Nothing," I say.

Well, at least now I know what I'm getting Lila for Christmas.