Lauren’s parents lived in a Victorian house with blue shutters, a patch of ivy scaling the turret. It was set on a large green lawn that seemed perfectly suited for croquet. Looking at the lawn, I imagined garden parties and seersucker and buckets of gin. My sister, Madeline, answered the door. “Jesus, Felix,” she said. “Finally.” She pulled me in for a hug, smelling the way she always smelled, like citrus and lotion. She wore a dress I had never seen before and lipstick. “Did you walk here?”
“I took an Uber,” I said.
“I would have picked you up,” she said, “but you never texted me back.” Madeline took me by the wrist and led me into the hallway, closing the front door. There was a side table and a vase with three immaculate tulips. I reached for one, inspecting a petal. It was real. “We’re outnumbered,” my sister said, quietly. From a room off to the right, I could hear voices, glass tinkling, harp music filtering from a sound system. I was the only person from our family Madeline had invited. Our father lived on a commune outside of Eugene, Oregon with a bunch of other dipshits and, anyway, we hadn’t seen him in over a year. Our mother had been dead for three months.
A bearded man brushed past us and clamped a hand on my sister’s shoulder. He raised a glass, liquid sloshing over the rim. “Congratulations!” he said. Madeline tried to smile. She hated parties. She hated being the center of attention, or anywhere in its vicinity. Lauren’s parents had been the ones to insist on an engagement party for Lauren and my sister. Lauren’s parents were nice enough, but they avoided processed foods and owned recumbent bikes and seemed a little too enthusiastic about having a gay daughter.
My sister and I watched the bearded man continue down the hall, slip into a room, close the door. A lock clicked. “I need a drink,” Madeline said. She twisted the earring in her ear, a turquoise stud with a gold setting. It had belonged to my mother, was one of the few pairs my mother managed not to lose. “Did you bring your pills?”
I reached into my shirt pocket and produced two ovals half the size of tic-tacs. I had gotten them from a bartender at work. I dropped one in my sister’s hand, and she rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. “What do you want to drink?” she said.
I placed the other pill in my mouth and swallowed. “What do they have?”
“Everything,” she said.
I followed my sister into a cavernous room that looked like the set of a murder mystery. It had a fireplace, an oriental rug, an abundance of built-in shelving. The room held a few dozen people, most of them old, in their fifties and sixties. They wore stripes and houndstooth and navy. I spotted Lauren by the fireplace, in a shapeless blue tunic. I spotted Lauren’s parents, Roger and Vivian. I spotted a cousin of Lauren’s—Harold or Henry—whom I had met once before, a year or so earlier. He had talked at great length about dog breeds.
Madeline walked straight to the bar and poured two tumblers of Maker’s. We clinked glasses. We drank. “So you’re good?” my sister said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Lauren appeared at my side. “Felix,” she said. “How are you?”
“Good,” I said. “How are you?”
“Your sister and I were concerned.” Lauren had the habit of intoning like a kindergarten teacher, and it drove me nuts.
“Can we talk about it later?” my sister said.
“Concerned?” I said.
Madeline looked at me. She set her drink on the bar, pulled her phone from a pocket in her dress, scrolled through the text messages, and held it out.
I had sent the text on Wednesday at 1:42am. It was a picture of me in my kitchen, Modelo cans toppled on the counter behind me, holding my mother’s urn.
Me and mom, I had written.
I looked at the picture. I blinked. “It was a joke,” I said. The truth was that I had only a vague memory of sending it, and no memory of what my intention was.
“It’s not funny,” my sister said.
From across the room, by the fireplace, there was the insistent chime of metal against glass. Lauren’s father, Roger, lowered his champagne flute. “If I could steal your attention for a moment,” he said, voice booming. “I want to share a few thoughts about Lauren and Madeline.” He launched into a long, earnest monologue about life and companionship, as if he had anything new to say about them, as if anyone had anything new to say about anything. I looked at my sister, who was looking at Roger, her head tilted at a polite, attentive angle. Lauren, of course, was beaming. “Lauren?” Roger said. “Madeline? Will you join me?”
Lauren and my sister went to the fireplace. Lauren’s mother, Vivian, joined them, too. Roger kissed his daughter on the cheek. He put an arm around my sister, raising his glass. “To the happy couple!” he said. There was toasting and clapping and whistling. And they stood there, the four of them, a family.
I turned my attention to the trays of finger foods next to the bar. Hard and soft cheeses, an array of crackers, fresh fruit. There was a pyramid of miniature quiches and I chose one from the bottom, hoping to topple it, but it remained intact. The quiche was buttery and rich, with a good amount of salt. I realized it was the first thing I had eaten all day. I ate another quiche and some grapes. Then I finished my drink, poured another, and wandered to one of the bookshelves, where I was intercepted by Vivian. Vivian preferred to go by Viv.
“Felix!” Viv said. “You’re here! Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It’s fantastic,” I said.
It was fantastic. I was halfway through my drink, and I could feel the Alprazolam in my bloodstream. I was vaguely aware of the anxiety I had felt a moment earlier, but it was a separate entity, a balloon tied to my finger with a piece of string. I glanced across the room, watched as Lauren looped her arm through my sister’s, as she leaned over and whispered in her ear. I wondered about Madeline sometimes—wondered if she had chosen comfort over something trickier and more elusive—but every once in a while she and Lauren looked halfway decent together.
Viv introduced me to one of Lauren’s uncles, who lived in Delaware, and the two of them talked about a property up in Maine—about whether or not it was winterized, and when the contractor was supposed to show up. My mind wandered, as it does when people talk about real estate, and I scanned the bookshelves, zeroing in on a shelf of DVDs. It was a varied collection, with Home Alone shelved right next to Sophie’s Choice. I tapped on the case for Sophie’s Choice and remembered a story my mother used to tell about seeing Meryl Streep in a Marriott in Boise, Idaho. Meryl Streep, my mother said, had worn all white and eaten a popsicle in the hotel restaurant. A popsicle in a restaurant, my mother said. Can you imagine?
I suddenly became aware that Viv and the uncle were looking at me with some degree of expectation. “And what do you do, Felix?” the uncle said, possibly for the second or third time.
It was a question I could have answered in a variety of ways. I could have said that I drank a lot. I could have said that I watched dozens of YouTube videos of a walrus that had been trained to sputter and whistle and roar on command.
“I work at a restaurant,” I said.
“A manager?” he said.
The uncle nodded and rocked on his heels.
“It’s a terrific little place in the District,” Viv said.
“And the rest of your family,” the uncle said, “are they local?”
Viv’s face fell. She peered into her wineglass, as if it contained the answer. “Felix’s mother passed away,” she said.
My hand tightened around my glass. I hated euphemisms for death. People die, my mother would have said. And then they’re dead.
“She had a touch of cancer,” I said.
The uncle cleared his throat. “My condolences.”
I turned to put my glass on the bookshelf, but my aim was off and the glass knocked into a candlestick, which rolled off the shelf and crashed to the floor. “Whoops.” I crouched to retrieve the candlestick, encountering the floor sooner than I anticipated. I ended up on my back, somehow. The oriental carpet provided minimal cushioning. The room quieted and my sister appeared in my field of vision. She gripped my arm, her nails piercing my skin. “Stand up.”
It took considerable effort to stand up. I was a little woozy. Madeline’s hand was still digging into my arm. She led me down the hall and into a powder room, where she pulled me inside and closed the door. She flipped a switch. A light came on, a fan whirring. “Felix,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“How do you mean?” I said.
“I mean,” she said, “what the fuck are you doing?”
The room smelled artificially of lavender. There was a ceramic dish on the sink filled with small purple beads. I imagined plucking a bead, placing it in my mouth, and swallowing.
“Grieving,” I said.
My sister slammed the toilet seat down and sat on top of it. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, head in her hands. She breathed in and out. She sat like that for a full minute. The powder room, I realized, was a small place for two people. It reminded me of how, when we were little kids, my sister and I would crawl into our mother’s closet, sit on top of her shoes, and let her clothes drape over our heads. She had all these long, button-down dresses in bright, floral prints, and they had a very distinctive, musky smell. We did it, not to hide or escape or anything, but just to sit there, the two of us, in the dark.
I heard footsteps outside the powder room. “It was very sad,” Vivian said, her voice receding. “Madeline was devastated.” My sister wiped at her eyes. She pulled a card from her pocket and handed it to me.
It was a business card made of nice, thick cardstock. It listed a phone number in tasteful grey font.
“She’s a therapist,” Madeline said. “Lauren’s friend of a friend.”
“Ah,” I said.
“We think you should call her.”
“We?” I said.
“Please call her,” my sister said. “Okay?”
I folded the card in half and slid it into my pocket. I wanted nothing to do with my sister and Lauren’s we. I wanted nothing to do with a therapist. “Sure,” I said.
My sister left the bathroom. I locked the door behind her and sat against it. I bundled up a hand towel, embroidered with geese, and used it as a headrest. I tried to remember the last time I had gotten a full night’s sleep. Grief was like an indefinite head cold. I was sapped of energy, waiting for it to run its course. There was a knock on the door and the knob rattled. “Hello?” a woman’s voice said. “Are you okay in there?” But I just sat there, not doing anything. It was a pretty loaded question. The knocking resumed—louder this time, with urgency—but I ignored it. I ignored it as long as I possibly could.