This story is by A.V. Cottingham and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
This funeral is horrible, and not just because my great-grandfather has died. For me, funerals are as terrible as weddings. I’m awkward and never know how to behave or what to say. There are always so many people, some of whom I don’t know because I haven’t seen them since I was in diapers. I hate having the same insignificant conversation repeatedly about where I’ve applied to college and whether I’m dating anyone. It’s enough to make me wish I were the one in the casket.
Funerals are dreadful because I have difficulty with the living. Today I choose offense as the best defense for funeral mingling. I ask these strangers about their memories of my great-grandfather. That seems to do the trick, but it’s still difficult to keep the conversation off of me. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, but instead hide in the car.
The car ride to the grave site is tense and quiet. My parents have been arguing a lot lately – mostly hushed furious whispering in the kitchen until someone explodes, yelling about financial difficulties, Dad’s long hours at the office, and tension with his boss. The graveside service is short with more of the same mingling after the casket is lowered. It’s hard to believe that I’ll never see my great-grandfather ever again. I feel sad for my great-grandmother, who’s lost her partner of 75 years. She had already been married for two years at my age! I can’t imagine being “till death do us part” committed at fifteen, but I suppose life was different back then.
“The visiting” is held at my great-grandparents’ house, but I’ve had enough visiting. Instead, I hide in their bedroom, where I am assailed by the classic old person smell. What is that scent underlying the Ben-gay?! The bed with the ancient comforter, where my great-grandfather slept for longer than I’ve been alive, is neatly made. I inspect their knickknacks, reminiscing. I wander into the bathroom and am perusing the products in the tub when I hear the sound of people entering and shutting the bedroom door.
I don’t really want to deal with more people. The bathroom door hides me completely, and so I stay silent, waiting for them to leave.
Only… they aren’t leaving. They aren’t saying anything, either. It sounds like… someone is making out in my great-grandfather’s stinky bedroom after his funeral! Gross. I contemplate interrupting them so I can leave. I consider clearing my throat like in the movies, but my internal debate has lasted too long. I’ve missed my opportunity. The lovers have spoken, and now my problem is even bigger.
“We shouldn’t be in here,” Mrs. Collins says. “What if someone sees us?”
“Mary is busy with family. We have some time before she misses me. No one else cares, and I’d rather be here with you,” my father says.
“Me, too,” she replies.
After ten minutes of disgusting sounds, I’m anxious. Through the door hinge, I can see the room via a free-standing full-length mirror. I wish I hadn’t looked. I’ll never get the image of my father’s pasty white butt out of my head. They’re on top of the comforter, and her skirt is up around her waist. Oh, I know what they’re doing; I’m not stupid. Thankfully, I’m able to look away from this train wreck, but I’m horrified. Mrs. Collins introduced herself at the viewing and delivered condolences from her husband, my dad’s boss. Mr. Collins knew my great-grandfather through business but had an important meeting today. Why couldn’t I have been that fortunate?
They finally leave. I close the door and use the toilet. Then there’s a knock. I’m afraid I’ve been caught, but it’s my mom.
“Have you seen your father?” she asks when I open the door.
I’m panicking. What do I say? I hear my lawyer-aunt’s bellowing laugh drifting down the hall and am saved. Did I actually see my father? No. I saw Mrs. Collins and a bare, naked butt that most likely belonged to my father, though I can’t be certain because I’ve never seen my father naked.
“No,” I say, suffering the ensuing silence and Mom’s weird expression.
Her expression shifts and she grumbles, rehashing their earlier argument. Apparently, Dad wanted to drive with Mrs. Collins to the grave site because of Mr. Collins’ important family connection. Mom is still angry that he would abandon her on such a difficult day.
I’m relieved she’s no longer focused on me, but I still feel like I’m betraying her. How could my father do this to her? To us? If Mom found out, she’d divorce him. I have a few friends whose parents divorced, and it screwed up their lives. Suddenly everything became too expensive. If my parents split, will I be able to go to college?
If I don’t tell her, how will I face her every day? I’m terrible at lying, and I can’t betray Mom like that. She deserves to know. It isn’t fair that he’s…while Mom’s grieving her grandfather and dealing with visitors. Why couldn’t I be normal and visit with everyone else in the living room? I’m in a lose-lose situation now. As my great-grandfather often said, “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” My whole life is over now because I couldn’t deal with the crowd.
The next morning, I wake early, surprised I slept at all. I’m grateful everyone left me alone last night. My horror, anger and confusion still roil around inside me. Normally I would stay in bed until breakfast is ready, but today I feel the need to be alone with the breakfast routine. I head to the kitchen but halt abruptly in the doorway. My father is on the phone with his boss, though it’s incredibly early on a Sunday. The call ends, and my dad turns and looks at me.
“Good morning, sweet pea. How did you sleep?” he asks with a smile.
“Uh, fine,” I say awkwardly, but I can’t seem to move. My thoughts are still rushing around and around in my head, and I still can’t believe that I saw my father’s naked butt.
“What?” he asks with a shocked face. One of my thoughts has apparently escaped my head. My dad frowns. “What did you say, Claire?”
An image of Sunday morning cartoons rushes through my head: the train barrels down the tracks towards a mountainside that’s painted to look like a tunnel. There’s no escaping this conversation.
“I saw you,” I say. After a few silent moments staring at his perplexed expression, I add, “I was in great-grandfather’s bathroom.”
Clarity washes over him, and he rubs his hands over his face and through his hair. He turns around, and with his hands on his hips, looks at the stove for a moment. Then he turns and looks back at me. I don’t know what he’s about to say, but I know that our relationship is about to change. Why couldn’t I have stayed in bed until I smelled the Sunday morning bacon?
“Does your mother know?” he asks quietly.
I shake my head, and then join the ranks of those who whisper furiously in the kitchen.
“How could you?! And in their bed!”
He says nothing at first, but he understands my predicament.
“I’m sorry that you… were stuck there.” He takes a deep breath and looks both resigned and worried. “I know this is a lot to ask of you, but you’re nearly an adult. Will you give me some time to talk to your mother? I would talk to her immediately, but with her grandfather, it seems like too much emotional strain at once.”
His words make sense. It’s adding insult to injury to tell her now, but when is it ever a good time to deliver this kind of news?
“How long?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A couple weeks, maybe?”
I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but more questions erupt before I can decide.
“Are you and mom getting a divorce? Will I still be able to go to college?”
“What?” he asks, stunned disbelief thick in his voice. “Of course you’ll be able to go to college, honey.” Then he starts to cry. I really have no idea how to handle a crying father. I’ve never seen it happen before. I’m still standing awkwardly in the kitchen doorway, and he walks forward and puts his arms around me. He squeezes me tightly – almost painfully tight like he’s afraid I’ll slip away from him. And I let him hold me because fighting him seems childish.
“Your mother and I may have some problems,” he says, “but it doesn’t change how much we love you. No matter what happens, I will always love you.”
I’m glad we’re having this discussion, uncomfortable as it is. I don’t know if I believe him, but I needed those words, especially now that my life, as I knew it, is over.