“This place is awful, right?” she laughs.
“No!” I say. “I like any place that offers a three-course meal for nine ninety-nine.”
The waiter comes to drop off a bucket of tortilla chips and salsa, and I nervously reach for them. susan ignores them for the moment. We order fajitas.
“And, you know what?” susan says to the waiter. “two margaritas too. Is that okay?” I’m already face-deep in tortilla chips, so I just nod.
“What flavor?” he asks us. “original? Mango? Watermelon? Cranberry? pomegranate? Cantalo—”
“Original is fine,” she says, and I wish that she’d asked me about this one too because watermelon sounded kind of good.
He gathers our sticky red menus and leaves the table.
“Shit. I meant to ask him for guacamole,” she says after he leaves, and she starts to dig into the chips with me. “sir!” she calls out. He comes running back. I can never get waiters’ attention once they’ve left the table. “Can we get guacamole too?” He nods and leaves, and she looks back at me. “My diet is a joke.” Who can count calories at a time like this? I feel good that susan can’t either.
“So,” she says. “you mentioned it on the phone but I don’t understand. your mom said she thought you’d be over it by now?”
“Well,” I say, wiping my hand on my napkin. “not necessarily. she just . . . she called and asked how I was handling ‘things.’ or ‘the thing’—you know how people use that terminology like they can’t just say ‘Ben died’?”
Susan nods. “the euphemisms,” she says. “as if you won’t remember that Ben is dead if they don’t say it.”
“Right! like I’m not thinking about it every moment of the day.anyway, she just asked and I said I was fine, like . . . I’m not really fine, but it’s just a thing you say. anyone that asked me that would know that when I said ‘Fine’ I meant ‘Fine, considering the circumstances.’”
“Right.” the basket is now empty, and when the waiter comes to drop off the margaritas, susan asks him to fill it up.
“But my mom honestly thought I was fine, I think,” I say. “I think she was hoping I’d say I was fine and that if I did say that, it would mean that she didn’t need to do anything and I was back to my old self. like nothing ever happened.”
“Well, to her, nothing did happen.” susan takes a sip of her margarita and winces. “I’m not much of a drinker, I’m afraid. I just thought it would be festive of us. But this . . . is a bit strong, no?”
I take a sip of mine. “It’s strong,” I say.
“Okay! I thought I was being a baby. anyway—you were saying?”
“Actually, I think you were saying.”
“Oh. right. nothing happened to her. you two rarely talk right?”
“It seems like she’s just one of those people that can’t empathize or even sympathize. so, she doesn’t know how to talk to you because she doesn’t understand you.”
I don’t talk about my family often, and when I do, I speak in short sentences and dismissive comments. But susan is the first person to see what’s going on and give it a name. or . . . at least a description. “you’re right,” I tell her.
“Don’t worry about your parents. they are going to do what they would want someone to do for them, and it’s going to be entirely different than what you need. and I say, give up trying to make the two fit. not that I’m some expert. I just noticed that when steven died there was a large difference between what I wanted from people and what they wanted to give me. I think people are so terrified of being in our position that they lose all ability to even speak to us. I say let it go.”
By the time she’s done talking, my margarita is gone. I’m not sure how that happened. our fajitas come, sizzling and ostentatious, if fajitas can be ostentatious.they are just so big and require so many plates and people to bring them. there is the plate for the side dishes, the sizzling pans of shrimp and vegetables, the case for tortillas, both corn and flour, and the condiments of guacamole, cheese, salsa, and lettuce. our table looks like a feast fit for a king, and the shrimp are frying so loudly on the skillets that I feel like the whole restaurant is looking.
“It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” susan asks demurely. “I think it’s great though, the way they bring it to you like it’s a presentation. there’s absolutely no need for them to have the shrimp still grilling on the table. none at all.”
The waiter comes back to check on us. susan orders us each another margarita. “Watermelon for me,” I interject. susan agrees. “that sounds good; watermelon for me too.”
We talk over our steaming lunches about politics and families; we talk about traffic and movies, news and funny stories. I want to be able to talk to susan about things other than life and death, other than Ben and steven. It seems possible. It seems like I could know her regardless of the tragedy between us. But Ben is what we have in common, and so the conversation will always come back to Ben. I wonder if it’s unhealthy to fixate out loud. If being obsessed with Ben’s death is something I’m only supposed to do in my own head. I also wonder how much I can truly rely on her.
“Do you have a plan for when you’re going to stop his mail?” she asks me casually, while she is picking at what’s left off the hot plate in front of her with her fork.
I shake my head. “no,” I say. “I don’t even know really how to do that.” that’s not all of the truth. the other fact is that I’m scared that would cause the post office to hold the marriage certificate too since it will have his name on it. I don’t want to have his mail stopped until I have it.
“Oh, it’s easy. We can do it today if you want,” she says.
“Oh,” I say, trying to think of a way to stop her and realizing I have no real excuse but the truth. “Well, I’m still waiting for the marriage certificate,” I say. “I don’t want to stop the mail in case they try to hold that too.”
“What do you mean?” she says, peeling an onion off the plate and putting it in her mouth with her hands.
“It hasn’t come yet and since both of our names will be on it, I’m worried they might keep it with his old bills and stuff instead of sending it through to me.”
“It hasn’t come yet?” Her voice indicates that there must be some misunderstanding. For so long, I’ve been worried to tell anyone that it hadn’t come yet. I’ve thought they’d think I was lying about our marriage. I was afraid they would use it to convince themselves of the one thing I’m scared to be: not relevant. But susan’s voice doesn’t convey a moment of doubt. she sounds only concerned about a clerical error or logistical mistake. It doesn’t even occur to her to question whether I’ve been completely full of shit. I have to admit that she’s come so far since I met her. she must move so quickly through emotional turmoil.
“No, I don’t have it yet. I’ve been checking the mail every day, opening up even the most innocuous of envelopes. It’s nowhere.”
“Well, we need to start calling people, figuring out where it is. Have you called the county to check and see if it’s at least in their records?”
“No,” I say and shake my head. Honestly, I hadn’t thought it was that big of a deal until I said it out loud. I hadn’t wanted to face the logistical nightmare of figuring this out.
“Well, that’s got to be the first step.you need to find out if the original license made it to the county.”
“Okay,” I say. Her concern is making me concerned.
“It’s okay,” she says and grabs my hand. “We’ll figure it out.” the way she says “we,” that she doesn’t say “you will figure it out,” makes me feel like I’m not alone. It makes me feel like if I can’t get myself out of this, she will get me out of this. It makes me feel like I’m high on a tightrope, losing my balance, but seeing the net underneath me. “We” will figure this out. ana has made similar sentiments to me, but all those times I knew that she couldn’t help me. she could hold my hand, but she couldn’t hold me up. For the first time, I feel like it’s not up to only me. nothing is up to only me.