“What should we do?” I asked. “do you want medicine? should you see a doctor?” He was still trying to get his underwear on himself. He could barely move. not wanting to see him struggle, I grabbed the waistband of his underwear. I shimmied the back up under his butt as subtly as I could. then I pulled the front up to his waist. I pulled the blanket from the foot of the bed and I laid it on top of him.
“Do we have any ibuprofen?” he asked me.
There it was. “We.” the best kind of “we.” do “we” have ibuprofen?
“I don’t myself, I don’t think,” I said. “any in the boxes?”
“Yeah, in a box marked ‘Bathroom.’ I think I saw it in the living room on the floor.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I kissed his forehead and went into the living room.
I scanned the boxes across the room and finally saw one labeled “Bathroom.” It was under plenty of other heavy boxes. I was sure it was one of the first ones we’d unloaded. I moved box after box until I got to it, and then I opened it to find another labyrinth inside. after way too long, I found some ibuprofen and brought it to him with a glass of water.
He lifted his head slightly, eyes scrunched from the pain. He thanked me.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Elsie?” he moaned.
“You’re gonna have to return the moving truck.”
“Totally fine,” I said, even though having to drive that huge truck through los angeles traffic was not my idea of a good time.
“You actually, uh . . .” he started. “you have to leave now. It’s due back in twenty minutes. I’m sorry! I didn’t think about how long it would take you to find the ibuprofen.”
I jumped up and threw on a pair of pants.
“Where are the keys?” I asked.
“On the front seat.”
“Where am I going?”
“lankershim and riverside.”
“It’s in the valley?”
“That was the cheapest one I could find! I picked it up on my way home from work.”
“Okay, okay. I’m out of here.” I kissed his cheek. “are you going to be okay here alone?”
“I’ll be fine. Can you bring me my cell phone just in case?”
I put his phone by the bed and started to take off. “Hey,” he called. “Will you pick up dinner too?”
“Of course I will,” I called out. “you pain in the ass.”
Susan shows up at my door bright and early on saturday morning. she has in her hands a bag of bagels and cream cheese, and a carton of orange juice. under her arm is a package of flattened boxes.
“I thought we could use refreshments,” she says as she steps in.
“Awesome,” I say and put them in the kitchen. “do you want one now?” I call out to her.
“Sure.” she appears in my kitchen. Her voice is next to me and quiet, instead of far away and shouting like I expected.
I put two bagels into the toaster oven, and susan and I step into the living room. she scans the space. I can tell she is assessing what is Ben’s. My guess is she is doing this both because these objects indicate the job in store for us and because they belong to her dead son.
The toaster dings. I pull the bagels out, and when I do, they burn the pads of my fingers. I put the bagels on plates and shake my hands wildly, hoping to mitigate the pain. I’ve never been sure what the logic is in this gesture, but it’s an instinct, so maybe it works. susan looks at me and asks if I’m all right, and for a moment I think that this is my shot to get out of this. I can say they really hurt. I can say I’m in no position to be using my hands. they do still hurt. Maybe I should see a doctor. But then I realize when I get home from the doctor, Ben’s stuff will still be right here in front of me.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” I say. We pour large glasses of orange juice and sit down at the table. susan asks where we are going to begin, and I say, “the living room. I need to work my way up to the bedroom.” she tries to make small talk as we eat, asking about my job and my friends, but all either of us can think about is the task ahead. It’s almost a relief when our bagels are gone. now, we have to start.
Susan plops herself down in the living room and starts folding boxes. I still have all of the boxes from when he moved in. It wasn’t even five months ago. I grab what I have and meet her in there. I take a deep breath, put a box in front of me, and unplug his playstation, putting it in the box.
“Annnd done!” I joke, but susan insists on taking it as a cry for help. she stops folding and speaks to me in a gentle voice.
“Take your time. We are on no one’s timetable but yours, you know.” I know, I know. she keeps telling me.
“Have you thought about whether you’re going to keep all this stuff try to sell some of it? Give any of it away?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything other than store it, honestly. I just figured I’d put it in boxes and shove it in the closet.the thought of giving the things away, of not owning them anymore, it’s too much for me.
“Oh,” I say. Maybe I should aim toward that. I should hope that one day I can give it away or sell it. one day I will. “Maybe we should divide things into categories as we pack,” I say.“some boxes for keeping, some for giving away, and maybe another for trash. not trash, I mean. Just like . . . things that are of no use to anyone. It’s not trash. If it was Ben’s it’s not trash.”
“Hey,” susan says. “don’t be so hard on yourself. Ben can’t hear you call his stuff trash, and even if he could, it wouldn’t matter.”
I don’t know why it is so jarring to hear, because I don’t believe that Ben can hear me. I just thought susan believed Ben is here Ben is with us.
“You don’t believe that Ben is . . .”
“All around us?” she says in a half-mocking way. she shakes her head. “no, I don’t. I wish I did. It would make things a lot easier for me. But no, either he’s gone-gone, his soul having disappeared into the ether, or if he’s been transported somewhere else, if his heart and mind are reincarnated or just somewhere else, I don’t think he’d still be here on earth as himself. I don’t see . . . it just seems like something people tell victims’ families, you know? ‘Hey, it’s okay. Ben is always with you.’”
“You don’t think Ben is with you?”
“He’s with me because I love him and I loved him and he lives in my memories. His memory is with me. But no, I don’t see how Ben is here. after steven died, I thought maybe he was lying in bed next to me at night, watching me. or maybe he was some omnipotent force looking over Ben and I, but it did no good. Because I just didn’t believe it. you know? do you believe it? or maybe what I should say is Can you believe it? I wish I could.”
I shake my head. “no, I don’t think he can hear me. I don’t think he’s watching me. It’s a nice idea. When my brain wanders, I sometimes think about what if he’s hearing everything I’m saying, what if he’s seeing everything I’m doing. But, it doesn’t really make me feel any better. Whenever I start to think about where he is now, I ultimately just focus on what his last moments were. did he know they were his last moments? What if he’d never left the house? What if I’d never asked him to . . .”
“He was doing me a favor when he died,” I tell her. “He was buying me Fruity pebbles.” It feels like I’ve finally put down a barbell. susan is quiet.
“Was that a confession?” she says.
“That doesn’t matter. you know that, right?”
No, I don’t know that. But I’m not sure how to say that, so I don’t say anything.
“You will do yourself a world of good the minute you realize that does not matter.you can play the scenario out a million times, whether he goes to get the cereal or he doesn’t,” she says. “I’m telling you, he’d still end up dying. It’s just the way the world works.”