“Hmm,” she says.
“Anyway, I’m sorry. He wanted to tell you. He didn’t feel comfortable doing something so big without you. He loved you. He cared about you a lot and I didn’t understand. I was being selfish and I just . . . I really, really wanted to marry him. I think on some level Ben made me feel like I wasn’t alone anymore and I thought . . .” I start to cry. “I think I was afraid that you’d tell him how ridiculous we were being and he would listen to you. I knew that if he talked to you, he would listen to you. I was afraid I’d lose him.”
“But why would you break up because of that? you wouldn’t. at the very most, he’d just decide to wait longer to get married.”
“You’re right.” I shake my head, disappointed in myself. “you’re absolutely right. But it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt so scary. We were standing at a rest stop and it was the difference between turning right out of the lot and turning left. It felt so real. It felt so . . . I wanted to belong to something, belong to someone, you know?”
“Mmm,” she says. I don’t even know what I’m about to say next until it comes out of my mouth.
“I think I wanted to meet you after we were married, because I thought . . .” ugggggh, the lump is my throat is so huge, the tears waiting to drop are so heavy. “My own parents don’t seem to think very much of me, and I thought, if you met me before . . . I thought you wouldn’t like me. you’d want someone better for your son. I was afraid to give you that chance.”
“Wow,” she says. “okay.” she pats my hand and gets up from the table. “I just need a little while to gather my thoughts. there is a lot of stuff going through my mind right now and I know that not all of it is rational.”
“Okay,” I say. “I just wanted you to—”
“Stop talking,” she snaps at me. she breathes in deeply and breathes out sharply. “God dammit, elsie.”
I stare at her, she stares back, trying to bite her tongue.
“You don’t make it easy,” she says. “I try so hard! I try so hard.”
“I know you do, I just—”
She shakes her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” she isn’t speaking to me, I don’t think. “It just . . . ah. you couldn’t have waited? you couldn’t have given me a chance? you didn’t even give me a chance.”
“I know, susan, I just . . . I was scared!”
“With everything that I’ve gone through? you couldn’t have just said all of this from the beginning?”
“I didn’t know how to say it . . .” I tell her. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit I’m not sure I knew it was relevant until I put the pieces together, until I really thought about it.
“I have been thinking for months that my son never even wanted me at his wedding, and now you’re telling me he did and you stopped him.”
I am quiet. What can I say?
“Elsie!” she yells. she is shrill and teary. I don’t want the old susan back. I want her to stay new susan.
“I’m sorry!” I say. My eyes start to blur, my lips quivering. “I just . . . susan, I want you and me to be okay. are we okay?”
“I’m going to go. I’m going to leave this room. I . . .” she turns and puts her head in her hands and then she breathes in.
She leaves the room, and it suddenly feels so big and hollow.
It is the next morning before susan feels composed enough to talk to me. I can only imagine what thoughts ran through her mind all night. I have a feeling she spent a great deal of the previous evening hating me and calling me names in her head. “thank you for telling me that last night,” she says, as she sits down next to me in the living room. I had been fastforwarding through the contents of her tivo and eating one of her danishes from the kitchen. I’ll tell you, it feels weird to be a guest in someone’s house when they are rip-shit pissed at you.
I nod to her.
“I can’t imagine that was easy to tell me, but truthfully, it is good news to me. It makes me feel better to know that Ben had the inclination to tell me. even if he didn’t actually do it.”
I nod again. It’s her time to talk. I’m just keeping quiet.
“Anyway, it’s in the past. I didn’t know you then, you didn’t know me then. It does neither of us any good to hold grudges. Ben made his own decisions, regardless of how we may have tried to influence them. He is responsible for what he did. you are not. I am not. He loved you enough to marry you the way he did. What mother doesn’t want that for her son? you know, you have a boy and you raise him right and you hope that you’ve raised the kind of son that knows how to love and does it well. especially as a mother, you hope that your son is sensitive and passionate; you hope that he knows how to treat women well. I did my job. He was all of those things. and he loved. He spent his short time on this earth loving. He loved you.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I’m still sorry I didn’t tell you that earlier.”
“Put it out of your head.” she waves her hand at me. “the other thing that I want to tell you is . . . I would have liked you,” she says. “I don’t pretend to understand your relationship with your parents. that is between you and them. But I would have liked you. I would have wanted you to marry my son.”
Hearing her say that, I get the feeling that I have done all of these things out of order. I should have met her, then married him; if I did, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe Ben would be here next to me, eating peanuts and throwing the shells in an ashtray.
“Thank you,” I say to her.
“I’ve thought a lot about you and I recently. I think I haven’t truly begun to cope with Ben’s death. I think that I am still mourning for my husband, and the loss of my son is . . . it’s too huge to bear. It’s too large to even begin to deal with. I think having you as a part of my life, helping you to deal with this, I think it’s helping me to avoid dealing with it. I think I thought that if I could help you to get to a place where you could live again, that I would be able to live again. But I don’t think that’s the case.
“When Ben was little, he used to get in bed with steven and I and watch Jeopardy! every night. He didn’t understand any of the questions, but I think he liked hearing the blooping noises. anyway, I remember one night I was lying there, Ben between us, and I thought, this is my family. this is my life. and I was so happy in that moment. I had my two guys. and they loved me and I belonged to them. and now, I lie in that same bed and they are both gone. I don’t think I have even begun to scratch the surface of what that has done to me.”
She doesn’t break down. she’s calm but sincere. she’s lost. I don’t think I could see it before because I was so lost. I’m still lost. But I can see that susan needs . . . something. she needs something to hold on to. For me, she was that something. she was the rock in the middle of the storm. I’m still in the middle of the storm but . . . I need to be a rock too. I realize it’s time I was supportive as well as supported. I think the time for “this Is all about Me” actually ended quite some time ago.
“What do you need?” I ask. susan seems to always know what I need, or at least thinks she does with enough confidence that she convinces me too.
“I don’t know,” she says, wistfully, as if there is an answer out there somewhere and she just doesn’t know where to start looking. “I don’t know. I think I need to come to terms with a lot of things. I need to look them in the eye.” she is quiet for a minute. “I don’t believe in heaven, elsie.” this is where she cracks. Her eyes tighten into little stars, her mouth turns down, and her breathing becomes desperate. “I want to believe so bad,” she says. Her face is now wet. Her nose is running. I know what it feels like to cry like that. I know that she’s probably feeling light-headed, that soon her eyes will feel dry as if they have nothing left to give. “I want to think of him happy, in a better place. people say to me that he’s in a better place, but . . . I don’t believe in a better place.” she heaves again and rests her head in her hands. I rub her back. “I feel like such a terrible mother that I don’t believe in a better place for him.”