From “You Said Yes or You Said No”

Maureen Traverse

On the day I would learn that Ryan’s father had died, I woke up to find Lindsey attempting a headstand on the living room carpet of the apartment we shared, one leg extended, her pastel pants drooping past the knee. She crashed back to the floor. I put my coat on. The apartment was freezing.

“What’s with the acrobatics?” I asked.

“Preparing for a new yoga pose,” she said. “How’s Ryan?”

“Ryan’s Ryan,” I said.

Lindsey crouched on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest, and stared at me. “Isn’t this the third time you’ve seen him this week?” she asked. She was referring to her rules about courtship that I was never following.

“You’re keeping track?” I pictured her marking the days on her calendar with black lines, coloring a pie chart of monthly percentages.

“It gets lonely around here.”

I snorted. “You wouldn’t mind if you thought Ryan was worth my time.”

She stretched out her legs in front of her, reaching for her toes. “You know him. I don’t.”

“It’s only been two months,” I said. “I guess I don’t know him that well.”

“But you know enough to stay,” she said as she folded her fingers against the soles of her feet, her knees locked.

“Of course,” I said, although if pressed, I didn’t think I could articulate what I knew that made me stay. Lindsey held her stretch as if waiting for me to elaborate. Instead, I glanced through the mail. Eventually she drew her knees up to her chest and tipped forward into another headstand. The fair skin on her cheeks burned pink almost immediately as she balanced her knees on her elbows in a tripod pose, her blond hair ribboned across the carpet.

“I know I keep saying this, but you guys seem so different,” she said.

I didn’t mind her being vague because it meant I could pretend to be ignorant. Ryan grew up in a tiny Ohio town where his mother answered telephones at a Napa auto parts store and his father owned a printing company. They had divorced when he was seven. Ryan and his mother had moved out and lived in an apartment over a donut shop for a few years. My parents were devout Catholics, a history professor and a librarian still living in the same suburban house. While he was playing football in high school, I was writing poetry. He’d moved to Cleveland, worked at a warehouse, and had started taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College. I had graduated from Case Western Reserve less than a year ago and started teaching English as a second language.

“Different how?” I asked Lindsey. “Are you referring to our castes?” It irritated me that someone who could be so open-minded would insist I should only date college-educated, middle class boys.

Lindsey lowered her knees back to the carpet and lifted her head up to look at me. Her hair hung in front of her eyes. “I’m talking about values. Belief systems.”

I knew she was referring to the first night that she’d met Ryan, when I brought him to one of the dinner parties that she threw. He’d remained silent up until his third glass of wine when one of Lindsey’s friends mentioned that she had a younger brother who’d enlisted in the military instead of going to college. The woman said something about him being brainwashed by the recruiter when Ryan spoke up. He said his father had been in the military and he’d thought about it, too. “What’s so wrong with it?” he asked her, his voice suddenly louder, aggressive. She didn’t respond, just shifted her gaze to the table. These were Lindsey’s friends, a social worker and a counselor who worked at Planned Parenthood. It might not have been so bad if it hadn’t been the only thing he’d said all night.

_ _ _

That evening Ryan’s mother Sandy drove us to the funeral home for the viewing. Ryan sat up front in silence and I sat in the back seat, staring out the window as the Main Street stores slid past, packed next to each other in a tight row of quaint, carved buildings that didn’t even resemble the clapboard and cinderblock boxes that housed the rest of the town’s livelihood. On the corner a lone barbershop pole turned slowly in the cold under a neon sign that advertised a shave and haircut. Sandy pointed out spots of interest, the library, the elementary school, the grocery store parking lot that turned into a flea market during warm months. The town dwindled to a White Castle, a Dunkin Donuts where a few teenagers in hooded sweatshirts clustered around an SUV, and the glass-fronted auto parts store where Sandy worked, looking stranded like islands on the flat, featureless landscape.

After a mile or so of empty fields and dark houses, the Monroe Funeral Home appeared like a mirage, tall and fronted by thick columns like an old tobacco plantation. A scalloped, green awning flapped in the wind. Sandy parked and shut the car off.

“We’ll only stay for an hour or so,” she said. “Pay our respects and go. There aren’t that many people I need to be socializing with.”

Ryan cleared his throat as if he were about to speak but remained quiet.

We draped our coats on top of a full coat rack and walked into the hushed conversation of a parlor with thick carpet and velvet curtains. Low chords of organ music came through speakers in the ceiling. I slipped my arm around Ryan’s elbow and placed my hand on his arm. We huddled near the podium with the reception book while Sandy signed her name and picked up a prayer card. Ryan stared at the floor. A placard on an easel bore a large, smiling photograph of Ryan’s father, with the words “In Loving Memory, Jack Dawes” printed above. I stared at the photograph, startled by how much his long nose and thin lips reminded me of Ryan. The receiving line snaked through the room, men in suits and women in dark dresses standing like shadows in front of the coffin. My stomach started to turn at the idea of seeing the body.

Sandy glanced around the room and turned back toward the door for a moment. Her eyes squeezed shut and she shook her head. “Sometimes it doesn’t hit until you’re right there,” she said and took a breath. I waited, then placed my hand on her shoulder. “Part of life,” she said. We walked into the room together.

Sandy sounded tired. “We’ll go up and see Brenda and her two grown daughters. She’s Jack’s wife. They were married, what, two years ago?” she said, looking at Ryan. He was still staring at the floor. “She had those kids young. Different fathers. So those girls have got to be more than thirty now.”

I nodded. Ryan had never mentioned a stepmother. He spent hours telling me about the restaurant he wanted to open once he had his associates degree in marketing and had worked a few years for other places. “The restaurant will need a theme, something to distinguish it.” He tossed around several options. Maybe a travel theme with international foods or else name it for a place in a classic novel, like Nighttown, that restaurant just before Cedar Road dipped into Cleveland proper. Whenever we had a few extra dollars, we went to Nighttown, drank mojitos and ordered bangers and mash. Ryan liked to chat with the bartender about his prospects. “It isn’t easy,” he would tell me. “Nine out of ten small businesses fail in the first year.”

Sandy glanced around the room. “Most of these people probably knew him through the business,” she said. “He was some salesman,” Sandy said. Ryan pushed his glasses up his nose and cleared his throat again.

We waded through the crowd while women approached Sandy and clasped her hands, patted Ryan’s arm. “This is Ryan’s girlfriend, Sara,” his mother said. The word twisted somewhere in me.

Once we reached Brenda, I could see the open casket. Compared to the photograph, Ryan’s father looked artificial, his cheeks bloated, the color painted on his lips, the skin on his face too smooth, like wax. Ryan grimaced when he saw his father. Sandy and Brenda leaned into one another in a polite hug, exchanged murmurs I could not hear. Brenda was tall and bony, her long limbs accentuated by the angular cut of her black pantsuit. Her white blond hair was curled stiffly around her crumpled face. She sniffed and dabbed at her nose with a tattered Kleenex. Brenda embraced Ryan, patted his back gently, whispered that she was sorry. He said he was sorry for her, the first words he’d spoken since we’d arrived. I stood back awkwardly, waiting to be introduced. No one bothered.

Sandy lowered herself onto the kneeler and made the sign of the cross, closed her eyes and covered her face in prayer. Ryan lingered before his father’s body, but I tugged at his arm, led him to a free couch along the wall. He stared at his mother.

“You know she left him,” he said. “I was seven. She was seeing someone else. We moved out and into that apartment over the donut place. She’d be upstairs with this guy and I’d be downstairs at the counter, eating donuts.”

“I didn’t know,” I said.

“We never talk about it.”

“Maybe you’ll be able to talk about it now,” I said.

Ryan closed his eyes. “What for?”

I was thinking of what Sandy had said about Ryan’s father, how mean he could be and how Ryan still looked up to him. “She must have had her reasons.”

“Yeah,” he said, chewing his tongue. “Bill, this guy from the RV dealership.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “Her life couldn’t have been easy.”

Ryan turned and stared at me, the skin between his eyebrows crinkled. “What does that mean?” His voice was low, but sharp.

Before I could answer, a heavy man approached us and patted Ryan on the arm. “How you doing, kiddo?” he said. Ryan looked up and shook hands, then introduced me to his Uncle Neil, his father’s brother. Neil leaned close, kissed me, wet, on the cheek and lingered a second too long. “You do pretty well for yourself, kid.” Sweat prickled his pink face and he panted, as if the suit and tie he wore were so tight that they squeezed the air out of him. Alcohol was on his breath. Ryan stared at his shoes. Neil clapped Ryan on the back once more and waddled off.

Sandy crossed herself again and stood, leaning on the edge of the kneeler for support. She tottered toward us and smiled. “You meet Uncle Sleaze?” she said. “Makes you squirm, don’t he?” Ryan said nothing. “We’ll mingle a few minutes longer but then we should head home. Long day tomorrow.”

Sandy drifted around the room between groups, patting arms and whispering. Ryan and I sat on the sofa, watching the receiving line slowly dwindle. He didn’t bring up what I’d said about his mother, and I was afraid of making him angry, again. I looked up at his profile and tried to decipher his blank expression. He had always been difficult to read. When he claimed he was just tired, he looked depressed. When he slept, a crease appeared between his eyebrows as if he were concentrating. I couldn’t remember ever seeing his face severely changed by anything. Only once had I seen him angry enough to raise his voice. We were driving back from a party one of his friends had thrown and he’d been quiet most of the night. Some car had cut him off and he’d punched the dashboard so hard he cut his knuckles on the air vent. He shouted “fuck” nearly twenty times before he calmed down. I’d shrunk against the door and gripped the seat, afraid he might lose control of the car. Still, even then his face had hardly changed. Later he told me he’d had a lousy day, had gotten a D on an exam because he’d stayed up all night to write a paper. When we came back to his apartment I wrapped bandaids around his fingers and rubbed his forehead, my hands still trembling a little.

As we drove home from the wake, Ryan lowered a window and smoked a cigarette, the plumes of his breath sucked out at once, the still lit ashes whipping past my back seat window. Sandy gave us the rundown of every insult she had suffered. “You know what Brenda said to me? ‘I didn’t know if you’d make it out,’” she said in a mincing tone. “Does she think I live in a cave?” She pointed at Ryan. “That woman always acted like we don’t have the right to be alive.” I reached around from the back and took his hand, squeezed it.

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