by JP Reese
Ben and Sarah walked down the cathedral’s slate steps, Ben cradling Sarah’s elbow as she tried not to slide on the fresh stain of snow covering the stone. The rest of the mourners gave them room, waiting to follow until the black-clad parents rounded the building and trudged through the ornate wrought-iron gate, its finials topped with winged gargoyles. The sky spit ashy flakes on the mound of dirt waiting near the opened ground. Two men dressed in green cover-alls and caps waited discreetly behind the temporary overhang, shovels grasped in gloved fists. A whiff of cigarette smoke dissipated on the chill air. The couple found their seats as the rest of the gathering wandered in behind them. Four men, their shoulders bowed, but not by the weight they carried, set a tiny coffin on the straps above the hole. One bent down and removed a silk blanket protecting the white enameled lid, folding its lambs and little girls into a square, he handed it to Sarah. She pressed its softness hard against her face, each figure sewn in different shades of pink.
When Sarah tossed back shots of rum, she often woke dehydrated and lost in someone else’s bed, smelling of stale perfume and borrowed cigarettes. This morning was different. She came to lying against the delivery door on the back dock of The Flying Cactus Bar and Grill, shirtless and wrapped in an unfamiliar cloak. Early morning dewed her sunken cheeks. She’d lost an earring and when she felt the lobe, her hand came away streaked with blood. Grasping the knob, she pulled herself to her feet, every movement after midnight a mystery to her foggy brain. Digging car keys from the back pocket of her unzipped Wrangler’s, Sarah tottered under a newborn sun toward the parking lot, clutching the cloak around her naked breasts, hoping the pint was still in her glove compartment, long hair aflame in different shades of pink.
The room no longer welcomed cigarettes, so Sarah smoked them outside, leaning against the brick of the back wall before meetings. She came in early every Friday to help make coffee, set up the chairs, and place the blue books around the table. There was always a box or two of tissues handy for the newer members as they learned to put one foot in front of the other, gaining balance through the testimony of others. Sarah took one day at a time as she prepared lesson plans and graded essays in her one bedroom near campus. She hadn’t yet found the courage to call Ben but knew there would be time to make amends. She often drank tea with honey before driving to a meeting where she could safely examine the scars of her past in the night room, surrounded by friends. When it was her turn to tell her story, even now her face sometimes betrayed her, coloring in different shades of pink.
When her waist-length hair fell out in tangled clumps, Sarah thought she’d never show herself in public again. After a few weeks, the lack of hair slowly became tolerable; she purchased a stack of gorgeous scarves and found she had a flair for tying knots and twirls. When she walked into her classroom after a month of substitutes who taught Chaucer and Milton while she puked and writhed on the floor of her bathroom, she was prepared for mumbled condolences, false assurances that she looked great, or even gasps. Instead, she entered a room full of students with bald, shining skulls, mile-wide grins, and Ben standing next to her desk, the surface covered with caps: snap-brimmed, wide-brimmed, double-flapped, each one dyed in different shades of pink.