Emily hugged her knees to her chest a little tighter. It was going on eleven pm. Eight hours, it was her mantra. In eight hours the sun would crack through the March sky and give her some relief, some warmth and some safety. She hated the night time with a passion. Eight, eight, eight, she hummed to herself rocking a bit. She wanted to cry but didn’t. Crying would send her down a path from which there was no return. Keep yourself sharp and awake until you cannot take it anymore, then she could catch a few hours of sleep on a park bench. These are the rules of ‘off nights’. Off nights are when no one had a couch to crash on. Emily was crouched in dimly lit back doorway of Pula’s Funeral home off Main. Thank God March had been freakishly warm. The cars whizzing by sent her into a drowsy lull, until one zoomed by with music blaring jarring her into a panicked alertness.
I am getting too old for this shit she thought. It was a phrase her mother had used often, the way a person might punctuate their sentences by clearing their throat or nodding. If she dropped something, opened the electric bill, got a call from Emily’s school it was always the same line I am getting too old for this shit. She even used it the day she asked Emily to leave. Emily winced at the memory, it was still too fresh and painful.
Emily had been visiting Angie in the apartment across the hall. Angie was two years younger than Emily, fifteen. Angie was always in trouble. She was a recreational pot smoker, a ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’ nose puncher, a class cutter and general nuisance to her parents who happened to never be home due to maintenance calls on other buildings they owned, besides this one they all lived in on North Street in East Stroudsburg.
It had been a Saturday afternoon almost two months ago when Angie had pounded on her door asking her to come over and help with math assignments. Her teacher had promised not to hold her back if she could just complete everything she was missing over the weekend. Angie wasn’t dumb, but she certainly could not do it on her own. Emily went over and the two girls huddled over the assignment, with Emily doing the work and occasionally asking Angie is she understood.
Yeah, I see…Angie would say and Emily could see that she didn’t see at all.
You’re not seeing Angie, you’re not even paying attention…I’m not going to be across the hall forever you know. Emily had no idea at the time how true her statement had been.
Yeah, where you going? Angie flopped down on her bed and rummaged around under her pillow until she produced a half smoked blunt. She fired it up and blew smoke directly at Emily who waved her hands, Stop it. It’s not funny.
Yes it is..it’s very funny. Angie had risen from the bed and sat on Emily’s lap. Pretty funny…like you,
You’re pretty funny too aren’t you? Angie had put her arms around Emily’s neck, At least that’s what they say at school.
Emily had frozen — unsure of Angie’s intentions, who had then made them crystal clear by kissing her full on the mouth. Before Emily could react, throw her off her lap or kiss her back – she hadn’t been sure what she wanted to do. The door opened.
Angie’s mother, Mary, her dyed in the wool Church of the Living Waters, traditional Dominican mother was standing in the doorway. And she proceeded to scream.
Everything, as they say, happened pretty quickly after that. Emily was thrown across the hall where her own mother, Alice, had just returned from her shift at WalMart. Mary proceeded to berate her mother about Emily, her being a bad influence, etc.
Finally, she turned to Emily, ‘I know what you are’, she said with a gleam in her eyes, ‘and it’s disgusting.’ Mary then turned to Alice and said.
“Not here, not around my daughter, not under my roof.” and stalked across the hall to her own side of the building slamming the door behind her.
Emily’s mother said nothing, but went into the kitchen where she poured herself a tall glass of water and sat down with her back to Emily.
Emily followed, waiting for her to say something, after all she had just been “outed”. This was something she had never brought up with her mother – being gay. Her mother was too busy all the time, they had lived a sort of don’t ask don’t tell existence, which was bound to break eventually.
Alice seemed annoyed by her presence, Emily took a deep breath,
“Don’t.” her mother warned.
Alice lit a cigarette, “You have just made my life so much harder in every way, I am – ” Emily cut her off, “Getting too old for this shit?” There was silence in the room, finally Emily broke it as children do.
“What are we going to do?”
Her mother did not move, nor turn her head but simply said, “You’re eighteen in a month anyway, find a couch to sleep on, you have plenty of friends.”
Emily felt her heart drop to the floor, leave? This was something she was not expecting, disapproval, yeah, harsh words, maybe, intervention of some crazy church sort, sure, but asked to go? She had not seen it coming. She felt anger and fear well up inside, anger at having been raised in a shitty little apartment in Stroudsburg, to have a mom that was detached to the point of not caring at all, angry at Angie – angry at all of them.
“I haven’t finished school yet – ” A hot tear seared it’s way down her cheek.
“-neither did I. You want to live a hard life that’s going to get me kicked out of my apartment? Go do it some where else, come back when you’ve straightened out and won’t embarrass me anymore…your whole…” her mothers hand holding the cigarette waved around her head dropping ash into her water glass, “…get up is bad enough. Come back when you can dress appropriately and you’re not a threat…to anyone.”
Emily’s head was spinning. She has seen her mom sigh and roll her eyes when she had cut her hair, modeling it after Sara from the group Tegan and Sara, she favored black hoodies and no makeup, she wore sneakers all the time and had even given in to getting a piercing in her bottom lip in which she wore a small silver stud. She got into henna after visiting a booth at a farmers market. The woman who hennaed her had been easy to talk to, complemented her on her stud and asked her what music she listened too. She had even heard of Tegan and Sara and given Emily a few henna cones to play with at home. Emily had enjoyed piping the henna onto herself, the soothing lavender scent calming her as she made pattern after pattern. She became quite good at it. Her mother had done nothing but shake her head and mumble things like I don’t know…as long as the school doesn’t call. Emily just figured her mom was out of touch, if anything she was low key compared to some of the kids at school. She thought her mom should thank God she didn’t dress like Angie – with low cut shirts and tight shorts that read Sweet across the ass. Emily had never considered that her mom had been watching her as if she were a stranger not liking what she saw. She finally had felt the discomfort from her mom as she came into her own, so she tried not to bother her too much, she never brought friends home and kept in touch with all of them through face book and texting on her smart phone. She paid for everything, including her phone through money her dad occasionally sent from California and she hadn’t seen him in about ten years. A threat? As far as that went – what kind of threat was she? She was confused.
“Do not…tell your father what you are. Do you understand?” her moms’ voice rapped out staccato from the back of her head.
“What?” Emily had asked, taken off guard, again.
“It would break his heart. He doesn’t need this, it would give him a heart attack .”
“Right.” Emily had answered and turned to her small room and began shoving clothes into a backpack and then had stood at the front door, unsure of what to do.
Her mother had called out, “Wait…” and for a split second, for the only time in her short life Emily had a glimmer of hope,
“Leave your keys.”
Emily slowly pulled out her key chain, and slipped off the front door key and dropped it on the floor.
She had been able to couch surf pretty effectuively the first month, and she had been able to continue with school.
Then she had run into Angie at the cafeteria during a free period. Angie had approached her carefully, her dark eyes darting around as if she thought someone was going to jump out and attack her for talking to Emily.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you but – ”
Emily had cut her off, “You’re not supposed to talk to me? YOU aren’t supposed to talk to ME? Are you kidding?”
Angie had scurried away and that had been fine with Emily, she had no interest in what she had to say, none at all. Angie has settled herself across the lunchroom with her own set of friends, one of which had shoved Emily, hard, in the hall earlier and whispered in her ear dyke as if she were saying asshole.
She had her own friends and didn’t need Angie.
So far, besides the unfortunate incident with Angie, she had only outed herself to Michelle, whom she had known since kindergarten who shrugged and said I thought so, and changed the subject. Emily had felt relief at her reaction – but then as time went on, she had felt lonley. She had been attracted to other girls – certainly it was nothing she would ever act on – after all this was Stroudsburg, not New York City, the last thing she needed to do was draw attention to herself. So she and her little group of friends had not ever really discussed it, even when her mother asked her to leave. They simply offered up their couches when they could and when they couldn’t or if their parents started asking too many questions – Emily had a ‘off night’.
But today some idiot had told the school counselor that they suspected Emily may have been thrown out of her house. Emily had been dragged into the drab green cinder block counseling office and sat across from the diminutive women behind the desk. The counselor, Dr. Boil flipped through her file and finally spoke.
“Emily, you’ve never been in trouble, you’re a decent student, what’s going on at home?”
“Nothing, everything is fine.”
“Well apparently not Emily, a teacher came to me concerned that you had been thrown out of your home because you identify yourself as a lesbian.” Dr. Boil let the word roll of her tongue as if she had practiced it at home in the mirror, as if saying it out loud would make Emily break down and fling herself on the mercy of the wonderful support system in place for LGBT teens in Pennsylvania.
Fucking Angie, thought Emily, she probably told one of her teachers.
“Uh, I don’t identify myself as anything but..Emily.” she answered rolling her eyes and using the same patronizing tone as the counselor.,
“I understand your mom is a single mom,” the counselor said pointing to something in Emily’s file, feigning concern, “Does she have a lot of boyfriends?”
“Have any of them done anything inappropriate with you?”
“OK – NO! Like I said, and uh, I am not comfortable at all right now – can I go? I have lab.” Emily jumped up and grabbed her book bag as the counselor tried to get around the huge desk in the cramped room but she was too late. Emily was down the hallway and out the door of the school, setting off an alarm as she went. That’s it, I guess I’m not going back, she decided. I’ll find a job.
Behind the funeral home, Emily dug her hand in her hoodie and felt for her phone. Michelle made her check in to FB every night to make sure she was OK. She pulled the phone out and updated her status:
Pula’s Funeral home.
Michele popped up on the thread – Are u dead ?!
no – crashing behind Pula’s tonight. Emily answered.
Creepy-mom made pierogies-will save some for u!
Emily switched off the phone – it was annoying to have her life summed up as if she were a homeless dog.
Before she could contemplate her misery any more, the back door of the funeral home swung open and someone flipped over her — sailing down the two short steps to the pavement and lay there.
“Oh shit!” Emily scrambled to her feet and ran over to the immobile body, “Are you OK? I’m so sorry!”
An older man got up calmly, dusted himself off and surveyed the crushed pack of Marlboro lights in his hands.
“Yeah, I think so…let me check.” he dug through the pack making sure none were broken and then looked up at her with a smile, “I’m good!” he was about fifty years old with a short military style haircut. He had a face that had spent a life in the sun sucking on a cigarette, so it was pretty craggy. He was wearing green scrubs and bright white converse sneakers. Emily marveled that he was in Stroudsburg and there was no dirt on them. He lit a cigarette and surveyed her.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” she said warily picking up her back pack.
“Uh, in case you haven’t noticed I work in a funeral home, you didn’t startle me. Tripped me, yes, startle, no — it takes a bit more to do that.”
Emily nodded and started to walk.
“Wait a minute, you can stay. I didn’t mean to scare you off – let me have my smoke and then you can get back to the doorstep.”
Emily paused, she dreaded finding another place for tonight, but she also dreaded company of any kind. She jammed her hand around a Swiss army knife she kept in the right front pocket of her hoodie.
“OK, when are you done with whatever it is you do…” she said – trying to gauge when she could let her guard down.
“Oh, I’m not,” he said taking another big puff of his cigarette. “Working all night tonight. You know that car crash on 94 the other day? The one that killed three boys?”
Emily nodded, it had been all over the news, they had been out joyriding and took a hairpin curve on a back road and flew over the side on an embankment.
He jabbed his thumb to the door, “They’re all in there, it’s going to be an all nighter. Car crashes are the worst. I literally have to put everyone back together.” He smiled, and then thought better of it realizing that his work banter might scare her, but it didn’t.
“That’s nice.” he said pointing to her left hand which wasn’t curled around a concealed weapon. “Henna?”
“That’s pretty good work, you an artist?”
“No, I’m a …drop out.” Emily blurted.
“Oh yeah…” the man said thoughtfully, “Lot of that around here. Why you?”
Emily felt so alone at that moment, talking to a stranger behind a funeral home she had been trying to use as a crash pad that she just did not care anymore.
“Because I’m…” she balked.
The man’s eyebrows went up, “Uh oh…you’re…”
“You’re….an ax murderer?”
Emily shook her head and took a deep breath, “Gay.”
“Oh!” he said and stubbed out his cigarette. “I’m Paul, of Pula’s, and yes it was a typo.” He stuck out his hand.
“Emily.” She released the knife from her pocket and shook his hand.
“I don’t have to call you Gay Emily or anything like that do I?”
Emily shook her head, “Nope, just Emily, or Em.”
“Well, Em, I have to go back and make these boys up. So you can get back to your roost here, or if you like you can hang out in the lobby.” He eyed her tired face. “It’s warm out. I’ll leave the front door wide open in case you have to run out.” he offered.
Emily nodded, she was grateful but scared. She gripped the knife again in her pocket for reassurance. He led her into he building, and into the lobby to the reception desk. He made her sit down in a big leather chair and switched on a small TV monitor. Emily blinked as the mortuary room came into view. It was black and white and a bit washed out but she could clearly make out three bodies lined up on gurneys naked save for sheets across the loins. It was the three teens who had died in the crash.
“You’ll be able to see me now, so if you are scared…of me…” Paul paused, “You’ll know where I am.”
Emily nodded thankfully.
At that point she burst into tears, sobbing tears, the kind that make snot run out of your nose and your face turn red. The kind of sobbing reserved for mourners and crazy people.
Paul waited while she let it out. Passing her tissues (of which there were many this being a funeral home) and nuking some hot tea in the break room for her. Which only made her cry harder because no on had made her hot tea in what seemed like an eternity. When she finally calmed down she noticed Paul had sat down into the seat next to her and had switched on a computer on the desk and was logging into face book. She waited while he opened his account and clicked on a page called WHOF. He went to photos and opened a file called Whof Wedding photos.
“OK Em, I want to show you something. Look.”
She turned her head to the screen to an picture of two women in full out white wedding gowns standing at an alter. Two women getting married.
“See?” said Paul softly, “Happy.”
He clicked the ‘next’ arrow, the picture was two men in black suits and skinny black ties beaming with joy with their arms around each other, “Happy.” said Paul.
He clicked again, two girls, not much older than Emily smile into a camera one of them was holding, lovingly with arms around each other. “Happy.” repeated Paul.
He clicked again, and again and again. Some pictures were arty, black and white romance photos, some were traditional wedding photos complete with poofy dresses and tuxes, some were uncomfortably posed, some were taken by beaches with only the couple, others in wedding halls with what looked to be hundreds of guests. But all were the same in that the couples were same sex and the couples were happy.
“Happy.” repeated Paul over and over as he clicked on each picture, “Happy.”
They got to the end of the album and Paul leaned back from the computer, they must have viewed at least two hundred photos.
“Get it Em?”
Emily nodded. Looking at the photos had soothed her, it had calmed her down, hundreds of faces of people she did not know expressing their love to each other without shame or in secret or…permission. She felt weird, a camaraderie with people she didn’t even know.
She kept staring at the screen.
Paul touched her shoulder, “I have to finish OK? You can stay on the computer and I’ll check on you later.”
“And if you’re still here, I guess we’ll have to talk about putting you to work.”
Emily felt her face crinkle.
“NO! Don’t cry again! You’re reminding me too much of my day job!” Paul dramatically shoved a tissue in her face.
Emily laughed and let him go. Back to the basement, back to the cement room with the three dead boys to finish preparing them for their families.
She went back to Wipeout Homophobia On Facebook and began to click,
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