We celebrated my sister's seventeenth birthday at Target, trying on dresses for her funeral. I'm ten, and I’m not cursing cancer cells or contemplating the meaning of life. I’m planning how to convince my mom to buy me a Coke Icee after we checkout. Afterall, I don’t get cake today like I should have.
"What about this one?" my mom holds up a black dress.
"Sure," I shrug.
I'm not being difficult today, a rarity that dually calms my mother and confuses her. She thinks I’m just upset or sympathetic, but really, my mind is elsewhere, still thinking about food. How much poppy seed chicken casserole is still in the fridge at home?
Ruby died two days ago sometime between my afternoon soccer practice and supper. That night, I straddled Mrs. C’s lap breathing hot air and sobs into her neck. I looked like an oversized baby--or maybe a coddled six-year-old who should really walk in the grocery store instead of being carried. When I finally sit up, I see the stain I’ve left on Mrs. C’s shirt. My tears created mark that starts at her shoulder and ends just below her left breast. The rest of her shirt looks chartreuse against the forest green wetness. My head pounds with a headache, I sniffle, and then I laugh. I laugh partly because I feel foolish I’ve been crying long enough to soak her shirt. But I laugh mostly because I realize that I don’t want my mother back. At least not yet. My mom has been with my sister while she’s been a patient at St. Jude’s in Memphis, and they’re coming home--one in a suburban and one in a casket. I feel absurd and depressed when I realize that the daydream is over. The carpooling, sleepovers, baking, and babysitting with makeshift moms is over. I’ve been having waffles for breakfast and frozen pizza for dinner. Mom makes Special K and chicken.
I turn around on Mrs. C’s lap and find men in suits sitting in my living room. I don’t know how long they’ve been there, but probably long enough for them to be annoyed by my crying. I recognize my sister’s headmaster, and assume the other man is the headmaster of the brother school. To my right, I see women lingering by our front door. The ones coming in have casseroles in their hands. The ones leaving have pity on their faces and frowns that sink and say bless your heart. I leap off the couch and run into the kitchen. I stuff my face with banana bread and wash the entire loaf down with Milo’s sweet tea. I choke on excitement, binge on biscuits, and gag on gravy. I shove the poppy seed chicken casserole down my throat, looking wild and feeling manic. I scrape off just the top layer of buttery Ritz crackers, breaking an unspoken dining rule. I dance in the kitchen, twirling and dancing with a cookie in my hand. I help escort the housewives in and wave them away with a piece of warm garlic bread.
Back in Target, I think about how Ruby could only have packaged food because of her weak immune system. I remember her sickly citrus colored eyes and tan skin. The summer after she turned sixteen, we would sneak out of the house and get ice cream without our parents knowing. I decide to have the casserole for lunch and dinner tonight, unless another tragedy whore drops off a better meal option. Maybe we have ice cream in the freezer. She liked anything chocolate.
We make our way through the maze clothes and towards the dressing room.
"Only six items are allowed per person," the worker yawns.
"Okay. Well, then she's taking these six with her and I'll have these four," Aunt D explains.
"Those aren't your dresses, though. Those are junior sizes. She'll just have to wait to try on those four until she's done with the first six," she says. The woman’s red uniform polo seems dull, and I can see the fine hairs on her chin that need to be plucked. Her belly rolls are soft, but her stance is firm. Aunt D can take her.
“Let me tell you something. Her daughter died two days ago, and we need to find clothes to wear to the visitation and funeral. You just opened, and the store is empty. We’ll be taking all of these back there,” D retorted. We breeze by her. I wonder if she’ll live with that guilt longer than my sister did.
In the dressing room, I strip in front of my mom and throw my Umbro shorts and Life Is Good shirt on the ground. It’s the first time she’s seen me down to my underwear while wearing a training bra. Puberty has been on my heels for the entirety of my fifth grade year. For years, I swore to my mother I would never wear a bra, but when I saw myself growing in the mirror, I started wearing hand-me-downs. I begin to try on a series of appropriately morbid dresses, until we pick one that’s decidedly ugly, but fits my new body. We collect our things and start to leave the dressing room. Mom never mentions the bra, afraid I would throw a fit, but more ashamed that she wasn’t there to take me to Limited Too to buy a new one. We leave without my Coke Icee.
Two days after Target is Ruby’s funeral. I keep looking down at my new dress, hating the way the fabric is stitched on the chest in order to allow room for a growing girl. I can feel myself getting older, expanding. My chest is scraping against the rough fabric, and every motion shoots pain through my body. I sit. I hurt. I see strangers mourning. I hate and envy their emotion. I fake cry at the graveside service. I wonder what food they’ll have at the reception. I’ll be eating enough for me and Ruby. She always liked buffets.