On the packed Purple Line Express train, Emma pretends that every person touching her is someone that she knows and loves. The young man under a canopy of newspaper with his elbow cinched around her hip could be the first boy that she ever kissed—under an overturned canoe at a summer camp in Muskegon when she was thirteen, their charges were asleep, and free to be irresponsible, she trusted that somewhere above the bottom of the canoe, there would be stars. The flotilla of college girls sprawled drunk on the handicap seats in flouncy summer skirts, kicking her with their pretty pedicures, these could be her friends. The young woman breathing on her neck, shielding herself from accidental eye contact with a paperback—she could be Emma, going home for the weekend to help take care of her mother, or try at least, back when she used to be able to do that.
Emma cannot see much around the tangle of arms holding on, and the train window looks as if it has been sneezed upon by all of humanity. So many people in need of blessing. A brown blur of nothing identifiable rushes by them fast. Emma closes her eyes, clutching the bar. She told no one at her summer internship at the Field Museum that today is her twenty-first birthday, and she gave her family explicit instructions to forget. It was a long and typical day. She tended to innumerable spreadsheets. She proofread and fact-checked placards for the next special exhibition: “Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption.” At lunch, she took a GRE practice test. After lunch, she folded pamphlets. She laughed when her boss brayed at the replica dinosaur skeleton, “Lucy! I’m home!” each and every time he passed through the main lobby. Emma has been spending the summer enclosing herself with a red velvet rope.
As her stop nears, Emma reaches in her bag for the keys to her apartment. She will clutch them as she walks the three blocks to her door. The train pulls into the Davis Street station. A middle-aged woman on the platform appears to be waving at her. She is wearing too much makeup. The hollows under her eyes are a dusty shade of terracotta, and uppercuts of blush slap color into her cheeks. On her head is a white baseball cap with the pink breast cancer ribbon stitched onto the brim. Emma’s mother has the same exact hat. Her father gave her mother the exact same earrings for their last anniversary.
This woman cannot possibly be my mother, Emma thought that fall when her mother, in a velvet tam with a snowflake pin, wrote out forty place cards shaped like cornucopias with a chemotherapy needle in her arm. She had beautiful calligraphy and nobody could help her. That Thanksgiving, there were two turkeys, a duck, and a hen, all the little cousins screaming in play, her father laughing drunk, and, underneath the happy racket, the constant droning of the electric carving knife. It had not been her mother’s turn to host Thanksgiving yet; she was not supposed to until next year. It was not her turn.
The man on the platform next to the waving woman videotapes the approaching train. When the woman’s hat blows away, he lowers the camera, his head bowing under the weight of the neck strap. She covers her head with her hands as he chases after her vacated hat.
Emma’s mother used to want pictures of everything. That spring, she scheduled the professional family portraits for the day of Emma’s grandparents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary, which also happened to be the week after the double mastectomy. Next year was going to be their golden anniversary—the big fifty. Her mother had been planning their party for years. After the pictures, she was going to surprise them. The whole family was there in white and khaki. Emma’s father videotaped the pictures being taken. As the photographer snapped shots of all possible permutations of the family, with and without parents, with and without children, the grandparents alone, and so on, her mother called the party bus driver to tell him that it was time. He pulled up onto the lawn, honking and overflowing with syrupy music, to take the grandparents on a tour of their lives: where they were born, where they went to school, where they were married, their first home.
“Happy Fiftieth Anniversary!” her mother cried as her grandparents clustered together in the driveway as if for warmth. The whole family was hugging and crying, and no one corrected her mother. They drove through what used to be the German neighborhood of downtown Detroit, checking that the bus’s doors were locked.
At the Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, Emma’s mother dispensed the champagne and presented the former bride with a white lacy doily glued to a cardboard headband. “After fifty years, we should have gotten you a halo instead. Ha ha ha!” she said.
For the former groom, there was a plastic top hat and coke-bottle glasses in the shape of the word “groom.” The o’s were eyeholes. Emma’s little niece carried a bundle of plastic flowers that lit up and played “Here Comes the Bride” when the rose in the center was yanked. “She was only a gardener’s daughter,” said her grandfather, “but she sure knew how to plant her two lips.” This pun was one bead on his rosary of silly jokes that he repeated like prayers when he needed to.
On the church lawn, her family pelted the “bride” and “groom” with rice accompanied by the tinny tune of the fake flowers until one of her cousins said, pointing across the street, “That dude on the porch with the sawed-off shotgun is staring at us.”
At their next stop, Emma and her family brushed dirt from the headstones of Woodlawn Cemetery, where her grandparents’ parents and her grandfather’s stillborn brother were buried. The speakers played Sinatra on loop: “Unforgettable,” “New York, New York,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” When the disc ended, it always came back to “Unforgettable.”
Back on the bus, her mother struggled to stand in the middle of the moving vehicle and recite a poem she had written that painstakingly, painfully rhymed. It ended with the line, “So Mom and Dad, please take a bow!” The bus hit a decidedly un-iambic pothole and she was thrown off her feet and into Emma’s lap, coughing. Their plastic champagne glasses retched amber globes into the air above them.
When the champagne rained down, Emma’s hair become wet and sticky and began to curl. She had straightened it within an inch of its life. She was wearing a white dress and tan hose and even foundation because her mother was scaring her. Her mother straightened up, arms crossed over her chest to disguise the way she was rubbing her armpits, her incisions itchy with healing. “You look so pretty,” she said to Emma.
“My hair used to be that same exact shade,” said her grandmother. She choked out the word: “Auburn.”
Emma wants to bury her face in the shirt of the boy who could have given her first kiss to her, to stay on the train that smells fermented and sweet from the drunken college girls, to get off wherever they get off. She disembarks at Davis. She watches the train go by. Strangers on public transportation have a vicious way of looking like everyone you know, faces blurring past in finger-smudged windows; and left behind in a breeze staring at the opposite track, the discarded newspapers and the pigeons pacing, you are crazed by the urge to cry, “Wait!”
The man with the camera waits for her with the woman in the white hat.
This has to be her mother. It is a thought that will live as long as Emma does, as long as there are crowds of strangers hurrying away. She will still be thinking it when the day comes that she is older than her mother ever was.
Emma stoops to hug her mother around the waist. Her father films. Emma says, “This is a surprise.”
“I know, I know, but I couldn’t stand for you to be alone,” says her mother.
Emma is not going let her out of her sight.
“Meet me at the bottom,” her mother says as she summons the elevator to carry her from the platform to the street below. The elevator is a narrow box that can only accommodate one person at a time. Her mother presses the “down” button until her finger is white and bloodless. She must be exhausted from her performance of rude good health, running up the stairs to meet Emma. She is wheezing and her breath makes a whistling sound through her teeth, her open smiling mouth.
“The elevator smells bad. Like old urine. You don’t want to go in there,” Emma says, as if that is really going to change anything.
Pigeons fly up in front of her father as he walks backwards with the video camera, her mother beside him. As soon as they pass, the birds land back where they were, rotating their heads, flat pink eyes unblinking.
“Miss, can you spare a quarter? …Miss? Miss!”
A homeless man is chasing her. He is fast with the loping stride of a former athlete. He catches up, pinning her arms to her sides, and lifts her in the air. She fights to raise the mace on her key ring into his eyes until she sees that they are sea-green and long-lashed, the same as hers. The homeless man is her brother. A newspaper lowers, revealing her sister sitting on the covered bus station bench. The way her brother called out to her before she even rounded the corner, the way her sister’s eyes scanned from side to side as she pretended to read, the entire scene seems as posed as diorama, as fleeting as theater. Once one knows what to look for, it’s all over.
“Hello,” Emma says, “hi. I am surprised, so surprised.”
Her cheeks burn and her head spins and the pavement appears to slant, sinking wherever she steps like the trampoline she never had as a kid because it was too dangerous. Her family is laughing at something funny that she missed. She mutters, “That’s hilarious,” distracted by the two stooped figures that loom out from the alleyway behind the dead Barnes & Noble, beckoning.
“Give us everything you got or it’s lights out, see?”
Her grandmother starts giggling. Her grandfather elbows her and groans. “After nearly fifty years of marriage, I tell you, Emma, you can lead a horse to water but the sun never sets in the East.”
“Your grandpa thinks his jokes are funny, Emma.”
Emma hugs the two muggers. “You got me, really got me, guys.”
Under the awning of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, four girls in sundresses wait with arms linked, a latticed shadow stretching in front of them like a paper chain. They run to Emma without dropping hands. The girl on the far end is jerked around, neck whiplashed. These must be her best girlfriends from high school, except for the one her parents hate, except wait, there she is, Jamie, with her arms around her. Her face is swollen; she must be back on her medication. Before she started the lithium, as far as Emma and her friends knew, Jamie was all fun all the time: the Energizer Bunny.
She called herself that. They had no idea that she was also sometimes desolate. Sometimes they just didn’t see her for a while. “When I’m sick, I crawl away,” she told Emma once, “like a wild animal going to die.” Jamie’s face is in her face, close and beloved and strange. Emma is not prepared to hug her, so they accidentally almost kiss in front of everyone.
“Get it, Five Guys?”
“You really had no idea?”
“We thought for sure we were going to give it away!”
“We love you, Cock!” Emma’s last name is Johnson, and back in high school, they used to be hilarious.
“Sorry, Mr. Johnson. We mean rooster.”
“Don’t bother. He knows. We’re all adults now.”
Five friends, two siblings, two grandparents, a father, one mother, and her. Emma lives in a shoebox of a studio apartment that is the perfect size for her.
At her building, her boyfriend holds the door open. Carrey is wearing a tuxedo. He hands her twelve roses. They have only been dating for two months. Her mother must have put him up to it. He is either a keeper or crazy. He pecks her on the mouth. The birthday party cheers, “Oo la la!”
“The two of you make a great trio,” says her grandfather.
Carrey takes her arm and they climb the stairs, the rest of the party following. The door of her apartment flies open before she can retrieve the key. “Zavooie!” cries her grandfather. At one Fourth of July barbeque, he convinced Emma’s friends that zavooie was an African word meant to convey wonder and awe.
Her furniture is covered with all of her closest friends in the city. The ceiling is clotted with white and blue balloons. They press up against the cheap insulation tiles with tiny screeching and squelching noises. There are no strings tied to the ends. “Surprise!”
“I know,” Emma says. “I know. How great. You’re here.”
“We’re taking you out,” says her mother. “For your birthday dinner. Reservation in twenty minutes.”
Her father lingers in the apartment, pointing his video camera up at the ceiling.
Emma asks, “Where are you taking me?”
Between the stuffed olives and the head-on shrimp, her boyfriend is holding her hand and Emma is holding her sangria. He drinks from both of their water glasses, unsure which is his because she has not touched hers.
“I’m not hungry.” The patio of the restaurant is so loud that no one hears, and Emma ends up talking to herself without meaning to.
Her father clicks on the video camera, and her mother says into it, “We are all here at Tapas Barcelona, the restaurant where Carrey took Emma on their first date!”
The four long tables that have been pushed together for their party are covered but the small plates keep on coming. There are canned Spanish guitars and a sky choked with stars and festive voices droning and pretty children dancing under the Christmas lights strung across the patio and shaped like jalapeños, and everyone on earth who loves her is inches away across the long tables. She calls out to them but they cannot hear.
“Today, Emma is turning twenty-one! I remember when she was a tiny preemie. I could hold her in one hand.” Her mother shows the table her hand, the back laced with prominent veins, weary of needles.
Carrey slips out of the jacket of the rented tux. “You okay? You seem a little thrown.”
“No,” Emma says. “Good.”
She longs to rest her head on the table on a clean white folded napkin. If only there were room. She drinks and drinks, but her glass will not empty. For her birthday, they have given her bottomless sangria. The fruit at the bottom looks shriveled and pickled. She reaches for a spoon.
“Greg, turn that thing off.”
The ancient video camera whirs and groans as its lens retracts. Ice water is dripping on her legs. Her knees are checkered, slashed across with shadow and light and neon jalapeños. Her forehead is resting on the slats of the table. Everyone is saying her name.
Her boyfriend on one side, her mother on the other, they waddle to the bathroom.
“He can’t go in the women’s room,” Jamie calls after them.
Her mother snaps, “This is a special occasion.”
The tiny ceramic tiles on the floor smother Emma with their cracked mosaic of reds and oranges. Many-feathered festive masks leer at her from over the sink with open mouths and frozen obsidian eyes. Her boyfriend is squeezing her hand and rubbing her shoulders. She rolls her neck up to the crimson ceiling. Retching, she bends over.
The iron in the pipes has stained the toilet bowl reddish brown: auburn. “It’s okay,” Carrey is saying. “This is how you’re supposed to spend your twenty-first birthday.” His legs are wrapped around her legs, his hands in her sweaty hair. “Congratulations, you’re doing it right.” He holds back her hair and she leans forward into the rusty bowl.
“I’m okay,” she is moaning. “You can get out. You can leave me alone.”
Her mother has also come into the bathroom for a moment of privacy, assuming that Emma is too busy being sick herself to notice. Her mother squeezes her eyes shut so hard, the skin at the corners of her eyes pleats, and she rests her forehead against her fists, shaking her head. She blots her sweaty face with moistened toilet paper. She pretends to forget to turn the tap off while she throws up in the stall at the end of the women’s room furthest from Emma. Then, as though nothing has happened, in front of the mirror, she grimaces, applying a fresh coat of lipstick. Puckering her lips, rubbing them against each other, she sits on the sink and crosses her legs. “Okay, Emma,” she says. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything was wonderful. I’m sick. Thank you for everything.”
“You’ve made your point. You’re in no condition for company.”
“I can take it from here,” Carrey says, because either he is an incredibly good boyfriend or he feels that gallantry is expected of him. Emma does not know him well enough yet to tell. Her mother clasps his shoulder as she stands and whispers, “Thank you.” The door swings behind her, open closed, closed open.
“It’s nice to finally meet your family.”
“This reminds me. We had a dog growing up who used to hide behind the downstairs toilet whenever there were fireworks.”
“You told me.”
“I did? I thought it was someone else.”
“Your mom seems nice.”
“She’s also pushy and manipulative and busy and impatient, like most dying people. Please don’t do anything stupid.”
“I don’t know. Propose.”
Her boyfriend bends over her, his face pitying. “I guess we have very different ideas about what this is.”
In the hall, familiar voices cry, “Oh no! We don’t have to go! We’re only waiting for our friend.”
“Everyone is going to leave, aren’t they?”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“When will I see them again?”
It is dark. Emma is on her back. She kicks away the sheet over her and drifts off. When she wakes, she is covered with the sheet again. The last thing that she remembers is throwing up on herself. She is wearing a different shirt, one of her nicest blouses. In the dark, the silk glows like abalone shell, like bone. They chose it, she supposes, because it buttons up the front.
A cluster of friends and family sit on the couch across from her bed passing around what looks like a bottle of wine. It is too dark for her to see who they are. “Whenever she was pissed at me, she would always say…”
Her boyfriend’s voice finishes her old girlfriend’s story: “She would say… Well. Oh. Well!” Everyone gathered around Emma laughs in recognition. Their hands reach and grip at the shared bottle of libations.
There is an eruption of light. Her desk lamp. “Turn it off,” someone says. Her roommate from sophomore year is on her hands and knees groping around in the dark, rapping on the walls. Her phone is dead. Emma is trying to tell her where she can find the wall outlet, but her former roommate gives up, laughing, “Why do I even care? Everyone I know is here.”
“Did she say something?”
“You mean Emma?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“I swear I heard her say something.”
The birthday party bends over Emma, shaking their heads. Their dear blurry faces are beginning to come back into focus. Her temples are throbbing. Her hands are folded across her chest.
She closes her eyes. Someone says, “She looks asleep.”
“She looks twenty-one,” her mother’s voice insists.
Back when Emma was little, whenever family friends asked how old she was, her mother rounded up. She used to say, “She is going to be…” Weary from her day and its too many trains that rattled her bones as she struggled to hold on or be thrust onto the laps of strangers, lying in her bed on her back, Emma feels as though she is still moving. She is being thrown backwards on the party bus filled with family that her mother is conducting to the cemetery where there will be a premature anniversary celebration and a shotgun pretend wedding on the church lawn until the family sees or imagines that they see a man pointing at them an actual shotgun.
“As everyone gets older, it gets harder and harder to get us all together,” her mother said then, stalled in the middle of the cemetery, everyone crammed in together and laughing at her. They were giving her so much grief because, as soon as they passed through the gate, she had leapt up to change the CD on the stereo, hissing, “Crooners are not appropriate for the cemetery.” Emma, who had been responsible for music, whispered, “We have Patriotic Barbecue Tunes—but that’s about the best we can do.”
As “America the Beautiful” swelled through the sputtering fire-engine-red party bus and across the neglected headstones, Emma and her family fell silent and placed their hands on their hearts like schoolchildren. I pledge allegiance. And Emma tried to remember the last time she had felt that certain of anything. The engine was groaning and she felt sleepy from the champagne and the motion of the bus in the safe way she used to feel on the long road trips of her childhood, happy to be lost or trapped in traffic because she did not want to get there, not yet. Her mother was calling her name.
It was time for Emma to join her, to stand and recite the speech she had written commemorating her grandparents’ nearly fifty years of joined life.
“Don’t rush me,” Emma sighed, squeezing between the seats past her seated cousins and siblings. “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
Emma’s birthday party continues around her as she lies there stiff and silent as an eavesdropper. A corkscrew grinds. Glass shatters. A balloon pops. Champagne bursts open. There is familiar laughter. Buried under the sheet, she closes her eyes against the welcoming din. She is a disappointment to her mother who, as she planned every detail of the surprise, no doubt anticipated that Emma would be “in heaven,” to use a favorite expression of hers. For her mother claimed to believe in a literal heaven, a place where you would again see everyone who had ever left you and everyone who you had ever left. But then in the same breath, she passed on to Emma the numbers of the priest, the florist, and the caterer, and the names of the songs and psalms that she had selected for her funeral service, along with an exhaustive guest list—and this made Emma realize that her mother believed that this, this was it. Some comfort, your own funeral. All that Emma would be able to promise her mother on her deathbed was that there will be flowers; there will be food, and everyone you know will be there to see you.
Photo by romana klee