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Fiction: Mark's Funeral by Claire Doble
I went to Mark’s funeral. We had been the same age. His sister called and asked me to attend and I was picturing the chubby fourteen-year-old she used to be and how we found her annoying but she always had that authority over us. I still couldn’t say no.
After the service, everyone was arrayed oddly in a reception room at a local hotel. I say oddly because the room was one of those old-fashioned train-carriage affairs where two long rooms lie next to each other with a doorway—in this case, a rather ornate one—connecting them. It looked like the two rooms had been a library and a music room in grander times. But now they were being used as one long space that didn’t quite “work” for the amount of people who were at the wake.
I ended up standing right in the wooden doorway, with its stepped back layers and carved curlicues of leaves—an artisan’s work from a bygone era that no one would pay for these days. Or, you could probably create it with a 3D printer, although it would never be like this. As I looked up, I could see individual strokes from the gouge, a few bits of imperfectly shaped foliage that weren’t quite symmetrical. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.
It turned out I was in the right position—somehow Mark’s friends and family had arranged themselves so those who’d known him from birth or during his early years were in the room to my left—let’s call it the library—while his friends from adulthood were in the music room to my right. I was dead in the middle.
Someone suggested a “memory circle” where we’d go around and share our significant memories of Mark. I guess there were forty-odd people at the reception altogether, and some were partners of the main attendees who wouldn’t speak, so it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. I got nervous waiting for my turn as the first room’s memories swelled up and surged towards me. His mother talking about what a difficult baby Mark had been. His Auntie Susan laughing and saying it had all been in Diane’s head —Mark was an angel—but yes, even she had to acknowledge, he’d been sharp as a tack and could run rings around them all by age three.
When it got to up to me, standing in that doorway, I cleared my throat. I knew I’d have to project my voice so both—representing the two sides of Mark’s life of which I formed roughly the middle section—would hear me. I wasn’t sure if the wooden alcove would deaden or enhance my words.
“I was Mark’s first wife,” I paused and looked around. A few seemed surprised, particularly in the music room. I guess not everyone would have known about me. I’d certainly not seen many faces I recognized.
“Mark and I were married young. I was just seventeen. It didn’t last, obviously,” I let a note of laughter into my voice so the audience knew it was OK to smile and that any acrimony from our breakup was long in the past.
I then proceeded to tell the story that had been recounted so often: How we’d been childhood sweethearts, how we’d got together but then gone our separate ways to college and realized, fairly quickly, that there was a big world out there and maybe we weren’t the only two people in it. I gave my speech well and efficiently. I was happy with my voice and the open, interested looks on the faces of my listeners. I could see a few mentally sizing me up—like they were putting me on a list of people they would come and talk to after, which was gratifying.
The memory circle moved on—to his friends from New York, where he’d lived from age twenty-two to his early thirties, then finally to Baltimore, where he’d gotten sick.
Afterwards, I bolted down two glasses of champagne and let it go to my head. Then I steadied myself off with a couple of whiskeys. I found an armchair in the library room and was kicking back with my third Johnnie Walker when it hit me. It wasn’t true. Mark and I had never been married.
With that alcoholic clarity that sometimes occurs, I saw it all laid out like it was in a book or graphic novel. We had been childhood friends. We’d played tag, drawn pictures together, created imaginary worlds, had water-fights in summer, thrown snowballs in winter and been at the same primary school. But Mark had moved away when I was ten and we’d only written letters after that. I had no memories of Mark from High School. In fact, my best friend from that time – Kirsten – had lived in Mark’s old house with her family. He definitely hadn’t been there.
We had been lovers though. At age ten. Fooling around like kids do. Creeping into a single bed together during sleepovers, staying up late, talking, giggling, staring into each other’s eyes, breathing the same warm air and touching. And one time I told him there was Another Place Down There that I thought his penis could go into. We tried it.
I sat there on the bulgy leather armchair in a daze, all this stuff replaying behind my eyes. I had not thought of any of it for years. Had barely thought of Mark, even. We’d been friends on Facebook but his life had seemed so different to mine, it barely registered.
Wait. A sudden cold realization washed over me, as though I’d unexpectedly reached the edge of a cliff and was about to step off. I had fallen pregnant to Mark. I had. It happened. I felt ill. Why was I only remembering this now? I looked around wildly, needing some air, but the only exit to this room was through that ornate doorway and the press of people around it was so tight, I could not at that particular moment face getting up and negotiating my way through.
I tried to relax back into the chair, which was, it must be said, very comfortable, if somewhat isolating—being so huge with those big wide armrests that are probably designed for somebody to loll on. In fact, a woman’s bottom was perched on the far end of the armrest to one side of me, but she was engaged in conversation with someone else—another woman standing so as the first woman’s body blocked her face from my line of sight. The woman’s buttocks on the chair were covered in a blue-mauve dress with pleats or gathers from the waist stretched tight because of how she was sitting. Above, she had mid-brown hair in one of those carefully messy buns. Her body looked okay—not fat, reasonably trim—but I noticed an empty belt-loop drooping sadly at her waist and let myself wonder what had happened to the belt of her dress and why wasn’t she wearing it? These momentary thoughts were safer than the one I’d just had.
But, like touching a sore spot, I had to return. My mind was reeling. Had I really fallen pregnant to Mark at age ten? How could I have forgotten that? I got my first period on my eleventh birthday but, at the time, I was convinced it was actually a miscarriage. How did I even know about that stuff back then? Maybe it was just a normal first-period. But I was so sure about it being a miscarriage at the time. And we wrote about it, didn’t we? As pen pals, Mark and I had often discussed “our baby” and what we would have named it (we’d disputed the sex, I always referred to it as a girl, him as a boy) and how we would have taken her on trips to Disneyland and to the Ozarks. Oh my god. I looked around, suddenly terrified that someone would have found the letters! But that was ridiculously unlikely.
I lent my head back and closed my eyes, scanning these newly awoken memories. I took a slow sip of my whiskey and the ice touched my teeth. I felt a flash of annoyance – the drink was almost finished. They always gave you such small measures at these dos.
I wondered why the hell no one else who was here who’d known Mark at seventeen had disputed my story. His parents. His high school friends from the town they’d moved to. It seemed like most of the people here were from his adulthood but what about his family? But it was his sister who had said on the phone when she rang: “as Mark’s first wife, we thought you’d want to be here.”
Celia was no longer a chubby fourteen-year-old. She was now a dumpy forty-something with a shock of wiry grays in hair that could have used a decent cut and a dye-job. She had two or three kids of her own now and, although she'd introduced us, I couldn’t tell which ones they were, even though there weren’t many children at the wake. Her husband looked like an average IT-guy type and was handsome in that Snowden way—glasses, a trimmed goatee, bit of a middle-aged paunch with a dark, checked shirt on.
As the full horror of my realization ebbed, I finished off the last of my drink. I needed another and, opening my eyes, I clocked a woman coming towards me with intent, holding out—miraculously—a whiskey, which she slid into my grateful hand. She settled herself on the armrest of my chair and looked down at me, composing her face into a perfect blend of compassionate fondness for the funereal setting.
“So, you’re Mark’s first wife…?” she began pleasantly.
I decided to run with the lie.