Featured in Colorado Review
Are You Happy?Featured, Fiction
Published Summer 2019
Photo by Lenny K Photography
Twenty-four years after the crash, Phil would return to Albuquerque to see his mother and she would ask whether he was happy. She was in the final stages of stomach cancer by then, living—or, more accurately, dying—in his brother’s house, and Phil sat there, not sure how to answer her question because they’d never talked about such things. Happiness. She’d always scoffed at people who did, maintaining that happiness was a uniquely American preoccupation, speaking as if she were not American. Even then, at the end of her life, Phil believed she would hold an admission of happiness against him.
He had awakened that morning at home in San Francisco, Kelvin and their whole menagerie huddled around him, his legs stiff from being curled up to accommodate the cats, who stretched across the middle of the bed, rejecting parallelism because they preferred to sleep perpendicular. “Daddy’s going away today,” Kelvin loud-whispered, phrasing that always struck Phil as vaguely but disturbingly sexual, the Daddy part, he supposed. The dogs leaped up and began bouncing between them. It was away that got them going—Kelvin had trained them to associate the word with car rides—but Phil liked to pretend that it was his imminent departure to which they were responding.
“Let’s all eat breakfast together on the raft,” Kelvin said. The raft was what he called their bed. It was king-size. “We’re a growing family,” he’d said when they bought it. They were up to seven now: the two of them, three cats, two dogs. Each night at bedtime, Kelvin called out, “Everyone on the raft,” and all seven of them climbed on. There, surrounded by a chorus of snorting and snoring and purring, Kelvin always fell asleep quickly, as if the raft were meandering down a peaceful river, while Phil lay wide awake most nights, gripping the mattress as the current quickened, pulling him toward the rapids.
That morning, the morning that Phil would get on the plane to visit his dying mother, Kelvin got up and brought them all breakfast, arranging the bowls of kibble strategically across the comforter, isolating Ollie, their fat boy, who was fond of sniffing the others’ buttocks to distract them and then stealing their food. “Let’s have sex,” declared Kelvin when they were done eating, because he never felt shy about making his desire known, and he got out of bed again, stacked all seven bowls on the dresser, and herded the animals out of the room. Ollie had to be picked up and dropped just as the door was being shut behind him because, even though he was portly, he was quick. “You do know they’re sitting out there listening,” Kelvin said as he returned to the bed. Banning them was not his idea. “Besides, sex is perfectly natural.”
“Sex is natural,” Phil agreed, though he did not believe this for a minute. There was nothing natural about the way people’s faces contorted in the throes of an orgasm or how they seemed as pleasant and agreeable as door-to-door salesmen beforehand, then cold and occasionally cruel after. Kelvin was the first man he’d met who wanted the same things before and after, in bed and out: intimacy and pleasure and reciprocity.
He reached for Kelvin. “But you want me to enjoy myself, right? And I can assure you that I stop enjoying myself the minute Alfie starts howling along.”
Kelvin leaped on top of Phil. “Woof,” he said. He burrowed his face in Phil’s crotch, and Phil laughed.
The call from work came just as they finished, an emergency that Phil could have asked one of the other vets to attend to, but the family had requested him. Kelvin had taken the day off work—he had a boring but flexible office job—to drive him to the airport, so they rose and dressed and went first to the clinic, where Kelvin waited in the car with Alfie and Madeline while Phil handled the emergency, and from there to the airport. As they stood at the curb saying goodbye, Kelvin began to cry. He looked right at Phil as he sobbed, even stroking his cheek, while the curbside baggage checker stood several feet away, staring and scowling. Phil pretended to focus on his husband, though all he could think about was the porter, which had to do with the fact that he would soon be back with his family, viewing himself through their eyes.
The dogs put their snouts out the half-open car window and began whimpering. “You see?” Kelvin said, his face still wet. “The whole family’s miserable.”
This—the way Kelvin spoke, without sarcasm or subtext—could have turned Phil off all those years ago when they first met, but instead it had seemed exotic, inviting. When Phil joked with him on one of their first dates, “My god, you’re as earnest as a lesbian,” Kelvin laughed because it could be both funny and true. Phil discovered that he liked making Kelvin laugh. As a boy, he’d never made people laugh, except at him. This was particularly true of his family, who laughed at him often and considered him overly sensitive for minding.
He’d met Kelvin at an auction, a fund-raiser for an animal shelter at which he’d volunteered when he first moved to Davis, after he fled New Mexico and his family and the life he was expected to live there. At the time of the auction, he was in veterinary school, and the listing in the auction program read: Date with sexy veterinarian student! A group of women with whom he’d volunteered had come up with the idea, and though the whole thing embarrassed him greatly, he’d gone along with it, which meant that halfway through the evening he found himself up on the stage being told to strike a sexy vet pose. Mainly, the bidders were women his mother’s age—bidding biddies, he thought, ungenerously. It did not surprise him that bidding biddies were his audience. What did surprise him was the lone man, Bidder 13, who kept lifting his paddle until most of the bidding biddies had dropped away, and it became a duel between him and a woman in her sixties wearing cat ears and whiskers. Finally, the man threw down his paddle in defeat. This was Kelvin.
After the auction was over, Phil was standing to the side of the buffet table with Carol, the shelter receptionist, and Kelvin approached him, pausing—out of nervousness or hunger—to select a shrimp-and-cucumber canapé. Then, he stood in front of Phil, his face a deep red, which Phil misread as shyness until Carol said, “I think he’s choking.” She’d spent the last five minutes referring to Phil as the 975-Dollar Man, which is what the cat woman had paid for the date, but her voice turned serious then, the way it got when someone brought in a sick animal they’d found on the street.
“Are you choking?” Phil asked, and Kelvin nodded.
Phil pounded him on the back, and when this did not work, he put his arms around Kelvin from behind, placed a fist above Kelvin’s navel, and administered the Heimlich maneuver, jerking up so hard that Kelvin’s feet came off the ground. He did this twice more, and Carol said, “I think you got it.”
Kelvin nodded and spit the shrimp back into his hand. “You’re amazing,” he said to Phil when he could finally talk, and Phil buttoned his suit coat to hide the fact that he was aroused, turned on by this wholly unlikely version of himself.
* * *
His brother, Tom, had someone waiting for him at the airport in Albuquerque, an employee from the family business that Phil had fled all those years ago. The man was in his thirties, nervous and deferential, no doubt assuming that Phil was like his brother. He drove Phil to Tom’s house, which was predictably large and nondescript. Tom was there waiting for him, coat on, and after the brothers shook hands, Tom left, like they were factory coworkers passing between shifts.
Phil had never been to his brother’s house. He went into the living room, where he stood considering the décor, which made no sense aesthetically or in terms of what he knew of his brother, who had always valued practicality. There were numerous ceramic reproductions of books, all crudely cast, and above the fake fireplace, framed behind glass, an arrangement of pot holders. Pot holders! He supposed that Sandra, Tom’s wife, whom he had met just twice, might be responsible for the décor. He went over to the rocking chair beside the fireplace, but as soon as he sat down, Sandra appeared, so he stood back up. She, too, shook his hand, then explained with some urgency that the chair in which he’d been sitting was “just for show.” He did not know what this meant but remained standing.
After that, neither of them spoke, and when the hospice nurse arrived for her daily visit, Sandra put on her coat and left, so it was the hospice nurse who took him down the hallway to the guestroom, in the middle of which stood a hospital bed. There, tucked into the bed, was his mother. She opened her eyes and said, “Oh, it’s you,” as though she’d seen him just minutes earlier, but he made a point to go over to her and kiss her forehead.
The nurse showed him everything—a list of instructions, broken down by the hour; the packets of nutritional shakes that his mother did not want to drink but needed to; a drawer filled with oral syringes of pain medicine—all while writing on charts and attending to his mother, who alternated between ordering the nurse around and ignoring her. The nurse did not hurry or become impatient, and when she was done with her visit, Phil walked her to the door and thanked her in an apologetic voice.
“She’s not so bad,” the nurse said. “At least she knows what she wants.”
Phil laughed in agreement.
“And she’s much calmer, now that you’re here. She’s been anxious for you to arrive.” This, he knew, was one of those things that medical people say, a one-size-fits-all approach that treated the world as a place where families were happiest together.
Some of his friends had told him that the hardest thing about a parent’s death was that the argument suddenly ended, but in his case the argument had never really begun. He had withdrawn from the debate, left without telling his family that he was going, eventually contacting them to say that he had settled in Davis. When he met Kelvin, he let the answering machine announce his relationship—You have reached the home of Phil and Kelvin—and his family never asked for details. When Kelvin wanted to accompany him on his infrequent visits back home, he declined, saying, “I’m saving you from them,” but the truth was that he was saving himself. As long as Kelvin was not there—sitting at their table asking questions about what Phil had been like as a boy and expecting to sleep in Phil’s childhood bed with him at night—they did not have to discuss any of it.
At the airport that morning, the last thing Kelvin said was “Call if you need me to come.” He tried to imagine Kelvin here, in his brother’s house, wondered how his mother would feel, dying with a stranger beside her. But wasn’t he a stranger also?
He waved as the hospice nurse drove off, then went back into the guestroom. His mother’s eyes were shut, and he sat down in a chair, relieved. It was then, without opening her eyes, that his mother asked whether he was happy. When he didn’t answer, she said, “I suppose it was a good thing you ran away like that, even if you just turned your back on everything—your father, the business.” She spoke as if they were discussing recent events, not events that had occurred years ago. “I told your father all along you weren’t cut out for it—the business. You never liked the direct approach to anything.”
“Actually, I don’t think your father was even disappointed,” she went on, either trying to goad him or just talking, which often sounded like the same thing. Kelvin, who was unapologetically influenced by pop-psychology texts, said that falling into established family patterns of communication was a self-fulfilling prophecy, that it was within Phil’s control to respond differently, a position with which Phil—in theory and from a distance—agreed. In practice, at this particular moment, he said nothing. “The truth is he was probably relieved that you left.”
“You know what?” Phil said suddenly. “I am happy. Kelvin and I have a wonderful life together. Is that direct enough for you?”
His mother opened her eyes but did not look at him. “You let that crash get the better of you,” she said. “You changed completely afterward.”
“Of course I changed. It changed me. How could it not?” He did not say that she must have worked every day, every second, to stay the same.
* * *
After the shuttle dropped them at the hotel the day of the crash, the three of them—Phil, his mother, and his aunt—went upstairs to the rooms they’d been assigned by the airline and into the smaller of the two, which Phil assumed was his because it had just one bed. None of them had luggage—it was gone with the plane—and Phil felt even more lost without a bag to unpack, toiletries to arrange. His mother and aunt did not go into the adjoining room. They just stood there. Finally, his mother drew the curtains and climbed into the king-size bed that was supposed to be his, and he and his aunt followed. Except for their shoes, they got in fully dressed, his mother in the middle, mirroring their seating on the plane. It was ironic that they had been sitting that way, for they all three accepted that it was his aunt’s job to buffer Phil and his mother from each other, but his aunt needed to be at the window, looking out. She said it was how she kept the plane afloat. Of course, this was ironic also.
The overhead light was on, but no one got up to shut it off. Nobody spoke. What was there to say? None of them wanted to relive the moments just before the crash, or the chaos after. And before that? Before that, they had been on vacation, drinking and laughing under the bright Caribbean sun. Now, they were huddled beneath the blankets, their teeth chattering hard in their mouths. At some point, Phil rose and went into the adjoining room, where he stripped the comforters from both beds, brought them back, and covered his mother and aunt. For the first time in his life, he felt like an adult.
They stayed in bed together for thirty-six hours. Phil did not sleep. Each time he closed his eyes, he felt the plane beneath him, speeding down the runway, the backward tilt as its nose poked upward, the plane hesitating, then falling back, hard. Around him, people had screamed; he had screamed with them.
The morning of the second day, the telephone rang and Phil got out of bed and answered it. It was the airline, checking on them. “Have you arranged a flight for us?” he asked the woman on the other end.
Directly after the crash, the survivors had been brought to a room at the airport where there were telephones and coffee. Phil and his mother had called his father back home, explaining that there had been an accident. Phil’s father was at his office, and even though he was on the phone with his wife and son who were calling because they had almost died, he held the receiver between his ear and shoulder and waved to his secretary to bring him some paperwork that needed signing—or so Phil imagined, given his father’s distracted response. For his father, even tragedy could be multitasked.
Phil waited for the airline woman to answer his question, to say that she had booked a flight for the three of them, even though he could not imagine getting back on a plane so soon, maybe ever. Instead, she hiccupped loudly. She did not apologize, but he supposed the ensuing silence had to do with her feeling embarrassed, hiccupping like that into the ear of a crash victim.
“We can’t arrange flights quite yet,” said the airline representative at last. “We’re still identifying bodies.” She paused. “That’s actually why I’m calling—we need someone from your party to come to the morgue.”
“Party?” he said loudly, finding the word strange, almost offensive, in a conversation about morgues and bodies. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, still wearing the clothes he’d had on for the flight—jeans with a button-down shirt and linen jacket, in deference to his mother, who insisted that flying was something you dressed up for. She and his aunt wore skirts, which rode up around their thighs when they slid to safety; beneath the layers of blankets, he imagined them doing the same. “I’ll come,” he said to the airline woman.
“Who was it, Philip?” his mother asked.
“The airline,” he said. “I need to, you know, identify their bodies.”
When he returned two hours later, his mother and aunt were out of bed, showered, and dressed in clothes that the airline had delivered. Phil had never seen his mother in a T-shirt. Neither woman asked about the morgue, which was fine with him. He did not want to discuss any of it, to hear himself using words like fungi to describe how Mr. Milford’s left ear had looked, melted to the side of his head.
“Philip,” said his mother, “will you take us out for a late lunch, please?”
She had never spoken to him like this, requesting rather than demanding his services. Though his homosexuality was not discussed between them, she treated him like her homosexual son, expecting him to escort her to dinner and concerts, on shopping excursions, and to the hair salon. Art, the man with whom he was having sex back home in Albuquerque, had told him he needed to learn how to stand up for himself, stop being such a sissy. Art was ashamed of him. Whenever they went out in public, which was rarely, Art walked several feet ahead, pretending they were not together.
Art did not walk this way with his wife. Phil had seen them once, strolling along Central with their two children. In bed later that week, when Phil asked Art what his children’s names were, Art smashed Phil’s head into the headboard. “You think I want their names coming out of your filthy faggot mouth?” Art said.
Phil had wanted to say something clever about what Art wanted from his filthy faggot mouth. “No,” he said instead, soothingly. “Of course not.”
“Lunch, yes,” Phil answered his mother. “Let me just get out of these clothes.” He picked up the bag that the airline had left for him and took it into the bathroom. Inside were T-shirts, extra-large, though he was a medium at best, imprinted with the airline’s logo. He put one on. He looked like a walking advertisement for an airline that had nearly killed him.
The bed was made, neatly, and his mother and aunt sat on it, waiting. “I haven’t gone out without a purse since I was a girl,” his mother was saying to his aunt. They had obeyed orders to leave everything behind when they evacuated, though in the survivors’ room afterward, some women sat clutching their purses, symbols of their betrayal. His mother had surprised him, not because she’d left hers—she was a stickler for rules—but because she refrained from commenting on those who had not.
They had only what was in Phil’s pockets—some leftover vacation currency and his credit card—but they avoided the hotel restaurant, where the airline was running a tab, and took a taxi to a nearby restaurant. They needed to be away from the other survivors, though they did not say this aloud.
As they finished their first course, two businessmen sat down at the table next to them and began to smoke. “How’s your soup?” Phil asked his mother to distract her from the smoking.
“Mine is very good,” said his aunt, doing the same.
“Excuse me,” his mother called to the men. “Please put those out. We’re trying to eat.” She waved her hand at the cigarettes, and the men laughed.
“Americans, no?” said the younger man.
“Yes,” said Phil.
“Americans are always the pure ones in the room,” said the older man, sweeping his arm to indicate the other tables, which were occupied by people smoking and drinking and laughing. “But sometimes you just need to live a little instead of thinking every cigarette is going to kill you.” He raised his wineglass at them encouragingly.
His mother stood and walked past the men as though she were leaving, but before Phil and his aunt could rise to follow her, she turned back around and went right up to the men’s table. “You see me here in front of you?” she said. “I am living.”
* * *
The Milfords were dead—dead because they smoked. That was the melodramatic way to think of it but also the truth. They had all boarded the plane together, but when Phil, his mother, and aunt reached the fifth row, they waved goodbye to the Milfords, and the Milfords waved cheerfully back as they continued toward the smoking section at the rear of the plane, the section that would be crushed when the plane dropped back on its tail. As the Milfords moved down the aisle, Phil turned and saw Mr. Milford press his hand lightly to his wife’s back. The night before, as the five of them sat in the resort lounge after their final dinner together, Mr. Milford had reached under the table and pressed that same hand to Phil’s thigh. Phil’s first thought was that Mr. Milford had somehow mixed up right and left, believed that he was caressing his wife’s thigh as he stared straight ahead, listening to Phil’s mother explain what was wrong with vegetarians, which was that they didn’t eat meat. In response, Mr. Milford laughed, but Phil knew his mother was not being clever. She was rarely intentionally funny and never with topics that angered her, like vegetarians.
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t eat meat,” said Mr. Milford, his hand climbing higher on Phil’s thigh. Belatedly, Phil realized that the comment was intended for him. In those days, Phil was often surprised by people, perplexed by the things they said and did. But had he truly been surprised by Mr. Milford’s hand that night? Just hours earlier at the pool, Mr. Milford had chatted with him the way an uncle might, even as he regarded the pouch in Phil’s swimming trunks with a steady, almost amused gaze. Phil was used to men being startled by his size, not just the few, generally straight men with whom he’d had furtive sex, but all the men he’d ever been obligated to shower beside, in high school and then college. They watched him mince toward the showers, penis swinging like an elephant’s trunk, startled but also, he thought, angered at the injustice.
He did not remove Mr. Milford’s hand. He didn’t know why exactly, except that it was already there, situated. Then, Mr. Milford’s wife jumped up. “ABBA!” she screamed. “Let’s dance, Rob.”
Mr. Milford’s hand stopped its cajoling and joined his other hand, raised in protest, but Mrs. Milford—Kate, she’d insisted Phil call her—pulled her husband from his chair. The lounge was dim, but Mr. Milford’s crotch, when he stood, was at eye level, so Phil could see the effect the encounter had had on him. His own crotch had registered nothing, which both pleased and baffled him. He supposed it was that they were in public—he’d never been able to think of sex as anything more than shameful, private—and that his mother was sitting across from him, sipping cognac and saying, “I’ve never cared for legumes.”
When Mr. Milford came to his room later to finish the furtive fumbling he’d started under the table, Phil invited him in. The sex was fast and not quite as rough as Phil had come to expect from straight men, which was how he regarded Mr. Milford, because he had a wife. Afterward, they lay together on the bed and talked. It felt strange and intimate and exhilarating. Mr. Milford lit two cigarettes and passed him one. He showed Phil how to draw the smoke in, hold it, and blow it back out, and Phil followed his instructions, all the while recalling the straightforward dictums from his childhood about the perils of smoking. He’d always trusted straightforward dictums.
Eventually, they had sex again, more slowly this time. When they were finished, Mr. Milford turned toward him, propping his head on his arm. He studied Phil, his body and then his face. “You’re such a lovely boy,” he said.
“Thank you,” Phil said, in a polite voice that made Mr. Milford laugh, and Phil felt compelled to add, “Actually, I’m twenty-two. I just finished college.”
Of course, Mr. Milford already knew this. At dinner the first night, when the two families were seated together, his mother had told the Milfords all sorts of things, including how she had presented Phil with the trip as a surprise graduation present, not mentioning that she had done so even though she knew that he hated resorts, hated lying on the beach and sharing the rarified air of the resort grounds with people who thought themselves experts on a host of third-world countries because they had frequented their resorts. The two families had made plans to meet again the next day, the week taking shape around their new friendship, around some daily configuration of the five of them eating and shopping and going on excursions. When they discovered that they were even booked on the same flight out, a discount shuttle from the resort island to Puerto Rico, they had seen it less as a coincidence than one last outing they had planned among them.
There in bed, he and Mr. Milford did not discuss their departure the next morning or anything having to do with the five of them. “What do you plan to do next?” Mr. Milford asked. “Do you have a job lined up?”
“I’m going to work at my father’s business,” Phil said. He tried to sound nonchalant.
“Business?” said Mr. Milford. “I don’t see you in business.” He added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
“I told you I studied business in college,” Phil said. “It’s been the plan for both of us, me and my brother, since we were boys.”
“I see,” said Mr. Milford. He stroked Phil’s arm, and Phil wondered where Mrs. Milford—Kate—thought her husband was. “But what would you choose? What is it that you want to do?”
“I’m a pragmatist,” said Phil. This was not true. He was a romantic, and he did not think one could be both. “Anyway, I’m already enough of a disappointment because of, you know.” He gestured at the two of them side by side on the bed, naked. This was the image he would recall as he stood in the makeshift morgue two and a half days later.
What he wanted to be was a veterinarian. He’d dreamed about it since he was six, when Hans came to live with them. Hans was nothing like the dog that Phil had picked out in the encyclopedia entry for dogs—a dachshund. “We’re not getting a damn wiener dog,” his father said, and the next day he came home with Hans, but the thing about Hans was that even though he was a big dog—“a man’s dog,” his father liked to say—Hans loved him. He didn’t care that Phil had no friends or that he was a boy who thought about other boys. When Phil lay in bed crying, Hans came, and when Phil wrapped his arms around Hans, Hans curled against him and stayed that way, steady and warm, through the night.
He did not tell Mr. Milford any of this that night, but five days later, when he and his mother and aunt finally arrived back in Albuquerque, he got off the plane and went directly to his apartment, packed his car, and drove west to California, then north to Davis, where he found a job working at an animal clinic and volunteered at the shelter. Two years later, he started veterinary school, and then he met Kelvin. He tried not to think about the fact that his own happiness had come about solely because Mr. Milford died.
* * *
The first time Phil went out to dinner with Kelvin’s parents, they had on matching T-shirts with the words We Love Our Gay Son. Phil asked whether this meant that they did not love Kelvin’s brother, who was straight, and they laughed as if he were joking. He supposed he was. The next time, they had new shirts: We Love Our Gay Son and His Gay Boyfriend. They sat in the restaurant wearing their public displays of support and eating the calamari appetizer. “Phil,” they asked, “how does your family respond to your homosexuality?”
“By not talking about it,” he replied, keeping his tone light, but Kelvin’s parents drew closer. “These things can’t just be brushed under the rug,” his mother said. She set down a forkful of tentacles and lifted the corner of her placemat, pretending to sweep breadcrumbs under it with her other hand.
“Would it help if we spoke to them?” Kelvin’s father said. “We’re happy to give them a call.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Phil said. “I don’t even like talking to them.” He laughed, but it ended in a high-pitched squeak that threatened to devolve into tears. His father had always responded to his tears by saying, “I’ll give you something to cry about” and then proceeding to do so. Once, when he was twelve, his father had yanked down his pants and spanked him right there on the plaza in Old Town as tourists walked by, his buttocks heating up beneath his father’s blows and the steady New Mexico sun. The memory was as vivid as the expressions of concern on the faces of Kelvin’s parents as they stared at him. He’d looked away, down at their T-shirts. I love your gay son also, he thought. He thought about how he would never declare this on a T-shirt. He was crying, and he stood up from the table, pushed back his chair, and left.
Not even a year later, he and Kelvin had moved to San Francisco because he understood by then that he was not cut out to be part of a happy family either. Each month, Kelvin’s parents drove into the city to stay with them, and Phil wondered whether they knew that they were the reason for the move. He didn’t think so, because during these visits, when Kelvin called out, “Everyone on the raft,” Kelvin’s mother came into their room and lay at the foot of the bed, talking to them as she stroked Ollie’s fat stomach, and then she would get up and kiss them both goodnight.
* * *
His mother was turned away from him in the hospital bed. He thought she might be crying. He had not seen her cry in the twenty-four years since the crash, not even when his father had died a year earlier. That night, the night his father died, he and Kelvin sat down to eat dinner, and Phil said, “Just so you know, the phone’s going to ring any minute, but we’re not going to answer it.”
“Okay,” said Kelvin, not asking, because he understood how this worked, and sure enough, a few minutes later, Phil said, “I did it. You said I needed to, and I did.”
“The invitation?” Kelvin said, and Phil said, “Yes,” and just like that, the phone rang. They both laughed because there was something funny about saying a thing would happen just before it did. The dogs began to bark, not at the phone but at the laughing. They did not like to be left out.
“We’ll let the machine take it,” Phil said. He loved answering machines, the sense of control they gave him. “I know it’s them. It would have arrived today. I’ll call back tomorrow, but for now I just want to feel happy.”
He and Kelvin were getting married, finally, after nineteen years, because for the first time, they could—legally, that is. There would be a brief ceremony at City Hall followed by a party, and the only catch was that Kelvin said Phil needed to invite his family. “Force them to make the decision,” he said. “Don’t make it for them.”
“Call me,” said his mother’s voice from the corner of the room in his tiny house where his mother had never been. “I need to tell you something.”
She sounded strange, a different kind of strange from the strange that had to do with responding to an invitation to the wedding of your homosexual son, and he called immediately. “What’s up?” he said, and she said, “It’s your father.”
“What about him?” He was expecting her to say that his father had told her to call, had made it her job to explain that they had no intention of attending this wedding—“wedding,” in quotation marks.
“He’s dead,” she said. “The ambulance is here, so I better go. I just thought you’d want to know.”
“Dead?” he said. He’d never imagined his father in those terms. “How?”
“He was sitting at the table, eating dinner and looking through the mail. I went into the kitchen to get him another piece of lasagna, and when I came back he was gone.”
She paused. “Oh, there was something from you today. Some sort of invitation.” Her voice made it clear that this was the end of that conversation.
As he and Kelvin lay in bed later that night, Phil said, “Do you think it was, you know, because of the invitation?”
“What?” said Kelvin sleepily, and then, “You mean the heart attack?”
That was exactly what he meant.
“Oh, Philip. No. Heart attacks don’t work that way.” Kelvin took his hand in the dark. “I can’t believe your mother, that she had the presence of mind to bring up the invitation as they were carrying your father’s body out of the house.”
From her hospital bed just one year later, his mother said, “Whatever happened with that invitation, the one that arrived the day your father died?”
He’d always imagined dying as a tunnel that narrowed around you until everything ceased to exist and it was just you, walking alone, no longer caring what those around you said or thought or ate for lunch or even who the next president was, but maybe he’d been wrong. “You’re wondering whether Kelvin and I got married?” he asked.
She was still turned away from him, but she was definitely crying, and he pulled back the covers and got into bed beside his mother.
“Philip?” she said. She sounded alarmed.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m here.” He made his voice soothing, like he was talking to an injured animal.
After a while, his mother said, “Do you remember those men at the restaurant? The ones who wouldn’t stop smoking?” She sounded calmer, and he thought that she had forgotten about wanting to know whether he was married. He was married, but he wasn’t going to insist on telling her.
“Yes,” he said. “I remember.”
“They made me so mad.” She laughed, and he laughed with her.
“I mainly remember how you went over to their table and yelled at them,” he said. “I admired you so much at that moment.” He realized this was true.
“Really?” she said. “I was sure I’d embarrassed you.”
His brother would be home any minute. He would come into the bedroom, take in the sight of Philip in bed with their dying mother, and say, “What are you doing?”—his brother who could not differentiate between practical and beautiful.
Phil shifted onto his side toward his mother. Her eyes were closed, but he could see that she was in pain. It was his job to understand pain. “Are you afraid?” he asked.
She did not answer, and he thought maybe she’d dozed off. “No,” she said at last. “What would be the use? I just want it to be over.”
“Don’t say that,” he said, a perfunctory response.
“There’s nothing more for me here. I’m just waiting to die, and you know I’ve never liked waiting.” She paused. “I’m glad you’re here, Philip.”
“I’m glad, too,” he said. He was. Kelvin had told him that people sometimes softened before death, that they understood, only then, what they’d wished for from life.
“Listen. I need you to give me all of it,” his mother said, pointing at the drawer where the pain medicine was kept, several weeks’ worth, the oral syringes lined up like the hulls of wingless planes. “No one will wonder,” she said. “The hospice people left it, after all,” and then, when he didn’t answer, “Really, Philip. I thought you’d gotten over all of that. Your timidity.”
The emergency he’d been called in to deal with on his way to the airport that morning had involved a dog, just four years old, with a tumor that had proven inoperable. Phil had not known the dog or the family well. They were new to the city, but they asked for him. The dog reared up just once, when Phil pushed the needle into his back leg. The family gathered around, crying unabashedly, Phil crying with them. “He was a lovely boy,” he’d said, Mr. Milford’s voice still with him after all these years.
“It’s not that,” he told his mother. “I’m not worried about getting caught.” He thought about all the creatures he’d put down, the relief he’d sensed in their bodies at the very end. “It’s just—you’re my mother,” he said finally, though he knew that this was no reason at all.
Lori Ostlund’s collection The Bigness of the World won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Stories appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Her novel After the Parade was a B&N Discover pick. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and cats, though she grew up in Minnesota, cat-less.