On the day before the bachelor party, two of the actors had both been rehearsing day in and day out, but no one knew who was the understudy and who the star, because Mom had been unable to decide. There was Actor 1, who was too skinny but acted well, and Actor 2, who looked about right but sometimes shhed his s’s, which Will had never done. As Chief Family Arbitrator I was called to the dining room, where Mom sat drinking her “bad day” drink, Earl Gin (iced Earl Grey and Gin). At one end of the crystal dining room table, two actors took turns laughing, wiping their brows, and bending down to pick up the roses that were repeatedly flinging themselves from their tuxedo buttonholes.
“Cade,” she said the moment she could hear me, without turning around. “Who’s saying it better?”
I watched them silently, detecting no difference that mattered, before announcing, “The first one.”
“But he’s too skinny,” Mom moaned.
“Then give him some padding,” I suggested. “I would also lower your voice a bit,” I added to Actor 1, “when you finish your sentences. Instead of rising in pitch. Stay neutral.”
Actor 1 nodded. Actor 2 sat down at one end of the dining room table. “So I’m out?”
“No,” Mom said. “You stay, in case anything happens to him, or in case I change my mind.”
“You’re not changing your mind,” I said.
“And what next?” Mom turned to me.
“No, I was thinking—can we re-rehearse the drunk bachelor party scene?”
“Scene 6?” Actor 1 asked.
Actor 1 waved vigorously at an invisible someone. “Uncle Dave! Long time no see—did you trim your beard?”
“You—play the other parts—” Mom gestured vaguely to Actor 2.
Actor 2 leapt up. “You noticed? Thanks, old man.”
“How could I not? Woof, that’s a lot of beer, though.”
“I’ll give you fake liquor on the day,” Mom interjected, sipping her own drink. “Abigail!”
Abigail, Mom’s PA, appeared to refill her cup.
“Can I go?” I asked.
Mom seemed to have forgotten I was there; Actor 1 was dancing with his thumbs in the air, just like Will had always done, and Mom’s shoulders had begun to shake.
Quietly, but not as quietly as Abigail could, I took my leave.
“I’ve interviewed seven Wills,” Mom said, sighing. She leaned on the coffee table. “It was exhausting. But it had to be done.”
“Couldn’t Abigail have interviewed the actors?” Stan asked. “That sounds like an Abigail kind of job.”
“No.” Mom frowned. “I don’t even know why you’d suggest that. I’m his mother.”
“You’re our mother, too, though,” Stan said.
I waited for them to both look at me to mediate, as they always did. “Well?”
“Mom should do whatever she’s comfortable with.”
“You don’t look too comfortable, Mom,” Stan said.
“There’s nothing I could do to be more comfortable.” Mom’s face looked like a raccoon face, darkly encircled eyes and pale, pale skin. She was dressed almost like a normal person, too—for someone who could look expensive and powerful even in pajama pants and a torn sweater.
“Is it really the case that none of the actors are good enough? Your perfect son is that special?” Stan sounded like something was itching him in the back of his throat, like he couldn’t decide whether to cough, snap, or cry.
“Don’t talk about your brother in that way! No. The only one who might have been good enough was too skinny.”
“Will was skinny,” Stan said.
“But this one was too skinny.”
“I’m sure he’s good enough.”
“No.” The word fell heavily, landing on the coffee table’s glass top like a thick book, never to be opened, just in case the dust inside was thick and sneeze-inducing.
“Then that’s that,” Stan said. “We’re calling it off, right?”
“Let her do what she wants, Stan.”
“Why do you keep siding with Mom?”
I tried to stand in such a way that evoked the non-committal attitude I desired but did not possess.
“I’m asking for an answer, Cade.” His gaze cut through me.
I almost snapped at him. “Because for once she’s right.”
I had caught Stan’s ego, and Mom didn’t seem to care. Stan was silent, almost pouting. After staring at Mom for a moment longer, he called, “Abigail!” and left the living room.
I sat down next to Mom and waited for Abigail to arrive. She would inevitably bring tea for both of us, and a sticky note from which she would read the emails she’d responded to that day on Mom’s behalf, and a reminder that the bill for the porch furniture would need to be paid by the end of the week. She did actually need Mom to sign that one.
That night, I sat in my bedroom and reviewed my outfit options for the wedding. Which option indicated normalcy, joy on behalf of my brother, and subtle fashion sense? Which outfit best complimented the outfit Mom had secretly chosen six weeks in advance?
I wondered, for a moment, if I had become colorblind in the month since Will died, because I couldn’t tell the difference between my purple dress and my black dress, and I couldn’t tell which one was more appropriate, let alone if either fit the occasion. If Will were here, he would laugh at me for my indecision, and he would laugh at Mom for critiquing my outfit no matter what I chose, and he would laugh at himself for having accidentally stained his suede shoes with overbrewed coffee.
And Mom would snap, “You could have just had one of the staff make you coffee.”
But Mom had fired half the staff since the last time she’d heard Will laugh, because some of them had looked too sad, and others too happy.
I went to find Stan.
He was eating a block of cheese at his desk with his eyes closed, but after I stood in his door frame for a minute he opened his eyes and acknowledged me with a silent chin motion.
“Can you help me pick my dress?”
“No,” he said shortly.
I was unsurprised; Stan avoided labor of any kind at all costs. “Then can I just come in?”
I went to sit on his couch.
For a long time, we sat in silence, Stan chewing, me breathing, his eyes closed, mine trained on his. Finally, he spoke.
“I don’t like this feeling.”
I’d never heard Stan speak about feelings before. I said nothing, afraid of scaring him into silence.
“Like, I thought the gum would help, but it is not.”
“The gum?” I couldn’t help myself.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I really need to pop my ears. It’s like—it’s like there’s something small and round and smooth jammed inside my jawbone, and no matter what I do, I can’t move it. You know what I mean?”
“That’s profound, Stan,” I said.
“What are you doing here again?”
“Did you and Mom fight or something?”
I didn’t answer. He knew Mom and I never fought; if I were her staff she’d never fire me. I was hard to be mad at. I never looked like I had any emotions at all.
“I just wanted help picking out my dress.”
“The purple one. And you can close it.”
“Close what?” Did he mean the clasp?
Long after I had left, I realized that there was no choice but the purple dress: the rest of my dresses had all been worn before, and therefore had been stained by memories involving Will. But what confused me was the fact that I had never told Stan the options; I had never mentioned that I had a whole closet full of dresses I’d worn before, and only one I’d not yet touched, the only purple dress I owned. I never made impulse purchases, but this one—the same week we lost Will—had been an impulse buy. Right off the rack, without even trying it on. If Will were here, he’d remind me that Mom would kill me if I didn’t try on the dress to make sure it fit right, but I knew he was wrong—Mom couldn’t kill anyone, because the part of her that felt anger was already dead.
All six hundred of the wedding guests were much better-dressed than me, and everyone had good skin, though that also meant that everyone looked average next to each other. The wedding reminded me of the dance classes I’d attended until I was ten, the age at which it became clear I would only ever receive ensemble parts. Everyone moved seamlessly, as though they were one singular, beautiful trained body, everyone except me, because I was clumsy, but that didn’t matter, because I also happened to be invisible. Sometimes I wondered if Will must have been invisible too, because no one seemed to notice that the groom was a completely different person, no matter how skillful an actor: for all his Will-ish motions, phrases, and face, there was something undetectably too graceful about his walk, something too unoriginal about his words, and something too smooth, too shallow, about his face. Of course, he was a real man, blood pumping through a heart just as real as my own, and Will’s, but something about the fact that I had not known him since he was in diapers gave me pause, separated us, and I felt a kind of coldness toward him, the sense that, unlike Will, if there were to be a fire, I would save Stan first, every time.
Or, maybe, the guests were too numerous and knew too many other people to keep track of the realness of each one of the people they knew. Probably I knew none of them either, none of them really. Probably no one knew anyone.
Stan had been married last winter, in a tropical location, covered in flowers, and Mom, taking after our least pleasant ancestors, had paid for every local within a sixty-mile radius to be vaccinated against contagious diseases (but not the non-contagious ones). I had squatted under a palm tree and waited for a coconut to fall on my head, but it never happened. Later, I learned they had been glued in place.
I would never be married, but no one was worried about me except Will. He would ask me things like, “Do you mind that you always stand in the back of all the family photos? Because I’m happy to switch, sometimes, so that you can stand in the front.” And I would smile because even if he meant it, it would still never happen. Or he would say, “The next time you take a long walk, I’d love to come too. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about… ” and it would be something which he rationally theorized mattered to both of us. He never seemed to imagine that I would reject his offers for conversation, connection, physical touch; he never seemed to consider I badly wanted to accept them, and that I would regret not accepting them now; and that I could never agree to anything unless I was unwilling. I waited for him to just do what he wished, one day, whether it was to make me a cup of overbrewed coffee or to squeeze my hand in a brotherly way, or even a cordial way. But he never did, because he always asked first. And I only ever shrugged.
The courtyard was decorated with a music theme, because playing piano was Will’s least embarrassing hobby. I could distantly hear Actor 1 playing the C major Haydn sonata he’d learned specifically for this occasion, the chords falling lightly throughout the bamboo sheets hung up for acoustic purposes. I held a fluted glass in my hand. It was empty, but I could not remember what I had been drinking, or if my glass had ever been full in the first place.
For a moment, I thought I saw Will standing under one of the cherry blossom trees transplanted that morning. He was staring across the courtyard to where Actor 1 sat playing the piano, wearing slacks and sneakers, and smiling. His glass held prosecco; I could smell it from where I stood.
It was after I stopped breathing that I realized it really was Will.
I didn’t approach him—I never approached him. Instead, I watched him until he began to watch me.
“Cade,” he mouthed at me, finally.
“Will,” I mouthed back at him, quickly.
“What’re all these people doing here?”
“It’s your wedding, remember?”
He looked puppy-doggish. “But I don’t want to get married. Not yet, at least.”
“But I do like Marianne.”
He shrugged. “She’s pretty. And politically expedient.”
“How’s that rude?”
“You don’t think she’s kind?”
“She’s alright. She’s not very clever. Connected, but stupid.”
“So are you.”
His eyes flashed toward mine, dark-socketed like Mom’s. “You’re just stupid.”
“Rude. But true.”
“Everything I say is rude and true.”
“It won’t suck to be her husband.”
“But I’ll miss you.”
“I miss you even when I’m with you.”
Something inside me was broken. “Hold me.”
And with that, my imagination stretched too far, and it snapped. I found myself staring into a pile of wet, mashed cherry blossoms, wondering what they would smell like when they started to look as dead as they were.
I stood at the colias-strung balcony. “Cade,” Mom’s voice twisted my neck, slowly, so that my eyes met hers. “Is it going okay?”
“It’s going beautifully,” I said. I pointed at the sky. “See? Clear skies. Perfect for stargazing.”
“But do you think he likes it?” Mom sounded out of breath.
“Will,” she panted.
I tried to communicate with my eyes, in case one of the twelve videographers was in range. Which Will? Real Will or Actor Will?
“You know what I mean,” Mom said dismissively. A swell of music rose from the garden, and the guests began dancing faster.
“You always know what I mean.” One of my hands suddenly felt tight, and I realized it was because Mom was squeezing it. I let my hand go limp, and she used my arm like a ladder, climbing toward me. We peered over the balcony together.
“I can only read your mind sometimes, Mom.”
She frowned down into the courtyard. “Stan isn’t dancing.”
“Neither are we.”
She didn’t seem to have heard me. “He’s sitting on one of the hydrangeas. Thank goodness we got rid of the bees first, or he’d be screaming his head off by now, don’t you think? What are bees for, anyway?”
“Human suffering?” I suggested.
“But the Prime Minister is dancing.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you—”
“I know, the pashmina is too thick for the occasion. It’s just that I’ve been feeling cold lately.”
“I’ve—I’ve been meaning to ask you how the actor’s going to pretend to die.”
Mom shrugged the pashmina down her shoulders. “I’ve begun to like him.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s—you know what I mean. He’s not. He can’t do this forever”
“No, I don’t know what you mean. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you do. You just said you’ve begun—”
“You’ll understand when you become a mother—not that you will. But if you did, you’d know that love comes first, and then liking. And the liking can take time. Where did Stan go?”
“Who cares about Stan. I’m talking about Will.”
“And I mean to say, I’ve begun to like him. He was a good son, so of course I loved him, but he could be hard to like. He could be impossible to like. You know what I mean?”
I felt like there was an ice cube in my mouth, and I was being forced to speak around it. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Mom let go of my arm and took both my hands, interlacing her fingers with mine. “Will has always been the cleverest of you three. And that’s part of it.”
“Part of what?”
“Why he can be so hard to like.”
“He never thought he was clever.”
“He knows now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re asking the wrong questions.”
“I just—I have a different opinion. I think—” I choked on my words. “I think that he wasn’t very happy, for, I guess, some reasons. And that’s why I don’t understand why we have to do this, because—” I was running out of syntax. “Because really, what the worst that could happen if we told everyone the truth, if—”
“But Cade, don’t you understand?”
“He’s happy now!” She gestured, and sure enough, he was smiling, dancing with his thumbs in the air.
I wanted to vomit. “If Heaven’s real, I don’t think Will got to go.”
Mom ignored me. I felt her leaning into me, wrapping her full warmth around me. I tried to let go—of the desire to cry, of the pounding heart within me that beat so hard I felt like I would burst with the desperation of being alive—and I tried to pretend that I was just a daughter in her mother’s arms, like I was meant to be, and it would be okay.
“Mom!” Stan sounded hoarse, like he was running.
“Make Stan go away,” Mom murmured.
“I would, but you’re holding me.”
“I don’t want to see him right now.”
“I thought he’d be next in line for your favorite child.”
I felt Mom’s arms squeeze around me, one hand sliding up around my chin, so tight I almost wanted to die.
“MOM!” I thought I could hear Stan’s footsteps, but it was hard to hear. It was like my ears had given up.
I could feel Mom’s warmth becoming my own, like I was being reabsorbed into the womb. I could hear myself crying, but with her hand on my neck I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember when her hand had arrived there, on my neck, no more than I could remember what I had drunk out of my fluted glass. No more than I could remember what I had seen in Will’s eyes when I asked my memory to hold me.
I smelled Stan’s breath on my cheek and I wished he would just stop breathing; it was warm, and wet. But more than that, I wanted Mom to keep holding me forever, even if it was just my imagination, and I let myself give up.