Headers in part one.

Breathing (Part two)

*

Her brother's widow called her at work on a Monday afternoon at the start of December. "They want him in the hospital," Paula said, beginning the pattern they would all fall into. The doctors, the nurses, the administrators--their names were forgettable. It was just 'they,' and they had wanted her father in the hospital that night.

C.J. had been frozen in her office, back turned to the wide desk, staring at the big window with the mediocre view. The ashen sky was spitting down sleet. "Okay," she'd said, and "Yes, yes, of course," and hadn't been able to move. She found herself prying her own arms away from her chest, gripping the edge of the desk for leverage as she rotated her chair.

Susanne, who worked across the hall and was technically her boss, came in later and said the kind, soothing, meaningless things that needed to be said. The job paid in flexibility what it didn't in salary. Susanne said, "Take all the time you need."

George resisted the order in his typical way, alternating between playful pleading and cantankerous refusal. Finally, they conceded two weeks to him, to prepare, to pack, to put things in order. "A stay of execution," he joked, and C.J. tried not to feel the sting of the phrase.

She went home and filled two suitcases quickly and haphazardly, piling a tangle of stockings and sweaters on top of her favorite shoes and jeans with holes worn in the knees and the seat. The cat had mewled anxiously at her ankles. "It's okay," she said, stretching a hand down to stroke the soft spot behind the pointed ears. "Stop looking at me like that." But when she looked up, Toby had been watching her from the doorway, with the same expression behind his beard.

"I'm flying out of Baltimore," she said, reflexively crossing her arms again.
"It was fifteen dollars cheaper."

He nodded. "I'll wake you up, if you want."

"I have an alarm."

"You always hit the snooze," he pointed out. "Then you lie there listening to bad pop radio. I'll wake you up."

"Thanks." She dug her fingers into her upper arms and did not feel it. "He'll be eighty years old, come the spring."

Toby gave her another slight nod. "You'll be all right," he said.

She wasn't sure whether it was a statement or a question. She wanted to point out that he hadn't gone to his own mother's funeral, that he was even further in mind and body from his family as she was from hers. She wanted to tell him that, for all his knowledge of her and of the world, he couldn't possibly fathom how far, how insurmountably far she was from being all right. She bit her lip, nodded back, said nothing at all.

In his bed that night she was needy, demanding, a bitch, and he played along with it every inch of the way. C.J. didn't notice when she fell asleep, but Toby woke her in enough time for a shower, a cup of coffee, and the drive to the airport. The sun came up behind the westward flight. She could never sleep on planes, and she contemplated pop music and sex and fiery crashes instead of hospitals and heart monitors, instead of what she was heading into.

*

The card game lasts halfway into the second round, when C.J. finds that she's the only one playing with her eyes open. She trudges back into her bedroom, slumping momentarily against the wall, too far beyond tired to sleep. She opens the window a crack; the night air bites her fingertips. Shivering, she lights a cigarette. Something like relief courses through her as the poison prickles her lungs. She dials the phone with her free hand.

It rings several times before Toby picks up. "Where's the fire?" he grumbles, voice thick with sleep and static.

"Hi," she says clearly, trying to penetrate the fog.

"Hi," he echoes. Then he wakes up. "Hey. Hi."

"What's up?"

"It's..."

She hears the bedding rustle around him, imagines him squinting to read the clock. "About four a.m. there."

"Yeah," Toby says blearily. "You're not sleeping, then."

"I got a couple of hours earlier tonight," she says, finding it surprisingly easy to lie to him when she can't see his face. She doesn't even care whether he believes her.

"Your cat keeps waking me up," he complains.

"It's because she knows you secretly adore her."

"She's a monster with too many parts that end in sharp points. And she's unhappy because she knows I don't obey her every whim."

"And yet you're sleeping with her," C.J. observes.

"She insisted."

"Well, I'm sorry I disturbed the both of you."

"Let's stop," Toby says, bemused. "Let's stop talking about the cat now."

She blows smoke toward the window. "Want to have phone sex?"

"You sound like Hell."

"I guess I'll take that as a no."

"I meant it literally." He sounds more alert now. "Your voice is bad. Might just be the line."

Her throat has been sore for weeks, from not crying and smoking and other forms of abuse. It hasn't stopped bothering her, but it's faded to the background with almost everything else. "I liked it better when we were talking about the cat," she says.

"Are you ready?" he asks.

Anyone else would have asked how she was doing, or how her mother was. But those are stupid questions, with glib and obvious answers. He has a need to be precise. "No, I'm not." She hesitates, and adds distantly, "It'll be over soon. That's horrible, isn't it?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm horrible, to say that." She laughs and stubs her cigarette out, flicks it through the open window. In the dark, she cannot see it plummet down to the lawn. "'It's almost over.' That's so selfish. Like I'm waiting for Christmas morning. Of course, you're Jewish."

"I knew what you meant."

"And Mom is Catholic. I mean really Catholic, not, not technically Catholic like me." She doesn't know why she keeps talking. "Mom believes in, you know, venial sins and abstinence until marriage, and papal infallibility. And Heaven. And Limbo. And Purgatory, which is like Hell with time off for good behavior. And I'm not a very good person."

"C.J." His tone is too soft, too close to pity. "There aren't really ways of talking about this that aren't crass."

"You should write some for me," she says, rubbing at her neck.

"I've been writing." Toby is quiet for a minute. She hears his footsteps, doors being opened and papers shuffling. "I've been writing this damn thing for 'Time' on Social Security. Six thousand words right now. I may be eligible by the time I get it finished."

"Send it to me when it's done."

"And Sam. Although he doesn't read much anymore, aside from Dr. Seuss."

"'Pat The Bunny'." C.J. almost giggles. "You know, good for him, though."

Toby emphasizes the phrase differently. "Good for *him*. Yes."

"The danger is past, my friend," she says wryly. "They're probably going to do a great job. Better than most, maybe. I thought Josh and Donna would..."

"Josh has, at this point, become more annoying than your cat," he declares.

"He's taking it hard. As you of all people should--" She starts to cough, hard, and covers the mouthpiece of the phone until she's got it under control.

Bedsprings creak as he sits down again. "If we'd been having phone sex, you would have killed the mood just then."

She snorts. "Fuck off, would you?"

"I'm glad you called." Toby manages to sound sarcastic and sincere at the same time.

"But you want to go back to bed."

"You should go back to bed, too."

"Okay." She clears her throat. "Okay, fine. Be nice to my cat."

"Yeah. My regards to your family."

"Of course." Sometimes, when saying goodbye long distance, she tells him not to do something outlandish, like start his own clothing label or sleep with a call girl. Nothing comes to mind this time. "Sleep well."

"You, too," he's saying, but the phone is already away from her ear. She hangs up and switches off the lamp. It's too hot in the house, and the heat rises up the stairs and through the floors, into her room. C.J. undresses and curls up tight on top of the blankets on the too-small bed. She waits the remainder of the night out that way, not really sleeping but certainly not awake.

*

Her father's two weeks of freedom were glorious, idyllic, every moment tailored to make a happy memory. They drank a lot, ate even more, told and retold childhood stories like Homeric epics, like they were tribal shamans formulating oral tradition around a fire. They laughed until it hurt, and then until it nearly stopped hurting.

Aaron's widow came up with her daughters, the girls, not little now; Robin was teaching eighth grade French and applying to grad schools and Ashlee was a year away from graduating high school. Sometimes during the two weeks, they separated unintentionally into two halves. The women in the kitchen washing dishes or the attic, unpacking boxes of junk no one wanted to look at or to throw away. The men in the living room watching football, or standing around the front steps, bonding in the crisp air. At night, when they stayed up so late talking that it made little sense to bother going to bed, and over breakfast, they all smiled and did not speak of fear.

They couldn't beg any more time. It just wasn't possible, the doctors said, and so George went into the hospital and Christmas came five days later. They didn't fuss over it. No presents, just an hour-long, non-denominational service in the chapel. Mia sat, her limbs trembling, but her eyes steady and stern under the crown of her bowed head. It wasn't a proper Midnight Mass, she said later, but it was convenient, and God knew it was better than nothing. That was one ritual. For C.J., the other one was calling Josh early the next morning. He had never learned to like the holiday. He made jokes about coal in the stocking and not having a chimney, and said it was a white Christmas in Washington. C.J. looked out the window and longed for snow. Instead it continued to rain.

Other people's discarded trees, shreds of tinsel and shards of colored glass, lined the curbs and protruded from Dumpsters. It was a new year; they hardly noticed. Every morning they drove, following each other or filling up C.J.'s rented Hyundai, from the house to the hospital. Every night they drove home. At first it looked like things were going to get better. Then it didn't look that way. Then it was clear that things would get worse.

The call came at quarter past seven in the morning. She'd been in her pajamas, trying to fill a glass with the inadequate dribbles of orange juice someone had left in the carton in the fridge. She answered at the same time as John picked up the extension upstairs. "Hello?" they said in unison, and listened, and made sounds that weren't quite words, that were practically silence.

C.J.'s first reaction was a desire to run, a tingling in her legs to get somewhere she wasn't and could never be. She tried to shake the mental image of empty rooms, of the harsh fluorescence of industrial light, the persistent thought that it should not be the last light someone saw. It was unnatural, too false for her father, who was--had been--real.

The three of them told their mother together. Mia's mouth pressed into a line; she nodded, and for the first time C.J. really saw the fine bones under her skin, saw how the color of the skin was wrong, saw hollow places and puffiness and, even worse, the strange, brittle brightness about her. But she would not let her children see her cry.

*

After the night they play Hearts, John stops sleeping at the house. He claims it is because he is tired. Tom says it is because he is weak. C.J. knows it is because he is scared, and angry, and not entirely unjustified in either. Mia stops talking the same day. They are not sure if she's lost her voice, if she doesn't have the energy, or if she is afraid of what she might say.

Things that would have horrified C.J. years or months earlier no longer faze her. She is not startled when she finds still-sticky maroon bloodstains on the couch cushions, not agitated when she has to clean frothy saliva from the crevices around her mother's mouth. It is mostly blood that she throws up now; there is so little else left.

It's not serenity, C.J. decides, as she says goodnight to John over the phone. She sips lukewarm water from a Mason jam jar and thinks: I am not calm. But panicking only makes things more complicated, so when she does it, she does it silently, alone in her room or outside in the warmthless sunshine. She clenches her teeth and grinds her knuckles against her lips and does not sob or scream, not even at God. It would be pointless.

Two days go by like working the swing-shift, and their mother does not talk, and C.J. and Tom only whisper. "Have we called everyone?" he asks her in an undertone, as they pass on the front stairs.

"I think so." She runs down a mental list of relatives and family friends. "Did you call Aunt Celeste?"

"Shit," he says. "No. Do we have to? She's not even really our aunt."

"Yeah."

"And Mom doesn't really like her. She's always said so."

C.J. leans on the wooden banister, running her fingers over scratches in its polish. "We have to call her anyway, don't we?"

"I guess so." Tom flicks a lock of graying hair away from his forehead. "I need a haircut."

She nods. "She sleeps with her eyes open, sometimes."

"I know."

"Is that weird?"

He shrugs, not knowing or not saying, and continues up the stairs.

It's been three months since she left Washington, thirty-four days since her father passed away--that's the phrase the hospital used--and three nights since John stepped back. C.J. sits in the tan recliner in the living room, plucking idly at a loose ivory thread in the arm. By lamplight, the room's signs of wear and age don't show so clearly. It is still comfortable, still inviting and tasteful.

The television is muted, but it flashes garishly, as if to compensate for its silence. The end of a Lifetime movie blends into Unsolved Mysteries and then to an infomercial for a miracle cleaning product. C.J. fixes her eyes on the screen and listens to her mother, lying on the couch, breathing and missing breaths.

All of it is melodramatic, over the top. The cancer in her mother's breasts spread, like lichen on a tree or dandelion seeds on the wind, to her lungs, her bowels, her bloodstream, her womb. The last tests told them it was doing that, moving everywhere, mutating, colonizing. So it is really four or five diseases consuming her. But it makes sense, maybe. It takes a lot to sap that strength.

Mia is breathing, and shaking, and then she is choking. It isn't the first time that night, or the first time in the last hour. C.J. gets up from the armchair, tosses her hair and walks to the couch. She bends down, tips her mother's head back gently to clear the airway, and waits.

Her mother gasps as if in surprise or mild disapproval, as if someone told a tawdry joke at the supper table. It seems like a good sign, but then it turns guttural, more than a groan, almost a growl. The sound is clotted and tremulous and warped, failing like her internal organs are. It is not language. It is unmistakably human. C.J. stoops to one knee, strokes her mother's forehead, takes her mother's left hand in her right.

They are both sweating. Mia pulls for more air, the uneven gurgle growing in her throat, louder but still so little, so low. Her whole body is involved in this, everything she has left focused on the effort, the struggle. C.J. watches her, pale and small on the sofa in the dim golden light, and tries to think of the things famous writers say. Death is the mother of beauty, she thinks, and decides there isn't any way of talking about this that isn't horrible.

She considers calling for her brother, but when Tom sleeps he goes down heavy and hears nothing. She could hurry upstairs, try and wake him, hustle him into the living room. He would be blinking and fuzzy, but he would be present. Mia's eyes snap open, sightless, hazy blue and then shut again, and that settles it as much as anything. C.J. won't move.

In the corner of the room stands a wooden end-table, squat and weathered, the oldest piece of furniture in the room. C.J. remembers playing under that table as a toddler, getting in trouble for scribbling on its underside with crayons. As she sits on the floor, the fringe of the rug tickling her bare feet, everything in her memory falls into place.

C.J. remembers playing in the backyard, mud on her feet and face and in her hair, chasing her brothers and her mother chasing her, remembers dozens of scoldings for broken china and ruined party dresses and talking back. She hears herself asking detailed questions of the first set of doctors, trying to understand how normal, healthy cellular processes could just change. She thinks of bedtime at nine, of "When are you going to get married?" and "You
work too hard." All the years she did work too hard, rarely visited, stayed so far away. All the years they were not close. She remembers the unreality of her brother's funeral, learning to drive, her mother brushing her hair. Most of all, she remembers patience, "be patient," and how she never was. And how she can be, when there's no choice.

Mia's grip tightens convulsively, slackens, her breathing even more erratic. Her lungs are wet and won't inflate; her muscles useless. She drags so little air in now that the effort uses up more fuel than it produces. C.J. leans in closer, drenched in adrenaline and recollection. She has no idea how this works, what is happening, no idea if there is a reason why. She is crouching like an Olympic athlete about to sprint, waiting, waiting as everything slows down.

Another gasp. A sputter. A silence.

Then she is alone in the room.

C.J. lets her mother's fingers slide out of her own, and recalls, abruptly, the early childhood checkups. A lollipop and a Band-Aid from the doctor, those were the most important things to her four-year-old mind, but before that there was the bee-sting of the shot. Her mother held her hand and looked away.

She's wearing a pair of John's jeans even though they're too loose. Tiny, dark spots appear on the denim over her thighs, but the tears can't be hers. The lamp casts her shadow, sepia on the creamy rug and charcoal on the blue wallpaper, deepening as the eastern windows grow brighter. She doesn't move, and doesn't know what time it is when Tom comes down the stairs, or how long he stands and how he looks at her, until he comes forward and touches her on the shoulder.

"Okay," he says softly, helping her up from her knees. "We. We're supposed to have a signed death certificate. By a physician."

She twists her neck and looks up at him, thinking that he needs a haircut. "You're a doctor," she says, and barely recognizes her own voice.

"Yeah." He lets go of her arm with that, and she walks down the hall without looking back.

*

They had walked through the cemetery, through the February thaw that fooled everyone into thinking of early spring. After consolation and condolence and prayer, they had walked away together, heads up and hands linked, a family.

"Not in the hospital," their mother said, a command, a plea. And they promised.

*

C.J. puts her mother's death on her MasterCard and goes outside to smoke. The ridges of the white aluminum siding are unyielding against her spine. The sky is a ferocious summery blue, making the cold bite harder. She huddles inside her black nylon cocoon, a designer coat that lost its shape years ago. The hood hangs in wrinkles below the base of her neck. A soft breeze bounces it and throws her hair into her face. C.J. draws an aimless pattern in the sawdust with the toe of her sneaker, shields her lighter to produce a flame.

They found Impelliteri-Bridges for her father, by rifling through the Yellow Pages. They picked the place mostly at random, guessing correctly that the Italian name meant they could arrange Catholic services. Her father wouldn't have cared. Her mother would. When C.J. went in, the directors--undertakers, she thinks, sucking hard on her cigarette--were startled and concerned to see her. As if she'd come to lodge a complaint, to demand a refund or an exchange.

Tom's bulky, weather-worn Ford pulls into the small parking lot. C.J. straightens up, reflexively hiding her cigarette behind her back before bringing it back to her lips with a defiant smile. The driver's door opens first and Tom swings his legs out. He smiles faintly and steps forward, and as he does, Toby gets out of the passenger's side.

The cigarette gives her an excuse to hold her breath. He's exactly as she expected him, solid and handsome and neat in a dark suit. She turns her eyes to his and looks for the glint that always appears when he sees her. She looks for his certainty, and tries not to notice the clouds, not to notice that she isn't as he expected her. Toby raises his eyebrows and doesn't quite nod. She lets the smoke drift out through her nostrils, streaming thinly away from her face.

"Hey," she says.

Tom steps up the curb, squinting. "Been waiting long?"

She shrugs. "How was traffic?"

"Lousy. You know."

C.J. looks past her brother to Toby. "Good flight?"

"I've had worse." He walks up, trying to look her over with some subtlety and failing.

"I'd have met you myself." She takes a drag on the cigarette, massaging the back of her neck with her free hand. "I just hate that drive."

Toby shoves his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. "Can't blame you."

"I do the dirty work around here," Tom jokes. He sneezes, fishes a paper napkin in his pocket and wipes his nose as he studies the building. "So, you ready to go in and talk to them?"

C.J. attempts to swipe some of her hair into place. "I did it already."

Both men stare at her for a beat. Tom frowns. "Shit. I thought you were going to sleep in. I mean--it's expensive."

"Well, I fully expect you to kick in your third," she cracks. "It's not the money."

"It's not the money," he agrees. "You didn't have to."

Her shoulders hunch forward involuntarily. "What else was I going to do this morning?"

Tom glances back and forth between C.J. and Toby and tosses the napkin on the ground. "Okay. I'll just, I guess, go in and talk to them. You should go on home."

She tilts her head back as her brother walks past her and inside. "Thanks for coming." It sounds like she's talking to a kid at her birthday party. She expects Toby to make fun of her.

He doesn't. "Your brother calls you Ceej."

"They all--they both do." She chuckles, then coughs. Her voice sounds tinny. "Since before I could talk. It drove Mom nuts. You didn't know her."

"No," he says cautiously. "She raised fine children."

C.J. wants to laugh again, but it sticks in her throat, immobile. She shakes her head. "I'm freezing."

Toby holds out his hand before she steps forward, knowing that she'll be there. His fingers curve firmly into her waist; his beard grazes her cheek in an almost-kiss. She remembers a time when he couldn't and wouldn't do that in public. It was a long time ago, but it still seems a shade too intimate, an inch too close. She still has trouble deciding whether she wants to swoon or slap him. Instead, she lets what's left of her cigarette fall and accepts the support of his touch.

"Thanks for coming," she says again, and means it as they walk, against the wind, to her car.

*

Toby had come to her father's funeral, but he hadn't stayed long. He'd been in the middle of teaching a two-week seminar on creative nonfiction. C.J. imagines the e-mail he'd copied to thirty honor students, composed with haste and his usual elegance: "Attending a funeral out of town. Take the day." He would have signed it with his initials, like any of the thousand memos that used to cross their desks daily.

He had come out for the day, and he took her coat as they went into the church, wrapping it around her as they left. She remembers kissing him goodbye, missing him sharply when he was out of her sight. But most of her attention was concentrated on her mother. C.J. watched Mia's face for hints of the emotional breakdown that didn't come. She made her promise and looked at her mother and thought: Jesus, you can see right through her. And she thought: How long?

*

There's so much to do over the next two days that she does not sleep, much less take note of where anyone else sleeps. There is paperwork, there are bills. Lawyers and insurance agents squawk at her through the phone. Neighbors and relatives drift in and out, pushing things into her arms: flowers, cards, Tupperware bowls filled with slimy pasta salad. Someone brings nachos, but C.J. sets them down on the counter, turns around and they're gone.

It rains over the second night, into the third morning. Be grateful for small favors, C.J. tells herself; the afternoon is still overcast, but the air feels fresh. She concentrates on stepping over puddles, keeping her footing on the damp, dimpled stone steps. Toby guides her coat off, black sliding away from the navy of her sweater. They walk the long aisle down the center of the church. Eyes turn, followed by murmurs that ricochet off the high ceiling. She settles on the chilly wooden bench and doesn't look at anyone.

The priest is not young and not old. He's in his mid-forties, which suddenly seems like childhood to C.J. He speaks, and reminds her of something indefinite. It's like Sam, she realizes with a start. It's like one of Sam's speeches, these prayers with their blend of wonder, weariness, and an arrogant touch of optimism. It's beautiful, almost even believable.

C.J. kneels on cue. She was raised Catholic and knows what goes where, even when she's not listening. Even when she's thinking about how she's never gone to shul with Toby, or how Tom once told her that confessionals made him think of pornography, or of Mia forcing her to eat two bites of everything, including the broccoli. Along with everyone else she says 'amen' and her face does not change.

Her brothers, two cousins, a neighbor's son, somebody's husband: they rise first to lift the smooth wooden box. C.J. envies them the weight. She wishes she could feel the physical pressure in the muscles of her arms, the brass handle imprinting the flesh of her palms. She catches John's eye briefly as the casket passes her. She doesn't envy them after all.

Then they are out, and then they're in cars. Traffic stretches the five-minute drive into seven, then nine, but they arrive. The procession proceeds.

"Grant her peace and tranquillity..."

Along with everyone else she files past the new space hollowed out of the ground.

Afterwards, she does the geometry she learned at fundraisers, knowing everyone's positions without looking, calculating distance. Aunt Celeste, bristly and babbling, has cornered Tom on the wet lawn; he is trying to repress a sigh at her speech. John walks over gravel with one arm tight around his wife as she weeps into his shoulder. He rolls his eyes over her blonde hair. The Cregg children are not criers, C.J. thinks, and her head is bowed but her back is straight. Toby is a few yards away in the background, always fully present in a part of her mind.

"C.J.," someone calls gently. She turns and sees her favorite cousin. They were the only girls their age in a family that ran to boys. In the summers they slept at each other's houses, went swimming, stole their brothers' records, told each other secrets. Alexis comes to her now with hands outstretched. "I am so sorry. What can I do?"

C.J. reaches out. "We've got it covered."

"Yeah?" Alexis arches a brow. "You thought I'd buy that? You're losing your touch."

"It's under control," C.J. insists. "We just have to keep up."

"That's harder than it sounds."

"It always has been." She senses Tom just beyond her field of vision; a quick glance confirms that he's actually cringing now. Alexis' eyes follow hers. "I have to go save him," C.J. says.

Alexis presses her hands. "I'm sorry," she says again. It's what everyone says; it's the only thing to say. C.J. concentrates on placing her feet as she steps into the grass and wishes she never had to hear it again.

*

Concluded in Part Three.

 

 

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