The day of the funeral was a beautiful day. Sun shining, birds singing, the whole works. Not exactly the type of day you expect when you have to throw the lifeless body of someone you know into the ground forever. But this is life, not a novel. In novels, it always rains at funerals.
The mourners in their black clothes looked slightly absurd against the backdrop of the mint-green lawn and candy-colored flowers of the church yard, and occasionally we’d catch the happy sounds of the kids’ soccer game going on a few blocks away. This contrast only exacerbated the occasion’s air of disjointedness. No one cried — everyone just seemed bewildered. With good reason. We were burying my brother, whom none of us had seen in five years.
The priest, as bewildered as anyone, tried valiantly to connect his sermon to the reality of the dead body at his feet. The mourners all kept their eyes on the ground as his last words — “from dust we came, and to dust we shall return” — hovered awkwardly in the air, like uninvited guests to a party. Then, something clicked into place, and the four pallbearers — my two uncles, my older brother James, and my cousin Taro — picked up the four corners of the coffin and lowered it into the ground gently. The thudding sound of the coffin hitting the dirt echoed in my ears as we left the burial ground, and I wondered what it all meant.
I hate funeral receptions. They’re the worst type of social occasion. People who barely even know the deceased come to stand around and drink punch and awkwardly fail to comfort the family, usually with a story about the dead person that they’ve clearly had to try very hard to remember.
I dutifully received guests with my parents for an hour or so, and then let myself take a cigarette break outside. I felt like I had a bad taste in my mouth from all the phony interactions of the past hour. I knew that most of my parents’ friends didn’t like me, and watching them pretend to be concerned for my welfare was almost amusing, in a sickening sort of way. They all seem to think I’m dark and troubled, or at least cold-hearted. I think this is partly because I’m not cute and perky like their own daughters, and partly because in my school days I beat up a few of their sons.
While I sat there smoking, Taro came outside with a glass of punch for me.
“Thanks, cuz,” I said. He sat down next to me.
Taro has a Japanese name even though we’re Korean, because his Dad is half Japanese and he lived in Japan until he was ten. Of course, despite the name the other kids knew he was Korean, and at first he got picked on. They stopped bothering him, though, when he slammed some kid’s head into the side of the metal slide.
“How you holding up?” he asked, looking ahead at the passing cars on the busy Saturday suburban street.
“Fine, as usual,” I said drily. “But this is all so — so warped. I just want to go back to my apartment, get in my pajamas, watch TV. You know, something to tie me back to reality.”
“Speaking of which, you want to do it later?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, putting out the cigarette.
We sat there, saying nothing, for a long minute. Then Taro turned to me. “So what happened, anyway?” he asked.
I guess I should start by telling you that my brother Daniel ran away from home, when he was eighteen and I was already a junior in college. But in order to understand what happened, you have to know a little bit about Daniel.
Daniel is best described by what people nowadays call “sensitive.” There’s good sensitive and bad sensitive, you know. Daniel was both. When Daniel was a kid and my parents went for their conferences with his teachers, they’d get one of two reactions. If Daniel was doing relatively well in the class, the teacher would beam brightly and say something like, “Daniel is just such a sensitive child!” and then go on to describe some precocious insight he’d had about “Charlotte’s Web” or something. But if he wasn’t doing so well, she’d furrow her brow as if in apology and say, “Well, you know — Daniel is just so sensitive –“. This was basically a nice way of saying that Daniel was kind of a loser. He didn’t interact well with the other kids — he didn’t really interact with them at all. He usually ate alone and spent his recess time reading. Sometimes he’d burst into tears for no apparent reason, and then afterwards seem to be totally fine. Usually, the other kids viewed him kind of warily, like someone who’d wandered into the class by accident.
Of course, some of them picked on him or beat him up, and this pissed me off to no end. I think this was less because of any sisterly affection on my part than because it was simply unfair. I can stomach a lot of things most people find disgusting, but I just can’t stand unfairness. Of course, though, I realized that I had to pick my battles. I beat up the kids I knew I could take, and left the others untouched. It would have been stupid for both me and Daniel to get beat up.
I think I realized at a young age that unfairness is just a part of life, something you have to deal with, like losing your baby teeth or getting your period when you turn twelve.
Daniel and I played together a lot when we were kids. Even though our personalities were completely different, it somehow just worked. I think maybe that’s just because we didn’t bother each other. I thought he was weird, of course, but I figured that was his business. And I generally felt annoyed at the little girls my age — they always wanted to play games that required everyone to assume roles in a complex socio-familial structure and then spend a lot of time feeding plastic baby dolls whose pretend pee came out of a hole in their crotch. I, on the other hand, preferred games that had clear objectives.
Daniel and I spent a lot of time building forts in our backyard. I never had anything special in mind when I started building one; I just wanted to create a structure with a tiny space inside that I could crawl into. I’ve always liked small spaces. So, for me, it didn’t matter what the fort was made of or how we made it as long as it was sturdy. Daniel, on the other hand, cared a great deal about the way we built the fort; he was always looking around our block for new materials, and he was surprisingly creative about finding things we could use. He’d bring me old soda cans, buttons, string, wood-chip shavings, and show me how we could use them to make our fort even stronger and better. When a fort was done, Daniel never cared about going inside; he liked the process, and he liked to gaze with satisfaction at the finished project, but he had no interest in it as an object of utility.
Not everybody in the family got along with Daniel as well as I did, though. My parents brought us all over from Korea when I was nine and Daniel six, and they had certain ideas of what they wanted us to become here, as if to justify the trouble. My older brother, James, fulfilled the role perfectly, graduating from the high school in our affluent New Jersey neighborhood with honors and going on to Columbia. He always knew he was going to be a doctor, like my grandfather. I remember being proud of him when he finally graduated from med school, but also a little annoyed. He’d left no wriggle room at all for me or Daniel, and my parents didn’t see any reason why their two younger children shouldn’t be able to succeed as well as the first.
I at least managed to keep up the appearance. My grades were decent, and the college I went to decent as well. I have a decent job in New York and a decent apartment in another New Jersey suburb. I perform all my filial duties as I should, and if my parents sometimes seem upset that I don’t have any immediate plans to marry a Korean man from a good family, they generally seem satisfied with my progress in life.
Daniel, however, just never seemed to get it. He was clearly an intelligent child, but his grades were as erratic as the weather, as were his moods. No matter how many private tutors and psychologists our mother took him to see, Daniel’s behavior and attitude remained as uncontrollable as they were inscrutable, and he only barely passed most of his classes.
Eventually, my mother sort of gave up. The good news is that she generally left Daniel to himself to act how he pleased, but the bad news was that she basically ignored him. Since Daniel himself was introverted, it seems that during most of his late childhood and adolescence he was barely even there. He was so quiet and unobtrusive that it was easy to take his unchanging presence for granted. It was hard to imagine our house without him — but at the same time, I have hardly any clear memories of things he did or said. It’s like he was less a living, breathing person than a presence, a feature of the house, like the predictable patterns of light through the windows or the pervasive, cabbagey smell that never seemed to leave our kitchen.
In case you’re wondering, I don’t think it’s particularly gross that I sleep with my cousin. It’s not like we’re going to have kids or anything.
And I like sleeping with Taro. It’s comfortable. There’s none of that awkwardness or fakery that I usually have to put up with. I like sex, but I don’t like everything that tends to go with it. I don’t like cuddling. I don’t like the mind games that people play, the rules about who is supposed to call whom at what time. I especially hate it when I sleep with someone and they decide that that’s their cue to unload all of their emotional baggage from their childhoods or past relationships on me. (I’ve never gotten the phrase “emotional emergency.” Isn’t that an oxymoron?) One time this guy actually started crying, and that was just too much. While he sat there blubbering, I just got up and started getting dressed to go. He looked confused and hurt, and I don’t blame him, but I just can’t deal with that sort of thing and it’s better for him to know that right away. I don’t believe in letting people think I’m someone I’m not or that I give a shit when I don’t. That’s not fair.
It also annoys me when people try to talk to me during sex. Not talking is the whole point.
Taro and I have the same likes and dislikes when it comes to sex, and that’s why we get along so well in bed. He knows what to do, and he does it with no fuss. He knows how to control everything just right — when to prolong a moment and when to go in for the kill. He never talks. And afterwards, sometimes we talk and sometimes we don’t, depending on how we feel.
And Taro never has emotional emergencies.
I guess we should have seen it coming. Daniel running away, that is. If we’d been really paying attention to him, we would have noticed that the content of his reading material had changed lately, from novels to religious books. He disappeared for hours on end, but no one thought to ask him where he’d been. And sometimes at dinner he’d ask us strange questions out of the blue, like “Why do you think it is that some people are born with certain advantages and others aren’t?” or “Why do you think there’s suffering in the world?” I dismissed his questions as juvenile — the world’s the way it is, and being an adult meant accepting it and doing your best to get by within its limits.
What I didn’t realize, I guess, is that my point of view was just one way of dealing with those questions. I was able to resolve ambiguities into monochrome black-and-white, or simply leave them untouched. This was a way of thinking that enabled me to live in the world. But for Daniel it wasn’t so easy.
When he was eighteen, he ran away and joined a cult. I know it sounds made-up, but I swear it’s the truth.
He didn’t explain anything to us beforehand, but he left us a note. The note explained that he had left home, that he hadn’t told us before because he knew we would get upset, but that he’d been planning this for a while. He explained a bit about the cult — what its name was, what its purpose was, why he felt he had to join it.
Watching my mother read that note for the first time, I felt that she looked so fragile. It must be unbearably lonely to realize that your child is someone whom you cannot even begin to comprehend. But, when she looked up from the note, her face was already set into the same stoic, slightly melancholy expression as always. I could tell that she had already resolved to forget about her third child as much as possible, and to behave so that everyone else would too. This was the way my mother lived in the world.
Gradually, we accepted his absence as a fact. We even stopped talking about him. Soon, Daniel’s memory began to fade. We remembered him the way you remember a recurring dream from your childhood — vaguely, in pieces, but with the essence still intact. After he’d been gone for several years, I could barely remember his face. But then again, somehow, that aura he had given off still clung to the house and we all kept living and breathing in it, without consciously remembering where it had come from. After a while, it became hard to believe that Daniel had ever really existed. Sometimes I actually doubted it.
But the memory of Daniel the last time I saw him always stuck in my brain. It was a school morning, and he’d returned to the house after already leaving once because he’d forgotten his backpack. This wasn’t uncommon for Daniel. Daniel was wearing a coat that was several sizes too big for him, and he seemed like a little boy dressing up in his Dad’s clothing. He was dressed too warmly for the March morning — he wore a light violet scarf around his neck, one that he wore really frequently.
I remember looking at him that day and thinking how very vulnerable he was. This realization was neither emotional nor intuitive but rather a recognition of a simple fact, like acknowledging that the sun is shining or that your head is connected to the rest of your body by your neck.
A few days earlier, Daniel had knocked on my bedroom door around midnight.
“Come in,” I’d said. I think I had been reading, probably something for school. It was my spring break, but I had two econ problem sets and a paper.
“Can I sit down?” said Daniel. It seemed like Daniel looked a little different from usual. Usually, even at one glance, you could tell that his energies were directed inwardly. It was like he regarded everyone around him as people he was in the process of dreaming, who would cease to exist once he woke up. But tonight there was an earnest look of pleading in his eyes which I’d never seen before. When I saw him, I felt a little palpitation in my heart, which I quickly dismissed. I’m sure it’s nothing, I told myself.
Daniel sat down on the chair opposite my bed and looked hard at the floor, and then up at me. “Yuri,” he said, “do you ever wonder about Mom and Dad?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, what they think their purpose in life is?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nobody can see into another person’s brain. But I guess it seems like what’s most important to them is bringing us up so that we’re successful, decent people.”
“Uh-huh,” said Daniel. His brow was furrowed as if he were doing a difficult math problem. “And what’s yours?”
I thought for a minute. “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I don’t really think about it much. I guess just getting through it. Getting through it and being honest and fair.”
He nodded slowly, but seemed completely unsatisfied.
“Why?” I asked.
Daniel thought for a minute. “You know that thing about the tree?” he said. “About how if it falls in a forest and no one hears it, it might not really have fallen?”
He looked at me earnestly, as if I were expected to glean his meaning from that sentence alone. I simply stared back, not knowing what to say. Finally, I asked, “Are you trying to figure out your purpose in life or something?”
“Never mind,” he said, getting up. “I think you answered my question.”
I watched him close the door as he left, and listened for the sound of his own door opening. My waiting felt like praying, somehow. But when I heard the click I sighed and went back to my book.
I don’t claim to understand Daniel at all, but I can’t say I was really surprised when we got the call.
He’d used the same violet scarf that I’d seen on him that last day. Sometimes, details can come back to haunt you in the ugliest ways.
How do conduct a funeral for someone you haven’t seen in five years? It wasn’t something my parents or I really had time to think about — we had to go ahead with the planning as if this were any normal death. We rented the funeral hall, bought the casket and had the headstone engraved. We listened to the sermon, greeted the friends and family who had come to pay their respects, took the flowers and fruit that people had brought and arranged them on my parents’ dining room table. There was nothing else we could do. This is what human beings do, I thought. They keep dancing in these prescribed steps even in the face of mysteries too huge to fathom. I felt like we were skating gracefully on the surface of a dark, bottomless pond.
It was two A.M., and the night was completely moonless. Taro and I lay in his bed, completely naked, watching something meaningless on TV. He clicked the remote to something else meaningless.
Finally, one of us spoke. “Do you feel bad for fucking me the night of your brother’s funeral?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I actually kind of think it’s appropriate. Circle of life, you know. Death followed by copulation.”
Taro began to hum the theme of “The Lion King.” I reached over for my lighter and thought about how everything Taro and I said to each other was a kind of joke, and how all of our jokes were actually dead serious.
“I still feel kind of stunned,” he said. “You know? After all these years I’d felt like your brother was — not a real person, you know? And then all of a sudden –“
“It’s so like him,” I said, lighting up a cigarette. “It’s so ethereal of him.”
“Seriously,” he said.
We watched the images on TV for a couple of minutes before Taro continued his thought. “But you probably knew Daniel as well as anyone,” he said.
“I didn’t know shit about Daniel,” I said. The laugh track of some slapsticky sitcom from the seventies blared noisily.
Ultimately, probably, no one can know shit about anyone. And that includes us. The thought hung in the air between us, as heavy as my cigarette smoke. There had always been a sort of unspoken agreement between Taro and I that thoughts like that went unsaid. Sometimes, I felt like our entire relationship hinged on the presence of an unconditional, shared silence.
I thought at that moment of Daniel’s body lying in the ground, and of all the unpursued enigmas that died with him. It wasn’t that unusual of a phenomenon, ultimately. The same thing would happen to me someday, and to Taro too. I accepted the thought as it came to me. That’s just how it is — we return to dust like everybody and everything else.
On a vague impulse, I turned and looked at Taro for a long moment. But he didn’t appear to notice me. So I turned away and pulled the covers over my head.
“‘Night,” said Taro offhandedly.
“Goodnight,” I said.
I wondered for a brief moment what it felt like to want to be held. I wondered which was lonelier: to need someone, or to not need them. Banishing the thought, I shut my eyes tight, until I could see stars behind my eyelids, and hoped for sleep.
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