Our small crew assembles in the massive kitchen to concoct our evening chow. Long glass doors line one side of the room opening to a multi-colored stone veranda, grill, bar, and beyond to the pool and lake.
The unpredictable climate is seldom this pleasant lately. The fading frantic sounds of the late spring day sound more like the tired melodies of a deep summer; the exhaustion of not knowing what comes next: a raging thunderstorm with torrential rains, a violent tornado or the boiling of a continued drought—a thirst that’s never quite sated.
An assortment of lanterns dot the grounds overhead and make for a magical setting amongst the dystopian darkness. In the distance, the sun slides into the water. The edges glow gold, like an eclipse, mirrored on the lake and pool in an endless loop to dimensions elsewhere.
The staff hover nearby helping us when possible; repeated requests to join us denied politely. We do dinner at least thrice a week to connect. All of us being such solitary souls in our mourning. All except Grayson and Miss Dandria who flutters mysteriously in and out of the estate like they own it.
Are they repressing their grief? Hiding it in plain sight? What Gray and Miss Dandria’s doing, no one knows. Probably Max, Grace, and Parker. They’re tight lipped and refer to it as work. Regardless, we choose solitude to alleviate our grief. All of us ambiverts.
Nik too, much like Grayson.
I catch myself sometimes watching Gray who looks so much like Niky, it’s haunting. The resemblance is singular. Gray is older, of course, and Niky? He’s dead.
I swallow the pain casually. Unstirring and always there, the misery sneaks up on me unsuspecting and startles me, like a collision of sorts. The shock of his absence, when it comes at me unexpected, still aches; a dull throbbing; a banality that lingers long past in a residual coat of chaos; the type that I cannot get a grip. It floats in the air around me and becomes a void sucking at my breath and life. The feelings sabotage my sleep like a waking nightmare hunting me whilst I move restlessly through life without him.
I never thought the loss of a him would affect me so. From the outside, my grief is stoic and frozen waiting to thaw. Inside a continuous coal burns its way through the impassable, inching closer to my surface. Occasionally, it burns too hot and I go to Alison to relieve the pain and we cry for him till we fall asleep spent from the misery of loss. The numbness overwhelms. Ali’s warm dark skin, powered by her compassionate heart, rides the night and takes ownership of our shadows; her strength and courage towers mine and where I’d normally fear, I find the audacity to go forward; to stop the sinkhole in my center from enveloping me whole. She does this for me. She’s always done this for me and I for her. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s always been there when we needed each other. A friendship that has stood the test of time and distance.
Our beginning was like most: two freak teenagers—freshmen to a new rural southern high school—a broken childhood, rejected and shunned by an emotionally unwilling and unavailable family that mistrust with the cold shade of bigotry, and a connection forged in a fire of fragmented alienation. A foreign history framed Alison’s small world till she emigrated to the States. Born on the chords of another level and bounced around the world, she rides the role she’s given attempting to conform to socialized norms; alas, the exceptionals challenge all edicts and the role she’s given is not the role implied. I deduce this early and a rapport begins constant and rooted in a connection that lasts to this day twenty-five years later. A partnership that comprehends and needs no boundaries.
Well, perhaps a few.
Emotional support and a genuineness that breaks all barriers. Our friendship—our relationship is stronger than any familial bond we’ve ever known. A loss of Niky is our loss. We grieve together. She’s just better at it than I am. She’s better at everything than I am and that takes a toll.
Awareness interrupts my reflections and I catch the conversation midstream.
“It is, isn’t it? I strive for perplexity,” Ali says.
“Then I congratulate you on your success.”
“Thank you,” she says graciously, standing next to Gray, fluttering her lashes grinning widely at him.
Gray and Parker started drinking earlier in the evening as per usual lately. Only the persistent eye could detect the conversion; both talented functional alcoholics
“You are a beautiful woman, Alison.” Gray takes her hand and places a light kiss across her brown knuckles.
Ali loses her smile. I see the ache that sweeps across her face. Taking her hand and kissing it was such a Niky move and with this, Grayson has made her stumble. She recovers quickly. Her eyebrows arch in surprise as she watches him. “Grayson, love—no.”
Parker stands at the grill next to Grace chuckling. Grayson, quite the reputation, is a shameless flirt.
Gray feigns hurt. “What?” He glances at Grace and Parker before winking at Alison and me.
Parker passes a large plate of asparagus to Grace who runs them under cold water washing them with diluted white vinegar to clean any of the harmful chemicals that remain. She snaps the ends, spraying them lightly with olive oil, and seasoning them with garlic sea salt and pepper while he preps the salmon—yet another rare and expensive delicacy nowadays—brushing the fillets with an olive oil, cilantro, cumin, sea salt, lime, and pepper marinade with a touch of ginger soy sauce. The quinoa steams on the stove.
Parker then fires the grill while Alison and I set the table while covering the eclectic eighties playlist in silent breathy melodies echoing softly from unseen speakers deep within the grounds and walls. All of us are standing and doing in a comfortable lull of minds when that Whitney song hits me at my center: …If I … shooould stay…
The simple white china, angled in squares, we place on the mahogany brown wooden table as the words roll off me and our tongues. The heavy plain silver with quiet curves and a mirrored history, silent and sturdy, repeating another moment of time and temperance. A shift unto what is then and what is a second and a placement of each becomes another five, and another five becomes ten, and twenty, staring into the curve of a heavy spoon singing the ballad lower still.
I’ve lost focus and strayed. A tunnel through my eyes to some speculum of unexplored grief. Nik’s there, we’re there, a swirling hodgepodge of moments adrift. And this song—this sad tired song that’s beautiful and brilliant and overstated and exact. I drag myself from the feels of following it down into depths unknown. I glance up to see Gray, an amber colored drink paused at his lips, staring at me; a solemn understanding and a sober void on his face. I study his profile: his eyes, his lips, and the ash blond curl that snakes around his ear. I feel the emotion move through me like a violent wave. My eyes meet his in a hard-unblinking stare of mutual insight and connection.
No, no, no, not this. Nik’s gone and this—this is wrong.
I look elsewhere to find Grace and Parker paused watching us earnestly without judgment, but it’s Grace’s eyes that hold the power of understanding and compassion. She looks between Gray and Parker and I note the shade of awareness and mediation so casual and elegant in its depth, I stagger from the vibrations of the intimacy of it, of them, from across the room. Their bond, unlike any I’ve ever known, surrounds me; it cloaks me with an understanding that what I’ve felt is not to be judged nor shamed. They recognize and embrace me even through the haze of alcohol and whatever emotions and needs I have.
And this takes my breath.
Max chooses that moment to enter. “She’s landed and ensconced at the main facility.”
I make eye contact with her: “Thank you.”
She nods and sits at the table. “Dandria is in Columbia and will not be joining us so bring me wine, Grayson.”
A snort from Parker: “Adopting southern manners, Gray?”
“When in Rome … or amidst the fall and the ruins thereof—” he says.
“Smart white man,” Alison says dryly, pulling six wine glasses from the cabinet as Gray works to uncork the bottle. “The ruins of Rome is a bit too prescient and ironic in light of all this,” she mumbles loud enough for us all to hear looking and pantomiming around at the overly large estate.
“The successful creature is the creature that adapts. Not everyone in the south is a clo…closed minded white bigot, y’all,” he says speaking in true southern cadence and an unexpected inebriated stumble. “Step outside yo box. Stay woke.” His accent fades into some feeble attempt of an urban southern Afro slang that has all of us arching an eyebrow at this appropriation and wondering what he’s been doing in his time away from our palatial prison.
Me and Ali pass a frowning ‘what the fuck’ face between us. That unmistakable ridiculousness of older rich white guys, and arbiter of our oppressions, co-opting Afro slang meant to encourage critical thinking and empower BIPOC on social issues and injustices, not demean into a derogatory ironic sense. Thus, the curse of memes to the mainstream—mainstream unfortunately meaning white—ultimately debasing the message. But Gray’s attempt is genuine and sad given the state of things and he knows it and perhaps that’s his message behind the veil of words and actions.
Or is my whiteness blinding me? Is irony dead? Or does it flow freely?
“We are anthropologists observing. We’re not here to serve an imperialistic or plutocratic agenda. Never. Especially now. Most especially now,” his voice disperses into the ambient sounds of dusk and nature, the last bit unheard or ignored by the others? Except me? I hear the fatigue in his voice underneath the artifice of enthusiasm and rebellion.
“Anthropologists don’t get involved. I thought we were—” and Ali cuts me off before I expand on this.
“I’m from the south,” Alison says proudly pivoting away from a debate I know she’s confronted many times before and side-eyeing me with a shut-up-not-now look. Having heard Gray’s mask of rebellion fading and seeing the fatigue of grief underneath, she chooses to steer away from antagonism towards empathy and connection.
“Me too,” I add. “Right down the road.” I glance at Ali in a shared bond of times past in addition to my frown of confusion: What are you doing?
“There you have it. Two strong beautiful independent women—” He pauses. “Remind us again where exactly you’re originally from, Maxina, love? Besides San Fran and L.A., that is?”
Max smirks: “West Palm Beach, Florida.”
They all chuckle. “Well—” Gray hands Max a glass. “Florida’s in the south. This should count. You count, my dear. Another southern belle.” He raises his glass to us.
And pivoting right back: “Unlike lots of others that didn’t count in that county?” Alison takes a glass from Gray with a nod and a crooked smile of thanks.
“I take no blame for that debacle. I had already moved on to California and I campaigned and voted for Gore. California proudly went blue. SCOTUS elected Bush, not the electorate and I’ll swear by it till I die and beyond.”
“Don’t get her started,” says Parker working the grill.
“There’s not a person here that doesn’t agree with you, Max,” Grace says walking over to Gray and taking a glass of wine leaning up on her toes placing a soft kiss on his lips and a mumbled ‘thank you, love’. The look that passes between them is a grand thing. A softness and affection amongst all that fatigue of grief.
“And these last elections?” Alison asks looking around eyeing each of us ultimately fixating on me. “Who can we blame? Besides Russia, that is?”
“White women,” I reply looking back at her. “And GOP voter suppression and gerrymandering and Russia…and Republicans—”
We tried, her eyes say and we both shrug. “Yes,” she says aloud. The tone of her voice indicates the smothered outrage and despair and exhaustion we’re all still feeling. Years feel like decades. Between the elections, the degradation of our country and rights, Nik’s death, and the subsequent events, all falling across the globe like dominoes, there is little room for hope, which sends the room into a weighty silence.
When Gray turns towards me to bring me a glass, he places an arm around me, his lips smooth against my temple, the scent of scotch and chaos unsettling me, whispering ‘you are not alone, love’ and that declaration conveys so much more than the apparent. He gives me a squeeze and walks off to Parker standing side by side with him and Grace at the grill. They mumble between them—something incoherent to the rest of us. Their connection formed in the fire of a passion dispatched in their youth still strong and unyielding. And I’m floored at that moment what the universe holds for us.
When we sit down to eat, the mood changes. All quiet. The music transitions to classical cellist and the compositions of Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré, Eleonore Schoenfeld, Pablo Casals, Zara Nelsova, and Zoë Keating.
“So, the plan?”
“Yes. We need a plan. A good one.”
“Our plan is good. We’re simply…at intermission. The projects remain.”
“Intermission is an understatement.”
“We need another strategy.”
“This, our play, has to be a long play.”
“The long con?”
“Isn’t it always?”
“The longest con.”
“We continue on our path, but make the much-needed adjustments so that this will not happen again.”
“We’re here, aren’t we? He’s aware. They’re all aware. The plan remains. The projects continue.” Grace has the last word. Grace always has the last word.
Alison and I listen, quietly, our eyes move between the four of them, our minds silent. This is the first we’ve been included on these discussions. What little is said is unexplicit in details to us. We’re left unknowing and uncertain. As always.
“They know what we’re doing. This was a shot across our bow.”
Grace, incredulity transforming her face, slams her fist onto the table generating an audible thump and chime amongst the crystal, china, cutlery, and candles. “It was a shot into our hearts, Gray. They ripped it beating from our chests and left it bloody and beaten in our fucking hands. Niky’s dead. Our son is dead.” The anger transforms her face. Her ferocity rooted in anger and grief, pierces us all like an icicle through the heart.
Immobile and mute, we sit stunned, despair evident, replaying on our faces as the amalgamation of emotions sit sourly at our center. The curmudgeonly crevice in Parker’s forehead gives way to sorrow. Tears leak freely from his face. He makes no move to wipe them away or apologize and we don’t expect him to. He holds no shame for his tears. He takes Grace’s hand, threading their fingers, wrapping her in his arms offering support. She leans into him wearily, closing her eyes, accepting willingly without further comment. He kisses her lightly on the lips. She glances up at him brushing the tears from his face, pushing his dark brown hair back while he whispers ‘I know, I know’ repeatedly to her. It’s a gentle kindness and I feel like I’m intruding on something intimate. Twice tonight we’ve seen this display of affection between the three of them, who normally are quite reserved.
Are they becoming more comfortable around us?
Meanwhile, Gray, silent, has withdrawn inward, staring into the blackness of night, his eyes and face blank, chin in hand, lost in thought and time. Tears escape, like raindrops down a window, and roll towards the freedom of release.
Parker removes himself from Grace, shifting out of his chair to stand behind Gray. Placing his hands on Gray’s shoulders, he leans down whispering in his ear. This seems to soothe Gray whose face softens bringing him out of his void. He reaches up taking Parker’s hand gently squeezing it looking towards Grace. “I’m sorry. I—I miss him too. I miss him too.” The catch strains his already low-pitched voice. Parker pulls away standing and staring out towards the water.
“Yeah, we need a new plan. One that doesn’t get all of us killed.”
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins