Jack had no tattoos, nor any desire to get one, but he could remember the first he’d ever seen, would never forget. It belonged to his cousin Bernard. Bernard was ten years older than Jack, and as such, he was the kind of cousin that Jack had to be embarrassingly reintroduced to every time they met. Jack never really talked to Bernard, never really bothered to spend any time with him, but at their various family functions, Bernard always struck him as a sweet kid, a boy with a real head on his shoulders. Maybe later, he’d marry a skinny blonde girl, get a job on Wall Street, and have a kid or two or three. Bernard would play tennis, and drive a sports car, have a house with a pool and a massive sprawling back yard, and two dogs. Every now and then, Jack’s mother would hand Jack the phone, and he and Bernard would exchange simple pleasantries, both of them looking for the quickest way to hang up. Jack would politely decline any invitation to Sunday afternoon barbecues, or to watch Monday night football, or any other attempt on Bernard’s part to force Jack to forge an actual relationship with his cousin and his perfect family and his perfect life. But that’s not what happened to Bernard. When he went to college, Bernard let his hair grow long, started playing the guitar, and smoked cigarettes with a passion. On his nineteenth birthday, Bernard got a tattoo.
Jack opens his eyes, and shakes the past away. Across the classroom, the girl in the yellow dress uncrosses her legs, and leans down to put a book in her bag. For just half a second, Jack can make out black ink swirls on her neck, half-obscured by her long blonde hair. This takes Jack by surprise. She seems like such a normal girl, plain and simple, what you see is what you get. But now, there’s something about her, something deeper, something hidden, something more. Jack wonders what it is. He decides he will find out. Jack will dream about her tonight, and for many nights after.
One winter morning, Bernard’s roommate found him in his dorm room, hanging by a length of extension cord from a hot water pipe, his limp body swaying gently in the still air. His neck had snapped from the fall, and when he was cut loose, his head lolled forwards, like a ventriloquist’s dummy after a show. Jack was nine when this happened, and his parents decided that he was old enough to accompany them to the funeral.
In the dining hall, Jack sees her again. Now, she sits at a table with friends, laughing. Jack sits alone, staring, willing her to laugh and flip her hair, to turn around, to stand, to do anything that might give him another glance at her secret smile, her hidden rebellion. When she gets up to leave, Jack will follow.
When they got to the funeral home, Bernard’s mother was sitting in a heap on the stairs outside, hysterically crying. They hadn’t properly prepared him, she had said, and when she had arrived to see the body, she had broken down, and shouted at the makeup girl, made her cry. Bernard was too pale, and under the lights, the makeup applied to his face was almost yellow, and his hair was parted wrong, and his suit jacket was too big but above all, his head had kept lazily rolling to one side or the other.
They had tried their best to keep his head upright, but his neck was practically shattered, and couldn’t support the weight. When they tried to prop his head up with pillows, the skin on his neck tore under the strain, and the embalming fluid they had so carefully pumped into his system slowly leaked out, soaking into the casket’s white velvet lining and turning it a sickly vomitous green. Bernard’s suit was ruined, and the idea of an open casket was ruled out. While his parents did their best to comfort Bernard’s grieving mother, Jack quietly wandered off into the funeral home.
Jack reads alone at a quiet table. Over the edge of his book, he looks across the library. The girl in the yellow dress moves her lips when she reads. She silently reads out loud to an unknown audience of one. Jack like this.
In the lobby, a grey-haired man with limbs too long for his own good was putting the finishing touches to massive platters of post-wake reception food. Jack watched him for a few minutes, impressed at the spider-like way the man deftly maneuvered himself. He reminded Jack of a clown on stilts he had seen at a carnival, and Jack enjoyed watching him high-step around the lobby, the serious click-clack of his black leather shoes echoing in the marble chamber. Jack wanted to stay and watch some more; maybe the clown-man would fall down, and need Jack’s help to stand up again, and Jack would pull and lean back as far as he could, watching this tower of a man as he builds himself up again. Jack liked this image in his head, and he couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Once the sound escaped his lips, he regretted it immediately. It bounced off the floor, and up into the domed roof, rebounding down and filling the whole chamber. For the first time, the man noticed Jack, and regarded him with eyebrow-raising interest. Jack froze, his eyes widening in preparation of reprimand. Wordlessly, the man reached over and from one of the elaborate platters plucked a sugar cookie, which he offered to Jack. Though Jack didn’t want one, he didn’t have to heart to turn down the clown-man’s kind gesture. He took a bite; it was too dry, and he could feel the loose crumbs cake to the roof of his mouth and the backs of his teeth as he chewed. Jack flashed the man a tight lipped smile, for fear lost cookie scraps would tumble down to the shiny marble floor, and continued walking through the lobby, down a long red-carpeted hallway.
Jack gets out of class and goes to the cafeteria and gets a sandwich. He knows the timing exactly. When he is finished, he will sit in a corner and watch people walk by for fifteen minutes. Then, he will climb the stairs, round the corner, and get to the door just in time to hold it open for the girl in the yellow dress.
He found himself standing in front of two impressively shiny oak doors, and for a second was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to open them. He paused, lost in thought, his tongue probing for any still-clinging crumbs. He had to see what was behind those massive doors, he just had to. Jack put both hands up against the wood, felt the smooth lacquered oak against his palms, and pushed with all his might. The door gave way surprisingly easily, and Jack, carried by momentum, flew into the main chamber, falling prostrate to the ground. He groaned, and lifted his head. He looked down what seemed to be an eternal red carpet aisle, flanked with an endless number of pews, at the end of which was Bernard’s closed casket, almost glowing under the hot lights, sanctified and radiant and full of mystery and dead cousins.
In class, Jack switches seats so he can be closer to her. Now he sits behind her. All through class, he debates speaking to her. He reaches out a hand, toys with the idea of stroking her hair, feeling her warmth, being able later to smell her on his hands. He decides not to touch her, but rather lets his hand linger there in the space between him and her, in their space. He smiles at this thought, that they share space, that she would share space with him. When she reaches into her bag, Jack gets a good look at her tattoo, and has trouble breathing, and begins crying, and has to excuse himself from class. For the first time in a decade, he feels alive.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Jack crept his way down the aisle, getting ever closer to the casket. He half-expected the lid to fly open, and Bernard to bound out, his head limply hanging to one side. He would make some kind of unearthly moan, and point an accusatorily gnarled finger which would bore its way right into Jack’s soul. You did this to me, Bernard’s body would impossibly rasp. I could have been like a brother to you. You never bothered to know me. You could have saved me.
Jack sits quietly on a bench in the quad. A door opens, and she walks out into the sunshine. She walks by, her hair trailing behind like fire in the wind. She looks at Jack, right at him, right into his eyes, and she smiles. Tonight will be the night, he thinks, and Jack smiles too.
Jack felt his eyes welling up as he walked the final paces to the casket. For a moment, he simply stood in revered silence, illuminated by the overhead lights. You never even knew me. Slowly, he extended a hand, and carefully, like testing bathwater before going in, he placed it flat on the top of the coffin. If you had only cared... He stood like that for a few seconds before adding his other hand. You did this to me. A chill ran down his spine, and he shivered. You. The air was stale, and heavy, and smelled like death. You could have been my redemption.
Jack puts on his best pair of shoes and steps out into the night. The air is crisp, and the night is alive with possibility. Tonight, Jack is going to a party.
Somewhere deep inside, Jack felt something rising, growing, some kind of primal bile-churning wretchedness. He could taste the acid in the back of his throat. He realized he was shaking. You. Jack erupted, screaming, and flung the casket’s lid open. The first thing that caught him was the smell, and Jack felt sick, tears running down his face. His cousin was covered in slick mucous-like embalming fluid, which shined terrifyingly under the lights. I had a good head on my shoulders. His neck was a sock full of Jello, and his head lay at an impossibly precise right angle. One of his eyes had gruesomely rolled open, and Jack felt Bernard’s piercing stare burn a hole straight into his soul. You could have been my redemption. The room was spinning, and Jack backed away, the tears now flowing freely. He leaned over an arrangement of flowers, let out a soul-shaking scream, and vomited. Again and again, Jack heaved, stopping only to come up for air. When his stomach was achingly bare, Jack continued to emptily wretch, eventually sinking, shivering, to the cold marble. When he could stand again, Jack risked taking a final peek at Bernard. He felt himself start to wretch once more, but closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and the feeling slowly passed. Cautiously, as if for the first time, he opened his eyes.
Jack is early, and he hates the way they stare. He wishes he came with someone. He is handed a drink, which he finishes, and another, and then another still. By now, the world has arrived, so many bodies, and the air is warm and breathy, and smells like spit and beer, sweat and smoke. Across the masses, he watches her with laser eyes. Jack is warm with drink, and he can feel the blood pumping in his temples. The music is so loud, and he’s so close to everyone. The room is spinning, and Jack can’t breathe, and there’s so much happening, he shuts his eyes, and his head bursts like a lonely firework. When he gets outside, he vomits, and loses himself in the release.
There, on Bernard’s shattered floppy neck, was an intricate design. Two thick black lines intertwined to form a circle, twisting and turning through the center, always narrowly escaping a collision; two completely separate beings never bothering to meet but undeniably, eternally connected nevertheless. The seconds clicked by, and Jack, transfixed, stared with wide eyes. He slowly breathed in the stale air and held it deeply for a few seconds, allowing the pressure building inside him to serve as a reminder that he was still alive. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and felt himself crying once more. He watched with detached abandon as his tears rolled down his face, pausing to collect at his chin before gravity betrayed them, soaring down and landing with tiny splashes on the body of his dead cousin. Jack wiped his eyes and walked around to the other side of the casket. The lid was heavy, but Jack managed to push it up enough for gravity to take over, once again hiding his cousin’s lifeless body. “I’m sorry,” was all Jack could manage to say before collapsing, unconscious, at the foot of the casket.
Suddenly, it is late, and Jack is alone. He wishes he had a cigarette. On the long walk back, he starts to cry, a full bodied staggering drunken wail, and he wonders if Sunday barbeques and Monday night football would have been so bad. Jack breathes in, slowly, holding it in, letting the pressure remind him that he is still alive. He lets it out, and behind his eyes he sees stars. Jack opens the door, and begins climbing stairs. Down an impossibly long hallway to the door that he knows so well, a pilgrimage to his own private Mecca.
He opens the door, and steps into the soft blue darkness. Jack smiles as from under the covers, two scared eyes look up and in the heavy silence, their eyes meet, and he can’t help but think how beautiful she is. He sits down on the edge of her bed, and she is shivering, and in the space between them, in the space their share, the air is electric. Softly, he brushes her hair aside and lets his fingers play across her black swirls of quiet rebellion. “I’m sorry,” is all Jack can manage to say before the door slowly closes behind him.