The picture still sits on the mantel, a grayscale freeze of happiness taken five years ago. Hours after the funeral, a quiet patchwork of hymns and eulogies, it’s only a painful reminder.
Three people beam in the photo, showing their canines to a purchased photographer. There’s Elliott, the quiet and steady patriarch. Naomi, the deceased, leans against him. Between them is Alex, when Alex was a he, their son.
Now Alex stares at the photo, at their self, wondering if the picture should be taken down. So much of the picture is before. Before Alex’s blossoming into a they. Before Naomi’s death. Gray has even wormed in the dark thick of Elliott’s hair since then.
Alex in the picture has longer hair, hanging around the ears. Before, they wore large round glasses. Now Alex rubs a hand over their head, over the buzz cut and the shadow that’s left. There are no glasses now, not since Alex got vision correction surgery.
Murmurs of voices, from the kitchen. Naomi’s sister, Carol, is talking after Elliot, every word crisp and authoritative. She’s talking about Alex, of course, and misgendering them. Alex should have thought more clearly about the implications of wearing make-up to his mother’s funeral. Alex should have thought about his mother, about honoring her memory.
Elliot’s silence speaks disappointment. When he does speak, amid the sizzling of taco meat, it’s the closing line on that matter.
Alex did what they thought was best. It’s not up to us to criticize what they do.
A face in the mirror, heavily painted. The brows are sharp black arches, the eyelids swiped with both navy eyeliner and lilac shadow. The funeral took place in late September, but Alex doesn’t care about seasonal colors. They only wanted to honor, and their mother’s favorite color was purple.
Alex had also decided to swipe red across their mouth. The bright shade hadn’t quite fit their mother, and it didn’t fit them. Nevertheless, their mother, Naomi, had gone to every special event with that color on their mouth. She’d beamed clownishly at Alex’s graduation from both high school and MIT, specks of red over coffee-yellowed teeth.
A face in the mirror, heavily devastated. The mascara has run. The red lacquer on their mouth has faded to a stain, the last remnants of honor. Alex started crying when they saw the casket and found it impossible to stop. They’d walked home from the church, gulping at fresh air, wringing threads of sanity from the smother of oxygen.
Alex doesn’t realize a washcloth is in their hands until the warm water drips over their hands. Then from there it’s all routine, all familiar. Start from the bottom, pulling the color off the mouth; the grief comes off the cheeks, off what’s left on their eyelashes. When they get above their eyes, it’s nothing but efficiency, a simple removal of a job well done.
Carol doesn’t recognize Alex bare-faced. After the initial confusion, her eyebrows come together when Alex takes another drag off their cigarette. Another act of defiance against Carol, and Alex spits in the grass by their feet after turning away from Carol’s enraged gawk through the window by the kitchen sink. They spit, just to make it clear. They don’t care; they never did.
Naomi hadn’t approved of Alex’s smoking either, though. Alex had picked up the habit while at MIT; after moving back to Juneau, it’d been impossible to break. Naomi had seen them, her own cigarette between her fingers. She’d grimaced upon seeing Alex already in the backyard, and then she’d come over.
You know that’s going to make you die sooner, she’d said.
Alex had nodded, pointedly glancing at Naomi’s own as they did.
Naomi had shrugged, I’ve got you. You’ll carry me on, won’t you?
Alex hadn’t responded. Six months later, Naomi had been diagnosed with lung cancer. A year later, it was stage four.
The cigarette’s a nub now. Alex stamps it out, makes it a cylinder of ash amongst grass blades. Then there’s one more exhale, one more unfurl of smoke into the sky. Alex tries to follow the curls of grey, the whispers of death exhaled by life. The last hurrah for Naomi. But the grey dissipates all too quickly, moving above and beyond. Above, beyond, and gone.