May 09 ● BY Alejandro Lucero
Sorrow is an Introduction
I believed in god until I stopped believing in heaven. I believed in heaven until I stopped believing in hell. I stopped believing in hell when I was seven, because I knew there could be no such place unless it was made up to scare me. It does scare me. It scares me that it doesn’t exist, because that also means my parents no longer exist. And if it did exist, with the fire and the suffering and the suffocation, then, obviously, that would be terrifying, too. One day, when I was in the third grade, a boy named Coy asked if I knew which way hell was when I told him my family didn’t go to church. Everyone was discussing which of the dozen in our small town they spent their Sunday mornings. We were supposed to be doing division. I pointed to the floor in our classroom. Coy scared me.
* * *
Sorrow is Providing Details
At a young age most of us are told we will die one day, and it’s all we can think of from then on. It comes up in thought, one way or another, every day. A movie where half the cast dies after a roller coaster ride; nearly tripping when jaywalking through a busy street; holding someone’s hand through a hospital stay. I don’t remember the exact last moment I held either of my parents’ hands.
My mom said goodbye to me the day after the fourth of July in 2014. Her side of the family all live in the Denver area, except weird Uncle Steve who miserably lives in Oklahoma City. The last time I saw my mom it was morning, and she was going back to New Mexico after visiting my sister and me in Denver for the holiday. We hugged, kissed, let our hands release, and slowly drop, as she walked to the car. Despite a lifetime of unsettled arguments, we said we loved each other and began planning the next time we’d be together. Mom was ok that day; she had stage four cancer at the time but hid it from the world very well. She might have been using a lot of pain pills that morning, but she needed them this time. Her body deserved whatever relief they provided. A high tolerance from years of abusing these substances, long before needing them, led to her accidentally overdosing a few weeks later back home in New Mexico.
I moved away from my hometown of Las Vegas, New Mexico after high school and was staying with my aunt, my mom’s older sister. My sister made the same move as me roughly two years earlier when she graduated.
A few years after mom passed, my dad was at home, feeling weak as ever with the clothes getting baggier and baggier around his shrinking frame. He was sitting on the couch in the living room the last time I saw him. I don’t remember the exact date, but I like to think our hands met at the release of a hug, as well.
* * *
Sorrow is Awkward Silence
If we never saw the balloon filled with air, it shouldn’t matter if we see it popped; its rubber body like a shattered light bulb on the floor; its string always leading back to the last holder; its air given back to our lungs; its knot no longer withholding. But we already saw it filled with life.
When I was very young, I got a bag of balloons as a toy. Maybe a birthday party got canceled? The bag had every color, even white and black, which I saved for last. One day I blew an orange one up as big as I could get it, bounced on it until it popped. As my bottom met the floor, I felt a bit of shock. Other days, I blew them up and watched them bob above the heating vents on the floor, or I blew them up and released them, zipping and wheezing around the room untied. My mother showed me how to make them stick to the walls after I rubbed them on my head for static.
When a balloon dies we mourn it. Most of us for just a minute. Maybe even for just a second the older we get. Like I experienced with that big orange fucker, there is a sudden sensation of disbelief and fear when one pops. Then we feel annoyed, or a little sick. Then we move on. The moment a balloon pops, the room changes. It’s quiet for a second.
* * *
Sorrow Isn’t a Mask
One of the best parts of my childhood was watching something funny with my parents, seeing them laugh, too. My mom snorted when she laughed and blamed it on being Polish. My dad’s was more of a big, open mouth smile with short gasps of silly air escaping in short rhythmic pulses. Sorrow is not being able to watch a certain movie or show anymore, because you remember how it made soda squirt from one of their noses. It’s Googling the TV guide before browsing the local broadcast. I made an art out of avoiding surprises. Sorrow is shivering at the sight of Joe Dirt.
Growing up, I always preferred movies with slapstick comedy and television shows with laugh-tracks. When something was off, with me or around me, I pretended it wasn’t and skipped through the channels until I heard a chuckle.
I use humor as a shield and always pretend to be happy. My jaw is no longer sore from the facade. Sometimes I don’t have to pretend.
* * *
Sorrow is a Canceled Playdate
One day I invited Coy over after school. We were maybe nine or ten. The idea started early in the day, as all terrible and ambitious ones do, and the excitement built as the school day went. During classes, we talked about trying tricks on my scooter, playing one-on-one on my driveway hoop, and whatever there is to discuss about Hot Wheels. At lunch we went to the teachers’ lounge together and he used the phone that was in there to call his mom to ask her for permission. Coy’s dad was a police sergeant, or lieutenant, or something higher-ranked, and wasn’t around the house during the day like his mom was.
I called my dad, who was home all the time because he was too sick to work. My mom was either in jail, rehab, or just missing for the week. I can’t recall exactly.
A few hours later, Coy and I got off the school bus at my place. My sister must have been with us, at least until we got inside and she went straight to her room. I still wonder what she thought about those afternoons alone with her loud music. I remember being outside with Coy on the front porch, playing with my razor scooter and a cheap skateboard, when my dad’s voice could suddenly be heard from inside the trailer. The only person he could be yelling at was mom.
Coy was so afraid of my dad’s booming voice, the curse words he must have been using, and the subject matter of what could be heard from my dad’s side of the argument. It was something about drugs or drinking, which as the son of a cop surely freaked Coy out even more, and my mom needing something from my dad. Those days, she would only call if it was to ask for something. Coy got so uncomfortable he asked to be driven home.
We didn’t have a working car of our own and were using my grandmother’s van at the time. She lived two minutes away by foot, across the field where our trailer homes rested like gravestones. Coy and I jogged over to ask her if my dad could use the van, jogged back to tell him she said yes, and then finally walked back together with my dad. My sister got to stay home alone.
Looking back, my dad could have just had Coy call his mom to get him. Coy came from a two-car-per-person type of household and buying gas to feed all those engines was probably never a problem for them. The drive wasn’t far either, but my dad must have felt embarrassed or obligated.
When we got to Coy’s house, his mother came out and talked to my dad for a while. I remember the conversation ending with her saying something about going to church.
* * *
Sorrow is a Bully
Have you ever had a bad stomachache on the same day someone says they want to beat you to death when they next see you?
I remember a kid in my middle school, who came from a much more broken home than me, wanted to kill me because his girlfriend gave me one of those side-hugs. That was it. I was her friend. I was also quite queasy that day and had spent a lot of the morning in the bathroom.
Sorrow is this feeling of nausea and worry but trying to enjoy a roller coaster, or a basketball game, while it’s happening. It feels like the stomach is juggling the fat inside. If you don’t have body fat, I don’t know what else to say to help you get it. I only know being a fat ass.
I was fat when both my parents died, and I am fat now. Those are the only times that matter: her death, his death, and now. Fat. Fat. Fat. But they say fat protects us, our organs. Can fat protect the organs from a bottle of liquor, or does it only apply to a poke from the outside? I was fat in the third grade, too, but not really. With the adequate amounts of exercise I got, this was weight I kept off till becoming sluggish again when smoking weed and drinking beer with friends took over the desire to play sports in high school.
I was always told I was fat by my grandmother, who took me to buy school clothes every summer, and by kids like Coy, who I would hurt very badly for saying it. I feel just as horrible writing this as I did then. Once or twice the anger and adrenaline caused me to take it too far. His cop dad and the school never cared enough to get me in any serious trouble for it. I didn’t know why beating him didn’t make him stop fucking with me. Nothing else stopped him either, until I got good at basketball and he decided he wanted to be my friend.
Coys will be Coys.
* * *
Sorrow is Dread
Being overweight caused me to not like roller coasters. Every ride my gut felt like it just got the news of my parents dying. They give me more nervous energy than I can burn in healthy ways. They make me want to run all the fat off my body. It’s funny, my last ride was probably three years, at least, before my first parent passed.
Maybe that’s not funny at all.
I always love day trips to Elitches that turned to nights at the top of the biggest ferris wheel in Denver. I felt so close to the city that I could pluck singles from the cash register building.
Sorrow feels like seeing the skyline at night in the city I’ve started to love because it’s not home, the haze beautifully settling above something still a bit foreign, but I still can’t enjoy it because my stomach always feels like shit and there will always be someone who wants to beat that sickness out of me when I step off the ride.
* * *
Sorrow is Wanting to Be Lied to
Sometimes I want so badly to believe in hell. I want to know there is an extension of some kind. If there is a hell, anything else is possible. My parents may just be ghosts who hover above me and sleep on my couch. Or they could be hanging out in white silk with everyone else we’ve lost. After my mother passed away, I tried to open myself to spirituality. I considered starting at the surface, looking into all religions and forms of god, of after-lives. But I had to work and go to school. I had to be available, mentally and physically, to my sister and father. My sister and I had to drive down to him in New Mexico and stay a week. She had to plan most of mom’s funeral because dad was so sick himself. He was constantly exhausted then and within only days of my mother’s death he got even sicker.
I gave myself a job; I had to try to blow him up like a balloon when I visited. He wasn’t feeling it, but I tried talking to him about sports, music, and movies. I used my shitty humor and tried to make him laugh with stories. I tried to make him that big orange fucker I wouldn’t dare pop. I would have told him anything.
* * *
Sorrow is a Missed Call
It’s also saying goodbye and not even being able to take another look back. The muscles in our neck turn snake and we lift our gaze from the rearview mirror. Our face becomes a confused magnet between two desperate poles. When we end a phone call only one of the senses dies a little. The last time we hear a voice for good another funeral should be held. How many times can I replay a voice message I don’t even have?
* * *
Sorrow is the Keys on a Piano
Not even just the black ones. This is a darkness that lives in the pang of any note that can be made. They say it helps to have long fingers. This, of course, is a reference to playing piano, but I don’t see how it couldn’t apply to the rest of life. When I called my sister to tell her one of our parents was dead, the longer the finger, the faster the dial, the faster it can be done with.
Years later, when she calls me to say that the second parent died, those long fingers will help hold the phone.
But I’ve never actually had big hands. When I hold someone else’s, mine are often swallowed whole. I want to hide my hands in another’s pair. When those phone calls come, or when I must make them, my hands want to hide in a piano.
I want the music to make their existence disappear. I want to trade hands with a mannequin, so I don’t have to think about moving them anymore. I want to drip liquor off my frozen fingers and feed it to my sister and myself like medicine. I want to lightly tap the plastic tips and make a song on a piano.
* * *
Sorrow is an Ending Without Resolution
There were days I woke up drunk. Of course, I didn’t remember getting into bed the night before. That trapeze act from the couch I did in the dark is something I’ve practiced more than the piano or free throws. They’re the dance steps I learned from mom. How she electric slid on the rug every now and then to no applause.
Sorrow is barely being able to string two thoughts together as I get up to take a wet shit. It’s relying on muscle memory to get me to the bathroom in time. On the toilet, the back of my neck would pound harder than the backs of my eyeballs. I’d try to think about what’s in store for the day while recalling the last clear fragments from the previous night.
Everything about me feels swollen and dumb, as if I were once again an infant. And wouldn’t that be the greatest gift? To have a chance to relive it all again. To be held and to breastfeed and to cry. Another chance to coo and be cuddled, and to grow up the exact same way, because, as I am finishing this sentence, I know I wouldn’t change a thing.