The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.
Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.
The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.
A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.
The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.
— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.
— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.
— What’s more redundant than a wake?
— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.
— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.
John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.
— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.
— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.
Staffen snorts, shakes his head.
— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.
— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.
He waves a dismissive hand.
— Are you living here in the old alma mater?
— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.
— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.
— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.
She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.
— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.
— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.
Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.
— Piss on them. A murder of crows.
He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.
— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.
— I hope so. Were you two still close?
— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?
— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.
— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.
— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.
Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.
— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.
Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.
— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.
— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.
— I know.
— Do you mind if I change the subject?
— Please do.
Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.
— How many funerals have you been to this year?
— That’s a morbid question.
— Humor me, you used to be good at it.
— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?
He nods, as if having something confirmed.
— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.
— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?
— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.
— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.
— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.
Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.
— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?
— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.
— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.
— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.
— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.
— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.
Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.
— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?
— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?
Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.
— Sorry, science and grief colliding.
— Which one of them is funny?
— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?
— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?
— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?
— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?
— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.
— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.
— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.
— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?
— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?
— No widows, no orphans. Why?
— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.
— Is this from first-hand experience?
— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.
Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.
— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?
— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.
Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.
— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?
He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.
— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.
— Something I’ll always be sorry about.
She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.
— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.
— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.
Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.
She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.
— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?
— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.
Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.
C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.
— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.
Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.
— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.
— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.
— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.
— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.
— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.
There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.
— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?
— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.
He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.
— What does happen next?
— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.
Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.
— Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.
He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.
— Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.
He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.
Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.
Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.