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“Alright, the Westerly exit is next, where do I go from there?” Mandy’s dad asked, glancing her. She was staring blankly out the window. “Mandy? Can you check the directions?”
“Oh, sorry. Sure.” Mandy glanced down at the printed sheet on her lap, the white paper contrasting sharply with the black of her dress. “Um...is it exit 86?”
“No,” said her dad. “29.”
“Oh.” She forced herself to concentrate on reading the paper. “Dad? It doesn’t say anything about 29.”
“But that’s the only exit for this town. The funeral home is in Westerly, isn’t it?” Mandy nodded. “Ok, then check again.”
She did. “No, there’s nothing. But our final destination is...” she stopped.
“I grabbed the wrong sheet. These were the directions to James’ soccer game yesterday.” Her dad sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok. I’m sure you weren’t thinking. Can you call Nathan’s mom or something?”
“I don’t want to bother her, I’m sure she’s got a lot to do. Plus I don’t have her cell phone.”
“You have their house phone number though, right? Give it a try, Min. Otherwise I don’t know what to do,” he said, shrugging.
“I just don’t want to bother her,” Mandy said.
“Ok then, do you want to skip it?”
“No, Dad! Obviously not. You don’t just drive halfway to your ex-boyfriend’s funeral and then not go. I’ll call her.”
The phone rang as Mandy pressed it to her ear to stop it from trembling. Twice...three times... “Hello?” a young man’s voice asked. Mandy caught her breath--she knew it was Nathan’s brother, Jacob.
“Hi, may I please speak to Mrs. Freid?” she said haltingly.
“May I ask who’s calling?” Jacob said.
“Yes, this is Mandy--she’ll remember me! Mandy Brown? Nathan and I--she should remember me!” she answered, panicking.
“Mandy. Yes, of course. This is Jacob, Nathan’s--”
“Brother, yeah, I thought I recognized your voice,” Mandy said, breathing and smiling a little.
“I’ll get my mother,” Jacob said. Mandy didn’t blame him for not wanting to stay on the phone and make small talk, though she would have talked to him forever if she could.
“Hello Mandy,” said the distinctive voice of Mrs. Freid. Though she hadn’t heard it in years, the New York accent was instantly familiar. It brought back a flood of memories of catered lunches and chats around the supper table. Before, however, it had always been full of laughter.
“Hello Mrs. Freid,” Mandy said. “I just...I’m so sorry,” she took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’m halfway to the fune-- halfway there, and I just realized I have the wrong directions. Can you help me?”
“Oh of course, dear. I’m so glad you’re coming down.” She proceeded to give Mandy the directions in clear, simple terms, which Mandy repeated to her father as she jotted them down on the back of the Mapquest sheet.
“Thank you so much. I’m sorry, again, to have bothered you. I...I’ll see you there soon,” she said, closing her cell.
“Great!” said her dad. “We should be there before too long.”
“Good,” Mandy said, closing her eyes. She hadn’t expected to be so affected by just hearing the voices of Nathan’s family. To think that soon she would be seeing them...and him...
Her dad glanced over at her, and his brow furrowed when he noticed how white she was. “Min?” he asked. “Do you need a drink or anything? Want to stop and get some food? You didn’t really eat breakfast.”
She gave him a look. “No, I don’t want to eat.” Then, regretting the harsh tone, “I had a yogurt.”
He nodded. “Mind if I put on the radio?” She shook her head, and Car Talk soon filled the space.
They arrived at the funeral home right on time. There were a lot of older people waiting to get inside--Nathan had a large family. Mandy recognized an uncle, but didn’t say anything. They had only met once; he wouldn’t remember her. She wondered if he had ever asked Nathan about her after they’d broken up--”How’s that nice girl you brought over that time? You two still seeing each other?” How had he responded? “No, but we stay in touch. She’s doing really well.” “I don’t know, I broke up with her.” “Which one?”
Mandy and her dad got in line, which stretched outside the door of the funeral home. They were behind a group of girls, a few of whom Mandy recognized from years of facebook creeping. One of them had dated Nathan shortly after she had. Jillian. She was crying, and her friends were making a big deal over it. I wonder if they know who I am, Mandy thought. They might recognize her from facebook too...but no, Nathan had taken down his profile picture of the two of them, and they rarely wrote on each other’s walls. No one would know who she was unless she told them her name, and even then they might not recognize it.
“You’re an outlet,” Nathan once told her. “You don’t know any of my friends, and I like that. I feel like I can tell you anything.” Mandy had smiled. “I hope you don’t mind,” he quickly added.
“No, I like it,” she’d assured him. “I feel the same way.”
It was different, though. All her friends knew what Nathan looked like, and they knew all the details of the relationship. Nathan wasn’t like that. Here, in his world, she was a stranger.
The line slowly moved inside. His casket was at the front of the room. His parents and brothers were standing beside it. Mandy could just barely see them. She heard Jillian, a few people ahead of her, begin to sob dramatically. “I loved his mom so much!” Her friends awwwwed collectively.
Mandy rolled her eyes. Keep it together, she thought. Then, guiltily, she recalled her drive to Chris’s house after she learned the news; how she had arrived with tears streaming down her face and collapsed into her best friend’s arms. She’d made him google Nathan’s name to make sure someone wasn’t just playing a cruel facebook joke, and that he wasn’t just not picking up his phone. But no, the search yielded an obituary, which Chris read aloud as his eyes filled with tears as well. He’d never liked Nathan, especially after the first break-up, and he’d always been strictly anti-getting back together. But it wasn’t anything personal against Nathan, it was just because he didn’t want Mandy getting hurt again. Seeing her so torn apart really affected him as well.
After that day, however, where she just laid on Chris’ bed and cried, Mandy had been alright. She’d gotten choked up telling her parents the news, but didn’t break down. Here, especially, she vowed to be under control. Part of her was dying to make a scene, to collapse at the foot of the coffin and scream “Nathan I love you! I love you and I’ll always love you!” (whether it was true or not) just so people would know who she was, just so they’d know that she had shared something special with this boy! She wanted their relationship--confusing, unnamable, dysfunctional at times--to be recognized. She wanted to play a role in his funeral to prove that she’d played a role in his life. But she knew that causing a scene was not the way to do that.
The line started moving, and Mandy’s heart went crazy. “Do you want me to go first?” her dad asked quietly, sensing that his daughter needed any extra time she could get. Mandy nodded gratefully. Just the thought of seeing his face...
“You know it’s going to be a closed casket, right?” her dad said. Mandy froze.
“Victims of car crashes...they rarely have open caskets,” her dad said gently. Of course, thought Mandy. How stupid of me. She knew she should feel relieved, but she didn’t. She had been so scared, and yet she felt like she needed to see him one last time. Oh well. She’d never really gotten a chance to say good-bye before, why should now be any different?
Walking to the coffin, Mandy placed her feet numbly in front of each other. The dark wood was polished and beautiful--it could have been a bureau. She kissed her fingers, then placed them on the box, but she felt no connection to Nathan. Hugging his brothers and father had no effect either.
Mrs. Freid spoke after they hugged. “I found these when I was cleaning out his desk,” she said softly, handing Mandy a manila envelope. “I thought maybe you would like these.”
“Thank you,” Mandy said, her voice catching. “Thank you for...for thinking of me.”
Mrs. Freid nodded, smiling sadly. Mandy hugged her again, then went to sit next to her dad in the back of the church. He glanced inquiringly at the envelope, then looked away. Mandy opened it and reached inside. There was a post card she had written him from France the summer before her senior year--nearly three years ago. She’d never thought he’d keep it. Next, she pulled out a picture of the two of them from the morning of her junior prom. He hadn’t been her date--she’d gone with Chris--but they had spent the day together, and her mom had taken this picture. She’d printed it and given it to Nathan the next weekend. Again, though, she hadn’t expected him to keep it for a month, let alone past the second break-up.
The last thing in the envelope was a piece of notebook paper. Mandy recognized Nathan’s handwriting. It seemed to be a poem, or-- Mandy gasped when she noticed the date was early May of her junior year. She remembered that she had asked Nathan to write her a song for her birthday, and he’d said he would. He never did, though. Always a perfectionist, he kept saying it wasn’t ready, and before long they’d broken up. Mandy had completely forgotten about the song.
As she read it, tears welled up in her eyes. It was beautiful, but more than the words, the essence of the song got to her. It had been written before their first break-up, their reconciliation, their second break-up, their brief reunion in college and all their various fights in between. It was written before they had really, truly known each other. It was full of pretty phases and compliments to her, but it wasn’t really about her. It was about who she was before she knew him, and that’s not who she was anymore. But she wasn’t sad that she’d changed. She was grateful. Grateful that this boy had entered her life and showed her what passion was and what heartbreak was.
And she was grateful that maybe, somehow, she had affected him, too.