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“Like her,” said Jane in a voice barely audible. She nodded slowly toward a woman in front of them wearing a black tea-length dress, who had thighs that surely wouldn’t stretch her ‘opaque’ black tights translucent, a sash pertly around her waist, and the bones of her shoulders visible through her shawl.
“Shut up,” whispered Morgan. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” murmured Jane out of the corner of her mouth.
Eyes nearby might have momentarily flicked toward the pair, but realizing who they were, affixed their gaze again to the front.
“I’m not an idiot,” Megan breathed in the same hushed tone.
“I think you look like her, and you were even thinner ten years ago, it was scary,” Jane said. “I don’t see why you’re body image is so skewed.”
Morgan snorted through her nose. There was a pause, and then Jane asked, “Am I about her size?” indicating a woman, Ms. Miller, who was twenty years older than herself. Ten years older than Morgan.
“You kidding? That’s disgusting, I don’t see why your body image is so skewed,” Morgan hissed. “More her.” Another woman.
Jane frowned. “Her?”
“Not the face, just everything else.”
“I hate this,” said Jane, her gray eyes fluttered over the black drapes, over the somber crowd, her gaze skipped like a stone over the body laid at the front of the room. “Relying on you to be my mirror. That I can’t have an objective glass to see myself in.”
She took that from us, thought Morgan, and began to scan the room. But her gaze faltered; she focused instead at the cheekbone of a woman just visible to her left. It was sensual, lightly freckled, rosy. The woman turned toward her suddenly, and Morgan looked away. Morgan was always being caught staring at beautiful women, eager; awed; aroused; envious; ashamed.
When Morgan was young there was a full-length mirror in her mother’s room. She hadn’t hung it on the wall, either lazy or busy, but had instead leaned it against the wall. Over the years it bowed in toward the floor; in this mirror, one was taller and thinner. When Morgan wanted to be beautiful, she snuck into her mother’s room and stood before the mirror.
“She asked me, a few times, if a woman about her size. And I would tell her. How old was I the first time, ten? I’m addicted now,” Morgan whispered. It negated the ‘positive self-image’ campaign her mother had sporadically put on in their house. How can I believe, Mother, that I should love myself when clearly you cannot? thought Morgan. You emerge from your bedroom wearing your gray robe, triumphant, and confide in me, ‘I was very good this week, I lost three pounds.’ You trained us. If we lost weight, you loved us. If we gained it, you scorned. “How much do you weigh these days?” asked offhandedly at the table, as we reached for seconds. And now your girls have assumed your post of staring at women, unable to admit to being a member of our quarry.
“It’s a curse.”
“If it’s a curse you deserve it,” said Jane.
I do it because I have hypochondriacal tendencies, Morgan thought. I ask about my weight because I like the attention. ‘You have hypochondriacal tendencies, stop complaining,’ Mother would sneer when she was having one of her bad weeks. Morgan remembered how she herself used to go downstairs with a “cough” because she liked the taste of the inhaler, and liked creeping down, from the darkness into the yellow glow of one or two lamps, intimate compared to the overhead lights that blazed all day. She was drawn, tiptoeing catlike to the light. The adults, who had no idea she was upon them, were still talking in quiet, welcoming, the-kids-are-finally-asleep voices. Sometimes the voices were talking about her, especially when they had company; that was her favorite thing. When she could hear her name spoken in a soft, proud tone before they said, ‘Oh, look who it is! Why aren’t you in bed?’ She had hypochondriacal tendencies. Morgan hoped to find a reliable mirror, Jane was no good.
“I deserve it?” she replied.
Reverend George’s eulogy floated to the back of the warm, heavy room where the sisters had been fastened to cushioned chairs. “…known and loved for her understanding of that final earthly path, having led so many of her patients down it with tenderness and love, has finally come to the end of her own, and is ready to journey on a road less understood but far more Awesome...”
Jane exhaled sharply and checked her hair by feeling it with her hands. “She didn’t want to go how she did.”
Even with her eyes closed Morgan could picture Jane. Her high cheekbones and pert nose. The skin of her thin lips flowed smoothly over her cheeks, fluidly from her brow to her hair; elastic, unfettered. Morgan remembered Jane as a child. All she remembered was Jane bawling from her crib next to the kitchen table. Why was she always crying? She would grip the red foam edge of the crib until her knuckles turned white and scream like her vocal cords were infallible. She was relentless, yet her corn-silk hair, and handsome round face procured sympathy and preference. Jane grew out of tantrums, but at twenty-five, Morgan thought, Jane maintained that label: Handle with care.
Reverend George had finished. The crowd stood and began their rituals to ward off the winter cold. Scarves, gloves, zippers. Hugs, kisses, tears.
Morgan’s voice rose as the bustle grew, “We didn’t know what she wanted.”
“Sure we knew. I might have been seven years old when she started talking about what she wanted but I remember even that young what she was telling us to do.”
“Yeah, well I was seventeen then so I’m sure I would remember.”
“She said she never wanted to be helpless. If she couldn’t feed herself, if she couldn’t be productive, she said, open the door and let me wander into the snow.”
“That’s what she said! She wanted to be DNR—” Jane spluttered.
“Yeah? Did she say that?” Morgan cut across her.
“Yes! I know she did.”
“Then why didn’t she tell anyone important?” Morgan snapped.
Jane was almost in tears, her gray eyes swam dangerously and searched the faces around her for support, but they politely avoided her gaze and hurried to the bitter outdoors. “Mom knew what it was going to be like. She wanted us close so she wouldn’t have to go to a nursing home. She knew it was hell there Morgan, hell. I remember one of the things she told me: There are laws that say that leaving a person in bed all day is neglect, so they keep from being sued by making the nurses move everybody to a chair next to their bed every morning. And if one man says, no, I’m tired I want to sleep today, that’s no good because the poor nurse has fifty other people to move that morning and isn’t allowed to just let him lie there. So she moves him to the chair, and he doesn’t want to be there, so he just cries all alone in his room. He slumps over and tries to sleep in his chair, but of course he can’t, and he can’t straighten back up, so he just has to sit there all crumpled and cries until nightfall when somebody comes and moves him back to his bed. The nursing homes can’t do a damn thing, because Medicare’s always making cuts. They’re overwhelmed. So what can they do? She was DNR, she wanted to be at home, I know it. I spent years with her, Morgan—”
“Hah!” cried Morgan, “And I didn’t? She raised me too you know.”
“Where were you then? Huh? Because what I remember about you when I was a kid is going to dinner and holding hands for the prayer with mom. Just the two of us holding hands across the table, because you were never home.”
“If you knew, why did you let her go to the nursing home? Her shining glory let her down after all,” Morgan fumed.
“I’m twenty-five. I share an apartment! I’m in medical school, I’m close to home but I’m busy. You on the other hand, what is it you do now, waitress? How does that look on your resume? You starred in one commercial, and now you’re thirty five, you graduated with a masters from State for crying out loud—which she paid for by the way—and where are you? Bussing tables in LA? Screw that.”
“You never had a problem with it when…” Morgan began but suddenly didn’t know where she had intended that sentence to go.
“NEVER had a problem?! I’ve been here the last 3 years—in med school busting my ass—the last 3 years and you’ve done nothing for a decade, and you couldn’t even save your mother from that cesspool. If you weren’t wasting your life on a 12-year-old’s dream you could’ve had a career and a house by now. You could have kept her at home.”
“Why didn’t you take her in?” cried Morgan.
“I’m doing something with my life!” screamed Jane, her face twisted and red like a strawberry, her blouse untucked by her wildly waving arms.
Morgan was so shocked by this image of her little sister her knees quavered and she staggered back a step. Jane blinked, and looked around. They were alone with the casket, the maroon-upholstered chairs were scattered around the room as if no one could stand the orderly idea of rows. Morgan stared, finally, at the high cheekbones and smooth skin of her mother’s beautiful face. Jane seemed to withdraw, and began to tuck in her shirt. The color had drained from her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” said Morgan, her voice cracking in the silence.
“It’s all over now,” said Jane.
“I know. I love you. Just let me go outside,” Morgan muttered quietly, pulling on her coat and sliding out the door.