LISA C. TAYLOR
HIS NAME WAS Patrick O’Rourke and he was Vietnamese. The spot where they cut her throbbed with knowledge that skin acquires when it is cut must grow a hood to heal. Standing in the lobby, Elsa wore layers; black turtleneck, jewel-colored blouse; mauve over jacket. Her luggage remained untouched. Noon; she guessed by the rumble in her belly. Her name spoken quietly by the rapidly blinking desk clerk. Elsa. Her room wasn’t ready. She wondered about luggage and whether he had arrived by bus or car. The funeral wasn’t where she belonged but her mother could not travel. Standing in for someone else was a role she knew but this time was harder, the surgery only two days ago. Although the doctor said she could go; she couldn’t lift anything.
A scarab, that’s what it was; some kind of beetle tattoo on his wrist; she saw it when he bent down to pick up the worn leather briefcase and she remembered Gregor Samsa and The Metamorphosis. We’re all becoming something else. What did he think of when he sat still for the needle to etch the perfect tiny insect into his flesh? His name was Patrick O’Rourke; P.X.O. on his briefcase. X as in Xavier or Malcolm X or anonymous, illiterate. X as in Xu or Xi. Now he met her gaze in the way that strangers do when they recognize something of themselves in others. Not young but fortyish and trim. Well-dressed in a gray sport jacket and black wool coat draped over his arm. He extended his hand, picked up her rolling luggage. Elsa followed him with buoyancy where she sank into the swirls of carpet. No words, just recognition. Either he was the dead woman’s son or he was a stranger. He would take her to the funeral or he would rape and strangle her, careful not to soil his ironed white button-down. His name was Patrick O’Rourke and his mother was a war bride. Colonel James O’Rourke. You’re just supposed to fuck them; you’re not supposed to marry them. His parents never accepted her; they were long dead and now his mother was dead. Her mother’s Mahjongg partner and confidant. He would have been a half-breed there instead of a Harvard graduate and prominent lawyer. The tattoo elongated as he pulled her luggage down the empty hallway. Elsa said nothing. They were connected in the way everyone is connected to the people their families love. His mother was a war bride, barely escaped. She brought her sister Lan over but it was too late for her brother. He was in a shallow grave somewhere. Elsa’s mother said the tragedies of others are difficult to fathom though the Holocaust obliterated Elsa’s grandparents and Aunt Margaret. Obliterated. Patrick O’Rourke lived in Cambridge, worked for the ACLU, taught part-time at Harvard. He had central heating,no wife. Elsa thought of her own failed two-year marriage to Will. We’re all becoming something else. The site of her surgery throbbed. When did Patrick get the tattoo? Tattoos were like visible wounds.
“My room is ready. Why don’t you store your luggage there?”
Patrick’s voice had a nasal Boston accent and she thought momentarily of Ted Kennedy and all those other doomed Kennedys.
“Thanks. My mother isn’t well enough to travel.”
Elsa looked into the broad expanse of his face; rice paddies and heat. Perfect white teeth.
“Would you like to get some lunch before the funeral?”
Elsa remembered the hollow feeling in her belly. The surgery only two days ago; she fasted beforehand, checked herself out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, took a cab back to her two bedroom condo in Jamaica Plain. She remembered the Vicodin in her purse.
Patrick knew a Thai restaurant two blocks from the Hilton and Elsa almost forgot the funeral. Spring rolls, hot and sour soup. Was this similar to the food of his ancestors? Her ancestors ate heavy potato dishes with sour cream and overcooked tough cuts of meat. His name was Patrick O’Rourke and he had gone to Catholic School—St. Mary’s. Public school for Elsa; Britham High School and later the public university where she got a Master’s in Social Work. You work too hard for nothing, her mother said. She helped place children in pre-adoptive homes. Some of them were Vietnamese.
They met as children, read comic books while their mothers played Mahjongg. A Vietnamese woman and a Jew. Linh O’Rourke was a war bride and her husband sacrificed everything to bring her to America. His parents never accepted her, were shamed, even when she converted to Catholicism. The priest accepted her, Patrick said, but the family remained bitter until their death. But James O’Rourke loved her, taught her English, bought her a diamond ring and took her on trips to China, Ireland, San Juan. She didn’t want to go back to Vietnam. They were married fifty-one years, until his death at eighty. She was only seventy-three when she got breast cancer. Two years a widow. Bette, Elsa’s own mother was seventy-six and had a heart condition. Go, Elsa. Go and pay my respects. Linh was my good friend. She wanted to say no, couldn’t say no. Her surgery only two days ago and sometimes the pain reminded her of the ache she felt when Will left. I’m not the same person. We’re all becoming something else.
Elsa wanted to ask Patrick about the tattoo but thought it rude. It moved when he ate his soup, drank his Thai ice tea. He had perfect teeth, smiled at her in a way that made her remember what it was like to want someone
“My mother said you’re a social worker. We don’t live far from each other, you know.”
She knew. His name was Patrick O’Rourke and he lived in Cambridge. Outside the window of the restaurant, a light snow breathed its moth-like mist and coated the sidewalk, lingering on the hats and jackets of bustling people. All colors walked by; an orange pea coat, a brown fur jacket, royal blue wool. Elsa fingered her handmade green scarf.
“I work with families who can’t have children.”
“I know. I’ve heard about you from my mother. She wanted us to be friends again.” He slowed down when he said the word friend so it sounded like an invitation. She thought of friends with benefits.
A Jew and a Catholic. A Vietnamese and a Caucasian. The lines are different here, she could see that. Will’s avowed atheism bothered her mother. I don’t care what he believes as long as he believes in something. It’s arrogant to think we’re all there is. She supposed it was arrogant. Will didn’t believe in marriage either. No children and she was thirty-eight. The surgery just two days ago and the incision hurt. She could still have children; the doctor said so.
“We should go. I need to get to the funeral home. Most of Mother’s friends have died and there is so little family left. Your mother was like family.”
“I hope that doesn’t make us related.”
Outside the snow piled up like insulation and Patrick took her hand. Her breath made little clouds that touched the little clouds of his breath. The scarab was almost touching her. We’re all becoming something else.
Elsa imagined scar tissue growing over her wound, new skin. Her body sloughed off the bad cells and in its place something strong and healthy would emerge.
The snow muted traffic noises. They decided to walk the three blocks to the funeral home. She liked the pressure of his hand guiding her. His name was Patrick O’Rourke. The funeral of his mother Linh brought her to New York; her luggage stowed in his room. She couldn’t lift anything but she would be fine. The doctor said she could have children. Not a malignancy. Where they cut her, there would be a tiny half-moon scar, like an upside down smile.
They arrived at a Victorian house, McCabe’s Funeral Home, stately with gingerbread detailing like an elaborate wedding cake. Men in black wool coats parked cars. No crowd. Most of his mother’s friends were dead. Someday Elsa’s mother would die and Patrick would come to the toney suburb of Andover. She’d take him to her favorite French bistro. Her mother’s family died in the Holocaust. So much death. It would be wrong not to believe in something, wrong not to try to carry on.
She found his card in her purse when she got back to her room. Patrick O’Rourke, Public Interest Attorney/Legal Director, ACLU/211 Congress Street/Boston, MA, a scribbled email on the back. He asked her to meet him for a drink later. She remembered the Vicodin. Where they cut her throbbed like a new pulse. Eight o’clock. They would meet at Murphy’s Pub. The Vicodin numbed but didn’t quell the pain. Sixteen people at the funeral. Most of her friends were dead. Elsa, Pay my respects. Linh was my good friend. Patrick spoke of his mother’s long braid, flower garden; tiger lilies and hyacinth. Bette Freeman and Linh O’Rourke. Tuesday afternoon Mahjongg. She would sneak downstairs and Linh would slip her a brownie. Linh and Bette smoked Pall Malls until they made a pact to quit. So much death.
The water in the tub was warm but not hot. Where they cut her, there was an angry welt. The soap smelled like lilies. Elsa traded her black turtleneck for a rose-colored blouse, loose skirt. She pulled a comb through her long hair, straight, like an Asian, Will once said. Dr. Rosynski said she would be fine, could even have children someday. No malignancy. They would meet at Murphy’s Pub and she would chat. His tattoo would stretch when he held the glass. Two diamond studs like chips of ice in her ears. His hand had touched her hand, and now there was a lace coverlet of snow outside. He had placed her luggage on the rack, rolling it quietly into her room after the funeral. Eight o’clock. It would be wrong not to believe in something. A Catholic and a Jew. He said he was a Buddhist, meditated daily. She believed in seasons. Will said she took everything seriously. His name was Patrick O’Rourke and she was Elsa Freeman. They would meet for a drink. His mother was a war bride. You’re just supposed to fuck them; you’re not supposed to marry them. She would order club soda and wait for a sign, an X like Xavier or anonymous but he was not anonymous. His card, a ticket or an invitation, on her night table. They used to read comic books, Archie and Veronica. He wore glasses then. Sometimes the past can seem like the future. I want you to be happy, her mother said before she left. Go, and pay my respects to Patrick. He was a good son. She never had a brother and her sister moved beyond the scope of her imagining. Her mother was seventy-six. Linh wanted them to know each other. Skittering snowflakes outside of her window. Will left in late spring when Linh’s lilies were beginning to open. She remembered the garden and his mother’s long gray braid of hair. A Catholic and a Jew. Sometimes what you believe can change. He had a scarab on his right wrist so everyone would see it when he picked up a pen, typed on his computer, texted on his phone. He was right-handed and his middle initial was X for the mark that was upon him, a visible scar, an upside down smile or the memory of an uncle in a shallow grave, ancestors riding cattle cars to concentration camps. He was the son of her mother’s friend or he was a stranger. They would meet for a drink or she would go to Murphy’s Pub and find no one but the tired bartender. She opened the door as if it were a book she was beginning to read. She opened the door as if the outside might get in, a mound of snow settling on the spotless carpet, on the framed photo of Times Square. Riding the elevator down, she felt the ache. The doctor said she could have children. He was a Buddhist Catholic half-Vietnamese public interest attorney. She was Elsa Freeman, a Jewish believer in something, though she wasn’t sure what it was, if it was shaped like a scarab, would settle or melt like ice.
Lisa C. Taylor is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Necessary Silence (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press, 2013). Lisa’s poetry has been published in numerous journals, literary magazines and two nationally distributed anthologies, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Lisa currently teaches part-time at two colleges and offers writing workshops nationally and in Ireland. Lisa is currently completing a collection of short fiction and her first novel. This story is an excerpt from her novel- in- progress.