by Joyce Li
Honorable Mention: Flash 405, August 2016: “Connect”
Smoking has gone out of fashion, but your friends still light cigarettes at your grave. They plant the filters into the topsoil, as if you were a mermaid now, swimming up for a drag and a sip of the coffee they pour for you. Your mother and grandparents cough and wave away the smoke, just like they did in life. Up on the surface, the grass smells of sun-turned milk.
When Whitney Houston died, her family buried her in the same cemetery. Fans lined up for blocks; a guard was installed just to watch over her plot. When you found out, you said, “This better not attract a bunch of you-know-whats to the cemetery, messing up my mother’s grave.” I knew what you meant, but I loved you anyway.
In the online group devoted to your memory, Gina asks everyone to refrain from leaving mementos; your family’s gravesite is littered with seashells, Barbie dolls, bottles of nail polish. The icon for the group was a picture of your shared headstone, until a relative complained.
You were, simply, the coolest. If I was good, you’d do my make-up and take me to McDonald’s. One Halloween, I wore a pleated skirt and a varsity jacket, while you pulled your hair into pigtails, pinned a pillowcase into a diaper, and hung a plastic pacifier around your neck. At Chuck-E Cheese’s, I traded in all my tickets for a red plastic heart, broken into two, that read “Best Friends.” I gave you a half, and kept mine until long after I was too old for such things.
Later, you taught me the true meaning of bad habits. At the strip club, you pocketed stray dollar bills that had fallen to the floor. One Thanksgiving, I cooked while Aunt Marie showed off her mastectomy scars; you spent the entire evening in the guest bedroom. The flu, you said; we didn’t realize you were drowning in a pill bottle. I tried to wake you, but you ignored me until I turned to leave. “Wait,” you whispered. “Turn off the light.”
I bring nothing when I visit you; I believe in minimalism, in ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Your family won’t let me throw away the soggy cigarette butts or the dirty styrofoam cups. It doesn’t matter. I only come because I need to tell you this: I don’t blame you anymore, not for pulling the trigger, or for anything else.
Joyce Li is in her second year of Brooklyn College’s MFA in Fiction program. She works at a non-profit organization that raises awareness of immigrant contributions to the U.S.