He was the only person I knew who was still fat after gastric bypass surgery but managed to hide it in his profile photo. He was from a different chapter in my life, from my years in urban youth ministry in Chicago, chapters before dealing with kids who can’t tell a mouth from a mouse in China, but kids who’d wouldn’t know a good decision from a bad one.
Mr. Gastric By-pass’s message went something like this:
Sad news. Lucien was killed. Stabbed outside his sister’s home. No one saw exactly what happened. It’s on the news.
I flip on the TV, and there he is, the lanky kid from my youth group days, experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame. Lucien was one of seven Romanian brothers, nesting dolls with the same lanky frame and amber eyes. Sergio, Daniel, Lucian, Avram, David, Ruben, and I forgot.
Since I was in Chicago at the time, I had to go to the funeral, located one hundred miles west of inconvenient in Southern Indiana.
Even my GPS was having difficulty. The sun was setting as I spotted the funeral home, an old building that probably handled every death in that farming area other than livestock. I pulled into the parking lot and check my reflection in the rear-view mirror. My finger traced a wrinkle. Would the Romanian Nesting Dolls recognize me? I hadn’t seen them since Tupak was number one since they could pile into my Honda like clowns.
My two-inch heels dodged potholes as I hobbled up the steps to the funeral home door. A few old men puffed cigarettes and mumbled something in Romanian. One opened the door, but I didn’t want to go inside. I want to postpone the smell of shattered dreams as long as possible.
Ironically, there weren’t enough carnations in the room to make one bouquet, a real shame considering how much air-time Chicago news stations gave his story.
The only decoration was leaning on an easel, a piece of poster-board splattered with photos of Lucien. I spotted a picture I snapped in the youth center. My huge baseball mitt is swallowing Lucien’s boney hand, his black bangs dusting his eyes. I jump into the picture like Mary Poppins into a chalk drawing. I am laughing, ready to challenge this kid to a game of catch when a voice I almost recognize pulls me back.
It was Avram, nesting doll number four. His is gnome-like, short, bald with a beard of biblical proportions. The last time I saw this kid, he was recovering from a bullet that brazed his behind.
I grab Avram tightly, feeling his pain through the hug, his body shaking like an off-balance washing machine. There wasn’t a phrase in English or Romanian to help that day. Maybe just being there was enough. Me, someone from a different chapter of Lucien’s life, before the plot took an unexpected twist.
A girl rushes towards me, crumbling in my arms. It is Daniella, one of two sisters sandwiched between the band of brothers. She is no longer a teen with raccoon eyeliner but the hysterical woman from the news who told reporters about the stabbing.
“When I look in the driveway, I will always see my dying brother!”
My mind drifts to other boys I had lost to bullets, drive-bys, life-long sentences in orange peels and car crashes. I would see a troubled teen the pine box, but the mother would always see a toddler in diapers.
Avram grabs my arm. “Are you ready see Lucien?”
Pancake makeup doesn’t make a dead person look alive. It just makes a dead person look like a bad replica of themselves, like that art project of your face in eight-grade. A little off.
It was too late for goodbyes. What is done is done. One quick glance at Lucien erases the remaining photos in my mind. I will no longer see a boy who could eat his weight in ice cream, but clay without the breath of the potter.
Lucien’s mother is weeping on a folding chair. She has the face you’ve seen in the National Geographic magazine a million times. Olive skin covered with a black veil, a slight hook to her nose. Empty eyes peering out like a nocturnal animal. Her age is close to mine. She fled to America looking for a better life, I left looking for the same thing.
I want to run, hide, rewind time. Daniella translates between my sobs.
I speak the truth, how more than anything, Lucien treasured her love and his brothers. She nods, her tears glistening through the black lace.
I leave out one detail.
A small caveat. Really, it’s small.
Lucien stole credit cards from my wallet.
He was like twelve, and could no way pass for a white thirty-something female.
The day my cards went missing, I didn’t suspect Lucien or his brothers, even the one with the name I can’t remember.
I thought it this kid named Biggy.
Biggy was a big burly kid from Roger’s Park who played football at the same high school my grandmother got expelled from for smoking cigarettes in the 1920’s.
I brought Biggy into my Honda, his weight making the car moan a bit.
Then his eyes.
“You think I stole it.“
When the words tumbled out of his mouth, I knew it wasn’t Biggy.
I knew I made a biggy mistake.
I was so ashamed of my assumption that I and wanted to scrub off my white skin.
I still do.
It wasn’t the first time Biggy was accused of something because of his skin, his zip code. TO this day, every time I see Biggy updating his status,I feel the shame.
Facebook, between uploads of friend’s post-operative selfies and bad shots of entrees ordered at Olive Garden, gives folks a chance to amend with the Biggies of their past. Sharing a memory with a sister who still sees the blood on her pajamas. Apologizing for making a bad assumption. Asking for forgiveness years after the other person forgot about whatever is still haunting you.
I just sent Biggy a letter of apology, twenty years too late, which will arrive even later thanks to the Chinese postal system.
For all of my biggies, those shadows of memories, I’m sorry.
To the Romanian Nesting Doll Brothers, I miss Lucien, too.