Tobacco and musk. My cousin Gina and I would slither into his side of the long closet and inhale. Crowding into the narrow rectangular space like it was a movie theatre, sniffing hunting jackets and rolling memory reels of papa in his recliner eating handfuls of cashews and dozing off to the sounds of golf strokes on the television. If the aroma hit my nose just right, I could almost hear his voice echoing, “How’s my girl?”
Each time the door slid open, a wisp of his scent would disperse until eventually, all we had left were the clothes themselves. They hung, the life siphoned from their collars with each gliding breath from outside the closet walls. Grandma never did claim the space as her own while she existed on earth without him. Maybe that’s because nobody tells you what to do with the clothes. So she kept them where he left them until it was someone else’s decision to make.
It was patterned. Red, white, and blue shouting freedom on my skin, though I felt far from free as it scrunched above my inflated belly, and the doctor declared, “your baby has a zero percent chance of survival.”
I paired it with blue and white slip-on shoes, still crisp from the box, breaking into the second trimester with a commemoration of the weeks of nausea and jubilation for the flutter kicks ahead. Until I held the railing in the cold hospital bathroom to keep my knees from buckling underneath the crushing weight of my disbelief. Until I lathered my hands vigorously in front of the sink as if the suds could wash away the news if I scrubbed hard enough. The first thing I saw when I looked up was the shirt. The colorful fabric I felt charming in two hours earlier was now spot-lighting the scarlet red hues in my face from the fever taking over my body. Gel residue began to crust around the hemline as we moved through the long tiled hallway like molasses, with each step toward the exit heavier than the last. Seems I had dressed for a celebration, but a funeral awaited instead. Nobody tells you what to do with the clothes, so I buried the blouse away with a onesie and plush penguin to dwell as hauntings in a box, of a life that would never be lived.
Long ginger locks. They fell passively over plaid sleeves of copper, white, burgundy, and egg- plant as I plunged to my knees, catching the weight of her limp body from tumbling out of the vehicle and laying her gently on the warm asphalt. I could feel the wool and polyester blend against my cheek as I used my shoulder to hold the phone in place while my hands compressed firm and frantically on my sister’s chest. I felt possessed by her gaping, hollow eyes as a prolonged croak unearthed from the base of her lungs, releasing her soul into the atmosphere with the last of her breath—the final reserve that lay dormant in a vault until someone who loved her could ease her body to rest. The warm shades of fabric began to quake as my skeleton collapsed over the idiom, “We’re calling it.”
I locked my knees with the palms of my hands to steady their convulsing. Through the cracks in my fingers and the lens of my tears, the sky revealed no hint of distress, with its stiff clouds, peaked like a frothy meringue, resting over shades of salt-water-taffy blue. I felt betrayed by its magnificent display in a time of unprecedented horror, but to look ahead was to gaze at a fourteen-year friendship under a thin white sheet, and I felt equally cheated by the anonymity. The only other place to look, it seemed, was down. At the loosely rolled sleeves, now crawling past my freckled forearms. At the knees of my inky black leggings, kissed in dirt. Her body had slumped across mine like an anchor hitting the bottom of the ocean, leaving hints of a turbulent seabed on my palpitating skin. Now, it lay in the street like the molted exoskeleton of a hermit crab—life hollowed out of a once vibrant shell. I couldn’t bring myself to dangle a reminder of her lifeless body next to printed tees and varying shades of stripes, so my husband tucked the earthy long sleeve away like a message in a bottle. A resolution for me to discover, unbury in another lifetime, perhaps.
The clothes. They never tell you what to do with the clothes. They tell you who to call, where to go, what to take, how to cope⏤but nobody tells you what to do with the clothes. Nobody talks about the poignant stain of grief stitched into colorful patterns and soaked in cozy fabrics. Hangers and spin cycles and traces of who they were or who you were or both. Or neither. Flashbacks sewn together by needle and thread to life before the unraveling. Closets and attics filled with ghosts. Preserving scents and pigments and lives within their walls. Unable to part yet unable to let go. And maybe we could, maybe we should, but nobody tells you what to do with the clothes.