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The boy who always felt like mine is now the man I can’t have…
Dig a little and you’ll find photos of me in the bathtub with Ezra Stern.
Finer. Fiercer. Smarter.
Tell me it’s wrong.
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Two Years Before Present
Is there anything sadder than a daddy’s girl at her father’s funeral?
My mother’s quiet sniffs a few seats down give me the answer.
A grieving widow.
“He was a good man,” someone in the long line of mourners offering condolences whispers to her.
Mama’s head bobs with a tearful nod. In this day and age, she still wears a pillbox hat and veil. It’s black and chic like Mama, channeling tragic Jackie Kennedy or Coretta Scott King. My father was not just a good man. He was a great man, and everyone should know he leaves behind a widow, grieving deeply, but ever-fly. I squeeze the funeral program between my fingers, glaring at the printed words.
Joseph Allen leaves behind a wife, Janetta, three children, Kayla, Keith and Kimba, and six grandchildren.
He leaves behind.
Daddy’s gone, and I don’t know how to live in a world my father does not inhabit. The casket is draped with sweet-smelling flowers in the center of the funeral tent. When we leave the cemetery, it…he will be lowered into the ground with unfathomable finality, separated from us by white satin lining, six feet of dirt and eternity.
Kayla, my older sister, sobs softly at the end of our family’s row. Her four children watch her carefully, probably unused to seeing their unshakeable mother shaken and reduced to tears. Even I’d forgotten how she looks when she cries—like she’s mad at the wetness streaking her cheeks, resentful of any sign of weakness.
It’s not weak to cry, Daddy used to say. It’s human.
“But doesn’t the Bible say even the rocks will cry out?” I’d challenged him when I was young, loving that something from Sunday school took. “So maybe tears aren’t just for humans.”
“You’re getting too smart for your britches, little girl,” he’d said, but the deep affection in his eyes when he kissed me told me he was pleased. He liked that I asked questions and taught me to never accept bullshit at face value.
I miss you, Daddy.
Not even a week since his heart attack, and I already miss him so much.
Humanity blurs my vision, wet and hot and stinging my eyes. I want this to be over. The flowers, the well-dressed mourners, the news cameras stationed at a distance they probably deem respectful. I just want to go to the house where my parents raised us, retreat to Daddy’s study and find the stash of cigars that only he and I knew about.
Don’t tell your mother, he used to whisper conspiratorially. This will be our little secret.
Mama hated the smell of cigars in the house.
Who would call me by that name? Now, when the only people who use it, my family, are all preoccupied with their own pain? A tall man stands in front of me, his thick, dark brows bunched with sympathy. I don’t know him. I would remember a man like this, who stands strong like an oak tree. A well-tailored suit molds his powerful shoulders. Dark brown, not quite black, hair is cut ruthlessly short, but hints at waves if given the chance to grow. His prominent nose makes itself known above the full, finely sculpted lips below. His eyes are shockingly vivid—so deep a blue they’re almost the color of African violets against skin like bronze bathed in sunlight. No, a man like him you’d never forget. Something niggles at my memory, tugs at my senses. I’d never forget a man who looked like this, a man with eyes like that…but what about a boy?
“Ezra?” I croak, disbelief and uncertainty mingling in the name I haven’t uttered in years.
It can’t be.
But it is.
In place of the awkward boy I knew stands a man exuding self-assurance in the confident set of his shoulders, the proud bearing of his head. If adolescence was the rough draft, this finished product is a masterpiece of symmetry and beautifully sketched lines.
He nods, a tiny smile relieving the sober line of his mouth. “Yeah, it’s me.”
Maybe it’s the emotion, the vulnerability that shatters the guard I always lock in place. Maybe it’s the compassion in his expression. Or maybe it’s finding in the eyes of a stranger the comfort of a long-lost friend. It could be all of these things, or maybe it’s none of them, but I surge to my feet and fling myself into his arms. He doesn’t seem as surprised as I am by this ungoverned physicality, his strength tightening around me right away. He’s much taller than I am, much taller than the last time I saw him, and he dips a little closer to my ear.
“I’m so sorry, Kimba,” he says. “He was one of the finest men I ever met.”
His words and arms warm places left frigid all week, and this moment melts into a million others I thought I’d lost forever. Ezra and me tracing our names into wet concrete with sticks. Riding our bikes through the streets, shouting and laughing at summer dusk, racing the sun. Pumping our legs to propel us so high on swings at night in a deserted park our feet seemed to kick the stars. Ezra Stern was the axis of my childhood.