The reception wasn’t nearly as suffocating as the ceremony. Without a tense central narrative to unite the mourners in their discomfort, and without the noon sun baking them in their suits and full makeup, they could shake off some of the grief; shoulders relaxed, bowties were loosened from stuffy necks, backs that weren’t what they used to be were cracked into alignment. Lively conversations broke out between old friends who hadn’t seen each other since the kids came. Smiles popped up here and there when the casual check-up warranted, like when someone brought up pictures of the aforementioned kids on their phone. And the guests seemed to have noticed this as a unit, that the unease had dissipated, and so if you traversed the room from one side to the other you’d notice the phrase “Claudia would have wanted” thrown around like percussive tinkling in the background, each time justifying the atmospheric cheer, like Claudia would have wanted her friends to catch up or Claudia would have wanted us to smile when we remember her or Claudia would have wanted us to laugh when we shared her favorite stories. Bit of a faux pas, the last one. A particularly morbid acquaintance muttered to the mixologist that Claudia would have wanted him to order another Salty Llama, but he didn’t say that within earshot of her immediate family.
Both of Jo’s hands were on her fidgeting son’s lapels, trying to keep them over his suit jacket. They couldn’t find a small enough tux on short notice. “Hold still, honey.”
“Mom, stop. No one cares.”
“Are you really gonna take pictures of me at the funeral? Really?”
“No, no pictures.” She’d already gotten a candid shot of him plucking and lining up marigold petals during the service. Jasper being old enough to have opinions on his website-namesake, she had to treat him like a contributor, and that was covered in detail in her honestly quite inspired post on managing your child’s need for privacy when you’re making their early development public-access. The thing Jasper was doing was called Setting a Boundary. The word ‘boundary’ appeared in eighty percent of Jumping Jasper! posts. Later she’d ask Jasper whether he wanted to show off his petal creation online. Having a baby memelord in the house worked in Jo’s favor, since she’d promised to link to his social media accounts once he came of age, the idea being he wouldn’t necessarily be able to siphon off her viewership but may get a head start off irony alone—the words ‘Jaden Smith’ may have been thrown around—and so they’d reached a verbal agreement about the degree of invasiveness she was allowed, and it was nonzero. In the privacy post, the one she’d received a fair amount of commendation for among parents who had to worry about such things, she clarified that every picture and anecdote had to be approved by Jasper himself. That was, if she caught a killer moment but Jasper thought the lighting made his eyebrows look like tiny mustaches, she’d buy a similar stock photo instead. Kids accumulated opinions and lost their cuteness more or less simultaneously, so it was implicitly understood she’d be relying on external cute-child databases as the blog matured.
If he allowed the photo to be posted, and it wasn’t like apocalyptic winter would start if he didn’t, it would be the header image for the latest post in Jo’s Childhood Grief series. Jo was aware that her son’s reactions were unique to her own snowflake and frequently interrupted her heartstring-tugging narrative spree to insert citations in case her readers’ own unique snowflakes had different patterns. Which isn’t to say these patterns were easy to spot. The current online child-grief literature was, in Jo’s opinion, too general and fatally lacking in cause-and-effect analysis. Like if there were an ideal flowchart-y approach to handling a child if X happens and they perform Y actions and show Z emotions, even if such a thing were inherently flawed, the other guides didn’t address it beyond the typical snowflake disclaimer. She didn’t feel confident to synthesize such a guide herself but was watching Jasper today for any insight his abuela’s death could bring to the table.
If Jasper was aware of how parched his mother was for information in this vein, it at least took a backseat to transferring the mud in his treads to the parquet flooring. It intrigued Jo how little she understood his process. In the first post in her Childhood Grief series—unofficial name—she left out the part where Jasper pressed ‘F.’ She’d resolved to dig for information without seeming too clinical.
“Hon, how are you doing?”
“You asked me two minutes ago. Mom, I’m fine.”
“Can I… get you something to eat?”
Jasper went back to scraping the floors. Was that a sign of struggling to process grief, or maybe the depths of his pain were too overwhelming for his little mind to put into words, and is saying he doesn’t want food a Boundary or does she go and get the food anyway, just in case, and is it okay to tell a kid to stop ruining the hardwood the day after his abuela dies, and after he’s already lost one immediate family member—can one do that?—and how does this fit in with that post on Nooboo Corner that goes back to 2014 about public vs. private expressions of trauma handling, and now Jasper’s flinching, and he’s looking around at nothing in particular and he keeps looking and his eyebrows go up is he seeing something what’s he seeing?
Shu caught Jasper’s small body as it was flung toward him. “Ah, there’s Jasi. How you holding up?”
Right—there are times the kid wants to talk to a third party, not a parent, and word on the series of tubes was that Jo had to acknowledge and accept that. But she was allowed her opinions on her tyke’s choice of third party. Jasper: him? Really? She remained at a distance, catching Shu’s eye so he knew he was being watched, don’t forget it, as her son started to spill his grief Cheerios. Or whatever metaphor ties together her latest post. She doesn’t know. It’s a work in progress.
“Shu, do you know why there are marigolds all over the place?”
“Marigolds are a symbol of death in Mexican culture. They have it in Coco. When they get to the place you go when you die, you have to cross a marigold bridge, and Héctor couldn’t cross the marigold bridge because his picture wasn’t on the ofrenda, but you don’t know his name is Héctor yet because they say it later in the movie.”
“But then Miguel and his family can go across the marigold bridge and it has all these petals and there are marigolds in the real world, too. They used a lot of marigolds to make the bridge. I tried to make one but it turned out way smaller. I was like, what is this, a bridge for ants?”
“Yeah, that scene was cool. Did you watch it with Abuela? She loves that color.”
“I thought her favorite was sunflowers.” Sic. Kids play fast and loose with grammar.
“You’d think so, right? They always face the sun and they feed everyone.”
“Yeah. That’s how that goes. But her favorite flowers are actually chrysanthemums. I asked her a long time ago.”
“Really? I don’t believe you.”
A poorer socializer would have asked Jasper who the heck he thought was going to definitively challenge this statement. “No, for real. She said she loves yellow, but she loves seeing all the different colors together more. I always get her a bouquet of chrysanthemums for her birthday.”
This seemed to placate Jasper, despite the claim being based completely on heresy, and he nodded.
“You know what? The next time I visit her, I’ll bring two bouquets. Sunflowers and chrysanthemums. Can’t hurt to have more variety.”
“You’re going to visit her? Can I come with you?”
All Jo’s energy was spent keeping her jaw from dropping open and she wasn’t even sure she was managing that. Seven moves and he has the kid voluntarily talking about honoring her memory? Flowers? That’s iconic. That’s a stock photo shot all its own.
“‘Course you can come. I know Claudia would be stoked to see her grandson. You can tell her what you’re up to, how you’re doing in school. All that. You know what she’s gonna say, she loves that sort of thing.”
“Can we bring the food she made and eat it there so she knows we like it?”
Mother. Fucker. Melting hearts and clearing fridge space in one effortless gesture. Unbelievable. Nooboo Corner would burn this man alive at the stake for witchcraft. If she could write down what he said, she—
“He’s sweet, isn’t he?”
From the trips to San Myshuno she’d taken to drag Jasper out of the cool-person apartment, Jo recognized the speaker as Gen, pro gamer and Shu’s second-favorite girlfriend. The unexpected entrance sent Jo scrambling to get it together. Gen didn’t need to know she was almost brought to profanity mere seconds ago.
“I don’t know what everyone sees in him, but he’s doing okay here, I guess.”
“Okay! Damn, even you admit it. It’s Shu. He’s world-class at this stuff.”
“I never—I guess I never really watched him interact with Jasper.” She’d been fixated on getting Jasper home, or as far from this travesty of a role model as she could manage. “How is he handling this so well?”
“Oh, that’s why I’m here. As the Shu’s-girlfriend representative at this funeral, it’s my job to watch the watchman. Look at this.” She indicated Shu, who was improvising some connection between Claudia’s childhood and the plot of Coco. “He’s known Claudia since before he could talk. He’s gotta be close to her to know all this sh—stuff, sorry about that, but even before the reception he’s been comforting the people who were closer to her. Over there, see. His dad basically needs a grief entourage. Bio dad, I mean.”
Her thumb pointed backwards towards Xiyuan, upright now but giving off vibes that he was about to use Bernard as a fainting couch.
“And he’s not letting it show how much it upsets him. He’s like a wounded deer. He doesn’t want you to know he’s sick until it’s too late. This freaking extravert. You wouldn’t even know anything is wrong unless you figured it out from context. So I guess the answer is, I don’t know how well he’s handling it, but I’m here for him regardless.”
“That sounds like a lot of work for both of you.”
“He naturally pays attention to everyone’s emotions. All. The. Time. That’s just who he is.”
“But what I actually meant earlier was, how is he handling the situation with Jasper so well?” The words came out before she could stop them. Shu had brought out a sketchpad and pencil, and, it looked like, was showing Jasper how to place the basic features of a head. When he’d finished his sketch, he handed it to Jasper to fill in the details.
“Stinkin’ cute.” Gen said what Jo wouldn’t admit she was thinking. “Right. I dunno, it’s kind of a combination of he knows what to do with everybody, for the most part, and kids really like him because he’s cool. It’s the piercings. The ones in his ear.” She leaned in toward Jo. “But you know something? He really cares about that kid. He doesn’t know how often I catch him reading Jumping Jasper!, it’s like the last thing he does at night.”
“Honestly I’m dying at the mental image of him scrolling through your blog at 2 A.M. in some random chick’s bed, which is probably actually what happens after he folds all her laundry. Unprompted.”
“That’s—not what I expected.”
“You know what, I’m going to make him actually talk to you for once instead of being a creepy online stalker. Shu! Shu!”
She’d yelled out before Jo had time to object. She caught the target’s attention and waggled her eyebrows at him.
“Hey, hold up. I gotta see what Gen wants for a sec.” Jasper didn’t look up from the eyes he was trying to get right. Abuela had very round eyes, but not circles, that was too round. Luckily Shu’d also been carrying a decent eraser. Shu barely glanced at Jo before greeting Gen with a kiss, addressing her so quietly it almost got lost in the oddly jovial murmur surrounding them. “Babe, what’s up?”
“Jo wants to know why you’re so good with kids.”
“Oh, for real? You’re okay talking to me?” He was looking at her, not at Gen, not at Jasper. And he was perfectly chipper saying it. Jo thought about what Gen said about his cervine habits, but chose to believe his near-black eyes were widening with genuine excitement.
“I guess so. This is a rough time for Jasper.”
“But is it also a rough time for you? You’re kinda doing the work for two people.”
A piece of ombre hair fell in front of her face, and she brushed it behind her ear. She wondered whether he liked the blue and just wasn’t mentioning it. Seemed probable. Everyone liked the blue. “No, I’m fine, except I’m trying to figure out what’s best for Jasper. He seems to trust you.”
“Aw, it’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself. You gotta show kids you’re listening, and then they just run the conversation on their own.”
“But what you talk to Jasper, what are you responding to? What are your decisions based on?”
“Don’t worry about it. When you’re worrying about what to say, you’re not listening.”
“How—interesting. Actually, I’ve been doing some research for the next Jumping Jasper! post, and I’m curious to know how you would handle this situation after the funeral is over.”
“Oh, for the sake of research, sure. But I don’t want you to feel like I’m telling you what to do. You’re the boss here.” His hands were flopping about the whole time but the gesticulations were wildest on the word ‘boss.’ “Uh, what I’d do, personally, is do some activity that reminds him of Abuela. Keep her influence going. I’m guessing Claudia loaded your fridge with Mexican food?”
“Yeah.” When Jo claimed there were enough empanadas there to get Jasper into early adulthood, that wasn’t an exaggeration. She counted.
“Ok, so that’s something you can do together. Find an online recipe. Get him involved in it. Actually.” He craned his head left, which made the uncovered part of his neck look chiseled. “You can ask Hector if he’s up for it.” So that’s who he gestured at. Hector was at the bar eating the empanadas that were the latest result of unbroken generations of training, but wasn’t enjoying it much.
“Oh, that’s a good idea! I actually might try that.” Empanada dough was something Jo could make using her stand mixer. It was a winner because she got to talk about her stand mixer.
“If it’s okay for me to ask, what do you do that reminds him of his dad?”
Just the mention of Charlie shocked Jo away from Shu’s gaze. Maybe in some subconscious imitation, she examined the floor instead. “We don’t talk about that. I don’t want to remind him.” There’s the mud from Jasper’s shoes. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Yeah—you have an entire rocket, like, Charlie used to build rockets with his own dad all the time. You’re also athletic, are you shooting hoops with him? That also helps with the sadness. It’s how Bernard got over his divorce.”
The vocalization Jo made was noncommittal, not that the advice wasn’t unwanted but that she wanted to kick herself for not coming up with it earlier. No one else spoke.
She was waiting for Shu to continue the conversation, then realized she didn’t want him to. Under the control of a less talented artist, the pause might have seemed awkward, and yet here Jo recognized it as intentional. The conversational equivalent of negative space. She was comfortable here, nothing to do or process. Like his presence alone was therapeutic.
She had to thank him.
When she allowed her gaze to drift upward, she saw that Shu’s hand had found Gen’s hip. The sight knocked her back. No matter how charming he was, his intentions were impure. Shame on him! Shame on her for forgetting! And yet this wasn’t the time to lecture him, and the sight of her son launching himself into his arms, and how he knew just what to do, just what to say, giving Jasper an outlet with pencil in hand—she found herself reflecting on where it went wrong.
“I wonder what today would be like if Charlie was still around.”
“We all miss him.” Shu hadn’t looked at the floor, not once. It struck Jo that he spent most of his life making eye contact, professionally, and it was that need for attention that caused her to dislike him in the first place. Excuse or not, her concerns were still valid. That’s what she told herself.
Still, this was the one conversation about the disappearance she’d had with anyone, save Moira, that didn’t focus on Jasper’s needs. It was giving her a new understanding of the phrase ‘word vomit,’ not so much that you said something you’ll regret but that you’re helpless to stop the words from leaving your mouth. “He’d—to tell you the truth, he’d probably shut down at the first sign of emotion and wander off, leaving me to deal with everything.”
“Aw, Jo, don’t think that. He knows he’s bad at that stuff. So he’d come to me for help first. We’re a team.” He must have noticed her staring at his hand on Gen’s waist. Did he? “If it means anything, he never asked me about you. It was the most important decision in his life and that was all him.”
“That really is good to know.”
The simplest question, how to do what’s best for her son, was the hardest to answer. It was splitting the world as she knew it in two, and she remembered the research avalanche she’d slept on trying to find Charlie, and how much that had helped her. How they’d ended up on the floor because she flung them at the wall—window—in frustration. How she clung to principles she didn’t understand. How everyone else did the same.
Perhaps she was barfing words because it was time to let them out.
“Shu. Can I ask you something?”
“Before the aliens took Charlie, we talked about what would happen to Jasper if something happened to either of us. Claudia was his godmother. And now—now, well—he doesn’t have a godfather. And I’m starting to think he needs one. And I’m starting to agree with Charlie on who it should be. Shu”—she silenced the part of her brain still hung up on the phrase ‘some random chick’s bed’—“do you want to be Jasper’s godfather?”
Now Jo’s reasons to doubt his excitement were gone. That little jump back he did was nearly inappropriate, regardless of what Claudia would have wanted, and likely to make every one of Claudia’s old gym buddies stare at him judgmentally. “Uh, yeah! Gen?”
“Oh, of course I’m on board. Remind me to ask Shannon if we can convert that extra room into a kid’s room. Chantel used to play her piano in there but now it’s basically just got a hookah and nothing else. Cushions, I guess. For the hookah.”
“Don’t worry, Jo. We’ll get rid of it. Should probably actually convert it to a kid’s room now-ish, actually.”
“Yeah, it’s a damn miracle you haven’t knocked someone up.”
Jasper sensed that the conversation was no longer child-appropriate and tugged Gen’s shirt. “What are you talking about?”
He specifically addressed the question to Gen, it being that his mom was the least likely to let him in on whatever spicy forbidden thing was happening, but the other two adult sims turned to Jo. It was her message to deliver.
“Shu has agreed to help take care of you.”
“Really?” He turned to Shu.
“Yep yep, really.”
“Really, Mom? Really?”
“So you’ll let me go to his house now?”
Shu bent on one knee to be eye-level with Jasper. “You need to trust your mom, here, Jasi. She wants you to have the best life possible. If she thinks I can help with that I’ll do my best to look out for you. Okay?”
Combining Shu’s objective coolness with the objectively uncool pro-authority sentiment blue-screened Jasper, is how he would put it, and upon reset he found his attention occupied by the object he was holding. That wasn’t a literal reset. “I’m done with the face, Shu. Can you help me with the hair?”
Of course he could, and as they re-occupied the couch Jasi half-listened to Shu’s statements about the overall hair shape being a triangle and the headband being like part of two circles, roughly here. That left Jo with Girlfriend Two.
As Kendra, who’d previously been on the couch, left it, Gen spoke. “Well, I’m gonna bounce too, but it was nice talking to you. Kenny!”
If Gen had looked back, she would have noticed the way Jo looked at Shu, her smile altogether too similar to Gen’s for comfort.
Gen slid into a seat in Kendra’s line of sight. “Kenny. Kenny Kenny.”
“‘Sup.” Kendra had changed into a dress people wouldn’t step on for the reception.
“You’re not gonna—oh shit, sorry for being so giddy. Uh, what do you need right now? Do you need somber-reflection vibes or are you down for a little distraction?”
“I’ll take distractions, sure.”
“Dude, dude. Shu went all Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Jo admitted he’s not a living shitstain.”
“Oh, that’s big coming from her.”
“But how’re you doing?”
“Confused, mainly. I’m still trying to process it. I was at work when I got the news.” Kendra had been slicing limes when the notification popped into her head and she nearly butchered her finger in shock. Her boss took the knife away and gave her the rest of the day off. Today, as well, so she could attend the funeral. “This just came out of nowhere.”
“God, Kenny, I can’t imagine. I’m sorry.”
“It’s like I don’t even know how to feel. I need to wrap my head around what happened first. All the rest of my family was there when she died.”
There was nothing for Gen to say. She and Kendra both looked to the end of the bar, where Hector was leaning back to avoid salting his empanadas with tears. No one was talking to him, which Gen got: it’s not even a matter of saying the right thing, few people here were prepared to process this level of tragedy. She barely knew him but resolved to head over while Kendra was investigating.
“It’s like they were there, but they’re not actually telling me what happened. Both my dad and brother are just talking about how it made them feel. You heard what my dad has to say. If you talk to him, he swears up and down he had no idea what happened, but it’s like, Dad, no idea what happened? Just like at least tell me what’s going on. And Hector’s take is completely different. “
Come to think of it, the other mourners sorted themselves by relationship. Most of them seemed to avoid Mike as well. It struck Gen as odd. “What’s Hector say?”
“I’m not sure if I should tell you until I’ve sorted things out.”
“Totally reasonable. Makes sense.” And perhaps why no one wanted to get involved with the witnesses.
“So I’m never getting a straight answer out of either of them. It’s a hopeless deadlock. Giving up on that. You know, I need something—mechanistic. A neutral play-by-play. But, like, there’s still someone I haven’t spoken to who was there at the time.”
“Hmm?” Gen looked behind her despite not knowing who that was.
When she looked back, Kendra was scanning the room, more productively this time. “Have you seen Aileen? She’s the only person I can trust to tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know why they don’t trust me to tell them what happened,” Mike said, addressing the only person left who would listen.