The night before the viewing, I took a NyQuil to help me sleep, a drug I’ve always pronounced as Night-Quil, remembering its true name only when I’m forced to write it, such as in a text message or now, writing this. NyQuil has always grogged me well into the following day, hours after the effects were meant to wear off. I’d have a hard time getting out of bed, sometimes sleeping hours past my alarm as it continued beeping through my deep and thick skull.

Once awake, my movements needed rendering before I could process them. Lifting my arms above my head to shampoo my hair felt not like my arms, not like my hair. I’d stare into the bathroom mirror, feeling not high, but low. Very, very low. Coffee could alleviate this somewhat, but it only lessened the gap between dreams and reality—it never closed it completely.

As I’ve said, this state continued, even after lunch, when my body was fully awake by any measure. Students would catch me staring into the abyss of the window, my voice trailing off in the middle of a lecture about Impressionism or Expressionism or the Baroque. “Sorry”, I’d say, before asking them if I were repeating myself, for I couldn’t remember whether I’d given this lecture before, or if I had only in a dream.

I was in this fugue state as I stepped out the side door of the funeral parlor on the pretense of a smoke. It had been raining all afternoon, and, as evening came, the sun threatened exposure. The drying pavement had the chalky smell rain left behind. I took a deep breath, my nostrils flexing. Did I like how this smelt? Did it remind me of my childhood, like other scents? Did I want to curl near a window and listen to the water patter on plate glass? Or was I excited to run around and jump into puddles, like a madwoman? I didn’t know. Any desire was impossible to

pinpoint. I blamed the NyQuil, just as I blamed it for obfuscating all possible emotion, why I blinked at Cameron in the coffin when I first saw him, standing over his body without a thought, why my mouth remained a straight tectonic line as I offered condolences; why, while others were hugging and crying, I eyed the plastic tray of stale and sweaty pastries atop the mahogany table and smoothed the front of my dress.

People slipped in and out of the parlor like sand. Blue-haired women bent like rulers over walkers, little boys and their clip-on neckties, blank faced men, all mirrors of myself. Hundreds of people, it seemed, as I stood there for fifteen, twenty, thirty, ninety minutes. Other smokers joined me. Whenever one of them asked for a cigarette, I’d say I just smoked my last. Otherwise, we’d stand there together while their ember rode down the stem.

“I was his teacher,” I’d reply. “Years ago.” They’d go back inside, sometimes patting me on the shoulder, sometimes hugging me, sometimes shaking their head, sometimes spitting violently into the ground, though I don’t think this last gesture was always directed toward me.

One young man, head shaven but with a full beard, had red eyes and cried when I asked how he knew Cameron, then sobbed when I hushed him with a mother’s exhale.

“Strange reactions come out in the face of tragedy,” I thought. My ambivalence, my aloofness, was supposedly my own response, but it felt otherwise. What I felt was more an absence—a gaping hole painted in Vantablack, that scientifically dense color that looks cartoonish in the real world.

Earlier that week, I taught my students about Vantablack in a larger lesson I had planned around color. When they asked if they could experiment with it, I had to explain why they

couldn’t: not only was it difficult to manufacture, it was also copyrighted. The artist who owned the rights didn’t invent it, but he controlled it, nonetheless. It was the same artist who sculpted the Chicago Bean, I told them, the mirrored kidney that distorts your image.

“Everyone has seen The Bean, right?” I had asked, trying to move the conversation to a territory I had control over, but no one wanted to talk about The Bean. They wanted to talk about Vantablack. We spent the rest of class looking at pictures of Vantablack online, trying to convince ourselves we were looking at a real color in a real photo, not a manipulated one.

When it was time to leave the funeral home, just before the sun bid farewell beneath the tree line, I made to make my own farewell to Cameron’s parents. This took a deal of self-convincing, as I had been outside for so long, they were likely to have assumed I had already left, that is, if they even remembered my initial presence at all.

I had approached them in meekness when I arrived earlier that evening. They hadn’t invited me to the funeral. I had seen the notice in the paper, or, rather, I had heard about it on the news during the brief segment devoted to the car crash that killed Cameron along with another, elderly gentleman. Introducing myself, the mother looked at me as if I were bereft of skin. She looked at everyone this way. Having just lost her son, her sense of order and meaning would need to be rearranged. The timeliness of death meant we were exposed to these preliminary, destructive stages, where her shocked face offered only a hint of what went on behind the scenes.

It was Cameron’s father who first spoke to me. They remembered me, he said. “Cameron’s old English teacher. He always liked that class, thank you for coming.”

His words hit the right marks, and he appeared lucid, but I saw myself passing through him as his shaking hand griped mine, as his eyes glassed when he looked to me. The reflection in his spectacles showed the poster boards set up in the viewing room, collages of Cameron made from both cut-out glossy photos (him as a child celebrating birthdays with cakes and Power Rangers) and selfies printed on thin computer paper that soaked through with glue, betraying a hint of the black poster board underneath. I wondered who curated the selection, whether it was his parents or a friend.

These were my thoughts as I headed back into the funeral home. Standing on the steps, before opening the door, I heard the buzz of car speakers. I turned around. In the parking lot were a dozen or so of Cameron’s friends. Some of them I recognized: they had been his former classmates, my former students. Others were foreign to me. The boys had long hair, the girls unusually short. All had tattoos and facial piercings. One wore a sleeveless black jean vest with patches.

They hung around a pick-up truck with its doors splayed open, playing heavy, horrid music. Instead of singing, there was screaming. The guitars were harsh. The drums fast, then slow. The kids enjoyed it, of course, strumming air guitars, rocking their bodies, and mouthing along to what I assumed was the chorus.

Did they already see Cameron’s body, I wondered, or were they delaying that part? I checked the time. The viewing was scheduled until nine, due to end in a half hour. I walked over, ostensibly to remind them to see Cameron before it was too late.

In truth, however, I had the heart to admonish them. They behaved like children. What would the family think if they saw you, I wanted to ask. Dancing like fools, listening to trash, having a good time?

“Mrs. Callert,” one of them yelled. Instead of turning the music down, someone turned it up. No one could hear me as I mouthed what I wanted to say, what I wanted to ask. For some reason, perhaps the NyQuil, I couldn’t raise my voice. The problem wasn’t physical, but an effort of will. I couldn’t will myself to raise my voice.

As if in retaliation, the group began screaming along to the song coming from the car speakers, no longer syncing silently, as they had earlier. Their voices cracked at the peaks. All smiled. They hung their arms around one another, the girls just as wild as the boys.

When the song ended, people hugged and wiped tears from one another’s cheeks. Mascara ran down their faces. I was seemingly forgotten about, secluded as I was in the crevice of the door, right next to the speaker, my leg still vibrating from the bass. One of the boys, the same one who called my name earlier, told me that was one of Cameron’s favorite songs. The band was coming to town next weekend, and the kids were trying to get the singer to dedicate the show to Cameron. Thus far, their efforts had been fruitless—as big as the band was, they were hard to get ahold of. He then asked me how I had been. I evaded his questions with discrete politeness, as I couldn’t remember his name. I looked in my yearbooks when I got home, and he had been in the same class as Cameron. Joseph Alvero.

One girl took photos of everyone on her phone. Her young body turned self-consciously serious lining up each shot, using her leg to steady herself, bending her torso to catch certain

angles, paying particular attention, it seemed, to the lighting. Presumedly she had pictures of Cameron on that phone, either alone or in group shots, like the ones she took in that dismal parking lot, and I wondered if she had made the poster boards lining the walls of the viewing room. Aside from her, there was another photographer, also a girl, and also using her phone. She was much more candid and spontaneous in her method; most didn’t notice when she had snapped a photo of them and immortalized their sneezing, talking, spitting, reapplying makeup, itching beards, and, of course, laughing and crying.

Did the two photographers know each other? Were they collaborating? Or were they at odds? I didn’t know and didn’t ask, even as they each took a photo of me, as my former students asked for a group photo, as I stood awkwardly in the center of this cluster of young adults, some of whom were certainly never my students. The boy in the jean vest kneeled on the ground in front of me as we posed, and I spotted a prayer card tucked into the pocket of his vest, the same prayer card I had crumpled in my purse.

“So, did you see the body,” I asked the boy I came to remember as Joseph Alvero. Yes, he said. We all did. The way he and I singled each other out seemed to appoint him as a representative speaker, for as he said this, he waved his hand about him. I stood there for a moment afterward, searching for something to say. I didn’t know whether to nod my head in acceptance, as if I were still their teacher and was proud of them for doing the right thing, or to hug him, as if I were an adult sharing grief with another. But neither of these felt right. I said nothing, my sole move was an attempt at the smiles like they had, a small twitch of my lip, which probably only signaled to Joseph Alvero that I was holding back words.

When I finally went back into the funeral home, Cameron’s viewing room was empty except for his body. His parents had left, but the staff had yet to close the doors. I couldn’t bring myself to view him one last time, if it could actually be said to be him, and instead stood in a corner of the room alone. There were no spectators.

Perhaps the reason I couldn’t see the body like I had so easily and so emotionlessly done earlier is because I’m alone, I thought. Without a witness, standing over Cameron’s body would have been ritualistic. Worse yet, there’d be nobody to support me if needed, if, for whatever reason, I was overcome and needed to displace my emotion onto a better, stronger person.

Next to me was a trash can filled with tissues, lucent with tears and yellow with snot. There was nothing for me to do. I had already decided I wouldn’t see the body a second time. Yet, my legs refused to move, were anchored to that viewing room, were tied to the proximity of a corpse. Something compelled me to stay. If someone else was there, leaving would have been easier, even possible—I could have lied again and excused myself to smoke.

I tried to blame my inertia on the NyQuil, but this defense was wearing thin, even to me, a person who finds it hard to be honest about her intentions, who evades awareness as if it were the plague, death itself. No one had ever died on me before, no one had left unexpectedly. The first person I’d ever known to depart was Cameron, my young former student, someone who, if I’m being frank, I barely thought of during the fleeting year he was in my class. He was not the brightest student, nor was he troubled in a way that called for nurturing. He was normal, through and through.

Maybe, I thought as I was finally ushered out of the room by the funeral director, a vested man with a pasty complexion, I came to the viewing because I felt guilt over the first thought that occurred to me when Cameron’s yearbook photo flashed onscreen during that news report while I sprawled across my cheap couch with a raggedy blanket covering my knees and feet:


He was not the one I expected to die first, out of all those I knew, and a small, horrid part of myself felt pitiful as I sat there in my living room. Not pity for Cameron, but for me. I had yet to suffer a great death, one that would smith my suffering into a tragic bond with others who grieved, one that would move me to consider the great mystery of all things. Perhaps, it occurs to me only now, I found it hard to leave that viewing room because I was waiting for Cameron to turn into that figure for me, into a cherished gift now gone. But he was not.

Ghastly, these thoughts; inexpressible in any public forum, which is why I intend to burn this document in some way, once I am done; I will delete it, smash my computer, print it out and shred it, make it unreadable, erase it, destroy it, kill it. Cameron’s parent’s can never see this, they can never know I felt this way. I can only wonder how they’d respond, just as I can only wonder if they saw Cameron’s friends outside the funeral home that evening, if they saw their young grief manifest in that strange, indecipherable manner of smiling and song, or if his parents, hobbled in sadness, snuck out through some service door, like two celebrities leaving a club or two politicians avoiding protestors. And, if they did see it, that wild display, I wonder what their reaction would be.

I have no answers to these questions. I haven’t kept in touch with Cameron’s parents, nor Joseph Alvero, who just recently had his own fatal car accident, though he was not the one to die—others did. This time, I found out about the accident online, on Facebook. One of the deceased was the cousin of an acquaintance. By chance, I read the article attached to the post, and discovered the name of the driver, my old student Joseph Alvero, which sent my mind back to Cameron’s viewing two years previous, to these words I am writing now. I still don’t know how to behave in the face of death, how to grieve, if that’s the correct word, though since that time I was given immense opportunity to learn, having attended funerals for my mother, father, and the young boy Joseph Alvero killed with his car. I still stumble, lie about my habits, and grasp for feeling. How I behaved at Cameron’s, though only a viewing, was indicative of the others. A dry run, a practice.

As clumsy as his friends were in the parking lot, I sometimes wish I had the excuse of youth to do such a thing, to let my private feelings become public and messy, or even to let them become public and neat, such as the controlled demolition Cameron’s parents displayed. But neither of those methods work for me. I don’t fit into either mold, and I have no other way to learn grief aside from the way others do: through television and movies and stories, such as this one I’m writing now, should I have a change of heart and publish it, or read it aloud to group of half-strangers. But even these things don’t fit right.

My characterization of grief as an emotion messy or neat but most importantly public is one I understand only on an ontological level, for my frustration stems from the oddly compact and explicitly private nature of my grief, and thus fuels my desire for writing, feeding the hope

that in exploring my grief, I would make it messy and better matched to those who, in my mind, grieved naturally, grieved in the right way, unlike my stoic paralysis, my inability to move or be moved or even stop moving—a paralysis of paralysis.

Despite my hope for this story—that it would transform my grief into one I recognized—I see in reading this over that I succeeded not in making my grief messy, but unintelligible. What’s more, by writing it, even if no one sees this or hears a word, I have made it public by transforming it into language: an attempt at communion, even if the communicant is only myself. It is not messy, but it is public. And this uncomfortable synchrony, perhaps, is why my grief feels strange and false.

Then again, perhaps everyone feels this way about their grief, that it is unsatisfying; foreign, even as it rests buried deep inside. Private. The most private thing imaginable.

I don’t know.

If someone explained their grief to me, if I somehow tracked down Cameron’s parents, or, for that matter, anyone who has lost a loved one, I still wouldn’t know, even if I forced them to sit down, to talk to me until every word was spent, to write down everything. This unknowing, this inherent unknowability, explains my need for colors like Vantablack, that unreal, superhuman color, impossible to describe, almost impossible to see. It does the best job at replicating our dark, dark innards. Or, at least, my innards. Following, this explains how uncomfortable we are when something powerful and otherworldly like Vantablack, like the ability to mourn, is taken away from us, whether the color is copyrighted, or our states of being are subdued and drugged through detachment, through NyQuil.