By Maron Tate
My Uncle Matt showed up at my grandfather’s house on Thanksgiving with three homemade pies, enough luggage to fill the trunk of his van, and a woman named Iyana who was terminally ill with cancer. I didn’t think he’d actually bring her, didn’t believe she was real, just some fictitious character Uncle Matt dreamt up to keep himself company. My dad had called Uncle Matt after receiving the email, asking him what was going on. Uncle Matt insisted it would be fine, that we should make her feel welcome. She didn’t have anywhere else to go for Thanksgiving. And here she was, standing outside the front door, hand in hand with Uncle Matt. Her hair sprung out around her face in unruly curls, and her dark skin seemed almost translucent, sickly. When she came into the house and took her scarf off, I tried not to stare at the tube that fed from her sternum down inside her sweater, where a drip bag rested against her ribcage. We introduced ourselves. She squeezed each of us into a tight embrace. I could feel the tube against my chest and tried not to pull away too quickly.
I helped Uncle Matt carry bags upstairs to the only spare guest room left. My grandfather chose this room for them because it was the only one equipped with two twin beds lined up neatly (and separately) against the far wall. Baby toys and stuffed animals collected in the corners of the room. A Blondie poster hung above one of the beds. I put down a duffel bag and watched Iyana inspect the room. She went to the windows, opened and closed them with her thin arms.
“Sorry you got stuck with the kid room,” I said. I picked up a panda and tossed it at Uncle Matt. He caught it, placed it gently on the bed next to him, and laughed.
“Separate beds,” said Uncle Matt. “It’s not like I’m forty-five or anything.”
“He does act like a sixteen-year-old still,” Iyana said, which I smiled at, but tried not to consider in any way.
The day before, when Matt sent out a mass email to the family explaining he’d met a woman two days before, and that she was going to spend Thanksgiving with us, we thought he was kidding. But he was totally serious, and he wanted us to respect her. Then he added that she suffered from leukemia. We were not to bring it up in front of her. She was the first girl he’d dated, let alone brought home to the family, since the divorce from his wife four years ago. The whole thing seemed unreal, like a bad Lifetime movie. He’d sent a picture of her with the email. In it, she leaned against a Camaro and held a big, green purse in the crook of her arm. She looked full, bright, and alive. I looked at her now, pressing her hands against the glass of the window, and I thought the sunlight might dissolve her into nothing.
“Okay,” Uncle Matt said. “This is weird now. Why are we all standing here?”
“Right,” I said, a little embarrassed, and went downstairs.
Mom and I ran to the store to grab some things and left Iyana and Matt with my grandfather and my dad.
“She looked so much better in the picture,” Mom said while we walked through the aisles. “It caught me a little caught off guard.”
“I know,” I said. “I wonder how he found her.”
“You’d figure they’d at least want to get to know each other before bringing her home.”
“I guess they’re just trying not to waste time or something? It’s not like she’s going to be around forever.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But you know it’s true.” I pulled a box of stuffing mix from the shelf and tossed it into the basket. We paid for the food and headed back home, back to the strangeness awaiting us.
At home, my grandfather was bent over the stove, measuring the temperature of a green bean casserole. My dad carved the ham while Iyana stood by the counter. A few moments after we came in and started unloading groceries, Uncle Matt walked into the room. Iyana threw her hands in the air and smiled.
“They wouldn’t let me help with anything,” she said.
“You’re the guest,” said my mom.
“You’re not allowed to do anything,” my grandfather said, but then realized how odd it sounded and cleared his throat. I wondered if they really wouldn’t let her help out of politeness, or if they were scared that any kind of exertion—even just putting marshmallows on sweet potatoes—might make her collapse. I tried not to stare when she scratched at the tube through her shirt.
It was the first time we were using the dining room since my grandmother died in May. The crystal chandelier illuminated the red walls with geometric shapes of silver light. Each place setting featured a stack of rarely used golden plates and more silverware than seemed reasonable. My grandfather tried to offer his seat at the head of the table to Iyana, but she refused. Once we were all situated, my mother picked up a bowl of mashed potatoes and passed it around. I was spooning beans onto one of my ridiculous plates when I looked across the table and realized Iyana had no food. Her head was bent in prayer. I nudged my mother. Everyone stopped in the middle of their eating. Iyana looked up.
“Don’t stop because of me,” she said.
“We should all say grace before the meal,” said Uncle Matt. My dad looked at my mom. No one in our family had gone to church in years. Uncle Matt reached for her hand, and then grabbed my grandfather’s hand. Iyana, embarrassed, offered her hand to me from across the table.
“Perhaps you’d like to say the blessing, Iyana?” said my grandfather.
She turned her face down and closed her eyes. “Dearest Heavenly Father,” she began. “Thank you for this delicious food you’ve set before us, and this family who has so generously accepted me into their home on short notice.” I held onto Iyana’s hand, trying to wrap my fingers around hers so that she’d know I was listening, but loosely because they were bony and cold.
“Thank you for our safe drive up here, and for giving my lungs the strength to make it through this winter, and all the progress I’ve made with chemotherapy, and for the health of this family sitting around me. Thank you for leading me to Matt, and giving me a family to spend this wonderful holiday with. Amen.” She looked up and flashed us a smile and I smiled back, but then heard a slight whimper from the other end of the table. My grandfather kept his head down and cried into his napkin, his shudders growing louder. Iyana looked at Uncle Matt and then at me.
My dad rubbed his shoulder, then led him to the kitchen. Mom looked down at her plate, her neck splotchy and red.
“It’s not your fault,” Uncle Matt said.
“It’s my grandmother,” I said. “She passed about six months ago.”
“You should’ve told me,” Iyana said quietly to Uncle Matt.
My grandfather returned halfway through the meal with Dad, his face raw and pink.
That night, after everyone said goodnight, I tip-toed downstairs for a glass of water. I stopped halfway when I saw a pool of light spilling into the hallway. I inched down a little further and looked into the kitchen. Dad looked up, and motioned me in with a piece of bread in one hand. I sat on a bar stool.
“This is so fucking weird,” he said. He went to the fridge and grabbed lettuce, the fluorescent light making his features look depleted and colorless.
“Where’s the mayo?” he asked.
I stood up, moved him aside, and found the mayonnaise behind a jar of pickles. He took the jar and unscrewed the lid, finding it empty.
“Oh come on,” he said, “who the hell puts empty mayo back in the fridge?”
I realized Iyana had earlier, but I didn’t mention this. “You only eat at night when you’re stressed,” I said.
“I know. This is totally fucked. All of it.”
I took a bite of his sandwich, unsure what to say.
“Go back to bed, Nikki,” he said. “God knows it’s going to be a long day tomorrow.” I headed towards the stairs. Behind me, I heard the slam of the empty mayonnaise jar being thrown into the trashcan.
In the morning, I woke at 5 a.m. and went on a run through the neighborhood. The morning was cold, crisp, and clear, except for a few wispy clouds. My lungs opened up to the coldness. I felt my heart going, my lungs taking deep breaths, my legs strong. When I got back, I got a bottle of water from the fridge and saw Iyana in the living room. She was on a yoga mat, practicing downward dog. Her head was bald. Her wig sat beside the mat, lined up next to her shoes. It scared me a moment—it was only 5:30, and I was sure everyone was still asleep.
She dropped from the pose and sat with her legs crossed on the mat. It seemed so off. Why would she be doing yoga? How could she do it with that bag against her ribs? She lifted her head, saw me, and shrugged a little.
“I know. I know it’s stupid,” she said. “It’s just something I did before I was sick. I just like it.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you run every morning?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Clears my head.” I turned to leave, thinking she might want to be alone.
“You can stay if you want. Do some yoga with me,” she said. I sat down beside her on the carpet and copied her movements. She moved from downward dog—her rear stuck in the air, her breath quickening as she held her head down—to tree pose. I tried to balance, to keep my foot steady against my thigh like she did, but I couldn’t. I fell every few seconds. Iyana kept her eyes closed and stood solid like a stone statue, the tendons and what little muscle she had left in her legs popping out.
That afternoon, the family split up into two cars and drove to the mall to get some Christmas shopping done. The white snow from the day before had greyed and been pushed into icy, salty clumps on the side of the road. Mom drove and messed with the radio dial until she found a Christmas station she liked. Iyana rode in the front seat and I sat in the back.
“So where are you from, Iyana?” asked my mom.
“I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan. But I went to UChicago and fell in love with the city, so I’ve been there ever since,” she replied, running her fingers down the glass window, wiping at the condensation.
“I’m applying to UChicago,” I said. “It’s kind of a reach school for me.”
Iyana whipped around in her seat. I saw her seat belt tugging at the tube in her chest and prayed it wouldn’t rip out. “One of my best friends is on the board of admissions. I could try to get you an interview,” she said.
“That’s too nice,” I said. “Thank you.” It felt weird taking anything from her. Iyana nodded once and turned back around in her seat.
Once we got to the mall, we went to a cooking supply store first, so my mom could get a new frying pan for my dad and a cookbook for my grandfather. After that, I begged that we go to Dillard’s to look at dresses. The store was packed with women in heavy, dark coats, pulling dress after dress from the racks. We pushed our way into the crowd.
“You have plenty of dresses to wear,” said my mom. I ignored her and kept looking, pulling dresses to try on. Iyana wandered over from the sale rack and played with the silky fabric of a champagne-colored dress on one of the mannequins. It had a deep v-neckline and a sash that cinched the waist.
“You should try that on,” I said.
“I’d never have anywhere to wear it.”
“Who cares? Just try it on,” I said, and eased the dress off the mannequin, pulling her into a dressing room. I hung the dress and gestured for her to go in. She started walking forward, then stopped.
“Would you mind, um…”
“I’m sorry?” I said. She was speaking so quietly, I didn’t know if she was speaking to me or saying some kind of prayer to herself.
“Could you come in with me? I have a hard time getting dressed by myself.”
I followed her into the dressing room. She started unbuttoning her blouse. I turned away to give her privacy, and started unfastening the dress to help her into it. When I turned back around, she wasn’t wearing anything except her underwear. The drip bag moved with her breathing. The tape that secured it to her ribs pulled her skin like fabric. I asked her to raise her arms so I could pull the dress down. With her arms up in the air, she seemed even thinner, her ribs prominent. The dress fell over her frame, curtain-like. I made sure to move slowly, to not touch the bag, to look at the ceiling so she’d know I wasn’t looking at her body. When I pulled the dress down over her curls, her hair fell off in a nest on the floor. She shoved her arms through the sleeves. We bent at the same time to pick the wig up. She secured the hair back on her small, bare head and turned to face the mirror.
“Sorry,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she said, and smiled. She smoothed the dress against her skin. It clung to her stomach and fell awkwardly below her knees, the halter top dripping off of her bony collarbone. The drip bag bulged against the sash.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said, her breath airy. “Wow.”
That evening, we went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant downtown. Iyana wore her new gown, even though she was overdressed. Uncle Matt complimented her beauty over and over again. I thought about how he must have seen her naked before, must be the one to help her change. How does a person trust a stranger to unbutton her blouse, to see her without hair, and see her deteriorating from the inside out?
We sat at a round table, two candles flickering in the center, the low hum of chatter.
“So how did you guys meet?” my dad asked. It was obvious he was trying to be nice.
“We live in the same building, actually,” Uncle Matt said.
“I was trying to open my mailbox and I got a little weak and fainted. And Matt happened to be checking his mail, too, so he helped me up and took me to the hospital. I was so grateful. He was so worried about me.”
“I stayed the night with her. I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. She was so beautiful and so sweet. I could tell she didn’t have anyone else to call.”
We all shifted in our seats. I ate a chunk of bread.
“Well, I don’t know what happened,” Matt said. “But we stayed together the whole next day, and the next. I didn’t want to leave her. I convinced her to come spend Thanksgiving with us.”
“I told him ‘Your family is going to think you’ve gone crazy,’ but he practically forced me to go,” said Iyana. “I’m glad he did. You’ve all been so kind.”
“You’re welcome to come back anytime. Maybe next Thanksgiving we won’t burn the ham,” said my grandfather. We laughed a little. Iyana bit her lip and looked away, and I thought I saw her eyes glistening. No one said anything. We let the jazz music and conversation of those around us fill the silence.
“I want to do this now,” Uncle Matt said. “With the whole family here. I love you.” My grandfather stared at Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt sunk from his chair onto one knee. Everyone in the restaurant quieted and turned to watch.
“I want to marry you.”
“Fuck,” my dad said, dropping his fork.
“I don’t care how little time I have with you, I just want to spend the rest of our lives together. I don’t know how someone can fall in love in three days, but they can. I love you and want to take care of you,” Uncle Matt said.
“Jesus,” my dad said.
“Stop, Andrew,” my mom hissed.
Iyana looked at the ring Uncle Matt must’ve gotten while shopping. The diamond probably wasn’t real, but there it was, shining and silver. “Matt, I can’t marry you. You know why.”
He looked at her a while, and then nodded. He slipped the ring back into his pocket, hiding the tears in his eyes. We all went back to eating our dinners, trying to make it seem like nothing had happened. Eventually, my grandfather asked for the check, and Uncle Matt and Iyana took their own car home.
That night, from my bedroom, I watched Iyana put her bags into the back of Matt’s car. It was snowing. I watched Uncle Matt pull the bags out each time she put them in. She finally stopped trying and let herself fall against his chest, her shoulders bobbing up and down. He took his coat off and draped it around her shoulders. He walked her inside and left the suitcases by the car. Snow collected like a sheet on top of them.
The next morning, my mom told me to go knock on their door and see if they wanted breakfast. No one knew what’d happened, or if we should bring her bags in, so my dad just brushed the snow off the tops of them and lined them neatly on the porch.
I knocked on their door a few times, but didn’t hear a response. I cracked the door open and peeked in. There, on the twin bed closest to the door, Uncle Matt lay flat on his back, his coat and shoes still on, cradling Iyana to his chest. Her wig was halfway off her head, her face nestled against his sternum. His lips rested against the part of her bald scalp left exposed. Their fingers intertwined loosely, and her legs were tucked in between his. Iyana started to wake up, and looked at me. I wanted to look away when she made eye contact—a thing, I realized, I’d been doing since she arrived—but this time, I didn’t. I kept looking at her steadily and she looked at me, like we were holding each other with our eyes. She smiled.
Maron Tate attends the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. She was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina where she has two parents and a hound dog. She can usually be found either in the on-sale candy aisle of CVS, in the library worshipping dead Cuban poets of the 1930s, or in a yoga class trying to keep up with her ultra-healthy, ultra-flexible friends. She has won a total of three Gold Medals, two Silver Keys, and two honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She also received honorable mention for a poem in the Leonard L. Milberg ‘53 Secondary School Poetry Competition, as well as first runner-up in the Nancy Thorp poetry contest. She had poetry published in Cargoes, a literary magazine for Hollins University. She will be attending Oxford College of Emory University in the fall.