When I hear that my cousin Tito is dead, I brace myself for the worst. We fought many times, Tito and I, including a year of silence. But he was my favorite cousin. He taught me to be a man. He saw me as a man. While I’m shaving my face in preparation for the wake, I catch my own eye in the mirror and think of Tito’s dry kindness, which brings me to my knees. I sob for half an hour on the bathroom floor with globs of shaving cream stuck to my hands.
I will not cry at the wake. I have already told myself that. I always tell myself that. Unraveling in the bathroom lets me purge the tears from my system. Afterwards, I get up, knees threatening to buckle, chest burning, face blotchy. My fingers curl around the sink edge. My left hand finds the razor again. The inhale I take threatens to topple me over.
It doesn’t. I finish shaving. I dress nicely. Tito would not want me to be a slob at his funeral.
Forty five years ago, Tito was born. Thirty years ago, I was born. The first two decades of my life don’t matter. I think Tito would say the same about his. They are waxy, shallow years, full of our denial and lies. To me, my relationship with Tito started twelve years ago. That’s when he taught me how to shave. I snuck into his brightly painted house, where he lived in exile, and asked for lessons in styling men’s hair and selecting cologne. All behind my mother’s back.
“Your family isn’t going to like this,” Tito warned, flicking open his razor.
“I don’t care,” I said. “You’re my family too.”
“So you are,” Tito said.
Twelve years ago, I went to Tito’s house for a shave, then never went home again. Eleven years ago, Tito bought my first binder. Ten years ago, he scolded me for the cigarette burns on my jeans before unfolding his futon for me on Thanksgiving. Eight years ago, he let me bring my Italian boyfriend over for dinner, waited until I was full of lechon, then clapped me on the shoulder and told me “These white boys don’t love you, ____. Break up with him. Before he breaks up with you.”
Seven years ago, I wasn’t speaking to Tito. That Italian boyfriend had his hooks in me. Six years ago, I cried in Tito’s arms after the break-up, and he let the crack in my stoicism go without comment. Year after year, Tito placed himself between his great loves – our family and me – to keep me from growing crooked. Whenever I think about this too long and sigh, guilt regurgitates itself into my mouth. Tito’s kindness towards me affected the number of people at his Filipino funeral. There is no denying it did.
Six years after I nursed my broken heart in Tito’s kitchen, policemen found his body decaying on the kitchen floor. Cousin Tito had champagne in the refrigerator. He was wearing the grey pullover I got him for his forty-fourth birthday. They found him in the same spot where he once hugged me. He died alone, after his thirtieth birthday.
A rarity, for my cousins, both blood and not.
There aren’t many family members at the wake, not beyond me and aunties in the States he wired money to every week. One auntie I haven’t seen in years seizes me by the waist the instant she sees me. Her bony fingers sink into my skin.
“Thank god you’re alive,” Auntie Hazel says. “When I heard the news, I knew it was you or Tito. I just knew it. Sinagtala! Come see how big ____ has gotten, before he can run away again!”
If my short hair and men’s slacks bother Auntie Sinagtala, she does nothing about it beyond purse her lips. Her arms tremble as she watches Auntie Hazel embrace me. Any other day, she would snap “He’s ungrateful. He needs to support his family. Where you have been, hm?” and likely not with those pronouns, either. It seems that Tito’s death has muted her. I’m fine with that.
“Hi, Auntie Sinagtala,” I say.
“Hello, ____.” She looks past me with watery eyes.
I soak in the sounds of clattering pots and pans, the chattering in English peppered with Tagalog, the comfort of a smokey house full of family. I am a ghost standing in my aunts’ doorway. Bundles of white lilies and chrysanthemums overflow the hallway. Auntie Hazel shoos me inside towards the coffee maker.
“What do you need me to do?” I say.
“Cook,” Auntie Sinagtala says, at the same time that Auntie Hazel says “You need to leave before your uncle gets back.”
Auntie Sinagtala cuts Hazel’s reply off with a swipe of her hand.
“No.” Her gaze is steely. “____ is going to stay. He’s going to cook. This is my house, not your husband’s. Take your shoes off. Put your coat up.”
I obey. When I turn around, Auntie Hazel shoves a paper cup of coffee into my hand. Auntie Sinagtala is already stalking back into the kitchen smoke, her head held lower than before.
“You had better hurry,” Auntie Hazel says.
“Why?” I say. “Is Uncle already on the way back?”
Auntie Hazel shakes her head. Licks her lips. “No. There’s a lot to do.”
We cook all morning. We fill a plate for everyone. When Uncle gets back, he glares at me, but when Auntie Hazel shoves a champagne bottle into his hand – an expensive one, a bottle snatched from Tito’s refrigerator – he ceases glowering. He helps us haul vases of flowers to the funeral home where Tito is laid out. To my gut-churning relief, Tito looks placid.
For three days, we mourn and eat. I can’t remember the last time my aunties housed me this long. Though she has not chased me for years, I keep expecting to hear my mother pounding on the door, screaming for me to come outside. That wariness makes me jump when Auntie Hazel comes up behind me. She starts, too. Even on the second day, she clearly doesn’t expect to see me in her home. Old patterns persist.
“You scared me,” I say.
“You scared me more,” Auntie Hazel says. Her smile is heavy with strain. “Oh, ____. What are we going to do with you?”
I can’t answer that for her.
“I have something to tell you,” Auntie Hazel says. She withdraws an envelope from her shawl. It’s bone white. The name of Tito’s lawyer tracks across its back in dark print. Before I can open it, she eases it into my pocket. “Don’t open it here. Not around your uncle. Keep it for later, okay?”
“Okay,” I tell her. I kiss her cheek. “Thank you, auntie.”
She barely flinches.
“Take care of yourself,” she says. “I know you and Tito share a lot of the same sadness. Don’t let it take you.”
“Tito was doing fine,” I say. “That’s why he choked to death on a good meal.”
On Friday we go to the funeral. There are twenty people there. Most do not speak to me. Tito’s eulogy is a prolonged cough behind the priest’s hands. All of us listen to the sermon, pray for Tito’s salvation, and watch the coffin dip into the ground. We bid Tito goodbye. Auntie Sinagtala doesn’t give me a second look when she sees me leaving.
After I have extracted myself from the arms of aunties I read the letter Hazel gave me. I return to Tito’s house for his second wake, where a plethora of men who have loved him bawl and laugh in the living room. None of the family joins us.
Again, I cook. Tito’s money lets me assemble a feast. I force pounds of pancit, cake, and Tito’s favorite ginataan down the throats of these men. Most of them can’t pray away their grief, so they aim to eat it away. Cup after cup of coffee leaves the kitchen. I try to channel my hatred of the whole situation into the bitter coffee instead of the food. I try not to imagine the huge funeral Tito should have had.
When there are no leftovers, the morning sun slices through the blinds. The men and I bundle up, bleary-eyed, and drove to Tito’s grave.
“You should say something,” one of the men says. I recognize his round brown face. Carlos was Tito’s plus one at the dinner where I fought Tito over my Italian boyfriend. He was present for many dinners post that too, even when Tito stopped using pet names for him. A Filipino, just like Tito and I.
I spread my palms up at the grey sky above. Tito’s lily-heavy headstone is unmoved by the sniffling crowd of men before it. In life, the tears of men never moved Tito much, either. Especially when they came crawling back to him. That almost makes me smile.
“Forget wings,” I say. “I hope they give you a good kitchen up in heaven. A place to cook. Rest in peace, Tito. I’m going to miss you for the rest of my life.”
Other men speak after me. My head is foggy while they do. They turn into mournful smudges of brown and black cluttering the graveyard. Their words are fuzzy, meaningless. One by one, they filter out. Soon, it is only Carlos and I.
“Are you going to be okay?” Carlos lays a hand on my shoulder. He’s the only one of Tito’s exes I will tolerate that from.
I think of the apartment I’ve just been evicted from and the opened letter coiled in my coat pocket. I think of Carlos knotting a tie around my neck, talking me through the steps, while Tito sat on a counter nearby.
“I’ll be fine,” I say.
Four weeks later, I am not.
Tito willed his house to me. That’s what I think of while I stare at the remains of Tito’s bedroom. His home used to be a colorful, tight, two-storied stack of ambition, a place where he scolded his many exes for smoking cigarettes inside and withdrew from our family’s raptorial gaze. Sometimes, it was a fortress he hid me in.
Now, a month after the funeral, it’s a cesspool. Tito’s bookshelf is invisible behind all the garbage bags that clutter the wall. His lush bedroom carpet is scraggly beneath my hands. I crawl towards the wall mirror on my hands and knees, weak in the terrible blue light of Tito’s bedroom. He is gone, but his taste isn’t. The navy-painted walls and turquoise strings of light rimming his bedroom pump my lungs with dread.
Tito’s succulents are shriveled, blackened lumps that line the windowsills: worthless lumps of coal in pots. Dust lies thick on the blinds. The mobile of glass fish hanging from the ceiling glitters under mold. It is motionless. Stains tint the floor. Tito’s bed has the same linens it did when he died, now dragging the floor in a filthy cascade. Grief is a stench.
I crawl over heaps of dirty laundry to reach the wall mirror. My hand skates over stale pizza cheese congealed in the carpet. Any shame I had is lost to the abyss of myself. My legs fold when the mirror is three feet from me. I gape at my reflection. An oily sheen haloes my dark hair. Stress lines spiderweb my cheeks.
The person in the mirror is a mass of flesh that folds in on themself. They rest on the carpet like cooling blobs of wax. It is hard to tell that they are thirty; it is hard to tell that they are me. They are a lost crag of coral in the oceanic spread of Tito’s room.
I press a finger to the mirror. The reflection meets my fingertip, then stares at me with hazy disgust.
“Listen,” I whisper. “Your job is gone. In a month, you’ll struggle to pay the utilities. The money Tito left you will only go so far. There’s nothing worth living for. Lock yourself in this house. Starve to death.”
The reflection bares their celeste teeth in agreement.
A day later – perhaps one long nap later – I stand in the house’s purple kitchen, brooding over the rotten remnants in the fridge. It is a barren, arctic place, aside from the few tupperwares that perch on the fridge shelves. Mold clouds all of them. A sagging tomato melts onto the shelf as I close the fridge door. Its cloying smell lingers long after I’ve stepped away.
Tito’s robe doesn’t fit me. It hangs off my shoulders like a black box of silk, cavernous, and the way my hairy leg peaks out of the slit makes me gag at having a body at all. Tito’s home and his clothes are ill-fitting garments that I have borrowed. Still, I continue wearing them, floating the hope that their owner will return for his possessions.
The chair beneath me groans when I sit at the kitchen table. My elbows feel too dirty to grace the table’s surface. Tito would have slapped me for showing up to his house in a state like this. His phantom voice rolls through the back of my head, smooth as honey: “I love my kitchen. How you feel about the skate park, and those little clubs of yours, that’s how I feel about my kitchen.”
As I look around me, I know I’ve failed Tito. No one has peeled balut over the counters or crisped pig thighs on the stove in a month. His row of cast iron pans hangs from hooks embedded in the iris-patterned wallpaper, all gathering dust. Ceramic crockery piles a mile high in the sink, gathering roaches instead.
One roach isn’t content to remain in the tower of plates. It crawls out of the stained sink, then skitters across the counter. That breaks me. I lurch out of my seat, tearing a sandal off my foot. Roaches can waltz across my corpse, for all I care, but they can’t walk across my favorite cousin’s kitchen so brazenly like this.
“Get out!” My shout emerges hoarse. “Get off the counter!”
The roach pivots under my shadow. It skitters beneath a lilac towel. I smash my sandal onto the towel until I’m sure the roach pulp has melded with its fibers. Every thwack of the sandal is loud, intrusive; my breathing sounds labored. It takes a moment to realize where I’m stepping. Cold creeps up my legs. An icy knot pinches my throat, followed by a gale of discomfort and sorrow.
I am standing where they found Tito.
I limp back to my seat. Warm inches back into my veins. The spot on the linoleum floor looks no different than the rest of it. My knees draw close to my chest. For the fifth time that month, I consider that Tito is gone. Two months ago, he was alive. Now I am living in his house, staring at the spot on the floor where he rotted.
That thought punches me in the stomach again. Tito fought a decades long war with the world for his existence before this. Much of the time, I was unsure if he was happy or not – Carlos believed he wasn’t – but Tito persisted anyway before slipping out of life as easily as that roach slid from the sink. I hate that more than I hate anything else. I force my legs down and rest against the table again. My head falls into my waiting hands.
In my peripheral vision, I see a blurry streak. It lingers near the overflowing periwinkle trash can in the corner. Has my carelessness led to strips of wallpaper peeling off already? I sniffle. My sinuses feel like sand. The rest of my vision is clear. Cold creeps up my fingertips again.
Then the blurry streak twists. It is no floater. It is distorted light, leaking through the closed blinds. From the corner of my eye, I watch it paint magenta panes against the planes of an invisible body: shoulder blades, the crease of a lower back. The air tremors. A flicker of femur and ulna web the wallpaper.
I sit up with a start. There is nothing in the corner but the trash can, sagging beneath the weight of my apathy.
If my mother was ever haunted, I never heard about it. The only specters to haunt her were my father and I. Men rattled the shelves of her house and left cold spots in her bed, not any spirits. It was Auntie Sinagtala who encountered a haunting.
When Sinagtala was a fifteen year old living in Manilla, her childhood sweetheart died. A scooter loaded with sacks of sugar, two dogs, and a driver lost its breaks at a junction. It flattened Sinagtala’s fourteen year old boyfriend into a bundle of broken ribs. For days after that, Auntie claimed, she smelled burnt sugar in her bed. Love bites the size of nickels manifested on her arms. Whenever she crossed the street he perished on, a wind pushed her across it faster. This continued until she moved out of Manilla.
“It sounds true enough to me,” Carlos said, after Tito recounted the story. We were all sprawled in Tito’s living room, surrounded by half-drank bottles of beer and box fans. Summer fogged the windows. “My grandfather’s cousin was possessed in Manila. The Catholic Church got involved. Anything can happen, if you ask me – the Philippines is a hotbed for the supernatural, and we all have souls, don’t we?”
“It’s a hotbed for gossip, too,” Tito said.
“I believe it.” I waved my bottle at Tito, my legs splayed open across a rattan chair. “Auntie Sinagtala is a real hardass. She doesn’t share stories unless she thinks they’re true. She raised you in Quezon City – aren’t you a little superstitious?”
“I was as a child. I believe in other invisible forces now,” Tito said.
“Carlos, papa, my medicine. Before I forget it.”
Tito beckoned at Carlos, who rose from his chair, groaning. It was seventy degrees outside, but Tito wore a woven tan cardigan over his t-shirt. Not a single drop of sweat flecked his armpits. His gelled pompadour was unmoved by the fan blasting him at close range. Carlos pecked him on the temple after digging a pill bottle out of his pocket and dropping it into Tito’s hand. I squinted at the unfamiliar name on its label: escitalopram oxalate.
“You still haven’t told me what those are for,” I said.
“A man is entitled to his privacy,” Tito replied.
“I’m a man too.”
“You’re a boy.”
Carlos laughed. I fumed while Tito drained the last gulp of water his wine glass. I was twenty-three years old. How could my cousin declare I was a boy? Tito twisted open his translucent orange pill bottle. He dumped two round pills into his palm, then tossed them into his mouth. Tito threw the pill bottle back to his boyfriend. Carlos caught it with a lazy, drunk flourish of his hand.
Tito’s laugh lines crinkled when he saw my slump.
“Ah, the real hobby of an adult,” he said. “Sulking.”
“I’m not sulking. You’ll be sorry you mocked me when I haunt you,” I said.
Tito’s smile faded. The radio on the windowsill crackled, struggling to make the pinoy soap it was playing audible over the fans’ whirring. Behind that lay the chirping of crickets that clung to the window screen. Smells of asphalt and honeysuckle invaded the house. In the luxury of his home, Tito seemed invincible, but the hard sunlight traced all the lines on his face, and the peck of pepper in his eyebrows.
“If I take care of you correctly,” Tito said, “I’ll be haunting you first.”
That evening, my stomach cramps with hunger, my mood seesaws, and my body aches. I can’t bring myself to reenter the kitchen. I cup my hands to drink water out of the bathroom sink; I visualize the last ramen cups on the cupboard shelves without searching for them. Whenever the house creaks, it takes effort not to tense up. Perhaps I am sick, but I am not oblivious. Whatever I glimpsed in the kitchen is here to stay. Hopefully, I tell myself, it will not spread across the house. Hopefully, it is not Tito.
“That’s bullshit,” I mutter. “I bet is is.”
I fiddle with the doorknob to a hallway closet. At the end of the hallway, Tito’s bedroom door hangs open, its navy expanse a beacon of darkness. At the beginning of the hallway is the staircase, its steep stairs plunging to the ground floor – to all the rooms that connect to the kitchen. Including the guest room. All of those options feel like traps. I grind my teeth. The arm I bar against my abdomen does little to soothe its rumbling.
Why must my feelings return now? If I was as hollow today as I was two weeks ago, the thought of a haunting wouldn’t move me. I would return to the kitchen, crumple on the linoleum, and wait for Tito’s ghost to drain my life away.
He can’t be happy with me, I think, squeezing the closet door knob. I drove a wedge further between him and our family. I’m ruining his house. I’m wallowing in my sadness. A third of my life is over, yet I haven’t amounted to anything. All I want is a place to hide. If Tito is haunting me, the infinite patience he showed me in life is gone.
Downstairs, a door slams. The last of my pride dies. I shuffle into the closet, shutting the door behind me. A hanging cord smacks me in the brow. I yank on it immediately. Above, a red bulb splutters to life.
Tito’s hallway closet is painted scarlet. It’s a tall, narrow rectangle choked by hanging coats and sweaters. They brush my face and pool on my shoulders as I squeeze into the closet. The door clicks shut behind me. I cough, spitting out the fur sleeve in my face, and settle with my back against a bare wall.
All the coats blend together into a wavy mass of material. Leather vests flow into cotton pullovers and mink collars. A polyester ski jacket suffocates the line of windbreakers behind it. Red outlines link all of them. Mothballs clatter beneath my hand, rolling across the closet floor. The vent above the hang rod is thick with dust. I drink in the taste of cedar.
Anger hits me first. I ball my hand into a fist to punch my thigh. A muffled scream whines behind my teeth. I’m a fool. I know why I’m being haunted. It’s pagpag. No one in their right mind would go straight home after attending a wake. Yet I did. In the back of my mind, I thought of my derelict, unheated apartment as home, if only in name. Even with the deed to Tito’s house in my hand I did not consider this place mine: I was a housesitter. Nothing more.
Now the owner has come back, I think, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll kill myself before I call the Catholic Church on Tito. It isn’t his fault he’s returned. I didn’t shake off the soil from his grave. I poured it into my pockets, ran home, and slept in it.
The light flickers. Before I can stand, it flickers again. The doorknob shakes. I struggle to my feet. Dust blows off the vent but no wind follows it. A rattle starts somewhere in the back of the air vent.
“Tito,” I say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you back. Please, please return to Heaven, or wherever you went.”
There is nothing but red. It soaks me; it soaks the coats. I feel clothed in it. My breath grows short. Should I run? The bulb dims, sparking a sunset in the closet. The vent rattling inches towards a crescendo. I can barely see my hands in the scarlet murk.
I hear the wheezing, then, working its way through the vents. The wet choking. Labored breathing floods the closet. Cough after cough accompanies it, never finishing. Invisible saliva dribbles onto my cheek. Someone has stepped onto a person’s throat with the intention to suffocate them. Sounds of hacking and choking intensify until I can’t hear myself. The doorknob is forge-hot under my grip.
A dripping, translucent hand reaches through the vent. It flashes pearl strings of bone and ligament while it trembles.
The second most-recent funeral I attended was three months before Tito died. A community cousin went on a date he never came back from. Thirty-two year old Ven Cortez got blackout drunk, fell off the date’s porch, broke his neck. His date didn’t do shit to help him. She rolled the second tab of acid behind her lips and giggled. Sipped her soft drink from her styrofoam cup. Sat on the porch railing and stargazed. Made fun of Ven for passing out.
For two hours, Ven lay on her lawn, dying. His date didn’t notice. She was busy admiring the moon.
His parents buried him under the right name. His friends mourned with them before retreating to a friend’s house. Not me. When the funeral was over, I walked five miles to the skate park. No one was there at 9:00 PM on a June night beyond two teenagers on the pipes. I slipped my hands into my hoodie pocket and overlooked the skate park badlands – the chute, the pipes, the stairs, the ramps, the bowl that Ven and I had skated on every two weeks, the expanse of concrete perfect for skinning arms on.
It all looked dead, even with teenagers swooping around the big pipe. The magic I had felt at the skatepark before dissipated. Like many other places I loved, it had become a reminder of what was gone.
“Ven, if your spirit followed me,” I told the moon, “I hope it’s happy where I’ve dropped it off.”
Then I called Tito before I did something unwise.
I haven’t showered in weeks, but recalling those spectral sounds of choking makes my skin crawl. I toss and turn on the living room couch with the sensation of maggots wiggling in the hollow of my collar. By the time I get up, I want to rip all the flesh off my frame. It all needs to be shucked off. It all needs to go.
My willpower betrays me, so instead of continuing to starve, I steal a can of pear halves from the kitchen. I eat them hunched in the guest room shower. Water falls around me in hissing, torrential sheets. A ragged piece of can cleaves open my index finger. Glimpsing the blood churns my gut. I hold my hand up to the showerhead to wash it away, before the sight of red makes a pear glob stick in my throat.
Part of me wants to drown in here. I do not know how to handle the ghost. I don’t want to check my phone, either, I think. No doubt my boss called several times before firing me. I haven’t been to work all month. I’m sure someone else works my shift at the grocery store by now. They’re used to shit like this from me.
Drowning seems appealing, but the choking involved with it doesn’t. Eons of staring at the wall pass. I shut the water off. The pear can goes in the trash. Everything in this house is dirty besides the towels, which are relatively clean. That speaks volumes about my priorities. I tie a fuzzy towel around my hips. It sticks to my legs.
I need to talk to Tito, I decide. This needs dealt with. I can’t keep avoiding a ghost in his own home. If he’s going to dole out spiritual punishment on me I deserve it. There is no point in trying to trick fate. Auntie Sinagtala couldn’t avoid the bruises on her arms. I can’t avoid my favorite cousin’s spirit.
Since the last place he appeared was the closet, I vow to check there first. I slap a bandaid on my bleeding finger. Steam billows behind me as I open the bathroom door. I abandon the realm of filth-coated glittery shower curtains, hair wads, and scattered ear swabs. Who knows how Tito’s bathroom looks. I sleep in his bed. I don’t go in there.
Wet footprints track my route to the living room. I brace myself for going up the steep stairs. The last of my wearable clothes are in Tito’s room. All I need to do is head upstairs, walk past the closet, and put them on. Then I can face the ghost. I take in the lime stairs paired with the ivy-patterned wallpaper while I gather my nerves. The short stint of handrail at the bottom is painted with leaves and plumeria blooms. Blueprints from Tito’s past commissions paper the wall on the way up.
The staircase resembles a green chute to the unknown.
I begin my ascent. The knot in my towel digs into my lower back. Every step I take is an exertion. Even with the pear halves in my system, my body has not forgotten the way I treated it. The upper floor looms. I fight off paralysis. I can’t pry my gaze from the square of hallway that becomes bigger and bigger. It swells to fill my mind. A feeling of ill omen descends on me.
Halfway up, I slip.
One moment, I am climbing the stairs. The next, I am sprawled facedown on their edges, my head ringing. I hear myself gasp. Fireworks go off in my funny bone. My limbs are rigid with pain. A splinter sears my knee; a fault line on my cheek howls in agony. I can’t turn over. I lay there, stunned, lime stairs consuming my vision. My hair drips water onto my shoulder. A droplet rolls down the ridge of my back.
While I’m immobile, the choking starts again. It’s distant at first. With every second, it becomes louder. Closer. Panic rips through me when it reaches the top of the stairs. I see Tito.
Tito is a translucent mash of meat slicked into the shape of a man – almost skinless. He crawls down the stairs on his belly, heaving. One green-lined hand after another grips the next stair to haul him downwards. His head falls against his sweater on a limp neck. His agape mouth is a lopsided oval. Our gazes are locked together.
I wheeze when Tito’s flickering hands grab the stairs in front of me. Tito is a collection of diaphanous layers pasted over top each other. He is aurora borealis and offal all in one: a person caught in the prolonged scream to manifest. I cannot breathe when his swollen face tilts toward my cheek. He is an inch away.
Tito coughs. A thread of spit the weight of a spider web sticks to clear his throat. He leans in close to my ear.
You’re being too hard on yourself, Tito says.
When I can stand, we go downstairs. I numbly sit on the guest room’s bed. Knee blood speckles the towel stretched between my thighs. Though the blinds are closed, the canary yellow of the guest room makes it shine. The guest room is marred solely by my dirty clothes, so worn they almost look liquid, on the floor. Otherwise, it is impossible to escape the brilliance of the miniature chandelier above, or the many metallic paintings of bells on the walls.
It is also impossible to escape Tito, who floats right in front of me. He is more solid than before. The glimmers of muscle and intestines are gone, as are the bulging eyes. Tito’s sweater is straightened. His pompadour is impeccable. Yellow bleeds through his faint outline, and the circles beneath his eyes are impossibly dark, but he looks more like a photograph of himself on tracing paper rather than a ghost.
“I’m sorry.” Those are the only words I can gather. My eyes sting. “You should be at rest.”
How ashamed of me Tito must be. I’ve dragged him back from the underworld, exhausted, and for what? For him to see I’ve lost my job, ruined his fucking house, and given up on life?
I should be, Tito says. I’m not. That’s your fault.
Tito’s voice is softer than an exhale of cigarette smoke. It reminds me of my mother’s calm before her outbursts. Panic cuts into me. Tito has never yelled at me, but he has never been a ghost either. Is that coming? I clench the bed sheets until my fingers scream, waiting for the explosion. The disappointment. The hatred I deserve.
“I know it is,” I say. “I came straight here from the funeral. I shouldn’t have.”
Even as I shake apart inside, I look Tito in the face. I am a mess. But I am no longer a boy. Men take responsibility for what they’ve done. Tito can say whatever needs saying. I’ll handle it. I want to see him again more than I want to be loved.
That isn’t what I mean. Tito rubs his brow. I would be here even if you took a detour. You’re a mess, ____.
I gawk. “I don’t understand.”
Tito comes closer. He sits on the bed next to me the way he used to do when we talked. He leaves no imprint on the mattress. Goosebumps break out on my body, but I am not cold.
I didn’t want to go as early as I did, Tito says, but when you’re gone, you’re gone. You can do nothing about it. I want to be dead. You’re making that difficult for me.
“What do you want?” I say.
I want you to live. Tito smoothes the back of my hair. I feel nothing. Why did you use the shower down here while you slept in my room?
“I don’t know.” I lower my eyes. “I think I hoped that by sleeping in your bed, I’d bring you back, somehow. It would upset you. Any day, you’d come rushing through the door to kick me out. I know you always valued your privacy.”
And the bathroom?
“Your bathroom has too many pictures of you,” I say. “You and Carlos. I couldn’t look at them. I can’t look at them. Not while I’m… rotting, like this.”
Tito shakes his head. The living shouldn’t be rotting. You’re avoiding all the things you need to think about, cousin. You have plenty of prosperous life ahead of you. Clean yourself up. Eat. Go outside. Talk to Carlos. Get your job back. See a doctor. There are many things I should have shared with you, while I was alive, but I was too prideful to speak plainly. Now I see that my silence injured you. Be a better man than me, ____. I know you are capable of it.
Tito pecks me on the cheek. In a shower of plumeria petals, he is gone. They melt against me like snow. My hand slides into the empty space on the bed next to me.
“I love you too,” I say.
The last time I saw Tito was three weeks before he died. It was a week into August. I had a day off. I biked to his house, paper plates and a box of Pabst balanced in my basket. The sun beat down on my back. Children cavorting around a spraying fire hydrant laughed at me. By the time I reached Carlos’ place, sweat streaked the hair under my baseball cap, and my muscle shirt was soaked.
“I’m here!” I yelled, kicking open the gate to the backyard. “Beer delivery! Where do you want me to put it?”
“Put it on the table! And for Christ’s sake, ____,” Tito said, “don’t kick open my gate. Were you raised by pigs?”
I dumped the box of beer onto a glass table. Several of Tito’s friends milled around the tiny lawn. Sparrows lined the chinks along the fence top. Smoke and the smell of pork saturated the wind. I rubbed my hands together, dancing closer to Tito.
“I wasn’t raised by pigs, but I smell one,” I said. “How is the lechon looking?”
“Excellent.” Tito prodded the layer of banana leaves over his pit. My mouth watered.
I mozied over to the table and grabbed a beer. Tito’s friends followed suit. Someone passed around a singular thick cigar. More people filtered into Tito’s backyard. Lawn chairs unfolded. Chatter built up. I returned to the side of the lechon pit before too long.
“How’s work?” Tito said.
“Not bad,” I said. “It’s work. It pays the bills. How’s work been for you? Design any new houses recently?”
“Not yet.” Tito sipped on his beer. “It’s been boring this summer. I did finish painting the guest room a week ago.”
“Your house is wild man,” I said. “I know you know that, but I have to remind you.”
I stepped back from the lechon pit to get a good look at him. The raw hole from losing Ven and everyone before him remained in my chest. The call at the skatepark remained fresh in my mind. Tito had given me a handful of reasons to live, but creating a list was up to me. I didn’t trust myself with it.
Tito’s olive apron covered most of his shirt. His sleeves were rolled up. In the heat, his forehead glistened. Bristles dotted his face. Tito was as brown as the soil he had tilled up to dig the pit. His eyes were thin and stern – more so than usual since he was squinting into the sun – but if I looked closely enough, I saw tenderness in them.
“Tito,” I said, scared despite having no reason to be. “If you need anything, you’ll call me, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Tito said.
There’s a harvest moon out this October. I see it on my way back from picking up Chinese food. Before I eat, I stand in Tito’s yard to look at it. No one else is out this Thursday night. Dead leaves swirl around my feet. Wind pecks at the back of my exposed hands and the sliver of binder that shows through my shirt neck.
The house is dead-eyed and still, its lights extinguished. Moonlight streaks it with hard creamsicle lines. My nostrils flare when I consider how much it must stink inside. Now that I’ve tasted the outside world again, this place will be a nightmare. A reminder of my failures.
It will get better when I clean it, I think. It won’t happen all at once, but it will happen. I have a lot of work to do.
The moon is luminous. It casts an orange sheet over the world. Tito’s glass table shines like a plate of pumpkin. Dead grass beneath it rustles. The remains of the lechon pit, topped with loose dirt, resembles a grave. I tie back my hair while I look at it. I pop open a can of gas station beer. In my memories, my cousin’s laugh is brighter than the moon: it breaks me open and lets the overripe harvest of hope fall in.
“Cheers, Tito,” I say.
Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist and an artist. They draw much of their inspiration from their love of horror movies and their struggles with identity and mental illness. Some of Samir’s work can be found in Sink Hollow Vol IV, Color Bloq’s RED collection, and Prismatica Issue 6.