Our Eyes Smiled Once – A Short Story by Margaret McManus

Maggie- Short story

I was uncomfortable. My dress wasn’t fitting exactly the way it was supposed to; I adjusted it once and resisted the urge to do so again. I glanced around, looking for anything to distract me. Bland beige walls and my family’s smiling sea-blue eyes stared back at me. My mother liked to say they were smiling eyes. It was true: our family’s eyes had smiled once. There were photographs to prove it. But those happy memories, sharp to her, were a blur to me. I couldn’t be sure if I had any real recollection of the past, or if I had just internalized her stories. I swung my gaze back to Alan, who was in front of me in line, and concentrated on the pattern of his hair loss.

Finally, it was my turn. I looked down at my grandfather and immediately glanced back up. I forced myself to look back at him and hold my gaze for what felt like a respectable amount of time. How long was respectable? I wished there were rules for this. His blue eyes were closed now. He didn’t look like he was peacefully sleeping, although I knew that was the intended effect. He didn’t look real. He looked like one of those figures at the wax museum: a replica of my grandfather.

Later, as I was circling the beige room, I was accosted by Alice. The first things I noticed about Alice, the first things everyone noticed about Alice, were her large fake breasts. They were modestly covered for the occasion by a tight black sweater dress. Her dress fit perfectly; her body still had the proportions of a woman half her age. Her platinum hair was pulled back in a severe up-do. She wore a pearl choker, which highlighted the orange tint of her leathered Florida skin. She was the kind of woman who had once been very beautiful.

“Clara, how are you?”

“I’m fine, Alice. How are you?”

“Oh, you know, same old, same old. I’m so sorry about your grandfather. But at least he had a wonderful life.” Alice barely knew my grandfather. I barely knew him myself. I guess that is just what people say at funerals: so-and-so had a wonderful life.

“Yes, he did,” the words came out of my mouth, as though I was a character in a play.

“So how is school?”

“I’ve been out of college for two years now.”

“Oh my gosh, that’s right!” She laughed lightly.

“So what are you doing with yourself then?”

As I opened my mouth to respond, Alan materialized next to us. Maybe he, too, hated small-talk with extended family. That was one thing we had in common. He had my grandfather’s piercing eyes – my eyes – set in a lean, arrogant face. He looked bored. I knew from old photos, many of which were displayed around the room, that Alan had once been a very handsome young man, and perhaps even jovial. I couldn’t picture the man cracking a smile; he always seemed disinterested in his surroundings, including Alice.

“Hi, Uncle Alan.”

“Clarice,” he nodded briskly.

“It’s Clara.” Clarice, my legal name, brought back memories of being followed down the halls in high school, boys mercilessly hissing, “Hello, Clarice.” They thought it was funny to impersonate the psycho from Silence of the Lambs. It was disturbing then, and I find it disturbing now. Guys still try it, because it’s such an easy pick-up line. If you’re into cannibalism.

He nodded again.

“So what are you up to these days, Clara?”

Before giving into yet another networking event, I was saved by my mother. I felt her presence before I saw her: she came up behind me and grabbed my arm.

“Clara, I have to show you something. Excuse us, Alice and Alan, we’ll be right back.” She said these words over her shoulder; she was already pulling me away, towards a collection of polaroids in one corner. There were my grandfather’s smiling blue eyes again: the latest pair of eyes our family had lost.

I looked at my mother, Jeanine, while she looked at her family. A stranger wouldn’t describe my mother as beautiful. She was not clutching beauty with a vice-like grasp like Alice. Jeanine’s body had softened with age. She had never been interested in perfection. The gray was starting to show in her roots. But her blue eyes – my eyes – were still arresting. I knew now what she meant by “smiling” eyes: her eyes lit up and brightened as they alighted on each face. Jeanine’s reverie enhanced her beauty; the lines on her face eased as she smiled.

“I didn’t know they still had these pictures. I just had to show you. You and your brother were so cute at that age.”

I gazed at my grandparents, surrounded by their grandchildren. There were several cousins, whose faces I barely recognized. I hadn’t seen them in years, but they were all here now.  I wondered if they were also trying to dodge questions from relatives.

I couldn’t have been more than two years old in most of these photos. I looked giddy: happy for absolutely no reason, like children are. My brother Kevin, perhaps four or five years old, had a mischievous grin on his face. He was always getting into trouble when we were kids, but somehow it only further endeared him to my mother. He had been my idol. I used to ramble on to him for hours, and he would always listen patiently and make me laugh. Now, at the age of twenty-eight, Kevin mostly kept to himself. He was standing alone on the other side of the room, by one of the fake plants. He was scrolling through his phone.

Looking back at the photographs, I started to see similarities among all of us that I had never noticed before: it went beyond the color of our eyes. The shapes of our faces, our bone structures, had features in common. It was comforting and strangely beautiful: the obvious fact that we were all genetically linked. Something about seeing us all together, looking very much like a happy family, made me feel momentarily less alone.

I crossed the room to Kevin.

“Hey, Kev.” He glanced up, evidently surprised. He stashed the phone in his pocket, but not quickly enough. He was on Tinder, swiping left and right at our grandfather’s funeral.

“Hey, Clara.” I was too aware of the fact that I knew very little about his present life. He knew little of mine, but that didn’t seem to bother him. We used to be so close. Surely we could have a conversation? I decided to go with the one tactic I was sure would get some kind of response, even if the response was anger.

“So where is Melanie?”

He grimaced. “You know we broke up a month ago. It was all over Facebook.”

“I thought she was just being a little dramatic. You mean you didn’t get back together?”

“No.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” I waited to see if he was going to say more, or ask me anything about myself in return. Silence. I looked down at my shoes and when I looked back up, his blue eyes were shining.

Shit. He was crying. Great job, Clara.

“Damn, I’m sorry Kev. Here.” I reached into my purse and pulled out some tissues. He wiped his eyes furtively.

“You didn’t know. It’s just everything, you know? I can’t believe Grandpa is gone.” I had forgotten that he had actually been close to our grandfather. Those pictures should have reminded me. Kevin, who always seemed so detached, like a younger version of Alan, was really grieving the man we were all here to mourn. I didn’t know what to say. I felt more lost at sea than ever.

“It’s good to see the two of you together again.”

My mother was standing next to us. She and Kevin looked so much alike. Two identical pairs of weeping sea blue eyes gazed back at me. Slowly, tears began sliding down my cheeks too. I knew I was not crying for my grandfather. I would never remember him the way they did: crisp and bright as though they had only sat and laughed with him yesterday. No, I was crying because I was no longer alone.

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