"Reunion" & "Happy Family"

Diana Reed

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Diana Reed’s work speaks of close familial ties. When bonds are severed without warning, how do those left behind reshape their lives? These contrasting pieces offer a tender portrayal of grief, exploring the hard space between holding on and moving forward.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”


The deepest water transmits sound very slowly, and light not at all. So it’s the pressure that you’d feel, the need of the world to compress your cells into an efficient form, better attuned to the gelatinous animals floating around you.
            At least this is how I imagine your final moments. You were a clinical man, even in the midst of catastrophe. 
            But as with many things between us, I’ve probably gotten this wrong. You’d correct me, “Sensory processing would stop before a body reached those depths. You’re romanticizing. Think through the science.” 
            But herein lies the problem, Dad. There is no body—no narrative, nothing to explain. You built your career on methodical explanations of mystery and chaos. So I refuse to consign you to an unknown fate, you the outside expert, forensic “friend of the court” whose pronouncements held such authority. 
            All I have is an empty boat, so I am entitled to my own versions.
            Most days, I go with an accident. It was stormy; you rowed out in your skiff. You had become contrary in your later years, and you liked to refute the warnings of others, even though you hated it when they didn’t heed yours.
            Some nights, when only the moon and I are awake, I reach implausible conclusions. Maybe you are somewhere sipping fruity drinks and reading your books. So I update you on the news, ask you what I should make for dinner. When your newborn grandson wakes, I include him in the conversation as if the three of us are chatting. 
            On moonless nights I imagine that you stripped to your boxers, goose-pimpled in the cold, and dove. You’d left us the empty boat as a message: fuck you, goodbye. Did you take precautions—anchor yourself to ballast? Did you have second thoughts? 
            I can’t linger on this logical path, even if it leads to the truth.
            I can promise I’ll get serious, do something practical. Teach a few art classes to the vacationers. Paint watercolors at the port and hawk them by the water’s edge. 
            Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Tell me where to find you. I’ll be here on the dock, waiting. I have your shoes and your wallet. How far can you go?  

Happy Family

When I date men, I’m interviewing dads. My friends say to take it slow; Jake’s only been dead six months. But I never said I could do this alone. Jake was kind, funny, well-organized—a great dad. Who would have known he was a time bomb? A little softness around the middle, those sleep circles under the eyes, but a walker, a biker, someone who ate vegetables. Dead of an aneurysm at 39.
            I arrange to meet this guy at our favorite Chinese restaurant. Mine and Jake’s, that is. I guess that sets the stakes high, but at least I’m not wasting anyone’s time. I spot him sitting by a window. He’s scruffier than he looked online, which comes as a relief. My friend Greta said we’d be perfect together, but I wasn’t sure. I’ve never trusted good-looking guys. With that blue oxford and jovial smile, he looked like he was ready to seal a business deal. But his eyes are brown, different from Jake’s blue: a baseline requirement. In person, he seems more relaxed—short-sleeved button-down shirt, no tie. A polite, but not fussy, first date choice. It looks soft with a nubby texture, not stiff or shiny. I’m a sculptor, and I hate the way synthetics feel on the fingers. 
            “Julia?” He stands and extends his hand. “Franklin.” Warm, medium-range voice. 
            We settle in with our menus. I try to lose myself in the descriptions, but he leans forward and says, “I’ve seen your work.” 
            He means the 10-foot-high dung beetle I constructed back in art school. It’s the only piece anyone ever asks me about. The dung pile was my crowning achievement, its heap set with moonstones on a background of iridescent browns. The park department said my stones would be scratched out, hacked, destroyed—but I guess it takes a lot for anyone to dig through a dung pile, even a sculptural one. 
            “You still do works like that?” he asks. His menu shakes slightly in his grip.
            “Not for a long time,” I say, swirling my straw. I’m tempted to make a snake out of the wrapper, but I don’t. My last show took place before Kylie was born, four years ago, and my admin job at the gallery doesn’t offer much fodder for conversation.
            I ask him about his work and let him carry the thread for a while. Under the table, I slip off one pump and rub the blister that is already forming. I gave up on eyeliner after trying the one I found crumbling at the bottom of a drawer. It must have been older than Kylie, who said I looked like a robber when I put it on. So I rubbed most of it off. I don’t believe in false advertising anyway.
            He asks what I like here. But we always order the same few things: noodles for the kids, Jake’s Happy Family, and whatever I’m in the mood for. 
            “The dumplings are supposed to be good,” I say. Jake hated dumplings. They felt vulnerable to him, embryonic in their thin little sacs.
            “’Supposed to be?’” he says. “I thought you came here a lot.”
            I laugh it off, uncomfortable. This shouldn’t be so hard. Maybe my friends were right; I’m not ready for this.
            The waiter arrives, and we order separately. Franklin talks about neighborhoods, property values, gentrification. The waiter dumps a soggy plate of dumplings on our table. I gear up for one of my longer tales about the kids, just to feel him out, but he goes into a detailed description of tax law.  Somewhere into an analysis of time limits and loopholes, I lose the thread. I’m wondering how long I can spend in the bathroom, realistically, until he leaves, when he says, “Any questions?”
            He’s looking at me like I just rounded up on my claims adjustments—something I never imagined anything wrong with doing until this moment.
            “Sorry?” I try to pick out a piece of scallion lodged between my teeth, hoping to pass it off as an embarrassed hand wave.
            “I just described people who defrauded the government. They think it’s a victimless crime. Do you disagree? Or were you not paying attention? Or is it me?”  He’s ready to check these things off. Literally. He has this little notebook out, and his pencil is poised.
            “I don’t know. Is this some kind of screening?” I lean forward to get a look.
            “Of course not,” he says, sitting back and withdrawing the notebook. “But it’s better to clear these things up early.”
            “Is it?” I ask. My trajectory with Jake was anything but carefully planned. Classmates, friends, lovers, roommates, parents. Each step just arose from the last, like waves to the shore.
            “Yes,” he says. “People pay taxes on everything—products, services, their own labor. But if they think about it at all, it’s maybe once a year. Then they demonize auditors who are just trying to make sure the system’s fair.” His voice rises with his hands.
            I see he’s just warming up to his subject, so I say, “Let me see that.” He pulls the notebook away like he’s Nick, my two-year-old. I reach for it again, and I manage to grab a corner of it and he holds on. He looks at me like I’m a lunatic and he might need help to deal with me, and then I laugh and let go, and the notebook falls on the table. The waiter comes to check on our meal, and we act nice for him and say everything is fine.
            He picks up the notebook and flips through it, trying to find his place. 
            “Well, what does it say? If you won’t let me see it.” Maybe I’m being childish, but he did write something about me. I stab a dumpling with my fork and gut it before taking a bite.
            “It’s nothing—just a record I keep.”
            “You meet a lot of people this way?” 
            He leans back and closes the notebook. Rests both hands on the table and then gestures at me like I’m a witness on the stand.
            “Julia. 35. Recently widowed, two children under the age of five. Artistic. Ready for commitment. Enjoys. . .” He has to glance at the notebook for this.  “Powerball?”
            “I don’t really enjoy anything. But they don’t let you leave it blank.”  What I enjoy now is numbness, just a few drinks after the kids are in bed, then I fall asleep, sometimes on the couch. Maybe once or twice I’ve woken up on the floor. Nothing that’s out of control; nothing that anyone needs to know. My dad was a loud, messy drunk we all had to cover for. I’d never be like that. I stir my ice cubes around in my water glass. It is covered with condensation. Nick calls them “dew drops,” and he likes to lick them off my fingers. Jake always tried to stop us in restaurants. The two of us were the bad kids. 
            “Seriously? Did you try?”
            I nod, licking the dewdrops off my fingers myself.
            “Why are you dating?” he asks. He watches me sip the drops, but he doesn’t seem annoyed. He picks up his water glass and turns it, watching the liquid risk the edge.

It’s a fair question. My friends asked it as well, five months to the day since Jake died. That night, three of them discovered me heaving boxes of his letters and architectural drawings to the curb. 
            They picked up the boxes and guided me back into the house. I offered wine. Then I asked, “You know any guys?” My voice was harsh over the sounds of Nick’s sleep, weirdly amplified by the baby monitor. “When your dog dies, everyone tells you to get a new puppy, right? A cute one.” They exchanged glances. Since the day Jake died, everyone had been waiting for me to crack. My friends were ready for it; they probably each had roles planned out. But I hadn’t been able to satisfy them. I needed a distraction, not a wallow. 
            Naomi picked up the glasses. Bridget cleared the table. Greta helped me fill out the profile and filter through the responses that arrived. I had done the same for her a couple of years back with the sperm donor registry. My classifications had narrowed things down quickly: too nerdy, too pretty, too awkward. So she repaid the favor. I couldn’t say I was as certain about her tastes as she’d been about mine. Her twins, Delilah and Jamison, were perfect. They had smiled, gurgled, and slept their way through the first six months of life. This guy, on the other hand?

I start cutting a piece of meat up into little squares until I catch myself. “Do you always test women on dates? Has that worked out for you?”
            He sighs, double-dipping his chicken in the peanut sauce.  “People have all kinds of ideas about auditors. You’d be amazed.” 
            He has a dab of sauce next to his lip, and it helps even more with the groomed look. Maybe he was just trying too hard in his dressy profile picture, his enthusiastic emails. “So why did you stop screening me?” I move some stray hair back from my face to get a better look at him.
            “It wasn’t working anyway. You weren’t even trying to listen. Also—” he looks across the restaurant, away from me.
            “Maybe I figured there was no point.” He looks back at me, checking my reaction. 
            But it seems reasonable. So we eat. It turns out there’s a movie and theater section of the notebook. He writes movie reviews for a local magazine. I may have read one. We talk about directors we like, movies we hate.
            I like the way that he eats. It reminds me of Nick and his train track mazes, broken sections going nowhere, all in a happy muddle.
            I ask again about the tax thing, only partly to be nice, and he says he goes after rich people who cheat on their taxes.
            “So, you’re like the Robin Hood of the IRS?” I ask, and he laughs. It’s a pleasant, comfortable sound, one I could get used to around a fire. 
            “So who would your ideal guy really be?” he asks. I can’t remember what I wrote on the profile. Ché maybe, if I was feeling rebellious?
            “Raffi would be my first choice for a life partner. But I don’t think he’s available,” I say.
            He hasn’t heard of Raffi, so I sing him a few lines: “All I really need / is a song in my heart / food in my belly / Love / in my family.”  I tell him how I’ve always been on the lookout for the worst-case scenario. My plan is, if I’m ever beaten and raped and left for dead, I’ll try to get a few lines of that song going in my head before the lights go out for me. I’m not being ironic. I love that song. At least maybe I’ll have that moment, one that my mind has full control over. And then I think how Jake did not. Forget goodbyes to the family—he  didn’t have time for a last thought. 
            And suddenly I’m telling him about Jake. How he loved mushrooms in anything, raw or cooked. How he planned to travel to Peru and hike the mountains. The fact that he wanted kids, and he chose me to be their mother. The way he sneezed too loud, picked his teeth at meals, and whined about his baseball team, topped off by the whole dropping-dead-on-me thing, and before I know it I’m crying, and he’s walking me out of the restaurant to the curb.
            People fill the sidewalks, the glow of Saturday on their faces.  A hard summer rain began while we were in the restaurant, and couples huddle together under umbrellas, laughing as they navigate around puddles. Suddenly, I don’t want to be alone, and I look at him with that feeling on my face. 
            I can see how it will go. He’ll live in a high rise, and his apartment will be spare, but clean, with a smell of rug cleaner and eggs. I’ll rush things, trying to force some feeling out of myself. So I’ll fumble with his buttons in the hallway, and it’ll be over before we reach the bedroom. I’ll feel guilty, like I just cheated on Jake and couldn’t confess even if I wanted to. I’ll locate my earrings and my underwear, make an excuse, and leave. He’ll call a few times, and I won’t pick up. Eventually I’ll see his profile pop back up next to mine: a match.
            But he hails me a cab. When it pulls over, he rips off a page from his notebook and hands it to me. “Let me know if you need tax advice. I’m good at what I do.”
            “Thanks,” I say, and he shuts the door behind me.  His face looks odd through the rain on the glass, distorted like a dream-memory. I feel as if there was something I forgot to say and I should make up something to ask him, just to see him for another minute, and then it’s too late. The cab is speeding through the streets, and as it hits the potholes I start to enjoy getting jolted around, feeling the ground under the wheels. I roll down the window to feel the rain on my face, and it slaps my cheeks, hard. I taste water, metal, salt. The rough air chafes my throat. I close my eyes to feel each drop over again.

Diana Reed lives in Chicago, where she works as a mixed-methods researcher in the field of education. Her work has appeared in the Masters Review, Blue Earth Review, The Nottingham Review (UK), Bartleby Snopes, and Six Sentences. Her novel, Emergence, envisions a post-climate change world in which a team of women scientists seek to restore their civilization’s access to seed stock. Read about Diana’s work at diana-reed.com.

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