How to Sit Shiva


Until recently I’d never been completely sold on the use of second person in this piece. It’s a device I’ll sometimes use to get started with highly emotional work, but while most other projects with that starting point eventually shift to first or third person, this never felt right in those more conventional boxes. It wasn’t until after starting therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder and getting a clearer understanding of dissociation that the stylistic choice really came into focus. It was always there, which is why it was always resistant to different POVs, but having that concept front-of-mind helped sharpen the emotional through line of the narrative. Dissociation is a common method for people with mental illness to deal with powerful emotional turmoil, and my goal was to mirror the way that it creates a sense of distance from the true depth of the emotions without entirely masking their intensity.

Pull up to your brother’s house. Confirm the return ride a week from today and tip the cab driver too much to ensure he’ll remember. When you walk in the house, console Mom and Dad. Wish that Barry’s memory be a blessing. Try really hard to be sincere. Try really hard to believe it. Dodge their questions about your current level of observance. Tell them you’re here for their and Nicole’s sake. Remind them how much Barry hated this shit. Still, for the next seven days, don’t shave. Don’t bathe or change your clothes. Take off your shoes before you enter the house.

Silently mouth the prayers and don’t let on how surprised you are to remember most of them.

Notice that everyone’s clothes have been torn. Curse under your breath because you wore your favorite suit, which happens to be the most expensive piece of clothing you own. Sigh, and carefully tear the seam along the right side of your coat pocket. Put a reminder in your phone to call a tailor when you get back.

Sit on the floor, next to Nicole. Don’t bother bullshitting her with the sympathy card line, but put your hand on her shoulder for a while. Give it a little squeeze when you feel it start to shake. Look around the house and try to imagine everything as Barry saw it. Ignore the poorly concealed burn markings snaking their way up the kitchen walls. Focus on the candle and portrait of Barry against the far wall. Smirk, because you knew they’d use a picture at least three years old. Notice the immaculate, framed high school degree hanging next to the picture and wonder if Barry would have even received it if he hadn’t rushed into the kitchen the morning of tests beseeching you with, “Teach me how to study,” until you relented and gave him the bare minimum of guidance. Settle in for a long week.

Sit in uncomfortable silence, which occasionally gets broken by a consoling neighbor at the door, arms full of food. Wonder how much you’re missing at work. Complete every Sudoku on your phone. Consider keeping the beard once this is done. For six days, think about everything except the thing you’re there to think about.

On the last day, try not to look at the clock too often. Make sure you’re pretending to stretch your neck when you do. When Nicole lights a stick of the same incense Barry used as cover during high school, relent. Close your eyes tight, because that smell, the smell of his old room, drags Barry to the front of your mind more forcefully than any picture or old story. Try to remember whatever good times the two of you had. The time he picked you up from school in your mom’s minivan when he was fourteen, how he said he’d do it every so often if you didn’t snitch. The time you and your cousins hot-boxed the bathroom at your family reunion with your grandparents asleep in the next room over. The time your family got stuck in Florida during a hurricane, how you and Barry ran bare-ass-naked and screaming into the worst of it. Don’t linger on how the adrenaline coursed through you, because this will only make you remember Barry, red-eyed and shaking as he sucked on a cigarette like it would dissolve between his lips if he wasn’t quick. This will only make you wonder how close you really came to crossing the same lines he did. Consider where exactly those lines are, what constitutes the difference between sitting here with six-days-thick stubble instead of where Barry is. Realize that you don’t particularly care.

Leave the house after the seventh day. Pretend you want your parents to visit you. Pretend you’ll visit your parents. Don’t look back as the cab pulls away.

Robert S. Hillery graduated from Knox College with a degree in creative writing and currently lives and works in Chicago. In a former life he managed high-rise apartment buildings, and in the current one he temps and goes to therapy for borderline personality disorder. He can be found on Twitter @R_Hillery312.