“I was in shock when I received the news,” I said, gazing, not at the open casket before me but at the face of the person beside.
An open casket. There was something horrible about this sort of ceremony. Forcing the living to see the beauty, the handicraft of death, was downright barbaric. I refused to look at it or even acknowledge it.
It was the person, her eyes filled with affection and sadness as she looked down at the body wrapped in black, which drew me to this utterly despicable sight, to this choking stench of decay.
It didn’t matter how many roses she placed over the body of my former schoolmate; the cloying stench remained.
“Hmm?” she replied, distracted. “What did you say, dear?”
“I said, I was in shock when I received the news,” I said, wiping the bead of cold sweat off my forehead. It was incredible, that even after all these years, she gave me goosebumps.
“Were you?” she tore her eyes away to look at me, her warm browns meeting my cool blues. “It didn’t shock me. No, I was expecting it.”
“Why would you?” I asked, surprised.
“You see…it started when we were fifteen. We loved each other…so much, it hurt. The feeling of love was…indescribable to me.”
Her face darkened, suddenly losing the graceful beauty in it.
“Until she came around, of course,” she said quietly. “Better than me. In every aspect. She destroyed him like he was a house of cards in a hurricane. He started his boozing right then.”
She didn’t complete her story. I knew, as well as I knew every inch of her body, what had happened. He started his days as a drug abuser, an alcoholic women beater. In her words: he lost his training as a human being and became as ruthless as a wild animal.
But it wasn’t her pain that moved me. It was…the memories. All those hours we stayed up talking and laughing and crying, being in love with each other. It ached me.
The corpse in front of me was her first love, but I knew I was her soul mate.
“You know, I still felt responsible towards him,” she said. “I mean, we didn’t talk much, but he was pretty decent to me.”
“Come on, you survived because you saw the signs and left him. Just in time,” I said soothingly. “I know how painful it was to you.”
“That’s perhaps the most important and intelligent thing I had done in my short life of forty years,” she said, and admirably, grinned. I felt my heart stutter a little like I was an adolescent boy living out my fantasy instead of the uptight and responsible family man.
“I guess when I die, we’ll have lots to talk about,” she sighed a little, running her hands through her hair, which hung about her, loose, cupping her face gently. As she raised her hand, wrist inward, I caught the scent of her sweet perfume. She still wore that perfume, still carried her habit of dabbing it on her wrists. It was intoxicating, it was mesmerizing. She looked at me. A goddess in front of the decaying flesh, a perfect juxtaposition of life and death.
She smiled at me, warmly, sadly. I smiled back. Nothing had changed, nothing will change, and we will keep this memory, of being in love in the presence of death, right till we join this friend of ours, who looked more peaceful now than he had done before.
“Do you remember the day we were—” she began, but paused. I heard a sound of running footsteps and turned around.
A little girl of eight, red in the face, but clearly enjoying the presence of so many adults, came up to me.
“Mom wants you back. She says her feet are hurting. She wants to go home.”
She turned her eyes towards the love of my life, and added brightly.
“Oh, Aunt Noelle! I haven’t seen you since ages. You have to come by this Christmas.”
“Eloise, you know she can’t,” I said wearily. “She has book tours.”
Her face fell. She smiled at us swiftly, blissfully ignorant, and rushed back. I turned to look at Noelle once again.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?” I asked. She smiled a little, her eyes suddenly bright.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” she replied and shrugged prettily. “See you around.”
But she wasn’t listening anymore. She was a closed mansion once again. The world’s most loved author had failed to draw this story to a close.
I watched her go away silently. A car stood waiting, and she climbed into it, the paparazzi, denied entry into the main venue, went crazy at once with their cameras and greetings. I imagined her wiping her eyes inside the security of her car but somehow couldn’t believe she’d shed tears over me.
With a feeling of complete loss and regret, but also strangely free, I followed my daughter’s steps. My wife’s feet were hurting, and I had no intention of hearing her whine about it. Not right after a funeral and a love affair.