“You are the coolest person in the world. Just hands down. the coolest,” he said.
It was pitch dark as our eyes slowly adjusted, and then there was a buzz and small flash of light. It was my phone.
“He’s stIll tHere?” ana had texted.
I turned off my phone.
“Ana, I presume,” Ben said, and I confirmed. “she must be wondering who the hell I am.”
“She’ll know soon enough,” I said. He put his finger under my chin and lifted my head toward his. I kissed him. then I kissed him again. I kissed him harder.Within seconds our hands, arms, and pieces of clothing went flying. His skin felt warm and soft, but his body felt sturdy.
“Oh!” I said.“the parking meter. did you put enough money in? What if you get a ticket?”
He pulled me back to him. “I’ll take the ticket,” he said. “I don’t want to stop touching you.”
As we rolled around each other, I somehow kept to my word. I did not sleep with him that night. I wanted to. It was difficult not to. Both of our bodies pleaded with me to change my mind, but I didn’t. I’m not sure how I didn’t. But I didn’t.
I don’t remember when I fell asleep, but I do remember Ben whispering, “I’m not sure if you’re still awake, but . . . thank you, elsie. this is the first time I’ve been too excited to go to sleep since I was a kid.”
I tried to keep my eyes shut, but my mouth couldn’t help but smile wide when I heard him.
“I can see you smiling,” he whispered, half laughing. I didn’t open my eyes, teasing him.
“Okay,” he said, pulling me closer to him. “two can play at that game.”
When he left for work the next morning, I saw him take the ticket off his windshield and laugh.
The building is cold. the air is crisp and almost sharp. I wonder if they keep it so cold because there are dead bodies here. then I remember that Ben’s body must be here. My husband is now a dead body. I used to find dead things repulsive and now my husband is one of them.
Ana and I are called into the office of Mr. richard pavlik.
He is a tall, thin man with a face that’s generic except for the fact that it has a huge mustache across it. He looks to be about sixty.
It’s stuffy in Mr. pavlik’s office. I have to imagine that people are here during the worst times of their lives, so why Mr. pavlik can’t just take the extra step and make it comfortable, I’ll never know. even these chairs are terrible.they’re low to the ground and oddly sunken in. My center of gravity is basically at my knees.
I try to sit forward in the chair and listen to him drone on and on about the trivial parts of my husband’s death, but my back starts to hurt and I sit back in the chair. as I do, I worry the angle is unbecoming of a lady. It looks careless and comfortable, which I am not. I am neither of those things. I sit back up, rest my hands on my knees, and grin and bear it. that is pretty much my plan for the rest of my life.
“Mr. pavlik, with all due respect,” I interrupt him. “Ben did not want to be cremated. He wanted to be buried.”
“Oh,” he says, looking down at the pages in front of him. “Mrs. ross indicated a cremation.”
“I’m Mrs. ross,” I say.
“I’m sorry, I meant the senior Mrs. ross.” He scrunches his face slightly. “anyway, elsie,” he says. I can’t help but feel rejected slightly. I am not Mrs. ross to him and he does not know my maiden name, so he’s jumped right to first names. “In this case, Mrs. ross is the next of kin.”
“No, richard,” I say sternly. If he can take away my last name, I can take away his. “I am the next of kin. I am Ben’s wife.”
“I don’t mean to argue otherwise, elsie. I simply have no record of that.”
“So you’re saying that because I don’t have a marriage certificate yet, I am not next of kin?”
richard pavlik shakes his head. “In situations like this, where there is a question of who is the next of kin, I have to go by official documents. I don’t have anyone else close to Ben who can confirm that you two were married, and when I looked into marital records, there was no evidence of it. I hope you understand I’m in a difficult spot.”
Ana sits forward in her chair and moves her hand into a fist on richard’s desk.
“I hope you understand that elsie just got married and lost her husband within the same ten days, and instead of being on her honeymoon on some far-off private beach she’s sitting here with you implying to her grieving face that she’s not married at all.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. . . .” richard is uncomfortable and doesn’t remember ana’s last name.
“Romano” she says, angrily.
“Ms. romano. I really don’t mean to make this uncomfort
Able or unpleasant for anyone. I am so sorry for your loss. all I ask is that you have a conversation with Mrs. ross about this, because legally, I have to take my orders from her. again, I am truly sorry for your loss.”
“let’s just move on. I’ll talk to susan about the cremation later. What else do I need to go over today?” I say.
“Well, elsie. everything hinges on what is to be done with the body.”
Don’t call it the body, you ass**le. that’s my husband. that’s the body that held me when I cried, the body that grabbed my left hand as it drove us to the movies. that’s the body that made me feel alive, made me feel crazy, made me cry and shake with joy. It’s lifeless now, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on it.
“Fine, richard. I’ll talk to susan and call you this afternoon.”
richard gathers up the papers on his desk and stands to see us out. He grabs his card and hands it to me. When I don’t take it, he offers it to ana, and she takes it gracefully, tucking it into her back pocket.
“Thank you so much for your time,” he says as he opens the door for us.
“Fu—,” I start to say to him as I am walking out the door. I plan on slamming it when I’m done. But ana interrupts me and squeezes my hand gently to let me know I need to cool it. she takes over.
“Thank you, richard. We will be in touch soon. In the meantime, please get back on the phone with the marital records people and sort this out,” she says.
She shuts the door behind her and smiles at me. the circumstances aren’t funny, but it is kind of funny that I almost told that man to f**k off. For a moment, I think we might both actually laugh—something I haven’t done in days. But the moment passes and I don’t have it in me to push the air out and smile.
“Are we going to talk to susan?” ana says as we are heading to the car.
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess we are.” at least this makes me feel like I have a purpose, however small. I have to protect Ben’s wishes. I have to protect the body that did so much to protect me.
At work the next day, my thoughts oscillated between focusing on tasks at hand and daydreaming. I had to promise ana I’d drive over to her place after work to explain my absence, and I kept replaying in my head how I was going to describe him. It was always her talking to me about men and me listening. now that I knew it would be me talking and her listening, I almost felt like I needed to practice.
I was physically present but mentally absent when Mr. Callahan cornered me. “elsie?” he said, as he approached the counter.
Mr. Callahan was almost ninety years old. He wore polyester trousers every day in either gray or khaki. He wore a button-up shirt in some sort of plaid pattern with a cream-colored Members only jacket to cover it.
Mr. Callahan kept tissues in his pants pockets. He kept Chapstick in his jacket pocket, and he always said “Bless you” whenever anyone within a fifty-foot radius sneezed. He came to the library almost every day, coming and going, sometimes multiple times a day. some days, he would read magazines and newspapers in the back room until lunchtime, when he would check out a book to take home to his wife. other days, he would come in the late afternoon to return a book and pick up a black-and-white movie on vHs or maybe some sort of opera I had never heard of on Cd.
He was a man of culture, a man of great kindness and personality. He was a man devoted to his wife, a wife we at the library never met but heard everything about. He was also very old, and I sometimes feared he was on his last legs.