I knock lightly on her door, and she opens it immediately. “Hello, elsie,” she says. she is wearing fitted dark jeans with a thick belt, a gray shirt under a brown cardigan. she looks younger than her sixty years, in shape, healthy, but nonetheless, in grave distress. she has been crying, that much is clear. Her hair doesn’t look brushed or blow-dried as usual. she’s not wearing makeup. she looks raw.
“Hi, susan,” I say as I walk in.
“What can I do for you?” Her hotel room is more like a hotel apartment. she has a large balcony and a sitting room filled with cream-colored everything. the carpet looks soft under my shoes, too delicate to walk on, and yet, I’m not at home enough in her company to suggest I take them off. I get the impression she’d like me to walk on eggshells around her, apologize for my very existence, and the carpet practically forces me to do just that.
“I . . .” I start. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to try for small talk in a situation like this or if it’s better to just go right into it. How can you go right into it when the “it” is the remains of your husband? the remains of her son?
“I met with Mr. pavlik this morning,” I say. It seems close enough to the point without directly hitting the mark.
“Good,” she says, leaning back against her couch. she is not sitting down. she is not inviting me to take a seat. she does not want me to be here long, and yet, I don’t know how to make this a short conversation. I decide to just come out with it.
“Ben wanted to be buried. I thought that we discussed this,” I say.
She shifts her body slightly, casually, as if this conversation is not a big deal to her, as if it doesn’t terrify her the way it terrifies me. that’s how I know she has no intention of hearing me out. she’s not worried she’s not going to get her way.
“Get to the point, elsie,” she says. she runs her hands through her long brown hair. It has streaks of gray near the top, barely noticeable unless you’re staring at her like I am.
“Mr. pavlik says that Ben’s body is still to be cremated.”
“It is.” she nods, not offering any other explanation. Her candid voice, free from emotion, turmoil, and pain, is starting to piss me off. Her composure feels like spit in my face.
“It’s not what he wanted, susan. I’m telling you, that’s not what he wanted. doesn’t that matter to you at all?” I say. I am trying to be respectful to the mother of the man that I love. “don’t you care what Ben would have wanted?”
Susan crosses her arms in front of her and shifts her weight. “elsie, don’t tell me about my own son, okay? I raised him. I know what he wanted.”
“You don’t, actually. you don’t know! I had this conversation with him two months ago.”
“And I’ve had conversations with him about this his entire life. I am his mother. I didn’t just happen to meet him a few months before he died. Who the hell do you think you are to tell me about my own son?”
“I am his wife, susan. I don’t know how else to say it.”
It doesn’t sit well.
“I’ve never heard of you!” she says, as she throws her hands in the air. “Where is the marriage certificate? I don’t know you, and here you are, trying to tell me what to do with my only child’s remains? Give me a break, seriously. you are a small footnote in my son’s life. I am his mother!”
“I get that you’re his mother—”
She inches forward ever so slightly as she interrupts me, her finger pointed now toward my face. Her composure drains out of her body, the poise flees from her face. “listen to me. I don’t know you and I don’t trust you. But my son’s body will be cremated, elsie. Just like his father’s and like his grandparents’. and the next time you get the idea to try to tell me what to do about my own son, you might want to think twice.”
“You gave this to me to do, susan! you couldn’t deal with it yourself and you pushed it onto me! First you try to stop me from even getting his wallet and keys, keys that are to my own home, by the way, and then you suddenly turn and push all of this off on me. and then, when I try to do it, you try to control it from behind the scenes. you haven’t even left los angeles. you don’t need to stay in this hotel, susan. you can drive back to orange County and be there by dinner. Why are you even still here?” I don’t give her a chance to answer. “you want to torture yourself because Ben didn’t tell you he got married? Then do it! I don’t care! But don’t keep going back and forth like this. I can’t take it.”
“I really don’t care what you can take, elsie,” susan says. “Believe it or not, I don’t much care.”
I try to remind myself that this is a woman in pain. this is a woman that has lost the last family member she had.
“Susan, you can try to deny it all you want. you can think I’m a crazy lunatic who is lying to you. you can cling to the idea that your son would never do anything without you, but that doesn’t stop the fact that I did marry him and he did not want to be cremated. don’t have his body burned because you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you, elsie. I simply—”
Now it’s my turn to cut her off. “yes, you do, susan. you hate me because I’m the only one left to hate. If you thought you were doing a good job of hiding that, you’re wrong.”
She stares at me and I stare right back at her. I don’t know what has given me the courage to be honest. I’m not a person inclined to stare anyone else down. nevertheless, I hold her gaze, my lips pursed and tight, my brows weighted down on my face. Maybe she thinks I’m going to turn and walk away. I don’t know. It takes so long for her to speak that the break in the silence is almost startling.
“Even if everything is as you say it is,” she says. “even if you two were married, and the marriage certificate is on its way, and you were the love of his life—”
“I was,” I interrupt her.
She barely listens. “even so, how long were you married to him, elsie? two weeks?” I work hard to breathe in and then breathe out. I can feel the lump in my throat rising. I can feel the blood in my brain beating. she continues. “I hardly think two weeks proves anything,” she says.
I think about turning around and just leaving her there. that’s what she wants. But I don’t do it. “you wanna know something else about your son? He would be livid, to see what you’re doing. Heartbroken and positively livid.”
I leave her hotel room without saying good-bye. as I walk out the door, I look behind me to see a dirt stain the size of my shoe on her pristine white carpet.
Two hours later, Mr. pavlik calls to tell me susan has taken over burial plans.
“Burial plans?” I ask, not sure if he is mistaken.
There is a pause, and then he confirms. “Burial plans.”
I wish it felt like a victory but it doesn’t. “so what do I need to do?” I ask.
He clears his throat and his voice becomes tight. “uh,” he says. “I don’t believe anything else is required of you, elsie. I have Mrs. ross here and she has decided to take care of the rest.”
I don’t know how I feel about this. except tired. I feel tired.
“Okay,” I say to him. “thank you.” I hang up the phone and set it down on the dining room table.
“Susan kicked me out of the funeral planning,” I tell ana. “But she’s having him buried. not cremated.”
Ana looks at me, unsure of how to react. “Is that good or bad?”
“Good?” I say. “It’s good.” It is good. His body is safe. I did my job. Why am I so sad? I didn’t want to pick out a casket. I didn’t want to choose flowers. and yet, I have lost something. I have lost a part of him.
I call Mr. pavlik right back.
“It’s elsie,” I say when he answers. “I want to speak.”
“I want to speak at his funeral.”
“Oh, certainly. I’ll speak to Mrs. ross about it.”
“No,” I say sternly. “I am speaking at the funeral.”