“I know! I know. I’m already embarrassed. It’s . . .” He trailed off as we headed down the street. He was pretending to be focused on driving, but I could tell all of him was focused on this sentence.
Ben sighed, suddenly serious. “I made up the whole fiveweek thing because I was afraid I’d tell you I loved you too soon and you wouldn’t say it back and I’d be embarrassed, and now here I am, I waited all these days to tell you and I . . . I still told you too soon and you didn’t say it back and I’m embarrassed.” He played the end off like a joke, but it wasn’t a joke.
“Hey,” I said, grabbing his arm. He was stopped at a red light. I turned his head and looked him in the eye. “I love you too,” I said. “probably before you did. I’ve been waiting to say it all month, practically.”
His eyes looked glassy, and I couldn’t tell if he was tearing up or he was perfectly fine. either way, he kissed me and held my gaze until the cars behind us honked. Ben immediately started paying attention to the road again.
“I had this whole plan!” He laughed. “I was going to wake up early tomorrow and go into the bathroom and write ‘I love you’ on the mirror with a bar of soap.”
I laughed. “Well, you can still do that tomorrow,” I said, rubbing his hand. “It will mean just as much to me then.”
Ben laughed. “okay then, maybe I will.”and he did. I left it there for days.
I can’t help but feel for susan after her eulogy. she has made me love my husband even more than I did when he was alive.
Susan walks to her place along the grave, and the pastor asks for me to make my way to the front. I can feel myself sweating out of nervousness on top of the sweat already there from the heat.
I pull my heels out of the ground and stand at the top of Ben’s grave. For a minute, I just stare at the box, knowing what is inside, knowing just days earlier that body had put a ring on my finger. knowing even more recently, that body had gotten on a bike and headed up the street to get me cereal. that body loved me.they say that public speaking and death are the top two most stressful events in a person’s life. so I forgive myself for being so scared I almost faint.
“I,” I start. “I . . .” I stop. Where do I even begin? My eye catches the casket in front of me again, and I stop myself from looking at it directly. I will fall to pieces if I keep thinking about what I’m doing. “thank you for coming. For those of you who don’t know me, I want to introduce myself. My name is elsie and I was Ben’s wife.”
I gotta breathe. I just gotta breathe.
“I know that you’ve probably all heard by now that Ben and
I eloped just a few days before he passed away and I . . . know that puts us all in a difficult position. We are strangers to each other, but we share a very real loss. I had only been dating Ben a short while before we got married. I didn’t know him for very long. I admit that. But the short amount of time that I was his wife,” I say, “was the defining part of my life.
“He was a good man with a big heart, and he loved all of you. I’ve heard so many stories about you. I’ve heard, aunt Marilyn, about the time you caught him peeing in your backyard. or Mike, he told me about when you two were little and you used to play cops and robbers, but you both were robbers so there weren’t any cops. these stories were part of why I grew to love him in such a short span of time, and they’re part of what makes me feel so close to all of you.”
I want to look these people in the eye when I say their names, but to tell the truth, I’m not entirely sure which of the older ladies is Marilyn and which of the young men is Mike. My eyes scan the people looking at me and then they move briefly to susan. she has her head down, tucked in her chest.
“I guess I just want you all to know that at the end of his life, he had someone who loved him deeply and purely. He had someone who believed in him. I took good care of him, I promise you I did. and I can tell you, as the last person to see him alive, I can tell you, he was happy. He had found a happy life for himself. He was happy.”
Susan catches my eye as I step back into place. this time she nods and puts her head back down. the pastor steps back up to lead, and my brain drifts to somewhere else, anywhere else but here.
As I stand next to ana, she puts her arm around me and gives me a squeeze. the pastor offers susan and me small shovels to spread dirt on the casket. We both step forward and take them, but susan grabs the dirt with her hand instead and gently throws it on Ben’s casket, so I do the same thing. We stand there, together but separate, side by side, dusting the dirt off our hands. I find myself jealous of the dirt that will get to spend so many years close to Ben’s body. as I dust off the last of the dirt and susan starts to move back toward her place in the crowd, our hands graze each other, pinkies touching. out of reflex, I freeze, and when I do, she grabs my hand, if only for a split second, and squeezes it, never looking at me. For one second, we are together in this, and then she goes back to her spot and I retreat to mine. I want to run up to her. I want to hug her and say, “look at what we could be to each other.” But I don’t.
I head back to the car and try to ready myself for the next phase of this day. I break it down into baby steps in my head. I just need to sit here in the front seat as ana drives us to susan’s house. I just have to put one foot out of the door after she parks. then the other foot. I just have to not cry as I head into her home. I just have to give a consternated smile to the other mourners as we walk in together. that’s as far as I get before we are parked outside of susan’s house, one in a long line of cars against the sidewalk. do the neighbors know? are they looking at this invasion on their street and thinking, poor susan ross. she lost her son now too?
I get out of the car and straighten my dress. I take off my hat with the veil and leave it on the front seat of ana’s car. she sees me do this and nods.
“Too dramatic for interiors,” she says.
If I open my mouth I will cry and spill my feelings all over this sidewalk. I simply nod and tighten my lips, willing the knot in my throat to recede, to let me do this. I tell myself I can cry all night. I can cry for the rest of my life, if I can just get through this.
When I find myself in front of susan’s house, I am shocked at the sheer size of it. It’s too big for one person; that much is obvious from the street. My guess is she knows that already, feels it every day. It’s a spanish-style house in a brilliant shade of white. at night, it must serve as a moon for the whole block. the roof is a deep brown with terra cotta shingles. the windows are huge. Bright, tropical-looking flowers are all over her front lawn. this house isn’t just expensive; it takes a lot of upkeep.
“Jesus, what did she do? Write Harry potter?” ana says as we stare at it.
“Ben didn’t grow up crazy rich. this all must be recent,” I say, and then we walk up the brick steps to susan’s open front door. the minute I cross the threshold, I’m thrown into the middle of it.
It’s a bustling house now full of people. Caterers in black pants and white shirts are offering people things like salmon mousse and shrimp ceviche on blue tortilla chips. I see a woman walk by me with a fried macaroni and cheese ball, and I think, If I ate food, that’s what I’d eat. not this seafood crap. Who serves seafood at a funeral reception? I mean, probably everyone. But I hate seafood, and I hate this funeral reception.
Ana grabs my hand and pulls me through the crowd. I don’t know what I was expecting from this reception, so I don’t know whether I’m disappointed or not.
Finally, we make our way to susan. she is in her kitchen, her beautiful, ridiculously stocked kitchen, and she is speaking to the caterers about the timing of various dishes and where things are located. she’s so kind and understanding. she says things like “don’t worry about it. It’s just some salsa on the carpet. I’m sure it will come out.” and “Make yourself at home. the downstairs bathroom is around the corner to the right.”
The guest bathroom. I want to see the guest bathroom. How do I run upstairs and find it without her knowing? Without being terribly rude and thoughtless. I just want to see his handwriting. I just want to see new evidence that he was alive. ana squeezes my hand and asks me if I want a drink. I decline, and so she makes her way over to the bar area without me. suddenly, I am standing in the middle of a funeral dedicated to my husband, and yet, I am not a part of it. I do not know anyone here. everyone is walking around me, talking next to me, looking at me. I am the enigma to them. I am not a part of the Ben they knew. some of them stare and then smile when I catch them. others don’t even see me. or maybe they are just better at staring. susan comes out from the kitchen.