He laughed. He wasn’t overly interested or desperate. He wasn’t aloof or cool either, he just . . . was. I don’t know whether he was this way with all women, whether he was able to talk to any woman as if he’d known her for years, or whether it was just me. But it didn’t matter. It was working. “oh, it’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not even going to try for your number. Girl compliments your eyes, your hair, your beard, your arms, your name, that means she’s open to a date. Girl compliments your shirt? you’re getting shot down.”
“Wait—that’s not—” I started, but I was interrupted.
“Ben ross!” the cashier called out, and he jumped up. He looked right at me and said, “Hold that thought.”
He paid for his pizza, thanked the cashier genuinely, and then came and sat right back down next to me on the bench.
“Anyway, I’m thinking if I ask you out, I’m going to be shot down.am I going to be shot down?”
No, he was absolutely not going to be shot down. But I was now embarrassed and trying hard not to seem eager. I smiled wide at him, unable to keep the canary feathers in my mouth. “your pizza is going to get cold,” I told him.
He waved me off. “I’m over this pizza. Give it to me straight. Can I have your number?”
There it was. do-or-die time. How to say it without screaming it with all of the nervous energy in my body? “you can have my number. It’s only fair.”
“Elsie Porter!” the cashier yelled. apparently, she had been calling it for quite a while, but Ben and I were too distracted to hear much of anything.
“Oh! sorry, that’s me. uh . . . just wait here.”
He laughed, and I walked up to pay for my pizza. When I came back, he had his phone out. I gave him my number and I took his.
“I’m going to call you soon, if that’s okay. or should I do the wait-three-days thing? Is that more your style?”
“No, go for it,” I said, smiling. “the sooner the better.”
He put out his hand to shake and I took it.
“Elsie,” I said, and for the first time, I thought the name Ben sounded like the finest name I’d ever heard. I smiled at him. I couldn’t help it. He smiled back and tapped his pizza. “Well, until then.”
I nodded. “until then,” I said, and I walked back to my car. Giddy.
I tear the Georgie’s magnet off the refrigerator and try to rip it in half, but I can’t get it to succumb to my weak fingers. It just bends and stretches. I realize the futility of what I’m doing, as if removing this magnet, destroying this magnet, will ease my pain in any way. I put it back on the refrigerator door and I dial susan.
She answers on the second ring.
“Susan? Hi. It’s elsie.”
“Hi. Can you meet this afternoon to go over arrangements?” “arrangements?” I hadn’t really thought about what susan would want to talk about. arrangements hadn’t even occurred to me. now, as I let it register, I realize that of course there are arrangements.there are things to plan, carefully calculated ways to grieve. you can’t even mourn in peace. you must do it through american customs and civilities. the next few days will be full of obituaries and eulogies. Coffins and caterers. I’m shocked she’s even contemplating me being a part of them.
“Sure. absolutely,” I say, trying to inject some semblance of get-up-and-go into my voice. “Where should I meet you?”
“I’m staying at the Beverly Hilton,” she says and she tells me where it is, as if I haven’t lived in los angeles for years.
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t realize you were staying in town.” she lives two hours away. she can’t at least stay in her own city? leave this one to me?
“There’s a lot to take care of, elsie. We can meet at the bar downstairs.” Her voice is curt, uninterested, and cold. I tell her I will meet her there at three. It’s almost one. “Whatever is convenient for you,” she says and gets off the phone.
None of this is convenient for me. What would be convenient for me is to fall asleep and never wake up. that’s what would be convenient for me. What would be convenient for me is to be at work right now because everything is fine and Ben will be home tonight for dinner around seven and we’re having tacos. that’s convenient for me. talking to the motherin-law I met yesterday about funeral arrangements for my dead husband isn’t convenient for me no matter what time it happens in the afternoon.
I get back in bed, overwhelmed by everything I need to do before I meet with her. I’ll need to shower, to get dressed, to get in the car, to drive, to park. It’s too much. When ana comes back, I’m in tears with gratitude because I know she will take care of everything.
I arrive at the hotel a few minutes late. ana goes to park the car and says she’ll be in the lobby. she says to text her if I need her. I walk into the bar area and scan for susan. It’s cold in this bar despite being warm outside. I hate air-conditioning. I moved here to be warm. the room is brand-new but made to look old. there’s a chalkboard menu behind the bar that’s too clean to be from the era the decorator would like you to believe. the stools are reminiscent of a speakeasy, but they aren’t cracked and worn. they look pristine and unused. this is the age we live in; we are able to have nostalgia for things made yesterday. I would have loved this bar last week, when I liked things cool and clean. now I hate it for being false and inauthentic.
I finally spot susan sitting at a high table in the back. she
Is reading the menu, head down, hand covering her face. she glances up and spots me. as we look at each other for a moment, I can see that her eyes are swollen and red but her face means business.
“Hi,” I say as I sit down. she does not get up to greet me. “Hi,” she says as she adjusts herself in her seat. “I stopped by
Ben’s apartment last night to try to—”
“Off santa Monica Boulevard. I talked to his roommate and he told me that Ben moved out last month.”
“Right,” I say.
“He said Ben moved in with a girl named elsie.” “that’s me,” I say, excited by the prospect of her believing me.
“I gathered as much,” she says drily. then she pulls a binder from the floor and puts it in front of me. “I received this from the funeral home. It’s a list of options for the service.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Decisions will need to be made regarding flowers, the ceremony, the obituary, et cetera.”
“Sure.” I don’t entirely know what the “et cetera” is. I’ve never been in this situation before.
“I think it’s best you tend to those duties.”
“Me?” yesterday she didn’t even believe I had a right to be at the hospital. now she wants me to plan his funeral?
“You don’t want to have any input?” I say, dubious.
“No. I won’t be joining you. I think it’s best you take care of this yourself. you want to be his next of kin . . .”
She trails off, but I know how she was going to end it. she was going to say, “you want to be his next of kin, you got it.” I ignore her attitude and try to keep Ben—my Ben, her Ben, our Ben—in mind.
“But . . . his family should be involved.”
“I am the only family Ben has, elsie. Had. I am all he had.”
“I know. I just meant . . . you should be involved in this. We should do this together.”
She is quiet as she gives me a tight and rueful smile. she looks down at the utensils on the table. she plays with the napkins and saltshaker. “Ben clearly did not want me involved in his life. I don’t see why I should be intimately involved in his death.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I just told you,” she says. “He clearly did not care enough to tell me he was getting married, or moving in with you, or whatever you two were to each other. and I . . .” she wipes a tear away with a tissue, delicately and with purpose. she shakes her head to clear it. “elsie. I don’t care to discuss this with you. you have a list of things to do. all I ask is that you inform me as to when the service will be and what will be done with his ashes.”