My ex-boyfriend dies, and we all gather to put our hands into his body. There is not enough room so our own bodies take it in turns. We allow ourselves to move on everyone else’s currents, and nobody makes eye contact. When we’ve finished touching the skin, the skin is removed. When the skin is removed and carefully folded on the birch racks, we touch him again. After a while, his mother has the honour of putting her hands on him, a signal for us to stop, and we dip our own bloody hands into the tub of soaped water, respectfully. Our hands touch under the foam.
We queue, orderly, for the last rite of the body. By the time it’s my turn the heart is pulped, a ruined thing, although maybe it was like that anyway. I would be pulpy if they opened me up, too. There is one last tiny spark of compassion in me as I press my palm to it and feel it give. The girl behind me is crying, and I concentrate my energy on hating her.
The water in the tub, about to be taken away and refreshed, is the colour of wine. I again wash my hands in it anyway. A man kindly holds out a towel for me. I can’t remember if he’s a brother or an ex, but his kindness makes me think he’s a brother, and then he says my name and I remember – yes, younger brother, we met once – my arms raise slightly. He turns to give the towel to someone else and I walk away. The towel is ruined. The blood will not come out.
‘You don’t have to go,’ my women had told me, sitting around me in a circle when I called them together to seek their counsel. ‘You can exercise your exemption.’
I could have, but I didn’t. People rarely do. I had always liked his family. I wouldn’t deny them the headcount, the gratitude of a swollen room of people, the opportunity to tell each other that he was difficult, but he was loved, look at how he was loved, look at the people and the proof of his own body. It was very difficult to touch the scar tissue around his chest at first, when I came to his still body on the table. I remembered there used to be much less of it.
Outside the ritual room, I sit on the lawn. They’ve had to hire a huge house, a mansion, to accommodate everyone. Inside, harried waiters are setting up long tables with cutlery for four courses, tablecloths too white to touch. Dust-sheets on the parquet to protect it from our feet, and vase after vase of deep-red peonies for the centerpieces. I rake grass with my fingernails to get the last blood out from under them. His mother is taking a break, hanging out in the pagoda watching the women, hundreds of women. Some men, too, but mostly just these women, so many that they start to blend into each other. It’s the busiest funeral I’ve ever been to. I feel very hateful towards these other people who he may have loved more than me. I evaluate them. No wonder his heart was absolutely devastated, like he’d force-fed it over and over again until the elastic had gone.
One girl is sunbathing a few paces ahead of me. I try to memorise her face. Her arms are stretched up to the sun like she’s reaching for it. She looks like she cares about nothing, and I close my eyes and wish to swap. Let me be her, even if only until the rites are over. Please.
Before we put him in the ground, there is a resting period. We go to our rooms and change, shower, drink small bottles of overpriced wine from the minibar. We share with roommates, two or three to a room. Nobody knows each other, though familiar faces pass me, are gone before I can get a grip on who they are.
My roommates are fine; they precede me. This makes me the enemy, technically, but enough time has passed for things to be civil. We take it in turns to use the bathroom, fasten each other’s dresses. We talk about our jobs. One of my roommates is a primary school teacher, another is a marine biologist. I am technically between jobs right now but I tell them I’m an astrologist and they nod with great seriousness. We actually get on so well that we stand in a row and envelope ourselves in the same perfume before we leave the room.
But dinner is a shitshow. The dated wallpaper is oppressive from the second we slip through our door and join the crowd; our sense of solidarity disappeared before we even make it down the stairway. I see echoes of myself everywhere, shared mannerisms and hairstyles and laughs, like a video whose images keep freezing and stuttering. They are things that belong to me and yet they don’t. Three redheads in a row; a bracelet I also own on somebody else’s wrist. When we sit down to eat, the salmon is rubberised against the good china, and I notice a speck on my knife that I scrape off with my thumbnail. When I look up it feels like everyone else on the table is watching me. Their cheeks are pink with wine, bra-straps showing. Three tables away, his wife keeps crying and pushing the plate away from her. The people around her wait a second, and then patiently push it back.
I see his father outside on the terrace between dessert and coffee, and raise my hand. He struggles to place me, so I say my name, location and time period, to make it easier. Calla. Summer to winter, six months together, ten years ago. He brought me to the house for the harvest festival. We picked apples and threw stones in the lake for luck. My hair was dyed red. He offers me a cigar from a handbag-sized case.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he tells me. ‘It’s good of you.’
The cigar tastes like burnt fur, but I don’t care. ‘It’s nothing,’ I say.
‘You should never have to do this to your own son,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve done this to too many people already,’ and that’s the last thing he says. We smoke the cigars in silence.
I want to say ‘Did you know your son was a fucking sociopath?’ but I manage not to. I only keep the cigar smoke in my mouth because if no smoke is coming out, I am not accidentally saying that.
After we had broken up, I had gone back to the old ways for a while. Nobody had the right to open me up, not under any circumstances. I said I was saving myself for true love. I said we could do everything else, the old things, but those things were no longer enough for the people I lay down with and no longer enough for me. We moved, unenthused, on each other’s bodies. We patted at each other’s skin, slapped it until the blood rose, until we were black and blue. It was terrible. I felt nothing. When their eyes drifted to the knife-cases at the sides of their beds – custom mahogany, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, or just a small embroidered bag – I shook my head. Afterwards I wept in strange bathrooms. Go on, the men would say when I came out, putting their gloved hands on my legs, on my arms. The slipperiness of the white satin against my skin. Let’s try that again. But I said no, and left before they became angry. I walked home through empty streets with the feel of their sleek fingerprints all over me.
In the morning comes the memorial. We are ushered into the gardens by quiet men, men only here to tend to us like flowers, rush us water when we are overcome by the crowds and fall where we stand. I see his wife sitting on a black-painted chair at the front. She’s draped in black, a silk trouser suit, perfectly cut. The rest of us are, as instructed, in jewel colours, dresses that flare at the waist. My women had helped me pick out a good dress, peacock-blue and falling off the shoulder. It was my first funeral of the year and so I wasn’t up-to-date with the fashions. They are always such a great help to me.
His terrible body is hidden from us with white linen, the blood still showing through. Later on they’ll launder it and give it to the wife, the stain like a wine-spill remembering his contours. If I never marry, I’ll never have to hang my own husband sheet on the wall of my bedroom. Old blessing, given out at weddings: May you be the one who dies first.
Now the quiet men usher us into position, making sure we can all see him. Breathing in and out, I think the affirmations I wrote on pieces of coloured card: things like I am enough and It was so long ago. And then I think This hurts! with the outrage of a baby, a primitive urge to pull the golden hair of the woman in front of me until the strands are limp in my hot fist.
I think back to all the hushed phone calls, names on the insides of books. All that emotional energy put into navigating the accumulated heartbreak like scree, like the salt left after water. You’re always paying for the pain inflicted on the one you love by the people they loved before you. Beyond the first, love is a kind of repairing. Suck it up, take the brunt, know that a part of them was cauterised long ago and you can never access it. Forgive it. It’s not like you’re perfect, either.
I decide to pull the hair of the woman in front of me after all, letting go immediately. She gives a small yelp of pain and turns around, surveys each one of us standing behind her in turn. We’re her subordinates; she doesn’t let us forget it. None of the other women give me away. They stare right ahead. There’s still sisterhood in our hierarchy. We have all suffered, I want to tell her. At least you were loved more, for a while.
Holding someone else’s heart was risky, because you could kill them. You’d need to want to do it. You’d need to let your fingernails grow long, and abandon the protective gloves. Sometimes, when I was young and masochistic, I did let people hold the heart without gloves on, but now I’m older I wouldn’t endorse it. I wouldn’t say it’s worth the risk. I am tired and sad and often overwhelmed by the precariousness of myself. I admire the confidence of those who can hurt themselves again and again, as though their resources are infinite.
When my ex-boyfriend held my heart in his naked hand it was mostly a fine, pleasant fear, like watching a horror film. But then, on what would be the last time I allowed him to do it, I felt his fingernails scraping the sides. His eyes widened with what people used to call delight. I passed out for a few seconds. When I came to he seemed blasé, as if it had happened before.
That week I went to work, where I tapped my chest lightly to relieve the ache, to the supermarket for comfort foods, to a bar with my best friend. By the end of the week, even though he did not contact me or return my calls, I was taking the pain-beacon of the telephone everywhere I went, even the bathtub, even meetings at my then-job, where men looked at my white face with contempt.
They lower him into the ground in front of us, peeling off the husband-sheet first so we can see him one last time. It’s traumatic to see him so revealed, yesterday’s rites forgotten already. So here we are, with the man we loved. This is the real him, underneath the hair pomade and custom-made shoes, the cologne patted onto the side of his neck. The shaving cuts and the glasses he wore reading, wire-rimmed, and his laugh, a flat note. The wrinkles that had multiplied since I’d known him, how they had made him less handsome and I had been pleased about this, on the rare occasions that I saw him across the room. He had never looked sad when he saw me. I thought he should have. In the early days he had told me once, ‘You’re really intense, aren’t you,’ but I’d been hearing those words in some variation since I was fourteen years old and they no longer held any terror over me.
His wife throws a handful of earth into the hole in the ground. His parents do the same. Then we file up and throw our own dirt in. By the time I reach him he’s completely covered, and I’m glad. His wife is standing close by, watching each handful as it hits, no flinching. The young girls, who are the right age to be his students – art history, their funeral dresses a suitable organza, glitter at the hem – bundle together behind her, even though they are probably enemies. The wife is still ignoring them. Good for her, I think, as I move past them. I admire her dignity, because I’ve never had any and possibly never will.
It’s over. I move with the others to the buffet and pick up two small sandwiches, crustless, wedges of pale cheese between the slices of bread. I stay away from the ham, the beef, choose instead apple segments, a miniature fruit tart with one strawberry obscenely perfect on top of the custard. Everyone has been crying at various points throughout the weekend, but nobody is crying any more. Make-up remains tracked on cheeks. I chew the sandwich very methodically. My heart pounds in my chest. It’s saying I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. There’s still a hint of red under my fingernails, which are too long. I curl the sandwich up in my hand. The give of the bread is satisfying, a mush between my fingers. I carry it with me carefully all the way out of the hall. I don’t let it drop.
Photograph © Michał Kosmulski