Sarah shut the bathroom door and leaned against the sink, heaving. She knew she wouldn't vomit, it wasn't that kind of nausea. Still, she had hoped that she could make herself do it, puke up the pain and anxiousness and be cleansed.
Catharsis was, sadly, evasive. The hot knot of sickness remained.
The incense had made her eyes water. She had a cold sore, more or less concealed with cover up, in the right corner of her mouth, and she was starting her period. Normally, all that would annoy her, disgust her, the frustrations of embodiment, but now she was grateful. Physical pain is easier to live with than mental. Distraction. The monthly and quarterly grievances were a pleasant distraction from the acute agony of a broken heart. Goddammit Elise. Why now?
Looking at her open casket, rose, her favorite color. She'd looked unreal inside it, a Barbie doll in a box. How could you do this to me?
The priest had spoken vaguely of love and redemption, forgiveness and hope. How Elise had been born into Christ in baptism and would rise with him on the last day. No mention of her life, her activism, her wife. It was a kind of sermon Sarah knew, the 'Dare not speak ill of the dead' sermon, reserved for suicides and addicts. And us dykes, she thought ruefully. To him I'm just another occasion of sin, our lawful marriage, officiated by a Episcopalian lady priest with a rainbow stole, no less sacrilegious to him than a Satanic Mass. She had looked up at the stained glass windows with their somber saints, the paintings of the Stations of the Cross. It was a lovely old church. Elise would have loved to have been able to be married here, she thought.
The burial was a mess. It was windy and people kept losing hats and tissues. The expensive flower arrangement fell off the casket, petals scattering. The casket lowering mechanism malfunctioned, reminding her of the equally shitshow burial in Twin Peaks. No mystery here, though. The killer was Elise's own cells. Sarah grinned ruefully, thinking of her dad's funeral, the scuffle between her mom and his mistress, the slaps and scattered pearls. Not quite the outright brawl she'd heard had happened at her great grandad's funeral, with a drunken cousin falling in the grave on top of the casket, the minister falling into another open grave, an aunt having a literal heart attack from the scandal. More platitudes. More holy water. A handful of dirt and a pink rose thrown down into the earth. You knew it'd be this way. Either die alone or have someone who loved you bury you. That someone was me.
Now it was the reception. She should have felt better. She was with her friends, their friends, Elise's cool old mom Shawna, with her big laugh and wiry hair and story for every occasion. Sarah's mom, her grey roots and sad grey eyes. Their music and drinks. Bonnie had put together a video, a photo montage set to Elise's favorite songs. She was always such a wiz with those things. She'd done the video evite for their wedding. Sarah left the room when a pic of Elise's ex came up in the reel. Lou. Louise. Elise had stayed on good terms with her. She was even at the service. Why? She was psycho. Luckily Sarah hadn't had to talk to her beyond a "My condolences" and a "Thanks."
Screaming into the towels, white fluffy cotton muffling the Hollywood horror shriek. She swung, flailing, wanting to connect with something, to inflict a portion of agony on the outside. Her hand struck the toothbrush holder, pink and purple toothbrushes flying, the white ceramic cup with its four neat holes like an oversized salt shaker striking the wall, shattering. The rupture sobered Sarah. Outside, she heard the last song of the video.
"Hey now, hey now, don't dream it's over...".
She checked her makeup, patted the black oil spill rivulets of mascara with a tissue, and rejoined the party.
The guests lingered another hour, getting drunker, louder, the conversation changing from Elise to other things. They left in a trickle. Then a surge. Shawna stood in the doorway and squeezed Sarah's hands.
"She loved you so much, baby. Know that. She lived those last few years for you."
Bonnie hugged her.
"Hey, Cass and I are taking Shawna home. We’ll be by later to take you dinner, ok?"
"Thanks Bon. Just...I'll call. I need to decompress. Take a shower."
Sarah tried to close the door and Bonnie caught it.
"An hour, ok?"
"You shouldn't be alone right now, not like this."
"Kay...see you in a bit.
Then they were gone. And Sarah was alone in their house. Her house now. The specter of paying rent loomed over her. She's exhausted her leave at work and gotten fired over Elise's illness.The funeral had drained her savings. "Fuck."
Sarah lit a cigarette. She hadn't smoked regularly since her and Elise had gotten serious. Since then she'd noticed she'd gotten a cold sore about a week after every time she relapsed. Well, no need to worry now.
She walked into their bedroom. Her bedroom. Just her bedroom now. She loosened her tie and put out the cigarette into a beer bottle, then sat by their, no kust hers, her bed, and looked through Elise's drawer. Socks, scarves, shells from the beach, the collar from their cat, Minerva, dead four years now. Beads from Mardi Gras. Rainbow wristband from Pride. Birthday cards. Christmas and Valentine's and birthday and anniversary cards, all marked with an "E" inside a heart, in Sarah's handwriting, all with a date in the bottom right corner in Elise's. Novelty glasses from New Eve 2020, their first together. Elise had been sick even then, but they still stayed out all night. They lay in bed all the next day, groaning and cursing their excess. She smirked as she found her vibrator. Old Blue.
Sarah stopped. There was a gun in there, wrapped in a handkerchief. She'd remembered Elise showing it to her. How she'd told her no, it was dangerous, she didn't like them. But Elise had insisted on having her shoot it with her once.
"I don't like them either babe. But the people who don't like us have them, so we might as well."
Always the down to earth country gal.
It was a small gun, dark wooden grips and dark blue metal. A thirty-eight, a 'chick gun', Elise had called it, but a death machine all the same. It was strangely heavy in her hands. Sarah found herself pointing it up, towards her chin.
Sarah weighed the possibilities. She could find a job. Go back to substituting. Send out applications, call around, bug her friends, see if she could find a stable job with benefits at a community college. Go begging to the journal she'd been fired from three months ago for excessive tardiness and insufficient output. Go back to school, if she could get accepted somewhere, get a Ph.D., go further into debt. She could move in with her mom. God knew she was lonely, with her sister Chessie married and living on the East Coast. She wouldn't make me pay rent, she knew, even if she offered.
"Elise. How could you do this?"
The barrel tasted of oil and dust from the drawer. Her hands shook, slide clattering against her teeth. Like ripping off a bandage, she thought. Bonnie would be back soon, and find her. It'd hurt her so bad, she knew it. She'd been like a big sister to Sarah since freshman year, helping her keep it together through finals and coming out and breaking up. She’d be devastated, maybe even kill herself too. But what had Sarah to live for, the foundation of the last twelve years washed from underneath her?
Fuck it. Fuck everything. Yeah they'll be sad. But they’ll never understand. No one understands.
Sarah started. Someone was still in the house? The weight of a stranger’s hand pressed upon her shoulder. Turning, she saw someone familiar. Her eyes, dark, dark eyes, looked out at her from a marble face. A friend of Bonnie's maybe? She looked like part of her crowd. Wild artist types Dramatic dark makeup, arched black eyebrows painted on and thick black hair teased out to a mane. She glimpsed a cross around her neck, a portent flashing silver in the dim evening light.
She extended a hand to Sarah. Sarah placed the gun in it, and broke down, sobbing into the stranger’s shoulder, balled up fists striking her weakly. The stranger set the gun on the bedside table and held her, letting her scream and shake.
"I can't do it! I can't!"
"What can't you do, huh?"
"I can't live without her! I just...what's the point! What's the fucking point? I don't want to...I don't...how could she do this to me?”
The stranger squeezed her shoulders and leaned her face in.
"How about a cup of tea? Is that something you can do?"
Sarah nodded, sniffling.
Sarah sat in the kitchen, studying the woman. She watched her fumble with the fancy automatic tea kettle, a hardly-used Christmas present for Elise from years ago, loading the hopper with loose leaves and flipping through the settings.
"Let’s see...Moroccan Mint would be herbal, right?"
"Yeah..." Elise’s favorite.
"Great. Last thing you need right now is caffeine. With your nerves and all."
She has to be some friend of Bonnie's, Sarah thought. Maybe from Lupe's band?
She was in all black, which wasn't odd for a funeral in February, but something told Sarah that's how she dressed usually. She was young, but her age was hard to figure, as was her nationality. Sarah looked again at the cross on her neck. No, there was a loop at the top, a female symbol. Definitely Bonnie's friend. What was her name?
The woman brought her a cup of tea and sat across from her at the counter, leaning forward in the 'I’m listening' pose, thin fingers interlocked like a praying skeleton hand in a gothic tomb. Sarah stared at her tea, stomach churning.
"Drink,” she urged, nodding, “It'll help your stomach."
Sarah smiled wearily, nodding.
"Elise made me some of this on our second date. Ate some bread the waiter assured us had no dairy in it. And she was on the case with Benadryl and Tums and this...watched me all night. She always took care of me." Sarah smiled.
"Not everyday you meet a girl with six types of tea in her bag!"
"Yeah..." Wait, thought Sarah, six? So she knows Elise. Knew Elise. Is she a relative I didn't know? An ex? Secret lover? Just what I fucking need, some bitch showing up and being all "Hey, sorry your wife died, bee tee dubs we were sleeping together behind your back!"
"It was a lovely funeral."
"I loved the music. 'His Eye Is On The Sparrow'. Really like that one!"
"From Sister Act."
"Yeah! The idea God keeps track of all those bitty little birds, so don't worry, he's got you too."
"Ellie loved that one."
"Arielle did a really good job. She's really gotten good this last year."
Elise's niece. In her third year at college. Music major.
"Yeah. Some producer saw her Spring Sing performance. She might get a record deal."
She squeezed the hot mug, a red Christmas mug with white snowflakes, part of her and Elise's expansive collection. She imagined herself drawing its warmth into her hands. She noticed a hairline crack running vertically on it, bisecting the crude cartoon reindeer painted on it. How long will it last, she wondered, before it breaks and I have to throw it out? How long will any of the mugs last, the ones with our names from Disneyland, the 'world’s best nurse' one she always used? One by one, they’ll break, or chip, or I’ll forget where I got them or what they meant, and bit by bit, I’ll lose her. A song Shawna would play on her guitar came to mind. "And though you want them to last forever you know they never will...and the good-byes make the journey harder still."
Her guest was looking out the window. She turned her head to look as well. The first flecks of rain were hitting the windows.
Definitely one of Bonnie's goth pals.
"Yeah," Sarah said, "Leave it to Elise to have proper funeral weather. "
"I heard..." the stranger said, "Your funeral reflects your life. Elise was a lovely person. She touched lots of lives."
Sarah thought of all the old folks, all the nurses and orderlies from Elise's hospital who'd shown up. Yes, she did touch lots of lives.
"Mom always said you get to see your funeral. God let's you see who cared, who's heart-broken, who you loved and who you hurt. I planned it as if El had been able to see it."
"She loved it. She did."
The wind whistled around the apartment building.
"How'd you know Elise? If you don't mind my asking...were you friends from school or something?"
The young woman looked at Sarah. She seemed genuinely sad.
"I knew her all her life. And I was so happy she met you. Before you, she was close to giving up. Her last boyfriend left her right after she got the diagnosis, she thought she would die alone. She was thinking of ending it all. You gave her hope."
Sarah nodded, tired. She'd heard people say it before. You're so fucking noble dating a dying woman, investing your heart and soul into something you know you'll lose, and lose soon. Such a martyr.
"It wasn't like that. I was lonely. I needed someone too. You spend your first five years out of the closet with one person, make them your whole world, only to have them smash it all...you swim to the first speck of dry land you see. And she was hot...glamorous...had money, more than I had, at least as a broke grad student. At first it was just...fun. An experience. I was on an adventure. I didn't expect to end up loving her more than myself, more than anything."
The girl was next to Sarah now, somehow. Sarah realized she was crying as she spoke, but kept going, voice cracking. Why am I telling this person this? I don't know her!
"And somehow, despite all her aches, and the pills and the doctor's visits...days we canceled plans because she just couldn't get up, all of it, I never really thought it'd happen. She just kept on going, you know?"
Her guest nodded, smiling, a kind, knowing smile.
"You're sick of hearing this, but it was all because of you. Every day, she wanted another day with you. That's why she lasted so long. You have her life."
"Bullshit! If I could give her life I'd have her now!"
She was on her feet. The mug knocked over. She paced, pulled her hair, mind in fragments.
“Yeah, I know, ‘in my heart’! I want her, not her ghost or a feeling! I want a person, not a void shaped like her!”
Sarah glared. Who is this bitch? I don't even know her name and she's acting all chummy here in her Halloween getup.
"Who are you? What's this about?"
The stranger looked back at Sarah. It was a cutting look, a dreadful one. It occurred to her then there was something off about her visitor. Something not entirely normal. She was white. Not European, not pink, but white, like a marble angel. Or a skull. And her eyes were not dark brown, or over-dilated, but black, black as the spaces between stars and the inside of a tomb. It was not a cross on her neck or a female symbol It was another ancient symbol.
Sarah backed away. Panic was setting in, adrenaline tunnel vision framing the ghostly visitor's face in black.
"You're Death. The Angel of Death...aren't you?"
"First one, not the second. She's cool people though, as far as angels go. Unless you're a firstborn Egyptian."
"Why are you here? Did I...did I kill myself in there?"
"Second question, no. Dead people don't drink tea. Usually. And they definitely don't mesntruate...or have cold sores."
Sarah instinctively touched her cheek. The sore in the corner of her mouth still tingled.
"Try icing it."
Death sat down on the barstool Sarah had been using.
"As for your first question, well...snarky answer is I'm everywhere. Honest answer, Dr. Singh's wife in 506 slipped in the shower and hit her head. Subdural hematoma, poor old gal. Real answer...I thought I'd stop by."
She can’t be, Sarah thought, can she? She was solid. She was sitting on a stool, fiddling with the silver rings in her fingers, biting her black-painted lip as if thinking what to say. This person, this entity...
Death fixed her eyes on her.
"So what, is this, something you do with everyone? Love of your life dies, you stop by and say 'Sorry for killing her, have some tea, let's chat'?"
"Not always. I owed it to you. You were both a little closer to me than some people. Both survived near death experiences, both chronically ill..."
Sarah looked away. Her conditiom was bullshit next to Elise's. All it meant was more sick days and a few years shaved off the tail end of life.
"....both losing lots of close people in your lives, before and after you met. Like you said in your article, you two had been in a threeway relationship with me for twelve years."
"I hated that article. Felt so fake. Self-pitying."
"It was honest. A lot of people liked it. It helped lots of people."
Sarah looked away, out at the rain that was now pouring down.
"I thought romanticizing it...you...death...would make it easy. Make it beautiful and tragic. It just hurts."
"I know. And I'm sorry."
"Does anything help?"
"Precious little. Hope. Hope that's she's in a better place and that you'll see her again, or that she'll be remembered, that the good she did will endure, whatever your preference. Love. Keeping yours for her alive, the love of your friends and family, everyone who shared a connection with her."
"It becomes like a shared myth, a religion, kinda? The way my mom and aunts and cousins still talk about grandma, keep her recipes like holy scripture, recite the same stories every holiday, mention how much she liked them every time someone orders gnocchi."
"Yep. All that stuff helps. That and time."
"'It gets better', right?" Sarah said ruefully, lighting another cigarette, more for aesthetic than desire for nicotine.
"It gets normal."
Will you be my religion now, Elise? Shall I mourn you the rest of my life, long or short as it may be, a congregation of one? Our old home your church, your grave my place of pilgrimage, your things holy relics? Will anyone join me in this sad vigil? Or tolerate my keeping it?
Sarah's knees gave out. She caught herself on the counter. Death helped her to barstool beside her. Sarah wailed and sobbed again.
"I'll never love again!"
"Oh please." Death scoffed. She casually snatched the cigarette from Sarah's lips. The cherry on its tip faded, sighed out a sad trail of smoke, and died. "Don't make my job harder."
"I mean it. She was the love of my life! So many people look for the one all their lives and I met mine and now she's gone! I spent all the love I had on her."
Death shook her head.
"It's a renewable resource. And people have many loves of their lives. You will love again. Elise would want you to. You're an incredible person."
"I'm a mess."
"True. But you'll find someone. And they'll love you. And you'll love them. And they'll fill that person-sized hole in your heart. At first you'll feel like you're betraying Elise. But in time you'll realize she wanted you to be happy. There'll be things she won't do as well as Elise, and things she does better, and things she does different. It won't be the same. But it will be."
Sarah nodded. Yes, she wanted to believe it. She had to. At once, Sarah laughed. She didn't know why. Exhaustion, delirium, the absurdity of her, an unemployed writer and substitute teacher being comforted by a cosmic entity. She recalled how Elise would laugh, like a flock of tropical birds taking off, this burst of joyous noise, and how it'd go on forever until she'd be out of breath and near tears. She wished she could recall why, what joke she'd said that had set her off each time. She wished she recorded every minute together, shored up fragments against the oblivion of age and senility and forgetfulness.
Her visitor laughed. It was like familiar music playing in another room, the echoing laughter of a movie protagonist’s dead child in a flashback. Haunting and lovely and sad.
"Thank you. She was hurting."
"I mean it."
"Don't," she commanded, rising. She wasn't angry, just insistent. "I'm not kind, or merciful. I just am."
"'Death be not proud'," Sarah muttered, before shaking her head and looking up at her guest, "To her you were. Ellie was hurting so bad. She wanted the docs to put her down, put her out of her misery. At the end she asked me. Over and over, and if she'd asked again I'd have said yes. You were merciful. And you were merciful to me. I couldn't bear seeing her despair."
Death extended a hand. Sarah took it, locking fingers. She didn't know why she expected her hands to be cold, but they weren't.
"She didn't despair. In her heart she always loved and she always hoped. She was just hurting and scared. Like everyone is. Only she wasn’t alone in it. Thanks to you.”
Sarah felt tears coming again. She steeled herself against them.
"One last thing before I go. You'll see her again."
"Yeah. At the end, when you see me again. Until then, live."
Then Death kissed Sarah. It was not a romantic kiss. But it was loving, with a love that embraces all the earth. Sarah felt peace. Then she felt nothing.
She awoke to Bonnie banging on the door. She had fallen asleep on the kitchen floor.
"Sarah! Open up or I'm kicking in this door!"
Sarah let Bonnie and her girlfriend Cass and their friend Vicky in, apologized, explained she'd fallen asleep. They went and got pizza at the old place by the beach they'd gone with Elise all the time. The pizza was greasy but good and cheap. Mark, Elise's brother and his wife Katya showed up too. They got a pitcher of beer, played Galaga and Area 51 on the battered old machines. Elise's high score on both remained untouched. "EluvsS" the letters blared. Somehow she didn't feel guilt enjoying herself, the familiar places and company of friends.
Returning home to her apartment, Sarah felt less alone. She tidied up from the party, with Bonnie’s video playing in the background.
“Sarah, Sarah, no time is a good time for goodbyes!”
It was one of Elise’s favorites even before they’d met. The gun she found on the bedside table, where her guest had left it. It occurred to her to check it, and upon inspection, she found that the magazine was empty. The revelation brought on another bout of laughter and tears. She put it back where she had found it, determining to sell it that weekend. Elise’s brother collected them, and she knew he’d appreciate it.
That night Sarah dreamed of her. She was with her guest, with Death, on the beach, their beach, the one they'd picnic at in the summer, the one she'd proposed to her on, a golden Labor Day weekend of sangria and sunburnt love in a beach bungalow with sandy carpets just seven years ago. It was morning, the sun rising in the west. It made dream sense. Elise was her old self, tan and plump, curly bleached hair glowing as if in the sun. She waved. She looked happy. Then she, led by Death, walked away toward the sunrise. And Sarah awoke, alone in her bedroom. In their bedroom