“How are you holding up, dear?” the old woman asked, linking a papery-thin wrinkled arm through mine as we crossed the uneven grass. It was less a gesture of camaraderie than it was an attempt on her part to make it to solid ground without going down with a sickening splat.
“Oh, fine, I guess. I think maybe I’m not over the shock, you know. I keep waiting for it to become real.” I stepped carefully on the balls of my feet to avoid plunging the heel of my pumps into the soft grass over someone’s grave.
“It happens that way for a lot of people. But the service was lovely and you’ll have that as your ‘goodbye’. I knew you two were inseparable in school but I didn’t realize you’d remained close all these years.”
“Yes. Anyway, it was really great of you to come all this way. I wasn’t sure you’d even remember him after twenty-two years. Whenever Marc and I talked about high school he always said the nicest things about you.”
Her rheumy eyes brightened. “Thank you for telling me that. I’m aware the majority of my students hated my class because I was demanding, but I always tried to treat all of my students with respect, even if I had to be harsh sometimes.”
“How did you even hear about the accident?” I wondered aloud.
“Oh, I keep up with all of my former students on Facebook, dear.”
The hunched woman shuffled her way to her monstrosity of an old-person car, pausing to reach in her purse for a very large boxy pair of sunglasses to fit over her usual bifocals, leaving me inwardly laughing over the image of this woman sitting in a trendy coffee place with free wi-fi chatting it up with Facebook friends.
I watched her start her car and slowly merge into the light traffic without even looking. I guess that’s what happens when you outlive everyone you know, you either develop a sense of entitlement or a death wish to join them. The outcome is usually the same.
As I turned back to the row of serene graves, cheerfully backlit by the afternoon sunlight, I watched quite a number of mourners staggering away to their vehicles, leaving Marc’s mother standing alone at the casket that was so overloaded with flowers it seemed to actually be vomiting peonies. A small part of me wanted to go to her, to slide an arm around her thin shoulders and just be there for her, but that was a luxury she didn’t deserve. This pain was all on her now.
Letting myself dream for just a moment about what it would be like when she finally left here and returned home to her jackass of a husband was the only happiness I’d felt in four days, but that feeling passed quickly.
Instead of speaking to her I turned down the gravel path towards my own car and slid inside the obscurity of the limousine-tint windows, arching my back spastically as the leather seats seared through my thin linen suit.
“You should have left the windows cracked, then your seat wouldn’t have gotten so hot,” chimed the man lounging in the passenger seat, checking his messages on a brightly colored phone.
“Why, thank you for the advice, Marc, but then everyone would have seen you!” I retorted bitingly.
“Well, it got really warm in here and I could have suffocated,” he whined.
“How suffocating do you think it is in that big shiny box over there? You know, the box you’re supposed to be in?” I asked sarcastically, pointing up the hill to the spot where his mother still stood with downcast eyes. Marc followed my gaze over the lenses of his sunglasses and seemed to soften for only a microsecond before pushing them up his nose and flopping back against the headrest.
“I can’t believe that bastard didn’t come to my funeral. When someone says, ‘You’re dead to me,’ you would think they would at least participate in celebrating the ‘dead’ part.”
“How many years have we merely believed that your dad is an ass? Were you really and truly surprised that he’s actually an ass? The man reads about your accident in the paper and calls me to ask if I have plans for your riding mower, for pete’s sake! Why are you surprised?”
“You know, you’re just irritated because you’re all hot. Let’s go to the house and change your clothes—very smart suit, by the way, and I adore your choice of footwear—fix us some drinks, and see what the made-for-TV movie rerun is. You’ll feel better.” He turned to look out his window, reading the names on the tombstones we passed to see if he knew anyone.
I had nothing to say to that. I had had a bad feeling about faking a death in the first place, but when you took into account Marc’s awesome list of reasons for doing this, it just got worse. The list really only had one reason written (seriously “written,” Marc writes down lists for everything): he was too chicken-shit to break up with his boyfriend.
I had adamantly tried to get Marc to just break up with him. It’s not like this was an abusive relationship and he actually feared for his life. It’s also not like Marc was a firmly sealed in-the-closet homosexual who couldn’t risk an angry former lover writing a tell-all book. In fact, it was actually the boyfriend who wasn’t yet letting his sexual preference be widely known (“that boy’s so far in the closet he can see Narnia,” Marc complained once) and Marc only wanted to dump him because he was tired of never going out in public together, which seemed like a perfectly logical reason to call off a relationship on my part.
“You’re not a gay man in Alabama, sweet cheeks,” he had told me. “It’s not like there’s tons of us around, and when you do find one who rocks your boat you dig your claws in and hang on for dear life. So if I go around humping-and-dumping every gay man within a ninety-mile radius, word will get out and I’ll never get a date again. It’s just easier this way.”
There was absolutely nothing I could say that would sway Marc from this very evil plan. Even though he had the financial means to accomplish this almost-legally, it still wasn’t going to be pretty. This man had even had the sheer audacity to actually call up the death certificate office, tell them what he wanted to do as well as why, and promise them that he wasn’t actually faking his death but rather that he was just staging his funeral and then throwing a big old barbeque party afterwards. Then he goes and invites them all to the event, including the probate judge, who then shows up, wearing all black. I was sure he only made an appearance to make sure that everything Marc had claimed turned out to be kosher, but in fact it was because his position is elected and Marc promised him a contribution come two years from November, as well as the fact that this man would go to Satan’s garden party if it were going to be catered by Regal Events (I’m just as guilty. I swear the head chef there could cook a cardboard box and I would eat it because it would turn out fantastic).
“So explain to me what you think is going to happen when your grieving former boyfriend figures out you aren’t actually dead?” I asked, bringing us to the dilemma at hand.
“He won’t know. He’s moving back home to Nebraska.”
“He’s from Iowa, first of all, and just how do you know his plans?” I asked, completely afraid that I had done all the work of putting on a funeral only to have the dead party member walking around town talking to people before we settled accounts with the person whose benefit this had all been for. That would be just like Marc.
“Sam’s been texting me all the details around town since I’ve been in hiding,” he explained, checking his phone for incoming messages out of habit. I swear he was worse with that stupid phone than a thirteen-year-old girl.
“Why are you texting people? You’re supposed to be dead!” I screamed, grabbing for the phone and very nearly dumping us off the road into a ditch.
“Oh, Sam knew the truth all this time,” he answered, sounding practically bored at having to explain that.
“Well if Sam knew about it, why the heck couldn’t Sam help me? I’ve been rushing around throwing a funeral together, then staying up all night finishing the work I should have been doing while I was actually ordering casket sprays for a person who didn’t have the decency to die before deciding that he should tell a lot of people that he’d died!” I knew better than to be taking all of this out on Marc; after all, I could have washed my hands of the whole thing when he told me about this scheme the first time, but as I recall he was so drunk on Aftershock at the time that I would have agreed to punching a nun just to get him off my couch before he threw up all over it.
“Sam can’t handle funerals. His therapist told him to avoid funeral homes until he gets a better grasp on closure,” Marc explained, his fingers clicking away at the miniscule keyboard in his hands.
“Did you know your tenth grade English teacher drove by herself all the way from her sister’s home in Greenville, South Carolina, for your funeral?”
“Yeah, I saw where she sent that out on Twitter.”
“And that doesn’t that make you feel bad at all?” I pressed.
“Of course it does! If she kills anyone with that giant car of hers on the way back, their blood will be on my hands,” he answered without even the pretense of remorse.
“When did you become this selfish?” I shrieked, gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white.
“Oh, I’ve always been totally selfish, you were just so charmed by my wiles that you were unable to resist me,” he grinned.
“This isn’t a joke. I’ve sat on the sidelines of every one of your weird-ass plans since I was ten years old, but a fake funeral is sinking to a brand-new low,” I fumed.
“None of my plans has ever been even close to ‘weird-ass’, thank you very much,” he sniffed, “but I have to say, of all my previous schemes, this one is the least selfish thing I’ve ever done.” Marc turned back to the window, engrossed in the scenery again.
“Seriously? Were you watching the same funeral? All those people who came out to say goodbye to you and you duped them! You don’t even have the compassion to move away, you fully intend to get dressed tomorrow and go walking around, clapping people on the shoulder and saying, ‘Ha, ha, joke’s on you!’”
“Anyone who knows me will not be the least bit surprised, and anyone who read your very well-spoken obituary will think you were just slightly confused by the ‘exaggerated reports of my death’.”
“What about your parents? I fully support you in your hatred of your father, but what about your mother?” Marc had his hand up, palm extended towards me, before I had even finished the sentence.
“She made her choice. When he cut me out of his life, she was free to make her own decisions but she sided with him. Plenty of people in the world have a gay child and still manage to pretend that said child actually exists!” He flounced against the seat again, his arms crossed in front of him, and I knew I had pushed my argument too far; it’s easy to judge when you’re not the one whose parents had erased all traces of you. “What they don’t understand is that I actually did this for them.”
“On what planet is it ever the right thing to do to tell an old couple that their only son was crushed to death by the garbage truck?” Why was I even dragging this out? I’d been this man’s best friend since fifth grade and had never once gotten him to see any reason but his own.
“Because they’re leaving,” he mumbled, looking down at his hands practically crushing his precious phone in his lap.
“They’re moving. My sister told me. They’re too ashamed to live here anymore because people ‘know about me,’ as my sister said.” He leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the car window.
I was completely thunderstruck. This isn’t what I had intended when Marc came out. I had seen it all played out in my head from the moment Marc had first told them: his parents would take some time to get over the shock of his coming out (granted it had been almost two years since they had spoken to him, but I think of myself as a patient person), their anger would subside, they would crawl back and beg his forgiveness for all of the completely horrible, evil words they had flung at him, and things would be strained for a while but then their familial love would win out. I could even see the day years down the road when Marc had settled with a dashing, funny-yet-devoted partner and they would all celebrate Thanksgiving dinner together, their new “son-in-law” carving the turkey and calling them Mom and Dad. And now I had just been jolted awake from the pipedream.
“Marc, I’m so sorry! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I still didn’t care for the funeral plan, but at least there was something along the lines of “thinking of others” going on behind this one, unlike the time he left me waiting in the car so he could stay after the mall closed for a quickie with the assistant manager of the food court pizza place.
“I didn’t tell you because you would have marched up to their front door, slugged my dad, cussed out my mother like only a disgraced Phi Mu can, and it wouldn’t have done a bit of good. Not that I wouldn’t have been really grateful to you–assuming you didn’t spurt any of Dad’s blood on one of your impeccable sweater sets, of course–but it wouldn’t have done a bit of good in the long run. Now, thanks to me and my untimely demise, they can leave without having to look back and they’ll honestly believe they’re telling their new neighbors the truth when they say, ‘No, we don’t have a son,’.”
“Tell me what I can do, hun. I mean, besides waste thousands of your dollars and four days of my life pretending to stick you into a hole in the ground in the most classy of manners,” I joked, my earlier anger squashed flat by the news of his parents’ actions. His eyes lit up and he bounced back from the hurt like only Marc can.
“Whip this car right over there into Wendy’s and get me a Frosty. You know how I crave ice cream after a break-up.”