December 22, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Lori Yeghiayan Friedman
November 7, 1994, 11:49 pm: The man on the other end—whom I assume is the funeral director—has no reaction to my request to inject Luke’s body with formaldehyde. (“Hello,” I had said. “We have a body that needs embalming.”)
“What’s the address?” he mumbles over the sound of shuffling papers.
I hang up and stay seated on their bed, consider never moving. Death, while the only possible outcome, has hit like a slow-motion meteor―silent and shattering.
But I leave their tiny bedroom and enter their tiny living room in their tiny one-bedroom apartment, part of a u-shaped collection of sand-colored bungalows common in this part of San Diego, only to find that William is gone. Luke’s body, the focal point of the room—and our lives—is alone, dwarfed by the hospital bed. A meow draws my attention to the front door where Kylie Minogue is pawing at the air trying to get William’s attention on the other side of the screen. He’s sitting on the stoop, a cigarette burning at his fingertips.
Blocking the open space to keep Kylie from escaping, I step outside and join him. I look over at William, all chiseled profile, aquiline nose, pale skin—like a marble statue, beautiful, opaque. He scoots the pack over, the lighter riding on top like a passenger on a boat, they come as a pair.
Across the small courtyard the cacti are flowering red, pink and yellow. It’s amazing what will grow in the desert. We are not in the desert, but just a short drive away and the night feels arid and the sky looks wide open, like we have been left to fend for ourselves in an inhospitable landscape.
I light up, breathe in the smoke, feel the nicotine lighting up my receptors. The stars above are like a thousand little pinpricks dotting the blackness. A little overboard, don’t you think, light piercing the darkness? I say inside my head as if someone responsible for it is listening. I want the sky to be a dome of glass so I can smash it to bits with my fist.
“Well, this is weird,” says William, his Southern lilt lilting.
“I know,” I say, looking at the shiny flecks in the concrete.
I remember visiting them at the hospital in August.
“I almost died,” Luke had said then, sitting up, the flimsy hospital gown hanging loose around his neck. His eyes still shone. He said it dramatically with a smile like he was dishing. I sat on the bed, facing him. The french fries I had brought―at William’s request―lay inert on the tray table in their cheer-y red, yellow and white box.
“If you’re not gonna eat them, I will,” said William, snatching them up and then sitting back down in his chair.
Our reflection in the window, which at night was a mirror, showed an unlikely trio: William, blonde, handsome but looking older than his 24 years; me, a young woman of 23 with a too-short haircut, wearing baggy clothes, looking middle-aged and like a baby, unformed; and, then, Luke who, despite being the oldest at 26, looked like our teenaged brother. He was so sick but somehow still a twink, still that quirky, elfin person that I first met when he showed up―in striped bell bottoms and a wide-collared polyester shirt in a loud paisley pattern―on opening night of the play William and I had been in at school. William and I were both theatre majors.
I look over at William next to me on the stoop and try to picture what we look like. Who are we now that we are two?
The sound of men’s dress shoes on pavement slices into our silence. We see the funeral director coming and instantly understand the error of calling a place from the Yellow Pages. Tall and middle-aged, dressed formally in slacks and a long coat, the funeral director looks straight out of central casting. The skin of his face is waxy, his toupee auburn-hued, like a taxidermied raccoon. His lips looked glued together in fake solemnity, like a corpse.
William puts out his cigarette, wipes his hands on his shorts and stands. But when the funeral director reaches us, he doesn’t extend his hand, just mumbles some condolences while glancing over his shoulder at a young guy in a t-shirt and jeans loping down the path. The funeral director sighs like the loper is a real burden, a nephew, perhaps, foisted upon him by relatives.
William looks at me, his face saying: “So, this is how it ends, huh? With these guys?” before going to open the door inviting them in with a theatrical gesture. I picture Kylie sprinting toward their bedroom.
Rubber gloves appear. They seem to make a show of putting them on and I can’t help but wonder if they only come out for certain visits, in certain neighborhoods, when the body inside is a young man who has withered away to nothing.
I expect William to follow them in, but instead he lets the screen door shut with a bang and heads down the path to the sidewalk. I follow him. We stand on the sidewalk, inhaling smoke and try to keep from laughing: at the funeral director and his loping nephew, at the absurdity of this moment and of Luke not being here to share it.
There is a silence like the moment just before impact. Of course, the worst has already happened; the pitiless invader, hijacker of Luke’s cells, has already destroyed everything it touched. What could be next? Still, something is coming despite the fact that we are here and the stars still shine.
I look at William, gone profile again, and wonder if we will be able to find what still shines in each other. We hold our sticks of fire, glance around at the improbable blooms, at the ghosts of a million now-extinguished fiery balls of gas―and wait for whatever comes next.
Lori Yeghiayan Friedman is an Armenian-American writer living in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Nasiona, Hippocampus, JMWW, Emerge Literary Journal and Bending Genres. Her creative nonfiction piece ‘How to survive a genocide’ appeared in Exposition Review’s 2020 Act/Break issue and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in Theatre from UC San Diego.