The day was for shit: windy, chilly, dank and overcast. That was apt. There was an eighty percent chance of rain, according to the Weather Channel, so I wore my lined raincoat. I was still cold but then, I’ve never been to funeral where I wasn’t. Not even in the summer. Kim said it was “empathetic response.”
The service was solemn. They are always solemn. Of course I stuck around after everyone else left, holding the bag in one hand, like always, and staring at the flowers and the dirt they’d tamped down firmly, after they piled it over the box they’d locked him in. To keep him there, even six feet under, was going to be tough. Jay was not a person you kept anywhere he didn’t want to be.
He was my friend, my oldest friend, maybe my closest, and I loved him. Forty-fucking-two years old, an artist, always had time for everyone and everything. He was delivering a meal to someone, an old woman who lived alone, no kids, couldn’t cook for herself; he didn’t even know her, really. But three afternoons a week, like clockwork. This time it was raining, the car skidded, hit a rail, and…
I hate losing people, y’know? And I’m at an age where it’s happening too often, though most of them are closer to my age than Jay’s. It’s not just the loss itself; it’s the getting past it. Yeah, yeah, Life Goes On, I know, that’s what the service is all about, some kind of closure. But when it’s over I never feel “closed.” Just closed off, y’know? I hate funerals, and I hate cemeteries. I mean, they’re all so about—death.
I hate death, too. Probably not a particularly reasonable thing to hate, but there you have it. I’ve never made any pretense of being a reasonable man. Mel, and Kim, both said I love too hard. Hey: Love is love, y’know? I don’t know any other way to do it. But, thank God for Kim anyway. She—clarified, I guess the word is—things.
When I was in college—this was in the ’70s—I had this friend: Melissa. Mel, I called her. Everybody did. The thing I remember most about her? was yellow: Her favorite color, she wore it everywhere. We just sort of found each other our freshman year, I don’t even remember how. I mean, she was a lesbian, but neither one of us hung around the bars or the clubs. And this was way before the closet door was open, even on campus. We were inseparable—I know, gay guy, dyke chick, but, like, hey: I mean, for three years the only thing we didn’t do together was make love. It was our running joke.
I even spent a summer with her family on the Virginia shore. That was a trip, being the showpiece so she wouldn’t have to charm the local straights and could go out with the woman she loved. Her name was Kim. She was older, and really grounded: a Zennist, very accepting of the world and people and their places in it. She and I got to be pretty good friends, too; the three of us, we were probably the strangest ménage that ever lived.
Just before the end of the summer? Mel drowned. In the ocean, maybe a hundred feet out, she must’ve gotten a cramp, or… No one ever knew, but one minute she was there, the next… We—all of us—were devastated. It was like we couldn’t stop crying. Except Kim. She was an absolute rock; and at the interment, she brought this shopping bag with her. People looked at her, but she ignored them. She stood there, the whole time, holding it, just silent. And after everyone else had left the gravesite, even the diggers, just the two of us still standing there, she reached into the bag and she took out two enormously yellow balloons. She gave one to me, and she held hers up; then she let it go. And it went up, high into the sky until, finally, we couldn’t see it at all. Then she turned to me and said: Now you. And I let mine go; it rose and flew away. She put her arm around me and she said: There: Now she’s free. So are we.
I think about that every time I go to a funeral. Like today. Some of the people looked at my bag, at me, like I was, y’know, kind of strange. I don’t care. Jay was my friend, I loved him, he loved me. You love people, it’s hard to let them go. You don’t forget them, but you have to let them go.
When they were all gone? Then I opened the bag. I took out the enormously purple balloon—Jay’s favorite color—and looked at it, held it by its string, let it rise above my head.
“You need to be free,” I told him. “So do I.”
I let go of the string.
The wind took the balloon; it fairly raced into the gray sky. I watched until it was out of sight. Then I folded the bag and put it, and my hands, in the pockets of my raincoat, and left. The chill was still in the air and I needed something warm.
Evan Guilford-Blake’s fiction and plays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and on stages across the globe, winning 60 awards. Penguin published his novel Noir(ish); Holland House will issue American Blues, a collection of his short stories, in October. His latest online story is “My Father’s Robe,” available at http://www.wisdomcriethwithout.com/fathers-robe-evan-guilford-blake-2/.
See ebook illustration for this story here!