The sweet scent of flowers was oppressive. Jasmine stared at the line of friends and family who had come to the viewing. It was getting monotonous. Everyone was sorry for her loss, but she had processed it already as much as she processed any emotion. That was one of her failings, she knew, she tended to bottle things up, keep them compartmentalized. But she had had time to adjust to the idea of life without Mike. The doctors had warned them there was no hope and together they had gotten his affairs and her emotions in order. She stared at the line of dark clothes surrounded by the white lilies and fought the urge to yell at them that this tradition was not to help her, he was not gone and this would not change anything. She had condescended to this tradition for his family and friends. But that would contradict the point. She was suffering through this to try to help bring them peace and that would merely cause disquietude. And so she took a cleansing breath and muttered the responses expected of her. After a space of time, she looked at the line hoping to discover the end and instead inhaled sharply when she saw Dave three places back in line.
How long had it been? At least 15 years, likely longer. She tried to remember, but their last few meetings had been meaningless encounters meant to check the boxes of social obligation. It was his turn and she had to force herself to meet his. His face still had the sharp lines she recalled and there were only a few threads of gray in his hair. She didn’t hear his words; her own thoughts drowned them out as she tried to figure out what to say to him.
“Thank you for coming. It would have meant a lot to Mike,” she said. She felt like she ought to say more, but what else was there? She no longer knew him, didn’t even know if he still lived in D.C. They sometimes shared virtual commentary during football games on social media, but hadn’t talked about anything personal since . . . when? Probably since she and Mike got married. He had begun to distance himself from them when they were wed and an anger simmered in her still for his abandonment.
Dave had enlisted in the military straight out of college. She never knew what exactly he did, but suspected it was top secret, both because he never talked about it and also because his major had been nuclear engineering. Jasmine never met his first wife with whom he had eloped while stationed in Hawaii to his parents' great dismay. When he returned to the east coast, she had remained behind. Kelsey, his second wife, had been an amazing equestrian, but socially awkward. Still, Jasmine had made a point to be welcoming any time they were in town. They had even gone to D.C. to visit with them once. She didn’t know what had ended that relationship, didn’t even learn about it from Dave, but rather on Kelsey’s Facebook page which stated the fact and then went on to obsess about her rebound - a new stallion. By the time he met his third wife they didn’t communicate except during football games. She had heard the woman’s name, but couldn’t remember it for the life of her. Were they still married? She had no idea. Based on his track record, she doubted it.
She told herself she was lucky not to be another number on that list. A few years ago, after a few too many beers, her father had told her that he had been surprised she had chosen to marry Mike instead of Dave. She understood his confusion. She and Dave had made a lot of sense together. They had gone to school together, grown up in families with similar values, and challenged each other intellectually. With his glasses on, he was the perfect nerd to match her intellectual proclivities. Without, he was a fine physical specimen and the perfect date for her social adventures.That relationship had made so much sense, that she had tried to talk herself into loving him, but something was always missing. The emotion was missing. On both sides. He had always been kind and interested, but she had never loved him and was equally certain that he had never loved her. She wasn’t even sure he was able to love in the way she had needed. Maybe that was why his marriages had ended.
Mike, on the other hand, had made no sense. She had tried to talk herself out of loving him countless times, had broken up with him twice, but his love made him willing to do anything for her, to suffer through her indecision. And her love kept pulling her back to him despite their differences. And they had made a good life together and raised two wonderful kids. Sure, they had butted heads a lot, but they each had their own area of expertise and complemented each other perfectly. As Dave continued down the line, Jasmine’s eyes followed him. She had missed him all these years. He was still strong and well-built, unlike Mike. The cancer had eaten away at him. She looked at the casket and her eyes teared up. He had fought to stay with them for as long as he could. And he made sure that she and the kids would be okay when he passed. She had made the right decision.
When he heard that Mike had passed, Dave had felt such a hurricane of emotion that he was unable to separate the feelings swirling in his soul. He didn’t know how to react to feelings he usually kept locked away. He tried to shove them back into the vault and convince himself that it did not matter. They hadn’t really been friends for quite some time. Sure, they had been inseparable in college, but that relationship had been irreparably damaged when Mike fell in love with Jasmine. He had introduced them - his mistake. When Mike told him how he felt about her, essentially asking permission to date his ex, Dave had tried to be understanding. She would get bored with Mike as quickly as she had gotten bored of him. But she hadn’t. They had all tried to maintain their friendship after the wedding, but it hadn’t been the same. And they went from seeing each other regularly to once a year to the occasional texts about football.
He had tried not to think about them, tried not to acknowledge the hole their absence had left in his life. And most of the time it had worked. He tried again now. It didn’t work. And so he had decided to go back for the funeral. He was due to visit his parents and brother anyway. He could say an official goodbye to the friend he had lost long ago. He hadn’t known about the cancer, but would it have changed anything if he had? Probably not.
Was he going back to say goodbye to Mike or to see her? The question didn’t occur to him at first. And even after it did, he scoffed at it. Of course, he was going for Mike. Jasmine probably wouldn’t even notice he was there. And even if she did, her husband had just died, nothing would change between them.
As he waited in line he watched her graciously greet each mourner. As he approached he marveled at how much the same she looked as her image in his memory. It wasn’t until he got closer that he could see some of the laugh lines that marked the period of their estrangement.
When it was his turn he wasn’t sure what he said, undoubtedly the standard condolences, but his mind was too busy taking her in. In spite of himself, he found hope stirring in his heart, but her cursory response and reference to her dead husband reimposed the wall of his ghost between them and he continued down the line with a weight anchoring him to reality. When he reached the casket, he looked on his old friend. Mike looked much older than he recalled him, but cancer did that to a person. Mike tried to compose a prayer for his old friend, but all he mustered was the final farewell that had been the conscious purpose of this visit.
Turning away, he scanned the faces of the gathered mourners, searching for any of his old friends. Most of the people were strangers to him. Finally he saw Laura off in the corner. She had been Jasmine’s best friend since they had been little. He hadn’t been sure if he would see her as her husband her taken a job in another state and their visits were nearly as rare as his. But she at least was someone he could talk to.
“Dave,” she cried, clearly a little louder than she intended as her hand flew up to cover her mouth and her cheeks turned a little pink.
“Laura,” he said and gestured to the seat next to her. “May I?”
“Of course. How are you?”
“We are doing well. But how are you really? How is . . . . what is her name again?”
“Anne. And I wouldn’t know. We split a while back.”
“Is there anyone new?”
He looked at her sharply, aware of her tendency to gossip and wondering what she and Jasmine had said about him. “No.”
“Don’t give me that look. We wouldn’t be so interested in your affairs if we did not care.”
Care? Did that mean Jasmine still felt something for him? He glanced her way and Anne’s eyes followed his.
Anne’s mouth opened, then she closed it sharply, but after a moment of reflection she said, “You still love her.”
When Dave opened his mouth, he intended to deny it, but instead he found himself saying, “Yes.” He paused and then continued in a rush, “But I know there is nothing between us. And even if there were, this is not the time.”
“You may be surprised on both counts,” Anne replied. “I know her better than she knows herself. She has always loved you. She just never realized it. She recognized her love for Mike because he was so different from her. But you are so like her, loving you was simply part of loving herself. She has missed you, even if she doesn’t admit it, even to herself. How long will you be in town?”
“I was going to head back to D.C. either tomorrow after the funeral or the next day.”
“That’s a shame. Will you be back again anytime soon? You two ought to catch up.”
He hadn’t been planning to, but there also wasn’t anything preventing him. He wanted to believe Anne’s words, but he couldn’t allow himself to trust them - he wanted them too much.
After the viewing Jasmine had a small meal with her children. They were holding up well, all things considered. She worried about them, but they assured her they were fine. The blessing and curse of cancer, she thought, it gave you time to prepare, but forced you to watch the one you love waste away.
When they had left, she tried to think of Mike, to force herself to say goodbye to him, but she had done that too many times already. Although she wanted to find the words to utter in his honor, she found nothing in her head or heart connected to him.
Instead she found herself thinking of Dave. She immediately recoiled from that thought, feeling disloyal to Mike. But try as she might, she kept returning to thoughts of Dave: wondering if he was still married, wondering what he had been doing all these years, wondering . . . . She drifted off to sleep with memories of the past and questions about the future.
In the morning, she focused on what must be done to prepare for the funeral, but as she applied her makeup, she wondered what Dave thought of her now. Did he still find her attractive? She shook her head, trying to clear it of these thoughts. They were not appropriate now and too much time had passed anyway. They weren’t even friends any longer. She would likely never see him again.
And so she proceeded through the Catholic funeral her husband would have wanted. Her eyes glimpsed Dave in the church, but she forced herself to focus on her prayers for her dead husband, she owed him that much. The liturgy proceeded and she found comfort in the presence of Father Marty who had been with them since their youngest was born. So much had happened since then.
And then it was time for the burial. There was a smaller group there. The sky was overcast with patches of blue occasionally peeking out. She was surprised to see Dave had joined them. She found herself wanting to finish these ceremonies and to sit down with him over a cup of tea to catch up on all they had missed in each other’s lives. Again she scolded herself and forced herself to focus on the present. As the ceremony concluded, she threw the calla lilies she had clutched to her chest onto the casket.
Afterward she talked with Matt’s mother and sister, aware of Dave hovering in the periphery. She wanted to speak to him, but knew she had to help those who had loved Matt heal first. After some time had passed, she could sense Dave getting uneasy, thinking of leaving, feeling out of place amongst those closest to Matt.
She approached him, “It is kind of you to stay.”
“I thought . . . I wanted a chance to talk to you before I go back to D.C.”
“Perhaps we could get a cup of tea later this afternoon?”
“I’d like that.”
And so they had parted and Jasmine had returned to her children and Matt’s family. When all had departed, she returned to the grave.
“Matt, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I feel compelled to meet up with Dave. I hope you don’t mind. I know you told me you wanted me to keep living. I don’t know if this is what you mean. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but I hope you don’t mind. Having lost my partner, I need to rediscover some old friends.”
A sliver of sunlight slipped from between the clouds and caught her and the grave in its embrace. It warmed her for a minute and then it was gone. And when it passed, she turned from the grave and back to the world of the living.