Colourless streamers line the walls. Leftovers from the last funeral, he supposed. Dried flowers occupied the opaque plastic vases that were dotted around the room, one set almost militantly in each window frame, the ledges of which just barely had enough space to hold them. Were fresh flowers too much to hope for? The industrial-looking airconditioning unit was set to freezing, which he imagined was to preempt any odour that might arise from the decomposing bodies that were brought in and out of this room all day, every day. It was a depressing thought, but this man wasn’t a stranger to those, not by a long shot.
Lying in the spartan coffin, unpolished wood chips digging into the back of his right thigh, his blank gaze directed at the abstract water spots on the ceiling, he couldn’t help but think about how he had found himself here, completely bereft of friends and family to mourn him, and a rather impatient-looking funeral director who didn’t seem to understand why someone might want to try out the whole experience before making one of the most important choices of their life. Or was it of their death? Ah, no matter. Besides, if he stopped long enough to be truthful with himself, this was the first place he could actually afford out of almost thirty that he’d shortlisted, so the thought of choosing to take his business elsewhere was definitely more of an illusion.
With a slightly exaggerated groan, he lifted himself out, wincing so his audience might drop his sulky and reluctant attitude in favour of a more helpful one. Wasn’t he in the service industry? Shouldn’t he be better at serving? With a slight shake of his head, the man remembered what the funeral director’s usual clientele was; it was likely grieving widows and dutiful children might want the process to be as efficient as possible, rather than allocating this the time it deserved, after all, wasn’t it to be their loved ones’ final resting place?
He supposed he was lucky he didn’t have anyone else making the decisions for him. He did know himself best, didn’t he? Though he wouldn’t describe himself as particular, exactly, there were certain things that would be a non-starter. Light-coloured woods, for example. He couldn’t think of anything worse than seeing the natural wear in a coffin, causing the viewer to imagine the state of its contents rather than directing a deserved respect towards the departed. He also intensely disliked it when people used black for coffins or headstones. Why add to the moodiness that already lingered in the air? It wasn’t so difficult to strike a happy medium, he knew from experience. Why, hadn’t he ensured his own mother had the best of the best? He had. Even when his ungrateful brother had complained incessantly about the cost, though he didn’t understand why that would be an issue given his brother had married an heiress to a toaster company, of all things. She was, quite literally, the breadwinner, and his brother hadn’t had to work a day after that fortuitous union. True love, he scoffed, had never struck him so blessedly.
With a brisk nod to the director, who’d just taken a pointed glance at his watch for the fourth time, the man strode to the front door of the home, pausing to feign a slight limp on the off chance he was still being watched. He chanced a glance backwards. He was not.
Pushing over the heavy too-dark wooden doors, he turned right, narrowly avoiding a woman pushing a double-stroller down the pavement. He cursed loudly, uncaring if he was heard. It was a public pavement, wasn’t it? Why did he have to move for babies? It wasn’t as if he’d gone around telling women to get pregnant and overpopulate the earth, for heaven’s sake. In fact, he concluded, he should get priority because of his advanced age. Turning eighty-six wasn’t that common, was it? He should get more respect. He did look younger than he was, he conceded. His precise nighttime skincare routine and monthly hair colouring appointments with Antoine were to thank for that, but still. Wasn’t he owed some respect for everything he had lived through?
Sally would shake her head at him, he knew. When they’d first met, he thought she looked like sunshine. Sitting in the corner of his favourite cafe, scribbling into a notebook, she’d just taken his breath away, and he found he’d had no control over his feet, which marched him straight in front of her. He’d cleared his throat with a guttural sound, hoping to shake her from her reverie, and loudly announced, “Hi there, I’m Edward, but you can call me Teddy.”
She looked up with a hint of confusion in her eyes, one hand coming up to swipe away a dark brown tendril of hair.
“Why would I call you anything?” she asked, more bewildered than flirtatious, he noted, sadly.
“May I buy you a drink?” he offered, switching tactics. “I’ll need a name for the counter.”
“Sure, a black coffee would be nice,” she replied. “And you can use your own, Teddy.”
He filed away her use of his nickname, smiling to himself, as he walked to the cashier. Handing over a five-dollar bill, he made the order, adding on a hot chocolate for himself, and walked back with the drinks when they were ready, a loud “Drinks for Teddy!” ringing through the cosy space.
He stood in front of the woman again, the steam from their drinks fogging up his tortoiseshell spectacles. “Mind if I sit?” he asked, gesturing with his chin towards the empty seat opposite from her.
She said, “I suppose it would be rude of me to say no.”
“And I’m Sally,” she added. “Thank you for my coffee.”
That was all it took. Sally, his very own ray of sunshine, entered his life, and Teddy’s entire world changed. They went on their first date proper the very next day, at his favourite Italian restaurant, and all he could remember of those three and a half hours was the crimson blouse she wore, and the matching lipstick that coated her lips. The rest of it was just a blur.
Dinner dates led them to spending the night together, spending the night together turned into weekend getaways, which turned into Teddy and Sally spending every moment they could together, until Teddy got down on one knee, Sally said yes, and they started entwining not just their present, but all their futures together too.
He wanted two children, Sally wanted three. They compromised on two children and a puppy, complete with dreams of a white picket fence in the suburbs and a wraparound porch.
They started trying for their first child, a boy, Teddy thought hopefully, and though it took a few months, Sally started vomiting. After a few days and a couple of negative home pregnancy kits, they sought an appointment with a doctor.
Teddy was right there, holding Sally’s hand, when her blood test results came in positive. Not for a pregnancy, but for a rarefied stomach cancer.. She didn’t have long to live, the doctor informed them in what Teddy could only deem a professionally caring tone of voice. The best they could hope for, she said, was half a year.
The next four months and three days passed in a haze of end-of-life planning. Mostly on Sally’s part. She didn’t want Teddy to have to deal with her funeral arrangements, she said, and in fact, this would give her something to do. But Teddy knew that she knew he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Four months and four days after her diagnosis, his sunshine abruptly vanished behind a sky of dark grey clouds and Sally took her last breath, almost unrecognisable among the beeping of machines that overwhelmed the space around her.
The only sound that remained once her bed was readied for the next patient and the machines had stopped their whirring was the sound of Teddy hyperventilating, his mouth wrenching open in loud gasps that still weren’t able to give his lungs the breath they needed. He blacked out, finding himself in another hospital bed down the hall a few hours later.
Checking himself out and legally affirming that this was “against doctors’ orders,” Teddy went back to his home, already devoid of Sally’s things due to her careful preparations, and slept for three days straight.
Well, that was that, he decided. Love just wasn’t what it looked like in the movies.