The suit is uncomfortable, constricting; it’s not my usual thing. I’ve always been more comfortable in t-shirts and jeans, or my wetsuit. The top button of the shirt chafes at my neck and the black shoes are entirely inappropriate for the beach. The sun is setting low over the water here at Laguna, casting the world in burnished shades of orange, red and yellow. It makes me irrationally angry for a minute, that something so beautiful should still exist, when- but he would love it, would have loved it. So I choke it back. The light plays over the faces of the handful of people looking at me, waiting for me to start talking, pale circles on top of black streaks, blurred out of recognition by the wetness in my eyes.
Dark and pale, that was the first and last thing I saw. They’d cleaned up the worst of the red before they let me in. His hair was dark against the white-on-white of his skin and the sheets, the sheet they pulled up to cover his face. “Is that him?” And the answer was yes, but the answer was no, because he never looks like that, never looks so still, they’ve got it wrong-
The monitors were off, all of them off, and I couldn’t find the words to argue that they should still be on, that he’d never given up on anything in his life, that we owed it to him not to give up on him now. But they had and the lights were off and the beeping had stopped and the doctor with her face so sympathetic and words falling from her lips that made no sense at all. And all there was, was dark against pale, and a sheet pulled up to cover a cold, still face. Over and over again until the end of time.
“Thank you all for coming-“ I make it that far and no further before I choke, my fingers tightening on the cards in my hand, the words that refuse to come. There’s a hand on my shoulder and I can see Gabe in my peripheral vision if I turn, just a little. He’s as wrecked as I am, bags under his eyes because he hasn’t slept in days. None of us have. But he’s there and his hand is warm and solid and he gives me the strength to swallow and lick my lips and try again. For him, I try again.
“Thank you all for coming.” It comes, this time, Gabe’s strength becoming mine, if only for a minute or two. It’s all he can give and in this moment it’s enough. “I know he would be so happy that everyone was here; I just- I wish it was for different reasons.” I wish, I wish, I wish... “I don’t know how to say goodbye.”
It was a regular evening, after a regular day, the dishes done and nothing left to do but kick back on the balcony with a beer and enjoy the quiet, because it wasn’t going to last. The apartment was like Grand Central Station most of the time, the three of us orbiting each other in familiar circles, now slow and lazy mornings in the sun, now frantic and chaotic and ‘have you seen my gym shorts’ and ‘would you hurry up we’re going to be late.’ And a phone call at nine could mean anything from ‘picking up bread, do we need eggs’ to ‘got a flat tire, help,’ but was never, ever supposed to be ‘get down to the hospital now’ or ‘there’s been an accident.’
The freeway was too long, the drive fast but never fast enough, and he’s not answering his phone god please – he’s supposed to answer and laugh and prove to me this has been some kind of mistake. That cars don’t get t-boned in a quiet suburb on a regular night, that we’ll be home in half an hour and having a late dinner and making jokes about false alarms that will someday stop being funny but we’ll keep making them anyway because the joke is so much better than thinking about why we were scared. But when the doctor let us in and her eyes were sad I knew, I knew and the world hasn’t been ‘regular’ since.
“You always loved this beach. It was the place of so many firsts, for you and for us. You used to tell me that it was because it was always changing. The ocean was never the same thing twice. There was always the possibility of something new and exciting coming in the next wave, the next crest. You had a life full of change, and through all of it you never stopped believing in the possibility of something better. You inspired me to be better.”
Jeanne is here, running down the hallway as they kick us out, not that they call it that. But we’d stayed with him longer than we were supposed to, and they needed the room, needed the room for someone else’s lover, brother, father, child, for someone else’s heartbreak. I couldn’t bring myself to care. I remember yelling, incoherent and fierce, my knees hurting from banging them against the tile floor when I fell, a reminder with every step back down the hall, the only part of me not numb.
I didn’t know how they’d found her so quickly, got her there so quickly; I hadn’t realized at the time that it had been hours. She grabbed me, hauled me in and shouted my name, thick and panicked and eyes red from crying. “How could you let this happen? HOW?”
And I didn’t have an answer.
The sun is dipping low now; we timed this well. The scattered clouds against the deepening blue reflect the colours of the sun, now shielding the light, now letting it through in licks of flame that burn my eyes when I look too long. We never talked about what you would have wanted. We never imagined that we would need to. Not yet, not so soon. But the sunset inspired you, and there were so many times that we looked for you and knew you’d be outside, watching the world change colour, fade to a thousand shades of dark blue and black. It feels right to do it this way.
I can’t think of you as sunset; to me you’ve always been a sunrise, life and light and brilliant love.
“It wasn’t easy at first, for any of us, but we found our way together, and you became as necessary to me as breathing. There’s so much I admire about you, so much more we had yet to see and do and learn.”
Zach has always been my strength, my rock. Being strong for him today, doing this for him, for us, is the least I can do. A single drop to fill a debt that can never, ever be repaid.
“You brought love into my life, laughter, and joy – such joy. The thirteen years we’ve had as a family will never be enough, will never have been enough. You were never supposed to go first.”
It’s too much, all of it, even for me. My heart is bruised and bleeding, the blackness seeping out of my pores. I stumble over the words, have to stop to catch my breath.
“I’ll treasure every second of the time we had together.”
The sun is touching the water now, reflecting back towards the beach in ripples of gold against the sea. The waves are small today, enough to make the sunlight shimmer and dance but not enough to send the spray flying like fireflies into the air. His favourite moment of his favourite time of day.
My voice breaks and Zach is there, on my other side, his hand on mine, his face – God, his eyes should never be that shattered. I want to hold him, bury my face in his chest, wrap my arms around him and fuck the suit, let him cry until there are no more tears in the world. I want to forget the horror of this past week in his warm arms and beating heart, run away with him and leave everything else behind us, pretend that this is a nightmare that we might someday wake up from.
Together, hands laced and trembling, the sun trembling on the horizon and the sheets of fire overhead fading into darkness, we open the urn.
We scatter Cody’s ashes to the wind.