The funeral home was in a Spanish style, which was somewhat strange for Denver architecture. It was smeared with white stucco exteriors, tall arches, stone fountains, naturalistic gardens – it was both alive and undoubtedly grim. A weathervane swung upon the top of the building. A bird frolicked in the marble birdbath. Bees hung suspended over wildflowers. Levi and Ash stood awkwardly outside of the home.
The drive had been long and exhausting. The knowledge that they were only welcome through Nikki’s brother’s invitation had been demeaning. They were both Nikki’s partners; they’d been with her for years and years now, held her when she was sad, comforted her when she cried, laughed with her, felt her breathe against them in their shared apartment every night. The rest of her family never reconciled the idea of their darling daughter with two partners at once – one of her lovers being a woman didn’t help the situation – and Nikki’s sudden and tragic death didn’t cool their discontent. There were some prejudices that couldn’t even be solved with an unexpected and disastrous stroke.
Nikki was a painter, an academic of Russian history, an old soul. She was the perfect balance between Ash and Levi. Levi, whose conceptual sculptures were being called “the new art of the underground”; Ash, whose career in environmental engineering helped shape public policy. Nikki sat between them, thoughtful and passionate yet pragmatic, and kept them together as a throuple.
Nikki’s face was printed onto a thick slab of expensive poster board and presented outside the front doors. She smiled in black and white, her dark hair pooling over her shoulders. Beloved daughter and sister. 1993-2020. A bible quote in cursive was printed underneath the dates of her life and death. Lamentations 3:32. But, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. It made Ash queasy to see her reduced to so little.
Levi swayed beside her. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Ash looked at him. The black suit looked sickly and out of step underneath his flash of blue hair. His piercings had been removed, the eyeliner he sometimes applied carefully scrubbed away. His fingernails were still painted blue, though, and he flexed his fingers anxiously.
She ached to take his hand, the space between them buzzing uncomfortably. She didn’t. Instead, Ash took a deep breath, steeled her shoulders, and stepped forward. Levi hesitated, but followed her in.
Nikki’s family members all looked like wilting reeds, milling about with their cups of water and whispered words of condolences. Nobody really noticed Nikki’s lovers’ presence, at least not right away. Ash and Levi slipped amongst the throngs to the back of the reception room.
Ash took a seat on the faded, heavily-used sofa, tapestry about thirty years out of date. Levi sat beside her. When he looked at her, his face was already wet.
“Look,” He whispered, tipping his chin up to the corner of the ceiling. An old box television was mounted in the sharp angle between wall and ceiling. A slideshow was playing of Nikki as a child, slashing in a tub with youthful jubilance. Nikki in a Halloween costume two sizes too large – a Power Ranger, clearly passed on from her brother. Nikki shoveling cake into her mouth on her birthday. Nikki at the premier of a new Star Wars movie. Nikki throwing up a peace sign with some anonymous middle school friends, her face speckled with adolescent acne. Nikki graduating, graduating – from middle school, from high school, from her undergrad, from grad school. She looked absolutely radiant.
There were no recent pictures. None of Nikki’s buzzed hair last year, or of her white-flashing smile nestled between her partners. None of their trip last year to Catalina Island where Nikki went scuba diving. Where Levi won her a stupid little stuffed squid from a claw machine. Where Levi and Nikki thrust Ash in the air, the camera automatically snapping the moment before she fell laughing onto the grass. None of their wild dancing at family members’ weddings. Ash’s breath hesitated halfway out of her mouth. Her hands clenched in her lap. She bit down on her lip.
A hand landed on her shoulder. She turned to Levi, who smiled at her. His mouth quivered at the edges.
“She really was happy,” He said, his hushed voice heavy and thick. The unspoken even without us lingered. Maybe always without us.
That was what did it. She felt like all the glass inside of her had shattered, and she covered her face, letting the tears fall, fat and inevitable. Levi squeezed her shoulder. His hand was there and weighty and reliable.
After a few moments of quiet sobbing, Ash registered a looming presence. Levi tensed beside her, and she kept her hand over her face.
“What do you think you’re doing here?”
Levi swallowed thickly. She could her the sound of it over the tinny music playing from the slideshow. “She would’ve wanted us here.”
Ash finally looked up. It was Nikki’s dad, though – it took a second longer than it would’ve otherwise to identify him. He was normally a quite intimidating presence, with his carefully maintained physique, permanently stoic expression, and hands that were wide and flat and seemed to twitch with the desire to destroy. He wasn’t violent very often, which was a dizzyingly low bar, but it was often enough to scare Nikki into minimal contact. The few times Ash had met him, he had used every swear in the dictionary to bring them low.
Now, though – now he was diminished. His face, which was normally a warm, flushed brown, held sickly undertones of gray and green. His eyes were dull, his arms limp by his side, his hands no longer eternally moving. Ash felt like she was looking upon the ruined statue of Ozymandias, weathered by time and tragedy unspoken.
“I don’t want you here,” He barked, insofar as one could bark while still retaining an appropriate volume for a funeral. “Get out.”
“I’m sorry for your loss –”
“I said get out.”
“We won’t talk to anybody, and we – we’ll sit in the back, but please.” Levi lifted a hand from Ash, pressing them together as if in prayer. “Please. We loved her…”
Levi’s voice stuttered and broke. Nikki’s dad looked down at him like a god passing judgment. His eyes were dull, the anger Ash had witnessed in the past leaching out of him. He sighed, forehead creasing.
“You don’t say a word,” He growled. “You don’t say a word, and if anyone asks, you were her friends, and that’s it.”
The room felt weighed down upon Ash’s shoulders. Nikki’s family never liked them. There was no reason to pretend like anything would change. She nodded and leaned into Levi.
Nikki’s father sighed. “I don’t care anymore,” He said. He turned away, shaking his head. “I just don’t care.”
Ash and Levi watched him leave in solemn silence. “That’s a much kinder conversation with him than I’ve ever had,” Ash whispered. Levi snorted mirthlessly.
The ceremony itself started not too long after their confrontation with Nikki’s dad. They kept true to their word and stayed in the back by the refreshments. It was short and teary, and when Nikki’s brother spoke about his last moments with his sister, Ash came perilously close to having to excuse herself from the room.
It was an open casket. Neither could bring themselves to look upon the cold, waxy figure of their dead lover – Nikki, who still was alive and well in her memories, would shrivel up and be replaced if she gazed upon that lifeless facsimile. It would be like a second death to Ash, and when she whispered as much to Levi, he nodded empathetically.
There was a bit of light socializing afterwards, and Nikki’s brother Jason spoke for a bit to Ash. The conversation was short and perfunctory – the condolences, the polite sharing of small stories about Nikki, the awkward hug between two strangers who knew so little about each other from direct contact, but were told intimate details by a third party. Jason told Ash to call him at any time, day or night. She said she’d take him up on his offer. It was a comfortable enough lie.
It wasn’t until Jason stepped away to comfort another grieving family member that Ash turned around and realized Levi was missing. She peeked around the corner into the room where Nikki lay. She sat by the bathrooms for a while. He didn’t turn up, which meant he’d probably stepped outside for some air. She figured his example was a good one to follow.
Ash stepped out into the gray in between – in between the funeral home and the world outside, between afternoon and evening, between mourning and celebration. She didn’t know how she knew where to look, but it was almost like she was being guided by the hand down the steps, into the courtyard, and to a little brick wall out of the way of the funeral. Levi sat atop it, slumped over. An unlit joint rolled around his fingers.
It took no effort to brace her palms upon the top of the wall and heft herself so that she could sit beside him. His face was dry, but his eyes were heavy with unshed tears. Ash scooted until their bodies were seamless between each other. He lifted his chin, and she tucked her face into the skin of his neck, just breathing. Breathing. Breathing with him, until their heartbeats mingled.
The memory of Nikki danced in the space between their fingers. Levi turned his palm up. Ash took his hand.
Jessica Mendoza is a young up-and-coming writer born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She holds a B.A. in Screenwriting and is looking toward getting her M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She has been previously published in The Good Life Review. As a professional writing tutor, avid reader, lover of small animals, and serious movie musical nerd, Jessica spends most of her time feverishly editing essays and raving about the semicolon’s usefulness to her students, who kindly humor her fits of punctuation passion. She can be found on Twitter @JessMProse.