In Lieu of Flowers: a short story

I wrote the following story as a way to explore the meaning of religion in marriage.

IN LIEU OF FLOWERS

Written By

Sarah Levine Simon

Registered: WGA East

At noon, Leila came to sit with Bunny. Before their respective marriages the sisters had spent long hours in each other’s bedrooms but not since. Today Leila brought Bunny a tea laced with rummed-fruit., plumped her sister’s pillows, and sat down on the foot of the high white bed. Bunny’s tears stained the edges of linens adorned with eyelets. Wadded Kleenex lay everywhere. Leila picked them up gingerly with her long fingernails and tossed them into a pretty, straw wastebasket, noticing how the needlepoint floral rug pulled together all of the room’s eclectic  elements; shades made from remnants of “fifties” tablecloths, the wrought iron bed frame, the absurd mirror framed by brightly-stained wooden parrots. Bunny had a genius for pulling things together.  If only she could pull herself together, Leila thought.

“It was already too late when he called me.”

“You can’t keep dwelling on that.” Leila was crying, too. “Let me get you something to eat.” she pleaded. “You haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours. You need your strength. Everyone else is already there.”

“I’m not going!”

“What?”

“I can’t take him where he wanted to go.”

“I’m going to get you a bowl of broth.”

“Food isn’t going to solve it.”

“If you don’t start eating, you won’t be able to eat.”

Leila flicked imaginary dust from the bedstead. No amount of fabrication would ever justify Bunny’s absence to Michael’s family. They had been solicitous for the past forty-eight hours. Now it was becoming clear that Bunny had no intention of going to her own husband’s funeral.

“What are you going to say to them? His mother won’t understand. Our own mother doesn’t understand. Mom went over there already.”

“Don’t you see, I went as far as Michael wanted me to go, Leila.”

Bunny had accompanied Michael as far as the green-gray corridors of the emergency room when he called from the office and complained of indigestion. He had called for sympathy she suspected at first. He did that sometimes when her interests engrossed her more, too much more, than he did. She had allowed him that during their marriage.

She herself was in the middle of a board meeting when he called.  He suddenly stopped talking to catch his breath and as if catching it for him, se screamed into the receiver for help.

“No, I’m alright.” he gasped.

“I’m calling 911.”

“No, I’m just nauseous. Don’t call 911. Just talk to me. I’m frightening myself. Those were the last words he spoke to her.

It didn’t occur to Bunny that when a priest rushed through the dimly-lit corridor that he had come to administer last rites. They could do nothing more for Michael. Outside, the green urgency of spring filled the streets. Inside, her beautiful forty-five year old husband lay dead of a heart attack and it seemed that in death Michael had suddenly started making arrangements, his own arrangements.

It was all there in the prenuptial agreement, Andy, their personal attorney, pointed out.  They had been anxious to avoid all the pitfalls of a mixed marriage –he being a Catholic and she a Jew.  Both of them were thoroughly modern, independent. Sound minds better equipped than most, had helped create and sign this document. It had been meant to help; meant to avoid misunderstandings. Bunny expected informed people to take control of their lives.

She arched her eyebrows at Leila, a big sister mannerism honed over the years, this time effected over swollen eyes. “You think I’m really acting in an ugly and inappropriate manner?”

Leila shook her head. Bunny always got Leila to agree, eventually.

“Are you going, too?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.” Leila looked out of the window. A drooping magnolia branch shaded the room from the late afternoon sun. Soon its blossoms would scatter to the lawn below. Her first year of teaching was about to come to an end. Bunny was five years older. To Leila she had always seemed to make the perfect choices. It had never occurred to Leila that grief could intrude on her sister’s life.

“What’s that mean?” The sharp edge of Bunny’s voice reverberated into the hall stairwell and embarrassed Leila even though only the two of them were in the house.

“It’s really not fair to expect Mom and I to do nothing. You have to do something.”

“There is something I can do!” Bunny called Rabbi Stern, the only Rabbi willing to marry them without Michael’s conversion. Michael was willing to be married by a Rabbi. He was willing for the children they never had, to be raised as Jews. But Michael was not willing to have Rabbi Stern officiate at his own funeral.

“He said he’d come to see me.” Bunny replaced the receiver. “Do you know what it feels like to be cut off from grief? Deep down Michael was afraid of eternal damnation. It used to be a joke between us.” It disappointed Bunny to think that Michael, her handsome, practical, logical husband who had commanded more than his share of respect in the world, was superstitious. “Nobody can find that kind of irrationality in the Jewish religion.”

“You don’t know beans about Judaism. And that’s an incredibly bigoted thing to say.”

“No it’s not! It doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense and I allowed it.” She had accepted his belief in the Trinity as some petty act of defiance towards herself. Now alone she cried about it. They had held many discussions on the subject where she taunted him and he held out, obdurate, usually ending with his taking her on their living room floor. She could never hold out against his scent, the ideal of his muscular body under his starched shirts.

“I wouldn’t respect someone who conceded every little point to me.”

“I respect you when you are wrong.” He had teased her.

“If I had my way all the time, I’d have no one to lean on.”

“We had such a good marriage.” Bunny looked at her sister, never able to avoid the invidious comparison. She and Michael had tried so hard to help Leila become independent of Charlie, “the schlepper.” Leila had taken twenty years to get her degree. She worked as a receptionist; she said in order to write maudlin stories, by the truth was she supported Charlie while Charlie made the rounds with a picture and resume.

“One commercial!” He explained pouring wine paid for by Bunny, Michael and Leila. He finally landed on. Four days later Charlie ran off with the casting director.

I don’t think I can put up with Leila without Michael, Bunny thought as Leila blew her nose heavily into a tissue. Her thoughts returned to the day in the emergency room. Her hands held on to the feeling of his still-warm face rough with beard, his hair so soft and silky, a bit thin but barely grey.

Tommy and Kevin, Michael’s old brothers, arranged for his body to be taken to O’Reilly’s. To Bunny it was as if they were mourning for different people. Father Clark, the parish priest, came to speak with Bunny. He was a gentle, well-spoken man, eager to comfort.

“I want your input in the eulogy. I knew Michael well and I know he would want that.”

“Do you think you were on more intimate terms with my husband, she wanted to say.  But instead mumbled a barely audible, “I need to gather my thoughts.”

Father Clark said he would return later. When he did, Bunny sent word downstairs that she was not up to seeing anyone.

Michael’s family called about the “viewing.” Friends called Bunny and said they would be at the viewing.. Leila took the calls for Bunny. “She doesn’t feel up to talking right now.”

“Do you believe marriage survives death?” Bunny asked as Leila replaced the receiver.

“You’re not giving yourself a chance. Maybe you could ask the priest. You should ask the priest! He might help you understand.”

“I can’t go, Leila! It doesn’t seem right that they are intruding on my marriage.”

As the hours passed the difficulties magnified in Bunny’s mind. “They had to have done something if they were going to lay him out like an absurd dummy.”

“Why do you have to talk that way, Bunny?”

“Because it’s humorous! Death is humorous. Can’t you laugh, Leila? Michael’s laughing I know he is.”

“Maybe the doctor could prescribe something for you.”

“He turned purple-grey on that table…in that light…I really didn’t know what to do. They did.”

“His family?” Leila backed away.

Bunny was drunk on grief. “His brother’s arranged it. I shouldn’t have called them.”

“You really need help, Bunny! You have to grieve eventually.”

“I need to be alone, Leila.”

Leila turned to the window. Two little girls took turns pushing each other on a swing several backyards away.

“I need to be alone, Leila. I appreciate your help but it’s not helping.”

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I’m going grocery shopping.”

Leila ran from Bunny’s bedroom. She ran down the stairs past the hall table where unopened cards and notes had begun to accumulate in stacks. Once outside the front door, Leila breathed deeply.

Three and a half days passed. Michael’s family avoided Bunny. Her own mother passed the time with them. Bunny’s behavior left their mutual friends in a quandary. Those who came to the funeral home, paid their respects to Michael. Those who came to the house paid their respects to Bunny. They sat at the foot of her bed, ate the food prepared by Leila and her mother, told light-hearted jokes, talked about other deaths. They had reached the age when people seemed to die. They had all been too busy to think about it. Michael served as their reminder.

After the guests left Bunny spent and exhausted, Naomi, her own mother pleaded with her. “You are an effrontery to his family. Grieving is a private affair.  You can do what you please. Pray as you please. Think as you please. But you can’t do this to his family.”

“You didn’t approve of this marriage in the first place!”

“I came to love my son-in-law…….and his family.”

Naomi walked out on Bunny. Only Leila stayed. From Bunny and Michael’s house she left in the morning to take clan clothes from her apartment and she returned in the early afternoon.

During the hours that Leila was gone, Bunny never left her bed except to pad over to the adjacent bathroom or to the closet where boxes of Michael’s starched shirts sat on a sliding shelf about a row of well-pressed suits. She savored his scent and wondered if it would always linger. Circles deepened and darkened under Bunny’s eyes. Her hair needed washing. Her teeth needed brushing. She had heard from Leila today he was to be buried. Their friends and their relatives  were already assembling at O’Reilly’s.

Leila put on a dark summer suit and sunglasses. “Sis, you have to pull yourself together.” She took the mirror framed by parrots down form the wall and placed it on Bunny’s bed. “Why are you having this problem?”

“Don’t you see, I’m not having a problem! It would just be easier if his body didn’t exist somehow.”

“Ask them for a simple grave. They’re reasonable people. They want you to be with them.”

“I can’t.”

“It was in the agreement.”

“I didn’t know what I was signing.”

“My dear, what you mean is that you signed for everything that you wished for and ignored everything that he wanted.” Bunny admitted to herself the truth of everything that Leila said. Leila was a great believer in vagueness.

“Leila, you don’t know what commitment is.”

“All I know is that if you had never signed the agreement, you could have done as you wished…..” Leila hesitated. “…..with his body.

“But not with his soul. That’s where the problem lies. How could I possibly solve it?”

“By finding a pretense to carry you through a very difficult day and then finding a way to go on.”

Bunny didn’t hear Leila. In her head, she heard the tapes that Michael blared from the living room when they cooked together. In her right hand, she could feel the cold of a crystal glass filled with white wine. She could feel his eyes admiring her long body as she stretched across the kitchen counter to reach a canister from the shelf. Michael and Bunny were a comfortable couple, conscious contributors to a shared effort, that admitted few others on an intimate level. Together they had transformed an ordinary little house into a statement of their personal styles. I f she painted, he taped. I f he installed, she held the measuring tape. Whoever had the time, cooked;  otherwise they had their favorite watering-holes which served food adequate for a late work night. He challenged her to think of herself as beautiful.  Mirrored in his eyes, she transformed from and ungainly graduate student into a poised “person.” He encouraged her to choose her pedestal carefully. It paid off in her professional life. When they made the decision for him to go into his own business, it was her salary that graciously tided them through he transition times. He had done well as she had expected, better than that.

“And now Michael has been cut down in this prime” Bunny thinks out loud, “there are no other arrangements for me to make. The cats have been fed; the litter is fresh. It’s too early to plant impatiens along the walk.”

Bunny returned to work the next day to the surprise of her colleagues, picking up her projects exactly where she had left them. The Cromwell Account, The Belden Chocolate. She circulated a memo: In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Arthur Foundation, Michael favorite charity…. our favorite charity. She referred thus to them both.

At 12:15 Bunny called a car service to take her to the airport. She carried no luggage except a handbag containing her reading glasses, tissue, a novel she had been reading their last weekend together, and a wallet contain her passport and the company credit cards.

She had the driver slow down by the cemetery gates but then orders him to keep going.

Leila and Naomi flew to London late that night.  The airline had called ahead to the authorities. Several hours after take-off, Bunny had wandered down the aisle to the restroom. Another house passed before a stewardess noticed that one of the compartments was continually occupied. Bunny refused to emerge. “I’m having a schmooze with God!” She screamed through the door.

She spent three months in a quiet, private hospital. In September, she called home to remind the gardener to put in the impatiens, for Michael.