"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ..."
The voice of the priest-Father Malone, was it?-droned on, the words of the Catholic burial ceremony little more than a buzzing in Michael's ears.
The February sun, brilliant and bright after the snow storm, felt warm on his face. But the wind, all teeth and claws, whipped across the open cemetery grounds. Michael could no longer feel his toes inside his boots. Thanks to the valium Dr. Z. had prescribed, some of that numbness had seeped inside him. He hated the numbness, hated feeling like his emotions were wrapped in cotton, but even the feeling of chemical detachment was better than the wrenching pain that had been his constant companion ever since Phillip's death nearly a week ago.
Yes, Phillip was really gone. For the first time in nearly twelve years, Michael was alone, the pain his only companion, despite the people who'd surrounded him ever since he'd made that first phone call.
"Michael, here's a flower." Phil's sister Jane pushed a stem into Michael's gloved hand. His fingers closed around it. He'd raised it halfway to his face before stopping himself, suppressing the nearly irresistible urge to stroke the petals along his cheek, either that or crush them between his fingers just as his lover's death was crushing him now. Slowly he lowered his hand.
"C'mon," Jane whispered, "we're going to put it on the ... you know." She took his free hand and tugged him forward.
Why couldn't she say the word coffin?
Jane took the flower from him, then gently turned him away and guided him back to his place. He heard her sniffle, but whether she was crying again or it was from the cold he couldn't say.
For his part he had yet to shed a tear. All his tears were frozen inside him, a huge icy lump where his heart used to be.
At last the service ended. The voice of the funeral director cut through the frigid air as he invited the mourners to the luncheon. Boots crunched on the frozen ground, the sound of people making their way back to their cars.
Jane clutched Michael's hand in a death grip. "Let's go."
"Just a minute." Michael hung back. He wanted to stay, to have just a few more minutes with Phillip before they put him in the ground in this cold, desolate place. He recalled a scene from a book, he couldn't remember which one, where a grieving mother had literally thrown herself into the hole in the ground atop her dead child's coffin. Totally unrealistic since they didn't put the coffin in the ground until after everyone had left. They wouldn't put Phillip in the ground until he and others were safely tucked away in their cars on their way to the post-funeral party. If he stayed right here, if he refused to leave, maybe Phillip wouldn't have to go into the ground at all. What would they do if he simply refused to go?
Jane tugged at his hand. "Michael, c'mon, I'm freezing, and they're waiting. Let's get in the car."
Fuck them. Let them wait. He wasn't ready to go, wasn't ready to leave Phillip here in this frozen place of death, in the hands of strangers.
And he almost said so, almost told Jane to just go without him, to leave him here with Phillip. But he didn't, and she wouldn't, even if he had. Because of course the blind guy couldn't be left alone in the cemetery. How would that look? What would people say? What would happen to him?
He knew he was being unfair to Jane and the others. They were just trying to look out for him, to help him through this difficult time. Difficult time. What a bizarre euphemism that was. As if having your heart and soul ripped out could be classified as merely a â€˜difficult time', something you would, with the passage of days and weeks, months and years, get over.
But he would never get over this, and didn't want to.
"Michael?" Another tug on his hand, more insistent this time. "I'm frozen. Can we get in the car?"
He nodded; let Jane lead him away from the graveside. He would come back, maybe tomorrow and bring flowers. He'd talk to Phillip, just stand there and talk to him. Stand there until the icy emptiness in his chest spread to every part of his body and he froze.
But of course that wasn't going to happen because, not being able to drive, he couldn't get to the cemetery on his own. Why had he let them bully him into putting Phillip here?
Phillip had wanted to be cremated, to have his ashes scattered on the beach. Or that was what he'd said on the few occasions when they had actually talked about such things. Talked about them in that rather detached way people do when they believe, however falsely, that death is a distant specter, something they'll have to face someday, but not any time soon, certainly not today.
They were almost back to the limo. He could hear the engine idling.
Suddenly it was all too much. He simply couldn't take it anymore and he stopped walking. "I'm not going to the luncheon. Where's the driver? I have to tell him I want to go back to the house. And I need my cane. I have to get it from the car."
"What do you mean, you're not going to the luncheon?" Jane asked.
The door to the limo was open. Michael felt the blast of heat from inside. "I just can't. I want to go home."
"Problem?" Ross, Jane's husband stood on the other side of the open car door.
"Michael wants to be dropped off at home," Jane said. "Would you tell the driver, honey?"
"That's ridiculous." Ross's voice was too loud in the stillness of the cemetery. "We're all going to the luncheon." He laid a meaty hand on Michael's shoulder, gave it a squeeze then a brief pat. "Everyone's expecting you, Michael. Besides, the house is in the opposite direction." Another pat. "We'll go, have some lunch, then Janey and I will take you home afterward."
"I said, I'm not going, Ross." Michael flinched from the touch. He hated being touched unexpectedly, having his personal space invaded, and Jane's husband was big on that sort of thing. Ross was big on a lot of things Michael wasn't.
"Michael, look-" Ross's tone changed, his words losing the sympathetic but no-nonsense let's-just-get-through-this tone and taking on that of a parent talking to an unreasonable child.
"Ross, honey, please?" Jane took a step toward the open door. "Michael, I know this is hard on you, but can we just-"
"I'll give Michael a ride home." A new voice, one Michael recognized immediately, broke in.
"Alan, I didn't know you were here." Michael tugged his hand free of Jane's and held it out. Alan took it and they shook. "Thank you for coming."
"Of course I'm here. I wouldn't have not come." Alan released Michael's hand and spoke to Jane and Ross. "I'd be glad to give Michael a ride home."
Though the offer was made quietly, it had the effect of cutting off the argument before it could really get going. And for that Michael was grateful. After three days with Phillip's family hovering and tending and lovingly bossing him around, he needed space and silence. If Alan Stuart could get that for him, then he was all about that.
"Thank you, Alan, I appreciate that. " More than you can ever know, Michael added silently. He turned back to Ross. "Can I, please have my cane from the car, Ross?"
Alan Stuart had been one of Phillip's nurses while he was in the acute care wing of the nursing home. Not really a nurse though, more of a minder, a certified nursing assistant hired by the family-not that the decision had been unanimous, not by any measure-to supplement the care he got from the facility staff. Seeing him now, here at Phillip's funeral, was somehow comforting, like Alan had not entirely finished caring for Phillip; not until Phillip's grieving partner was safely home.
It was a strange thought, but today was a day for strange thoughts.
"Michael, are you sure you won't come to the luncheon?" Jane's voice rose, high and thin, like she might start crying again any second. If she did, he would stand no chance of escape.
"I'm sure, Janey." He turned to her, hugged her. "I just can't. Okay?"
She hugged him back, clinging for a long moment. "Okay."
"Here's your cane, Michael." Ross shoved the folded up cane into Michael's hand. "I wish you'd reconsider. You're putting us in a hell of an awkward position, you know, having to explain why you aren't at the luncheon."
Michael opened his mouth to tell Ross what he could do with his awkward position. But before he could make a bad situation even worse, Alan spoke up.
"Shall we go then?"
Michael nodded. He turned resolutely away from Phillip's sister, and her bully of a husband, and braced for the awkward few moments of explaining to Alan the best way to guide a blind person. But rather than grab Michael by the hand, the way you would a five-year-old, the way most people did, or seize his arm, or worst of all, try to tow him along by his coat sleeve, Alan offered his elbow just the way he was supposed to.
Michael took it and they walked across the frozen ground and away from Phillip's well-meaning relatives.
Alan didn't try to make small talk as they walked, another thing for which Michael was grateful. The only sounds came from their feet on the snow, the crunch of tires, the thunk of closing car doors and the purr of departing engines.
"Here's my car." Alan came to a stop. Keys jingled and a lock clicked. Opening the door, he stepped back. He didn't try to â€˜help', only waited as Michael placed his hand on the door and slid into the passenger seat. The door was closed after him and for a moment he was blessedly alone.
Michael took a breath. He hoped Alan wouldn't try to make conversation. He wasn't up for that.
The driver's door opened and Alan got behind the wheel. He started the engine and when the radio came on, he turned it off. "The heat will take a few minutes, but eventually it'll warm up in here."
"I'm fine. It's just good to be out of the wind."
And it was. The heater whirred, blowing cold air on Michael's legs. He shivered.
In the close confines of the car, he could smell the other man; not cologne, but something clean and a little piney. Soap maybe. It was nice.
"I know what you mean. I sometimes think cemeteries are the coldest places on earth."
Something twisted in Michael's chest as he thought of Phillip again. How long would they wait before they put him in the ground?
He turned in his seat and faced Alan. "Would you do me a favor?"
"Sure, if I can."
"Would you just drive around until everyone's gone, then bring me back here? Just for a minute?" He took a breath, suddenly desperate and terribly afraid Alan would say no. Or laugh at his request, the way Ross would have. "I wasn't really ready, you know, when it was time ..."
"I can do that," Alan said, very quietly.
For perhaps five, maybe ten minutes, they drove around before Alan stopped and turned off the engine.
"They're all gone, if you're ready."
Michael nodded. He ran his hand over the door panel, found the handle and opened the door. The wind slapped at him, blowing snowflakes into his face.
They walked back to Phillip's grave in silence. Just as they reached it and stopped, a man's voice asked, "Problem?"
One of the grave diggers, Michael supposed, one of the men who would put Phillip in the ground and throw shovels full of dirt on top of him. Michael started to answer, but Alan replied for him.
"We just wanted another minute, if that's all right."
"Sure, sure. Take your time."
Wordlessly taking Michael's hand, Alan placed it on the coffin.
Michael pulled off his glove and pressed his palm to the wood. But it wasn't enough. Leaning in he pressed his cheek to the side of the coffin. Despite the freezing temperatures and the relentless wind, the wood felt warm from where the sun struck it.
"I miss you," Michael whispered. He closed his eyes against the first prick of tears. He wouldn't cry, not here. But if not here, then where? Blinking hard, he drew a deep breath of frigid air and choked back the ball of grief clogging his throat.
God, Phillip. God.
Moments passed. He couldn't have said how many, and he might have stayed there, bent over just that way, except for the hand that settled lightly on his back. Funny, but he didn't flinch or pull away, didn't even want to. Because that hand, that touch, didn't require him to respond in any way. It wasn't there to rush him along or break into his last moments with Phillip. It was simply there, offering support and a connection.
But it wasn't long before he began to get cold.
"I have to go," he told Phillip. "I love you." He pressed his lips to the sun-warmed wood, not caring what Alan or the other men thought of his actions, then he straightened and turned. "I think I'm ready to go now."
Back behind the wheel, Alan slid a glance at his passenger as he started the engine and turned on the heater.
Michael sat quietly with his hands in his lap. One hand was still bare, his glove clutched in the other. His cane lay on the floor at his feet. Strain and grief showed in his expression, the set of his jaw, the tightness around his mouth. That beautiful mouth.
The man was grieving, and here he was admiring his mouth, and, not for the first time, let himself imagine what it would be like to kiss that mouth, to feel those full lips part under his own. Oh, but he'd like a taste of that mouth.
"Turn left in point two miles." The synthesized female voice of his GPS broke into his inappropriate musings. Shit, he had no idea where he was going.
He jerked his attention back to the road. "What's your address, Michael?"
Michael started and turned his head, his eyes concealed behind dark lenses. "Oh, I guess that would help, wouldn't it?"
"Unless you want to come to my house." He made it sound like a joke, even if he was only half kidding.
One corner of Michael's mouth lifted briefly, just the ghost of a smile. It gave a tantalizing hint at what Michael's smile really looked like.
As Phillip Di Martino's attendant, Alan had seen quite a bit of Michael Stricker, the longtime partner of his patient. During the days that stretched into weeks following Phillip's stroke, Michael had sat by the bedside, his hand stuck through the side-rails, holding his lover's hand and talking to him about anything and nothing, his quiet voice a constant refrain against the other, softer sounds of the hospital. Day after day, night after night, Alan had watched as Phillip's condition remained the same and Michael's grew steadily worse. He lost weight, his skin taking on a grayish pallor, until Alan had become more concerned with the partner than the patient.
Then, five days ago, Phillip's body had at last given up the fight, and he had died.
Alan sought out the announcement of the death, watching the paper each day until he found the obit. He had marked the time and place of the services, so he could pay his respects, and not, he told himself, so he could see Michael Stricker again.
When on his way back to his car he'd come upon the little tableau of Michael, Jane and Ross standing by the limo, an argument clearly in the offing, he hadn't thought twice about what he meant to do, he had just acted. And for a moment there had been such relief on Michael's face he was glad he had.
They drove in silence because Michael seemed to need it and Alan was perfectly content being quiet with his thoughts. Occasionally he sneaked glances at Michael until it struck him, why was he being so circumspect? Aside from attending to the road, he could gaze at the other man to his heart's content and Michael would never know.
What must that be like?
"I wanted to thank you again," Michael said suddenly and apropos of nothing.
"Not a problem. You looked like you needed a break back there. You looked sort of ..."
"I suppose. Not that it's surprising if you-"
"Phillip's family has that effect on me." He shook his head. "Not that I'm not grateful. They've hardly left me alone for the past week, ever since ..."
"Sometimes it's good to be alone," Alan offered, not sure it was the right thing to say but saying it anyway.
"Yeah, sometimes it is. Today is one of those times. That's why I just couldn't go to the party, you know? But it's not just for the ride home. I meant to thank you for everything you did for Phillip. I felt better knowing you were there with him. Like he wasn't alone, especially at the end."
"No thanks necessary, Michael."
It seemed he should say more. But what? Fortunately he was saved from having to come up with something by the GPS announcing that they were within a mile of their destination.
"This is a beautiful area," Alan said. "It's almost rural. I wouldn't have expected a place like this to be within the city limits."
"Phillip and I bought the house five years ago. He loves-" A brief pause, a catch in Michael's voice, "loved, this area."
They fell silent again.
Alan studied the passing scenery, how much of the area was still wooded, how there were no sidewalks and very little traffic. It was a gorgeous area, clearly expensive and exclusive, but how would a blind man, living alone, manage out here. True, they weren't far from center city, if you had a car, but if you had neither a car, nor the option of driving?
The GPS announced that they were coming up on the driveway, then, there it was, though there was no house within view.
"I think we're here, though I can't see the house." Alan turned into the driveway and passed the mailbox, one of those big ones, large enough to hold medium-sized packages.
"You can't see it from the road. That's one of the things Phillip liked about it. It's very private." Michael sat forward as if he would peer through the windshield. "Did you pass the mailbox yet?"
"Yes, just did."
Michael nodded. "Just follow the drive around. You'll see the house in a minute."
Around the next curve there it was, a stately old Victorian, three stories with thick stone walls and stained glass that glinted in the winter sunshine. A wide wooden porch wrapped around the house, and on its weathered gray-blue expanse several rocking chairs beckoned invitingly.
Michael smiled, a real one this time, filled with pride and pleasure. "Thanks, we like it. Or ... rather ... I like it." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I have to get used to-" He broke off, picked up his cane from the floor and reached for the door handle. "Anyway ..."
"Hang on," Alan said, reaching for his own door. "Let me walk you up."
"That's not necessary." Michael got out of the car and closed the door. He pulled the elastic off his cane. It unfolded with a snap and he turned toward the steps.
But Alan got out of the car anyway. Not because Michael seemed to need his assistance--this was his house after all-but because he didn't want to let Michael Stricker go, not just yet.
But Michael had already reached the foot of the porch steps.
He turned. "Yeah?"
Leaving the door open, Alan hurried around the car. "I'm sorry about Phillip."
Michael nodded. "Thank you. And thanks again for the ride."
"If you need anything, please, feel free to call me."
Michael paused, just the briefest of hesitations. "I appreciate that."
"I mean it. I know people say that all the time when someone dies, but I mean it." Alan reached out, touched Michael's arm and was instantly sorry when the other man stiffened. He snatched his hand back. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." Michael slid his ungloved hand into his pocket and withdrew a set of keys. "I guess I could get your number from Janey? If I think of anything, I mean?"
"Oh, I can just-" Alan reached for his business card, held it out. "Here's my card. I-" Then he realized, Michael couldn't read the number on the card, so what good was it to give him a stupid card he couldn't see?
But if the same thought occurred to Michael, he gave no indication, just accepted Alan's card and slipped it into his coat pocket. "Thanks again, Alan."
Alan watched as Michael mounted the steps, crossed the porch and unlocked the front door before he returned to his car. All the heat had gone, escaping through the door he'd left open, and the interior was once again freezing. Shrugging deeper into his overcoat, Alan turned up the heater and glanced once more up at the weathered stone exterior of what had been Phillip's, and now was only Michael's, home. Such a big house for one man. A lonely house.
And he wasn't going to let himself imagine what it might be like to help relieve some of that loneliness. With Phillip hardly in the ground, it was wrong to let himself think about that. What kind of man was he to be poaching on a grieving partner barely a week after that man's lover had died?
Not caring for the answer to that question, Alan released the brake and turned the car around, heading back the way he'd come.
© Kimberly Gardner
Too Soon For Love
Author: Kimberly Gardner
Publisher: MLR Press
Michael Stricker is still reeling from his partner's sudden and untimely death when he meets someone new, someone he could really care about. But first he needs time, time to get his life back in order and time to get over is lost love. But learning to live alone again is nearly impossible with his well-meaning relatives treating him like a poor helpless blind guy.
When Alan Stuart befriends Phillip DiMartino's grieving partner, the last thing he expects is to discover hidden lies and infidelity. Guilty over his attraction to the still-grieving man, Alan resolves to stay silent. But the truth has a way of coming out, and soon a dead man's secrets bring about more heartbreak than Alan could have imagined.
Although both men vow to keep their distance, staying away is easier said than done, even when it's Too Soon For Love.