Short Story The Dead and Other Unchosen Things
We only used this table for special occasions, for Christmas and New Year’s and birthdays. And for the dead.
“Let my dead help me now . . . I have loved them all.” – John Berger
Romanians have this weird thing about the dead. Until the twenty-first century, we kept them in our living rooms. We couldn’t let them go. Who wants to let go of their dead, anyway?
Now they say that we can’t do that anymore. No more dead people in rickety flats. The European Union is condemning both our youth and our dead to damnation. It’s not sanitary, apparently. But what about our souls? Clearly, the European Union didn’t think about that.
Now, when you report a dead person, they come and take him away right away, mother tells me. She would have liked to keep father a few more days. She asks me to find the regulations, and I can’t. Whatever did you go to law school for , she asked. I’ve never found a suitable answer to that, for her or for myself. Turning thirty hasn’t helped. I did search the Internet last night, but couldn’t find the regulations. Instead, I read a bit about disposal of human tissue, from the living and from the dead. Is there a difference, I wondered? And I still do. Surplus tissue, existing holdings. Pregnancy loss, unidentifiable. Loss, incineration. Incineration, cremation, burial. Incinerated. Polyvinylpyrrolidone. Mythbusters in oncofertility. I don’t know how I got here, honestly.
When grandpa died, soon after the beginning of the tenth year of my life, we laid him on the tired living room table. We only used this table for special occasions, for Christmas and New Year’s and birthdays and before me, for mother and father’s engagement. And for the dead. Because they’re always special occasions. Grandpa lay in his coffin, enclosed in a circle of warm and shuddering and living bodies, but indifferent to his strange new abode. The table and the coffin were the same color, a life-affirming pale chestnut brown. Clearly a joke, because the tree was dead and the coffin was dead and the table was dead and grandpa had died.
I thought maybe it’s an illusion that grandpa’s dead too , because, well, there he was. He didn’t even look much different. Not quite asleep but not gone, either. I asked mother if I could open his eyes. I thought maybe that would help him. Or us. But she said no, because then they wouldn’t close again. And we wouldn’t want him gawking with wide-eyed wonder forever, especially with his weak retinas, now would we? Mother’s a doctor, so I had to listen. Dead and deader and deadest, the coffin and the table and grandpa lay in harmony in grandma’s living room for three days.
The piano, too. Oh, that piano. My grandmother’s pride and joy. Not dead chestnut but dead maple. Darker, prouder, wiser. But that melancholy deadness envelops a moody medley of bentonite and iron and sand, fantastic combinations—what dead man had dreamt that?
They say that when mother made that piano sing, music thundered out the door, down the stairway, flew out of windows, graced the neighbor’s dwellings, the street. They say it was a welcome emanation, unlike the cabbage fumes that escaped Mrs. Grecu’s keyhole, or the thuds and shouts emitted by Mr. Cre ț u when he drank and beat his drunk wife.
And it’s not right , grandma said when grandpa died. Cre ț u’s drunk each night, but Tati only drank on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Which only made him weep for love of life, or for sadness. And yet Cre ț u’s liver doesn’t betray him. Doesn’t turn against him. Grandma addressed the dutiful wall that had partitioned her life from Cre ț u’s for half a century, with growing conviction . Doesn’t expand his belly to the size of a small mountain. Doesn’t paint him yellow like a turning leaf! How much Tati would have liked to stay us some more , grandma said. How his mind would have busied itself consuming the unthinkable events of the new century, newspaper by newspaper, I think now. But then we learned a liver can have a mind of its own, too.
The dead always have to be kept company, you see. That’s why we sat with grandpa, and why I’m sitting here with father, here in the middle of this diminutive chapel.
It’s bad for the soul, being alone. Just imagine the loneliness and confusion, souls abruptly divorced from their beloved, diseased bodies. And who knows what could happen when a soul looks at itself in the absence of its body? The ways in which it might lose itself, untethered. Which is why we had to cover the mirrors and the water pails, which grandma kept for whenever there would be no water in the apartment, when grandpa died.
But this time we didn’t have to do that, because the European Union wouldn’t let us sit with father in his death, in our home. The bureaucrats directed me to this grimy tiny chapel instead, where I am cold and hungry and ungrateful. I know I should be glad for my living body. I should relish its slovenly desires, its stultifying needs. Atomize this hateful malaise.
Otherwise, everything’s exactly the same as when grandpa died. The flat’s the same, and that’s odd. It’s odd how places outlive us, and how things outstay us, unless we raid and burn and tear them apart. For jealousy at their uncanny permanence, for nothing.
How we can lose one another.
How the tiny blue heads of forget-me-nots, felled in the dank spaces between undying tombstones, must want for each other.
Everything seems to happen over and over and again, lately. Except for birth and death, and other unchosen things, like grandpa and father, which only happen once. And what of the time before and after? Life lives between nothing and nothing, a wise woman once told me.
But frankly, I’m just speculating. I don’t really know why the mirrors and the water and the ticking clocks hurt the soul. I’ve never been one for wavefronts and interfaces and varieties of reflection. Father was a physicist. Father died on Sunday. Quantum physics proves that death is an illusion , I read in the Daily Mail . But everybody knows you can’t trust the Daily Mail .
Before grandpa, I hadn’t seen dead people so much. There was father’s mother, Lia the mad poetess, a few years before, but the table in the kitchen where she lay was too high, and I couldn’t really see her. Father lifted me up to kiss her, because even the dead need love. Sometimes they get more love than the living. But I must have closed my eyes just then, because I can’t remember her.
There’s a picture of her on the back of her book of poems. Round pale face, feeble smile escaping melancholy lips, blonde strands, sky blue eyes. Because she came from the Ukrainian parts, you see. I actually brought her book with me. I thought I might read some poems to father, who was so proud of her. Who forgave her the maladies of mind that disturbed his, but mostly Aunt Masha’s, childhood. You don’t get to be a poet for free, is what I gather. Lia the mad poetess said a bird’s cry reminds you
that that there’s nothing to understand
not even about the birds’
what about life?
what about death?
what about this poem? 
It’s the height of madness, looking at the dead. And yet people came for three days and three nights to see grandpa one last time, came and went. I wanted to tell them that they were terribly misguided. They were seeing death, which had taken grandpa, but which definitely wasn’t him. You don’t become what you take, or at least I’ve never been able to.
I love you so much I want to become you , I told James that first night, when the delirium of three years’ longing and impossibility had caught up with us, first in a few hours of abandoned lovemaking, which felt less like hours and more like infinity, and then in whispered bullshit, like I love you so much I want to become you . And I see you open your eyes and want to know what worlds you dream behind them , he said, and I loved him even more then, because he was the only one who knew that cities and forests and galaxies grew in my mind, and he wanted to inhabit them with me, together.
But then I realized that it wasn’t true. James and I weren’t one being, and I couldn’t become him, and he couldn’t meet my dreams or dwell in my worlds, even when we were a we, and even though I had liberated him from his wife. When we realized that fusing ourselves wouldn’t be so easy, we exchanged whispers with noise borne of our reinvigorated fucking, thinking that maybe this could make us one, give us a world unto ourselves. Which of course it did, for as long as we could stand it, by turns. But even that turned out to be nothing more than a long moment’s illusion. Because infinity must actually be unbearable, if you think about it long enough.
James was the only person I ever told about grandpa’s dying, but he wasn’t really zen about death. Your terrific fear of death bespeaks the most fucking distasteful self-importance , I shouted at him like an idiot, the morning after the last night. He’s an academic, you see. He never speaks in idioms, but he loved in clichés. Syntactically elegant but emotionally stunted aphorisms turned him on the most. Our luckless love was no match for that something biblical in him, you see.
But anyway, I was saying about grandpa. The more people came to see death, the more Grandpa’s coffin came to resemble a blooming garden of perfumed carnations. It was so moving, the way the living made it their prerogative to make grandpa’s coffin overflower so powerfully. Furious little red and purple faces on long green bodies. He looked like he was drowning in a bathtub of carnations. Laden with carnations, he looked like poor, young Ophelia. Like he might fly away in his blossoming boat any moment, old groom floating in an empty sky.
First, the flowers collected at grandpa’s sides, filling the little crevices between his body and the wood. Then they overwhelmed him, sheathing his body in a benevolent frenzy. Maybe they were meant to teach him how to decompose, or practice for the graveyard shrubs and grasses that would soon sprout out of him.
The night that father died, or maybe the night before, I dreamt Chagall painted grandfather’s death. Profusions of flowers and infinite shades blue and dancing violins and revolving moons and grinning roosters, churning in a magnificent constellation of paint. Even an angel, see! And grandpa and grandma, having taken flight on their wedding day, rising in flight, away. Above the village, beyond the chimneys, forsaking the earthly realms they loved so well. But I wasn’t in a village, unfortunately, though grandpa’s village was just like Chagall’s, of that I’m certain. The kind of place where you’re born a refugee with a displaced soul and implacable mind, unrequested life unrequited, carelessly misplacing between imagined borders.
When grandpa died, the old women came forlorn, behaving like their mothers, and their mothers before them in the villages, and their grandmothers in the villages, and every woman before them everywhere. They washed him and they wailed and they sang. And while Grandma writhed around in bed, they asked him why and how could you , they wailed. But this was obviously imbecilic. He couldn’t have known any more than they did. Treating every death like a suicide is a bit disrespectful, if you ask me.
Telepathy, my mother said about my dream. But she says that about everything, and I don’t really trust her intuition, because she didn’t even telepathize that father was sleeping with this other woman for years. This other woman who just walked into the chapel, stealthily, quietly, like a thief.
So this is Carmen. I’m studying her closely, unabashedly now, learning that she’s plain, ordinary, uninteresting, unbeautiful. I don’t feel badly for gaping. After all, she’s been studying me my entire life. I used to take pride in the fact that she knew about me, that she must have seen me in photographs, become acquainted with the momentous happenings in my tiny life. That she must’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of me, that bête noir of her deceitful want. Steady sentinel of impossibility that I must’ve been. Her lover’s daughter. It always gave me such power.
I can’t believe I’m finally about to meet Carmen.
Have I mentioned that father died today? Or was it yesterday? I can’t remember. Jetlag always gets the best of me, but I’m sure that’s not what Camus had in mind. But there’s a strangeness about death, the dead are strangers. Camus was right about that. There’s a beautiful strangeness about the living too, about life. The first time I lay eyes on James, I thought he was much older than he actually was. Maybe this is why he was always so terrified of death. An old soul. He reminded me of my grandfather, and I really wanted to tell him that, but I wasn’t sure he would like it. It might make him doubt how much I wanted him, which I couldn’t speak of anyway, because of his wife. Which was fine, because love loses something when it’s spoken. And who gets married at twenty-four, anyway? Not to mention that if you think about it, it’s an awful thing, wanting to possess somebody by law.
I was hoping to take a shower after the flight, before coming to see father. But mother got so drugged up on Diazepam that she fell dead asleep and couldn’t keep watch over him. You can never the leave the dead alone, you see. It would be too terribly sad, to be dead and alone at the same time. So Aunt Masha rushed me out of the flat, and here I am in this chapel, amidst gold-leafed archetypes and pale antediluvian landscapes and saints and other preposterous intimations of eternity. Brightly-clad saints pose and hover against turquoise heavens, all around. Chary iconoclastic stares emanate sadly from soulless, unidimensional eyes. As though hoping to compete with the dead in suffering. If grandma were here, she would have hastened to bend her withered body and touch her trembling lips to the icons, benevolent and deserving of love as they are.
But anyway, Aunt Masha warned me that Carmen called the house the day father died. She can’t even leave him alone in death, won’t let him rest in peace, she said. Longing for permanence never leaves anyone, I wanted to say, but I didn’t think Aunt Masha would understand.
When grandpa died, the priest told us that grandpa was sad. As if being dead wasn’t hard enough. He was sad to have to say goodbye to this world. To say goodbye to his wife, to his children, to his dead father and his dead mother, to their soil and their tombstones that is, to leave the things he’d loved in life behind. For what, I’ll never know. Maybe it’s good that I don’t have children, that way I’ll be less sad when I die. I wonder how long it’ll take mother to start asking me about freezing my eggs again.
At grandpa’s funeral, this woman I didn’t know kept trying to keep a candle lit, a candle resting atop grandpa’s clasped hands. But it didn’t want to stay upright, it kept bending and falling. Like a snowdrop being called to the ground, teaching us there’s no need to reach for the sky at all, is how I described it to James. I wonder how father described it to Carmen. I kept thinking the candle would fall, and stood at attention to catch it. Or else the dead man might go up in flames, suffer his second death. This disappearing flesh, that second death. It would happen anyway, only not just then. We weren’t ready for that yet. But fortunately, the soul should already have escaped by then, according to the meticulous Orthodox timekeepers. Grandpa’s priest was nice. I hope we’ll get the same priest for father tomorrow. I wonder what he’ll say. He’ll sing nicely at least, which they say is for the dead, but I suspect it’s really for the living.
And now dad is dead, and Carmen is here. I feel a bit like I’m dreaming and I hope I’ll remember everything, so I can tell James, when he comes back to me. Explain everything to him. Except that I’m thinking now that the mad poetess Lia was right, despite being mad, and despite being a poet. There’s nothing at all to understand about love and death. It’s all very clear, at last.
So everything’s about death and fucking in the end, isn’t it , I think I hear myself say to Carmen. I don’t know if she heard me, but what good is insight, if you don’t share it?
No, I don’t think she heard me. She’s sort of swaying now, sighing silent incantations. She looks frightened, like she’s heard the plea of Charon children. Of course she’d love to stick it to the Styx, bewitching bitch that she is.
But it’s alright, we’re still here , I say. Maybe Carmen doesn’t know me, I’m now thinking.
And yet, she must. I have to give him at least that much credit. The daughter, the mistress, and the dead man , It would make a good telenovela , I say, I always used to watch them with grandma Lia, didn’t you know? Do you like Ionesco? Beckett? Didn’t you try to be some kind of playwright once? Grandma Lia was a mad poetess before words left her and she just lay in bed dying and watching telenovelas , I say. I’m sure you know about that, at least .
She hasn’t said anything yet, she hasn’t even looked at me. Maybe I’ll ask her if she’s ever had the pleasure of imagining her own death, other people’s deaths, in pursuit of her love for father. Surely I’m not the only one. After James left me, I used to imagine my death, my imminent dying. The inevitability of which would inevitably return him to me. Would make him understand his folly in enacting this living death between us, in feigning nothingness before it has to be. Only death could make him understand that I’m inimitable, something to be possessed in life—a limited opportunity. Funny, though, I haven’t told him that father died yet.
It just hit me like a million hollowed bones that I really must ask Carmen. She’s just like me, isn’t she? She’ll tell me everything.
 Poem by Otilia Nicolescu, in translation.