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Image for Death Is Your Friend
"MESMER ROSE" Copyright 2007
by BEEBE BARKSDALE-BRUNER

Death Is Your Friend

On one of my good days, my ex-wife, Frieda, and I sat squeezed onto my balcony to take in the sunset, a pot of Rooibos tea and two cups on the plastic table between us. Frieda held a book in her lap. The warm wind smelled of grass.

I watched her from under my eyelids to make sure she wouldn't notice. She wore her new face, the one she glossed over with a smile whenever I looked at her directly. She locked her jaws and lifted her chin, lips pressed together, challenging the horizon, willing the future to change, perhaps.

I turned my left cheek towards the wind. "Today's not so bad, is it?"

Frieda stroked the book with one hand. "You're doing well, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

She slid the book towards me, past the teacups. "I just finished this. You might find it interesting."

The cover's flowing script said, Letting Go, Coming Back. The author, his photo on the back, had a round, tan face and lots of blond curls. Leaning against a tree, he grinned as if asking me to join him for some wood chopping and primal scream therapy.

Frieda tapped the book just below his chin. "He recovered from a brain tumor."

Of course. Some sort of cancer. Something curable. Bastard.

Frieda said, "He gave up his job and traveled around the world to see how different cultures view death. He collected poems, chants, all sorts of things. And you know what?" She paused and contemplated his photo. "Most of them are cheerful. One of them is called 'Death Is Your Friend.'"

"Touching." I shoved the book back to her. "Death is no one's friend."

Frieda covered the book with her hand and looked into the distance. Her blue silk dress captured the color of her eyes. She was studded with strength symbols. A moonstone rested on her breastbone. Silver dolphins twinkled on her earlobes. Every ring, bracelet, and pendant emitted positive energy.

When did she start to brace herself against life with these trinkets? I couldn't remember her wearing them during our time together. Maybe she'd worn them on the inside, and our divorce had washed them free.

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I'm back at the hospital. My former friends visit regularly, red-faced, bellowing jokes, surrounded by the smell of snow and moist wool. They form a homogeneous force of "the healthy," coming at me like waves licking at a stranded log.

My former friends visit for Frieda's sake. Before the divorce, they sat up with Frieda all night, served her spaghetti, and recited reasons she should divorce me.

After shaking my waxen hand, the healthy brigade turns to hug Frieda. "You look great," they tell her. Then, in a whisper not quite low enough to slip past me, "It's great of you to take care of him. Really. You're an angel." After this intermezzo, their voices loosen up and they talk with her about last night's thunderstorm, their oldest son's disfiguring braces, spinach and eggs for breakfast, life.

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Frieda has changed my bedside into a one-table coffeehouse, complete with a bowl of cookies, pots of tea and coffee, and a small candle. She brought one of my cameras in the event I should be seized by inspiration. "Never forget you're an artist," she says. "Never. You hear?"

When no one is visiting, she de-dusts the windowsill and rearranges the items in the room. Once her housewife standards are satisfied, she starts the spiritual cleansing. She sprays the room with a "positive" substance called White Pomander. The scent is pleasant, spicy. When I nod off, she sprays a cushion of pomander over my chest and face.

We don't speak much anymore, yet she stays, day after day. Her gaze probes mine. She challenges me now, instead of the horizon.

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In my half-awake state, I notice that the doctors and friends refer to Frieda as my "wife." After years of being the ex-wife, she has become the alpha female again, the choreographer of my death, coordinating visits and treatments, instilling comfort, drama, and good taste where needed.

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Frieda sleeps on the chair next to my bed, her back against the wall, one foot resting on the mattress, close to my thigh. The candle on the nightstand flickers. Her face is flaccid and shiny after the long day. Human.

Her chin drops onto her chest; she gives a loud, obscene snore, and wakes up. Her face arranges itself in a smile again. It beautifies her a lot, but I'm tired of it.

"You don't need to smile all the time," I say.

She draws up her knee and props her chin on one hand. It looks as if she has three eyes, her normal ones and the sapphire on her ring finger. Her two normal eyes moisten. Her chin shakes. She covers her mouth.

Throughout our time together, I've heard her cry behind walls, but I've never seen her do it. Her crunched-up, wet face and choking sobs fascinate me. She hiccups and waves her hand in front of her face as if to chase away the weakness. I massage her ankle. How do people console each other? We've never done this before.

"Death is your friend," I say. "Death is your neighbor. He takes the stairs because the elevator is too small for his scythe."

Frieda goes, "Ha," and hiccups again. She blows her nose and closes her eyes.

"Death is your mailman," I say. "He has a package for you."

She shakes her head, sniffling.

"You need to go," I say when she calms down. "We're divorced. You're free. Go." I've been saving strength for this moment. I imagine her snatching her purse from the table, licking her fingertips, and killing the candle's flame. Hissss. I imagine being alone in this room, surrounded by darkness, the scent of burned wick.

She opens her eyes, blue pellets of steel now without the memory of tears. I inch back as far as the two pillows behind me will let me.

"I'm not free," she says. "And neither are you." She leans towards me and strokes my brow. "I'm not leaving yet." Her fingers cover my eyes. Her warm fingertips smell of cookies. I don't know whether to believe her fingertips or her eyes.

She says, "But I'll be leaving soon."

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At first, her fingertips multiply. A horde of moist, cookie fingertips crawls over me. They let go, and I float. My eyes are open now, but I don't see.

"What's this?" I say. My voice echoes around me.

After a while, the darkness solidifies into velvet cream. It seeps into my pores, my lungs. . . .

Someone stabs a finger between my shoulder blades. I cough out the darkness and turn around.

"Frieda?"

She grins, showing the sweet, crooked teeth she had when we met. "Yep."

"You look . . . young."

She laughs and throws back her head, in her twenties again. A nylon blouse with a green, paisley pattern plays around her small torso. Her skin shimmers through the light green swirls. She wears a leather mini, her legs stockingless in platform boots. Laughing, she combs through her long, blond, straight hair, which she'd always claimed to hate.

Her face becomes serious. "This might be unpleasant. As you probably know, you're about to die."

"Finally," I say.

"Indeed. Now, I want you to do something before that happens."

"You want a child after all?"

"No." Her face changes into her new face of steel. "I want all of my life that you squandered—back." She presses her palm into my chest, grabs my hospital nightgown, and twists the fabric into a knot. Her knuckles shift, twisting and kneading. Her wicked half-grin kindles a flame inside me. The connection between us sizzles with her admission. The angel arranging the cookies on my nightstand is gone. This is a Frieda I'm not sure I know. She is the Frieda challenging the horizon and me. I need to touch those round little shoulders, feel her warm skin through the synthetic fabric.

"No." She squirms out of my hands. "We need to get divorced."

This sobers me. "We are divorced."

"Not like that, silly." She crosses her arms. "Divorce as in un-marry. I'll ask you to marry me—again. This time, you'll say no. And we won't have married. How often do you fantasize about that?"

"Often," I say.

"Me, too." She brushes down the crinkled part of my nightgown, and covers my eyes again.

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Pale flurries dance to a fairground melody. The flurries become snowflakes whirling behind the glass and wooden cross of a window. I turn around and gasp. This is our old attic apartment, our first home. In fact, I sit on our couch, "Flatso," an ugly but comfortable orange monster from a flea market. My feet rest on our small radiator, which struggles to warm my toes through the soles.

"Hey."

I look up and see Frieda, twenty-year-old Frieda again, but without her wicked grin. She wears a nightgown under a woolen jacket and carries two steaming mugs of coffee. I take one. She sits down next to me, holding her coffee mug in place on her drawn-up knees.

"Thanks," I say.

She smiles.

My hands clasping the cup are my own lesion-covered hands. But the first sip of coffee brings back the vigor I felt that night. Her glowing skin melts into the calm of the evening. Her head rests on my shoulder. The photographs I worked on at that time clutter the apartment, some of the outtakes tacked to the wall by Frieda, crooked glossy prints on thick paper.

Young Frieda looks up at me. Her eyebrows are naturally pencil-thin. She's a porcelain doll. "I'm so happy with you," she says.

"And I with you." I stroke her fine cheekbones. She always gets up first to make us breakfast. Her friends buy my art. She's the one with infinite patience for life's painful, repetitive tasks. She conducts an orchestra with the gravy spoon and drums a beat on the windowsill. She sweeps me off my feet, wearing a ball gown to my vernissage.

Frieda plays with my fingers. "I've been thinking. . . ." She looks away. A new try. "I don't want to be a mother, and I don't want to build or buy a house or have a common bank account or visit our parents each weekend or become fat and bored. . . ." She laughs, then pulls herself together. "So, the question is," her voice becomes deep and mock-dramatic, "do you want to marry me?"

The old me wants to say no. I want to say: I have information from the future. My love for you will fade. I'll want other women, other men. Your patience will make it worse. If you were more conventional, if you were jealous, we could have battled it out. But you'll force yourself to be an angel-muse, a soul-mate, and it'll hurt you, and drive me nuts. The best, the humane answer is "No, Frieda!"

Her young face shines up at me. I lie in bed with her in the morning. She curls against me with murmurs of food, the syllables little more than her breath against my neck. Her naked feet pat-pat on the wooden floor as she hurries to the kitchen to get us coffee and chocolates for first breakfast. I laugh with her, laugh about having her back in bed with me so soon, take the tray from her and push her into the pillows, her ribcage grinds into mine. . . .

Would I marry her?

"Yes," I say.

Frieda, young Frieda in our first apartment, smiles. Her smile broadens into an ironic smirk, grows into a shark-toothed gash, and eats up her face like acid.

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"You married me again." Frieda in blouse and mini-skirt emerges from the darkness, her face a soft, pale kiss. "All those wasted years. My wasted years." She pops her finger joints, a girlish gesture I haven't seen in decades, and takes a deep breath. "Fair enough. After all, what do you have left now but past decisions?"

"You could have said no, too."

She still squeezes her joints, which don't pop anymore. "I can't even say it now. Of the two of us, you're the one who could have said no. And you said it. But too late." She pulls her brows together and focuses on the point between my eyes. She locks her jaw, and here's her stern new face again, and now I know what she wants to press out of the future with this stare, I know the vanishing point of her gaze.

"Frieda," I say. "You want to see me die. Don't you? You want to see me pay for all those years. You're looking forward to my death. You're fantasizing about having a little celebration. You'll drink a bottle of champagne when I'm dead. You already hear the cork pop out of that bottle."

With each of my sentences, the tension on her face dissolves. In the end, she blushes and cringes like an old lady about to admit to a craving for cheap, alcohol-filled chocolates. I have to laugh, too, at this unexpected find, this human, understandable need for poetic justice I dug up underneath my ex-wife's pomander-spraying, mild fašade. She interrupts her soft giggles, bites her lips, and looks up at me with raised eyebrows as if still unsure of her right to laugh. Her hand falls into mine. We indulge the light moment and let the mirth drain away in silence.

"You fell in love with my death," I say. Her fingers twitch in my hand. "What will you be when I'm gone?"

Her eyes dart around me as if to make sure there are no witnesses. She raises herself on tiptoes, and whispers her answer in four drawn-out syllables. "I'll be alive!"

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Nausea pounds my stomach. I remember my body, the hospital bed, my waxen hands. Numbness creeps up my arms and legs, towards the sickness, the pathetic heartbeat at my core.

"Frieda, what's happening?" My voice is shrill, un-manly.

"You're dying now." She shakes my hand in a formal manner, as if congratulating me. "It wasn't always a pleasure. It was wrong. But . . . thanks."

"For what?"

"For saying yes again. And remember, death is your friend." Her hand slips out of mine. She turns around and sashays into the darkness.

Copyright 2007 by Stefani Nellen

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Stefani NellenStefani writes:
I wrote this story after observing how people deal with death. I was struck by what I would call a "phony New Age attitude" in people—an insistence that death is okay, that "death is your friend." In this story, I pitted serene Frieda against her cynical, dying ex-husband, who has little use for her strength symbols and incense sticks. How can those two people communicate and make peace with each other and their past? This story is a dream-like exploration of this question, with what I perceive of as a grim but happy ending.

Stefani Nellen is a psychologist-turned-writer and lives in Pittsburgh and the Netherlands with her husband. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in VerbSap, Bound Off, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, and Apex Digest, among other places. She co-edits the Steel City Review.

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