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Frank and Fiona came to the funeral, looking very mod in Fiona's silver car, wearing angular clothes and black sunglasses. Then came Birgit from the publishing house, who dresses in black every day of her life. Her thick and curly hair is so long now that she can sit on it. She looks as if she just stepped out of the 1880s. Like Camille Claudel.
Three people I love much more than strictly necessary.
I introduced them and we all rode up to the gravesite together in Birgit's mother's gleaming black luxury car, which I think I heard Birgit describe as a "non-SUV SUV."
"Actually, it's a mid-size sedan," she explained, only tricked out to look like an SUV. She said she tried to talk her mother out of getting it. Birgit is scrupulous in the best way, lives in San Francisco, walks and takes public transportation, so she feels a little out of sorts driving a $60,000 car. With Birgit's friend Hollis there were four in the back seat, which would have merited more joking if we hadn't been at a funeral. How good to see Fiona, now a slightly stuffy and terribly serious tenured professor, bouncing around on Frank's knees once more. Only this time not in some decrepit old Jeep, but in a plush leather-and-burled-wood automotive vestibule.
Come to think of it, Fiona was always terribly serious, even at seventeen.
Fiona works in the same department where I met Leo, fourteen years ago. I was his student, I got into his writing workshop. I was so excited. I met Kalliope in his class. We thought he was hilarious. He would say the funniest things, often as if he were completely unaware of how funny they sounded to his students. One time he said, casually, "I have this friend. He's an illustrator. Maybe you've heard of him. His name is Maurice Sendak." The last word, Sendak, enunciated with carbon-steel precision. He seemed serious, as if he really had no idea whether we might have heard of this obscure illustrator, Maurice Sendak, as well known to the likes of us as Dr. Seuss or Walt Disney. Kalliope looked at me, bug-eyed, as if to say, "Can you believe this guy?"
Leo knew lots of famous people. If you asked him about any of them, he would act as if it pained him to speak of them. When I asked him if he had seen Susan Sontag on his last visit to New York, he said she had embarrassed him terribly in a bookstore by hectoring him, from the other side of a shelf, to write more. She was practically yelling, he told me, apparently mortified. Why would a person behave like that?
I still can't believe Leo is really dead. His body is buried under the ground. It's so strange. He'll never call me again to say he'd like to squeeze in a visit, if possible, even though he's terribly busy seeing other people, and will I think about a time that would work, and can he get back to me? I can hear his voice in my head, saying, "Do you really think so?"
At the funeral, all I could think about was how we had argued the last time we saw each other, Leo and I. I cried myself sick all the way home. I was mad and I didn't want to be in a fight with him. But what could I do? Pretend to agree with him? No. Within the confines of the disagreement, I had tried very hard to be kind and understanding, but also to stand my ground. That's all I know how to do. I was crying and he was irritated by it. "Why are you crying?" he wanted to know. But I couldn't explain; I could barely speak. I didn't want to be in this place, where we could find no common ground. It hurt to have this huge barrier between us. At a certain point, it was clear that nothing else could be said, so I reached for my bag and stood up to go. Leo wanted me to go, he didn't try to stop me. But he said, "Don't be mad at me," and gave me a hug. I said, "I'm not."
That was it, that was the last time I spoke to him. For months after that, I told myself to write him. At first I didn't know what to write, but as time passed the letter took shape in my mind. I was ready to write it any day now when Frank called with the bad news.
After the funeral service, when I hugged Patricia, his widow, she said, "Leo loved you. He really loved you. He was mad about you! You were a good friend to him. You helped him." I wanted to say I loved him too, but instead I said what I had prepared myself to say: "Leo was so proud of you. He always spoke so highly of you…" and before I could finish, she said firmly, "Yeah, but he loved you."
It was an odd exchange, and I was crying, and I didn't know what to say after that. As I walked away, I remembered--yes, I did help him, sometimes. I forgot about that.