CHEAP DATE IDEA: DEFILING A GRAVE
by Michael Gillen
The sun was transiting Capricorn, his tarot reading that morning was an upright star, and he had done self-affirmations all morning. David was ready to put himself out there again.
He pulled his rusting red Hyundai into a space, requiring only two attempts to park between the lines. He briefly touched each of the seven statuettes he had glued to his dashboard for luck, and then, for more prosaic support, Prozac, downed with a chug from his water bottle. Energized, David strode out of the car with all the confidence his recent thirty pound weight loss could muster. He checked himself in the side view mirror: the wrong side of thirty, but still handsome in the right light. Now all he had to do to look quite presentable was not run his fingers through his sandy hair. He did so as soon as he turned away.
The air was cold, so he hurried to the door, hands deep in the pockets of his cracking brown leather jacket. He should have worn a scarf, but that always felt like a weak old woman was choking his thick neck. He should have worn a hat, but he didn’t want to mess up his hair. Absentmindedly, he ran his fingers through his hair again, darting his hand back into his pocket as soon as he was done.
Bells were hung on the diner’s peeling green door handle, so everybody turned at the sound as David went inside. There was a smattering of disinterested faces: people who weren’t expecting anyone anyway. The tables were sparsely populated, but the low ceiling and overstuffed blue vinyl seats made it seem more packed than it was. A bored looking waitress with greying chestnut hair nodded at David. Wordlessly, he gestured that he knew where he was going: Bernardo, his date, had said he would be in the back corner. David walked past the rows of booths to his destination, having to suck his stomach in a bit in a few tight spots. The smell was strong coffee and bacon fat.
When he got there he saw that Bernardo, or Bernie578–as David knew him for most of their interaction–was a short man, slightly overweight with caramel-colored skin and straight black hair. He was wearing a grey suit vest over a perfectly pressed white shirt with the top button undone. Distressingly, he was more handsome than his photos online seemed to indicate, with a kind, round face and bright amber eyes. When Bernardo’s pink lips melted into a gentle smile as he recognized his date, David sucked in his gut as he tried his hardest to stop sweating.
“Hey.” Bernardo’s voice was warm but distant.
“Hello, uh, hey.” David sat down at the table and took off his jacket. He picked up a curiously sticky menu, expansive, but with several items crossed out with smeared black sharpie. “Were you waiting long? Did you order? I’ve never been here. Is it any good?”
“Just coffee.” Bernardo gestured to the half-empty white cup on the table. “Thanks for meeting me here. I know it’s a hike for you. My job’s nearby, and I don’t have a car.”
“Not a problem.” David looked up from the menu. “You work the front desk at that hotel down the road, right?”
“You remembered?” Bernardo laughed for a moment, then said: “That’s why I’m glad I was finally able to get you to come out.”
“Of course. But, yes, we’ve been talking for like three months, right?” It had been two months, three weeks, and six days since Bernardo had first messaged him on Grindr. Each time David had found a day his horoscope portended success, Bernardo had a conflict. Coming up with excuses for inauspicious days had grown increasingly suspect, so David acquiesced to one that should have been neutral, despite his plans for later that day. The idea was to let his cool charm and devastating wit make up the difference. He continued: “So, uh…yes…it’s good…I…thanks…well…um…”
“Okay there, bud?”
David grabbed Bernardo’s cup from the table and gulped down some coffee. It was black, bitter, and painfully hot. Sweat dotted his reddening forehead as he clumsily returned the cup to the saucer with a clatter. The searing heat passed through his mouth, then throat, then plummeted into his stomach with enough force to make him forget the ever worsening knot growing inside.
“It’s great to see you in person,” David said at last. “I feel like we know each other well enough that I don’t need to try to impress you anymore. You already know the truth.”
Bernardo’s laugh was warm and surprisingly genuine. It gave David the freeing emotion of being laughed with rather than laughed at for a change. After a moment, Bernardo’s face rested into a broad smile.
“Certainly don’t need to try.” Bernardo waved the waitress over for a refill. “You’re the first guy who didn’t immediately ask for a nude pic. That’s impressive already.”
“You mean you would have given me one if I asked?”
Bernardo laughed. “And now we’ll never know.”
“But, nude pics.” David’s sweat had started to subside. “I didn’t know you wanted to be viewed as a sexual object.”
“Screw the sexual part.” Bernardo smirked. “I just want to be viewed.”
“If you just wanted me to ‘screw the sexual part’ why are we bothering with coffee at all?”
Bernardo laughed again and thanked the waitress as she poured more coffee in the cup. She shot a surly smile. A person coming in and ordering just a cup of coffee was bad; two people literally sharing a cup was unforgivable.
“Good weekend?” Bernardo leaned in and raised an eyebrow.
“It was really good. I went to see an exhibition on punk sexuality at the museum.”
Bernardo grinned. “Wasn’t aware ‘punk’ was a sexual preference.”
David scratched his chin. “Well, the original etymology of punk is a young criminal who engages in receptive anal sex, so it works out.”
“They got so many words for that,” Bernardo said with a laugh.
“Yeah, I know.” David leant forward. “They’ve got ‘punk,’ ‘catamite–’”
“‘Bernardo’ If you play your cards right…”
Bernardo reached his hand across the table, gently touching David’s. His hand was rough, calloused, and absolutely nothing like David’s ex-fiance’s. David did not react at all, and simply let Bernardo hold it. After a moment, David flashed Bernardo a sad smile and then took his hand back to his lap. Bernardo leaned back and kept his hands on the coffee cup as though he were trying to keep a baby bird warm.
The talk veered towards the mundane. David followed up on some threads that they had talked about online: taste in movies, jobs, living situations. The tenor of the conversation had changed from date to interview as quickly as phone call interrupting things just as they started to get hot and heavy.
David checked his Apple Watch twice: first for the weather (the blizzard was holding off until later that night, so he would still be able to do what he needed to do), then to fill an awkward gap (he didn’t even have the presence of mind to make a joke out of that). He smiled, he shifted, he sweated, he stammered, he imagined those cute animals that gnaw off their legs to get out of traps. Bernardo, for his part, continued talking enthusiastically. David thought of how good-looking people rarely stumbled over their words: when you have less riding on being smart and funny all the time, you can relax and have fun. With each moment, David sunk lower in the seat as though he thought he could disappear into the floor. He absentmindedly used his right hand to try to play with an engagement ring that he had taken off months ago. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped speaking and stared at his empty finger for a moment.
“Well, this has been fun,” David said as he reached for his jacket and a reason to escape. “But, well, the thing is, my Dad…”
“You guys close? I have to work to not hate my dad,” Bernardo said. “I make myself remember him taking me out in my pajamas to get ice cream sundaes on a school night. I make myself remember driving along on the big old highway to the beach, a hundred degrees and the windows down, the two of us laughing at something on the radio. Even make up memories. Teaching me Tagalog. At my graduation. Hugging me after I told him I like guys. Not laughing when I told him I’m really into big guys.”
“Oh.” David put down his jacket. He tried to choose his words delicately, leaving what was implied unsaid. “I guess you don’t need him, but you need a dad.”
“I’m sorry,” David said quickly. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Nah, man,” Bernardo said. “Just surprised you had something to say to that. You must think about dads a lot.”
“Are you trying to get me to call you ‘daddy?’” Bernardo said. “I’m not saying no.”
“No, I’m serious.” David laughed and rubbed his face in embarrassment. “It’s like how I force myself not to think how I hated college. You lie to yourself until it’s true, and you get what you needed out of it anyway.”
“Lie to yourself a lot, huh?” Bernardo smirked
“I used to say I was ‘straight-acting’ in my profile, so yes.”
Bernardo laughed and rubbed his leg against David’s under the table, who pulled it back immediately and said:
“I’m sorry. It’s just…” David took a deep breath and held his hands in front of his face as though he were praying. After a moment of silence, he let his hands slide down to the table. With a sad smile he said, “I’ve been through a lot. On top of that, my grandmother died this week and I have to, uh…”
Bernardo leaned in and spoke softly. “Oh, sorry. You guys close?”
“No. I didn’t think it would affect me this much. I’m just thinking about how I still need to, well… I shouldn’t even bother, really, she was actually a pretty terrible person.”
“Uh…ok…” Bernardo leaned back and crossed his arms. “Then fuck her, I guess?”
“I didn’t really feel happy or sad or anything when I heard the news.” David traced the edge of the coffee cup with his pointer finger. “Anything at all. I respected the importance of it, but it was like somebody whom I never met died. Like, you know when Kurt Cobain died?”
“You didn’t feel anything when Kurt Cobain died?” Bernardo raised his eyebrows. “Were you addicted to heroin?”
“So, I was nine, but I guess Princess Jasmine was a heroine, and I wore that tape out I watched it so many times.”
“Damn, you’re old.” Bernardo smirked.
“Aren’t you my age?” David leaned in closer.
“So you know we should shave off at least five years.”
“My grandmother used to do that.” David smiled. “She would say she was fifty-nine. This lasted until her daughter turned sixty.”
“Heh. She was funny.”
“She really wasn’t.” David shifted uncomfortably in the seat and glanced down. “My grandmother never really celebrated any holidays or anything like that.” David looked straight into Bernardo’s wide eyes. “She said it would make my mom soft. So my grandfather’s family once got together and made a real Christmas for her: decorations, presents, all the ways late capitalism can show somebody loves you, you know? My mom was so excited to see actual gifts under the tree she walked into a glass door.” He smiled. “She said she was so happy: nursing two baby dolls in her lap and a bruise on her forehead.”
David’s face turned dark. “But, after everyone left, Grandmother got angry and said that it was just all too extravagant.” He shuddered at the thought. “She started throwing out all the toys. My aunt’s crying, so she slaps her in the face. She gets to my mom, takes a look at the two dolls and tells her she can keep one and the other was going into the incinerator–”
“Grandma Sophie’s Choice’d her own daughter?” Bernardo sighed. “Savage.”
“But, now she’s dead,” David said with a smile. “She said she didn’t want a funeral, just that we bury her ashes in her sister’s grave. Apparently, she was the only person she ever loved and she died fifty years ago.”
David sat quietly for a moment, his face neutral. After a minute Bernardo reached out again, holding David’s hand from across the table. David let him and smiled. Returning it with a smirk, Bernardo said:
“Wanna get the hell out of here?”
They paid the check, leaving a 100% tip. Hands in their jacket pockets to avoid the cold, they rushed to David’s car. When Bernardo got into the passenger’s side he picked up a strange black plastic case on the seat and gave it to David, who put it in the back very, very carefully. David then tried to get the heater working while Bernardo smiled at the assembled statuettes on the dash.
“We’ve got Buddha, Ganesh, St. Christopher, some buddies…” Bernardo rubbed his hands together for heat. “Wasn’t expecting an audience.”
“I like to cover my bases,” David said. “Audience for what?”
Bernardo leaned over the center console, wrapped his arms around David’s body, and pulled him forward for a kiss with a tight and warm embrace. Bernardo’s soft, insistent lips led to his hungry mouth, hot, and groping for more. It was David’s first kiss since the break-up over a year ago. He had forgotten how they could feel: fulfillment with growing leaps of anticipation, at once losing yourself and becoming hyper-aware of the liminal space where your body ended and his began, like water lapping against the shore of a lake, and other similes which escaped David at the moment. All he knew was it was good and he wanted more. Bernardo’s hand slid down the front of David’s chest, then the stomach, and then below.
His phone buzzed loudly.
“Don’t check it,” Bernardo said as his mouth came in for more.
“I have to.” David pulled back and read the incoming alert. He stared blankly at a moment before it registered. “Oh, shit. Shit! Shit, shit, shit!”
“What’s wrong?” Bernardo said. “And, if you’ve got a swear jar, you owe yourself like $10,000.”
“They say the blizzard’s coming earlier than they thought.” David punched the dashboard, shaking the statuettes. He then put his left hand on the top of his head and forced himself to breathe. After a moment, he said, “We’ve got a few hours at most before it gets here.”
“Damn,” Bernardo said and straightened his collar. “Guess we should go to your place then.”
“No, it’s not that.” David was sweating despite the cold. “It’s just, I’m sorry, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“You’re not getting free that easily.” Bernardo laughed. “What do you need to do?
“Well…” David struggled for a moment. “Okay, well, I have to go… Uh, don’t freak out.”
“Just tell me, David.”
“The cemetery.” David said, then added. “Remember: you said I didn’t need to impress you anymore.”
“This about your grandmother?” Bernardo coughed into his hand. “You can visit the grave tomorrow.”
“The thing is I’m not visiting,” David said. He swallowed and closed his eyes tight. “I have to bury her.” He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “If I don’t do it today the ground will be frozen over all winter, and I have to do it secretly. They’ll notice me trying to dig up rock hard dirt. I was going to do it later, but, well, now that the blizzard’s coming…”
Bernardo sat back, eyes open, mouth agape. Flatly, he said:
“I picked up the ashes this morning. That plastic case that was here,” David said. “That was my grandmother.”
Bernardo grabbed his chest. “Why the hell–”
“My grandmother’s sister converted to Catholicism when she got married, so it’s a Catholic cemetery. You can’t bury a Protestant in a Catholic cemetery, so I have to get creative.”
“I’m not robbing anything.” David could no longer force a smile. “I’m adding something. At the very worst, it’s defilement, but everybody does that. Look at what Disney did to the Star Wars franchise.”
“But, why are you doing it?”
“It was her last request,” David said with a shrug. “I don’t like the idea of her asking something of us and then not giving it to her. People who are gone are never gone, you know. I mean, I don’t think she would turn into a ghost, but…”
“You like to cover your bases.” Bernardo threw his head back and looked at the car ceiling: faded grey carpeting coming loose in many places..
“I don’t want a vengeful spirit knocking on my door at 2 AM. I sleep naked; dealing with that would be a whole thing.”
Berardo looked back at him. “But, why are you doing it?”
David paused, thought, then said, “Nobody else cared.”
Bernardo sat silently for a moment. His body was tense, his face blank. It was as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa, if the Mona Lisa were a hot Filipino guy who was ready to give you some action for once.
Bernardo said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
“Yeah,” Bernardo said. “Fuck it. Let’s go?”
“Really?” David opened his eyes wide. “I…I wasn’t expecting that. I thought, we would just have some coffee, I would go afterwards. But, that didn’t work out, for a lot of reasons, I guess.” David closed his eyes and shook his head. “I know how insane this all is.”
“Wanting to do something like this is, I dunno, beautiful and shit. And, I always liked cemeteries. Even when you’re dead and useful to nobody people still care a bit.” Bernardo smiled. “It’s definitely weird, but you do make me laugh a lot.” He paused and scratched his chin. “But, it’s like you said when Kurt Cobain died. Don’t get it, but I respect it. You want a grandma, I guess. Or something. I dunno. But it’s sweet and fucked up and I like that.” He paused again. “Just when you tell the story of our first date, maybe don’t mention this part.”
“The story of our first date?” David blinked in disbelief. “There will be more?”
Bernardo smiled wryly.
David smiled back. “And you’re okay with the part with grabbing my junk in a parking lot, but not fulfilling a dead woman’s dying wishes?”
“Focus on that part.” Bernardo caressed David’s cheek. “Everybody thinks I’m a slut and I’ve got that reputation to maintain.”
David laughed and put the car in reverse. After pulling out of the spot, he drove down the highway, keeping his eyes on the road. He could feel the heat from Bernardo’s body, an oasis of warmth in the cold car. The two spoke about what they would do when summer came. It was an automatic, cheerful conversation, with neither participant really considering what the other had said. Even if the words were meaningless, the tone was intimate. And the heat of somebody in your passenger seat is always sublime.
It was not far to the cemetery: just a quick trip through stacks of suburban success set against a sky turning a darkening gray. When they arrived, the intricately carved wrought iron gates were open, but the grounds were completely abandoned. Only endless rows of slate stones surrounded by brown grass. Even the cute little church in the distance, which usually looked like a Thomas Kinkade poster in a divorcee’s bathroom, was dark. David handed the box of ashes to Bernardo and got a small shovel and a potted marigold from the backseat.
“I feel bad she’s gonna die,” David said of the marigold. “It’s a perennial, so at least it will spread its seeds.”
“So you’re okay with this?” Bernardo unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car. “It is a cemetery.”
“What do you mean?” David joined him outside. “Of course I want to do this. I even bought a shovel. But that was very butch, and I kind of enjoyed it.”
“It’s silly and all, but that rule about the, uh, Catholics and Protestants. Means something to somebody, right? I don’t care, but, you know, they made this up for a reason.”
“No one would even know.” David started toward the gate. “What would it matter?”
“Thought you wanted to cover all your bases.”
“Yeah,” David said and gestured to the box of ashes in Bernardo’s hand. “There may be ghosts, but this is the only one who knows where I live.”
Bernardo hurried alongside him. “You say nobody would know, and you can say the same for her. But, you would know, I guess.”
“And you, too.” David smiled.
Bernardo smiled back and let David lead the way from the parking lot to the grave. It was a small tablet, cracked and weathered, in a sea of cracked and weathered tablets, small as well. The air was very still here, and the lack of wind allowed the two to keep their hands out of their pockets for a bit, their fingers catching tiny snowflakes, which melted immediately. The grass around the gravestone was neatly trimmed, and the epitaph was easy to read: Ellen Peters, 1927-1968.
David set the marigold down and started digging with the shovel. The soil was not frozen, but it was hard and did not give up easily. After a minute the cold, earthy smell was everywhere. The wind came back, sending the dry dirt flying, mixing with the slight flurries. When it let up a bit, David took the plastic box of ashes from Bernardo, opened it, and gently shook the contents into the small hole. He then picked up the marigold, took it from its pot, and planted it using his bare, trembling fingers to tamp down the dirt. The whole process was over in less than five minutes. David stood back up and surveyed his work. He wiped his hands on his pants and put them, trembling,back in his cracked leather jacket’s deep pockets. As he stared down at the little flower fluttering in the breeze, he felt Bernardo’s warm hand slip next to his. He did not react for a full minute, but let the blocks of ice at the ends of his arms thaw a bit.
Bernardo said at last, “Feels like we should say something, or something.”
“I dunno.” Bernardo shrugged and thought for a minute, his hand wrapped around David’s. “You knew her and didn’t like her. Maybe I’ll do it.” He started to say something, paused, then said, “What’s her name again?”
“Rebecca.” Bernardo held David’s hand tighter. “‘The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.’”
“Is that Shakespeare?”
“Shut up.” Bernardo looked toward the sky as the snow started falling harder. “Rebecca, you were happy with your sister, right? So, I guess you once must have made her happy too. Now, maybe you can forever.”
“That was beautiful.” David pulled his hands out of his jacket and embraced him. “I’m sure she would have hated it.”
The two hurried back to the car. The falling white had grown thicker, making it harder to see. The car key had somehow gotten cold in David’s pocket, and he fumbled with it to open the door. But, soon they were inside, where David buckled up and adjusted his mirrors. He caught a glimpse of himself, and he saw that he was smiling, despite his disheveled hair. Proving religion was a Rorshach test, the assemblage of divinities gave silent signs of approval in their unchanging plastic faces. Even notoriously grim Anubis seemed to smile back. David turned to Bernardo and gave a little shrug..
Bernardo said, “So, you finally gonna fuck me now?”
David put the car in drive.
“After this?” He said. “Absolutely.”
About the Author:
Michael Gillen is a graduate of Vassar College with a degree in English Literature. He lives in Queens with his husband, Josh, and his dog, Aggie.