It was an odd thing to say at the beginning of an eulogy. I knew that the next time I saw her, it was going to be at her funeral. How do I explain that she told me that herself? The last time I saw her, we sat side by side on the bench outside of a coffee shop on the university campus. Spring was just about to end, but the last of the winds passing through the city would bite at any bared skin. Our elbows were separated by my hoodie and her black hand-knit sweater. The days were getting longer, but the sun was, nevertheless, setting behind us. It was sometime between five and six – she seemed to, somehow, always, curtail time’s tyrannical rule. I knew I had to make my way home at some point that evening, but not yet. Time took a graceful bow at her feet and conceded her the throne. The sun proceeded to set, not as an indication of time passing, but to dim the lights and set the mood for conversations that can only happen during the gleam of twilight.
The next time you see me, it’ll be at my funeral.
The way I remembered it, she did not say it as an indication that she will end her life. Rather, it was only sad in the way that life is sometimes sad because life is so elusive. I often find myself unable to reciprocate a reply when she pauses and waits for me to speak. Perhaps it is my mouth refusing to articulate, but sometimes, I feel like it is my mind withdrawing. On the contrary, her words seemed to stream, uninterrupted, from her mind. She was only sad in the way that life is sometimes sad. A more elusive sentiment than melancholia and nostalgia. She lived without fighting life, without fighting time, and I suppose, she died that way too.
For me, it was not about how she died – rather, that she was dead. I never found out how she died. If I were to imagine how she would have died during the first few months that I knew her, I would have said she died hollering in victory. She would have flown into the sun with her wings dripping wax and feathers; she would have burned triumphantly. I didn’t know her then. I only had an impression of her colliding with who I wanted her to be. I know now that she did not die that way.
I suppose she could have died in an accident. She could have been walking across the street at night, dressed in all black – ready for her own funeral. A car could have come rushing down the street; the driver, distracted, would not have seen her. The car would have hit her, and the driver, panicking, might have driven away into the night. Her body would have been ripped open, and her skin would have been rubbed away. No, that was not how she died. She would have refused to let the world expose her like that.
As far as I know, she died because she lived.
So, who is she?
My brother had once asked me. I suppose he was curious about the remnants of her in my life.
Clare was her name, but we can hardly define a person by their name – or else she would be the same person as every other Clare. No, Clare was just her name.
Well, do you love Clare?
I can no longer remember if my brother asked me with sincerity. Did he drag out the well… and add a dip in the word love to mock me? Or did he drop his voice to a low, genuine tone? Perhaps both, perhaps neither.
I suppose I love Clare in some way. I did not want a future with her in that sense; she was never going to be walking down an aisle with me waiting at the end. But of course, I did want a future with her, and I did love her. I wanted to see her become everything she wanted to be, and I wanted her to see me become the me I told her I would be. At the very least, I would have settled for a future with her in it, even as the worst version of herself – even if I had to become the worst version of myself. All I could tell my brother was that Clare was my friend.
She wanted you to speak at the funeral.
The words came through the phone receiver fuzzy but not distorted; it went into my ear as clear and crisp as the night spring air. Phones now rarely gave us the luxury of the distorted, barely intelligible version of voices that would be familiar to us. There is no longer the distinct feeling of separation while one is on their phone, a reminder that you are, in fact, not really next to them. This voice, not familiar, was directly next to me on my right, sitting beside me on the bus, disclosing those words to me. I did not have the luxury of not hearing.
The bus lurched suddenly, and not being able to brace myself for the impact, I bashed my head right into those words. She is dead. No, now is really not a good time. I cannot accept this call. Mere seconds of difference between the tedious motions of daily life and the treacherous knowledge of death. The bus carried me onwards, halting to a stop and lurching itself forward once in a while. People carried fragments of the outside world into the bus with them: wet umbrellas, muddy shoes, droplets of rain on their coats, hair, hands. The bus filled with the musk of an antediluvian cave forever inaccessible to those on the outside, but forever inescapable for those trapped in it. The stench clawed at my neck, scratching and grabbing at flesh until it had its hands firmly gripped around me. It began to apply pressure until I could no longer breathe at all.
When we arrived at my stop, I seemed to have forgotten that the outside world existed at all. The bus, illuminated in the darkening sky, was the only remnant of the physical world left to me. I watched it disappear at the bend in the road, and it was all gone. The bus was gone, she was gone, all that was left was the muddy, wet stench of rain and fog.
The last time I saw Clare, we met up for coffee. It must have been about ten years ago. It was the last semester of university for the both of us, and perhaps we already knew then that we would not really see each other again. I think she had more of a premonition than I did; I was still somewhat untethered to the real world then. She said something that day that I purposely forgot, and I think if you knew Clare, what I’m about to say would not sound that odd. She told me, on that cold spring evening ten years ago, that the next time I saw her, it would be at her funeral.
Well, she was right and she was wrong about that. About six months after that evening, I think I saw her again. It was autumn then, and specifically that week of autumn when everyday, the sun seemed to recede beyond the horizon half an hour before the last. It was unexpectedly dark at five, and I was on the bus headed home after work. The yellow lights in the back of the bus flickered off occasionally to remind us that they were there for our benefit, and that the world outside had become imperceptibly dark. I looked up from my phone every time the bus slowed down at a stop to make sure I was not going to miss my exit, and during one of these glances, I thought I saw her. I was tired then, and I don’t think I had replied to the last message she sent me about a week ago, so I looked away. Well, if it was her, she didn’t say anything either, and when I looked back up, she was gone.
I do not mean to tell you this story as a lecture. This is not about me telling you that you have to work to maintain relationships with people. If anything, the beauty of life is its elusiveness, but I don’t want to get into that either. This is just me being honest, truthful. This is probably what she would have wanted.
I’m just glad to have seen her one last time.
This short story by Mandy Zhou is posted in submission for the ESA’s 2022 Short Story Competition.