June 6, 3:50 pm
Keith was sitting in the front seat of Big Bird. And it felt strange.
The instant he got in, he reached down and brought the seat forward as far as it would go. When Pil rode with Michelle, he had to put the seat as far back as he could, and even then it was probably more cramped for him than was comfortable. But for Keith, his feet barely reached the floorboards when the seat was that far back. Pulling the seat forward was a long-standing habit, and he did it automatically.
But Keith couldn’t remember the last time he had sat in the front seat when Pil was in the back. It was just so much easier, and so much more comfortable for them all, for Keith to be in the back when the three friends were together. But this time, the big man had just ushered him right into the front seat, and climbed in behind him. Keith could see him in the rear-view mirror to his right. That broad, shaggy head of curly black hair, and a drawn look on his face that he couldn’t remember ever seeing.
Being with Pil again made him realize how much he’d missed the big galoot. Michelle had been wonderful, and as supportive as any human being could be. But there was something that was calming and comforting about Pil. There always had been.
As Michelle pulled out of the driveway and headed toward South Temple, he felt the big man reach over the back of the seat and rest his paw on Keith’s shoulder. He looked down at it. Pil’s hand was dark, and the fingers were as thick as sausages. It looked like a hand that could both crush a beer can and cradle a butterfly. To Keith, in that moment, it looked like the kindest hand in the world, and he allowed his cheek to rest against it, feeling the warmth. Pil squeezed his shoulder gently, and Keith let out a long sigh.
At least I’m not crying anymore, he thought.
And that was true. He had not broken down in tears since this morning, and he was grateful that nobody had been there to see that particularly pathetic episode. Thankfully, the crying and the wailing on the spot where Richard had died had drained him of everything. He didn’t feel like he had another tear in him, and the grief had receded to a kind of numbness. In fact, it was worrying that the numbness felt so pervasive. It was like he now saw everything through a haze. Even the sound of Michelle’s voice was muted, like she was talking to him from far away. Keith couldn’t tell if he should be worried by this new feeling, or grateful for it.
He forced himself to focus on Michelle’s words through the fog.
“Keith? Pea, are you there?”
He tried to rise above the haze and even turned his head to force a smile. “I’m here, Pod. Sorry, I think I zoned out there for a second.”
She squeezed his hand. He hadn’t even been aware that she was holding it as she drove.
He tried to imagine what this was like for them. Michelle and Pil had to feel the pain and despair radiating off of him, and that must be exhausting for them both. Not to mention Michelle’s own trauma from the night of the murder. And suddenly, he felt guilty for not thinking of that more often.
“Did you look at the paperwork for the funeral home?” Michelle asked.
It took Keith a second to register the question. “Yeah, I looked. It all looks fine to me.”
“Did you remember anything else Richard might have said? About what he wanted for funeral arrangements, I mean?”
Keith had been thinking about that while he waited to catch sight of Big Bird turning the corner at his street. “No, nothing else. Nothing more than I already mentioned, anyway. Like I said, I know he wanted to be cremated. But other than that, I think the only thing he ever mentioned was that he’d like to have some of his ashes buried next to his mother.”
He knew that he’d already told them all of that. Pil had already started making some of those arrangements.
“So, I guess the rest doesn’t matter. It’s up to us.”
Pil squeezed his shoulder again and brought his hand up. He cradled Keith’s cheek in his palm, and he instantly felt himself relaxing. The big man’s touch dispelled all of that heavy fog in his head.
“I think that’s right,” Pil said. “Funerals aren’t really for the person who died. They’re really for the family and friends. I’m sure Richard would be fine with whatever you decide.”
“Yeah, he will be.” As soon as he said it, Keith wondered if his friends noticed the present tense, and thought perhaps he should correct it. But he let it lie.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, soon reaching State Street and turning south. Finally, Michelle spoke, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
“How about we all just skip the appointment? We could get on the freeway and just head out to Wendover. We can blow a few hundred dollars at the slot machines and pig out at the buffet. What do you say?”
Pil laughed, but it felt like a forced laugh, and Keith could feel both of their eyes on him. He tried to smile and think of something to say. But Michelle’s mention of Wendover had caused a rush of memories to flow over him.
Wendover was just two hours away, across the great open expanse of the Salt Flats. It had been a common road trip for them as a couple, and Richard loved the stark beauty of the drive. After more than an hour on the Salt Flats, Wendover always emerged from the featureless expanse the way Oz appeared to Dorothy. Except that rather than poppies, it was just the endless expanse of featureless white salt, and other than the emerald gates, it was flashing neon.
Lost in his memories, he realized that the silence between the three friends was becoming a bit uncomfortable.
“Are you okay, honey?” Michelle asked.
He shook himself out of his reverie and smiled at her. “I’m okay. I was just thinking of Wendover… Richard and I loved to go there.”
She just squeezed his hand.
“I have this really good memory of one time we went there,” Keith said, his voice soft with the reminiscence. “It was early. Maybe just a couple months after we started dating. I didn’t know Richard very well yet, and I think I learned something important about him on that trip.”
Pil leaned closer, and his voice was soft and tender. “Tell us,” he said.
Keith leaned his cheek into Pil’s hand on his shoulder. As he spoke, his eyes became less focused, and he could remember that trip as if it had happened yesterday.
“You know, Richard and I were extremely different people, but it was the differences between us that somehow made it all work.” He took a deep breath and continued.
“That trip we went to stay overnight at the Montego Bay. I think it was our favorite casino, both for the buffet, and because it was right over the border. Richard liked to spot the Mormons who scooted out to Wendover after dark to gamble and then scooted back home before anybody knew where they’d been. He joked that some of the single guys at the slot machine probably had a wife and six kids back home.”
Michelle laughed. “Yeah, Wendover is a lot like a gay bar in that way.”
Pil laughed too, but Keith just continued.
“Well, on that trip, we went out to dinner. I think it was our first time going to a buffet together. We’d been starving, so we were both saying how we could eat the buffet clean. And when we came back with our plates loaded, I noticed something really interesting.”
Michelle and Pil were both just listening now. Neither of them were speaking, and Keith realized this was probably the most he had spoken since Richard’s death. He had to admit, it felt good to be able to talk again.
“Both our plates were huge. We both could put away a lot of food. But other than the quantity, they couldn’t have been more different. Richard had mounded his plate high with small portions of nearly every item on the buffet. It was a big mess of colors, with everything all piled together. There was no pattern. It was just tons of food.
“But I had decided on Aloo Ghobi, with rice, three rolls, and three Samosas. I mean, I probably had as much food as he had, but looking at our plates, I realized my plate looked like a mandala. Everything was neat and carefully arranged. It was organized and simple. But Richard’s plate was more like a work of abstract expressionism.” Keith actually smiled, remembering.
“He also ate so much faster than I did. His plate was empty, and he was ready to go back, long before I was halfway through mine. We both ate like pigs that night, and went to our room so full all we could do was snuggle together and watch the TV. But as we went to sleep, it occurred to me that those two plates were kind of metaphors for our lives. Richard was loud and boisterous and all over the map. His plate was like his life, little pieces of everything, all thrown together, in a kind of happy mess. But I have always been the opposite. I like things simpler, neater, and more organized. I keep my feelings in check, and I want nothing more than a quiet life. My plate was very much how I lived my life—calmly, and with focus. I eat slowly and carefully, and I want to savor every moment. Richard wanted to dash from experience to experience, tasting a bit of everything, but never fully immersing himself in anything for very long.”
He felt a warm wash of contentment now, remembering. And he might as well have been speaking just to himself, or to his lost lover. “Richard always wanted more. He never really wanted to commit to anything or anyone, because he always knew that some new experience was just around the corner. I prefer to keep my life simpler and savor every experience. Richard just wanted to cram in as much experience and living as he could.
“I wanted a good life. Richard just wanted more life.”
The car suddenly seemed very quiet to Keith, as he was lost in this memory. This very good memory.
“I know that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But somehow, the differences between Richard and I are what made it all work. I grounded him. Without me, he probably would have flown apart in a hundred different directions. And without him, I probably would have shut myself in with my books and never come out again. We didn’t just love each other. We were also the missing part of each other.”
Keith was suddenly very aware of Pil and Michelle. He could see Pil’s eyes in the rear-view mirror and feel his warm hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at Michelle, who appeared to be close to tears once again.
“I know what you’re thinking. What you’ve always thought. That Richard never appreciated how I felt about him.” Surprisingly, his eyes were moist again. But these weren’t tears of grief. These were tears of memory and gratitude. “But you never really understood him. Richard loved—and lived—big and broad. He wanted the sky and everything under it. You always saw him as distracted and unable to fully commit. I just always saw him as… hungry.”
As Keith came out of his reverie, he realized they were parked at the funeral home, and probably had been for some time. He had been so deep in remembrance, that he had half expected to open his eyes and see the casinos, shimmering in the desert heat, and hear the ping of the slot machines.
Instead, he heard the clicking of Big Bird’s engine as it cooled.