An excerpt from Anhedonia by Nico Reznick
The air inside the funeral home is completely still, and it smells of lilies and furniture polish and socially convenient platitudes. Dark green drapes – thick, heavy, velvet – block out the light, and thick glazing keeps the traffic noise from the street at a respectful distance. On the floor: dark green carpet to match the curtains. It’s the expensive kind – deep and springy as moss – and you can tell it’s someone’s job to vacuum it just so, to tease up the pile, so that it muffles each footstep to a hushed, woolly non-event. There’s organ music, piped in through some discreetly veiled speakers, but even this sounds muted, apologetic for intruding on this richly upholstered silence. If you stick around long enough, like I have, you’ll realise that the music is a loop of only seven songs, starting with Amazing Grace and ending on Abide With Me. I find myself wondering if it’s a CD or an MP3 playlist; funny, the things the mind will focus on when it’s trying to distract itself from its more immediate purposes. Some stuff, it’s easier if you just do it, without really thinking about it.
The furniture in this room is all low key, but classy: dark, knotty wood winding to intricately carved scrolls and curlicues, more green velvet covering deeply padded settees and arm chairs, bouquets of pristine white lilies dropping pollen onto low tables and dressers. Everything wooden is lacquered, and the lacquer has been buffed until it shines wet as a film of fresh tears.
On the tables, there are folders: hard-spined, leather. Inside these are catalogues showcasing all kinds of traditional coffins and ornate caskets, each photographed as sumptuously as if it were a sports car or a lingerie model, each with a handy little descriptor and an overview of its selling points. Here then is the Autumn Aurora, constructed in walnut, and inside, a glossy bed of silky orange, just big enough for one. The Adagio coffin is pale and softly grained on the outside, and lined in duck-egg blue satin. The Senator features a pewter-coloured shell with a wine-red velvet interior. The Last Supper Casket has a picture of Christ’s last meal rendered – against all rationality – on the underside of the heavy, hinged lid. The Treasured Memories collection features a frame for a photograph set into the wood, and in-built drawers in which the bereaved can leave keepsakes or notes. There’s a whole folder set aside just for children’s coffins, and several other catalogues of urns and boxes for ashes. The catalogues inform me that many of the ranges are kept in stock and may be viewed by arrangement prior to ordering.
The funeral director comes out of his office, and he tenderly ushers a woman into the subdued room. The funeral director glances up at me, and I convey with a look that I’m not ready to make any decisions yet. He squeezes the woman gently on the forearm (a gesture of professionally prescribed compassion), offers her his condolences one last time, then retreats to his office, leaving us alone together.
This woman, she’s into her forties, easy, but she’s wearing it well, or would be were it not for the damage that a few days of crying have wrought on her face. She’s not pretty, so much as handsome, striking. Her hair is red and – right now – so are her eyes. She’s holding it together, but – you can tell – just barely.
Grief produces a strangely unifying effect. I make eye contact with this woman and she… lets me in. That’s the best I can describe it. She half-smiles, only with her mouth, and I see her recognizing in me a shared loss. It doesn’t matter whom we’ve lost, just that we’ve both lost someone, and that makes us alike. I reach out, as best I can, to this red-haired, red-eyed stranger: ‘People keep telling me it gets easier,’ I offer her.
Again, she tries to sort of smile using only the lower part of her face. ‘I’m starting to think,’ she replies, ‘that people know shit.’
And I tell her, ‘I’m coming to the same conclusion.’
Abide With Me ends. Amazing Grace begins.
She reaches absentmindedly into a large leather bag slung over her shoulder, then she catches herself. ‘I don’t suppose,’ – and here she looks up at me, faltering apologetically – ‘I don’t suppose you smoke? I gave up months ago, but I could really use a cigarette right now.’
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘I was just going to get a coffee, actually. It feels like I’ve been up for weeks. If you fancy one, too, I think I saw a Starbucks two streets over. We can smoke on the way. To be honest, it’d just be good to talk to someone who…’ and here it’s my turn to falter, not knowing how to end the sentence.
She nods briskly and sniffs, and again there’s that fleeting not-quite-a-smile. ‘Yeah,’ she answers. ‘Yeah, it would.’
I hold the door open for her on the way out, and – once we’re in the street – I put two cigarettes in my mouth, light them both and pass one to her. She couldn’t look more grateful if I’d given her my bone marrow or saved her from drowning.
Her name is Rosalyn, and her daughter died two days ago.
We take two coffees to a small park, overlooked by a boutique hotel, and we smoke the rest of my pack of cigarettes as we drink. She tells me about Catherine – never Katie – who played cello and competed in gymkhanas, and who died in the passenger seat of a Renault Clio the same day she got her A-level results. A deer had darted in front of her friend’s car as they were driving between quiet Cotswold villages, and her friend, startled, had swerved into a tree, killing her instantly. No alcohol, no speeding, no youthful stupidity; just one of those things. She tells me about this in a hoarse monotone, like she’s gone over these facts so many times, they’ve lost all meaning; she can divorce them from any sentiment. These are just details now.
‘Maggie – the friend who was driving – she and Catherine had been close since kindergarten; she walked away from the accident without a scratch. Not so much as a chipped nail. Maybe it makes me a terrible person, but part of me hates her for that.’
When she asks me about my loss, I open up a second pack of cigarettes, and I tell her about my father. Similarly devoid of emotion, I give her the rundown: aneurism… no warning… bolt-from-the-blue… never sick a day in his life… whole family still reeling from the shock.
I tell her: ‘In every abstract way, I’ve dealt with it. Accepted it. But it still doesn’t make sense. I mean, I know that people die, I get that. It happens to everyone. My dad was only human, and he wasn’t that young any more. But… fuck. He’s never going to drink the beer he was home-brewing under the stairs. I’m never going to have to wince at any of his off-colour jokes ever again. He won’t get another chance to bore the arse off me telling me how Scargill was the last British politician with any scruples. It doesn’t fit in my head, the idea that all that just stops.’ When she hears my voice wavering towards the end, when I have to catch myself and look away from her, she takes a hold of my hand, gripping it tight for a moment.
‘I know,’ she says, as her grip relaxes, but her hand stays on mine. ‘I understand that Catherine’s dead. I know that. But I still keep catching myself thinking I need to pick up that kettle I ordered before she goes off to uni. I already got her a microwave and toaster, both in this funky aubergine enamel, but they’d sold out of the kettle that matched the set.’ She goes silent for a moment, then, with a great deal of effort, she manages to get out the words: ‘I was dreading her leaving for uni. I was going to miss her so much…’ This is when she breaks.
That intimacy that I mentioned earlier that stems from grief shared, it allows me now to gather her up and hold her while she jerks and sobs. Her head pressed against my chest, I feel her tears wetting me through my shirt. There’s a warm wind, and the trees move with it, so that the sunlight that falls on us is filtered through a screen of shifting leaves. We’re in public, but the few people nearby do everything in their power not to see us. Her hair burns with bitter red chemical flashes when the sunlight catches it, and I bury my face in it as I start to cry, too. Her arms reach around me, tender, protective, desperately reaching.
At some point, holding becomes kissing, with our mouths both tasting of the same cigarettes and the same franchise-outlet coffee, and the park becomes a hotel room. Somewhere along the way, she says, ‘You know I’m married, right?’, but I don’t remember how I answer.
The coverlet on the bed is the same duck-egg blue satin as the lining of the Adagio coffin (available in either solid ash or ash-effect veneer), and I lay this grieving woman down on it.
A daughterless mother, a fatherless son. We know it won’t add up to anything even nearly complete, but we join ourselves together just the same.
Some time later, I wake up. Every muscle in my body aches, and I’ve slept either for too long or not long enough. The light in the room is that specific kind of golden you only see around six pm towards the end of summer, and I’m alone.
There’s a note on the table beside the bed, and a few long red hairs lay stuck to the pillows and the duvet.
I rise, I shower and dry off, and I use the remote to fire up a small, flat screen tucked away in a corner. I settle on a news channel, and the quiet golden room fills up with the calmly reported details of deadly mudslides and rail accidents and atrocities. I retrieve my ‘phone from the pocket of the jeans I discarded earlier. I missed a call earlier on, while I was fucking Rosalyn.
It was my father.
Have you ever experienced grief sex? It will ruin you for any other kind. By comparison, any other sex you have, it will feel like you’re wearing half a dozen condoms and doped up on Prozac. By comparison, regular sex is like fucking through a thick prophylactic sheath that encases your entire body. Sure, you can still come. You can still fire some meaningless wad of sperm into a girlfriend, or over the tits of some Pizza Hut waitress you pick up at the end of a bored shift on a rainy week night in Sheffield, but it’s nothing. It’s just biology. A reaction. No different to the way your leg bounces when the doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer, or the way your throat coughs up a fish bone. Or sneezing. A messy hiccup. By comparison to grief sex, every other kind of sex isn’t sex at all. You barely even feel it.
With grief sex, you feel everything. You feel everything like your skin’s been flayed off to expose the bleeding, twitching ends of the excoriated nerves underneath.
There are tears. There’s profanity. There’s rage and despair and so much pain, pain like you wouldn’t believe. There’s wailing and sobbing, and sometimes you’re left with cuts and bruises, and you feel all of it. It’s all so real. Realer and rawer than anything else you’ll ever experience. You’ll never know intimacy like this. You can cry and you can curse. You can hold a stranger through the convulsions of their deepest misery, and be held by them through your own. The orgasm you get, it’s more than just a reflex programmed by evolution; it’s an actual release, wrenched right out of somewhere deep and forgotten inside of you.
It doesn’t even matter what my partners look like, because – in that instant – they’re all beautiful.
Grief sex is intense and primal and anguished and desperate. And for some time now, it’s been the only thing I can remember how to enjoy.
And so it becomes clear. I’m a fraud. I’m a fake and a liar. I’m not bereaved. My father’s alive and well, and running a moderately successful building and plumbing supply store in Redditch. I’ve never lost a close friend or relative. In fact, the only death I’ve ever really had to deal with was when a cat I owned got hit by a car. I’m a cheat. I’m a charlatan and a phoney. I’m a deviant, getting off on strangers’ heartache. I’m almost literally using tears as lubricant. My pornography is the tragedy that blights other people’s lives. I’m a monster. A pervert. A degenerate. A necrophile, once removed.
And worse still, I’m a failed fucking poet.
On a base, human level, we’re all of us attracted to grief. Don’t try to deny it in yourself; we’re all as bad as each other. Murdered little girls sell newspapers. Holocaust movies win Academy Awards. Romeo And Juliet is nothing without that third act climax. Everyone’s hooked on tragedy porn.
There’s a 9/11 video on YouTube that shows tiny bodies jumping out of the World Trade Centre just before the buildings collapsed. That’s it. There are no names. No voiceover. No subtitles. You can’t learn anything from it. It’s simply seven and a half minutes of collated footage of these little figures stepping out of windows and dropping, dropping, dropping. Singly or in clusters, the bodies drop. It looks like it’s in slow motion, but that’s just the effect caused by the size of the buildings and how long it takes a body to fall from that height. Occasionally, there’s a clip filmed by a news camera, zoomed in close enough so that the tumbling little ragdoll looks almost like a real person, but mostly it’s shaky, handheld, amateur material, with the blurring and the distance making the jumpers into abstract, bloodless mannequins. There’s some classical music dubbed in over the top of the recordings, something clichéd and generic with melancholy violins played in a minor key, just for tone. Just in case you didn’t get that what you were watching was supposed to be sad. Cut to a close-up: some beefy guy who probably has a wife and kids, maybe a dog and an RV or whatever, he’s stepping through the window of his office, out onto nothing, and there’s a pause – just a moment of “Holy fuck, I’m jumping out of a seventy-storey window” hesitation – then he teeters, does a clumsy sort of accidental pirouette, and plummets. Orchestral swell as his arms flap and flail in futile panic, too late to do any good. Gravity wins. The strings fade.
What this is, essentially, is a snuff movie. And it’s had more than one and a quarter million views. You’ve probably watched it yourself, or you’re going to go now and look it up. Because you’re human, too. This is probably one of the only things we have in common. It might be our only chance of connecting.
We know death is powerful. We know it will get us in the end. We recognise that we’re all death’s hostages, so – while we wait to find out in what order we are to be executed – we may as well indulge ourselves with a little Stockholm Syndrome.
We’re crushing on death hard. JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Jimmy Dean. Sid and Nancy. Kurt Cobain. Princess fucking Diana. We love them so much more when they’re dead.
That flapping, flailing guy plunging from the burning World Trade Centre building: he could have been a piano virtuoso, or had an incredible singing voice; maybe he could carve ice sculptures with a chainsaw; he might have been the next Bill Hicks or George Carlin; but nothing he ever did would get one and a quarter million views on YouTube. Well, nothing short of dying, anyway.
In dying, we’re important. Dead, we matter. In death, we have names.
Death is sexy, though, isn’t it? Movie star sexy. Rock ‘n’ roll sexy. Exotic and extreme. We’re all death’s groupies. Go to college and get into nihilism; it will get you laid.
Any time some school kid kills themselves, and the news crews come out to interview their peers, anyone watching the news coverage will wonder why on earth anyone would commit suicide when they seemingly had so many friends. You’ll never believe how popular these kids become once they’re dead; everyone wants to be their BFF now. It’s nothing personal, of course; it’s just a way of rubbing shoulders with the reaper. Vicarious death prestige.
Thinking about death and high school reminds me of Leona. Pretty, sweet, smart Leona Godfrey, whom I adored, and who broke my heart every day of my adolescence by loving me like a brother. She had a boyfriend, a bit older than us, who played rugby and attended the private school down the road. I went out with her best mate on and off through years ten and eleven, but Leona and I were never more than friends. We hung out after school and most weekends. We shared beds and sleeping bags at parties, but it was only ever a purely platonic arrangement, for her at any rate. There were so many nights I spent trying to ignore the savage gnawing of teenage hunger, with Leona spooned asleep against me, serenely oblivious to the glandular chaos she was causing.
When you’re sixteen years old, you don’t tell girls how you really feel about them. Half the time, you don’t even know how you feel, and the other half of the time what you’re feeling is too disgusting to put into words. So I pretended I was happy just being Leona’s friend, a charade that continued right up until her parents’ accident.
A few weeks before our GCSEs began, a train driver on the Great Western line missed a signal, resulting in a head-on collision and an ensuing fire that engulfed the first five carriages, leaving two hundred and ninety-eight people dead. Leona’s mum and dad were two of the fatalities. News of the accident reached the school while we were in the library pretending to revise for the upcoming exams. The deputy head mistress – a lady with floury white skin and vague, kind eyes – came and found us, and she ushered us into a room that still smelled of chalk, even though the blackboards had long since been replaced with white and the chalk with dry-wipe marker pens. I don’t remember exactly how she broke the news; I just remember Leona’s reaction. I’d never seen grief up close before. I’d never realised how focused, how violent that emotion could be. Leona’s face flushed red, then faded out to pure white, and I was amazed that the tears didn’t hiss and turn to steam when they hit her cheeks. At some point, the deputy head left, and it was just Leona and me in the room. Leona and me and her grief. I held her while she cried, because that’s what friends do, held her tight while the sobs convulsed her narrow frame, feeling the shockwaves spreading through her. With my arms wrapped around her, it felt like I wasn’t hugging a girl I liked anymore; this thing I was holding was no more than a vessel for this anguish. Bereavement given physical form. And, fucking hell, I wanted her. That raw, primal mess of tears and moans and whimpers, the force of all that pain, all that loss, the make-up she shouldn’t have been wearing at school all cried away to reveal a truer, realer face underneath. I’d always wanted Leona, but this was different. This wasn’t young love or even adolescent lust. It was visceral and all-consuming, electric and profound. I didn’t want to alleviate her suffering; I wanted a taste of it myself. I wanted to hurl myself into her tragedy and drown in it along with her.
Leona never sat her GCSEs, or at least, not at our school. She had an aunt who lived out towards Bristol, and she moved away to live with her. I didn’t see her again.
And that was my first grief-boner. My first encounter with tragedy porn. It didn’t go anywhere – not then – but it helped to set the tone for a lot of things that would happen later on. Later on, there would be Rosalyn, and countless women like her. There would be the tall, pale Oxford widow. There would be Edie. And somewhere along the way, it would stop being about wanting and start being about needing. A hobby would become a habit. And that’s when anything turns dangerous.