By Bel Sáenz
The letter that he left for me began, Hey, sunbeam. I’ll never know where he got the nickname. I’ve never had what you call a sunny disposition. Anyway, I couldn’t bear to read it so I put it through the shredder in Louise’s study. Looking back, I wish it’d been the first thing that I burned. But I wish for so many things—that I had given him my blood, that we had kept his forest green sweater, that I had gone with him to the hospital like he asked, that I had let him teach me about gardening. None of it matters now because none of it can be fixed.
The day of the burial was incongruously bright, the relic of a fading summer. A week or so after that, when it finally dawned on me that he was gone, I quit my job and started to burn things. It had nothing to do with religion—June may have believed in rebirth, in the passage of the self through many planes on to a final blessed nirvana, but I did not. The man we all loved was dead and would not come back to us; this was the single fact around which I was supposed to rebuild my reality like an oyster making a pearl.
At first it was a kind of vengeance. I wanted to destroy as we had been destroyed, to erase as he had been erased—quickly and without mercy. Then it became an act of defiance. You see, I thought I had a plan. I thought I’d figured out why Orpheus failed to bring his wife back from the land of the dead. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her enough. On the contrary, he loved her too much not to look back at her when he’d been forbidden to do so. And from what I understood of theology, this was a common occurrence: if you love something too much, it gets taken from you. That’s how the gods have their fun and how they dole out their justice. But as an atheist, I thought I could fight back. In open challenge to all gods, if they existed, I would banish the thought of my own Eurydice. I would start a trail of fire and I would follow it to the future. I would not turn to see the happiest years of my life, with their fine threads of gold, waver and vanish like a cruel desert mirage. I would never look back. And so I burned.
We had been holding on to so much, for so long. For starters, the box of medical files where we kept old hospital bills, lab results, printouts from the American Cancer Society website ... When she found it at the bottom of her closet, Louise went rigid, then hastily set the box aside and said to get rid of it, she needed the room. It didn’t occur to me to question her; I did as little thinking as I could back then, as most thoughts sooner or later led back to what we’d lost, which proved intolerable. So I took the box out of the house, dumped the contents in a trashcan and burned them all. A few days later Louise brought me a fat stack of paper in her handwriting, which, I quickly realized, was the mythical cookbook she’d repeatedly promised to write. Now she wanted it gone. What’s the use? she retorted testily when I tried to protest. He won’t read it. And I can’t stand to look at it. So I took it and I burned that, too. Surely June would have stopped me, but she was out of town with her students and she never found out. Louise alone had witnessed the birth of her work, and as the flames devoured Karim’s name on the dedications page, I alone witnessed its destruction.
From old papers I progressed to derelict cars and mattresses left behind by homeless people in the seedier parts of town. Even when the press caught wind of it and I became a blurry, hooded figured captured on CCTV on the daily news, I could not see an end to it. So I sneaked into an old, abandoned factory and I torched it to the ground. Soon, I calculated feverishly, the police would catch me, or someone would take me for a thief and shoot me for trespassing. I pitied the soul tasked with writing my obituary.
Louise chose to ignore my escapades as one ignores a bratty child misbehaving for attention, but June, sweet June, relentless in her benevolence, reached out and gave me a little speech about how death isn’t really the end. Karim, she explained, had merely gone someplace else. He was in every blade of grass now, in every star in the sky, in the air we breathed ...
I think he’s in the ground feedin’ worms and shit, I sneered darkly. It was unfair to punish June for her hardheaded optimism, but it did not stop me. Why didn’t she feel as furious as I did, and as lost?
Still, June would not give up. She basically dragged me by the ear to the cemetery and said to talk to Karim and get my shit together or else she’d out me to the police. “They seem pretty desperate to catch the mysterious Sunset arsonist,” she remarked innocently. “And gee, if I could only help them …”
So I stood shaking in front of the grave and I called her all sorts of names she did not deserve. It had no effect. “Just say what you need to say to him,” she instructed calmly. “Then I’ll take you home.”
The things I needed to say to him could have filled a damn book. “Why don’t you do it,” I snapped, fuming, “if you think it’s so great.”
Rather than recoiling from the challenge, June held my gaze for a moment, willing me to pay attention. Stooping slightly, she reached out to touch the headstone and said, “Hi darling. Did you know, every time I think something’s funny, I still look over to see if you’re laughing already?” She straightened up with a sad, gentle smile, folded her hands in front of her body, and nudged me with her shoulder. “Now you go.”
The prospect of doing what she asked was dreadful and I wished I had something to burn instead. June must have known this would happen, because she sighed and fished in the depths of her cheerful red coat until she produced a votive candle, which she handed me without a word. While I fumbled uselessly with my damp matchbox, I glanced at the grave and I sullenly muttered, “You shouldn’t have left us.”
“Come on, Ray,” June protested, surveying me with her kind, delicate gaze. “It wasn’t his fault.”
“Oh yes it was,” I argued stubbornly. “There’s no gods to blame, is there?” And yet with stiff, cold fingers I lit the candle and set it down on the blue-grey marble slab. It was the very last thing that I set ablaze.
For months I did everything I could. I took a second job to help pay for his medical bills. I did all the chores when June and Louise went to stay with him at the hospital. I researched and proposed alternative treatments. I got him into a patient support group. I did all this because Karim needed my blood and I couldn’t give it to him. That is to say, he required transfusions, tons of them, and out of the three of us, I was the only one who could have donated because Karim and I shared the same rare blood type, O negative. But my needle phobia made it impossible. I literally couldn't be in the same room with a syringe, let alone subject myself to what my brain perceived, irrationally, as some medieval torture device. Just thinking about the IV going in made me faint with nausea, so I withdrew as Karim quickly withered, as doctors tried to stop it, filling his vessels with chemicals and the life-giving blood of strangers.
Louise never forgave me for that. It didn't matter that June left no stone unturned and got dozens of blood donors for us; in Louise’s eyes, I held Karim’s fate in my hands and I had whimsically taken away the one thing that could have saved him. Magical thinking, this was, but I still cannot blame her. We were all grasping at straws back then, casting about for miracles or at least for the culprit of this terrible thing that was happening to us. We tried not to show it for Karim’s sake, but he must have sensed the distance growing between the four of us, the way he always knew what was wrong with an ailing plant in his garden. In an act of magical thinking of his own, he must have figured once he beat this thing, everything would go back to normal for us. He did not believe in irreconcilable differences. I think about that often these days, how easy it was to betray his memory. How we took everything back as if we had never loved each other, reverting from partners to roommates to strangers again. How he would hate what we’ve become.
We slept, all four of us together, in the same bed, the biggest I'd ever seen, piling on one another like so many sandbags keeping rowdy waves at bay. Rumor had it that Karim had had it made specially, that he had personally visited a furniture factory, sat down with the manager and charmed him into making this monstrosity for him. For his family, he would have said—if this had indeed happened. Karim would neither confirm nor deny these allegations, but I could see him doing that, leaning over a greasy table in some diner in the most conspiratorial, passionate manner and telling a stranger that this was major, sir, that he would pay good money for this special request, for this bed the size of a kingdom which he needed, you see, for his family. He may have even quoted Donne; it wouldn't have been out of place. What was a bed to a man who would have given us the world?
For twenty-five years I had failed at pretty much everything: as a daughter, as a friend, as a so-called woman, as a doctoral candidate ... So I left my native St. Louis and wandered around the country looking for something or someone that would show me how to stop feeling inadequate and inconsequential. When I washed up in California, 27 and nonbinary and unemployed and friendless, I was a dandelion. Sure, I had no confines, but I also had no roots. And things without roots are bound to fall apart or get blown away. But this time the wind did me a favor. It blew me to San Francisco where I met Karim, and Karim went through life picking up strays. It was the easiest thing in the world to let myself be one of them. By the time my twenty-eighth birthday rolled around, I was already a permanent resident of the house he gallantly shared rent-free with his two partners, Louise and June, in the Sunset District.
I never asked how his relationship with the other two had come about; I was afraid to find out how indispensable they were to him and feel inferior. As the newest addition to the group, I figured my position was precarious. I spoke little and I said only shallow things, afraid to get to the point in a conversation when shared memories and in-jokes would make me feel left out, or more alone than I was before I met them. When they made love, I turned away, despite the warmth of June's open arms, the mystery of Louise's eyes calling to me like an incantation. Only from Karim did I allow a kiss here and there, the touch of a hand, some isolated nights and mornings of rushed, joyless sex that I ended quickly, too quickly, dressing and leaving the room before I could allow myself to see the crestfallen look on his dear face. I thought if I ever allowed myself to truly want anything or anyone, to picture a future I could rely on, it would keep me in chains all my life.
I am ashamed now of my fear, of my hesitation and of my foolishness. In my defense I was awfully young and had never known much love. But hell, I could have tried. After all, power plays were anathema to Karim's character, and June didn’t have a single mean bone in her full, dark body, and Louise never could have meant me harm. For that she would've had to regard me as a threat, and that I very much was not. She was the first—I knew that much— to have come into Karim's life, the only one of us he called wife, though they had never married, nor did they plan to. While it did not diminish June or myself in his affections— indeed, he had enough affection for us all and more besides, which he bestowed helter-skelter on other people's children and pets and grandparents—there was a weight to her position which did not escape our notice. When Karim drew his last belabored breath, it was Louise who leaned across his body to close his eyes. And at the funeral, she was the one people sought first, with their gratitude for Karim's life and their sorrow for his passing; the one they looked to for strength as she stood tall and proud beside the grave, her golden braids resplendent in the sunshine, and threw the first handful of earth over his coffin. June even believed that when we all “crossed over,” as she called it, Louise would be the first to meet Karim on the other side.
I never thought Louise would actually crack. From the moment we got the diagnosis and Karim’s brother said somberly that half the men in their family had died like this, through chemotherapy, to the moment we laid him to rest, Louise did not cry, nor did she waver once in her conviction that Karim would beat the odds. But a few days after he died, when she grabbed the hot kettle off the stove, as she always did, without the oven mitt Karim would have reminded her to use, as he always did, and burned herself on the chipped metal handle, she dropped it with a tremendous clatter and fell to her knees and wailed, not for her singed hand, but for everything she had lost. She cried, then, until she was spent, and June and I bandaged her hand and put her to bed, from where she did not move for days, curled up in a ball in the precise spot her husband—as she called him—had vacated for good.
Stinson Beach had never been lovelier. The sun was in my eyes and June was singing Piano Man while Karim attempted to play along on his harmonica. Louise had asked them to quit goofing around “with that silly Walk-the-Line reenactment” so she could read her book in peace, and soon she got her wish. Karim stopped abruptly in the middle of the third stanza, walked off a few steps, bent over and threw up in the sand. He straightened up slowly and swayed a little on his feet, ghost-pale. June ran to him at once with a paper towel so he could wipe his mouth clean. When she reached out to rub his back, he winced and she let her hand fall away.
“Sorry, darlin’, I just have the strangest pain in my back just now,” he explained, approaching awkwardly, as if his entire body were suddenly foreign.
Not missing a beat, Louise set aside her book and arched a single puzzled eyebrow. “Something you ate,” she supplied tensely.
“No, I …” He mulled it over for a moment; then he was certain. “No, it can’t be that.”
Louise frowned, deeply suspicious. A shiver went through her and that seemed to settle it.
“You need a doctor,” she announced decisively, as she jumped up and started to pack our things, ignoring Karim’s protestations. She turned to me sternly. “Ray? Car keys, please.”
So we all piled up into my old, beat-up Chevelle and we set off. “Well … the local clinic’ll probably be closed though,” June piped up from the backseat. “It’s Sunday.”
“UCSF has an ER,” Louise replied, before meeting Karim’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Then we’re calling your brother.”
Karim faltered. “Shit, Lou. Can we not do that today?”
Louise said nothing. With some effort, Karim heaved himself forward and leaned close to Louise between the two front seats. “Please, Lou,” he said quietly.
Louise abruptly brought the car to a halt in the middle of the empty road so she could turn in her seat to fully look at him. Faced with this silent, mysterious battle of wills, I stopped myself from demanding an explanation, such as what the hell Karim’s brother had to do with anything; that would only prove I was an outsider. Finally Louise relented. “I’m calling him first thing tomorrow,” she warned gruffly, as she faced forward and restarted the car.
Karim seemed both grateful and defeated as he nodded, slumped back into the seat and let June brush his hair off his sweaty forehead.
The sun was setting, drenching everything in red, and my eyes were drawn to the serpentine road and the green hills ahead. Still, I took one last uncertain look at Karim in the rearview mirror and he winked at me with a flicker of his usual charm, so I told myself nothing was wrong. Louise had to be overreacting. Obviously, he’d be alright as soon as we saw a doctor. All would be revealed, and all set right, when we reached the city.
Bel Sáenz was born in 1994 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and holds a BA in English Translation. Gender, genre and queerness are at the center of her literary and personal experiences and experiments. Her poetry has been published in Crooked Teeth Magazine, and “The Arsonist” is her first published short story. She has had a library card since the age of six.