There was something medieval about Newport, Rhode Island. Or maybe Ari had been living in LA for so long that the moneyed New England vacation town where he grew up seemed like a faded polaroid in comparison.
The funeral was at a peak-roofed church by the water. The cobbled sidewalks lining the street were littered with rain-smacked leaves that had been painted a vibrant red by the season. October was a time of relief in Newport, the sweet chill in the air flushing out the tourists.
Ari was late, but he was in no rush. His father would’ve preferred the forgiving autumn outside over the funeral beginning in the church anyways. Never mind that it was his own.
His father had been a stern and quiet man with all the dignity of a prince without the entitlement. It took him six years to die — a stroke that slowly picked at his mind like mold. In some of his final months of coherence, he told Ari that he did not want to become a “vegetable,” as he so crudely called it. But Ari couldn’t keep the promise, because his father’s lover,
Cormac had taken over and employed every form of life support that existed in modern medicine. In his selfish loving, he preserved Ari’s father in a hospital bed for six long years. There was nothing dignified about it.
So when Ari received the call last month that the proverbial plug had been pulled, he felt immediate relief soon followed by guilt. And it was the guilt that brought him to the funeral that October.
The funeral was Cormac’s doing as well. The church, the casket, the cemetery out back overlooking the ocean — none of it was Ari’s father’s taste, a practical Jewish man born from Polish immigrants. But Cormac wanted the grandeur and certainly the attention that a funeral brought. It seemed he had plans to prolong his lovers death as well as his life. The one thing they had in common was their love of Ari’s father.
At least it wasn’t an open casket. The service was regrettably tasteful. Cormac sat up front beside some of his closest friends — ergo some of Ari’s father’s closest friends. Ari sat with his mother and siblings one row behind. As with all divorced families, every gathering was a tense meeting of two estranged worlds. In this case, it was a confrontation of Rhode Island’s Jewish upperclass and the founding generation of self-proclaimed “loud and proud” homosexuals from Provincetown.
When Ari’s father first moved out to the Cape, Ari was in the middle of college. During one of his summer vacations, he finally accepted his father’s offer to come visit. By that point, his father was seven years out of the divorce and two years into living with Cormac.
Ari had always seen his father as a stoic man. Growing up, he often watched him reading quietly in his leather arm chair after work with a glass of scotch in hand. His humor only came out in the rarest and driest moments. So it was a shock for Ari to see his father at a seedy house party in Provincetown, surrounded by vibrant “queens,” as he lovingly called his newfound family.
Ari’s father was quiet and statuesque in the crowd that night; bodies jumbled in motion, the music shaking the china in the cupboard. He wore his customary jeans and leather jacket despite the heat, with blue eyes that darted out of his olive face like two orphan stars. And upon recovering from the shock, Ari saw something in his father that had not been there before: peace.
“Is this okay?” Ari’s father had asked. He seemed to gather together all of his bottled-up words of sexuality and fatherhood by asking this simple question of his son. As if he was merely asking Ari if the restaurant he’d picked for dinner was alright. But Ari saw the fifty-seven years that went on behind this question. Are you okay with me like this? Are you okay with this? Are you okay with me?
“Are you happy, dad?”
Ari’s father did not hesitate in answering that yes, he was happy.
“Then this is okay.”
A twenty-year-old strait man in 1983 would be hard-pressed to say more than this. Yet Ari often wished he’d found better words that night, or at least more of them. But so much of the love between him and his father was an unspoken and implied thing.
Even still, as Ari sat in the church pews with his elbows rested against his knees, he felt the guilt return like summer rain. Guilt of what, he wasn’t entirely certain. Of everything and nothing at all. And then he laughed because he was reminded of something his father used to say that Catholics got all the credit when it came to guilt, even though “us Jews are plenty good at it.”
As the priest went on, Ari watched Cormac bow his head towards his lap until it looked as if he’d been beheaded from where Ari sat behind him.
Cormac found Ari after the service. He was slightly drunk off all the attention, humbly accepting somber hand-clasps from those who’d been moved by his speech (certainly the longest and best-rehearsed of them all). He seemed to be treating the funeral like the wedding he never could’ve had with Ari’s father.
“Thank you for coming.”
Ari had nothing to say in response. Instead he watched the mourners snake towards the coffin like birds drawn to bread crumbs.
“Sherry here?” Cormac asked about Ari’s wife.
“Home with Isaac.” Their son was only eight and Ari had no interest in subjecting the boy to this den of traps and tears.
Ari continued to watch the strange procession up front. A wreath of chrysanthemums rested on top of the coffin though Ari’s father had always preferred lilies. He was sure Cormac knew this.
“He would’ve wanted you here,” Cormac said and Ari finally looked at him. He had an ashy complexion with white-blonde hair to match. Built like a songbird and getting skinnier by the day, Ari sometimes worried that Cormac hadn’t narrowly missed the epidemic in the 1980’s after all. He, nor Ari’s father, ever spoke of that time.
“You think so?” Ari finally replied.
“I do, really do.” Cormac said this like a prayer.
“He didn’t want a funeral, not this one.”
“He said that to you?”
“Well he said something different to me, and something else to your sister I’m sure,” Cormac smoothed his hair with a diligent swipe of his hand, certainly a leftover habit from the humid summer months that had recently expired. “He had a life you know, outside of you four,” he gestured somewhat resentfully to Ari followed by his siblings scattered through the crowd, “outside of Newport. You’d be surprised by what he liked and wanted.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” This was all Ari could think to say.
He watched Cormac shuffle out of the way as his mother passed. Those two repelled each other as seamlessly as oil and water. Once he and Ari had adjusted in the aisle, Cormac went on.
“Yes and I’m glad for it. I think you were always his favorite.”
“Even though you did settle down so far from home. Three kids a car ride away from him, and he talked about you the most.”
Cormac was very good — Ari should’ve known better than to goad him. He had hoped their fights were through. Though Sherry would’ve gently reminded him that if he really didn’t want to fight with Cormac, he wouldn’t have gone to the funeral.
“We’re going over the will first thing tomorrow morning,” said Cormac, “will you be there?”
Ari was certain Cormac knew that he would be on his flight home by then. Ari told him so anyways.
“Shame,” Cormac said and quickly promised to send Ari whatever his father left him. Ari told him not to bother. He knew anything sentimental would be taken by Cormac whether it was left to him or not. And he was in no want of the money. His father’s body had been scrounged over for long enough.
“Wise of you, no dignity in fighting over scraps. You were always the most self-sufficient of his children anyways.”
In Cormac’s witty tongue, “self-sufficient” roughly translated to “selfish” or “proud.”
Before Ari could reply (a few words already in mind), he saw Cormac staring down at his feet. It was a private glance he hadn’t intended to be caught in, but it made Ari notice that Cormac was wearing his father’s saddle brown oxfords — so worn in, there was an indent on the sides where his pinky toes used to protrude.
As a child, Ari watched his father lace those shoes up in the morning and unlace them when he returned from work in the evening. It angered Ari to see that Cormac had taken yet another piece of his father without permission — he’d taken his body, health and wishes; his heart as well. Cormac even had command over the will somehow, no doubt deeming who received what over coffee the next day like an auctioneer. Now he had the presumption to wear Ari’s father’s shoes to the funeral. As if he didn’t have his own.
And Ari wondered why — Cormac and his father had always had fairly different taste in footwear, not to mention different shoe sizes. The oxfords couldn’t have been comfortable on Cormac’s slender feet. Low and behold, as Ari looked closer, he discovered a few dark splotches around the hem of Cormac’s dress socks — blood. The blisters must’ve been awful at the back of the ankle. And then Ari noticed Cormac’s eyes, a buttery brown that had been whipped into cream by brimming tears. It was the first authentic thing Ari saw in him that day. Cormac: the performer whose best performances occurred when he did not want to be seen.
Ari realized that Cormac probably had his own image of his father and those shoes. Perhaps resting by their bedroom door in that little beach house they shared. Cormac really did love his father — it was so apparent in those torture devices on his feet, clearly worn not out of necessity or possession, but in a masochistic and desperate attempt to remain close to a man who died a long time ago. As if Cormac thought he could still touch him, feet to feet, by way of those oxfords.
Ari hated Cormac. Proper, simple hate. But he loved his father more. So he parted from Cormac unencumbered and went to sit with his mother for a bit. And they chatted while the dichotomous families mingled in the pews as if they really were at a wedding. And when it was time to carry his father out of the church and into the cemetery, Ari stalled.
There was no need to see his father buried as this wasn’t really his funeral. This wasn’t his God and whatever body was in that coffin, it was hardly his anymore. Instead Ari wandered to the ocean across the street from the cemetery’s edge. The procession continued through the romantic folds of grass and tombstones behind the church, unfurling like fallen rose petals — Ari could still hear them talking and if he turned around, he was sure he could catch their black silhouettes.
But he preferred to look elsewhere — at the water in front of him. The ocean, dark and opaque, seemed to protest the end of summer with tempered waves that rumbled into the harbor. The docks fanned out from the coast like skeletons and seemed at risk of sinking though Ari knew this wouldn’t happen. Boats in the distance kicked up the waters and whipped them into egg whites.
And it was there that Ari finally felt his father and said a proper goodbye, which had been expiring in his chest like spoiled milk for six years.
He saw his father unlacing those oxfords at the end of the day, with a huff that was more visible than audible. He saw him sitting in his armchair with a clinking glass of scotch, allowing Ari to fix it for him and use his finger to stir in the ice so he may be able to lick it and have a taste. Ari saw him purse-lipped and furiously quiet through the crack of a bedroom door as he and Ari’s mother fought. He felt his father’s sturdy hand close around his shoulder as they passed one another in the kitchen just a few weeks before his father was outed. It was as if he knew it was coming and provided this touch as a preemptive comfort.
And over and over, Ari saw his father in that leather jacket at the party in Provincetown, surrounded by his secret finally made true, and smiling at Ari in that impossible way.
“Is this okay?” he’d asked his son.
“Yes, dad,” Ari wanted to say into the ocean that October. But he couldn’t. Because he wasn’t really there.
Whatever love and loss he felt for his father, it did not exist in that church or that coffin or in Cormac. And perhaps that’s why Ari didn’t go to his father’s funeral after all. In truth, on the day of the service that October, Ari was back home in LA with his own family.
Sherry was out for a run and Ari sat with Isaac at the kitchen counter. They ate massive bowls of sugary cereal that were only allowed when mother wasn’t home, and Isaac looked to his father with conspiratorial bliss. His hair was pointing in every direction from a good night’s sleep and his still wore his pajamas — a flannel set Ari and Sherry had given him for Chanukah the year before.
Ari’s father had known Isaac as a baby, before his mind slipped him. The last time they saw each other was after his father’s surgery that voided him of speech. He’d just looked at Isaac, who was only two at the time, and his whole face bloomed with love and recognition. He knew it was his grandson at the foot of his hospital bed, but he couldn’t get the words out, not even the name. He couldn’t say Isaac.
Ari did not need to be at the funeral. It wasn’t for him, or his father. He much preferred to spend that fated day with his own son, building the next round of heart that his father had so dutifully passed on.
A few years after the funeral, Ari did return to Newport. He was on a visit to his mother, with Isaac and the new baby in tow and decided to go to the cemetery. He only paused at the gravestone for a moment before wandering down the block to the water. Isaac had developed a love of sailing and wanted to see the boats. And so Ari wound up looking into the ocean after all, just a few paces from where his father rested for Cormac’s sake.
It was July instead of October and the heat had calmed the waters. Each swell brought with it a relieving exhale of cool air from the ocean floor. Isaac, almost too wise for a ten year old, took the baby from Ari’s hip without a word and wandered along the dock so that his father could have a moment alone.
And twenty years after Ari’s father had asked him the question, is this okay, two years since he’d been buried and Ari had imagined himself overlooking the October ocean, Ari really did breath in the briny, summer air of the Atlantic, and said the very words he’d imagined himself saying back to his father so many times — “this is okay.”