When a Funeral Fills the Void of Loneliness
You've likely seen Alix Strauss's name printed somewhere; she is a four-time published author and veteran journalist who has covered culture, trends, and lifestyle for outlets like The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, and more. You may have even read her first novel, "The Joy of Funerals," originally published by St. Martin's Press in 2003. It's an exploration into the profound need, and sometimes desperate plea, for human connection.
Twenty years later, and in an increasingly disconnected world, this universal truth has only escalated. Hence the book's rerelease by Palagram Press. Within it, you'll find a collection of stories that amplify the painful yet shared experience of loss, grief, and loneliness — and the depths to which some will go to fill that void.
In this excerpt, Strauss zooms in on Nina, a 30-something New Yorker who frequents the funerals of strangers in an attempt to bond with mourners. The hope is sharp and pervasive: to penetrate the barrier that keeps so many people from forming real, meaningful relationships.
The first thing I do when I enter Leslie's home is look for her, and find her in the living room, sitting on a leather couch, holding court. Someone brings her a cup of coffee. Someone else, a plate of crackers and cheese. Another, a glass of wine.
Leslie is distant but approachable, and I listen for a few minutes as others express their condolences. I watch her accept their words, unmoved. Bored.
I inch up to her.
"I'm sure you've heard this all day, but he was a wonderful doctor," I lie. "I was misdiagnosed three times before your husband found the problem." I see her eyes wander off to the front door. "To be honest, I had a little crush on him. He changed my life." I think I've lost her with this so I add, "The whole thing really sucks."
She snaps her gaze back to me. "It sure f*cking does."
We wait in silence for a second.
"Thank you. If one more person told me they were sorry for my loss, I think I would have puked."
"That would have sucked, too."
She laughs and I know I've scored humor points somewhere on an invisible chart of likeability.
Two people I recognize from the funeral come over. Others join us, too, and for a moment I feel privileged.
"Who is she?" the woman with the fat lips asks?
"She's a patient of Larry's," I hear someone say, talking about me as if I'm not here.
"Oh." She sounds saddened by this.
Suddenly, all attention is on me. I nod and smile slightly.
Leslie rolls her eyes in my direction as if we're old friends.
"Sally, what do you do?" someone asks.
"I collect circus memorabilia," the lie spills out easily. "I work with film companies and theater productions."
More people gather around. My head spins and my heart speeds up.
"Do you smoke?" Leslie whispers in my ear.
I lift an eyebrow.
"Follow me," she says, pulling at my sleeve.
I accompany her out of the den. She leads me down a flight of steps into her basement. Even though the floor is carpeted, the room is still cold. There's a washing machine and dryer, a workbench, TV, some odds and ends, mismatched furniture, and a few shelves that hold detergents, bleach, and other cleaning solutions. A large basket of dirty laundry is on the floor.
She props open a small window and pulls out a cigar box from behind the dryer. "If Larry knew I did this, he'd kill me."
She jumps up onto the washing machine and opens the box. I follow, easing myself up against the dryer and sit next to her. She takes out a joint, followed by a lighter. I watch the flame catch the tightly rolled paper, watch her inhale, see the smoke leave her mouth. I watch her get stoned and ache to tell her how beautiful she is. How her eyes sparkle, almost dance under the basement light.
Years ago, I developed the missing gene link theory. The internal need for a sibling. Like looking for my husband, I look for the perfect older sister, the one I have fantasized about having since I was five. Unobtainable, unavailable, standoffish women all in a row. Who will be next? Who will fit the profile? Slightly cold, lightly damaged, mostly injured, all for the asking.
She passes me the joint. I put my lips around the wet paper and breathe in. I let the smoke fill my lungs, feel them expanding inside my chest, and hand it back. I blow smoke out of my mouth and start to laugh. "You know you've come a long way when you don't need to put a towel under the door."
She smiles. "Are you sure it's okay for you to do this?"
"It's fine." I take another puff, pass it back into her waiting palm. "F*ck if I let a heart murmur dictate my life," I say, talking like she does.
She takes another hit, then leans in as if she wants to tell me a secret. I can almost taste her breath, eat her perfume. We are so close and giggle like schoolgirls. I want to reach out and take her hand, see what it feels like in mine, and ask her to share her memories from childhood. I want to know her whole life without her having to tell me. I want to be the one whose number she calls for lunch, who she goes to the movies with, who swirls in with ice cream and videos and cheers her up as we both curse the guy she's seeing, someone named Mark or Hank or Sid. I hand back the joint and notice how massive her hands are, a fat paw, the kind that could smother you. I want to get lost in them. Her fingers touch mine. It feels like nothing and everything at once. Something moves inside me, painful and deep, as if I'm digging into bone, making me long to tell her how much I need her.
She eyes me. "Sally? You okay?"
I'm afraid to look at her because I think she sees me as I really am. I'm afraid to look away and break the intensity that's linking us together because I fear I will never get it back. I will never have this moment again. I blink and it's already gone.
"Sal, are you alright?"
There's silence now, broken only by the knocking of her heels against the dryer and the occasional tapping of her wedding ring on the metal top.
"My sister-in-law is driving me crazy. I know she means well, but she's killing me. I didn't like her much before, but seeing her like this is making me lose it. She keeps handing me tissues and telling me to let go. If I really let go, I'd smack the sh*t out of her."
We both laugh hysterically at this.
"And she's a terrible crier. Her whole body shakes and her nose gets red and drippy and the whole thing makes me ill."
"She's the one dressed in the blue-and-white-striped thing?"
Leslie nods, rolls her eyes.
"She looks like a circus tent. Maybe I should buy her outfit off her and add it to my collection."
Leslie laughs so hard she starts to cough. I pat her back; tears fill her eyes, and for a moment, I can't tell if she's laughing or crying.
"You know, I never cheated on him. Not once. My friends had flings with their bosses or their friends' husbands. They've met random men in Manhattan, drove in during the day for quick f*cks in midtown hotels . . . " She shakes her head, stares out. "I was always the faithful, good girl. Even during his internship when I never saw him and spent every f*cking night by myself waiting for him to get home."
I nod and stare out, too.
"I wanted him to take the day off. I begged him to play hooky with me. He had rounds, so we compromised on a 4:30 movie."
"You had no way of knowing," I say, my head feeling light, my eyes heavy. I rest my hand on her upper back, feel her shoulder blade. "You want to blame someone, blame the asshole who was driving."
She nods, joint resting in between her large fingers, her hands on her leg, her eyes staring off somewhere. "Four days ago I had everything—now I have f*cking zero."
"You have so much," I say, my voice a whisper. "Just look around."
I think about who would attend my funeral. A few shrinks I disliked. My parents, perhaps a neighbor or two, some random friends who never understood me. Maybe some relatives I haven't spoken to or seen in a decade will show their faces, then do some shopping at specialty stores they don't have in their area. "Everyone here seems to truly care about you."
She wedges the end of the joint into the corner of the ashtray, then dumps it into the cigar box and throws it behind the washer. "Everyone here is useless."
She jumps off the machine and walks past me. I hear her heels clicking on the steps, hear the intense anger each time they meet the cement. I slide off the dryer and wait, glaring at the empty spot that's just encompassed her body.
The door opens on the top step, then it closes.
I've just ruined whatever relationship we had.
For the next hour, I stand by the window wondering how I can redeem myself and win her back. I wish it was winter and that we were in the middle of a blizzard or a rainstorm. Something to keep me here. "Snow. Snow," I keep saying to myself.
In the country, snow collects quicker and clumps together like sticky rice. I picture myself pouring wine for Leslie. If I got her too tipsy she wouldn't be able to drive me to the station. Perhaps all the taxis would be busy, the wait too long. Perhaps it would get so late that she'd just let me sleep over, dressed in her pajamas. Bagels for breakfast, fresh coffee, and the Sunday paper with nothing important to do. The next day stretched out like a grassy field. But the day is beautiful, slightly windy and sunny, the trees heavy with bright green leaves and just a hint of color.
One night is all I want. One night to know I'm not waking up alone.