The Perfect Container
She got the call from the crematorium. They must have said something like, “his ashes are here, come and pick them up.” Probably not just that way, but that was what they meant.
She wasn’t used to driving herself through cross-town traffic and got lost a few times, bumping into dead ends. It should have only taken an hour or so, but it took nearly three. She was tired and thirsty when she got there, and she had to pee.
Her brain was full of thoughts like: Can you pee in a crematorium? Do they even have a bathroom?
But the restrooms were right there, just inside the glass door in an alcove that said “Restrooms.” It was very reassuring. There was even a drinking fountain in between the Men’s and the Women’s.
Her hands damp, she walked out of the restroom into the marble-floored foyer. The place smelled solemn and a little floral. She gave her name to the woman at the desk and sat down to wait. She thought it would take a while, that just seemed likely. But it didn’t. The woman said, “Yes, I’ll be right back. Everything is ready for you. All you need to do is sign a couple of papers and you can take him with you.”
She did sign the papers, but she wasn’t sure at all that it was him she took with her. It was a cardboard box. The box was heavy, but not large. It was the size of box she would have been excited to see under a Christmas tree wrapped in sparkling paper with lovely bow on top. She would have expected something expensive.
But this was a plain, brown, cardboard box—no paper, no bow. It had a slightly furry feeling, as if it had been buffed to bring out the nap of the cardboard.
Someone had closed the top by bending the corners of each of the four sides under one another. The idea that such a closure could hold him down made her shiver.
“Do you have an urn?” The woman at the desk asked, handing over the box. She didn’t. She had expected that the crematorium would supply such a thing. She couldn’t remember ever noticing urns for sale, not in her neighborhood.
The woman at the desk continued efficiently, “It’s ok. You can easily transfer the cremains to a more suitable container at any time. You will find a plastic bag inside the box; there is a metal seal on the bag. If you need to take it on an airplane, be sure that it remains sealed in the plastic bag. Thank you.”
The woman was done talking and looked down at the papers on her desk. It was clear that she had been dismissed.
Would she need to take this box on an airplane? She couldn’t imagine it.
Where would she go? He didn’t like the idea of planning ahead. He liked to wake up one morning and be off. She was a more methodical person, really. Setting a goal and taking each step to get there--that had been her way. They’d had their issues, you might say.
It had been a long day and the drive back home would be long. She was hungry; but if she went into a restaurant to eat, what would she do with the box? It seemed a bad idea to leave it on the seat, even with the door locked. You never knew. Putting it in the trunk was not an option, he would have hated that. The idea of bringing it into the restaurant with her was appealing in a way, like taking him out to eat. But she pictured spilling catsup on it or dripping coffee into the spaces between the flaps and hearing it splash down on the plastic bag. That would have made him crazy. He wasn’t all that meticulous himself, but she was a slob.
With her stomach growling now, she did something they never would have done together: she went to a drive-thru and ordered a burger.
She shoved the box far into the depths of the passenger seat.
As she reached out the window to get her food she asked, “Can I have a few extra napkins?”
“They’re in there, lady. Most people need them.” The teenage boy who wore a headset seemed to be speaking to her. These days, you never knew for sure. Indeed, there were several white napkins stuffed in the bag with her burger.
She pulled one out and draped it over the box and stacked a couple more on top.
Ok, now you’re safe and you don’t even have to watch me eat. She bit into the burger and a slice of mustard-coated tomato squished out onto her unprotected lap. When she arrived at her condo she carried the box into the elevator and pushed 7. So odd to be bringing him to this place—a place where he’d never slept in the bed, never pulled the covers off of her in the night, never sat at the Formica counter sampling from a pan where she was caramelizing onions, never leashed the dog before riding down the elevator to find a fire hydrant.
They’d always lived in houses together. Solid, stand-alone places on spacious property, places with generous kitchens and room enough for their old scarred oak dining table. Houses that smelled of wood and cut-grass breezes, onions and garlic, fresh picked apples, pears, simmering golden stews in winter and, in the summer, sweet berry perfume. Houses with broad windows and natural light, with space enough for them to sing out loud.
But this place was not a home. It was a cage where she was stuck without him.
They’d made the decision together to leave the house, the last one. It had become too much to get down on her aching knees and scrub the wide, worn floor; crumbs had been collecting under the cabinets. They rarely went down the hallway where the extra bedrooms accumulated an abandoned odor. The lawn grew long and shaggy. Out of nowhere, he’d started sitting down in the middle of things, catching his breath.
“Too big for us now,” he’d said one evening. “Let’s try city life, might be just what we need.” They were already on the fast track by then, though neither of them realized it. They were moving swiftly toward the day when he would be cremains in a box and she would be stranded, wondering how it could have happened like that.
They were ready to settle for something small and easy to clean. She had imagined them spending time going to the movies, eating in restaurants, browsing in the farmer’s markets on the weekend, maybe going to a bar now and then. When you lived in the city, an occasional drink seemed essential.
They’d found this place quickly, their requirements being minimal. When they stood together in the middle of the empty apartment, he had talked excitedly about what they could do with it; he went on and on about opening up the wall between the kitchen and the living room, making it feel more open, less like a box.
Maybe building a window seat where they could sit and watch the city. He wasn’t making plans, he’d said, he just had visions for the place.
She chewed on her bottom lip as he talked; nodding, and letting his words fade into a meaningless hum, she noticed the pallor of his skin and the tremor in his hands.
Now, standing in the hallway she could smell the fish the man in 703 was cooking and the faint evocation of lilies that always lingered when the woman in 706 passed by. She had to put the box down in order to hunt around in her purse for the key. She hesitated. It felt wrong to put this box on the floor, where she wiped her feet, where the dog sat and waited as she locked or unlocked the door. She looked up and down the corridor; perhaps someone had placed a lovely antique side table outside their door. You never knew, stranger things had happened. But there was nothing. Finally, she could think of nothing else to do.
She hadn’t taken down the wall to open up the space; she hadn’t put in a window seat. Such things had been too much to undertake without him. He’d left her to move into this place all by herself.
“Rotten thing to do, you know,” she whispered as she set the box down.
They’d sold the old place in two seconds flat, of course. Got the crumbs off the floor and hired someone to mow the lawn and it was paradise again. But they just hadn’t had it in them any more. Especially him.
The doctor had been full of sighs that had made her feel guilty, as if she and her sick husband were the cause of his feeling helpless. Occasionally she thought of that doctor; he was so young, she wondered if he’d stick with it, if he‘d become callused. She wondered if he had ever held a box of cremains.
“Well, this is the way it turned out. This is our life together. You in that stupid box and me left to unlock the door. Welcome home.”
There was no answer from the box. Cremains, she thought again.
What kind of word is that? It felt gritty and sweet in her mouth. She wished it didn’t remind her of raisins.
When she got the door open, Toby was right there tail wagging, front feet off the ground. She put the box on the coffee table; the dog sniffed it, wagged faster, then sat down and looked up with patient eyes.
Does it smell like him? Well of course it does.
From then on Toby took to sleeping in the living room under the coffee table where the box sat. Sometimes she would push it to one end of the table so she could set down her coffee cup or her glass of wine. It embarrassed her to see him in that box. He wouldn’t have wanted anything formal--he was a very informal kind of guy. Still, a cardboard box wasn’t right, she knew that. But an urn? The word sounded vaguely foreign and certainly dusty. She tried to imagine the perfect container.
She looked in shops, picking up carved wooden boxes, smooth ceramic jars with lids, blown glass bowls, once even a metal storage box with a lock; putting them all down again. Nothing seemed right.
Living in the city had not turned out as she’d imagined; she rarely went to cafes, never to bars. The thought of walking into a restaurant and having to decide what to order exhausted her; eating alone surrounded by jabbering couples robbed the food of its taste. When he had been with her, sharing a new wine or some exotic food was a pleasure and preparing a delicious meal, a kind of foreplay.
He had been her only sexual partner. Young people today would be shocked, she knew; they’d think of her as pinched, ridiculous, pathetic. But she had always felt lucky, he had been all she’d ever wanted. Not that she hadn’t considered options. She’d looked with appreciation at smoothly muscled forearms, tight butts, lovely ripe breasts, at lips, eyes, hands that spoke caressingly. Sometimes men, sometimes women appealed to her. But he was the only one she ever wanted inside her.
In the early days when they were first exploring each other’s bodies, learning their secrets, she thought what an amazing thing it was that he could enter her body. How she welcomed that invasion, that communion. How grateful she’d been for the sheer possibility of it. She relished him in her. When, years later, she’d learned about Freud’s theory of penis envy, she laughed. She could see how he’d gotten it wrong, how he’d distorted this desire; he was a heterosexual man who had probably never experienced the joy of encompassing someone you loved. She had privately grieved for Mrs. Freud.
Since she’d been alone, cooking was an effort, food held no appeal. She lost weight and slid listlessly through the days. The dog demanded walks and this got her out , though she was usually chilled and irritable by the time she returned to the seventh floor.
One day as she stood on the corner holding Toby by the leash, a squirrel jumped out from behind a tree. She was not prepared; the leash pulled from her fingers as the dog took off in pursuit. Stunned, she stood for a frozen moment considering how empty the apartment would be without the dog. She thought of the cardboard box, unsniffed, collecting dust and she began to chase him, shouting “Toby, come. Toby!”
She caught up with Toby on the next block, circling a large tree where the squirrel had found safety. Grabbing the dog, she dropped to the ground and buried her head in its soft fur. She took a deep breath, allowing relief to calm her muscles. As she inhaled, she was shocked to recognize the perfume of early spring. She was suddenly weak with the intoxication of lilacs that burst from the bush beside her. She lay back onto the grass and allowed the sun to caress her. How long had it been?
On the way home she passed an outdoor market. The lively colors of fresh produce and flowers beckoned her. She wandered past the booths, keeping Toby close and walking slowly. At one farmer’s stand, where bright tomatoes glistened beside the golden onion bulbs, the hearty fingers of carrots, and deep green lettuces, she stood entranced, remembering him.
When she reached the apartment, closed the door and settled the dog, she realized that she was hungry. There was nothing in the refrigerator, so she left Toby and headed back to the farmer’s market. Thinking of a colorful soup, she bought purple cabbage and red chard, potatoes, leeks. Back at the apartment, she hummed as she cooked. The soup bubbled and cast an tantalizing aroma into the air. She filled a bowl and took it into the living room.
She sat on the couch, facing the coffee table. You would love this. Lots of garlic and a pinch of thyme, she told him. She took the box’s silence as a sign of appreciation of her culinary talents, just as she had when he’d sat across from her savoring a crafted meal. His eyes would close and he would lick his lips; words were unnecessary.
I could make a pie. What do you think? There are strawberries and rhubarb in the market now. Cardboard silence supported her.
She went to the market the next day searching for the freshest, plumpest strawberries. Her fingers remembered the feel of pulling the brilliant red fruits off the low vines that covered the ground in the sunniest corner of their yard. She could hear the silly giggle that always gave him away when he snatched a handful of the ripest, sweetest ones from her bucket. Long pink stalks of rhubarb stuck out from the top of her bag as she headed home.
The scent of strawberry-rhubarb pie had no trouble filling the little apartment and spilled over into the hallway, she was sure. She pictured the microscopic particles of sweet-tart essence warring against the fierce molecules of 703’s stinky fish.
She and he had fit together well around the stove and had fun in the kitchen. Food got them through many rough spots. She remembered those times as she cooked.
After the pie, which she nibbled at over a few days, she took to making more meals for herself; she would carry her plate into the living room, sit on the couch, and describe her meal to him. There was that moment of sharing. But, after the third bite or so, no matter what she’d made, it all began to taste of cardboard. She’d add salt, a little pepper. It made no difference. The food went flat and she couldn’t eat it.
She bought a stack of plastic containers and filled her freezer with what she couldn’t eat and what he wouldn’t eat. The bed felt colder and her conversations with the box seemed more one sided.
It occurred to her one day to open the box. Perhaps bringing him out into the light would please him, give him a change of scenery. She pulled the plastic bag, still sealed with the metal closure, out of the box and set it on the table. The cremains looked so gray, so ordinary.
She called Toby over and held the plastic bag out for him to sniff. The dog wagged his tail and let out a little whimper.
Well, you must still be in there. I wonder if I could smell you.
Suddenly a tingle of pleasure passed through her body and she thought of how, after they’d had sex, after she’d come, she would inhale the smell of him and how she could smell him on her skin hours later, when they sat drinking wine across the table from one another.
She took the plastic bag into the kitchen and placed it on the counter next to the stove. She took a large bowl from the shelf and put the bag in it. In the drawer next to the telephone she found the old pair of scissors with the blades still sticky from some project of his. She cut the seal off; the bag sagged and the cremains spread themselves out.
“Ahh, doesn’t that feel better? A little breathing room.”
She bent close to the bowl, put her nose down right into the cremains and inhaled. She jumped back and let out a sneeze.
Well, that was silly of me, wasn’t it?
A giggle crept up through her throat, tickled the inside of her mouth and leapt out; she began laughing, really laughing, till her belly hurt and she was sprawling weak on the floor with the dog licking her face. She laughed until she could no longer tell the difference between her laughter and her sobs.
Spent, she rested on the floor until the reverberations inside her calmed. Then she rose and opened the refrigerator. She took a quick inventory of all the fresh vegetables, the cheese, the eggs, everything that filled her shelves, and she began pulling things out.
She took her favorite knife and began chopping, slicing, dicing. From the back of the refrigerator, she grabbed the leg of lamb she had purchased days before when the idea of succulent meat had tempted her. She poured glistening oil into the pan, heated it till it sizzled, added onions, shallots, garlic. She measured cumin, turmeric, coriander into a bowl, mixed them together and patted them on the sides of the meat; she put it in the oven. She cut sprigs of rosemary and tore leaves of oregano. She peeled potatoes and put them in a pot of boiling water. Luscious scents permeated the air.
When the meal was ready, she draped a lace cloth over the small kitchen table and set out two of her best china plates. She took two wine glasses and filled them both from a bottle of their favorite red.
Then she took a small crystal bowl they had been given when they’d wed all those years ago, and placed it in the center of the table. With a silver ladle she scooped up cremains and spooned them, powdered and gritty, into the crystal bowl.
She carefully laid out the food and served them each a plate. She sat down. She lifted her glass and smiled across the table.
“Here’s to us,” she said aloud and then she scooped up a spoonful from the crystal bowl and sprinkled him over her dinner.