*T. Nicole Cirone

 

NEW ORDER AND THE DELCO CHRISTMAS SPRAY

bestfriendsforever
“Best Friends Forever,” by Pat Messina Singer

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I pull into the cemetery with the gas station Christmas spray in the back seat and, as though my best girlfriend were greeting me at a high school mixer, New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” suddenly emanates from the radio. I turn the radio up, defying all of the etiquette of cemetery solemness I’d been taught by my parents.

I speed up the winding, gravely road, past the little chapel that looks like it’s built into the side of the hill. “Every-time-I-see-you-falling-I-get-down-on-my-knees-and-pray…”

My little Fiat squeezes perfectly between the edge of the gravel driveway and the line of grass that demarcates the worlds of the living and the dead. My mother has a superstition about turning off the car at the cemetery; she always leaves the car engine running at the side of the road, glancing nervously the whole time to make sure the car is still there. I cut the engine, and “Bizarre Love Triangle” stops abruptly. There is no breeze, and everything is frozen and silent on the hillside.

Danni doesn’t have a headstone yet, but I find her by the gnarly old tree and the child’s grave that had a huge Batman flower arrangement up for months. Now, there is a bench where Batman was. A tiny marker behind the angels and Christmas greenery my friend’s family has placed on her grave has her name written on it: “Danni Girl.” In a way, it’s easier without a headstone. To see her name on that funerary marble would be too much to bear, when I had only recently come to terms with the fact that she is gone.

“Hey,” I say to the plot of earth that covers my friend’s body. “I brought you something. A real Delco wreath!” Delco, short for Delaware County, where we both grew up and lived much of our adult lives, is synonymous with all things in the realm of tacky gas station cemetery sprays, plastic poinsettias and sprigs of aluminum foliage in fantastic shapes, but it’s home—though a little less so now, without her.

The week before Christmas, I bought the Delco evergreen spray from the Christmas tree lot at the gas station on the corner of Lansdowne Avenue and State Road, right down the street from our high school. There was something kitschy about the plastic poinsettias and spray-painted silver-tipped pinecones that I know she would have found amusing. For days, the spray had decorated the corner of my porch, and as I traveled in and out my front door, I pretended the wreath was just another wreath until Christmas Eve, when I had to face reality, drive to the cemetery, and put it on her grave.

I place the spray on her grave and find a sturdy stick and push it through the hole in the wood panel holding the greenery and accoutrements together.

“It’s been hard,” I tell her. “I really don’t know why you had to leave.” I am talking out loud. I scan the cemetery, and no one else is there on the frigid afternoon, so I continue, “So, the guy across from you is a Parrothead.” I giggle-snort through my nose. “His grave is decorated with Landshark beer bottles and Hawaiian prints. You should see it. It’s hilarious.” For a moment, I love the man and his family for that element of joy.

Ew, what if… she says, what if they had this speaker that played Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits, like all the time?

I can hear her expansive, contagious laugh emanate from deep in the earth and echo across the hillside, just as clearly as if she were standing next to me, followed by her voice: Ew, look at him, big old Parrothead…

I pick up an acorn from the ground and hold it in my hand—it’s frozen and brown, like the ground that is swollen slightly, the ground under which Danni is buried.

“Actually, you really should be here. We have our annual get together at WW’s house in a few days. My sister and I have matching sweatshirts that say, ‘Be there in a prosecco!’ in gold letters. You should totally see them—they are so awesome…I would have bought one for you…”

And then I am sobbing out loud, there on the hillside on Christmas Eve at my friend’s gravesite that I’ve just covered with the Delco evergreen spray, the hideous wreath we definitely would have laughed about if she had been here. But she isn’t here. I am alone on a hillside, talking into the empty air above a grave that covers her body, a mound of earth that still hasn’t settled yet.

Danni was my best girlfriend. In high school, when people thought of Nikki, they thought of Danni, and vice versa. We lost touch for a few years in our 20s, but when we reunited, we immediately picked up exactly where we had left off the last time we’d seen each other.

She worked less than ten minutes from my house, and we would often meet for happy hour, or she would come to my house and join my daughter and me for dinner. Over the chicken and sun dried tomato tortellini dish I always made for her, our conversations ranged from high school hijinks:

“Ew, remember “R” and Patty Fuckface and the Patty Melt at Denny’s?”

“Oh my god, yes!”– and together we would chant: “I would like a Patty Melt. Because I would like Patty…to melt!”

…to more serious things, like how to avoid getting crabs from a public toilet:

“You have to be careful about public toilet seats, you know,” she warned, taking a sip of her wine and making pinching motions with her fingers. “They just invade you…lots of them, down there…and you get all itchy…” She made scratching movements at her crotch.

“Wait, crabs…can live on toilet seats?” My daughter put her fork down.

Her pre-teen eyes grew huge as she tried to process the thought of hundreds of sand crabs living on a toilet seat and invading her down there. We tried to explain to her, but it was impossible as we were laughing so much, picturing an army of Jersey Shore-style sand crabs lurking on the toilet seat, just waiting to get their claws into the next sucker that sat down.

My daughter, ten years later, still thinks twice about touching anything—especially the toilet seat– in the public bathroom.

Danni’s death wasn’t in the realm of possibility, as far as I was concerned, for at least 50 more years. We have a whole group of high school friends that are still close. As kids, we had shared the same stories and memories. We attended Summer Stage together, where we learned about who we could truly be in that protected environment. We grew up side-by-side, understood each other before the world got a hold of us. I’d always imagined all of us in our group—which we affectionately call “The Crew”– would be causing trouble together well into our 90s, residing in the same 1980s-themed old age home and singing songs by The Cure or Broadway show tunes on Karaoke night. We’d be the oldies one day in our summer theatre camp anniversary show, still singing and laughing our way through the shit life threw at us.

And then, last summer, The Crew was suddenly down by two. First, Ed died. We found out just days before his death that he had been dealing with serious health problems. Something was wrong with his heart. His medication wasn’t working. Before we had a chance to process the fact that Ed was ill, he was in hospice. And then, he was gone.

On July 3rd, Danni sat between my daughter and me at Ed’s funeral. It was surreal: the looping slide show of photos of all of us, the show tunes playing, the gathering of friends– in turn laughing as we recalled funny stories from high school and crying at the sudden realization that Ed wasn’t there, and would never be again. I can still see the faces of Ed’s family—his parents, sisters, niece and nephew, and his fiancé that night: stricken, even as they tried to make the memorial service as joyful as Ed’s personality was, how Ed would have wanted it.

Together, as though we were back in our high school chorus, we sang the last song of the service: “Climb Every Mountain.” The Sound of Music had been our senior show at Archbishop Prendergast High School. Ed and I played Max and the jilted Baroness, respectively. And as Mother Superior, Danni had her big moment: that was her song. A few of our high school friends even fell into their choral voices by range, joining together in that moment to sing this song that had united us almost three decades before, and we filled the church with a multi-part harmony. Sister Lauretta would have approved.

As we left Ed’s service, Danni turned to my daughter and said, “Take care of your mother.” It was the last thing she would ever say to her, and the last words I would ever hear in her unmistakable, resonant voice that could seamlessly range from alto to first soprano. Our sweaty embrace in the nearly 100-degree evening in front of the church on Chestnut Street was the last one we would ever share. Sometimes, I can still feel her arms around me.

I had no idea then that I would see the look of shock and grief on the faces of Danni’s family and her boyfriend, or that I would be standing before her body in a casket one week later.

On the 4th of July, she declined an invitation to join my sister’s backyard BBQ—it was brutally hot, and with her ginger hair and freckled complexion, Danni never did well in the heat. She jokingly texted that she and her cat had already had two glasses of prosecco and were in for the night. He has a real problem! she texted, then sent a photo of the two of them cuddled up on her couch—the cat on her shoulder, his face pressed to hers. That’s real love! I texted in response. We texted each other: Love you lots was the last thing she wrote to me.  

The next day, July 5th, I was leaving the house to meet a friend for coffee. As I walked across the front yard and picked up my phone to let my friend know I was on my way, a text from Danni flashed across my screen: Danni was found dead in her apartment this morning.

I blinked my eyes a few times and read the text again, from Danni…but about Danni… “Come on, girlfriend,” I said to the phone, “That’s not funny!” As irreverent as we sometimes were, even she, who could make light of the direst situation, wouldn’t make a joke about that. Yet, what I was reading didn’t seem possible. The text was from her brother, and continued: I know the two of you were close…I’m sorry to tell you this way… A rollercoaster swept through my body, and I stood in the hot sun and stared into the flaming orange tiger lilies in my garden, as though they would catch me if I swooned.

A few days later, her cause of death was determined: a sudden, fatal asthma attack.

She took a breath, and then never another. And she was gone.

My mother arrived for Danni’s viewing before I did. I was driving there with two friends. We stopped for coffee and cigarettes; we were definitely stalling. My mother called when we were about 15 minutes away. “It’s an open casket, Nicole. I just wanted you to know you should prepare yourself.”

In the lobby of the funeral home, there were little whispered conversations around me, and my mother kept asking me if I was sure I was ready to go in. Those who had arrived early and already knew what was in store milled around in the back, greeting those who walked in. We decided to walk up to the casket, The Crew, all together. There was a lot of nervous laughter and some poop emojis being texted around in The Crew group text because someone was taking too long in the bathroom. Ed’s fiancé walked beside me in line. He was wearing a purple polo shirt.

And there was Danni, in the open casket, wearing a pink suit with a scarf at her neck, and undertaker-styled makeup she never would have worn. There were roses placed on her chest. and when I saw her, I broke down. Strong arms lifted me into a chair. It was her stepfather. I cried into the lapels of his funeral suit. I remember seeing the grief-stricken faces of her sister, her mother, her boyfriend. I don’t remember much after that.

One of our friends who had studied nursing later pointed out the scarf and roses functioned as a way to conceal the fact that she’d had an autopsy.

At the funeral the next day, I stood up to offer a few words about her—a speech that began with my holding up the card she’d made me in computer class for my 15th birthday.  I had brought a bag full of notes we’d passed to each other in high school, including the one that she wrote me in sophomore year, that read: Do you consider you and me, like best friends? Anyway, are you going to the mixer on Saturday night? Me, too. I shared anecdotes about our days as punk rock girls and high school theatre stars. I laughed about her “sham-WOW,” the handkerchief she carried at my wedding—a yellow piece of cloth that functioned as a towel to mop up sweat from, well… everywhere on her body: her still-alive body that we didn’t know then was nearing the end of life on this Earth, sweating and dancing in her brown bridesmaid’s dress, and drinking prosecco and hugging me over and over again on that 105-degree July evening, almost exactly six years earlier to the date.

“That’s me,” I gestured to a photo in the slide show that played across from the pulpit where I stood. “With higher hair.” It was a photo of us from Anything Goes, when she played Reno and I was Bonnie. Later, people remarked that the image reflected on the wall behind me as I spoke. Danni stood beside me the whole time.

Our high school crew sat together in the last two rows of the makeshift chapel in the funeral home parlor and passed notes with funny comments about the minister, who really did look—and talk– like Joe Isuzu from the 1980s car commercials: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” We giggled like we were back at play practice, waiting for Sister Lauretta to reprimand us for “causing a ruckus.”

I think Danni is proud of the level of humor and the sheer inappropriateness, one friend wrote, and we all giggled like we were 16 again.

And then, the burial. I stood on this very hillside with my remaining high school friends, our arms around each other. Ed’s body was already in ashes, in an urn, and Danni’s was about to descend into the ground a few feet from where we huddled together, where I am standing now, alone in the icy winter afternoon.

All these months later, I still go to text her, to send her a photo, a video of a talking cat or a funny meme. Or to tell her that I walked into the gym and The Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes” was playing over the sound system. In. The. Fucking. Gym. I still think of telling her a joke or a piece of gossip I have heard, but it’s like calling a disconnected number. You can dial but no one will pick up.

There are truths I have to accept: that I won’t see her at our annual high school crew get-together, that I’ll never hear her laugh again—so big it would fill any room. I can no longer call her or meet her after work for a glass of prosecco. We can no longer talk in our own besties-way about how much my ex-husband sucks and plot creative revenge strategies against him, like a curse of a massive infestations of crabs, but not the Jersey Shore kind.

But there is a part of me that needs to believe she can still hear me, that she can still send me signals through openings in whatever membrane divides us now. In all of my grief, the hope of a life after this one has held me together. It’s the reason why people kept saying things at her funeral like, “God must have been planning a production of Funny Girl in heaven tonight! Now he has his Nicky and his Fanny!” and smiling at the image of two friends, singing and dancing on some heavenly stage.

It’s cold and windy on the hillside and nearing sunset. I need to drive the 45 minutes back to Delco to pick up my daughter from her dad’s, drive home, and walk across the driveway that separates my house from my parents’ for the traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.

“I miss you, girlfriend,” I say. “Tell Ed I say hello. I miss you both.” I start to turn away from her grave site, then turn back for a moment and smile. “Thanks for the New Order on the radio.”

I cross the grass to where my car is parked on the side of the driveway that winds down the hill and, beyond the gates of the cemetery, opens out onto the road home.

And when I turn around one last time, Danni is bopping around to that New Order song, forever dancing next to me at the Bonner High School mixer, her army coat flapping, her red teardrop haircut falling over one eye.

 

Bio:

T Nicole Cirone holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also holds an MA in English Literature and BAs in Italian Studies and Political Science from Rosemont College. Her work has been published in: Reaching Beyond the Saguaros: A Prosimetric Travelogue, Gateways, an anthology (forthcoming), Serving House Journal, Hippocampus, Red River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Perigee, Bucks County Writer, Schuylkill Valley Journal. She lives in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania with her daughter and two cats, and her parents next door.

 

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