The Buried Groom
by Kevin Frazier
Yelena married a man who was dead.
She found him in a Helsinki cemetery. She was seventeen. She wandered among the graves, noticed a leaf as it fell from one of the maples and landed on a tombstone.
A raindrop slipped off the leaf’s damp tip and rolled down the granite façade, across the clear acrylic edge of the tombstone’s screen. This was back in the early days of virtual grave-markers, when it was still unusual to see digital memorials in most cemeteries.
Yelena squatted in front of the screen, stared at a film clip of a young man in a loose-fitting basketball uniform. The clip was out-of-focus. Still, Yelena could see that the young man was tall and lanky: his arms were all bone and no muscle. He went up for a jump-shot inside the key. The ball banged off the backboard, missed the hoop.
The wind blew harder. A soft drizzle started to pelt the grass.
Yelena would always remember how the rain gave this visit its particular character—the way the drop on the leaf had slipped towards the screen, the way the drizzle began to streak the front of the tombstone. Each drop added a new blur to the screen’s thick acrylic cover. Later she would wonder if it was because of the blurs that she didn’t reject Mark the instant she saw him. He was never the most obvious man for her to admire. He had big ears and a skinny neck and bright orange hair. Yet Yelena couldn’t see his face clearly enough to decide how she felt about him. The rain smeared his image into something suggestive and intriguing. He was a flare of moving smudges, colored mists that her mind kept trying to resolve into a clear set of features.
The drizzle grew to a steady downpour. Yelena rose from her squat. Walking away, she already knew she would come back again tomorrow.
She started going to the cemetery nearly every afternoon.
Yelena was a Russian in a school full of Finnish teenagers, and she was too shy to push through the barrier between her and the other students. They weren’t openly hostile, but they showed little desire to talk to her or overcome her natural diffidence. Her father, a Russian poet who could no longer find a publisher for his work, had stayed in Moscow after her mother had married a Finnish cardiologist and brought Yelena to Helsinki. So for the last three years Yelena had lived in Finland. Her loneliness was constant, an endless hunger for contact—even though she could never bring herself to smile at anyone on the street or speak to anyone in a café. Every day she moved more deeply inwards, further away from everyone else. Often she felt she was disappearing down a long well, with nothing but a shrinking iris of light opening out towards the people around her.
When she turned to Mark, it wasn’t love she wanted so much as companionship. He was her friend for many years before he became her husband. She would go to his tombstone after school and stand in front of the screen, its small square glowing in the center of the thick gray slab. Below the screen was a modest engraving: “Mark Riley 1978-2009.”
The screen showed dozens of video clips from Mark’s life. It presented Yelena with thousands of photographs. It allowed her to read his diaries, study articles about his university scholarships in history and math, review the subtitled testimonials from his friends. There were several hundred hours of material, all played over and over in a perpetual silent loop.
She loved spending time with him. He had a beautiful smile, a toothy grin that revealed a crooked left incisor and emphasized the laugh lines around his mouth. He was Australian by birth, but his parents were foreign correspondents and he had grown up in a variety of places—in New York and Amsterdam, in Vienna and Istanbul, in Stuttgart and Paris. The basketball clip came from his days at a New York high school, and she watched other clips of him playing rugby in London and handball in Munich. In the testimonials his friends all seemed to agree that as an athlete Mark had been more enthusiastic than talented. “He was always ready to try any sport you asked him to try,” one friend said, “and he always had a good time even if he didn’t play well.” Yelena, raised to consider it a grim humiliation to perform poorly at anything she did, found this side of Mark fascinating.
During the summer she went to see him whenever she could. She became addicted to watching him, captivated by sitting on a blanket in front of the tombstone and staring at the pictures and clips as they flowed across the screen. She had always been an obsessive person: her mother and stepfather both knew this about her and had long ago learned to accept it. So they probably didn’t see her interest in the cemetery as being very different from the way that, in her childhood, she had spent most of one spring perfecting a certain arm gesture for her ballet class. By mid-July she knew that Mark was by far the most important person in her life.
That fall she started attending Helsinki University. She had hoped to go abroad, but her mother didn’t have enough money for the tuition. Since the universities in Finland were free, Yelena agreed to stay in Helsinki.
She studied linguistics. Gradually she prodded herself into showing up at different parties and pubs. She even began going out on dates.
She credited Mark with improving her social life. He looked so happy and relaxed in most of those clips from his past…yelling and singing while someone poured a cup of punch over his curly orange hair…standing in a torn gorilla suit while he was mocked by a dozen friends in elaborate lion costumes…laughing and losing his balance while he tried to skateboard down a flight of concrete steps in a parking garage…
She felt that, because of these clips, her summer with Mark had loosened her up. With his example in mind, she quit worrying so much about whether she might throw up from drinking too much vodka, or might not know the name of some old Finnish rock group that everyone was discussing.
The discovery that she could develop friends and relationships changed her, at least in the short run. Over the next couple of years she came to feel a bit superior to Mark. She seldom visited him anymore, and looked back on her addiction to him with a certain shame. If he had helped her through a difficult period as a teenager, she was in no hurry to remember him. She associated him with loneliness, depression, shyness—all the things she had banished from her life.
Certainly she could see that he wasn’t nearly as impressive as her most serious boyfriend, Hunter Wilson, a wealthy young American who worked for the Helsinki office of an international consulting company. Where Mark was pale and freckled and scrawny, Hunter was muscular and dark, bronzed all year round due to his insistence on taking frequent holidays in Southern France. And where Mark was easygoing and a bit careless, Hunter was commanding and efficient. He might spend the day saving a company from bankruptcy. Then he might spend the night organizing an art exhibition for a friend or arranging equipment for an environmental group attempting to enter China. He had many different circles of acquaintances—painters and bankers, filmmakers and architects, Danes and Norwegians and Swedes. And as long as Yelena was with him, she knew that these groups were hers as well as his. She had left Mark and his pulsing tombstone far behind.
The year Yelena finished her graduate work, Hunter asked her to move to Cannes with him. His company was opening an office there to give financial advice to independent film companies, and he would be in charge of the local operations. He found a job for her as a translator of Russian business documents, and they did much of their work outside together, on the cast-iron balcony of their old stone townhouse or beneath a brightly striped parasol at one of the shoreline cafés.
After about six months of this Yelena realized that she missed Mark and wanted to see him.
At first it was a fairly pleasant feeling. She simply wished that she could share all of this with him…could spread out a towel for him on the hot white sand…could play a set with him on one of the dusty clay tennis courts…could show him how after a thunderstorm the pinnae would open their compound leaves on the twisting limbs of her favorite umbrella-thorn acacia tree…
Soon, though, his absence began to depress her. She continued playing tennis, but all she could think about was how much she wished she could be back at the cemetery. She also continued swimming, but while the surf foamed around her thighs and the spindrift misted her face, her thoughts kept returning to Mark’s death—the unfairness of it, the bittersweet sadness of his arrival in the hospital on the weekend of his thirty-first birthday.
His car had been hit by a skidding truck, and his body had been crushed between his seat and the steering wheel. He had lived for the next forty-six hours. Two different clips showed him in his hospital bed…his orange hair in disarray…the left side of his scalp shaved and smooth, with its semicircle of seamed flesh and its horseshoe of stitches…his soft brown eyes blinking in the blue-black rings of their bruises…his shattered nose under its absurd mass of bandages…and his broad tolerant smile, still there, still fighting to the surface through the distortions of his broken teeth and twisted jaw… Yelena had cried the first time she watched this, and she almost cried again now, standing on the townhouse balcony, closing her hand around a warm raindrop that had fallen from the clouds and into her open palm. Then she went inside and told Hunter she was leaving.
The next ten years were productive.
Yelena started a translation agency in Helsinki and its success was immediate. She was a hard worker and a good translator, but she gave some of the credit for the agency’s growth to Mark and his diaries. He had started a business of his own when he was in his early twenties: a service center for immigrants who wanted help with the practical problems of moving to Finland. Yelena learned much from his mistakes, and observed that he had left a fairly detailed record of his business problems.
Although the tombstone didn’t show every diary page he had ever written, it offered four hours of his entries, at thirty seconds per page. Most of the pages were easy to read, dashed off in Mark’s clear cursive. Yelena photographed many of them and took them home to study.
She discovered that Mark’s company had been in a constant crisis—always on the verge of bankruptcy, always too busy or too slow, always a bit noisy and chaotic.
His writing tended to be affable and candid in describing his various lapses. A typical entry read:
“Hired Hanna as a legal expert and Arto as a marketing assistant this morning. Almost fired them in the afternoon. Apologized when I figured out I’d given each of them the other’s assignment. Made it up to them by taking them both out to dinner. The rest of the employees also came. And their friends. And the friends of their friends. Bar tab was ruinous. Fun night, though.”
Yelena used the diaries as negative guidelines, as missteps to be avoided. Mark’s recklessness taught her caution. His wasteful spending taught her to set strict limits on her monthly expenses. His inability to develop a core group of customers taught her to restrict her clients to those who paid their invoices on time.
When she signed her first major deal—an agreement to do all the translation work for a computer security firm—she went to the cemetery with a bottle of champagne.
She toasted the screen, raised her glass to the video clips showing a trip Mark had made to Istanbul a few years before his death. She followed him through the city. She walked along the streets. She held his hand. They went down a set of steep crooked lanes in the Besiktas district, passed some narrow furniture stores and low-key lingerie shops and a pair of secondhand cell-phone outlets. Then she sat with him at a café beside a mosque. To her right was a massive concrete soccer stadium where soldiers with machineguns marched in front of the entrance. To her left, so close that she could have bent down and dipped her fingers in the water, the Bosporus washed up against the café’s wooden wharf.
“Look,” Mark said. His face, a bit puffy around the eyes, was open and excited, in pleasing contrast to Yelena’s reserve.
He was staring into the water. Yelena followed his gaze. She saw that hundreds of jellyfish were bobbing just below the water’s surface. Their faint bulbous forms—as well as the long trails of their stingers—rocked with the motion of the current. They were so pale that they barely seemed to exist. Yelena had the sense that, if she blinked, they might turn out to be optical illusions, a trick of the sunlight on the waves.
She knew what Mark was going to say next, because she had already read it in his diaries. “They look like ghosts,” he said lightly, “though floating around in polluted water isn’t really my idea of a satisfying afterlife.”
“What would you prefer?” she asked.
He shrugged, grinned. The breeze stirred the tight orange curls of his hair. The sleeves of his T-shirt billowed around his long, lightly freckled arms. He reached over, touched Yelena’s face. The soldiers marched. The jellyfish floated. The champagne spilled on the cemetery’s grass.
She married Mark on the twentieth anniversary of the day they met. The ceremony took place in front of his grave. She told no one what she was doing. She had never mentioned Mark to anybody else. His isolation from the rest of her life was part of what made him so important to her. Plus as the head of a company she had no desire to expose her feelings to the ridicule of outsiders.
She wasn’t crazy. She knew that she had fallen in love with a loop of images on a tombstone and not with the actual Mark Riley, who must have been very different from the man she’d created in her imagination. Still, she wanted to be Mark’s bride. She wanted a wedding. She wanted a ceremony to help bring out the full flavor of their love. If this made her ridiculous, then being ridiculous was something she could accept.
She held the wedding at night. This allowed her to start walking towards the tombstone at exactly the moment the screen showed the clip of Mark playing basketball in high school. She wore a white dress with a short train. The train dragged along the gravel. A mosquito settled on her veil. She shooed it away. Then she read the vows that she had written. She promised to love Mark forever, talked about how fortunate she was to know him.
She set two wedding rings on the tombstone. One of the rings she placed on her finger. The other ring she placed in a hole that she had dug at the tombstone’s base. Then she took a spade and covered the hole with a small mound of mingled grass and earth. Some of the grass stuck to the hem of her dress. She brushed the blades off with the side of her hand.
Then she went home and ate a piece of the five-tiered wedding cake. The dress rustled as she walked. The veil grazed her shoulders, brushed the back of her neck. The ring felt cool and light on her finger. She had thought it might be uncomfortable, but instead she found its weight and tightness strangely soothing. She liked to picture the other ring in the ground, buried in front of Mark’s tombstone.
With much more satisfaction than she had anticipated when she woke up this morning, she looked at herself in the mirror. The wedding was over. Mark was hers. She tried to mimic his broad grin, and was both embarrassed and pleased when his expression seemed to float across her face before twisting into the tightness of her usual self-control. She laughed at her reflection, at the odd new wife staring back at her. Then she went to bed.
The marriage had its problems, though in the end they proved minor. Yelena only wore the ring at home, and continued dating other men. This caused her some guilt, but she believed the living should be given a fair chance to usurp the dead. She looked forward to a dramatic contest between Mark and her suitors, a battle for her love.
The battle never took place. No matter how acceptable the men were—and some of them were quite nice—they simply couldn’t move her as strongly as Mark did. It was the Hunter situation all over again. The last of Mark’s rivals, a deep-voiced Italian pediatrician who worked at her stepfather’s hospital, proposed to her three times in five years. By the final proposal Yelena knew she was locked into Mark so firmly that she could never be pried away.
As the translation business grew more profitable, she started working only three days a week. This gave her extra time to visit the cemetery, and she became increasingly confident that Mark needed her at least as much as she needed him, despite the many women who flitted through his clips and pictures. Without her he was alone—worse than alone, just a flicker of dim electric light playing to rows of headstones and markers. Every hour of every day he spilled out over the utter indifference of the graves and the maples, the grass and the groundskeepers.
She could never bear the idea of Mark as a mere corpse, abandoned to his death. If her love had unusual limits, it also offered unusual satisfactions. In a sense, she had resurrected him. She had met him two years after his burial, and decades later she was still giving him some of the life that his collision with the truck had tried to cut off. Their marriage rescued the essential Mark Riley, the one who could be salvaged from his physical wreckage. The longer she sat in front of the screen and watched him, the more of him returned to the world…the kidney-shaped birthmark on his left elbow…the slightly panicked widening of his eyes when he accepted an academic award at the University of Munich…the comfortable swivel of his dangling foot when he crossed one leg over the other…the languorous motion of his fingers rubbing the side of his neck when he was about to start yawning…
Loving Mark appealed to the side of Yelena that was always willing to throw away apparent advantages for the sake of a grand gesture. It was the same impulse that would, at one point, cause her to turn down an offer from an international translation firm to buy out her agency. The firm wouldn’t guarantee permanent positions for her favorite employees, and she refused to betray her friends even though the buyout would have tripled her personal net worth. Similarly, instead of undermining her relationship with Mark, the impractical aspects of their love helped guarantee her devotion to him. Their marriage was, after all, a spectacular rejection of everything that made most relationships possible.
Besides, she found pleasures with Mark that she couldn’t have found anywhere else. In compensation for his lack of a vulgar physical presence, he maintained eternal youth. As Yelena reached her late fifties—as her knees stiffened and made it a bit harder for her to bend down in front of the tombstone—Mark moved and laughed and talked with inexhaustible freshness and energy. While she had found his looks the least of his qualities when she’d met him, she could now see that his youth had a beauty all its own, and this beauty became more and more fascinating, more and more compelling. It held a special romantic charge for her, the stimulus of an illicit pleasure, heightened by the poignant progress of her personal changes—the encroaching slowness of her sprint when she chased a shot on the tennis court, the increasingly muffled shudder of the maple leaves in the cemetery as she began to lose her hearing.
One night someone shattered the tombstone’s acrylic square and smashed the screen. Teenagers occasionally vandalized the graves, and little could be done to stop them.
Yelena contacted the cemetery’s caretaker, asked if the screen could be repaired. The caretaker said it was possible: all the information for Mark’s memorial was stored in the cemetery’s digital archives. But Mark’s parents, who had created the memorial, were dead. And though they had established a fund for the memorial’s upkeep, the fund wouldn’t cover the costs of rebuilding the screen and fixing the tombstone.
So Yelena paid for the repairs herself. She also made copies of the material from the archives. Then she began work on a project that would occupy most of her retirement. She created a new memorial, one that combined Mark’s photos and clips with photos and clips from her own life. With the help of the editing program on her computer, she took the old scenes from her days of sunbathing in Cannes and replaced the shots of Hunter with shots of Mark. She made Mark the man strolling beside her along the waves, made Mark the one spreading suntan lotion on her back and shaking sand off his beach towel. In turn, she became the woman sitting on Mark’s shoulders at the New Year’s Eve party. She appeared as a spectator at his basketball games. She walked with him under her favorite acacia tree. She held his hand in the hospital. She joined him at the café in Istanbul and looked over the side of the wharf, at the jellyfish floating in the water.
Through a bit of bureaucratic wrangling, she arranged to have her tombstone built beside Mark’s grave, in a plot that had always held a work shed for the gardeners. Her granite slab would be identical to his, with an identical screen on the front. Both screens would show the same loop of images—the revised visions that Yelena had designed of Mark and her carrying on their relationship together. From now on, everyone would be able to see them in their love. Their marriage would survive her death.
Nearly twenty years after Yelena was buried and the twin tombstones were finished, a boy wandered into the cemetery and limped along the gravel path.
Otto was nine. He limped because a couple of kids from his school had just knocked him down and kicked him at the nearby playground. This was normal for Otto. He didn’t pay much attention to his schoolmates, and some of them repaid his indifference by hurting him. It puzzled and irritated them that he didn’t seem to care about the things they cared about. He didn’t want to go skiing with them or gossip about their teachers, didn’t listen to the music they liked, didn’t help them make fun of Leena Nieminen for wearing her braids in the wrong style. So every now and then Antti Salonen and Tommi Iloniemi would taunt Otto and beat him up. They did it not with any great savagery but with the casual glee of children carrying out an acceptable social activity, the high spirits of healthy boys working off excess energy.
Otto never told his parents about the attacks. He was ashamed to admit his unpopularity. His usual method was to run away and cry until he calmed down. Then he would go on as if nothing had happened.
Limping through the cemetery, he rubbed the place on his left shin where Antti and Tommi had given him their hardest kicks. As he walked, he wiped at the corners of his eyes with his fists. The most humiliating thing about being beaten up, Otto thought, wasn’t the actual hitting and kicking but the tears that always came to him. It was the tears that had sent him rushing off—hurrying away so he could prevent anyone from seeing him cry.
He looked up, watched the leaves shivering overhead as the wind moved through the maples.
He sat down on the ground, pulled his pant-leg up so he could look at his shin. A couple of welts were already forming just below the knee.
He didn’t know what to do. He wanted Antti and Tommi to like him but he didn’t want it enough to change anything about himself. He was looking for something else, something more interesting than the things that seemed available to him. He had no idea what it might be, whether it was a person or a game, a place or an idea, a goal or a cause—or maybe some combination of these things, a pattern that he might spend his whole life putting together. He wished he could explain this yearning to Antti and Tommi, but he knew that if he tried they would simply use it as one more proof of his strangeness.
A raindrop struck one of the leaves. Already loose, the leaf slipped from the maple and spiraled towards Otto’s head.
A moment later the leaf landed on the side of a tombstone and stuck to the granite façade. This was Yelena’s tombstone, but there was no way for Otto to know it. The tombstone had been ruined. Six months ago a panium addict had broken into the mausoleum on the mistaken idea that it was a morticians’ studio which might contain some drugs for him to steal. Enraged by his failure to find anything useful, the addict had started a fire and burned the mausoleum down. The fire had spread to other parts of the cemetery, including the twin tombstones that Yelena had placed here. The fire department had arrived quickly, and you could see that the flames had never made it past Yelena’s grave: they had stopped at the charred stump of the maple that used to hang above her slab. The maple, burning, had collapsed on top of both Yelena’s tombstone and Mark’s tombstone. Although the granite had survived the flames, Mark’s slab had been knocked over, facedown. At the same time, the screen on Yelena’s tombstone had melted into a warped ruin. The liquefied acrylic had spread down the granite and had covered most of the chiseled letters of her name.
The ruined and anonymous quality of the tombstones interested Otto. Here and there a clump of grass had managed to spring up, but most of the ground around both of the graves was either charred from the flames or dug up and overturned where the limbs of the collapsed maple had been removed.
Otto walked over the scorched rocks, the blackened twigs, the gashes of exposed earth. A glint caught the corner of his eye, a nearly subliminal gleam that might have come from a coin or a shiny scrap of paper.
He pivoted towards the glint, looked at the ground between his feet. Then he bent down and reached for a tiny curve of gold sticking out of the soil.
He took the curve between his fingers, tugged gently on it. As it slipped loose from the ground, he saw that it was a ring: a small gold wedding band.
The ring was too large to fit on his fingers, so he held it in his fist. Carrying it through the cemetery, he tried to imagine how the ring might have come to be buried here. He tried to picture who might have owned it, what kind of man or woman must have worn it in the past. He didn’t know precisely what the ring meant, either to him or to anyone else. Yet he had the firm sense that this was one of the things he had been looking for—the first piece in the pattern he had been trying to find for himself, the first clue to the yearning inside him.
He put the ring in his pocket, walked home. That night, after dinner, he slipped out of his bedroom and hurried back to the cemetery. Then he spent an hour in front of the twin tombstones. Sitting, thinking, he turned the ring back and forth in his fingers and felt its weight at the center of his palm.