Selfless by Rachele Salvini

My friend didn’t know that her ex would show up at the funeral.

He sat on the bench of the church and shook many hands, all humid with July sweat and covered in sea salt brought in by the wind. I briefly met my friend’s grandmother once, when their family and friends had travelled to Milan for her graduation. At the time my friend was still with her ex and I remembered how when they would laugh, it was always in unison.

Her ex was now sitting alone as the smell of incense and old candles drifted through the pews.

I wondered if he had simply forgotten all the words she had told him: “I don’t love you anymore, I met someone else.” I wondered how he could look at her like nothing had changed after years. He just showed up–

A gesture of love.

My friend held the hand of her new partner, too enamoured with him to notice her ex lover. When it was time for everyone to bow their heads in prayer, I just sat there, more interested in looking at the wrinkles on the shirt of my friend’s ex than anything else. I pictured him leaving early that morning for the drive up to our town, stopping every now and then at gas stations to get coffee or go pee. I thought of the hours that passed as he drove, like a reminder of his life without her and all the years he spent trying to fill that hole with his job, his social life, his failed relationships.

I saw my own last few years by myself: heated pizza, Netflix in bed, misadventures on Tinder, grotesque interactions with guys in fetid bars. I’d convinced myself that I would be perfectly happy heading towards the rest of my life by myself, which is what you’re supposed to tell yourself if you haven’t loved anyone in a while.

I wondered if he told himself the same thing.

Despite all the bullshit from their relationship, the laughter in unison turned into uncomfortable silences and accusations between gritted teeth. And there I was: for every grotesque interaction with men and half-believed lines muttered in front of the mirror, there was someone wearing a wrinkled shirt and sitting on the bench of the church. Someone he had come because he remembered more about the grandmother than what I did from that brief visit for my friend’s graduation. Maybe he had seen something I hadn’t. Maybe he just wanted to be there for my friend.

She saw him at the end of mass, her eyes widening only for a second. She kept her new partner by her side, hugged her ex, and told him politely, “You didn’t have to come,” He said that he would spend the rest of the day on the beach. “I need the sea,” he told her as he left.

I knew he would leave town immediately. He would drive back for hours, the hole she had left still there, maybe deeper. He’d take off his wrinkly, sweaty shirt, put on an old Oasis t-shirt, let the evening light creep in the car; he’d stop every now and then at gas stations on the road, to get coffee or go pee.

I hugged my friend and left too. Nothing about the word of God, the mercy, the grief of death hit me like the selfless love I witnessed, the simple act of showing up just to be there for someone, the way my friend’s ex had only been a quiet presence with no other expectation other than a brief exchange: you didn’t have to come, and a reminder of the past – I don’t love you anymore, I met someone else.

After the funeral, I went to the seaside on my own to wash away the sweat and the smell of incense from my hair. I wanted to drown what I’d seen. The wind whipped my hair and the streaks of salty water kept rolling down my skin like the days of heated pizza and Netflix, Tinder misadventures, grotesque interactions in fetid bards. I sat on a rock by myself, while love happened everywhere, somewhere, outside of me.

Rachele Salvini is an Italian woman based in Oklahoma. She got her masters in Creative Writing from University of Westminster in London and is now pursuing her PhD in English at Oklahoma State University, where she teaches English. She writes in English and Italian, and her stories, essays, and translation work have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Lunch Ticket, Prime Number Magazine, among others.