Ada’s little stone marker looked as new as the day it was put there. The baby birch tree they’d planted nearby was much bigger than Mattie remembered. It was taller than Ada would have been by then. Russell picked yesterday’s flowers up off the ground and handed Mattie the newly made bouquet of daisies. She held them to her chest for a moment before placing them on the ground next to her daughter’s grave.
Funny thing, laughter is.
Russell lips curled downward. Frown smiling. He only showed teeth with the heartiest of chuckles, that booming kind of laugh that passed over the air like a commercial jet. He had soft wrinkles at the corners of his mouth, little individual smiles like bookends for his lips. At his eyes, too. Brown eyes. A brown that was deep and fickle, sometimes green looking, always dark, never harsh.
Mattie stared at Russell’s words as he filled out the personal card to accompany the flowers. She read each word to herself as he wrote it, feeling the way her tongue grazed her front teeth with every ‘t’ that he crossed, lusting for the emotion he put into all of the sentences, wishing for it to be different.
He finished the note, put it in the tiny matching envelope and sealed it.
Russell bought flowers for Ada every morning from Mattie’s shop, Boutique del Fiore. Every morning for the past year. Always in the morning on his way to work. Always in the morning on his way to work because Mattie’s shop was right next to his office building. He picked them up in the afternoon on his way home. Russell and Mattie were not in love anymore. Because of Ada. Russell wanted to be in love with Mattie again.
“I’ll never be able to forget her. I’ll never be able to move on or go back to the way it was before she happened,” Mattie told Russell.
“I want to be able to make you happy,” he said.
“Happiness doesn’t mean the same thing, anymore. Why don’t you buy the flowers from somewhere else?”
Before Ada, Mattie started almost every sentence with laughter. It was all funny, everything in the whole world. Her laughter was the first thing Russell noticed, like it was magnetic. He was drawn to it. He found her in the bookstore, laughing out loud to a story in Jesus’ Son.
“He told him to talk into his bullet hole,” she grinned with teeth that were just the right size for her mouth. “It’s weird. I wonder why they sell this book in English. Out of all the books they could sell in English, this is one of them.”
They met in Italy. Two Americans in the same small town at the same small bookstore made Mattie laugh.
“Must be destiny, huh?”
“If you believe in it,” he said.
“Sometimes I do. Like when I decide to talk to strangers. Or how I sometimes believe in ghosts because it makes the settling sounds of my apartment more interesting. Only sometimes. Because sometimes it scares me so I have to believe it’s not ghosts and just the sound of settling.”
It was a slow process, them falling in love.
“It’s impossible,” she said one time, “to love unconditionally.”
“What do you mean? I love you unconditionally. You can’t tell me I don’t.”
“So if I tied you to a metal post, doused you with gasoline and set you on fire, you’d still love me as you slowly and painfully burned to death?”
“Are you going to do that?”
“If you did that to me, I feel like that’d be a condition under which I’d stop loving you.” She swirled the water in her glass around, poking at the ice cubes with her straw and wondering if sea gulls ever worry about drowning.
“I’d never do that.”
“Maybe I’ve just never been deep enough in love. Maybe it’s all just been me trying too hard to believe in fairytales.”
“You can make your own fairytale, can’t you?”
“But if you set me on fire I don’t think I’d die loving you.”
That night, they’d laugh about her different sized breasts, her out of control hair, her inability to make decisions, and how they hoped their daughter wouldn’t be a thing like either of them.
“It’s funny how entire things can just go away,” she said to Russell the day after Ada happened. “All the feeling can just vanish, the meaning just fade, and at the same time, despair can seem so profound and encompassing. What else is there, now? What have I done?”
“It’s not your fault,” he tried to reason.
“You don’t get it.” She cried in his arms for weeks.
“Help me.” He’d cry with her.
And when she finally stopped crying, she just wasn’t there anymore.
“It’s possible. To love unconditionally. Ada taught me how,” she told Russell that morning at the flower shop a year later.
“Do you want to come with me this afternoon? We can take the flowers together.”
“I need to let her go,” she whispered.
It was sunny when they got to the cemetery and parked the car. It was the cold type of sunshine. Mattie’s favorite. She thought Ada might enjoy picking flowers in the cold type of sunshine.