Sex in a Cemetery, and Other Poor Choices // Shannon Frost Greenstein

The headstones lie next to each other.

Not the ornate ones with angels and scalloped edges and impossibly tall crucifixes, though. These are flat, nestled among the weeds, set into the ground, the words on the stones worn through the cruelty of nature and time.

The rising moon bears down on the back of my neck as I see the two graves, the sound of the highway behind me a white noise against the thudding bass line of the music spilling from Mark’s car radio.

I stare.

Come here, I say.

He is still in the car, behind the wheel, patiently waiting out however long it takes for me to bore of exploring the cemetery we spotted while taking the Covered Bridge Tour.

Just come back, he says.  There’s, like, seven more bridges to go, and I’m about to light this joint.

Yes, a Covered Bridge Tour is a Thing. It is exactly as it sounds, and would be exactly as boring as it sounds if not for the addition of the marijuana we are about to inhale, as we have the last time and the time before that.  The Covered Bridge Tour is familiar; soothing.  The routine; the communion.  We do it so often, in fact, that I am shocked not to have noticed the cemetery earlier than just a few minutes ago. My codependent boyfriend is usually happy to indulge my fascination for all things gothic and dark; delaying getting high, less so.

You seriously need to see this, I insist.

He heaves a sigh and unbuckles his seat belt, turns off the ignition, climbs from the car, and walks through the overgrowth toward where I stand.

What? he asks with exasperation, the joint pinched between two fingers and the lighter, ready and waiting, in his other hand.

I point.

Look, I say.

The headstones are identical in every way, except the names and the dates.  On each, the same quote:

I held you every second of your life.

Under the carved marble sentence, each marker announced a name, a birth date, and a date of death:

Baby Boy Callahan​​​ Baby Girl Callahan

2/4/1911 – 2/7/1911​​​ 6/13/1913 – 6/15/1913

Oh. Those are pretty, he says.

I roll my eyes.

Don’t you get it? I ask.

Get what? he responds, somewhat cluelessly, still clutching the joint, his desperation to bring it to his mouth and apply flame palpable in the growing gloom and fog descending on the roadside cemetery.

This woman…

I check the gravestone behind the two laid into the grass.  Yup.

....this Mary Callahan, she had two children.  Two children who died.  Two children who only lived a few days, I explain.

I glance around the immediately vicinity, noticing Mr. John Callahan’s grave, noticing a few neighboring headstones with identical surnames who could have been uncles or in-laws, but nothing representing a young generation of Callahans.

They didn’t have any more children, I say, still trying to make him see. She lost her only child after a few days. Twice.

Mark is looking at me carefully.  I see him trying to consider what I’m saying, and remember again why we are already codependent: He always tries to understand me, to see things from my point of view, and right now my point of view is saturated with empathy and grief. He doesn’t want to see me hurt, so he will take on the burden of my pain himself, despite how foreign an idea of child loss must seem to him.

Are you ok? he says. You look sad, he says.

I am sad.

I can’t have children. It was a choice to protect my fertility or to kill the cancer ravaging my bone marrow, deadly lances of radiation spearing oncogenes and decimating the eggs in my ovaries at the same time. I was lucky; even after chemo didn’t work, even after they literally stuffed me in isolation and killed off my immune system one cell at a time, to replace it with a kind stranger’s in the hope it would take root, even after that, I am lucky. I am alive.

But I can’t have children.

I am sad, I say.

Mark knows about the cancer; he knows I had a bone marrow transplant. He knows, from the scars carving a topography on my flesh, that I almost died. But he does not know I am infertile.

We haven’t had a discussion about children yet, of course. Nor marriage, nor even cohabitation. But here we are, in an abandoned cemetery, bathed in the light of the moon and about to enter a new phase of our relationship without even being prepared: The (Tree of) Knowledge of Good and Evil, that I might not be worth staying with if I can’t have children.  That, if we stay together and stay in love and decide to join in a union, it will be a childless union.

And that is really not a conversation I want to have sober, at night, in a cemetery, with no warning.

I sigh.

Light that, I say.

Without missing a beat, Mark sparks the lighter, brings it to the joint he has placed between his lips, and draws a breath. His fingers pinched, he hands me the smoldering torch without exhaling, waiting until I have drawn from the joint to release the smoke from his lungs, his shoulders shaking with silent coughs and his bronchioles screaming their discomfort.

I, too, hold the smoke in, waiting until the point of pain before I exhale. I do, and the world immediately snaps into sharper focus while the omnipresent voices in my head, voices that sing like a Greek chorus about how my cancer will come back, about how no one will want me because I can’t have children, about how anything good will just be taken away, fade into a dull silence behind the cannabinoids bouncing through the synapses of my brain.

I can’t have children, I announce suddenly as I hand him back the joint.

I was not planning on admitting it like that; not at that point, anyway. But it has to be said, and so I say it, and given another chance, I don’t think I would take it back.

He pauses in the ritual of receiving the joint, of hitting it, of sharing with me this introspective, otherworldly experience, as night falls in a cemetery on an ordinary Tuesday evening.

What? he says.

I can’t have children, I repeat.

It is suddenly very quiet, and I can feel the pressure of the silence on my shoulders like a yoke.

The cars rush by, and I should feel regret, but I don’t. I should feel freer, but I don’t. I should feel something, but I don’t.  I stare at him, almost confrontationally, the headstones in my periphery speaking of the losses I will never have the chance to lose.

He considers me, slowly running his eyes from my face to what I can only assume is my uterus and then back up to my eyes. He holds up his pointer finger, requesting a moment.

What? I say, somewhat testily.

He pulls in a mouthful of smoke again, but instead of handing me back the joint, steps closer to me instead, until he is right in front of me. He reaches out a hand, clasps it around the back of my neck, and pulls my face close to his. Mark brings his lips to mine and kisses me, our tongues teasing each other, the sweet smoke spilling into my mouth and further, into my lungs, as I inhale, inhale the smoke and his scent and his acceptance and his love.

My knees buckle slightly from the weight of this, of revealing something about which I have always been ashamed, of recognizing aloud that I am infertile, I will be the end of my line, there will be no Last Scion, and the realization draws my breath at the same time empowerment flows through my veins, suddenly, without warning, as much a surprise as the cancer was.

Fuck cancer.

I suddenly want to feel alive, to prove it, and even though we’ve only just started sleeping together, even though the relationship is burgeoning and new, even though I’m slightly prudish at heart and we are visible from the road, I suddenly know what I want to do.

Afterwards, it’s funny, that I won’t exactly remember having sex in the cemetery. You’d think something like that would stand out, that I would remember the way the grass felt, the dirt under my nails, the sound of my voice disappearing into the sky.  I don’t. I just remember after, as we were lying under the moon and the fog was rolling amidst the headstones and the cars were drowning out our panting and afterglow.

I don’t care, he says.

Care about what? I say coolly.

I’m feeling vulnerable, having revealed so much so early, and it feels better to put up a wall.

Don’t, he says.

Don’t what? I say.

Don’t put up a wall he says.

I turn away from him, pulling up my jeans, straightening my shirt, pushing my hair back into place. I stand, intending to walk back to the car whether he is following me or not, until I feel his hands gently around my waist as he leans into me from behind.

I don’t care that you can’t have children, he says. I love you, he says. I want to be with you, he says.

I allow my weight to fall back against him as I cover his hands with mine, both sets, ironically, resting where a baby might live in another quantum reality. He hugs me more tightly, until I feel as if I’m corseted by his arms, til my ribs creak and I can’t draw a full breath.

I love you, too, I say.

I wait as he grabs discarded items of clothing, searching through pockets for wayward keys, until my gaze is drawn back to the headstones on the ground.

I held you every second of your life.

Baby Boy Callahan​​​ Baby Girl Callahan

2/4/1911 – 2/7/1911​​​ 6/13/1913 – 6/15/1913

I keep looking, for something, something that I won’t even know I’ve found once I’ve found it. I take a mental image, memorizing detail, recreating the scene in my frontal cortex to lock away any secrets the moment might contain.

Are you ready? he says.

I’m ready, I say.

We walk back to the car hand in hand, leaving behind the Callahans’ heartbreak and my own as well, towards the next covered bridge, and the next, and whatever lies beyond.

Shannon Frost Greenstein aims to write the Next Great American Novel while clawing her way out from under the yoke of Academia. She resides in Philadelphia with two children, two cats, and her soulmate. Shannon harbors an unhealthy interest in Hamilton, Mount Everest, and the Summer Olympics. Find her work in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Crab Fat Magazine, Ghost City Review, Chaleur Magazine, and elsewhere, or at her website:

Image by Robb North

179 views0 comments