I PRACTICED DOING kegels in the back seat as Mark drove our mother and me to the crematorium to identify our older brother’s body. I’d still never had an orgasm. At twenty-two it was embarrassing to tell people, and a week earlier, in a Vegas hotel room, one of my coworkers had said it came down to kegels. I took my clothes off quickly as he explained that kegels made his girlfriend come easier and maybe I’d just never fucked a man who knew how to use what he’d been given. He took it as a point of pride that he could make any girl come—except me—and it was all I could think about.
My knees dug into the back of my mother’s seat, and I squeezed my vagina to the beat of the radio. The truck had been Lex’s, a bright-red four-door 2004 Nissan Frontier. He’d had it for several years, most of which he’d spent with a suspended license, and every month he seemed to miss the payment; he was unemployed, he’d spent the money on something else, he was too high to care, or all of the above. Instead of paying the gas bill, my mother juggled bank accounts to come up with the money. Despite this, the truck was his. It was one of the only things he could take pride in owning. From the back seat, you could watch a DVD player suspended from the ceiling, and I suspected its main use to be porn. I wondered how many times he had fucked where I was sitting.
The windows were down, and the truck sucked in a hot, sticky breeze. As we crossed over the bridge from Mt. Pleasant to Charleston, South Carolina, sailboats trailed the water and birds dipped down and back up. The paper mill nearby cast a sulfurous scent into the air, something rotten, and I’d hit it whenever I sped down I-526, southbound, salt whipping in my hair. It smelled like home.
Charleston, a city floating on water, was held in place by bridges. I loved driving here, one eye on the road, the other peeking over into harbors and expansive marshes, always on the lookout for herons and gulls, crabs and gators. I wasn’t from here, though I liked to pretend. Major, the oldest of my three brothers, had gone to College of Charleston and continued living in the city afterward. We’d all grown up in Greenville, three hours north and west in the foothills of the Appalachians. But since my freshman year in college, I’d spent every summer at Major’s condo in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb for the white, family-oriented middle class, separated from Charleston by a harbor. Lex had only been living in the apartment with Major for three months. I’d always fly from New York to Greenville, then borrow my mother’s car to drive the rest of the way south. When I hit the bridges, the windows were down and I sang out of key at the top of my lungs to bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros or Crystal Fighters. Songs with “home” in the title were my favorite.
As we crossed the bridge to the crematorium, though, we weren’t singing along with the radio as it crackled in and out, stuck between two stations. Mark fumbled through the presets and looked for something that wasn’t rap. From the back seat, I saw my mother’s head resting on the windowsill, her hand breaking through the wind resistance, a choke and shudder running through her every few minutes as though she was remembering what had happened again for the first time. She rubbed snot away with the back of her left hand.
The day before, Mark had offered to accompany our mom to identify Lex’s body. When she had asked if I wanted to come too, I’d shifted back and forth. I didn’t want to make any sort of decision, but not deciding would have been a decision in itself. Time was going by so quickly.
“It will be your last chance to see him,” she’d said.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” Mark added. He stood behind the couch with his arms folded. “It’s not like when we saw Dad. This isn’t a viewing; there’s no preservatives or makeup. The director told me to expect discoloration and swelling. What you see will not be our brother. But if you want to come, you’re welcome to.”
He was looking at me, but he was really speaking to our mother. He was concerned about how hopeful her voice sounded when she talked about finally being able to see the body. Like maybe she didn’t understand.
Mark and I were living together in New York. We’d flown down two days earlier, on Saturday, as soon as we’d gotten the news. I’d spent these past couple days over-analyzing my emotional responses. I was concerned I was in shock still. On a spectrum I’d constructed—from causing a scene in the middle of the airport to not missing a beat in my daily life—I was handling everything too well. I worried about a moment of emotional breakdown, falling to my knees, smashing mirrors, tearing at my flesh, with no way of knowing where or when it might occur. I rationalized that what I needed most might be to see Lex’s body deteriorating on the crematorium’s metal table, so that I would be in a controlled setting when I finally allowed myself to reconstruct his death. In my mind, I would confront it, grieve a few days, and then move on.
“I want to go,” I’d said.
This is an excerpt from an essay titled “Life After Loss: Week One” which won first place in Epiphany Magazine’s Spring 2016 nonfiction category. Purchase your copy of the issue here.