The last time the entire family was together was the ill-planned reunion ten years prior. Aunt Lisa got drunk and threatened to fight my dad over something she objected to in his newly reformatted will. After that, the family seemed to atomize. There wasn’t a cohesive unit that held us all together, except for the house on the water, and everyone went in their own direction and developed mutually exclusive narcissism.
But a funeral brings even the most fractured groups together. Since you can’t make up an excuse that would make any sense, so you go and shake hands with people you are related to.
Cars pulled into the driveway and parked near the water. My aunt looked as severe as always, wearing dark glasses to hide her tear-puffed cheeks and alcoholic eyes. She walked straight to me and fixed herself to my arm, squeezing with her long nails into my dress shirt I’d purchased the day before.
“Hi, Aunt Lisa,” I patted her back as she nestled in closer to me. Her body felt like a tiny bird’s nest, fragile but held together with an intelligently designed architecture against the elements she’d somehow weathered.
“Hello, Charles,” she said, her voice was wine soaked but soothing. She released my arm and went to go talk to her son, Devin, who had planned the ceremony. She whisper-yelled into his ear and clenched her fists with rage as she vibrated next to him. He listened and frowned.
An army of cousins dressed in black exited their vehicles and stood around like they wanted to smoke cigarettes but didn’t want to appear nonchalant. The air hung over the water, thick and stagnant. Devin held the urn like a terrified man holding a baby for the first time.
“Shall we?” someone said from the center of the crowd. Everyone lined up and began the death march down the thin deck to the dock.
There were no waves, but the dock shook with the weight of the mourners. Aunt Lisa found me again and reattached. Devin cleared his throat and made a gesture for us to be silent even though hardly anyone had attempted as much as a murmur.
Devin situated himself at the edge of the dock and took out a piece of folded white printer paper. His hands shook and I worried about the urn falling out of his hands and rolling into the water.
“We gather here today…..to send Jessica home,” he began. Aunt Lisa dug herself deeper into my arm and began to whisper towards me.
“This is wrong, so wrong,” she said. She believed that a priest and a body in the ground were what was appropriate. I heard sniffles from various cousins trying to keep their emotions appropriately stifled.
I hadn’t seen Jessica since I was a child, but I remembered that we all used to take trips as a family together back when that was important to more of us.
“Jessica lived a short life, but a rich one,” Devin continued, his voice starting to sound less shaky. A gentle wind blew over the water and I caught a whiff of the salt. It smelled like cooked seaweed and oyster shells.
I hadn’t seen Jessica since I was young, around the time puberty was just beginning to shift everything in me. The year I first learned how to masturbate. This memory came back into my mind as I tried to hold my aunt steady beside me.
Nobody taught me how to masturbate. I guess that’s standard, it might even be criminal if someone had. I had friends when I was young who offered to show me, and even some that did it next to me in bed while we had sleepovers, but I was too shy to ask them particulars about logistics and technique. Masturbation was explicitly discussed one time by my father during one of his attempts at sexual education. He claimed to have never found the need for it. And that was that. This was all in the same conversation where he explained to me that homosexuals were guaranteed a place in hell. I imagined this repeatedly. I invented images of a man being stabbed in the neck by a knife of flames until he died a hundred times, all for masturbating or kissing another man.
So, I lived in fear of both being gay and self-pleasure. The two were obviously correlated, so I tried to avoid either by developing a prepubescent phobia as protection. This worked for a few years, until it didn’t.
Attraction to the same sex was easy enough push away, but masturbation is a more difficult impulse to control.
At the beginning of the last decade of the 21’st century, there was a brief craze over personal massage tools. My family owned one that was ostensibly to be used on the sore muscles of your back. It was as big as a sturdy club with a wide flat edge that vibrated at different speeds. Nothing inherently sexual about it. I had an instilled aversion to using my hands to touch myself sexually, the inherited Catholicism had weaved itself into me by texturing any self-touch with sharpened guilt, so the back massager worked as an intermediary for me. I could accidently touch myself with it under the auspices of having a sore leg.
The machine was unwieldy, but I could smuggle it into the bathroom before a shower or in the closet, so my brothers weren’t disturbed. There were so many settings that each time was an experiment. Would I choose vibrate, slow-build or the highest jack-hammer approach? Eventually, I found that if I bore down directly, with a low setting, I could build myself up and achieve the best orgasm. Despite the guilt, I was addicted.
The main problem was the effect the instrument had on the skin of my penis. With overuse–which was constant– it broke the skin, and bloody rashes, like asphalt scrapes would form. This proved to be strategically difficult. I couldn’t stop, so I had to use the massager on different scab-free sections without hitting the healing parts. If I accidently hit one, my overused appendage would bleed and stick to the insides of my underwear whenever I sat down for too long.
I relied on the back massager since I didn’t have the ability to use my hands. I tried many times but could never get things to work in a satisfactory way and my arm would always tire out. This reliance was rarely an issue, except for on family trips. I couldn’t sneak into the bathroom or take an extra-long shower while my family watched sports a few feet away from me in a mid-tier hotel room. Everyone would have found it suspicious–with good reason– if I’d packed along a massive back massager with me. I was eleven years old, with no back problems. Even the most willfully ignorant Catholic would start to wonder why I needed to use the restroom with a back massager every time I saw a woman on television. It wasn’t an option.
Everyone worked for the family company, so a group vacation usually involved business so the tickets could be tax write-offs. Me, my mom and dad, three aunts and their five daughters and four sons would all converge in some hotel near the sea. We always went somewhere by the water. Everyone in my family, even though we came from a place right by the water, could only tolerate a hotel near the ocean. Otherwise, to them, it wasn’t a vacation at all.
The year I learned how to masturbate with the back massager, the family planned to take a trip to Orlando. There was a business conference so the tickets could be handled by the accountant in March. My parent’s talked about it for months in advance, describing the pool with a waterslide next to a full arcade and juice bar. This was concerning, because I loved all those things, my parents knew that, but the thought of being unable to masturbate filled me with a horrible angst.
Before I figured out how to use this tool, my hormones would have me writhing in bed at night while conjuring up shadowy images. After using it, I would be clear headed for a few hours and less twitchy, which seemed to be good for my relationships and mental state. My parents seemed concerned with my lack of enthusiasm for the trip and acted like I had done something wrong and needed to be ignored. They didn’t know that I believed I was indeed doing something wrong, and that was the reason the back massager always turned up under my bed.
Mentally, I tried to prepare myself for the trip as it quickly approached. I would give myself a few days in between masturbation sessions to try and wean myself off. This worked for a bit until I invariably cracked and leaped back into it with the fervor of a self-flagellating priest. Suitcases filled up with swimsuits, prophylactic tanning bed sessions were booked, gallons and gallons of SPF 30 were purchased, and my nervousness grew.
Florida was everything that my parents had promised, and I was miserable. The hotel featured a sprawling labyrinth of hot tubs, waterslides and juice bars. The arcade had games I normally would have never been allowed to play, and women in red, blue and purple swimsuits of varying styles were everywhere. At first, the distractions were enough, but I soon became twitchy and weird like an animal with fleas. Everything sent me into a state of chaotic desire, the warmth of the swimming pool, the sound of the squeak of my back on the rickety waterslide, the coolness my hand felt on the side of a concrete.
I sat in the hot tub for a few hours on the second day, positioning myself so the heavy jets would hit right at my penis. I figured that the pressure from the water would work similarly to the back massager, but they weren’t strong enough and I ended up dehydrated from the hot water, my skin shriveled and prune-like, and I felt sick and haggard through dinner.
“What’s going on with you?” Dad said to me on our third morning (the trip was a whole ten days, which when you are young is eternal and expansive.) He was tying a tie and scrutinizing his shave job in the mirror. I’d only seen him in his bathing trunks for the first couple of days of the trip, so he seemed discordant in a shirt with buttons and wingtip shoes. The obstreperous cackle of tropical birds radiated through the room’s window, and the light outside radiated an encompassing glow.
“Nothing,” I said, utilizing my most casual voice, as I sloppily put sunscreen on my wormlike shoulders.
“Well, it’s hot today, so be sure you take that bottle with you. Your Aunt and I are going to be in meetings all afternoon and your mother is at the spa, so you’re on your own.” He looked at me like he was disappointed in my very being. “You can handle that?”
“Jessica is going to keep an eye on you. Here’s the room key. Your mother has the other one, so I’ll have to find one of you when I get back. Be easy to find, understand?” He handed me the little plastic key that looked like a credit card. I put it in the little Velcro strap of my bathing suit.
Jessica was four years older than me. She had no interest in keeping track of me throughout the day. She was more interested in the boys she’d just met while smoking cigarettes at the edge of the hotel parking lot. She didn’t consider me a human being, more of a cretin, which was close to true. Before I could object to a caregiver for the day there was a knock on the cream-colored door.
Back home, in the perpetual gray of the Northwestern United States, Jessica wore baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts three sizes too big. This made her body appear in the shape of an oversized pill, but in Florida there were no hoodies, and when she opened the door with my aunt at her side she was in a cobalt blue bikini.
“Hello all,” said my already weary aunt, “I suppose we should get on with it shouldn’t we?” She wore big sunglasses with bug-eye frames to cover the bloodshot. Her white dress was spotted with a print of red tropical flowers. “Someday we won’t have to go to meetings on vacation.”
“Probably,” Dad said, finally finishing his Half Windsor knot, “Alright, you two go swimming, have fun for the rest of us.”
“I got tanning oil.” Jessica said.
“Maybe ease up on the tanning and put on some more sunblock,” Dad said.
“Sure,” said Jessica without rolling her eyes, but heavily implying she’d like to do so. She gestured for me to come with her, so I followed her down the strange and sterile corridor past the ice machines. “It’s not too too hot out here,” she said.
The hormonal young man isn’t hindered by societal taboos. To me, my cousin was a sexual object the moment I saw her in her in her new swimsuit, it didn’t matter that we were directly related, perhaps that even gave it a thrill, though I suspect that added texture is only added later in life. As she walked ahead of me so it wouldn’t appear that she was babysitting, I watched her delicate legs carry her down the patterns of the carpet through the hall and out to the shimmering light of the Florida sky.
It was so warm the air felt like it was full of fluid. We walked past the waterslides and the juice bar to the edge of the hotel. Jessica didn’t say anything to me, she barely acknowledged that I was a living being. I was more of an annoying pilot fish. Everyone, from hotel staff to older men on their honeymoon, swiveled their heads to watch Jessica’s body navigate itself past the wicker chairs and beach towels to the vast swath of parking lot at the edge of the resort.
“Gonna meet my friend,” Jessica said, taking out a piece of gum from a ratty tote bag and tossing the wrapper on the ground without offering me one. “My mom would be pissed so don’t be a narc.”
Despite not knowing what a narc was, her tone heavily implied that even if I wanted to be one it would be deeply uncool. The asphalt radiated heat and I began to wish I could have just gone swimming instead of following her.
An older boy in a Hawaiian shirt and oversized black shorts came strolling over from behind a row of microwave hot rental cars. He had crooked teeth but in an acceptable way, it made him look a little goofy, though still handsome. As I watched his muscular thighs clad in the thin layer of his swim trunks glide over to us, I felt another surge of attraction bubble up. Little pricks of acne dotted his upper cheeks just under his eyes. He smiled at Jessica, ignoring me, and grabbed her by the waist and sunk his fingers in. Jessica squealed and pulled away just slightly enough to start the game, so he grabbed her harder and tickled her ribs. I pushed away the little burning sensation that made me jealous of both of them.
“Knock it off, Troy,” she said, showing all her teeth and tossing her hair back.
Troy pulled out cigarettes from a soft pack with red lettering and passed one to Jessica. “Does he want one?” he said.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” said Jessica, accepting the light from Troy’s zippo. She took a drag and exhaled a thin amorphous puff.
It was hot, so I crawled under a tree next to them as they flirted and laid in the grass. Little black bugs came crawling up out of the manicured lawn and onto my legs and arms. I watched as the two of them talked and felt a growing pressure.
“Can we go swim now?” I asked.
Jessica looked at me like I wasn’t real. “Fine,” she said, she tossed her cigarette onto the pristine asphalt, leaned over, and kissed Troy, “later baby.” He looked shocked we were leaving.
“Did you know him already?” I asked as we walked back down the landscaped pathway lined with white flowers and ferns.
“Troy? No, I met him yesterday, seems cool, but not too too cool. Kind of twitchy but he has cigs.”
“Yeah, he seems cool,” I said. She looked down at me like I was a bizarre toad, then smiled a little.
“Let’s go!” she said, and she took off in front of me running towards the pools.
We both jumped straight into the first one we saw, splashing the kids around us who were floating lazily on their pool noodles. We floated and circled around in the chlorinated soup. I held my breath and dove under looking at everyone’s silly legs through the filter of the water. Jessica swam over to the ladder to the stairs that led you up to the waterslide and pulled herself out. “C’mon twerp!” she called back at me. I pumped my arms and legs through the water after her. The stairs were wet, and I had to slow down as I ran up them to keep from falling over into the decorative rocks. Were the rocks plastic? They kind of looked like it, but some of them looked jagged enough to cut you to the bone.
A lone lifeguard with red shorts, a blonde beard, and the most sincere and all-encompassing tan I had ever seen sat perched on the top of the slide. He nodded at both of us through his aviators. I noticed his head move up and down a little as he took in Jessica. Her bright blue swimsuit barely hung wet on her frame. She flung herself down the slide and I watched her whip through the curve. I waited for the go-ahead nod from the lifeguard and jumped down after her. We swooped down it, the whoosh of the water carrying us as I looked up into the sharp brightness of the sky mottled with harmless bits of milk clouds and hovering vultures. I hit the water right after her and we both popped up out of it giggling as we swam to the stepladder.
“That was fast!” I said, out of breath and struggling to keep up with her.
“Yeah, but not too too fast,” c’mon let’s go again!
We ran back up and slid down backward. The next one she called me over and I sat down between her legs. I felt even younger than I was. She gripped me with her thighs, squeezed into my ribs. A little boy with purple shorts with a white pattern on them followed along after us. He was probably about six years old and full of energy.
“Watch ‘dis!” he called over to us sliding backwards down the slide with his arms crossed. The lifeguard ignored him and stared off into space. It did look fun, so Jessica and I both tried it. We whirled backwards down into the froth of the water.
The little kid laughed, delighted that we’d followed his example, and stuck to us after, following right behind us every time we ran up the stairs to slide again.
“You guys are my friends,” he proclaimed in the type of earnestness a six-year-old can muster when he’s learning what those types of words mean.
“Yeah, we are little buddy,” Jessica said, mussing up his hair, “c’mon!” We all raced up and positioned ourselves, the boy first in my lap, and me in Jessica’s and we rolled down like a bobsled team. “Choo choo!” I called out, and we all laughed as we landed trying not to inhale the murky pool water.
“Let’s do that one again!”
“Nah, I’m done with the slide, I told Troy I’d go meet him a little, let’s eat,” she said. The little boy looked crushed as we told him goodbye. I saw him mope for a moment then run back up the stairs. I felt a little shattered myself, but I realized I was hungry too, the type of hunger that swimming makes you feel from deep in your guts.
We ordered sandwiches at the tiny cafe. Little finches sat on the lounge chairs and Jessica got one to eat a bite of crust out of her hand. “They aren’t too too scared, but you have to coax ‘em a little, make sure they know you’re safe.”
I tried for a while to get one to eat some bread, but they just stared at me and perched just out of reach like I was insane.
“They can tell you’re a future murderer,” Jessica laughed. I tossed the bit of crust over to them and watched them poke at it with their little beaks. I could feel my shoulders turning pink in the sun. The sweat and the chlorine dried like scales on my back.
“We don’t have too too much time left here,” Jessica said, tossing the rest of her sandwich in the trash, “a week goes by like that,” she snapped her fingers in the air trying to punctuate the moment as it passed. “Everything you do is over as soon as you realize it’s happened. Time keeps moving along and before you know it you don’t have any left, we’re all just staring back at it and remembering.” I stared at her bottom lip and her white teeth as she talked. She stood up and brushed sandwich crumbs off her stomach. “I want to remember everything. I don’t want to get bitter and forget the sweetness.” She stopped an older man in bright red trunks and asked him the time. I saw him looking at her breasts when he told her.
“What are you doing today?” the man said. He was older than my dad, it looked like, or maybe he was just tired. He tilted down the lenses of his sunglasses to get a better look at Jessica and leered down at her.
“Nothinggg,” Jessica said, drawing out the last consonant. He looked like his eyes were going to fall out. “Well, I’ll be back here later if you’d like me to buy you a drink,” he said, speaking from his chest.
“I might be here too then.”
The man looked over at the other end of the pool and his eyes changed. “Good,” he said curtly, then he walked away. I saw his son, a little boy probably five years old, run up to him and hold his hand as they disappeared.
“You are all the same,” Jessica said, “A swimsuit kills you. This thing’s not too too see-through right?” she looked down at herself and tilted back. I felt my neck tighten up and my chest tingle. “Ok kid I’ll see you.” She leaned down and kissed me on the top of my half-dry hair.
“Wait! Could I go too!” I said, “Troy’s cool!” She looked at me with what I suspected was pity.
As she shook her head, a scream rumbled through the courtyard past the pools from the waterslide.
A deep crimson splatter grew into a grotesque shape in the pool on top of the water. The small boy with purple shorts floated facedown. A skinny lady with a black one-piece suit and tight curly hair, screamed so loudly I could feel it ring in the center of my brain, “LIFEGUAAARDD!!” Jessica put her hand to her mouth, she whimpered slightly. It looked like he was dead, and no one knew what to do.
I could feel my burned shoulders as people pushed closer to get a better view. The lack of clouds was like a furious smile held up by a person who contemplated murder. Two men, one in his swimsuit and the other in a polo shirt and jean shorts, argued about whether they should dive in or wait for the lifeguard. The air made me feel like I was under a dirty bed sheet.
Finally, a man stripped his shirt off and began wading tentatively towards the body. He splashed his way over by walking instead of swimming. He picked the body up and draped it over his shoulder smearing blood on his neck.
The lifeguard, with his sunglasses still on, came sprinting around the corner from the stairs. He hopped into the water and the shirtless man passed the boy off to him.
“Make room!” Someone called out as they laid out a pink beach towel. The lifeguard put the boy down on it and began the traditional CPR we’d all seen on television.
“I think we should go,” I said. I felt a spasm in my stomach.
Jessica took me in her arms and pulled me close. She didn’t turn away at all and neither did I. We watched as the lifeguard pushed into the kid’s chest. The man with no shirt held a towel over the wound. The crowd was quiet. Jessica’s breasts brushed against my shoulders and the soft insides of her arms slid against my lips. My nausea subsided and I took a deep breath of the chlorine on her skin.
“He’s alive!” a lady crowed, “Call an ambulance!” The lifeguard fell back, exhausted, his dark sunglasses falling with clink on the concrete. The kid sputtered with his eyes closed and tried to sit up but the man with no shirt held him in place.
The crowd began to disperse, satisfied that the ending wouldn’t be cruel. The woman with the curly hair, began talking loudly to the man standing next to her who slowly backed away. No one wanted their vacations ruined and everyone peeled off as they decided there was nothing left to watch.
“I gotta go meet Troy,” Jessica said, slowly releasing me out of the sticky delight of her arms. “I’ll see you at dinner tonight. She patted me on my sunburned shoulders. “You better stay out of the sun for a bit.” Then she walked away.
After that, I only saw her a few more times. Something happened at the meeting that day, and there weren’t any family trips anymore. I never really heard why. Jessica grew up, got her GED and married, then divorced and married again. A decade later, I heard she was trying to go back to school to be a teacher, but that was right before the cancer. She died in the hospital before I had a chance to visit.
I walked back to the hotel room. The man at the front desk of the hotel smiled at me with a tight face full of smoothed over wrinkles.
Someone had made up the hotel room already. I laid down on top of the blanket and stared at the textured spackle of the ceiling. My mind was a swirling mixture of images from the day, feelings, smells and echoes. Jessica’s arms, wrapped around me. The blue swimsuit. The rage from seeing the man ogle her, even though I was no better. My suit tightened as I felt myself get hard.
I pulled down my suit and went slowly, careful to put any thoughts of damnation or sin from my mind and only focus on the mosaic of colors and flesh from the day’s memory. It was different from the humming rage of the back massager, and I focused on the texture of the blue swimsuit in my mind. Who cared if we were related? I didn’t have the mental strength to fight it away. With just a few pulls, it worked. I lay back with a mess on my stomach and the sheets, and felt light and relieved, like I was asleep and awake all at once. Maybe, I could do it again, I thought, and I reached back down.
Knock, Knock, Knock the door pounded. “Charles?” it’s Dad, let me in,” I looked down at myself, the beautiful feeling faded. “You in there Charles?” Knock knock knock
Knock, Knock, knock
They hit the urn on the side of the deck.
“It won’t come out,” he said. Sweat gathered at his temples.
“SHE won’t come out”
You had to twist the top of the urn counterclockwise to release the ashes, but it was on too tightly. Finally, Devin managed to pop it open. A sense of relief rippled through the group.
“Does anyone have any last words?” Devin looked over at my aunt, but she couldn’t speak in front of a group. She held onto my arm and slightly swayed.
“Ok then,” Devin said, “We will miss you Jessica, you were my sister, and a beautiful soul.” He turned the urn upside down. Instead of a dainty feather-stream of ashes, a thick clump of dark gray with bits of bones tumbled out into the water and floated on the surface. The wind was totally gone, there was nothing to carry her away. The ashes stained the stagnant water a dark brown as they took their time to dissipate. It grew out into a jagged shape that refused to sink. This was too much for my Aunt Lisa, who began to scream. She threw off my arm and ran over to the edge of the dock to look at what was left of her daughter, who was now only like the remnants of a neglected fireplace.
The seagulls chittered a chaotic eulogy above us. The ending was always cruel, I thought.
Eric Buechel is a writer and artist from the Pacific Northwest. He earned his Master’s degree in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2020. He is an avid chess player and synthesizer enthusiast. Most of his writing is based in the rural forest lands of the states of Washington and Oregon where he is from. He has work forthcoming in Post Road Magazine.