ELLA WIPES SUGAR OFF HER LAP, wrinkling her black mini dress from Vetements. With a half-empty bag of sour gummies on the adjacent seat, she hopes to ward off new passengers boarding the busy train. The candy and a Diet Coke are lunch on this bright Tuesday. It’s been a sunny afternoon, but on her way to Grand Central, Ella noticed dark clouds in the near distance. She runs a hand over her long, straight, black hair, which sits shiny and thick on her petite shoulders. Her eyes examine her lithe porcelain legs with what she deems an impressive thigh gap and her dainty feet in the Eiffel Tower Stilettos also by Vetements.
A mild panic attack may be coming on. Is she too “fashion” for a wake? After all, the viewing is at a funeral home in Stratford, Connecticut, where the white underclass walks a fine line between decent and trashy. As the train pulls out of the station, she catches her reflection in a fingerprint-filthy window, calming slightly at the sight of her perfectly understated face by Glossier: Priming Moisturizer, a touch of Stretch Concealer under her eyes and finished with FutureDew serum for that dewy-all-day look. She could use a little lip. Luckily, she always carries Vice Lipstick by Urban Decay in her purse. It has a sheer, shimmery finish. The dirty pink color is called Ex-Girlfriend. Yes, yes, she knows matte is the finishdu jour, but she prefers a little extra something. She’s a little extra herself.
This is her first wake since her brother died. Open casket, young person, the whole nine. The deceased guest of honor was Bryce, the son of her brother’s best friend, Clay. Bryce jumped off the Hudson Yards Vessel, the second suicide there this year. Unlike the majority of young Americans dying of opioids these days, drugs weren’t the cause. He killed himself over a broken heart. At least that’s what everyone assumes because Bryce’s girlfriend relocated to California and hadn’t asked him to come with her. He’d been devastated and depressed for weeks. The police didn’t find a note in his blood-drenched pockets, in his dorm or back home at Clay’s.
Ella doesn’t understand why they always think it’s for one reason. It could’ve been several or none. He could’ve been bored. She gets it. She used to fantasize about cutting herself open as a joke on old frenemies and hateful exes, to torture them with eternal guilt for what they made her do, but she’s never gone through with it. She wonders if her suicide would affect them long term or if they’d just be a tad sad in the moment, then forget about the whole thing like bad news in yesterday’s paper. She wouldn’t be alive to see their reaction anyway.
Bryce was a full-time star athlete at UCONN and part-time print model signed with Wilhelmina. The model bit noted in his obituary in the Connecticut Post inspired her outfit today. There are sure to be some male models present to pay their respects. Perhaps she’ll find love in a dark place.
AT THE FUNERAL HOME, the vibe is not at all as expected. The line begins way in the back of the newly tarred parking lot, which glistens with cold rain. She left on the train the umbrella that Brandon had loaned her, and he won’t be too happy it’s gone. To her left, the floodlights of the funeral home are staring blindingly from the roof, creating a deranged shadow of her drenched body and the mourners proceeding in silence behind and in front of her. She tripped exiting the Uber, and the Eiffel Tower-inspired heel broke off her right shoe, so she had to swap them for the pink New Balance trainers in her bag. Their use was formerly restricted to Equinox sessions and the occasional Solidcore or Rumble class. No need to worry about being too “fashion” now, she thinks. The older couple in front of her have been sharing the outer part of their umbrella with her, but the rain is still hitting the back of her head. Her lush hair is going limp. The wet dress is exasperating her need to pee.
Fifteen excruciating minutes later, she makes it to the entrance. An aging usher opens the door, greeting her with a nod. She recalls the lanky teenage boy with tousled brown hair in reflective gear directing traffic in the parking lot and compares him to this guy. Given these businesses are commonly family run, she wonders if they’re related and whom else from the funeral home family she’ll see along the journey to pay respects to a dead body.
The funeral home family must be so familiar with the myriad ways people of different age groups die, she muses. They can probably assume the size of the turnout based on the deceased’s age. Piles of tissue boxes stationed on tables set up along the dreary, twisting line to the casket suggest the family has been expecting a full house, a tsunami of tears to fall from the eyes of Bryce’s parents and relatives, his inconsolable hot friends and their parents.
“Thanks,” she says to the old usher. “Can you please direct me to the restroom?”
“Past where the line curves right for the second time, then make a left. You can take a shortcut through the side door here.” His voice is exquisite, perfect for a wake: crystal clear but pillow soft out of respect for the dead. It must’ve taken years of practice. He opens the side door, revealing a shortcut to the front of the line.
Ella immediately spots Clay hugging one of the mourners. Locking sad, desperate eyes with his, she retreats in a panic. “You know what, I’ll just wait.”
The usher nods and quickly returns to his post.
Her forehead is no longer just wet from the rain. She’s flushed and sweaty from spotting Clay, which ignites the embers of old pain, setting them ablaze, her parents, and her brother Frank, who was Clay’s best friend. She clenches her toes so intensely that she’s pulling up the soles of her trainers, which will put a damper on her balance in barre class.
Everyone she loves eventually leaves, through death or otherwise. Her ex, Ian, left because she revealed too much of the damaged loon she is. The same goes for the one before him, Dylan, but in a different way. All she has left are co-workers disguised as supposed close friends, yet none of them were willing to come with her, not even her work-bestie Brandon. They’re only tight because they have no choice: they’re with each other for twelve-hour workdays and a couple weekends a month, toiling away on the Holy War campaign. It’s supposed to double as a kind of charity for the less financially fortunate, while manipulating consumers into buying the latest smartphone from Pure’s client, Telco, a major mobile service provider.
She scoffs thinking of her motley crew at Pure Creative, an ad agency. They don’t give a crap about anyone or anything other than themselves and their careers, and she’s no different. She hasn’t been doing the work on Holy War because she wants to help people. Her goals are consciously self-serving: PR for Pure and a promotion for her.
The sounds of agony are all around her. Sobs, moans and wails reverberate against the suffocating wallpapered walls and low ceiling. She’s worried she won’t be able to breathe if she stays much longer. The grief in the air is too palpable and overly reminiscent of her own familial losses from which she hasn’t fully recovered and probably never will.
The line of mourners is a reptile made of black raincoats and leaky eyes snaking through the funeral home. She arrives at the guestbook, which everyone signs to prove they were there, that they shared in Clay’s pain. She scribbles her illegible signature with great pride, believing it’d be the best autograph if she were famous. As much as she’s suffering through this, she tells herself it’s only fair. Clay was there for Frank when his and Ella’s parents died, and he was there for her when Frank died. Hell, she lost her virginity to him when she was twelve and he was eighteen—but she’d initiated it. Clay sired Bryce just four years later. Ella was already off to New York with many promiscuous adventures before her. She’s seen him three times since her teens, this moment included.
The thought comes to mind as she inspects the photos in the collages of Bryce that are positioned sporadically along the path to his dead body. The pics of Clay holding the newborn version of his son, that’s the man she remembers boning: big, kind eyes, football shoulders, tight torso and a beautiful smile. Looking ahead to Clay greeting the mourners as they reach the casket of the dead version of his son, she strains to recognize the man she once knew. He’s much bulkier now. His broad shoulders have become so swollen that she can’t see his neck, and he has a bit of a gut. The face is still cute, but his widened head appears squished into the hunk of living meat, aka his body.
Other than him and his wife, to whom Ella’s getting dangerously closer, she doesn’t recognize anyone or just doesn’t remember them. She never even met Bryce. The sad freaks all around her are strangers. Some of them acknowledge her with a nod or talk in low voices with eyes pointed at her. What are they saying? Those fuckers! She curses the rain for ruining her chic look that was more than befitting a runway show or the wake of a childhood friend’s son with male model friends. Clay’s wife, Kate, stands solemnly by him in a black pantsuit. Her bleached-blond bob is quite unbecoming for such a round face. Ella recalls Clay showing her a picture of his wife the last time they met, nearly three years ago. He didn’t look great then, either, but now… whoa. Kate, who was stepmother to Clay’s son—the biological mother had allowed full custody to Clay when Bryce was eleven—is noticeably heavier.
Three years ago, Clay invited Ella to Connecticut on the anniversary of Frank’s death. They got drunk at her brother’s favorite bar, The Salty Dog Saloon in New Haven. She even rode the mechanical bull and won a pitcher of beer and two hundred and fifty dollars for hanging on the longest, which was quite the feat, considering her blood alcohol level. The zigzagging car ride from the bar back to the train station was filled with the reckless laughter of the immortal teens they’d once been. The silly reminiscence turned into flirtatious talk, which she initiated just as she had at twelve.
“Remember that time you banged me in my brother’s room?”
He cleared his throat but said nothing.
“Sorry, I hope that wasn’t weird to bring up. We just had so much fun back then.”
“No, no, not at all, it’s okay,” he said, pulling the car over. At first she thought he was parking to make a move but then realized they were at the train station. His phone, which was connected to the car’s built-in Bluetooth, began ringing from the car speakers. He quickly answered it. “Hey baby,” he said louder than necessary, “just dropping Ella at the train. You’re on speaker by the way.”
“Oh, hi Ella! So sorry we never got to meet, but I had to close and do inventory tonight. My husband isn’t drunk driving you home, I hope.”
Ella hesitated before answering. She looked into Clay’s big, kind eyes, which looked heavy from alcohol and had a glint of worry in them for what crazy Ella might say next. Or was it guilt because a part of him wanted her? The truth was irrelevant. Her desires wouldn’t be sated that night. The realization came with a sudden onslaught of grief for her brother on that anniversary of his death. “No, no, we only had a beer. He’s totally fine,” she lied.
In truth, he was completely inebriated then and looks much worse now. But at least he seems to have a system down for greeting mourners by gender. Men in the general group get a handshake and direct eye contact. Men he’s closer to get a handshake, direct eye contact and a pat on the right shoulder. Only in rare instances does he grant a man a full hug, pulling him in and slapping his back. Despite how progressive the world may be, she still believes insecure straight men hugging can be aggressive and awkward. Clay hugs virtually every woman in line. Some instigate further affection, a kiss on the cheek, a shared moment of sobbing, but no more than fifteen seconds, as Ella has timed. Occasionally, a woman will engage him in another fifteen to twenty seconds of conversation about how beautiful Bryce was or to reflect on a happy memory of him.
Paying respects at a wake reminds Ella of the Divine Right of Kings, the belief that God pre-chose the souls who would inhabit the bodies of kings and queens prior to their births. Because of this, royalty is the closest to God one can be on earth. The same can be said for those who’ve mourned the death of someone as dear as an immediate family member. Like the Divine Right of Kings, death brings one closer to godly. They’ve experienced up close the hand—the wrath—of God. Clay, His Royal Majesty, stands at the front of the room. His mother, Her Royal Majesty, and Kate, Her Royal Highness, are beside him in silent solemnity. Their people wait in an endless line to kiss the hands of God.
Ella finally reaches Clay just as he’s finishing up a level two man-hug. She’s convinced he saw her in his periphery and isn’t acknowledging her any sooner than he has to. His head seems further embedded in his shoulders. Slap some green body paint on him, and he’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, she thinks, but the hot one, Raphael. She touches his shoulder lightly as he’s nodding goodbye to the old man in line before her, and it startles him. She’s broken the system.
“Hi,” she says softly, her wet, wilted hair, pale face and ruined makeup giving her Samara-from-The-Ring vibes. She clenches her thighs as tightly as possible to avoid pissing herself. This damn impressive thigh gap, she thinks.
“Ella, thank you for coming,” he says in the voice of a zombie, his red-ringed, puffy eyes devoid of a soul. She sees nothing divine in him.
He extends a hand, which shocks her. Ignoring the impersonal gesture, she wraps her arms around him. For a split second he doesn’t move but quickly gives in. His giant body falls limp in her skinny frame and emits an inhuman wail. She uses her legs to hold the two-hundred-plus-pound muscleman, with the strength she’s gained from all those Best Butt Ever classes at Equinox.
“Ella! He’s gone! My baby is gone. Oh God, why did He take them from us.” By “them” she knows he means his son Bryce and her brother Frank. Both deaths have taken their toll.
“I know, I know. I’m here. I know,” she says, her bottom lip quivering, her entire body vibrating with his pain and her anxiety. “I won’t cry, I won’t fucking cry,” she mouths silently. But the tears are coming like a furious tsunami. The pain needs out. Just as her eyes are about to erupt, she slams them shut tighter than a little girl hiding from the boogeyman. She can’t let it out.
“Ella… Um, hey Ella.”
Clay has pulled away from her to reveal a wet, dark yellow stain on his light gray suit pants. He’s looking down at her lithe porcelain legs, as are others around them, including his mother who’s aging beautifully and whom Ella hasn’t seen since she was a teenager, and Kate, whose round face is cold and hardened like that of a dead baby. Ella smells it before she feels it. The room has gone completely silent. All moist eyes are on her, a skinny, underdressed, bedraggled bitch pissing herself. A small yellow puddle is forming around her trainers on the bright white carpet. Without so much as a glance at Bryce in his casket or another comforting word to Clay, she leaves the room. In her mind she’s running, but in reality her body is moving at a snail’s pace. Still, no one follows her.
“Is your purse real Louis Vuitton?” Clay asks Ella outside the Mexican restaurant where they’ve just had a liquid lunch, a couple weeks after the wake.
She’s impressed that he recognizes the designer, even one as widely known as Louis. He’s never been very stylish. His clothes have an Old Navy wash-and-wear look. She’s still oddly attracted to him, though. “Yep!” She giggles like a shy schoolgirl.
“Look at you!” His peppy, almost flirtatious tone is surprising, considering how morose he was when he collected her from the train station. Must be the tequila, she surmises.
“Yeah, L.V. is making a comeback with younger people now that Virgil Abloh is at the helm… although he only does their men’s line, and not that I’m exactly young.”
Tired of talking fashion with a simple suburban dude like him, she changes the subject to something she was too uncomfortable to bring up earlier. “So, I know we’ve been having a great time today. I don’t want to make this awkward and thank you for not bringing it up because it was the most embarrassing moment of my entire existence, but I’m sorry about the… incident… at the wake. I had a long train ride and was overwhelmed by the whole thing. That never happens and—”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re human. Did I ever tell you about the time I shit my pants?”
“Um, no, what the hell? Sorry, that’s so funny. I was not expecting you to say that.”
“Yup. I was sloshed, and my stomach was all kinds of fucked. I was in shorts, and Bryce caught me coming into the house with diarrhea running down my legs. He never let me forget it. He was like ten or eleven then? Whenever I lecture him about something, he just says at least he didn’t take a dump in his shorts. Nine times out of ten that puts me in my place.”
The bittersweet memory is a black cloud forming over his head. He’s remembering for the umpteenth time that Bryce will never joke with him, nor anyone else, ever again. Ella lays her left arm across his shoulders, pulling him toward her. In this potholed parking lot, behind the Mexican restaurant by the Stratford train station—their teen haunt—he whimpers in her mosquito-bite-sized boobs. She knew that alone time with Clay, without the morbid backdrop of his son’s corpse and the uncomfortable looks from his oblivious wife, would be the only way to redeem herself as his eternal temptress. By reconnecting with Ella, the sister of his dead best friend, he can relive the bromance and bang her too.
For days after her piss-poor performance at the wake, she was completely wrecked. She couldn’t work or sleep, and she cried every time she peed. Eventually pulling herself together, as she always has and forever will as a tough survivalist, she devised this plan to see him again and set things right. Comforted in their full-body hug, he pulls away with a semi-erection, unlocking his filthy old black Mustang, which was brand new when they reunited nearly three years ago. They hop in.
She never expected these would be the circumstances under which they’d be seeing each other again, although death hasn’t shocked her for years. By now she’s memorized the templated words of comfort to spit out like she does the lyrics to every Fiona Apple song ever recorded—she’s obsessed—as well as the socially acceptable expressions one must exercise when first hearing the oh-so-tragic news, attending the wake or the funeral, and during the one or two obligatory pity-hangs post-burial with the bereaved. Behind the scenes she’s numb. Everyone dies, she thinks. The whole he-had-his-whole-life-ahead-of-him sob story is such a cliché. The only difference between croaking young and dying old is your adjectives: pretty with potential or wrinkled with regret. At least Bryce looked hot in his casket.
Clay hands her another Newport, her third in two hours. Already full of menthol smokes and countless shots of tequila, she accepts it reluctantly. She wasn’t in the mood to eat anything that the train-stop Mexican restaurant had to offer, so her empty stomach has fueled her intoxication. Enchiladas and quesadillas may have been fine as a teen, but now she’s a woman in her thirties with a hot figure to maintain.
Admittedly, Ella was famished on the train ride up earlier. She hadn’t eaten before or after partaking in back-to-back classes at Equinox, which had included a high-intensity interval-training workout and a so-so challenging cycling class—her weekend routine on the rare occasion she isn’t hungover—but her appetite disappeared when she stepped off the train at the Stratford stop. She found Clay smoking in his car, hunched in a way that spoke volumes about how much he hadn’t wanted to have lunch with anyone, let alone her. Visiting her hometown always comes with bad memories and all the wrong feelings, but she felt double-triple worse than usual.
Despite the dire circumstances, she was determined to make their time together a success. If he wanted to talk about his kid, she’d listen, but she wouldn’t be the one to broach the topic. After the liquid icebreakers, they had a few laughs rekindling their younger years with her brother, like the time they’d stolen two forty-ounce bottles of Olde English from the corner store and had been caught red-handed. Lucky for them, the clerk hadn’t called the cops. Completely unrelated to the subject, Clay handed her his phone with the eulogy he’d read for a packed church. Then came the last text message exchange he and his son had ever had.
“U good, how’s school, bud?”
“Yeah dad. Love you.”
Clay told her he hadn’t seen Bryce in a month because he’d been in inpatient rehab for alcoholism, and he’d never forgive himself for his clueless absence. She glanced at the row of empty shots. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m determined not to let this shit take over my life just because I’m going through this.”
She felt a little guilty for enabling him but quickly brushed it off—she has her own substance problems to deal with. Showing off the faint red tattoo on her wrist of her brother’s initials in cursive, she encouraged him to consider doing something comparable to commemorate his son.
“Oh, I’m planning on it,” he said, looking down at his arms tatted up more than a Hell’s Angel’s. He thumbed through his phone to show her a pic of the son’s tattoo on the back of his right hand: rap star Markus’s Night Army logo—he’d been Bryce’s favorite rapper—a simple lockup of “N/A” in block letters. “I’m getting the same one.”
“Wow, that’s… huge.”
He sounded mildly offended, so she changed the subject to Holy War, divulging confidential details about Markus, who happens to be the star of the campaign. “Bryce would’ve loved this.”
After the liquid lunch and chat, staring blankly through the filmy windshield, Clay asks, “Where to next?”
“I should probably get back… I have a seven a.m. client call tomorrow,” she lies. “The next train is in twenty or so. We can kill time in the parking lot at the station like back in the day?”
She knows she’s not getting any when he’s in mourning, and one of her biggest turnoffs is men who cry. But does she really want any anyway? The last time they hooked up, she was pre-pubescent. She just wants her brother back, and Clay is the closest living alternative.
He pulls out of the restaurant’s parking lot with a cigarette in his mouth, car windows shut. The one in her hand remains unlit. Making a right around the corner, he turns into the parking lot of the train station. Ella wonders if the rich teens of Darien loitered in as many parking lots in the nineties as she and Clay did in shitty Stratford. He parks near the stairs that lead to the tracks as he increases the volume of the reggae playing from his speakers, which she despises more than country music.
“You should come to mine in the city next time,” she says. “We can get drunk or whatever.”
“Do you ever go to New York?”
“Yeah, I DJ once a month at a club in Queens.”
“Oh, fun, I didn’t know.”
“Just a side thing. Mostly reggae. This is one of my sets we’re listening to.”
She pretends to listen intently for a second, bobbing her head to the slow beats. “Sounds great. What’s your DJ name?”
“DJ Cray Clay.”
“OMG stop.” He looks hurt, so she follows up with, “You’re really good. Would love to see you play live.”
“Okay, I think I’ll go wait by the tracks. Don’t want to miss it.”
“Totally. I’m glad we had this time. Let’s hang again when you’re feeling up to it.”
She leans her face near his, unsure if she’s going in for a kiss on the cheek, mouth or just a hug. He opens his arms for an embrace, resting his chin on her shoulder.
“Thanks for coming. It was great seeing you,” he says without inflection.
Excerpted from The Virtuous Ones by Christopher Stoddard