Our Good Christian Home
by Jennifer Wortman
A year after my dad died, my mom’s new husband and his son moved in. My stepbrother was one of those slim, pale pretty boys, lashes so thick they looked pasted on, lips a natural Kool-Aid red. Lean muscles roped his arms: I could see their every twitch, imagine the pink of them, when he moved. We were both juniors, and when he transferred to my school, everyone loved him. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have to do anything but nod and smile a little to win fans. His rare contributions to class—we were in social studies together—were skeptical questions, beginning with a passionate “But why…?” His intensity burned up the room, and we sat in the silence of our smoke until the teacher stammered an answer.
At home, we didn’t talk much. I’d say, “Hey, bro,” and instead of calling me “sis,” he’d say, “Hey, bro” back. I used a sarcastic tone to show I knew we weren’t true siblings or friends; he used good cheer to convey he didn’t care. My mom had converted my dad’s study; my stepbrother slept in the room next to mine. While he ran around with his countless new pals, I took long steaming baths, trying to leach the grief from my gut. My mother had moved on. Why couldn’t I?
One night, I’d forgotten to lock the bathroom door and my stepbrother walked in. My first thought was Why’s he home on a Friday? But the look on his face brought me to my body, my pointing nipples, the fuzz between my legs.
“You—” he said. He stood there, panicked, as if caught in a steel trap.
I sat up, my chest a waterfall. “I what?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and stumbled away.
When I’d found my dad on the floor, gray as the carpet, I used TV-show CPR to try to revive him. I stabbed my shaking finger at the numbers 9-1-1. I peed my pants. The helpless feeling stuck with me, followed me to school, to dinner, to friends’ homes. At any moment, anyone I loved could die. So I tried to love fewer people, my loneliness a small price for a wisp of control.
But now, that wisp grew into a pillar.
In my bedroom, I pressed my cheek to the wall, hoping to feel tremors, hear uncontainable moans. I pictured my stepbrother tugging a dick in perfect scale to his long, thin frame, his white face burning red as paleness shot out of him.
After that night, we stopped calling each other “bro,” trimming our exchanges to a simple, loaded “Hey.” My mom pulled me aside. “You be nice to him,” she said. “Our family needs this to work.” But who was our family? Because I didn’t need this to work, and my dad sure as hell didn’t.
My stepbrother stopped going out so much, and I continued my fruitless wall-side surveillance. Sometimes I’d freeze in place and fear I might die: I rubbed at myself to stay alive.
One evening, after my mother made a comment at the dinner table about our “good Christian home,” a phrase I’d never before heard from her mouth, I knocked on his door. “Yeah?” he hollered.
I entered his room, for the first time since my mother had changed it. My dad’s desk was still there, pushed to the corner, covered by my stepbrother’s laptop and textbooks. No more baby pictures of me or legal pads scribbled with all-caps notes or perfectly tended bamboo plants.
“Hey,” I said. My stepbrother removed his headphones, propped himself up by an elbow on the bed. We breathed at each other. Stared.
“Hey,” he finally said.
I needed to start this, finish this. “Why don’t you go out anymore?”
“All my friends want to do is drink.”
“You don’t like to drink?”
“I do!” he said, with the same intensity that heated our classroom. “Maybe too much. I don’t want to be like my mom.”
I hadn’t given much thought to why he lived with us full-time. I’d been too occupied with my own loss to notice anyone else’s.
“That sounds hard,” I said, with the best intentions. But that last word hung in the air. His face turned as red as I liked to imagine it.
“It is,” he said.
I’d had sex before, nothing special, with a boyfriend I dropped after my dad died. This was different. To avoid mattress squeaks, we moved together on the floor, him grinding against me instead of clumsily humping like my ex always did. We told each other silent stories: my dad, his mom, our strange new life. Pleasure pooled between my legs and rippled out. I groaned into his mouth, and he groaned into mine. Then he rolled off me, catching his breath, arms spread. The rise and fall of his rib cage slowed, and his eyes went empty, staring beyond the ceiling, someplace dark. I’d seen that look before.
I straddled him, sealed my mouth over his. I put him inside me. He came alive again.
Our Good Christian Home came out of one of the writer Monet Thomas's fabulous sex-writing challenges. I find it hard to write about sex without writing about grief, and vice versa, maybe because sex and grief both embody the push-and-pull between death and life.
Jennifer Wortman is the author of This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split Lip Press, 2019). Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.