Death and Underwear
It was cold enough to freeze the blood in your veins. Hannah and I staggered out of her building into a waiting Wheel Trans bus.
“How about this weather, eh?” the driver said while he was strapping her in. “Polar vortex. Whole country’s frozen.”
We made our way north.
I didn’t have any clothes suitable for a visitation. I wasn’t even sure what a visitation was; I’d never been to one before.
Hannah had advised me to wear my black jeans and a nice button-up shirt, so I had, and hoped I wouldn’t be underdressed.
I sat in the bus and watched the office buildings fade into two-storey shops, and those faded into strip malls and gas stations.
We arrived in a lonely part of the city- what a downtowner like myself would call “the sticks”- and pulled into the parking lot of a funeral home.
The bus left, and Hannah and I stood outside the front door.
“What time is it?” I asked.
She checked her phone.
“We’re an hour early.”
It was even colder in this section of the city, though I wasn’t sure why.
“Fucking desolate out here,” I said.
“You want to see if we can find something to eat?” asked Hannah. “I don’t want to go in this early. It’s probably just his family so far.”
We headed down the sidewalk past the funeral home. Across the street were a couple of apartment buildings and a gas station.
“I think I see a Wendy’s up ahead,” said Hannah.
The wind whipped past us. I might as well have been wearing a swimsuit for all the protection my coat offered me.
We went into the Wendy’s, decided to split an order of fries, and sat in the corner with our food.
“So what’ll this be like, anyway?” I asked.
“In the past when I’ve gone to visitations, people have stood around. Talked about the dead person. Cried a lot. People talk to the family. There are usually speeches.”
“A room full of feelings. Great.”
“Yeah, but you never met him, so you can just sit in a corner.”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Hannah checked her phone.
“We should probably head over.”
On the way back, the wind almost blew me over.
We reached the funeral home. I had been to a few funerals, so the ambiance wasn’t surprising: stuffy and serious, like the world’s saddest hotel lobby. A few people wandered around bleary-eyed and shell-shocked. Everyone wore nice clothes.
Fuck, I thought, I’m a hobo.
Off the lobby of the funeral home, there were a number of rooms. We found the right one- it had Brandon’s name on a placard next to it.
He had gone to university with Hannah and been involved in some of the same organizations on campus. He was well-liked in his program, known for his good looks and easy charisma; his nickname was Beautiful Brandon.
A week beforehand, he had killed himself.
Hannah and I walked into the room. People milled about in small groups, talking quietly.
At the far end of the room, Brandon lay in a casket, wearing a touque and a sports jersey.
Jesus Christ, I thought to myself.
I’d never seen a dead body before.
Well, I guess this is happening now, I thought.
Hannah and I slowly made our way across the room to stand in front of the casket. Because I’d never met him- or perhaps because there’s something wrong with me- I was more curious than anything else. I wondered if he looked the same in death as he did in life. I knew that sometimes people’s appearance after death changes slightly. Brandon looked like he was sleeping. I half expected him to open his eyes, sit up, and ask me why the hell I was staring at him.
Next to me, Hannah was crying. It occurred to me that I should probably be comforting her, so I did.
We found a corner of the room which was not occupied, and I sat down. Hannah parked her chair next to me. I noticed there were boxes of Kleenex scattered liberally throughout the room, and fetched her one.
I could easily see Brandon from where we were sitting. I wondered what the process was like for preparing a body. It was nice that they didn’t put him in a suit. Casual wear seems more appropriate, especially for someone his age. Someone my age; he was only a year or two older than me.
A steady stream of people greeted Hannah, most of whom I’d never seen before. I shook a lot of hands, but otherwise tuned out. All the exchanges were the same, words of shock and sadness. Everyone looked wrecked, everyone was dressed impeccably. I wondered if people dress nicely for these occasions to compensate for how awful they feel otherwise. They say it’s to pay respect to the deceased- who was dressed in a sports jersey- but I think it’s to prevent the natural inclination to show up in a sleeveless T-shirt and boxers with uncombed hair. You might feel like you just got run over by a truck, but a fitted suit prevents other people from seeing that rawness.
Eventually Hannah and I went to pay our respects to his parents, who stood next to the casket with some of Brandon’s extended family.
His parents seemed numb. They greeted us warmly and mechanically, and it occurred to me that they must be on autopilot. That would be the only way to handle the death of your only child.
“Hannah?” his dad said. “Oh yes, of course. Brandon talked about you all the time.”
We sat back down in our corner.
“I think they might have thought I was Annie,” said Hannah. “Our names are similar enough.”
“Who’s Annie?” I said.
“His ex-girlfriend. It wasn’t the smoothest break-up.”
“They didn’t seem angry at you.”
“No, I guess not.”
Hannah’s best friend Natasha walked up to us.
“Hi, I just got here. My bus was late. How are you?”
“This is so sad,” said Natasha. “I never would have thought…”
She was dressed in black from head to toe; Natasha is Italian, and they take these things seriously.
I kept waiting for people to make speeches, but it never happened. People continued talking to each other in low, sad voices. The afternoon progressed.
After awhile, me, Hannah, and Natasha had to leave. We were all taking the same Wheel Trans bus.
It coasted past a series of warehouses and apartment buildings, and Natasha talked about the guy she was interested in.
“I don’t know what his deal is,” she said. “He keeps sending all these mixed messages. Like, I don’t know if he’s into me or not. I don’t know why he wouldn’t be. Maybe he has a problem. David, can you explain guys?”
“I can’t explain anyone.”
We eventually dropped Natasha off at her place. She and Hannah hugged again, and made plans to get together soon. As the bus drove down the street, Hannah turned to me.
“I want to do something that might make me a terrible person,” she said. “Will you judge me?”
“I will not judge you,” I said.
“I need to buy some underwear.”
“So this is our Saturday,” I said. “Go to a funeral and buy some underwear.”
“I was thinking we could get some lunch at the food court, too.”
“That actually sounds like a great idea. I could really go for a burger right about now.”
So we got the driver to drop us off at Yonge and Bloor instead of at Hannah’s apartment, and we walked across the street to The Bay.
“I hate buying underwear for myself,” I said. “It’s so stressful.”
“No! It’s fun,” said Hannah.
We found the women’s underwear section. There were racks upon racks of underwear, brightly coloured, or in fun patterns, lacy or silky.
“This is actually pretty awesome. Men’s underwear is so utilitarian,” I said. “It just comes in black or blue, in packages of twelve.”
Hannah inspected the underwear closely. When she found one she liked, she took it off the rack. Soon she had a neat pile. Every now and then she’d hold up a pair.
“What do you think of these?” she’d ask. I’d offer an opinion.
A few times she picked up two.
“Which one do you like better?” she’d say.
“Definitely those,” I said.
After awhile she had too much underwear, so we went to the cash register.
I was shocked at how much it was, but Hannah shrugged it off.
“That’s underwear for you,” she said.
“Not guy’s underwear.”
We left, and took the elevator down to the food court.
Part of me was still at the funeral home, seeing the strained, tired faces, and Beautiful Brandon in his casket.
I wondered what made him do it. I wondered if anyone ever really knew what made a person kill themselves. Maybe even the person who does it never fully understands why they feel that need.
Both Hannah and I opted for subs, lined up, and paid, and looked for tables. It was a weekend, so the food court was crowded. Families eating together, employees of nearby businesses in their uniforms, the occasional old person.
My phone rang. It was my sister.
“Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead,” she said.
“How?” I said.
“This doesn’t seem possible!” she said. “I just watched Almost Famous the other day. How can he be dead?”
“Look, I can’t deal with this right now,” I said. “I saw a dead body today.”
I hung up.
“What was that?” Hannah asked.
“Philip Seymour Hoffman died. It was a drug overdose.”
I felt chilled and shook up. The whole day caught up to me at once. There was a TV screen hooked up to the ceiling of the food court. A ticker tape at the bottom read “Oscar Winner Philip Seymour Hoffman dead at 46.”
We found a table and ate.
My mind spun.
For days afterward I read obituaries, memorials, and think pieces about Hoffman. They all asked why. It seemed everyone was asking why. I was wondering, too.