The road signs to Ohio always made me second guess whether I actually knew my way home or not. Was it 33-East or 33-West? I’d know it when I saw it—turn left to go to Ohio, instead of right to go to Tucker County, West Virginia.
I don’t cross the Ohio River on my way home anymore like I did during college. The Thanksgiving after graduation, though, I decided to make the drive because it had been almost six months since my last trip.
Part of me was annoyed having to go bridesmaid dress shopping for my cousin Valerie’s wedding. Her wedding would be exciting the following year, but the thought of hearing her nix the dresses I liked and push the dresses I hated almost made me quit the bridesmaid position.
“It’ll be fun,” she told me over the phone the day before I left for Ohio. I squeezed the phone between my ear and shoulder, packing my bag for the cold November drive. Valerie made any task fun when I was with her, blasting the radio in the parking lot and shaking her hips in the driver seat until the song ended.
“I know, just going from store to store,” I whined, zipping up my overnight bag and tossing it into the hallway.
“You’ll wear the dress once,” she said, “look great, but not better than me, and then you can hang it up in your closet forever. I promise.”
Skin, hair, nails and bones melt into skin, hair, nails and bones in the ground. Valerie’s baby rests in her arms—at least that’s what someone told me after the private viewing at the funeral home.
I’ve wondered about the moments before her death, if she woke up just before she died, clutching at her pregnant belly or trying to breathe. Or was she dreaming about her husband Donte, and the private family ceremony they had at the church before her move across the country to live with him? Sometimes I think I hear her too-loud laugh that everyone loved and I try not to look in the direction where I heard it. One day I accidentally pressed call when I came across her name in my phone. After that, I deleted her number.
My siblings and I parked the car at the cemetery and looked for our cousins. I followed my sister through the grass and my brothers stayed behind to help carry the coffin to the burial site. Keeping my gaze down, I tried to avoid having to speak to anyone, nervous I’d cry too much and nervous I might smile at someone. After a while, people started placing flowers on her coffin, so my cousin Bridget and I walked arm in arm toward her. It felt as though hands broke through the grass and pulled my heels down with each step forward I took, but we made it to her and contorted our mouths like fists as we lowered our flowers. I don’t remember breathing.
I kept hearing the reverend in my head. This is a time to celebrate and rejoice that Valerie lived!
Just let me cry and cross the Ohio River and be back in West Virginia.
The heat in the yoga studio rests in layers above me, and I settle into a comfortable seated position. Spine is long, chin is slightly tucked, and my palms gently press into my knees. The yoga teacher’s heels hit the floor and rest with each step she takes through the room, and I begin to count my inhales and exhales with her.
Find the space between the inhale and exhale, she says. The very first time I hold my breath I feel as if I will pass out, but by the second or third round it gets easier. I start to think of it as lingering after the inhale, rather than holding my breath.
Inhale for five, four, three, two, one—hold, she instructs. Exhale for five, four, three, two, one—feel breathless.
With each moment that I linger between breaths, my heartbeat moves between my chest and throat. I want to shift, to create some other sensation, to push that beat over the edge and not feel it choking me, but I suppose I should sit still like the others around me. Soon we’ll begin the flow part of yoga class, a moving meditation, my teacher says.
Meditate on this with me. Less than a year after dress shopping with Valerie, I was on my way to her funeral, holding my breath crossing the Ohio River like a child riding through a tunnel. I took my last sip of breath looking into the rear view mirror to see West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful getting smaller and smaller as I crossed the state line. Every time I crossed that bridge it meant I was either on my way home to Ohio to visit Valerie and the rest of my family, or I was on my way back to West Virginia. The uncertainty of which shape on the map I was in while crossing states excited me, like I was somehow in two places at once for a split second.
On my drive, I think I wanted to feel the weight that breathlessness could force on me, to see how long it would take before the blinding tears pooling in my eyes would spill and let me see the road clearly again.
I remembered one of the first times I had seen the West Virginia welcome sign. I was on my way to start college and I had begged my Aunt Beth to slow down so I could get a good picture. Valerie had laughed in the front seat saying it’s not like it would be the last time I’d cross the Ohio River, and it wasn’t. She had helped me start my life in West Virginia, lugging boxes and bins from her mom’s van into my freshman dorm room.
Now I was going to put a flower on her coffin and leave her in the ground holding her baby that never got to breathe.
Move onto your back and feel the weight of your body pressing into your mat, my yoga teacher tells us, turning up the music, tablas and a sitar settling into the rhythm of her instruction. Bend your knees, preparing for bridge pose. On your next inhale, peel your hips and low back off the mat, pressing forearms into the earth.
Feeling the compression in my throat, I close my eyes and keep breathing in and out through my nose.
Connect your inhales and exhales like a bridge connects two pieces of land over water. Feel strong in your bridge pose, like the water flowing under you can’t touch you as you lift the hips higher.
All I can feel is my heart beating in my neck and I wonder when it will stop.
The navy blue bridesmaid dress still hangs in my closet, stiff and unworn. The only time I wore it was in the Macy’s dressing room before I pulled it off and shouted over the door to Valerie, “It fits fine. Can we go?” It hasn’t been gathering dust on the same hanger for five years. Instead, it’s moved across town twice before crossing the Ohio River to hang in my mom’s house. Now it’s in my closet in Virginia, maybe even a size too small, and I’ll never have to wear it again.
Susan graduated from WV Wesleyan’s MFA program and writes personal essays and prose poetry. She is a massage therapist and when there’s not a pandemic she loves traveling (Iceland is at the top of the list!) dancing bachata, and meeting new people. She lives in Charlottesville, VA with her husband and daughter.