Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 8


This is my family.

When I prepare my mom’s coffee, she always reminds me, “One half a packet of equal, and two heaping spoonfuls of Coffeemate. Make sure it’s about the color of your skin.” She sleepily kisses the inside of my hand. I go to the kitchen and pour the coffee, the steam rising in small billows. I lean the bottom of my rib cage onto the counter, and carefully, carefully, open the tiny blue packet, pour half of the powdery sweet (not too much), and then heap the spoon with the dried dairy-less dairy. Twice. I twirl the spoon, once, again, over and over until the powder dissolves. I hold the back of my hand close to the lip of the mug.

I am a brown child because one minute of sun exposure results in a tan. I tan through the lighter parts of my patterned bathing suits (I once ended up with a flower burnt into my little eight year old tuchus), I tan around my watch, my socks, my sandals. Every part of my body that sees the sun is dark, and every part that I keep hidden is white. My light mother, my dark father, laying claim on my body even then.

I carry the full mug to my mom, holding it far from me as my feet whisper across the floor in slow motion. I lower the mug to meet my mom’s hands. “Thanks, Deb.” She takes the first drink. She closes her eyes, the sides of her mouth turn up, her shoulders release.

My dad was no less tender. When he would put me to bed I would always request the same book (the title of which no one seems to remember). After a month of reading me the same story he would try to change it up, insert dragons where there were none, or alter characters names. I would turn to him and say, "Daddy, that's not how it goes," before reciting the words on the current page verbatim. My dad loves to tell this story, and I have heard it so often I half-remember it. Leaning into him, his long legs crossed at the ankles, smelling of Old Spice and sweat and worn starched collars. And perhaps because I feel this now so profoundly when he comments on my various memoirs, talks me through a managerial issue, or asks me in his Dad voice, "Bub, what's wrong?" causing me to break instantly into uncontrollable tears, I remember feeling, "This is my guy."

For the first 9 years of my life, my dad worked. He would be gone before we got up in the morning, and he would come home well after school. If we were pulling into the garage around 6pm we would take bets about whether he was home, and whoever was right got to be the first one to hug him. It was never odd to me that he was gone; it was what dads did. All of the mothers in my neighborhood would rent a huge beach house in Virginia Beach for two weeks every summer. All the moms and kids would pile into our various minivans and spend 14 glorious days on the beach. The dads would always only join on the weekends. When I write this out here, now, it sounds creepily like an episode of Madmen. But this is to say I was used to Dads (my own, and so many others) existing on the outskirts.

To be honest, back then, it was fine with me. Because I cleaved to my mother, almost desperately. She says that from the moment I was conscious I was watching her, figuring out how to be a woman by analyzing her every word, expression, step. It is no surprise really that I feel wary of most men, while simultaneously leaping  into deep, emotionally intimate relationships with women, and instantly connecting with any and all children.

I never wanted to sleep alone, in a box, under a canopy, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be in my parents room, as close to my mother as possible. My often overwhelming love for her might be a result of my mom breastfeeding me until I was three-and-a-half years old. I had a full set of teeth and could speak in full sentences when she explained to me, logically, that she did not want to breast feed me anymore. “Then you shouldn’t!” I exclaimed, wanting to validate her every feeling even then. “All right then,” she said, “I won’t.” I was visibly upset. “Can I at least touch them?”
My mom went back to school when I was 9, she would have to lock herself in her bedroom in order to do her homework. Sometimes I would stand at the door knocking and she would ignore me. This is also when my parents started fighting, daily, terrifying arguments that pressed through every closed door, every hand clamped over ear, into closets where I would cower and cry, convinced every argument was just a quick skip from divorce. I learned much later in my life that they were not far, that the word separation had come up many times.
When the fighting ebbed years later, I was left with more anger towards them than felt possible, which is, oddly enough, when I think I started to actually love my parents. I could tell a hundred adorable stories about betting for hugs, about cute, curly-haired green-eyed Debbie instructing her parents in the way of simple emotions, about palm kisses, and butt tans, and miffed storytelling.
But that isn’t why I love them.
When I was 16 and being particularly shitty about needing to borrow my dad’s car to return a VHS to the video store, my dad and I started screaming at each other in the parking lot of our condo. I believe I refused to return the video unless I got to drive in my dad’s (understandably much nicer) car. After yelling back and forth for 20 minutes or so, he called me a bitch, and threw the video to me. At me, would probably be more accurate.
When I was 9 we were running late for church, and I had dragged a chair in front of our aquarium to watch the fish while I brushed my hair. When my mom happened upon this scene, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE,” gesturing to her forehead before literally just screaming, letting the frustration peel out of her high and long and loud. It was the first time I ever remember being afraid of her.
Because I grew up in the 90s, when my dad would be freaking out about this or the other dish that Allan and I used but did not put in the dishwasher, we would say, “Dad, don’t have a cow.” To which he would respond, “Don’t have a cow? I’M GONNA HAVE 20 COWS.” Before he would, with his tiny legs, attempt to kick us away from him and toward the offending bowl.
We would get into screaming fights at restaurants, have screaming “Family Meetings” which led to screaming family therapy. But somewhere around age 20 after the screaming, someone would apologize, there would a hand on the shoulder, a step towards forgiveness, quiet explanations, even quieter validations. Maybe it was because Mark died. Or maybe it was because in my mind my parents were becoming, blossoming: beautiful, dark, broken, and real.
Every time we fight, every time they frustrate me, or treat me like a child, every time their advice insists I have not grown up, or their actions prove that they have not either, I want more of them. I admit there are better parents in the world, parents who are better with money or who are more communicative or less selfish. But these are my parents. My issues are theirs, and their issues are their parents, and back and back and back. They are in my blood, pulsing through my legs and brain and heart. Coming home to them is like finding myself over and over again.
My mom and dad came to visit my first year in grad school, and took me and three of my friends out to dinner in the North End. After we had eaten, my dad was, as he tends to, dominating the conversation with his not so back door bragging. Over coffee and tiramasu, he explained, “Our family is based on one thing: L (long pause) O (long pause) V (long pause) E (longer pause). LOVE.”
And strife. And communication. And needless criticism. And needed criticism. And attention. And knowledge. And honesty. And some lies. And, yes, love. L-O-V-E.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 7

To be Good
I came to Jesus for the first time in 1996 while sitting in the balcony of one or another mega church populating suburban southern California. My family was singing (something Jesus frees something Jesus is Lord), raising our religiously diverse voices to the heavens: my Dad, the recovering Catholic; my mom, the Unitarian; my brother, Allan, the newly converted Christian; and me, the pubescent and desperately unhappy teenager. The projected words disappeared from the large white screens on either side of the stage as the band quieted. The singers hummed and swayed and the pastor, a white man in his early 30's said, “If anyone out there who wants to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, I want you to come and stand here at the altar and let the Lord God change your life." A hook behind my sternum, a turning in my stomach.
I walk tearfully down the stairs to the back of the church before processing up the aisle. People shout congratulations as I walk by (as if at 14 I am capable of making a lasting and/or reasonable decision) or pat me on the back, propelling me forward. I get to the foot of the stage and stand awkwardly with four other people as the pastor begins to pray. “Something something new believers, something peace, something blessing, something walk with them. Amen.” He ushers us into another room where 30 chairs have been broken up into pairs. I find a seat and an elderly man sits across from me, “Do you understand the wonderful decision you just made?” He asks excitedly, before explaining church, fellowship, and prayer in as few as 5 minutes. He gives me a piece of paper where a different prayer is typed: “Jesus, something sinner something separates me from God something Jesus's sacrifice something closer to God." It is appropriately vague, non-denominational, and strange as fuck. I fill out a card with my name and address, and leave the room to find my family waiting in the pews. They all hug me at once, happy, for now, that I am happy. And I am happy because I know this will fix me.
That, my friends, is an altar call.
I started going to church with Allan the next Sunday, my head and heart full of hope for my much anticipated counter cultural community. This wouldn’t be a place where women wore makeup or short skirts; it wouldn’t matter what you looked like. Every person would, of course, be valued for who he or she was, every person’s gifts would be used, and no one would ever feel left out or inadequate. Uncomfortably square and an obsessive rule follower, finding a place where I didn’t feel cast out made up the entirety of my social aspirations. I wanted to fit, and I didn’t, anywhere and everywhere.
Except this church had its own hierarchy. Our relatively youthful youth pastor had a thinning hairline, a small protruding belly, slightly hunched shoulders, and lovely straight teeth. A decent guitar player, albeit abysmal singer, this was a man who clearly had not felt cool a day in his life. But here, he was everything. Steve was warm, smart, and could talk about secular books and music. He could draw little graphs and charts in black marker on the whiteboard in the high school ministry room singlehandedly turning inexplicable truths into nifty, easy to understand pictures. In my last year of high school, he would strike up a friendship with one of the 17 year old girls in the group. She would tell everyone that Steve had told her that when she turned 18 they were going to date. I graduated before this was confirmed, so they just might have.
The youth group itself was compiled of the children of regular parishioners (kids who spoke only in Christian platitudes and kids who were overtly rebellious), douchebro Christians boys (with whom my brother hung out), good Christian girls (thin and soft spoken and desirable), and me. It was just like high school only worse: everybody thought they were going to heaven.
I can't think back on this time, on that church, on those people, without anger. I actually think it’s safe to say I hate most of them and hope they harbor deep, lasting shame for being such huge dicks in a space created to be inclusive, which, of course, says more about me as an adult, than them as teenagers. Perhaps I feel for my young self, a victim of rejected sexuality and blindness to my unique blend of quirks. Perhaps you never recover from slights perceived while your brain still develops. Perhaps I cleave to the past, this past, as the beginnings of my will-be knowledge of the depths of the world's damage, millions of years of suffering tucked inside the heart of one lonely teenager. Or perhaps I'm just no good at letting things go.
I tried to quell thoughts of lust, to convert all of my friends, to be so thoughtful, so connective, so enchanting that every person who met me would wonder, "What is it that makes this woman so amazeballs?" If this question had ever been posed to me I would've shouted, "JESUS," at the top of my lungs. Except no one ever asked. I was plagued by sin, convinced my unhappiness was a punishment because I couldn't be good, at least not good enough.
My body was the ultimate punishment. The thighs that rubbed together, the upper arms that jiggled and expanded, the too big breasts, the width of my shoulders, the roundness of my stomach created the tone and picture of a Failure, my whole body as sin, an embodiment of my gluttony.
Because I had an eating disorder. But not a glamorous one, if there is such a thing. Not one where people frown and feel sympathy, marvel over small weights, where other women secretly envy you because you have the self-control to just not eat or the wherewithal to throw up (I have been those other women). It’s the kind where you eat 8 pieces of toast in secret, where you push wrappers deep into the trash so your mom or your roommate won’t find them, where you wander around the grocery store figuring out which food you can eat the fastest, which food will make you feel the worst, that night and for days afterwards, because you just can’t stand yourself. The inside of a binge is barren, infested, hateful. You keep putting bite after bite into your mouth as quickly as possible, don't think, it will slow it down, only stop when you think you will die if you eat another bite. Because maybe, if you are lucky, you will.
And I was fat. Am (albeit no longer mournfully). And they would not let me forget.
My parents: “Do you need to eat that?”
My brother: “You don't want ice cream.”
My grandma: “Why don't we go to an OA meeting while you're visiting?”
My grandpa: “All you need to do to catch a man is lose those extra pounds.”
My sister: “You're fat because you have unexpressed anger.”
My cousins: “Did weight watchers stop working?”
My aunts and uncles: “Are you really happy at this weight?”
People I work with: “I cut out carbs and lost 20 pounds like snap!”
But it might as well all have been that stranger driving by me in his truck one day, as I stand with a friend on the sidewalk, laughing. As he speeds by he yells out the window, “Lose some weight, bitch!”
At 14 I was full to bursting with self-loathing and bread. Too responsible to cut myself or let my grades slip, I took it in, shame slathered across the toast with the butter. My self-esteem was a jenga game, a tower of crisscrossed blocks that they would take away one at a time, thoughtfully, carefully, until…
This is the child who came to Jesus that day in 1996. Who came weeping, crazed, terrified, but still trying to be good, still wanting for goodness because perhaps it was the only thing that could combat the truth she already knew deep, deep in her little, broken heart: I am bad.
Sixteen years later I would return to Jesus quietly, almost in secret, with the still same truth tucked firmly beneath my breastbone.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This is a Memoir: Weeks 5 and 6

When my brother died, I did not remember his name. I didn’t know what he was like as a child, or why he never got married. I didn’t ever share a house or car with him. We never went to the same school. I had never been to his apartment, never spent time alone with him, never met his girlfriends when he had them. I knew he loved flying, and so I like to think he wanted to be free, but he never told me that. I wish this story could tell him, but it won’t.
My dad, Michael, first got married in 1952 to a beautiful, blue-eyed, Catholic woman named Betty. The only time I believe I’ve seen Betty in person was at my brother’s funeral, so I remember her primarily as the woman in the wedding picture on my sister Adrienne’s mantel. Michael is tall, dark, smiling widely, showing off the tremendous gap in his front teeth his current dentures have eradicated. His eyes are alight: he is young, he is an American marrying an American, and he has waited his entire life for this. He is carrying Betty across some invisible threshold, and she is laughing. Her right arm thrown across his back, her mouth open, curly brown hair framing her heart-shaped face. My dad rarely talks about her now, but I know from that picture that, no matter what he says, they were in love. They were happy, even if only on that day.
Michael and Betty would have 6 children between 1955 and 1964: Paul, Adrienne, Mark, Jeffrey, Michael (who we called Suppy), and Caroline. I cannot give true details of how it fell apart. Michael doesn’t want to be the bad guy, so when he tells the story, I don’t trust it is the story complete. Betty did not believe in birth control. Betty did not want to go to therapy. Betty did not talk to him, did not tell him she loved him. Betty felt guilt about sex. But Michael had affairs. Michael worked such long hours and was never home. Michael was the one who left. In the end for all of us it seems to only matter that Michael was the one who left.
He left when he met my mom, Margie, or he was separated and got divorced so he could marry Margie, or he was already divorced and dating another woman when he met Margie. I don’t know whose story to trust, but however their marriage came about he met Margie when he was 42 at an Overeaters Anonymous retreat in Lake Arrowhead, California. She was 19. I like to imagine her crooked smile is what drew him in, although it was most likely her young, curvaceous body, her smooth skin, her emotional and sexual openness. They went on a walk in the moonlight, and he asked if he could kiss her. Darker still than the wedding photo, grey streaking his hair just above the ears, fit, intense, that gap in his front teeth mirroring his soul’s openness, she said, “Yes.” What else could she say?
Michael and Margie married within 6 months and then spent the next seven years pulling each other back together. Michael from poverty, from Betty, from his feelings of failure as a father, Margie from her own father’s failure, her mother’s depression, her responsibility as the oldest child who learned quickly to walk softly. My brother Allan was born in 1979, blond, chubby, excited to be alive from the first moment. I was born two and a half years later in 1982. All the things I don’t know about my brother who died I know about Allan. I was raised in the room next to him; his face, his cruelty, his adoration were the defining moments of my childhood, my adolescence, my adult self. He was to me what Mark was to the rest of Betty and Michael’s children.
Mark. His name was Mark.
The summer he died, Michael and Margie were moving from Virginia to Las Vegas. At 70 Michael had attempted to go back to work and after nine months understandably exhausted himself. Margie’s degree in Civil Engineering made Las Vegas, the single fastest growing city in the United States in 2001, the perfect new location. I had just finished my first year of college, and Allan had just returned from doing mission work for six months in Central America. Margie found a job before Michael found them a home, so the four of us moved into a two-bedroom rental house in the retirement community where my Grandpa (my mom’s stepfather) owned his own house. This would be my last summer living with my parents, and it would be spent sharing a room with my emotionally overbearing brother in a city where I knew no one.
I actually spent the first two weeks after the semester ended staying with my sister Adrienne in Newbury Park, about an hour north of Los Angeles. My consistently tumultuous relationship with Allan throughout the entirety of my childhood made me cleave to my sisters, Adrienne in particular. She is 25 years older than me, and my earliest memories of her are nothing short of worship. She is bright, wild, tender, charming, judgmental, protective, fierce, and beautiful. Perhaps she was not all these things the day my mom took the picture of us meeting for the first time, me a dark-haired bundle she is holding to her chest, the smile on her face revealing her deep love of our father, of all fathers, of motherhood, revealing her full-to-bursting heart edged with hurt and distrust so deep, feelings she cannot escape and will, in the near future and for decades after, face with bravery and sideways grace.
My relationships with Betty and Michael’s children have always been rife with conflict, although I did not know it when I was a child. In my mind, there was no separation except age between my older siblings and myself. Yes, we had different mothers, but I would never, and still never, call them my “half” siblings until I have to explain why my brother Paul is only 5 years younger than my mom. I cling to the closeness, to the love inherent in the word brother or sister, because the reality is uglier. There is still strife. I am still the daughter of Margie, a different wife, a different mother than Betty, Michael is still married to my mother, he still left theirs. Michael and Margie paid for my college, they bought me a car, Michael existed in close proximity to me my entire childhood. They are the ones he left. Allan and I are the ones he kept.
That sad truth stains even Adrienne’s and my sisterhood. It hangs between us, a divider, a barrier we dance around until we can’t anymore. She has resentment towards me that is not mine to own, I have anger towards her which is not hers to bear. We are swimming in blame, sticky and binding. That summer, staying in her house, driving that new car, wanting desperately to connect, I was still, at 19, only a half person. I couldn’t ask the right questions and, even if I could, what would I have done with her answers? We wanted closeness, but neither she nor I, for those two weeks, could stand it. I drove from Newbury Park to Las Vegas gratefully, not knowing how soon we would all return.
I couldn’t find a job that summer. I applied to about a hundred places, made a hundred follow up phone calls, and nothing. During the day I would sit and read, or watch my mom do exercise videos in which she would unsuccessfully try to make me participate. Allan and I would stay up late in the night talking, sometimes about our idea for a Radiohead Aerobics video, sometimes about Jesus or our collective sadness. And when we didn’t talk I would stay up pouring my host of teenage angst into a maroon, canvas journal. “You are disgusting.” “You are alone.” “No one really loves you.”
On the evening of July 20th, my brother Mark got into a two-man pusher prop plane with his coworker, Chris. Mark, at 41, worked his dream job at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Ontario, California, a 30 minute drive from where I went to college. He flew around the Pacific southwest picking up various engine parts so he could repair classic planes (the planes from his museum were even featured in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor). He didn’t have a wife, or children, but he loved his job, and he loved to fly.
They had flown to Palm Springs to see two jet fighters that had flown in from Russia and were coming home late in the evening. We don’t know when it happened, but the small wings on the nose of the plane stabilizing the craft as the propeller pushed it through the air fell off. Two tiny wings gone and down they went.
When the FAA retrieved the plane’s radio from the debris, there was nothing to hear, no cries for help, no maydays. Just radio silence as the ground approached, as though they both already knew they were dead, knew that within moments their bodies would be spread across the desert, no longer men but ears and arms and torsos.
On July 21, we were unpacking our new house in North Las Vegas. Allan and I had been fighting all day, as we were wont to do, and I was punishing him by playing the music in my room at deafening volume (what I believed to be a worthy sacrifice). He burst into the room shouting at me to turn it down. I glared at him over my box of DVDs. He stormed across the room and angrily cranked the volume knob to silent.
"WHAT?" I yelled at him.
"Mark died."
Please, God, do not let me say what I will say next. Stop time, stop my mouth, quicken my mind, but please, do not let me ask it.
“Mark. Our Brother.”
I appeared in the kitchen. Did I float there? Did I crawl? There is nothing between the word “Brother” and what is next. My dad sits at the kitchen table: one hand holds the phone to his ear, the other scrapes across his chest, clawing at the cotton and skin between his fingernails and the heart that is deconstructing. “Why God,” he cries out. His mouth tears open, there, in between his front teeth, still his soul, black and blank. “Why did you take my son?” Michael’s hands grasp at his shirt, pulling the fabric taut. He wants to tear it off, to bear his breast, to curse God. He wails, long, loud, a scream, a sob. Everything inside him is torn. Everything inside him is broken. Somehow he is on that plane, he is piecemeal across the desert, he is dead. Except he is not. It’s worse. His son is gone. His son is dead.
Michael is no stranger to loss. He was born the second son (the lesser son) of Charles and Bessie in Cairo, Egypt on November 1, 1929. Charles would abandon their family before Michael would turn 11. Michael would leave school and go to work sweeping the floor at a clock shop, Michael would care for his younger sister, Micheline, because his mother was too busy doting on Armand, his older brother. Michael would overhear his Aunt Alice saying to his mother, “Go to America without Michot. He is worthless. Leave him and take Armand.” There would be moments sweeping that floor when he would stand still and listen to the tick tock of the clocks intoning his aloneness. Tiny Michael, cardboard in the bottoms of his shoes to cover the holes, would be waiting for his family to leave him. He would run away to find his father, a soldier in the British army camped out near the Suez Canal, in the middle of the night. After being lured into a strange man’s home with the promise of a warm bed, that stranger would try to rape him. Michael would escape out the window and sleep under a park bench. Days later he would come to his Father’s tent. He would burst in, breathless, “Dad!” Charles would turn and stare down at him. “What are you doing here?”
There were nights when dinner consisted of bread and water, and there was night after night after night when he would fall asleep to the groan and vibration of his empty stomach. For his fourth birthday his mother brought home an unprecedented treat: a bunch of bright yellow, perfectly ripe bananas. After the feast Michael took the last one and, so afraid his older brother would steal it from him, slept with it under his pillow. When he woke up in the morning and reached his hand expectantly into his hiding place, he was met with the soft, wet mush of squashed fruit.
And then there was the war. Michael sat in an open air movie theatre, having left his six year old sister home alone, when there was an air raid. As the planes opened fire Michael started running. A machine gun bullet zinged past his ear as he ducked into a concrete shelter. He kept running, no time to think about what was happening, about what could be, about why God would so punish him. Get home. Find Micheline. Drag her under the bed. Hold onto her. Hold so tight.
When I imagine Michael’s childhood home, it is not a normal house but a prison: cinderblock walls, barred windows, feelings of hopelessness swirling across the floors with the dust bunnies. He is a boy trapped inside a nightmare hoping to wake up to something, anything, but this.
At 20 he will board a boat to Boston, and his awakening will begin. He will have 25 dollars in coins in his shoes, because he knows when he leaves the boat they will take all of his money. Because they can. But he will step onto American soil all the same, and he will be free, finally, ultimately. He will think he can leave all the terror in Cairo. He will think all he has brought with him is his pride, his possibility, his resourcefulness, and his 25 dollars.
Except Michael is never more than a breath away from that little boy in the clock shop. No wealth, no wife, no child can make him a man. He is trapped there, in the old shoes, hands full of squashed banana, stomach void, listening to Aunt Alice proclaim his worthlessness. I know that boy. I know him because even as he ages Michael clings to that broken child. Who is he without him? He doesn't know. And does it matter anyway? He is already lost. "What are you doing here?" He has been lost for so long.
We leave the new house half unpacked and drive to my sister’s home in Newbury Park. Slowly every sibling drags themselves across the country and arrives on Adrienne’s doorstep laden with the new burden of our decreased numbers.
The day before the memorial service my mom and I shop for Hawaiian shirts in a Wal-Mart. Hawaiian shirts, T-shirts, jeans, and khakis made up the entirety of Mark’s wardrobe. To my sister’s semi-formal vow renewal a few years earlier, Mark had donned a Hawaiian shirt made of silk to officiate the ceremony. We rifle through the men's section. It’s a relief to be away from them, from all of them. I cannot contribute to the communal grief. My memories seem trite, paltry in comparison to the man’s lifetime being described on repeat.
I am 10 years old and sitting on Mark’s lap facing him. His fingers are laced around my lower back, so close to my ticklish sides. I am prodding his chest, looking for a specific offender. I had heard my Dad on the phone with my sister-in-law Patrice (Jeffrey’s wife) weeks before; he had begged her to have Mark go to the Doctor. He would pay for it. A possible tumor near your heart is not something to take lightly. He would do this again for other sons, many times over. Tell him I will pay for it. Make him go. He went, and it was nothing. I am prodding that nothing now, a protruding part of his breast bone. “Is this it?” I ask. He smiles at me, “Yup.” And finally tickles.
This one is too big. This one is too red. What color will Dad want? Blue. Like Mark’s eyes.
We are driving in our van, Mom and Dad up front, Allan and Mark in the middle and me in the way back. Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is playing on the radio, and I am singing along so loud I am almost shouting. I want my older brother to hear me, to think I’m talented. I am 12, already afraid my singing voice, my grades in school, my deep love for my family will never be enough to cover my multitude of failures. The van stops, and Mark climbs out. Then he leans back in, offering me his hand. “I’ll dance with you, Deb.” I grab onto him and dance into his arms.
My mom and I are reading Sympathy Greeting Cards, trying to pick one for my older siblings which will accompany the picture of Mark framed for each of them. Somehow, no card can touch on actual sympathy when read by those horrid fluorescent lights.
Mark comes to visit for his birthday, a short six days after my own. We go to the mall and movies (Mummy 2) and end up walking through Macy’s. I see a wicker purse plastered with huge, colorful flowers. I don’t have any money. My mom doesn’t care. Mark buys it for me. I carry it until the wicker bottom breaks, until it is a rag instead of a purse, and then store it carefully in my closet until I realize it will not bring him back.
We cremate what’s left of Mark’s body. Someone jokes that we should get a discount because we only have 75% of it. We all laugh. And when we are done laughing we are silent, for a moment or for hours, which is how everything feels this week and for weeks and months and years following.
Betty comes, but she stays in a hotel. She has already found every picture of Mark in her home, Mark as a baby, as a boy, as a man, and piled them into a locked drawer. At the memorial service she and Michael will hold each other for just a moment, knowing that deep underneath those years of resentment lies the only person in the world who knows what the other has lost.
Over a hundred people attend the memorial service, and I remember hardly anything of what is said. My Aunt Lisa asks me to sing. I can’t even make sound. I mumble something into the microphone and sit back down next to my Mom. One woman proselytizes about the hope Jesus offers. Even as a believer in Jesus, I am offended. Mark did not believe in Jesus. He always said he believed in the Force, which means he believed in either a powerful, benevolent wind driving all living things, or nothing. Michael’s cousins come dressed in black, and they stand out in the sea of flowers and colors. My eyes are drawn to them.
As the service ends, we move out onto the airfield. The three-plane V comes from the south. When they are over our heads one of the planes abruptly turns it trajectory west as the other planes fly northward. As Mark-in-flight moves into the horizon, I grasp for Allan. I wish I could confess to him what I did, wish he could exonerate me. But he is the wrong brother.
In March of 2001, Mark calls my dorm room. I’m in class, so he leaves a message. “Hey, Deb! It’s Mark, your brother. I thought since we’re so close, I’d come pick you up and take you to lunch. Give me a call. Love you.” I listen to it. I feel afraid. What will we talk about? What do we have in common? What if there is nothing to say? A week goes by, and I don’t call him back. A month goes by, and I don’t call him back. Two months. Three. The school year ends. The message gets deleted as my voicemail is reset. I stay with my sister for two weeks. I lie awake night after night in that terrible two-bedroom house. We move. Allan comes. Mark died.
I didn’t know life was short. I didn’t know about saying things you can’t take back. I didn’t know that a person could be wiped out, smeared across the desert like a moth under a rolled up magazine. I didn’t know that regret never ends, and that I would be 31 thinking of a one-word question I asked 12 years ago, feeling an ache in my chest so profound no time might have passed at all. I didn’t know I would someday count the one who died as the lucky one.
Six months later, in my dreams, he comes back. He says it was all a joke he was playing on us. We are so relieved. We hug. We cry. All of us. Paul, Adrienne, Jeffrey, Suppy, Caroline, Allan, and me. And Michael. Mark laughs, bright and free and so wonderfully alive. But I wake up. I creep out of my dorm room with my cell phone and onto the fire escape. The sun is just coming up, but I know he’s awake. He hasn’t really slept since the summer.
“Hello?” His voice is gravely, and he speaks quietly. My mom is still sleeping.
“Hi, Dad.”
“Deb! It’s so early.”
“I had a dream last night that Mark was still alive.” And then we cry.
“I didn’t call him back, Dad. He called, and I didn’t ever call him back.” I am surprised he can even understand me.
“It’s okay.” His voice comes out cracked, deep and worn down. It isn’t. Nothing is. It feels like nothing will be again. But because in this moment we both must cling to this untruth, he says it again, “It’s okay.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 4


Drug scenes in movies frighten me. The fluorescent, blurred movement of the camera panning from needles in arms, noses pressing across glass, Ryan Gosling hunches next to a toilet in a middle school bathroom, slow dances with a prostitute in a motel, his fingers grasp her back, he buries his face in her neck, in the straw web of her hair. Snapshots of those who can go no lower, be no lonelier. These scenes unsettle me physically, I cover my eyes, I squirm in my seat. Because I am low. I am lonely.

After church on Sunday I met a recovering cocaine addict. Some friends of mine had invited some friends of theirs (including myself) over for lunch. These friends, a married couple, have six-week-old twin boys, an excellent situation for a baby lover as at their house I never have to be without one. He, the man in question, is tall, bearded, and charming, and he asks so many questions. I find myself telling him things about my family, about my father and his immigration, about skeletons only recently emerged from the closet, the timing of my parents’ marriage so soon after my father’s divorce, the heaviness of his fatherhood, my feelings of distance from my mother now that her job consumes her, the difficulties of watching my brother fall maybe-in-love, forever leaving the camp in which we have for so long co-existed. Did I tell him all these things? I might not have. I held one of the babies, standing in front of the couch, pressing the little one to my chest, bouncing my body up and down, turning from side to side, as he slowly fell asleep. Everyone else was sitting, and I felt like I was onstage performing a one woman show, an emotional tower full to the brim with secrets waiting to be told.
I drank a lot in college, and when I would drink I would fall. Not quickly, but in slow motion, bending at the waist, my backside weaving, my body closing itself into a tighter angle until I hit the ground. I would wake up the next day hungover, yes, but also with my body aching. I also smoked pot for the first time in college, with my brother at his house in Las Vegas a few miles from where my parents lived. We actually invited my parents to smoke with us, but they declined. My brother had recently gotten high for the first time in a Seattle planetarium showing a Radiohead laser show. Apparently the experience was incredible, his sight heightened, his sense of his soul palpable even physical. I drank a gallon of vanilla soy milk, declaring it to taste more delicious than any milkshake and became fascinated by arm in the socket of shoulder. After two hours, I became paranoid and had my brother's roommate take me back to my parents’ house. When I woke up the next morning I thought, “No need to do that again.”
But I would.
Coming home from a grad school party at 3am drunk and high I attempted to open the front door of my apartment building and promptly fell over, breaking off the key in the lock. For about a minute I sat in the vestibule of the brown stone bereft before calling my roommate to come open the door for me. She was, justifiably, unhappy and unsympathetic, but she did open the door.
My best experience with marijuana involved smoking from a one-hitter in an alley way in Boston proper. My mind became a perfect and beautiful blank. It was the only time in my life I can ever remember not thinking about anything. I sat in the restaurant adjacent to the alley, drinking a beer, blissfully empty. I still look back on that moment with almost uncomfortable yearning, and if I could've guaranteed every experience with reefer would be that glorious I probably would’ve become addicted myself.
Except the next time wasn't blissful. I took 3 hits (or was it 5) from a vaporizer with my best friend and her current boyfriend and, at first, didn’t feel anything except extreme thirst. I drank a glass of water and when I was done said, "My epiglottis feels too big. Or too small.” And then I am lost. I fold into a corner, weeping, yelling that I am not crazy. My best friend turns to her boyfriend, "WHAT DID YOU GIVE HER?" Am I dreaming? This is never going to end. This is forever. I cannot sit still. I need to go on a walk to sweat the pot out of my system. As we wind around the maze of sidewalk behind my house I jump up and down until I can't breathe. It doesn’t work. I call a dear friend who is eating dinner with his parents at the Legal Sea Food in the airport, hours away from flying home to Madrid. He leaves the restaurant to talk to me and instructs me to get into bed. I crawl in wearing my shoes and down coat. He tells me to breathe. I am in my bed and I am 14. It is 5:45am, and it is time to get up for school. My dad turns on the light in the hallway outside my bedroom and then goes downstairs to make coffee. It is too early. Do not make me get up, Dad. It is 6am. He comes to the door, “Deb, it’s time.” I do not want to leave my bed. “Breathe in the clean air, breathe out the toxins.” My feet twitch as I expel the high through my toes. My mom comes and gently kisses my forehead. I am sick, so sick. “Do you need some water?” Wrapped in a blanket, feverish, am I dying? How long will this last? “15 more minutes,” he says. I stare at the clock for 15 minutes, and then I get up, for school, or work, or maybe because it's New Year's Eve, and my friend and her boyfriend would rather be having sex than waiting on me. I graze the wall with my fingertips. This is real. I am real. I am high for the next 3 days. Some sort of wall between my conscious and unconscious mind crumbles. I will dream about that night and wake up sweating for years.
So I am afraid of drugs. But I am drawn to this man who must have them. Who must have them but can’t, won’t. “Sometimes I wish I could be less human,” he says to me. We are discussing church, his church and mine, and Jesus, which is a story for another time. I wish that every day, I think but do not say. Was he broken by the drug too? So broken he had to go back to it again and again? He thinks he can glue himself back together with his own force of will; he cannot. No one can, I think, but do not say. He knows it too. That’s why here, that’s why Jesus, that’s why he listens to secrets, unafraid of skeletons. In himself he sees more monstrous things than the bad fruit of my family tree. The baby's pacifier falls out of his mouth and he cries out. I put it back, holding it there gently, my fingers on his cheek, my thumb gently stroking his tiny neck.

When it's time to go I hand the baby back to his mother. I gather my things. I go home. My arms ache. There was some transfer between us; I can feel the need again, to be not-here, to rescue myself from decay, from my own rotting heart. I fall asleep, and in my dreams the angle of my body is closing, leading towards the ground. Except there is no ground. There is nothing but the slow descent.