Open the door. Look. Dream. Fly free. Then wake up.
Preparing rooms that have no memory of you is such a betrayal. A clean start or a return, thirty one years ago it all started in this town she fled from, to get an education, to see the world, first boyfriend second boyfriend third boyfriend. Alcohol. And pills. Fights and hate and tears. Disdaining every hateful place that would claim to be a home the pills that take her away from family and boyfriends and stupid fucking sadness take up more space and time every day. Tied to nothing but a horrible past cleaving her to us, to here, which is not hers, not her family’s, one eye open and wary waiting for the invasion, the untenable political situation, the tanks in our nightmares expected with a grim nod a turned back, a plane waiting.
Rehab, a halfway house, a job placement. A scared sober angry girl-child pissed off at her sober and angry family but pretending to go along for now glares at you, her new boss, challenging you and telling you to lead her to the fucking Bunsen burners and then be off. Drawing nasty comics about you and sending them to her sister in Toronto. Me, your future sister-in-law, opening outsize envelopes that come each week with a new comic-missile, bemused at new character harassing the sneering protagonist and named, somewhat generically, ‘the creepy guy at work.’
Years later you would tell me you had never been so in love in your life.
The comics stopping, the angry girl becoming violently bubbly again as she finds new chemicals to obliterate the rage, occasionally calling home to bitch about her boyfriends’ lack of social grace and patience. Crazy drug-using friends leaving insane messages on her machine, one so terrifying I find myself leaving a stranger a threatening voice mail. Do not ever contact my sister again in a voice 200 pounds bigger than me. I’m still proud I somehow pulled this off.
Throughout this time your name peppers her frenetic monologues: the sober guy who tells her drunken boyfriend to stop calling, the friend who will do anything she says, driving out in the middle of the night to buy her beer when her voice like a kitten’s mewls becoming across the line at 3:00am. Angry that your brother phoned to accuse her of using you. The penny finally drops when she mentions your work - ‘isn’t this The Creepy Guy At Work from the comics?’ ‘What? yeah, naawwww, he isn’t creepy at all.’ My head cynical and world-weary spins in confusion at this.
Before I regain my balance you’re living together, husband and wife, and coming over to celebrate Christmas with the family every year, oddly comfortable in your superhuman ability to understand and blend into this family’s dynamic. I look on, incredulous and wondering what you’re hiding. Why isn’t he freaked out? I keep asking myself. I still don’t know the answer to this question. For she treated you no differently.
She treats you like family, which is to say with love and passion and a raging brutality, a callous indifference to my tears that can still bring me to my knees. And you sit calmly and you speak reasonably and compassionately. And you stay, year after year. You with a choice. For eleven years you stay, over eleven years becoming my brother, no in-law but a true brother. One I take for granted will always be here, whose birthdays I don’t always remember in time. One who’ll take my calls, who’ll save my sister. Who has saved my sister, sober for eight years now.
Christmas 2011 and you arrive with gifts and laughter, my sister red-cheeked with impulses indulged, you with the same generous smile though a bit weary today. The light of kindness in your eyes is undimmed and I take heart, hope that the weight loss I noticed as soon as you walked in the door is something you will wave away with a few benign words. You explain you haven’t been snacking so much since you retired in March. I smile. I accept this because of course it has to be true, though when you leave a few days later I hold onto our goodbye hug a bit longer, a warning thought flickering and dimming in my mind: life is short, you don’t know what can happen, you don’t know if you’ll ever see him again.
I can’t write about the months that followed. The words won’t come, just a gasp, an inability to take in air. But eight months later you are dead. Almost twelve months later she is moving back to this town, that 31 years ago she left. Before you is now after you. And it feels like a betrayal, like an attempt to erase you. Except you have moved in already.
We start anew in despairing attempts to salvage some hope from all that we have lost, a grasp at a new apartment without memories, a city she knew before you knew it, an insular family that welcomed a fifth now four again. Gathering our defenses, settling in just in time to flood the moat against a Christmas we fear, like an incoming invasion, a convoy of tanks we are preparing for, no bags packed, no plane flying out of here.
You know who you are.
BREAKING: Mozart Duck Endorses Obama, Demands Four More Years (“Quack (4) Quack Quack”)
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