When I called my brother to let him know what time I would be arriving in Tampa, I expected him to offer to pick me up at the airport. Instead he suggested we meet at a Denny's restaurant not far from where we used live.
For weeks I had calmed my anxieties about going back to Tampa by remembering some of my favorite restaurants. I was conscious of not letting my voice rise in pitch, as I asked if we could go somewhere else.
"What the fuck is wrong with Denny's?" His voice was slow with frustration.
"I mean, it's gonna be late in the afternoon, it's not like a lot of places are going to be serving."
I didn't want to meet and eat in the late afternoon. I wanted to be driven to the hotel and have drinks and go out for dinner the next night. But he thought he had "something happening that Saturday."
So, though I could think of at least 10 other places that would be open, I said, "It's fine."
Some relationships survive on pretext. As a marriage and family counselor, I find it vaguely antithetical to say that, but I work as a school psychologist, and it is often the best advice I can give the students.
I have tried, many times, to talk with my brother, but he is always sullen and angry with me. I imagine his anger like some tired old Mafia bodyguard he constantly pokes to keep awake, "Hey Luigi, wake up, I need you, my sister's on the phone."
We agreed on Denny's and said good-bye. Then I went to the kitchen. It is newly tiled a deep custardy yellow and painted white, with a subtle hue of lemon, a 30th birthday present to myself. I tugged a sticky cabinet door open and unleashed a strong pocket of fresh paint smell. I breathed deeply.
My sister's got some problem with Denny's, but I like Denny's. There's always old people there. The same old people that were there 10 years ago, sitting in their booths, with their Bozo gray hair, floral pattern blouses, hacking coughs and polyester slacks. Sometimes you might spot a young couple, travelers, people just passing through, off the freeway for a bite; the town is strange to them, but Denny's is familiar. Got the generic geriatric smell, from the sisters and brothers of the old people travelers saw three days ago in Mississippi.
The best thing about Denny's though, is they serve breakfast at any hour. It's the land that time forgot. You can wake up at 3:00 in the afternoon, drive over to your closest Denny's, get a booth, bypassing the canes and walkers, and wait for the chunky, 30-year-old, waistless waitress to take your scrambled-egg order. That's where I like to be, in some forgotten place. Some place where there are no memories, cause it never changes. I love Denny's.
I found the Lindt chocolate bars I had "hidden" behind the spices. I put together a double-boiler and started making pudding for dinner, which really has no more calories than a baked potato and chicken breast. As the chocolate started to sink into a dark puddle, I thought of Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, in "The Wizard of Oz."
Then the next thing I knew I was laying myself down on the cool, clean tiles of the kitchen floor, my arms spread away from my body, palms up.
I have been praying lately, not in a religious way, more as a kind of cognitive-meditative therapy. It helps me organize my thoughts, define what I want to have happen, and give myself positive reinforcement. A few years ago, I had read a double-blind study that revealed a power of prayer beyond the placebo effect.
In truth, I pray hoping to feel, someday, the sensation of my heart opening,
From the floor I looked up to my pale lemon-white ceiling. I thought I saw molecules of air dancing, molecules of air and paint. I breathed them into my nose, slowly, one nostril at a time, holding the smell of newness as long as I could.
I tried to pray, but I could get only as far as "Dear Lord," because I kept hearing Margaret Hamilton saying, "I'm melting, I'm melting."
I don't see my sister much. Every few years I'll go up to New York and visit my buddy, Paul. If I let my sister know, she usually comes down from Connecticut to see me. I don't always tell her, though. This time she's come to Tampa, for a conference on Adolescent Eating Disorders. She's a guidance counselor at a private school and she's fat, still fat. She's always been fat, but every time we arrange to meet, I come expecting her to look, at least a little, like our mom. Mom was tall, kind of willowy. If you were a kid with an eating problem would you talk to a fat lady about it? I mean what's she gonna say? It's not like she's got any answers.
My brother and I meet at the Denny's restaurant. We know our kiss is obligatory and it feels awkward. My brother is wearing English Leather cologne. For a second it pulls me back in time, but not unpleasantly. I remember him as a kid. I am pleased he put on cologne. It is a surprising gesture.
We sit in a booth by the window. The restaurant is almost empty, except for an old couple at a table near the door. Denny's reminds me of the coffee shops attached to cheap motels, on slow boulevards, in out-of-the-way towns. There is a loneliness here, a left-behind feeling.
"It's strange being back," I say to my brother. "I haven't been here in, what? Eight years?"
My sister orders cottage cheese, of course. You never see fat people eat, they're sneaky that way. She says there's nothing on the Denny's menu that she would want to eat come on, that menu is almost two feet long! She's pissed that I brought her here. What the hell? I get the eggs, scrambled, on the soft side, toast and home fries. And coffee.
My brother orders. "The usual," he says. The waitress is bored and clueless. "And what is that, sir?" He seems shy for a moment and asks for eggs.
Then he watches the steady stream of traffic out the window. I move the utensils around a few times, breathe loudly, study the chip in my nail polish. Finally, to keep up the illusion of a conversation, I say, "Tampa's changed a lot." He says nothing. He seems tentative, almost nervous. I continue, " Well, not really. It's very much the same, just more of it. You know what I mean?"
That's all he says, "Yeah." Our order arrives. He looks hungrily at his plate of eggs. With his fork, he tries balancing the eggs on his toast. But they jiggle off. Soon two or three napkins are scrunched up around his plate. He makes noises as he eats, mmms and hmms. He makes a chortling sound when ketchup from his potatoes drips on his chin. "The strip malls are like kudzu vine," I continue. "Well, hey." He sips his coffee.
"Well, hey, what?"
"You put the strip malls down now," he answers, "but wait till it's 2 a.m. and you want an aspirin, or a condom or a No-Doz. Then you're thankful your 24-hour supermarket or pharmacy or liquor store is just around the corner."
"What do you take No-Doz for?"
"It's just a 'for example'."
"Oh." I say, not entirely convinced.
For a moment I try to imagine what he might want to stay awake for. I have to admit I rarely think about him when I'm back home.
Occasionally he will be in my thoughts, usually late at night, when all those many moments of regret line up to kneel before you. On those nights I will remember him a fat kid, barely 14 sitting in my car on a windy October night, a wind that made even Tampa promise a new season. My brother was crying, trying to tell me things I didn't want to hear; that our mother wore a gossamer scarf, tight around her head, everyday, that she didn't change her clothes, talked to the radio, bit her nails and cuticles till they bled. I told him not to worry, that she's never not been weird. It wasn't serious. He was scared and he wanted me to be Gretel to his Hansel, to be in this story together. But I was a freshman at college, home for the weekend. I had thought of the fresh sheets on my bed, and the dinner of roast chicken with crinkly skin and mashed potatoes with garlic that my mother had prepared, all evidence that she was functioning as well as she needed to. The two pies in the refrigerator further reassured me that everything was fine. I didn't judge my mother's drinking by the number of glasses of wine she consumed but by how gracefully she walked to her bedroom with a gossamer scarf slipping off her head. I didn't look my brother in the eye, I only said, "She's fine."
It always surprises me how handsome and muscular my brother has become. I don't see him often and I always hold that pudgy 14-year-old in my mind. But now he reminds me of our father, except he has dark hair like our mother. I imagine him with slim, firm girls, their hair wild and strangely colored, girls who drink and dance in Ybor City, who want him to be slow and solid and unafraid of their gyrating loins. But I have never seen him with a girl, and he's never spoken of anyone.
She tells me I look good. I do, I work at it. We were both porkers as kids, but I'm not anymore. No one could ever match me with pictures of myself before I graduated high school. I am so unrelated to the kid in the yearbook you would have to think I adopted myself. I want to say something nice to her, tell her she looks good too, but I think she's gained weight since the last time I saw her. She is wearing a white nylon blouse with a small dark stain by the neck. Her lipstick is too pink and the mascara around her eyes is flaking. Her hair is styled and stiff and some color of red that I'm figuring she pointed to in a magazine. Then I notice a pin she's wearing, a green plastic looking pin, but it's pretty. It looks like a little bow tie. It's a happy shade of green, not fake-happy, just old-fashioned. I tell her I like it. She told me it was in one of the boxes of Mom's stuff that she took to Connecticut after Mom offed herself, almost 10 years ago.
"You look good too," he says. "That's a pretty pin." His eyes almost meet mine, but he turns toward the window.
It was a Bakelite pin, very Deco. I tell him that it had been our mother's. It's the first time we mention our mother. I draw a quiet breath, giving him a chance to acknowledge the moment between us. He reaches for the Ketchup bottle.
Outside I see a convertible driving past with four girls in bathing suits, their arms waving around like they think they're birdpeople. A chubby, red-skinned guy in swim trunks is driving. I figure he's gotta be gay, cause he fits in so comfortably with them, just flabby and happy, driving with his girl friends.
Stuff happened between my mom and me that nobody knows. It doesn't really matter, things would have turned out the same anyway. Mom was already knocking on the door to boozer's paradise.
You can't let yourself think about the past. There are no answers there. That's 75-dollar-an-hour bullshit talking. You just deal with the things you have to do, and don't sit home slurping milkshakes and wondering whose fault it is you're so fat. If you have bad dreams, stay up. You're not gonna die from lack of sleep, believe me, never happened. I feel sorry for my sister. I do. It's like she's trying too hard to pretend she's doing well. But she's fat.
I am not thirsty, but I pick up my glass of water. I rattle the ice as I bring it to my lips, hoping the clicking sound will distract us from our disappointments and allow us to say something easily to each other. I noisily drink almost half the glass. It makes me cold.
"So . . ." I begin, not knowing what to say next. I put my fork into a mound of cottage cheese, hoping I don't end up commenting on the summer heat outside.
Things happened. I was 14 and fat ... and living in Florida. I think our father was hoping Mom would refuse to move. He had lost interest in her, and I think he was planning being free in Tampa. When he discussed the move with us, I remember how animated he got when he mentioned that he could travel back and forth and we didn't all have to live there if we didn't want to.
Mom wanted to move, not for herself, but because her children were fat and unhappy in Chicago, and her marriage would not survive the separation. She was in love with Dad, like a school girl. "Sshh, your father's resting . . . Don't you eat that piece of pie, it's for your dad . . . .. Did your dad call while I was out? . . . Do you think he'll like those pillows?"
He didn't give a shit about the pillows, he didn't call, and he never ate the pieces of pie. Her children were now fat and unhappy and hot in Florida.
Mom was drinking in Chicago, but I don't ever remember her drunk. In fact I always thought that the smell, which I know now was alcohol, was the cologne she'd put on before leaving for her job. She worked for a small publishing company. In Tampa the drinking, over time, became drunkenness.
By the time I was 14 I was almost as tall as Mom. She would lean into me when we walked together. Her body was light and loose from the alcohol. We moved easily. I didn't feel big and clumsy. She didn't feel like my mother.
My brother watches out the window for a while. When he turns back to the restaurant his face looks blank, as if he has forgotten where he is. He hunches over his plate of eggs. I start to say, "It's a good day for the beach." But before I can finish, my brother, with a mouthful of eggs, says, "Do you think it was Tampa?" The question takes me completely off guard, though I know exactly what he is asking. I put my forkful of cottage cheese down. I look across at him. He is focused on dipping some home fries into a small pool of ketchup, as if he had never asked the question. If I say nothing in response, his expression would not change. He has practiced this moment, I think.
There have been so many times in the past I have wanted to have this conversation with him, to be the sister. But not in Denny's where I am hungry and cold; not in Tampa, everything familiar is an unhappy reminder of the past. I want to answer, "No," and say nothing more. But I say, "What do you mean?"
For a second I don't recognize my own voice asking, was it Tampa? I put my concentration on my fries, taking a moment to catch up to myself. But even as I dip them into a glob of ketchup, I am remembering this porky kid trying to decide what shirt to wear to his mother's funeral, terrified that if he doesn't know which shirt she would have preferred, she won't ever forgive him. I try to speak again, but my throat feels like it's turning to stone.
Finally I say, "Hell, she was a loon. She'd have done the same in any city with a lake. I mean it was gonna happen eventually." I am still seeing that kid at his closet. He reaches for his blue shirt. His arm feels light. His body has no weight. The shirt is tight on his skin, but it is the right shirt, he thinks. He checks himself in the mirror, what he sees is a round, pasty kid whose terrified eyes beg him for help. He walks away; he feels a wave of nausea rise in the emptiness of his body. He vomits, and has to change his shirt.
I look for the waitress.
"I'm tired," my sister says.
"Sure, fine." What the fuck did I expect her to say?
It's just as well, she never really listens to anyone anyway. She does look tired, old in a way I didn't expect. I think about a Little Rascals episode where the grown-ups are shrunk down to child-size. They look like children, but old.
"I don't know, I mean it was gonna happen eventually, right?" my brother says. Then he makes some weird joke about her being a loon and living on a lake. It's like he just closed the two sides of the suitcase together and walked away, not noticing the contents slipping out the middle. And he gets so used to carrying an empty suitcase he assumes it was always empty. He doesn't know my mother. I don't have the energy for this conversation. I can't help but think that it is ironic and unfair that he should ask about it now. It doesn't feel safe for me to talk here, I have to work so hard not to be pulled into the memories. Driving past the movie theater on my way to Denny's, I could see my mother, standing in the dark, drenched from the rain, furious, shouting at me in front of the other girls, "Why? Why do you call and then keep me waiting. How dare you treat me this way? How dare you?"
I hadn't called her that night. My friends walked away. I wanted so badly to be with them, to be invited to their homes, be in their kitchens, drinking sodas and eating cookies and chips, talking about the other girls. As my mother and I drove home, I swore I would never forgive her.
I catch the eye of the waitress. She doesn't ask if I want more coffee, she just rips the check off the pad. I would have asked for coffee anyway, but my sister looks cold and ready to leave. You have to carry sweaters in the summer in Tampa. Every place you go is freezing. They know no one can bear the heat and they don't want people lingering inside, so they freeze them out.
"They always have the air conditioning on so low in these places," I say as I reach for my sweater.
"Move 'em in, move 'em out," he says. Whatever that means. I hate that he's a Denny's guy. I hate that he stayed in Tampa, that he's a mechanic. It's like he's playing a joke on me.
"So, is there any way we can see each other again?" I ask.
"You're the one with the busy schedule."
I feel as if I am supposed to apologize, "Well, tonight's not good, because it's the keynote address and all, and tomorrow's seminars all day. I'm missing Sunday as is, because I want to be back North in time for a wedding. You're sure I can't drop by tomorrow evening?"
He shakes his head.
"Well maybe later this evening, we could have a drink." I suggest.
"Call. If I'm around, sure."
"Are you seeing someone?"
He is vague, and I want to shout, "What does that mean." But I don't.
"Oh," I say instead, and drink the water and keep my hand wrapped round the glass, as if it needed my warmth. I want to tell him something, but I don't know what. Maybe I want to tell him that there have been remarkable studies on the power of prayer.
My sister reaches for the check, which pisses me off in about 10 different ways. Mostly because paying for a fucking Denny's lunch is too easy. If she wanted to slide into her 'Mother for a day' redemption role, she could skip a fucking seminar. I'd let her take me to Berns Steakhouse. She could afford it.
I offer to pay. Harshly, under his breath he says, "That's big of you."
"What are you saying? I would have been more than happy, believe me, to have gone some place fancier. You're the one who wanted to come here."
"Right. So I'll pay for it."
"Why are you feeling angry?"
"I'm not angry." He puts money on the check and stares out the window.
"Will you please look at me."
With the speed of a whip cracking, he turns toward me, the words rush out, "Why the fuck does everything have to be on your terms?"
"You think coming to Denny's was on my terms."
We wait for the waitress.
Once, my mother repeated the phrase, "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" for three days. I wasn't home then. It was a short time after the Christmas break; I was back at college. My brother had called me at my dorm, and told me. He sounded like an 8-year-old. I didn't know who it was when he said my name. Our father hadn't wanted him to call me. There was nothing I could do, it was just an episode, my father said. She would get treatment. It would be all right. I never called my brother during that time. I shouldn't have said, "I'm tired," out loud.
The waitress takes the money. I try to joke about the check. I don't want to be angry at my sister. I don't want her to leave just yet. We just sit.
I reach my hand across the table; it lies close to his. Quietly I say, "I don't think it was inevitable. If I thought things were inevitable I wouldn't be a therapist." He shifts his head sideways as if he were about to say something. "Oh well," he says with a long breath. He knocks on the table with a one-two beat and gets up. He walks to the door. I put a couple of dollars on the table and hurry to catch up to him.
"Gad, maybe it was Tampa," I say as the heat and heaviness of the air push against us, making it hard to walk to our cars. "What does Tampa mean anyway?"
"Don't really know," he answers. " People like to say it means fire sticks, but nobody knows really. It's part of a forgotten language it doesn't mean anything anymore. Nice car," He adds sarcastically. The car is bright lavender with dirty gray seats. It was all that they had, and it was too hot to make the effort to go somewhere else. That's what the heat does to you, makes you accept things you don't want.
"Hey, it could have been pink." I add. It was hard to keep talking, the air was swallowing my breath, like reverse CPR. "So, I'll call tonight." I'm literally melting. Make-up that I have used, hoping to create cheek-bones, is now on my fingers.
"Sure, if I'm home, we'll go out. Bye." And he walks away. He doesn't turn back. I feel the blood slide from my heart as I watch him leave, his stride even and distant. Finally he is swallowed in the glare of the late afternoon sun. I know he won't be home when I call later. Before I leave Sunday he will have left me a message saying, "Sorry we didn't get together again, too bad there were so many seminars, have a good flight back."
I kiss my sister good-bye and we make plans to go out later. I drive away, a Tampa sunset beginning on my right. Miracle light is anointing some used-car lot down the road. Mom used to call the shafts of light that break through the clouds "miracle light". She told us to say a prayer, because it would slide up the light beam and go to heaven, special delivery.
Bit by bit my mother had slipped into some other world. Her clothes were often slept in, the pillows and cushions were fraying, even her voice was getting thinner. But every morning she would wake me for school. She would have a lunch ready. She would find clean socks for me.
In this heavy hot air, there is a familiar fragrance. I can only identify it by memories: my brother and I swimming late at night in the warm gentle gulf, my mother waiting for us with melting ice cream cones, I can smell my mother's Summer Always gardenia perfume in the air. I miss my mother. The mother I choose to remember. I wish she were here. My brother and I need her to keep us from disappearing from each other.
School began at seven. Waking me, when the morning was still dark, was not an easy job. I slept deep. In my dreams, my chunky sluggish body was lean and restless. The evidence of its nightly prowess had been revealed a few times on my sheets. I slept deep. Mom would come into my room, barely able to face the day herself, and she would slip into bed with me. She would whisper, "It's time, sweet boy." She would kiss me on my forehead and on my ears. "All right, five more minutes, Sweetie. We can sleep for five more minutes." And she would lie against me. I slepy deeply. I dreamt I was parting lips with my tongue; my hands, cupped and beggary, were being filled with warm breasts; and the hardness of my penis was pushing itself in and out of black holes that stretched it each time it pulled away. I slept deeply. Mom's warm hands rested on my chest. I dreamt of breasts and lips and warm pulpy flesh that my tongue slivered over. My lips pulsed with greed. I wanted so badly to taste those things and I knew no one would ever want to let me. Only in my dreams.
I rolled over and my mouth pressed against my mom's mouth. My hands scorching on her breast.
She pushed me off. I curled into myself. I kept my eyes shut. I lay there, trying not to breathe, thinking my very breath would prove my consciousness. We both listened to the seconds disappearing, like crumbs thrown to the ground and pecked by birds, leaving no path back. Finally she got off the bed. Her voice clear and toneless, she said, "Come on sweetie, you need to wake up now. It's getting late." She never lay down with me again. From that time on, she woke me from the doorway and left me money for lunch and she went back to bed.
That happened in March. By the summer, she was no longer living with us.
It is just the beginning of a long summer sundown. I open my car door and feel like, of all people, Gretel, testing the witch's oven for her.
A few months after my brother's woodchuck call, he had called again. This time he no longer sounded young and scared. His voice was hard, and his speech was broken by quick pauses as if he were spitting the words at me. He thought I should know . . . and he tells me that our mother had been calling 911 for weeks, reporting various alligator sightings all around Tampa. The police had come to the house. To me it seemed as if he were telling a story of people put under evil spells. I would wait for the next installment, when a hero comes who knows who to fight and how to restore the kingdom.
There was no hero, and in the end I was like the Japanese fisherman who is so enchanted by the underwater kingdom, he loses his sense of time. When he returns to his home he discovers that he had been away much longer than he intended.
I went home for the summer. My mother was already in the hospital; that's what we called it, just "the hospital." I visited her, but she wasn't really there. Her eyes were fixed on peripheral objects, her tongue licked her lips and her jaw was drooped to one side. Thorazine land, my brother had called it.
None of it seemed real to me. I was the child, passive and powerless; it was my right to be. There was nothing I could have offered my mother, I told myself. It felt as if I had lost my sense of balance, but was expected to walk a tightrope. All I could do was wrap my hands around the rope and hang.
I lied about praying. I started praying years before I read the study on prayer. I imagined my mother in the air above me, in the clouds, in the stars, floating around ceilings, rustling the top branches of trees. I would pray to her. If I saw a sunbeam, I would send my prayer towards it, because my mother once told us that it was a straight route to heaven. I would whisper, Dear Mommy,I love you, and I miss you. Please forgive me.
I follow the miracle light to the used-car lot. I get out of my car and walk around. I look up to the sun. I can no longer see the trails of light because I am inside them the special delivery route Mom's pneumatic tunnel to heaven.
I keep walking around the cars, I don't want to leave this lot. I imagine it's the windshields of these cars with their urgent messages "Buy me," "Good as new," "Take me home today" that hold me here. I'm sweating and my head is getting swimmy. I rest my outstretched arm against a green, '90 Honda Accord and lean into it. My palm burns on the metal. I leave it there. The guy comes up to me, short, jacket-and-tie, probably younger than I. He looks fresh and eager, like he's got air conditioning in his suit. "Can I help you, sir?" he says.
"No," I say, " I'm just trying to pray."
"We have lots of payment options," he says.
"Thanks," I say.
I take a very early flight back to Connecticut. Even at dawn, the air is warm and steamy. I expected to be happy to leave Tampa, but instead I feel as if I am slinking away, leaving surreptitiously. I think that in a few hours, when I am landing, my brother will still be sleeping and the conference people will be beginning their seminars. I don't imagine anyone missing me.
I settle into my seat on the airplane. I prop the small pillow against the window and pull down the shade. An older woman sits next to me. Her hair is dark and neatly pulled into a bun. She wears a white linen jacket and linen slacks. She smiles briefly at me, leans back and falls, almost instantly, asleep. Her long thin neck somehow remains erect, and her mouth barely slackens. I feel round next to her. I remind myself of my accomplishments and acquisitions, my degrees, my painted kitchen, my rare quilts, my Smith and Hawkins four-foot wreath. These things made me feel thinner. This woman however, isn't just thin, she is elegant and fastidious. My mother had actually been an elegant woman. Even as she wore wrinkled clothes and old scarves, she had an air about her, as if she were a princess forced to dress in beggar's rags.
Seated behind me is a mother and her young son. As I close my eyes, I hear her reading to the boy. I recognize the story of Pinocchio. I listen for awhile but soon the story starts to sound strange. I am slipping into that murky pool that lies between the borders of consciousness and sleep. I think I hear the mother saying, "Every time you tell a lie your penis will grow longer." I smile. I feel the undertow of sleep pulling me deeper. In my dream my brother is sitting next to me. I say to him, "Unless you tell the truth, you will always be a woodchuck." He starts to laugh. I join him. It feels so good to be laughing together, even if it is only in a dream.
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