(Started writing a short story about my younger brother and his battle with addiction. This is a story about him, about me, and about our entire family. It is a short story that works to illuminate the beauty that can be found in any situation, and how humor can be a means of coping with life's hardships.)
I open the freezer door for the second time in fifteen minutes. I wasn’t hungry the first time I looked inside, and I’m not really hungry now, but in one of those moods where you’re bored and looking to fill time. Plus it’s hot. Even though it’s early summer, the weather forecasters keep reminding us San Diegans that this is going to be one of the hottest summers we’ve had in years. I’m on a hunt to find something to cool me down.
My eyes dart to the bottom of the freezer shelves, where they begin before working their way upward. At the lowest level there are some salmon steaks, and the corner of a bag of turkey meatballs poking out from behind a pile of frozen vegetables. The meatballs are gross, and so will the vegetables be after I microwave them into mush.
I abandon all hope on the bottom level and try the next shelf. A few cans of frozen juice concentrate, which appear to be grapefruit and orange juice with added calcium. Why would anyone want to drink grapefruit juice? They’re acidic, tart and totally undesirable when you consider how many other options there are. My mother buys the added calcium orange juice because I don’t drink milk, but some how I doubt that drinking it is even close to the real thing. Beside the frozen juice is a Digiorno pizza. I pull it out a moment and stare at it, looking at the toppings beneath the foggy plastic wrapper. I’m looking for something cool, and if I cook this it will be hot. There is no way I’m eating it frozen. Halfway up the freezer and no luck.
The next shelf contains a bag of fat free fudge sickles that are only for my mother, and a bag of burritos from Costco. I’ve been living off these burritos for weeks, since they come in a pack with what seems like a hundred, and I don’t know if I can shove another one down my throat. There is also a cup containing some coffee concoction with a spoon frozen into it, which my brother made. It’s been in the freezer for at least the last three days and I’m surprised my dad hasn’t thrown it out. He’s like that, he doesn’t like when things stay in one place for too long, taking up space and waiting to be forgotten about.
On the top shelf is a box of beef taquitos, the only kind my mother ever buys, and although the box looks like it was ripped open and then stepped on, I can still see some taquitos inside. Problem is, they always taste stale after you cook them, unless you douse them in salsa. I open the fridge door for a quick glance, and sure enough there is a tupperwear tub containing my mother’s homemade salsa, stacked on the fridge door. I pull it out and give it a light shake. There’s about an inch left, which means everyone’s fingers have been in it, dipping all the way until it reached the bottom. No thank you.
I’m seconds from slamming the freezer door in frustration when something at the back of the top shelf catches my eye. It’s handwriting on a post-it note, stuck to the front of the cookies-n-crème ice cream tub. I push the taquitos to the side, making room for the ice cream as I pull it out. My fingers grip the icy container, and as I turn to place it on the counter my foot gives the fridge door a nudge shut. I hear the suction gasp as the fridge door seals itself. In my brother’s childlike handwriting it reads, “DO NOT pick out all of the cookies with a fork. The rest of us don’t appreciate it.”
“Is he for real?” I wonder to myself, giving one of those breathy laughs that sound like a slight exhale from your voice mixed with a little grunt from your throat. I am as amused as I am irritated. “We’re under the same roof, why wouldn’t he just tell me to my face when he saw me in, oh I don’t know, the kitchen perhaps.” I think to myself. I open the silverware drawer and consciously pull out a spoon, so as to abide by his wishes. “Fine, no fork, I can deal with that.” I sink the spoon into the speckled ice cream, just where I see the edge of a cookie sticking out. Cookies in ice cream are like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. You never really know what to expect, but most of the time the mass of what is exposed, lays beneath the surface. I wedge my spoon under the cookie and force it upwards out of the vanilla ice cream. I then go after all the Oreos, leaving dig marks and over turned clumps of ice cream all over the container, like a dog searching for its bone.
I glance up from mining and catch my reflection in the living room mirror that hangs about ten feet ahead of me. My eyes quickly dart away as I see my father watching me. Being the ice cream fiend he is, he’s probably sitting in silent annoyance as he watches me destroy what is left of his dessert for this evening. Fox News shouts from the television set, and I recognize Bill O’Reilly’s voice. I attempt to tune him out, but I catch several words from his rant, something along the lines of “teenagers, this generation, birth control.” From the minimal information I gather, I assume this is a topic Mr. O’Reilly, a man on the far end of middle age, has little knowledge of, or connection to. Yet he somehow finds time and funding to broadcast his opinions to viewers, as if he is the voice of authority on the matter. I grab the lid and wedge it on the ice cream tub, placing it back in the freezer before it begins to melt. Before I close the door, I rip the note from it and toss it in the trashcan, that by the looks of it, my mother probably wants me to dump.
* * *
I climb the stairs to my bedroom, one step after the next, thinking about low fat ice cream and the way it just doesn’t taste the same. It’s all my mother buys, and so it’s all I ever eat, but I sometimes, on rare occasions, I get a taste of the good stuff. Low fat ice cream is always more frozen than it should be, and even when it starts to melt, that creamy texture is missing. It still tastes good, but it’s obvious that something is missing. My mind is still on ice cream when I step onto carpet, marking the end of the staircase, and enter my room, tossing myself onto my bed. It’s hot, I’m irritated and now my thoughts have moved to Bill O’Reilly, who is a million times worse than low fat ice cream. I pull my computer over from the other side of the bed, open it, and log onto facebook. I click the home button to see what’s going on in the lives of my friends. Surely their day must be more interesting than mine. The more I scroll down the lists of status updates the closer I come to the conclusion that I am equally bored with their lives as I am my own. The never ending meant-to-be-insightful quotes, the pictures people insist on posting of food they’re eating, ok great a hamburger, I’ve only had that a billion times in my life, and all the uploads of instragram photos with witty unclickable hashtags. My eyes are glazed over as I stare at the screen in front of me, and I am sure that in this moment I have that look on my face. My ex-boyfriend used to describe it as the facebook glare. For half a year while we dated, I lived across the country and we kept in touch through skype dates. Whenever I would become bored with our conversation I would log into facebook, and let him speak while I spaced out. I was always sure to add the, “uh huh,” or the, “no way,” to make it sound like I was paying attention. It didn’t take long for him to recognize the same blue and white reflection in my unblinking eyes, and for him to piece together that I was on the book.
I’m about to close my computer and resort to reading a book, when a picture catches my eye. It’s a photograph of a backyard, with a group of people seated around a bonfire. In the red glow of the flames the faces are illuminated in the darkness of the night, and I recognize a group of college friends and acquaintances. It’s a moment where people were captured in conversation, in thought, where no one in particular is looking directly at the camera, yet they are still smiling. I click on the picture and notice the album title- “My last summer in Santa Cruz”. The picture belongs to a close friend that I met during my college years, and the location is her backyard, well my brother’s backyard, or what was his backyard and what is now hers. I long to be there, around the fire, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and listening to friends sing and play guitar. A place where my life felt like summer everyday, and I lived in a bubble, purposely cut off from the outside world. But I graduated last Spring, and now here I am, back at home with my parents and brother.
* * *
“I need to come over now!” A text message from my best friend shouts at me.
“Yeah dude,” I text back, except what it really says is “Y33eah dud33e.” My cheap Nokia phone that I bought used on Ebay is broken from some recent intoxicated adventure, and now I can no longer control the “E” key, which first types two “3”s before ending with an “E.” When I first realized it was happening it was funny, for about the first fifteen minutes.
My best friend is a little high stress. Ok no, I take that back. She’s really high stress. She constantly blows things out of proportion and comes to me to talk situations out and calm down. I look at the essay on my desk. I’ve typed my name, the class number, and about six very poorly written sentences. My midterm on the theory of authorship is due tomorrow afternoon and of course, I am just beginning it. In the back of my mind, I know that I need to be prioritizing this paper, but her text gave me the perfect excuse to put it off another hour or so. Maybe after we talk about whatever is bothering her this time, we can walk across campus and grab a beer. Today is Thursday, which means after 4:00 the campus pizza place will be serving $1 pints, which I can pay for with my meal card that my parents bought me. I start thinking about where we could go once Joe’s Pizza closes, when I am shaken from my daydreams by the clomp of her boots rushing down the sterile hall. I live in campus housing, which more or less resembles a mental institution. The white washed building’s lack of carpet combined with the cement block construction and linoleum floors creates an atmosphere that echoes every sound and smells like a hospital.
I normally leave my front door unlocked, and being aware of this she pushes her way in. I lean back in my desk chair, so I can see out of my cracked bedroom door. “In here,” I call, as she makes her way toward my room. It’s early spring, but Northern California still has a chill in the air, and she is wearing a giant burnt orange knitted scarf. Her cheeks are flushed, and as she unravels it, throwing in on my bed, she pauses to catch her breath before speaking.
She starts on some story about helping my brother, her boyfriend, clean his room. As she speaks it becomes about his roommate getting new furniture and how they were rearranging, and then she is venting about how the roommate’s girlfriend was there and in the way, and I can see that from whatever her original story was, she is getting side tracked. I stare at my essay and then the clock, interrupt her, and ask, “Ok so, Steph what’s up?”
“Allie, I found needles.” She is staring straight at me, and I notice her lip is quivering and she is completely shaken. In the nervous rush to be honest with me, she was avoiding directly telling me. Working up the courage to give someone news they never want to hear. My hands go to my face and push back my hair as I let out a sigh that deflates my entire self. “Either you call them, or I’m going to.”
My head is spinning and I close my eyes, just to escape for a minute. Just a second. When I open them, still reluctant to come back to reality, my eyes fall on a photograph that’s in a homemade picture frame seated on my desk. One of my favorite pictures of all time, I snagged it from one of my mother’s photo albums a few years back. In it I am four years old, which makes my brother a little less than two. My bangs have been hacked from a hair cut that I gave myself with a scissors I received in a birthday party goodie bag, and my hair style most resembles a mullet. I am standing behind my brother, and my arms are wrapped around him, holding him up from under his armpits. He is wearing a light blue jumper, waving a toothbrush in one hand, and his face is twisted in anger, as he appears to be screaming and crying. He would rather be anywhere than in the death grip of his older sister. How thoughtful of my parents to capture such a sibling moment of love on film. I can just imagine my father’s laugh as he sits behind the camera, encouraging us to both smile.
* * *
“Alllieeeee,” I hear my mother’s voice call from down the hallway. “Allllieee, come here please.”
She always does this. Whenever she needs to talk to me, she yells my name and makes me come to her, rather than walking to me. I shut my computer, push myself up from the bed, and walk down the hall, passing a chronological assortment of embarrassing family portraits. With the exception of my father, in half of the pictures we’re all dressed in bright bold patterned clothing. The nineties were a weird time for fashion, I think as I glance at them. The most recent portraits in the line are just of my brother and I, and I wonder why my parents started excluding themselves from the portraits. Is it the fear that people have of getting old? A fear that is reaffirmed as true only once displayed in a portrait hanging on a wall? My parents aren’t old, but they’re older than they’ve ever been. In the last few years they’ve passed that imaginary line that divides life in half, and now they’re on the side that they probably feel came too soon. “Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s over before you know it,” I remember my mom saying to me when I was a child. I was eating an ice cream cone that was melting and running down my arm, creating a minty sticky river, but somehow I feel like her words ran deeper than just addressing the frozen dessert.
My mother is lying on her bed, reading a book, which she places on her stomach, page saved, when I walk in the room. She turns the book lamp away from her face, and address me, “Allie, I need you to do me a favor.” It is spoken in a voice that informs me that she is telling me, rather than asking me.
“Mom, I seriously just washed the floor like two days ago, remember I did it before I went out on Monday? The only reason its dirty is because Taylor was gardening and he dragged in the grass from the back and the dogs also were out there and they had it all over them, plus Dad is watching the game (not true he was watching the news, but the game was a last attempt to get out of the chore), and he’s going to be super pissed if I’m running the vacuum.” I push all of the words out as quickly as possible.
“Allie…I...the floor...what? What are you talking about?” She looks confused. “I never said anything about the floor.”
I am free. I have escaped the most dreaded awful chore that I am forced like a slave to do at least twice a week. Another reason I need to move out and live on my own, where the only person who forces me to do chores is myself. At least, for today, I am saved.
“I was actually going to ask you to drive Taylor somewhere today and stay with him.” I look at her, unsure of what she is asking, and I wait for her to continue. “Dad and I have obligations we can’t get out of this afternoon, and there is a meeting Taylor needs to go to for two hours later this afternoon. Dad thinks two hours is too long to let him take the car by himself.” He is twenty-two years old. “He knows where it is, and we all talked and agreed that he would be going, so this isn’t a surprise. This week is his first meeting and I need you to just go with him and stay through it.”
“Uh, yeah, ok,” I reply as I start to leave the room. I don’t try and fight it because I know that there is no way out of this. “Just bring a book!” She calls out to me, as I walk back to my bedroom.
As a young adult, I never expected to be spending my summer afternoons babysitting my brother.
As a young adult, I never expected to be spending my summer afternoons babysitting my brother.
* * *
With my ipod in, I walk down from campus to my brother’s house. It’s a Saturday morning and the weather is perfect. Santa Cruz is never as hot and as dry as it is back home, and the chill that always hangs in the breeze reminds me that I am almost five hundred miles north of where I grew up. I pass gardens over flowing with flowers, as life bounces back after winter. The sunflowers, with their closed faces, are stretching towards the heavens, and in a few months they will be bending over with the weight of their yellow blossom. It’s a twenty-minute walk to his house, but I drag my feet, taking my time to practice my speech, repeating the words in my head over and over. I am looking at the ground and letting the music fill my ears, when I arrive at his house. He’s in the front yard, doing some type of gardening, one of his many attempts to transform the house he’s lived in for the past two years. I pull the buds from my ears, ending my relationship with the men of Led Zepplin.
“Hey, what’s up, I’m almost done.” He tells me with a smile on his face. The smile looks genuine, and I can tell he’s in a good mood today. I climb up the front steps to the patio and drop back into the dirty couch that stands next to the front door. It’s still early in the morning and the couch is still moist from the night air. He puts down the shovel and reaches for his water bottle that’s been stripped of its label. Judging by the color of the liquid inside, and my brother’s habits, its not water but tea he’s drinking. Knowing my brother, he probably brewed it naturally under the sun, from some weird organic tealeaf that I would never know about, but that he found one afternoon when rummaging through the shelves at the Herb Room, a hippy sanctuary for spices, incenses, and alternative all natural medicines. The last time we had hung out he had needed to go there to find some stuff, and so while he was busy talking to the dreaded and pierced saleswoman, I browsed the shelves and checked out the merchandise. Most of the stuff was uninteresting, as I didn’t know its purpose or healing powers. Then I noticed a dried sea sponge hanging from a rack and gave it a little squeeze. There was a label attached to it and I had to read it twice to believe my eyes. Reusable all natural tampon. That’s what kind of place the Herb Room was. After finishing what was left of the tea, my brother walks into the house to wash the dirt from his hands. I hear him toss the empty bottle on the couch, where it lands before rolling to the ground with a plastic clatter. No one will pick that up and throw it away for at least the next month.
* * *
We walk side by side down Escalona, his neighborhood street, where only the students with a lot of money live. This street is filled with houses occupied by professors, layers, doctors, people who got rich in the tech boom, or residents who have been homeowners in Santa Cruz for the past twenty years. Each large house we pass is custom built, with a gorgeous, well-tended garden that reflects the passions of the people inside. It presents such a contrast from the neighborhood where I grew up, where the houses are all clones of one another, and where each yard has been manicured in a way to meet the Homeowner’s Association.
Earlier in the morning I had suggested that we walk downtown, and grab coffee and bagels at a bakery where they make and sell fresh, daily baked goods. As we walk we talk about bullshit; I vent about my relationship problems and how annoying my ex-boyfriend has been to deal with, and he talks about his new Australian roommate, who he is beginning to build a friendship with. He lives in a house with eight other students, and people are constantly moving in and out. Recently he has been having issues with some of his housemates, and I’m happy to hear that there is someone in the house who he is bonding with. My brother is naturally a shy, introverted person, and even with me he doesn’t talk a lot. I let him continue his story about their, “epic game of beer pong,” the night before, and when he finishes a silence falls between us. I wait a few minutes before deciding to break it, unsure of how to begin.
“Hey, so, um, I, uhhh, just wanted to let you know, um, Dad’s on his way to Santa Cruz to come pick you up.”
He laughs. “What? Are you kidding me?” My little brother has a giant grin on his face. He is clueless, which makes me feel even guiltier.
“Like, he’s going to be here within the hour.” I am looking at the ground again. “I called him last night and told him everything Taylor.”
His footsteps stop. I turn around and face him, and I can hear the lump that he swallows. I look back at a face, so similar to my own, so many traits shared that make it a dead giveaway that we’re related. I want to tell him that I’m sorry, but the words don’t escape my mouth.
* * *
* * *
From behind his bedroom door I hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing. I just finished reading Scar Tissue, the biography of Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Peppers, which my brother loaned to me. I’d heard countless good reviews of the book and rumors that a movie might be based on it, but I had found it to be less than entertaining. The whole book was just a repetitive confession on how strung out he was during and between his many love affairs. Even the way he described the women and his passion for them lacked originality. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, my brother’s favorite band. Kiedis, a well known heroine addict who has still managed to be fabulously rich and famous and part of a globally popular band. I wondered if he idolized Kiedis? If knowledge of his behavior and the subject of many of his songs, had played a role in his own addiction. I wonder if this was how my mother felt when she confiscated all of my CDs when I was inn junior high school, and listened to them all, trying to discover the root causes of my behavior. In the end, only the Slim Shady albums were kept from me, which I guess she deemed to be more inappropriate than Blink 182 or Greenday.
“Holy shit,” I think, shaking these thoughts from my head. I was starting to think like a parent and that is the last thing I wanted to do. I am way to young for that, and this isn’t even my kid. I stop over analyzing my brother and knock on the door.
The reply is an unexcited, “yeah.”
No wonder, he probably expects our mother or father, both of whom have been giving him a hard time about finding a job these past few weeks. I wouldn’t be excited either if I were him, I tell myself, and then remember the note, and realize he’s probably annoyed with me as well. I enter his room.
“Hey Taylor, Mom said you have a meeting to go to this afternoon, and I’m going to go with you and keep you company.” I try to sound positive, like I don’t mind going, not like I am being forced because they don’t trust him anymore. “Lets plan on leaving in like, thirty, ok?”
He is lying on the ground, staring at something on his computer screen. “Yeah, sure.” He answers in the same flat voice. He doesn’t even look up at me.
I glance around his room, it’s still the same as it was before he moved to college, over three years ago. Above his bed are the framed prints of the fighter jet planes used in World War Two. By the balcony door there is a watercolor print that my aunt did of a fresh water river fish. The Hawaiian masks still hang on the walls, as well as some acrylic canvas paintings of Hawaiian sceneries. The newest edition to his room is the picture of a panda I painted in loose brush strokes. The more I look at it, the more depressing I find it, as if the panda is crying. I think about the room he had in college that was covered in artwork. He and his roommate had hung decorations from the ceiling, from every wall, and even in the bathroom. They had painted and drawn on the furniture, and everywhere you looked was thought provoking odd art, even if just from the pages of magazines. Once, when I wanted to throw away an old wrinkled poster of Jim Morrison, my brother reclaimed it as his own, and the next time I saw it, it had been cut into pieces and rearranged on his bedroom wall, as a completely new piece of artwork. He had a way for turning an empty space into his own, and giving it a loud personality and voice that he himself didn’t exhibit.
He’d been back at home now for at least six months, not counting the month he spent at the rehabilitation center, and still hadn’t touched his room. It was perfectly preserved, as it was when he was in high school. As I looked around I wondered if this was because he had hoped his stay wouldn’t be as long as it had been, or that he didn’t want to get comfortable, because he still had intentions of leaving? Or, was the absence of his creativity due to the lack of passion he used to have?
“Yeah?” He asked me, with a tone of hostility in his voice, implying why I was still standing in his doorway, staring like a fool around his room. He probably thought I was looking for something and being nosey.
“Alright then, thirty ok?” I shut the door behind me.
* * *
I called my house later that evening to check in with my parents, to see how they were doing. It’s not everyday you get news like I had delivered earlier. That I myself had received earlier. As Stephanee sat on the edge of my bed, I called my Father and told him everything I had known, and everything that Stephanee had known. I had introduced her to my brother the year before and they had started dating almost immediately. Rather than pushing us apart or stressing our friendship, it had only brought the three of us closer together, and now I realized how grateful I was that my best friend was dating him. I knew, just as I assumed he did, that their relationship was coming to an end, but she loved him and cared for him, and by the way she was picking at her fingernails, I could tell how nervous she was when I first made the call.
My father had answered, and was surprised to hear my voice. I rarely called home, but rather video chatted with my parents, and even then only every other Sunday. After going through a very rough patch of teenage years, I was just starting to emerge from a bad past, where the three of us spent years in a power struggle. Moving to Santa Cruz was a way to be as far away as possible from home, as much as it was a way to be near my brother. I had desperately been seeking a way to learn and grow to know myself, outside of the perimeters of the life I had always known. Talking with my father was still awkward, as we were in the beginning stages of still forming a relationship, and trying to find topics that we could agree on and discuss.
Today’s call was a different type of call.
I told him everything I could, and then a silence fell upon us, pulling us both down with the weight of knowledge. There was a crushing pressue on our shoulders, and neither of us dared to make the next move. It seemed like an eternity before he finally broke the silence. No child ever wants to hear their parent cry, and I was glad there was a telephone between us. His voice wasn’t the same when he spoke, and I could hear the tears as they slid down my father’s face. A man of fifty-five years old, a retired marine, and a man who had traveled all over the world. My father is a true American, who prizes loyalty, honesty and integrity above all else. He is the provider for our family. The rock that we all hold onto; unbreakable even in chaotic or hard times. He stands up for what he believes in, and does the right thing because he knows he is supposed to, not because it makes him feel good. He is a solid man, who rarely shows his emotions.
I’d only ever seen him cry one other time in my life, that I can remember. Seeing your parents cry, especially your father, is something you don’t forget. When you do see it, it almost seems like it goes against the laws of the universe. Dads don’t cry, or at least that’s the impression you have when you’re a child. The impression I had. It was right after his father died, and we were at the hospital, paying our last respects. I was nine, maybe ten, old enough to understand death, but too young to understand how deeply it cut. My father was crying, but now, fifteen years later, I finally understood the difference between then and now. That day at the hospital, they were tears of sadness, but the type you shed when you have let someone go who you accepted as leaving. We said goodbye, and his soul was taken to a better place. There was a process that occurred where you become ok with the idea of death, which helps in the grieving.
I knew from the pain in his voice this afternoon that it was a fear from which he cried. A fear of having someone he loved ripped from him, with no goodbye. Someone you should never have to let go of. Just as a father crying seemed to go against the laws of the universe, I knew even more so, that a parent burying their child did.
When I had finished speaking with my Father, he had told me he would inform my mother when she came home from work. I called back that evening to check in with them, with her, who I was really worried about. When my father answered the phone his voiced sounded exhausted. A man emotionally defeated. “She doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” was his reply to me.
“What? Why?” Stephanee reading the utterly confused look on my face. I expected this to be another hard conversation, but that was the last thing I could have anticipated.
“Allie, she is very angry with you. We’re both upset with you, among many other things, and this isn’t a good time to talk. Mom is really not taking it well and we’re trying to sort out what to do next.” Ok, understandable, I thought, but we’re a family and if ever a time to be there for one another, I guess this seemed like it. Even if she was hurting, why would she push me away? This didn’t just affect Taylor, or her or my father. It affected me too. It affected all of us collectively. We are a family.
“Dad, I don’t get it. I really need to talk to Mom. Why won’t she come to the phone?” I managed to choke out.
“What we both don’t get, is how you hid this from us for over a year?”