Fathers & Mothers, Sisters & Brothers.
Issue No. 2 - Autumn 2017
My mom called me today to ask me whether I thought my brother was depressed.
“I don’t know, I’m not a therapist. Why, did something happen? Is he okay?”
The only reason I took her call was because I was above ground on the subway and I knew we only had three stops until we dropped below and I would lose the signal. I spoke in a normal voice since, as far as I could tell, no one near me looked like they understood English, or not enough to listen closely to what I was saying.
“He hasn’t had a girlfriend in forever, he isn’t even speaking to Liz anymore. Where are you? What’s that noise? Are you going somewhere?”
I knew she knew I was on my way to therapy, but I let it pass.
“I’m on the train, I’m going to lose you in a few minutes. Not having a girlfriend doesn’t make you depressed, it just makes you single. And not talking to your ex-girlfriend makes you normal.”
“I’m worried, I’m a mother, I can’t help it. What’s that noise?”
“It’s a stop, we’re at a stop, the doors are opening and closing. I think I’m losing—”
“Will you call him and talk to him? You know about this kind of thing.”
“Mom, just because I go to therapy doesn’t mean I am a therapist. I can’t go around diagnosing people.” The old Russian lady sitting across from me was openly staring at me so I brought my voice down a few notches. I hate it when old people act like they can eavesdrop on whoever they want, whenever they feel like it. Especially because you know the old bitches are judging you, whatever it is you are talking about, judging you for it.
“Call him though, will you? For me?”
“What does dad think? Does he think Bryan’s depressed?”
“What? What did you say? Why are you whispering now?”
“I’m not whispering!” The old Russian lady leaned forward now, the better to overhear a conversation that was none of her business. I bet she ratted out more than a few of her neighbors back in the day, some of them still serving out their life sentences in a Siberian gulag. She looked like a mean little potato in a babushka.
“Jessie, I think your brother might be gay. I’m worried. Why wouldn’t he tell us he was gay, why does he think he has to hide something like that from Dad and I? Did he tell you?”
“What? Mom, he isn’t gay! He’s thirty-five! And I call him all the time anyway, so yes I will call him, but not because you think he is depressed. Or gay.”
I clicked off the phone then, because it was either that or throw it at the old Russian lady’s face. I flagged her a big, fat bird and stormed into the next car, slamming the sliding metal doors open and closed between the cars as hard as I could. I smirked to see an old Dominican lady jump in fear at my surprise entrance, but then I saw the two cops standing and smirking back at me at the opposite end of the car, and then they gave me a freaking ticket and told me I was going to die someday doing that.
Thanksgiving dinner was at my grandmother’s this year, at her house in Mamaroneck, the one my dad grew up in. It’s always at my grandmother’s but every year we pretend it might be at someone else’s house, my parents’ place or my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn, but nothing ever comes of it, so at the last minute we all succumb to inertia and agree to have it at her house, for the last time though, for real this time.
This year my aunt attached wireless mics to everyone’s shirts so she could record our evening conversation. She said it was for a project she is pitching to NPR about the different ways families in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. She sat at the head of the table fiddling with the receiver and adjusting levels during most of the first course; it used to be my grandfather’s place at the table, before he died, but she sits there now because she says she gets claustrophobic otherwise, sitting alongside us.
“How many families are you recording today?” my dad asked her. She’s his brother’s wife, and he is unfailingly polite to her.
“Only ours to start.”
“What do you mean to start?” my mom asked. My mother thinks my aunt is full of shit, and she doesn’t make any bones about it. “Thanksgiving doesn't happen again for another year. How long is this project going to take you?”
“Well, it’s experimental at this point. I’m experimenting, I want to see what kind of tape I get out of tonight and what I can do with it.”
“If Barry were here you would get such great stories, such fantastic, funny stories like you wouldn’t believe,” my grandmother said. She motioned to my father to carve the turkey; that’s one of many reasons we like to scheme about hosting Thanksgiving elsewhere, literally no one in my family likes turkey, least of all my grandmother who I am pretty sure cooks the shit out of it just to make sure anyone who might change their mind about liking it is reminded of how dry and tasteless turkey is.
“You should hear the story of how Barry’s mom taught me to roast a turkey,” she continued, watching my father vigorously saw through the lump of bird carcass she prepares every year, because, she would explain to my mother, it’s what Barry and his parents liked. She much preferred her own family’s tradition of serving Cornish hens, but Barry’s family had won that one.
“Why don’t you tell the story mom? You were there after all!” My uncle is embarrassed by his wife’s antics, but he still manages to support her in his own sheepish way.
You don’t notice old family dynamics like that until you’ve done some therapy. I like to amuse my therapist with stories like this. God knows she needs the break from the rest of the crap I dump into her lap every week. I am incredibly lucky she takes my insurance and doesn’t suck. Everyone will tell you how rare that is. So I do my part.
“Your father told it better, I barely remember it, he really made it quite funny. I only knew Cornish hens, my family didn’t care for turkey. In return I got to keep their family sweet potato recipe off the table. Covered in marshmallows, can you imagine? Barry’s family was Irish Catholic you see. My family was not. We were Jewish, culturally only of course. We raised the boys Catholic at first and then switched to the Universalist Unitarian church until they finished high school and moved out. Then we didn’t go anywhere after that. That was the deal.”
I was worried she was having a slip into dementia and then I realized she was explaining our family to the invisible listeners of NPR, currently tucked away in the folds of her fluffy pink sweater set. My father waited until she was done with her speech before he returned to slicing thick slabs of white meat we would all douse in gravy and cranberry sauce and then throw away into the kitchen garbage thirty minutes later.
“What does turkey have to do with being Catholic?” asked my brother, the depressed, closeted gay one per our mother. He looked at our grandmother like she was insane. Bryan was her favorite no matter how rude he was to her. He had put on weight since I’d last seen him, but he carried it well, and it filled out the hollows in his cheeks. He had the beginnings of a beard, which was a relief since it would downplay the thick moustache he cultivated for reasons known only to himself.
“Oh Bryan,” my grandmother giggled. “You are so like your grandfather.”
I stood up.
“Where are you going honey?” my mom asked.
“Where do you think? I’m going to the restroom.”
She was more nervous and fluttery than usual. Probably being mic’d didn’t help matters. My aunt had even hung an omnidirectional from the ceiling, and it dangled over the middle of the dining table like a silver fishing lure. My grandfather had taken me fishing exactly once, along with my brother, who he took every Sunday afternoon after family lunch, but then it had been way too hot and I had puked orange Kool-Aid all over him and that was the end of that. Which was fine with me, since I preferred to spend my Sunday afternoons watching TV in my grandparents’ sitting room without my older brother there to fight with me over the remote control. For the rest of my grandfather’s life I associated him with orange Kool-Aid spurting out my nose and mouth, which seems about right.
I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom, which my grandmother kept scrubbed a clean, relentless white. White tiled walls, white floors, a bath mat bleached white as a bone, a silky white shower curtain splattered evenly with pale translucent dots. The better to peer through in case of invasion, you might say. Even the air smells white in there, like bleach and old milk. I settled onto the lid of the toilet to check my phone, a thin cotton curtain reaching to tickle my cheek with the aid of a chill breeze. The unopened text that had taunted me throughout the first part of Thanksgiving with its promises and rewards ended up being only a reminder from my cell phone company of a past due bill. Not what I expected, you might say. Not what I was owed.
I started to tap out a text to the cop who had given me her number along with my summons for jaywalking on the 4 train, but luckily I stopped myself just in time. It was her ball, not mine. If she didn’t text me back by midnight I would block her number on my phone and update my Excel spreadsheet accordingly.
Then I heard the lonesome, distant cry of the express commuter train as it shot through the Mamaroneck village station without stopping. By this point any passengers on it were either late for Thanksgiving dinner, leaving their dinner early—perhaps abruptly, in violence or with shouting—or else taking it to the end of the line and back, a way to fill the space of a day when there was no dinner waiting for you.
How, I wondered, could something so close to me, a powerful speeding train passing by four blocks away, how could it sound so far away? Maybe the bathroom’s thick, heavy air distorted the train’s wail into something distant and muffled. Maybe my grandmother needed to chill the fuck out with the cleaning; she would have made a really efficient serial killer.
But the aural tricks had done their damage to my head, and there was a disturbance in the atmosphere that gripped my chest and entered me, and then I felt the world’s heartbeat stutter and stall and that was the end of Thanksgiving afternoon for me.