antebellum

Just vignettes. Some names have been changed.  


 

“I am very angry with your brother.”

He says this slowly, in a voice that is level but also belies the emotion of which he speaks. My father does this often with his children: state his emotions plainly and rhetorically, as if they are hard for us to discern or we need clarification. He says this to both Elena and I, but looks at me directly. Despite this, my sister shifts uncomfortably beside me where we sit on the floor. I know without looking that her gaze is too wide, too solemn. It’s the look of a child that is overly glad not to be the one in trouble, and is doing her best to appease the anger that is not directed at her.

My father glances at her before leaning back to lie on the floor and continue stretching. He is constantly stretching, these days: a consequence of having a bad back and being overly aware of the associated mechanics.

“At first, I was mostly just hurt that he wasn’t talking to me,” he says, bringing one knee carefully up to his chest. He looks at the ceiling, mouth drawn tight; he looks more severe as he’s gotten older. There are evident laugh lines around his eyes, and when he does laugh his eyes twinkle; but the serious expressions of his face have become more exaggerated.

“Now, I’m just really angry.”

Elena gives a hollow “me too”. I say nothing.

Later, when my sister has returned to our shared hotel room for a shower, and my father and I are still sitting on the floor, I relate to him:

“I’ve lost a lot of respect for Erik. And that’s not even a recent development.”

My father laughs; it’s both bitter and amused.

-x-

When my brother was 7 and I was 6, we discovered a few of the hard truths that parents unwittingly burden their children with.

Well, I discovered. Precocious thing that I was, it was probably inevitable that, in all my curious rooting around, I would eventually discover the little ceramic baby-boots in my parent’s room. There were only two at the time, one pink and one blue. Inside, I found the tiny pieces of my milkteeth.

I remember confronting my parents at the dinner table in our small kitchen with the yellow flooring. I pushed around the bread crumbs from chicken nuggets in a pool of honey, and asked: “The tooth fairy isn’t real, is it?”

My parents must have looked at each other. To their credit, they didn’t bother denying anything. They just asked me how I knew, and I explained about the teeth. I was hardly upset; I remember thinking that it made far more sense this way.

Oblivious, my sister used her fat little hands to smear her mashed food in her high chair. My brother, sitting next to me, quit eating. Went quiet.

Being the logical sort, I took the next mental step.

“Does that mean Santa isn’t real too?”

I knew the answer. I was already thinking about how to explain all the odd Christmas phenomena—the eaten cookies and milk, the sound of reindeer hooves, the strange sparkly footprints we found in the carpet last Christmas. I wasn’t overly concerned. We’d still get presents, that much I felt certain of. And whether or not this deception extended to the Easter Bunny seemed irrelevant, because I very was doubtful of the intelligent benevolence of a rabbit anyway.

I was attempting to ask my parents about the eaten cookies when my brother finally spoke up.

There was something serious about his demeanor, small and cherubic-looking thing that he was. It was enough to make all of us stop talking and look at him before he even said a word.

In his small voice, he uttered what almost sounded like a threat:

“Don’t ever lie to me again.”

-x-

My father will not tolerate dishonesty.

Once when I was 8, there were a few months where I was reticent to brush my teeth. I didn’t like the way it felt, for some reason. A mild case of gingivitis, maybe. Brushing my teeth made my gums hurt.

I remember my father asking me one night, before bed, if I had brushed my teeth; I nodded, and said yes.

My father left my bedroom and came back not thirty seconds later, practically fuming. He’d tested my toothbrush. Absolutely dry. He gave me his most serious, most scary dad look.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said, and sent me to the bathroom.

-x-

Consequently, I grew up to be an excellent liar.

My brother, not so much.

-x-

Five weeks ago, my brother moved to Bumfuck Nowhere, TN, to matriculate through a one-year biomedical sciences master’s program with the hopes that this would bolster his application when he reapplies to medical school. He took my mother’s car, hitched it to a trailer, and drove with my father to the very eastern tip of the state. My father flew back to Houston the next day, leaving under the impression that he had done all he could to get my brother settled.

The next weekend, my brother drove back to Oklahoma under the pretense of collecting “a few more things”. The drive from Bumfuck is 14 hours. He is fooling no one.

-x-

“Is he even coming to the wedding?”

A tense pause.

“I don’t know. When your mother asked him, all he said was ‘That’s the plan’.”

I hang up the phone with my father, irritated. For all his animus, my father is worried. Obviously. Both my parents are. They continue to be flummoxed by my brother’s behavior. He isn’t the same person, they tell me. Erik wouldn’t ordinarily do this. He’s changed.

I beg to differ. The lack of consideration is ugly, but par for the course. It reflects a trend in his behavior that began when he went through puberty, and never really rectified itself. He’s usually better about masking it than this, though. For the longest time, most of us labored under the assumption that my brother was just a little eccentric, that his mannerisms could be explained by a quirky personality.

As a sibling and a generally unsentimental person, my own perspective is slightly different.

-x-

“He should know that he’s basically digging his own grave,” I tell my mother, reclining in bed and staring up at the dark ceiling. It’s hot here in Iowa, and my apartment is a heat trap. Even with the fan on, sleeping on top of the covers in next to nothing is the only way to stay cool. I can only imagine it’s the same in Bumfuck, TN. Perhaps worse; Tennessee, to my memory, felt like a swamp in summer.

“I know.”

“And he knows. The longer he puts off talking to dad, the worse it’s going to be.”

“He doesn’t like confrontation.”

I snort, placing a hand behind my neck where it’s already damp with sweat. “I don’t know that anyone really likes confrontation. But you deal with it, like an adult.

-x-

No one has heard from Erik by Saturday.

My father, step-mother, sister and I all arrive in Reagan International within an hour of each other. Erik was supposed to arrive on a flight from Bumfuck around the same time. We stand in baggage claim, all looking down at our phones, as if a text from our missing family member will spontaneously appear.

“Did he even get on the plane?” Elena asks. My step-mother makes a helpless “who knows” expression and shrugs her small shoulders.

My father glares down at his phone. He’s reading an open message. When he looks up, his eyes are rimmed red with ire.

“He just texted Aunt Bia. Apparently, he’s driving in tonight.”

-x-

Sometime during the evening, “driving in tonight” turns into “driving in tomorrow morning”, and “he” turns into “they”.

-x-

I haven’t met this girl before. Only my mother and sister have. She sent me a friend request on Facebook, however, and I can see that she’s beautiful. It’s the one thing I can give my brother credit for, and the one thing I cannot quite fault him on. Her looks are quite endearing.

-x-

I find myself doubting whether or not my brother will actually show up. Subsequently, I almost find myself preferring that he doesn’t. He was told specifically to not bring this girl, and he is. He was told specifically to let other people know of his travel plans, and he has, but barely.

He was asked to communicate his life, and he hasn’t.

Erik hasn’t spoken to my father once since he moved to Tennessee.

My brother is an awful liar. So, in order to not incriminate himself, he simply stopped talking.

At least, he stopped talking to any of us.

But, apparently, he shares worlds of conversation with this girl. This new girl, this waifish, flower-child who seems to have come out of the woodwork with her home-made seashell chandliers. He refused to tell my father that he was dating this girl. He refused to tell anyone that, after two months of dating, she was moving with him to Bumfuck, TN. And he refused to confirm whether they were having sex* or using contraceptives.

He’s not himself, my parents say. She’s changed him.

Again, I beg to differ.

-x-

On the way to the wedding, my father stops my sister and I before we get into the car. He looks at us both, his large, dark horse’s eyes grave and sad.

“Don’t you guys ever lie to me,” he says. And not for the first time.


 

Notes:

*A question with a seemingly obvious answer. However, for quite some time, Erik staunchly proclaimed to be asexual. 

I promised myself I wouldn’t do any strict diarizing, so here you have it: the events, in story format. However, it is worth noting, as a post-script, that my brother did show up for the wedding, girl in tow. We all made nice, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father that uncomfortable. When it was his turn to make a speech/toast, he made a rather pointed address about how he’s jaded against young people getting married, but the couple that we were here to jubilate was tying the knot after 15 years of partnership, and that was worth celebrating. 

Additionally, when she met all the women in my family, Erik’s girlfriend gushed and said, “Oh, you’re so beautiful!”. To me, however, she said, “I’ve hear so much about you.” Yikes. 

 

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