I Take It Back. This Is The Weirdest Day Of My Life So Far
I am home again. Maybe it’s a dream, but this is better than any I have ever had, heard of, or read about because I can reach out and touch it. Untainted. Cluttered and in all its’ former glory. Home—the way it would’ve stayed if I’d been a better brother.
My dad’s can-crusher is bolted to the studs of the unfinished wall inside the laundry room he started building to make my mother happy. Directly below that sets the same cardboard box filled with crumpled cans crushed to one-eighth their size. While stepping around it, I look to the right and see the washer and dryer lining the back wall. A clothesline stretches across the room above the appliances. Several pairs of navy blue work pants and shirts—just like the ones my dad is wearing right now, standard uniform for a maintenance man—hang in wait to be put away.
My mother hated ironing but was meticulous about our clothes. Anything that might wrinkle, she’d promptly take from the dryer and hang it on the line. We, meaning my dad and me, were supposed to be responsible for taking the full hangers from there to the closet but over time the laundry area sort of became the closet. Today it looks neater than most days. She must have had a fit and straightened up recently.
Beyond the unfinished wall waits the kitchen, looking exactly like I remember. The left side of the long room is lined with the refrigerator, sink, dishwasher, and trash compactor. In the center lies the island my dad had custom built. He picked out the sand colored tiles; the special five-burner stove and even had a large, marble cutting board set into the adjacent countertop. Along the opposite wall is the second sink that works but was never used because my dad didn’t have the pipes treated before he installed them so the water was no good. On the other side of that, is the tall double oven and snack cupboard. To my immediate left on the other side of the unfinished wall to the laundry room is the unfinished pantry. It’s basically a wall frame with shelves slapped on it. It was meant to be enclosed, but right now the only door it has is leaning against it. That was supposed to be installed in the new half-bathroom down the hall but I don’t recall if he ever finished that, either. The only part of this room that I don’t remember is the bulky slew of fancy cabinetry that lines the uppermost sides, covering every inch of both walls, high up near the line of the ceiling and stretching from the kitchen to the formal dining room. All three rooms—laundry, kitchen, and dining—are bright and surprisingly clean despite the litter of construction materials.
This was my home, always clean and never tidy.
In the bright track lighting, I get the first clear look at my dad. Outside I saw the hair, but the finer details were muted. I couldn’t see how thick and dark it is. Last time I saw him he had more hair in his nose than on his head. And the mustache, so thick it’d put Tom Selleck to shame. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him with it I forgot he ever had one. His eyes are not hard, but gentle, absent of the imbedded bitterness that’s so much a part of him now. As he combs the thick mustache with his finger tips I cover my mouth to keep from laughing.
The dinner table is set with mats and flatware, but no one is seated.
“Why are you here?” There’s a strange glint in his eye.
“What do you mean?”
“I know you told me not to talk to you, but I’d like to know the purpose of your visit before I have to make you leave.”
“Make me wha—”
“Daddy!” Carrie runs through the kitchen, bouncing with excitement as she stretches her arms towards the sky. “Up, up!” She squeaks.
“There’s my sweet girl.” His eyes crinkle as he grins, pronouncing the creases that are otherwise invisible. He scoops her up and holds her close to his chest. “Did you miss me today?” He asks in a funny voice.
“Uh-huh,” she gives a brilliant smile.
The moment is so normal and sweet. She’s so small, yet such a gigantic part of our lives.
“I’m here for a good reason, but I can’t say . . .”
A reason that has nothing to do with his rejection or the fact that he’s holding my baby sister inches away. It’s not because her bright blue eyes are staring, so piercing with their perfection that I almost can’t stand it. The reason is because I literally cannot frame the words. How am I supposed to verbalize what it means if I succeed? Or, I can barely think it, if I fail? I can’t put those words, with their heavy implications out into the universe. It would break me.
My miserable reflections are broken by the approach of feet. Preceding the appearance of two people: me—I mean my young counterpart, and Elijah, who I easily recognize though I haven’t seen, much less thought of, in over ten years.
“Eli.” I mumble then cough to cover the slip.
This is all so surreal. I want to back away from the weird sense that I’m staring at living mirror images. In here, I look much more like the kid I remember being. Still not an exact match, though. My hair is big, but lying down now to cover the acne. The clothes are more like they should be; a red and gray flannel shirt, baggy jeans and black and white Converse. I remember picking out those sneakers. They cost fifty-three dollars after tax.
“Mom, can Eli stay—” his eyes fall onto the three of us. “Oh, I was looking for Mom.”
“Hey, son.” Dad leans down, setting Carrie on the floor. “This is an old friend of mine . . .” he hesitates and looks to me.
For a half-second, I don’t get it. My younger self stands, waiting. Like a bolt of lightning, it hits and I could almost kick myself.
“My name is Jonas.” I give the first name that pops into my head, minus the last, of course, since the album has been out for two years at this point in time and I, I mean he, would recognize it for sure. I can hear the guitar riff in my head as I say the line.
We shake hands and he smirks. “Like the song?”
“Like the song.”
“What’s your last name?” He asks, looking intrigued.
A sweat breaks out over my lip and I give the second name to pop into my head. “Brothers.” What the hell?
He smiles, bemused, lifting one eyebrow the exact way that I do. I can tell he has something sarcastic to say but he just presses his lips together.
“Any relation to Joyce?” My dad asks. Eli chuckles and I roll my eyes. It’s not exactly who I was thinking of, but considering the age I’m in, I get the outdated reference.
“As a matter of fact, she is my sisters, mothers, half-cousin, twice removed.” My witty commentary is met with silence. The crickets outside are laughing, though.
My younger self mercifully picks up the conversation, asking if his friend can stay for dinner. Dad agrees and leads on to the dining table.
I’ve always thought of myself as someone with a clear sense of identity. Maybe I lack direction but I definitely know who I am. This place—these people, this house—seems determined to throw everything out the window. I remember being . . . well not popular, but well-acquainted with a lot of people. My teen years were a barrage of late night band practices and smoking sessions with stolen cigarettes and basement parties with older friends under the guise of important school projects; next to zero family dinners. My mom was always working and I was afraid my father would smell the smoke on my clothes. I remember making a point to avoid the assembly as often as possible. About once a month my participation was forced. Even then, I’d make a conscious effort to avoid eye contact.
Most of High School was a blur. Ninety-three through two-thousand was girls, music, and parties. So, I don’t know what to make of this scene. The obvious level of comfort exuding from everyone suggests it’s not a rarity. They’re laughing together, unguardedly talking about school and work. I hear my younger self talking openly about a girl that was looking at him during lunch.
The longer I sit and listen to the jovial back and forth the more uncomfortable it is, because I can’t explain my better-than-first-glimpse-but-still-more-homely-than-I-remember teenage appearance. I have to remember this is a detached reality—a dream I’ve conjured and nothing more—so I shouldn’t read into the disproportions.
There are some things though; things I never imagined could change even in a possibly medically induced coma. It’s petty and shouldn’t matter, but I keep getting distracted by my dad’s nose. It’s huge. At the very least, much bigger than I remember. Only I didn’t notice at first because I was too busy staring at the giant mustache. The view from the side, as I sit at the dinner table, is astounding. I try not to stare but find myself, on several occasions, looking a little too long.
Even so, the extreme depth of this twisted reality doesn’t truly hit until my mother walks in. I can’t breathe when the woman that birthed, burped, fed, cleaned and potty-trained me feels a need to introduce herself. She taught me how to tie my shoes when I was five and doesn’t know me.
I feel it like a giant wave breaking, tossing me as it curls overhead. Crushing me with its embrace. I puzzle over the feeling of drowning while trying to find the breath to speak to her.
I haven’t thought of her often, but when I did it was always with perfect clarity. Yet, none of what I have always known matches what I see. Time changes opinions like it changes the clock and my stock of retained knowledge. It paints my memories with the yellow of perception. I know this and am still surprised at how this simulation of my mother is so much kinder than any of my recollections.
After mom left, on the rare occasions when I would talk about her, Dad would get upset with me saying I never gave her enough credit, that she had much more beauty than I thought. I assumed he meant inward. But this . . . I don’t know how to explain. My mother was a bit of a Plain Jane, or so I always thought. This dream-like version my mind has conjured is an incredible beauty. As fresh as the roses in the yard and she looks happy—the polar opposite of how I remember.
I’m captivated by the power of her presence, intently listening as she animatedly apologizes for her delay. She glides from room to room with a grace I do not recall ever having seen before but must have thought was there. Her hands are soft and steady as they shuffle the delicate plates from the hutch to the table, followed by the embroidered napkins she used to bring out whenever we had company. She and my dad make easy conversation while he piles on the spaghetti and meatballs for each of us, passing the dishes around the table. My mother sets out garlic bread, a salad, and then pours drinks for everyone before taking her seat at the end, opposite my dad.
The wait to start while everyone is served proves difficult. I could easily devour everything on my plate and everyone else’s, too. When I’m about to dig in the room falls silent. Everyone bows their heads and closes their eyes. My full fork freezes half way to my mouth. Another oddity I don’t recall. Saying grace was limited to Thanksgiving the same way church was limited to Easter and Christmas.
My mothers’ eyes are closed, her head lowered. The exhibition of humility irritates me.
Obviously, her desertion during my formative years didn’t leave me with glowing recollections but I’ve tried not to indulge them. I don’t want to be that person who blames all their problems on a screwed up family. In fact, I’ve done my best to ignore them completely. There is nothing to be gained by thinking about how my mother left us and never looked back, or how the only correspondence we ever had with her was a single letter from the institution. When she was supposed to have recovered from her nervous breakdown, instead of coming home she sent my dad divorce papers. She never showed up for my graduation or even called to congratulate me, and when we lost our home she was nowhere to be found. When she left, it was over. She never looked back.
But that was years ago and I’m over it.
She talks, and I watch the glittering diamond of her wedding ring flaunt through the air. She wipes sauce from my sisters’ mouth when it gets messy and cuts up her food with a tiny fork and knife. My subconscious regrets are what brought me here. There’s no reason to be angry anymore. And I don’t want to be, but the more this woman smiles and dotes over her happy little family, the more betrayed I feel.
It’s not right.
I made a conscious decision to close that door. She’s as dead to me as I am to her. Yet, here I sit, filled to capacity with spaghetti and bile as she brings out sherbet ice cream, bragging how she got it special for her only son because it’s his favorite.
“Excuse me.” I move a little too quickly and the back of my chair hits the wooden hutch that was a gift from my grandmother. I hope it’s not scratched, but there is no way I am apologizing.
Out on the porch, I remind myself that none of this means anything more than it did an hour ago. Just because I’ve seen it doesn’t mean I have to trust it.
My dad is also much milder than I know him to be, but that’s to be expected. At this point in time his life is intact. Still, knowing and seeing are two different mediums. It’s difficult to digest his tolerant manner. A while ago, as I stuffed my face with homemade meatballs, I—er, the sixteen year-old me—made a smart-ass remark about something stupid and my dad laughed. He laughed at his joke!
I nearly choked.
For as long as I can remember, he’s been on my case; ‘you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t take life seriously,’ and, ‘don’t make jokes about serious things.’ I played off the gagging as laughter, but it doesn’t change the fact that tonight is by far the absolute weirdest night of my life. All things considered, that is really saying something.
When the front door cracks open, only his face is visible in the dim. The living room lights have been shut off but there’s enough light to catch the fair amount of surprise on his face when he sees me.
“Hold on a sec,” he says and disappears. A minute later, the door swings open wide.
We sit on the folding chairs he’s brought out, soaking up the night air and using the small, red ice chest he’s had as long as I can remember to keep the beer cold. My dad used to do this same thing with his friends. Back when he used to have them.
My dad’s an odd guy. He’s likeable, but doesn’t really care for people in general. Individually, he believes they’re unique and intelligent but collectively—a bunch of stupid-asses he wants nothing to do with.
A nostalgic laugh escapes.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s easier to ignore the peculiarities in the dark, don’t you think?”
“The alcohol helps.” He reaches over, clinking our aluminum cans together. “Speaking of strange, I gotta ask why you’re here. I know you said you couldn’t tell me but—” He stops as the creaking front door opens. Carrie toddles out dragging a blanket. “Hey, sweetheart. I thought mommy put you to bed?”
Carrie doesn’t answer but starts climbing onto my lap. He moves to grab her, probably thinking she is mistaking me for him. I set my hands out and help my baby sister up, taking the mangled fuzzy blanket to wrap around her shoulders. She sets her head against my chest and cuddles into the hollow my poor posture has created. Her hair is slightly damp, smelling of apples.
I inhale, knowing this is what I came for.
“Well, that’s a first!” The gesture of passing his hand through his hair emphasizes the shock on his face. Carrie was always shy with strangers.
“I’m here to help.” I don’t say it, but I think he sees the small move that suggests it has something to do with her.
He nods, “Alright.”
“Who told you about me?”
He chuckles humorlessly, adjusting himself in the chair like he’s uncomfortable.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Nah, I just thought you of all people . . . I mean you are the one who brought us here in the first place.”
That sounds like confirmation of my dream theory. “Indulge me.”
His crinkled brow accentuates the ironic chuckle. “Jonas. Did the time-warp warp you’re brain? You found me the night I got into that accident.” He waits, staring. “I’ve never seen anything like that and I hope to high heaven I never have to again. You remember, don’t you?”
“Of course,” my throat feels very dry, “but you didn’t know my name.”
I’m thankful for the blanketing dark. It’s the only thing keeping him from noticing the blood leaving my face.
He leans forward. “Is she asleep?”
“I think so,” I say, patting her head.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m gonna need you to leave as soon as possible.”
“Well, if what you told me is still true, then you have to go.” He stands, taking Carrie from me. “We barely escaped last time.”
“What are you talking about?”
He grows serious and stern. “Wherever you are, there he is. Ring any bells?”
“But, there’s a thing . . . I’ve come to stop—”
“Don’t tell me.” He covers one ear with his free hand. “The less I know the better.”
“You just literally asked me to tell you.”
“I changed my mind. No specifics.” Adjusting the sleeping girl in his arms, he turns to go inside.
“So, that’s it? Where the hell am I supposed to sleep tonight?”
He scoffs, walking inside.