Originally published July 3, 2013
When Mother died, Thomas and I had been left alone. Not physically, of course. But Father had never really been present in our lives, or at least in my life.
And then there were the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, the nephews, the grandparents (ironic that most of them outlived Mother), and the more distant relatives. We had them. But Thomas and I never really wanted them.
We had been the perfect nuclear family unit: mother, father, two children. My brother was born six years before I was; during the years in between, Mother had had three miscarriages. My parents used to tell me that I was a miracle.
“But,” I would say, as any properly petulant child is wont to do, “my teacher says that all babies are miracles. It’s the miracle of life!”
To which my mother, in her infinite patience and wisdom, would respond, “Yes, you’re right, honey, but you were a special miracle. Nobody thought that I could have any more babies; they told me there was something wrong with me. But you were strong enough to prove all of them wrong!” She would kiss me on the forehead, then.
I was such a bitch, compared to her. People used to stop us on the street, telling Mother what a beautiful child I was. She would laugh politely, thank them, and smile, looking down at me, only to see that I was sticking my tongue out as far as it would go in bitter response. But she never punished me. That was Father’s job, and he usually had his hands full with Thomas. As much of a bitch as I was, my brother was even more of a bastard.
God, and what a bastard! We didn’t think he’d ever grow up, grow out of his selfishness, his thoughtlessness, his immaturity. I’m still not sure that he ever really did. I used to tease him, annoy him until he lost his temper; then he would respond the only way that he knew how: he’d hit me. Of course, Mother told him to stop it, and Father yelled at him, even though I know I must have annoyed him, too; but the thought remained that he could, if he really wanted to, beat the shit out of me. I spent countless hours in the dark, sleepless and afraid that he would attack me in the night because I’d pissed him off at dinner. We were quite a pair.
People used to ask me how I liked my brother. As I got older, it became less of an issue; he stopped tormenting me physically, and we drifted apart. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the best years of my life were the ones spent in fear of Thomas, because even if I had been afraid, I had never been alone.
And then Mother died.
When she died, my world became smaller. She was the only person that I had really cared about, and without her, I began searching for a replacement, quickly coming to the conclusion that I didn’t actually spend time with anybody outside of my family. I had friends, but none of them were as close to me as she had been. I had thought that I would grow closer to them, but I couldn’t stand all of the pity, the kindness, the patience, the quiet forgiveness when I lashed out. I stopped trying to make them treat me normally, which they took for depression. They tried even harder to be nice, to cheer me up.
It soon became clear that I wouldn’t be getting closer to my friends. I sort of floated away from them, tried to make it gradual enough that they wouldn’t notice until they didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
And so, two months later, I began to search for someone, anyone to spend time with, so that I wouldn’t have to be alone. It had to be somebody who wouldn’t feign kindness out of pity; somebody who didn’t mind being with me; somebody who cared.
My father? He didn’t like me. He’d never really liked me. I used to speculate that he hadn’t ever wanted a second child, that he’d secretly celebrated every time Mother had miscarried, convincing himself that one day she would stop trying. But she had proven him wrong. That can’t have been true, but still, we were never close. I just tried to ignore it.
Thomas? No way. I had thought Mother’s death would bring us closer together, but it had only driven him farther from me. The days of my pestering, of his bullying, those were over, and only slightly prematurely; I was already sixteen, he almost twenty-three. He hadn’t been home, hadn’t called or talked to me or to Father since the funeral. He had his own life, and her death had been an excuse to forget about ours. Our life. As if Father and I had ever shared a life together.
Mother used to sing me a song, when I was young. I remember how it began, and how it ended.
I try to think that love’s not around,
But it’s uncomfortably near….
She would sing to me, and I would sleep, tucked into my bed, her long, slender fingers stroking my brow as I drifted away from her, but never very far away. I had never been afraid to drift, because I had known she would still be there when I returned.
I sat in my room, thinking about what I could do. Nothing came to me. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t think of a good reason. Still, after a while, the tears came, and I found myself humming those first two lines of the song, not sweetly, the way that she had, but bitterly. The sound was ragged, raspy, and constantly interrupted by my tiny hiccups – I hiccup when I cry – but it was a little reassuring, as if I might be able to comfort myself, even without Mother to stroke my brow.
At last, I pulled off my clothes and crawled into bed, her voice in my mind, my voice on my lips, and we both sang me to sleep, the tears still drying on my face.
When I open my eyes, I’m sitting in a chair. There is music playing, but I don’t recognize the song. I’m still dressed in my underwear, but I’m not cold. The room is small – just four walls and what looks like a pet-door in the wall across from me – and I am alone in it. No, wait; in the corner, a flash of movement. What is it? I try to follow it with my eyes. It is small, like a large mouse or a small cat. It scampers across the floor, a blur of tawny fluff, tiny clawsclick-clacking on the checkered linoleum floor, and into the pet-door. I try to stand up, to go to the pet-door, but I cannot. I can’t leave the chair.
The creature comes back into the room, slowly, inching his way through the pet-door. I can see now that he is an adult cat, but smaller, as if he has somehow been scaled down. He advances until he is just out of my reach, then stops and sits down on the floor.
Hello. He never speaks, but I hear his voice in my mind; it sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.
“Hi. Where am I?” He stares at me for a minute, or a year, or a lifetime, his bright yellow eyes unblinking. I can see in them a kind of smugness, as if he knows something that I do not, and that it is something important.
You’re dreaming. His stubby tail swishes back and forth, eyes still fixed on mine, as if he has nothing better to do than sit in front of me and show me that he’s smarter than I am. He’s quite good at it.
“I’m dreaming?” I begin reassembling the evening. There had been music, and crying, and I had gone to sleep. Yes, I am dreaming. The cat seems to know that I understand, makes no attempt to further explain the situation to me. “Why are you here, then?”
It’s me. Thomas.
“Thomas? It can’t be you; you’re at grad school in Boston.” Even as I protest, I know that this cat is my brother; I suddenly realize that the voice in my head has been his all along. “What are you doing here?”
I came to talk to you. It’s about Mom.
“She’s dead,” I tell him, as if he doesn’t already know. “She died, and then you left, and now I’m alone.” My voice is low and bitter, and I can feel myself beginning to cry again; I repress the urge.
I know. But I need to tell you something.
“You need to tell me something? Now? Where were you when I needed to talk to someone? Why should I listen to anything you have to say?”
Because this isn’t about you and me, Jen. It’s about her. It’s about you and her. I say nothing. He could convince me of anything, and now he has convinced me that I need to hear what he has to say. Thank you.
Jen, I know you’re having a hard time dealing with Mom’s death, and I know Dad’s no help. I don’t care if you’re happy or sad or depressed or whatever you end up being for the rest of your life. I can’t change the way you feel. But before she died, I promised Mom I’d tell you something.
“What was it?” But the cat stands up and walks back out of the pet-door, calling back as he leaves.
Ask me when you wake up.
I opened my eyes, rolled out of bed, and put on some jeans and a shirt. My cell phone said it was 11:34 a.m. It was Saturday. As I put the phone back in my pocket, I felt strange, as if it were somehow wrong not to keep it in my hand.
I went downstairs, ignoring Father’s off-handed comments about my sleeping away half of the day while he had been up and productive since six o’clock, and made a bowl of Lucky Charms. It was too sweet, and it made the milk look and taste disgusting. I finished half of the bowl, dumped the rest into the sink, and went back upstairs.
One of the things that I hated about Father was that when Mother died, he hadn’t seemed to change at all. He went about his life as if nothing were any different. He did all of the cooking, now, and I did all of the cleaning, but he went about as if nothing had changed. He had just picked up the slack, and I had, too, and we had never spoken about it. During the first week, I had half-heartedly hoped that he and I would get closer, like I had hoped that Thomas and I would, but nothing had changed in him, and I just hated him a little more.
Back upstairs, I took out my phone again, just to look at it and to sort of hold it. I used to wonder how many calls the presumably “popular” girls got every day, and how many of them were from boys. No one ever called my phone, probably because no one but Thomas and my parents had ever had the number. I had about fifty numbers in my phone, from various acquaintances and people I might have considered friends had I spent more time with them and less time at home. I never called anyone. I had always been afraid of talking on the phone.
Still, I liked to hold my phone. It was small, and it was cute, and I’d had it for so long that it was almost like a pet. I spent countless hours in class, tuning out the teacher and absentmindedly holding it, flipping it open and closed, pulling out the antenna at the top, pretending that I was sending text messages to a lover, or a best friend, or someone.
“Jennifer!” Father’s rough, gravelly shout disrupted my musings like a rusty nail shoved into my brain.
“Get down here. I need to talk to you.” He already sounded a little upset, but I decided to push my luck.
“What is it?”
“JUST GET DOWN HERE.” There it was.
“Okay, Dad.” I made my way downstairs, slowly enough to annoy him, but quickly enough that he wouldn’t shout again. “Yeah, what is it?”
He was standing next to the kitchen table, cell phone in his hand. He looked at me evenly, as if he wanted to keep something from me.
“Your brother’s been in an accident. I’m going to the airport to get on the next flight to Boston. I’ll call when I get in. You’re on your own for dinner.”
He was already out the door by the time everything settled in my mind, by the time I understood what was going on. Thomas had been in an accident. What kind of accident?
“What happened?” I whispered, and then I remembered that no one could hear me. I decided there was nothing I could do, except call Thomas, and if things were as bad as they seemed, he wouldn’t answer, anyway.
I made myself a sandwich for dinner, thought about going to a party (or trying to find one), quickly decided against it, and spent the evening wondering about Thomas until Father called.
“Dad? What’s going on? Is Thomas okay?”
“I’m on my way to the hospital, now. I just called, and they told me that he’s going to be okay.”
“I’m not sure, but the doctors think it was a drug overdose.”
“Oh. Um, okay.” I was about to say goodbye when I decided to ask: “Dad? Why didn’t you take me with you?”
After a moment of hesitation, “I wasn’t sure it would be… that you should see him like this.”
I was angry. I was angry enough to tell him how fucking stupid he was for not considering that the fact that Thomas was my brother should have any bearing on whether or not I “should” have seen him, especially if it might have been the last time I would ever see him. I was angry enough to tell him how fucking selfish, and thoughtless, and self-fucking-centered he was, and that he was an even worse father to Thomas for not letting me see him.
What I said was, “Okay. Call me when you know more.” Then I flipped my phone shut, threw it on the floor, and sat down on my bed. I was resolved not to cry, so I put on tennis shoes and went for a run to calm myself down, making sure that I brought my phone with me in case he called again.
When I got back home, I showered, and was about to get ready for bed when I realized that it was only ten o’clock. Fuck it. I crawled under the covers, put my head on my pillow, and closed my eyes, wondering if I should have gone to the party after all.
I open my eyes underwater. I’m standing on the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t feel wet. I am not scared, because I can breathe normally, and I can see perfectly. There is life all around me, but when I try to touch it, I find that I cannot reach it. I wait.
Jennifer, comes a voice in my head, can you hear me? I look around, but all I see are fish and plants, and dark places that house secrets. Everybody has secrets.
I recognize her voice immediately. “Mom? Yes, I can hear you,” I reply, wondering if she can hear me underwater. “Where are you?”
A tiny fish, black with blue and yellow spots, swims right up to me, so close that I can see the even tinier bubbles flowing out of her mouth as her gills move rhythmically. I want to hold her in my hand, but I cannot raise my arms.
Hi, sweetie. How are you doing? She hovers, inches from my face, and I imagine that I can see in her face a look of concern.
“Mom, I… I’m afraid, I think. I don’t really know. I miss you.” She swims closer, her tail brushing my cheek, swims up to my ear, as if she has a secret to whisper to me.
I know, honey. I miss you, too. It’s not so easy being a fish; sometimes I get so tired of swimming around. But if I stop, I’ll die.
“But you’re already dead.” I try to turn my head, to look at her, but I cannot.
No, sweetie. It’s not me. It’s you.
I can hear her voice in my head, singing “Angel Eyes” to me again, and as she finishes the song, the last words still echo in my mind:
Excuse me while I disappear,
My phone was ringing. I sat up, reached for it, unplugged it from its charger and stared at the front screen until my eyes could focus enough to read the name on the caller ID: “Dad.” I flipped it open.
“What’s wrong? Is Thomas okay?”
“Just tell me, Dad. Is he okay?” I could hear my own voice in my head. It sounded afraid; more afraid than I wanted it to sound, more afraid than I wanted to be.
“He’s gone, Jen. They just lost him.”
I hung up and put my phone down. When he called again, I turned it off. After a few minutes, he called the house. I unplugged all of the phones and climbed back into my bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I just lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what to do. I was all alone, now. But, I reminded myself, I had really been alone since Mother died. Thomas hadn’t been there for me.
I hadn’t been there for him, either. He must have needed someone, the same way that I needed someone now. Maybe the drug overdose was really suicide. Either way, if I had been there for him, he wouldn’t have had to turn to drugs. But I hadn’t been there for him. It had been easier for us not to need each other, not to need anyone, but in the end, he had broken down. He hadn’t been strong enough to make it by himself.
So what was I supposed to do? I was no stronger than he had been. Was I strong enough to go through life alone? Was there any difference?
I sat up in my bed. The house was still, and there was no noise except for the distant hum of the refrigerator downstairs. It finally occurred to me that I was physically alone, at least for the moment. It was oddly comforting, being alone physically instead of just emotionally. I had always been surrounded by people, but they had been empty shells – fleshy machines – that couldn’t connect with me. I had been walking among the dead, and now I had momentarily escaped.
I felt that I should take advantage of the situation.
An hour later, I was in my bed, an empty bottle of sleeping pills – Father’s, he could never sleep without them – on my bedside table, next to a more-consumed-than-not bottle of whiskey. I closed my eyes for the last time.
I’m in space, drifting without aim, without purpose. I can see stars everywhere – unbearably bright and painfully distant – but everything else is black, emptiness threatening to consume the tiny pinpoints of light. I look around: there is nothing but space, dark and inviting and seductive; and dangerous, I know, but I want to let the darkness consume me, if only to save the stars.
I shout, but I hear nothing. I can feel the sound leaving my mouth – can feel my lips and my throat vibrate – but it is swallowed up immediately. I want to call out; I want someone to hear me, to reach out to me before I’m lost forever.
I feel a hand close around mine, but when I turn my head to look, I can’t see anyone. I can’t see anything but blackness anymore.
“Hello?” I scream, silently, my words echoing in my own mind. In response, I feel someone tugging on my hand, trying to pull me out of the darkness, back to the stars. I want to go, but still I’m surrounded, voiceless, by nothingness. “Help me,” I whisper, no longer feeling the need to shout. I feel the hand squeeze mine more tightly, and it reminds me of Mother, the way that she used to hold my hand as she sang to me.
I start singing. I don’t know why, but the words and the music are coming out of my mouth, and when I sing them, I realize that they aren’t swallowed up. I can hear them outside of myself.
Pardon me, but I got to run;
The fact’s uncommonly clear.
Got to find out who’s now number one,
And why my angel eyes…
There’s another voice singing with me, a voice that I don’t recognize. It’s strong and clear, and I imagine that it’s the same person holding my hand. I feel safer, singing the song, having it close to me. I hold on tightly with my hand and pull, either to pull myself out or to pull him in. I want to sing more, but I can’t remember the words, so he finishes the song for me.
Oh, where is my angel eyes?
Excuse me while I disappear,
And the song ends, but he is still there, holding my hand, and even though I can’t hear him, I know he’s there, and still the song echoes in my head, in the space around me, and I feel safe: sightless and speechless and helpless, but loved and cared for.
The first thing I noticed was that the ceiling wasn’t my own. I looked around the room. It was a hospital room.
I could hear someone singing. I looked over. It was Father, and he was holding my hand, singing softly to me. When our eyes met, he stopped singing, and we stared at each other for a while.
“How are you?”
“Fine, I guess. You?”
“Well, a little worried.” He laughed at the inanity of our conversation. I could see that he had been crying. It had never really occurred to me that my death might have been an imposition on him.
“You mean you were going to miss me?” I was surprised by the cynicism in my own voice.
He just stared at me for a while; but when I looked into his eyes, I saw something in them, something I had never seen. There was a depth to those eyes, now, that made him seem more alive. He was gripping my hand tightly, and it was strange because he never used to hold my hand – Mother used to do that….
“You were singing. While I was asleep. That song that Mom used to sing to me.”
He looked a little uncomfortable. “Yeah. I took her to a jazz club once, on a date, and a woman sang that song. That’s when I knew I’d found my ‘number one.’ I guess it sounds stupid.” He looked like he might cry again. I gave his hand a squeeze, to let him know that I was still there, that he didn’t have to disappear again.
“That’s, um… sweet, Dad. No, really. I never knew that.” He smiled at me, weakly, as if he weren’t sure he was allowed to do it. “So, I’m going to be okay?”
“That’s what they told me.” We sat in silence, my hand holding onto his. After a little while, he leaned over to kiss me on the forehead. “You should get some rest.” He tried to take his hand away, but I wouldn’t let him. He seemed so awkward that it was almost cute.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“We can talk about it later,” he said, no longer struggling against my grip. “Get some rest.”
So I closed my eyes and slept, wondering if the dead were lonely; or if they could see the stars, glowing unbearably bright in the distance.