by Christine Lanoie-Newman
When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.He never came back.
I was 16 when Andy went away. I watched from my window as he loaded up his old Honda. When it was filled with labeled boxes he stretched and looked around. My mother was saying something to him, the wind blowing her hair into her face and my father was peering into the open hood, maybe looking for a mechanical reason why Andy couldn't quite leave just yet; a technicality. They wanted to drive him to college, for all of us to go into the city, but Andy had said no. It wasn't that far and he wanted to go alone. Dad shut the hood and came around to the side of the car and I could see his lips form my name, Where's Darren? Andy turned around and looked up to my window, shaded his eyes with his hand, and I knew that he was looking for me to say good-bye.
It is amazing how quickly and irrevocably parents can stop being parents. School had just started again when Andy died and that fall I spent most of my time over at my friend Tara's house listening to her talk about what bitches her girlfriends were. We planned to run away.
"I want to go to Montana," Tara said. "Screw graduating and going to college. College is for preppy bitches like Monica. If I hear one more word about how many ivy leagues she's applying to, I'll vomit." There was something wrong with Tara's parents, too. They were rich and were always moving really quickly in and out of the house and never seemed to notice anything that they saw. Sometimes I would sneak out after dark and stay the night at Tara's and we would sit on the roof deck wrapped in sleeping bags and share a joint.
"The sky is mutilated with stars," Tara said. I held the smoke in my lungs as long as I could, as though I was underwater and air was not an option. "I should be a poet. My parents want me to be a lawyer, but screw that. Lawyers are ugly."
I thought about Tara and me taking a greyhound west, about the way we could erase ourselves through sheer distance.
"Do you think Andy can see us? Do you think it works like that?" Tara asked.
"If he can watch us he would have already stopped," I told her. "We would have bored him."
Tara was fascinated with Andy after he died. She couldn't quite grasp that someone could just cease. "What do you think your parents will do when they find out that you're gay?" she asked. I shrugged and burrowed deep into the sleeping bag for warmth.
My parents did the shrine thing with Andy's bedroom that people do when someone dies. Andy had been dead almost six months (gone was what my mother called it) when I walked into his room one day after school and found my mother sitting on his bed with a Playboy open on her lap. Her eyes looked glassy and I wondered for a second if she was a stoner too.
"I thought we weren't supposed to come in here." I tried not to look at the blond spilling off her lap, the room stale with misuse, drawn curtains and unslept bed.
"I want to know which one he liked. I was trying to figure out what type of woman he would have ended up with." We both looked away from one another. I'd brought the Playboys back to Andy's closet the day after he left for college, a week before he died. He hid them in my bottom drawer before he left and when I opened it the night he moved out, I could imagine him laughing to himself, feeling clever.
"That doesn't make any sense," I said, although realizing that it did in a way. This was the part of Andy that I missed too, who he might have become; I missed the unrealized possibilities of Andy. She stood up to leave and I wished that I had some way to make her stay and talk to me.
"So listen," I told my parents that dinner one night. "I'm gay." My father looked oddly noncommittal and it occurred to me that I would rather him smash his plate and yell than remain passive and unchanged. My mother was staring at her plate and shaking her head slowly back and forth. "You're just sad," she said, as though being queer was just some kind of grief. Her eyes welled up and she put her hand over her mouth to stop the sound that wanted to come. "They said on TV that it is going to snow tonight," my father said, staring at his chicken. I wasn't sure which one of us he was talking to or who they were or what had made his mind go to snow. I got up and tipped my plate into the garbage, chicken falling gracelessly onto the heap. I was tired of dinner with the folks, Andy the biggest presence in the room, even dead. I was tired of my family drowning in small sounds—frozen juice suctioning out of its can, the clink of fork tines against plates, the low nonsense of the television.
Tara and I met at her house after school the next afternoon to settle a bet. She wasn't there yet so when I got there I punched in their security code and let myself in. Tara's parents were minimalists, so everything was sparse and white and intimidating. I turned on the TV and watched a little Oprah and thought about getting myself a soda, but was afraid that I would spill it and ruin something expensive. When Tara got home she looked harried and tired and for just that instant before we said anything, I pretended that we were already in Montana and on our own together.
"Sorry. Callahan wanted to talk about my fucking math test. Thinks I cheated."
"Didn't you get a C minus?"
"Christ, I know. Like I'm not at least smart enough get an A if I cheat." She dumped her book bag on the floor and sat on the white couch with me. The room looked better with her in it, with her black-rimmed eyes and pink streaked hair.
"Did it work?" I asked. It had occurred to us a few days ago that in their perpetual haze, we could probably just come right out and ask our parents for money until we had enough to run away.
Tara shrugged. "I guess." She zipped open an inside pocket of her bag and pulled out a hundred dollar bill.
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I just asked my mother for some money while she was on the phone and she dug through her purse and handed me this. I think she thought it was a twenty." We sat for a minute with Ben Franklin smiling up at us from the couch, but something about it lacked the satisfaction we had anticipated. "Do you really want to live in Montana?" Tara asked and I was annoyed with her for sensing my doubt. I thought about Montana, about how there are only six people or less per square mile, about what a difference distance might make. There is nothing but openness and land in Montana. Just animals and quiet and forest. Safety. There aren't any skyscrapers in Montana for planes to hurl themselves into and change everything. I suddenly didn't want to tell Tara about my pocketful of crumpled bills, about finding my father in the garage tinkering with Andy's car and asking him for money. Tara turned to look out the window and I saw the purple smudge of a fading hickey on her neck.
"Well, now that we know it's easy to get cash, we can leave whenever we want. It's not like we need to be on the next greyhound out of here, right?" I said. Tara looked relieved. "I'm hungry," she said. She took the hundred off the couch and we went and bought gummy worms and a huge bag of dank weed to last us for a long time.
Mom shook me awake that night and at first it felt like the edges of a dream, the way she was backlit by the moon.
"What? What is it?"
"No. Nothing's the matter. I just wanted to tell you that I'm leaving for the night. So you will know in the morning. I just can't sleep here tonight."
I nodded and expected her to rise and walk out, having dispensed of her duty. Instead she picked up Andy's book from my nightstand and looked for a long time at the cover.
"This was the first whole book he ever read by himself. It took so long—he was 13, remember those days? And then instead of hating it and getting on to the next one, he just read it over and over and over." I did remember some of it; Andy's face wrinkled at that book, as though he was personally enraged with each and every word. I read The Wind in the Willows again and again after he died because I thought that there would be a message in it from Andy. I was sure that somehow there was meaning in those last things he gave me, before he packed up his car with a puzzle of boxes and shaded his eyes against the giant summer sun.
"The letters, right? He would get them mixed?"
"Yeah. Low-grade dyslexia. They said not enough for extra classes, but I pushed. I wanted to do the right thing."
"Are you hungry?" I asked my mother, pale with moon, stuck sleepless on the edge of my bed. "Let's go to the diner. Let's just go there and eat pancakes." There was a chance she would snap out of it and remember to brush me off and tell me to go back to sleep. There was a chance she would do what she came to my room to be talked out of, leave. But instead she smiled a small, little girl's smile and said, "Ok, let's go."
There was something bleary about our car and driveway and street at two in the morning; the way something is familiar but you can't place from where. My mother started for the driver's side but then stopped and handed me the keys. I slid behind the wheel and sighed and everything felt wrong and sad and I wanted to leave her, and go back to bed. But this was my idea. I drove fast on the empty streets, a blanket of streetlight whitening us every few moments. We drove down Addison Road and past my old bus stop, where Andy had once drawn an outline of a woman in the dirt with a stick to explain to me something he found mysterious and wonderful. Maybe I knew even then that I was different and that he was temporary.
"We should talk about what you said at dinner," My mother said. "I know you think you want to be gay." For a moment I had an urge to tell the truth about Andy, but it was gone before I spoke, like the threat of a sneeze that turns into a tickle and subsides rather than releases. When I was young, I used to imagine heaven as a place where dead people were whole again. Heaven was reunion; a sterile place in the clouds where you could forever be with other dead people, no one getting older or changing. Back then Andy used to take me fishing at the river. It was muddy and hot and we would come back with streaks of mosquito bites in the places between mists of bug spray. Andy would use a stick to puncture a deep hole in the ground and would stick his fishing pole into it after casting it out. I wasn't ever allowed to touch it. Then we would sit on the ground and wait. He would catch a daddy longlegs and tie its legs together in dozens of delicate knots and turn it into a helpless bead of a body with a twitching mass of jumbled limbs. He was precise about things. He could just decide to concentrate on something and it would turn out perfectly. But then again, we never caught any fish.
"Darren, it's ok to just be angry," my mother was saying. She seemed to be pleading with me. The diner loomed in front of us and I drove past it without slowing. I thought about Andy's letters, swimming in space, confusing him.
"Not everything has to do with Andy," I told her, even though it wasn't true. Everything was Andy: his voice on the answering machine that my mother refused to change, the spot of oil on the garage floor that he was supposed to clean, his unworn clothes still dangling from wire hangers in his closet. We pretended these things have something to do with him, that there is still such a thing as him and his, as though he is still somewhere instead of everywhere and nowhere, instead of indistinguishable dust gently floating through the wind. We pretend that Andy was good.
I eased the car onto the highway and headed north. The New Jersey Turnpike that time of night roared with trucks. We passed fields of asphalt, the long, low buildings of office parks.
"Your father is moving out. We were supposed to tell you together." I didn't respond. I slowed for a toll booth, threw money into the air and listened for its plink.
"Do you know that guys who have an older brother are more likely to be gay?" I told her. "Andy knew, you know. He knew that I was gay and he knew that I was smarter than him and he knew that reading was easy for me. He hated me. I want to stop thinking about the things he did to me. But every time I try, I can only think about what happened to him."
"Where are we going?" My mother asked mildly. I didn't bother to answer her question. We were going where Andy went, driving the same road, throwing out money after the ghost of his money into the polite net at the tollbooth. I looked over at my mother and saw that her eyes were closed. I wondered if she was asleep. That was her thing when Andy died, sleep. She would just be overcome by it. Sometimes I would find dinner half made and her sleeping on the couch as milk soured on the counter and the TV laugh track filled the living room.
"Where are we going?" She asked again, more insistently this time, her eyes still shut as though she couldn't bear to watch our destination loom, the altered cityscape growing unmanageably closer. We had avoided New York since Andy died, and I don't mean avoided as in we avoided traveling there, but we avoided its existence, the mention of it as a place, even as mere words. And now we were tumbling towards it in the middle of the night, because, I think, pretending it wasn't there had made it into the most important thing in our lives. Grief for Andy had become incoherent, like letters on a page that refused to right themselves.
"I would be the same way if it had been you instead of Andy," my mother said, eyes still closed to the impending city. I thought about the truth about Andy, how disarming he could be, one minute drawing the lazy outline of breasts in the dirt with a stick and the next minute the bright pain of the stick as he whipped it across my chest. Faggot, he would always say, as though to remind himself of who I was. How could I decide if that was really Andy or if the real Andy was yet to come, if our youth together was something that he would have looked back on with shame? The only way through grief is forgiveness. I pulled over.
"Look," I said to my mother, and touched her arm. She opened her eyes as the windows began to fog and the first gray filaments lined the sky. I think I expected it to look like it did on TV; maybe I even half-expected the towers to still be there, smoke pouring out of the middle before their fall.
"There's nothing there," my mother said and seemed relieved, as though she too had been expecting something different. It was true; there was a strange relief in the empty sky, in the hollow place where there had once been so much.
Christine Lanoie-Newman lives in Los Angeles, California where she works at PEN USA, a literary arts and human rights non-profit organization. She has been published in The Massachusetts Review and The Iconoclast and has an MFA from Emerson College and a Masters in philosophy from Boston College.