Chapter 2: The Arrival
The Brinkers lived in a moderately sized mansion in an upper class Chicago suburb. They were a family that bought copious amounts of Christmas lights, and allowed for occasional mistakes when their children were trying their best. Brian, like Gail, was far too perfect of a child to ever fuck up, though. They were like pieces of the same mold. The four of us felt like absolute outsiders as we parked the car behind Brian’s silver Porsche, and stepped out. It was almost night, Fred having gotten reasonably lost in the turmoil of circling suburban streets. It looked like our hometown, only distorted; a funhouse mirror image of what all our lives could have been in another location, if we had all pursued other projects.
Sometimes I thought about my parents turning in opposite directions before meeting one another. It would be like “Back to the Future” only I could deal with the thought of slowly disappearing during the Enchantment under the Sea Dance. They weren’t in the least bit suited for each other, and I understood the full extent of how it worked. My Aunt Sue, drunk on Christmas Eve, let it slip about Joy’s former boyfriend before Fred. He was much older, and less than liked by her father. Of course, my grandfather hated Fred to an equal degree. I didn’t ever take anything he said to heart, though. It’s difficult for alcoholics to form opinions on anything anyway. I never thought of my mother as somebody who was born to upset anybody, but it’s inevitable that children do that with their parents. Everyone except Gail of course. She had done everything right, up to code even. It made me want to look for a hotel room.
They both came out of the house, the engaged, smug as fuck, holding hands and wearing upper-class outfits. It was going to be more than dinner. It was a standoff of wills, a way to hold cards in front of all our faces. Cards with words that meant more than they actually did. Happiness, Love, Life, Escape. I hadn’t seen my sister since Christmas, we had had a significant falling out my sophomore year of college after some substantial Internet snooping she imprinted the idea in her head that I smoked pot, a message that she reiterated to my mother, thus allowing both of them to get on my case about it whenever necessary. There was always the resurfacing of questions with my family.
“Are you stoned?” became a reiteration every time I entered the house. It became difficult to constantly lie, and she didn’t need to bring any of it up. She lived in Chicago, what was the point of fucking my life over? I wasn’t perfect; I had to get high just to forget about how increasingly shitty my entire life was. It wasn’t an addiction, but rather a way to forget. That was college anyway. It’s meant to be lined with copious amounts of drugs that allow for casual lounging.
I wrote A. papers high, worked on fictitious manifestos, and wasted time with Muriel. She was funny when we both became reasonably blazed. Her nose would scrunch up when she laughed. I would melt in waves of familiarity. I kept reassuring myself that it wasn’t love, that such a concept didn’t exist, and yet with every cruel hard look that managed to pop up that night, I continued to dwell in the past, to wonder if there was anything I could have done differently. I wanted to scratch her CDs and leave them burned and broken on a flaming pile of loss. I needed to forget about her, to simply walk up to the wedding bar and make a total fool out of myself in front of family. There wouldn’t be any friends coming to the wedding. Gail had sold out the second she graduated from college. All her friends did. They vacationed on opposite sides of the country, getting internships or jobs that their parents’ best friends wrote letters of recommendation for. I hated all of them in high school, and a little more as time passed.
My sister would never understand the concept of friendship. She was never down and out enough to have somebody conveniently be there for her. Instead it was all highballs and nights at trendy yuppie clubs, khaki pants and polo dress shirts lining the walls, slutty red dresses showing cleavage and faces filled with look-don’t-touch attitudes. College was a wrong kind of learning experience for her. She studied, did her homework, had a few lesser forms of boyfriends, before eventually running away from it all and meeting the infamous Brian Brinker. He looked like a poster model for smarmy Miller Light billboards. He was the guy with confidence, grace, and I could almost instantly tell he saw Gail as a challenge. The virgin with morals, who always did the right thing. He was upper level management. It wouldn’t be in the least bit difficult.
Of course, I could foresee the inevitable ass-kissing coming once he was done being introduced to my parents. Fred didn’t really look him over or anything. He didn’t care. My father was a man of little worries. He hated mostly everything, and it was always a pain in the ass to venture out of the dome known as Pennsylvania. He was tired from driving, and didn’t look like he wanted to get into any typical father-boyfriend bashing. If Brian had only had to deal with Mr. Cavallo. It would have been a battle of wills, if only Brian wasn’t so goddamn perfect. It instantly made me uncomfortable, as if they had somehow mysteriously cloned my sister’s smugness and put it in a male counterpart. I turned and looked at all the surrounding houses of the neighborhood. Everything was circular. I didn’t see a convenient way out, a bus stop sign, or any high school girls looking for drugs. I was out anyway.
I stood next to Violet, near the car as Gail walked over in front of us. I half-smiled as she first hugged our grandmother, whose head was conveniently stationed in the clouds.
“It’s good to see you grandma.”
“You too dear. Who are you?”
“It’s Gail. I’m getting married this weekend. You’re coming, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right. Are we eating soon?”
“Food’s inside. You can go in with dad.”
“Okay” Violet wandered over next to Fred and Joy as I sighed and looked at my sister. She was always the exact same person. No overly traumatic stories to report, no bullshit coming from any offshoot of human experience. Maybe my parents were still reasonably infatuated with one another when they began raising her. She became self-sufficient around five as I latched onto the edge of a sinking ship. I was the difficult one, the one with no direction. They simply stopped trying after her.
One perfect child to stand next to at ceremonies and dinners with upper-class spoon-feeders. They couldn’t be any more proud. Where would I be when the crafts came down to beam up all forms of intelligent life? Probably getting high with friends in some secluded area, starring into brown eyes and wondering what the perfect thing to say would be before the explosion of all things. I was sorry that she was out of my life. Muriel would have enjoyed the end.
“So we don’t really need to get into this now.”
“That’s good, cause I don’t really want to.”
“You look pretty shitty. Wasn’t mom supposed to make sure you didn’t look like a bum.”
“A bum? Fuck off Gail. I don’t give a shit about you, Brian, or your stupid fucking wedding. I’m in no condition to be hostile, but I don’t need this.”
“Jesus, things never change, huh?”
“No, I guess not, narc.”
“I was worried.”
“You need more things to think about in your life. The occasional heartbreak, a betrayal here and there, the fact that everything back home is completely self-destructive, and then you’ll come close to having vague understanding of where I’m coming from.”
“I do understand. I just couldn’t stay there.”
“And this is better?”
“This is his parents’ house. We live in the city. I see people falling apart everyday.”
“Yeah, people you walk past.”
“Are we gonna be like this the whole weekend? Can’t you just be happy for me? Say something like congratulations.”
“Congratulations. This is probably the last time either of us are going to be forced into dealing with one another.”
“What about your wedding?”
“I’m never getting married, and if the rare occasion does ever occur, I’m eloping.”
“Jesus… It’s gonna be a rough set-down when you finally figure your life out.”
“Yeah, ditto.” Our bickering was interrupted by Brian magnetically returning to her side. Another introduction, another “good to meet you.” He would be sucking up all weekend, trying to be buddy-buddy, giving me the inevitable “Hey, is it okay if I stick my finger here” look. I was tired and not ready for anything other than a room to hide in. We walked into the house, behind the parental units, and into a brand new world of change.
I saw Joy gawking at the foyer in front of the spiral staircase as Colleen and Ken walked out of the kitchen. They looked like they had overdosed on The Joker’s laughing gas. Large widened grins and boisterous laughs of comfort filling the echoing residence. It was bigger inside.
“Hello, welcome to our home.”
“It’s so good to finally meet you guys.”
“Dinner’s almost ready.”
“Good. I’m starving.” Amongst the schmoozing I caught Violet walking over in the living room. She set her purse down on the black leather couch and dosed off. I tried to hide my jealousy once again. It was difficult task as Ken walked over to me, the firmest of handshakes coming through. He was wearing a chef hat and a “Kiss the Cook” apron. It reeked of pour suburban taste. The tacky cardiologist who found some sort of strange appeal in simply relaxing for the weekend. He saved lives, and yet his own seemed to be in need of the occasional shock from a defibrillator. I felt surrounded by dead people, all of them starting various forms of conversation right by the front door.
Colleen walked over to me with a smirk. Her hair was bleached, all dolled up for the wedding. She had to be supportive of her son’s decision, marrying the offshoot from a family of scamps, the one that she would later criticize. The cooking would never be as good, the kids would be little shits in training. She would make backhanded comments that everyone eventually learned to ignore, and when Ken finally bit the big one, Colleen would move in and take over all readily available activities. She would sign the kids up for yoga, and teach them how to drive. Colleen was second to none, and Gail was too busy perusing the deep dark reaches of infatuated space, that she would never notice.
Her breasts were new. They felt reasonably rough pressed against my body, the hug from Gail’s soon-to-be mother in law. I tried not stare at the abundant cleavage, or the body that spent copious amounts of time working out. It was hard to look good at fifty. Joy was an example of this. Her eyes always had dark circles under them from late nights spent grading papers or dosing off during favorite programs. Colleen was awake at the crack of the dawn, tidying up the house and giving shreds of disheveled advice to both children. She would call Brian at work to see how his day was going. Ken would stop flirting with the nurses once she entered the hospital, all of them instantly jealous.
I was breaking down every element of the Brinker household. Their dog Shep, a lazy Saint Bernard with zero motivation to do anything but eat and shit, lied on the floor next to the couch where Violet waited to reopen her eyes. He was far too sick of the high-pitched conversation, the vain discussions on new haircuts and Hollywood mistakes. He would have to pretend like he didn’t hear Ken and Colleen still having sex at their age, the opened bottle of supplements abundantly visible on the brown oak dresser they received as a wedding present from her parents, both of which loathed Ken enough to avoid his son’s wedding.
We ventured into the dining room before either of us had the time to get settled. My duffel bag sat in the trunk, waiting for a comfortable place to hide away from those that had their mortgage completely paid. A few moments of strange silence passed between all of us as we waited for Ken. He came walking out with a several entrees, all cooked to perfection. I was beginning to think I was on a hidden camera show, and any second somebody would jump out and yell that this wasn’t reality. People aren’t like this.
I took moderate portions of lasagna and scalloped potatoes before realizing that my tastebuds couldn’t handle real cooking. I had become far too used to Joy’s half-hearted attempts at culinary salvation, casseroles made from the bare minimum of ingredients at that bottom of the fridge and take-out on days where we all needed a quick and easy way to retire to our respective closets. Conversation began in order of importance. Brian and Gail were first, followed by Ken and Colleen, then Fred and Joy, Violet attempting to remember what the forties were like followed by me, empty plate, and no motivation to speak.
“So you just graduated, right Noah?” Ken took a sip of his white wine, bought from the local liquor store. He gave it some big explanation before opening the bottle, but all of us knew where it came from. Some specialties aren’t available in all areas.
“Uh yeah, that’s right.”
“So what are you going to do now?” My eyes lingered across the table at Gail. She was sort of tipsy, giving me a look of spite that I still can’t forget. There were always two ends of the table, different sides, the same callow bullshit.
“Uh well Ken, I’m not completely sure at this point.”
“Noah’s thinking about grad school.” My mother, the optimist.
“Oh yeah, well that’s good. Where are you looking at?” Colleen chimed in between bites.
“I don’t really know.”
“Noah’s going to work at the office with me for the summer.” My father looked over at me, some vague understand. For some reason it was okay if he got on my case about little to no direction, but he wasn’t in any mood to deal with it from the Brinkers. They weren’t blood.
“Well that’s good, but you’re gonna have to eventually figure your life out, son.” Ken was taking too much of an initiative for the lost cause sitting cattycorner to him. I wasn’t in any mood to talk about my substantial lack of motivation. He would never truly understand anyway. Some men are doctors, others thinkers.
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me Ken.”
“Noah’s a great writer.” Joy said, still moving her food to different ends of the plate.
“That so? Anything in print?”
“Sorry Ken, nothing’s coming to mind right now.” I wanted him to feel my sarcasm, like it was a carrousel moving around all of us. My kids were riding horses, his were operating systems.
“Well ya know, I think that’s the problem with this particular generation.”
“Dad, don’t.” Brian attempted to be mediator, as if anything would infiltrate Ken’s sternness.
“No, I think we all need to hear this.” He took another swig of his wine. That critical son of a bitch.
“Fine go ahead dad.” Brian reiterated. I looked over at my sister, the supposed feminist. She had point of view on everything, and yet she focused the majority of her attention on the center of her empty plate. We weren’t anything at that point, just twirling lights on the opposite end of the spectrum. These people loved her, and I was the gigantic mistake.
“Noah, your generation has no direction. None of you know what you wanna do, and you all just go from one place to the other, doing harm to your bodies and letting everything fall apart.”
“That’s kind of a generalization there Ken.”
“Well you didn’t let me finish. Take Alanna for example. She’s a year older than you, already graduated, and yet she’s living at home, working some shitty low-level job, going God knows where every night. No direction.”
“And I’m the same way as your daughter, is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that it looks that way right now. I mean, I can just tell with people. I have a sense. I operated on this lawyer the other day, and he made an instant recovery, but then there are others who just don’t really have the will to live.”
“Well maybe that’s because coming out of a coma means they have to deal with their family.” The room remained reasonably silent with the exception of Violet giving a half-hearted chuckle to my comment. She understood everything, and yet could only recall half of it. It was a nice addition to the confinement of the table.
“Yeah, maybe Noah.”
The dinner ended abruptly. I walked out of the dining room to the sound of clanking dishes and Colleen reassuring Joy that she didn’t need any help. I followed my father out to the car as we both grabbed the luggage. He shut the trunk with a sigh. I stared off into the distance once again. The neighborhood was peaceful at night. I thought about diminishing possibilities.
“You shouldn’t let any of that shit get to you.”
“Oh yeah, ya think?”
“I mean, the shit I say, let that get to you, but not from these assholes.”
“These assholes are almost family dad.”
“I know. I have a feeling I’m going to have problems sleeping tonight.”
“You and mom are sharing the same room. I’d say so.”
“Jesus, don’t remind me.”
“So what the fuck’s the point of all of this?”
“I don’t know. This is the last thing we have to do though. The second I’m done walking down the aisle, she’s one of them.”
“What about your toast?”
“I’m planning on being too drunk to remember it.”
“Well that’s a plan.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He threw his green duffel bag over his shoulder, wheeling my mother’s large black suitcase behind him. My father was beyond out of place there, and I think it was one of the first times I ever felt the same way. We were bred for eye rolling; every topic was going to make us cringe. I pictured the women’s conversation. The conflict of mothers in the kitchen. Mine would attempt to like to Colleen, but would never be able to. It was a difficult task for anybody, having to learn to stomach their inevitable replacement.
I set my bag down on the bed in the basement. It was completely finished: a mini-fridge in the corner stocked with an array of imports, satellite TV in front of the red sectional, and a pinball machine in the corner. I could hide away in that room until the ceremony. It was beyond comfortable, like a safe haven for those who lacked remedial open-heart surgery skills. I opened a green bottle and lied on my back, starring up at the ceiling. It had been a long drive, and a headache of a dinner. I was on my last leg, ready to pass out and wake up the next morning reasonably optimistic about the concept of time legitimately passing.
Traces from the joint I rolled on my sleeve to “Bookends” before I left the house, still lingered on my blue jeans. Shep sought out the scent in record time, perusing down the stairs and sniffing my crotch without a second thought. I pushed him off as I took my copy of “You Are Free” out of its case and put it in the small boombox sitting by my empty dresser. I wasn’t going unpack my bag. It would make it feel too much like I was staying for longer than I actually was.
I let the alcohol sink in, finishing the first beer and moving onto several others. I could vaguely hear them upstairs. Joy, Violet, Gail and Colleen all relating to one another in the living room. It was hard to stomach the vague traces of conversation in between songs. I started to drift to a place of somber comfort. Muriel was off in another location, attempting to let her summer pass in waves of supposed new experiences. There would be other guys who inevitably fell in love with her as all of us never truly lived and learned. It would happen quickly, and within a short enough period of time become something similar to us. Exchanged looks the next time we ran into each other would become cold glasses full of distaste. She would no longer be the same vision, my remedial college girlfriend. I would be on the verge of understanding how cold one has to be the second they realize they’re officially an adult, no longer allowed to dance around with those who enjoy hiding in insulation.
I thought about how over love I was, how it had become nothing other than a temporary lapse in judgment, a bad decision on a cold drunken night, a means to escape familiarity and simply fall into somebody else. Lyrics burned my insides. I was ready to move on.
I could vaguely hear her footsteps as she walked into the house. I didn’t listen to conversation much, but heard all of their introductions. She sounded tired, not ready for Joy or Violet. Shep slept peacefully on the floor next to the bed. I awoke with semi-blurred vision; she was still in her waitress uniform, silhouetted by the light from the pinball machine. Alanna Brinker, the lost soul of a generation that was the subject of far too many rants from her father. She was beautifully unique, even when exhausted. I couldn’t think of any clever line, any way to be somewhat different. She would receive a barrage of shaded compliments every day at work, those that meant so much more, and passed like the seasons. She was my salvation, and it felt as if both of us would quickly understand one another. I was on the decline again, falling for first looks, and waiting for thoughts of perfection to take over. I wish she would have understood. I wish she would have learned to hide away like the rest of us, to find the corner that seemed the best suited. I was occupying her area to unwind, but first there was the lingering introduction. We would all become sick of handshakes that weekend.