I go. I tell myself, “Go. You go. And you be brave.” I don’t look away.
I come straight from the airport smelling like vodka and looking like sleep. When I arrive, Diana warns me to tread lightly with my dad. He is slamming doors and stomping around the back bedroom looking for his glasses. When he sees me, he nods, and walks into the front yard. Diana breathes in deep and says, “He is not doing well.” We hear him scream, “God damn it” from the driveway. She has perfected the role of stepmom. She knows how to stand about five feet back and steer cautiously.
I go out to give him a hand. Tired lines are running across his face. He looks older. Who can age in a week? I help him move furniture out of a steel storage container. Their taste is gauche. Porcelain dolls in tacky cherrywood armoires. Modern chaise longues with maroon fringe. Tiny crystal figurines of doves all pristine and empty. We move the whole lot of it back into the house.
“We were gonna do the floors this week. Then…well, this happened.” He pauses, digs into the silence, and fights back the thing that will take him down. He walks into the house without a word, slams the door. Diana stands on the steps, digging into the silence herself. “You hungry?”
I will move things out of the storage container so that in two days’ time, family and strangers can sit on the furniture. So people can stand around a potato salad. So my uncle from my mom’s side can bring a ham. So everyone can ask me about Chicago. ”It’s so cold there, mijo,” one of my dad’s sisters reminds me. “You always live so far…” I am always in these conversations. I am always smiling so fake my temples throb.
“So what happened?” the lady who worked with Tim at 24 Hour Fitness asks me. I’m really good at hating strangers. I hate this one in particular. She gnaws on a baby carrot and holds her overstuffed plate like a platter. “No one’s really told us about what happened, so…” She tilts her head at me. I pause. I remind myself that murder is a crime, and say in a quite polite voice, “It’s really none of your fucking business,” and walk into the kitchen to get my grandpa a Shasta.
Truth be told, I know only the bare bones. When I describe it to the boy I’m going on a series of tepid dates with, I say with greatest and deepest darkness, “Well, my junkie brother finally overdosed. Don’t worry, he’s been dead for years.” He puts his hand on my leg, and I retreat inside somewhere. Somewhere I will live for a long time.
I am a good liar. I hear myself saying things like, “Chicago is good! It’s really starting to happen.” Chicago is not, in fact, happening. It’s the opposite of happening. I moonlight at a new wine bar that directly faces an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room. I have an internship, and my manager who eats her tiny particular lunches has already given me two verbal warnings. I’ve been there thirty days. The only thing keeping me from getting fired from my minimum-wage internship is this funeral. Chicago is tumbling—and my family seems to be going with it.
Much to my surprise, I am strong.
I am strong. I am stronger than all of them. So strong I laugh at their weakness. I laugh in my heart when they throw themselves to the ground. When they drink too much and cry into my lap. I laugh in my head when they stay in bed. The strength, the ability to tuck and seal, to drag and drop, it’s nothing short of amazing. A superpower? A time bomb.
Casey isn’t strong enough to give speeches. He cries and raises in pitch when he says, “Timmy was always my hero.” I follow up and use funeral voice—inspirational voice. My theater training has served me well. I talk the room into a trance. I take the pauses. I watch them cry. I look back at Casey, and he resents me for it. He should. Even here, I have to perform.
In eighteen months at our stepfather Gary’s funeral, he will read a Cat Stevens song. He will sob while he reads the lyrics to “Father and Son”. My analytical brain asks if this song is horribly mis-chosen as eulogy. I won’t have the heart to tell him that. I quietly judge myself for the scrutiny. I imagine that conversation like a campaign manager, conjuring alternatives. I picture us in the car going over drafts of speeches, and me suggesting Frank O’Hara poems. Casey, the skeptical politician says, “Sorry boys, I got to go with my gut.” My family is scattered across the floor like broken bags and I am obsessed with the performance of it all. I judge myself so much that during the reception, I hide in bathroom and drink an entire bottle of wine.
In the middle of so much, the context of the start seems like a distant peninsula. I try to remember an uncomplicated time when we weren’t all scar tissue. When everyone was still alive.
Ten years earlier, at the first funeral, I was chosen to speak when my grandfather died of two strokes and too much. I made the crowd cry. I was proud of that in the moment. I transcended childhood in their eyes. I was smart. I was capable. I didn’t need them. I was a Laguna. I was 18, and therefore knew fucking everything.
The night of my grandfather’s funeral, I had the first in a series of irreversible fights with my mother. In hindsight, I had no idea of the content. I had inherited this inability to fight the real fight. We were always fighting phantoms.
In the morning, I packed my clothes with fury. If there were a rocket back to college, I would have taken it. I tried to call a cab, but Gary shook his head and said, “Come on.” He hadn’t perfected Stepdad yet, but was getting close.
He took me from the house to LAX. We cruised down PCH listening to K-Earth 101. He hummed along to Stevie Wonder and told me shitty jokes. He tried to dig me out of my silence. He tapped his fat hands against the steering wheel while I, arms crossed, scowled at the 72-degree day. Finally, he turned the music off and put his hand on my shoulder. “You know, you could stand to make your approach a little gentler with your mom.”
I was 18, and therefore obliged to raise my voice and say things like:
Gary shook his head. “You know, faster and louder, I’m not interested in it. I’d rather talk like friends.” That was the final fight I ever had with Gary, and the beginning of a friendship over email.
I would run back to Seattle. I would run to college. I’d learn autonomy. I’d learn how to charm the pants off dudes. I’d spend too much time being miserable. I’d learn to wear pants that fit. I’d wear western shirts. I would work at cool places and get “known” at bars. I would graduate. I’d turn 21. I’d have great parties. I’d get free coffee at Bauhaus, free coffee at Filter, free burritos at Bimbo’s, free drinks everywhere. I’d be Seattle in every way. I would start to see how empty culture is. I would get scared. I’d meet a boy, and he’d meet someone else. I’d apply online for an internship in Chicago. I’d be accepted. I’d leave.
But first, I’d tell my best friend Sarah over Black Labels at Linda’s. I’d say it casually, with no tact, “Yeah, I’m moving to Chicago.” This would begin a series of fractures. She wouldn’t tell me, but I’d catch her crying.
But before we broke, and we did break, she got in the Blazer with me, the Blazer being the one and only car I have ever owned. She always got in the Blazer with me. We drove everywhere together, and in some ways still do. We drove to California to see my stepsister get married. I had to stop to sleep in Olympia, because going-away parties always have cocaine.
We ate sandwiches in Medford. I gagged when a spider crawled out of my bologna. I knocked over a jar of mayonnaise. We sat on the hood of the Blazer in our sunglasses. I keep a picture of this on my fridge.
We stayed in San Francisco. We got terribly lost in the Tenderloin. We laughed deliriously. We were lost, and as always, enjoyed even the worst moments. We didn’t know it then, but we’d both end up there eight years later.
We slept that night like the dead. We woke up late. We watched central California fly by like lighting, like energy. We listened to oldies and sang loudly, unembarrassed. You can only sing like this in front of some people. We smelled cow shit and left the windows open. I cried while she was in the bathroom in Salinas.
We got to my parents home and the wedding machine will have already departed without me. Gary met us in the driveway. We hugged, and he turned to my mom in the doorway to say, “I gotta hug!” She rolled her eyes and asked me to move the car farther down the driveway.
Everyone was there. Tíos and tías, all my cousins, the great aunts, and everyone else I only see at weddings. Mom was in the laundry room, and gave me a brief wave. I asked, “How’s things?”
She answered, “We’ve all been very busy with wedding. How are you?”
I found the biggest glass of wine.
We all went into the basement. Gary got us stoned. He bragged about the small plane he’d bought. He beamed when he talked about his students—and practicing takeoffs and landings. I made fun of his Tommy Bahama shirt and his shoes I call “Planet Of The Apes feet.” He laughed so hard he squeezed out a fart, and we all comically ran from the basement. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t sweat your mom, okay? She is just, you know, your mom.”
We walked to the beach. Casey and Mom stayed and cooked together. I watched them from the window. They laughed and collaborated. I imagined myself floating backward. Through the eucalyptus, sucked through the bulk of it, cutting clouds and colliding against the constellations. I watched them glow from the periphery—a perfect window square, bright amber in a sea of blue. They sautéed and told secrets while I was pulled farther into the marine layer. Sarah said, “Dave?” And I was back on earth, holding an empty glass of wine.
We walked to the beach. We got my twelve-year-old cousin stoned. We crunched sand in our palms. We drank cold Coronas with salted rims. Gary rolled an enormous joint. He told us stories about seeing Alice Cooper and the Yardbirds. About living on a commune, and why the ’60s didn’t work. Casey joined us and forced us to do shots.
I woke up dehydrated. I ran a million errands. I put on the black suit and red shirt, and Casey said I was dressed like Satan. I ran a million more errands. I tried not to take it personally that I wasn’t in the wedding. I laughed it off. I got the caterer to make me a Manhattan.
Sarah spent the day at the beach. She was sunburned in her floral dress. My cousin Nick looked at her cleavage. Sarah said, “My eyes are up here, buddy,” and we all laughed. She touched his arm, and we drank champagne.
The wedding felt perfect.
I greeted everyone and handed out programs. I saw Willis, who I didn’t recognize at first. He noticed when it registered across my face, and the subsequent recovery. I gave him a hug and promised to come to the valley to eat carnitas at El Presidente. He wasn’t my uncle, he wasn’t my godfather, but the sinew was similar. I remembered in that moment he had cancer. I’d never see him again. I missed that funeral.
The wedding still felt perfect. Gary gave a toast. He sang a Cat Stevens song. We all cried. He danced with my stepsister. That’s the snapshot I retain for eternity. When he was gone, he would still be frozen in slow formation, feet stuck in the quicksand of my memory, holding my sister against a new suit.
I was taking a dump when “Hey Ya” played, and I ran to the dance floor. I danced with my tías. I performed for the strangers. Sarah went missing, and my mom, in my peripheral vision, danced with Casey. They smiled so wide I went to the far bar and make a drink, mostly whiskey. I got behind the bar. I made drinks for everyone. I had fun. We laughed. The neighbors called the police. We danced anyway.
I spun around and saw the sea: The sea of skirts and suits, the sea of flowers tipped over tables, the sea of trees and whispers, the sea of doubt, the sea of wondering why, the wondering when: “When will you come home?” Though I was going farther. “Why don’t you visit more?” Though I came twice a year.
I spun so much, saw so many seas, that I slept in the den.
I woke up to children. I woke up to chorizo. I woke up to a timeline. I hugged my sister. I kissed my tías. I woke up Sarah, and by proxy my cousin Nick. They both blushed.
I carried Sarah’s suitcase to the car. I walked across the back of the Blazer and dragged my fingers through the dust and stickers. I traced the outlines of all the band stickers, the NPR membership sticker, the NRA sticker that my grandfather had on the truck before he gave it to me. I traced the outline of dust. I made a map of sorts on the back of my car.
We got to the airport, and our conversation so far was nothing. I was hungover, she was hungover, and we both wanted to go back to sleep. I pulled the car to the curb, and we faced off. We were always waiting for the other to decide if we were going to be serious. She handed me stack of CDs from her purse, all with illustrated covers. She said I couldn’t play them until she left. I laughed and said, “Okay, dude.”
As I pulled out of Burbank airport, I wondered why I didn’t say, “You are my best friend, and I am going to miss you.” What I think I said is, “See ya later, fatso.” I stopped at the freeway entrance and popped in the first CD. The first song was called “Stay Where You Are.”
I parked the Blazer in the yard. I never drove it again.
Mom and Gary weren’t home. Casey was back in Santa Monica. My stepsister was on her honeymoon. Nick was back in the bay. Sarah was flying above the coastline. I sat on the steps. The sprinklers clicked and clapped as the caterers disassembled the party. I walked across the lawn and saw the wedding had vanished. I saw the moment when my family packed twelve chairs high into a flat bed—into the abyss of a U-Haul. I walked out to the beach, but it was too foggy to see the sunset.
“I am going to be fine.” I kept telling myself that. All through the first two months in a city I didn’t necessarily love. Chicago is a town built on reciprocation. If you give yourself to it, it will give itself back.
I started my internship. I lived in a loft with two Craigslist roommates. I made their friends my friends. I started dating a boy who my roommates called “Douchebag.” I threw small dance parties in the middle of the night. One of these dance parties was interrupted by a 3:00 AM phone call:
“Timmy passed.” Dad’s voice, though undetectable.
And I paused.
And I paused.
And I pause.
“What? What happened?” I am stronger than all of them.
“Just come home.”
I returned within forty-eight hours, and I emptied the storage container. We ate stale chips and drank Shasta. Casey and I performed for the family. Dad kept himself busy with the trash. I walked out into the empty street and screamed, just once, and went back inside.
Days later, when Timmy’s death is ruled accidental, I say, “Bullshit!” audibly.
My dad says, “Well, that’s what’s on the papers. What do you want me to say?” and walks into the yard, and sits in the gazebo.
The boring bones of it are: he took a bunch of somethings, went to the hospital, then the hospital gave him something, and he died. I decide then and there not to excavate anymore. I imagine Timmy alone, under a static TV, with a mosaic of pills drilling a hole through his stomach and into our family.
We scatter him at Laguna Beach. I forget the sound of his voice within a year.
Two Januarys later, Gary’s plane will evaporate into the Lancaster desert and make my mom forever foreign to all of us—unreachable and uninterested. It will be ruled a mechanical error—manufacturer’s mistake. We will bury him in a mausoleum stacked a row above his father. We will have one funeral and two memorials for him. I will skip the next three deaths out of self-preservation.
I will go back to Chicago. I will meet a boy who can’t compete with my nightmares. I will meet another, but by that time love will feel like a joke, like a limerick. Sarah will come to Chicago. And leave. We will break a second time. Years later, we will meet again in San Francisco, but it will be different.
I will be a lagoon. I am a Laguna. I will live my life as a Laguna. I will be a separate body of water next to the ocean of my affiliated.
I will be at another sister’s wedding in San Francisco, and I will refuse to perform, and I will refuse to dance. I will feel the foundation rattle under me, and shift the gulf even wider. I will say out loud, “I am lost” and I know that no one can hear me. I moved too far away.
I will sit in my Chicago apartment, covered in cat hair and collections of books I don’t read, records I don’t play, and an echo of myself. I pack it all into 19 boxes and send them to San Francisco.
I make a little promise. Breakable, but it’s a promise to the gallery of ghosts who keep me company. I promise to build, I promise to change, and I promise to come back. It’s not all pain, but sometimes pain is the default. I will try not to be selfish. I will try to be strong by their standards. I will float with an invisible tether to the sea of all of them.
I will always answer the phone when it rings late at night.
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Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.