Before we could
begin the drive south to Dan’s mother’s funeral, before I mixed three
homemade gin and tonics for myself, before I jutted my hips alone, in my
dorm room, and packed, red-faced and frenzied, for a week of mourning
with a family that wasn’t mine, Dan took his Greek exam. He was
studying Greek to translate the Bible. He wanted to go to Divinity
School after college. He was, he said, interested in religion in an
academic manner, one that made him talk about Christianity in a looming,
abstract way—as though it was something distant and unfelt. In his
practicing life, he drank as much as any of us, lied when he had to, and
did what he wanted. We went to the same small, liberal arts college and
we were friends, unexplainably, from nearly the start. When his mother
died, he didn’t mention God at all.
I always get drunker alone.
My plan was to mix a light drink slow, maybe paint my nails, then fold
my clothes carefully, and read a bit, while waiting for Dan to finish.
Instead, the first drink whooshed to my head. I checked the halls then,
for any sign of life, but everyone seemed to be working or pretending to
work, so I ducked back inside and made myself another. I wanted
cigarettes. I wanted music. Then I realized I needed to pack, and
fast. By the time Dan’s careful knock came down on my door, his
tentative, Jessica?, my ashtray was half-full with the smooshed
half-carcasses of Camel Lights. He took the first shift without asking
and didn’t talk to me until we were midway through Delaware. Usually we
weren’t allowed cigarettes in Dan’s car but we smoked them then,
sneaking the plumes and butts out an inch of cracked window.
Dan and I switched places near
Virginia Beach. He pulled off the highway and down a darkened, curving
road. The gas station looked lonely and ominous; the lights inside the
store were off. Dan paid with a card at the pump. Bugs I didn’t know
and the lights over the station buzzed. I didn’t know we had beer in
the backseat, but Dan fished out a forty from somewhere. He took a swig
of it, and I caught the sallow, ghostly bulge of his pale neck as he
stared off into nothingness. The light veins over his skin were
“You don’t mind driving?” he
I tugged at one of my braids
and shook my head. Dan studies in the library for eight hours a day.
He locks himself in one of the old typing rooms on the second floor, the
kind where the white table bears the marks of the typewriter where it
used to be bolted into place. These rooms have no windows. People put
Post-it Notes on them labeled Do Not Disturb, and they mean it.
Sometimes, hours after dinner, after my room is too quiet for reading
and the night looms long, I search the narrow hallway for Dan, knocking
softly, hoping to find his exact hunch over the desk, his bent redhead
and bony shoulders. Dan likes cats. He likes to stare at the
ceiling. From what I know, from the few I’ve spoken to, he is not so
nice to the girls he invites into bed. Dan and I met in a lecture on
Romantic Poetry, one that met mid-afternoon in a fall that surged early
on, head-on into winter, snow by October and ice by November. The first
thing he said to me was, Jessica, right? I’ve never forgotten
that. Jessica, right?
Dan settled into the passenger
seat with the forty between his legs. Any other time I would’ve said
something chastising. “Weather should be nice,” he said. “You’ll see
some flowers. Camellias, forsythias, azaleas, and some other zaleas.
“I remember, when we went to
your house last year—”
“Yeah,” Dan cut me off.
There was no one on the
highway. Dan and I had hardly exchanged words from New York. It was
killing me, but I wanted him to be as silent or loud as he wanted.
“I didn’t bring anything to
wear,” Dan said quietly. “I just realized that.”
“You don’t have anything at
Dan shook his head. “My
brother’s wedding—everything’s at school.”
Dan’s brother Mark got married
in Connecticut a few months ago to this beautiful, demure girl named
Sally. He made me go with him, because there’d be an open bar, he said,
and I could shop for some man who made lots of money like his brother
and be set for life. He envied that about girls, he told me more than
once. If I wanted to, he said, I could go all-out pretty and escape
from having to make something of myself. I wore a dress and danced with
his father in my stocking feet, shucking my heels off beneath a white
linen tablecloth. I kissed his mother goodnight for the first time; I’d
known her for years then, and if asked, yes, I loved the woman. Our
parting was affectionate and loud, and she said, What a pity you’re
not a Sally. Her hand crept to her mouth afterwards, as though she
wished she could stuff the words back in. Dan and I went to the hotel
room and fell asleep above the covers, the TV flashing silent when we
woke, dry-mouthed and cramped in our dress clothes. A month later, we
found out his mother was sick.
We got lost on some back roads
in North Carolina. The roads got too skinny and blue for me to follow
on the map. Dan was horrible at reading a map; he didn’t know this part
of the state well, he’d never driven between school and home without the
counsel of someone wiser. We pulled into a lit parking lot and cowered
over the map. Finally, we realized we needed to turn around. Without
speaking, Dan left the car. He stood in front of a giant bear statue
advertising a car wash. It wasn’t until I rolled the window down that I
heard the sound of his piss sizzle against the pavement.
Dan had asked me to come along
to his mother’s funeral quietly. He knocked on my door early, just two
hours after dinner, half a six-pack dangling from his thin, pale
fingers. We’d each finished a beer before he said it, peering into the
mirror over my dresser and speaking at his reflection in earnest. He
said he needed someone to come along for the drive; his father didn’t
want him to do it alone. He wasn’t sure anyone else could sweet-talk
professors into understanding the early bolt from the gate, just one
week shy of spring break. Besides, he said, better to have me bumbling
along than one of our male friends, who would just get drunk, he said,
and screw his cousins. So would I come home with him, he said.
I kept expecting something to
leap from North Carolina’s side roads. Maybe in the daylight peaches
would gleam friendly and some old woman would pour iced tea on a porch
drenched in charm. But at night, I felt ghosts, I felt death, I felt
alone. Dan’s forty, I saw, was swigged down to a couple of inches at
the bottom. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and squinted
through his glasses into the darkness.
He flung a hand wide, tapping
the windows. “This is where I’m from, and I can’t even navigate.”
I shrugged, easing my skin
inside the sweatshirt I always wore then—navy blue with yellow letters
from some high school in Pennsylvania. It’d belonged to some hook-up of
Dan’s who’d left it in his room. I wore it everywhere, too comfortable
to wonder who hated me for it. “You can’t read maps—so what?”
There was another reason Dan
asked me to his mother’s funeral, besides what he wasn’t saying about us
being so close, about me knowing his mother, about me being someone to
count on. There was something he wasn’t saying, and that something was
my twin brother, Brady, who leapt off a bridge over Lake Washington the
winter we were both seventeen. Brady had always been afraid of water
and never learned to swim, he cried in big, gulping gusts during the
lessons and no on had the heart to force him from a single length of the
pool. The autopsy knew, somehow, that the impact off the bridge didn’t
kill him but that drowning had. He’d struggled, apparently, they can
tell by measuring the height of water in the lungs and the idea is, my
twin brother fought to stay afloat before he died. The unsaid thing
being that his suicidal ideas got undone in hang time between the bridge
and the water’s surface and if he’d been able to swim, he wouldn’t have
killed himself after all. Dan would never tell me—and didn’t have
to—that he thought I might know something about someone dying.
“I’d just like to get there,”
Dan said, draining the last of his forty. He rolled down the window and
hurled the empty bottle into the thick night. I like the South; it’s
seems foreign, rich to me, soaked in legend and charm. Dan doesn’t
understand, and I tell him everything in the Northwest seems new, even
the trees, the pines coming back green each winter, the mountains
staying stoic against a backdrop of fresh gray. Dan said, “My brother’s
“I brought a skirt,” I said
suddenly. “A black skirt. Not a dress. I hope that’s fine for the
“My parents,” Dan said, “love
you. It won’t matter what you wear.”
Dan hadn’t noticed his use of
parents, but I had. “Whatever,” I said.
“They think we should get
married,” Dan said, letting that dangle. He rearranged his knees then,
and a laugh choked out. I laughed too, grappling in the center console
for a cigarette.
We smoked furiously, in
silence. I sped along, retracing our steps, eking out Dan’s home.
The car’s lights roved softly
over the dirt roads leading to Dan’s house. He lives tucked away in the
wooded area outside of town, on a road past an endless amount of car
dealerships. We sat in the car a few long moments before Dan made any
sign of going in. Even then, he stood with his backpack hitched over
his shoulder, looked up at the large house he’d grown up in, and
sighed. It was after four. Dan led us through the garage and into the
kitchen, where we helped ourselves to big bowls of cereal in the
kitchen’s watery light.
In Dan’s high school bedroom,
we drank a beer each, then Dan flopped onto a mattress he’d dragged from
the closet and nodded me toward the bed. The shadows cast over the
things Dan’s parents stored there: a drum set, a sewing machine, boxes
of cable knit sweaters and plaid shirts, a purple medicine ball. It
wasn’t long before Dan’s snores rose and fell with regularity and ease.
The funeral for Dan’s mother
was at a church. I sat by Dan, just as Sally, Mark’s wife, sat by
Mark. Dan’s father sat rigid and alone at one end of the pew, his
family granting him the berth of, I suppose, the most bereaved. I’d
woken up to Dan’s empty mattress and the heavy quiet of a large house.
From the kitchen, Dan’s red hair looked messy, peaceful almost, in his
sprawl on the sun porch couch. It wasn’t until I slid open the door and
stared along with him, at the grass bounding over the hills toward the
trees, that I saw the open bottle of vodka he was sipping from. He
looked at me sideways, his morning eyes darker and small, and brought
the bottle to his lips.
Brady’s funeral was like his
death: quick, brutal, bewildering. His sloppy friends played rock music
on the stereo. I felt older by disapproving, somehow, of the songs’
fleetingness, how I knew we’d forget the lyrics just a few years later.
People cried. I cried. They brought the food. My parents and I sat-
stunned- before the TV after it was over and the channel remained
unchanged for hours.
At Dan’s mother’s funeral, the
Southern accents rose around me, then cracked, like cookies from the
oven. Their pain unfurled from them like steam. People patted Dan on
the shoulder, as if to encourage him to buck up, rise to the occasion
tragedy presented. How terrible, I thought. When my brother died,
everyone invited me to be a little girl again.
At the reception, people set
out warm rolls, baskets of crackling fried chicken, platters of
asparagus, potatoes, regimented squares of corn bread. Dan and I mixed
big drinks of mostly gin, a little tonic, and gulped them, staggering
out the sun porch to smoke cigarettes. I kept catching glimpses of his
father, who wandered the crowd, looking horrified and brittle. No one
noticed when we went upstairs to nap.
We woke, surprised,
late-evening. The TV was on when we went downstairs, but no one was
home. The food was cleared away, just a lone stack of napkins left in
its wake, standing guard near the edge of a long, wooden table. Numbly,
we ravaged the leftovers—ripping off hunks of rolls and plunging them
into tupperwares of macaroni and cheese or casserole. Sally wandered in
at one point, her lipstick still in place, smelling of lavender, and
fixed herself an iced tea. She rubbed Dan’s shoulders and murmured her
sorrow into him. Then she touched my hip and told me, Jessica, how nice
it is to see you again. You too, I said. Yes. Then Sally walked up
the stairs, her black, knee-length dress swaying calmly as she did.
Dan looked up at the ceiling,
holding a wing of fried chicken in front of his face like a ghost. He
looked to me. “I guess my Dad’s sleeping.” Dan ripped a hunk from the
chicken. “I guess he might need some alone time.”
I opened two beers and handed
Dan one. Our fingers brushed over the bottleneck and there, that, was
my way of giving his shoulder a squeeze. “Sure,” I said.
Dan’s face still bore marks of
his blanket, a crosshatch over one cheek. His adam’s apple bobbed as he
gulped the beer. After he finished half of it, he asked me what we
“Watch a movie.” I shrugged.
“A really dumb movie.”
There was a TV in the hallway
outside of Dan’s bedroom, a little nook adorned with built-in shelves
and a wide, L-shaped couch. Dan pulled a DVD from the shelf and ripped
the cellophane from it; no one had watched it yet, even. We watched a
simple movie about guns, car chases, and instant, clear, bloody death.
Dan nudged me awake sometime later, motioning toward his bedroom door.
The frame of his body startled me; he looked like such a man, bent over
me, there in the semi-dark, lit by the glow of the TV.
I was eating olives from a
bowl balanced between my thighs when Dan’s brother, Mark, came
downstairs. I’d woken up in Dan’s room still-dressed and suddenly
hungry, so I crept through the house toward the kitchen. I sat on the
counter, my stockinged-legs swinging, feet drumming the wooden
cabinets. I ate in the light cast by the fridge’s waterspout. I looked
up, bringing my teeth down over the mouth of an olive, and saw Mark
standing across from me: tall, thicker than Dan, eyes clearer, blanker,
without the glasses that made Dan’s loom.
Mark reached between my thighs
and brought an olive to his mouth. He looked at me and the olive
slipped between his lips. He was lucky it wasn’t pitted; the moment
would have grown legs and run out the open window and into the night.
Instead, he reached over, natural as the spring coming, and put his hand
behind my neck. He brought the rest of his body closer, as if I’d drawn
him in. He reached down and took the bowl of olives from between my
legs. He kept his eyes open when he kissed me. I knew because I did
“I’ve wanted to do this for
awhile,” Mark said into my neck. His hands traveled the length of my
back. “God. I even noticed you at the wedding. I love Sally, I do,
As if it were a grimace, I
wrapped my legs around his torso. Mark’s tall; we were almost at
eye-level, me perched on the counter.
“I don’t know what he’s
thinking,” Mark said. Then he said it again, “Jesus.”
I unwrapped my legs, slid down
the counter, and tugged my tights back into place. I straightened the
collar of my shirt, smoothed the edges of my skirt. I said, “I can’t.
I just can’t.”
Mark shook his head and went
on as though he hadn’t heard me. “I mean, look at you,” he said.
Dan did not speak to me until
I lay down on his bed. It was so long, my eyes adjusted to the darkness
and I saw his outline lift himself up and onto his elbows. “Where’d you
go?” he said, his voice heavy.
“Nowhere,” I told him, pulling
the covers of his childhood bed over me.
He sounded like a little boy,
asking questions into the darkness of a room.
“I miss my brother every day,”
I told him. “Every day.”
“Oh,” Dan said. Then, “Yeah.
You know, in the Bible—”
“Don’t intellectualize this.
It’s different,” I kept on, meanness stampeding through me. “He killed
himself. He did something on purpose.”
“It’s not your fault.” Dan
paused. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
“Shut up,” I said. Dan didn’t
sound like a little boy anymore. He didn’t sound bewildered. He
sounded tired. “Don’t say all those things. You know it’s not true.”
I knew Dan wanted help
navigating through his sorrow. I knew he thought my tragedy would help
light the way across his. But how, I wondered, could he have ever
thought any two landscapes of such sadness could be similar?
“I’m not Sally,” I said,
remembering his mother.
“What?” Dan said.
“I’m not like Sally.” I
turned over in his bed.
Dan’s voice came up from
below, aged with fatigue. “No one ever said you were.”
In the spring, Dan’s studying
lessened and he found a girlfriend named Callie. She was short with a
ring through her nose, and her name, the way her laugh echoed down a
hallway, made me crazy. Alone, in my room, mourning what I’d never
given the chance to become mine, I felt like my brother. He’d sat
alone, those last few months, ignored by all of us, wailing along with
the awful strums of his guitar. I saw Dan’s family again at graduation,
where everyone touched and smiled, inviting me into pictures. His
father bent to embrace me, and I saw a little life breathed back into
his cheeks and was glad. Even Dan’s glasses wobbled when he pressed
them into my shoulder, arms wrapping with a fierceness. I felt about
him like a scab, as though all were contained for now. Our families
mingled, as if they were people who had known each other once. Mark
though, brushed past me like an apparition, Sally at his side like a