I look around my childhood room as I wake up, opening random cardboard boxes as if on a game show. Behind door number one, we have old Fear Street novels, where teenagers gasp at CGI fires engulfing Gothic mansions. In box number two, piles of dusty book reports. In box number three, sweaters I no longer wear, including a stained cardigan and one of Scott's hoodies which simply refused to fit in my suitcase no matter how hard I tried. And so on.
I stare out the oriel window at the neighbors’ yard. They have moved, and the new ones have children. A swing set has sunk in, a deflated kiddie pool spreads like a plastic puddle. This is what I expected for my first homecoming from college, change. And there is not much of it.
As he did the day I left, my father is smoking on the porch, since my mother only tolerates the smell of her own cigarettes.
As it was the day I left, the garden gnome with the goo-green eyes is still missing its nose.
As was the case the day I left, my mother has yet to forgive my brother for releasing his book.
As it was.
“I was creative too,” she hisses at me on the phone, “I was a painter. But never like this.”
Ben's novel was only published six months ago, so there is time to forgive and forget. I have pinned my invitation to the launch behind my dorm's mirror: Dear Vanessa Holter, you are cordially invited to the exciting launch of Ben St. George's promising debut novel, Arboreal Laws. Please confirm whether you can attend ASAP, and we hope to see you there! No plus ones.
At the back of the card there is a portrait of my brother. The gloss on its surface fragments his face, splashes of light dulling his features. I could not make the event, and it is probably for the best.
My phone buzzes as I brush my teeth. Scott wants to meet by the beach. He's always liked a good walk, especially in these wet autumns where there is nothing but the gray strip of sand, and then us. I twist my mouth to the side. I could do a walk. I do not know if I can do Scott. I tell him maybe later.
I carefully descend the steep stairs, and realize that Ben and I used to race all around the house. Did that worry our mother? I'm sure it did. My hand clings to the banister, my sleek patent shoes clicking against the rosewood.
I crane my neck in the study. My mother is smoking and reading her newspaper, sitting stiffly in her winter-cracked leather armchair. I always think her cigarettes won't light up, the house is just that damp. Put a sweater on, she'd snap when I'd complain.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks me, barely looking up from the pages. My guess is she's looking at real estate. She'd never let go of the house, but she's always enjoyed asking people if they are one hundred percent sure that their paint is lead-free, or which company they chose to test for asbestos or if the foundations are as good as they think they are. She is convinced she knows how to protect a house better than anybody else. She would even interrupt our family walks and stroll into people's gardens to ask them these questions. They would pucker their mouths and reluctantly answer, before she flashed them a smirk and walked off, asking us what we were staring at.
“Yeah, it was alright. I'm going to go for a walk, I'll be back for lunch.”
“Take a coat, Vanessa. You're not an idiot, you know it's going to rain.”
I do not answer. One of my mother's favorite syntaxes is that one is not something. I was not many things. An idiot is a personal favorite, although in private and in the nineties she'd often tell me that I wasn't retarded. I was not a whore. I was not a circus freak. I was not the outcome of incest. Perhaps this is where my brother got his gift for words.
For a moment I wonder if she is going to mention Ben. But she goes back to her collapsing houses, trailing a precise finger over the gray paper, curling at the edges.
I grab a lava-red raincoat from the rack in the parlor and pop its hood over my head. Instead of small handles holding up the garments, there are wooden duck heads. I have had enough wood for a lifetime: this house is layers of fir upon layers of fir. They are called Douglas firs around here, a name I have always found quite distinguished, injecting a gentleman-like quality to our forests. Wet ferns curtain the stone path from the front door to the gate. The grass seems too lush to be true, almost like frosting on a cake.
I walk past the little shops and houses, and find that I am not too out of place. I was convinced that I would come back from Chicago and find the style here horrendous, small-town and provincial. Instead I find that my reflections are the same. My mother repeatedly told me to dress in drab as I grew up. “People always regret bright colors,” she would say, sneering, “and none of that all black nonsense either. That's for people who have no taste and want to trick you into thinking they do.”
I stop in front of what used to be my grandmother's shop. We still own it, but lease it out. (My parents have no patience for customer service.) Instead of my grandmother's bright display of Sour Patch and gummy twists she used to make herself, heavy and pastel pink, there is a little café. We rent it to two old men who won't admit they're a couple but only own one bed. They sell homemade pastries and grunt when they put your cup of coffee down. Young people in the area find them quaint or perhaps ironic, and so the place is always full.
I slip down quiet roads, tar patches nearing swallowing forests, rocks erupting from the ground, their motion petrified. A thin rain starts falling, and I wish it hadn't.
Ben did not completely fabricate his pen name. Our maternal grandmother, Katherine George, was the one who owned the sweets shop in town. She died of lung cancer before Ben and I were born, and so the only thing I know about her is that she once caught my mother scarfing down a chocolate hen behind the counter. Maybe Ben knows more. The Saint he found in Katherine's mother, Elizabeth St. Cross, whose father was quite big in textiles at a time but was then ruined by some depression or another. Both women's names went extinct, dissolved into marriage. Until Ben came along. This is typical of my brother. Excavate what has been lost, then make it his own. Claim. When I was little he would hide my toys until I forgot about them entirely. Then, he would gradually expose them and act as though they had always been his. Daddy brought this back from his business trip to Vancouver, don't you remember? I could never remember. And he always did.
I look around nervously, aware that Scott could pop out of every nook or corner of the town. I have prepared excuses for why I am out and did not tell him, some fake fight with my mother I rehearse in my head as I walk.
We have not seen each other since I moved to Chicago and he to Toronto for college. When I boarded the plane yesterday, I became abruptly aware that I did not want to see him. The realization was there, physical as a strange egg between my palms. I calmly unfolded a napkin on the tray table and listed the reasons why, but could not come up with one that satisfied me. The first word I responded to was nerves. And then I realized that I was, all too simply, afraid to see him.
I was afraid that when I held his hand, it would feel abstract, wrong, like a stranger's. That I would try and kiss him and his mouth would suddenly be an inch higher than it used to be. In the taxi, smoothing down my charcoal sleeves, I thought that it might just be the other way round. Maybe he would be the same, the exact same, the prim, untouched same. And when I touched him, it would not be skin that I would grasp but dead cells he had failed to shed. When I balled up in my twin bed that smelled like fresh detergent and dust, I uncrumpled the napkin and found that these short black arrows and words trapped in bubbles that meant so much had all smudged. Maybe I was just scared Scott would think that of me.
I do not know if I want an answer.
I realize I am standing next to the beach, on a parking lot deserted in these colder months. No black vans crowned with surfboards, flat as collapsed orca fins. A broken sign points downwards, under the concrete. I try and set a foot on the wet, gray sand, long as whale's back, but find that I cannot. Scott could find me here. His parents live a ways away on the beach, in a glossy modern cube, an aesthetic my mother promptly called nouveau-riche before asking them what the flood risk looked like, this close to the Pacific Ocean. My family might live half an hour from the beach, but my parents have always told Ben and me that we were an inland people. Somehow, if there were a flood, a tide, if something happened, we would be spared, since we are card-carrying landlocks.
At school, I remember sitting in the front with inland children, while sea kids had to go to the back, and I remember them sniffling more. Scott and I got together in high-school, when these differences had eroded to almost nothing, although we had differing opinions regarding whether it was preferable to steal your parents’ wine and drink it in the forest, or by the sea.
The sea air washes thickly on my face. This is not my territory. Why am I even here? I may be laying bait. I may want an answer more than I think. I may want an excuse more than I realize.
My mother painted this beach when she still managed to sell. This is what she painted, rainy things, silent and neatly packaged. Water mills. Forests. Windows. At first she was praised for the emptiness of her work, its Hopperesque quality. (I do not remember if she was pleased by that parallel.) Critics enjoyed the no-nonsense behind it. It is what it is, she would snap whenever anybody tried to interpret her work.
It became tougher for her in the eighties. Nobody cared about landscapes if they weren't political. They expected for her to have a message, to say something a bit more obvious. An interview with a gallery informed me that they had begged her to paint a character, and she had refused. I suppose it is hard to spin a statement on gender out of a rock. She was quickly swept to the side, replaced by collages of decapitated women or war photographers, which were popular in the area. Her smooth beaches or tall trees seemed privileged at that point, out of touch. When I pressed her on this issue once I was of age to romanticize her career, the only thing she said was if there weren’t some genitals or a dead kid, nobody cared.
And so, nobody speaks of her and she does not speak of herself. Her pieces, the rare ones that are still in circulation, are marketed as Pacific kitsch. It was interesting to spot similar feedback on my brother's novel. One critic called his writing “uppity.” Another said that Much like Mister St. George's name, the book reads well, but with an upper-class snootiness to it.
I still cannot move, do not manage to break the parking lot's boundary. Even the white strips seem to grow thicker, layering themselves into walls. My phone buzzes. Scott asks me if my brother is here.
No. My mom's still pretty pissed.
He replies he doesn't understand why she's that angry. He's right when he says there's nothing in the book about our lives. Still, there is a mother, a father and a sister and people just assume, I remind him.
Did it even change anything, he asks me.
Literally nothing. But my mom's got this mob mentality: never betray the family.
I still cannot walk forward. I wait for the tide to pick up, for the water to come to me. I wait for no reason.
I read my brother's book a month after it came out. At first I wanted to be dignified and hold out on it. But it was featured in my roommate Shelley's book group and I took it as a sign. Some of it was disappointing. It takes place in a small town, which is easy to write. You can jam in quaint wackos, roll out empty roads, add a sprinkle of economic depression, and mention fog. What's more, it is a child's game to suggest the worst: priest's hands rustling up skirts, ancient societies or cults, scars running underneath the watery surface, discarded bodies in the forest, lurid, wet and naked.
And then there is the family, with its similar sets of dark assumptions, a disfigured child in the attic, and another in the basement. Abortions. Abuse. Assaults. Using both of these traditions felt lazy, but I am probably unkind. Apart from one periodical calling it gossip fiction—which I'm fairly sure wouldn't have been the case were my brother not gay—critics praised the mix of high-brow and low-brow, the post-ironic. They got their terms confused but it hardly mattered.
Of course, there are things which make sense only to me and which I would've rather not known. I could've done without a thinly-veiled account of how he lost his virginity to “Paul Bord” in a forest clearing where we used to play house. Paul Bord is really Patrick Plink, and from what I know is now married to Rosie Atkinson, who was a waitress at the old men's café a while back. In the same vein, if I could forget the scene where a girl oddly resembling my cousin Frankie takes cocaine with the main character and then tells them they should sleep with homeless men for the rush of it, I would die a happy woman.
Then, there was a scene much was written about, where the main character walks into his sister's room (who was shipped off to boarding school for being a bulimic) and tries to hang himself, using a high beam. He described my periwinkle walls, my powder-blue slippers, the mirror in which he could see his dangling feet flash like old-fashioned slides. The noose was poorly knotted, and he fell to the ground. That happened, my brother said for a Dazed and Confused interview, during my first homecoming from college.
The hanging scene was recreated in a MiuMiu photoshoot. Everybody likes a good corpse, as long as it's wrapped in silk. It is also the second and final time the sister is mentioned. Which means my slippers were more extensively described than I was.
I give up on the beach and decide to walk home. Scott will not find me in my house. He is, like everyone, afraid of my mother. I think he might even be scared of her gnomes, as if she had spell-bound the eyes, duplicating her vision. Snitches get stitches and this is perhaps why Ben kept breaking them. Accidentally. Or so he claimed.
As I walk back through the forest, I check my brother's Instagram. He sometimes advertises products, creams or teas. Scott was a bit horrified at the prospect. He's got to eat, I remember saying. That is also something which was written about a fair deal. Someone called him the new merchant-artist, selling their soul in style. This time, I don't know if I should point to Ben being gay or to us being Jewish. A tweet referred to him as kike-chic, and has since been deleted. I suppose the perpetrator wanted to look interesting. Some people don't have many options.
Ben posted a new picture an hour ago. His hands, long and white against a silver sheet. One balled into a fist, the other with only two fingers sticking out. A code. There is no caption but an emoji I would describe as a dazzle. The location tag reads Paris. I wonder if he is circling the room of an off-the-road motel, or taking a bath in some five-star suite. Alone, or with a boyfriend he never cared to mention. At any rate, he is not here.
I scroll through his profile. Many of his photos are disembodied. Blurry feet on golden tiles. His forehead, topped with tufts of hair, crowned by a Byzantine ceiling. Hands, especially. Swimming in the air. I think he tries to make himself look less alive than he actually is. Dead voices have much power. If he had killed himself or been hit by a truck or caught leprosy, our lives would be quite different. We'd have to honor him as a ghost, and the only trace of him would be a book we do not particularly care for. Deal with his fans and feverish academics, their questions and offerings. Pretend we respect him as an artist. I hope he holds up until middle age, then nobody will care. The image of the writer, wide-eyed and gathering veronicas in a faded field, loses of its glamour once the face starts to sag.
I hang my coat back on the duck's head, smothering its beak. My mother has already set the table in the dining room, but she is back in her study, reading the news and smoking another cigarette. She always says it's a filthy habit, and that she knew a woman who stuck them in canvasses, like a shocking final stroke. It was all very dumb, she summarized.
“Mom, Ben's in Paris, so I'm guessing he's not going to come.”
“Did he call?” she answers, stubbing out her cigarette in a silver ashtray. A taxidermy owl stares at me, its feathers reflecting mercury-blue.
“No, I just saw it on his Instagram.”
My mother nods, tilting her head up. I realized when I read the book that I had no inkling about my brother's accident, not even a hunch. No random visit to the hospital my parents would've disguised as a bad flu, no suspicious silk scarves at the dinner table. This completed no puzzle pieces, offered no answers to questions I would've brushed under the rug. It had simply happened. Of course, I wondered if I should talk to my mother about it. This might be the right time. It is just her, me, and a dead owl. But as she stretches, hands flung out in the humid air, her thick eyelids tightly shut, I know there is no use. If she knows anything she'll deny it, or dismiss it as a call for attention we shouldn't dignify. Like the cigarette stub on the canvass, she'll simply flick it away with a shade of annoyance swimming through her face.
She opens her eyes and stares through me. Ben might never come back. She probably thinks I could do more. Emote more. Be vexed. Indignant. She used to be angry with me, and temporal logic tells me it wasn't for the same reason. And yet. She walks past me, muttering that the chicken must be done by now.
We eat quietly. My father slumps down at the table, blowing his nose and running his hand across his thin white hair. He asks me some questions about college, about Detroit when I am in Chicago, about physics when I do math. This is not a case of dementia, but rather tactical forgetfulness. He never talks about Ben either. When I mention him, my father tells me he needs to brush his teeth and then locks himself into his own study. I don't think the content made him nervous as much as the act of fixing memory to paper. My mother's art was instant, very little surfaced. My brother gathers the past like heaps of fur coats.
Some of the dining room chairs are covered in long sheets. They have abandoned this parcel of territory: it must be sad eating at this large wooden table just the two of them. They take their meals in the kitchen now, barely making time to sit down. This part of the house has not been heated in a while, and my father and I pretend like we are not cold. We eat the chicken, the beans, the mashed potatoes and gravy, chewing down at the same rhythm as the old grandfather clock clicking in the back. My mother gets up to serve coffee and key lime pie. I gather our dishes and follow her to the kitchen.
I plop the plates down in the sink and start washing them. My mother mumbles something I do not catch and then grumbles that she didn't say anything. Her hand extends towards me and then retreats, quick as a night creature. Ben used to do the dishes. Ben would always do the dishes. Perhaps she thought if we let them pile up, he'd come back, reanimated by an overwhelming sense of duty. Because of me, she'll never know if that would've worked or not. I can feel her frowning. This is no new anger. Dropping the last pan on the drying rack, I wring my hands. Her wide back is turned to me.
“Mom, did you ever paint Dad at all? Or Ben and me when we were kids?” The question is not entirely random, nor is its timing (after a meal and a glass of wine, my mother's mouth always unlocks a bit). Seeing how things are going, I might never get any straight answers. I'll have to resort to decoding ciphers. Scissored hands or empty light-houses don't give me much to work with, so a portrait would be nice. There are more answers behind paper faces. There are traces of the past I can make sense of.
“I think I sketched you when you were nine. Millie wanted me to paint her daughter, so I told her I'd practice on you, but that was so boring I told her to forget about it.”
“Do you still have it?”
“If it's somewhere, it's in the attic,” she snaps back, irritated. “For God's sake Vanessa, I need to concentrate if I want to do the coffee right. You're not the center of the universe, just go sit down.”
I eat the bright green slice of pie in silence, while my parents discuss the latest terrorist attacks in France. After stealing a small gulp of coffee from my father's cup, since I am barely allowed it, I excuse myself. In the attic I find my old piano and my brother's cello, a mattress gone rotten, heaps of dolls my mother planned on giving to charity. Books now moldy. Cans of paint, many cans of paint, easels, canvasses. All ruined. I shiver, my breath now visible, and rummage through boxes, folders, uncork tubes. There aren't many unfinished projects, the sheets are almost all blank. And my mother isn't one to keep her pieces. Maybe that is why she sold so well. She had a total disinterest in herself. Finally, I spot a sepia stroke and pull out a portrait.
I am a child, sitting on a stool in a beige dress and a large hat my mother used to wear at funerals. There is no backdrop: I float in white space. At first, I do not remember posing for it, until a memory emerges. She sketched it in the kitchen, between meals, and asked me to sit up straight Vanessa, you're not a tramp. I realize she never showed me the sketch until now. As I lean against moldy boxes, I also start to remember the feeling I had that day, confused as boiling water. I feel the napkin and its black smudges worming in my pocket. There was some guilt, that is the main thing. I remember thinking why was it me on that stool and not Ben. And that is how I look. Unhappy. Old. Not quite alone.