My brother Tom, the youngest of my three siblings, came to pick me up at O’Hare. He was only fourteen when I left and I’d only seen him a handful of times since. When I left he was a little kid with a squeaky voice. Now he was practically a man, the starting tight end on the high school football team. My mom sent me the clippings from the local paper that said he’d probably make all-state. My Mom’s new “worldview” made her think football was barbaric blood sport that should be banned from schools, but she couldn’t get over the motherly pride of seeing her son’s name and picture in the local newspaper.
I guess I haven’t mentioned Mom’s new “worldview,” or religion or cult or whatever you want to call it. I prefer cult. After her brother, Samuel’s father, died the Catholic Church just wasn’t cutting it for her anymore. She tried some traditional things like the United Church of Christ, Unitarianism, the Bahi’a Faith, Buddhism, even Mormonism. Dad liked that. He told her she should start bringing over her friends from the Church of Jesus Christ for the Latter Day Saints so he could start picking out his other wives. That put an end to the idea of a great Lervus migration to Utah.
Eventually, she decided on some obscure German “worldview” called Schadengeist. I guess it was developed sometime in the ‘50s as an attempt to heal the wounds left by Nazism. It promoted nonviolence, universal brotherhood and something about healing with crystals and rejecting modern pharmaceuticals. It sounded like a bunch of bullshit to the rest of us, but she said it inspired her.
Tom was waiting for me just outside the international terminal right after I grabbed my bag off the luggage carousel. He was talking on his cell phone, and I spotted him before he saw me.
“I’ve gotta go,” he said, hanging up the phone and sliding it into the pocket of his letter jacket. Glenpark High School’s green block-letter “G” was fixed proudly to his chest.
“Tommy!” I said, hugging him and holding on just a little after he let go. “You didn’t have to hand up because of me.”
“Of course I did,” he said. He reached for my bag. “Let me take that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to strain your throwing arm.”
“I’m a tight end, Jake, not a quarterback.”
“Right … blocking arm, catching arm. Whatever.”
We weaved our way through embracing couples and limo drivers holding placards with people’s last names on them. He was at least five inches taller than the last time I saw him, a good three or four inches taller than me. His shoulders were broader than mine. I realized I couldn’t pin him to the ground and tie his shoelaces together anymore. I hoped he’d forgotten how much I used to love doing that, or at least how much he hated it.
We boarded the elevator in silence and he pressed the button next to the Blackhawk’s Indianhead logo. We waited each waited for the other to talk.
“So, was that Christina you were talking to earlier?” I broke the silence.
“Yeah, your girlfriend, Christina.”
“Jacob, I dated Christina for like three months, two years ago,” he said. “That was Ashley. We’ve been going out for a year and a half.”
“Oh, right. Ashley. I think Mom sent pictures from homecoming or something.”
I followed my little brother through rows of cars in the airport parking garage. Every time I’d come back to the States since moving to London I was always surprised by how much bigger the cars are here. More open land and cities designed with car traffic in mind gives us Americans the luxury of traveling in less cramped conditions. After walking what felt like half a mile, we came up behind the Toyota Corolla I left behind for Tom when I moved. It looked pretty much the same. A little more rust. And my They Might Be Giants sticker was covered up with a GHS Football sticker. Tom opened the back driver’s side door, and I tossed my bag in the back seat.
I hadn’t told anyone in the family about Elizabeth yet. I figured I would let all the stuff with Samuel’s wake and funeral blow over before I dropped my own bad news on top of it. Although most people would think a real tragedy, like a death in the family, would lessen the blow of a minor hiccup like a breakup, in my family it would only add to the chaos.
Besides, my mom and dad loved Elizabeth; sometimes I was sure they loved her more than they loved me. The two times they came to visit us in England, all they could talk about on the phone for weeks before was how excited they were to see her. I knew when I finally told them what happened between us, they were going to be angry with me. They’d blame me for pushing her away, and tell me that if “I knew what was good for me” I would get back on the next plane right after they put Samuel in the ground and go make things right with her.
Elizabeth and I met right after college. We lived in the same apartment building in Rogers Park. She relocated there from just a few miles north after graduating from Northwestern with a degree in theatre. She was cast in a musical revue in a storefront theatre the summer after graduation, but things didn’t pick up for her from there. I used to see her at the mailboxes in our building and have these imaginary conversations with her. I would say something witty and self-deprecating, a quip about some piece of mail I received that day. She would laugh and the bridge of her nose would wrinkle just a little. She’d touch my arm and invite my upstairs for a cup of coffee.
Once I actually muttered “hello” as we passed in the entryway. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out if she responded.
The first time we actually talked, I was having lunch at a café near the radio station where I worked. The waitress came to take my order, interrupting me from a book of Galway Kinnell poems I was rereading for the tenth time. When I looked up and saw her, I almost choked on my tongue. I stammered. I fumbled with the menu.
“You live in my building, don’t you?” she said.
“Yeah, um, I’ll have an iced tea.”
“Ok, we’ll get right down to business,” she said with the smile I had pictured so
many times while flipping through my bills and magazines.
“Oh, no. Sorry … You, you caught me off guard,” I said. “I was wrapped up in this book and I wasn’t expecting it to be you.”
“It’s ok,” she said. “It’s easy to get caught up in Kinnell. ‘When a group of people get up from a table, the table doesn’t/ know which way any of them will go.’”
“You know Galway Kinnell?”
She didn’t only know Galway Kinnell. She quoted on of the poems he wrote about James Wright. It was two for one.
“Of course I know him. I thought about applying to study poetry at NYU so I could work with him, if this doesn’t work out.”
“If what doesn’t work out? This conversation?” I said, trying not to look too amused with myself. “Or the waitressing gig?”
She laughed. Her nose didn’t wrinkle though. Her smile was as I imagined it, but
I remember noticing her nose didn’t wrinkle.
“The acting gig, actually,” she said.
“Oh, you have an acting gig?”
“Well, I don’t have a gig at the moment, which is why I’m fetching your iced tea. But I am an actress.”
It was a perfect cliché. I loved it. An out-of-work Chicago actress waiting tables at a trendy little neighborhood café. It made me feel so adult. It made me jealous. She took a job that was obviously temporary to support herself while she pursued what she really wanted to do. I, on the other hand, took a nine-to-five that could easily become my lifelong rut and excuse for not doing any of the things I really wanted to.
“So have you done anything I would have seen?” I asked.
“Well, I was in Perfect Date this summer at the Blue Box,” she said with pride.
“I read about that in the Reader. I heard it was really good, but I never got a chance to see it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “You and everyone else in this city.”
“Oh … sorry.”
“It’s ok. It was a great experience, but it didn’t exactly pay the bills.”
“Yeah … so can I get that iced tea and a tuna wrap? I have to get back to the office soon.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
Despite my abysmal lack of tact, she asked me out for a drink before I left the café. We saw each other every day for the next two months. By New Years we moved in together.
“Where is she?” Tom asked.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “Why didn’t she come with you? She and Sam got along really well, didn’t they?”
“Since when do you call him Sam?”
“Since always,” he said. “Don’t change the subject. Where is she?”
The kid had really grown some balls. I don’t ever remember him being that pushy with me before. He always looked up to me and our older brother Willy.
He was never really the stereotypical bratty little brother.
“We broke up.”
“Of course you did,” he said, briefly taking his eyes off the road to shoot them in my direction. “That bag is way too full for just a few days’ stay.”
He was athletic and smart. I hated him for it. Where did he get all those good genes? It probably explained the deficiencies of Willy and me and our sister Megan. It took them four tries, but Berry and Sandra Lervus finally got it right.
“Look, just don’t say anything to anyone, ok?” I said. “I don’t want them to think I’m trying to upstage our cousin’s death or something.”
“Only Megan would try to upstage someone’s death,” he said. “But Mom and Dad are going to kill you for fucking this up.”
“Don’t say that.”
“What? You know I’m right.”
“No. I mean don’t say ‘fuck.’”
He pulled my old car into our driveway and killed the engine. Through the window I saw Mom on the phone in the kitchen and Willy sitting in front of the TV in the living room. It was six o’clock at night and he was on the couch in his robe and pajamas. Never a good sign. Megan was walking down the driveway toward us holding hands with some guy I had never seen before.Posted by dpetrella at November 14, 2006 06:29 PM | TrackBack