Mom was eating breakfast when I came downstairs the morning after the funeral. She was slicing out a segment of grapefruit with the side of her spoon when I walked into the kitchen. I managed to avoid too much alone time with her since I got home. If I could keep someone else in the room us all the time, I figured I could avoid the inevitable questions about when I was going back. Walking into the kitchen where she was alone eating breakfast was an obvious misstep. I poured myself a cup of coffee and grabbed the morning paper off the counter.
"When are you going back?" she said, looking up from her weekly Schadengeist newsletter.
I made a serious strategic error and she took advantage to make a tactical strike. All I could hope for was to be able to evade the question before she could move onto all the others that followed. I flipped through the paper, looking for the crossword puzzle.
"I'm not sure exactly," I said. Feigning ignorance might throw her off the trail, I thought. I had to change the subject. "Do you know where they put the crossword now?"
"What do you mean you don't know?" she said. "Don't you have a ticket for the return trip?"
The plan had backfired. The response that was designed to throw her off the path only elicited more questions. I had the sinking feeling that this conversation was going to happen over this breakfast, whether I wanted it to or not. I was trapped, and she would certainly come after me if I set down my coffee and ran out of the kitchen.
"I didn't buy a ticket for the return trip because I'm not going back," I said.
"Of course you're not," she said. "I knew that as soon as you showed up without Elizabeth."
"Then why didn't you just say that instead of asking me when I was going back?"
"I thought your feelings might be hurt if you knew you were so easy to read. I figured you would tell us when you felt ready."
It was amazing. Maybe this weirdo German cult thing gave her some kind of mind-reading ability. I wondered what other secrets my behaviors might have betrayed since I got here.
"Jacob, how could this happen?"
"It just did, ok, Mom? I don't really want to talk about it."
"Of course not," she said. "You probably didn't want to talk about it with her either, which is why you're sitting here with your mother while she's ... wherever she is."
"I'm sitting here with my mother because my cousin died, not because of anything that has to do with her."
"Six months ago you said you didn't know if you would be able to afford to come here if Samuel died," she said. Her memory was too good.
"Well, I reassessed my priorities, ok?"
"And that had nothing to do with Elizabeth leaving you?"
"How do you know she –"
"Because I know you're not foolish enough to have walked away from her." She sighed. "Jakey, what happened?"
I explained everything: my creative and financial bankruptcy, my admission of defeat and taking another job writing ads. I told her about how I stopped trying to enjoy myself and just sat in front of the TV, watching while Elizabeth slipped away from me, and how I didn't do anything to stop it. I painted her a picture of Ian, his accent and his muscles. I tried to get her to understand how I conceded defeat because the loss couldn't be stopped. The story was sad and convincing.
"I can't believe anything you're saying," she said. "You let this wonderful girl, a girl you've said for years you wanted to marry, walk out of your life because you were feeling sorry for yourself? Because you couldn't come up with enough good ideas to write a book? Because your respectable, well-paying job wasn't what you grew up dreaming you would do?"
When I looked at it that way, I seemed pretty petty and stupid. At the time, what I was going through seemed so grave, like such a major moral defeat. But when I looked at it through my mother's eyes, I just looked childish, like a sulking idiot.
"Look, Mom," I said. "I'm not the one who started parading around London with some Irish lass while she was sitting at home being upset about the state of her life."
"Will you just stop making excuses for yourself and maybe admit you made a mistake?" she said.
"The mistake I made was moving to London in the first place," I said. I swallowed the last sip of my coffee hard. I didn't believe anything I was saying, but for some reason my natural reaction to an argument with my mother was to dig in and fight to win. "If I'd never dragged her there, we'd still be together. We'd probably be married and have a kid or something."
"Moving to London was one of the best things you've ever done, and you know it. You were happy there until you gave up on yourself," she said.
She finished her grapefruit and took her bowl to the sink. I hated when she was right and there was no way I could argue with her. Moving there was one of the greatest things I had ever done. Every day was a new experience, and I was excited to take everything in. We went to museums and concerts and parties. We spent afternoons reading in the parks and went to interesting people's houses and apartments for dinner parties. For some reason I couldn't be content with having two-thirds of my dream life. I was living in an exciting place with someone with whom I could see myself spending the rest of my life. But money got tight and my book wasn't going anywhere, so I gave up.
But what about her? I was getting down on myself, feeling bad about the direction my life was going, and what did she do? She didn't stay in with me and try to comfort me. She tried to go on with life as if everything was the same as it had always been. But it wasn't the same to me. Instead of trying to address what was going on, she found someone else who would go along with her to all the stuff I wouldn't. Sure, I could have kept doing some of the things she wanted. I could have gone out with her to a concert in the park every now an then instead of watching soccer and sitcoms all the time. But she could have stayed in with me when I was feeling low. It was as much her fault as it was mine, at least the way I saw it, no matter what anyone else thought.
"So what are you going to do?" Mom said. "Just give up on her?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I haven't thought through it that far," I said. "I just needed to get through the funeral before I figured all this out."
"Well, you can stay here as long as you need to," she said. "But it will have to be on an air mattress in Willy's room or your father's study. We don't have any more beds."
"I'm going apartment and job hunting today," I said. "I should be out by the end of the week."
"Whatever you say," she said, disappearing down the hall.
It was as much news to me as it was to her. I didn't know I had these plans until the words came out of my mouth. As far as I knew, my plans for the day involved lying somewhere and staring at the ceiling while trying to figure out how exactly I ended up here. But now that I thought about it, going and looking for a job and a place to live seemed like a much more productive way to use my time. I grabbed the classifieds to see if anything looked promising.
There were ads looking for movers, truck drivers, people with clerical skills, registered nurses and sales associates, and something intriguing about making $2000 a week working from home. But no one was looking for anything that specifically mentioned writing skills. You would think with the abysmal state of written language in our society, people adept at using words would be in high demand. But it turns out that the language is in such sorry shape because no one, not even high-powered corporate executives, cares enough to try to preserve it. Glaring grammatical errors in corporate literature might once have been a deal breaker, but now it's commonplace, almost expected.
In college, people kept telling me I should get a journalism degree so I would be able to find a job after spending four years and many thousands of dollars on a college education. My creative writing degree didn't exactly come along with guarantees of big money in the bank. But I told everyone that I didn't want to waste my twenties sitting at board meetings watching middle-aged homeowners on power trips debate increases in the garbage collection and water rates. I wanted to get out there and really experience life, and write about the things that really mattered. Somehow I ended up writing about stain remover and candy bars, which probably matter less.
The job search would take a back seat to the apartment hunt, I decided. Since I wasn't going out too much the last few months I lived in London, I managed to save up a decent amount of money. The plane ticket set me back a little, but I still had enough to put a down-payment on a place and buy some furniture. I hoped Mom and Dad hadn't thrown out some of the stuff I saved from my college apartment.
I circled a few ads I found in the paper. There was a decent-sounding place a few blocks away from my parents' and one that sounded promising in Park Glen Highlands, the next town over. After breakfast I would give the numbers listed in the paper a call.
Willy walked into the kitchen while I was drinking the second cup of coffee I poured myself after Mom left and pretending to do the crossword puzzle. He took a cup from the cabinet and grabbed the coffee pot.
"Is this regular or decaf?" he said.
"It's regular, I think."
"I'm not supposed to have too much caffeine," he said, pouring himself a cup. "But I still need it to get going in the morning. I think one cup is ok."
"Whatever you say," I said.
"What are you looking for?" he asked, motioning to the newspaper on the table in front of me.
"A four-letter word for protuberance."
"No, what are you looking for in the classified ads?" Willy said.
"Give me a four-letter word for protuberance, Mr. English Teacher, and I'll tell you."
"Bump," he said. "What are you looking for?"
"An outboard motor."
"Shut up, smart ass. Are you looking for a job or an apartment?"
"Both," I said. "The apartment search is looking a little more promising that the job search though. It seems no one really appreciates someone who's skilled with the written word."
"Well, if you're so skilled with the written word, why aren't you in London writing novels instead of searching the classifieds in Mom and Dad's kitchen?"
"Ouch," I said, smiling. "You really know how to cut right to the core of me."
"I'm just kidding," he said. "But seriously, have you thought about giving the novel writing another shot? Maybe not in England, but here in Park Glen, or in the city. It doesn't really matter where you are, does it?"
He sat down across the table from me and shuffled through the sections of the paper till he found the Metro section. My brother was making some good points. Why not give the writing another try? I didn't really have anything to lose. I had no job and nowhere to live except my parents' house. Now might be the right time to do it, I thought. Maybe with Dad working on his pilot there would be enough creative energy in the air to motivate me.
"What would I do for money?" I said.
"Mom and Dad probably have enough sympathy for your broken heart and broken dreams to let you coast for a month or two before they really start putting on the pressure for you to get a job," he said.
The idea sounded kind of nice, but the thought of mooching off my parents at my age didn't sit right with me. In Willy's case, there was a good reason. His own brain was working against him. Living at home provided him with the stability he needed to get himself leveled out, even if Mom occasionally tried to convince him to go off his medication. I didn't have my brother's problems, so living at home would have felt like taking advantage.
"Yeah, they might," I said. "But I wouldn't feel right about it. I need to do what I can to land on my feet."
I picked up the classifieds again and looked back at the ad for the apartment in Park Glen Highlands. A move back to Chicago would probably have been the trendier thing to do at this stage in my life, but I didn't think I could afford it with my uncertainty about where my money was going to come from. I went to the phone and dialed the number listed in the ad. A gruff-sounding man with a Super Fans accent answered. His name was Greg, and he told me the apartment was still available. It sounded like a beautiful place and I set up an appointment to check it out that afternoon. He asked me if I'd be bringing along a potential roommate. It turned out the ad had left out the fact that it was a two-bedroom apartment. I couldn't afford two bedrooms and I didn't think I needed all that space. The something occurred to me.
"Willy," I said. "I'm going to look at an apartment in the Highlands this afternoon. Do you want to come with me?"
"I don't know," he said. "Would you really want me there? I might just muddy the waters."
"Sure I want you to come. I'm no good at doing these things by myself. I need a second pair of eyes to look the place over."
It might have been a terrible idea, but I thought if I could get him to come along to look at the apartment, I might be able to convince him to move out of Mom and Dad's and move in with me. Granted, Willy probably wouldn't be the ideal roommate. It would be a definite step down after living with a beautiful woman for five years, but I didn't want to live alone. Living with Willy would be better than living with my parents. I also thought it might do him some good to get out on his own but still have a bit of a safety net.
That afternoon Willy and I drove over to the apartment building. It was an old Tudor-style building that looked like it was built in the '30s or '40s. It was brown brick with wood trim. The apartment we looked at was a third-floor walk-up. There were no elevators in the place. I wasn't sure how they could get away with that these days, but I didn't ask. The landlord wasn't the most wholesome-looking figure. He wore and unbuttoned blue shirt with a pack of Marlboros in the pocket over a dingy white dago tee. His Sox hat looked like it hadn't left his head since the Black Sox era.
The place left a little to be desired. The hardwood floors looked like they hadn't had a good waxing in a long time. The tile in the kitchen looked like it could use a good scrubbing with bleach, and there was no dishwasher. But with built-in bookcases lining the living room and rent at about $950 a month, I was ready to sign a lease right then. Willy, however, wanted to give the place further inspection before he gave his endorsement. And he didn't even know I was going to be asking him to live there.
"There's a little crack in this window," he shouted from the bathroom. "Would that be fixed before you moved in? You wouldn't want them to deduct that from your security deposit. And this tub looks like it could use a serious cleaning."
"I'll fix the window and have my cleaning guys go over the whole place one more time before you move in," Greg said.
Willy walked out of the bathroom dusting his hands off on each other. He looked around the living room and kitchen another time. I tried to gauge his reaction from the look on his face. It was was impossible. Maybe we should have gone to the boats that night. I couldn't read him at all.
"Greg, do you mind if I take a minute to talk things over with my brother?" I said.
"Sure thing," he said. "I want you two to feel comfortable in your future home."
He took out his cell phone and walked out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
"What does he mean 'our future home'?" Willy said.
"Well, it's a two bedroom." I said. "What would you think about coming to live here with me?"
He looked around the apartment and glanced at me before avoiding eye contact. He scratched behind his left ear.
"I don't know, Jake. I was just starting to feel settled at Mom and Dad's, and I don't know if it's a good idea to shake things up with another move."
"Come on man, you're 32 years old. Do you really want to feel settled at Mom and Dad's?"
"I don't know, I just –"
"Look, just try it out," I said. "If you don't like it here or you can't handle the change, you can go back to Mom and Dad's."
"I just don't know," he said.
"I really need you here. I don't know if I can live on my own after living with someone else for five years. You'd be doing me a huge favor."
He stood and looked at me for what felt like a minute straight without saying anything. Then he turned and stared out the window for another minute. I thought his head was going to start bleeding from all the scratching. My attempts to come up more reasons why he should move in with me yielded nothing. After what seemed like five minutes of silence, he spoke.
"All right," he said. "All right, I'll move in here with you. But you have to promise to be patient with me."
"I will," I said. "But I also won't be afraid to give you a kick in the ass from time to time if it's for your own good.
We called Greg back inside. We signed the lease and moved in that weekend.