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.
It's difficult to know how to feel about the death of a cousin you've never really been close to. My cousin Samuel was ten years older than me. By the time I was learning to read, he was learning to drive. Between college and law school, he wasn't around for most of my childhood. If Elizabeth hadn't left me right before I found out about his death, I don't know if I would have made the trip all the way home for the funeral.
My sophomore year of college, I got a call from Mom saying that Samuel had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He hadn't been feeling right for weeks and he kept going back to the doctor, and the doctor kept telling him nothing was wrong with him. Finally he convinced them to run some tests, because the odd feelings just weren't going away. I had just gotten back from the biology class I didn't usually go to when Mom called. She told me they said it was a rare cancer of the pancreas, something more common in septuagenarians than in otherwise-healthy 30-year-old men.
Over the next few years, Samuel was in and out of hospitals – Northwestern, University of Chicago, Loyola, the Mayo Clinic – and received a harsh series of radiation treatments and chemotherapies. When he showed up at a family gathering wearing a baseball cap, everyone knew he had recently had a treatment. But he never talked about the cancer, never complained about how sick the treatments made him or how, although his hairline hadn't receded one centimeter by the time he reached 30, his hair had all fallen out from the chemo.
When Mom called me with updates about his health, I always accepted the news matter-of-factly. The cancer went into remission. There was a relapse. He was going back to Mayo for more treatments. By the time I graduated, it seemed, at least to me, like he might beat it. But about a year into my time in London, Mom called at 4 a.m. (important news always made her forget the time difference) and said she'd just gotten a call from Aunt Sarah saying he came back from Mayo that day. The doctors told him the cells were metastasizing again. With continued treatment they could prolong his life, but with the technology they had there didn't seem to be anyway they could beat the cancer.
The call that brought me home wasn't unexpected. After that middle-of-the-night call, I knew it was only a matter of time before the follow-up came. But in all the time I spent thinking about how things ended with Elizabeth, I hadn't really spent too much thinking about my dead cousin. It's difficult to gauge the proper level of grief – I'm not talking about the appearance of grief; I mean real grief – you should feel over the death of someone you've known your whole life but have never been close to. I was a blood relative, but at the wake, as I stood around answering questions about England, I realized there were people who weren't related who were going to be missing a much larger part of their lives.
His wife Jennifer stood in the viewing room almost the entire night, the smile almost never leaving her face. She accepted handshakes, hugs and kisses from old friend, and relatives she was meeting for the first time. Even when she was forced to listen to one of Great Uncle Bob's meandering stories about when Samuel was a small child – I learned later that the story actually happened to Uncle Steve – she didn't lose an ounce of her grace. She was just happy to share something of her husband with all the people there.
Near the end of the night, when Willy, Tom and I were in the basement of the funeral home keeping an eye on the kids, Jennifer took a break from the reception line to come downstairs for a bite to eat and a drink of water. She found us there playing Monkey in the Middle with one of our cousins' numerous offspring. I can't remember whose kid it was. She pulled us aside and told us that Samuel asked if we could be pallbearers at the funeral.
"Of course we can; we'd be happy to," I said, happy that I meant enough to my cousin to be charged with such an important task. It had become our role in family funerals to carry the casket. We did it for both our grandparents and for Uncle Steve. I was honored to do it again.
Willy was freaking out. He managed to maintain his composure until Jennifer had headed back upstairs, but then he let his litany of worries come flying out.
"What if I lose my grip and drop it?" he said. "What if we're carrying it to the graveside and one of us trips and we all drop it and it pops open?"
"Willy, we've done this before. It's nothing to worry about," I said.
"But it could happen, and then everyone would blame us for ruining the funeral. It's just too much responsibility for me to handle right now."
After the funeral, we followed closely behind Aunt Sarah and Jennifer in the funeral procession. Tom drove my old car and Willy and I road with him. Mom, Dad and Megan followed us in Mom's car. It was a gray, rainy afternoon, the kind you always see in funeral scenes in movies. It wasn't hard rain. It was a cold mist. Before the funeral that morning, I had to stop Megan from telling Jennifer that she thought it was sexist that all her brothers were asked to be pallbearers but she wasn't. She was prepared to march into the funeral home before the casket closing and demand to be included. I managed to dissuade her by appealing to her sense of propriety – and giving her twenty bucks.
The procession came to a stop in the cemetery, about 20 yards from where Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Steve are buried. My brothers and I met the other pallbearers, friends of Samuel's from college, behind the hearse. The funeral director was a kindly man in his late middle age. He had perfectly quaffed salt-and-pepper hair. It seemed like he could keep a smile in the face of life's greatest tragedies. I guess it comes with the work.
"Ok, gentlemen," he said. "Now we're going to slide the casket out and I want the first two to take a hold of the handles and pass them down the line. Once the casket is off the rollers, I want the two at the back to lead. We're going to walk back that way and then turn so that we can carry it feet-first to the grave. Once you've set it on the platform, you can let go and walk over to join your families.
"Now, careful," he said. "Remember, it's heavy."
Willy and I were the first in line and we stepped up behind the hearse. Tom stood next to me, and Samuel's friends filled out the rest of the two lines. The funeral director and his assistant began to slid the the casket out of the hearse. Willy and I gripped the wooden handles. We passed them down the line until the six of us were completely supporting Samuel's weight. I understood the term dead weight. He wasn't a big man, smaller than me, but carrying his casket was quite a task. I wondered how much of the weight was the wood and metal of the casket.
We carried it to the grave without incident. Tom tripped a little as we walked off the cemetery road onto the grass, but he held on and recovered quickly. No one noticed besides Mom. We set the casket on the platform that would lower it into the ground after we were all safely out of site. We joined Mom, Dad, Megan and her manfriend, who rode to the cemetery in a separate car.
I stood between Dad and Jimbo, acting as a buffer. Willy was on Dad's other side, between him and Mom. Tom was on Mom's left with his arm around her shoulder, ever the good son. This was the first graveside service I ever went to, despite the large number of funerals I'd attended in my 28 years. It was a little like the ones in the movies, only there were no folding chairs and non of the little old ladies worse black hats with veils. The minister from the church stepped forward to address the crowd. He had done a good job of staving off the inevitable flow of tears at the church, and I wondered if he could keep it up here at the side of the open grave.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "We are here today to lay Samuel Johnson in his final resting place."
Lined up to the left of Samuel's open grave were Grandma and Grandpa Johnson and Uncle Steve. There was an open space between Samuel's grave and his father's for Aunt Sarah. She stood in the spot where her headstone would be, watching while they prepared to lower her only son into the ground. Jennifer was standing next to her, and neither of them were crying. Even Willy, surprisingly, had dry eyes.
The minister said his final prayer and dismissed the assembled friends and family. The funeral director stepped up to direct everyone to the luncheon at Aunt Sarah's house. Distant family members pointed out our relatives burial places to one another as they walked back to their cars. I wondered how many times I was going to have to answer The Elizabeth Question at this reception. Maybe while everyone was making toasts to my cousin's memory, I should just stand up and made the announcement, gotten it all out in the open, I thought. But that would have defeated my reason for not telling anyone yet. It would definitely be upstaging the main event of the day.
The reception actually went surprisingly well. The number of questions about Elizabeth was largely outweighed by questions about British idioms, soccer and the royal family. I spend most of the time sitting in a corner with Tom and Willy, catching up on the news I'd missed since our last visit. I found out Willy was taking a semester off from teaching to try to get his panic attacks under control. He had to move back in with Mom and Dad because he was afraid he would hurt himself if he kept living alone. He hoped to start substitute teaching in the spring and find a new teaching job for the following fall. Tom was apparently leading the state in receiving yards for tight ends and was going to start college next fall as at least a second-semester freshman because of all his AP credit.
We got our coats from Samuel's old bedroom, which was still decorated with the awards and certificates of his childhood. I realized I had no plan. Even as Willy battled with the chemical balance in his brain, he had a plan for moving forward with his life. This funeral brought me home and now that it was over, I didn't have a clue what I was going to do with myself.
In my haste to leave London, I forgot my suit. When coming home for a funeral, suit would normally top the list of things to pack. I remembered my first edition copy of Belle and Sebastian's album "Tigermilk," but my suit was still hanging in the closet at the flat.
This wasn't just any suit. It was an amazing, gray-pinstriped suit Elizabeth had tailor-made for me for our fourth anniversary, the first we celebrated in London. I woke up late one afternoon after spending the entire previous night writing until sunrise. There was about an hour till I had to be at the pub for my shift that night. I went to the closet to get a pair of jeans – I'd slept in the pair I was wearing the day before and I had worn them three days in a row before that – and there was nothing on the bar except the most perfect, charcoal gray pinstriped suit I had ever seen. It was a three-button. It was exactly the suit I had always wanted. She probably spent a month's pay on it. It was the best present anyone had ever given me. It blew the autographed Ryne Sandberg rookie card Mom and Dad gave me for my fifteenth birthday out of the water.
I couldn't believe I left the suit in London. After wearing that for two years, any other suit was going to feel like absolute shit. Whenever I was feeling crappy about my job or my lack of follow-through for finishing my book, I put on the suit and went out. The record shop, the pub, the grocery store, it didn't matter. If I was in that suit, I felt like people took notice.
My cousin Samuel's wake was that night, so I needed something I could wear to the funeral and the wake. I wanted to take Tom with me, because I figured the kid could use a suit. I guess I felt a little weird suit shopping alone. I also hoped taking someone along would help keep my mind off the other suit. And Elizabeth. But Tom was going to school that day. He had a test in American government or something. He was going to meet us at the funeral home after football practice. Megan was at work. She was Jim's secretary now. She was just fulfilling all kinds of sexual fantasies for the guy. I didn't want to distract Dad from the ongoing adventures of the bloodsucking detective, and Mom was tied up with getting food for the wake. It looked like Willy was my only option.
I found him lying face-down on his bed in the same pajamas he was wearing when I got home the night before. He was humming softly to himself, but I couldn't make out the melody. Willy was a high school English teacher, or at least he used to be. His school let him go the year before he would have gotten tenure. He had a few panic attacks in the middle of class and they were afraid it would be too traumatic for the kids to see their teacher gasping for breath, turning red and saying he was going to die. It happened once when the class was reading King Lear and it took them five minutes to realize he wasn't quoting Shakespeare. Although knowing my brother, he probably slipped a few of the Fool's lines in there after he started to regain his composure.
I was afraid of startling him, so I cleared my throat loudly before I spoke.
"Hey, Willy," I said. "I just realized I left my suit in London. I need to go get something to wear tonight and tomorrow. Do you want to come?"
He turned on his side to face me.
"You left the James bond suit in London?" he said.
My love for that suit wasn't a closely guarded secret.
"Yeah, I was in a hurry to get out of there and I wasn't really thinking when I packed."
"I saw you brought home "Tigermilk" and your copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude."
"Leave me alone, ok? Do you want to come or not?"
"I guess. I could probably use a new tie." He stood up. "And we all know you can't be left on your own to buy a new suit. You might end up with another hideous bright green one like you bought in high school."
"Hey, that suit was cool at the time."
"That suit wasn't cool at any time in any place," he said. "They sold it as a way of warning the world that they were looking a person with a complete lack of style."
We laughed. It was the biggest smile I had seen on his face in a long time. Maybe my being at home would do him some good.
"Meet me down in the car," I said.
"Shit." I forgot that I didn't have a car there anymore. I didn't have a car in London either, so I didn't have one anywhere. I wondered if I could get my old one back from Tom somehow, but I figured that was probably a lost cause.
"Can you drive?" I asked.
"Sure. I'll meet you downstairs in a minute. I have to take my pills."
I took Willy's keys from the dish by the backdoor and started the car in the driveway. It was quite cold for the end of October. Despite all the fears of global warming, Chicagoland could still be pretty cold in the fall and winter.
The oak and maple trees in our backyard were brilliant shades of orange and gold. As much as I loved London, or did once, I don't think there's anywhere in the world I loved as much as the tree-lined streets of Park Glen in the fall. The smell of leaves and the sound of the marching band practicing in the field next to the high school took me back to a time when life's possibilities still seemed open. Now I had fulfilled those dreams of scorning the nine-to-five working life and moving myself away from home. And here I was, 28 years old and back at my parents' house in Park Glen. What do you do when you've already done the thing that you thought would change your life, and you ended up back in the same place?
I reached forward and turned on the radio. Going twice around the dial, nothing caught my ear. I hit Willy's preset buttons until I landed on public radio. Some reporter out of Boston was talking about the risks of the real estate market. One more thing I had to worry about. Where was I going to live? I couldn't possibly move back into the same house as my brothers and sister. I was 28 and at least ten years past sharing a bedroom with Willy. After the funeral, when I finally told everyone I wasn't going back to London, I would have to start looking for a place to live. After I found a job. And a car. But first, I needed a suit.
Digging through Willy's glove box I found a map of Illinois. I unfolded it and traced the interstates with my forefinger. Willy opened the driver's side door just as I reached Davenport, Iowa on I-74.
"Sorry, I had to call in a refill for one of my prescriptions to the pharmacy," he said.
"It's ok. Let's get going."
He backed out of the driveway and headed for the mall. I couldn't believe I was going to replace the suit with something off the rack from the mall. There was no way it would ever fit the same. But no suit would ever fit the same. Maybe I could send a postcard to my old address and ask whoever lived there to ship it to me, I thought. It was useless. The suit was gone for good. I hoped at least whoever moved into our old place wore a 46 regular.
"Did she break up with you, or were you stupid enough to break up with her?" Willy said.
"Elizabeth. Don't think for a minute that any of us but this "she couldn't make it" act. Mom was ready to ask you about it at dinner last night, but I told her not to."
"Did Tom tell you all?" I said.
"No. No one told us," he said. "It was obvious. We know her. Elizabeth isn't the kind of person who would let someone she cared about travel thousands of miles home for a funeral alone."
My act of silent suffering was apparently more transparent than I thought. The idea that our break up would add extra grief to an already sad time for our family was a little misguided. My family didn't feel sorry for me. They knew I was an idiot for screwing things up with her.
"Look, I know everyone knows, but let's just leave it on the back burner until after tomorrow," I said.
"But it's not healthy to just keep things in like that. That's how you end up with problems like mine," he said. "You need to address your issues. What happened? Did you cheat on her? Did she cheat on you? Did she walk out on you?"
"It's more complicated than that."
"You just gave up on her like you gave up on the book, right?" he said. "You got cold and distant until she had to find comfort somewhere else?"
"How do you do that?"
"It's what I do," he said. "I know people. And most of all, I know you. You've always done this."
He was right. I always quit on things mentally but didn't have the courage to actually quit. Like in little league. I played lazily and skipped practices to go to the library until the coach told me I was off the team. I didn't want to let anyone think I was a quitter, so I made them do the quitting for me.
We went to the mall and looked at every department store and every other store that sold suits, but I couldn't find anything. Gray pinstripes were out of the question. Solid black was just too cliché for a funeral. Black pinstripes reminded me of the goons the vampire detective beat up on in Dad's pilot. Willy found a perfect tie at the first store, pale blue with crisscrossing white lines, which made my inability to find anything even more frustrating.
I was ready to give up or go to Goodwill. When we were driving home, we past an old men's-clothing store downtown. Mom took Willy and I there for Easter clothes when we were little kids. I had forgotten it existed until we drove by. Finally, I found something there. It was a navy blue suit with thin pinstripes. The pinstripes were an homage to the suit that was left behind and the color ensured that I wouldn't look like a movie extra in some graveside scene. Most importantly, the salesman at the store, who must have been almost my grandfather's age, appreciated my admiration for the suit that hung in the closet of my abandoned flat. He respected my reverence for a fine piece of craftsmanship. He also sold me two shirts and ties, and I hoped no one would notice if I wore the same suit two days in a row.
"She's with this Irish guy now," I said after a few minutes' silence on the drive home.
"Who's with an Irish guy? ... Oh, Elizabeth? An Irish guy?"
"Yeah, a rugby player," I said. "He tended bar at this place down the street from the place where I wiped tables."
"Rugby player, huh? Well, I guess that explains why you didn't just kick his ass." He scratched the hair behind his left ear.
The thought crossed my mind. The idea of walking into McDonough's, ordering a pint and throwing it in his face excited me. But every scenario I could imagine ended with several of my limbs being broken or my being beat to death by a group of men in striped shirts and tiny shorts.
"I can't really be mad at the guy," I said. "Well, I mean, I can, but it wouldn't make sense. Elizabeth only started spending time with him because I never wanted to do anything."
"So it's one of those old you-can't-blame-anyone-but-yourself situations," he said. "Listen, thanks for getting me out of the house today. Since we found out Samuel died, things haven't been going well. I keep thinking I'm having heart attacks. Or I find a bump under my skin and I think it's a tumor. I know I'm not really dying, but I have these times when I just can't stop myself from thinking I am."
"Hey, no problem," I said. "I know things must be pretty rough now that you're back living with Mom and Dad."
"Oh my God," he said. "Are you going to have to move back in with Mom and Dad? Did you go out and buy a new suit because you're never going back to London to get yours?
It was amazing. I still to this day don't understand how my brother managed to piece together these little facts and come up with exactly what I was trying to hide. Maybe he could give Dad some advice for his vampire detective show.
When we pulled into the driveway, Mom was unloading food from her car. She enlisted our help in taking in the groceries. There was enough food for a hundred people. You would have thought she was shopping for a birthday party, not a wake.
This would probably be a good time to share some things about my sister Megan. Particularly the fact that up until that moment, as far as I knew, she was a lesbian. She had always been the problem child. Megan spent life until she was six years old being the spoiled, misbehaved baby of the family. When Tom was born, she lost the baby's share of the attention, and that made her even worse. Being the only girl wasn't enough for her. She had to be the center of attention at all times.
No one would ever imagine there could be so much competition between siblings six years apart. But each one of Tom's successes in life had been topped by one of Megan's disasters. The day Tom was potty trained, Megan took a book of matches to school and set fire to Stuart Brady's American history textbook inside his desk. When he was elected student council president in the fifth grade, she ran over Bob Svoboda's foot in the school parking lot. On purpose.
When Tom was brought up to the varsity team for the football playoffs at the end of his freshman season, Megan brought her girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner. It was her sophomore year at Indiana (she had to go there even though almost everyone else in the family went to Illinois), and she stayed at school until Thanksgiving day even though she didn't have classes all week.
She showed up in the middle of the Lions-Bengals game with her roommate Claire. Now keep in mind, she'd been referring to Claire as "my girlfriend Claire" since July. But everyone assumed she meant "girlfriend" the way Mom does when she says she's going to spend the afternoon at the mall with her girlfriends. None of us had taken it in the my-girlfriend-gives-me-mind-blowing-orgasms way. It would have been much clearer to us all if she had actually said things like, "my girlfriend Claire give me mind-blowing orgasms" rather than "I'm going to bring my girlfriend Claire home for Thanksgiving dinner to meet the family." We were left to find out about the orgasms on our own.
After the game ended and Willy and I finished pretending like we cared who won so we didn't look less manly than our much-younger brother, Mom called us all to the table. We all arrived at our own pace, but everyone was there for about three minutes, just waiting for Megan and Claire to show up. Tom got impatient and reached for the cornbread.
"You can't eat until your sister and her friend come to the table," Mom said.
"Fine," Tom said. "I'll go get them."
He looked around the house but he couldn't find them anywhere. When he was just about to come back to the table, he noticed that the door to our parents' bedroom was closed. He knocked and walked in without waiting for an answer. There on our parents' bed, right on top of Aunt Sarah's coat, Claire had her head between Megan's legs. It was too much for Tom to handle. He waited his whole life to see something like this. Only it was his sister. He couldn't decide whether to be intrigued or repulsed. So he screamed. And the entire family came running, arriving just as Megan was sliding her underwear back on.
"My coat!" Aunt Sarah yelled.
In the history of awkward Thanksgiving dinners, that one had to rank second or third. Not just of our family's Thanksgiving dinners. Of all the Thanksgiving dinners that have ever been eaten. With the language barrier and all the small pox and syphilis, I think it's safe to say that first Thanksgiving dinner was the most awkward of all time. And maybe some other family had at least one other dinner that was more awkward than sitting there with the sister and the lesbian roommate everyone just saw performing a sex act on her. But this dinner definitely ranks at least third.
Needless to say, it was a shock to get out of the car in our driveway and see her holding hands with a man.
"Jacob! Hi," she said, throwing her arms around my neck. It was a little change from the calm indifference I was used to from her.
She let go and reached back for the hand of the guy who was with her. She pulled him closer, and I saw what her angle was with this one.
"Jacob," she said, "this is my boyfriend, Jim."
Jim was at least ten or fifteen years older than our brother Willy, which put him at least 40. She gave up women for men who could be her uncle.
"Hi, uh, Jim," I said. "I'm Megan's brother, Jacob."
"Ah, yes. Jacob," he said. "The writer, the world traveler. A man of true courage."
He reached out and shook my hand with an overly tight grip. He displayed no awareness that he was closer to our parents' age than to ours.
"Yeah, well, I write ads for a newspaper and I only traveled outside of England like twice in the three years I was there," I said.
"Well, you're a braver man than I."
"Oh, I don't know, Mr. Gray," Tom said. "I'd say you're a pretty brave man being that –"
"Tom, stop!" Megan said. She whacked him on the shoulder with the back of her hand.
"Please, Tom, call me Jim."
"My parents always taught me to call my elders by their last names."
"Tom, cut it out, you jackass," Megan said.
I left the three of them to fight it out on the driveway. I lugged my bag to the back door. On the porch, I paused for a second before turning the knob. It had been almost a year since I had seen my parents. I wasn't ready for all their questions.
"Hello, Jacob," Mom said as I walked in the door. She hugged me, pinning the arm that was holding my bag to my side. "Where's Elizabeth?"
I wish there was a line in Vegas I could have put some money on saying that would be her first question. Mom always knew how to ask exactly the right questions to make you feel terrible about what was going on in your life. She wasn't malicious or mean; she just had an uncanny ability for striking raw nerves. It was like a sixth sense.
"She couldn't make it, Mom."
"Oh, well that's too bad," she said. "She and your cousin Samuel really got along so well."
I must have been the only person in the family who hadn't caught onto the fact that Elizabeth and Samuel were such great friends. It was always my impression that she thought he was kind of boring. It sounds like a terrible thing to say about someone who wasn't yet in the ground, but I was getting tired of hearing how much my dead cousin loved the girl who had just walked out on me.
"Well, she had other things going on," I said. "She sends her condolences and stuff."
I didn't actually think she knew he died, unless maybe word got to her through the landlord or something.
"You can put your bag up in Willy's room," she said.
"Yes, the room you two used to share. It's just his now. You'll be able to sleep on an air mattress on the floor,"
The hallway leading to the stairs was like some kind of Lervus family museum with black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls going back three generations. A whole wall full of people who would be let down if they knew I was giving up on my London dream and running back home. And I'm sure they all would have loved Elizabeth.
I turned back to my mother, who was still standing in the kitchen doorway.
"What's Willy doing living here again?"
"It's a long story," she said. "He's having his attacks again. I think it's all those terrible chemicals the doctors have him pumping into his body."
"Mom, those chemicals are the only things keeping him from having more panic attacks. He's probably having them again because he listened to you and all that crazy Schadenfraude –"
"Schadengeist. And it's not crazy."
"Well, whatever. That's probably why he's back living here at 31."
"Just put your things upstairs and go say hello to your father," she said, shouting up the stairs while I was already on my way up.
Willy walked into the room while I was looking for any empty dresser drawer to put my clothes in. He was decked out in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers. It looked like he hadn't showered in three or four days and his eyes were a little glazed over.
"Hi, Jacob," he whispered.
I was squatting on the floor to put my sweaters in an empty bottom drawer and he came up behind me, resting a hand on each of my shoulders. He squeezed lightly.
"How are you doing?" he said. "How are you?"
"I'm all right," I said, shrugging off his hands and standing up. "Mom tells me your attacks are back."
"Yeah," he said. "Where's Elizabeth?"
"How the hell should I know?"
That question was really starting to make me angry. I thought about calling them all together to break the news so I didn't have to spend the next three days straight answering that question. But I thought about all the follow-ups, and then it didn't seem so bad.
"She couldn't come," I lied. "How bad are the attacks? Are you taking your pills?"
“Yeah, most days I take them … well, at least when I remember to I do,” he said, scratching the hair right behind his left ear.
“Willy, most days isn’t good enough. You know that,” I said. “You know without the pills you’re never going to get better.”
“But I feel like the chemicals might actually be poisoning my brain and making the problem worse,” he said. He squinted hard.
“What if taking the pills ends up giving me some sort of cancer or brain defect or heart condition? You never know what these things are going to do to you ten years, twenty years down the road.
“I read this thing on the internet about a guy who used this cream for acne when he was a kid and it ended up giving him skin cancer. Can you imagine that? You clear up all your zits and now you have skin cancer.”
“You need to stop reading shit like that on the internet,” I said. When did I inherit the job of looking after my older brother? “You’re just going to make yourself crazy reading stuff like that. If you’re concerned about something, talk to your doctor.”
He laughed a nervous laugh. I walked past him into the hallway. He followed.
“But I already am crazy,” he smiled without showing any of his teeth.
“Willy,” I said, “cut it out.”
It had been almost three years since I stayed at home. After the first time we visited from London and Mom and Dad made Elizabeth sleep in Megan’s room, we got a hotel room when we came to visit. Now that I had to stay at the house, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wandered down to Tom’s room at the end of the hall to see what he was doing, but the door was closed and heard loud music playing. I decided not to bother him. Turning around, I almost walked into Willy, not realizing he was still behind me.
“He does that a lot,” he said.
“Does what a lot?”
“He sits in his room with the door closed with music playing really loud,” he said. “I think maybe he’s on drugs or something. He’s always, always got the door closed. I never know what he’s doing in there.”
“Leave him alone. He’s seventeen years old; he probably just wants a little privacy,” I said. “Don’t you remember when you used to shut yourself in your room when you were a senior in high school?”
I headed for the stairs. Willy followed.
“Yeah, but when I was a senior in high school, I wasn’t on drugs.”
“You were on Ritalin.”
“Shut up. You know what I mean. I wasn’t using narcotics, the kind that mess up your brain.”
“Yeah, thank God. I can’t imagine how messed up you’d be if you did.”
He hit me in the back of the head and I laughed. I guess I missed my brother more than I realized.
We reached the bottom of the stairs. Mom was in the kitchen at the end of the hall. I lowered my voice.
“Tom isn’t on drugs,” I said. “You’re being paranoid.”
“No shit,” he said, laughing. “That’s one of the reason I’m on all this medicine.”
At least he could joke about his condition.
Mom was sitting on the kitchen counter and talking to someone on the phone. I couldn’t make out from the conversation who was on the other end. At the other end of the hall, Megan’s bedroom door was closed and I heard her and her new manfriend laughing.
“Just make sure you keep taking them,” I said. “Maybe then you’ll realize your straight-A, football star brother isn’t a drug addict.”
I realized there was still one person I hadn’t seen since I came in.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.
“He’s in his study,” Willy said. “He spends all his time there now. I think things with him and Mom might be on the rocks. I think maybe they’re going to get divorced or something. He’s always in there. They’re never together.”
“Maybe he’s on drugs too,” I said.
“I’m gonna go say hi.”
“He doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s working.”
“He hasn’t seen me in forever,” I said. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
Dad was sitting in front of a typewriter at his desk in the study under the light of a single desk lamp. I stood in the doorway watching him for a moment before letting him know I was there. His desk faced away from the door and I made a conscious effort to breathe softly enough that he didn’t hear me. He wore a gray cardigan with leather elbow patches, the kind he always talked about when he would regale us with his fantasies of quitting his job at the cookie factory and writing a television show about a vampire detective named Bartholomew Fang. I’m not sure exactly how a sweater with elbow patches fit into the image of a hotshot television writer in his mind, but if dreaming about it made him happy, I didn’t want to ask too many questions.
The rhythm of the keys slowed to a stop. He paused for a moment and leaned back in his chair. He rested the heels of his hands over his eyes and drummed his fingers on his forehead, where his hair had conceded after years of hard-fought battle. When he leaned forward again, I spoke.
“Having trouble with the words?”
He jumped and gave a startled scream. He almost fell off his chair. Turning around, he came at me with open arms. I expected a hug, but he placed his hands on my shoulders and tightly squeezed.
“Jacob!” he said. “No one told me you were home. How long have you been here?”
“Not long. I just went upstairs to unpack.”
“You couldn’t stop and say hello first?”
“Sorry, I wanted to get settled and I didn’t want to interrupt you,” I said.
“You could have said hello.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to unpack my stuff and I was still recovering from the shock of seeing Megan with a man.”
“Please,” he said. “Don’t get me started on your sister. Her and that little lesbian didn’t shock us enough anymore so she had to go off and started running around with one of my friends’ brothers.”
“Jim is Steve Gray’s little brother. Steve who I played basketball with in high school. He was Tommy’s little league coach.”
“That guy is Coach Gray’s brother?”
“F-ed up, isn’t it?” he said.
“Knowing Megan, it will end as soon as the shock value wears off.”
“If your mother doesn’t kill her first.”
On the desk there was a pile of typed pages, probably an inch and a half thick. Dad always talked about writing a screenplay or a TV pilot. When he was younger, in college, he used to write sketches for a campus comedy group, and I guess he wrote a few one act dramas for a student theatre group. We all grew up hearing the legend of the student film he made, but none of us had actually seen it, supposedly because he didn’t have the proper equipment to show it. Any time the subject came up, we’d all beg him to track down a projector and show us. He always told us he would see what he could do, but none of us ever saw the film.
After particularly rough days at the cookie factory where he was a production manager, he always came home fuming, declaring that he was going to quit and move us all to Hollywood that weekend. The threats scared us at first, despite the fact that you would think the prospect of relocating to the land of movie stars would excite kids from the suburbs of Chicago. But we didn’t want to leave our friends, and worse have no money, because Dad decided to throw away a steady career to chase a Hollywood dream. And Willy had read enough about landslides, earthquakes and wildfires to make him nervous about ever even visiting California on a trip to Disneyland.
Dad always messed around with his scripts, writing a page or two every few months. When he was mad about work or angry with one of us kids or Mom, he locked himself in the study and banged at the typewriter keys for an hour or so. But I don’t think he ever finished a single script in my entire childhood. This pile of pages on the desk was unprecedented.
“Things been a little rough at the plant lately, Dad?”
“I don’t know how they’ve been,” he said. “I quit.”
“Come on, Dad,” I said. This guy had been talking about quitting this job for the last twenty years; there was no way he finally just went in there one day and did it.
“I just went in there one day and did it,” he said. “The day before, they told me I had to find three more guys off the line to lay off. These guys have kids to put through college, what have I got? So I went in the next day and said I wouldn’t do it. I quit.”
“But you still have Tom to put through college.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” he said. “There are at least three Division II schools that want to give your brother scholarships to play football. He’ll be just fine.” He smiled.
“But what if he doesn’t want to go to one of those little schools?”
“Jacob, stop worrying so much,” he said. “You of all people should understand this. Aren’t you the one who uprooted his life to move across the pond with the girl of his dreams?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
I knew what was coming next and I wanted to run out of the room before it did. But I stood frozen in my spot.
“Where is Elizabeth anyway?”
“Doesn’t anyone in this family talk to each other?” I said. “I’ve told everyone already. She couldn’t make it, all right?”
“Ok, calm down. It was just a question,” he said. “You seem tired. Probably just jet lag. You should get some rest.”
He took off his gold wire-rimmed glasses and slid them into the pocket of his sweater.
“My pilot is there on the desk,” he said. “It’s called ‘Detective of the Night.’ Give it a read and let me know what you think.”
My Dad stopped for a few seconds at the bookshelf nearest the door before taking a book from the shelf and walking out the door. I took a seat at the desk and rolled a newly finished page out of the typewriter.
It was a dark and stormy night
Things were looking down already.
Our hero, Bartholomew Fang lurks in the shadows down at the docks. A sketchy looking character waits under a single light on the side of a warehouse. Two men in suits approach. Cut back to Fang, who is moving farther into the light. The two thugs draw guns. Fang leaps on them from the shadows.
Fang: Not so fast, you goons!
There is a fight. Fang struggles with the armed men, knocking their guns loose with an upward swing of both arms. He knocks one to the ground with a right cross. Close up as he sinks his fangs into the neck of the other.
Thug 2: Noooo!
Fang: I sentence you to life. Life after death!
The man falls to the ground, lifeless. His companion pulls himself along the ground toward his nearby gun. Fang stomps on his outstretched hand with one foot and delivers a devastating kick to the head with the other.
Jason: Bart. You’re a vampire? What will the chief say?
Fang: He won’t say anything, Jay. Because you won’t tell him.
Jason: I won’t? … Oh, yeah. Right. I won’t, of course not. (A pause). Hey, can you teach me how to fly?
Fade to black.
It was campy and generic. I could definitely see some TV executive green-lighting it. But I still couldn’t fathom that my dad had quit the job that supported his family for 30 years, that put three of his four kids through college, to write a TV pilot about a crime-fighting vampire detective. The premise was unique, even if the characters and dialogue were pilfered from every Saturday afternoon feature he had watched in his entire life.
I set the page on top of the pile. On the corner of the desk there was a picture of us four kids when we were much younger. We’re sitting on the sofa in the living room and Willy is holding baby Tom in his lap. He’s holding him gently, his had supporting the back of Tom’s head, as if it might break off if he isn’t careful. Megan is lifting her shirt up to her neck.
I heard Mom calling me to dinner.
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.
The funeral was my excuse to get out of London. The day my mom called to say my cousin Samuel died, I packed the few things I couldn't leave behind – three pairs of jeans, a few shirts, as many CDs, DVDs and books as I could fit – into the one duffel bag I moved there with three years earlier. What was supposed to be the greatest adventure of my life was over, and I was headed back to Park Glen, Illinois.
Since college, I wanted to move to London and start a new life: Live in a flat, take walks in Kensington Garden, spend Saturday afternoons at the Tate and the British Museum. When I was 25, I gave up my job as an ad copywriter at a radio station in Chicago, packed everything I could fit into this same black and blue duffel bag, and whisked my girlfriend Elizabeth away to live in my favorite foreign city.
The plan was to write my novel. I was going to do the whole expatriate thing, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. London seemed better than Paris though, because I couldn't speak a word of French. Well, that's not exactly true. I can say "je suis un poulet," which I'm told means, "I'm a chicken."
The dream of "Jacob Lervus, novelist" soon turned into "Jacob Lervus, pub bus boy." It wouldn't have been so bad if they let me be an actual bartender, but I didn't know enough about English ales to get the job. So I cleaned off table in a little pub near the Earls Court tube station five nights a week. It didn't matter what I was doing for money, I told myself. I wasn't there to start a career. I was there to write, to create, to draw inspiration from one of the world's great – perhaps its greatest – literary city.
But there was a problem. I didn't have any ideas. I had once regarded this as beneficial. One of my writing professors in college used to tell us that ideas just get in the way of telling a story, that we should let the story lead us. I was just going to write, and eventually I would find my story. But "my story" just turned out to be a bunch of thinly veiled versions of my real stories. And most of those weren't good enough to entertain the drunk punters I chatted with to pass the time at work.
After a year or so, I hadn't finished more than three or four chapters of what was turning out to be one of the most horrendously boring books I had ever read. I decided my table-wiper's salary wasn't enough to support me. After my half of the rent and food, I barely had any money left to enjoy what I came to London to see. With my tail between my legs, I took a job writing ad copy again. I had moved 5000 miles from home to do exactly the same job I was doing before I left.
It began to feel as though there were at least a thousand other people attempting the same stupid feat as me, and each one of them had more talent and creativity. They also had more money in the bank to support their foolish endeavor. I was starting to feel bankrupt, creatively and monetarily. The days between my writing sessions began to pile up. Sometimes I went a week or two without touching the pen to the pad. Each month, I spent less time revising my story and fleshing out the characters and more time trying to figure out cricket on TV or drinking at McDonough's, the Irish pub down the street from our flat.
Through it all Elizabeth continued to offer her support. She read every page I wrote, and offered her take on the characters and where she thought the story was going. I paid her back with unflinching negativity.
"I love this part where the main character goes back to his girlfriend's house after she's thrown him out on New Years Eve," she'd say.
And I'd answer back, "Oh, that part is so stupid. No one in their right mind would ever do something like that."
"Who would want to read a story about characters in their right minds? Wouldn't that be pretty boring?"
"I need to be able to write characters that act believably, that do what real people would," I'd say, snatching back the pages she just finished reading.
After the second year, I pretty much gave it up. I'd drag out my notebooks every few months and change a word here or there, but I didn't really write anything new. My life went back to being very much as it had been before coming to London. I went to work, wrote cheesy copy to hawk someone else's cheap wares, and spent most evenings in front of the TV. All the things that made London novel at the beginning started getting on my nerves. I got sick of people calling the elevators "lifts" and not being able to get a decent hot dog anywhere. The traffic sucked and the summers were too hot without air conditioning in our flat.
As I grew less wide-eyed and duller, Elizabeth started to spend more nights out by herself. Nine times out of ten she'd invite me to come along, but I'd take a pass to sit at home and watch a soccer match (after three years I still call it soccer) or a Benny Hill marathon. She started spending a lot of time with Ian, the Irish guy who tended bar at McDonough's. They'd go to the pubs together and to the markets in Notting Hill on Saturday afternoons. The invitation was always extended to me out of courtesy, but I had already conceded defeat. I couldn't compete with his Irish brough or his rugby player's physique. I was supposed to be living in the world's greatest city with the girl of my dreams, well on my way to literary stardom, and life was no different than it had been in the suburbs of Chicago before I uprooted myself and moved six time zones. Same job, same boring nights in front of the TV, same aspirations I didn't have the motivation to pursue full force.
It was little surprise one Saturday afternoon about two weeks before I got the call from Mom about cousin Samuel, when they came back from the market each holding a bad of produce in one hand and each other's free hand in the other. I was lying on the couch reading a magazine. They came in the door and looked down at me.
"I'm sorry mate," Ian said. "I never meant to do you like this."
I laid the copy of Time Out I was reading on my chest. I'd been catching up on all the bands I'd missed the night before when I decided to spend another Friday night at home watching reruns of The East Enders on Channel 1. Elizabeth sat near my feet, nudging them toward the back of the couch as she sat down. She rested her hand on my shin.
"I'm sorry, Jacob," she said. "I'm sorry, but you've watched me slipping away and you didn't even try to fight it."
"What would be the point of fighting? You were obviously bound to choose the better looking guy with the charming accent. Fighting that would have been a waste of time."
"And you need your bloody precious time to sit around watching the tele every!" she said.
“Bloody? Tele? Listen to yourself. You’re American, or did you forget that?” I said, sliding my feet out from behind her and standing up. I picked up a dirty mug off the coffee table and took it to the kitchen sink.
“You know, this was your idea in the first place,” she said.
She followed me into the kitchen. The Celtic rugby star stood silent, leaning against the frame of the front door.
“I would have been perfectly content staying there and getting married like we always talked about,” she said. “It was your idea to move us halfway across the world, away from everyone we know. It isn’t my fault that I embraced the opportunity while you were too busy flipping channels and feeling sorry for yourself.”
Mr. Rugby walked behind her and put his hand on her shoulder to try to calm her down.
“Beth,” he said.
“You just stay out of this, O’Toole,” I said.
“The name’s O’Sullivan,” he said.
“Whatever. Look, Elizabeth, maybe it was a mistake to come here in the first place.”
“Maybe for you it was, but not for me. I love it here,” she said. “And you did too, once, when you let yourself enjoy it.”
They left and I sulked on the couch till Monday. She came and got her things while I was at work, writing some masterful pitch for chewing gum.
I quit my job that Friday and spent the weekend trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of London without looking like a failure and a quitter. It was the one big risk I’d taken in my entire life, and look how it ended.
I spent the next week going over everything I’d written during the first year. I re-read the same shit day after day, hoping to find something of merit, something salvageable. I didn’t find it.
And then on Saturday morning – it must have been before dawn in Chicago – Mom called with the news about Samuel. It was my ticket some.
I grabbed my bag and clicked off the light in our – my – flat. I hauled my overstuffed bag down five flights of stairs. On my way to the Tube dropped an envelope addressed to my landlord with my key inside in one of those stereotypical London mailboxes that looks like an oversized fire hydrant. I walked up to the ticket window and paid a one-way fare to Heathrow. With my head against the window, I shut my eyes and didn’t open them until the train pulled into the end of the line at the airport. There wasn’t enough room left in my bag for anything from the duty-free shop.